Monday, December 21, 2009

A Palpable Hit

Just in time for the holidays, a little departure from our normal programming:

A few days ago, I was hit by a car as I was walking crossing the street (I'm totally fine). A friend and I had stepped out at around 10:45pm, and though this mostly residential street is mostly empty, we are on the crosswalk and wait for a "walk" sign. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a Toyota Forerunner enter the intersection and start to turn left. I think, "This guy is really waiting for the last second to start braking -- oh shit, he's not!" He's headed right for us. My friend jumps forward with alacrity. I jump backward with ineffectiveness, and he gets me at about 8-10 miles per hour. Not really that hard. I land on my feet (though I do get some Pinkberry on my jacket). I bang on the hood and let loose a stream of oaths. The driver has stopped but doesn't seem to register what has happened. In fact, he starts to take off, and I angrily fumble for my phone to take a picture. But then he pulls over and gets out of the car. I'm still fuming as he walks over to us when I see that he's shaking like a leaf. He doesn't speak a lick of English, just Spanish, and he's extremely sorry, thanking God that I'm okay and offering to take me to the hospital. I explain angrily that I'm not hurt, but it was just lucky, and... I'm sputtering at this point, partly because my Spanish is a shadow of its former self, but mostly because the driver is starting to cry. "No licensia," he keeps repeating. He had been driving from his first job to his second job, again thanks God that I'm all right, and at this point, I can no longer keep up the hardass act - I tell him to calm down.

Suddenly, a man comes running up. "I saw the whole thing! You drove right into him! Do you even speak English, buddy?" He asks if we've called the cops yet. The driver's eyes widen and he starts repeating "No licensia" again. The witness has heard enough. "No license? He's either got a DUI or he's illegal, either way you gotta call the cops." It turns out the witness is an ex-cop. At this point, the driver is weeping, begging us not to call the cops. "They'll deport me, I have two little kids." I turn to my friend, who's a lawyer, and ask her what she thinks we should do. What can we do? Neither of us wants to call the cops. I really think I'm fine, and the small chance of me later developing something doesn't seem to stack up against the great chance of the driver getting deported. "Okay, I don't think I'm hurt, so..." We decide to just get the driver's information. The ex-cop looks at us with disgust. He came over thinking he was being a good samaritan and now these bleeding heart yuppies are making HIM the asshole? We get his information too - he hands us his card, shaking his head. Once he leaves, I tell the driver that he "should not to sleep during to drive" but that I'm not calling the cops. He's too rattled to feel relief, and he takes off.

Avoiding this kind of situation is precisely the motivation behind efforts to license all drivers, regardless of legal status. And actually, the LAPD has a "don't ask, don't tell" policy when it comes to legal status - it was just reconfirmed by new LAPD chief Charlie Beck today - but that's more geared towards witnesses of crimes rather than people alleged to have committed them.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Mike Capuano for Massachusetts Senate

I’ve decided to vote for Congressman Mike Capuano in this Tuesday’s Democratic primary to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, and briefly, here’s why:

There are four candidates in the race: Capuano, Attorney General Martha Coakley, Bain alum and Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca, and City-Year founder Alan Khazei. Survivor Massachusetts Senate:

Pagliuca is the first to go. He lost me when I started seeing his ads during Celtics games a month ago, which suggests he ever had me, which he didn’t. Grainy photos of men in suits handing off cash-filled briefcases, with voiceovers demagoging against Wall Street greed. No thanks.

My opening bid was “I’ll give Khazei every chance to win my vote.” But I’m not the only one with whom he never caught on. In a short special election, it’s hard to make a grassroots campaign work; there’s little time for a movement. I think if he were really special, he could have caught fire. And the Globe did endorse him, which is remarkable. And we do elect Senators for 6 years, so it’s permissible to grow into the job. But from what I’ve heard, I just don’t think the guy has a realistic idea of how to be a Senator. The idea isn’t to be a mini Barack Obama. The idea is to be a mini Ted Kennedy.

The seat doesn’t belong to Ted Kennedy, but the fact that it’s Kennedy we’re replacing reminds us of some of the criteria for being a good Senator, and I think Capuano meets more of them than does Coakley.

He understands the legislative process better than she does – she could learn, but he seems more suited to being a legislator than she is. He seems to be an effective hybrid; fiercely principled and passionate on the one hand, but a deal-maker on the other. To the extent that he’s put the Kennedy comparison at the center of his campaign, that’s the comparison he’s making, and I buy it. Coakley, on the other hand, seems well-suited to being an AG; she’s clearly fierce, smart, and confident. But I suspect she’d be frustrated by the legislative process, and by the inanity of what is often the world’s most inane building.

And then there’s just the matter of their politics: Coakley is a good Democrat; Capuano is a Liberal. His leadership on Darfur is meaningful to me. He has won me over by talking about unemployment as a true crisis that must, as a moral matter, be tackled my spending public money on underfunded jobs programs. When he talks about 10% unemployment, you get the sense of a Congressman who knows what he’s doing there. And though I would hope our next Senator would vote for the health care reform bill in whatever form it is likely to take, and I trust that he will, from the north or south side of the Capitol, he has convinced me that now is the time to stand up against the Stupak amendment. This, of course, is a position that Capuano and Coakley share. A position they don’t share is the one she expressed by leading the campaign against Massachusetts’ recent successful ballot measure to decriminalize possession of a small amount of marijuana. Even if those were Massachusetts’ values, which they aren’t, they wouldn’t be our priorities.

So that’s my vote: Because I think he’s to her left, but probably more importantly because I think he’ll simply be more effective at making American laws better than they otherwise would be, which ultimately is the job of a Senator, and we’ll leave the hope and whatnot to the President, I’m voting for Mike Capuano.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Obama Speech Reaction

The good news from tonight's speech is that Obama seems serious about wanting to get out of Afghanistan. I actually believe him. He recognizes that the costs are too high for an open-ended commitment. In short: he is a "reluctant warrior."

Looking at the situation in Afghanistan today, he has judged that the consequences of a precipitous withdrawal today would be unacceptable. He is hoping that an Afghanistan surge will provide America the opportunity to leave without everything going to hell in a hand basket in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. I don't really buy this line of thinking--the fear of a resurgent Taliban/Al Qaeda threatening the United States I think is overblown.

But I do understand why making a decision to leave now is so unpalatable, especially when we have a new team of military leaders who have a new strategy that they say will work. Pulling the plug even before they have an opportunity to succeed, and risking pulling the plug and then potentially watching things fall apart, would be a very difficult thing to do. The right thing to do, perhaps, but very difficult.

Of course, the new strategy probably won't work, and that is where the bad news come in. If and when the Afghan surge doesn't work, what speech will Obama make in 2011 when we are supposed to be bringing the troops home? If the situation does not improve, does Obama have the guts to pull out in 2011 and, in essence, admit defeat? Perhaps. But I wouldn't bet on it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

In Defense of Obama--Again

In a past post I expressed bafflement at the left-wing disillusionment with Obama. These days, I’m not only baffled, I’m getting upset. There is an emerging narrative in left-leaning circles that Obama is spineless, in league with big corporations (particularly Wall St.), and afraid to stand up to the war hawks. This attitude would be forgivable if it had any relation to the truth. But it doesn’t.


False narrative: Obama and Bernanke don’t care enough about jobs and are overly worried about the deficit. We need a second “jobs” stimulus and an explicit policy of higher inflation to get us out of this economic slump. We can’t worry about deficits right now until America gets back to work.

Reality: after the first stimulus successfully stopped the economic meltdown (success for Obama!), now is, in fact, the right time to start worrying about our debt. Sustainable job growth in America depends on the re-balancing of the world economy: Americans need to save more, consume less, and make more stuff that the world wants to buy, while the Chinese needs to buy less of our debt and consume more of our goods. This transition will run smoothly only if the Chinese agree to devalue their currency in relation to the dollar. But the Chinese will do this only if they believe America is serious about cutting back on its debt. That’s the bargain. If the Chinese lose faith in our ability to cut our debt, there are only two possible outcomes: a Chinese-American trade war (instigated by the U.S. because the Chinese will refuse to devalue their currently) or a U.S. dollar currency crisis (instigated by the Chinese who will stop buying our bonds). Both of these would be disastrous for the world economy.

Also, inflation as an explicit policy prescription is totally insane: inflation punishes most the one group of people we should be most eager to help—that is, middle class savers. And it is most kind on those who know how to handle money, who also happen to be the same folks liberals want most to punish--that is, Wall St.


False narrative
: Obama bailed out the banks and now is too chicken to regulate their bonuses. The financial regulatory package making its way through Congress will be watered down so much as to be virtually worthless. Even the Democrats are in bed with Wall St.

Reality: Barney Frank, who is leading the charge against bonuses and fighting very hard for more financial regulation, is a rock star. Watch how Ed Shultz, a proud member of the putting-Obama’s-feet-to-the-fire club, doesn’t listen to a word Frank says about what he and Congress is doing about bonuses. Read this Barney Frank speech, which lays out his plans for financial regulation. He may not get everything he wants in the end, but there is no doubting his determination and the soundness of his thinking. Regulation will happen.


False narrative: Obama failed to step up to the plate when we needed him, he compromised away the public option because of pressure from corporations, and now the bill will only enrich insurance companies and won’t even insure everyone in America. The bill may be so bad, we might be better off with the status quo.

