Friday, July 31, 2009

Krugman on healthcare

Paul Krugman, in today's N.Y. Times, has an excellent explanation of the government's role in assuring that our current system, bad as it is, isn't even worse. See

(Go ahead, buy a paper; the Web doesn't pay Krugman's salary! You also get the Times daily crossword.)

I'm on semi-vacation for the next two weeks, but hope to post a blog or two during that time.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The cost of compromise

As I said in my blog "What true Democrats need to do" (last Monday), it is important for progressive leaders to lead by going on the offensive for their policies and not trying for the compromise with those who will eventually end up knifing them in the back. When Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts back-pedalled on the gas tax, his (Democratic) legislature proceded to attack him because they sensed weakness; they are even now beginning to cozy up to Republican Charlie Baker, who just resigned as head of Harvard-Pilgrim Healthcare to run for Patrick's job.

(In case you don't know it, the Massachusetts legislature is not easily distinguishable from the New Jersey brand: 3 consecutive House leaders have been indicted for corruption. It was slow in enacting and enforcing strong DUI laws, and seems incapable of outlawing such an obvious danger as texting-while-driving. One can understand the DUI thing: there are probably a lot of hard-drinking politicians; their non-stand on texting is harder to understand. The only thing you can say about the people who re-elect them is that they realize just how awful Republicans are by comparison.)

Similarly, on the national front, President Obama, in his desire to compromise and avoid conflict, and in his hard-to-fathom belief that he can "deal" with the mostly hard-right Republicans, has conceded the initiative to those who don't want real heathcare reform. Recent polls show that the public is disillusioned with his leadership on the issue. Sometimes leadership means not compromising and not giving away the farm. If he thinks he is dealing with people who are representing honest differences, he should listen to the kind of inflammatory statements they are making: his policies are designed to terminate older people and are the opening wedge for euthenasia; they are socialism. The folks who brought us the Bush depression with trillions spent and not paid for are talking about his attempts at healthcare reform as burdening future generations with tax liability. How can anyone believe that Republicans who are saying this are worth working with?

They are not.

The vast majority of Republicans in Congress are Bush Republicans who were the tax-cutters and deregulators and conservative ideologues who got us into the mess we're in. Even the handful who are "moderate" (moderate is the new conservative) were enablers who rarely bucked the party's leadership. The majority of Republicans will vote against the centrist judge Sotomayor as they will vote against any bit of progressive legislation before them. It's just the way they are:

"to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee."

They are the party of the rich and the powerful -- and have been for a hundred years -- and will do anything to serve their masters. If Obama doesn't call them out directly in the national media, they will ruin his presidency just as surely as they have been ruining this country.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

William Kristol on The Daily Show

Just saw William Kristol on The Daily Show. It is really puzzling why that man is considered some sort of pundit. It's one thing for him to predict that Sarah Palin would be a good choice for McCain's running mate, somewhat before McCain actually chose her. As a pundit he should have known more about her, but his error could be forgiven since she had not yet been subjected to much questioning. But to believe it now, after all we know about her many deficiencies, and after her precipitous drop in popularity, makes one seriously question Kristol's political acumen as well as his good judgment about doing what's best for the country. Maybe he just fell in love with her latest line that the media should "stop making things up" (about her presumably) because soldiers are dying. For most commentators, poking holes in Palin is like shooting fish in a barrel, but apparently Kristol has seen or learned nothing.

Kristol also was beaten up rather badly by Stewart on healthcare. However, he made one statement which Stewart didn't challenge: that we shouldn't have government programs like Medicare because they are more expensive. He doesn't explain this claim, but even if it were true it's because private health plans are the ones that ration care the most -- just look at the list of things these plans don't cover. Look at how they disallow pre-existing conditions; look at how they compete with each other for the healthiest patients. The gross rationing of healthcare by its steep cost is also one of the disgraces of the current system. People like Kristol can't seem to see the difference between that and "rationing care" by weeding out ineffective or inefficient treatments -- or maybe they can see the difference but cynically use the word "rationing" simply to attack ideas that don't fit their ideology.

