Wednesday, December 31, 2008


I just unsubscribed from the Obama email list, and there are a lot of emotions swirling around in my heart right now – most notably guilt, worry, and annoyance (in ascending order, which is why the verdict came in the way it did).

The Obama website and email list were certainly very effective tools, especially for people in my neighborhood of the political engagement spectrum (which is to say experienced hobbyist but not professional). While I didn’t rely upon it for news, all my donations to the Obama campaign were made through it, and I used it for organizing as well (a friend and I very easily cut our own canvassing turf on it). Point being, with regard to the luvh.rakhe account, both the campaign and I were happy with the results.

In the aftermath of Election Day, I was surprised to see the emails from Barack and Michelle and David and the whole gang keep rolling in at such a steadyclip. But any annoyance was tempered by jubilation and awareness of the importance of Obama’s New Media operation. And when they sent out the feedback questionnaire in late November, though I didn't even consider filling it out, I fully acknowledged that it made sense to conduct.

But yesterday's email from David Plouffe, soliciting a $100 donation for the inauguration, struck me as a little ballsy. Didn't this campaign just spend the most on a campaign - ever?

This brings me to my worry - fundraising. Typically, when we worry about fundraising, we are worrying about Congressmen, and our primary worry is actually about distraction, that they start raising reelection money on Day One of their terms. That's not what's going on here - it's relatively effortless for the Obama campaign to send out an email solitication or to tack on one of those red "Please Donate" buttons to the bottom of an email that doesn't start out as a solicitation. And I don't believe a President, least of all a President Obama, does or would spend any time raising money him/herself. What I am worried about is the relationship of Obama to money. Fundraising is a necessary evil, and for the democracy-minded, the emphasis is on the "evil," not on the "necessary." I'm still deeply unsettled by Obama outspending McCain by orders of magnitude. Granted, Obama's fundraising, in addition to being the most prolific in history, has also been the most egalitarian. Still - donations before he even takes office? Those would ostensibly be for his 2012 reelection, but they could also be funneled to various midterm candidates 2010. In other words, it's cementing, entrenching, and probably even deepening the role of money in politics.

This, of course, is just a vague and inchoate worry. And I grant that it may be too naive. That's why it was actually annoyance that carried the day, and at the end of it all, all I was really doing when I unsubscribed was just reacting to some spam.

PS, a coinage. I invite you to use "unsubscribe" for any sort of quitting or withdrawal. Example as follows.
A: I've met someone else.
B: Are you unsubscribing from me?
Also acceptable is "In 2009, I'm unsubscribing from McDonald's."

PPS, Happy New Year!

Monday, December 29, 2008


The Israeli bombardment of Gaza over the past three days calls out for commentary. But as I read about what is going on, I find myself unable to focus in a serious way about this latest round of violence. I started to read this lengthy commentary by Daniel Levy, who is one of the first people to turn to for sensible and peace-oriented ideas for the Middle East, and I couldn’t even get through it. My first reaction to the violence was, frankly, anger at the incredibly disproportionate use of violence on the part of the Israeli government. But that reaction quickly morphed into a disturbing indifference brought on by a deep cynicism about the near-term possibility for progress on this issue.

What a final settlement between Israelis and Palestinians will ultimately look like is well known. Regardless of how much blood is shed in the interim, a final settlement will look similar to what was negotiated at Taba, and what has been proposed in the Arab Peace Initiative. Everyone interested in peace knows this. The problem is that many of the primary stakeholders in the conflict—including the United States—don’t actually seem interested in peace.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so negative. There have been some encouraging signs of late. The debate in America on this issue seems to be opening up a little bit, to the point where labeling someone who makes statements critical of the Israeli government as anti-Semitic doesn’t get much traction any more. The departing Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, made some remarkably courageous statements (“The Time Has Come to Say These Things”) in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. And there is, of course, hope that the Obama administration will at least be more proactive than the Bush administration in trying to reach a settlement. Levy offers sound advice for Obama in his piece, “Pursuing Peace Amid Pessimism.”

But the deck is stacked against any real progress, with the bombing of Gaza putting up a whole host of additional obstacles. Ehud Olmert may be interested in peace, but he is a lame-duck. The politicians vying to succeed him—Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu—are much more interested in showing how tough they are on national security issues by fully supporting the bombing of Gaza. The electoral pressures for such aggression will not change anytime soon. Similar progress-preventing political pressures exist for Obama. He did make some encouraging statements in support of the Arab Peace Initiative, but I remain skeptical that he would risk mucking up his first 100 days by trying any bold moves in the politically treacherous and emotionally fraught arena of Israel/Palestine. As for Hamas, the violence will only strengthen them politically in the Palestinian territories and move them farther away from any accommodative gestures towards peace. The media coverage and debate in America is so embarrassingly one-sided that it won’t produce any pressure on Obama to, in turn, pressure Israel to halt settlement activity.

I feel as though we’ve been here before and we know what happens next: more bloodshed of innocent Israelis and Palestinians, more anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism, higher oil prices, more recruiting opportunities for fundamentalist groups, less American influence in the world.

This violence will accomplish nothing positive. And I’m resigned to riding out this next wave of negative consequences. Wake me up when the stakeholders seem serious about peace.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Not being a native english speaker has its advantages

Friend of the Pickle Marie, who is Danish and speaks English almost perfectly does not, in fact, speak English perfectly. The term "garbage disposal," for example, was not a term with which she was familiar. Apparently they don't have garbage disposals in Denmark. Go figure.

The other day, Marie was heard to coin the term "chopping sink." It's really much better than garbage disposal. Garbage does not belong in the sink. I'm going with chopping sink. I hope you will too.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

On Inflation, China, and Being Humble

Worried about deflation? Yeah, me too. But, as I mentioned in a previous post, I’m even more worried about inflation. It may seem strange to worry about two diametrically opposite phenomena—deflation and inflation—at the same time. But that is the paradoxical mess in which we find ourselves.

The NYTimes editorial “The Printing Press Cure” put it this way:

Flooding the economy with freshly printed money may prevent a self-reinforcing downward spiral. But it may cause trouble long after the present danger has passed. One reason is that it could cause inflation later. In a worst-case scenario, inflation, or the fear of inflation, could dissuade foreign investors, who finance the United States’ debt, from buying and holding dollars. That, in turn, could provoke a disorderly decline in the currency, sending prices and interest rates sharply higher.

In a humorous, but frightening essay in the Wall Street Journal, James Grant said this about the looming dollar dilemma:

Economic commentators praised the central bank's determination to fight deflation -- that is, to reinstate inflation. All hands, including President-elect Obama, seemed to agree that wholesale money-printing was the answer to the nation's prayers.

One market, only, registered a protest. The Fed's declaration of inflationary intent knocked the dollar for a loop against gold and foreign currencies. In many different languages and from many time zones came the question, "Tell me, again, now that the dollar yields so little, why do we own it?"

Our troubles, over which we will certainly prevail, stem from a basic contradiction. The dollar is the world's currency, yet the Fed is America's central bank. Mr. Bernanke's remit is to promote low inflation, high employment and solvent finance -- in the 50 states. He wishes the Chinese well, of course, and the French and the Singaporeans and all the rest besides, but they don't pay his salary.

They do, however, buy the U.S. Treasury's bonds, which frames the emerging American dilemma. If the Fed is going to create boatloads of depreciating, non-yielding dollar bills, who will absorb them? Who will finance the Obama administration's looming titanic fiscal deficits? Who will finance America's annual surplus of consumption over production (after 25 more or less continuous years, almost a national trait)? Inflation is a kind of governmentally sanctioned white-collar crime. Every crime needs a dupe. Now that the Fed has announced its plan to deceive, where will it find its victims?

Everything, it seems, depends upon our Chinese creditors continuing the money-losing policy of financing our government’s deficit spending and bankrolling the shopping sprees of the debt-strapped American consumer. If they cease this seemingly foolish policy, then the dollar will turn into toilet paper and things will really fall apart. Worried yet?

But let’s not panic. The Chinese have good reason to continue to prop up our currency. They must keep the dollar strong and the American consumer strong so that all their export-oriented factories don’t go bankrupt all at once. They have to worry about a fragile social contract that exists between the government and all the former peasants who now work in those export-oriented factories. With mass unemployment caused by factory closings, social unrest in China would surely follow.

