Sunday, December 21, 2008

Bush's best line

"I suspected there would be a good size crowd once the word got out about my hanging."

In response to the unveiling of his presidential portrait. Now that he's leaving, I'm finally starting to appreciate his sense of humor.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Shoe-thower beaten

How deeply and truly boneheaded do you have to be, to abuse the guy in custody who threw his shoe at President Bush (al-Zaidi)? He's already a hero to many in the Middle East and around the world. It's not like they're even trying to extract intelligence from him. This will make the guy a freaking saint.

Five of these things belong together

Question: What do these five men have in common?

a) Their religious beliefs inspire them to love their neighbor and pursue peace with their enemies.
b) They believe that the separation of church and state is the foundation of a successful democracy.
c) They are conservative fundamentalists who believe that religious authority should trump public deliberation in policy-making, made evident in their anti-gay positions.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Worst predictions

Here's a good reason why political scientists should perhaps try to understand and explain events, but should be wary of trying to predict the future.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Universal health care equals socialism

As you know, I love reading Sullivan's blog, even when I disagree with him. And I'm not sure I've ever disagreed with him more than today, with his posts that are dismissive of a national health system that would provide universal coverage. In criticizing the British system, Sullivan praises of some kind of nebulous freedom that doesn't actually exist in health care for the majority of Americans.

I think the key phrase that he uses is, "if most Americans with insurance" had to live under the British system, they wouldn't like it. Ah, there's the rub. We have almost 50 million citizens -- roughly comparable to the entire British population -- without any insurance. Their "freedom to choose a doctor" consists of not going to a doctor when they're sick, or going to the ER when they get really sick, leaving them with the "freedom" to pay a big medical bill that they can't afford at the end.

At least an equivalent number of Americans are under-insured. Their "freedom" consists in choosing between a couple of employer-sponsored plans whose premiums (even when the employer covers half or more) are still more expensive than the cost to the average British taxpayer. The 100-page HMO documents are totaly incomprehensible unless you're a medical or insurance expert, leaving HMOs with plenty of legal loopholes to deny claims when they receive them.

Then there are the pretty-well-insured, like my parents, who are reasonably wealthy. They pay the high premiums, but can afford it. This year, when my dad had the audacity to need a quadruple bypass and heart valve replacement, he freely chose an excellent doctor and received high quality care. Thank goodness he is recovering -- no doubt, that is an advantage of the U.S. health system. And still, after the HMO paid their part, my parents are saddled with an almost six-figure bill that they're scrambling to pay.

It's no wonder that, according to a 2005 Harvard study, two million Americans go bankrupt each year (about half the total bankruptcies) because of medical bills. Seventy-five percent of those people actually have health insurance. The U.S. spends a whopping 16% of our GDP on health care, but our infant mortality rate is worse than Cuba, and our life expectancy is just below Bosnia. I love my country like my own family, which is why I find these figures so disgraceful.

Look, there are a lot of different ways to get to universal and equitable coverage, with or without a UK-style single payer system. But if universal health care equals socialism, then I say, guilty as charged.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Why gay marriage failed in CA

Look at these numbers, and tell me -- exactly how did the passage of Proposition 8 get blamed on black Obama voters?

Thailand: People power in reverse

I lived in Thailand for a year (a long time ago), and visited several times, but I'm no expert on Thai politics. So maybe someone can give me a good justification for the yellow-shirted PAD protestors' demands that the Prime Minister resign and the electoral system be changed?

I know there are reasonable charges of corruption and nepotism against PM Somchai, and I know that the rural poor (who are Somchai's base supporters) can be manipulated with populist rhetoric. So the PAD supporters have some legitimate grievances. But their response has been to shut down the main airports, thus setting back the Thai economy, and to demand an end to one-person one-vote, thus setting back the Thai democracy. Aren't there better ways to accomplish the "reforms" the PAD seeks, such as getting the courts to prosecute corruption (which eventually happened), and changing your own party's platform to make it more attractive to poor rural voters? In the absence of those measures, it seems that the PAD supporters are mostly fighting a class war to protect their own self-interests.

So this episode reminds us that nonviolent strategies can be used to effectively promote both progressive and somewhat regressive social change. People tend to associate nonviolence with progressive idealism, and that's a fair association, but certainly not a universal one.

One silver lining in this cloud: The protests on both sides have largely remained nonviolent. Even when the Thai military intervened in 2006 with a silent coup, there was little to no bloodshed, and democratic institutions returned quickly. So let's not lose the forest for the trees. For me, the forest is that a democratic culture and institutions continue to advance in Thailand, despite some setbacks along the way.

Back again

For my regular readers (both of you), apologies for the extended lay-off. Thanksgiving holiday, turkey food-coma lasting several days, end-of-semester stuff -- you know the drill. But I'm back.

Potato, Potah-to, Mumbai, Bombay

In a post yesterday, Sullivan agreed with Hitchens, saying that we should go back to referring to Mumbai as Bombay, since the city was officially named Mumbai to appease Hindu nationalists in 1996. Today, one of his readers corrects him, noting that Mumbai is not (or not just) a Hindu nationalist name, and that Bombay is a British/Portuguese colonial invention. So we've got a choice between a sectarian religious symbol and a Western imperialist one.

Yet again, like most things in international relations, things aren't as simple as they seem. We like to categorize the world into good and bad, but it's never so clear.

Indeed, the other supposedly "clear" example of renaming that Sullivan points to is the change from Burma to Myanmar that the military dictatorship (the SPDC -- another Orwellian name, but I digress) imposed in 1989. Most Western and Burmese human rights activists still call the country Burma, in order to oppose the military regime and stand up for democracy. (Hell, I still call the airport in Alexandria "National Airport," but again, I digress.) But alas, it's not so simple again. There are some good reasons to call it Myanmar rather than Burma. For example, when I was on the Thai-Burma border last year with a group of AU students, we spoke to a few Burmese human rights activists who preferred "Myanmar," because "Burma" is associated with one of the dominant ethnic groups (Burman) rather than the nation as a whole.

So anyway, I guess the bottom line is: Names matter, because people associate ideas with them, and those ideas shape actions. But it's always complicated; names mean different things. And despite the complication, you still have to pick a side. So until further notice, I remain opposed to the dictatorship in Burma and the terrorism in Mumbai.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The punditry on Obama's appointments

As a recent glutton of political news, I've been reading some of the analyses of Obama's possible appointments to the Cabinet and other administration posts. Lots of ink is being shed over Emanuel, Clinton, Daschle, Holder, Gates, Hagel, Napolitano, and most recently, John Brennan as possible CIA chief. (Sullivan is livid about that last one.)

Here are my thoughts. First of all, do you notice the word "possible" a couple of times in that last paragraph? Most of these people haven't even been officially offered positions yet. So I'm not getting too worked up.

Second, whoever is eventually appointed to these positions will have some degree of autonomy in carrying out their executive (and sometimes legislative) functions. So it is absolutely fair to analyze their past behavior and the likely actions they would take in the upcoming administration. So, for example, it's reasonable to be concerned about whether a SecDef Gates would be inclined to start withdrawing troops from Iraq, since he has largely overseen Bush's surge strategy.

Third, it's also fair to speculate about what these possible appointments tell us about Obama's own plans for the next four years. The appointees' positions probably reflect a little bit on Obama's positions. But I want to emphasize, "a little bit." That's my main point here. Ultimately, Obama is the boss, and the buck stops there. So he will (and should) be appointing people who can help him accomplish his goals. Sometimes, those people might disagree with him on particular policies, but they are fundamentally contracted to implement Obama's policies.

So that's why my reaction to a possible Brennan appointment to the CIA is mixed. If Brennan is as ambivalent about torture and illegal detention as Sullivan claims, then we should absolutely be concerned. Indeed, if Brennan was legally complicit in Bush-Cheney-Tenet war crimes at the CIA, he should be disqualified, period. But if Brennan does eventually get selected, I wouldn't interpret that as a clear and convincing sign that Obama has backtracked from his commitment to end human rights abuses. Obama is the boss, and Brennan would have to obey his directives. If the directives change, or Brennan goes rogue, then let's talk.

Am I being too credulous of Obama here? Do I have "Yes We Can" blinders on? Perhaps.

Happy Thanksgiving, from Gov. Palin

Just when you thought that wearing a blue suit in front of a blue backdrop was the ultimate press conference faux-pas, here comes Governor Palin to the rescue!

(Warning: Cover the kids' eyes.)

Obviously, this doesn't make Palin "cruel to turkeys" or anything silly like that. Many of us eat dead turkeys for Thanksgiving, and I know I'll eat more than my share next week. But doesn't it say something about her judgment and common sense?

Or maybe I'm not giving her enough credit. Maybe she did this intentionally to convey a subliminal message to all of us... The mainstream media are a bunch of turkeys? The presidential campaign was a bit like slaughtering turkeys? (Wait, who would be the turkey in that analogy? OK, forget that one.)

Man, it sure was funny though.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The cultural left and piracy

I've figured out who's responsible for all of this new piracy off the coast of Somalia: Disney! Those cultural leftists in America have romanticized the profession and made it seem cool.