Stewart did get Kristol to acknowledge that the healthcare the government supplies to soldiers is the best -- even though it is supplied by the government, something conservatives hate to admit. But, says Kristol, it's OK for the military to get the best care and the rest of us get not-as-good care, or none: that's because they are risking their lives. However, most folks in the military aren't risking their lives, but have fairly safe desk jobs or are quite a distance from harm's way, yet they all share the benefits of this excellent plan. But, what about members of Congress? They are not risking their lives, yet they are also covered, with their families, by a first-rate plan, 75% of which is paid for by all taxpayers, who themselves, according to Kristol, are not entitled to such coverage.

Ah, Kristol is such a lightweight. The Republicans deserve him and Palin: if only they'd run as a ticket in the next election -- even all future elections.

Monday, July 27, 2009

What true Democrats need to do

It is getting to be crunch time for Democratic party leaders. The President must decide whether to continue efforts to woo Republicans as well as conservative members of his own party -- the so-called "Blue Dog" Democrats.

I think that, with few exceptions, the Republicans are beyond reach. It is important to remember that, as a party during the Great Depression, they opposed nearly every New Deal program, including Social Security. They have been trying to destroy Social Security ever since, not to mention opposing every bill designed to help anyone but the most wealthy. If anything, the current crop of Republicans, elected during the Reagan and Bush years, are more reactionary -- conservative isn't even the correct word -- than their counterparts of FDR's time. They overwhelmingly voted agains Pres. Obama's stimulus plan just months ago. If he is trying to work a reasonable compromise with them, he will end up being betrayed and disappointed again. Look at the nonsense they are spouting about Justice Sotomayor, Obama's pick for the Supreme Court. They simply have nothing on her, yet yammer about statements she made that are no different from those made by conservatives Roberts and Alioto.

There is simply no future in working with the vast majority of the minority party. As many as possible must be defeated in the next election. The organizational and electoral work was not concluded with Obama's election. The "filibuster-proof" 60 votes the Democrats have in the Senate is an illusion.

Which brings us to the Blue Dogs. FDR had a similar group of southern "Dixiecrats" to contend with, but during the Depression their states were suffering greatly, and the New Deal programs were a tremendous boon -- think TVA e.g. Although their racist politics were horrible by today's standards, they had a good chunk of populism also mixed in. Today's Blue Dogs are, in some sense, the opposite. They don't represent Jim Crow (Nixon's "southern strategy" sewed that up for the Republicans very neatly), but they do represent the Reagan-Democrats -- groups organized and whipped up by the Gipper to think they were fighting Washington bureacracy and "Big Government" when, in fact, they were voting for Big Business. We can now see the disastrous results of their policies of cutting regulation and services.

Just as it is important to defeat Republicans in the next election, it is important that President Obama and the majority of Democrats enforce party discipline in bringing around the Blue Dogs. President Obama must use his national position to make clear, over and over, what the issues are and who is being obstructionist, even if they are members of his own party. Losing all but 3 or 4 Republican votes, as well as several dozen Democrats will kill his health reform initiative just as surely as having a Republican majority.

A situation with a similar message is playing out in Massachusetts. Here the Democrats enjoy an overwhelming majority, but Governor Deval Patrick, a friend of the President, has projected a very weak image. He has bowed to all sorts of special interests. When he proposed a long-overdue increase in the gas tax, he immediately caved in to the opposition, meekly signing a sales tax increase (unpopular but also needed) that got the job only half done, leaving public transit still twisting in the wind. At the moment it looks like his lack of grit and leadership will cost his party the Governorship when his term is over.

If progressives are to enact progressive policies they must exhibit toughness and discipline. Check out what President Harry S Truman had to say more than 50 years ago:

When the Democratic candidate allows himself to be put on the defensive and starts apologizing for the New Deal and the fair Deal, and says he really doesn't believe in them, he is sure to lose. The people don't want a phony Democrat. If it's a choice between a genuine Republican, and a Republican in Democratic clothing, the people will choose the genuine article, every time...

