Archive for October, 2009

Brief Thoughts for the Week of 2009-10-30

Friday, October 30th, 2009
  • Net Neutrality Is What Made the Internet a Libertarian Utopia. http://2parse.com/?p=4127 #
  • Horoscope as peppy aunt "Why should you let worrying about what others may think keep you from doing something you enjoy; isn't that silly!" #
  • "Yes, I am the popular social networking site Bookface." #
  • The Governator sends a "hidden message" to the California legislature. (The first letters of each line.) http://bit.ly/18X1D #
  • AT&T's sordid history of scamming the gov't to punish its competitors now culminates in attacks on Net Neutrality. http://2parse.com/?p=4125 #
  • "Where I come from, [Obama criticism of Fox] would barely count as basketball-court trash talk, let alone words of war" http://bit.ly/11Zmgw #
  • Karzai gave in because he knew Obama was serious while Bush had not been… http://2parse.com/?p=4139 #
  • Didn't realize there were so many flights: very cool video visualizing flight patterns across America. http://bit.ly/bwTpY #
  • A nugget of radio wisdom from Glenn Beck, on surviving the coming collapse of all civilization thanks to Obama: "You can't eat gold." #
  • Funny on a few levels:"Virgo: You're so bent on doing for others, it may feel strange to meet one who wants to take care of you but enjoy it #
  • Horoscopes like today's remind me that they are directed mainly at women: Were you hoping to capture someone's attention: well just sparkle! #
  • Look, I'm rooting for the Yankees – but contrary to Girardi, he doesn't "deserve" another one… Damn Yankee entitlement mentality… #
  • Pretty psyched I seem to be able to surf the web on the train without a cell connection – but not sure why it's possible. #
  • Damn, it's pouring in the city…and the LIRR is almost completely dysfunctional this weekend… #
  • RT @jeffjarvis MSFT product cycle is 5 years; GOOG's is 5 days. http://bit.ly/38stx1 #
  • xkcd, animated http://vimeo.com/7151435 (with the original here http://xkcd.com/442/) #
  • Steve Marlsburg: "The people who don't have time to sit and listen to talk radio all day just don't know what [Obama] is getting away with!" #

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Net Neutrality Is What Made the Internet a Libertarian Utopia

Friday, October 30th, 2009

[Forgive me, because this morning I am feeling expansive, and as such, I am omitting the usual qualifiers that constrain my opinions.]

The internet is the nearest thing to a libertarian utopia in the history of the world. It creates the closest thing we have seen to a frictionless market, a perfectly free market – and it is, for the most part, tax free. It allows the closest thing we have to maximum free speech and freedom from censorship. It allows every individual a platform to be themselves, or whatever else they choose to be. It circumvents and undermines governments that attempt to control it. It was created to allow for the maximum of freedom with a minimum of cost. It is resistant to centralized control – and makes it more and more possible to decentralize power. It has unleashed the forces of innovation and creativity that libertarian theory has always posited would come with freedom. It is perhaps the greatest force for expanding liberty in the world since the American revolution (or the fall of Communism.)

How did the internet develop this way? How did this profoundly destabilizing and decentralized network develop? Was it some Galtian genius who set up servers on cargo ships in international waters? Was it some giant corporation which decided it could profit from it? Not quite. And perhaps the story of how the internet developed helps explain why is it that liberals and not libertarians are the ones defending the internet.

Government engineers designed the internet as a network that was decentralized and thus “network neutral,” so as to be resistant to a nuclear assault on the United States. It was designed to be adaptable. Many academics worked on the project on behalf of the government – and were among the first to gain access to it. The large corporations of the time that controlled America’s communications grid – primarily AT&T – were resistant and attempted to strangle this competitor in its infancy, as they tried to discriminate against the data being sent over their lines. Corporations, attempting to derive maximum profit from their assets, also attempted to exert maximum control. AT&T only allowed “authorized” objects to connect to its network – and in fact people did not own their own phones. They licensed them from AT&T. Thus, it was only forceful intervention by the FCC that allowed the internet to develop, that opened up the communications network of the United States to innovation.