So, great! We’ve got the Chinese over a barrel. There is nothing like social unrest to concentrate the mind of a political leader! We can just print as much money as we like because the Chinese will continue to buy up all of our increasingly worthless paper dollars.

Not so fast. The Chinese are no dummies. They are well aware that the dollar is probably a doomed currency. They know its value will decline over time. The only question in their mind is: how soon and how quickly should the dollar depreciate? This is a very important question. The ideal scenario, for both China and the U.S., is that the decline will be slow and orderly. That way, the Chinese economy will have time to reorient industrial production away from exports to America and towards domestically consumed products (stuff Chinese consumers want to buy). Similarly, the American consumer and the American government will have time to change their profligate ways. We must become a nation of savers who live within our means, and our government must run a balanced budget.

But if the Chinese sense that America has no intention of undergoing these difficult adjustments (that is, if we just keep printing our way out of the hole), there will be great pressure on the Chinese government to cut the dollar loose despite the potential for political destabilization. That pressure is already building.

Gao Ziqing, the man who oversees $200 billion of China’s $2 trillion in dollar holdings, said as much in a fascinating interview in The Atlantic Monthly:

We have a PR department, which collects all the comments about us, from Chinese newspapers and the Web. Every night, I try to pick a time when I’m in a relatively good mood to read it, because most of the comments are very critical of us. Recently we increased our holdings in Blackstone a little bit. Now we’re increasing a little bit our holdings in Morgan Stanley, so as not to be diluted by the Japanese. People here hate it. They come out and say, “Why the hell are you trying to save those people? You are the representative of the poor people eating porridge, and you’re saving people eating shark fins!” It’s always that sort of thing.

He went on to offer this advice to Obama and the American people:

The simple truth today is that your economy is built on the global economy. And it’s built on the support, the gratuitous support, of a lot of countries. So why don’t you come over and … I won’t say kowtow [with a laugh], but at least, be nice to the countries that lend you money.

Talk to the Chinese! Talk to the Middle Easterners! And pull your troops back! Take the troops back, demobilize many of the troops, so that you can save some money rather than spending $2 billion every day on them. And then tell your people that you need to save, and come out with a long-term, sustainable financial policy.

The current conditions can’t go on. It is time for the new government, under Obama or even McCain, to really tell people: “Look, this is wartime, this is about the survival of our nation. It’s not about our supremacy in the world. Let’s not even talk about that any more. Let’s get down to the very basics of our livelihood.”

I have great admiration of American people. Creative, hard-working, trusting, and freedom-loving. But you have to have someone to tell you the truth. And then, start realizing it. And if you do it, just like what you did in the Second World War, then you’ll be great again!

If that happens, then of course—American power would still be there for at least as long as I am living. But many people are betting on the other side.

This, I think, is excellent advice. The printing presses eventually need to stop and we need to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. The nation’s psychology needs to change. We must become more humble in our foreign policy and more sensitive to the point of view of others. And Obama needs to lead the way.

I am actually hopeful that America can work with the Chinese to pull this off. Even Thomas Friedman, who is as guilty as any American of believing in the fallacy of American exceptionalism, seems to understand that something fundamental needs to change. He has good advice in his most recent column:

We’re going to have to get out of this crisis the old-fashioned way: by digging inside ourselves and getting back to basics — improving U.S. productivity, saving more, studying harder and inventing more stuff to export. The days of phony prosperity — I borrow cheap money from China to build a house and then borrow on that house to buy cheap paintings from China to decorate my walls and everybody is a winner — are over.

What Friedman doesn’t say is that the government must do its part by cutting the budget for the military and conducting a less belligerent foreign policy. That will be a tough pill for many Americans to swallow. But the Chinese are watching. And the dollar hangs in the balance.

CK Reservations

Caroline Kennedy's endorsement of Barack Obama was one of Ted Kennedy's biggest reasons, by his own account, for doing the same. And Ted Kennedy's endorsement came at a crucial time, conferring some institutional heft upon what was, to that point, a classically insurgent campaign. So I have warm feelings of gratitude towards Caroline Kennedy but, despite them, must register a few reservations about her "candidacy" for H-Rod's senate seat.

First, the same feelings I had about dynasticism when it came to H-Rod (the ones in fact that prompted me to start blogging) apply here -- in fact more so, since no one comes even close to the Kennedys. This Senate seat is in fact RFK's old seat. A single family having disproportionate politial power is pretty flagrantly undemocratic. Now, I don't advocate a legal bar on family members running for elected office, but I think they should stop themselves from doing it, and we should criticize them, on a quasi-ethical basis, when they do. And of course, I don't think we should single out Caroline - another name in the mix is Andrew Cuomo, and the "decider," Gov. David Paterson, is the son of a former New York State Senator (and when David Paterson was in the State Senate, he was in his father's old seat).

I admit some hypocrisy in finding Caroline Kennedy's endorsement of Obama desirable but not her candidacy for Senate. But I think there's a clear enough line between campaign endorsements and elected office to make the hypocrisy only cosmetic.

The second reservation is a bigger deal, I think, and it's that Caroline Kennedy has refused to make a financial disclosure. She's not bound to by law - those appointed to the Senate have different requirements than those elected. And she has pledged to make the disclosures should she be appointed. But I think that would be too late. Even though it's an appointment, we'd still like to get as close to democracy as we can, right? That means information, so that New Yorkers can lobby Paterson, who is, after all, elected.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

95 down, 1 to go

In case you haven't realized it, today marks the beginning of the final month of the Bush presidency. It's been 95 months, 413 weeks, and 2891 days (give or take). We have 1 month, 4.5 weeks, and 31 days left.

I've come to realize that a lot of my emotionalness about Obama's win is really about the end of Bush.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Going for the jugular

I just saw a Nissan commercial that began "You don't just need a car, you need a car company."


I'm not sure Nissan wont live to regret that strategy. It seems like a good way to galvanize Congress for an auto bailout.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


Threekend. It's so good, you already know what it means. We won't have one till next month, so there's plenty of time to adopt.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Something is Rotten in the State of Denmark

Frank Rich, writing about the moral bankruptcy of our times, summed up my feelings well in his op-ed in the NYTimes on Sunday:

As our outgoing president passes the buck for his failures — all that bad intelligence — so do leaders in the private and public sectors who enabled the economic debacle. Gramm has put the blame for the subprime fiasco on “predatory borrowers.” Rubin has blamed a “perfect storm” of economic factors, as has Sam Zell, the magnate who bought and maimed the Tribune newspapers in a highly leveraged financial stunt that led to a bankruptcy filing last week.

After a while they all start to sound like O. J. Simpson, who when at last held accountable for some of his behavior told a Las Vegas judge this month, “In no way did I mean to hurt anybody.” Or perhaps they are channeling Donald Rumsfeld, whose famous excuse for his failure to secure post-invasion Iraq, “Stuff happens,” could be the epitaph of our age.

Our next president, like his predecessor, is promising “a new era of responsibility and accountability.” We must hope he means it. Meanwhile, we have the governor he leaves behind in Illinois to serve as our national whipping boy, the one betrayer of the public trust who could actually end up paying for his behavior. The surveillance tapes of Blagojevich are so fabulous it seems a tragedy we don’t have similar audio records of the bigger fish who have wrecked the country. But in these hard times we’ll take what we can get.

Rich didn’t have enough space in his column to mention the other three stories of mind-boggling fraud, corruption, and lies that appeared in the paper that day.

First, there was a “follow the money” expose' on Chuck Schumer’s close ties to Wall Street. Mr. Schumer was the leading advocate in Congress for deregulation of the financial industry; and in return, he received the most campaign donations from Wall Street of any Congressman in the government, except John Kerry. And we were supposed to believe that Wall Street is mostly in bed with the Republicans. Um, sorry folks. The biggest difference between the Rubin/Summers Democrats and the Paulson Republicans may turn out to be which Wall St. firm each camp calls when the government needs to find out how much money still needs to be printed in order to recapitalize the U.S. banking system. Paulson has been calling his friends at Goldman Sachs, where he was the former CEO. Summers, however, will call the folks over at Citigroup, home to his mentor and confidant, Robert Rubin.

