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Dog-Wagging Foreign Policy

Tuesday, December 30, 2008
I don't have any particularly brilliant insight on what's happening in Israel and Gaza right now. I do think that the Israeli government is playing into the radicals' hands for short-term domestic political benefit, and that the those determined to destroy Israel are out of their minds. What I find most frustrating is the neutered quality of political discussion about this issue in the United States. Let me tell you a story to explain what I mean. Once I was talking about the middle east and asked the following: "Setting aside for a moment the moral considerations of supporting of Israel, which in general I accept, how does our support of it serve the strategic interests of the United States?" I was immediately accused of being anti-Semitic. Does that seem fair to you? It strikes me as a little weird.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:17 PM

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More Waste of Space At the Washington Post

Monday, December 29, 2008
For a more complete rundown of my holiday experience, go read Brazen Hussy. I got that great Food Poisoning feeling too. Yippee.

While I'm feeling fairly articulate (at least compared with yesterday), let me comment on the op-ed by Robert Samuelson. After years of lecturing us about the correct economic policies, he decides to trot out that most irritating and mendacious of Bushian excuses, "Nobody Could Have Known!" According to Samuelson, nobody predicted that the subprime mess could undermine the U.S. financial system. Nobody predicted that relying on debt-driven consumer spending had a breaking point. Nobody predicted that a recession in the U.S. would lead to a global slowdown.

Well I suppose Samuelson is right. "Nobody" saw any of these things as a possibility, if the definition of "Nobody" is people who hadn't sworn intellectual fealty to the Chicago School, including both trained economists and just interested observers. In other words, if liberals and center-left policy wonks are political and policy unpersons. Which for Samuelson, they are. I mean really, it's not like liberals were right about the Iraq War, Global Warming, or any other major issues over the last few years, were we?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:25 PM

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Happy Whatever-day!

Saturday, December 20, 2008
I'm headed South to stay with my in-laws over the holiday week. Don't worry - that's a good thing. I hope everyone has a splendid time, and I'll post again around the 29th. Ciao!
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:05 PM

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Obama On The Tightrope

Thursday, December 18, 2008
As I feared, the frequency of my posts has trailed off a bit. I've been working steadily on a novel, which seems to drain away most of my writing energies. I've also deliberately disengaged as best I can from my microscopic focus on politics. But recent events deserve some commentary.

You might expect me to froth about the mouth about the Caroline Kennedy imbroglio in New York, but I'm going to disappoint you. Everyone knows how I feel about dynastic politics. I'm just glad others are beginning to notice too.

No, what I want to write about is this Richard Warren blunder. As you've probably heard, Obama has selected Warren, a faux moderate evangelical who happens to be a homophobe, to deliver the inaugural prayer. In isolation this is a mistake, but when combined with some of Obama's other recent moves, I'd say he's asking for trouble. Aside from the substance - that Warren is no friend of the Democratic Party - there's the politics. The last thing Obama should be doing is riling up the culture wars, and by putting an opponent of prop 8 in such a public position, he's going to enrage already up-in-arms gay rights activists, who will demand he do something for LBGT rights early in his term, he's doing precisely that. Not a smart move.

There has been a lot of electronic ink spilled over the lack of any real liberals among Obama's Cabinet appointees. When it was just a matter of the Secretary of State, I wasn't going to make too big a fuss, but now we're down to the last few positions, and all the major ones gone, and there isn't a single "progressive" in the bunch. Yes the White House staff are more important, and it's possible that Obama is trying to co-opt potential opposition, but here's my problem: Obama might have a good liberal agenda on domestic policy in mind, but what happens when new issues emerge, and the only advice he hears is from technocratic centrists? I'm sorry, but no one's personality is so dominant that they can surround themselves with 15 people all saying the same thing and not be influenced.

The real objection isn't on substance, though. I'm as much a technocratic centrist as a liberal, so I'm not as cranky about the choices - although I would like some more internal balance. The problem is that by assembling a Cabinet with only one wing of the party represented, Obama has done nothing to reassure his base. We need symbols too, dammit. And then comes this Warren thing, which makes those of us predisposed to trust him begin to worry, and those of us predisposed to be suspicious have real grounds to do so.

I'm sure each of these choices has made sense in isolation, but that's the problem. It appears that they've been made without concern to the broader political effect. Bringing centrists and mild conservatives into the fold makes sense, but not at the price of discouraging your own strongest supporters. He's going to need those people when the Republicans decide to stab Obama in the front, which they are certainly going to do. Maybe Obama thinks that as long as he delivers the policy goods, liberals will be content. But my question is, how different is this cabinet from the one his chief rival in the primaries would have put together? Not very, as far as I can tell.

The worst case scenario is the one David Sirota has been pushing - that Obama has been gulling liberals all along, that he's really just going to be Clinton's 3rd term. I hope that's not true, but that's certainly how things have been trending. What confuses me is why Obama would do so little to avoid that impression, unless he really is naive enough to think that he can kumbaya the Republicans and the press into supporting national health insurance and green energy.

