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.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Truman Committee

I’m doing a little reading about Harry Truman, and I just want to share something that I found very striking.

Truman made his national reputation as Chairman of the Truman Committee (amazing coincidence, right?), which was a Senate committee that he started to investigate the government’s process for awarding military contracts. He identified the need for the committee in 1940 and it got underway in 1941. As you can imagine, he came under enormous pressure to postpone the work until after the crisis had passed, but he was confident that it was better to take care of the waste and corruption right away, anticipating how much national treasure was about to be poured in to the military-industrial complex.

The committee was a fantastic success, saving billions directly (real money back then, if you can believe it), but having a much farther-reaching impact as a threat to military contractors and defense procurement personnel. Here's the detail that struck me: The Higgins landing craft, which was instrumental in the invasion of France, because it gave the allies the ability to land soldiers directly on a shallow beach, instead of forcing them to a harbor, apparently would not have been produced if not for the Truman Committee; before a Committee investigation, the Navy was pursuing an inferior design.

I’m really glossing over details, but here’s my main point: What percentage of Americans do you think believe that today’s Congress is capable of effective defense oversight? What percentage of Americans do you think trust Congress to influence specific military procurement decisions?

Ain't never seen nothin' like that before

We don't talk about it much here on the Pickle, but I'm a huge Red Sox fan. And I just saw something live at Fenway Park that I know I haven't ever seen before, and I doubt I'll ever see again. I think I broke a seat in section 10. It sure is different around here since 2004...

Monday, October 13, 2008

Campaign Energy Tidbit

I've been meaning to do this post since I saw surrogates for the two campaigns debate energy policy at MIT a little over a week ago. For the Obama campaign, it was Jason Grumet. For McCain, it was James Woolsey.

The debate was mostly ho-hum, but there were a few things worth passing along:

Driest Funniest Moment - From Woolsey: "You may not like the chant 'drill, baby, drill.' I don't like it myself, but mostly because of the 'baby' part."

Cutting to the Chase-iest Moment - From Grumet: "The biggest problem with Senator McCain's energy policy is his choice of Vice President." (I canvassed in Nashua NH this weekend, and I gotta say, Palin is a real go-to at this point. When I couldn't get them any other way, Palin seemed to do the trick.)

Shocking Admission Moment - From Woolsey: "I have to admit that Senator Obama's plan is far more detailed."

My Favorite Moment - In response to the question, "Where will we be in 8 years if your guys wins twice?," Grumet said that "there is significant momentum in the system." Every year we import more oil than we did the year before. Every year we emit more carbon than we did the year before. "We need to bend those curves. At the end of an Obama administration, we will import less oil than the year before, and we will emit less carbon than the year before."

Clear, elemental, ambitious, necessary, progressive.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Thank You, Two-Party System

It seems the GOP base has taken a troubling turn towards xenophobia and racism. Fueled by hate-filled right-wing talk radio, and now able to identify itself with a high-profile leader in the form of the charismatic Sarah Palin, this disturbing strain of American politics seems to have taken hold of the Republican Party.

David Brooks has finally come to the realization that his party is dominated by people who don’t care for ideas. What he doesn’t say in the column is that what these folks DO care for is fear-fueled bashing of the “other.” Wall St. bankers are the latest bogeymen, joining immigrants, Arabs, African-Americans, lawyers, homosexuals, and Obama (who represents almost all these groups) on the list of those worthy of fear and hate. This commercial for Mitch McConnell suggests that Italian-Americans and Jews are also on the list of “others.” If McCain loses the election, the GOP will likely move further in this troubling direction.

While disturbing to watch, this shift in the Republican Party need not cause anyone to loose any sleep…yet. We have our two-party system to insulate us from an uptick in the popularity of these fringe ideas. Only a few months ago, I was of the mind that more diversity in the political arena would be a good thing for America. But after seeing what’s happening at McCain/Palin rallies, I've come to think that, if not for our two-party system, we would quickly find an ultra-nationalists politician on the scene (like Zhirinovky in Russia, or Le Pen in France). Thankfully, McCain does not fit that bill. His heart isn’t in the hate game; he’s just trying to win votes.

For this election cycle, fear-mongering won't be a winning campaign strategy. McCain will lose, and the Republican Party will shrink, as everyone on the ever-growing “others” list flees to the Democrats. This will be a good thing for America. But the long-term worry is that this shrunken Republican Party, fueled by hate, could one day begin to grow… particularly if the coming recession turns out to be much worse than expected.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Iran, National Security, and the Price of Oil

Obama gave an impressive performance in last night’s debate. But a number of comments he made on the foreign policy front were worrisome. For this post, I will focus on the following statement Obama made in response to a question about defending Israel from an Iranian attack:

“…we can reduce our energy [oil] consumption through alternative energy, so that Iran has less money…”

Putting aside the silliness of the idea that Iran would decide to attack Israel, thereby precipitating the nuclear evisceration of Tehran, Obama’s comment shows the degree to which our thinking on energy (and other issues) has been totally bent out of shape by fear of Iran. The idea that we should develop alternative sources of energy because it will make Iran poorer is bassackwards from a national security standpoint.