Another front-page article appearing that day reported the story of Marc S. Dreier, “one of New York’s most accomplished lawyers,” who swindled people out of at least $35 million by selling fake promissory notes issued by his company. Mr. Dreier needed the cash to fund his lavish lifestyle that featured a $30 million art collection, homes in the Hamptons, Manhattan, and Santa Monica, a Mercedes 500 and an Aston Martin, and a yacht with a Jacuzzi and a crew of 10.

Dreier will shortly find himself in prison; but he should consider himself a lucky man. Why’s that? Well, no one will remember his name or even really care that he made off with a mere $35 million. You see, the story of his rather sizable swindle broke the same weekend as the mind-blowing $50 billion fraud perpetrated by Bernard Madoff, who for many years ran the largest Ponzi scheme in the history of mankind. Madoff’s story is simply unbelievable. It would be laughable if the victims of his crime didn’t include many of the same sweet Jewish grandmothers who, I like to imagine, helped put Obama over the top in Florida when their grandkids, inspired by Sarah Silverman’s video, flew down from New York to convince them to go with Barak. Countless people have lost their life’s savings, not to mention any remaining trust they may have had in Wall St.

But Madoff is not the only villain in his story. A number of fund-of-fund managers entrusted their entire portfolio (of other people’s money) to Madoff. This, despite the fact that they were being paid millions by their clients to diversify the investments and to conduct the proper due diligence on the folks to whom they were farming out the dough. No one needs to give these managers 1% of their investments just so they turn around and hand it all over to some two-faced criminal. I’m sure the original investors could manage to accomplish that feet all on their own without any profession help from a clueless middle-man. It’s absolutely pathetic.

Add these stories to the Blagoyevich scandal, and the whole stinking pile of lies makes for a rather depressing picture. Maybe I’m looking at history with rose-colored glasses, but it seems to me that, these days, a larger than usual number of politicians and lawyers and bankers are turning out to be crooks. Or maybe they are just coming out of the woodwork now because the economy is imploding. Whatever the reason, it sure seems as though we are living in an age of widespread mendacity.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Gasp! Kristol is Right About Something: The Bailouts

Wow. I agree with William Kristol. This is a first. And, hopefully, a last.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Like an Alpen mountain stream

It’s a good rule of thumb that when people are choking on terrible local pollution, they aren’t going to care that much about global atmospheric pollution that you can’t see or smell, that doesn’t make you sick, and that has undetectable very long term consequences. When the air you breathe and the water you drink are filthy, climate change isn’t going to be at the top of your list of priorities.

This bit of photo journalism from today’s NYT, then, is a trenchant illustration of why the US, Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are going to have to act to reduce carbon dioxide emission without necessarily getting the developing world to come along at first. Yuck.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Misha Saakashvili, Character Assassin

The most recent New Yorker features an interesting profile on Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian President I love to hate. Misha does not come off very well, to say the least. I was particularly turned off by his habit of resorting to character assassination when questioned about criticisms he’s received from his political opponents.

In late November, one of his former allies, Erosi Kitsmarishvili…said during parliamentary hearings that he believed Saakashvili had been planning to invade South Ossetia for some time. … Saakashvili dismissed his criticisms (“Erosi has always been all about the money,” he told me), and his government denied the charges.

Then, later in the article:

Nino Burjanadze, who had been one of the leaders of the Rose Revolution but split from Saakashvili’s party…announced that she had forty-three questions for Saakashvili about the events of the summer, and called for an official inquiry. (When I asked Saakashvili about Burjanadze, he said, “Nobody likes her.”)

Following Misha’s lead, I won’t bother to mention any of Saakashvili’s reprehensible behavior to back up my assertions, and I won't attempt to engage in any kind of useful discussion of what should be done about Russia or Georgia. Instead, I will simply say this: Saakashvili is hotheaded and arrogant. Nobody likes him except russo-phobic ex-cold warriors. He is an embarrassment to America, as we continue to back him in a myopic attempt to counter perceived Russian revanchism. Let’s hope his days as the leader of Georgia are numbered.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

On Naomi Klein, Russia, and Corruption

Naomi Klein is the shining star of the anti-corporate, anti-globalization progressive movement. Her latest book, The Shock Doctrine, is a worldwide best-seller, and she has attracted much interest of late now that her crusade against Milton Friedman and his laissez-faire economic policies seems to be vindicated by the recent financial meltdown. I recommend reading Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile of Klein in The New Yorker.

But despite being a card-carrying liberal, I am no fan of Naomi Klein.

Klein’s basic thesis in The Shock Doctrine is this: business interests (corporations) team up with the political powers that be (Washington, IMF, World Bank) to push through free market economic policies (deregulation and privatization) whenever there is a shock event (natural disaster, currency devaluation, regime change, terrorist attack). These policies end up enriching the few at the expense of the many.

One of the case-studies Klein cites in support of her thesis is the transition towards a market economy that took place in Russian in the early 1990s following the demise of the Soviet Union. Jeffrey Sachs, one of the Western economists who advised the Russian authorities at the time, labeled his economic policy suggestions (most conveniently for Klein) as “shock therapy.” Klein has this to say about the Western-led reorganization of the Russian economy:

Beginning in 1990, the [World] Bank led the charge for the former Soviet Union to impose immediately what it called "radical reform." When Mikhail Gorbachev refused to go along, Yeltsin stepped up. … After [Yeltsin] ordered army tanks to open fire on demonstrators in October 1993, killing hundreds and leaving the Parliament blackened by flames, the stage was set for the fire-sale privatizations of Russia's most precious state assets to the so-called oligarchs.

Russia is far from unique: From Chile's dictator Augusto Pinochet, who accumulated more than 125 bank accounts while building the first neoliberal state, to Argentine President Carlos Menem, who drove a bright red Ferrari Testarossa while he liquidated his country, to Iraq's "missing billions" today, there is, in every country, a class of ambitious, bloody-minded politicians who are willing to act as Western subcontractors. They will take a fee, and that fee is called corruption--the silent but ever-present partner in the crusade to privatize the developing world….In fact, corruption was embedded in the very idea of shock therapy.

This analysis is all well and good. Klein deserves commendation for “following the money” and documenting, in her book, the symbiotic relationship between big business and corrupt politicians.

Interestingly, it seems Vladimir Putin has been reading The Shock Doctrine, or more likely, he just happens to share Klein’s feelings about the post-Soviet economic upheaval in Russia. Since he came to power, Putin has been trying to institute a kind of economic justice in Russia by taking back—by hook or crook—a good part of what was stolen by the oligarchs in the 1990s. The most well known example of this re-nationalization was the takeover of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s oil company, Yukos, by the state-run energy giant Gazprom. Khodorkovsky now languished in a prison in Siberia. More recently, Putin has been implementing a kind of reverse shock doctrine, by which he uses a crisis to turn Russia away from the Friedmanite model and towards a more state-controlled economic environment. The NYTimes reported that he is using the smokescreen of the current financial meltdown, together with the “natural disaster” of a giant sink hole created by a collapsed mine, to move in on an oligarch-owned mining company, Uralkali. From the Times:

The Kremlin seems to be capitalizing on the economic crisis, exploiting the opportunity to establish more control over financially weakened industries that it has long coveted, particularly those in natural resources.

“We will put capital directly into major companies, in cases when it would be beneficial to the state and eventually to the taxpayer, and in those enterprises that are the basis of the economy of the Russian Federation,” Mr. Putin said in a television appearance on Thursday. “We do not exclude that these tools may be used in a large-scale way.”

Go get ‘em, Vladimir! Take down those oligarchs! Naomi Klein approves … or does she?

I wonder how Klein feels about Putin’s attempts to even the score with the oligarchs who made off like bandits in the 1990s. I suspect that she, along with many of her progressive fans, might not be all that supportive of Mr. Putin. Perhaps she feels similar to the Russians cited in the Times article:

Russians undoubtedly have ambivalent feelings about oligarchs. They tend to resent the oligarchs’ wealth, believing that it was accumulated through underhanded means in the 1990s. But they also worry that government officials want to seize these assets for their own venal purposes, and that they will end up mismanaging them, just as in Soviet times.