AT&T and other corporations, attempting to add to their profits, now seek to find another stream of revenue by undermining net neutrality, one of the foundational principles of the internet itself. They seek to introduce new frictions into this nearly frictionless market and to prevent it from becoming so easily a platform for individuals. Opponents of net neutrality claim that the several attempts by corporations to create policies that were contrary to net neutrality should be ignored because they did not succeed. (They did not succeed because the FCC shut them down.) They claim that there is no need to articulate clear principles about what net neutrality is because so far, the attempts to undermine it have failed. They claim government regulation regarding this would retard “innovation” – when it was government intervention that in fact created the possibility for such innovation.

This libertarian utopia was created by government engineers and protected from powerful corporations by forceful regulation.

Many corporate libertarians (such as Adam Thierer) have embraced the fallacy that the government is the only threat to individual liberties, or at least that the government is always a greater threat to liberty than any other force. They also often count corporations as “individuals” as they are considered such by the law. Thus they have a knee jerk opposition to regulation of any sort – even regulation meant to allow their own values to flourish. They favor freedom for corporations from government over freedom of individuals from corporations because they see the government as the primary evil in the world.

The are many different varieties of liberals, but the group of which I count myself believes that large corporations as well as government both are major threats to individual liberties. We favor smart regulation that does not restrict individuals, but instead restricts corporations who often use their power and clout to deprive individuals of rights. We agree with many libertarian attempts to constrain the government in the area of national security and attempts to make the government more transparent and accountable – but believe that government intervention in some form or another is often needed to restrain corporations from taking away the rights of individuals. We realize that the free markets exist not in spite of the government but because of it, because of a balance between governmental intervention and the rights of individuals and the rights of corporations.

[Image by sea legs snapshots licensed under Creative Commons.]

The Escalating War Over Judicial Appointments

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

I recall the Wall Street Journal editorial page making a big deal about the “unprecedented” blocking of appointees to the Judiciary while George W. Bush was in power. The editors considered it a travesty that the a minority would take such “unprecedented” and “anti-constitutional” steps to preserve their “last toehold on power” using “not-so-democratic tactics” (the filibuster) to “block, delay and besmirch” Bush’s judicial nominees in an “assault on democracy” whose purpose was “judicial Armageddon.” (I’ve excerpted some examples below the fold.)

Clearly, the Wall Street Journal opposes “judicial filibusters” (though it wrongly credits the Democratic Party for inventing them.) So you would think that they would make a point – just to appear consistent – of calling on the Republicans to stop the practice of judicial filibustering. (There was one guest editorial to this effect since Obama’s election that my research has found.) Instead, most readers of the editorial page would have no idea that Republicans have in fact escalated the judicial war that has been going on since the 1980s. As Doug Kendall writes in Slate:

Over the past several decades, senators in both parties have used an escalating set of procedural tactics to block confirmations, particularly near the end of an out-going president’s term in office. To date, however, the tit-for-tat game has played out within a fairly narrow category of nominees who are deemed controversial. [my emphasis]

Now, Kendall points out, the Republicans are slowing down all judicial appointments rather than just the handful of controversial ones.

Kendall compares how Bush nominees fared at the end of Bush’s term with the Congress controlled by Democrats:

In the last two years of Bush’s term with a Democrat-controlled Congress, 26 of 68 nominees were confirmed less than three months after the president nominated them, with 100 confirmations total during that time.
In the first nine months of Obama’s term with an even more Democrat-controlled Congress, 0 of 22 nominees were confirmed less than three months after the president nominated them, with 3 confirmations total during that time.