The United States and the rest of the world consumes such large quantities of oil because oil has been (and will likely continue to be) by far the most cost-efficient form of energy on the planet, especially for transportation. Therefore, substituting other forms of energy for “foreign” oil will cost money. Lots of it. Obama’s reasoning is that this increase in the overall cost of energy in the United States will be offset, in part, by the national security “gain” of making Iran poorer. But the progress made on the Iran national security front will be negated by the relative weakening of our national security position vis a vis countries that continue to import oil at increasingly lower cost. While the United States would bear the enormous cost of driving down the price of oil, we would not reap the economic benefits of that price decline because we would be using expensive substitutes rather than cheap oil. But countries like China, which would continue to import oil at low cost, would benefit handsomely from such a price decline.

As Obama correctly pointed out last night, “there has never been a nation in the history of the world that saw its economy decline and maintained its military superiority.” Driving down the price of oil by increasing alternative energy consumption is a sure fire way to weaken our economy in relation to China’s economy. Now, I don’t want to sound alarmist about China. In fact, I think most foreign policy thinkers are overly concerned about the possibility of a future conflict with China. But from a long-term strategic perspective, making Iran poorer by lowering the price of oil is not a clear national security “gain” since that policy would undoubtedly put China (and other oil importers) in a much stronger position to challenge the United States in years to come. As I’ve said before, the case for alternative energy must stand on its environmental merits, not on a national security argument.

Even more troubling is the fact that our inordinate fear of Iran is getting out of hand. It completely bends our energy discussion out of shape, ties our hands in Iraq, and increases tensions with China and Russia. Let’s stop quaking in our boots and start thinking clearly about how Iran fits into the overall picture.

Dem Demagoguery

For a while now, Republicans have been eating Democrats’ lunch when it comes to emotional campaigning (2006 included, I contend). They excel at messaging that is generally nonlinguistic and that ties their opponents to stock negative archetypes or fundamental fears. Why are they better at it? The temptation is great among us lefties to chalk this up to a certain unpalatabilty of the tactic, that it represents a kind of “dumbing down.” That theory may work at a cocktail party in [with emphatic derision] San Francisco, but I don’t think it’s the position of Democratic strategists, because it implies they don’t want to win as much as possible. (I have a suspicion that the difficulty for Democrats comes directly from American culture, such as it is, because it is really a right-of-center culture in which lefty “bogeyman” theories have traditionally had a hard time taking root. BUT I think I would need to do a little more history homework to make this claim in any sort of real way, so within the parentheses I shall leave it.)

Even at this late date and with a slight lead in the polls, I think I’d like to see some emotional attacks on the McCain – I think you can hit harder than the “he’s out of touch” stuff we’ve seen. What might such an attack look like? Well, due to the ongoing economic crisis, a lefty bogeyman theory may actually work – he’s a rich guy with more houses than he can remember. He doesn’t care what you’re going through because it would never happen to him. In fact, he’s the kind of guy who caused this crisis. Once you characterize him, I think you can twist the knife a little more. He’s trying to make his rich friends rich and leave you out in the cold. Tie him to his political party, a party of cheaters. He’s trying to cheat you. This last part, I think, is key – people have a fundamental paranoia of being cheated. As evidence, I cite the fact that there haven’t been any trades in my fantasy league.

The Obama campaign just released this video about McCain's involvement in the Keating 5 scandal, and while it involves all the themes discussed above, it's 13 minutes long and it still makes its point in a pointyheaded way. Still, I personally find it heartening to see Democrats taking this approach. Also I think you could cut a 30 second commercial from it that is emotional/nonlinguistic in the right way.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

OK, I've made up my mind

Based on the sacrifice question and that health care question, I've decided I'm voting for Obama.

UPDATE: Also, this thought just occurred to me when McCain said that he would bring the troops home with "victory and with honor." Does McCain think we could have won Vietnam? A quick google search turned up some speculation and this, which suggests that he does.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Journey to the heart of a crisis

I’m just back from a few days in Austin, and I want to report on two conversations I had there.

On the way to the Texans for Obama slash Travis County Democratic Party debate watching party on Thursday night I had a few moments to frankly question an Austin city official who I know pretty well. I wanted to know how the financial crisis was affecting the city’s ability to borrow. Growing cities like Austin often need to issue bonds against future tax receipts to fund important investments. Access to that kind of credit is a critical driver of local economic growth, and Austin would be hard pressed to plan ahead without it. I asked him if he had noticed a change in the bond markets’ posture towards the city in recent weeks and months.

Mostly not, he said. The city isn’t in such bad shape with respect to long-term debt; the core confidence is there among investors that the municipal government is credit-worthy in the medium and long term, and probably more importantly in the immediate crisis, municipal bonds are comparatively safe. It’s easy to intuit that with Treasury yields being driven through the floor so that they essentially offer no return for the moment (in exchange for a safe harbor), only marginally less safe assets like municipal bonds might offer an attractive trade-off – a smidgen of risk for a smidgen of interest.

