Sunday, February 25, 2007

A Movie Recommendation
As the Academy Awards show evidently is going on right now, it seems appropriate to praise Pan's Labyrinth, which Annie and I finally caught this afternoon following a month or so of failed attempts to see it.

I'm having trouble articulating exactly what it was about this film that moved us so much. It's beautifully shot (I saw on the NYT site a few minutes ago that it won Best Cinematography) and visually amazing (ditto Best Art Direction and Makeup). The performances are remarkable, even more so for the filmmakers' decisions to cast a bunch of key roles against type, at least if Wiki is to be believed.

But I think it's the story, really. Or rather, two stories. One plot involves an anti-insurgency action in a remote corner of Spain, five years after the Francoite fascists won that country's civil war: an army captain has set up an outpost to capture or kill a group of Republican holdouts, summoning his pregnant wife and her daughter by a previous marriage to live with him for the duration of the campaign. As this story plays out, the captain's cruelty comes into sharp focus: he summarily executes two villagers, tortures a captured guerilla, and bullies his wife and her daughter. As his kind but meek wife weakens through the course of her pregnancy, the captain makes it increasingly clear that her value to him is nothing more than the bearer of his son-to-be.

The second story, which frames the movie at beginning and end and recurs throughout, involves the daughter. She is the reincarnation of a princess from the underworld who in ages long past went to the surface of the earth, forgot who she was, and died in confusion. Upon arriving at the captain's outpost, she discovers a labyrinth in the woods, and is subsequently visited by a faun who tells her of her true identity and sets her three tasks to prove that her "essence is intact."

Over the course of the movie, the girl is torn between the imperatives of her increasingly desperate "real life" and the mission she must complete to fulfill her destiny. Compared to virtually every other character in the story, though, she is blessed and fortunate: while the rest of them--fascist soldiers, resistance fighters, household staff, her own mother, perhaps even the captain--are caught up in forces beyond their control and reduced to acting out set roles in a larger drama, in the shadowy world of the faun she at least has some control over her own dispensation.

The movie works as narrative, as wish fulfillment, as drama and fantasy. It's probably the best film I've seen in three years, maybe longer. And it took me far away from a relatively dismal February Sunday without very much else to recommend it.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Are They Cracking?
In the classic Simpsons episode "Sideshow Bob Roberts," the Springfield Republican Party meets to choose a candidate to run against Diamond Joe Quimby, a Democrat, for the mayoralty. The group, which convenes in a scary-looking castle, includes Mr. Burns, Rainier Wolfcastle, Birchibald T. Barlow (a right-wing radio host modeled on Rush Limbaugh), the Blue-Haired Lawyer, and the Rich Texan, as well as Dracula.

Aside from the fact that the Springfield Republican cabal didn't, to my knowledge, include any rabidly intolerant religious fundamentalists, the gathering is reminiscent of the Council for National Policy, described in this article from today's New York Times as "a secretive club whose few hundred members include Dr. James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family, the Rev. Jerry Falwell of Liberty University and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. Although little known outside the conservative movement, the council has become a pivotal stop for Republican presidential primary hopefuls, including George W. Bush on the eve of his 1999 primary campaign."

The main thrust of the story is that the Council, and its members who constitute much of the leadership among "movement Republicans," are struggling to find a candidate to rally behind for next year's presidential election:

Many of the conservatives who attended the event, held at the beginning of the month at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island, Fla., said they were dismayed at the absence of a champion to carry their banner in the next election.

Many conservatives have already declared their hostility to Senator John McCain of Arizona, despite his efforts to make amends for having once denounced Christian conservative leaders as “agents of intolerance,” and to former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York, because of his liberal views on abortion and gay rights and his three marriages.

Many were also suspicious of former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts; the council has been distributing to its members a dossier prepared by a Massachusetts conservative group about liberal elements of his record on abortion, stem cell research and gay rights. (Mr. Romney has worked to convince conservatives that his views have changed.)

And some members of the council have raised doubts about lesser known candidates — Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Representative Duncan Hunter of California, who were invited to Amelia Island to address an elite audience of about 60 of its members, and Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, who spoke to the full council at its previous meeting, in October in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Although each of the three had supporters, many conservatives expressed concerns about whether any of the candidates could unify their movement or raise enough money to overtake the front-runners, several participants in the meetings said.