Kendall points out that Obama’s nominees have all been uncontroversial so far – supported by their home state senators, even when they are conservative Republicans. (The support of your home state senator is an important measure used for judging nominees.) And that they have been blocked even when passing the Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support:

Two additional nominees, Andre Davis of Maryland and David Hamilton of Indiana, cleared the Senate judiciary committee way back on June 4—144 days ago. Yet their floor votes are still pending.

Davis and Hamilton have spent longer in this particular form of limbo than any Bush nominee confirmed from 2007-08. Yet Davis cleared the judiciary committee by a bipartisan vote of 16-3 and can’t remotely be considered controversial. Hamilton has the strong support of his home state Republican senator, Richard Lugar. Beverly Martin, an appeals court nominee supported by Georgia’s two conservative Republican senators, was unanimously reported out of the Senate judiciary committee by a voice vote more than 46 days ago. She, too, has not received a Senate floor vote. Five other Obama nominees, all well-qualified and without any serious opposition, similarly await floor action.

I personally would not begrudge the Republicans the ability to filibuster and try to block nominees whose views they deemed controversial. I would oppose any justice who believed the president possessed the powers of a monarch in times of war (as Justices Alito and Roberts seem to) and I can see grounds for opposing some leftist nominees as well. But to hold up the entire judicial appointment process is a clear abuse. I await the Wall Street Journal‘s imminent essay on the “judicial Armageddon” that these “anti-democratic” and “anti-constitutional” actions by the Republican Party they sympathize with will clearly lead to. Especially as the Republicans in Congress have pushed the filibuster to historically unprecedented levels.

(more…)

Lieberman Ready To “Stick the Knife” In Health Care Reform

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Ezra Klein doesn’t seem to believe Lieberman’s threat to filibuster health care reform will stand:

Lieberman’s argument against the public option is simply false. “I think a lot of people may think that the public option is free,” he says. “It’s not. It’s going to cost the taxpayers and people who have health insurance now, and if it doesn’t it’s going to add terribly to the national debt.” Soon enough, he’ll be looking at Congressional Budget Office numbers saying the exact opposite. The public option costs taxpayers nothing, adds nothing to the debt and saves everyone money. Lieberman won’t be able to hang onto this argument for very long, and then what? [my emphasis]

That seems to be almost willful naivete – as if facts get in the way of insisting something is true! Lieberman can – and probably will – continue to insist that the public option will cost tons of money and add to the deficit no matter what any “independent” body says – and if anyone in the media confronts him on it, they’ll let him off easy as he blows smoke in their face and talks about how, “Nothing is for free.”

The conversation will go like this:

Media guy: Independent estimates show that the public option will save money. The CBO – which you have often cited as a quality source – has said it will cut health care costs by $____ billion dollars. Yet you oppose the public option because you claim it will cost money. How can you do this?

Lieberman: Nothing is free, [name of media guy.] And a report came out just last week that showed how the public option would add $___ million trillion to the deficit. [Neglecting to mention that it was funded by some from for the health insurance industry.] With the public option, health care costs will skyrocket! Nothing is for free. And the public option will lead to rationing of care.

Media guy: Well enough on that, let’s move on to Iran.

Or perhaps Ezra just assumes Lieberman is a good guy who has genuine concerns that are based on policy, but just hasn’t taken the time to take an even cursory look into the main item of controversy in the major policy issue for the past three or so months.

I don’t think that is that likely. Which is why I think Jonathan Chait’s read on Lieberma’s motives is more accurate than Ezra’s:

[Lieberman is] furious with the party, resentful of President Obama (who beat his friend in 2008) and would relish a Democratic catastrophe…My guess is that ultimately he’ll vote for reform, but he’ll do so because the Democrats will scale back their plan and win over Olympia Snowe, making Lieberman’s opposition academic. Lieberman won’t join a futile filibuster, but if he has the chance to stick in the knife and kill health care reform, I think he’d probably jump at the chance.

[Image adapted from a photo by TalkRadioNews licensed under Creative Commons.]

