Thursday, October 16, 2008

McCain is the Penguin

Amazing, entertaining, and eerie how well this fits:

American Exceptionalism

A friend writes:

It feels a little too much like passover to ask: "Why is this country different than all other countries?" In the current Canadian election the more conservative party has a campaign promise not to CUT taxes. By European standards Canada is considered conservative too!

There is one point that is so good it had to be mentioned:"The nation's racial heterogeneity also partly explains its conservatism. U.S. heterogeneity sharply contrasts with the much greater homogeneity in Canada, Britain and continental Europe. People are much less likely to support income redistribution to people who are members of different racial or ethnic groups. Ethnic divisions make it easier for the enemies of welfare to vilify the poor"

Similar to the concept of attack that has come up in this election.

My friend raises several excellent points, among them is the curious case of American Exceptionalism. Why does America differ so greatly in its values with western Europe and Canada? Lots of theories have been advanced to explain the difference -- one of them being heterogeneity. However, other possibilities remain. A popular one I've heard is that the devastation of two World Wars forced the European wealthy to discover how the poor were living, thus giving them greater empathy. However, this doesn't help to explain Canada. Another possibility is the separation of church and state, which forced the church to compete with government in this country -- thus leading to competition among churches and greater religious devotion -- which in turn leads to greater conservatism.

Whatever the answer, it's worth noting that there's also a bright side to American Exceptionalism. I spend a lot of time detailing the ways in which Europe actually is better than the United States, but we do have a longer and prouder history of integration than Europe. Just look at Europe today -- they criticized the U.S. for years on our racism (for which there is no excuse) -- but that was before Europe also started experiencing massive waves of immigration. Recently, countries like France and even the heretofore friendly Denmark have seen a rise in xenophobia. Plus, they all still hate each other. If you don't believe me, ask an Austrian what he thinks of a German or an Englishman what he thinks of a Frenchman. Whatever our faults across the pond, we've at least succeeded in integrating all the peoples of western Europe -- even if it took years and massive struggles -- the Irish are now white, so to speak.

A Dutch friend recently asked me why it was that people from other nations, upon receiving U.S. citizenship, now consider themselves fully American. In the Netherlands, she explained, as the daughter of Iranian immigrants, she would never feel fully Dutch. It's true that in the United States we don't do enough to take care of those who differ from us. However, our sometimes failed devotion to social welfare also yields a nice benefit -- sometimes being American consists more in devotion to a belief in the American dream (and the benefits of Capitalism) than it consists in shared race or culture. I think this is the bright side to the campaign: While much of America may still fear those that are different, when push comes to shove, the almighty dollar is what unites us all -- as evidenced by Obama's now commanding lead in the polls.

That said, it would be nice if we could take our shared belief in the dollar and recognize that Democratic policies aren't just better for social welfare -- they are better for the economy. As I've said before, I'm a Democrat not just because it's morally the right thing, but also because it's smarter.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Real Danger: A Thing Called Blowback

The big news on the campaign trail lately has been the increasing ugliness of McCain/Palin rallies. Their ridiculous claims attempting to link Obama to domestic terrorists have resulted in attendees at the rallies calling for Obama's head and screaming that he is a terrorist. In an excellent Op-Ed in the NY Times, Frank Rich explains how McCain/Palin have created this storm of ignorance and hatred. He highlights such details as the fact that they have now begun highlighting Obama's middle name (Hussein), how Palin uses the plural "terrorists," and how their rhetoric blurs the line between references to the Weather Underground's domestic and Islamic terrorism. Thus, when McCain makes a small gesture of attempting to quell the hatred at his rallies, it is the height of hypocrisy. Plenty of people are writing about how amoral and pathetic McCain's new line of attack is, so I'd like to focus on the hypocrisy of it all -- a hypocrisy endemic to the Republican platform.

Central to the Republican platform is this hypocrisy: the American wish to ignore a thing called blowback. Basically, the phrase originally had to do with the CIA's recognition that covert operations often had unintended consequences. The phrase has been subsequently widened to ecompass the idea that political and military actions often result in untintended, harmful consequences -- or, "blowback." You may remember this phrase because for a while it was being thrown around the popular media when Ron Paul used it in a debate to point out that the consequences of 9/11 were "blowback" from the U.S.'s policies in the Middle East. Now, the phrase isn't supposed to exempt anyone from cupability -- terrorists remain guilty of heinous acts. Rather, blowback is a pragmatic doctrine that attempts to understand the consequences of political action.

