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.