Archive for the ‘Democratic knavery’ category

Things To Think About Before We Blow Sh*t Up

March 27, 2012

James Fallows pointed me to this depressingly smart piece by Stephen M. Walt, up now at the Foreign Policy website.  Walt gives us 10 lessons we should learn from our Iraq fiasco, from number 1 — we lost — through the point Fallows highlights, number 3, in which we learn what happens when the political and media Villages rush to outdo each other in feckless groupthink and morally bankrupt cheerleading folly.*

Me, I’ll  pony up Walt’s conclusion:

Because it is not clear if any U.S. approach would have succeeded at an acceptable cost, the real lesson of Iraq is not to do stupid things like this again.

The U.S. military has many virtues, but it is not good at running other countries. And it is not likely to get much better at it with practice. We have a capital-intensive army that places a premium on firepower, and we are a country whose own unusual, melting-pot history has made us less sensitive to the enduring power of nationalism, ethnicity, and other local forces.

Furthermore, because the United States is basically incredibly secure, it is impossible to sustain public support for long and grinding wars of occupation. Once it becomes clear that we face a lengthy and messy struggle, the American people quite properly begin to ask why we are pouring billions of dollars and thousands of lives into some strategic backwater. And they are right.

So my last lesson is that we shouldn’t spend too much time trying to figure out how to do this sort of thing better, because we’re never going to do it well and it will rarely be vital to our overall security. Instead, we ought to work harder on developing an approach to the world that minimizes the risk of getting ourselves into this kind of war again.

In between Walt’s insistence that we honestly confront our loss in Iraq and this rather pious last hope, this short essay examines many important, depressing truths.  Read the whole thing.  We’ll need to keep reminding selves and others of these desperately hard-won realizations, given that the usual suspects, only to willing to spend somebody else’s blood, are urging us into the next war.

(And yes. I know I’ve posted this tune before. You gonna make something of it?)

*No matter how often I watch the Mustache of Understanding talk about “American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Bagdad,” his faux-macho willingness to send other folks kids to blow up still other folks and their kids makes me mouth vomit.

Image:  Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen, (attr.) Laughing Fool, c. 1500.

My latest letter to President Obama/Alan Simpson must go edition

August 26, 2010
I’m back, sort of, though still buried in start of term nonsense,
But just to dip my toe back in the water — here’s what I just shot off at Whitehouse.gov on the subject of why those who hate you get so much love.  It amazes me still that the White House just doesn’t seem to get it.
Alan Simpson’s truth telling on  his view of Social Security is exactly what we need right now: the organizing incident that should allow us to let the voters know what a GOP return to power really means.
And yet, instead of fighting that good fight (and getting lots of folks like me revved up again– see below) as of now, President Obama seems content to accept the usual non-apology.  Stupid policy and stupid politics, all before breakfast.
Yes, I’m that grouchy.
Anyway — here’s what I wrote.  Feel free to express yourselves to 44 at this address.
Alan Simpson’s remarks about Social Security were offensive — no, strike that — brutally demeaning to all those in retirement scraping by, and to all those who work hard to understand the serious problems we face as a nation.
But that’s not the real problem, nor the reason I ask you to force Simpson off the committee.  Rather, it is his commitment, revealed again, but pursued over decades, to destroy the entire Social Security system, rather than to reform it as needed.
Look — I get emails daily from President Obama, from OfA, from all kinds of folks, asking me to renew the extraordinary effort I put out to create the kind of country I believe we need in 2008.  I spent more than I had, and I took weeks off my job to pound on doors in New Hampshire for candidate Obama and the rest of the Democratic ticket.
Now you want me to sign up again — and yet you give a position of enormous influence and some real power to a man who stands against everything I stand for.
You gotta make a choice.  You want me — and by extension the Democrats who view government as a crucial tool in building a better society — to pony up time and cash this year?  Then choose sides now.
Simpson has to go, both for substantive reasons and because the one thing we all need now the most is a reason to get out into the fight again before November.  Trust me:  it’s good for all kinds of reasons to take a stand against those who stand against you.
Make it happen.
Yours,
Tom Levenson

Image:  Paulus Potter, Four Cows in a Meadow 1651.

