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Birth of Dog-Blogging

Friday, December 30, 2005
So the wondrous Dr. Brazen Hussy got me a digital camera for Saturnalia. Hence the birth of Friday animal-blogging (since we have 3 cats, a dog, and a tortoise, I can't be expected to restrict myself to just posting pictures of cats!).

This is Gatsby, who looks like he is recovering from a bout of beer-drinking and South Park-watching. Brazen Hussy insists that he was just over-excited after his first day back from the kennel. I'll let you decide:

Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:37 AM

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Quaking In Their Boots

Thursday, December 29, 2005
Hope everyone had a lovely Holiday. I spent it in Atlanta with my in-laws (don't worry -they're nice). I spent several days in one of the reddest of red areas - Atlanta suburbs and exurbs. I can rant about sprawl another time. Instead I just want to mention that there is a lot of unease in Redland over these illegal wiretaps. From the conversations I had, middle class white males in Southern exurbs - something like a 90% Republican constituency - was experiencing some serious cognative dissonance. Whenever the issue came up, the response ranged from a shifting of the seat & visible disappointment to open statements of outrage and betrayal: "I support President Bush, but..."

It is the civil liberties angle that has these people upset. And it is up to us to keep reminding them.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:37 AM

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Moose Assumes the Position

Thursday, December 22, 2005
Check out good smackdowns by Josh Marshall, Kevin Drum, and Armando against conservative "arguments" defending Bush's illegal wiretapping. Unfortunately I have to take up the cudgel against Bull Moose. I've always been a friendly critic of the Moose, but now he's just gone a little too far.

In his latest post, Moose suggests that liberal critics of the Bush administration are behaving as unreasonably as the right did during the Clinton administration - some of us are even suggesting impeachment. Moose argues that the Bush-authorized searches were eminently reasonable, that FISA is outdated, and that the President was acting with goodwill. If congressional democrats didn't like it, they should have said something earlier.

To risk being labeled a "puerile cyber-commissars"......

To believe that the Bush administration was using these powers in good faith is to display the most breathtaking niavete. It seems like Moose is following his icon McCain into the on-all-fours crowd. How is it that spying on American citizens without a warrant or any judicial oversight whatsoever is consistent with civil liberties? If the FISA is so out of date, why did Bush not suggest we change it? It displays a pretty cavalier attitude about the law to just ignore it - an attitude unbecoming in the enforcer of the nation's laws. And what does Moose make it Bush's spying on socialists, peace protesters, gays, etc.? It's not like those groups are allied with Al Quaeda. And what would have happened to any Democrat who, in the days after 9/11, had demanded that Bush be accountable for these actions? Moose has forgotten the degree to which Bush ruled through fear and intimidation in the weeks following the fall of the towers.

It is one statement which most clearly indicates the degree to which Moose has bent over and presented himself to the Theocons: "He [Bush] was not attempting to strengthen his hold on power." Clearly Moose has not been paying attention to the frenetic assertions of absolute executive power Bush has made over the last four years. One could argue in fact that Bush's presidency has been about nothing else but strengthening his hold on power.

Have a good time with your new friends, Moosie. You should look around and realize which camp you've joined. Just don't complain when they start suspending elections, imprisoning gays and torturing peace activists. Criticizing such things might be deemed "unreasonable."

Sad to say, Moose has decided that 9/11 requires him to get on his knees before Bush and the Theocons. All I have to say is - I hope he enjoys the taste.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:36 AM

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Did Congress Approve Domestic Spying?

Wednesday, December 21, 2005
The second defense of Bush & Co. is that Congress authorized domestic spying when it voted the President the authority to use all necessary force in response to 9/11.

There are a number of responses to this argument. The first would be that Congress never declared war, therefore the President cannot claim so-called "wartime powers." It might be suggested that a declaration of war is not necessary - the President had war powers during Vietnam and Korea and Congress never declared war then either. It would be my position that Congress should have declared war, but one need not take so forceful a stance. Kevin Drum correctly notes that "wartime" has been extended to mean the entirety of the 20th century with no end in sight. If "wartime" means any time a nation is under threat, then nations have been permanently at war since the beginning of time. And the idea that the President has such powers during times of international threat is proved false by Congress' rejection of unlimited domestic spying during the Cold War, when we were under a much greater threat.