Reality: the public option is decidedly not dead yet, Obama is in favor of said public option, and regardless of whether or not a public option is in the final bill, the reform will be a big step forward when compared with the status quo. At the least there will be no more penalties for pre-existing conditions and many more people will get coverage, with insurance for lower income folks subsidized by increased taxes on upper income folks. It won’t be a dream bill, but getting a dream bill was always pie-in-the-sky.


False narrative
: Obama is escalating the war and is too chicken to stand up to the warmongers.

Reality: despite painting himself into a corner with his hawkish talk on Afghanistan leading up to the election in 2008, Obama, I believe, is trying to wriggle his way out of this growing quagmire. He rejected all of the options for escalation, with explicit instructions to include a clear “end-game” in all future proposals. Obama is increasingly worried about the cost of an open-ended, never-ending war in Afghanistan. The reality in Afghanistan is grim, but Obama is thinking clearly about the issue and should be commended for that.

I admit that on the issues of cap-and-trade and Israel-Palestine Obama does look to have genuinely failed us. That said, it’s clear that on both those issues Obama’s heart is in the right place. If he gets a second term there is hope for the future on these tough issues, too. Patience, my friends, patience.

In a future post I will speculate on why liberals are so pissed at Obama when it seems so obvious (to me, at least) that we should be happy with him.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

An Illustration of why we need an overhaul of national health care policy

Adapted from an email I sent to a friend yesterday:

I’m in a class this semester called “Writing and Reporting on Politics and Policy.” The thrust of the class is that each of us has picked a beat to cover for the semester, and mine is the city government of my hometown: Newton, MA.

Here’s the most interesting thing I’ve found: The city's costs have been increasing and will continue increasing at about 5.5% per year, and its revenues have been increasing at about 3.5% per year. Municipalities in MA are prohibited from having deficits, so they've kept the budget balanced by cutting city staff, deferring needed capital maintenance and investment, and not funding long-term pension liabilities. As a result, the city has a skeleton crew in city hall, a $300 million backlog of capital expenditure (ie roads and schools and fire-stations) and a $400 million unfunded pension liability. If the city were to start making incremental, responsible investment in capital and pension fund, there would be cumulative deficits of $174 million over the next 5 years, on a budget of $262 million for this fiscal year.

Here's the punchline: It’s all health care. The whole structural gap - growth in uses exceeding growth in sources - comes from health care. The city's health care costs have grown at 9.4% per year for the past 10 years. Together with the health care portion of pension benefits, it now makes up 20% of the city budget. If the cost of health care had grown at the same rate as revenues over that 10-year period, the city wouldn't have this structural gap at all. The increasing cost of health care has ripped the city's budget to shreds.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Sour Grapes

Friend of The Pickle Justin King called my attention to this column, by Joe Posnanski, which is an oldie but goodie: the Yankees buy championships.

One of his main points is that baseball is better at hiding competitive imbalance than are other sports. Whereas in football it’s not uncommon for a great team to win more than 90% of its games, and in basketball a great team can win over 80% of the time, the best baseball teams only win around 65%. The best winning percentages in the last 100 years of pro football, basketball, and baseball are, respectively, 100%, 88%, and 72%.

Which naturally made me wonder why, and I developed a little theory that I think isn’t bad, and perhaps is of some interest: The outcome of a baseball game is determined by fewer events.

Each of the three sports can be thought of as a sequence of zero-sum events, in which each team is doing to try to do something to help it win the game, and that better teams are better at doing. In football, the event is a play from scrimmage. In basketball, it’s an offensive possession, and, ultimately in most cases, a shot. In baseball, it’s a plate-appearance.

When two evenly-matched teams play each other in any sport, what we mean by “evenly-matched” is that, on average, each team will prevail in each of those individual events roughly an even number of times. Perfect example: The 2008 Wimbledon Final, in which Nadal won 209 points, and Federer won 204. The greater the disparity between the two teams, the greater the probability that the better team will prevail in any given trial.

And here’s the rub: For a given probability that the better team will prevail in any given trial, the probability that team will win the whole game is higher the greater the number of trials. And there are fewer trials in baseball than there are in other sports.

In football, each team runs about 70 plays from scrimmage. In basketball, each team has the ball about 100 times. But in baseball, the average game sees each team send about 40 players to the plate.

It’s just a shorter game. There are fewer random trials of an event with probability p. And that means that it’s less unusual for a bad team to beat a good one.

That, and the fact that there are Zach Greinkes on Kansas City Royalses. And I hate the Yankees. And thank you, Peter, for taking me to my first ever world series game.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

New York makes us stop and think

I would have voted for Bloomberg today if I lived in New York. But let me ask this question: When a gajillionaire spends a brajilion dollars to get re-elected for an election-law-alteration-enabled third term, yet he still only wins by 5 percentage points, does that mean the democratic thing would have been to wave goodbye? Does it mean he shouldn't be there?

I think it probably does. If he didn't have a jagriblion dollars, he wouldn't be the mayor...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Friedman is Right for Once

Holy mackerel! Thomas Friedman actually wrote something sensible in this don't-escalate-in-Afghanistan column. More than sensible, actually. A must read. (If only he had had this attitude leading up to the war in Iraq...)

Money quote:

The message: “People do not change when we tell them they should,” said the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum. “They change when they tell themselves they must.”

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Thank You, Scientist

So, H1N1 is officially a national emergency, and vaccine production is not where it should be. Count as unworried Bill Maher, who, on his show last week told a flabbergasted Bill Frist that people should not take the vaccine because it is net harmful. In fact, the questioning of the scientific establishment by what I'll call populist lay "science" seems to be an, er, epidemic. (Examples include the linkage of other vaccines to autism and most notably the denial of global warming and evolution.) What is the proper role of the lay person when it comes to science?

In my opinion, it's one of complete deferral on scientific matters. However, the laity has an important part to play with respect to evaluating the social impacts of science. This part is especially important when enthusiasm might lead scientists to sweep larger social considerations under the rug. For example, lay worries about the potential moral pitfalls of human gene therapy strike me as valid and legitimate. I also think it's appropriate for laypersons to weigh in on economic considerations relating to science, particularly if it's government science we're talking about. Most of us would consider cost-benefit objections to, for example, a manned mission to Mars, to be legitimate (regardless of whether they're right or wrong). We should also criticize and question scientists if claims they offer are scientific really aren't. A great example of this is overutilization in the health care system; it is legitimate to worry that the amount of care prescribed by a physician is motivated by profit rather than expertise.

But the fact of the matter is most of us don't have enough expertise to evaluate the actual science of vaccines (less so global warming, and less less so evolution). In fact, it seems that the lay questioning of these theories can often be traced to some other ideological commitment - skepticism (bordering on paranoia) of the drug establishment on Maher's part or Christian doctrine on the part of evolution doubters.

I suppose I am granting scientists almost priest-like status. Bad when that's combined with the fact that the scientific establishment has, in the past, believed things that are just plumb crazy. But the operative word is "almost." Science contains within it the self-limiting safety valves of verifiability and falsifiability, unlike religion. Science is prepared to be wrong.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Pickle series entitled "Treating people like people." Voting Rights Edition

Many people – and I was one of them until two days ago – don’t know that non-citizens for the most part had the right to vote in this country until the middle of the 19th century. I discovered this while reading for a class I have this semester at the Kennedy School, called “Reasoning for History.”

That only citizens can vote is an orthodoxy that is rarely questioned. Question it, though, and it is at least apparent that it should be questioned. My neighbor is a permanent legal resident whose kids go to the Cambridge public schools. Shouldn’t she be allowed to vote for the school committee? I try to imagine an argument for why she shouldn’t, and I suddenly remember the debate I bellicosely and ungracefully got into a few years ago with a Republican friend of a friend at a bar in Washington about why DC should or should not have representation in Congress. I dared him to answer the question, and he took a deep breath, and then began “DC was never intended to be…” and seconds later I had to be peeled off the ceiling.

My permanent-resident neighbor is only the least ambiguous on an increasingly ambiguous spiral staircase of cases asking who should be allowed to vote in what elections. But her case is really unambiguous; there is no standard by which she is not a fully interested member of our community who should be allowed to have a say in how she is governed.

Recently, some cities have allowed non-citizens to vote in local elections. It’s a movement we should all pay attention to and encourage.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A great choice by the Nobel Committee

Charitably, giving the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama for the reasons it was given was naively aspirational and politically stupid. But the Nobel Committee redeemed itself a teeny tiny bit today (though I imagine it’s a different Nobel Committee) by giving the economics prize to one of my intellectual and academic heroes, Elinor Ostrom.

Ostrom, a political science professor at Indiana University, is the author of Governing the Commons, a book I first read in college, and then re-read a few years ago. Her work was the first to encourage me to think deeply about what the “commons problem” nature of climate change means for the parameters of the problem and the hope of solving it. It is still the book that influences me most when I think about a bit of climate policy and ask the question “Is this going to help? Is this going to work?”

Of note, Ostrom is also the first woman to win the economics prize, and the fifth woman to win a Nobel this year, which is a record for a single year. So congratulations to Elinor Ostrom, who bent the arc of history a bit today, and whose life’s work may yet bend it quite a bit more.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

On Sleep

I heard a pretty simple but amazing thing today on Fresh Air, while I was driving to pick up my new suit from the tailor, for my brother's wedding this weekend. (You may email me with congratulations.)