You know, kinda like what D'Souza argues about Islamic terrorism.

Lost in translation

I'm trying to figure out why al Qaeda provided English subtitles on their latest rant by al-Zawahiri against Obama and the Crusaders. (Hey, that sounds like a cool band name.)

Does al Qaeda believe that we don't have any Arabic translators here? Or maybe they're taking classes in strategic political communication, and really want to make sure that "house negro" isn't mis-translated as "house slave"? Or maybe they're just trying to be culturally sensitive by making it easy on us?

I don't get it. Do they seriously think they can win American hearts and minds by communicating in English? Their target audience is clearly not English-speaking folks.

Christianism XII: It's not our fault the GOP lost

Self-described member of the religious right, Joe Carter, isn't so happy about recent claims that evangelicals contributed to the GOP election defeat by alienating moderate voters. His rationale? After all these years of patting their own backs about how much influence they had in government, now they really didn't have any influence at all:
"Evangelicals constitute the largest single voting bloc in America, yet what do we have to show for it? Can Parker (or anyone else) name the significant achievements of evangelicals over the past few years? I can’t think of anything."
Really? Here's a short list off the top of my head in under 90 seconds. I'm sure others can add dozens of other examples.
  • George W. Bush, 2000
  • George W. Bush, 2004
  • Samuel Alito and John Roberts
  • Successful anti-gay marriage resolutions in 30+ states
  • Successful limitations on abortion at the state level
  • Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003
  • The invasion of Iraq
  • PEPFAR and the MCA (on the good side, for a change)
  • etc...

Were evangelicals the only constituency that made these things happen? Of course not. Were they a key constituency? Yes.

But now that they're in the minority, I suppose it's time to trot out the old victim mentality again.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Christianism XI: It's about the political power, stupid

Former pastor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is upset with the likes of Pat Robertson, Bob Jones, and John Hagee for endorsing candidates that didn't share the same level of Christian commitment as Huckabee did. During the Republican primaries, they endorsed Giuliani, Romney, and McCain, respectively.

At one level, I have to give credit to these Christianist leaders for being politically savvy enough to place their bet on a stronger horse. It would have been virtous for them to endorse Huckabee, but ultimately not very effective. (Of course, McCain lost too, but at least he had a better chance.)

At another level, you realize what it really is that these Christianist leaders are after: political power. They want to rule over This Kingdom, and not just to save souls, but also to lower taxes, "win" the war against Islam(ic extremism?), stop gays from marrying, and criminalize abortion.

Now, you might say, they only want political power as a means to achieve deeper religious goals, so it's still inherently "Christian." Fair enough, but I still think the motivation is more political than religious, because the way in which they define those "religious" goals is through an almost exclusively political prism. I mean, did Jesus really preach against the evils of raising the highest marginal tax rate by 3%? Are you really disqualified from receiving the eucharist if you voted for Obama? I must have missed that day in Sunday school.

The first of many Hitler comparisons

And he hasn't even taken office yet! But that shouldn't stop the fearmongering. By the way, who knew that Hitler was a Marxist too!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Truth vs. justice, American style

There's a pretty big debate in the field of "transitional justice" about whether human rights violators should be prosecuted or given amnesty after their regime ends. We typically discuss this debate in the context of distant countries like South Africa, Afghanistan, Guatemala, etc. On the one hand, prosecutions ostensibly reinforce the rule of law; on the other hand, reconciliation is supposed to pave the road to long-term peace.

Well whad'dya know, this question is now front and center here at home. In January, the U.S. will be transferring leadership, and thus changing some of the ways in which the "war on terror" is conducted. Meanwhile, independent war-crimes experts have noted that there is plenty of evidence already out there to pursue criminal prosecutions against Bush Administration officials, at least as high up as Cheney, for human rights violations such as torture and disappearances. Some human rights advocates are demanding that we must prosecute them in order to send a message to the rest of the world that we apply the rule of law to everyone.

So, should Obama "bring the violators to justice," or should he pursue "truth and reconciliation"? As much as I'm disgusted by the crimes of the Bush Administration, I'm inclined to support the latter. Indeed, that seems to be the direction that Obama is heading as well.

Why don't I support criminal prosecutions? First, I think any prosecutions of senior leaders would be perceived as political revenge rather than impartial justice. As a result, they would be largely seen as illegitimate, and not very feasible in the first place. Second, Obama is trying to set a tone of reconciliation and bipartisanship, and prosecutions would be so controversial that they would consume his entire first term. It would likely handcuff his ability to get much done on the economy, health care, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. Third, simply establishing some kind of truth commission (via congressional hearings or a special bipartisan panel like the 9/11 Commission) would be a huge step forward in acknowledging the sins of the past and laying the groundwork for reform. A truth commission would also be controversial, but if it was organized in the right way, it could actually build public consensus about how to move forward. Fourth, a truth commission would not preclude going after prosecutions at some point in the future. Even in countries where amnesties have been given, such as Chile, they can later be revoked or overridden by a different judicial body.

So yes, we need a full and public accounting of the ways in which the Bush Administration violated the Geneva Conventions, the Convention against Torture, our own Constitution, and various other standards of decency. But at least for the time being, human rights activists should back off from their demands for prosecution in the interests of moving forward.

Focus on your own Family

.... was my favorite home-made sign at the rally in Orlando today in favor of gay marriage. And this one:

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Interfaith "dialogue"?

In my Conflict Resolution class last semester, I ran a short exercise for a session on religion and conflict. I pretended to be a fictitious theocratic leader who wanted to engage the students in a "dialogue" about how to reform my country. As we began to talk, I slowly introduced a series of completely unacceptable norms about how the dialogue should proceed -- for example, women were not allowed to speak, any reforms had to be consistent with my extremely masogynistic sacred text, etc. Needless to say, the dialogue didn't go so well.

Since AU IPCR students love dialogue (for good reason), the exercise was designed to show some of the limitations and tensions inherent in the concept of dialogue. Most people realize the "realist" limitation -- that some leaders use dialogue simply to manipulate people and increase their self-interests. But more philosophically, if you're going to have a Habermasian or Hans Kung-style dialogue, you have to assume a common normative foundation to begin with. Everyone has to agree on the basic terms, standards, and reference points, or else people will simply be talking past each other.

Now it seems that life may be imitating art. Saudi Arabia, a systematic violator of religious freedom, is leading a UN-sponsored forum on interfaith dialogue this week. The fox is leading a dialogue in the henhouse. So my question is, What kind of situation is this?

1) "Realist" Saudi Arabia is putting on a show to keep the dollars flowing in?
2) A theocracy wants to talk about faith, but because of a lack of agreement on basic norms, people will be talking past each other?
3) Through an ongoing dialogue, some basic norms can be agreed upon, moving Saudi Arabia and other nations further in the direction of reform and secular democracy?

"Reform" in Burma: A bad joke

Burma (or Myanmar) is one of the longest-standing dictatorships in the world, and one of the worst. Forced labor, ethnic cleansing, torture, and political imprisonment are regular features of the SPDC regime.

There appear to be two possible pathways to democracy in Burma. Actors like ASEAN and China argue for "constructive engagement," in which ongoing economic links and quiet diplomacy are supposed to encougage the regime to pursue political reforms. Others, including most Burmese activists, the U.S. government, and human rights NGOs, argue for isolating and pressuring Burma until the current regime falls.

Recent events, such as the imprisonment of the Saffron revolution activists, continue to point to the fruitlessness of the first approach. It increasingly appears that the SPDC's steps toward political "reform" are a sham meant to delay and distract the international community. It increasingly seems that the only way toward progress in Burma is a complete regime change. There is obviously no easy way to accomplish this, but the first step would be to get everyone on the same page -- especially ASEAN and China -- about the ultimate goal.

A side note: On a student-led trip to the Thai-Burma border last January, we met several Burmese democracy activists who had spent a decade or more in prison. Each of them personally described the utterly inhumane conditions under which they were held, which included routine torture and the denial of basic necessities in custody. And still, the democratic opposition to the SPDC somehow remains largely nonviolent.

Why is Palin still in the news?

Since the election ended, Sarah Palin has been talking to lots of reporters, defending her record and her part in the failed campaign. And the bloggers I read have kept a sharp focus on her lies, distortions, and gaps in basic knowledge of national policy.

Is this just some kind of personal vendetta against Palin? No, as Sullivan argues, the media's treatment of Palin, and the fact that she got 46% of the vote, tells us an important lesson about our society. A candidate who is largely a sham can get pretty close to power.

But I'd go a step further than that. I think it's important to keep talking about Palin, not just because of what it tells us about America, but also because she is an actual threat to run in 2012. She clearly has national ambitions and a dedicated base. With four more years of tutoring, she can probably learn to speak on the issues about as competently as George W. Bush did in 2000. And we elected him twice.

So as much as I'm happy that America repudiated the cynical politics of this campaign, I also wouldn't underestimate our ability to be fooled by it again. That's why the lies, extremism, incompetence and unseriousness of this potential presidential candidate need to be exposed.