(full text at:

Friday, July 24, 2009

End this distraction

I stated in yesterday's blog that President Obama had spoken to Prof. Gates. This apparently is not true. No matter, it still was a big mistake for the President to say anything more than admit to not knowing the facts. Saying this plus remarking that racial profiling is bad serves to suggest that this case involves racial profiling, which apparently is not so.

It has become clear that Prof. Gates acted provocatively, and also that the "disorderly conduct" charges were dropped because they were exaggerated and couldn't stick (see the comment on yesterday's blog).

While Prof. Gates would probably disagree, I don't think his tiff with Sgt. Crowley is important beyond being another town-gown scuffle. Let's get back to healthcare, the economy etc.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

"Skip" Gates vs. healthcare reform

My hometown newspaper (the Boston Globe) had, as today's big headline: "Obama scolds Cambridge police." Below the fold, in smaller type, was an article about healthcare.

Obama was, as usual, very good on healthcare. It is a pleasure listing to a president who has a good sense of priorities and facts, and can explain them so effectively. Unfortunately, he answered one question too many when he was asked to comment on the incident at the home of Henry Louis Gates, professor and director of an African American institute at Harvard.

I assume everyone knows the outline of this case and has heard all the accusations of racism and racial profiling. Like the President, I have absolutely no idea of what actually happened after the police, responding to a call from a neighbor, found Prof. Gates and a cab driver (at least I think it was a cab) trying to force open the front door of the house in which he was living -- a comfortable residence provided by Harvard.

By the usual definition of the term, the police officer was not guilty of racial profiling since he was directed to the scene on the basis of a phoned-in report of a break-in. Certainly police departments are entitled -- in fact required -- to take such reports seriously.

The rest of what took place is murky. Did Professor Gates provide an ID when asked? We don't know for sure at this time. Was Sgt. Crowley of the Cambridge Police polite or abusive and bullying? We don't know for sure. Did Prof. Gates actually do anything that would justify arresting him in his own home? That seems unlikely, since no one seems to have claimed that he broke any particular law, and the original disorderly conduct charges were withdrawn. (Some witnesses say he followed Crowley outside the residence.) Did Prof. Gates treat Sgt Crowley provocatively, call him a racist or otherwise insult him publicly and in front of other officers? Possibly. Although it is shocking (shocking!), professors at rich and famous schools have been known to do such things. Still, I don't see reasonable grounds for arresting him.

Certainly cheering Prof. Gates of Harvard for "speaking truth to power" is a bit over the top. What is the truth, when and how was it said, and who has the power? Does a well-known and wealthy professor have less power than a sergeant in a city police department? Not clear at all.

Today's Boston Globe had a several column profile of Sgt. James Crowley, the officer involved. He seems to be a very respected police officer with no record of racial or other abuse. He appears to have been active in police sensitivity training and to take it seriously.

While it is unclear why Crowley would arrest Gates and handcuff him, it is also unclear why Gates would almost immediately feel the need to call the president of Harvard, or announce that he might make a documentary inspired by this incident. Pretty quick, but I guess when you're a hammer, as the saying goes, the whole world looks like a nail...

What we need is a little cooling off here, and maybe, just maybe, mutual apologies.

It is very unfortunate that President Obama, after speaking with his friend "Skip" Gates, called the action of the Cambridge Police department "stupid." Did Obama also speak with Sgt. Crowley? If he did, I'd be impressed; if not, he should not have commented on the incident. In terms of American class and power structure, Obama has far more in common with Gates than he does with Crowley.

Unfortunately, I'd have to say that it was stupid for Obama to have made a premature and probably biased judgment that had the effect of upstaging his comments on the important issue of healthcare. Even the political masters sometimes blow it, and he did.