The guest was talking about how important it is for children to get a good night's sleep. He said that while adults spend only 4% of the night in what is called "low-wave" sleep, kids spend 40% of the night in low-wave sleep. Makes you want to know what's going on in low-wave sleep, right? You're not alone. According to his research, this is when your brain is chemically converting short-term memories into long-term memories.

Sick, right? Way to go humans!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Putting the public in option

I thought that only two things were clear from the New York Times poll on the front page of yesterday’s paper. First, everyone is confused. Second, people want the public option.

I was shocked by the second part (not the first part – I am also confused). Asked “Would you favor or oppose the government offering everyone a government-administered health insurance plan like Medicare, that would compete with private insurance plans?,” 65% or respondents favor such a program, 26% oppose, and 9% have no opinion. And to the first point, that is the only concrete statement about health care reform that more than two-fifths of respondents were able to answer. Has Obama explained it well enough? 37%. Do you understand what’s under consideration? 37%. Does the GOP have an articulated alternative? 14%. 14% is a coin flip among the 28% who weren’t listening to the question. And on all specific details, the preponderance of answers are “don’t know enough.”

But people seem to want the public option. From this poll – and it is only one poll – that strongly emerges as the only conclusion that people have drawn about what’s on the table. Seems like we should do it, then, huh?

By the way, 26% still think there are death panels.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Big is Beautiful

Paul Volcker says the administration is planning to continue the policy rationale of "too big to fail," implicitly promising future bailouts should the need arise.

I'm slightly disappointed, but that sentiment is starting to have a certain gnawing familiarity. There is an obvious public interest in keeping private institutions from becoming "too big to fail," but these megacorporations make so much money just based on scale - and spend so much of that money on Democrats - that I know I'm kidding myself to think anything would or could be done about it. By the way, donde estan Republicans on this? Where is your budget freakout about exposing taxpayers to these potential outlays? Where are your costumed nutjobs and their misspelled signs protesting government takeovers of things? You're really missing out on some out-of-power minority rock-throwing here.

On balance, I am actually okay with keeping the rationale - so long as the administration comes through on some kind of banker compensation rule such that it rewards long term growth as opposed to short-term stock price gains. Otherwise, bankers are just playing with house money.

If bringing up "excessive" banker compensation serves a polemic purpose in this fight, then fine. And if we have to ridicule the banking establishment's claims that the market is rewarding "talent," which I do find rankling, then so be it. But there's no real public interest in forestalling "objectively" high compensation, whatever that may be. If compensation is a market price arrived upon within bounds of the rule above, then great.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Obama's "correct and brave" decision

The Obama administration’s decision to scrap missile defense in Eastern Europe has shed some light on the following items of note:

--Despite claims to the contrary, the missile-defense shield, as originally conceived under the Bush administration, was intended to counter Russia, not Iran. Or at least that was the understanding of the Poles and Czechs. How else are we to explain their vehement objections to losing this supposedly anti-Iranian defense-shield when everyone agrees that Iran has zero intention--now or ever--of threatening Poland or the Czech Republic with missiles? Clearly, and somewhat understandably, the Poles and Czechs are worried about their historically not-so-friendly neighbor to the east.

--The right-wingers in America have been forced to show their hand that they, too, intended the shield to counter Russia. How else are we to explain the hissy-fit they are collectively throwing given that Obama’s new missile-defense plan will, in theory, be better suited to the Iranian threat than the former Eastern Europe-based shield, though it will be useless against Russia? If they really were worried about Iran--and Iran only--they should be cheering this change in course.

--The right-wingers have also revealed the degree to which they are still trapped in Cold War thinking. Their favorite word for describing Obama’s shift in policy is “appeasement.” They employ this highly-charged word so as to harken back to another “retreat from Czechoslovakia,” when Neville Chamberlain handed over the Sudetenland to Hitler’s Germany in 1938. The use of the word “appeasement” implies that the party being “appeased” is uncompromisingly aggressive, as Hitler was leading up to WWII. To assume that today’s Russia is belligerent in the same way as Hitler, or in the same way as the Soviet Union was during the Cold War, shows a poor understanding of the nature of Putin’s regime.

--This near-hysteria displayed by the neocons brings me to, perhaps, the most interesting aspect of this episode. It centers on Putin’s description of Obama’s decision as “correct and brave.” Why “brave?” To my mind, Obama’s decision displayed more common sense than bravery. Because I assume that Russia has zero interest in attacking or otherwise threatening Poland, because I’m dubious of the shield’s technical viability, and because I’m disgusted by the shield’s cost (both financially and in terms of pissing off the Russians), missile-defense in Eastern Europe strikes me as worse than useless, and its scrapping as a no-brainer decision. Putin likely agrees with my above assessment, yet he recognizes the decision as “brave.” The bravery comes in when we consider the intensity of the heat Obama is getting from the “appeasement”-crying crowd. Putin knows how difficult it is to stand up to “appeasement” talk because he has his own neocon-types in Russia to deal with. The Russian paranoids, like their American neocon counterparts, assume that America is Russia’s enemy, and that if Russia gives America an inch, it will take a foot. With the Cold War still dominating the mind-set of these paranoid brains (in both countries), it takes serious balls to unilaterally make a change in policy that will incite these folks’ ire. Thus, the “brave” comment.

Regardless of whether or not Russia reciprocates by dropping its opposition to possible sanctions against Iran, Obama’s decision to scrap the Eastern Europe missile shield was, indeed, “correct and brave”. The Bush administration had set American-Russian relations on a track towards a renewed Cold War. With this act, Obama opens the door to much friendlier relations between the two countries, which if achieved, will pay great dividends in the years to come.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Card Playin'

Certainly there were ample displays of racism during the so-called "9/12" protests - Maureen Dowd brought to our attention
such classy placards as, with a picture of a lion, “The Zoo has an African and the White House has a Lyin’ African;” “Bury Obamacare with Kennedy;” “We came unarmed (this time)” and “ ‘Cap’ Congress and ‘Trade’ Obama back to Kenya!”
But I don't agree with President Carter that "You lie!" involved racism (at least, it didn't involve racism against Obama, as Carter suggested - whether or not it involved racism against Mexican people is another matter). And to any extent that it did, Carter was not being particularly strategic in making this charge, a point very cogently made by Michael Tomasky in the Guardian.

In our attempt to explain certain anti-Obama statements, I suspect we are led to racism in part because of a phenomenon called the "solipsism of the present moment." This is the feeling that whatever is happening right now is way more intense, way more revolutionary, way CRAZIER than anything we've ever seen before. We're appalled by what we take to be the extraordinary coarseness of political rhetoric and are driven to think there must be some extraordinary, previously unseen cause at work. To be sure, much of the "criticism" of Obama is straight-up racist, like the bits cited above, and much of the "criticism" is pretty much racist, i.e. the "birthers" movement. But a lot of it - the bulk of it - fits in with the generally ugly tone of the way we've historically talked about politics. Bush was constantly compared to Hitler. His legitimacy was constantly questioned. (Not to conflate those claims with birther claims - they're obviously not in the same ballpark - but they are the same sport.) Oh, and Andrew Jackson's wife was called a prostitute.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Squaring the Circle of Two Rigged Elections

It increasingly looks like the Afghan elections were rigged by Karzai and his cronies. While that fact doesn’t surprise (newsflash shocker: Afghanistan is full of corrupt politicians and does not have the social and political infrastructure to support free and fair elections!), the reaction in Washington and in the media to Karzai’s rigging does serve as a useful reminder of the hypocrisy that infuses our differing treatment of different regimes.

I’m comparing, of course, the differing treatment of the rigged election in Iran and the rigged election in Afghanistan. While the two riggings are certainly not perfectly equivalent (there was no widespread protest and subsequent violence in Afghanistan, for one), it is almost laughable how different the two election frauds have been presented to us by politicians and by reporters. The rigging in Iran was, by and large, treated as an affront to all humanity that deserved, at the very least, strong rhetorical intervention from Washington. The Afghanistan rigging, on the other hand, has been decidedly under-reported, and has inspired barely audible mumbles and grunts from some of the same folks who were on the rooftops calling for Ahmadinejad’s head. Something has got to give here.

But it’s hard to say where, exactly, the consensus view of these two events went awry.

One possible way to square the circle would be to loudly denounce Karzai for being the corruption machine that he is, suggest that Obama withdraw support from the Karzai administration, and call for new elections in order to restore legitimacy to the fledgling democracy of Afghanistan. But no one is suggesting we go down that path, and for good reason. It doesn’t make a whole lot of practical sense, given that Karzai’s opponents are no better than Karzai in the corruption department, and another go at an election in Afghanistan is unlikely to result in a more legitimate outcome anyway. The democracy infrastructure is simply not up to the task.

A second possibility would have been to treat the Iranian rigging with the kid-gloves we are using in Afghanistan, and to greet the Iranian fraud with the same deafening silence we are hearing from the chattering class after the Afghan elections. This also doesn’t feel right, particularly in light of the inspiring and brave protests that erupted in reaction to the rigging injustice in Iran.

The only somewhat satisfying way to justify this differing treatment requires a cold, hard look at when and where democracy is a useful way of government. I would suggest that having an election in Afghanistan was a bad idea from the beginning. It was never going to accomplish anything positive on the ground, and was useful only for window-dressing purposes. Afghan society may one day be ready for a legitimate and functioning democracy, but that day is not near. A warlord-driven, pre-industrial, poverty stricken country with a drug-based economy and a tribal-based political infrastructure is not a good place to suddenly have an election. The failure of those elections, while unfortunate, was to be expected, and can therefore somewhat justifiably be greeted with cynical resignation rather than principled outrage.

