Monthly Archives: May 2014

Brooks and Egan on Obama

Today’s NY Times had op-eds by David Brooks and Timothy Egan, both commenting on Obama’s foreign policy speech at West Point. Brooks expressed the neo-con view that we are faced by a world of evil autocracies that we must be prepared to restrain by military action, if necessary.

Curiously, his description of the threatening autocracies made me think about the US.

When you look at autocracies, you notice that many have undergone a similar life cycle. Autocrats may start out thinking they will be benevolent dictators. They may start out flirting with the West and talking about liberalizing reforms. But their regimes are almost always corrupt and inefficient. To stay on top, autocrats have to whip up nationalistic furies. They have to be aggressive in their regions to keep the country united on a permanent war footing. Unstable within, autocracies have to be radioactive abroad.

Brooks notes with satisfaction that Bush I and Clinton intervened with military force on the average every 17 months. Those were always with minor powers, of course. But his concern with autocracies is obviously with China and Russia. Is he really proposing we defend Ukraine with military force? Or the little islands in the China sea that China, Japan, and the Philippines are squabbling about?

Timothy Egan goes through the usual complaint – “no central  vision” – but then seems to finally get the point:

Obama didn’t specifically say so, but the guiding principle for this era of nuance and shadows may be no more complex than this: Stay out of wars of unintended consequence.

“Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint,” said Obama, “but from our willingness to rush into military adventure — without thinking through the consequences; without building international support and legitimacy for our action, or leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required. Tough talk draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans.”

Is that weakness, or wisdom? Well, neither. But it’s a realistic reaction to the hard fact that the last 50 years have produced the three longest wars in American history. And it’s a pitch-perfect reflection of where most Americans are today.

The US is proud of its incredible military, for which we have sacrificed so much. But history tells one lesson, over and over again. Those who go to war seldom think about the unintended consequences that often are the result. Our recent history shows how difficult it is to translate overwhelming military power into political success.

“Vast right wing conspiracy”

That phrase was spoken in 1998 by Hillary Clinton. At the time it was laughed at as just a a desperate attempt to defend her husband from the Lewinsky scandal. That’s too bad, because there really is a vast right wing conspiracy. Here’s yet another example.

George Mason University has sponsored a series of “judicial seminars” to which sitting federal and state judges are invited. Their attendance is free, with their travel, hotel and meal costs paid by corporate sponsors. These  include AT&T, EXXON and, of course, the infamous Koch Brothers. The tentacles of this right wing conspiracy reach everywhere.

Here’s how the university describes the program.

For 37 years, the Law and Economics Center has offered intellectually rigorous, balanced, and timely educational programs to the nation’s judges and justices in the belief that the fundamental principles of a free and just society depend on a knowledgeable and well-educated judiciary.

With seminars focused on economics, finance, accounting, statistics and scientific method, to date almost 4,000 sitting federal and state court judges representing all 50 states have participated in at least one of the LEC’s judicial education programs. Up to a dozen courses and seminars are offered each year by the JEP. All programs benefit from the advice offered by an independent Judicial Advisory Board made up of distinguished judges from courts all over the country.

The JEP recognizes that the US civil justice system imposes tremendous burdens on American businesses through high discovery costs, regulation through litigation, class action abuses, and litigation or the threat of litigation.  Providing an unprecedented opportunity to improve the nation’s judiciary, the JEP offers intense programs designed to build understanding of critical economic disciplines so that judges may apply this knowledge when assessing complex issues surrounding legal disputes.

JEP courses are taught by highly respected academic experts and practitioners and are designed and structured for serious participants. Attendees must commit to completing pre-session reading assignments, contributing to class discussions and attending all sessions.

Cheap climate protection

Here is an entry in Paul Krugman’s blog today.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce just came out with its preemptive strike against Obama administration regulations on power plants. What the Chamber wanted to do was show that the economic impact of the regulations would be devastating. And I was eager to see how they had fudged the numbers.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the diatribe. The Chamber evidently made a decision that it wanted to preserve credibility, so it outsourced the analysis. And while it tries to spin the results, what it actually found was that dramatic action on greenhouse gases would have surprisingly small economic costs.

The Chamber’s supposed scare headline is that regulations would cost the US economy $50.2 billion per year in constant dollars between now and 2030. That’s for a plan to reduce GHG emissions 40 percent from their 2005 level, so it’s for real action.

