Sunday, November 23, 2008

What Should Obama's First Priorities Be?

Obama has opportunities to make progress in many, many arenas. Healthcare, jobs, the environment, just to name a few. However, for me, as a Jew, there is one issue that stands out above all others, that I really hope will be his top priority when he takes office. That issue is civil liberties. For 8 years, the Bush administration has been putting the US Constitution through a shredder in the name of maintaining security. Suspending habeas corpus, illegal warrantless wiretaps, torture, a general attitude that the president is above the law, and can ignore congress as he sees fit. And those are just the things we know about. Many of these things remind me of Germany in the 1930s before World War II, as they started to take similar rights away from the Jews, and consolidate the power in the hands of the executive. Now, I am not trying to suggest that George Bush is anywhere near as bad as Adolf Hitler. I know some of my friends have chided me that Bush is just using these tools to fight terror, and as long as I'm not a terrorist, or associated with terrorists, I have nothing to worry about. However, once the precedent is set that the government need not respect these kinds of rights for its citizens, there is no way to predict who they will use it against in 20 or 50 years. As a student of Jewish history, I feel I have good reason to believe they will ultimately turn against the Jews. Every society has, especially those where Jews once felt most welcomed.

Even though Obama spoke of restoring civil liberties during the campaign, once in office he will be under tremendous pressure not to. Once a person or institution has a certain power, they do not give it up easily. The intelligence community has grown accustomed to a certain modus operandi during the Bush administration, and will not look kindly upon having their hands tied by the Obama administration. I have no doubt they will do everything they can to convince president Obama that there is no way to effectively fight terror without retaining these tools. Of course, we can fight terror in a way that is smart and effective, and also legal. But that would require new thinking on the part of our intelligence. The easy choice is to keep doing things they way they are now. Were Obama to give in, he would likely get away with it. The conservatives never believed in civil liberties anyway, and if he placates the liberals with an ambitious healthcare plan and strong new environmental regulations, they'll ignore this one misstep.

We really are at a precipice of history on this issue. If Obama restores constitutional rights, then the Bush years will be an aberration, and we have no immediate cause for concern. If he doesn't, then the changes will become precedent, more or less set in stone, and it is extremely unlikely that any future leader would change them back. If this happens, I fear for my people.

I joined the ACLU because of George Bush, but lest we become complacent now that he is leaving office, it is doubly important we continue to support the ACLU now that Obama is becoming president. If he does not act to restore civil liberties, the opportunity is probably gone forever. If he really wants to show he is taking a different direction from Bush, this ought to be his top priority. He promised it during the campaign, and more than anything else he promised, this is the one we need to hold his feet to the fire to get him to keep. I don't normally make appeals on this page, but please, now more than ever, support the ACLU. They really are the last, best, hope for America.

Thank you, George Bush

I know it's a little late to first be writing my post-election reflections, but, as usual, I've been busy, so here goes:

I wanted to start with an unpublished piece I wrote the day after the election 4 years ago:

On the night of November 2, some of us stood outside in the cold, and sometimes rain, for 8 hours, waiting for John Kerry to come out and speak to us. He never did. Some of us are still waiting. Some of us will always be waiting. No, John Kerry was not a perfect candidate, but he offered hope. Hope for an America that not only fights for freedom abroad, but protects freedom at home. Hope for an America where no one who works a full time job should have to live in poverty. Hope for an America where economic success is measured by how committed we are to protecting the weakest members of our society. Hope for an America where health care and quality education are rights of all people, not a privilege of the wealthy. Hope for an America where no one forces one worldview on anyone else but where we all take responsibility for each other’s physical well-being. Hope for an America where protecting our air and water for the next generation is never a controversial issue, and where politics is never put before science. For all this we must continue to wait. True, this is not our first loss, and true there will be more opportunities. But this time represented something special. Those of us who have been involved in politics for a while, certainly remember what it was like when Al Gore lost. This time, though, is so much more depressing. When Al Gore lost, we were still in high school, still living with our parents, still not able to vote, and not able to have that much impact on the election. It was sad, but we knew there would be another time. This time, we are in college. We put everything we could into it, and we lost again. Sure, there will be another time. But who knows where we will be in 4 years. We will no longer be college students. We will have jobs, and maybe families. We may no longer have the time, energy, and optimism of youth. This was our big chance to make a difference in the world, and our hopes were crushed. We must pass the scepter onto the next generation of college students, but we must not give up the fight. We must not lose hope entirely. No matter where life takes us, we must find time to fight for what is important to us, and we must not stop caring the way we do today. When Teddy Kennedy conceded the 1980 nomination to Jimmy Carter, he spoke words that are as relevant and meaningful today as they were then. “For me, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

When I reread this, I relive all the emotions of 4 years ago. I can't help but think just how different the last 4 years could have been if John Kerry had won that election. This election had an anticlimactic quality for me. Four years ago, I spent election night at a national campaign headquarters. This year I was at home, watching the results on TV by myself. I never really got involved with the Obama campaign the way I got involved with the Kerry campaign. I'm out of college and past my prime as a political activist. All I do these days is cheer from the sidelines. Obama may have been an objectively more inspiring candidate, but John Kerry was the candidate I put my heart into.

And yet, I think a tremendous opportunity may have been presented by John Kerry's loss. He would likely have had to govern with an opposite party congress, and a Democratic Party still deeply divided among itself as to how best to handle the Iraq war. I have no doubt he would have been better than Bush, but he would have improved things in small incremental changes, still basically playing on a Republican-defined field, in much the same way Bill Clinton did. His loss created the opportunity for the thorough collapse of the Bush administration. The continued failings in Iraq enabled the Democrats to take control of congress. The recent economic crisis has discredited conservatism as an ideology, breaking the the 50-50 gridlock that has defined American politics for the last decade. Barack Obama has the opportunity to usher in a sweeping new era of liberalism, in much the same way the Great Depression created that opportunity for Franklin Roosevelt. For this opportunity, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to George Bush (hence the name of this post).

Of course, just because the public has rejected conservatism, does not mean they have embraced liberalism yet. If he plays his cards right, he can build a generation-long liberal majority like Roosevelt did. If he screws up, we may revert right back to conservatism in 4 years. He may have opportunities that even Hillary Clinton would not have had, as people see him as a complete break from the past, and expect big things from him, not just the moderately liberal record of the Clinton years. If he wants to be successful, he needs to go big, and he needs to go visible. It can't just be the right idea, it has to be sold right politically as well. There needs to be something tangible that every ordinary person can see and say, "This is what president Obama and the Democratic Party are doing for me."

Another major factor in determining his success will be his ability to keep the Democratic caucus united. Will they stay together or will they splinter up like they did in 1993? Though nothing is set in stone, I think we have reason to be optimistic. First of all, the last vestiges of the truly conservative Democrats, who were still around at the beginning of Clinton's term, have long since retired or become Republicans. Of course, we still have our moderates and our progressives, but I think they are far more united than they were 16 years ago. Some might say they were only temporarily united in opposition to Bush, but I think it really does go deeper than that. Progressives have learned that you can help the poor and middle class without being so antagonistic to business. The recent crisis has taught the moderates that more regulation isn't necessarily bad for business. Even the moderates now see the need for a major overhaul of the healthcare system (even the American Medical Association and the health insurance lobby itself have come on board to varying degrees). Single-payer advocates are now willing to accept pragmatic compromise rather than fight tooth-and-nail and risk getting nothing. Even the hawks of the party have come to see Iraq as a mistake (of course this division may still be a problem at the next war being considered). I really think this time around, the different wings of the party may be able to converge on a single agenda in a way that hasn't been possible for the Democratic Party in over a generation. Plus, and thanks again, George Bush, for this one, it'll be really hard for anyone on the right to scream socialism at our expansions of government, after they just nationalized the banks.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Last Thoughts Before the Election

There really isn't much left anyone can say about this election that hasn't already be said. Signs look very positive for an Obama victory, and we just need to pray they hold up. I'll leave you with an unpublished piece I wrote several years ago, ranting about the unholy alliance between religion and the Right. Let's hope this is the year that alliance breaks down:

There seems to be a lot of talk in the news lately of a culture war. There is increased polarization in America between religious conservatives and secularist liberals. The Democratic Party, it is said, is out of touch with the values of middle America, and that is why it has trouble winning in the south and Midwest. They say the Democratic Party is made up of godless, amoral, liberal elitists from the northeast, who cannot connect with the simple churchgoer of Kansas or Alabama. As someone whose religious views constitute fundamentalism by most definitions you will find, but who is also a political liberal, I don’t think there needs be such a divide. Religion does not necessarily imply conservatism, and fundamentalism and moderation do not have to be inimical to each other.

I must confess, whenever I hear the expression, “good southern values,” the same few images always come to my mind. The first is of southern slave-owning plantation owners of the 1850’s, who I am certain attended church regularly, and feel themselves the bearers of these good southern values. The second is George Wallace on the steps of the Alabama statehouse, preaching his good southern values, like “segregation forever.” The last image that comes to my mind is Jesse Helms talking about representing good Christian values as he fought against civil rights in the 1960’s. These images, while they may not represent precisely what conservatives today mean by values, do a good deal to discount the importance of the term, seeing the kinds of things it has been used for in the past.