If I sound critical, good. If Obama has the right instincts, then a little friendly criticism from his left flank will create sufficient maneuvering room to allow him to move a bit to the left. And if he doesn't have the right instincts, then the criticism will generate political pressure from those of us unwilling to be taken for granted. Either way, criticism when he's wrong is what he's going to get. And legitimizing a smiling fanatic like Warren as then new Billy Graham is just wrong.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:58 PM

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Some Accountability Please

Monday, December 15, 2008
I think that the weather channel website should have a frame showing the previous day's prediction of today's weather. Just so we can keep track.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:40 PM

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Everything Is Politics. Everything.

Thursday, December 11, 2008
So the U.S. auto industry is close to collapse, and if it goes under the best case scenario is that the market takes another huge hit and there are hundreds of thousands of more layoffs as well as tons of retirees losing their pensions and benefits. That's as good as it gets. You don't want me to talk about the bad scenario, but it starts with "D" and rhymes with "repression."

So what do the Republicans in Congress do? Use the crisis as a way to bust the UAW.

The Republican Party doesn't need to be beaten in an election or three. It needs to be destroyed - broken up and replaced with an opposition party consistent with popular government. These jokers are just monsters.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:40 PM

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Wherein My Life Has Been Less Uneventful Than I Thought

Wednesday, December 10, 2008
As Seen All Sorts Of Places

1. Started my own blog
2. Slept under the stars
3. Played in a band
4. Visited Hawaii
5. Watched a meteor shower
6. Given more than I can afford to charity
7. Been to Disneyland/world
8. Climbed a mountain
9. Held a praying mantis
10. Sung a solo
11. Bungee jumped
12. Visited Paris
13. Watched lightening at sea
14. Taught myself an art from scratch
15. Adopted a child
16. Had food poisoning
17. Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty
18. Grown my own vegetables
19. Seen the Mona Lisa in France
20. Slept on an overnight train
21. Had a pillow fight
22. Hitchhiked
23. Taken a sick day when you’re not ill
24. Built a snow fort
25. Held a lamb
26. Gone skinny dipping
27. Run a Marathon
28. Ridden in a gondola in Venice
29. Seen a total eclipse
30. Watched a sunrise or sunset
31. Hit a home run
32. Been on a cruise
33. Seen Niagara Falls in person
34. Visited the birthplace of my ancestors
35. Seen an Amish community
36. Taught myself a new language
37. Had enough money to be truly satisfied
38. Seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa in person
39. Gone rock climbing
40. Seen Michelangelo’s David
41. Sung karaoke
42. Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt
43. Bought a stranger a meal at a restaurant
44. Visited Africa
45. Walked on a beach by moonlight
46. Been transported in an ambulance
47. Had my portrait painted
48. Gone deep sea fishing
49. Seen the Sistine Chapel in person
50. Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris
51. Gone scuba diving or snorkeling
52. Kissed in the rain
53. Played in the mud
54. Gone to a drive-in theater
55. Been in a movie
56. Visited the Great Wall of China
57. Started a business
58. Taken a martial arts class
59. Visited Russia
60. Served at a soup kitchen
61. Sold Girl Scout Cookies
62. Gone whale watching
63. Got flowers for no reason
64. Donated blood, platelets or plasma.
65. Gone sky diving
66. Visited a Nazi Concentration Camp
67. Bounced a check
68. Flown in a helicopter
69. Saved a favorite childhood toy
70. Visited the Lincoln Memorial
71. Eaten caviar
72. Pieced a quilt
73. Stood in Times Square
74. Toured the Everglades
75. Been fired from a job
76. Seen the Changing of the Guards in London
77. Broken a bone
78. Been on a speeding motorcycle
79. Seen the Grand Canyon in person
80. Published a book
81. Visited the Vatican
82. Bought a brand new car
83. Walked in Jerusalem
84. Had my picture in the newspaper
85. Read the entire Bible
86. Visited the White House
87. Killed and prepared an animal for eating
88. Had chickenpox
89. Saved someone’s life
90. Sat on a jury
91. Met someone famous
92. Joined a book club
93. Lost a loved one
94. Had a baby
95. Seen the Alamo in person
96. Swam in the Great Salt Lake
7. Been involved in a law suit
98. Owned a cell phone
99. Been stung by a bee
100. Ridden an elephant
Posted by Arbitrista @ 1:39 PM

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Dynasty Watch Goes National

Tuesday, December 09, 2008
Finally somebody besides me is getting cranky about the increasingly prominent role that family connections plays in American politics. The mentioning of Beau Biden (Joe's son) for the Senate seat in Delaware and discussion about Caroline Kennedy for Senator in New York, two Udalls elected to the Senate in 2008, as well as Jeb thinking about running for the Senate in Florida - it seems that everywhere we see the sons and daughters of prominent political leaders ascending to power as if by familial right. I've written about this subject a number of times in the past( here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). As the sheer number of posts I've written suggest, this is a very important issue to me, and, I believe, to the health of the Republic. Now a substantial percentage of dynasty candidates don't win, but plenty do, and they tend to receive a large proportion of major party nominations. I was thrilled that in 2008 we elected someone who wasn't from a political family, but what do you think the odds are that Obama's daughters or wife will be mentioned as a potential candidate in the future?

