Posted tagged ‘Marc Ambinder’

Marc Ambinder, General McChrystal, My Uncle, and Gays in the Military

June 26, 2010

American policy on gays in the military has been a self inflicted wound for years now.  The loss of Arabic (and Farsi) language specialists at just this moment in our strategic history was an own goal if ever there was one.  But the firing of General Stanley McChrystal has brought into sharp relief another truth about the chicken hawk quality of arguments against an end to the discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” farce.

Marc Ambinder, continuing in a really sterling transformation of his work from that of being a villager in training to a serious, independent reporter, wrote about the McChrystal connection and the implications of military reality (and or closeness or distance to the sharp end) on assessments of the ability for gays to perform in the armed forces (and for those forces to perform with gays openly in their ranks).

(I’ve harshly criticized Ambinder in the past, and stopped reading him after what was for me one too many retellings of conventional wisdom; picking up on cues from the folks at Balloon Juice who are much more conscientious than I in following folks through their twists and turns, I’ve started up again, and it is as if there is a whole new Marc reporting, rather than retelling what his sources feed him.  To be acknowledged and encouraged.)

The short form of Ambinder’s story is that (a) McChrystal is genuinely a social liberal, untroubled by (among other things) gays in the military, and that (b) the special forces he used to command are much more focused on the job that their fellow soldiers, gay or straight, actually do than on who they happen to sleep with.  Money quote:

As one former member of a special missions unit put it to me recently, “It’s really about competence. If you’re competent, it doesn’t matter who you are.”  And then, switching instantly from an analytical posture to a machismo mode, he said, “If a guy saves my ass, he sure as hell can look at it.”

Exactly so.  The folks who worry most about gays in the military are chickenhawks, those who never get close to the real work of an army:  fighting the enemy, supporting your comrades.*

This struck home in a deep way recently as I helped my family mourn the death of the senior surviving male member of our parent’s generation, my beloved and much missed Uncle David, who, among much else in a life well-lived, served as a career officer in the Royal Artillery, fighting the United Kingdom’s wars from 1943 to the early nineteen sixties, retiring at the rank of Major and having served as a battery commander.

Long ago, in the early eighties, I visited David after I’d finished my college degree, hanging out mostly.  For some reason the issue of gays in the military came up (maybe the Dutch had just opened up their ranks — I don’t really recall).

David surprised me.  He was, after all, an Eton-educated former career officer (and the son of a Colonel) — not obviously the sort of person who would readily dissent from what remained then the British military norm.

What came next was another in a long series of lessons in the risks of assuming individual qualities from group characteristics.  David told me two things, one an observation in principle and the other a specific story, both with the same point.

Principle first:  David told me that his objection to gays in the military had been based on the notion that the potential for relationships to form between different ranks in the same units raised the possibility that a commander would be faced with an impossible command dilemma if he had to assign hazardous or likely fatal tasks to members of the unit.

But, he said, once women were admitted to the military, that objection failed…or rather it seemed that the military had decided it could manage that potential problem, and there was no reason other than bigotry to assert that gay soldiers would be more likely to fall afoul of such a dilemma than straight ones.

The story was more direct, and more on the point that Ambinder made in his story.  One afternoon, relaxing after a day’s work on the farm that was his second career, he told me about an experience he had just after he joined his battery in northern Europe in late 1944.  Then nineteen, and a newly minted junior officer, he commanded a towed gun — a 155mm howitzer, I think, though don’t quote me on that.

One day he sought out the battery adjutant.

What was the problem? the adjutant asked.

Well, said David, it seems that my loader and my driver are sharing the same sleeping bag.  What should I do?

How does the lorry run?

Fine — perfect; starts every time, is maintained and fueled each night (not morning … crucial under the circumstances — ed.); shines as much as can be expected under the conditions.

How is the gun?

No problems, none at all.  The ammunition is in good order, the gun never jams, everything works as it should.