My Email to President Obama on Health Care

January 23, 2010

Tim over at Balloon Juice is trying to lead in the fight over health care. He’s absolutely right:  we have to contact our representatives and senators as often as we can to reinforce their sense that we have their back if they take action on health care, and we will drop them like a rock if they don’t.

But there is another center of gravity in this debate, and that’s the White House.  It is my hope, if not quite my expectation, that President Obama will use the State of the Union address to lay his markers down.  But I’m growing fearful that what we see in his White House is a political shop that has consistently misread both the mood of the country and the actual dynamics taking place at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.  So I think we need to push there too.

If you agree, here’s where you go to send an email.  The comment line phone number, closed until Monday at 9 EST, is 202-456-1111.  I’ll be calling first thing.  The main White House switchboard number is 202-456-1414.  I plan on calling that and asking to speak to someone in the policy shop.  I’ll let you know if I get anywhere.

Here’s what I sent in to the White House today.  Please…keep ’em coming, and if you do, feel free to post them in the comment thread here.

Mr. President,

I am one of your most ardent supporters, and I spent as much of the summer and fall of 2008 as I could trying to make sure we won, and won big.  Now I have a request to make.

The time for a “hands off” management approach to the health care issue is clearly over.  I ask you to take the lead, using your prestige, your formidable powers of persuasion, and all the levers of power the office of the President possesses to lead the Congress to the passage of health reform.

What I seek is what is being touted as the grand compromise:  the House passes the Senate bill, while, with yours and the Democratic Senate leadership’s public commitment, advancing a bill through the reconciliation process that addresses those of the House’s concerns that can be enveloped in that legislative approach.

There is both moral and political need for you to lead here.  If we fail, 30,000,000 Americans will lack health care that could have it — on your watch — and as we know from studies of the consequences of lack of coverage, thousands of them will die of “financial arrest.”

I do not want that on my conscience as a Democrat — and I’m sure neither do you.

At the same time, as volunteer on Democratic campaigns since 1976, I can tell you that the impact on me and every other grass roots Democrat that I know will be awful if our party, with large majorities in the Congress and your good self in the White House, were to collapse into a puddle of self-pitying inaction because we lost a special election in which our candidate happened to run a truly terrible campaign.

We’ve come too far; we’ve worked too hard — you’ve worked too hard — to let go now.

All this is said in the context of respect for the job you’ve done across a huge number of complex issues, and thanks for your calm and reflective approach in this very dangerous and complex times. But every now and then both the politics and the policy demand something different.  This is such a time.

With all best wishes,

Tom Levenson

Image: John T. McCutcheon. Political cartoon depicting local politicians struggling to keep up with president Theodore Roosevelt during his visit to Chicago. Early 1900s.

We Are Ruled By Idiots: Susan Collins/Ben Nelson division

February 5, 2009

Update: TPM points out in one of their updates to this story that (a) the list of proposed cuts keeps changing and (b) that this is in fact an effort to secure the votes for passage of the bill.  So on the theory that some bill is better than none, this may be worth the effort.  But the choices still matter, and cutting science and technology and public health when the bill still retains less-efficient tax cuts is folly.  If the 100 billion that the group seeks to cut slashed tax side money at least as much (and much better much more) than shovel-ready spending, then it would be more palatable.  But given the sausage injunction, I’ve toned down the language of disdain below.

From TPM comes this word:  that Senator Collins (R(know nothing)-ME and Senator Nelson (D(who won that last election?)-NE) have come up the almost 80 billion dollars worth of cuts to the stimulus that will somehow speed our transition back into a simulacrum of economic health.

TPM highlighted the 1.4 billion cut in stimulus funding for the NSF — 100% of the total proposed in the Democratic majority bill.  But in fact the proposals are actually much worse than the topline message at TPM indicates.  One thing that becomes clear from reading the details of the Nelson/Collins “compromise” is that these folks just don’t get science. Which means, in essence that they do not get how to stimulate an economy:  you want to spend the money on stuff that not only gets cash into circulation fast (as buying equipment, hiring students and researchers, renting space, paying for telephony and all the rest actually do), but on stuff that will produce more money-making (and spending) activity in the future.