There is also a false dichotomy at work. There is a common assumption that civil liberties must be curtailed during time of war. I simply reject this proposition. In fact, times of stress are precisely the time when a strict protection of civil liberties is most important. No one cares about the easy cases of uncontroversial speech in placid times. The real meaning of civil liberties comes to the fore when people say unpopular things during times of crisis. If we don't protect them, then civil liberties have for all intents and purposes been abrogated.

I don't think the Congress had any intention of suspending civil liberties in response to 9/11. Even if one adopted the (bizarre) interpretation that a vote of "all necessary force" extends so far as unsupervised domestic spying, this interpretation is at best an implication of the Congressional resolution. During the Cold War, Congress explicitly rejected Presidential pretensions to unlimited discretion in this matter. It is a very strange kind of legal reasoning to say that an implicit interpretation overrides an explicit statute. But then the Bushies never really made good lawyers.

But let's assume that Congress did vote to expand the President's intelligence-gathering powers. They never would have given him the power to do so without any judicial supervision. Domestic spying in and of itself is bad enough, but allowing the executive to do so without any kind of check at all - warrants, informing Congress, whatever - is completely anathema to any reasonable notion of civil liberties or the separation of powers.

Finally, even if Congress did vote this kind of authority, it wouldn't matter - because it's unconstitutional. As Ken Camp commented about my last post, it is a violation of the 4th amendment. It says:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and
effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and
no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or
affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the
persons or things to be seized.

This amendment has always been interpreted to mean that the judiciary must carefully review intelligence-gathering operations against Americans. So even if Congress wanted to sacrifice American liberties at the altar of Presidential prerogative - they can't.

The President should be censured for exceeding his constitutional mandate and violating the rights of citizens. And if he persists in doing so after the Courts have said he can't (which I expect), then he must be removed from office as a man who not only won't defend the Constitution but who is attempting to destroy it.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:36 AM

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Bush: Enemy of the Constitution

Tuesday, December 20, 2005
I'm going to set aside my outrage for the moment and focus on an intellectual critique of the President's stalinist actions. The Theocons have presented two arguments in defense of Bush's illegal spying on Americans. Today I will just tackle the first one: that since we are in wartime/a time of crisis, we must defer to the President. This is one of the most common and most wrongheaded theories of Presidential power to develop in the 20th century.

We usually learn in civics that there are 3 different powers - executive (enforce the law), legislative (make the laws), and judicial (interpret the laws). Because the President is granted all executive powers (by virtue of the "vested in" clause), and because the commander in chief and chief diplomat roles are included in Article II under the President, many otherwise smart people assume that the founders placed near total responsibility for foreign policy and war with the President. They also assume that during times of national crisis, the President acquires greater powers.

This view is just wrong.

Let me explain why. There aren't three types of public power, but 5. The other types are federative powers - which include the relationship between a country and other countries (i.e. foreign policy & war), and prerogative powers - the ability to ignore the constitution in times of crisis. As I used to teach in my political science classes, there is no such thing as prerogative powers in the U.S. Constitution. You will search in vain for any language justifying this power being granted to any branch of government either in the Constitution or the Federalist Papers. And for good reason. Many 3rd world dictatorships have been created precisely because the chief executive has declared a state of emergency, suspended the constitution, and governed as a tyrant. In our system, no one has emergency powers. Every power that needs to be exercised in any situation is already allocated by the Constitution. Period.

As for federative powers, this power is supposed to be shared among the 3 branches. This is evident because the Congress must declare war and approve treaties, and that the Supreme Court can enforce international treaties as domestic law. Beyond this, it is clear that foreign policy is NOT an executive power, precisely because it is mentioned in Article II. You see, the President has a total grant of executive powers, but then the same Article talks about pardons, war, and foreign policy. But if foreign policy & war powers were part of executive powers, there would be no reason to mention the President's powers here - it would be redundant, since they were already granted. And given that the founders were strongly influenced by Montesquieu and Locke, both of whom recognized the 5-fold rather than 3-fold division of powers, it should be obvious that they knew that executive powers had nothing to do with emergency or international powers.