Ron Paul was resoundly booed and criticized for evoking the doctrine -- and the irony is that recognizing blowback would do more to protect America than would the conservatives who think patriotism equals America can do no wrong. It is only be recognizing blowback that you can fully appreciate the consequences of our political choices and seek to prevent blowback in the future -- and thus prevent another event from 9/11 from happening.

On a smaller scale, the Republican anger over William Ayers and the Reverend Wright refuses to recognize blowback. It's the righteous indigation that bothers me -- especially in regards to Reverend Wright. For example, you can disagree with what the man said, but we should also accept some responsibility for the fact that an African American man feels disenfranchised and angered by a country that has a long and proud history of racism and subjugation. It's another example of conservatives lacking empathy -- they can't see that their actions have created the desperation that makes people criticize America. Instead, conservatives are simply angered.

Again, I do not mean to justify the actions of the Weather Underground, but it is both dangerous and naive to deny that America's pursuit of a meaningless war in Vietnam contributed to the climate that allowed the group to flourish in the first place.

And here is the ultimate irony -- that the so-called party of personal responsibility wishes to accept no personal responsibility for America's actions. To do so, of course, would involve engaging in a real debate about the problems this nation faces. Instead, as with the economy, the Republicans will attempt to peddle the have your cake and eat it too mantra (the same way they try and say trickle down economics): we can do whatever we want politically and there are no bad consequences. The fact is, there is such a thing as blowback and it is only by understanding this that we can seek to prevent the very acts which McCain and Palin claim they so detest.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Fox News Isn't Biased

The New Yorker could be biased. The New York Times? Maybe. Fox News? Not at all -- and I'm serious. See, you have to tell the truth, in some form, in order to be biased. "Biased" is showing unfair preference. Outright lies are something else. For example, Sean Hannity puts on a known anti-semite, Andy Martin, to discuss Obama's supposed ties to William Ayers and then claims it's because he "interviews people with whom [he] disagrees." Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs called out Hannity for giving a bigot a forum, but what he should have also pointed out was the plain fact that Hannity had agreed with Martin on his show. O'Reilly, of course, isn't bound by facts either, engaging in the complete lie that Barney Frank escaped blame for the housing mortgage crisis because he was gay. Again, both a lie and an appeal to bigotry.

In fact, if I've seen anything unfair in the news lately it's the media's lack of what our Mexican neighbors call "cojones." Take, for example, the NY Times running a front page piece on Obama's ties to William Ayers which concluded that there were no ties -- in other words, non-news. Or the media (CNN, NY Times) headlines proclaiming variations of "Campaign Gets Ugly." Now, I know Obama went on the attack as well with the Keating five scandal documentary. However, what the Obama camp put out was true -- McCain was involved in a lobbying scandal involving the financial industry. The McCain camp claims, that Obama has ties to terrorists or supports what Reverend Wright said, are demonstrably false. Why can't the newspapers simply call a spade a spade and point out that the McCain campaign is desperate -- and dare I say, erratic in a crisis? In fact, I'm happy to say that the NY Times finally did just that. However, my point is that it still doesn't make them biased to call an ugly campaign ugly.

This reminds me of what a law professor I had once said about the Nuremberg Trials. Although a hallmark of international justice, the Nuremberg Trials are often criticized as nothing more than "victor's justice" -- the same logic, in fact, that is applied to war crimes tribunals today. This professor made the very good point that some times, unfortunately, people are just that guilty. In other words, were the mainstream media to call the McCain campaign unethical and point out that they are distracting from real issues it wouldn't be bias -- it would be that they are just that guilty. So yes, maybe the media is biased -- but just not in the way conservatives had less us to believe. And as for Fox, since it can't even be trusted to report the truth it's not biased -- it's simply not news. In fact, I like to think of Fox as a giant media lobby group -- or something ignorant people watch to feel comforted in their own previously held biases.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Obama Should Win But If He Doesn't . . .