This completely justified skepticism of Putin-style economic justice points towards a problem with the world-view of many progressives in the Naomi Klein camp. Namely, progressives are too reluctant to admit that corruption and bad behavior is not limited to capitalist actors alone, but is built into any governmental system. They are too quick to point the finger at corporations, and unwilling to see corruption as not simply self-generated by evil-doing rich guys but as a part of the governing process. Thinking of Putin’s Russia, it is easier to see that nationalization carries its own set of problems and its own inherent corruption, and that nationalization is not necessarily the best way to improve upon a corrupt privatized system.

With this in mind, Klein’s recent call to nationalize ExxonMobil, a very Putin-esque move, is terribly misguided. In her rush to punish the corrupting corporate actors, Klein offers up a solution that will simply shift the opportunity for theft from private actors (ExxonMobil) to public actors (bureaucrats). If all this makes me sound like a libertarian, that’s as it should be. Libertarians rightly see “nationalization” as a euphemism, in many instances, for the state stealing money from capitalists, just as progressives rightly see “privatization” as a euphemism, in many instances, for capitalists stealing money from the state.

The constant struggle towards better governance is to limit the abuse of the system—both by state actors and by corporate actors. That means nationalizing ExxonMobil is a bad idea . But it also means steps should be taken to limit the influence of corporate money in politics. Naomi Klein is half right: Milton Freidman-style economic policies are, indeed, fundamentally unjust. But pointing the finger only at corporations and saying the solution is to nationalize ExxonMobil is a flawed analysis. Illinois Gov. Bagojevich needed no prodding from any corporation to incentivize him to try to sell Obama’s Senate seat.

When Klein throws up her hands in disgust over the corruption built into the idea of “shock therapy,” the proper response is: “What? There’s gambling at Rick’s casino? Shocking.” Corruption will always be with us. The task is to minimize it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Holy Crap

This is NOT change we can believe in. Why can't Illinois Governors stay un-arrested?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Fictive Inflation

Inflation has a number of gnarly impacts here in the real world, but its effects extend far beyond that. Namely, an Amount that is Dramatically Shocking (ADS) (ransoms, payoffs, net worths of fabulously rich characters, etc) has to keep pace with the cost of living. Readers will no doubt recall the illustration of this idea in a bit from the first Austin Powers movie - the "one million dollars!" bit (a truly funny one, but sadly so over-quoted that it has been subjected to a sort of lameness-inflation.)

I suspect that the recent bandying about of astronomical amounts of money here in the real world - 700 billion, 35 billion, 1 trillion - will seriously unmoor ADS's (or purported ADS's). In a world of $35 billion bailouts, what's an audacious ransom? How much would a stolen ancient Mayan artifact be worth, and couldn't a scheming evildoer make more money (and more safely) if he just lined up at the TARP trough?

The new big numbers are so unfathomable that ADS's can't merely keep up with inflation - they have to obliterate it. Take the Six Million Dollar Man, which first aired in 1974. 1974's Six Million Dollar Man would cost you... 29 Million Dollars today. Yawn, right? How much would it take to make you tune in? $100 million? Even then, I don't know. The best bet might be to forgo amounts altogether and just go with an adjective like "bionic."

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Bailout Double Standard

We are told that AIG, Freddie, Fannie, and now Citibank are “too big to fail,” and so the government needs to bail them out or the financial system will implode further. Fine: let’s grit our teeth and do what we have to do. That said, I think the public deserves a more honest discussion about who is to be held accountable for this mess. The talk surrounding the financial bailouts usually focuses exclusively on how to fix the problem going forward. This is perhaps understandable, given that we are still in the thick of it. But there is also a palpable desire to “not dwell on the past.” My suspicion grows when you consider the strong pressure put on the government to give these financial companies bailouts without too many strings attached (i.e.: without limiting dividend payments or executive compensation, and not firing current management). This seems curious to me. I am all for looking forward and focusing on getting out of the mess. But I’d also like to see some accountability—that is, a few heads on pikes.

Now contrast the financial bailout discussion with the auto industry bailout discussion. The financial industry is bailed out first, asked questions later. Meanwhile the executives of the Big Three are raked over the coals in front of Congress, told to write a whole new business plan in 12 days, and then MAYBE they will get the cash, with countless strings attached. I understand that the auto companies have made mistakes in the past. But their current predicament is actually due more to the actions of the people who work in the financial industry than it is due to their own managerial missteps.

When the financial crisis hit, the car companies were in the midst of carrying out a long and arduous re-organization process. The United Autoworkers had made major concessions during the most recent contract negotiations, which were begun mid-contract. In other words, the union agreed to negotiate before they were obligated to because they realized the companies were in jeopardy if the union did not make emergency sacrifices. In addition, all three companies have actually been making pretty decent cars for the past few years. At the beginning of 2008, The Big Three were moving towards North American profitability. And don’t take my word for it; Wall St. thought so, too. General Motors stock was as high as $40 in October of 2007, which was 100% higher than the price of the stock in early 2006. So management must have been doing something right. But then the financial crisis hit and the stock plummeted to its current value of under $5.

But the way the media talks about all the bailouts, you’d think that the car companies are entirely to blame for their current miserable condition, while the banks were struck by some freak “black swan” event that no one saw coming. The reality is, in fact, the opposite. The financial industry was the architect of its own implosion, while the auto industry was struck by the “natural disaster” caused by the financial industry.

This discrepancy in the bailout debates might be due to a white collar vs. blue collar double standard, possibly in combination with a coordinated desire in much of the business community to destroy the autoworkers union once and for all. And it certainly helps the financial community to have lots of friend in high places—Washington’s corridors of power could double as the location of the next Goldman Sachs alumni reunion.

Whatever the explanation, the lack of talk about accountability within the financial industry points towards the shameless arrogance of those responsible for the lost jobs and lost savings of millions of Americans. The NYTimes reported yesterday that top executives of UBS, a large Swiss bank, will voluntarily forgo more than $27 million in compensation after the bank reported massive losses in the most recent quarter. They are giving up the money promised them not because the board of directors or the government has forced them to do so, but because they feel ashamed of their actions. Can you imagine anyone at Citigroup doing the same? Yeah, me neither.

And financial titans are not alone in their arrogance. Larry Summers, a Democrat and now a key financial advisor to Obama, won’t even admit that he made mistakes when he de-regulated the financial industry during the Clinton years. I guess working in government or working in the financial industry means you never have to say you’re sorry. If you build cars, not so much.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cabinet Kerfuffle

A raft of recent NYT letters to the editor angrily decries Obama’s executive branch selections as overly centrist, that he was elected by liberals and should govern accordingly. These flames are bound to be fanned by the newly revivified rumor that Gates will be staying on as Secretary of Defense.

Three points. I don’t agree that Obama was elected “by the left.” The left was certainly a part of his coalition, but also part of it were new voters and centrists. Plus, as one of our commenters astutely observed when Obama began “tacking to the center” during the primary, this is a guy who marketed himself as post-partisan. He was never going to come up with a super lefty cabinet.

Second, we’re talking about Barack Obama, not George W. Bush. Part of the reason I supported him is his judgment – probably the main reason. I think he has core values I agree with, and policies derived from those core values, using his judgment, will likely be policies I’m in favor of. If anything, I appreciate the curiosity motivating the desire for genuine, substantive debate inside the White House.

Third, and finally, Obama has shown himself to be pretty good at the political game, and by bringing together disparate voices such as Clinton’s (not that disparate anyway) and Gates’, he can co-opt them. They’d be in the fold, but he’d still be the boss. Win-win.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Read This!!

It's a little old, but I just stumbled across this exegesis of the exclamation point.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

New Stuff on the Blogroll

I just added a couple sites to the blogroll - Design Observer and The Big Picture.

Design Observer is a great clearinghouse for design news - like this story about the winners of the competition to design new public bike racks in New York (super cool looking) - and it also publishes a list of really wonderful images every Saturday. I particularly liked last Saturday.

The Big Picture is a photo blog on the Boston Globe's website. It publishes hi-res photos a few times a week and never fails to either strike awe, as with these photos about the sun, or deeply move, as with these photos about resurgent violence in Congo (these pictures in particular might break you apart if you're already feeling a little vulnerable, so be careful with them).

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Big moment for US climate policy

This could be a very significant shift in US energy and climate policy. The House Energy and Commerce Committee will have a new chairman: Henry Waxman replaces John Dingell. Waxman is a relentless advocate for strong US action on climate change, and one of Obama’s chief legislative liaisons is a former Waxman aide. Dingell is a moderate whose top campaign contributers are car company PACs.