A tale of two schools

My daughter's second-grade class put on a little musical about America on Tuesday, to celebrate Veterans Day. They recited the preamble to the Constitution, sang songs about American history, and did other patriotic stuff. My daughter's favorite line that she memorized was, "African Americans did not share the same rights as whites until the Emancipation Proclamation, signed in 1863." She loved repeating Emancipation Proclamation over and over when she was home practicing.

It was really a touching performance. Her class is quite racially diverse, so it was especially cool seeing kids of all colors singing side by side, "This is America, a land of true equality." Our president-elect wasn't mentioned by name, but a week after the election, it was clearly part of the subtext.

Then, this morning, I read the tale of another school in Idaho, where kids were chanting "Assassinate Obama" on the school bus.

Which one is the "real America"?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Stimulus package envy

Since the U.S. government is mired in debt, our ability to borrow more money to finance a stimulus package is severely limited. U.S. economists are talking about spending maybe 1-3% of GDP to help cushion the blow of the recession.

Compare that with China, which just announced a stimulus package of somewhere around 15% of GDP. China will spend it on "low-income housing, rural infrastructure, water, electricity, transportation, the environment, technological innovation and rebuilding from several disasters." It has been described as China's New Deal, directed toward the rural and urban poor who have not benefitted from globalization.

Ah, it would be nice to have a huge current account surplus and lots of dollar reserves, wouldn't it?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Score one for human rights

Obama is already starting to plan the closing of the Guantanamo detention center and replace Bush's military tribunals with a form of justice more consistent with basic rights. Most likely, some of the remaining prisoners will be released, some will be tried in federal courts, and others will be tried in a new hybrid court. The last option is still controversial, but I have some faith that President Obama, a constitutional expert, will be able to balance due process and security concerns. Does anyone still have that faith in Bush? I didn't think so.

I'm not feeling a whole lot of cognitive dissonance about the election at this point.

Obama meets with Bush today

... and fulfills his first campaign promise, to meet with aggressive dictators without preconditions.

OK, I didn't make that up, but thought it was funny. It's still hard to believe that only 71 days remain before W is replaced by O in the White House.

A New Deal stimulus package

Robert Reich makes the case for a really big stimulus package, comprised of government spending on infrastructure and energy, rather than tax cuts.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Rahm Emanuel

I'm not concerned about his effectiveness as Chief of Staff, I'm concerned about the message it sends.

Memo to Obama: Appoint a prominent Republican to your Cabinet or senior staff, soon! Like now, if possible.

Relishing victory

OK, so we all know Obama's win was inspirational, historic, and signals a welcome (though not wholesale) change in the direction of domestic and foreign policy. But his victory also means that the dirt about the McCain/Palin campaign is rising to the surface quickly. It's impossible not to feel a little schadenfreude about this video from Fox.

I thought some descriptions of Palin from the center/left were a bit hyperbolic during the campaign, but maybe they were more accurate than anyone knew. In a scary way, it really is reminiscent of this.

And they still won 57 million votes!

Return to normalcy

Two days after the election, and normal life has returned pretty quickly. I'm still buzzing every time I repeat those three words in my head, but everything else has returned to the regular routine. The political pundits are already critiquing Obama's transition decisions. A part of me is disappointed, because America should really have some kind of national holiday to celebrate this achievement.

But part of me welcomes the normalcy. Obama's administration will, in most ways, be a normal presidency, with all the successes and failures and support and criticism that this entails. But that's the beauty of it. Constructivists say that norms and ideas become institutionalized by progressing through stages, from seeming impossible at first, then hard-to-believe, to eventually becoming taken-for-granted. When talking about our center-left bi-racial president becomes boring, I'll take that as a sign of progress.

The ongoing battle

Peter Howard has a good post at the Duck about the battle over the post-election narrative:
"The reality is, numbers do not make a mandate. The mandate comes from the story that will become the conventional narrative as to how Obama won the campaign and the narrative of his governing agenda. The stakes in these election post-mortems are high, as it sets the priorities for the governing of the country."
Well said, Peter. And speaking of that, you won our fantasy baseball league because my best players got injured!

Really, you can see the battle over the narrative in the post-mortem analyses on all the networks. For example, I was struck on Tuesday night by how much the election was defined as a "victory for African-Americans" rather than a "victory for America" (although both are absolutely true). Now, the narrative battle is about which question will dominate: Will Obama govern from the center and restrain the "far-left" Democrats? Or, does Obama have a mandate to implement the policies he promised in his campaign? As political agenda-setting theorists would tell you, to the extent that the second question even gets asked, it will open more space for Obama to implement things like expanding health care coverage, exiting Iraq, more open diplomacy, etc.

Why Obama won

The pundits are dissecting every part of the campaign, and they're coming up with plenty of explanations. But it really comes down to two things: music and Denzel Washington.

OK, only joking. But it reminds me of a true story -- at the very first Obama rally I attended in DC in the fall of 2007, I talked to a twenty-something guy who used to volunteer for Hillary, but switched over to Obama. I asked why he switched, and he said, "Obama rallies have so much better music." Of course he was joking too, but it was actually a good symbol of the generational appeal that Obama represents.

And speaking of music, as I was listening to U2 in the car this morning, I thought, "Is any band better suited to play at the inauguration party?" January 20 will certainly be a Beautiful Day. Someone better give Mr. Paul Hewson a call.

(Hat tip: Pat)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Thank God, marriage is saved

"Love is a temple, love the higher law,
You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl."
- U2, One

It looks like Prop. 8 in California, Prop. 2 in Florida, and similar state ballot initiatives passed this year.

You know, Amy and I were having some troubles and I was just about to divorce her. But thank goodness these ballot initiatives have come along to "protect" my marriage. (Or, to be more accurate, thank God, if you know what I mean.) I suppose we'll stay together now.

Seriously though, these initiatives strip gay couples of equal rights and single them out for legal discrimination. While they may protect a religious conservative's particularist definition of "marriage," they do absolutely nothing to keep people together in loving relationships, straight or (especially) gay. Is there any plausible rationalist justification for these initiatives, or are they entirely dependent on religious fundamentalism and a lack of exposure to alternative lifestyles? I just can't come up with any rational justification.

As much as Obama's victory was a huge step forward, this is a significant step backward. But I agree with Sullivan: the trends of history are working in our favor. Keep working at it, and we'll achieve equality. One step at a time, my motto for the day.

One small step

"Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies."
- Andy Dufresne

I'm overcome with thoughts and emotions about this historic day, November 4, 2008. I'm so glad I was able to share it with my wife, my 7-year old daughter, and my 5-year old son. We all stayed up late to watch the results, with Tyler cheering every "point" Obama won (she's still too young for the Electoral College), and Owen finally falling asleep on the couch. The world that they will inherit just took one small step forward.

"The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice."

I bought an American flag this morning. I have always loved my country, and I have always been proud of our amazing accomplishments and disappointed when we fail to uphold our highest ideals. But I have sometimes been reluctant to fly the American flag, because the flag is a symbol, and too often it has symbolized a jingoistic nationalism, the stifling of dissent, exclusionist values, and the belief that our country is somehow morally superior by birthright. Until today. Today, at least for me, the flag represents our highest ideals. E pluribus unum, baby. Yes we can.

I know that with every step forward, there is a backlash, and there will be plenty of resistance to a center-left Democratic government led by a bi-racial president. But at least for a moment, let's revel in the fact that the arc of history just got a bit shorter.

Obama's acceptance speech

Wow. Home run. Out of the park.

"To those who would tear this world down - we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security - we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright - tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope."

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I can't stop saying it to myself

President Barack Obama.
President Barack Obama.
President. Barack. Obama.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Sullivan's closing argument for Obama

I have been a regular reader of Andrew Sullivan's blog for the past year or two. I often disagree with his economic and religious opinions, but he is an excellent writer with a unique voice and a moderate standpoint. He wasn't initially, but has become a strident supporter of Obama.

Here's his closing argument -- fierce, critical, rational, and inspirational.

Joe the Plumber, another senseless distraction

The "Joe the Plumber" slogan has apparently caught on with Republicans. Several of my friends and acquaintances have mentioned the motif in conversation, always accompanied by an "Obama the Socialist" reference. I'm sure it's been said elsewhere, but here are my top reasons why this is another senseless distraction emanating from the McCain campaign.

1) The individual reality. The actual Joe the Not-Really-a-Plumber, makes less than $250K per year, and would reap more tax savings from the Obama plan than the McCain plan. It's worth taking another look at this, from the Chartjunk blog:

2) The broader reality. Every single governmental tax structure, anywhere, is redistributive in some way. Even under a proposed "flat tax," the spending would be redistributive. The question is not whether wealth gets redistributed, but to whom, upward or downward? Through rational or irrational mechanisms? Bush's tax cuts (and McCain's plan) redistribute wealth upward (from the 2000 status quo, not some mythical non-redistributive state). Indeed, Obama does want to "spread the wealth around," and Republicans have some good arguments about why he shouldn't, but it doesn't involve demagogic attacks on Obama the Socialist.