So, is $50 billion a lot? Let’s look at the CBO’s long-term projections. These say that average annual US real GDP over the period 2014-2030 will be $21.5 trillion. So the Chamber is telling us that we can achieve major reductions in greenhouse gases at a cost of 0.2 percent of GDP. That’s cheap!

True, the chamber also says that the regulations would cost 224,000 jobs in an average year. That’s bad economics: US employment is determined by the interaction between macroeconomic policy and the underlying tradeoff between inflation and unemployment, and there’s no good reason to think that environmental protection would reduce the number of jobs (as opposed to real wages). But even at face value that’s also a small number in a country with 140 million workers.

So, I was ready to come down hard on the Chamber’s bad economics; but what they’ve actually just shown is that even when they’re paying for the study, the economics of climate protection look quite easy.

For context, the Navy to is planning to replace replace aging aircraft carriers with a new class with the first delivered in a few years. Estimated cost of the first one is about $14 billion.  Then there are the costs of the escort ships in a carrier squadron and the annual operating costs. .

Here’s a critique of carriers in the future navy, based on a naval officer’s analysis. It concludes that they are vulnerable and inefficient, the new battleship. But there is NO protest  over this program!


On the West Point speech

Given the fixed ideas of our foreign policy establishment, the idiocy of Obama’s disloyal opposition, and the fatuous belief in US perfection held by our average citizen, it is pretty clear that no President can make a foreign policy speech that makes sense without committing political suicide. So we had the West Point speech.

A typical complaint of the Very Serious People could be found in a quote from The Guardian:    “. . . it’s hard not to wish that there was a greater sense of someone stitching these many threads into a greater whole . . . ”

My own opinion is that we don’t need a comprehensive foretgn policy so much as we need a comprehensive domestic policy. accompanied by an inclination to mind our own business for a change.

A bleak view

The Nation has an article entitled,T”he Truth About Race In America: It’s Getting Worse, Not Better,” and subtitled, “Schools are resegregating, it’s getting harder to vote, too many are incarcerated—America is becoming more separate and less equal.”  The author is Gary Younge, a British journalist and corespondent for The Guardian.

It’s worth reading and thinking about.

Boycott Amazon

Notice: I am not unbiased in this blog. My daughter and her husband own two independent bookstores.

The NYT Times has an article today on how Amazon is throwing it’s weight around  blackmailing publishers. By running it’s book selling operation at a loss it is building up an effective monopoly which it is not above exploiting.

My recommendation to friends is to buy-pass books from Amazon unless you cannot afford the books you want without doing so. Otherwise go to your local independent bookstore. Or,  of course, you could also go to

I also strongly favor a requirement that on-line sellers respect the sales tax laws of  the various states and cities. The advantage such retailers acquire from their freedom from the sales tax is clearly unfair to local retailers. Of course I’m a tax-loving liberal and you may not agree.

The historical growth of slavery in the US

The Smithsonian Magazine has an interesting article on how slavery grew and spread in the US  prior to the civil war. It’s done with a series of maps that show the distribution of the enslaved population from 1790 to 1860. It chronicles the spread of slavery west to meet the demand for new lands for cotton while the density of slaves along the eastern coast remained high in the breeding ground for new slaves. Slavery was ‘just business’ and the breeding of new slaves was an important part of the economy after the save trade was outlawed as a source.

Another map showing the distribution of the free population makes clear the fundamental disparity between North and South. The difference in population density between the sections is striking and shows the weakness of the Confederacy.

Running against the brothers

It’s beginning to look as though the Democrats are going to run against the Koch brothers this year. It may not be a bad idea.

Even the NY Times is joining the fray. Yesterday’s edition had a piece by Nicolas Confessore on how David Koch’s flirtation with the Libertarian party in 1980 led to the development of the Koch’s current financial network for right wing propaganda.

That election also handed the Kochs their first political setback, driving them to rethink their approach to libertarian ideas. Since then, they have built a powerful network of political nonprofit groups that is exempt from most campaign reporting requirements and contribution limits but will spend tens of millions of dollars to influence the 2014 election. They have exerted enormous influence on American politics, battling government regulation and casting doubt on the urgency of climate change. Instead of replacing the Republican Party, they have helped to profoundly reshape it.