This is significant because it means that the chairman of the committee that climate legislation must go through wants to play ball. But it’s also significant because a majority of the Democratic caucus, knowing that, voted for Waxman. Game on…

Georgia NATO Update

Nicholas Kristof weighs in against Georgia in NATO.

Obama's Hawkish Foreign Policy? (Continued)

Ross Douthat outlines my growing concerns about what will become of Obama's foreign policy. Namely, I worry that Obama won't change course all that much from the Bush Administration as he focuses most of his energy on his domestic agenda.

The problem with giving Lieberman a get-out-of-jail-free card is not that Obama and the Democrats are wimping out and not satisfying my desire for revenge; the real problem with leaving him on as Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee is that Lieberman is arguably more hawkish than Bush on foreign policy and is a dangerous person to leave in any position of power.

I don't blame Obama for focusing much of his transformational energies on domestic policy. After all, domestic policy is the Democratic Party's bread-and-butter, and the economy is the epicenter of the immediate crisis. But putting foreign policy on auto-pilot by closely following the hawkish beltway-consensus may end up biting him in the ass. It's hard to revive an economy if you are burning money in Afghanistan and the price of oil spikes because you are talking tough with Iran.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Obama's Secret Political Weapon: Tax Hikes

Leading up to Nov. 4 there were countless articles questioning Obama's ability to win over that most coveted group of voters: the Reagan Democrat. This was the demographic that would decide Indiana, Pennsylvania, and most importantly, Ohio. What is a “Reagan Democrat?” In short, the voter is white, probably male, blue collar, and no one really said it explicitly, but the underlying assumption was that he was uncomfortable voting for a black man (read: at least a little bit racist). Obama won all three Rust Belt states, most surprisingly Indiana. And he did it, sure enough, by winning over the Reagan Democrats. How did he do it?

I’m sure there are a lot of factors that contributed to Obama’s victory, but my hunch is that one factor played an outsized role. Ironically, I think that the traditional Republican-dominated issue of taxes is what brought home the bacon for Obama. By saying that he would cut taxes on 95% of the population and, more importantly, raise taxes on the rich, Obama was able to convince these guys that he was one of them. Even though McCain would cut taxes across the board, the Obama line that the McCain tax cuts would help the rich much more than the little guy really hit home. McCain was for Wall St. and Obama was for Main St. If there is anything that can overcome uneasiness with what a politician looks like, it’s the populist promise to redistribute wealth. In a clash between identity politics and class warfare, the class argument will win out every time the economy is in a recession.

Everyone automatically thinks about taxes as a losing issue for Democrats—especially if there is any talk of raising taxes…on anyone. But this election cycle, middle class anger at the greed of Wall St. actually made Obama’s policy of raising taxes a winning issue, as long as it was only a tax-hike on the rich. It will be interesting to see how this plays out politically if Obama decides not to raise anyone's taxes because of the severity of the economic crisis.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Point-Counterpoint: MAP for Georgia and Ukraine?

The Pickle is delighted to bring the always robust Nate Truitt-Peter Richards comments section back-and-forth about Russia-Georgia onto the front page.

Point, by Nate:

In December of 2008 the foreign ministers of NATO countries will meet in Brussels to discuss, among other things, whether Georgia and Ukraine should be granted Membership Action Plans (MAP). The Membership Action Plan "is a NATO programme of advice, assistance and practical support tailored to the individual needs of countries wishing to join the Alliance." Although participation in MAP "does not prejudge any decision by the Alliance on future membership," the granting of a MAP to Georgia (and, to a lesser extent, to Ukraine) will be viewed by Russia as a virtual invitation to join the alliance - and, therefore, as a threat. This is especially true in the aftermath of the recent Georgian-Russian conflict over South Ossetia.

Granting a MAP to Georgia will be a bold, controversial move that many will interpret as aggressive and confrontational towards Russia. Moreover, many will object to NATO support of any kind for a Georgian regime that has had a highly questionable record on enforcing the rule of law and the observance of human rights. Nonetheless, it is vital that NATO countries come together and take the difficult step of granting both Ukraine and Georgia Membership Action Plans.

The disproportionate Russian response to fighting in South Ossetia represented a clear violation of international law. It was, however, merely the latest and greatest example of an aggressive Russian policy towards former Soviet states: a policy of intimidation; constant meddling in these nations' internal political disputes; encouragement of separatist groups (especially along ethnic lines); and, generally speaking, actions designed to compromise the sovereignty of Russia's neighbors, thereby making them reliant on Moscow. These policies have been especially noticeable in Russia's relations towards two of its most independent-minded neighbors, Georgia and Ukraine. Before the recent conflict, Russia had long maintained a peacekeeping presence in Georgia despite strenuous objections from the government in Tblisi. And they had pledged support to South Ossetian and Abkhazian separatists, essentially destroying any incentives for those groups to negotiate with the Georgian government. Similarly in Ukraine, Russia was extremely antagonistic towards the Orange Revolution (according to some, they went so far as to participate in a plot to poison Viktor Yushchenko). They continue to raise the prices on fuel exports to Ukraine in order to make life for the new government extremely uncomfortable.

Russia's behavior towards other ex-Soviet Republics like Turkmenistan, Moldova and Belarus has followed similar patterns. It is of course inevitable that a strong regional power will attempt to exercise influence over the political behavior of its neighbors. When, however, those attempts manifest themselves in illegal behavior, including outright war, a line has been crossed and the international community then has a strong interest in creating and enforcing consequences for such behavior.

As long as these independent nations lack basic security and the ability to exercise their sovereignty without fear of a Russian veto, it's hard to see how any long-term stability can be achieved. The current situation - in which these nations drift along in fear and uncertainty, hanging on every word from Moscow - is simply not sustainable. Ukraine and Georgia sense this and their applications for MAPs are a reasonable attempt to protect their own independence.

Granting Georgia a MAP would send a clear signal to Moscow that NATO countries do not except the immoral, absurd and dangerous notion that somehow Russia has veto power over the policy of its independent neighbors, and that it can enforce that veto through military action. Admittedly, giving Georgia a MAP will antagonize Russia and lead to a short-term deterioration of U.S./European - Russian relations; but in the long term, a MAP for Georgia will promote security and stability by clarifying NATO's position on what is and is not an acceptable definition of Russian "national interests." A strong stance now will help defuse an otherwise-likely conflict in and over Ukraine; and will eventually lead to a better, more lasting friendship between the United States on Russia - one based on a clear understanding of the roles and limitations of both partners.

Counterpoint, by Peter:

The first problem with granting Georgia and Ukraine a MAP is that it would be an empty gesture with no teeth. There is basically no chance that a MAP will actually lead to either country joining the NATO alliance anytime soon. Georgia has unresolved border disputes with South Ossetia and Abkhazia that automatically preclude membership, while Ukraine has an extremely fragile internal political situation that would disintegrate into chaos if Ukraine were to join NATO. Even more obvious is American (and therefore NATO) reluctance to defend Georgia in case of Russian aggression. Georgia was not worth defending in August when Russian tanks rolled through Tskinvali. Why, then, would America seek to create a military alliance that would obligate it to such a defense of Georgia in the future? America would have to go to war with Russia if the reckless, hyper-nationalist Georgian president were to decide to have another go at invading South Ossetia. Clearly, a MAP for Georgia and Ukraine would not lead to NATO membership and is, therefore, a dead-end policy.

The sole purpose of the MAP, then, becomes the desire to “send a message to Moscow.” But wouldn’t it be wise for America to try to “send a message” by taking action that would have the potential for real follow-through? Spitting in someone’s eye when they know you won’t beat them with your stick simply antagonizes your enemy while showing you up as a coward. It is the opposite of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous dictum: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

And why, we should ask, must such a message be sent in the first place? Those on the right who wrongly believe Russia is returning to its imperial past, and those on the left who don’t like Russia’s abuse of human rights like to trot out a laundry list of recent Russian “bad behavior” that deserves “a strong response.” This laundry list is, indeed, quite dirty; but it must be put into its proper perspective. Russia, to be sure, has a laundry list of its own, showing what it believes to be American bad behavior in the region. At the top of the list is America’s embarrassing support of Saakashvili, the aggressor in the war in South Ossetia. In addition, America has undermined the idea of sovereignty by supporting independence in Kosovo, meddled in the internal politics of Ukraine, courted Central Asian dictators, and exited the ABM treaty. Let’s not fool ourselves: America hardly occupies the moral high ground when it comes to aggressive behavior in the region. And let’s not leave out American bad behavior in the rest of the world, most notably in Iraq and at Guantanamo. In short: American self-righteous anger at Russian “bad behavior that deserves a strong response” doesn’t carry much water these days.