And what was the problem you wished to discuss, Lt. S-M?

Nothing, sir. Nothing at all.

Which is to say exactly what Ambinder’s sources told him:  what matters in combat is what you do in combat.  Wasting time, and worse, depriving yourself of good soldiers, is worse than bigoted.  It is stupid, and it costs the most at the very point where we can afford it least.

Did I mention I revere and hugely miss my uncle?

*It is true, as Ambinder points out that there are plenty of serving military who oppose gays in uniform who are not chickenhawks; I’m referring here to the much larger number of those who never wore the uniform, or did so always at many safe removes from combat who stand shoulder to shoulder to prevent some Americans from serving their country.  For these, the full measure of contempt is not enough.

Image: Dying Achilles at Achilleion, Corfu. Sculptor: Ernst Herter, 1884.

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This Is How Bad Ideas Become Received Wisdom: Mark Ambinder, Regulation, and Evil edition

April 16, 2010

I’m not an Ambinder hater.  He knows the mechanics of politics really well, and when he chooses, he’s got useful material to share.

But I’m no fan either — I think he’s allowed himself to play Villager too much too soon.  He’s a good reporter, I think, but his pleasure at being a member of the Washington in-crowd is palpable, and I find his site less and less interesting the more reliably conventional its wisdom becomes.

It’s kind of sad, actually.  He’s too young and too smart to make it pretty to watch him turn into a kind aspiring Broder with internet skillz.  But that’s what’s happening,  I think.

Case in point — look at this reflex in action on what would seem to be a subject pretty far removed from the usual Washington sacred cow.  Ambinder wrote a  very interesting article for the May issue of The Atlantic Monthly about  obesity, spinning of his own experience an in depth look at what can and/or should be done about the very real harm obesity is causing in this country.

Mostly, the piece is a pretty good bit of feature writing, with a clear understanding of its subject and its aims.  But even in a matter very near to his heart, and one in which he has already made the (for the contemporary Village) significant leap of recognizing a role of government action in confronting the very complex issue of obesity, he still can’t help straying into the easy, mindless tropes of elite posturing on the evils of policy action.

For example, in one passage, he describes President Obama’s choice of FDA chief, Margaret Hamburg, as “another New York City veteran with a strong nanny streak.”

That would be this Dr. Hamburg

Dr. Hamburg, who was appointed by Mayor David N. Dinkins as acting commissioner in 1991 and became commissioner the following year, was one of the few top officials asked to remain when Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani took office in 1994. She was best known for developing a tuberculosis control program that produced sharp declines in the incidences of the disease in New York. Under her tenure, child immunization rates rose in the city.

She left New York in 1997 to become assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the federal Department of Health and Human Services, where she created a bioterrorism initiative and led planning for pandemic flu response.

And what was Dr. Hamburg’s sin? That under her leadership, the FDA “warned 17 food manufacturers that their food labeling made misleading health claims that needed to be corrected.”

This is, if I may steal someone else’s snark, Your Liberal Media In Action.

Ambinder seems to see as a nanny — by implication, I think, an emasculating female authority figure — someone who helped roll back what many consider to be one of, if not the greatest looming public health crises around these days (TB) — not to mention someone who has tried to plan ahead for a couple of the most significant anticipatable but not predictable medical threats we face as a nation.

I’m not sure what you would call someone who has that skill set and resume, but she’s a nanny only if you think proactive government planning and decisions in the face of real dangers is somehow Satanic Mary Poppins territory.

But that, of course, is the current elite Washington chattering class consensus.  Three decades of hard, effective work by the radical right propaganda apparat — the AEIs and the rest — have produced the unthought conclusion for too many that government action of any sort is an infantalizing, illegitimate assault on the individual’s corporation’s right to lie about the effects of its products.

What’s weird — or rather, telling — is that it actually appears from the passage in question that Ambinder actually admires the FDA’s action in this case. He writes, “This was the most significant FDA enforcement action on such matters in more than a decade.”