Iran, on the other hand, is a wholly different story. With its large, young, highly educated, and technologically savvy middle-class population, Iran provides fertile ground for legitimate democracy. The crushing of that democratic spirit was rightly perceived as unjust, even tragic.

But because it is highly unpopular to suggest that democracy might not be appropriate in every circumstance and in every country and at any time, many pundits and politicians are left embarrassingly tongue-tied when asked to talk about Karzai and his election fraud. And the rest of the world can be forgiven for criticizing the U.S. for its hypocrisy: outraged when its “enemy” rigs an election, but silent when its “ally” does the same.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

What Should Be Done About Afghanistan?

My man, Anatol Lieven, has some interesting ideas that make a lot of sense to me. They are particularly worth considering for those of us who want our troops to get the heck out of there because we believe more troops do more harm than good, yet we have no good plan for how to leave responsibly.

Afghanistan is such a mess, it's almost too depressing to think about. Is the earliest we can safely get out of there really 5 years from now, as Lieven suggests? It sure looks that way...

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Blast Off with Reggie Watts at Spaceland

Angelenos, next Friday, Sept. 11th, one of my favorite performers will be performing a performance at Spaceland. That's the only word I can use, because it's very difficult to explain what Reggie Watts does - it's a blend of music and comedy that are both improvised at facebreaking speed. I guess that was a pretty good description. Check out this video as well as the live performance on the 11th.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Sunday, August 23, 2009

In Defense of Obama

Obama has bungled health care and the left is pissed. Many heavy-hitting, left-leaning pundits—including Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert, and our own Luvh Rakhe—have all voiced strong and reasoned reservations about Obama’s handling of health care, and have even gone so far as to float the idea that other like-minded lefties should contemplate open revolt against the feel-good, faux-reform, bipartisan-at-any-cost presidency. But this rash abandonment of Obama, or even just a loss of faith in him, would be a big mistake.

I never imagined I would find myself on Obama’s side of this particular debate. After all, I was one of the original Obama skeptics back in the primaries when it was already apparent that he wanted to please all peoples, all of the time, and was willing to sacrifice his principles to do so. And I certainly do not want to defend Obama’s pathetic political strategy for health care reform. I whole-heartedly agree that deferring to Congress and seeking bipartisanship was a big mistake. He should have been out front on the issue and using his rhetorical skills to their fullest potential.

But I do want to defend Obama’s presidency more generally, forgive him his political failings, and try to put the political jockeying around health care in the proper perspective.

Frankly, I’m puzzled that the left has decided to place almost all of the blame for the watering down of health care reform on the shoulders of Obama. Why not blame Congress!? While Congress is packed to the gills with spineless, clueless, compromise-obsessed Neanderthals, it’s clear to me that Obama’s heart is in the right place. Obama’s failure is not one of intention, but one of execution, which is a much lesser transgression.

And the left’s expectation that real universal health care reform was within reach because of big Democratic majorities in Congress was always a little pie-in-the-sky. The U.S. government is an inherently conservative body--not in terms of ideology, but in terms of its ability to legislate sweeping changes. The game is essentially rigged against radical reform, and always has been. The idea of universal health care has been around since the original Progressive Era; and back then it was stymied by the same forces Obama is struggling with today—a do-nothing Congress that is beholden to special interests and beholden to local, parochial constituents.

Teddy Roosevelt, the “radical reform” president of that Progressive Era, was able to pass a number of important reforms (including strong regulation of the then-powerful railroads, the Pure Food and Drug Act, and strong environmental protection policies), but could do so only in his second term after much of the conservative opposition within his own party had been neutralized (sound familiar?). And even in that second term, he was unable to pass other reforms that would have created an eight-hour workday, inheritance and income taxes, and would have regulated the stock market. In short, Obama’s difficulties with instituting sweeping reform are to be expected, and any reforms that are hard-hitting enough to satisfy today’s progressives will likely come in a second term—if Obama gets one.

We should also recognize that, when it comes to foreign policy, a political arena in which Congress has very little sway, Obama is delivering the goods (with the notable exception of Afghanistan). The fact that he has stumbled out of the gate on the domestic front is no reason to abandon him. Liberals should, instead, rally around him, recognize that Rome wasn’t built in a day, make sure he gets re-elected (especially because the likely alternative to an Obama second term is too horrifying to even contemplate), and then make a big push for more radical reform in 2012 and beyond.

UPDATE: Ross Douthat has an interesting piece that places blame for the bungling of health care on the Democratic Party's "inability to govern." I blame Congress more generally (the special interests, that power is skewed towards non-populous states, etc.--and after all, it's not just the Democratic Party that has shown an inabilty to govern!); but he is right that it makes no sense for Obama to take all the heat for a failure that is not entirely of his making.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The only mistake was calling it "Public"

It must be tough being a Republican wading into the health care debate. How are you supposed to know which of your ideological guideposts to navigate by? On the one hand, your whole life you’ve been convinced that government can’t do anything right – that everything government does is bloated, inefficient, ineffective, and wasteful. On the other hand, you just know in your heart of hearts that there’s scarcely a problem that private markets can’t handle, if they are truly allowed to roam like the grass-fed, free-range bison that we would all subsist off of if Washington hadn’t screwed it all up.

But here in the midst of the health care debate – and seriously, can you ever imagine a time when we’ll be talking about anything else? – the ideologically pure Republican finds himself in a bad quandary.

The Public Plan. The second word is “Public.” Let’s go burn down a town hall meeting. And we’re not too wild about the word “Plan” either.

If the machinery of public process were ever about anything other than partisan warfare, for just a day, wouldn’t we see that the rationale behind The Public Plan seems to be exactly the coin of compromise in which we’d all rather be trading? As far as I understand it – which maybe I don’t – here’s the basic idea:
• Make a health insurance company.
• Have the government run it like Medicare (which is one of the best-run insurance companies in the country).
• Let people stick with their existing policy, but give them the choice to switch to The Public Plan if they so choose.

Insurance companies hate it. They – some of the most fantastically profitable private companies in the country – say that they can’t compete against a low-cost government-run new market entrant. But here’s where the ground begins to give way underfoot for the ideologically pure Republican. If you don’t think government can ever do anything right, then the insurance companies are wrong – they can compete against the government, because the public sector won’t be able to provide what people want, and even if it could, it wouldn’t be at a price that beats the private sector. But if the insurance companies are right, and they can’t compete with The Public Plan, well then I’m giving that one of my all time biggest WTFs. What ideology is it that tells any elected official to protect insurance companies from a cheaper plan to which people choose to switch?

There are two answers, as far as I can tell. First, and obviously true and part of the answer, is that it’s the ideology of getting campaign contributions from rich people who require government intervention to stay rich. Second, though, maybe some people think that the end of that story is that we are again left without competition and choice – that some people would rather not be on Any Public Plan, but that they would have no choice after most or all insurance companies are driven out of business (again, by a government insurer that offers quality care for less). In that sense, those who cry foul when President Obama says “if you like the insurance you have, you can keep it” may be right. You may have to switch to a plan that is cheaper and better, run by your choice of the government or a new insurance company that can, through American-style creative destruction and innovation, compete with a cost-effective, science-based, market-driven alternative, probably by being cost-effective, science-based, and market-driven itself.

The Public Plan is such a sensible compromise. It essentially says, OK, let’s not be deterministic about whether The Public Plan is right for none or a few or most or all Americans, let’s just dip the public toe into the marketplace, and let’s let the market figure it out.

Shouldn’t this appeal to the ideologically pure Republican? Perhaps co-ops could do this just as well. Hopefully we’ll get to at least try something.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Health Care: Change We Can...Not Do?

I was shocked the other day to find myself IMing the following to a friend: "I'm on the verge of wishing I had voted for Hillary."

You could be forgiven for thinking I'm just trying to be provocative, and - full disclosure - I was totally delighted by my dad's reaction to my complaint: "You brought me to Obama-land! Don't leave me here." But it's true. I am on the verge. To me, the single best reason for nominating Obama over Clinton was his ability to wield the soft power of the presidency, to control the national conversation, to be teacher-in-chief - stuff that would be especially helpful in a health care debate. Instead, Obama's relative silence in the debate (until recently) has been deafening, and the "public option" is getting skeletonized before our very eyes.

I am unwild about the "learn from 1993, majorly defer to Congress" idea. This isn't 1993. The Democrats have surged back into power, and Americans are mighty disgusted with the corporate behavior they've seen over the past ten years. It would have been a great time for Obama to be out front on this issue, not to ram a bill down Congress' throat, but to give weaker members of the donkey herd some cover. Instead, we're waiting for Senator Baucus, who represents about 450,000 people, to make up his mind about a few things. Frankly, I'm not even sure what is being referred to when the press mentions the "Obama health care plan."

Things do seem to be changing now, but I think it's too late. Obama gave speeches in New Hampshire and Montana, but now they just seem to be responses to the town hall yahoos. He's sharpened his rhetoric against the insurance companies - and I do give him credit for bringing them in and neutering the Harry and Louise threat - but they seem to be getting what they want (a dead public option).

P.S., Tom Daschle, I've never wished more that you had remembered to pay your taxes.