Not only is granting a MAP bad policy for America to pursue; it is also bad policy for Georgia and Ukraine. A majority of people in Ukraine do not support the idea of a MAP; it is Ukrainian politicians, at the behest of America, who are pursuing NATO membership. Many Ukrainians, especially those who live in the eastern regions and speak Russian as their first language, do not wish to see Ukraine turn its back on Russia. There are strong cultural, commercial, and familial connections between the Russian and Ukrainian people that would be strained if Ukraine were to “choose the West.” A more natural and productive orientation for Ukraine (and Georgia) would be to balance itself between Russia and America, thereby staking out an independent and strong position. Such an orientation would also go a long way towards stabilizing Ukraine’s fragile internal political situation, while easing the over-all tension in the region.

And lastly, supporting the idea that Georgia and Ukraine should choose “the West” presupposes a Cold War-like antagonistic relationship between Russia and America, and then goes a long way towards making that presupposition a reality. But in today’s world, there is no longer the ideological conflict of Communism vs. Capitalism to drive a wedge between Russia and America. And there are actually a number of areas in which Russian and American interests converge, such as terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, and Afghanistan. Aggressively pursuing NATO expansion shuts the door to the possibility of cooperation in these areas while hardening each country into a confrontational stance.

In sum, granting Georgia and Ukraine a MAP would be a disaster on multiple levels: it would fail to forward American interests, it would destabilize Georgia and Ukraine, and it would put American-Russian relations on a clear path towards confrontation rather than cooperation.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The last last word on Alabama

There was one more thing I’ve been meaning to add about my trip to Alabama for the election. Lord knows Alabama has its issues, but man, those people are Nice with a capital N. I’ve been all over the country, and the mid-westerners give them a run for their money, but in the end it’s no contest. These are the nicest, friendliest people in America. Black/white, rural/urban, rich/poor – nice all.

The morning after I got back I was biking to school, and I was stopped behind a car at a red light on a small feeder street – my small feeder street, in fact. A fire truck was taking a left turn onto the street, and he couldn’t get around the turn unless the car in front of me backed up. So he just stopped there staring down at the woman in the car and finally just said “You wanna back up?!” And then he looked at me and said “You wanna move so this woman can back up?!” Just real nasty-like.

Now of course, it’s no trouble for me to get out of the way. And it’s a fire truck for heaven’s sake, the man is putting his life on the line to keep me safe from harm. And add to that the fact that the fire station is half a block from my house, and everyone knows you don’t s*** where you live. But I was just filled with resentment over the fact that this guy couldn’t just be nice like the folks I’d just left in Alabama, and shortly before moving out of the way, which again, wasn’t a hassle at all, I responded honestly and directly to his question: Did I literally want to move? No.

The stream of obscenities that fell from his high driver's side window as he completed the turn was really not nice at all, and the cycle continues. In at least this one way, it’d be great if we could learn from Alabama…

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Afghanistan Escalation or De-escalation?

Click here for a interesting bloggingheads excerpt about the Afghan war.

Why does Anne-Marie Slaughter, a standard bearer for "liberal internationalism," sound like a neocon in her first reply? Calling "handing a victory over to the Taliban" unacceptable is a classic neocon-type fear tactic to justify aggressive behavior. But it's a straw man argument. No one is advocating surrender and total retreat. And her comment about America not being able to talk to the Taliban because of how they treat women, while probably true, reveals a terrible double standard in U.S. foreign policy. How can we refuse to talk to the Taliban on such grounds while the Saudi's, who treat women only marginally better than the Taliban, are our best friends?

I totally agree with Stephen Walt, who in foreign policy parlance is a "realist." Liberals usually hate realists because they automatically think of Kissinger and America's dirty wars in South America. But realists these days, much more than liberals, are the anti-war advocates because they recognize the limits of American power in the world and aren't attracted to the dream of bringing democracy to every un-developed corner of the world at the point of a gun. Liberal foreign policy thinkers, on the other hand, often feels like they have been body snatched by neocon. Liberals need to think more like Walt and less like Slaughter.

Unfortunately, Slaughter is closely associated with Obama and his foreign policy team. As she advocates, it looks like we are headed for another 10 years of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Fretting About the Future

In Krugman’s column today in the NYTimes, he made a pretty convincing case for turning on the federal government spending spigot—think: a New Deal on steroids—to help get us out of this economic rut. “It’s much better,” he writes, “in a depressed economy, to err on the side of too much stimulus than on the side of too little.” This may be true; but a few words of caution are in order before we start spending money like Sarah Palin at Neiman Marcus.

Let’s think, for a minute, about the financial condition of our government. The national debt stands today at around $10.1 trillion. The projected budget deficit for the single year of 2009 is projected at somewhere around $1 trillion. We are currently fighting two wars, and will be fighting at least one (Afghanistan) for the foreseeable future. The staggeringly long list of government bailout loans (AIG, Fannie, Freddie, all large banks) will only grow longer as Obama pushes to save the Big Three car companies. Tax cuts for the middle class are on the way, but tax increases for those making over $250,000 are likely on hold. Krugman’s public works idea, universal healthcare, and an Al Gore-backed high-tech energy grid are on the wish list of the Obama Administration and the Democratic Congress. All these proposals will cost money as tax revenue shrinks.

This new spending sounds good when thinking in the short term. But what about five years from now when the government balance sheet looks even worse than it does today? Krugman says this is not the time to fret. But what happens when the balance sheet gets so ugly that Asian central banks decide they would rather not continue to finance our ongoing war(s) and multiple bailouts through purchases of US government debt? If and when that day of reckoning arrives, the easiest way out of the hole will be to inflate our way out. By turning the printing presses “to 11,” as Nigel would say, the government can devalue the dollar and more easily pay back its loans to the Chinese. As any politician will tell you, this strategy is much easier than raising taxes and cutting expenditures to balance the budget.

But the big problem with inflating away our debt is that it ends up punishing the very people Obama and the Democrats want to help. Ron Paul rightly calls inflation a “tax on the middle class.” Those who have modest savings and have a salary that is not easily adjusted higher for inflation—that is, the middle class—have their purchasing power eaten away, while those who have ample savings and have investments that rise in price along with inflation—that is, the upper class—do not suffer as much. In other words, inflation is a regressive tax. This injustice is a worthwhile price to pay, one might argue, if we are avoiding another Great Depression. Perhaps. But the specter of high inflation in the future is something to keep in mind as we grapple with this broken economy.

I’m not making a case against bailing out Detroit, or against universal healthcare, or against a comprehensive energy plan. I’m in favor of all those proposals. We just need to understand that, by supporting these programs today, we are making it much more likely that inflation will punish the middle class in the years to come. And politically, Democrats will be on the hook next time around.

Prop 8 Upd8

Opponents of California's Prop 8 (i.e. advocates of gay marriage) have filed suit challenging its constitutionality. How, you might ask, can you challenge the constitutionality of an amendment to the constitution? It turns out that there are two different ways in which the California state constitution can be changed - via amendment, and via revision. An amendment is narrower in scope than a revision. In the grossest sense, an amendment adds less words (really!) to the constitution, and affects fewer other statutes than a revision, which have more words and do affect many other statutes. An amendment is a smaller change to the constitution, and fittingly, it may be passed by a simple majority of voters, as Prop 8 was. A revision requires the 2/3 approval of both houses of the legislature.

Was Prop 8 correctly set up as an amendment, or should it have been a revision? It adds only 14 words to the constitution: "Only marriage between a man or a woman is valid or recognized in California," and on its face doesn't seem to affect too many other statutes. But in a case in 1991, the California State Supreme Court determined that the change engendered by an amendment or revision ought to be judged not just quantitatively (words, laws affected) but also qualitatively. In other words, a proposed change to the constitution can be short and sweet in terms of law, but if it is large in scope, it may still be appropriately considered a revision. This is the backbone of the challenge - taking away a right of a minority class is a revision-sized change.