As a matter of practice, Presidents have assumed near-total responsibility for waging war and conducting foreign policy, and have been granted far greater discretion during wartime. But this development has been an unconstitutional usurpation of power by the executive. The Congress (particularly the Senate) is supposed to be a co-equal partner in shaping U.S. foreign policy. And grants of power to the President during crises are supposed to be done through acts of Congress, not simple assumptions of power by the executive whenever the executive feels like it. One of the main purposes of constitutional government is to prevent anyone from being a judge in their own case, and to prevent those in power from exercising that power without restraint. The doctrine of the imperial presidency, which denies both of these core principles, is therefore not just a flawed doctrine but a constitutional heresy. That's why Nixon was impeached, and Bush should be - they have no respect for the Constitution they swore to uphold.

Tomorrow I'll take apart the new argument, that Congress did grant the President the authority to spy on Americans without oversight.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:35 AM

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Shock and Awe

Monday, December 19, 2005
Little did I realize that this phrase would apply to me. I didn't post on Friday (or this weekend) for the simple reason that I didn't know what to say. The Bush Administration's willingness to break the law and spy on American citizens crosses a new boundary. Every time I think I have taken the measure of the Theocons' contempt for justice, they surprise me. Every time I draw a mental line, they cross it. You'd think one day I would learn.

So I've now joined the ranks of the far out loonies who think that Bush deserves to be impeached. It may not be smart politics, and it certainly isn't feasible, but Bush has now officially become an Enemy of the Republic.

Stealing the election of 2000 wasn't enough.
Reckless fiscal policy wasn't enough.
Willfully destroying the environment wasn't enough.
Demonizing gays wasn't enough.
Lying us into a war wasn't enough.
Building a theocracy wasn't enough.
Smearing his political opponents wasn't enough.

But now I have finally reached my limit. Spying on American citizens - THAT is enough. There is now officially nothing I think they won't do. If you told me tomorrow that they had canceled elections and begun rounding up Democrats as political prisoners, I wouldn't bat an eye. The only thing separating those people from Pol Pot is political necessity.

Do you know what I'm most afraid of? That in 2006 the Democrats regain the Congress, and that in 2008 the Democrats win the Presidential election. Because I'm afraid I know what the other side might do.......
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:35 AM

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How Many Synonyms For Stupid Can I Think Of?

Thursday, December 15, 2005
There is a movement afoot to challenge Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary next year, or even to support an independent (and the man Lieberman beat in 1988), Lowell Weicker. This idea only needs one word to describe it - ludicrous. Idiotic. Moronic. Ridiculous. Bone-headed. Okay, maybe it takes a bunch of words, but they are all synonyms. You get the point.

I will pretend, however, to treat this notion as a serious one. First, while Lieberman's defection on high-profile votes is annoying, he is scarcely a DINO (Democrat In Name Only). According to the National Journal, his 2004 ratings show him to be 62% liberal on economics, 55% liberal on foreign policy, and 82% liberal on social issues. He's certainly no Ted Kennedy, but he is hardly a Rick Santorum. Challenging him is just gratuitous. It applies a liberal litmus test to Democratic candidates - a great way to remain a minority. Lieberman is what we call a "moderate." Now the last time I checked, we need people of this sort to win a majority. Remember, the object is to win control of the Congress next year. Challenging sitting members of our own party is a pretty deranged way to do that.

It's a silly notion not just because Lieberman doesn't deserve this treatment, but because it's simply counterproductive. Challenging him is just as likely to drive him away from liberal positions as pull him toward them. And the contest will waste precious resources we will need to win back the Congress next year. There are several vulnerable Republican House members in Connecticut - how about we focus on them instead? Or as Dr. Brazen Hussy has said, "I'm fine with 'us vs. them' politics as long as we don't forget who 'them' is. "

Challenging Lieberman is pointless anyway, because he has a 60%-70% approval rating. You are just not going to knock off an incumbent Senator with ratings like that. And what would the opposing campaign's message be? He's not sufficiently liberal? Not exactly a persuasive attack.

Let's be honest. This is really all about Iraq. Joe Lieberman is a hawk on the war and it pisses off a lot of dovish Dems. But if we're going to kick every Democratic who voted for the war out of the party, we'd better get ready for 100,000 years of Republican rule.

So let's stop wasting time on this nonsense and get back to more important matters, like eating christmas ... er... festivus cookies.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:34 AM

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Conservative Hypocrisy

Wednesday, December 14, 2005
I find it amazing that James Dobson and his ilk think that homophobia and abortion are more central to Christ's teachings than compassion for the poor. I'm just glad that the Washington Post has deigned to point it out.

