Sunday, May 30, 2010

They're Doing It Again

Steve Benen picks up on the latest feigned right wing outrage attack (over Obama not going to Arlington on Memorial Day) to review the fainting spells that have afflicted the GOP (and Fox News) over the past 16 months.
Several months ago, Atrios noted, "When Dems are president, perfectly normally ways of doing things are rebranded as somehow odd."

Ain't that the truth.

* Teleprompters: This trend of characterizing routine developments as controversial started very early in the Obama presidency. Every modern president has used teleprompters, but Republicans and the media thought it was hilarious and wildly important when Obama did the same thing.

* Bowing: Several presidents have been photographed bowing to foreign heads of state, but Republicans and the media thought it was absolutely scandalous when Obama did the same thing when meeting leaders where bowing is customary.

* Talking to school kids: Presidents Reagan and H.W. Bush spoke to school children in national addresses, even taking a little time to push their political agendas. When Obama delivered a speech encouraging kids to do well in school, Republicans freaked out; Fox News compared the president to Saddam Hussein; and the New York Times literally ran a front-page story about it.

* Czars: For a half-century, presidents have relied on so-called "czars" for various policy areas. By one count, George W. Bush had 36 czar positions filled by 46 people during his two terms. No one cared. Obama's use of czars became the subject of months of media scrutiny, and even congressional hearings in response to Republican apoplexy.

* Oval Office attire: Several modern presidents have been seen in the Oval Office without wearing a suit jacket. When Obama did it, Republicans ran to the press to complain, and the media actually published pieces on the subject.

* Criticizing partisan media: White House complaints about unfair media coverage are as old as the republic. When the Obama White House noted what is plainly true about Fox News -- it's a Republican outlet -- the media went a little berserk, with the Washington Post and NPR characterizing the administration's criticism as "Nixonian."

* Reconciliation: Republican policymakers have relied on reconciliation to get around filibusters for decades. When Obama recommended the same tactic for health care, the GOP pretended it was an outrageous assault on the political process, and the media pretended Republicans' cries were legitimate.

* Industry bailouts: Government bailouts of struggling American industries and major companies have been common for decades. When Obama rescued GM, it was used as an example of his purported desire to a communist dictator.

* Campaign intervention: Every president has had a hand in campaign activities, with several presidents offering jobs to candidates to get them out of various races. When the Obama White House intervened in Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate primary -- offering a House member an unpaid advisory gig -- the media found it fascinating and Republicans called for the FBI and a special prosecutor to intervene.

* Memorial Day: Many presidents have not appeared at Arlington on Memorial Day. When Obama does it, there's a "controversy."

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The FT has a good summary of the possible reasons behind the North Koreans deliberate sinking of the South Korean warship on March 26.
North Korea wanted revenge for a sea battle in November, when one of its ships was badly damaged. The vessel had exchanged fire with South Korean gunboats after straying across a disputed maritime border into what Seoul insists are its waters. South Korean military intelligence says revenge is Pyongyang’s primary motive.

To smooth the succession
Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s dictator, is almost certainly transferring power to his third son, Kim Jong-un. Some defectors have said he is trying to associate Jong-un’s name with major successes in domestic propaganda. One civic group with contacts in North Korea says celebrations at a naval base directly honoured Jong-un for the sinking.

An internal power struggle
Some analysts believe the attack could have been the work of a single rogue commander, possibly vying for patronage as the succession gathers pace. North Korea this month made the highly unusual announcement that it was removing Kim Il-chol, a senior admiral on the National Defence Commission, prompting speculation the navy could have exceeded its authority. But most mainstream analysts think the attack would have been impossible without the green light from Kim Jong-il.

A reversion to hardline ideology
Some scholars say Kim Jong-il had, until last year, been increasingly open to advice from a more liberal faction, advocating market and currency reform. When this backfired, he had no choice but to listen more to Cold War-era ideologues who favoured tactics such as assassinations and submarine attacks. Seoul’s spy service has also recently detained assassins sent into South Korea to assassinate the most senior communist official to flee to the south.

Breakdown of command in North Korea
Perhaps the most worrying of the possibilities is that Kim Jong-il is no longer in full command, possibly because of a stroke the North Korean leader suffered in 2008. This could mean the sinking was either the result of jostling commanders or poor judgment from Mr Kim himself. Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, believes the country has become a “rudderless ship” and that logical decision-making has fallen to pieces, as seen when Pyongyang revalued its currency to disastrous effect late last year.

To distract from economic woes at home
South Korea’s military intelligence argues the sinking of one of its warships by Pyongyang could distract from hunger and economic failure in the north. However, North Korea openly denies the attack and there is little evidence of it being mentioned in propaganda beyond that intended for small numbers of senior military and Communist party officials.