3) The symbolism. "Joe the Plumber" is supposed to represent the populist economic appeal of the Republican party. Really? After the last 8 years, we're supposed to believe that they're the party of the lower and middle classes?

4) The hypocrisy. Both McCain and Palin have made statements very similar to Obama's in recent years, explaining why the U.S. needs a decent safety net, or a (somewhat) progressive tax structure. McCain is not proposing a flat tax, and never has proposed a flat tax. Are McCain and Palin therefore "socialists" as well?

Like I said, there is a reasonable argument that conservatives have against progressive taxes, even though I don't buy it. Briefly, taxes should be low overall in order to encourage growth. Tax rates should be relatively equal because of how conservatives interpret fairness and justice principles.

But again, I understand, this is a presidential campaign, not a rational debate. This is about throwing labels at someone and seeing if one will stick.

Early voting results

I'm not sure of its accuracy, but here's a project at GMU that has tabulated the early voting numbers in various states. These are clearly good numbers for Obama, which complement the polls of early voters that generally show a 60/40 split for Obama.

A couple of numbers from swing states jump out at me. In Colorado, early voting reached almost 70% of the total 2004 vote, and Democrats outnumbered Republicans even though the early vote was mostly absentee (which is traditionally Republican). In my state of Florida, 54% have voted early, and Democrats have gained 11% in turnout over Republicans from 2004. In Georgia, early voting has tripled over 2004, led by a bigAfrican-American turnout. Similar numbers in North Carolina, Ohio, Nevada, and West Virginia: Higher turnout, more Democrats, and more African-Americans.

But it's still not time to celebrate. More early voting does not necessarily lead to a higher overall turnout. And some national and state polls are tightening a bit. And we still have the possibility of a Bradley effect or successful vote suppression efforts. So we'll find out, hopefully, tomorrow night.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Pakistani children know the election outcome

A group of 10-13 year old schoolkids in Peshawar, Pakistan have collected money to send to Barack Obama, asking him to send them "books and pens" rather than "bombs and missiles" after he gets elected. Pretty clever idea, really, and the same policy direction that Petraeus is heading. But why do they address their letter to "Uncle Obama," rather than Senator McCain? Do they know something about Nov. 4 that Fox News and Bill McInturff don't?

I can see the next McCain ad in the works: "Obama fathered Muslim children in Pakistan who are helping him steal the election." The evidence is right there!

Why Obama must win

I began this campaign season, and this blog, wanting Obama to win simply because he'd be a better president on a whole host of issues. There were clearly symbolic advantages to an Obama win, but those were really only important insofar as they improved America's image and soft power abroad. I also began this campaign respecting John McCain as a hero, an independent thinker, and a moderate (although not as moderate as he portrays himself).

But this campaign has convinced me that Obama must win. He must win because he will still be the better president. But an Obama win will also mean a public repudiation of the Rovian, xenophobic, subtly (and sometimes overtly) racist, dumbed-down, cynical, deceptive tactics that the McCain campaign has now fully embraced. He could have run to the middle, and he has deliberately chosen to appeal to the worst elements in his constituency. If America does not repudiate this, what does it mean for our identity as a country?

Christianism X: Dobson's manifesto

Just too many examples of Christianism in this election. Focus on the Family wrote a fictitious letter from 2012 about all the perils of an Obama administration. Did Jesus really talk about gun ownership (see page 8)? Who knew.

Let's remind ourselves why Christianism, like any theocratic form of governance, is particularly dangerous:

1) Government by religious authority is notoriously disrespectful of human rights, particularly women's rights. Think Saudi Arabia, Iran, Islamic police, and the Vatican during the Crusades.

2) Government by religious authority does not allow for compromise and deliberation. As a result, it tends toward extremism. Democracy inherently requires compromise to function.

3) Government by religious authority tends toward violent conflict. Indeed, violent conflict may be welcomed at times when religious justifications point to goals "higher" than the protection of human life (say, the End Times).

That's my short list, but I'm sure you can think of other reasons.

The middle for Obama

It's pretty no-frills, but here's a great campaign ad for Obama. Like many of the ads this season, it's not actually produced by the campaign itself.

If I were the Obama campaign, I'd pay for this to play constantly for the next six days.

I'm back

I was out of town last week, so I wasn't able to blog.

So, only 6 more days until the election. Some prominent Obama-leaning folks are virtually declaring victory, which is a bad idea. With the possible Bradley effect, the inaccuracy of polls, and the attempts at vote suppression, I'm not ready to celebrate yet. I'll be on pins and needles until next Tuesday night.

I caught most of Obama's half-hour ad last night. Although the narrative was a bit disjointed, I thought it captured just the right tone. I didn't hear one reference to McCain or Bush. All positive, very inspirational, focused on the economy, laden with specific proposals.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Christianism IX: Judgment day

Yes, for them, it really is November 4. And when you see St. Peter at the pearly gates, you better be able to explain your vote on abortion.

Christianism VIII: God votes for Palin

Perhaps this is getting redundant. But here's another example.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Christianism VII: Obama's witchcraft

Geez, I just thought Obama was a good public speaker. Who would have thought that he made a deal with Elizabeth Hurley (oops, I mean the Devil) to win the election and deliver the country to Satan?

I don't know how widespread Jim Bramlett's email is. But self-parody is really reaching new heights these days.

Not an enemy combatant? We'll make you one

According to the DOJ, those 17 Uighurs in Guantanamo are still threats to the American population, even though they were declared not enemy combatants, they never desired to attack the U.S., and a panel of judges has ordered their release. So why are they a threat to the U.S.? Because we've illegally detained them for the past six years, and they might be pissed.

Hey, I think McCain might have finally hit upon a strategy for deeming Obama unsafe for America!

Wedding rings

Great post from Ian Ayres, who just decided to put his wedding ring back on.

Denying couples the benefits of marriage is a profound moral and human rights issue. Ayres points to several ways in which heterosexual couples can express their opposition to discrimination. After reading his post, I just bought his book, Straightforward, on Amazon.

Florida's Amendment 2 would ban civil unions and gay marriages, under the perverse logic of "protecting marriage." I will eagerly vote NO, because somehow I just can't imagine how my relationship with Amy is threatened by the dozens of gay couples I know. I'm trying hard to think of how they might be some kind of insidious threat, but I'm just not coming up with anything. Help me out here.

Until Florida and other states end this discrimination, here's two simple things that straight couples can do: take off your wedding band, and refer to your spouse as your "partner."

Christianism VI: The mass exodus

According to a number of first-hand descriptions, independents and moderate Republicans are leaving the party in droves. Why shouldn't they? It's been taken over by religious extremists, facilitated by McCain's cynical choice for VP. Here's one account:
"Now the mass exodus is underway. Anyone who is fiscally conservative can't call himself a Republican anymore. Anyone who is a religious Christian can't honestly be part of this since Jesus preached about caring for the sick and the poor--not about eliminating reproductive choice or issues related to same-sex marriage. There's nothing Christian about the agenda of the Religious Right--it's a totally political movement focused on issues that Jesus never mentioned and they ignore the issues about which Jesus preached constantly."

You know it's more political than religious when faithful Catholics are virtually excommunicated for their views on abortion. You know it's more political than religious when the more religiously devout presidential candidate is called a Muslim.

(Hat tip: Sullivan)

Monday, October 20, 2008

The real America

I just went with my family to the rally in Orlando with Obama and Hillary Clinton. I have no idea what the crowd estimates were, but there were throngs. Tens of thousands. Yes, it was pretty damn inspiring. There were young and old, black and white, singles and families, gay and straight, rural and urban. It made me realize how Palin's comments about the "real America" must be interpreted, as she speaks to overwhelmingly white crowds at her rallies. But anyone who went to this rally had to be proud about how America was represented here.

My 7-year old daughter and 4-year old son came to the event and were pretty excited about it. Yes, it was a bit creepy to hear my kids chanting "Obama, Obama" and I know Sullivan would mock us for it. But trust me, we're not pushing it on them -- some things just take hold with them. I've been trying to make my kids like football for years now, and they're not buying it. So I'm not stopping them from learning more about this presidential candidate, especially when one of my daughter's second-grade classmates told her that "Obama puts knives in babies' heads."

Rays to World Series

I just moved to Florida a few months ago, so I can hardly claim to be a Rays fan. But their run to the World Series is pretty remarkable for a team with a $43 million payroll, second-lowest in MLB, and only one-third as large as the Red Sox.

I'm not a Red Sox hater -- they have a great organization and a fun team to watch. But can we finally put to rest the notion that they're an "underdog" team? They reside in one of baseball's best markets, and consistently have a top-5 payroll. I know they're not the Evil Empire, but let's be honest. The real underdogs showed up in this ALCS.

Powell's devastating logic

Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama yesterday was newsworthy in and of itself -- a Republican Bush Administration official, a career military man, a former JCS, and one of the most respected public figures in the country.