Friday, July 31, 2009

I break my long silence on steroids

Peter Gammons – the best baseball journalist alive, and maybe the best ever, though we should caveat that by saying that this is the steroid era – had a conversation with Alex Rodriguez at ARod’s home this winter, after word got out that Rodriguez had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003, and was on The List of 105 players who had done so, in the Mitchell Report. Gammons reports that Rodriguez told him “you know, now that it’s out, I almost feel relieved.”

It's time to stop this nonsense and out everyone.

I am perplexed by the reaction to yesterday’s revelation that Big Papi has been caught juicing. Journalists and fans are acting as if baseball players are entitled to a presumption of innocence until there is some hard evidence that they used steroids, as if the court of public opinion in the arena of sports is subject to the same rules as the actual criminal justice system. “Innocent until proven guilty” applies to baseball sluggers in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s about as much as “free speech” applied to John Rocker.

In society at large, we grant those protections because we’re playing with live ammunition. These are the rules that provide for a free and fair society, such as we have. But baseball is a game, and fairness comes by a different standard. So I say this: People – they were all using steroids. Those who pound their chests and wail about the fall of Big Papi are either disingenuous, or have been willfully na├»ve, or are kidding themselves about who else is on The List, or are simply using the public revelation of each individual on The List as a heuristic for actually being on The List, which is stupid. Really stupid. They were under-reacting then, and they are over-reacting now. Dan Shaughnessey, I'm looking at you. You suck, Dan Shaughnessey. You really suck.

Do you know why I hate the fact that steroid use has now obviously been so pervasive? It’s because the numbers 714 and then 755, and 60 and then 61, were so hallowed for so long, but now I can’t even tell you how many home runs Barry Bonds has over his career without looking, and I don’t give a rat’s ass that he hit 73 in a season. (It’s 73, right?) Baseball records have always been special – mythical, hallowed. Heroic individual performance in the midst of a team effort has been a hallmark of our special American pastime. And steroids has ruined that, for now. As a Red Sox fan, I love to hate ARod, but the reason I was upset to learn he tested positive was that I had hoped he could set things right again and give us a clean career home run record.

But as integral as individual accomplishments are to the gestalt of the game, they are not the most important thing. The game is about winning championships. The game is supposed to be contested by the rules, and when the rules are not followed, we feel that the outcome is tainted. But it’s important at this moment to note the different levels of tainting that can be achieved. When the rules are not followed to the benefit of one team and the detriment of another, that’s some pretty serious tainting. When the rules are not followed more or less universally, though, the tainting is less severe. And that’s what we have here. As George Mitchell himself has said, there aint no team that isn’t implicated by The List.

If you watched the 2004 American League Championship Series between the Red Sox and the Yankees, you know it was a gift. It was perfection in sports. Does it tarnish and sadden that great memory to know that some players on both sides were cheating? Yes, a little bit, it does. But what happened happened; I watched it, and I felt it. The Red Sox were as low as you can be, in the deepest hole you can be in in sports, and they faced impossible odds and won. That is mostly everything that matters.

I love sports – no, I like sports; I love baseball and I live by the Red Sox – but it is a game. It is what we feel when we watch it. It is a comeback win at Fenway Park. The memory of it is nice. The experience of it is sublime.

What’s important now is to get clean:
1) Release The List all at once;
2) Test everyone all the time;
3) Please, idiot baseball players, just say this:

“I used steroids, as is now clear to everyone. It was wrong, and I wish I hadn’t done it.

“To my younger fans, let me just say this: if you become a major leaguer and hit a home run in the World Series, or if you just only ever get one hit in little league, try, on the field as in life, to take satisfaction from doing your best, from having fun in the process, and from accepting and learning from the result. Don’t take steroids. Know what you’re putting into your body. Take responsibility for knowing the difference between right and wrong. Play the game by the rules. And maybe most importantly, when you make a mistake, own up to it and learn from it.

“I didn’t follow that advice. I hurt the game of baseball, and I lied to you. I can’t undo that. All I can do is promise to get it right in the future, and argue for the strictest possible testing program for all professional baseball players. I screwed up. No excuses. I’m going to learn from it, and move on, and baseball will too.”

Monday, July 27, 2009

Back At It

Pickle Readers, I'm once again running for the Board of Directors of the Writers Guild, so if you'll just indulge me in a little politicking...

I'm running primarily because I want the union to remain a place of activity, energy, and democratic engagement of the membership. I go on at length about this in my official candidate statement, which can be found at

If you're a WGA member, I need your endorsement. You can do this simply and quickly here. I'm running with Carleton Eastlake, who in addition to being a talented writer is also an attorney and was also an FCC regulator.

Unexpectedly, this election has turned out to be quite pivotal, because the current president has been termed out, and the two candidates vying to replace him have pretty different beliefs. I'm supporting Elias Davis because I share his vision of an energetic guild. Check out his site here, and endorse him and his running mates Tom Schulman and David N. Weiss here.

Biden is Wrong About Russia

What Biden said:

The reality is the Russians are where they are. They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they're in a situation where the world is changing before them and they're clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.

There has been lots of talk about how Biden should just be quiet because what he said needlessly pisses off the Russians and embarrasses Obama, especially after Obama’s relatively successful charm-offensive while meeting with Medvedev and Putin. This is true enough; but no one ever questions Biden’s analysis of Russia’s current situation. They should, because Biden is mistakenly painting Russia as being in a overly crippled position. This faulty analysis, if it is shared by Obama, could serious hinder the prospects for American-Russian cooperation going forward.

Yes, Russia has a well-documented shrinking population. But interestingly, all the Russian statistics (as opposed to, say, the U.N. statistics) forecast stabilization in the Russian population because of a large increase in immigration. This may be wishful thinking on the part of Russia, but I don’t see why the Russian stats would be wrong on this score, since it is the Russian government that will be controlling the level of immigration through their immigration policies. And, believe it or not, a lot of people want to immigrate to Russia, especially from the former Soviet Republics that have real basket-case economies (yes, MUCH worse than Russia’s).

As for the “withering economy,” it’s not nearly as bad as Biden thinks. Commodity prices (and Russia has tons of commodities, not just oil, but virtually all the metals, as well as natural gas) are rising and are currently at levels that make the general economy stable, and also make the Russian government’s budget deficits very manageable. In fact, this year's deficit looks miniscule ($23 billion) compared with the U.S. budget deficit ($1 trillion, as far as the eye can see), and it is on par with the U.S. deficit as a percentage of GDP (both around 4%). The rainy-day fund that was built up in Russia when oil prices were well north of $100 a barrel is depleted, but not gone. And if the currency markets are to be trusted, investors seem to think that the Russian economy is now on much more stable ground—the Ruble has appreciated considerably against the dollar in recent months.

Russia’s banking sector is in trouble, for sure, but the Russian government is doing the same thing the U.S. government is doing to support our troubled banks—that is, providing an implicit back-stop. I expect Russian banks to have as good of a chance of survival as the big American banks.

Biden’s last clause (“they're in a situation where the world is changing before them and they're clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable”) expresses a common misperception in the west: that Russia is a very unstable place and is on an unsustainable path that will ultimately end in disaster. By this narrative, Russia has, supposedly, been on the verge of breakdown for a very long time now. In reality, things in Russia are far from chaotic, and are very much sustainable. Putin enjoys high approval ratings (although not from me); the Medvedev-Putin partnership, while confusing, seems to be working just fine; the economy has been growing rapidly up until this year, raising the standard of living for many Russians; and this year will be the first year in a decade that the government will run a deficit. Things are not about to fall apart.

Biden is, however, right about one thing: relative to the United States, Russia is indeed still very weak—and will remain very weak for the foreseeable future. So Biden is right when he says that the Russians want to work with America because of this relative weakness. But, in this sense, Russia is no different from every other country in the world that has a strong interest in trying to cooperate with the most powerful country in the world. The Russians would be foolish to slap away Obama’s extended hand.

But Biden will be badly disappointed if he expects the Russians to crumble at the slightest American pressure. I suspect Russia will, unfortunately, show itself to be quite stubborn when it comes to the Iranian nuclear issue. There is a better chance that Russia will be cooperative on the Afghanistan issue; but Obama and Biden should expect to make some concessions (probably on missile defense) before they see any large shifts in Russia’s level of cooperation. Bottom line: Russia is not in as weak a position as Biden thinks, and America should not expect Russia to roll over in the face of American pressure.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Realism in Central Asia

Below is the full text of Stephen Walt's latest post. The topic is Georgia and the poor prospects for human rights-centered foreign policy. Walt, as usual, is absolutely right. He highlights the number one reason why I am so thrilled with Obama's foreign policy--more "realism," less "idealism."

Welcoming Joe Biden to Tbilisi yesterday, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili declared that "in America, as anywhere on earth you can find lots of cynics and realpolitik followers. But in America, idealists ultimately run the show."

It's easy to understand why Saakashvili said this: he's desperate for American backing and that requires portraying Georgia as a beacon of democracy and freedom and making a none-too-subtle appeal to America’s commitment to defend these values everywhere. Why? Because it requires real creativity to divine a powerful strategic interest for an alliance with Georgia, especially when Washington is trying to get Russian cooperation on issues that clearly matter more, like Iran. It also requires overlooking Saakashvili's less-than-democratic behavior in the past, and the foolish war that he launched a year ago.