But even so, he can’t stop himself from spitting out a cliched epithet that undercuts his own apparent conclusion — and, more broadly, the whole idea that it might make sense for the government to be active in the arena of protecting the public from deceptive practices implicated in a major health concern.

You see this pathology more bluntly in a blog post that Ambinder wrote to follow up on the article, in which he outlined in brief what he thought ought to be done about the American obesity plague.  There he writes that  we should

Accept that regulation is a necessary evil. (Emphasis added.)

Oh FSM.  Not this again.

Easy snark aside, here you have the political editor of The Atlantic Monthly taking as absolutely uncontroversial the idea that regulation, necessary or not, is bad.  It’s a truth universally acknoweledged– in his worldview —  that such government action cannot be better than the lesser of two lousy outcomes.

And this is the problem.  There is no argument that there can be good and bad regulation — as in rules that fail to achieve their policy goals.  But the idea that the tool of regulation is itself evil — now that’s the true accomplishment of the Reaganite long war on the whole idea of public governance, of a public interest.

And, of course, it’s false, a lie, told wittingly by some, unconsciously, I think, here.

This really isn’t complicated:  regulations are the tools we use to ensure that private ambitions do not trump public interests.

Ambinder even gets this, sort of.  In  his longer article, he writes of the ways regulatory change works.  Sometimes it is simply a rule that compels a change in behavior.  Other times, it is process that evokes such changes.  He writes,

There is a creative tension here, and the conversations can be difficult,” said the [National Restaurant Association] president, Dawn Sweeney, of its negotiations with the administration. “Having said that, we have to have real things to offer, because if regulation is in the offing at some point down the road, we want to be out in front of it.”

Well, yeah.

To recap:  what has Ambinder tried to say here?  One — that our current food practices have led to a deeply damaging national crisis of obesity.  Two — that the organization of  our food industry and culture are among the primary drivers of this crisis.  Three — that absent changes in the way the industries involved do business we are unlikely to resolve said crisis.  And four — that such change comes only in the context of explicit incentives to do so, and this administration is using the regulatory process to provide those incentives.

Nothing evil to see here — except, if I may hyperbolize — Ambinder’s swift and sloppy appropriation of a cliche that advances the very political interests that would derail the changes he wants to see here.

Which is to say Ambinder has to choose, as must all the rest of us, which side of this rhetorical and real divide he wants to defend.

*Ambinder himself notes this problem, writing, inter alia, that “wide evidence suggests that advertising feeds obesity, triggering what the psychologist Robert Cialdini has called the brain’s “click-whirr” response.”

Images:  James Gillray “A Voluptuary, under the horrors of digestion” (a caricature of the Prince of Wales, later George IV) 1792.

And why not two  Weird Tales covers in one day, this one, dated November 1942, vol. 36, no. 8, featuring Nursemaid to Nightmares by Robert Bloch. Cover art by Richard Bennett.

Ambinder’s Follies, Redux

October 7, 2008

Ambinder had a true howler today, one not picked up, so far as I can find on a quick search, as it should have been.

In what he billed as “The Daily Racism Debate,” Ambinder chided Barney Frank for having the temerity to suggest that the GOP and its allies might have had a racist edge when they blamed lending under the Community Reinvestment Act for the collapse in the housing market, and hence for the global financial crisis that we now endure.

Here’s what Frank said:

“They get to take things out on poor people,” Frank said at a mortgage foreclosure symposium in Boston. “Let’s be honest: The fact that some of the poor people are black doesn’t hurt them either, from their standpoint. This is an effort, I believe, to appeal to a kind of anger in people.”

Here’s Ambinder’s considered take on this apparently offensive statement, fisked lightly:

Had it not been for the Community Reinvestment Act and the cheap mortgages provided by Fannie and Freddie, a lot of poor, black people wouldn’t have homes.