Bitterness about G20 meeting in Seoul
Seoul has been turning its presidency of the G20 group of leading economies this year into domestic propaganda, parading how well it has developed economically since the Korean War of 1950-1953. Pyongyang has historically been resentful of South Korea hosting major international events such as the Olympics and the World Cup and has tried to wreck any positive press.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Rand Paul and Civil Rights

Bruce Bartlett summarizes the central problem with Rand Paul's opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
As we know from history, the free market did not lead to a breakdown of segregation. Indeed, it got much worse, not just because it was enforced by law but because it was mandated by self-reinforcing societal pressure. Any store owner in the South who chose to serve blacks would certainly have lost far more business among whites than he gained. There is no reason to believe that this system wouldn't have perpetuated itself absent outside pressure for change.

In short, the libertarian philosophy of Rand Paul and the Supreme Court of the 1880s and 1890s gave us almost 100 years of segregation, white supremacy, lynchings, chain gangs, the KKK, and discrimination of African Americans for no other reason except their skin color. The gains made by the former slaves in the years after the Civil War were completely reversed once the Supreme Court effectively prevented the federal government from protecting them. Thus we have a perfect test of the libertarian philosophy and an indisputable conclusion: it didn't work. Freedom did not lead to a decline in racism; it only got worse.

Sadly, it took the Supreme Court more than 50 years after Plessy before it began to undo its mistake in Brown. This led to repeated efforts by the Eisenhower administration to enact civil rights legislation, which was opposed and gutted by Senate Democrats led by Lyndon Johnson. But by 1964, it was clear to Johnson that the tide had turned. The federal courts were moving to dismantle segregation to the extent they could, and the 1963 March on Washington, the murder and beating of civil rights demonstrators in the South and growing awareness of such atrocities changed the political climate and made the Civil Rights Act of 1964 possible--despite the filibuster against it by Senator Robert C. Byrd, who still serves in the Senate today.

If Rand Paul were saying that he agrees with the Goldwater-Rehnquist-Bork view that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was unconstitutional and that the Supreme Court was wrong to subsequently find it constitutional, that would be an eccentric but defensible position. If he were saying that the Civil Rights Act were no longer necessary because of the great strides we have made as a country in eradicating racism, that would also be defensible. But Rand's position is that it was wrong in principle in 1964. There is no other way of interpreting this except as an endorsement of all the things the Civil Rights Act was designed to prohibit, as favoring the status quo throughout the South that would have led to a continuation of segregation and discrimination against African Americans at least for many more years. Undoubtedly, changing mores would have broken down some of this over time, but there is no reason to believe that it would have been quick or that vestiges wouldn't still remain today. Indeed, vestiges remain despite the Civil Rights Act.

I don't believe Rand is a racist; I think he is a fool who is suffering from the foolish consistency syndrome that affects all libertarians. They believe that freedom consists of one thing and one thing only--freedom from governmental constraint. Therefore, it is illogical to them that any increase in government power could ever expand freedom. Yet it is clear that African Americans were far from free in 1964 and that the Civil Rights Act greatly expanded their freedom while diminishing that of racists. To defend the rights of racists to discriminate is reprehensible and especially so when it is done by a major party nominee for the U.S. Senate. I believe that Rand should admit that he was wrong as quickly as possible.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Not Your Grandfather's Tea Party

Michael Kinsley compares the Tea Party movement to 1960s antiwar activists (h/t Sully).
A final difference: although the 1960s featured plenty of self-indulgence, this wasn’t their essence. Their essence was selfless and idealistic: stopping the war; ending racism; eradicating poverty. These goals and some of the methods for achieving them may have been childishly romantic or even entirely wrongheaded, but they were about making the world a better place. The Tea Party movement’s goals, when stated specifically, are mostly self-interested. And they lack poetry: cut my taxes; don’t let the government mess with my Medicare; and so on. I say “self-interested” and not “selfish” because pursuing your own self-interest is not illegitimate in a capitalist democracy. (Nor is poetry an essential requirement.) But the Tea Party’s atmospherics, all about personal grievance and taking umbrage and feeling put-upon, are a far cry from flower power. There is a nasty, sour, vindictive tone to the Tea Party that certainly existed in the antiwar movement and its offspring, but never dominated the atmosphere created by these groups.

Some people think that what unites the Tea Party Patriots is simple racism. I doubt that. But the Tea Party movement is not the solution to what ails America. It is an illustration of what ails America. Not because it is right-wing or because it is sometimes susceptible to crazed conspiracy theories, and not because of racism, but because of the movement’s self-indulgent premise that none of our challenges and difficulties are our own fault.