In any case, I hope Saakashvili also read the Times piece on U.S. policy in Central Asia, where human rights and other idealistic considerations are taking a back seat to strategic interests (i.e., the need for regional backing for the U.S. war in Afghanistan). It suggests that Saakashvili has got American foreign policy exactly backwards: yes, you can always find lots of "idealists" trying to get the United States to take on various philanthropic projects overseas, and of course U.S. leaders will always invoke cherished U.S. ideals when describing their policies. But in the end, realpolitik tends to win out, even if we don't like to say so too openly. To be sure, sometimes various special interest groups succeed in getting their pet projects onto the policy agenda, especially if they know how to work the American political system, and sometimes hubris leads U.S. leaders to take on grandiose plans to spread democracy or human rights, or other admittedly desirable things. Indeed, because the United States is so strong and comparatively secure, it's been able to take on more of these projects than anyone else, and probably more than it should.

But when push comes to shove, U.S. leaders usually fall back on the less sentimental calculations of realpolitik, and they are rarely willing to risk much blood or treasure on behalf of purely moral concerns. I hope the Georgians keep that in mind.

And here is my favorite quote from the NYTimes article Walt cites in his piece (the Times article is well worth reading in its entirety).

How to react to crackdowns like Mr. Bakiyev’s is a longstanding challenge for American diplomacy, here and around the world. Some American officials stress that rebuking governments over human rights is often ineffective because they lash back, and tighten things further.

The administration is mindful that a neighboring former Soviet republic, Uzbekistan, closed an American military facility there after American officials condemned an attack by the security forces in 2005 that killed hundreds of people. The Obama administration is trying to repair that relationship.

When "realists" scoff at the idea of the U.S. government arm-twisting foreign governments into treating their people better, they are often accused of having cold hearts and only caring about the potential consequences to U.S. interests of human rights-centered actions. But, as this quote suggests, the real problem with trying to improve human rights through coercion is that, not only does it usually hurt U.S. interests, but it also usually doesn't improve human rights in the oppressive country!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Tom Friedman in Kirkuk

Almost on cue, Thomas Friedman has produced an embarrassing column that starts him well down the road towards: “We tried our best. We brought them democracy. Too bad they can’t behave like adults.” And although he was reporting from Kirkuk, he made no mention of the recent Kurdish claims to that disputed city. That may be because he has been a big Kurdistan cheer-leader, and Kurdistan's claims to Kirkuk are what diplomats like to euphemistically call “not helpful.”

Money quote:

I am amazed in talking to U.S. Army officers here as to how much they’ve learned from and about Iraqis. It has taken way too long, but our soldiers understand this place. But what about Iraqis? There are now many Iraqis embedded with U.S. forces in Kirkuk. In the dining hall on the main base, I like to watch the Iraqi officers watching the melting pot of U.S. soldiers around them — men, women, blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics — and wonder: What have they learned from us? We left some shameful legacies here of torture and Abu Ghraib, but we also left a million acts of kindness and a profound example of how much people of different backgrounds can accomplish when they work together.

We are going to find out just what Iraqis have learned soon. As Admiral Mullen told the Iraqi leaders around that table: “The U.S. is not going to solve” Iraq’s problems. That is the job “of a sovereign nation.” So Iraqis better get to work, because “on the current withdrawal plan, coalition forces will not be here in 18 months.”

So let me get this straight: America is to be praised for: messing everything up in Iraq, then finally learning a few things from and about Iraqis…and then leaving? I’m sorry, but after all we ruined in Iraq, deciding to pat ourselves on the backs for “learning“ things is ridiculous. And then to scold the Iraqis for not seeming to be able to “learn from us?” And then to deliver a paternalistic threat that “the U.S. is not going to solve” their problems? Please.

Yup: “better get to work,” you Iraqis. America certainly left you all a doozy of a mess, for which we will be taking zero responsibility.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sarah Palin pushes my buttons again

If you haven't already seen it, it's probably worth checking out lame-by-virtue-of-self-infliced-wound-duck Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's op-ed on climate change in the Washington Post. Actually, we'd better call it an op-ed on energy supply, since it doesn't mention climate change - it doesn't even countenance the idea of the existance of climate change.

What it does do is:
1) Argue that cap and trade will cause some people to lose their jobs;
2) Say that poor people will pay more for electricity;
3) Characterize investment in coal as ever-cleaner;
4) Claim that cap and trade will outsource our energy supply to China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.

All of which is true, if you ignore the facts that:
1) Though some people will lose their jobs, they and other people will get more and better other jobs, which is what happens when you fix and modernize broken parts of the economy;
2) Though poor people will pay more for electricity, they will get more than that amount rebated back, making the policy that passed the House a net gain for the poorest quarter of Americans;
3) Coal is only getting cleaner relative to its own horrible standard, and not with respect to greenhouse gas pollution;
4) I can't figure out this one, actually. The only fuels we import are the carbon-intensive ones.

It's a mess. It's dishonest and ideological, which is of course not surprising. Above all, it is not an alternative proposal. It blatantly fails to address the real tough issues at stake.

Bashing Sarah Palin feels a bit mean-spirited. Everyone is either already watching agape at this impossible spectacle - a person whose presence on a major party presidential ticket is ever more horifying, like a narrowly-escaped car accident - or, if they aren't, heuristically branded as un-talk-to-able. So calling her names is pointless and undignified. But holy crap. This quest (2nd parapgraph) that she imagines to be populist, wherein she speaks to the true heart of the people, who know that the media is enslaving them and are waiting for her to lead them out of's creepy. Also, does anyone actually imagine her to have written this short paragraph? "The ironic beauty in this plan? Soon, even the most ardent liberal will understand supply-side economics." Does anyone imagine that she read it? Or that if she did read it, she had the self-confidence or curiosity to ask someone to explain to her what it meant? What a slow-motion melt-down.

Whew, that was undignified and mean-spirited. I regret it. But not enough to not hit "publish post."

Now, it remains to be seen whether Obama can get any Republicans for cap and trade, and he can't get cap and trade without some Republicans. But I sure don't think the Republican Party will be led back in from the wilderness under this kind of banner.

On the other end of the spectrum, here's a post that hits the nail on the head in terms of an analysis of Waxman-Markey. I agree with almost all of this. Thank you Chris for pointing it out.

Misha Saakashvili is at it Again!

Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, visited South Ossetia yesterday to send a signal of support to the breakaway Georgian province. The NYTimes reported the following reaction from Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili:

Georgian politicians reacted angrily, saying Mr. Medvedev’s visit had been planned to embarrass Mr. Obama — or as a response to a Monday ceremony initiating Nabucco, a planned natural gas pipeline that would run through Georgia to Europe, circumventing Russian control. Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who was in Ankara for the signing of a intergovernmental agreement for the pipeline, called the visit a “shameful and immoral precedent” for Russian diplomacy.

“When the leader of small Georgia left the country to settle very important issues, the president of big Russia silently stole into one of the smallest regions, and personally met with an unwashed, corrupt criminal and killer of humans,” he said, referring to Mr. Eduard Kokoity of South Ossetia.

As I’ve said before (see here), Sakaashvili is a shameless character assassin; but the above comment has got to be a new low.

I do, however, have to admit that Misha sure does know how to employ colorful—and dare I say, humorous—language. “Killer of humans” is a particularly nice flourish. But “unwashed?” Yikes. What is that about?

What it’s about, alas, is the Georgian chauvinism that underpins Saakashvili’s rather virulent form of nationalism that he and his government promote. It is this chauvinistic ethnic nationalism that, in large part, provides fuel for his aggressive stance (read: invasion last summer) towards restive ethnic minority provinces. South Ossetians, like most all people who live in the Caucuses, are what one might call (and I mean this in a non-derogatory way) simple folk. They live very different lifestyles than the relatively more cosmopolitan ethnic Georgian elite who reside in and around Tbilisi. Saakashvili is one of these ethnic Georgian elites—he was actually educated at Columbia University. His “unwashed” comment should be seen in the same light as we would see a similar comment made by, say, John Kerry about an imaginary Senator from West Virginia who grew up in coal country.

And just to dissect Saakashvili’s remark a little more, he is absolutely wrong about Georgia being the “little guy” in this equation. While Georgia is small when compared to Russia, the proper comparison would be matching Georgia against South Ossetia (as the protagonists in the territorial fight), and then matching Russia with the United States (as sponsors of the protagonists). In that equation, Georgia-America is the clear Goliath, with the South Ossetia-Russia alliance clearly the weaker of the two.

One last note: Saakashvili faces increasing pressure from the disparate political opposition groups who are finally beginning to coalesce into a more unified force. Protests against him and his government continue in the streets. He’ll hang on for a while longer, but as I said before, his days as Georgian president are numbered.

Meanwhile, someone please tell me why the United States continues to support this guy.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Ukrainian Public Opinion

Linked here is an article that provides some hard data on Ukrainian public opinion. Although it does not specifically address my often-made claim that Ukrainians do not want to join NATO, it does give some useful background about where Ukrainians stand in terms of their views of Russia, and of Russian politicians.

Opinion polls show that Ukraine is a Russian-leaning country, very different from the one described by Western media and the Ukrainian foreign policy elite. “If we were to fantasize, and pretend that [the Russian Prime Minister] Vladimir Putin would run for the post of Ukrainian president, then according to opinion poll results he would win right off,” sais Alexei Lyashenko, an analyst at Kiev’s Research & Branding (R&B) polling institute. “His only serious competitor would be [Russian President] Dmitry Medvedev.”

The R&B poll published on May 25 shows that for all the rhetoric about the Westward-bound Ukraine breaking free of Russia’s malignant influence and Putin’s imperialism, the reality on the ground is very different. “In fact, Vladimir Putin’s high rating in Ukraine is nothing new, but quite steady,” Lyashenko added. “It was over 50 percent even during the ‘Orange Revolution’.”