Quick sleight of hand notice here:  Freddie and Fannie got Bush administration to meet affordable housing goals by buying up subprime mortgages; far from being a consequence of CRA rules, the two F’s exposure to the riskiest class of loans was increased as a part of mendacious and incompetent administration’s attempt to avoid the messy business of housing the poor.

But a lot of poor white people wouldn’t have homes either. So it’s classist, more than racist, if it’, indeed, is motivated by prejudice at all.

This is, of course exactly what Frank said:  see above.  He noted that the fact that some poor people are black is a feature, not a bug, for a campaign now increasingly obviously playing the “not-like-us” card to a crowd primed to react to the blast of the race dog whistle.

At the same time, it might speak to the recklessness of Democratic policies, well intentioned or not.

Well it would, if the policies were in fact reckless; i.e. — a significant contributor to the financial crisis.  Except, of course, they were not, at least when grown-ups minded the store.  See below for more on this.

Many of people can’t afford their mortgages, and the entire country is paying a price.  Hence the anger, which crosscuts with latent racial/culture biases.

Yes, fine:  but why do all these people have mortgages that they cannot afford?  Well Irvine Renter can give you chapter and verse on the incentive structure that led some people through folly and or deceit to borrow way beyond their means.

But if you look for the underlying cause of the mortgage and financial meltdowns, don’t you think the decision to remove most regulation of the banking sector might have something to do with it?  How about the creation of an even more lightly regulated pseudo-banking industry?  And what about the decision  — written into law by McCain advisor and potential Treasury Secretary Phil Gramm —  to leave more or less wholly uncontrolled the trillions of dollars in the kind of derivative financial instruments Warren Buffet has more than once warned were “time bombs, both for the parties that deal in them and the economic system.”

(This particular quote comes from the 2002 Berkshire Hathaway Chairman’s letter to shareholders.  2002!  That would be GOP controlled White House and, after Nov. both houses of Congress 2002, in case you were wondering.  This disaster was not a surprise to those paying attention).

Ambinder’s fellow Atlantic blogger, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has written several posts on the leap on the right to what he calls, rightly, the “Blame the Negroes” escape hatch, well before Ambinder published his post.  The key one is here.   If Ambinder had troubled to read his colleague with care, he would have seen a discussion of one of the best available one-stop debunkings of the whole CRA-poor-folk-are-the-problem slander.

Here’s the key quote from Robert Gordon’s breakdown of the role of CRA in the crisis:

Most important, the lenders subject to CRA have engaged in less, not more, of the most dangerous lending. Janet Yellen, president of the San Francisco Federal Reserve, offers the killer statistic: Independent mortgage companies, which are not covered by CRA, made high-priced loans at more than twice the rate of the banks and thrifts. With this in mind, Yellen specifically rejects the “tendency to conflate the current problems in the sub-prime market with CRA-motivated lending.? CRA, Yellen says, “has increased the volume of responsible lending to low- and moderate-income households.” [italics added]

So let’s recap.  Ambinder says, in essence, that Frank was playing the race card when he accused the other side of playing the race card in the argument over who should take the blame for the financial mess.

But Frank was right about both aspects of the question in dispute:  first, the CRA is not materially at fault — to state otherwise is a lie, disproved on the numbers over the decades-long history of the act; as you can see detailed in the piece on the other end of the link above CRA governed institutions are less, not more, likely to have engaged in bad lending practices…

…and hence, second, GOPers and the McCain campaign itself, are in fact playing to the worst of our national psychoses, as, with their now famous wink, they blame the irresponsible poor, many of whom, as Frank noticed, just happen to be black, for taking and defaulting  on loans that — they alledge —  would not have been made hwere it not for the dasterdly CRA.

That is:  Ambinder’s chiding of Frank for telling the truth echoes, perhaps amplifies, the very wound that Frank is trying to excise from our body politic.