But if you haven't had your fill of "conservative" two-facedness, watch the upcoming review of the Texas re-districting by the Supreme Court. I'm with Colorado Luis - I'm not so optimistic that the Court is going to overturn the DeLay plan. But it will be interesting to see how the "traditionalists" on the court will justify the re-writing of the political rules. Drawing district lines after the census has been the custom for a very, very long time. Any genuine institutional conservative (a la Edmund Burke) would be very suspicious of ending such a tradition. But then no conservative has any respect for political institutions anymore, except when they can manipulate them for their own advantage.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:33 AM

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From The Land of Corporate Propaganda

Tuesday, December 13, 2005
I find this newspaper called "Environment & Climate News" that looks like a green publication - it's got a green bar across the top and everything. The front page talks about ANWR and a bill for solar power in California. But then I start looking at the headlines inside the magazine:

"Biotechnology Beat Drought in 2005"
""Crichton Was Right!"
"Still No Signs of Global Warming"
"Herbicide Treatment Working in Massachusetts Waters"
"Invasive Weeds are Spoiling Lake Tahoe"
"Florida Governor Announces Lake Okeechobee Cleanup"
"Ignoring Science, San Francisco Considers Mercury Warning"
"Mercury Fish Are Not Dangerous, Study Shows"
"Bishop Tutu Joins Call To Fight Malaria With DDT"
"DDT is the Only Real Weapon to Fight Malaria"
"U.S. Oil Shale Deposits May Be Tapped Soon"
"Oil Sand Becoming More Economical"
"Corporations, Nature Conservancy Rescue Brazilian Forests"
"Climate Change Solutions Require Technological Revolution"
"Ohio Considers New Wells, Looks to Alaska As Example"

Wow. So genetically modified food is great, there's no such thing as global warming, Republican governors and corporations are pro-environment, we should revive the use of DDT, we can drill our way out of our energy crisis, mercury is good for you. Only technology can solve all of our problems, but we should just wait until then and keep doing what we're doing. Gosh, what was I ever worried about?

This publication is produced by the Heartland Institute, which embraces so-called "common sense" environmentalism. You may have noticed that the words "common sense" are a good indication that a tidal wave of bullshit is coming.

Let's just take one argument presenting in this esteemed publication: that there is no such things as global warming. They have a chart (which is not online) which seems to show temperature stability over the last 30 years. Unfortunately they do so measuring only the lowest annual temperatures (rather than the mean or standard deviation), without explanation. And the source for their data was mysteriously offline - hopefully it will be back up soon. :)

That's okay - I have some data showing deviations from the mean by year going back to the 19th century from UNEP:

Nope. No evidence for global warming at all!
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:32 AM

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Throwing Peanuts From the Gallery

Monday, December 12, 2005
I have never seen a political party with such a case of schitzophrenia as the Republican party on the issue of immigration. And it only looks like it's going to get worse for them. There is an absolute babble of voices, with each faction of the conservative movement (the corporatists, neoconservatives, cultural traditionalists, libertarians, and the party leadership itself) presenting an entirely different position. Frankly it's pretty fun to watch.

Business leaders argue that large amounts of immigration provide a pool of cheap labor that American companies need. Without them outsourcing would be even worse. What they don't say is that the current system - of illegal workers with no protections of any kind - suits them just fine. Great for busting up unions and keeping labor costs low, y'know. They want the current policy to remain exactly as it is. If there has to be a change, they would prefer the guest worker program, which would preserve their power over their labor force.

Libertarians have a philosophical opposition to government regulation, and that includes strong border controls. They pretty much favor entirely open borders - market forces will eventually solve the problem (hey, who cares if U.S. living standards are cut in half?). So they want to repeal the entire structure of U.S. immigration policy.

Cultural traditionalists are horrified by the growth of immigration. Between the flagrant violation of law, the supposed threat to American (read: white protestant) culture, and the alleged cost to U.S. taxpayers, they are unalterably opposed to the current system. They're the leaders of the "build a fence" crowd.

The neocons think this issue is a big distraction and apparently just don't care. They have terrorists to hunt down! Of course some of them want to strengthen border controls and partially legalize the flow in order to be able to keep better track of who comes into the country. There is also some resistance to offending the Mexican government.