Yes, 2008 is shaping up to be a tough one for the collection of ideologues and psychopaths that's done so much to give us all the black spot on our history that's been these last six years. McCain and Giuliani are desperate to kiss their asses, but Dobson and Norquist simply won't drop their pants. They have long memories, for one thing: if Dobson had been as prominent in 2000 as he later became, McCain likely would have labeled him (correctly) as an "agent of intolerance," and Norquist has detested McCain at least since the Arizona senator started holding the hearings on Indian Affairs that eventually helped destroy Grover's pals Jack Abramoff and Ralph Reed. As for Rudy, I guess they just can't stomach his deviations from orthodoxy on abortion (which I'm sure he'd renounce if he credibly could) and, perhaps even worse, his sympathy for gay rights (about which I have the feeling he's sincere, and stubborn enough to stay with--the one thing I admire about the man). They'd probably like to support Romney, but his own sins against the dogma are too recent for them to shrug off with a straight face.

How about the next tier? Every time I've seen or read something about Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas who shares Bill Clinton's home town and working class roots, I've been impressed with his potential as a candidate who could talk the talk of the Dobsonite hate crowd, but do so in a way that isn't as viscerally ugly as when, say, Rick Santorum did it. And Sam Brownback, the Kansas senator who was Santorum's political soulmate, seems reliably right-wing enough. But both evidently have their drawbacks for the Council crew, as do the rest of the Republican hopefuls.

A spokesman for Mr. Brownback said he would not comment on the senator’s presentation to the council, citing its rules about strict confidentiality. Several others who attended his speech said he received heavy applause for his emphasis on restricting abortion and amending the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. But foes of illegal immigration objected to his support for a temporary guest worker program, and some faulted him for touching only briefly on the threat of Islamic terrorists, an increasingly central focus of the council and many social conservative groups since the Sept. 11 attacks.
In an interview, Mr. [Duncan] Hunter, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee and a supporter of Mr. Bush’s plan to send more troops to Iraq, said the need for a strong national defense was the centerpiece of his speech. That defense, he argued, should include cracking down on illegal immigration, building a wall along the Mexican border and renegotiating foreign trade deals to protect American manufacturing. “We are losing the arsenal of the democracy,” he said.

But several people at the council meeting said his stance on trade alienated the business wing of the Republican Party, compounding his substantial fund-raising challenges.

Mr. Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister who was the head of the Arkansas Baptist convention before becoming governor, has the advantage of strong personal ties to many council members. Many prominent evangelical Christians consider him a friend, and he has appeared several times as a guest on Dr. Dobson’s popular Christian radio program.
But many conservatives, including several participants in the Amelia Island meeting, said Mr. Huckabee faced resistance from the limited-government, antitax wing of their movement. Some antitax activists fault Mr. Huckabee for presiding over tax and spending increases. (He says the only tax increase resulted from a public referendum.)

In what could prompt the greatest moment of schadenfreude I'll ever know, there seems to be a decent chance that the once-vaunted Republican machine is about to take a wrong turn into 1980s Democratland. An insistence upon ideological purity, as defined by a checklist of issue positions, is a great way to lose elections. The guy hasn't always hated gays? He once allowed a tax hike? He isn't fanatically pro-free trade? WE WILL NOT SUPPORT HIM!

There's an issue of potentially even greater significance here, though. Over the last forty years, the emerging and then dominant Republican coalition of free-market fundamentalists (the small group that provides the money) and social reactionaries (the large group that provides the votes and organizational structure) has persisted because of an unwillingness to acknowledge the core contradiction between those two groups that is in some sense positively admirable. The contradiction is that the same cultural forces the social reactionaries deplore--the trash TV and debased media--make enormous sums of money for the free-market fanatics, and that the negative externalities of their ever-growing profits--the need in almost all families for both parents to work, the erosion of once-assumed benefits like health care and retirement savings, the stagnant or relatively declining wages for most segments of the workforce--place unbearable additional strains on families. To my knowledge, the next time "Focus on the Family" addresses the tilted economic landscape in this country will be the first... but its members are living this problem, and they can't hide from it forever.

To this point, they've been able to obscure this question--to ignore the contradiction--by finding one scapegoat after another, whether it's Muslims or gays or Hollywood celebrities or feminist bloggers. Combined with more money and better political organization, the scapegoating was enough for them to win more elections than not from 1994 through 2004. Last year, though, it started to unravel (with, admittedly, a big assist from the tragic mismanagement of the war and the excessive corruption antics of Tom DeLay's Congress). And as time goes on, this probably will get tougher: successive generations just don't hate and fear gays the way older social reactionaries evidently do, and all sides in the endless war over abortion are feeling fatigue, as the South Dakota votes have shown.