It’s a good article and has a link to an article in the Washington Post detailing the complex web that the brothers have built. It reminds one of Hillary Clinton’s remark about a “vast right wing conspiracy.” There is a link to a graphic there that shows how the web spent $400 million in 2012.

One of the points made in the NYT article was the brothers’ decision to rely on a campaign to propagandize us on the glories of unimpeded free enterprise in addition to direct support of the Republican party.

Incidentally, the brothers’ $80 billion fortune is embodied in Koch Industries, which is privately held. It’s treated as an S-Corp for tax purposes. Remember , the next time you hear that high inheritance taxes penalize small business owners, that S-Corps are often referred to as small businesses.


A follow up on the foreign policy establishment.

William Pfaff’s column the other day suggested the key role played by Victoria Nuland in our policy toward Russia and Eastern Europe. A little time on Wikipedia has revealed the following.

Nuland is a career Senior Officer of the United States Foreign Service and has worked for both Democratic and Republican administrations. During the Clinton administration, she was chief of staff to Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott before moving on to serve as deputy director for former Soviet Union affairs. During the George W. Bush administration, she served as the principal deputy foreign policy adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney and then as U.S. ambassador to NATO. During the Barack Obama administration, she was special envoy for Conventional Armed Forces in Europe before assuming the position of State Department spokesperson in summer 2011, which she held until February 2013.  She is now the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs at the United States Department of State.

Nuland’s husband is historian Robert Kagan, Council on Foreign Relations member, and co-founder of the think-tank “Project for the New American Century” (PNAC). The PNAC called for, among other things, regime change in Iraq and a strategy for securing global control. Kagan is regarded as a leading neo-conservative and has acted as an advisor to several Republican presidents as well as to Hillary Clinton, when she was Secretary of State under President Obama. He is also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His father Donald Kagan is a professor of history at Yale, a noted neo-conservative, and another founder of the PNAC.

(Nuland had her moment of  fame recently when a phone call from her to an embassy official in Kiev during the US sponsored coup was  intercepted and  broadcast on Youtube. There she is found uttering a parenthetical “fuck the EU.”)

She has also been associated with the Council on Foreign Relations, having directed a study group of savants for the Council and having co-authored with Richard Lugar their report “Russia, Its Neighbors, and an Enlarging NATO: Report of an Independent Task Force.” I couldn’t read it because I am too cheap to pay the Council five bucks for the privilege, but Amazon says that the independent task force concluded the enlargement of NATO and improved NATO-Russia relations need not be incompatible, if both are handled properly.” I guess we didn’t do it that way.

For those of you who think the neo-conservative movement has been discredited by the truly awful results of their policies in Iraq the above facts should be an eye-opener. Notice that these people are never out of some role in either the government or the myriad of think-tanks in Washington. The same people are advising both Republican and Democratic presidents. These are part of what Paul Krugman calls the Very Serious People (VSP) who, in this case, make up the foreign policy establishment. The come in all stripes.

I used to believe in such people. In fact I once even subscribed to Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations, which is the very heart of the foreign policy establishment. I first began to be wary of the Council way back in 1966. There I read, in Foreign Affairs, an incredibly detailed and erudite history of contemporary Vietnam, called “The Faceless Viet Cong”, that was aimed at proving that the Viet Cong had no indigenous support in South Vietnam and were just the local face of the North Vietnamese communists. At the time I was impressed but a little doubtfu about the conclusionl. The faceless Viet Cong seemed to be doing pretty well for a bunch of stooges.

The author of the article was George A. Carver Jr, who was described in the list of contributors only as a student of history and Asian affairs, a  graduate of Yale and Oxford, a former officer with the US Aid Mission in Saigon and the author of “Aesthetics and the Problem of Meaning.” They only left out one thing. From 1966 to 1973, he was special assistant for Vietnamese affairs to three succesive Directors of the CIA. I found that out shortly after reading the article and I had a bit of a feeling of being used.

Are you getting the idea that this may help explain the fact that our Nobel Laureate President has a very mixed record in foreign affairs? He came to the job with very little experience in this area and evidently took on the establishment to help him. He also seems fixated on his original goal of being the one who brought the Republicans and Democrats together. As Jack Kennedy demonstrated in the Cuban Missile Crisis, a president has to have enough confidence in himself and suspicion of the experts to know when to ignore the VSP.