There is an extra element of politics - California Supreme Court justices are subject to retention votes (after opposing the death penalty, the Chief Justice and two associates were voted out of the court in 1986).

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Slang makes a comeback

Long-time readers of Pickle Nation will recall that we used to coin some slang now and again - "Dundos," for example, continues to sweep the nation...slowly. Well, tonight, we earn the third part of the banner for the first time in a while:

When someone spills a drink, or accidentally pulls the power chord on the stereo, or otherwise brings everyone down at the height of the party, we say they are "pulling a prop 8."

Friday, November 7, 2008

Troubles With Reporting the Truth

The leading headline in today’s NYTimes is: “Accounts Undercut Claims By Georgia on Russia War.” Finally, the obvious truth about the Russia-Georgia war is getting some high-profile media play in America. It’s an embarrassment that it took “newly available accounts by independent military observers” to provide cover for the Times to report what was clearly self-evident over a month ago to anyone who cared to look past the neocon spin.

The bad news is that the State Department issued neocon spin remains alive and well, and gets equal weight in the body of the article. The following excerpt reveals just how far American officials are willing to stray from our core human rights principles to defend one of America’s autocratic clients:

As for its broader shelling of the city [of Tskhinvali], Georgia has told Western diplomats that Ossetians hid weapons in civilian buildings, making them legitimate targets. “The Georgians have been quite clear that they were shelling targets – the mayor’s office, police headquarters – that had been used for military purposes,” said Matthew J. Bryza, a deputy assistant secretary of state and one of Mr. Saakashvili’s vocal supporters in Washington.

Georgia’s account was disputed by Ryan Gist, a former British Army captain who was the senior O.S.C.E. representative in Georgia when the war broke out. “It was clear to me that the attack was completely indiscriminate and disproportionate to any, if indeed there had been any, provocation,” Mr. Gist said. “The attack was clearly, in my mind, an indiscriminate attack on the town, as a town.”…He then soon resigned under unclear circumstances.

America’s respect for human rights on the battlefield has been lacking of late: mistakenly bombing Afghan weddings; indiscriminately sweeping up suspected insurgents through door-to-door home invasions in Iraq; condoning the cluster bomb obliteration of southern Lebanon by Israel. We can now add bombing police stations and mayor’s offices in small Ossetian towns without provocation to the list of activities condoned by America. Activities, let’s keep in mind, that fail to follow the guidelines of the Geneva Convention, which states that combatants "shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and, accordingly, shall direct their operations only against military objectives" (Part IV, Chap. 1, Article 48). Perhaps most dangerous of all, it appears Mr. Gist’s truth-telling got him promptly canned.

While this article is definitely a step in the right direction, it shows us how far we have yet to go in terms of getting the truth out into the mainstream media—on all issues, not just Russia-Georgia. And I doubt Obama’s victory will change much in this regard. Truth-tellers will continue to lose their jobs; reporters will continue to present preposterous spin as credible opinion; and, out of fear of appearing critical of America, the blatant disregard for human rights on the battlefield will continue to be under-discussed and under-analyzed.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bama Trivia

Drove by the original White House of the Confederacy while down in Montgomery.

Its location: the corner of Union and Washington. That must have been Reconstruction renaming, right?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


The Alabama 3rd Congressional District, where Josh Segall came up just a bit short yesterday against the incumbent Republican, Mike Rogers, is designed to swamp the votes of the third of it residents who are black with those of the two thirds of its residents who are white and very Republican. There aren’t many precincts in the district that vote with an open mind about party – almost every thing is deep blue or deep red, and for the most part, it splits on race.

I spent the day in Anniston yesterday, at the northern edge of the district, working to get out the vote in a couple of poor black precincts. At one point, we became aware that, at a couple of the polling places, people were handing out sample ballots showing how to vote for Obama and Rogers. To be clear: black men were handing them out. I drove over to Thankful Baptist Church and found a man sitting there with a handful of the offending ballots. I gave him a bottle of water:

Me: Have you voted today, sir?
Him: Yup.
Me: Did you vote the straight Democratic ticket?
Him: I sure did.
Me: But now you’re handing people this ballot asking them to vote for a Republican?
Him: Yeah.
Me: Do you think the folks who are voting here want to vote for a Republican?
Him: I see what you’re saying.
Me: Why are you doing it?
Him: I’m just gettin’ paid.
Me: Alright. We’re gonna get someone to stand right next to you and give everyone you give one of these to the right one, showing them how to vote straight Democrat, and make sure they know yours shows them how to vote for a Republican.
Him: Don’t matter to me.

I called the office and spoke to Edward, who delicately asked “What…sort of person do you want me to send over there?” to which I unhesitatingly responded, a little loudly “A black person! If that’s what you’re asking, you gotta send a black person!”

I went over to another poll and found another guy doing the same thing, and started in on him the same way, but before I got very far it became clear that this was another thing entirely: This guy was the guy paying the other guy, and he understandably took exception to the idea that a black man advocating for a Republican must not know what he was doing. He told me that he was a Vietnam vet, and for 15 years he wasn’t getting his health benefits, until Mike Rogers fixed the problem for him. I said that another congressman could do that, but Mike Rogers voted against the minimum wage increase, and against the GI Bill. But he didn’t want to hear it, which was fair – he’d been well served. I also gave him a bottle of water – the man, after all, was spending the day in service.

This Election Day – this week in Montgomery, Alabama, first capital of the confederacy, home of civil rights – like almost all Election Days I’ve been a part of, ended up being about race. The fact that a black man won the presidency is just the stage for this year’s version of our annual exercise, where all the tumult and trouble that brought us to race in America as it is today is exposed and explored under a microscope. Disenfranchisement, segregation, distrust, and poverty: we see it all on Election Day, which is the day, more than any other, when we’re all in it together.

We’re hearing a lot today about the dream realized. I don’t agree. We remain a deeply divided nation, a deeply hurt and scarred nation.

Lincoln, in his second inaugural, said “If God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” The terrible Civil War was not more terrible than American Slavery, and whatever debt we owe as a nation for that stain, it wasn’t over at Appomattox, it wasn’t over when the Civil Rights Act passed, and it isn’t over today.

Today is not a valedictory; it is a foothold. Today is not MLK’s dream; it is the dawn. Today is not the end of race in America; but it might be the beginning of the end.

Risking it All...and Winning

Watching joyously as the election returns rolled in, my thoughts kept drifting back to Hillary Clinton and that epic Democratic primary battle. Knowing what we know now about the financial crisis, I think it’s fair to say that Hillary would have beaten McCain quite handily. It would have been a great victory for women, for America, and for the world. But that victory would not have been nearly as momentous as Obama’s victory last night for the simple reason that Hillary was the safe bet. Her name, after all, is “Clinton.” And another Clinton in the White-House would not have sent shock-waves across the world. It would not have renewed the vitality of our democracy by showing that, in a time of economic crisis as well as war, the American people have the courage to elect as president the most improbable of candidates—a 47 year-old black man who, a mere four years ago, was a State Senator from Illinois. America went for it all. And with the aid of a political perfect storm, we proved to ourselves and to the rest of the world that America will strive into the future with hope and vigor rather than retrench, lick our wounds, and batten down the hatches out of fear.

Let’s remember to thank the voters in the lily-white state of Iowa for giving us this opportunity. Without their support of Obama in the Democratic primary, we probably would not be here today, feeling such immense pride in this great country of ours.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Josh Watch

We're going to try to update you often with the results on Josh Segall's race as they come in.
9:08pm - 0-1% reporting, Segall 44%
9:27pm - 13% reporting, Segall 65%
9:35pm - 22% reporting, Segall 53%
9:54pm - 49% reporting, Segall 50%.
The 3rd district is a mix of rural, staunchly Republican areas and densely packed staunchly Democratic areas - that's why the ups and downs.
10:15pm - 65% reporting, Segall 51%
Dan adds that there's still no clear indication. Percentage-wise, Josh is performing as well as the Democrat that Rogers narrowly beat 6 years ago. However, that was a mid-term election with no energized black vote.