In the end, I can't quite bring myself to believe that the Republicans will dash themselves to bits on the rocks of an ideological purity that the contradiction renders impossible. They just like winning too much. Norquist, a government-hating fanatic who might be the most purely evil political figure of the last forty years, ultimately will leverage whatever he can out of Giuliani or his old enemy McCain in exchange for support, and then the question will be whether the Democrats can push hard enough on the cracks to cause a full-on rupture that will split the money chunk of the party from the reactionaries.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Following up on an Earlier Story...

NEW YORK—At a well-attended rally in front of his new Ground Zero headquarters Monday, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani officially announced his plan to run for president of 9/11.

"My fellow citizens of 9/11, today I will make you a promise," said Giuliani during his 18-minute announcement speech in front of a charred and torn American flag. "As president of 9/11, I will usher in a bold new 9/11 for all."
"Let us all remember how we felt on that day, with the world watching our every move, waiting on our every word," said Giuliani, flanked by several firefighters, ex-New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, and Judith Nathan, his third wife. "With a campaign built on traditional 9/11 values, and with the help of every citizen who believes in the 9/11 dream, I want to make 9/11 great again."

According to Washington–based political analyst Gregory Hammond, Giuliani's candidacy "should not be underestimated."

"Sure, he has no foreign or national policy experience, and both his personal life and political career are riddled with scandal," said Hammond. "But in the key area of having been on TV on 9/11, the other candidates simply cannot match him. And as we saw in 2004, that's what matters most to voters in this post-9/11 world."
With more than a year until the primaries—unless Giuliani's court-filed request to hold New York's primary on the second Tuesday in September is approved—Giuliani said it is too early to discuss potential running mates, though he refused to rule out the possibility of naming a twisted, half-melted aluminum beam, an FDNY ball cap, or even John McCain. Giuliani, however, called rumors that he had met with a large shard of glass from the wreckage of the Pentagon "patently untrue."

"Letting 9/11 fall into the hands of the Democrats in 2008 would be nothing short of a national tragedy," Giuliani said. "Ever since 9/11 was founded that fateful day on 9/11, 9/11 has stood for one thing: 9/11."

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A Tale of Two Mayors
I've made no secret, here or anywhere else, of the fact that I'm a big fan of current NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and an equally big detractor of his predecessor Rudy Giuliani. And even considering that we're 20-plus months from the 2008 presidential election, I find it distinctly unnerving that Giuliani, with his unholy blend of narcissism and authoritarianism, is leading in many primary and general election polls.

Yes, it's more likely than not that he'll blow it in one of several ways. He might find it impossible to sufficiently pander to the Zombie Army voters who swoon for his perceived toughness but choke on the abortion-supporting, gay-tolerating, drag-dressing track record that was his price of entrance for high office in socially liberal New York City. (As a side note, the frequent descriptions of Giuliani as a moderate or even liberal Republican has to be Exhibit A for the silliness of these labels. There's more that goes into political character than one's stances on sex-related "issues" that sell copy and draw eyeballs but are crashingly irrelevant to most Americans.) His many unsavory personal ties, from marrying his cousin and publicly running around on his second wife to elevating the odious Bernie Kerik from personal driver to NYC police chief to Secretary of Homeland Security nominee and setting the even more odious Russell Harding loose within the city bureaucracy, could be his undoing. Or he might simply blow up at a questioner at a New Hampshire diner or Iowa fair, while a cellphone or digital camera silently captures the moment for YouTubing. It's also possible that he just isn't up for a tough political fight; after all, he hasn't had one since 1993, rolling over the politically inept Ruth Messinger in 1997 and bowing out early from the 2000 Senate campaign.

Somewhat like Hillary Clinton (but with perhaps a bit more justification owing solely to 9/11), Giuliani is trying to mount a cult of personality campaign around a personality that isn't really likable. He must hope that his aura of "leadership" will outweigh the many factual strikes against him, and that his stature as mayor of New York City during a period when perceived (and, to be fair, actual) quality of life improved here will obscure some of the specifics that mar his record.