But more than that, I thought his rationale was absolutely devastating to the McCain campaign. He knows both men well. McCain has been "unsure" (read: erratic) in responding to the economic crisis. Palin is not ready, and it reflects on McCain's judgment. Obama is steady and has "intellectual curiosity and vigor." The Republican party is getting narrower (read: taken over by Christianists). McCain's campaign is dirty.

I understand that the right wing will never go for Obama, but how can a moderate or independent ignore the strength of this argument, made by this person?

Also, I give enormous credit to Powell for speaking out about the fact that "Muslim" shouldn't be a smear in America!

One last thing: You've gotta give credit to McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds for coming up with this reaction: "Only an unproven and inexperienced politician like Barack Obama would have to rely so heavily on an another man's resume in making the case for his own candidacy." Of course it defies reason, but A+ for effort and creativity.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Squiggly lines in debates

As I mentioned before, I love the squiggly lines at the bottom of CNN's screen, showing instant reaction to the debates. But Nate Silver at 538 has a good post about their limitations -- mainly, that it only represents 30 people not randomly chosen. Get 300 people in a room with little dials, and now we're talking.

I just love that dial technology. How can I get each of my students one for my classroom? Now that would be a pedagogical revolution.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

(Not so) Happy World Food Day

October 16 is World Food Day. Not so much to celebrate this year, as food and energy prices have skyrocketed for the world's poor. Estimates are that 100 million more people worldwide have fallen into poverty in the past year and are vulnerable to extreme hunger (especially the urban poor).

And now we have the global financial crisis to make things worse. Jeff Sachs actually argues that the crisis won't hurt the extreme poor that badly, since they're not very tightly integrated into the global banking system anyway. The bigger threat is that the wealthy countries will use the crisis as a reason to renege on their foreign aid commitments. But Sachs makes a key point:
"the idea of $25 billion for Africa suddenly doesn’t sound like so much after a $700 billion bailout in the United States or $2 trillion in bank guarantees in Europe. We’ve just been making choices to ignore the poor rather than calculations based on real resources available. We made a choice to let millions of people die and not honor our commitments. The crisis doesn’t change our quantitative ability to follow through."
Two words: ONE Campaign.

What John Lewis said

One of the more interesting parts of the debate last night was when McCain played the victim of John Lewis' "hurtful" comments. Here's what Lewis originally said:

"As one who was a victim of violence and hate during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, I am deeply disturbed by the negative tone of the McCain-Palin
campaign. What I am seeing reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history. Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse. During another period, in the not too distant past, there was a governor of the state of Alabama named George Wallace who also became a presidential candidate. George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights. Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed on Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama. As public figures with the power to influence and persuade, Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are playing with fire, and if they are not careful, that fire will consume us all. They are playing a very dangerous game that disregards the value of the political process and cheapens our entire democracy. We can do better. The American people deserve better."

The McCain campaign called these comments "vicious character assaults" and called on Obama to repudiate Lewis' remarks.

Here's the deal. McCain has called Obama unpatriotic and guided by "blind ambition." Palin has repeatedly proclaimed that Obama "pals around with terrorists" (note the present tense verb and plural noun), and says "he doesn't see America the way you and I do" (code language for you-know-what). A lot of McCain's supporters really believe Obama is Muslim, Arab, connected with terrorists, and many use racist epithets in interviews conducted outside of McCain rallies.

John Lewis personally got the shit beat out of him by Wallace's police. Lewis' criticism was of McCain's specific behavior in this campaign, not his character. So I'm inclined to give Lewis the benefit of the doubt here.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Last debate reaction

I thought it was mostly a draw, meaning that Obama did what he had to do. He didn't take the bait on criticizing Palin, didn't take the bait on getting upset, and he remained himself -- calm and steady. Some pundits criticized him as "professorial," but I think Sullivan nailed it -- a black man has to be "boring" at times in order to win an election.

McCain scored some good individual points, and his punchlines were more memorable than Obama's (as they had to be). But I think where Obama won the debate was on general tone and approach. As Sullivan said, McCain was totally unable to show any grace toward Obama -- a "lack of generosity of spirit." McCain generally attacked well, but all he could do was attack. I think that attitude comes across as, and probably is, angry and desperate.

Bob Schiefer did a great job of moderating, asking direct questions and follow-ups. My only criticism was his acceptance of the "moral equivalence" myth in his question about the negative attacks "by both sides." There is simply not a moral equivalence between criticizing a health care plan and "palling around with terrorists."

The instant polls are just coming in as I'm watching CNN, and it sounds like the general tone of the debate came through. Who did better in the debate? Obama 58%, McCain 31%.

Christianism V: Gay marriage

Andrew Sullivan has a reasonable post arguing that gay couples can be just as responsible and monogamous in marriage as straight couples. And even if they aren't, that isn't a sufficient reason to exclude them from marriage as an identity group. He argues this because he believes that "the core resistance to marriage equality stems from a deep suspicion that gay men are incapable of the responsibilities of marriage and will taint it if allowed to own the name."

Nice argument Andrew, but I don't buy it. The core reason why people oppose gay couples is not because gays and lesbians might not be "responsible," but because they're homosexual. Period. The Bible tells me so, end of story.

So I don't see rational arguments making too much of a dent in the hard-core opposition to gay marriage. But perhaps it could work on the non-Christianist margins.

Prosecute or compromise?

In Zimbabwe, a power-sharing deal is being opposed by generals who fear prosecution for human rights violations. If the deal doesn't go through, instability, hunger and displacement are likely to worsen.

In Sudan, the ICC indictment of President al-Bashir for genocide is potentially threatening the future of the AU/UN peacekeeping mission. Understandably, al-Bashir doesn't want to give UN troops access to his country if they're going to arrest him and send him to the Hague.

These are just two examples of an ongoing debate between human rights and conflict resolution. Is the rule of law so important that it should be upheld (especially in the worst cases) in order to deter future violations? Or do peace deals need to include some compromises (including amnesty from prosecution) in order to set a more secure foundation on which a rule of law can be built?

Tough questions. I admit, I'm on the fence. But I haven't been feeling to sanguine lately about the promise of deterrence and the rule of law. Maybe that's because I've been reading the recent stories about the Bush Administration's authorization of torture. Fear of prosecution didn't really stop them from doing it, it just made them keep it a bit more secret.

The lesson of Ayers: How to defeat terrorism

Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy's Passport has a really smart post about how we can actually learn to defeat terrorism from the story of William Ayers. The Thomas Frank article that he links to is worth a read as well.

The recession-proof industry

The global arms trade. Actually, it makes some sense. Poverty creates conditions more likely to lead to conflict, thus increasing demand for weapons.

Kinda like sports and Disney World. OK, not quite so benign as those.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

ACORN and voter fraud

Thanks to John Fund, Fox, and the McCain campaign, ACORN has become associated with voter fraud in our national consciousness. As the argument goes, Obama has nefarious historical links with ACORN, and ACORN has been involved in voter fraud in numerous states (read: it tries to steal elections for Democrats). What's the inference you're supposed to make? If McCain loses, it's because Obama has stolen the election.

TPM's Josh Marshall has a good article debunking that connection.

Basically, ACORN hires people to register voters. Some of those employees then register fictitious people, or the same people numerous times, so they can get money from ACORN. When ACORN finds out, it alerts federal investigators, who prosecute the employees.

Here's the key: The fraud is by employees against ACORN, not by ACORN. And the fraud is registering fake voters, not actually having fake people vote. There are clear, solid protections against having fake people actually vote (a handful of people might be able to do this, but it's almost impossible to carry out a massive coordinated effort). So, you could certainly argue that ACORN could come up with better ways to register voters. But, given the evidence to date, this is not some kind of threat to democracy that can "steal elections."

UPDATE: Obama addressed this "distraction" yesterday as well. And note the punchline: Republicans often drum up spurious fears of voter fraud in order to enact laws that suppress minority and low-income turnout on election day. Pretty clever, really.

Christianism IV

In the words of Christianist Alan Keyes, Palin was a bad VP choice because she and McCain are "unequally yoked":
Palin "may be risking her moral and spiritual integrity by placing herself under the authority of someone who has provably abandoned God's will on the most fundamental moral issues of our times."
What fundamental moral issues? Abortion and gays, of course. So, not only is McCain not Christian enough, but God's will is "provable."

Assassinating Hugo Chavez

In one of my classes last week we discussed the status of democracy in Venezuela. I showed a few short videos to introduce the topic, including Chavez calling Bush the "devil" at the UN; Pat Robertson calling for Chavez's assassination, and a short documentary explaining how the U.S. supported the attempted coup against Chavez in 2002.

My students then discussed the ways in which democracy has both improved in Venezuela (through national referenda and local community councils) and been threatened (through Chavez's centralization of power). We noted that poverty has been cut by over half since Chavez took power, and education and health are on the rise, despite an economic recession in 2002-2003. We noted how some of the non-democratic moves that Chavez has taken aren't all that different than the centralization of power in the Bush Administration. We talked about how economically linked the U.S. is with Venezuela, so much so that it would be impossible to sever ties.