Furthermore, far from being “godless” and “amoral,” the causes championed by liberals throughout the years have often been deeply moral and very religiously significant. What could be a more moral cause that civil rights? As a religious individual, what could be more important than fighting for the basic equality of all human beings? After all, are we not all created in the image of G-d, and all equal in His eyes. Religious leaders championed this cause. Martin Luther King Jr. was a protestant minister, and standing just to his right in the great civil rights march in Alabama, was Jewish leader Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. What could be a more moral or religious cause than fighting poverty and hunger, making sure all of G-d’s children are protected from harm? What could be a more moral or religious cause than protecting the environment, so that this earth should remain the way G-d intended it to be? Adam, the Bible tells us, was put in the Garden in Eden in order to protect it (Genesis 2:15). Conservatives, when they forsake the poor and neglect the earth in order to give big tax breaks to the rich, are the ones who deserve the title of “godless and amoral.” The Left really is where religious people belong politically, not the Right.

The Religious Right, in its great fervor to force its individual religious worldviews on those who do not agree with them, is all too quick to forget about the more universal aspect of religion; the causes, like those I have already discussed, that religious people ought to be championing, which are beneficial to everybody. I do not mean to say the individual aspect of religion is unimportant. Quite the contrary, I have many very strong convictions in this arena, and wouldn’t give them up for the world. However, it is important to recognize that the federal government is not my own personal religious outreach organization. I would be happy to argue with people and try to convince them that my particular religious views are the correct ones, but I would never think that my particular religious views ought to be legislated as federal policy in a secular government, and forced on people who disagree with me.

I personally find abortion to be an abhorrent practice, and in most cases immoral (though not murder), yet I was willing to attend a massive pro-choice rally in Washington two years ago for the purpose of keeping abortion legal. I did this because it is the principle of the separation of church and state that has made America such a great country and given so many people here opportunities that would not be available to them elsewhere. As a member of a minority religion, particularly as an observant member of a minority religion, this is something that must not be forgotten. It is because of liberals that Jews have such freedom to practice their religion in America today, not because of Christian conservatives. And let us be clear about one thing. There are no such things as Judeo-Christian values. There are Jewish values, and there are Christian Values. Now and then they overlap, but once the precedent is set of allowing Christian values to be legislated, they will eventually be legislated in ways where it is not in line with Jewish values. Having Christian values as the law of the land has been tried previously in history. It was known as the Spanish Inquisition. If we want to remain free to practice our religion as we see fit, we need to fight for the rights of other people to practice their religions as they see fit, even if it might sometimes involve doing things we find abhorrent and disgusting.

It may well be true that the Democratic Party is out of touch with the values of mainstream America, but that is only because they are so far ahead. It really gets me that southern traitors, many of whom still proudly display the sign of their treason, the confederate flag, think they can tell northern liberals who fought and died to keep America together, that their views today mean they hate America. And yes, call it elitist, patronizing, or condescending, but I do think the people in the north are generally more moral than that the people in the south. (By this I mean even northern conservatives, who due to lack of exposure often forget just how liberal they really are when compared with the south.) Middle America will catch up eventually. The so-called culture war will end. Eventually, religious folk will realize the common ground they have with liberalism. They always do, just as they did with slavery, and then with civil rights. For now, though, what people consider to be “mainstream American values,” are not values good people of religion ought to have.

Almost all of what I wrote, I still feel is true. My only caveat is that, judging by some of the polling numbers, Obama just may be that transformational figure who's able to make enough religious folk realize they have more in common with the Left that the Right. We won't know for sure until tomorrow, when we see if he can win in any of the traditional Republican strongholds, but the culture war may be ending and Middle America may be moving on just as I predicted they eventually would.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Why I Think Obama Is Better For Israel

I did a post a while back on why I don't think we have any reason to doubt Obama's commitment to Israel. I said then that I would eventually like to do a post on why I think Obama is better for Israel. With 4 days until the election, I suppose there is no better time than now.

Now, I don't, in any way, doubt John McCain's commitment to the security of the State of Israel. He has a long record of support that I think we should be grateful for. Of course, it's easier to express support for Israel from the Congress, where you're one voice out of many, and don't have to make any real decisions. Presidents of both parties have campaigned with a strongly pro-Israel rhetoric and disappointed once in office. Not the least of these is George W. Bush. Jews, and other supporters of Israel, should not be so enthusiastic for another Republican after George Bush. Sure, all of his public statements are tremendously supportive, but behind the scenes, his proposals, like the Road Map, and the Annapolis Summit, have been the same kind of disastrous mistakes the Clinton administration made. (At least with Clinton, it hadn't been tried yet. Bush should have learned his lesson). His state department, through Condoleeza Rice, has been pushing Israel into all kinds of unsafe concessions, like removing security checkpoints, and dismantling settlements, in the name of peace, with absolutely not guarantees from the other side. I suspect either candidate running now, is likely to disappoint somewhat once they're in office. Most presidents do. But here is why I think Obama's overall worldview will be better.

First of all, while many of Israel's supporters were also strong supporters of the Iraq war, those really in the know, knew from the beginning it was a mistake. Iran was always a bigger threat to Israel than Iraq was. Attacking Iraq has strengthened Iran, and increased they're influence in the region. Of course that is all in the past. However, as long our troops remain paralyzed in Iraq, Iran will never take any threat from us seriously. Obama's plan to withdraw our troops from where they are not needed to allow them to refocus on our real threats, will give the United States greater leverage in the region. Furthermore, Obama's efforts to engage Iran in direct diplomacy will leave the Arab world unable to claim that the US is just an imperialist power trying to arbitrarily force its will on the region. If negotiations break down, and military action becomes necessary, we will have a much easier time convincing the rest of the world of the reality of the threat. If we rush in to another war, like John McCain wants to do, the anti-American sentiment in the region will get even greater, and recruitment for Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah will continue to rise.

Furthermore, I cannot exaggerate the importance to Israel of having an America that is respected by the world. Before George Bush, we were a moral leader. If we declared a war was necessary, other nations knew they could trust us. In the last eight years, we have become an object of derision the world over. They resent us for our power, but do not respect us. There has been no better terrorist recruiter than George Bush. John McCain has made it clear that, if there would be any change in his approach to foreign policy from that of George Bush, it would be to make it more militaristic. Obama clearly has the respect of the world, and with him as president, America has the opportunity to claim it's role as moral leader again. Since America is, and will remain, Israel's best and strongest ally, having America respected in the world, means that we will be taken seriously in our support for Israel, and Israel will consequently enjoy greater respect from the rest of the world (though I don't delude myself into thinking it will ever be anywhere near the level of support it gets from the United States).

Lastly, and, of course, I couldn't comment about this the last time I wrote about Obama and Israel, I want to stress the significance of Joe Biden versus Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin, by all accounts, is a supporter of Israel. She may even have had an Israeli flag in her office. Nothing in her response to the question about Israel in the debate gave me reason to doubt her sincerity. However, she clearly has no particularly deep understanding of the issues facing Israel, and what American policy should actually be, beyond this vague notion of "support." Joe Biden, on the other hand, has been a leader in supporting Israel in the Senate for 36 years, even longer than John McCain. Israel could not have a better friend in the vice-presidency than Joe Biden. His debate answer was not the vague expression of support we heard from Sarah Palin (and most other politicians, really), but a thorough critique of how the Bush administration has mishandled the situation, including the pushing for elections in Gaza that lead to Hamas' rise to power there. He made it clear that he will be driven by what is truly in Israel's best interests and not some abstract theory about how to reshape the Middle East. When he says that he would not have joined the ticket were he not absolutely convinced that Barack Obama supports Israel as strongly as he does, he has a record of support strong enough that he deserves to be taken seriously and seen as not just pandering. The fact that Obama showed that Biden is the kind of person he would like giving him advice on foreign policy is very reassuring to me, and should be similarly reassuring to all supporters of the Jewish State.

The McCain campaign and the Republican Jewish Coalition(RJC) have no argument other than their McCarthyite guilt-by-association charges. He once talked to/shook hands with/ate lunch with/went to church with someone who expressed some anti-Israel sentiment. The latest faux scandal they are trying to trump up seems to be about a toast Obama once made to Prof. Rashid Khalidi, who is on record supporting the PLO. Even from the text of the toast as reported by the LA Times, it seems that he essentially said he enjoys talking to him because he likes to hear views that differ from his own. Prof. Khalidi, as well, has said that Obama disagrees with him on just about everything related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yes Obama, clearly enjoys hearing views different from his own, as most mature, intelligent people do. But listening to someone, even being friends with them, in no way indicates agreement with their politics. I have many friends with different politics from my own, and I assume most readers of this do as well. The RJC may like to claim that he surrounds himself with anti-Israel people, but it just isn't true. He clearly has a couple of friends with anti-Israel views, but he also surrounds himself with Joe Biden, Dennis Ross, and a host of others with pro-Israel views. He is a mature, intelligent person, with a complex mind, who likes to hear different points of view, but nothing in his record indicates any reason to doubt that his own sympathies lie with the latter group.