Meanwhile, there's Bloomberg. He has no cult of personality; for the first two years of his mayoralty, it wasn't clear that he had a personality. But he's made city government work better here than it ever has, and probably better than it's worked anywhere. He's taken on the toughest issues and almost redeemed the Ross Perot ideal of "running government like a business"--if that means demanding performance and accountability, rather than seeking to maximize profits for investors (the Bush/Cheney version of this trope). Will he run for president? At the moment, I doubt it, though there will be a huge window for some third-party candidate to jump in during the six months of buyers' remorse between when the nominees are decided and the conventions are held. Could he win? I doubt that even more, because his money can't buy him a myth, and that's where our politics are right now.

Jacob Weisberg, writing in Slate, deftly compares the last two Republicans to run the Big Apple:

[T]he presidential bid Rudy announced last week is... based on the notion that he is an effective manager who tamed an out-of-control metropolis and ran it efficiently. The real picture is somewhat more complicated. Giuliani was a frustrated and not very popular mayor on Sept. 10, 2001. Today, most New Yorkers do see him as a hero, but also as a self-sabotaging, thin-skinned bully. To put it more bluntly, we know he's a bit of a dictator.

The leadership/management dichotomy runs through Giuliani's two terms. When he first took office in 1994, New York desperately needed the kind of head-knocking at which he excels. After a quarter-century of decline, the city had become ungovernable and increasingly unlivable. The bloated public sector soaked up more and more resources to deliver less and less; quality of life measured by a dozen different indicators continued to erode. Like Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Rudy arrived bearing a strong message of "enough!" With a relish for combat, he took on a long list of civic tormentors who had been comfortable for too long, including municipal labor leaders, racial demagogues, and uncompromising civil libertarians.
But over time, Giuliani's Putin (or Rasputin)-like tendencies became increasingly evident. Instead of taking on new challenges after his re-election in 1997, he dedicated his second term to punishing his enemies, including his wife at the time. He made his former driver, Bernard Kerik, chief of police and retreated even further into the comfort of his cronies. Fran Reiter, who served as a deputy mayor under Giuliani, describes him as depressed and directionless after being sworn in for the second time. "He can get mired in the petty stuff," she told me. "He doesn't suffer political opponents well, and there are times when he doesn't compromise well."

In his second term, Giuliani showed himself to be a classic micromanager, unable to delegate and unwilling to share the spotlight. He had already driven out William Bratton, his victorious chief of police, in a battle over credit. Bratton's fate was sealed when he, not Rudy, appeared on the cover of Time. Nor could Giuliani abide mockery. He went to court to try to stop New York magazine from advertising itself on the sides of buses as "POSSIBLY THE ONLY GOOD THING IN NEW YORK RUDY HASN'T TAKEN CREDIT FOR." After Sept. 11, he threatened, in Caudillo-like fashion, to ignore the legal term limit and run for re-election again if the candidates running to succeed him didn't all agree to let him stay in office for three extra months.

Rudy's weaknesses as a manager—and as a human being—have become more evident in the light of his successor, Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg has neither a whim of steel nor a pandering bone in his body. Arriving in 2002 at a City Hall that had no e-mail system or computerized payroll, he quietly cleaned up the mess—including a huge number of dubious, no-bid contracts—without faulting his predecessor. He and his police commissioner, Ray Kelly, have managed to continue to make further gains against crime, which few thought possible, without becoming obsessed with their press clippings. Above all, Bloomberg has taken on the big problems Giuliani never faced, without the constant attitude that he might declare martial law if you cross him again.
This comparison doesn't make the case for Bloomberg as president so much as it underscores what a scary place a Giuliani White House could be. President Rudy would give powerful speeches denouncing terrorism while assuming extraordinary wartime powers. He'd reject compromise with his antagonists and ignore the nuts and bolts of running a government. After a few years, he'd be on nonspeaking terms with much of his cabinet, never mind his fellow world leaders. By the time he got done, he might make us appreciate George W. Bush.

Pretty much. Giuliani is obviously much smarter than Bush, and he's made his way in life far more on his own merits than the Deciderer. But he shares Bush's vanity and essential uninterest in policy, and he might be even more arrogant. A Giuliani administration could take the core bad ideas of the Bush presidency--that all politics is personal, that the perception of toughness is more important than actual deeds, that nuance is defeatist and that power is best exercised by one inspired Leader rather than through a messy collective process--and match them with some degree of operational competence. A scary thought, that.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Hillary's Iraq Vote; or, A Brief for Political Courage
Just from an armchair perspective, it's fascinating to watch the Clinton campaign try to square the circle of their candidate's vote in favor of authorizing military force against Iraq in 2002. Five years later, the main theoretical question left about the war is whether it's the very worst foreign policy blunder in American history, or merely among the worst, and the most important practical question is how to minimize the consequences of the tragic mistake. Some of those who voted for the war then repented of it later, most prominently John Edwards among current Democratic presidential hopefuls. Senator Clinton, though, has refused to "apologize," or even clearly and loudly say "I made a mistake."