Then something curious happened. I asked at the end, "If you were the incoming U.S. president in 2009, how would you treat relations with Chavez?" More than half the class said, "Assassinate him or support another military coup." Frankly, I was a bit taken aback by that. I asked why. "Because he's friends with bad guys like Ahmadenijad and Castro, so we need to get rid of him." They said this despite knowing that it would be illegal, and possibly against long-term U.S. economic and political interests in the region.

I'm not sure what to make of this. Maybe they were just trying to be provocative. Or maybe interventionism and disregard for international law has become so normalized in our society, that my students would consider such an action legitimate. Who knows.

Chavez is certainly no saint, but he has become so demonized in the U.S. that violent interventionism seems appropriate to some. My feeling is, if you're going to negotiate with any "enemy", then Venezuela is the quintessential case. It is absolutely ripe for a warming of relations, particularly in a new administration.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Christianism III

Via Sullivan, another example at a McCain event. Apparently, if Obama wins, Jesus loses. Is this now the McCain campaign's central argument?

Speaking of Christianism...

You need to look no further than the Alaska Governor:
"An Associated Press review of the Republican vice presidential candidate's record as mayor and governor reveals her use of elected office to promote religious causes, sometimes at taxpayer expense and in ways that blur the line between church and state. Since she took state office in late 2006, the governor and her family have spent more than $13,000 in taxpayer funds to attend at least 10 religious events and meetings with Christian pastors, including Franklin Graham, the son of evangelical preacher Billy Graham, records show."

I know, you're shocked, just shocked.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Christianity vs. Christianism

Christianity is the belief in the Bible, salvation through Christ, heaven and hell, and so forth. Christianism is the belief that your Christian beliefs alone are sufficient to justify your public policy positions. In some cases, Christianists believe that God can speak directly to them to dictate those policies.

Christianism is theocracy. And the McCain/Palin campaign is increasingly relying on it. Christianism is when Douglas Kmiec, a conservative pro-life Catholic, gets denied the Eucharist for endorsing Obama. Christianism is when the candidates get prayed for -- that "God will lead them to victory" and "protect them from witchcraft."

I have nothing against Christians. Barack Obama is a Christian (really!). In fact, he made the clearest distinction between Christianity and Christianism in a terrific speech at a "Call to Renewal" conference in 2006. It's really worth a read. A key passage:
"Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.... [But] democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all. Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice."
Amen to that.

That's why, if this story is true, I'm encouraged by developments in Colorado Springs. If Pastor Boyd is taking a Christian, rather than a Christianist approach to politics, then more power to him. And he should call out that Christianist Dobson for what he is, while he's at it.

Memo to McCain: Stop citing Petraeus

Are McCain and Palin sure they want to keep citing General Petraeus and McKiernan on Afghanistan policy, when those generals keep saying things that support Obama's positions?

"Media" = Fox

By my unofficial count, the only interviews with the press that Palin has done since her debacles with Gibson and Couric, are the following: Sean Hannity, Hugh Hewitt (who's writing a book called "How Sarah Palin Won the Election and Saved America"), Sean Hannity again, and Carl Cameron. I could have missed something, but you get the gist.

She did answer some press questions off-camera in the back of her plane the other day, but since that resulted in another rambling non-answer, I'm guessing she won't be doing that much more.

I guess I can't blame the campaign for the Fox-a-thon, since something like 85% of Fox viewers thought McCain won the debate Tuesday. Perhaps that's what we can look forward to in a McCain/Palin administration -- a nationally sanctioned TV station?

Don't expect a landslide yet

Since Obama's poll numbers have been trending up recently, some political commentators (Republican and Democratic) have already predicted an Obama victory in November. But let's not go there yet. I think it's going to be close until the end.

Why? David Gergen summed it up pretty well on CNN after Tuesday's debate: Obama is black. Period.

Kudos to Gergen for pointing out that there is still a lot of racism in America, even if it's not overt. Analysts have differed over whether the Bradley effect is still operable, but there's no question that a lot of voters still don't like Obama, or don't feel that they can trust him, because he is "Other." Here are some examples. And McCain/Palin's explicit strategy in the last few weeks of the campaign will continue to try to exploit that tendency (thus the "Hussein" references, the "Who's the real Obama?", the "pals with terrorists" crap).

The best way to overcome this is to keep working, and celebrate on November 5 that America is better than this.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Health care is a right!

Yes, you heard Obama say it in the debate last night. Believe it. And as Sullivan says, Know hope.

How Obama can improve his debate style

My wife Amy pointed this out in the debate last night. When Obama is asked a question, he often responds by providing the evidence/explanation/details first, then getting to the main point (the "answer") at the end. It can certainly be perceived as talking around a question, and not directly answering it. But it's not something Obama is trying to do, and we think it's something pretty easy to solve. Just provide the short answer first, then explain it.

So, for example, "Is Russia an evil empire?" Answer: "No, because it's unproductive to call countries evil, and they're not an empire any more. But they've done some evil things..."

Or, "If Iran attacks Israel, should the US defend Israel militarily or wait for UN permission?" Answer: "Of course the US should be defend Israel militarily, and we don't need UN permission because it's a clear situation of collective self-defense. But let me explain my Iran policy that would make this scenario less likely..."

Don't get me wrong; Obama still won the debate handily last night.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Public to candidates: Go positive and get specific

As I was watching CNN's coverage of the debate tonight, I was struck by the insta-reaction squiggly lines at the bottom of the screen. What a great use of technology -- viewers turn a dial up or down when they like or dislike the candidates' answers.

One thing stood out: When the candidates turned negative, especially McCain, the dials turned negative. Voters desperately wanted positive messages and specific plans, and they didn't buy the attacks. There were a couple of exceptions when Obama was tying McCain to Bush, which resonated a bit, but I was shocked by how much the viewers just didn't buy McCain's attacks in particular.

Change of course on Darfur?

Darfur came up in both the VP debate last week and the debate tonight. And all four candidates promised to do more -- enforce no-fly zones, arm and equip the AU/UN peacekeepers, support them financially, and push harder for a UN Security Council action on Sudan. This would certainly represent a change in course in January. Let's hold the candidates accountable to those promises!

"That one"

Did anyone else catch McCain calling Obama "that one" in the debate tonight, in reference to a vote in Congress? Utter disdain. Jeff Toobin caught it on the CNN post-game.

Professional economists for Obama

The Economist just took a poll of 142 professional economists. Summary:

"Which candidate would pick a better economic team?"
81% Obama, 14% McCain
"Which candidate strikes you as having a better grasp of economics?"
80% Obama, 8% McCain

But I suppose McCain would say that the economists are elitist? Tough argument to make in the midst of a complex financial crisis that screams out for expertise.

Why the mudslinging is bad for everyone

Because it will make it hard for the next president to govern. Whoever it is. If Obama is elected, roughly half the country will think he's a Muslim terrorist Manchurian Candidate. If McCain is elected, roughly half will think he's a cynical pol who gave up his honor and has an extremist novice waiting in the wings.

After all, what we really want in this election is to find people who will govern well. We desperately need it. But both campaigns have engaged in a political process that will make this more difficult.

Yes, I do think both candidates are responsible. I lay most of the blame on McCain, because of the viciousness of the personal attacks, the degree with which they distort or disregard the truth, and the timing of the attacks (coming earlier and more often). But I also think Obama has made a mistake by going after McCain on Keating. It allows media like the NYT to say that Obama has "responded in kind," painting both politicians as equal mudslingers. I think it would be more effective for Obama, and more consistent with his core message, to criticize McCain strictly on the issues, and keep his overall message positive. I think Obama wins if he stays on the high road. Of course he has to address the smears from the other side, but he would best do this by expressing disappointment with McCain and faith in the American voter. Something like, "John, I know you're down in the polls and you're looking for a knockout strategy, but why would you insult the voters' intelligence by spreading baseless smears about me? Do you really want your supporters yelling out 'traitor' and 'terrorist' and 'kill him' during your campaign events? Do you really think that will work?"

Monday, October 6, 2008

Quote for the day

"Sarah was not an in-depth person. Never has been, never will be. Her instincts are political as opposed to evaluative."

- Dick Deuser, city attorney of Wasilla during Sarah Palin's tenure on the city council.

Just what we need, another leader who operates from the Gut.

(Hat tip: New Republic)

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Down in the polls and getting desperate

What do you do when your campaign is losing on the issues? When your Hail Mary attempts to look relevant in the face of a financial crisis are intercepted? When you want to divert attention from the fact that your VP is probably the least qualified in American history?

Try more character assaults!

Ah, what an honorable campaign. As Nov. 4 nears, and Obama maintains his steady lead (and demeanor), we can expect much more of the same. Anything that will make voters go into the booth thinking, "Is he really One Of Us?"

Friday, October 3, 2008

Why is foreign aid always the first thing to go?

I was disappointed to hear Joe Biden last night say that the only government spending program they would be willing to "slow down" because of the financial crisis is foreign assistance. Yes, at least he answered the question (vs. Palin), but why foreign assistance?