Some Campaign Reflections and Thoughts on Redistribution

There really hasn't been much to say in the last month. Despite the intensity of the campaigning, not much new has been introduced. Just a lot of rehashing of the same silliness we've been hearing for the last two years. I think the most comical/scary moment has been John McCain's repeated condemnations of Barack Obama for not being willing to support nuclear power, "unless it's safe." What exactly he means by this, I'm not sure. I keep waiting for him to follow it up with, "I pledge to support nuclear power even if it's not safe." He never quite goes that far, but it's the clear implication. I'm don't exactly understand how anyone could be opposed to safety, and in fairness, he probably isn't, but it's kind of scary that he's trying to make a campaign issue out of this. I guess I'll just attribute it to silly season.

Then, there's this whole bit about redistribution of wealth. I'll admit "spread the wealth around" was probably a poor choice of words on Obama's part, given its popular associations with socialism, but his proposals really are anything but. Conservatives and Republicans like to throw around the word socialism anytime a liberal politician talks about helping the poor, but they seem to lack any real concept of what the word means. Socialism is defined by the collective (or government) ownership and control of the means of production. Under socialism, essentially, all private enterprise is eliminated, everything in the economy is centrally planned, and everyone is a public employee. What the Fed is currently doing with the banks comes closer to socialism than anything Obama is proposing. Obama clearly believes in capitalism and private enterprise. He just wants to make sure that system works for everyone. The beauty of capitalism is that people are supposed to be rewarded for their innovation and ingenuity. The problem is, the way the system is working now, some people are permanently shut out of that opportunity. By increasing access to education, by making sure anyone who's working full time can pay their medical bills and put food on the table for their family, we open up capitalist opportunities for more people. Liberalism, as it was once said (I don't remember by who), will save capitalism from the capitalists. Does this involve some amount of redistribution of wealth? Of course it does. The way the market has been working lately it has been rewarding all the wrong things. The government's responsibility is to create sensible regulations to make sure the right things are rewarded, so the economy can operate in a fair and equitable manner. If John McCain is really opposed to redistribution, he needs to scrap his health care plan, endorse a flat tax, call for the elimination of medicare and medicaid, and any other federal programs designed to help the poor. If not, he needs to tell us why he thinks Obama's redistribution scheme is somehow worse than the one he's proposing, because so far, it seems people just aren't buying it.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Economic Meltdown, Bailout and Why You Shouldn't Blame Wall Street

The economic situation we're currently in is arguably the worst it's been since the Great Depression. Let's examine the causes of this crisis. First, who isn't responsible?

1) Liberals. It's become popular in right-wing circles to spread the notion that liberals are actually the ones responsible for the mortgage-crisis because of their policies forcing banks to make loans to lower-income and minority families. An interesting argument. Unfortunately, for them, it isn't true. Presumably the legislation they're referring to is the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). As this article makes clear, there is no connection between the CRA and the current crisis. For those of you who don't want to read the whole article, let me summarize the main points. a) Only 25% of sub prime mortgages were made by banks that were even subject the the CRA. b) Even among those 25%, there's no evidence that the CRA loans have a higher default rate than the rest of their loans. c) The investment instruments that spread this bad mortgage debt around the whole economy had absolutely nothing to do with the CRA. d) The first sub prime mortgage was made 25 years after the CRA was first passed. Blaming the CRA is such a ridiculous argument that neither John McCain nor any bank executive has tried to make it, but never underestimate the power of the right-wing chatterboxes in convincing people that liberals are really responsible for all of their problems.

2) Wall Street Executives. This may seem counter intuitive to anyone listening to any politician talk about the meltdown lately, but Wall Street is not to blame. They were just doing what the rules of the game expected them to do. It's a classic prisoner's dilemma. For those of you not familiar, I'll fill you in. Two people are arrested. They each have to decide whether to stay silent or rat the other one out. If they both stay silent, they'll each get 6 months in prison. If they both rat each other out, they'll each get 30 years in prison. If one stays silent and the other rats him out, the ratter will go free, and the rattee will get life in prison. Assuming we are dealing with rational people who prefer less jail time to more, the only outcome we will ever get is that they'll both rat each other out and spend 30 years in jail. Even though they'd both be happier if they both stayed silent, absent any way to bind the other person to an agreement, there's no incentive for either one to remain silent. If I think you're going to remain silent, I should rat you out because free is better than 6 months. If I think you're going to rat me out, I should still rat you out, because 30 years is better than life. This is essentially how wall street works on a much bigger scale. It's the paradox of the free market. If you allow everyone maximum liberty to make the decision that most benefits him or her, you will almost inevitably wind up with an outcome where everyone winds up suffering. It's not fair to blame the people involved. True, they all would have been better off if they didn't make these risky investments, but if I choose unilaterally not to make these investments while everyone else still is, I'm just going to wind up in even worse shape. Another one of my favorite examples of this is the minimum wage. Every time congress raises the minimum wage, conservative economists start screaming about how it's going to put companies out of business and lead to huge unemployment, and yet this has never panned out. Why? Because even though minimum wages might drive up short term costs, in the long run they are good for the economy. When the people at the bottom, the people for whom every extra dollar translates to an increase in their quality of life, have more money, they spend more. They create more demand in the economy. Businesses sell more. Everyone benefits. However, one firm raising wages will never be sufficient to create that stimulus. Without the government mandating it, no company is going to unilaterally volunteer to increase their payroll costs. However, when the situation is required of everyone, everyone is better off.

So who is responsible for the current economic crisis? It should be obvious by now. It's not Wall Street and it's not liberal government policy. It's conservative government policy. I stress conservative and not Republican, because many of these conservative policies were passed with the full support of a large number of Democrats as well. It's the policies of deregulation that caused this mess. The false belief that the market will perform best if the government would just leave it alone. Adam Smith's contention that a completely unregulated market will work at maximum efficiency is true only in the highly idealized situation where competition is perfect, and no firm is large enough for their decisions to have an impact on any other firm. No real market actually works this way (and besides, efficiency doesn't necessarily equal fairness). If I had to put the blame on one person for the current economic mess, it would be Ronald Reagan. Not that I can point to any specific policy of his that caused it. However, he was the one who set the conservative trend in American economics in motion. He was the one who made deregulation the politically popular thing to do. If it weren't for Reagan, Bill Clinton never would have felt compelled to go along with deregulation to the extent he did, and George W. Bush never would have been able to muster the political will to push deregulation to new extremes.

So what's the solution to the crisis? Well, in the long run, the solution is liberalism. We need to reregulate the markets in a way that makes sense for the 21st century economy. Now, I'm not a socialist. I don't want to government running the entire economy. In general, I view competition as a good thing. It motivates innovation and can be of tremendous benefit to the consumer. In order for competition to work, companies do need the opportunity to make bad decisions and fail on account of them. However, the government needs to have an active role in preventing situations where the markets motivate everyone involved to act in destructive ways as it does now. I find it funny when Larry Kudlow on CNBC asks things like "Can the market survive the regulatory state of an Obama presidency?" He doesn't seem to get that the market can't survive without the regulatory state of an Obama presidency. A successful capitalist economy depends on liberal government policy. It shouldn't surprise anyone that historically, the market has performed considerably better under Democrats than Republicans. The Republicans like to frame it as class warfare, business versus the middle class. But the truth is when the middle class is doing well, businesses fare better also. Economic success percolates up, it doesn't trickle down.

What about in the short term? I think we have no choice but to go along with this bailout. It's not perfect, but we don't have time to work out something better. If we want capitalism to survive, the government needs to do something now to preventing the market from collapsing on itself. We should do it in a way that protects the investments of ordinary people and not just big business, but if we completely ignore business interests, ultimately the people will wind up suffering as well. The idea the House Republicans proposed of a government-run insurance company that banks could buy into to insure their mortgage debt, is not a bad idea in the long run. In fact, it's similar to the original function of Fannie Mae, in the days when it was a pure public utility, created as part of the New Deal. I hope they continue pushing the idea after the immediate crisis has subsided, because it's something I think we should very seriously consider. However, it's not a short term solution. Telling the banks to buy mortgage insurance after the debts have already gone bad is like telling the residents of New Orleans to buy flood insurance after Katrina has already hit. Insurance is a good way to prevent crisis, but not a good way to alleviate one already in progress. However, if we only remedy the short-term crisis, and not the long-term problems, that's a good recipe for another crisis in the not too distance future. The best hope we have left is to elect Barack Obama president with strong Democratic majorities in congress and pray that they live up to their mandate.