A Vote To Debate Health Care Is A Vote for Democracy

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

According to reporting by David M. Herszenhorn and Robert Pear for the New York Times:

The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said that in his view a vote to debate the legislation would be tantamount to supporting it, which he said would raise taxes and increase health care costs.

Such a vote, Mr. McConnell said, “will be treated as a vote on the merits of the bill.”

Obviously, McConnell can say whatever he wants, but isn’t anyone in the Senate willing to stand up for the basic principle of democracy: majority rule. Minority rights must be protected, but when a minority is able to even prevent official debate on a law, things have gone too far. Strategically, McConnell has no choice – but by forcing the Senate to have a supermajority to even consider pressing legislation, he undermines the institution of the Senate itself. (And this supermajority requirement whereby any individual simply by threatening to filibuster can prevent debate isn’t part of the original balance of powers – but is a new development.)

You’d hope a bunch of Senators would take that into consideration.

AT&T: An Unlikely Opponent of Government Regulation

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

AT&T has emerged as the main opponent of net neutrality – while it has tried to paint Google as its main proponent (a surprising move given Google’s popularity.)

Yet, as AT&T now embraces the language of the free market and cloaks itself in libertarian rhetoric about government interference and regulation, it’s worth considering its history. AT&T’s business model is and has always been about manipulating the government for its private advantage. (In this it isn’t much different than most corporations – except in its spectacular success.) According to Adam D. Thierer (whose name will come up later), under company president Theodore Vail during the early 20th century, AT&T’s main goals were:

the elimination of competitors, the befriending of policymakers and regulators, and the expansion of telephone service to the general public.

By 1913, as AT&T had bought up many competitors and driven many smaller companies out of business in local phone service and taken a dominant position in long-distance calling, the Justice Department became concerned that AT&T was becoming a monopoly to the detriment of competition. At this point, AT&T voluntarily entered into the Kingsbury Commitment to avoid the otherwise inevitable regulation – agreeing to withdraw from certain markets (divesting itself from Western Union which it had just bought for example) and to stop its war on smaller local calling companies. They secured their advantage though and were able to continue to solidify its lucrative effectively monopolistic position in long-distance.

As the company continued to solidify its position, it was wary of inciting government efforts to break up its monopoly and so avoided typical practices of monopolies such as raising prices quickly. But during World War I, the company was nationalized and controlled by the Postmaster General. AT&T, now safe from monopoly concerns, immediately lobbied the postmaster general to allow it to raise rates significantly, which under normal circumstances would have triggered concern about monopolistic abuse of power. But, as a government entity during a time of war, AT&T was given this allowance: AT&T raised its rates 20% in the first half year under government control. In addition, the government decided to compensate the company with $13 million “to cover any losses they may have incurred, despite the fact that none were evident,” as Thierer points out.

Subsequently, AT&T began lobbying for government regulation of long-distance rates to solidify their advantage as the de facto monopoly of the long-distance. They succeeded in return for their promise to extend universal telephone coverage. This bargain with the government as well as AT&T’s prestige and government contracts gave it great pull with the FCC such that the FCC protected it. Thierer again:

Beside its powers to regulate rates to ensure they were “just and reasonable,” the FCC was also given the power to restrict entry into the marketplace. Potential competitors were, and still are required to obtain from the FCC a “certificate of public convenience and necessity.” The intent of the licensing process was again to prevent “wasteful duplication” and “unneeded competition.”

…[The FCC would] use its power in favor of AT&T when potential competitors threatened the firm’s hegemony.

Thierer’s history ends here. But AT&T never stopped lobbying the government for favors. In the late 1950s, as it attempted to block any competitors from even improving its product. AT&T owned all devices connected to its network, merely licensing phones to its customers – and maintained the right to block the sale of any “unauthorized foreign attachments” and terminate service to anyone who used them.