That is to say, science and its applications leads to figuring stuff out that makes a difference in people’s lives.   Tax cuts, by contrast, do so only indirectly, if at all, and at a fraction of the efficiency that comes from actually just hiring people to go out get to work.

What we are seeing here, thus, is an example of the operative definition of neurosis — the repetition of an action over and over again, whilst expecting a different outcome this time — our distinguished representatives, especially almost every Republican (Ben!  What are you doing in such company?) serving  in Congress right now — are effectively residents of Bedlam

So: what is it that that Collins and Nelson et al. can’t quite see themselves voting for:

Starting from the top, at the Department of Agriculture:  Whack $100 million off food research — 100 % of the total proposed.

Next:  $750 million gone from NASA’s exploration budget, half of the proposed total, along all of the 1.4 billion NSF money, as mentioned above.

Next: NOAA gets a haircut to the tune of $422 million, a 35% trim — suck on that Florida and the rest of the hurricane belt, just for starters — while the National Institute of Standards and Technology, one of the most important unknown agencies in the government, loses $750 million, or half of its proposed stimulus funding.

And the hits keep coming!  One billion, 38% of the total, off of the DOE’s energy efficiency/renewable energy research budget — now there’s some forward looking policy!  4.5 billion — big numbers, folks — or 47% of proposed funds for DOE’s EISA energy technology loan guarantee program. That’s money that goes to folks in private industry (get that free market zealots — companies out in the world) to support commercial-potential energy research.  There is a bunch of political-economy debate you can have about how best to do this, but basically this is money spent to reduce our dependence on energy sources that have been the focus of conflict for a long, long time.  Dumb, dumb, dumb!

The beat goes on.  I’m not sure if you’d call this research, but the enriched uranium processing funds get removed altogether, to the tune of 390 mil.  And the DOE Office of Science — which, for those that want to see a nuclear energy future is a major source of research funds — also loses all the proposed stimulus it would otherwise receive, $100 million.

On the next page of the good senators’ proposal, Department of Homeland Security loses all of the 14 million bucks proposed for cybersecurity research.  Damn — why don’t we just tell Bin Laden to get his cryptographers rolling? And this is surely not scientific research, but these deep thinkers want to cut all 20 million from the Interior Dept’s dream of creating a department wide modern computer and financial management system.  Heaven forfend that the goverment might actually be given the tools to run more effectively!

Let’s see.  What atrocities lurk on this page?  How about a 100 percent cut — 610 million — for Department of Eductation disability research.  5.185 billion, 90% of the total sought, hacked off the HHS’s desire to spend money on disease prevention.  It’s somehow better for the economy to let HIV infected folks go untested and, perhaps, remain disease vectors, than it is to spend money, right now, on work that could save people’s lives.

Other people will, I’m sure, comment on the foolishness of many of the other choices — one of my favorites at a time when (a) US physical infrastructure is in pieces, lagging well behind the quality of basic transport in many of our competitors, and (b) when projects that get US citizens out on the roads and bridges building stuff would be a damn good idea (wait for the new jobless claims tomorrow, if you haven’t figured that one out), these Solons seem to think hauling 5.5 billion in discretionary DOT project funds makes sense.

I mean really?  Just to talk for a moment to my neighbors up the highway:  Maine, you need roads and bridges just like the rest of us,  and you could surely use an extension of the rail line up to Brunswick at least (if you make your money off tourism, figuring out how to get tourists past the bottlenecks in the road system might be a good idea.  Just sayin…), and so on and on,=.  With all that, what were  you thinking when you sent your pinnacle of legislative competence back to Washington last Nov?

But I digress.  Add up all the science/medicine/technology spending Nelson and Collins want to eliminate and it adds up to over 14 billion dollars.  That’s a lot of science, technological development and public health, that won’t get done if these two have their way.  And all this is spending that is, to use the mantra targeted, timely, and as temporary as anything else in government.

In the end what I see here is legislative frivolousness.  This isn’t a list that suggests anyone thought about what they were doing or why.  It’s just a bit of Washington “bipartisanship.”  If you want cuts, get rid of the tax breaks that everyone who actually studies the record of such things agree are the least effective way of adding life to our stricken economy, and spend the money on people and things right now.  And if you can do it buying work that will continue to pay off in the future — that might even be good governance.  Perish the thought.