Finally, the political strategists - Karl Rove, Ken Mehlman, etc., realize that while immigration per se is not an important issue to Latinos, an overt anti-immigration policy while be perceived as anti-Hispanic. Given that the #1 imperative of the Republican party is to capture a larger share of the Latino vote, embracing an anti-immigrant perspective would be a total disaster.

This is apparently an unsolvable puzzle for the Republicans. They can safely ignore the libertarians and the neocons, who don't represent many votes. But they desperately need big business cash and white nationalist votes. Unfortunately they can't do both without totally alienating the growing pool of Latino voters.

After all the wedge issue politics the Republicans have been employing to divide the country over the last generation, I must say that it's awfully nice to see it come back and bite them in the ass. I expect a total political meltdown on the other side over this issue in the next five years. So pass me a beer and let's enjoy the show.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:31 AM

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In Defence of Faith

Friday, December 09, 2005
I am neither a conventionally religious man or an atheist. I am perfect willing to accept the beliefs of both those who passionately believe and passionately disbelieve in God. While I am not going to dwell on my own theological commitments, I would like to take issue with one of the arguments presented in the well-written and challenging piece by Sam Harris, "An Atheist Manifesto." (via Gadflyer) - that only atheism can be rational.

This denies that many (if not most) of our greatest thinkers - philosophers or otherwise - have been people of faith. Can one seriously claim that Isaac Newton, John Locke, or Augustine were not serious intellects? One may not agree with their ethical claims or religous beliefs, but it is the height of arrogance to blithely assert that a person of reason cannot be a person of faith. Mr. Harris might like to read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Kant is perhaps history's supreme rationalist, yet a man who also believed in God. How does Mr. Harris square that circle?

Mr. Harris is also on very shaky ground when he claims that atheism is immune to irrationality. Yes religious belief has been the cause of a number of social horrors. Yes irrational religious commitments are dangerous both to the one who holds them and to those who don't share those beliefs. However, Mr. Harris also claims that atheism, because of its rational foundation, has no such track record. He simply waves away the evidence that atheist political regimes (Mao, Stalin, Hitler) have committed great crimes against humanity (he might have included Robespierre's uber-rationalist Reign of Terror, but that might be tad inconvenient). He doesn't present any arguments. He just claims that those regimes were delusional. How exactly does this statement rebut the argument that atheists can be irrational too?

I can admire Mr. Harris' commitment to rationality, but to confuse reason with unbelief is a serious mistake. There have been far too many irrational atheists who have done terrible things, and just as many rational theists who have done good deeds, to make so easy an equation as atheism = rationality. Frankly as a philosophical theist I'm a little offended.

I am less concerned with religious belief (or not) as such than the maintenance of mutual respect and compassion. I don't care what God someone prays to (or doesn't) as long as he or she treats me with the dignity that I offer them, and as long as they recognize that we have mutual commitments that have nothing to do with our religious beliefs. Many of my closest relationships are with people who don't share my religious perspectives. In fact, none of them do. That does not make me love them any less.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:31 AM

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That's Pretty Harsh

Thursday, December 08, 2005
Bush is a pretty awful President, to be sure, but the worst ever? Isn't that going a little far? Could this be another example of academic liberal bias?

No. In fact I've said much the same thing myself.

One of my earliest posts was about how we rate Presidential "greatness." In it I came up with some criteria for presidential success - symbolic importance, domestic legislative success, foreign policy, party leadership, executive competence, democratic credentials. My ranking of the country's worst Presidents is fairly conventional: Grant, Harding, Buchanan, and Johnson. Each of them left the country in a worse state than they found it. And Bush ranks lower than all of them.

Why? Because all of the other bad Presidents are primarily guilty to failing to respond to serious problems - Grant and Harding let corruption flourish, Johnson failed to follow through with Reconstruction, and Buchanan did nothing to avert the Civil War. Their sins were the sins of inactions.

Bush has committed a far greater sin. Instead of doing nothing to solve our problems, he has actively made them all worse. It is as if he is trying to ruin the country. Run down the laundry list - foreign policy blunders, administrative incompetence, reckless fiscal policy, social intolerance, corruption, and just plain demagogy - no President in the history of the country has had such a baneful effect not just on public policy or our standing in the world, but on our democratic institutions.

But take heart! If the Republicans manage to eke out another couple of electoral victories, I'm sure they'll be even to top even themselves. Reagan made me miss Nixon, and Bush made me miss Reagan. I'm confident that the Theocons can make me miss Bush.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:30 AM

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Wednesday, December 07, 2005
Okay, I care - just not as much as other people do.