AT&T continued to fight for special government favors in the 1980s and 1990s – as Dick Martin, former head of public relations for AT&T and author of Tough Calls: AT&T and the Hard Lessons Learned from the Telecom Wars, explained in an email interview with me - attempting to block competitors from getting into long distance as well as lobbying on more esoteric issues, as they attempted to reduce “access charges (i.e., the per-minute rate the local phone companies charge to originate or complete a long distance call) [and] the cost of unbundled network elements (i.e., what local phone companies charge local competitors for leasing parts of their network.)”

Perhaps most relevant to its fight now against net neutrality, AT&T attempted to prioritize voice communications travelling over its wires, discriminating against data. This would have strangled the internet in its infancy. AT&T would have done so because – as Lawrence Lessig points out in The Future of Ideas, AT&T’s closed network of the early to mid-20th century was the exact opposite of the internet:

One network centralizes creativity; the other decentralizes it. One network is built to keep control of innovation; the other constitutionally renounces the right to control. One network closes itself except where permission is granted; the other dedicates itself to a commons.

How then was the internet able to develop when to be successful it required the wires and connections only AT&T could provide? How then was the freedom of the internet able to develop when it needed to utilize AT&T’s tightly controlled network? What entity was able to take on AT&T to force it to allow the most open market ever constructed to enter its closed system? Lessig explains, it was the government:

Beginning in 1968, when [the government] permitted foreign attachments to telephone wires, continuing through the 1970s, when it increasingly forced the Bells to lease lines to competitors, regardless of purpose, and ending in the 1980s with the breakup of AT&T, the government increasingly intervened to assure that this most powerful telecommunications company would not interfere with the emergence of competing data-communications companies.

Along every step of the way though, AT&T has fought and lobbied to get the government on its side and to manipulate the political process for the good of the company’s bottom line. Martin explained that one of the key people who has remained at the top level of AT&T during its many shake-ups has been Jim Cicconi, their top lobbyist:

When we were fighting off the Bells’ entry into long distance, Cicconi had a $60 million war chest, separate from his regular budget, for hiring political operatives around the country. He used the money to throw obstacles in the path of the Bells.  He started and funded so-called “grassroots” organizations all over the place, astroturfing the countryside. His staffers searched out influential people who leaned in our direction and then funded their efforts on the issues that mattered to us. So, for example, Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Relief, received enough funding to set up special interest groups that have only a tangential connection to reforming the tax system. For example, the Media Freedom Project, which is a “project” of Americans for Tax Reform currently opposes net neutrality. As does another ATR “affiliate” The Property Rights Alliance.  Similarly, the Alliance for Worker Freedom, another ATR affiliate, is opposed to another AT&T bugaboo, union card check. And of course, ATR is a member of the Internet Freedom Coalition, among other groups opposed to net neutrality. I’d be willing to bet that these groups still receive funding from Cicconi’s war chest. Of course, the other side does the same thing.  Or at least that was Ciconni’s excuse when anyone challenged him on any of this stuff.

It seems AT&T is once again engaging in these tactics – as Matthew Lasar of Ars Technica reported yesterday:

AT&T Senior Vice President Jim Cicconi has sent out a e-mail to the company’s entire managerial staff urging them to deluge the FCC’s new discussion site with anti-net neutrality comments.

AT&T has a history of lobbying the government for any regulation or deregulation that best suits its interest. Its success is not that of a free market competitor who always had the best ideas (though it often has had good ideas), but of a savvy political operator who has thrown its weight around and manipulated public opinion, the political process, and regulators to undermine its competitors and strengthen its profits.

Now, they are funding groups opposed to government regulation and interference in the market – specifically on the matter of net neutrality. Adam D. Thierer, who wrote the article that provided most of the critical history I found of AT&T’s manipulation of the government to its own benefit, now works for The Progress and Freedom Foundation Project, whose main sponsor according to their website is AT&T. To my knowledge, it was Thierer who began the erroneous right wing talking point that net neutrality is a fairness doctrine for the internet which has now been repeated by Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn as well as on many, many right wing radio shows and blogs.