I know, it's election season and we're in the midst of a financial crisis, so Americans want money spent on Americans. But honestly, foreign aid gives us a tremendous bang for our buck, in both moral and security terms -- more than almost any other program.

But we don't think of foreign aid in those terms. We think we're being "generous" in helping "those other people" with aid, not that foreign assistance serves our self-interests and adheres to our best values. So public support for aid is extremely wide but very thin. Everyone wants to help people in poverty, but few are committed enough to hold our leaders accountable to these promises.

That's why I think the ONE campaign is such an important movement.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Exit plan

Just in case Gov. Palin doesn't do too well tonight, here's an option for how the McCain campaign could spin it and still come out ahead in November. I admit, I never thought about that one before.

Beating illegal immigration

I really don't give enough credit to the Bush Administration. As we have all been busy debating immigration policy -- worrying about walls and arrests and amnesty -- they have been working on a brilliant plan for the past 8 years to stop the flow of illegal immigrants: economic recession.

The showdown in St. Louis

I'm looking forward to the much-anticipated debate tonight. "Which debate," you ask, "the one between Palin and Obama-loving elitist Gwen Ifill? The debate between Biden and his own notorious proclivity to grandstand and exaggerate? The debate between all the new facts crammed into Palin's head and her mouth?" Yeah, all those, and a little sideshow called Palin vs. Biden. Given how central the Palin brand is to McCain's campaign, and how little we are allowed to know about Palin, I think this debate is possibly more important than the presidential debates.

Here's my prediction for tonight (and the nice thing about blogging is that if I'm wrong, I can just erase any record of it): It will be a draw. Palin will probably say some silly things, but she won't embarrass herself nearly as badly as she did in the Couric/Gibson interviews. She'll use the advantage of the debate format (i.e., fewer direct follow-up questions) to attack Obama a lot, speak in her well-rehearsed talking points, and exploit her self-described Joe Sixpack appeal. That works for her.

Biden will scrupulously avoid attacking Palin directly, for fear of looking like he's "bullying" the poor victimized VP candidate (think about that for a moment). Gwen Ifill, the moderator, will certainly ask some Elitist Media "gotcha" questions designed to trip Palin up (e.g., What's your policy on Afghanistan? What would you do about the economy?), but she'll also be sure to focus attention on Biden's recent gaffes in order to appear fair and balanced.

Result: Both sides will proclaim victory, as they always do. If this is the outcome, I'd say it would be a small victory for McCain, because it will slow down Obama's recent momentum, and reassure conservative-leaning voters that Palin is not a total disaster. I'd expect next week's poll numbers to be back to a small Obama lead nationally, with a toss-up in the battleground states.

But if I'm wrong, just pretend you never read this.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bono at the UN

Bono and his personal economic guru Jeff Sachs were blogging for the Financial Times during the week they were in NYC for the UN meetings on the MDGs. Worth browsing.

Sachs especially isn't too happy with US participation in recent efforts to reduce global poverty and disease. But there are some interesting proposals floating around for combining poverty alleviation with addressing climate change.

Palin and the end of the world

Huffington Post has a really good article (and especially watch the 10-min video at the bottom) asking about Palin's "eschatology" -- i.e., religious beliefs about the end of the world. I grew up and spent 15 years in an Assemblies of God church, the same denomination as Palin's church in Wasilla.

Most Assemblies of God churches believe that the end of the world is coming soon. They believe that all true Christians will suddenly be whisked away to heaven (the Rapture). They believe that the world as we know it will end in a World War (Armageddon), allowing God to create a new world and Christ to return to Earth in person. Many of them believe that these "end times" will only happen when Israel controls all of the Holy Land, and that Moscow will start Armageddon by attacking Israel. They believe that the "Anti-Christ" is a literal person who will fight against or deceive Christians during the end times. Most importantly, they look forward to all of this eagerly because it means that they're all going to heaven. I know this because I've heard the sermons stating these prophecies first-hand.

Does Sarah Palin personally believe these things? I don't know; she hasn't exactly been available for extensive questioning. But the Youtube videos demonstrate clearly enough that she's comfortable with the theology and subculture.

If you're worried about Palin's lack of knowledge about public policy issues, just imagine what those religious beliefs would mean for her foreign policy. We could actually have a president in several months who looks at the US relationship with Russia and Israel and asks, "What can I do to hasten the Second Coming of Christ?"

Saturday, September 27, 2008


I'm looking forward to seeing the new documentary with Bill Maher called Religulous. It's coming out Oct. 3. (Watch the trailer here.)

Few things are as important and serious in our society, and in the world, as the role of religious belief. So isn't it a bit strange that the film is done by the director of Borat? Who knows, maybe comedy is the best way to rationally discuss religion.

Palin meets most important leader yet

Bono met with McCain and Palin in New York to promote the ONE Campaign's efforts in fighting extreme poverty and disease. In short, wealthy governments promised in 2005 to increase aid directed toward the world's poor to $50 billion per year, but have since fallen far short of that goal. As Bono says, "They love signing checks, but they don't like cashing them."

And yet Bono remained overwhelmingly positive about the progress made so far, citing 29 million African children now in school and 2.5 million with access to AIDS medications because of increases in aid. He praised governments for their recent promises to eradicate malaria by 2015.

This is an effective strategy that the ONE Campaign has consistently followed. Instead of lamenting about pervasive failure, they direct our attention to the concrete (if smaller) successes that foreign aid can accomplish. Instead of playing to our collective fear or guilt, they play to our hope and faith in ourselves.

I wonder how much of this is ONE's strategy, and how much of it is Bono's own personal approach? I'm just guessing, but I think it has a lot to do with Bono's philosophy. As U2 sings,
Of science and the human heart, there is no limit;
There is no failure here sweetheart, just when you quit....
I'm not giving up on a miracle drug.

My disappointments with Obama

Let me be clear: I think Obama is the best presidential candidate in my adult lifetime (which doesn't say much -- I'm not that old). Barring disaster, I'll vote for him in November. But he's still a politician, and there are a few things that I've been disappointed with in the course of his campaign, especially in the past month.

First, he has committed his fair share of populist pandering. From dissing NAFTA in the primaries, to promising support for auto manufacturers in Michigan, he has adopted a few economically dubious policies, presumably in order to win votes. This doesn't compare to the utterly misplaced economic priorities of Bush/McCain, but it's not pretty.

Second, he has occasionally allowed himself to get dragged into the mudslinging. Comparatively speaking, Obama has taken the high road in his campaign, but some of his ads and criticisms are deliberately misleading.

Third, he hasn't consistently stood behind some of his less popular positions. One example is his response to the Russia-Georgia conflict. I think he got the initial response right, by arguing that both sides had taken provocative action, by denouncing human rights violations including Russia's incursions into Georgia, and by calling for negotiations. Since that time, a conventional wisdom has developed that says Russia committed unprovoked aggression (anyone miss the Cold War?) that must be "confronted." Illustrated by the debate last night, it seems that Obama has given in to the conventional wisdom.

So I'm a bit disappointed with Obama in these regards. But perhaps I'm too idealistic; maybe I've watched too many West Wing episodes and want to vote for President Bartlet or Santos. Is it possible to win an election without doing some of these things? Probably not.

Palin, Iran, and good/evil

Plenty of things have already been said about Gov. Palin's most recent embarrassment, a.k.a. the Couric interview. I won't repeat all the critiques of her lack of knowledge and dangerously extreme policy positions. But I want to focus briefly on her comments about negotiating with Iran:
"I think, with Ahmadinejad, personally, he is not one to negotiate with. You can't just sit down with him with no preconditions being met. Barack Obama is so off-base in his proclamation that he would meet with some of these leaders around our world who would seek to destroy America and that, and without preconditions being met."

Did I miss something, or does Iran really seek to destroy America? Did someone in Iran say that? Did some U.S. intelligence agency infer that? Now Ahmadenijad is no saint, but even under the worst possible interpretation of his various remarks, the worst you could argue (and even here it's highly disputable) is that he wants to destroy Israel.

But this isn't just Palin's own mistake; I think it fits into a long tradition of enemy-making. In Palin's worldview, there are Good Guys and Bad Guys in the world. By definition, we are the good guys, and the bad guys want to destroy us. Since Israel is one of "us," by definition anything Israel does against bad guys is good and shouldn't be second-guessed. Ahmadenijad is not a cynically rational, self-interested authoritarian concerned about his own domestic politics (which a fair reader of this interview would surmise), but another Hitler who must be confronted.

Now there is a tiny, tiny nugget of truth in this thinking. There are people who don't like America and its policies, and sometimes they do things that are evil. But I can't overstate how dangerous this kind of good/evil thinking is, for our own security and others' as well. We are literally (literally, with words) creating enemies out of our opponents and even some former friends. We define these enemies as inherently unreceptive to rational incentives or dialogue, which leaves threats and violence as the only policy alternatives. Do we really need more enemies? Do we never do anything evil ourselves?