One final thought: what no one seems to be talking about is the arrogance or perceived arrogance of many college professors. As my wife points out, the "town-gown" tension is evident everywhere there is a college near or within a non-academic community. The more "elite" the college, the stronger the tensions. (For example, Northeastern University has better relations with surrounding Boston than Harvard does with Cambridge.) While I try my best to avoid racism or sexism, it has been impossible for me to give up collegeprofessorism. I guess I should know: I used to be one, and some of my best friends still are.

In case you are interested, here is a copy of the police report on the incident:
I have been told that the Boston Globe initially posted this, but later removed it from the their website; I don't know it that is true or not, but I wasn't able to find it on their site recently.

Please see the comment just below for clarification of the legal meaning of "disturbing the peace." (Thanks to Sarah for finding this.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The F22 fighter and more

Senator Chris Dodd (D, Conn) asks why the government can spend $65 billion to bail out the auto industry, but can't come up with $1.75 billion to produce a few more F22 fighter planes.

The answer, actually, is quite simple. The Pentagon doesn't want or need the planes. In fact, producing them would be counterproductive since there would then be less money (at least theoretically) to spend on programs the military does need -- e.g. counterinsurgency. Also, there is some chance that the government will be repaid all or part of its investment in the auto industry, which at least, theoretically, produces a product for which there is some demand.

It has been known for decades that investment in civilian industry produces more jobs and is more of a stimulus to the economy, than military spending (see, e.g.: Thus, the push to keep the F22 is potentially harmful to both the military and the general U.S. economy. This is, once again, an example of politicians acting narrowly without regard for the national interest. If anything, the Democrats may be slightly more to blame in this instance, since California and Connecticut are two (Democratic) states with a large stake in F22 production.

NEWS FLASH: The Senate has just voted to cut out the $1.75 billion for the F22, an important victory for Obama and for the country.

History Department:

Neal Gabler, in today's Boston Globe, reminds us that 12 of 19 Republicans in the Senate voted against Social Security when FDR was pushing it through Congress and, 30 years later, 17 of 30 voted against Medicare. Since then: "The Democrats have moved to the right and the right has moved into a mental hospital." (Gabler quoting Bill Maher).

Can you imagine what this country would be like, in this economic disaster, without these programs?

Here's Gabler's article:

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Baloney: part 1 of a continuing series

As part of its disinformation scheme to cripple our government, the right wing has been trying to defame its various branches. A popular target of these attacks is the U. S. Postal Service (USPS): a quasi-government agency. The smear campaign has, to my knowledge, never presented any actual facts, other than that the USPS periodically raises its rates to repair its deficits -- an unpopular move -- and, like any large employer, has occasional , though well-publicized, problems with its employees ("going postal"). In fact, as an employer, USPS has a smaller percentage of its workers become victims of homicide than most other large employers -- this from a government study quoted in the L. A. Times ( Retail trade has a much higher homicide rate, yet no one speaks of an employee "going retail". Similarly for the police .

What about accusations of inefficiency and bad service? I could find no study claiming these bad qualities for the USPS; in fact, recent surveys have shown that well over 90% of its customers think the USPS renders dependable service at a reasonable price. On this matter I can give a personal verification.

For nearly 10 years a ran a small software business out of my home. For most of those years I used the USPS exclusively, and I shipped my product -- mathematical graphing software -- throughout the U.S. and probably a dozen foreign countries. During that time I sent thousands of packages via first-class mail, and not one was lost and only a handful were damaged -- and those only slightly. During the last years of my business I had a person doing my shipping for me who used United Parcel Service. UPS was comparable in price and, to be fair, also had an exemplary shipping record. UPS, on the other hand, is small in comparison with USPS, and doesn't handle letters.