While AT&T claims to be promoting internet freedom by opposing network neutrality, it was only robust government regulation of AT&T that allowed the internet to develop at all. The freedom of the internet was not some natural occurrence - but the deliberate decision by the engineers at the Defense Department and then government regulators, oftentimes while stridently opposed by AT&T. The corporate libertarians such as Adam Thierer hired by AT&T to promote its agenda only seem to see government intervention impinging on freedom – rather than seeing that the power of a large corporation can be just as destructive. Of course, as Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

N.B. Neither Adam D. Thierer nor AT&T have responded to any attempts to contact them, though the post will be updated in the event that they do.

Update: Michael Balmoris of AT&T responded to my specific queries regarding net neutrality and AT&T’s fight against it with this vague pablum:

AT&T has long supported the principle of an open Internet and has conducted its business accordingly, and we support the FCC’s oversight of the wireline broadband market through case-by-case enforcement of the current four broadband principles. Furthermore, AT&T shares both President Obama’s and Chairman Genachowski’s vision of an open Internet—an Internet with a level playing field that benefits consumers and stimulates investment, innovation, and jobs.

[Image in the public domain.]

McCaffrey Caught In Another Lie

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Tim Lynch from Cato@Liberty appeared on CNN with former drug czar Barry McCaffrey and was outraged at the blatant lies he told. Lynch points to two specific lies:

  • that it is a “fantasy” with “zero truth” that “the Drug Enforcement Administration or any other federal law enforcement ever threatened care-givers or individual patients” regarding medicinal marijuana; and
  • that it was “nonsense” that the DEA was “going to threaten doctors simply for discussing the pros and cons of using marijuana with their patients” until the Ninth Circuit held that such a restriction was unconstitutional.

Of course, McCaffrey is no stranger to eliding the truth. I posted a video a while back pointing out another whopper McCaffrey told – this time to an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations:

De facto legalized? Yet McCaffrey himself attacked those politicians who suggested even allowances for medicinal marijuana:

After California passed a compassionate use initiative in 1996, McCaffrey warned doctors in the state that their privileges to prescribe narcotics would be stripped by the DEA if they prescribed or recommended marijuana use. In July 1998, as part of the anti-pot campaign, the drug czar claimed that Holland, a country with liberal drug laws, had a murder rate double that of the United States. In fact, although robberies have increased in the Netherlands since pot was made widely available in the late 1980s, the country’s murder rate is scarcely a quarter of the U.S. rate. McCaffrey never corrected himself. When Gary Johnson, New Mexico’s maverick Republican governor, spoke in favor of decriminalization, McCaffrey flew out to the state and claimed that Johnson had said “heroin is good.” [my emphasis]

If we are to believe his comments now, he apparently secretly did not oppose legalization while he was drug czar – as I reported earlier, he said at the same event as the above:

QUESTIONER: …[W]hy not just legalize drugs?

Former Drug Czar, General BARRY MCCAFFREY (retired): …[S]ince I’m not in public life, [I can say] I actually don’t care.  I care about 6th graders through 12th graders.  If you’re 40 years old, and you’re living in Oregon, and you have 12 giant pot plants in the back of your log cabin, knock yourself out.

Yet despite the fact that he claims marijuana is de facto legalized and that he secretly didn’t care if it was legalized, under his leadership as drug czar continuing through his successor’s term, arrests for mere marijuana possession went way up [pdf] – and not just for large amounts as he suggests here. Yet arrests related to marijuana surpassed that of both heroin and cocaine in McCaffrey’s first year as drug czar – and almost matched that of all non-marijuana-related drug offenses.

According to a study by Ryan S King and Marc Mauer [pdf], “Marijuana arrests increased by 113% between 1990 and 2002, while overall arrests decreased by 3%” – and the bulk of these arrests (over 50%) were of small users.