Two last comments: First, it seems that this kind of binary good/evil thinking is heavily related to exclusivist religious belief. Second, it only buttresses the position of leaders like Ahmadenijad in his own society, since he can use the same good/evil language to demonize us.

The first presidential debate

I tivo'd the debate last night and just watched it. My initial impression was that Obama won on substance, but McCain's style fit the debate format better. I kept wanting to tell Obama to criticize and respond to McCain more directly (although he did more as the debate continued). Obama has gotten better about this throughout the campaign, but he is fundamentally an Explainer, wanting to "clarify the record" in response to attacks. On the other hand, McCain seemed more schooled in the standard debate tactics: Share a tangential story when you can't answer a question directly (e.g. "the bracelet" in response to a question about Pakistan); Repeat your talking points ad nauseum (e.g., "Obama doesn't understand..."); and Stay on the attack.

So while I personally prefer Obama's style (especially as a president rather than a campaigner), I worry that it doesn't play well to a national audience. Instead of saying, "Let me clarify this point," I think he needs to say, "John, once again you're lying about my record." As Obama Explains, it can make him look Defensive.

But maybe my concern is unfounded. Initial post-debate polls seem to give the advantage to Obama. For example, in the CNN poll, people overwhelmingly thought McCain attacked more (60-23%), but favored Obama on every other measure.

Also, in wanting Obama to be more direct in his criticisms, I wasn't thinking about the very narrow tightrope that he has to walk. In that respect, I think he's doing pretty well.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Cynical politics? Mea culpa

Politico has an interesting and pretty fair piece about how the 2008 presidential campaign has turned into politics-as-usual, despite early promises of a clean and post-partisan campaign. The authors blame both candidates for being unimaginative and misleading, and they blame the media for focusing on shallow trivialities. Joe Klein similarly bemoans the political lies in the Sept. 29 issue of Time, although he places most of the blame on McCain (as many journalists have done).

I agree that the media and the politicians are indeed responsible for shallow and cynical politics, but I also want to point the finger at us. It's all of our faults, because we are by and large "low information" voters. It's my own fault as an educator. Politicians deceive and distract us, and they repeat simplistic campaign slogans, because that's what persuades us. We don't take the time to look into their proposals and records, and we don't give ourselves the tools to estimate whether a candidate will perform well. So we simply don't reward good political behavior and nuanced media coverage.

It's a mutually reinforcing cycle, but in a very real sense, we get the kind of politics and politicians we collectively deserve.

The Paulson bailout plan

Nothing really new here, but I just saw the actual text of the Paulson plan, and this struck me:
"Sec. 6. Maximum Amount of Authorized Purchases.
The Secretary’s authority to purchase mortgage-related assets under this Act shall be limited to $700,000,000,000 outstanding at any one time."

That's a lot of zeros, and a lot of authority for one person.

The other thing that struck me is just how simple the plan is -- the draft is only a couple of pages long. And yet, even though the plan came out last week, McCain admitted that he hadn't actually had time to read it until Tuesday. (It was available to anyone on the web -- Oh yeah, that might help explain it.) This must have been the same day that McCain started planning to suspend his campaign, drop out of the debate, fly to DC, and use his Magical Bipartisan Pixie Dust to save the negotiations over the bailout bill. Negotiations that were already moving along pretty well without him, particularly since he doesn't sit on the Senate Banking Committee.

With McCain's suspension announcement, and the most recent Palin-Couric interview, it's starting to get a bit ridiculous.

(Hat tip: TPM)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Palin meets with foreign leaders for the first time today

Ah, those Onion staff writers must be salivating.

Is Paulson's bailout plan socialist?

I'm not an economist, so I don't pretend to understand the details or implications of the $700 billion bailout plan. But from the little I do understand, it's totally inaccurate to call Paulson's plan "socialist," as so many pundits and politicians have done.

There are different definitions of socialism, but all of them involve government taking a more active role in the economy in order to redistribute resources from the wealthy to the poor. Although defenders of the plan are arguing that the bailout will help the economy as a whole (which seems reasonable enough), they are pointedly not arguing that the bailout will redistribute resources to the poor. If anything, a major criticism of the bailout is that it will do precisely the opposite.

So let's call the bailout plan mercantilist, or nationalist, or even Keynesian, but not socialist. The government is looking to support (or even own) specific industries and stabilize the financial system in order to improve the national (and perhaps global) economy. It has virtually nothing to do with socialism.

Is Bush following Obama in Pakistan?

The American military and NATO forces have been engaged in a battle with Taliban and al Qaeda militants along the Afghan-Pakistan border for several years now. A few weeks ago, the Bush administration adopted a policy of pursuing al Qaeda and Taliban militants across the border into Pakistan, with aerial bombings from drones (which have been used all along) and ground forces (which is new).

Early in the presidential primaries, Obama claimed that he would attack al Qaeda on Pakistani territory, without the Pakistani government's permission, "if we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets." At the time, Obama was ridiculed as naive about foreign policy. Now, it seems that the Bush administration is following that policy. It also seems that the critics of the policy were party justified, since the recent American incursions have drawn a sharp rebuke from the new Pakistani leadership, and have possibly destabilized Pakistani politics.

I'd like to suggest that Bush isn't exactly following Obama's earlier recommendation. First, Obama was not talking about ground troops, and he was only talking about "high-value targets" (presumably folks like Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri). I might be parsing words too much here, but it's important, because there's a cost-benefit calculation that must be made: Is killing or capturing the militant worth upsetting relations with (and within) Pakistan? As I interpret Obama's statement, it's only worth it when it's a high-value target. Bush's recent policy has dramatically widened that net, and so he might be operating under a different cost-beneft calculation.

Indeed, Scott Horton has argued that Bush's calculation in this case is entirely different. He thinks Bush's attempt to capture or kill Bin Laden is related to the U.S. electoral cycle:
"The Bush Administration is hoping for an 'October surprise' that will lift the tides of the Republican candidates just in time for Election Day. That explains why the extraordinary effort is undertaken now, and why the sensitivities of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship are being ignored."

That's a pretty brutal claim. I'm not sure what to make of it. But after the past seven years of manipulating foreign policy for partisan political purposes, I'm not eager to give Bush the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Another out-of-touch elitist against Palin

In an upcoming Newsweek article, Sam Harris agrees with me that there is something deeply disconcerting about many Americans' anti-intellectual bias when selecting our leaders -- most recently exemplified in the Palin nomination:

"Ask yourself: how has 'elitism' become a bad word in American politics? There is simply no other walk of life in which extraordinary talent and rigorous training are denigrated. We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases. And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence. When it comes to choosing the people whose thoughts and actions will decide the fates of millions, then we suddenly want someone just like us, someone fit to have a beer with, someone down-to-earth—in fact, almost anyone, provided that he or she doesn't seem too intelligent or well educated."
Harris is a great, provocative writer. What I find interesting is that, in an email to people on his mailing list, he titled his article "In Defense of Elitism." Makes sense. But compare that to the title on Newsweek's online edition: "When Atheists Attack." Doesn't that sound a bit like pejorative commentary from Newsweek's editors? Does it even relate to the substance of the article?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Are taxes patriotic?

In a recent interview, Joe Biden suggested that for Americans who can afford it, paying taxes is a patriotic duty:
The truth of the matter is that we are in trouble. And the people who do not need a new tax cut should be willing, as patriotic Americans, to understand the way to get this economy back up on their feet is to give middle class taxpayers a break.
Is Biden right? Hell yes. It really shouldn't be that controversial, should it? If you love your country, you want it to function well. To function, your country needs money to have a military, build roads, run schools, and police your neighborhood. To get money, it needs your taxes. So do your damn duty.

I can see two reasons why Americans would consider taxes a burden rather than a patriotic duty. First, Republicans have been remarkably successful at framing taxes as "painful," unreasonable, and burdensome (e.g., Bush's "It's your money" slogan and McCain's recent ad). They have largely won the rhetorical battle on this issue.

Second, fiscal conservatives like Andrew Sullivan argue that government doesn't need that much money to fulfill its basic functions, and therefore taxes should be smaller and flatter. (Side note: current Republicans are NOT fiscal conservatives.) He argues that the government's role should be to promote economic efficiency while protecting formal (not substantive) equality. So anything beyond a small flat tax would be burdensome and unfair.

Although that argument is more reasonable, I disagree with it. I'm not an economist, but I just don't see how the numbers would add up under a small, flat tax. The U.S. already has the smallest welfare system among all advanced democracies. We have the smallest government overall, as a % of GDP, among all advanced democracies (144 out of 160 countries, according to one list). We have a roughly half-trillion dollar federal deficit amid a major financial bailout. I'm willing to be convinced otherwise, but what government functions are you going to cut to allow for a small flat tax?

I just don't see how the federal government can perform its basic functions, including having a fairly minimal social safety net, without having progressive taxation. It's not a matter of trying to achieve some utopian "substantive equality," but simply ensuring that extreme inequality doesn't prevent some people from meeting their basic needs. So yes, paying your share of taxes, especially if you're wealthy, is a patriotic duty.

(Credit: Sullivan)