No, he said, the bond markets aren’t the problem. The problem is commercial paper. The city has to borrow relatively small amounts of cash for short periods all the time, just as a matter of cash flow management and continuing operations. That kind of financing is usually available at a paltry 2% annualized rate, but right now they are being charged 8%. Just the cost of doing business – little more meaningful than the financing and transaction costs, as I understand it – has shot up. This seems to me to be the heart of the immediate crisis; the thing for which everything else is triaged, and why we had to pass the bailout. If we can’t get credit moving – especially the kind of short-term inter-institutional credit that greases the cogs – the city’s tax dollars won’t go as far, spending will have to be restrained, and the gears of local government and local economies will grind.

One more thing, though, before I move on to the second conversation: this is the City of Austin. It’s the fastest growing city in the fastest growing state, and it’s a good bet for investors. It’s the only city in Texas with a AAA credit rating, according to this official. What if you aren’t Austin? What if you aren’t a city at all – what if you are a hospital and you need a short-term loan to pay nurses this month? He agreed that was the right question, and he didn’t have an answer other than to say that we need to get credit flowing again.

But if that’s the shape of the crisis, I had a conversation this morning that spoke more to the underlying ills that contributed to it. There’s no great revelation here, just a real-life example of how our economy has become less and less sustainable. My friend Matt teaches social studies at an Austin public high school, and he spends a lot of his time focusing on struggling or disadvantaged kids. For the last two years Matt has coached football and basketball, but those additional responsibilities took so much time away from teaching that he felt like he was skating on thin ice, too often under-prepared to teach each day. So this year he made the hard choice to give up coaching – and $450 per paycheck – so he could be a better teacher. The problem is that Matt has found that he didn’t really have a $450 cushion in his budget, so yesterday morning, at 8:30 AM on Saturday, he found himself driving up to Pflugerville for a training session on refereeing high school basketball games. Matt’s the last person I know who would complain about the impositions that life makes on us, but the moment clearly struck him as regrettable and increasingly universal. There he is, college-educated, single and no kids, doing one of the most important jobs you can do in our society (my editorializing, he is too modest), and he has to pick up a second job to make it work.

I guess you can fairly make the argument that the most fundamental thing about our economy is the American worker, but the American worker’s work-ethic and determination alone can not a fundamentally strong economy make, and to argue that it can is to throw the American worker under the bus.

Palin and Ahmadinejad: Kindred Spirits

"Our opponent ... is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect… [Obama] is not a man who sees America like you and I see America. We see America as a force of good in this world. We see an America of exceptionalism." -Sarah Palin

Palin is a cheerleader. I can’t seem to get that thought out of my head. Her function, as I see it, is to make people feel good about themselves and about their team—that is, Team America. Or more specifically, the red state version of Team America. Palin offers no substance of her own, only support for McCain. She offers no analysis of her own, only put downs of the other team (Obama, Democrats, Russia, Iran, left-wing media, east-coast elites, wall st.). Her pep, spunk, winking, and “say it aint so, Joe” folksy mannerisms provide the stylistic side of the cheerleader persona.

Today my father emailed me an interesting observation made by a Persian expert he knows. The expert said that Palin reminded him of Ahmadinejad. With inflation running at 25% in Iran, the government’s policies are not working, but Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric has a visceral appeal that common Iranians responded to. Hmmm. Sounds familiar.

Here are some other similarities between Palin and Ahmadinejad that I’ve come up with. Ahmadinejad’s modus operandi is to threaten Israel and talk down to Bush and “the West,” without much analytical substance behind the jabs. Like Palin, he doesn’t seem to make much sense when he speaks. He uses vernacular expressions and idioms. He rambles on and on and nothing seems to add up to a coherent whole. He has his own “folksy” manner of speech, dress and gesture, which American’s interpret as simply strange, but Iranians identify with. He is superstitious and pious. He plays upon the fears of the Iranian populous. He, too, grew up in a small town, and his provincialism is a key component of his populist appeal. And, finally, he has very little concrete power in Iran—just like a Vice President in America. Like Palin, if she were to become VP, Ahmadinejad is perfectly situated to be the head cheerleader for his country.

It is easy to understand why Iran might need a folk hero cheerleader-in-chief. Iran is a theocracy with a crumbling economy and very low levels of political and social freedom. Are things really so bad in America that we need one as well?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Sarah Palin is a native english speaker

Here's my fairly simple opinion. Sarah Palin was well prepared, as she of course was going to be. She had nothing to gain from straying from her talking points, since all she had to do was speak in coherent sentences and it would be a win for her, given expectations. Biden also had nothing to gain from going after her. This was not a situation where either party wanted to take a risky strategy. So we get that debate. It probably stops Palin's slide, but doesn't win anyone back.