Opinion poll results published in May indicate that 58 percent of Ukrainians have a positive attitude toward Vladimir Putin, and 56 percent approve of the current Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Twenty-one percent take a neutral stance, and 16 percent think of them negatively—25 percent disapprove of Putin and 14 percent of Medvedev.

As for the regional breakdown of public opinion, it should be noted that the article tries to paper over a very clear regional distinction in attitudes towards Russia:

According to Lyashenko, the Ukrainian affection for Putin and Medvedev is most concentrated in Eastern Ukraine, where 75 percent think of them positively. However, even in the Western Ukrainian districts where Russian is hardly ever spoken, around 25 percent of respondents described their attitude toward the Russian leaders as favorable.

While 75% of Ukrainians in the eastern regions think favorably of Putin and Medvedev, it seems that 75% of Ukrainians in the western regions do not think favorably. Given that the thrust of the article is to present some sort of union between Russia and Ukraine as a distinct possibility, this clear regional disparity was, not surprisingly, downplayed. A more even-handed reading of this data would suggest that, although the western media's portrayal of Ukraine as a western-leaning country is clearly false, this article’s suggestion that most Ukrainians would be perfectly happy with some sort of union with Russia is equally false.

At this moment in time, a sharp move in either direction—towards a union with Russia or towards NATO/EU membership—is sure to inspire a strong backlash in either the eastern or western region of Ukraine. Political instability in Ukraine and tension between the U.S. and Russia would be sure to follow.

Friday, July 10, 2009

There Will Be Blood in Kirkuk

Today’s NYTimes has a piece reporting the shocking(!) development that the Kurds in northern Iraq have written a constitution, to be put to a vote in Kurdistan, that will create a formal autonomous region for the Kurds that would cripple any chance of Iraq becoming a centralized, coherent state. It also claims the disputed oil-rich region of Kirkuk to be within the bounds of the Kurdistan region.

This supposedly shocking news is only shocking in that it arrived on the front page so quickly after the beginning of American disengagement. It is no secret that the Kurds have always and forever coveted a state of their own; and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that any new state would be thrilled to have oil-rich land within its bounds. It was only a matter of time before the Kurds made their move. And now they’ve made it.

The infuriating thing about all this is that, since before the Iraq war even began, it has been obvious that this would eventually happen. The Turks were screaming at the top of their lungs that this was in the cards. But, of course, they were ignored, along with common sense. The amount of willful ignorance that American government officials can display is truly astounding. This inevitability should have been planned for from day one of the Iraq war. Or better yet, considered as a strong reason to not go to war in the first place! Also, the Kurds should not have been held up as “the stable, peaceful, and responsible” part of Iraq, and as examples for the Sunni and Shiite populations of Iraq to try to emulate. Now it is the Kurds who are the ones causing instability in Iraq. And let’s not kid ourselves: this is a major problem. As was predicted by many observers years ago, blood will likely be shed over Kirkuk.

But I guess no one in America really cares anymore. America is on the way home and the coming internal conflicts will be the Iraqi’s problems to solve. Brace yourselves: we will soon be hearing the following: “We tried our best. We brought them democracy. It’s too bad they can’t behave like adults.”

All I can say to that is: shame on us.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Obama in Russia

More kudos to Obama for yet another nuanced and pitch-perfect speech—this time in Moscow. It felt very much like his remarkable Cairo speech, only for a different audience. Step 1: show respect for the culture and history of the country you are visiting (quote Pushkin, note Russia’s great WWII sacrifice); Step 2: highlight a few areas of shared interest that are not terribly controversial (nuclear non-proliferation, fighting terrorism); Step 3: boldly talk up the thorny issues of human rights and democracy, but then make clear that these values will not be imposed by America and that, most importantly for Russia, state sovereignty will be respected; and finally Step 4: emphasize a grand vision of an integrated world based on mutual respect, free trade, shared prosperity, and non-bloody conflict resolution, making pains to contrast this cooperation-based future vision with the Cold War and imperial-era paradigms that were rooted in zero-sum thinking where one country’s gain was another country’s loss. Oh, and let’s not forget about a few well-written jokes (about Moscow being cold as sh*t).

On the tricky question of NATO expansion, which the Pickle has followed closely (see here), Obama only referred to it obliquely, embedded in a discussion about state sovereignty:

State sovereignty must be a cornerstone of international order. Just as all states should have the right to choose their leaders, states must have the right to borders that are secure, and to their own foreign policies. That is true for Russia, just as it is true for the United States. Any system that cedes those rights will lead to anarchy. That's why we must apply this principle to all nations -- and that includes nations like Georgia and Ukraine. America will never impose a security arrangement on another country. For any country to become a member of an organization like NATO, for example, a majority of its people must choose to; they must undertake reforms; they must be able to contribute to the Alliance's mission. And let me be clear: NATO should be seeking collaboration with Russia, not confrontation.

The take-away from the above quote, which may go largely un-noticed in Washington but will be duly noted in Moscow, is that Obama understands that Ukraine has no chance of joining NATO anytime soon. Although it is never mentioned in the Western press (because it never occurs to us to consider what the Ukrainian people think about NATO), polls consistently show that Ukrainian public opinion is firmly in the “let’s NOT join NATO” camp. Pro-Western government elites are the ones spearheading the drive to join. By saying that “a majority of [a country’s] people must choose to” join NATO, Obama is stealthily throwing NATO expansion in Ukraine under the bus, at least for the time being. But he is leaving NATO expansion open as a possibility for the future. This is absolutely the right policy.

As I’ve said before, the proper orientation of Ukraine is neither exclusively towards the West, fully integrated into NATO, nor exclusively towards the East, as part of a Russian “sphere of influence.” The Ukrainian people will be best served by a government that leverages Ukraine’s strategic geographical and historical position at the crossroads of what we traditionally think of as “East” and “West.” After all, the name Ukraine translates as “borderland”—a name that reflects a reality that the Ukrainian government should embrace.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Will the Real Obama Please Stand Up?, Revisited

Thinking about Dan's defense of the cap-and-trade bill and the various skeptical responses in the comments section, including my own, I was reminded of the election-era Pickle post "Will the Real Obama Please Stand Up?" It featured Dan and I squaring off on whether Obama was a politician of principle, or simply a pragmatist who would compromise away all the meaningful and effective elements of legislation. Early in Obama's tenure, it is still an open question. Is Obama's pragmatism just an excuse to sacrifice his principals for political "victory?" Or is it really the best way to go--taking baby steps forward rather than go down in flames like Hillarycare?

Clive Crook, a columnist for the Financial Times, weighs in on the subject, and thoroughly skewers Obama. I have strong sympathy for his argument. The whole piece is great, but here is the money quote:

The president has cast himself not as a leader of reform, but as a cheerleader for “reform” – meaning anything, really, that can plausibly be called reform, however flawed. He has defined success down so far that many kinds of failure now qualify. Without hesitating, he has cast aside principles he emphasised during the campaign. On healthcare, for instance, he opposed an individual insurance mandate. On climate change, he was firm on the need to auction all emissions permits. Congress proposes to do the opposite in both cases and Mr Obama’s instant response is: “That will do nicely.”

It is very hard, however, to square my sympathy for Crooks critique with my over-all satisfaction with Obama as a president. This largely is a function of my (so far) nearly complete satisfaction with Obama's foreign policy. I also am highly sympathetic to Dan's argument in favor of the cap-and-trade bill.

But it's always good to remember what Obama could be doing, but has chosen--for political reasons--to compromise on. It might be political suicide to stand up against the insurance companies or against coal producing states, but the constant lowering of the bar of success is troubling. Three (or seven) more years of achieving rather modest goals is not something to celebrate.

Update, 2:41 pm, From Dan: In support of Peter's point, see Kevin Baker's cover story in Harper's' July issue. I read it this weekend, and it's worth a look, if mostly because it will tell you you didn't know who Herbert Hoover was. Also, can anyone tell me the correct way to possesivize Harper's?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Still more on Waxman-Markey

Now to Chris’ comment:

If you read my last post, in response to Anonymous’ comment, the answer to Chris’ comment (hidden in the humidity post) is related. Yes, the best way to reduce carbon usage is to increase the cost of carbon. But beyond simply increasing the cost, it is also beneficial to increase the cost relative to non-carbon alternatives. Without getting back into the morass from the last post, a cap and trade program that doesn’t rebate the allowance value to consumers in any direct way does both, but even a cap and trade program that does rebate the allowance value directly as a function of energy usage can do the latter – it can raise the cost of carbon-based energy relative to non-carbon alternatives, even if it doesn’t raise the overall cost of using energy.

Now, with respect to the CBO study to which you refer, a couple of points.

First, I don’t see $28/year anywhere in that study, nor is that a figure with which I’m familiar, having spent more time with this document in the past week than I care to remember. It does say that the expected price of an allowance in 2020 is $28. Is that what you’re talking about? For those who don’t have an intuitive idea of what a ton of carbon dioxide should cost, I’d say that’s a low but not wholly insignificant cost, relative to the kind of stimulating figure we should be looking for. It’s at the bottom of the useful range.