In general, the right doesn't attack UPS because it is not tied to our government; however, true to form, the right doesn't like the fact that UPS has a strong union. When it comes to economic self-protection, the right is all for individualism -- no helpful government agencies and no unions. When it comes to privacy and individual liberties (other than firearms), though, Big Brother knows best.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The recently deceased CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite came in first in a 1973 poll when Americans were asked which public figures they most trusted. Who was runner-up? Richard Nixon. The avuncular Cronkite was, of course, a natural; but Richard Nixon in second place? This certainly says something about the People's Judgement. I don't know when this poll was taken, but by April of 1973 the Watergate scandal had already claimed presidential aides Haldeman and Erlichman as well as advisor John Dean. Nixon, a long-time supporter of Joe McCarthy and McCarthyism, had for years been the target of cartoons asking, e.g., "Would you buy a used car from this man?" Dwight Eisenhower, under whom Nixon served as veep, had already become disillusioned with him, and he had been involved in influence-peddling scandals. Yet Nixon came in second in the poll. Would you trust anyone's judgement who voted for him? Could Cronkite (no fan of Nixon's) have felt all that honored?

Similarly, could anyone still take Nobel Peace Prizes seriously after Henry Kissinger --perpetrator of the secret bombings of Cambodia among other crimes -- won one, also in 1973?

And finally, while I'm on the subject of significance, what about the critics of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor who claim that her reputation was somehow hurt when the Court overturned her judgement in the case of the New Haven fire fighters. The Court decision was by a 5 to 4 vote. I guess that means that at least 4 justices of the actual court were equally unfit. By logical extension, any justices on the losing side of a Supreme Court case are not fit to serve. Has any sitting justice always been on the winning side of every case? Of course not. Why do the news media even report such nonsense?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Banks being Banks

So Goldman-Sachs, Bank America and Citi-Group recently announced second-quarter profits, each in the billions of dollars. All are recipients of billions in federal bailouts, which I am sure they are eager to return as soon as possible, in order to avoid regulation -- especially of executive compensation.

Several things seem clear. First is that these profits mean nothing in terms of the health of these banks or the banking industry in general. In fact, the money that pushed them into the black this past quarter has nothing to do with banking as we think of it. Goldman, as usual, makes the big bucks in trading -- including the misnomer "investment banking", another form of speculation these days. Goldman's forte is computerized high-speed trading of securities, including securitized loans and mortgages, a good chunk of which are now familiarly known as "toxic assets." CitiCorp, a disaster on wheels, similarly owes its temporary spurt to trading, not to fundamentals in any way related to healthy banking. If Bank of America is very sick, Citi is at -- or through -- Death's Door. But still its traders keep "slicing and dicing", as they say, loans and other assets of dubious value, and unloading them on anyone they can unload them on.

It's not like they told us in school, where companies raise money for innovation and growth by selling stocks and bonds to Average Folk who want to invest in American Business. In fact, a lot of the daily churning of market securities is day-to-day speculation, not in the actual fortunes of companies but on guesses about market reactions to these fortunes -- or on guesses about guesses. Also, the trading companies are constantly shifting their own positions -- positive, negative or straddling -- by buying or peddling to their own customers. If you want to get some idea of the ethics and attitudes underlying this kind of "investment", check out Michael Lewis' "Liar's Poker": a memoir of his days at Salomon Brothers in New York and London. In spite of warnings such as the Savings and Loan debacle of 20 years ago, the banks have been in the thick of this. Michael Lewis reports on this latest disaster for the banks in The End:

The sad -- no, outrageous -- part of this is the lack of any real re-regulation of these banks, even under the Obama administration. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that the financial community contributes more to the political parties than any other industry. Timothy Geitner, the Secretary of the Treasury, is, after all, a product of Wall Street and was supported by the Street during his confirmation hearings -- in fact, the market went up immediately in reaction his nomination for the post. He has done nothing to indicate that he supports stringent regulations for the financial community.

What's needed is for banks to go back to being just ... banks; i.e. lending money to qualified individuals and businesses, collecting interest, and paying dividends: no speculation, no slicing and dicing of obligations into securities, and no dealing in insurance policies on these securities. Today's news about Bank of America and CitiCorp shows that banks don't seem ready to resume this restricted role, and lawmakers don't seem to have the stomach to restrict them. But but these restrictions are necessary because, as Paul Krugman observes,

"The next crisis could look something like the savings-and-loan mess of the 1980s, in which deregulated banks gambled with, or in some cases stole, taxpayers’ money — except that it would involve the financial industry as a whole."


Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Minimum Wage

On July 24, 2007 the FMW (Federal Minimum Wage) rose from $5.15/hr to $5.85/hr; on July 24, 2008 it rose another $0.70 to $6.55/hr; in two weeks it will rise again, to $7.25/hr. This follows the longest ever period without a change: nearly 10 years. During that time the purchasing power of the minimum wage has declined steadily -- as it has declined since 1968 when its value in constant dollars was highest.

Since its first appearance in 1938 during the Great Depression, advocacy of the FMW has been a staple of Democratic and union politics, while it has been a subject of general Republican scorn. The first group views it as an important anti-poverty tool, and the second group sees it as anti-business and counterproductive.

So who is right about this?

I've spent the past week researching the arguments: looking at statistics, asking economists, and reading columns, websites and blogs of people with training in economics. I started writing a long explanation of what I found out, but that began to make even me nod off. So, in a nutshell, here's the conclusion: It depends. (You can tell I've been reading a lot of economists...)

The arguments from classical economics -- supply and demand, maximizing profit, etc. -- would suggest that when businesses have to pay their workers more, especially their lowest-paid and least skillful, then they will seriously consider laying some of them off if they can. Often, businesses can extract more productivity from their more skilled employees to compensate for firing or not hiring the least skilled, lowest paid.

(Recently, Wal-Mart has been supporting a raise in the FMW. One cynical interpretation has it that the company has enough money so that it can afford to train its workers to be more productive -- for example via computer training. This enables it to avoid minimum wage employees, while saddling its less-capitalized competitors with the increases in payments to their minimum-wage workers.)

So what actually happens when the minimum wage goes up? Analysis is complicated. It is certainly well-documented that raising the minimum wage -- either on the local or federal level -- seems to hurt the employment chances of teenagers and unskilled workers in their early 20's. On the other hand, in places where there are a lot of low wage laborers, the sheer number whose wages increased modestly due to the legislation (including a "ripple effect" on slightly higher-paid employees) tended to create a modest decrease in poverty rates -- but this was not found in every study. Also, there are documented positive effects for certain younger and low-wage workers, especially high-school educated women and unwed mothers (my colleague, Andrew Sum, clued me into this).

There was a famous study by David Card and Alan Krueger comparing fast-food workers in the contiguous states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In 1992 NJ raised its minimum wage nearly 20% while the minimum wage in PA remained the same. When this happened, the full-time employment of the NJ workers actually increased by about 0.6, while the rate in PA declined by about 2.2. Some liberal economists take great heart from this study, but many economists don't think it means much; some dismiss it entirely. Given the difficulty of comparing all the factors involved here, it is probably only safe to say that NJ low-wage workers didn't pay any obvious employment penalty when the floor on their wages went up.

Actually, very few workers work for minimum wage, and, it seems, less than half are actually "breadwinners" in a family of more than one (themselves). Of course, this is not surprising since the minimum wage is nothing like a living wage. Any family with principal income from only a minimum wage would be placed well well below the poverty line. It is also not surprising that a large percentage (maybe a third) of minimum wage earners are students or other very young people living at home, and usually in families well above the the poverty level.

So, in summary, it seems that raising the minimum wage may be marginally useful; however, Paul Krugman, no right-winger, says in a book review:

"Now to me, at least, the obvious question is, why take this route? Why increase the cost of labor to employers so sharply, which--Card/Krueger notwithstanding--must pose a significant risk of pricing some workers out of the market [my emphasis], in order to give those workers so little extra income? Why not give them the money directly, say, via an increase in the tax credit?


I will post more details and references in a future blog.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Just a quickie: today's N.Y. Times reports:

In a statement Wednesday night, a C.I.A. spokesman, George Little, noted that the agency “took the initiative to notify the oversight committees” about the past failures. He said the agency and Mr. Panetta “believe it is vital to keep the Congress fully and currently informed.”