My apologies again for not writing for a while. I've been somewhat swamped with schoolwork, and not feeling well for some of the time. I want to briefly comment on the first debate before I do a longer post on the economic situation. I think if I were scoring the debate on points, John McCain won. Not a knockout punch, but I think he made his points marginally more convincingly, and was able to respond to more of what Obama said than Obama was able to respond to what he said. (Of course, a lot of his responses were dishonest, but most people watching the debate don't know that.) Obama had a decent performance, but I think there were a lot of missed opportunities where he could have hit back hard and didn't. Why then, do the polls show overwhelmingly that voters think Obama won? Obama came accross looking presidential, and McCain came across looking like a jerk. Obama was respectful, he addressed McCain directly, he looked him in the eye. McCain's points were laced with insults ("Senator Obama doesn't understand..."). He refused to address him directly at any point during the debate. He wouldn't even acknowledge when the two of them agreed. The McCain campaign has released and ad splicing together all the different times Obama said "I agree with John" during the debate, as if it was an endorsement. For most people watching the debate, Obama wasn't endorsing McCain, he was reaching out and trying to find common ground. How can McCain claim to the guy who can reach across the aisle and find common ground with the Democrats, when he can't even be respectful to his opponent in the race? So that's why Obama benefitted the most from this debate even though on points, McCain probably won.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Fannie Mae and the Death of Conservatism

George Bush's Treasury Secretary announced today that to save it from bankruptcy, the Federal Government will be taking over Fannie Mae, the mortgage-backing giant. While widely reported in the media, the larger significance of this seems to have been ignored. For those who have studied history, you will remember that Fannie Mae (originally the Federal National Mortgage Association) was originally a government program created as part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Under constant pressure from conservatives, who insisted that the secondary trading of mortgages could be better handled by the open market, and that it was inefficient and a waste of taxpayer-money to have it as a government-run monopoly, Fannie Mae was privatized in 1968. Conservatives have been swearing by the laissez faire gospel for years; have been drilling into the heads of the American people that the free market can solve all of our problems; that private industry can always handle things cheaper can more efficiently than that dreaded "big government." Isn't it ironic that it's George Bush, a Republican, who finally has to admit that there really are things the government can do better, and make Fannie Mae a government program again? This is truly the death of modern conservatism. Should we expect Republicans to notice the ideological consequences of their own president's decision? Probably not. After all, if they cared about reality it all, they might have given up their ridiculous viewpoint after Calvin Coolidge's policies caused the Great Depression.

Lest I be misunderstood, I'm not advocating socialism. I generally believe in capitalism and the free market. I just think we have to recognize that the market will not solve all our problems, and that improving social welfare requires a large and active Federal Government, because they really can do it better.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Personality Cults and Double Standards

In my post on the Democratic Convention, I complained that it was too much of a Barack Obama personality cult and not enough about the issues. I should have held my fire. In comparison to the Republican Convention, the Democratic Convention was a veritable think tank. The Republican Convention was entirely personality cult. John McCain, war hero, maverick, reformer, country first. At least Obama's personal speech was heavy on policy details, even if the rest of the convention wasn't. Even McCain's own speech didn't talk a whole lot about policy. When he did, it was the same old, tired, worn-out conservative catch-phrases and platitudes that have gotten us into the mess we're in now. "Cut taxes", "smaller government". McCain promises to reform Washington, but can't cite a single example of how he will do so. He talks about government working for people, but the fact is that in order for government to work for people, it needs to be bigger and have a larger tax base to work from. The Republican myth that cutting taxes for the wealthy will someone help grow the economy and benefit everyone has never been put to the test better than in the last few years. The bottom has not benefited from this giveaway to the top, not even in a small trickle. Corporate profits are at record highs, while average wages are down, unemployment is up, inflation is up, and the dollar is weaker. The exact opposite of what Republicans predicted has happened, and yet they still try to cling to their notions.

It is true McCain has taken a handful of positions at odd with his party's base in the past (though most of his attempts have been unsuccessful), but he can't mention those now, because neither he nor the audience to which he was speaking currently supports any of those ideas. Absent any real meaning, "reform" has become just another empty word from politicians, just like they have accused Barack Obama of doing with "change." Obama responded to his critics with a convention speech heavy on the details of the kind of change he wants to bring, which you can agree or disagree with. McCain responded by playing up the personality cult even further.

It's not surprising that a party bereft of issues would play up personality. What is surprising is the double standard. After spending the summer derisively mocking Obama's so-called "celebrity" as if it were a sin to be popular they built out of their candidate exactly the kind of mythical figure they accuse the Democrats of doing with Obama. Could you imagine if speakers at the Democratic Convention had said things like, "Barack Obama's whole life has been leading up to the presidency," of "God created only one Barack Obama"? The McCain campaign and the media would have been all over their supposed messiah-complex. John McCain is the biggest political media celebrity there ever was. Without the press helping to disseminate his maverick image, John McCain never would be in the position he's in now. The press has been complicit in letting him grab the spotlight and use them to his advantage. His whole career has been a public relations stunt with no real substance. He gets his name on big, important bills, but won't take the steps necessary to ensure their passage. The media has bought into his self-crafted image wholeheartedly. And then he has his surrogates get up there and rail against the so-called "liberal media?" How dare he? The Republican Party clearly has nothing left but to lie about and distort their opponent's agenda, out of a desperate hope to somehow convince the voters that someone other than the Republicans are responsible for the disasters of the last eight years. After all, what could be a worse sin than standing in the way of the entitlement of their Chosen One?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Comparing Veepstakes Winners

When I first heard on Friday that McCain had picked Alaska governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate, my reaction was "What was he thinking?" They can't possibly use the attack anymore that Obama isn't experienced enough to be president, after picking a vice-president even less experienced than he is. The McCain campaign clearly decided that the experience argument wasn't working, and they'd have to make this an ideological campaign. Of course, this isn't the best year for the conservative ideology, which means they want to play a typical Rove-style God, guns, and gays campaign. Therefore, I suppose they wanted to pick an ultra-conservative to appease the base, but they still could have gone with Pawlenty, who is just as conservative, and with far more experience.

To those who would say that she's no worse than Obama, I would beg to differ. First of all, the district Obama represented in the state senate is considerably larger than Wasilla, Alaska. Furthermore, Obama has 4 years in the US Senate. That's 4 years on the Foreign Relations Committee, 4 years steeped in the issues important to the national political scene. He's already written numerous essays and a couple of books laying out his worldview and governing philosophy. While I do wish he had more experience, there is certainly enough information out there for the public to make an informed decision on whether they trust his judgment and find his worldview appealing. On Sarah Palin, there is nothing. She's governed a city of 7000 people, and one of the smallest states in the Union for a year and a half. None of that provides anyone with any idea of how she would approach Iraq, Russia, or China. From what I understand, she's done a decent job as governor (though one of her biggest accomplishments was raising taxes on oil companies, something John McCain has said he would oppose under all circumstances). Yet John McCain's claim that she reinforces his image as a reformer falls somewhat flat, given that after getting elected on a reformist, clean-government platform, a year and a half later she's already under an ethics investigation herself.

They obviously chose Palin over the more qualified candidates for one simple reason: she's a woman. (Though I still find it a little odd, given that off the top of my head I could probably name half a dozen Republican women more qualified than Palin.) They saw some of Hillary Clinton's supporters still not committed to Obama, and figured they could peel some of them away by putting a women on the ticket. Really, this is an incredibly condescending choice, and shows tremendous disrespect for the women of America. Do they really thing that Hillary Clinton's supporters (myself included) supported her only because of her anatomy/genome? Of course not. Sure we liked the idea of the first woman president, but we supported Hillary because she was a qualified candidate who stood up for the issues important to women (and men). The McCain-Palin ticket is against all the issues important to the women's movement. And I don't just mean abortion rights. They're against increasing access to contraception. They're against more funding for prenatal care and family leave. They're against requiring equal pay for equal work. The forces of the status quo, in their last ditch effor to prevent change, will offer some symbolic, yet meaningless, change, in order to convince people that real change is unnecessary. If McCain's people think Hillary's voters are going to vote someone who's both profoundly inexperienced, and stands for none of the issues they care about, simply because she's a woman, they've got another thing coming to them.

It's funny how McCain announced his pick of Sarah Palin, the most thoroughly unqualified choice for vice-president in recent history (a choice especially important given McCain's age), in front of a poster reading "Country First." By picking a choice with no qualification other than appealing to a particular demographic that he thinks could help him politically (whether or not it actually will), McCain has shows that he puts politics before country. Compare that with Obama's pick of Biden, who more than makes up for his lack of experience. Biden is clearly the most qualified person he could have chosen, with decades of experience and accomplishments in both foreign and domestic policy. The consummate foreign policy expert in the Democratic Party, and a real leader in the Senate. He could have gone with someone like Tim Caine, who might have helped him politically to win Virginia, but he chose to pick someone who's truly qualified to be president. So who really puts country first?

Unconventional Convention Thoughts

Sorry, it's been a while since I last posted, but news can get rather boring over the summer, and there just isn't much to say. I thought I should devote at least one post to my thoughts on the democratic convention. Overall, I think it was a fairly successful convention, but it could have been better. My critiques basically fall into 2 categories:

1) Too much talking about Obama. I felt they spent too much time praising Obama, and what a great guy he is, and not enough actually talking about issues, and the plans the Democratic platform has to offer for the country. I do think Barack Obama did this well in his own speech, but, in contrast, at the Kerry convention, there were a lot more speakers who really gave detailed policy addresses. I understand that since Obama is still a relatively unknown figure nationally, they needed who define him before the Republicans did, yet I think this could have been done in a way that seemed like less of a personality cult.