Image:  William Hogarth “The Interior of Bedlam” from A Rake’s Progress, 1763.

How not to pay for science…Mass Legislature edition

May 20, 2008

From The Boston Globe today:

The governor’s initial proposal sought to empower a panel of industry specialists and academic leaders to decide how to spend $1 billion over 10 years in several targeted areas, much like a similar program in California. But lawmakers in the Senate and House decided how and where to dole out large portions of the $1 billion that would be spent in the bill, which could emerge from a conference committee as early as this week, earmarking hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for specific projects, even giving names to individual buildings and grants.

House lawmakers earmarked $49.5 million to build a science center at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, though the school currently has no science graduate programs. The college is, however, the alma mater of Representative Daniel E. Bosley, a North Adams Democrat who wrote the House legislation and has frequently joked at press conferences and legislative hearings that “spending $1 billion doesn’t go quite as far as it used to.”

This is how to waste a lot of cash … though of course, that’s not how the state reps see it:

In addition, legislators have designated $12.6 million for a highway interchange near Andover, and $12.9 million for a sewage treatment plant in Framingham, money designed, they said, to spur local development for life sciences companies.

“We are responsible for the public dollars,” said Representative Michael J. Rodrigues, a Democrat from Westport and cochairman of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Caucus. “Our job is to spend money where we as legislators feel [it] is necessary.”

Err, yeah…but necessary for what?

The Mass legislature is famously a machine-driven body, so it’s no surprise that Gov. Deval Patrick’s attempts to inject a little rationality into the budget process gets eaten alive.

But this is a symptom of the larger problem that big or biggish science has faced for a while now. At least part of the SSC’s problem, for example, was that it was an example of a kind of mega-earmark, packed off to the open fields of Texas as part of a political game that lost any opportunity to take advantage of whatever economies might have been gained by marrying the new machine to Fermilab’s existing infrastructure. More generally, in this kind of effort, in which the government is trying to pick research targets for their economic potential is a fraught task for anyone, including the academic and industry insiders who were originally to be in charge of spending the state’s cash.

But still, if there are plenty of problems with peer review, including the difficulty new players face in getting potentially valuable ideas funded. But there is no doubt in my mind about two things:

First, that an imperfect system in which knowledgeable insiders try to drive research is better than having a bunch of Beacon Hill horsetraders spend the goodies…and

Second, that the larger issue here is that we have, so far, even in this research-rich, science-intensive Commonwealth of Massachusetts, failed to create the kind of civic science culture we need. It takes suasion, a shared set of assumptions to create circumstances in which it is understood, even beneath the Sacred Cod, that you don’t treat a science funding bill as a public trough.

To put it another way, Gary Hart and Warren Rudman issued a report last year on the state of US science and math education and research. They wrote,

“The inadequacies of our systems of research and education” posed a threat to U.S. national security greater “than any potential conventional war that we might imagine.”

This is the issue, I think, of which the Mass House display of ordinary venality is only a system. If this view were actually part of the common currency of political conversation, we might actually buy a little knowledge, instead of a sewage treatment plant.

Paying for science means deciding that it is affirmatively worth spending money now on an endeavor in which payoffs come often indirectly and over years.

Easy enough to say, isn’t it. Not so much to do.

(BTW — to recapitulate what I wrote here: this is why McCain is so singularly a bad prospective President for science, and hence, if you buy Hart/Rudman, for our long term national security. He has made a series of promises and policy decisions — especially his lethal combination of much more spending for Middle East wars and the military in general, accompanied by his commitment to exploding deficit tax policies — that means that all US discretionary spending, including all federal science support would have to starve to enable him to keep his word.)

(Also, please note, for those of you who think I may take an excessively partisan view of the world:  this is Democrat on Democrat folly, with the old-line House Democratic Party machine pushing back against yet one more smart, able, idealistic, reformist Democratic Goo-goo governor

Image: William Hogarth, “The Humors of an Election: the Polling,” 1754-55. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Source: Wikimedia Commons.