Second, CBO estimates the average cost per household in 2020 to be $175. That figure is NOT the cost of the allowance value necessary to meet an average household’s share of compliance obligations under a cap and trade program – that’s $890, a goodly sum. Rather, $175 is the net cost, once the allocation of allowance value and certain other benefits are factored in. Again, not to belabor the point, but the full impact of that $890 would be felt in the policy’s environmental impact if the allocation of allowance value were done on the basis of something other than greenhouse gas emissions or energy use – say, for example, if it were simply a flat tax credit, or as one particularly smart and creative GOP staffer proposed to me the other day, a payroll tax reduction. But that is the kind of winners and losers creating formula that the US Congress can’t stomach. (I mean winners and losers among ordinary taxpayers. Of course, the US Congress has an insatiable appetite for making winners and losers out of special interests and the general public.) If the allowance value is rebated based on volume of energy consumed, not greenhouse gas intensity, you get some of the environmental benefit – ie, the environmental benefit that flows from the comparative advantage that carbon-free sources of energy have over carbon ones, but not that which would flow from an overall increase in energy costs. And finally, if it’s rebated based only on greenhouse gas intensity, you get very little environmental benefit at all. The cap and trade scheme in Waxman-Markey has elements of all three.

Third, the CBO analysis goes deeper into that $175 figure and divides it up by income quintile. Bottom line: the poorest fifth of households see a net benefit of $40, and the second poorest – the lower middle class – see a net cost of only $40. In other words, the burden of the program falls on those most able to pay. That’s good. And by the way, the CBO study does not include all the benefits of the program; it leaves out the simulative effect of the growth of good new clean industries, and the avoided costs of adapting to climate change. Both are significant.

Fourth, Chris, you say “even out to dates as far as 2020,” but 2020 is just the beginning. The best thing about the cap and trade scheme is that it plots a trajectory all the way out to 2050. Don’t judge this policy by our absolute emissions level in 2020 – judge it by the rate at which we are reducing emissions year over year in 2020, and beyond.

Finally, your question about why cap and trade over tax. Two things. One, a tax is no simpler than a cap. It just seems like it might be because the cap has gotten so complex. But the same people who demanded relief from the cap would have done so with the tax, and you’d be left with something just as complicated. Two, the most important way in which a cap differs from a tax is that those who get allowances freely allocated to them still have a compliance obligation. That is a crucial point. If a coal plant operator is exempted from paying a tax, they have no incentive to abate. But if that same operator instead gets allowances freely allocated in an amount equal to their compliance obligation under a cap and trade scheme, the incentive to abate remains. From the perspective of a shareholder, no difference. From the perspective of a Bangladeshi, very important difference.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

More on Waxman-Markey

Anonymous, in his/her/its/their comment to the last post makes a good point that I hadn’t considered carefully enough in my argument, which boils down to this: opportunity cost is not everything. I partially agree.

Yes, electricity providers generally pass variable costs through into rates, and Waxman-Markey’s free allowance allocations to utilities are accompanied by structural measures that are intended to make sure those “negative variable costs” get passed through too. So rates should not go up to the extent that permits are freely allocated, whereas if permits were auctioned, we would expect rates to go up.

Anonymous goes from there to make two points. First, the higher the rates, the more frugal the average consumer with his or her electricity usage; higher rates means less electricity consumption. Second, higher electricity bills for coal and natural gas makes renewables (and nuclear, btw) more cost competitive.

Before directly engaging those points, let’s be clear about something: whether you freely allocate or you auction, you have the same fundamental question: What do you do with the allowance value? Either way, there’s a store of value created by the policy – it’s the market price of an allowance times the number of allowances. It’s a transfer from the people who have to pay for the permits to the treasury, and policymakers are immediately faced with the question of what to do with that value. If the permits are auctioned, that value comes in the form of cold hard cash. If you don’t auction the permits, the value stays in the form of the allowances themselves. On a balance sheet, the difference between cash and a liquid commodity is not very different at all.

Here’s a political reality: If you are going to inject a multi-billion-dollar cost into every nook and cranny of the economy, and if taxpayers are going to see their share of it every single month on their electricity bill qua direct mail campaign advertisement against every incumbent congressman, you’d better find a way to ease the pain as best you can. It’s hard to imagine getting a bill through congress wherein most of the allowance value does not flow back to consumers.

With that under our collective belt, we can get to Anonymous’ point. The environmental objective of cap and trade comes from two things: A) the relative price of energy from carbon and carbon-free sources, and B) the overall price of energy. It’s not hard to get A right without raising electricity prices in the aggregate. You simply slap a price on carbon emissions, and then send all of the allowance value back to consumers, either by auctioning allowances and rebating electricity customers based on volume, or by handing out allowances, again based on volume. Waxman-Markey is a partial success in this respect – about half of the allowances that are allocated for this purpose are distributed as a function of volume, and half on the basis of greenhouse gas intensity. To the extent that they are distributed on volume, A is very cleanly achieved, though B is not, and Anonymous’ second point – about renewable – is not correct. But if you allocated purely based on volume, then people whose electricity usage now is especially greenhouse gas intensive get shocked. Hence the 50-50 compromise. For the permits that are distributed based on greenhouse gas intensity, A is still achieved, because the coal generator still has something to gain from reducing emissions and selling permits, but Anonymous’ point about renewables is correct – the policy does not help them. It’s a true giveaway to coal and its consumers. However, per my last post, I think that 50-50 split in the early-going is fair.

As for B, Anonymous, you are right, I was painting with too-broad strokes. Free allocations under cap and trade should keep prices overall lower than if we had 100% auction, so the potential efficiency gains are foregone. Point well taken. I guess I would just say a few things in response to that, in defense of the bill. One, Title 2 is all about energy efficiency. Two, I think objective A is more important than objective B. And three, as evidenced by what a gut-wrenching cave-in to the all powerful agricultural lobby was made to get this thing passed, you can only do what you can do.

This post is too long to respond to Chris’ point (which he artfully hid under the wrong post.) That’s next.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Waxman-Markey, and in defense of coal and the people who use it

The House passed comprehensive climate change legislation yesterday, and despite the fact that we still have a steep hill to climb before cap and trade becomes law, and despite the fact that it is a far, far cry from what the IPCC says needs to be done to stop global warming before it gets unmanageable, it is a signal moment. In 2007, the judicial branch said EPA had the authority to regulate carbon dioxide, in 2008 we elected an executive who intended to do it, and in 2009, this from the legislative. Even the GOP opposition, during yesterday’s debate, almost all of which I watched, and almost all of which was intolerable, did not dispute the premise that something has to be done. This was, simply a big step in the right direction.

A few things about it, though:

First, 219 votes. It was a squeaker, for sure, but that makes it appear just a bit closer than it actually was. This was a hard vote for lots of congresspeople, and I suspect there were probably 10 or so more votes that the leadership could have had had they been needed. Once they got to 218, I think about 5-10 Democrats with tough races were grateful to be cleared to vote “no.”

Secondly, and more interestingly and importantly, I’ve been getting a lot of questions in the past couple of days, from the left, about whether or not Waxman-Markey was actually good enough to support. A month ago, I wrote that it was, despite the fact that it was loaded up with giveaways to industry. A month ago, it was less loaded up with giveaways than it is now. In fact, the Democratic leadership scheduling it for a floor vote despite the fact that they weren’t sure they had all the votes was like yelling sub-prime mortgage in a pool of hungry derivatives traders. Market price of a vote: a new $50 million taxpayer-funded hurricane center.

A lot of what was horse-traded in the last three days was in a 300-something page amendment that came out about 16 hours before yesterday’s vote, so it will take the next week to put a real figure on the aggregate price of bribes paid to get this deal done. The worst of it as probably the deal that Waxman had to make with Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson to get a dozen or two aggie Democrats to come along, giving the USDA the lead role in making a determination about whether a farm project to sequester carbon meets the exacting environmental standards to earn offset credits that can be substituted for emissions allowances under the cap. In truth, that deal really does weaken the cap and trade program significantly.

Nevertheless, I continue to support it. The crux of the matter is this: From an environmental standpoint, it doesn’t matter (much) whether you give people emissions allowances for free, or whether you auction them off. Either way, the market price for the right to emit a ton of carbon is about the same (despite the claim to the contrary in today’s NYT, a mistake a find remarkable), and firms will choose to abate when they can do so for less than that price. Same result. I think a lot of the complaints from the left don’t understand that. A lot of people seem to think that by giving away allowances to polluters, you undermine the environmental objective of the bill, and that simply isn’t so. There are things to complain about – things that do undermine the environmental objective, and the fact that the environmental objective really should be stronger – but that isn’t one of them.

The difference between free and auctioned allowances is in who pays, and here again, I think the complaints from my left get it wrong, though more subjectively so. Auctioned allowances are what has come to be called a “polluter pays” system, whereas with free allocations, we all pay; taxpayers pay.

But step back. Generating electricity from coal is not an evil act. Certainly, pollution from coal plants and other sources can be a public health risk, and some of the most pernicious sins of private industry have been and continue to be the protection of private wealth over public health, sometimes by lying and cheating. But carbon dioxide pollution is not that. People who own businesses that emit carbon dioxide have the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Coal is cheap and abundant, and though those who profit from its burning must make a transition, it is wrong to saddle them with too much of the burden of that transition. Especially since Americans who depend on coal-fired electricity are disproportionately poor, it makes sense that we should all pitch in. “Polluter pays” isn’t exactly right when it comes to carbon dioxide.

This is a complex topic. I got an up-close look at the process over the last two weeks, so post a comment if you want to know more about a piece of it, and I’ll do my best.