2) Not enough attacking McCain. Of course, every speaker said McCain is "more of the same." And how many times did we hear "votes like Bush 90% of the time?" But they should have been more personal in the attacks. None of the criticism for being like Bush will stick if they don't first tear down the image people still have of him as a maverick that he built up in the 2000 campaign. They needed to go after McCain as just another pandering politician, whose views drift with the winds of political convenience. The only speakers, who, I thought, really hammered this point were John Kerry and Bill Richardson. They should have done one of those biopics for John McCain, but highlight everything negative in his career. They should have brought up how he cheated on his wife while she was recovering from injuries after she waited for him patiently the 7 years he was a prisoner of war. The public needs to know that this guy's not only wrong on the issues, he's a real dirtbag. Another point is that in order not just to win this election but to help cement permanent Democratic majorities, they should have spent more time connecting Bush's failures, not just with personal incompetence, but with the failure of conservatism as an ideology. Bill Clinton brought this up, and so did Barack Obama, but they should have had everyone hammer this point home. Everyone talks about wanting to make this a respectful campaign, and reaching out to work with the other party to solve our problems. You can't work with the other party to solve our problems when the other party is the problem. Everything wrong with America today really can be summed up in one word: "conservatism." The only way we're going to fix it is by beating the Republicans into submission. And we're not going to do that by playing nice.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Flip-floppery, Pots, and Kettles

It seems, of late, any time the Obama campaign puts out a policy statement, whether it's on the war, on FISA, on guns, or what have you, the McCain camp finds some nuance of difference between it and some earlier statement to pounce on to portray Obama as flip-flopping, insincere, pandering, politically expedient, etc. The mainstream media always seems all too ready to buy into these talking points as fact. It simply isn't true though. Obama has not fundamentally shifted his position on any issue. To be sure, he may be emphasizing different aspects of his position to appeal to a general electorate than he did during the primaries, but all candidates do this. By saying his troop withdrawal plans could be updated due to the facts on the ground, he wasn't abandoning any pledge to have all troops out within 16 months. He's said his goal is to have combat forces out within 16 months, but he's said all along there could be variations on account of changing circumstances. Only George Bush insists (and thinks it demonstrates courage) on stubbornly plodding along with his original plan regardless of the actual facts on the ground. The major difference between Obama and McCain with regard to the war in Iraq, is Obama sees withdrawal of combat forces as a short-term goal, and McCain does not. Whether the actual withdrawal will take place is 14 months, 16 months, or 18 months is immaterial at this point.

On the FISA bill, I happen to disagree with Obama. I would have voted against the bill, but that does not make his position unprincipled. He made it clear that while he opposes immunity, he views this bill as the best compromise he could get. I don't agree. I think he could have pushed for better, but his judgment on the matter is still entirely consistent with what his position has been all along. The art of compromise, of knowing when to give up on getting something you want in order to get something else you want, is invaluable to any successful politician.

Regarding the supreme court cases about the death penalty and the right to bear arms, his support again represents no shift in his position. While he's spoken about limiting the usage of the death penalty, and making sure it's applied fairly, he's never been for abolishing the death penalty altogether. Furthermore, he's on record from his days as a law professor as believing the second amendment conveys an individual right to bear arms.

So what's actually going on here? It's a two-step process. First the McCain campaign and their accomplices in the mainstream media convert all of Obama's positions into some bizarre absolute. They find the least sensible way one could possibly frame the liberal agenda and pin that on Obama. Now, having successfully convinced everyone of his extremist positions, when he expresses the sensible, moderate positions, he's expressed all along, it follows that he must be flip-flopping. Makes sense, right? If you're as confused as I am, you just may be smarter than the mainstream media.

What really bothers me about this charge is not merely its fallaciousness. Political campaigns always distort the records of their opponents. That's to be expected. What bothers me the most isn't even the way the mainstream media complicitly goes along with it, reporting campaign talking points as if they were facts. The media's always had a love affair with John McCain. I'm not surprised. What bothers me the most is the sheer audacity of the charge. If ever there were a perfect instance of "The pot calling the kettle black," this is it. If you're going to accuse your opponent of flip-flopping you damn well be the textbook model of ideological purity. But John McCain has flip-flopped more than any candidate in recent history, taking whatever position was most politically convenient at any given time over the past 8 years. And these are not minor nuances of different or mere shifts in emphasis. He's been on both sides of many major issues, often at the same time. This includes for and against tax cuts. For and against torture. For and against the religious right. For and against FISA. For and against immigration reform. Frankly, the only position I'm sure John McCain believes in is that he really, really, really likes war.

Personally, I've never believed ideological purity is the best measure of a politician. It takes a lot more than ideological purity to get things done, and it's better to have an impure good ideology than a pure bad one. Minds do, and should change with time. It's far better, I think to judge a candidate based on what they're campaigning on now than on real or apparent inconsistencies with what they've said in the past. However, if the media insists on looking at the candidates through the prism of ideological purity, it's about time they turn it around and look at the candidate they love so dearly.

As a final note, the only good, I think, that can come of this excessive harping on flip-flopping is that if the electorate becomes convinced that both candidates are just typical politicians, this year typical Democrat ought to beat typical Republican by a landslide.

Friday, July 4, 2008

July 4 and True American Patriotism

In honor of our nation's Independence day I wanted to reflect on what it really means to be an American patriot. It seems that in the political arena, most of the time we hear talk about patriotism, it's coming from the right, specifically in the form of questioning the patriotism of those on the left. Ever since 9/11 (really ever since Viet Nam, but in a particularly intensified form since 9/11) the Republican party has tried (often successfully) to portray anyone who does not throw their full support behind their president in whatever he decides to do, as somehow unpatriotic, disloyal or siding with the terrorists. But while Republicans may talk about patriotism a lot, I often wonder if they have any idea what really means. For them, it seems to be about wrapping yourself in the flag, being prepared to die for you country good or bad, and having unquestioning trust that George Bush can keep us safe. I don't think John McCain is lying when he says he loves America, but what does loving America mean when you are preaching the same blind jingoism that runs counter to everything America was founded on? What does in mean to say you love America, when at the same time are preaching that the president should violate and shred the Constitution of the United States with impunity? Faith in one's country without any logical reason has been seen before in history, and typically bears the name fascism. Real patriotism is about a love of the values this country was founded on, and a desire to constantly force the country to be even truer to its own values. This of course, includes criticizing America when it deviates from them. Under President Clinton, America used its army with moral purpose. We were a respected leader in the world. Since Bush took office, America is seen as greedy and imperialist, with only its narrow self-interests in mind. The Republican party has stripped America of its moral standing and moral authority, and McCain preaches nothing but more of the same. How would we plausibly be believed to be promoting freedom and liberty abroad when we're actively trying to undermine it back home? How can we tell other countries about government being accountable to the people when our own government has done everything it can to avoid accountability? Yes, I think the crimes of our current government amount to no less than treason, and John McCain, for supporting them, is an aider and abettor. It's about time Democrats stop responding to attacks on their patriotism, with meek "We're patriotic too," defenses. We should go out on the offense, tell people what the flag really stands for, and remind people just how unpatriotic the Republicans have been. Is Barack Obama the perfect candidate? Of course not. But at least he knows what it means to be a patriot.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Wesley Clark, Military Service, and the Presidency

The latest media-contrived controversy du jour seems to be surrounding Gen. Wesley Clark's comments on Face the Nation this past Sunday that supposedly impugn John McCain's patriotism and seek to discredit his military record. Even the Obama campaign has already started to distance themselves from the comments on the grounds that they would never question another candidate's patriotism. However, looking at the comments, Gen. Clark did nothing of the sort. All he said was that getting shot down is not a qualification to be president, and that being in a non-decision-making position in the military does not indicate you have a better understanding of foreign policy. He didn't call him a babykiller. This wasn't a Swift-Boat type attack that tried to undermine his valor in uniform. He acknowledged that McCain is an American hero. He just reminded us that it takes more than being a hero to be a good president. There ought not to be anything controversial in his comments. I've been saying these things for months. Of course we respect and honor what McCain went through in Viet Nam, but serving with valor does not qualify you to be president. As the McCain and Obama campaigns criticize these remarks, what are they trying to say? That they feel being shot down is a qualification to be president? If that's the case, Obama might as well drop out of the race and endorse McCain.

The funniest thing, I think, about Gen. Clark's comments is that he seemed to be offering more of an explanation for him to be president, than for Obama to be president. After all, for all of McCain's lack of real foreign policy credentials, Obama doesn't exactly have them either. Neither candidate has ever been in a decision-making position when it comes to foreign policy. I suppose Clark was probably trying to do this as a clever ploy to get himself picked as vice president. Judging from the Obama campaign's reaction, it seems to have backfired, though unfairly so. I've already given my opinion about a Clark vice presidency in the last post and I won't say any more about that now.