To echo the source on this kind of post, Brad DeLong, why oh why can’t we have a better press corps.

Image: Walker Evans, Bethlehem houses and steel mill. Pennsylvania, Nov. 1935.  This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs Division under the digital ID fsa.8c52905.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Why Obama is right and McCain wrong on Energy: MIT edition

August 1, 2008

Continuing the energy theme just a little longer….

This may be a bit of home-institution boosting, and I haven’t done any due diligence on this press release, but still, this is promising news out of Daniel Nocera’s lab at MIT.  It is also a perfect example why Obama’s emphasis on alternatives to oil and coal is the better choice of governing philosophies for US energy policy, and McCain’s oil now, oil forever approach is not.

Nocera and his post doc, Matthew Kanan have taken a long look the process of photosynthesis that enables plants to extract usable energy from sunlight.  They’ve come up with a two-step process that can split ordinary, neutral pH water into hydrogen and oxygen to supply the feedstocks for fuel cells that could supply electricity to power cars, homes or whatever.  The key to the idea is the use of solar-generated electricity to power the electrolysis taking place in the Nocera lab’s device.  More detail in the press release, and Nocera’s general description of this line of research here

There is, as always, the caveat:  this is a research finding, not an industrial process.  It will take time and significant engineering creativity to turn this advance into a major source of energy and a partial replacement for carbon-based fuels — if it ever gets there.

But this is the necessary initial step.  You don’t get alternative energy unless you do the research.  You can’t do the research if you can’t get funding.  It is difficult — though to be sure, as this finding shows, not impossible — to pay for this work when you have a disinterested or actively hostile, petroleum-addicted President and administration.  A President Obama would do so — candidate Obama has already made that very clear as recently as yesterday, whatever the national press thought of the important news of the day.  A President McCain, delivering on candidate McCain’s promise to develop all available domestic sources of oil….not so much.

Here’s the MIT press release making the point for me:

The success of the Nocera lab shows the impact of a mixture of funding sources – governments, philanthropy, and industry. This project was funded by the National Science Foundation and by the Chesonis Family Foundation, which gave MIT $10 million this spring to launch the Solar Revolution Project, with a goal to make the large scale deployment of solar energy within 10 years.

You don’t get what you don’t pay for.

And as a lagniappe, this bit of barely informed editorializing:  the reason McCain’s approach is wrongheaded is not just that there it encourages the use of polluting sources of energy instead of pursuing clean or cleaner sources; it’s not that there is some mystical reward to using a renewable source as opposed to a notionally available, notionally cheap(ish) nonrenewable source — this isn’t a tree – hugger argument.  No, it’s wrong because it increases the liklihood that the transition we will have to make someday to a non-oil based economy will come harder, more expensively, and more destructively than it needs to, or would under a more science – friendly approach.  The real energy question is when and how much do you want to pay the piper.

That is:  McCain hasn’t noticed, though he has surely been told, that oil is something of a mug’s game,  coming under pressure from both supply and demand sides.  Between peak oil and the rise of major developing nations — economies that remained tied to oil are buying into not just an increasingly high price for their energy, but also a significant, and I would bet, on nothing more than a hunch, an increasing risk of oil shocks, major disruptions in supply  and/or price over the next decades.

That, as much as the absolute cost of energy as a share of any economic activity, is what ought to scare people, (if my hunch is correct).  Major uncertainty is a very expensive quality; when the probability collapses into a particular damaging event, the impact on real people’s real lives is profound.  Why on earth should we place ourselves more in the path of such an oncoming train than we have to.

And one last note — as I’ve given Marc Ambinder some eminently deserved grief (hey–if he can assert his judgment as fact, so can I) for his blithering yesterday about why he isn’t talking about energy, he has a solid post about Obama’s economic message today that contains a bit of content reporting and a bit of process analysis.  Nothing fancy, but just an example of a beat reporter writing a clear and useful little story from within his defined territory.  Credit where credit is due.