And she's now trying to present this stubbornness as an act of political courage:

Several advisers, friends and donors said in interviews that they had urged her to call her vote a mistake in order to appease antiwar Democrats, who play a critical role in the nominating process. Yet Mrs. Clinton herself, backed by another faction, never wanted to apologize — even if she viewed the war as a mistake — arguing that an apology would be a gimmick.

In the end, she settled on language that was similar to Senator John Kerry’s when he was the Democratic nominee in 2004: that if she had known in 2002 what she knows now about Iraqi weaponry, she would never have voted for the Senate resolution authorizing force.

Yet antiwar anger has festered, and yesterday morning Mrs. Clinton rolled out a new response to those demanding contrition: She said she was willing to lose support from voters rather than make an apology she did not believe in.

“If the most important thing to any of you is choosing someone who did not cast that vote or has said his vote was a mistake, then there are others to choose from,” Mrs. Clinton told an audience in Dover, N.H., in a veiled reference to two rivals for the nomination, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina.

There was a place and a moment, of course, for the Senator to show political courage. But it wasn't New Hampshire in February 2007; it was Washington, DC, in October 2002.

Twenty-three Senators--21 Democrats, a lone Republican (Chafee), and an independent (Jeffords) showed their courage that day. In a vote three weeks before a close election, with the mainstream media beating the war drums so loudly that even the best-grounded, most credible skeptical views couldn't get a hearing, they voted against going to war. Among them were four Democrats who were up for re-election the following month: three of them--Durbin, Levin, and Jack Reed--won easily, and the fourth, Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, was pulling away when he tragically died in a plane crash two weeks after voting against the war.

By contrast, you had Hillary Clinton, more than four years from having to face the voters again, but representing a state where the emotional echoes of September 11 were still deafening. She voted to give Bush authorization to use force, evidently hoping against all evidence that he would brandish this authorization for diplomatic leverage rather than to directly send Americans into harm's way. She wanted to set out a middle course--shocking, I know--between immediate, pre-emptive attack and indefinitely waiting for the diplomatic process to play out. (Read her speech and see for yourself.)

Senator Clinton's thought process, as she details it in the speech, actually shows both her strengths and weaknesses. She takes into account a number of relevant factors: Saddam Hussein's history of defying the UN, America's own degree of culpability for his crimes (arming him in the 1980s and shrugging off his massacres of the Kurds, then standing aside as he had thousands of rebelling Shi'ites and Kurds killed in 1991), her own views on the great power of the executive to use force, formed during her husband's tenure in the White House, and, by her own admission, the emotional resonance of representing New York 11 months after the devastating and traumatic attack:

And finally, on another personal note, I come to this decision from the perspective of a Senator from New York who has seen all too closely the consequences of last year's terrible attacks on our nation. In balancing the risks of action versus inaction, I think New Yorkers who have gone through the fires of hell may be more attuned to the risk of not acting. I know that I am.

What's missing is any consideration of the particulars of the case against Saddam, or even healthy skepticism that the collection of ideologues within the administration might have a thumb on the scale.

And the political calculation is pretty clearly there as well. I don't know if she'd already resolved to run for president in two or six or ten years' time, but it's hard to believe the thought hadn't crossed her mind--as well as the idea, probably justified at the time, that voting against use of force would ensure that she'd never host meetings in the the Oval Office.

I believe that the Clintons, and the wing of the Democratic Party that they lead, have a predisposition toward using force. It's politically rational--and it's deeply immoral.

Like many of the "New Democrats"--and no small number of Bush/Rove/DeLay-generation Republicans--neither Clinton ever served in the military and both came of age politically in a period when Democrats were successfully portrayed as “weak,” they are terrified of living into that stereotype. With no personal experience of war-–hell, probably few if any close friends who were ever in combat-–to balance against that political calculation, combat is theoretical to them. The primary concern is political; the primary means are symbolic.