Well, MSNBC just called it for Rogers with 94% of precincts reporting. Hats off to Josh for running an incredible race. We'll hear from him again before too long!

Saturday, November 1, 2008


Pickle Nation immigrant from Denmark Marie calls this "A Pumpkin for Change." I do believe she's feelin' it...

My last whistle stop

I’m on a plane to Atlanta, where I’ll rent a car, pick up co-pickler Luvh, and drive to the Alabama 3rd Congressional District. The 3rd stretches along most of the Georgia border – Alabama’s “middle east,” as I like to call it. Our first stop will be Opelika, where we’ll canvass from about 4 pm until a few hours after dark, asking Alabamian swing voters to support Josh Segall for Congress. Then we’ll continue to Montgomery, where we’ll be through Election Day, helping to turn out the vote. With any luck, I’ll get to walk over to MLK’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on the night we elect our first black President.

Josh is a close colleague and a closer friend. He was born to be a Congressman. He has a literally inexhaustible appetite for thinking and talking through a tough problem. He has a gift for connecting with people, and for connecting people to one-another. He has a strong moral compass, but it’s coupled with a belief in pragmatism in politics; a powerful recipe for a public servant.

About a year and a half ago, Josh called me to say he was thinking about running for Congress. What was almost unthinkable then is a few small steps from happening now. Josh has been an incredible candidate, a prodigious fund-raiser, an empathetic and genuine listener, and a clear and forceful voice for his would-be constituents. In the last few days, he has been endorsed by the two largest newspapers in the district, the Montgomery Advertiser and the Anniston Star. The DCCC has added Josh to their top target list. Recent polls have shown the race in the single digits and quickly tightening. And with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket and Republicans on the run all over the country, the wind is at his back in just the right ways at just the right time. I think Josh is going to win.

Josh is still fighting hard to get the message out in the last few days, and as you are no doubt familiar at the end of this interminable season, that takes money.

If you can find it in your heart to put your political contribution budget line-item just a little bit further in the red one more time, we’d be grateful for a donation of $25, $50, or $100. Click here to donate.

Finally, I’m confident that turnout in Pickle Nation will be 100%, and an enthusiastic 100% at that. But just in case you are feeling that biennial calculation of civic economy that says that the act of voting is an irrational one, statistically, or if you happen to have an unexpectedly full schedule on Tuesday, or if you live in a deep blue or deep red state and think your vote doesn’t matter, check out this piece in today’s NYT, which really touched me in this historic hour. It’s about an expatriate couple in India who, having suffered an absentee ballot snafu, are flying home to New York to vote. Here’s a bit:

“We had a long talk about it,” Ms. Scott-Ker said. “We could go on holiday to a beach somewhere. Or we could come back here and vote. It was a long talk. We decided it was important to stand up and be counted.”

Here Here. Stand up and be counted.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

CA Propositions

Californians: as usual, we'll be confronted by a blizzard of propositions on our ballots on Election Day.

At this point, I'd like to once again lodge my complaint against propositions in general. I think they are a naked end-around of representative democracy. That, combined with the fact that there are no limits on donations to proposition campaigns, makes me a unhappy and nervous camper.

That being said, here's how I'm voting.

1A - Yes
2 - Yes
3 - No
4 - No
5 - Yes
6 - No
7 - No
8 - No
9 - No
10 - No
11 - No
12 - Yes

I found this analysis of the propositions bracing, and the above positions are taken from it:

Just hold your horses

It is possible that McCain has a little momentum right now, though I have no idea how. The national tracking polls have been tightening a bit over the last 2 days or s0. Check out the Talking Points Memo composite national poll when it comes out later today. If it's tighter than it was yesterday, that's 3 or 4 straight days of movement in that direction, and a cause for some concern, if you ask me.

Update, 5:25 pm. Well, good news on that front. The 3-5 days of movement in one direction is over, with Obama going up slightly in today's TPM track composite. What does this mean? Nothing. But another day of movement in the same direction would have begun to have meant something.

Monday, October 27, 2008

This is tremendous, as much for the editing as for Joe Biden's poise and the fact that this woman is actually a news anchor at a network affiliate.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Pickle Endorses...

We're gonna keep our powder dry a bit longer on the Presidential race, but I finished filling out my MA absentee ballot this morning, and I'd like to tell you how I voted on the three statewide ballot questions:

1) State income tax repeal. Gimme a break. Vote NO.

2) Marijuana Decriminalization. This would make possession of less than an ounce a civil offense. I'm voting YES. It's troubling to me that many elected officials and law enforcement PACs are opposing it. But I think that's politics - in fact, enough individual officers and former officers are supporting it, and prosecuting small marijuana offenses is a waste of money and too punitive.

3) Elimination of Greyhound Racing. This was the tough one. I'm voting NO. There are good arguments on both sides. The dogs are treated horribly. It's a dying industry anyway that has needed state support. And as one supporter told me, if you visit Wonderland, "it feels like hell." But for two reasons, I'm voting against it. First and most importantly, this is not a good time to kill an industry. Second, I don't think we should be telling people what to do if we don't have to. That second reason on its own would not be enough to make me vote against this, but the timing is all wrong. So here's my deal: I'm voting NO now, but when the economy recovers, if it's back on the ballot, I'll be very inclined to vote for it.

Incidentally, I found this as I was trying to make sure I had considered all the arguments. Very nice and democratic.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Problems With Obama's Foreign Policy: Georgia and Afghanistan

I'm increasingly nervous about what an Obama foreign policy might look like.

It may just be campaign posturing, but Obama’s support of NATO membership for Georgia reveals both flawed thinking as well as an inability to break free from the deadly Washington foreign policy consensus, which stifles any fresh thinking on such important issues as Israel-Palestine, Iran, and how to deal with Russia. Along similar lines, his desire to rebuild Georgia’s economy with “emergency economic loans” prompts the obvious rejoinder: with what money!? Don’t we need all the money we can possibly borrow from China to help rebuild OUR economy?

The good news about the financial crisis is that it’s increasingly obvious that the country can’t economically afford Bush-style adventurism—even if we wanted to have such an aggressive foreign policy. Barney Frank, the go-to Congressman on all things financial crisis-related, said today that we should pay for all these bailouts and economic stimuli, in part, with money we could save by pulling out of Iraq more quickly than currently planned. Sounds like a decent idea to me.

But there is a hitch, which brings me to another major problem with Obama’s future foreign policy: Afghanistan. I don’t see much progress on the money-saving front, or on the less- aggressive-foreign-policy front, if many of the troops Obama plans on pulling out of Iraq simply redeploy to Afghanistan. Such a redeployment of troops would be a welcome move if there was a real possibility of accomplishing important strategic objectives. But a bigger footprint in Afghanistan will likely make things worse—in both Afghanistan and, more importantly, in Pakistan.

Brig. Mark Carleton-Smith, the outgoing commander of British troops in Afghanistan, offered the first clue that more troops might not be the best way to go when he said: “We're not going to win this war. It's about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that's not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army…We all know that we cannot win it militarily. It has to be won through political means.” Although quickly dismissed as “defeatist” comments by Defense Secretary Gates, Carleton-Smith’s statements strike me as having the clear ring of truth, particularly in light of…um…all of Afghan history. Take it from the former head of the KGB in Kabul during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, who knows a few things about trying to defeat an Afghan insurgency:

One of our mistakes was staying, instead of leaving. After we changed the regime, we should have handed over and said goodbye. But we didn’t. And the Americans haven’t, either…We abused human rights, including the use of aggressive bombardment. Now, it’s the same, absolutely the same. Some Soviet generals gave instructions to wipe out the villages where the mujahedeen were entrenched with the civilian population. Is that what your generals are going to do?...The more foreign troops you have roaming the country, the more the irritative allergy toward them is going to be provoked.

Transforming Afghanistan into anything acceptable to Westerners from a human rights/democracy standpoint was a fool’s errand from day one. Ramping up the military campaign will only get us farther away from that impossible objective while further destabilizing the country and the region. As the indispensible Anatol Lieven says in this piece, our military objective in Afghanistan should be limited to preventing international terrorists from re-establishing safe havens. America should rely on soft power in Afghanistan, not on an Obama-ordered military escalation.