Under Barry McCaffrey, the War on Drugs became the War on Marijuana – yet he claims marijuana was de facto legalized; Barry McCaffrey himself personally attacked politicians who supported medical marijuana laws, supervised an agency that deliberately went after people following state laws allowing medicinal marijuana, and threatened any doctor who mentioned to a patient that marijuana might help him or her with prosecution – yet any recitation of these facts documented at the time and afterwards, he refers to as “fantasy” and “nonsense.”

On top of it all, he now claims to have not even opposed the legalization of marijuana as he supervised the War on Marijuana.

Karzai gave in because he knew Obama was serious while Bush had not been

Monday, October 26th, 2009

Recent events in Afghanistan seem to have given Obama pause – and with good reason.

If there is an evolving Obama doctrine underlying the administration’s foreign policy, it is a focus on the consent of the governed and civil society. (I consider this a marked step forward from the “Democracy!!” approach by the Bush White House.) On top of this, counterinsurgency doctrine holds that we must have a partner seen by the local population to be legitimate in order to succeed in containing insurgent forces.

The massive electoral fraud in the recent Afghan elections then undermined both the core principle the Obama administration has put forward in its foreign policy and any chance of military success using a counterinsurgency strategy. Restoring the legitimacy of the Afghan government thus has been one of the major goals of the Obama administration in the past month as they attempted to salvage the situation. The obvious solution was for Karzai to allow some of the many millions of votes for him that were clearly the result of fraud to be thrown out thus ensuring a runoff between the top two contenders for the presidency.

Though it would seem to be in Karzai’s own interest to be seen as legitimate as well as America’s, he apparently did not see it the same way – and believed American forces would protect him and ensure he remained in power even if he blatantly stole the election.

It thus took significant efforts by the Obama administration to push him to act in both his own and America’s interests.

According to Ahmed Rashid, prominent Afghani author and reporter, writing for the New York Review of Books blog there were two main factors that pushed Karzai to finally consent to “enduring” a runoff election:

  1. He finally became convinced that Obama was serious about not sending in more soldiers to secure the country – as he realized Obama was less concerned about “looking tough” in the eyes of the world and more interested in making sure American soldiers were fighting a winnable war for American interests and was willing to cut Karzai loose if that turned out to be in America’s interest. (Karzai apparently believed Bush would commit to supporting him no matter what, as Bush had a “chummy,” mentor-mentee type relationship with the Afghan leader. Obama deliberately kept his distance to keep the focus on America’s interest in the region.)
  2. Karzai, as a vain man, did not appreciate dealing with anyone who had ever publicly said a critical word about him; thus the administration used officials who had previously criticized him to ramp up the pressure while three of the few people in Washington who never had (John Kerry, Rahm Emanuel, and Karl Eikenberry) were tasked with cajoling him into complying.

It seems quite silly that despite American and Afghan interests coinciding on this, it took so much attention to the vanities of a corrupt leader in order to persuade him to act in his own and his main sponsor’s interests. Despite elaborate theories about how history works, to get things done, to implement a larger agenda, you need to pay attention to petty personal details.

On such petty-ness, the fate of the world apparently too often turns.

[Image by KarlMarx licensed under Creative Commons.]

The New Obama Paradox

Monday, October 26th, 2009

I’d like to endorse this Anna Quindlen column in Newsweek, subheaded:

Barack Obama campaigned as a populist firebrand but governs like a cerebral consensus builder. The founding fathers wouldn’t have it any other way.

Quindlen captures something one of the essential paradoxes of America with this well-constructed line:

This is a country that often has transformational ambitions but is saddled with an incremental system, a nation built on revolution, then engineered so the revolutionary can rarely take hold.