Last night I was at a Hillary Clinton fundraiser (I was comped) in Chelsea. Hillary wasn't there but Bill was. He seemed tired but was still extremely effective. Anyway, while we were waiting in the bitter cold for the doors to open, there were a bunch of protesters. They were chanting and passing out flyers, angry at Hillary because she voted for the Iraq War and continued to support it. People just ignored them.

I could make this post about the ineffectiveness of protesting. Or about attacking people who are on your side of the political fence. But instead I want to admit that, as much as the Iraq debacle annoys me, I just don't think that it is the most important political issue we are faced with. In fact, I don't think it's in the top 10. I realized this when I started thinking about the issues that I believe have a greater long-term effect on the country than our presence in Iraq.

So here we are, my list of 10 things more important than Iraq (in no particular order)

1. The erosion of abortion rights
2. Global warming
3. Outsourcing
4. The proliferation of big box retailers
5. The decline of unions
6. Our crappy educational system
7. The concentration of wealth
8. Political corruption
9. The erosion of democracy
10. The lack of national health care

In the long run, when we leave Iraq and what happens after we leave will have less impact on the future of our kids than whether we guarantee them a chance to prosper with dignity and health. If those people want to protest something, they should be protesting Alito or Wal-Mart, not Hillary Clinton - who agrees with them 99% of the time.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:29 AM

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Play Nice!

Monday, December 05, 2005
Ronald Reagan, whatever his innumerable other faults, did have a useful bit of advice for his fellow partisans - that they not badmouth eachother. This is the famous "11th commandment" - thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican. Argue over tactics, over strategy, but don't challenge each other's character (particularly not in public) unless you have a very, very good reason.

Democrats would do well to take some of that advice. It seems of late that our internal debates about the Democratic message and positions on assorted issues have escalated into out-and-out brawls. Last week Kos bashed Marshall Wittman as a vitual apologist for the Theocons. New Donkey was then forced to take up his friend's defense. This was not an isolated case - something similar is happening with regards to the Ohio Senate race, with candidate Paul Hackett lumping together Mike DeWine and Sherrod Brown, and David Sirota calling Hackett "disgusting."

Look people, we all need to chill out. Perhaps this sort of vituperative name-calling is tolerable when your party is in the majority, but we can't afford this sort of nonsense. If we have been forced to abandon the idea that there are any longer reasonable people to work with on the other side of the aisle, let's at least admit that there are people of good will on our own. Save your heavy artillery for the real enemy.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:29 AM

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Understanding Wal-Martization

Friday, December 02, 2005
Oliver Willis and Ed Kilgore have done a brave thing. In recent posts, they have suggested that Wal-Mart, with all of its labor and market abuses, remains an essential part of contemporary American life. Whatever we may think of its business practices, Americans - particularly working class Americans - simply like Wal-Mart. So bashing it isn't going to help our cause in winning over those voters.

I have two objections. The first is that, contra Willis and Kilgore, there is no necessary link between condemning Wal-Mart as an institution and condemning anyone who shops there. Shopping at such stores is a good example of a collective action problem. While in my capacity as a citizen I might dislike big box retailers, it isn't necessarily hypocritical to shop there anyway. As a consumer, I am after the best product for the lowest price. As a citizen, I have a different set of concerns.

Those of us who attack Wal-Mart are NOT attacking people who shop there - people who are only acting rationally. What we are attacking are the policies that make Wal-Mart as destructive as it is. I don't shop at Wal-Mart, but I don't judge people who do. We should have policies to make it economically rational to do the socially constructive thing. Right now we have incentives to do the destructive thing. This isn't the fault of consumers, but of public policy which requires people to be heroes if they are to pursue the public good. That's just asking too much of folks.

My second objection is that I don't necessarily think Wal-Mart is as popular as Willis and Kilgore assume. Or at least, its popularity isn't greater than the popularity of competing values. Yes people like the convenience and low costs of Wal-Mart. But they also want the ability to start a small business, to make a decent living, and to buy American-made goods. Wal-Mart's critics have failed to make the essential conflict between big box retailers and the American Dream explicit. In the last few years, we have made progress in that direction - and you see a decline in Wal-Mart's approval ratings. But a great deal remains to be done.