I see: we should give a pat on the back to the C.I.A. for volunteering the information that they had lied repeatedly to Congress since 2001 (see the rest of the story in the Times). This is beginning to make Nancy Pelosi's claims of being misinformed seem quite credible. Of course the Republicans, who called these claims "an unwarranted attack on the integrity of counterterrorism officers", wanted to have Pelosi investigated. Now, presumably, they should investigate anyone who believes the C.I.A.'s own claims that it lied. To follow their logic a bit further, they must now consider the agency's "initiative" a similar attack (on the agency itself), and refuse to believe it.

Ah, "What a twisted web we weave..."

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Robert S. McNamara

It is hard to begin writing about the death of Robert S. McNamara. Over twenty years ago I asked, in a letter printed in the Boston Globe: "So what accountability will there be? Those like McNamara, who cynically pursued a cause they knew to be doomed and wrong, are responsible for crimes of biblical proportions. What shall be their punishment? ... How can he continue living after all he has done?"

Although I am not in any sense religious, I felt at the time that the only possible response that McNamara could have taken would be to "fall on his sword": take his own life as a symbolic expiation for his collossal errors -- both intentional and unintentional -- that led to the deaths of perhaps a million or more people. In fact, McNamara, while conceding his guilt, did far less. Obituaries that have appeared recently describe his supposed "do-gooder" tenure at the World Bank as his penance: offering many loans to developing countries. Of course, the World Bank has long been known as an arm of US capital interests, and an agent of Western economic policies. He certainly didn't oversee the giving away of money to countries damaged by these policies.

So the years passed, with McNamara slowly fading from our memory. There was Errol Morris' Academy Award winning documentary "The Fog of War" which gave him a chance to philosophize about Vietnam. I refuse to watch this. I have read a lot about McNamara -- both during and after the war. The movie can not change the facts about what he did, and I don't care to witness any more of his weeping -- literal or figurative. I'm not impressed that Morris "likes" him -- I guess McNamara's a real sympathetic charmer. But just remember what he did.

There was no real "fog". Experts wrote thousands of pieces about the myths of involvement in Vietnam. I remember reading, in the early '60s, Bernard Fall and Jean Lacouture recounting French mistakes in Indo-China. A huge amount of expert criticism was available (even from the CIA in 1963 I recall) to dispell any "fog" surrounding the early commitments and mistakes. This commentary turned out to be uniformly correct and McNamara's analysis uniformly wrong -- even by his own later admission. The French including the very anti-communist Charles de Gaulle -- the original colonialists in Southeast Asia -- immediately realized the misunderstandings underlying U.S. policy. But McNamara ignored it all. Any fog was the result of the secrecy of the administrations that employed him and those like him. Things like the Tonkin Gulf "incident", "Body counts", "light at the end of the tunnel", "winning hearts and minds", "strategic hamlets" etc. were mists manufactured on the ground, not some sort of mystical fog rolling in from somewhere offshore.

Just because one is smart -- high IQ, good memory and a gift for quick analysis -- doesn't necessarily make one arrogant or give one power. In McNamara, unfortunately, one found that fatal combination. But that wasn't the worst. After he arrogantly ignored the many warnings of those who knew better, and persisted with his war under two presidents, he found out that it was all terribly wrong. But what did he do? Nothing. During the deaths and maimings and grief; through many elections in which anti-war candidates were accused of being un-American and protestors were beaten, jailed and even shot, McNamara did nothing ... nothing.

Then he started his semi-private weeping. Poor man.

If you want to know my feelings about Robert Strange McNamara, listen to Dylan's song "Masters of War", especially the last stanza:

And I hope that you die
And your death'll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand o'er your grave
'Til I'm sure that you're dead.

Too bad it didn't come sooner, when it might have mattered -- for him and for us.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Palin's resignation

Sarah Palin's recent announcement that she will retire as Alaska's governor points to both her own delusions about politics and the weakness of the Republican party nationally.