Aside from indulging in a bit of that rather annoying habit of re-writing of the “Yes, We Can” slogan that every pundit seems to try (“Yes, we can, but it will take a while.”), Quindlen does a good job of giving the larger historical perspective on Obama’s rather young presidency. She points out that even the grand gestures we remember today as changing history were in fact incremental and the result of compromises derided at the time – from Emancipation Proclamation which was designed to have no practical effect to the gradual accretion of rights by African Americans as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. She could have also mentioned that Social Security legislation when originally passed excluded half of the population, including all women and virtually all minority groups from its benefits.

Quindlen points to a single factor though unifying all these great presidents and their historic accomplishments:

[T]he presidents who have made real change have always done so in the same way: “Each of them had the country pushing the Congress to act, the people and the press both. The pressure has to come from outside.” So if the American people want the president to be more like the Barack Obama they elected, maybe they should start acting more like the voters who elected him, who forcibly and undeniably moved the political establishment to where it didn’t want to go.

I’ve believed that – and been writing that – since Obama took office, quoting FDR who told a number of audiences who came to ask him to pay attention to their issue (and here I paraphrase):

I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.

In the past year, I’ve been disappointed with the way in which the excitement of the campaign has fallen away, replaced most often by cynicism. The fact is, cynicism breeds results which create reason for more cynicism. The election of Barack Obama proved that hope that things could get better could motivate as many people as fear that they would be killed by terrorists or that we would look weak; and the cynicism and inertia that seemed a permanent part of America under Clinton and Bush could be overcome. It proved that a grassroots organization for a moderate, liberal agenda was possible and that it had the support of a majority of Americans. Now, Obama needs such an organization to push him, to push Congress, and to push the country. The question now is the same one that faced Obama back in the early days of the primary, the one which I called “the Obama paradox”  as he attempted to “conjure the movement, the politics, and the consensus we need to tackle the long-term problems and strategic challenges we face as a nation.” The paradox was that in order for people to buy into the movement, it needed to be successful; and that in order for it to be successful, people needed to buy into it. He faces a similar issue now, though different in a number of significant ways.

I don’t know what the next step is to getting this movement back – but without it, Obama cannot tackle many of the serious, long-term issues facing our nation: from the failure of the War on Drugs to creating a sustainable framework for addressing the threat of terrorism from our long-term fiscal outlook to the deterioration of liberties in America; from health care reform to climate change; from tax and entitlement reform to education reform; from financial regulation to job creation. Failing to address any of these issues undermines America’s position in the world; and in many cases, without American leadership on them (or federal leadership on domestic issues), they cannot be solved. Without a movement pushing Obama, pushing Congress, pushing the press, pushing every community, Obama simply does not have the political capital to take these issues on – which is why there needs to be a movement.

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Brief Thoughts for the Week of 2009-10-23

Friday, October 23rd, 2009
  • Republicans can't justify their newfound opposition to Net Neutrality so they decide to make shit up… http://2parse.com/?p=4120 #
  • Going a bit insane as the phone interrupts me every 5 minutes and I'm barely able to make any progress…. #
  • What Do the Taliban, Hannah Montana, and the Beatles Have in Common? http://2parse.com/?p=4117 #
  • How did I end up on the Brad Paisley train home? Cowboy hats all around & ignorant comments about how "Shimon Pers or whatev won Nobel too" #
  • It's okay. Just try it. There's no need to do any more work today… http://www.buzzfeed.com/expresident/obechi/ #
  • “She loves you — yeah, yeah, yeah,” we sang, with Kalashnikovs lying on the floor around us. http://bit.ly/FDz35 #
  • Interesting graphic illustration of the theoretical worldviews of the right and left, though lacking in subtlety.. http://bit.ly/43DYuX #
  • My horoscope: "You're still learning and perfecting your skills so be patient with yourself; you're just where you should be in the moment." #
  • Former Bush Attorney General: American Justice System Led to September 11 http://2parse.com/?p=4108 #
  • I tried Google Wave last night finally. Actually quite cool. #
  • "Hey – you can't arrest me if I prove your rules inconsistent!" http://xkcd.com/651/ #

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