I would suggest that an accomodation with Wal-Mart and its ilk is indeed possible. If we make them pay for the externalities they are generating (labor, health, environmental, local businesses, international trade, etc.), then their magical low costs will disappear - or at least the profits will be re-distributed to the workers and communities. But such an arrangement is only possible if Wal-Mart is willing to take responsibility for its actions, which in turn will only happen if we make the American public realize the consequences of the proliferation of big boxes.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:28 AM

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The Curse of Identity

Thursday, December 01, 2005
Today is Blog Against Racism Day. I thought for a long time today about what to write that hasn't been written a million times before. So I will follow the advice of all creative writing professors and write about what I know.

My entire political life has been caught up in racial politics. I grew up in the South, where the black/white dichotomy was the determining factor in every social relationship. Not class or ethnic origin or region, but simply what color someone's skin was. What was so frustrating wasn't just that people saw every interaction in racial terms, but that people self-consciously embraced racial stereotypes that were essentially negative. Hence the "redneck" white boy and the "gangsta" black guy - two cliches which are at their core far more similar than different.

I was naive enough to believe that when I left the South I would be free of all this. I moved to the Bronx and was quickly disabused. The first neighborhood I lived in was majority black, and I was driven out of it by a determined minority of young people who didn't like me because I didn't look or sound like them. Where I live now is far more diverse, but regrettably the people involved in politics are overwhelming white and upper class. Frankly I'm not much more comfortable now than I was before, because I am so conscious of the class differences. I'm also living in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, and I'm frequently reminded that there's a lot I simply don't understand about what's going on around me.

One of the elements of contemporary culture is the cult of authenticity. Somehow there is a proper definition of what it means to be a man or woman, black of white, anglo or latino, straight or gay, you name it. The operating principle appears to be that we recognize and appreciate these differences as the most important thing about us. If someone steps out of those boundaries, they are somehow "fake."

This prejudice extends from personal behavior to broader political loyalties. People vote with pathetic loyalty for candidates whose descriptive characteristics are more similar to their own. So blacks vote for blacks, puerto ricans for puerto ricans (but not Dominicans), jews for jews, gays for gays, etc., etc., with tedious predicatability.

But I ask you, is it simply impossible to reach across those barriers? Is there nothing we can agree can be held in common? Isn't the fact that I struggle to pay my bills the same way you do more central to our existence than the fact that you sunburn less easily than I? Can't it be that our common desire for a decent education trumps our differing sexual experiences? As long as I recognize the value of your choices, as long as I pass a threshold of acceptability, can't we set these distinctions aside?

Can't we all just get along?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:27 AM

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No Easy Choices

It is easy to take cheap shots at the Bush administration about Iraq. God knows I've made them. But we can't just pretend the war didn't happen. No we shouldn't have gone in. My question for the war's critics is the question I always ask - what is your solution?

There is the extreme dove position - to just get out. Pack up and leave. The most likely result of this option is an immediate plunge into civil war, not to mention a disastrous effect on our international position in the world and severe damage to the Democratic Party.

The extreme hawk position is to stay until "the mission is accomplished." The problem of course is that we have never known what the mission is. As the rationale for the war has changed, the mission has had to change as a consequence. Weapons of mass destruction, removing a dictator, creating a U.S. ally, establishing a free, secular society, securing our oil supplies, the list goes on and on. Each aim brings with it a different set of requirements for "victory." Since the Bush administration, rather than selecting just one option, has embraced them all, we are now confronted with effectively unlimited objectives. This ambitious project - to create the Iraq of our dreams - necessitates an open-ended commitment that will last forever.

Then there are the moderate positions: a staged withdrawal based around either benchmarks or a timetable. The differences between the two are basically semantic. While this may seem like the most reasonable course of action, it fails a basic test of politics - it lacks any committed support. The doves won't like an extension of our involvement, while the hawks will see it as a defeat. If we had a sane politics, Bush would broker a bipartisan compromise with the leading Democrats in order to get us out while providing political cover for both sides. This won't happen, of course.

The unfortunate reality is that the Iraq war is most likely going to end in a civil war, the creation of an Iranian client state, another Saddam, or some combination of the three. Our only aim should be to extract ourselves from the situation with the least cost. The U.S. has precious little ability to control the situation in Iraq for good or ill. It is in domestic politics that the U.S. still has some choices to make. Regrettably it looks like our current administration seems determined to make the price a high one.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:18 AM

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