The good news is that a variety of sources are predicting that Obama wins -- barring some unforeseen catastrophe. In fact, has Obama rocking it with 320 votes right now. In other words, it's not just shaping up for an Obama win -- it's looking like a landslide. It's these numbers that have the pundits predicting victory, but I prefer to look at the numbers: Brian Schaffner writes that only one candidate in the last fifty years has lost after reaching 50% in October. Unfortunately, that candidate was Al Gore. But hey -- he won the popular vote!

Fortunately, Schaffner wrote that article a few days ago and, even in that brief time, new polls have significantly widened Obama's lead. We all know that as a result, the McCain campaign has turned ugly -- accusing Obama of associating with terrorists and now playing the Reverend Wright card, etc. I enjoyed a friend's comment about Palin's misreading of the NY Times article which had actually concluded that Obama did not have a relationship with Ayers. On her citing the Times my friend remarked "Oh, so the first time she picks up a newspaper . . ."

Not surprisingly, there's outrage all over the media (except Fox News, of course) about the McCain campaign's new tactics -- and commentary on how they won't work. I hope not -- because it's frightening to think what it would mean if McCain's attacks proved successful. I've written about the damage a McCain campaign would do to the country, but imagine what his campaign would do to political races in this country. A successful McCain campaign -- even an uptick in his numbers this month -- would signal that baseless and ridiculous attacks (including accusing a sitting United States senator of terrorist ties) do more for a candidate's election prospects than actually talking about the issues. It would give future presidential candidates zero incentives to talk about the issues and every incentive to smear their opponents with vicious attacks -- no matter what their truthfulness.

Luckily, Obama seems to be playing the right card. Earlier, I thought Obama should label McCain a liar because with that frame, Americans would both distrust McCain and take his attacks with a grain of salt. However, Obama's new ad is even better -- calling McCain "erratic in a crisis" tells Americans that McCain is both trying to distract them from the real issues and that McCain is a poor leader (it also may be a subtle jab at his age -- which is legitimate given his VP choice). It helps, of course, that several of his aides explicitly stated they were trying to change the topic from the economy.

That said, the upcoming debate leaves McCain little choice but to address the economy. He wants to go on the attack but he risks looking "erratic in a crisis" as Obama sticks to the issues. Hopefully, like the pundits say, it's already in the bag. That said: it's still important to vote and get others out there!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Guest Post: Sarah Palin, Energy Expert

I am excited to offer another post from a learned friend -- and not just because I'm busy. This one was written by a man called the People's Engineer -- in part because he holds degrees in: law, civil engineering, and kicking Republican rhetoric's butt. Here it is:

Sarah Palin: Energy Expert

No matter who wins this election, John McCain will have permanently tarnished his reputation with much of this country. Like many moderates, I was quietly relieved by his nomination. Since then, I have been repeatedly and consistently disappointed by the disingenuous direction his campaign has taken. John McCain has told us with a straight face that because of her “executive experience,” Sarah Palin is more qualified than Barack Obama to be in a leadership role and that because Russia is geographically adjacent to Alaska, Palin has foreign policy credentials. Equally galling (and less scrutinized) is John McCain’s repeated contention that Sarah Palin “knows more about energy than anyone in the United States of America.” ( This is a lie. There is no credible evidence whatsoever to suggest this claim contains a shred of truth. None. The only two tenuous links between her and any sort of energy expertise are (1) her husband and (2) her short tenure as governor of Alaska.

Todd Palin worked for British Petroleum for approximately 20 years, but not in any sort of position that would make him privy to energy strategy or policy matters – he has worked as both an oil field production operator and supervisor. I do not discount his intelligence or capability merely because he held a blue-collar position; but lets be honest, we wouldn’t want an electrician running our nation’s energy policy, so why would we want the spouse of an oil field worker?

Palin has repeatedly declared herself to be an energy expert, citing her experience as governor of a state that is a net energy producer. This claim is ridiculous.