“Personal responsibility” has been a great conservative theme in recent decades, in response to the growth of the welfare state. It is a common theme among TPPs—even in response to health-care reform, as if losing your job and then getting cancer is something you shouldn’t have allowed to happen to yourself. But these days, conservatives far outdo liberals in excusing citizens from personal responsibility. To the TPPs, all of our problems are the fault of the government, and the government is a great “other,” a hideous monster over which we have no control. It spends our money and runs up vast deficits for mysterious reasons all its own. At bottom, this is a suspicion not of government but of democracy. After all, who elected this monster?

This kind of talk is doubly self-indulgent. First, it’s just not true. Second, it’s obviously untrue. The government’s main function these days is writing checks to old people. These checks allow people to retire and pursue avocations such as going to Tea Party rallies. This basic fact about the government is no great secret. In fact, it’s a huge cliché, probably available more than once in an average day’s newspaper. But the Tea Party Patriots feel free to ignore it and continue serving up rhetoric about “the audaciousness and arrogance of our government,” and calling for the elimination of the Federal Reserve Board or drastic restraints on the power of the Internal Revenue Service.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Taxing Policy

Jonathan Chait summarizes the insanity that is Republican thinking on tax policy.
In the Republican view, tax cuts do not increase deficits, because they either 1) produce enough growth to increase revenue, or 2) reduce revenue and thus "starve the beast" of spending, or, somehow, both. A corollary holds that tax hikes do not reduce deficits, because they either 3) decrease economic growth and thus decrease revenue, or because 4) the added revenue will cause the government to spend more money. 
This is how discussions of tax revenue that involves any Republican or almost any member of the conservative movement has gone over the last two decades. The discussion is completely detached from reality. All four elements of the Republican tax catechism have been utterly destroyed by empirical reality. It may be theoretically possible for tax rates to be high enough that tax cuts could produce higher revenue, but we're nowhere close to that point. Nor is there any evidence that a lack of revenue will cause the government to stop spending money. (Look around.) Indeed, evidence points in the opposite direction, with rising revenues correlating with falling expenditures, and falling revenues with rising expenditures.

Nonetheless, this has been the state of Republican thinking on taxes since 1990. Supply-side economics gained a foothold within the GOP in the late 1970s, and reached its glory in 1981. But moderate Reaganites realized that supply-side economics had created massive deficits and enormous tax inequities, and clawed back the effects of their policies by enacting tax hikes in 1982 and 1983 and a progressive tax reform in 1986. In 1990, George H.W. Bush clawed back the supply-side revolution a bit more by agreeing to a small tax hike as part of a major deficit reduction package. Conservatives, led by Newt Gingrich, revolted, and vowed never to permit such heresy again. The moderates were banished, and anti-tax absolutism became the sole permissable point of view. Republican candidates for office henceforth had to sign anti-tax pledges (not, however, anti-spending pledges.) In the last presidential election, every major Republican presidential contender asserted that George . Bush's tax cuts had caused revenue to rise. Every major conservative opinion outlet backed this line. (In 2007, libertarian Megan McArdle had a right-wing book review spiked because it asserted that the Laffer Curve did not apply to current U.S. tax rates.)

This is a long way of saying that Kevin Williamson's recent National Review article criticizing supply-side economics is a very big deal. It's not quite a full frontal attack on supply-side economics, more of a lament that the dogma has been stretched in ways that even its founders would find extreme. It resembles Kruschev's "secret speech" (subsequently made public) denouncing Stalin's cult of personality more than actual Perestroika. Still, the article makes plain the clear fact that, at the very least, supply-side economics has been a total failure from the conservative point of view.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Oil Spill.... Blame Cheney

Jonathan Chait pins the blame for the oil spill on Dick Cheney.
William Galston puts together the pieces on the apparent regulatory failure that led to the Gulf disaster. During George W. Bush's first term, the Minerals Management Service proposed -- and them under heavy industry pressure, relented -- upon requiring a remote-control failsafe to prevent offshore disasters like this one. Galston asks:
So here’s my question: what is responsible for MMS’s change of heart between 2000 and 2003 on the crucial issue of requiring a remote control switch for offshore rigs? What we do know is that unfettered oil drilling was to Dick Cheney’s domestic concerns what the invasion of Iraq was to his foreign policy—a core objective, implacably pursued regardless of the risks. Is there a connection between his infamous secret energy task force and the corrupt mindset that came to dominate a key program within MMS? Would $500,000 per rig have been regarded as an unacceptably expensive insurance policy if a drill-baby-drill administration hadn’t placed its thumb so heavily on the scale?