I respect, although don't always agree, about the critiques of the constitution made over at Balkinization - the Constitution is an incomplete document, and is certainly in need of revision. Might I propose a bar on immediate family members serving in elected federal office as one of the possible amendments? It's a radical step, but from where I sit something has to be done. I am less concerned with the "fairness" to those that would be excluded than to the egalitarian quality of our electoral system.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:12 AM

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Let's Not Cut Off Our Face To Spite Our Face

Saturday, December 06, 2008
Anyone who is policy maker opposed to preventing the liquidation of the U.S. auto industry is quite simply out of their minds. I can understand why parts of the general public might be skeptical, but those who are supposed to be informed about political economy should know better. I'm relieved that we appear close to an agreement, but I've been outraged that there was every any doubt. For me, those who opposed any assistance on principle (as opposed to objecting to specific types of support) should no longer be taken seriously on matters of significant import on economic matters. They've demonstrated either gross negligence and irresponsibility. Predictably most of them have been Republicans.

Why am I being so belligerent on this issue? Well, because I can't think of a rational case that can be made against helping the auto industry survive, while I can think of a whole host of reasons to do it. The economy appears in free-fall (which is one of the causes of Detroit's problems), and the collapse of the auto industry would lead to millions - yes, millions - of additional job losses. The ripple effects would be truly horrifying, and could very well send us into a Depression (that's with a "D", not an "R"). The auto industry is one of the linchpins of the struggling U.S. manufacturing sector - a sector that desperately needs encouragement. Sacrificing it in the name of economic ideology would gravely undermine our industrial and (ultimately) strategic position. The only word I can think of describing the idea that we should let the Big 3 go under is "insane."

So what are the arguments opposed to the bailout. The first is that the auto industry made its mess and has to bear the consequences - that it's not the government's job to bail out the industry. Sorry, but the "moral hazard" argument went out the window when we started rescuing the financial sector. Second, it could be claimed that the auto industry has been in long-term decline for decades, and we should just let it go - more funds would be throwing money away. I can think of several responses to this. Many of Detroit's problems are not of its own making. Health care costs and perverse economic incentives (both partly due to government policies) have facilitated its current woes. In addition, the decline of something does not mean that it cannot revive, or that it has disappeared. Just because something isn't as good as it used to be doesn't mandate that you throw it out. I'm not getting a new battery for my Mac just because it doesn't hold energy as well, because I can still get some good use for it. Finally, this crisis can be viewed as opportunity. Detroit has come so close to death that now, with proper encouragement from those rescuing it, it can make the fundamental reforms necessary to regain its long-term viability.

If you can think of another good reason to abandon the U.S. auto sector, I'd love to hear it. In the mean time, putting together some sort of package just seems like a no-brainer. I'm glad that the Democrats in Congress appear to be coming around.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:52 AM

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Why The Cabinet Doesn't Matter

Tuesday, December 02, 2008
Raise your hands if you've watched the show West Wing. Good. Now I ask you - how many cabinet officials from that program can you name? None, right? The only times they appear is when the White House staff is pushing them around. I may not be an expert on the executive branch, but I do know that in any administration the best indicator of a person's influence is their proximity to the President (or Prime Minister, or Decider, or whatever). That would be the White House staff, wouldn't it?

Cabinet positions are ones of great prestige but very contingent power, and they don't tend to last very long. Some Secretaries have been quite influential, particularly the ones who are permitted to appoint their own under-, deputy-, and assistant- secretaries, but that influence is entirely dependent on the will of the chief executive. Most of them don't matter much at all when it comes to policy-making. If I could choose between being White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of State, I wouldn't hesitate for a moment.

The political press has to know that White House staff appointments are like 10,000% more important than cabinet appointments, but you'd never know that from following the news. There's been a lot of heartburn in the liberal blogosphere over the centrist credentials of Obama's cabinet picks, but there is a better than equal chance that those selections are "look at the funny monkey" politics - Obama is sending signals to Washington that he's a moderate while anesthetizing his opposition. Obama's White House picks paint a very different picture, with the mix of liberal and moderate (and even a couple of conservative) voices you'd expect from a president-elect who clearly likes internal debate.

None of this is to say that Obama won't end up pursuing incremental, middle-of-the-road policies. He very well may, although I think he'd be foolish to do so. But he's just as likely to do what he's been saying he would, that is go for dramatic structural changes in the face of dramatic structural problems. The fact is that we just don't know. In the end, Cabinet and staff selections aren't going to give us very much information about Obama's intentions. We're going to have to wait and see, while applying as much external pressure as we can so he moves in the right (that is, left) direction.

My suspicion is that Obama going to reveal as little as possible about his moves until he makes them, while trying to get everybody else to tip their hand first. He is a poker player, after all.

Having said all this, I still think the Congress should take the lead on domestic policy and force Obama to react to them. I know that sounds crazy, but I swear I read something along those lines in the Constitution.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:54 AM

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Tell Me Something I Don't Know

Monday, December 01, 2008
Is your cat plotting to kill you?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 5:38 PM

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