Four years ago, John Kerry tried to play up his valiant service in Viet Nam as giving him strong foreign policy credentials. Let's hope this tactic works as well for McCain as it did for Kerry. The fact is, military people have a mixed record as presidents, just like non-military people. After all, all of McCain's so-called experience gave him neither the clairvoyance to appreciate the dangers of the war in Iraq, the intelligence to understand who our enemies are and how they think, or the judgment to know when to use force and when to use diplomacy. Obama has shown himself smarter and better prepared on all of these issues despite his short resume. The last 4 elections have each pitted a candidate who served in the military against one who didn't. Each time the one who didn't one. This time around, at least, let's hope that trend continues.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


I don't want to spend to much time on veepstakes speculation as it really is just that: speculation. However, I thought I'd make one brief post to stick my two cents into this. It seems lately that polls and the media are already playing off each other to try and frame this election in terms of the conventional paradigm of Republicans are strong on national security and Democrats are strong on the economy. As the theory goes, whichever of these issues ranks of higher importance in voters' minds on election day will determine who wins. Now, this might have been a plausible paradigm in 1992 when president George H. W. Bush had just fought a successful war in Iraq, but the economy was slipping into recession. It's absurd though, that after 8 years of dubya, anyone could still believe the Republicans are stronger on national security. What have 8 years brought us? A war in Iraq with no end in sight, 4,000 US troops dead (more than were killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11), Al Qaeda growing ever stronger, Iran exerting more influence than ever over the region and coming ever closer to developing nuclear weapons, a North Korea that is reportedly selling nuclear weapons technology to Syria, a Hamas-led government in the Palestinian territories. This administration has been a disaster on national security and McCain offers more the same. If ever there has been a year for Democrats to win the election on national security issues, this is it. And yet, perhaps owing to the length of their respective resumes in the area, the press insists on continuing to portray McCain as strong on national security and Obama as weak. This is why I think Obama needs to pick a running mate with strong, bona fide, national security credentials. Someone who can, and will, forcefully make the case that the Democrats are stronger on national security than the Republicans are. The obvious choices would be Joe Biden, Wesley Clark, Jim Webb, or Sam Nunn. Sam Nunn is probably too old. Jim Webb, while he's obviously been a strong critic of the war in Iraq, I'm not really convinced he shares the basic overall philosophies of the Democratic Party. Between Biden and Clark, though I like them both, and I think they would both be strong picks, my preference goes with Biden. In addition to his national security credentials as chairman of the foreign relations committee, he also brings a long record of accomplishments in Washington, something else Obama is lacking. He will be able to provide president Obama with vital assistance in how to actuallly accomplish things in a city resistant to change.

Perhaps, in the end, Democrats will not be able to claim national security as their issue. There are many people who automatically associate militaristic with strong and non-militaristic with weak. For the good of the country, I hope this is the year Americans finally learn that isn't true. Picking Joe Biden would certainly go a long way towards making that happen.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Post-partisanship and a New Kind of Politics

There seems to be a lot of talk lately about a new kind of politics; of moving to a post-partisan era where we don't think about what party we belong to, only about what is best for America. On the surface, this naturally seems like a wonderful idea. Of course politicians should focus on doing what is best for America. The problem is, more often than not, trying to push for a new kind of politics before you're in office means ensuring you will lose. Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry all lost for this reason. They insisted on taking the high road; on sticking to talking about issues and not responding to personal attacks. You can't change the system if you're not in office, and you can't get in office if you won't play the game as it works now. Taking the high road when you're still a candidate amounts to unilateral disarmament against your opponent. The great irony is Barack Obama, the candidate who talks the most overtly about a new kind of politics is probably a more conventional politician than most Democratic candidates we've seen in quite a while, with the exception of Bill Clinton. And from what I can tell so far, he's a damn good one. He's been effectively hitting back, and hitting back hard every time he's attacked. He made the right decision in forgoing the public funding. Taking it would be a good way to ensure he will lose. The overwhelming advantage he'll get in the fall from all the extra money will more than outweigh getting a few days of bad press for the decision now. And of course, one has to admire the way he played the race card during the primaries and managed to blame the Clintons for it. As a Clinton supporter, I really feel no animosity towards him for this. He played the same game we were and he beat us at it. He earned the right to be our party's nominee, and hopefully he'll run as strong a campaign against McCain as he did against us.

The other major problem with post-partisanship (what we used to call bipartisanship) is what exactly does it mean? Obviously, I want a candidate who puts America first, and if the Democratic party does something wrong is not afraid to stand up and say it. However, I hear a lot of conservative pundits saying that he needs to break with the mainstream of the Democratic party on some issue to show that he's post-partisan. This is absurd. If the Democratic party platform has the right ideas for America, why should a candidate take a stand against it, just to show their post-partisanship? That would be just as bad and not taking a stand against the platform if it is wrong. I'm all for bipartisanship if it means working together with Republicans who decide they want to do what's right and join the Democratic party on any one of its issues. However, if it means having to put together a compromise agenda where each party gets half of what they want, why should I agree to that? The Republican party, as a whole, has been on the wrong side of every issue for the last 60 years. Let's just look at what the Republican ideas are at the present. A never-ending war in Iraq, giving the executive branch unlimited power to ignore the constitution during wartime, cutting taxes even more for the people who need it least, leaving tens of millions of men, women and children without health care, offering fewer veterans' benefits. Not one of these is a good idea. Right now the best way for Democratic politicians to do what's best for America isn't to reach out to compromise with Republicans, it's to beat them into submission. As a friend of mine's father once put it, "I never understood the point of moderation. Who wants to be half way between right and wrong?"

I find it mildly comical that we have two candidates who both appear committed to this "new kind of politics" and are both clearly poised to run one of the most conventional dirty campaigns we've seen. John McCain, I don't think, ever believed in the new kind of politics. For him, and the rest of the Republicans, it's just a tool to bludgeon the Democrats with and make sure the Republicans can continue to win elections ensuring the change to the political system never happens. Barack Obama, I think, deep down does believe we need to fix the way politics works in Washington. However, he realizes that nothing will get fixed if he loses, and so he's not going to make the mistakes of his predecessors and unilaterally disarm against the Republican attack machine. And thank God for that.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Stable Marriage Problem

Since there hasn't been much excitement happening the political world in the last week or so to comment on, I thought I'd do something a little different this time. It's something of a fusion between my interest in mathematics and my interest in politics. A while back, I learned about a mathematical problem known as the stable marriage problem. The professor, of course, warned us about drawing any social implications from this problem. I, of course, promptly ignored her and when I got home wrote an article on the social implications on this problem. I tried unsuccessfully to get the article printed in the actual print media, so I'm publishing it here instead. Here goes:

In the mathematical theory of algorithms we discuss what is known as the stable marriage problem. The problem goes as follows. Suppose we have some number of men and an equal number of women. We will assume all marriages are between a man and a woman. (This is merely to simplify the mathematics. It is not a political statement.) Each man lists all of the women in his order of preference for who he would want to marry. Each woman lists all of the men in her order of preference for who she would want to marry. We will assume everyone would prefer being married, even to the last person on their list, to being single. (Again, this is to simplify the mathematics, and is not a political statement.) The stable marriage problem asks if we can pair up the men and women into couples so that there are no blocking pairs. A blocking pair is defined as a man and women who both prefer each other to their spouses in the given solution. If no such blocking pair exists, we call the set of marriages stable. We can prove that a stable set of marriages always exists. In fact, in most cases, many possible stable marriages exist.

The algorithm to find the stable marriage partners is rather simple to understand. On day 1, each man will propose to the first woman on his list. Any woman who receives just one proposal will accept and the couple gets engaged. If a woman receives more than one proposal, she will accept from the one who is highest up on her list, get engaged to him, and reject the rest. On the second day all the men who are not engaged propose to the next woman down on their list. As before, the women accept the best proposal offered to them. This means even if they were already engaged, they will break the engagement, and instead get engaged to the man they prefer more. This process continues until all men and all women are engaged, and then all the engaged couples get married. I’m not going to give the proof here, as it’s fairly mathematically involved, but take my word for it that these marriages will be stable.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Mathematically, the people are just lists of numbers, so it doesn’t matter who we call the men and who we call the women. We can equally well run the algorithm with the men proposing and the women accepting, as with the women proposing and the men accepting. Both ways will give us a set of stable marriages, but not the same set. Let me define one more term. A partner is said to be feasible to you if there exists some arrangement where you could have a stable marriage with them. We can prove that if the men do the proposing, every man will end up with his most preferred feasible partner and every woman will end up with her least preferred feasible partner. Conversely, if the women do the proposing, every woman will wind up with her most preferred feasible partner and every man will wind up with his least preferred feasible partner. Without going into the details of the proof, let me give some intuition as to why this is true. Think about the preference list for the average person. On the top, you’re going to have the people who are out of your league. On the bottom will be the people you are too good for. Somewhere in the middle will be the feasible partners. If you’re doing the proposals, you start from the top, and work your way down to someone who is in your league. If you’re accepting the proposals, you start by getting proposals from the people you wouldn’t even consider, and accept as soon as you get someone who’s “good enough.”

Obviously, real life marriages do not work quite like this highly simplified mathematical problem, but its social implications still bear tremendous relevance. Though it is starting to change, the dominant social norm in our society is that the men do the marriage proposals. Of course, we can’t say with the same mathematical certainty as we could in our problem that this means every man will end up with his most preferred feasible partner and every woman with her least preferred feasible partner. However, the basic intuition that this system is going to mostly benefit the men still applies. This may seem surprising to some. After all, the system is designed to portray the woman as the one in charge. The man is supposed to make the proposal all romantic, get down on one knee, put the woman up on a pedestal, buy her expensive gifts, etc. This is all an illusion, though. Patriarchal society would never knowingly adopt a social norm that would really give women an edge over men. This all gives lie to conservative apologists who would point to things like this as evidence that old-fashioned socio-cultural norms in fact give more respect to women than modern feminist ones. In reality, the very institutions that seem to give the most respect to the women are mere clever ploys to manipulate the women for the benefit of the men.