Without her selection, in despiration, by John McCain as her running-mate in 2008, she would have continued relatively unrecognized as a parochial governor who owed her election to factors totally unrelated to issues of long-term importance to either Alaska or the country. Her election as mayor of Wasilla was due to her raising of social and partisan issues in an election that had traditionally been what most mayoral elections are about: the running of city government and constituent services. At the time of this election, and her later election as governor, Alaskans were living in the never-never land of fortuitous oil revenue. To her credit, she was able to make oil companies pay out large chunks of money for the privilege of making huger sums from Alaskan oil. Of course, they got back their investment in spades both from these oil revenues and from her and her party's enthusiastic advocacy of "drill baby drill."

As governor, Palin continued, until the recent Republican recession, to live off the belief that she was responsible for Alaska's prosperity. A variation of Texan Jim Hightower's famous quote certainly applies here: (She) was born on third base and (everyone) thinks (s)he hit a triple. (Sometimes attributed to Ann Richards of Texas.)

Now that times are tough, even in Alaska, and call for someone with knowledge, imagination, and real political astuteness, Mrs. Palin's deficiences are all too apparent. Even to Alaskans it is becoming clear that she and her husband have treated Alaska as a personal fiefdom and political base, and have actually little to offer programatically. This alone provides proximate cause for her resignation.

So, does Sarah Palin have a national political future? Almost certainly a very limited one. The Republican party has a very loud, unified, and stubborn group which clings to backwards-looking social policies, and failed economic ones. Given control of both houses of congress and the presidency, and a slinking, cowardly opposition party, they have produced an economic disaster unequalled since the Great Depression. The demographics are against them -- even earlier than pundits had anticipated. Yet, like the Bourbons of the 18th century, they have learned nothing and forget nothing. This is Palin's natural constituency. If she intends to continue in national politics, she may very well count on them for support. But that's it.

As we have seen during and after the 2008 election, Palin can be a tremendous embarrassment outside this cohesive but small group. Americans are not big advocates these days about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; dealing with Russia from Alaska's waterfront is discredited; gay marriage is rapidly becoming a non-issue except to the hardcore religious right (with hetero marriage sinking of it's own weight among legislators); "Abstinence Only" sex ed is laughable when uttered on the same breath as "Palin."

Rush Limbaugh is a paper-tiger drug-addict bully to those outside his ditto-head followers; Newt Gingrich is a serially adulterous failed political insider. Palin could join them in a dream triumvirate on talk radio. Maybe Pat Robertson, who blamed the 9/11 attacks on American immorality, could make it an even foursome. Might that be Palin's secret desire?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Coup in Honduras

Most discussions of the ouster of Honduran president Manuel Zelaya rightfully deplore the fact that it was engineered by the military. The long and sad history of military coups in South and Central America -- often aided and abetted by the CIA and other American agencies -- makes this concern quite natural. However, there is another aspect which should be considered.

By many accounts, the attempt by Zelaya to extend his term via public referendum is illegal. This is based on reports that the Honduran Supreme Court has declared that such a referendum is unconstitutional. I don't have access to the constitution of Honduras, but it would be enlightening if someone could provide a legal analysis of this.

The four-year term limit on the presidency in Honduras seems unusually short. It is eight (two terms) in the U.S., but not without some controversy, since this was enacted fairly recently in the 22 Amendment -- ratified in 1951 mostly in reaction, by his enemies, to FDR's four elected terms. On the other hand, it is my general opinion that the world suffers more from strong executives than from the opposite. Hyperthyoidal presidents have tended to be nationalistic and war-mongering. The theory of "the unitary presidency", most recently pushed by Dick Cheney and company, may possibly be only slightly less dangerous than the military coup, especially in a very strong country such as the US, capable of creating much military mischief. But even in weaker countries of this hemisphere, strong "presidencies" have simply been hidden dictatorships. That is why the more recent democratic constitutions in these countries have strongly limited presidential terms to four or six years.

President Obama has probably taken about the correct stance on this: deploring the coup but not threatening or advocating action to restore Zelaya. At this point in history -- and with the backdrop of our regrettable history in the "Americas" -- it is best to take a hands-off policy.