First, energy issues go far beyond oil and gas. Coal is the number one source of electrical generation in this country, dwarfing all others. Aside from natural gas production, Alaska is largely irrelevant to the nation’s electrical generation. It is impossible for Palin to “know more about energy than anyone else” if her knowledge doesn’t even extend to electricity generation.
Second, it is true oil powers our transportation economy, but Palin has never actually provided any information as to how she is an expert in this area. Alaska produces surplus oil and gas, but she has absolutely no experience developing any sort of energy policy; and if she did it would not even be relevant for the rest of the country (as it would be based around Alaska’s energy surplus). At most Palin has experience negotiating licensing and royalty fees with oil and gas companies. As we all know, U.S. energy problems stem from our reliance on imports. Her experience negotiating royalty rates with oil companies would have absolutely no bearing on her ability to help the United States reduce its dependence on foreign oil by switching to alternative technologies.

Here is an excellent video of Palin showing her firm grasp on how energy markets work:

Sadly, she cannot even demonstrate basic knowledge of the subject. Her comments are completely unintelligible. She is correct in stating the very elementary principle that oil is a fungible commodity, after that she falls apart. Oil produced domestically in the United States is sold on the world markets – oil is a global commodity. Giving her the very generous benefit of the doubt, perhaps she is suggesting some sort of legislative action that would prevent this from happening. Unfortunately, this type of policy would have little if any reduction whatsoever on the amount of oil we import. The math is very simple: the US produces 7.5 million barrels per day, we consume 20 million barrels per day, whether this domestic production is sold on the global market is trivial and irrelevant to the real problem. An energy expert who can’t even grasp this very basic calculation is no expert at all.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Guest Post: What I'd Like to Hear a Candidate Say

I'm very excited to share this guest post from "the Lifetime Learner." I think you will find it interesting, informative, and persuasive:

What I'd Like to Hear a Candidate Say: Energy Policy

Some day I would like to hear a President say something like the following in regards to energy:

“From now on, every new addition to our demand for energy will be met from our own production and our own conservation. The generation-long growth in our dependence on foreign oil will be stopped dead in its tracks right now… for I am tonight setting the further goal of cutting our dependence on foreign oil by one-half by the end of the next decade – a savings of over 4 ½ million barrels of imported oil per day.

"…To ensure that we meet these targets, I will use my Presidential authority to set import quotas…I will forbid the entry into this country of one drop of foreign oil more than these goals allow.

"…To give us energy security, I am asking for the most massive peacetime commitment of funds and resources in our Nation’s history to develop America’s own alternative sources of fuel – from coal, from oil shale, from plant products for gasohol, from unconventional gas, from the Sun."

The sad part is -- these aren't new ideas -- these are words taken from a speech that Jimmy Carter gave as President in 1979. Wonderful ideas at that time, but conservatives soon labeled this the “malaise” speech -- and that epithet has been a source of right-wing pride ever since. The country did not respond to Carter's challenge as one would have hoped. Instead, Americans have proven that they prefer the one liners of Reagan, Bush Senior, and Bush Junior. We prefer to think that we can have it all -- as opposed to recognizing that we have to make sacrifices when it comes to our dependence on oil.

So what will it take to get us on the right track to protect our future, and off the path of consuming until we have nothing left to consume? Can we imagine a day in which we don't import foreign oil? I’m not convinced that either candidate has the will to accomplish the dramatic changes that are required, as the short term hardships required for real change (higher gas prices, for one) would most likely result in a one term administration. I believe that ultimately we will be forced into action when the price of gasoline does finally rise to a tipping point. But if some environmental catastrophe that exceeds Katrina should occur in the next four years, or we suffer a terrorist attack against our main sources of foreign oil, then who would you want running the country?

McCain selected Palin to be second in command, so we know what his direction would be if oil was to become today’s banking crisis – to drill, drill and drill some more. On the other hand, although Obama is not to be confused with a candidate from the Green Party, I think he clearly provides the better opportunity to lead us in a direction of conservation and alternative energy sources and to give the kind of speech we once heard 30 years ago.

And by the way, to respond to Vox Populi's earlier post, Millard Fillmore does not make my bottom ten of worst U.S. Presidents. He served less than four years but helped to delay the Civil War with his passing of the Compromise of 1850.