However interesting marriage proposals might be, the implications go far beyond marriage proposals or gender dynamics. Any time one person or entity is in a position of power over another, they will tend to maintain this power by giving the other person the illusion of choice. Go to the supermarket to buy laundry detergent. You might see over 15 different brands on the shelf. You might think, “Wow. Look at all the different choices I have. This is really capitalism at its best.” If you read the labels, though, you will see that most of the brands are manufactured by one of three companies. The companies know that people are happier thinking there are 15 different companies competing to make the best product for them than knowing there is a 3-company oligopoly manipulating them for profit. If the one you are dominating thinks they are really in control and does not know you are dominating them, they are far less likely to revolt against the status quo.

It can often be difficult to know when a choice life presents you is a real choice or a fake choice someone is offering you to maintain their dominance over you. However, I think the mathematics of the stable marriage problem holds the keys to the solution. When you get to actively choose what you really prefer, you are the one in control. If you are presented with options and can only passively accept or reject them, someone else may be manipulating you. Now I don’t mean to say that active choices are all good and passive ones all bad. A society without any kind of power relationships may have been the communist dream, but it certainly is not realistic, and probably not even desirable. However, an equitable society must have a proper balance of the power relationships so there aren’t classes of people, some that are always in the active role, and others that are always in the passive role. An awareness of the nature of our relationships is the first step to bring about this positive change.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

More McCain Idiocy on Iran

I just noticed this, and it's great. In his speech to AIPAC last week, John McCain had this to say about Obama's willingness to negotiate with our enemies:

"We hear talk of a meeting with the Iranian leadership offered up as if it were some sudden inspiration, a bold new idea that somehow nobody has ever thought of before."

The funny thing is the Obama campaign has never tried to portray it as a "sudden inspiration" or "bold new idea". They've constantly pointed out that it's the same approach to foreign policy employed by presidents across the political spectrum from John Kennedy to Ronald Reagan. Until now, I thought the McCain line was going to be portraying Obama as a dangerous radical, but now it seems as if he has acknowledged that Obama's view has represented the mainstream foreign policy consensus for decades. In doing so, he has all but acknowledged that his own "war is the only answer" approach is the one offering the radical departure from how diplomacy has traditionally been conducted. It's time for the press to stop portraying this guy as a moderate and tell the American people just how dangerous he is.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

We hardly knew thee, Bobby

If you didn't already know, today June 5, 2008, is the 40th anniversary of Bobby Kennedy being shot. (He didn't die until the 6th. I believe he was shot around 15 minutes to midnight.) It is often mentioned by the media that he was shot the night of the California primary. That is certainly true, but to a Jew and a Zionist, there is another significance to June 5. June 5, 1967, was the start of the 6 Day War in Israel. I don't believe this was a coincidence. During Israel's struggle for survival in 1967 (and of course when you're surrounded by enemies who don't recognize your right to exist as a country, every war is a struggle for survival), she had no bigger supporter in the United States Senate that Bobby Kennedy. His assassin, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, identified his nationality as Palestinian. (The media at the time reported his nationality as Jordanian, as US government policy then did not recognize Palestinian as a nationality.) Sirhan mentioned Kennedy's support for Israel as his motivation for killing him. I think it is fair for us to say that Bobby Kennedy was not merely a great political leader who was assassinated, but the first American victim of Palestinian terrorism.

When Sirhan pulled that trigger, he shot so much more than just Bobby Kennedy. For a time in the 1960s, a generation believed they could change the world. The young people would rally together for peace, equality and justice. Together we could work to end war, racism and poverty. People stood for something other than themselves. No one represented this spirit of the 1960s more than Bobby Kennedy. He knew that government could be a real force of good in the world. He knew that politics was about more than winning elections, it was about making the world a better place. I'm always touched by his last words. On that fateful night in 1968, after he had been shot, lying on the ground with a bullet in his head, soon to go unconscious and never wake up, the last words he uttered were "Is everyone OK?" To the end, all he wanted to do was help people. *sigh* they just don't make politicians like that anymore. I'm also always inspired by the story of how one time some constituents, working poor, not eligible for welfare, came to meet with him. They told him about how hard they were working, but still had trouble earning enough to put food on the table for their families. Within a week, Bobby Kennedy introduced legislation for a new federal program known as "food stamps." No focus groups, no political calculations. He saw people in need, and knew he had to help them.
Here's a speech he made during the presidential campaign that was always one of my favorites:

"Truly we have a great gross national product, almost 800 billion dollars, but can that be the criterion by which we judge this country? Is it enough? For the gross national product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and jails for the people who break them. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife and television programs, which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. And the gross national product, the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, the joy of their play. It is indifferent to the decency of our factories and the safety of our streets alike. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither wit nor courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our duty to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile, and it can tell us everything about America, except why we are proud to be Americans."

If only politicians still talked this way, still recognized it was our responsibility to help those who have no one else to help them. I can never help but wonder how history would have been different if Bobby Kennedy had not been assassinated. He certainly would have won that election in 1968. We would have pulled out of Vietnam at least 5 years earlier than we did and the lives of at least 30000 young American men and women would have been spared. Just think of all the contributions they could have made. The prolonged conflict in Vietnam drove up anti-American sentiment in Asia, strengthened the communist position there, led to the eventual fall of Cambodia and Laos. Maybe if Bobby Kennedy hadn't been assassinated, Russia would have been weaker, and America would have won the cold war sooner. Wars aren't always won by fighting. If Bobby Kennedy was president, we never would have seen the corruption of Richard Nixon, which means Jimmy Carter would probably never have become president. And without the failures of the Carter administration, Ronald Reagan probably never would have become president either. That one bullet from the gun of Sirhan Sirhan changed so much of American history. Sometimes, I've thought about writing a novel with an alternative history where Bobby Kennedy wasn't shot, but then, I'm not much of a novelist.

Bobby Kennedy's death was the end of an era. It was an era that was just getting started when John was killed. It was an era that was devastated when Martin was killed, but knew it had to go on. It just couldn't go on past Bobby's death though. That bullet shattered the dreams of a generation. It shattered the hopes of a better of future. It shattered whatever trust remained in the goodness of humankind. It hopelessly divided the Democratic party, wounds from which they are still recovering.

As we shed a tear today for Bobby Kennedy, let us remember that the best way to honor his memory is through action, not words. Politicians today may not be Bobby Kennedy, but they are still fighting important fights. Today's battle to bring health care to the millions of Americans who still cannot afford it in the richest nation in the world, is just as significant today, as Food Stamps were in 1968. And the Republicans are just as against any kind of progress today as they ever were. Sure they'll couch their arguments in terms of economics, business, taxes, freedom, responsibility, small government, or whatever the buzzword of the day is, but it always seems to boil down to feeling no responsibility to help the less fortunate. People finally seem to be catching on. This could be the year that a united Democratic party finally finishes the job Bobby Kennedy laid out for it in 1968. What better tribute could there be to the 40th anniversary of Bobby Kennedy's death than to give them that opportunity. I'm sure it's what he would have wanted.

"Has anybody here seen my old friend Bobby? Can you tell me where he's gone? I think I saw him walking up over the hill, with Abraham, Martin, and John."
-Abraham, Martin, and John

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


I know it's a little bit late already, but I really wanted to discuss this.
Bush's speech to the the Knesset was overall a beautiful speech, and I don't generally have too many kind words to say about Bush. However, his unfortunate comments about appeasement were truly a disgrace. When a president of the United States is visiting a foreign country, they are a representative of our country, not of their political party, and it is simply not the place to be making partisan political points. I will grant it's not entirely clear he was talking about Barack Obama. He may, for instance, have been talking about Jimmy Carter. However, anyone who's been around politics long enough is aware that "There are those" is always code for "My political opponents" in a way that can give you plausible deniability when accused of negative campaigning and put your opponents on the defensive.

Beyond the disgrace of politicizing a speech to a foreign government is the sheer factual inaccuracy of the comment. We can argue over the wisdom of talking with our enemies (and I will address this shortly), but equating it with the appeasement of Hitler is just not true. When we talk about the Munich conference, the appeasement was not in the fact that we were talking to Hitler, it was in the fact that we gave him parts of Czechoslovakia. The real irony in all this, is that when it come to his policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bush has been one of the worse appeasers of all time. Sure, he'll make real tough speeches, and have his minions on the right go out and deliver talking points about he's the best friend Israel has ever had, and how the Democrats can't be trusted, but his actions simply do not match his rhetoric. In the face of Palestinian terrorism, Bush and his administration have continuously pressured Israel to remove security fences, stop settlement growth, and remove checkpoints at border crossings as "gestures of good faith." Well, while talking with terrorists might not be appeasement, gestures of good faith to them certainly are. Whatever decline there's been in terrorism is certainly not the result of Bush's policies, but of Ariel Sharon's wisdom in ignoring them.

But what about this issue of talking itself? I must say, when I first heard the idea, I was skeptical. As I've said before, I was a Clinton supporter, and was far more sympathetic to her position. However, the more I've researched the idea, the more I like it. As others have already pointed out numerous times, there really is nothing radical in the proposal. Presidents from Kennedy to Nixon to Reagan met with the leaders of China or the Soviet Union. (As an aside, if John McCain thinks Iran is a bigger threat than the Soviet Union was, he's either delusional, or has no understanding of foreign policy, or as I suspect, both. The Soviet Union had nuclear weapons. Iran is only trying to get them. I will grant that if they ever actually got them, they could be more dangerous than the Soviet Union was, but currently they're not even close.) The one thing else I'd like to add is that Obama's proposal really reminds me of the aphorism of one of John McCain's political heroes, Teddy Roosevelt. "Speak softly and carry a big stick." The military option's always on the table, and when you go in to negotiate, you make sure they know that, and then you see what concessions you can get out of them. You may get nothing, and have to resort to military actions, but there's nothing lost by talking to them first. As Joe Biden astutely pointed out, "Talking to someone doesn't mean we're giving up our ability to say no to them."

Some people seem to be worried that talking to someone grants them legitimacy. First of all, I don't think it's true. Talking to an enemy doesn't make them any less our enemy. Second of all, I don't think nations like Iran care very much about legitimacy from the US. These people would have you believe that while these nations talk about destroying us, the thing they really seek is our approval. If they cared in the least about our approval, the would have abandoned their bellicose ways a long time ago. Now obviously, if we want to maximize our hope of getting concessions from them, there needs to be significant preparation before the presidential meeting, and Obama has made it clear he would make those. I'm reasonably certain those kinds of lower level meetings are going on even now. They usually happen in secret. One more caveat I should add is I do think there's a different between a President Obama meeting with Iran, and Jimmy Carter meeting with Hamas. First of all, negotiations have to be done with an official representative of the government. Second of all, negotiating with your own enemies is one thing, but going behind your ally's back to negotiate with their enemies without them being involved, could really undercut their position.

Now John McCain at least has been consistent with his position on this issue most of the time. This is the man who criticized Bill Clinton in 1994 for making a deal with North Korea instead of attacking them. The man has no tolerance for evil in the world and thinks the only appropriate response is to destroy it militarily. There's a certain quixotic nobility to the position. I wish we could just destroy all evil in the world too. However, we're not all-powerful and it isn't a world of absolutes. Sometimes we need to cut deals with people we don't like to get the lesser of 2 evils. This certainly seems preferable to all out war with North Korea. The more I listen to the candidates, the more I am convinced that Obama understands the realities of the world and offers a progressive, pragmatic approach for dealing with them, whereas John McCain's approach is "simplistic" and "dangerously naive."

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Obama and Israel

Even though, I've been a Clinton supporter since the beginning, as it seems like the race is nearing its end and Obama is going to be the nominee, I'm going to make my first post about him.

Obviously, it's reasonable to not want to vote for a candidate based on their stated position on any given issue. What astounds me about Obama is the number of people I've met who seem not to want to vote for him based on positions he's never taken. In particular, I would like to address the fact that no matter what he says, people seem to want to portray him as an enemy of Israel.

Obama has time and again expressed his unyielding support for the security of the State of Israel, most significantly in his recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic Online. This interview really goes beyond the standard boilerplate speech ("Israel is a strategic and moral ally, and her security is absolutely vital to America's interests") every politician running for national office will deliver to the AIPAC convention, though I don't wish to diminish the importance of those speeches. This is personal. It is passionate. It shows a very deeply rooted understanding of the significance of Zionism to the Jewish people that we seldom hear these days. Take for instance:

"I think that the idea of a secure Jewish state is a fundamentally just idea, and a necessary idea, given not only world history but the active existence of anti-Semitism, the potential vulnerability that the Jewish people could still experience. I know that that there are those who would argue that in some ways America has become a safe refuge for the Jewish people, but if you’ve gone through the Holocaust, then that does not offer the same sense of confidence and security as the idea that the Jewish people can take care of themselves no matter what happens. That makes it a fundamentally just idea."

or this:

"I think the idea of Israel and the reality of Israel is one that I find important to me personally. Because it speaks to my history of being uprooted, it speaks to the African-American story of exodus, it describes the history of overcoming great odds and a courage and a commitment to carving out a democracy and prosperity in the midst of hardscrabble land. One of the things I loved about Israel when I went there is that the land itself is a metaphor for rebirth, for what’s been accomplished."

And yet, there are those who would maintain that this is no more than election-year pandering for Jewish votes, designed to disguise his real views which are far more sinister. Now I wasn't born yesterday; I know politicians, including Obama, do pander, and aren't always completely honest. For the most part, though, when politicians lie, the lies take one of two forms. One is exaggerating their accomplishments. This Obama has certainly done, like when he tried to claim a 3 week trip to Pakistan when he was in college as foreign policy experience. (McCain, of course, is the worst at this, when he tries to claim that being a prisoner of war gives him foreign policy credentials. We all respect the hardship he went through, but gimme a break, sitting in prison and being tortured does not make you an expert on how to protect our country.) The other typical kind of political lie is promising more than you know you can deliver, i.e. pandering, and examples of this are too numerous to list here. (Of course, there's also the ever popular "I did not have sex with _____" lie, but that doesn't relate to the person's politics, so it doesn't really concern me.) Politicians, by and large, do not deliberately misrepresent their ideologies as the exact opposite of what they actually are. It take a truly corrupt politician, like George W. Bush or Richard Nixon, to do that. I have no reason to believe Barack Obama is that corrupt, any more than I do John McCain is. After all, if election year pledges of support to Israel are suspect as mere pandering, why shouldn't John McCain's be suspect as well?

I know some people will tell me that John McCain has a long record of support for Israel to back up his election-year claims that Barack Obama lacks. It is true that Obama's record is short: a natural consequence of having only come onto the national political scene 4 years ago. But the record he has amassed in 4 years is absolutely perfect. He has a 100% pro-Israel voting record according to AIPAC. He has expressed support for Israel in specific, detailed ways in speech after speech, even to groups that weren't necessarily receptive to the ideas. I would dare anyone to find one negative comment about Israel in Obama's record. Of course, we can debate what impact his other policies might indirectly have on Israel, and perhaps I will dedicate another post to talking about this, but even if you disagree with him as to how to best support Israel, that's a far cry from saying he doesn't have Israel's best interests at heart. Despite all this, I think there are 4 reasons by people are still skeptical:

1) Anonymous emails
These have been so thoroughly debunked by this point that I'm not going to devote any extra time to talking about them, though there are people who insist on believing them.

2) Rev. Wright

Barack Obama's pastor of many years, a man with whom, until recently, he seemed to have a very close relationship, has definitively anti-Israel views (not to mention some rather nutty positions on a host of other issues). I think any attempt to make Obama somehow culpable for this is a ridiculous guilt-by-association charge. The man running for president is Barack Obama, not Jeremiah Wright, and Obama has made it perfectly clear all along that those views are not his own. True, he didn't denounce Rev. Wright by name until recently, but when he states an opinion, and that opinion is not the same as what Rev. Wright espouses, it is clear that he is disagreeing with Rev. Wright. He doesn't need to follow up every opinion with a list of friends who disagree with it. And it is perfectly reasonable to have friends, even close friends, with whom you have strong political disagreements. I know I have friends I wouldn't necessarily trust as president, but that doesn't mean I have to stop being friends with them. Heck, if I left every synagogue where the Rabbi said something I disagreed with, I wouldn't have any place in the world to pray. It's absurd to say that for someone to be president, they not only need to be pro-Israel, but every one of their friends needs to pass the Israel test as well. If that becomes legitimate, there won't be a person left who's eligible. Believe me, I'm sure we could find a few anti-Israel statements from friends of John McCain as well.

3) Liberalism

There has been a growing distrust of liberals with regards to Israel in recent years, and Barack Obama is, no doubt, a liberal. It is true that there are some vocal critics of Israel on the fringe left, but this is by no means representative of liberals in general. Besides, for every Ralph Nader or Al Sharpton you find on the left, you'll find a Bob Novak or Pat Buchanan on the right. The mainstream Democratic Party has always been committed to the security of the State of Israel. The list of speakers at any AIPAC conference always includes just as many Democrats as Republicans, and in fact, since the Democrats took control of congress, the amount of foreign aid to Israel has increased. I have worked closely with many young activists of the Democratic Party, and believe me, the commitment to Israel is as strong as it ever was.

4) Race

It is sad to say this, but think one of the biggest reasons many people still don't trust Barack Obama on Israel is his race. Unfortunately, there have been a few prominent leaders of the African American community lately, like Jesse Jackson or Louis Farrakhan, who have not been the biggest friends of Israel. However, anyone who has ever listened to Barack Obama speak knows he does not buy into their divisive rhetoric. He is far more like the uniting (and staunchly pro-Israel) Martin Luther King Jr. To try and lump Obama together with the demagogues merely because he shares their skin color, is blatantly racist and I hope we can all rise above that.

I would like to conclude by pointing out that Israel has enjoyed strong bipartisan support for her entire existence, and it is to Israel's benefit for it to continue to enjoy strong bipartisan support. Anyone who would try to use Israel to score partisan points (and I'm not accusing John McCain personally of doing this) instead of framing it as the one issue we can all unite around, definitely does not have Israel's best interests at heart. Given, everything I've discussed, I think in order for anyone to continue to seriously believe Barack Obama is not on Israel's side, they would have to be willing to believe conspiracy theories on the level of The Manchurian Candidate. The kind of conspiracy theory I might expect Rev. Wright to believe, but not any intelligent, rational voter.