It’s no coincidence that many of those who have been most skeptical about the Iraq debacle from the outset were individuals who themselves had served. For the Clintons, the Bushes and everyone else who constructs “patriotism” as the whole of symbolic parts-–a flag pin in a suit lapel-–what's most at stake, at the moment of decision, is the next news cycle and earning some credit for “political bravery” from out-of-touch DC-based fools like David Broder and David Brooks.

Not everyone bought the war hype. Here is one speech from a state senator, given just two weeks after Hillary Clinton and 76 others in the US Senate put the gun in George W. Bush's hand:

I don't oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne. What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income, to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.

That's what I'm opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.

Now let me be clear: I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power.... The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him. But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors...and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.

That state senator was Barack Obama. Sometimes political courage does pay off.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

It seems like a long time ago now, but I watched Barack Obama's announcement speech yesterday and was pretty excited. Given my overall view of the 2008 race--that it will boil down to Hillary vs. Not-Hillary, and that it's vital for the Democrats, and for the country, that Not-Hillary prevail--I think Obama fits the bill better than any other candidate out there. I set all this out in a diary at Daily Kos yesterday, my first since I decided to go to war against asshead lefty commissar David Sirota a few months ago; you can read the whole thing here.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Making Sense of the Impossible
The Phillies fan online community lost a dear friend and great leader today. Dave "mvpsoft" Snyder, founder and proprietor of, died in a one-car crash near his home in Michigan. He was 50 years old.

I wrote a tribute to Dave on The Good Phight. In part I did this because this was a man for whom I had real fondness and great respect, but also because writing is my way of trying to concretize and explain things, even--mostly--to myself. And it just isn't working.

The guy was 50 fucking years old. He had a great family with whom he was very close, a successful business, friends, a wide range of intellectual and community interests. And it all disappeared in the space of seconds.

This isn't a "why do bad things happen to good people" lament. Dave was a spiritual man, a Christian in the best sense of that term, similar in that way to my old friend Eric who sometimes comments here: their commitment is to living their values, and to a faith of the mind as well as the heart. Intellectually, I see no connection between this tragedy and my own ongoing questions about faith and spirituality and the nature of the divine; I guess I simply don't believe in a personal God. It seems presumptuous, frankly; I can accept that there's a spark of the divine within humans, but not that there's an essential human element in the divine.

But this is my hangup, not Dave Snyder's. If he had enough time between when the car went out of control and when he suffered his fatal injury to consider what was about to happen, I'd like to think he was okay with it. Dave did believe; I'm of the view that he accepted the judgment of his God and whatever disposition of his soul.

I have known, in "real life" or through virtual communities, way too many people who have died before their time. My dear childhood friend Jeremy, at age 25, in 1999; another friend, Murray, around the same age a year or two earlier; a co-worker, Susan, of whom I was very fond, age 36, in 2004; the brilliant satirical Phillies blogger "Tacony Lou" this past autumn, age 41. Jeff Lamana, the founder of, passed away from cancer earlier in 2006; he was my age. My brother is a cancer survivor, a gift for which, despite my unbelief in a personal God, I give thanks.

Another virtual Phillies friend sent me a message earlier tonight that every day is a gift. I would phrase it that nothing is guaranteed, and that every moment should be made to count, to mean something.

I will miss Dave. I'm glad that I knew him.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Our Fight, Like it or Not
I'm most of the way through The Assassins' Gate, George Packer's 2005 account of the Iraq war. Like Fiasco, the Thomas Ricks book mostly detailing the military experience in Iraq, Packer's book inspires equal parts bafflement and fury, and in its more detailed examination of the intellectual underpinnings of the decision to go to war, it calls to mind the old Daniel Patrick Moynihan line that "There are some mistakes only someone with a Ph.D. can make."

Whether you call them mistakes or failures of morality or imagination, the "defense intellectuals," neo-conservatives and liberal interventionists, who drove us into this war with what I consider mostly noble intentions, put in harm's way hundreds of thousands of Americans, and some much greater number of Iraqis. But both the organization of the military and the fragmentation of society have meant that the domestic impact of this conflict, and the ripple effects through society, have been much more concentrated than ever has been the case before. I went out for drinks last night with three colleagues, and we got to talking about Iraq; I asked if any of them personally knew anyone who had served. None of them did. I know one man, the brother of a good friend, who enlisted as a Marine grunt in late 2005 and spent nine months on patrols and other extremely hazardous duties; through good fortune, he rotated home last fall uninjured. His circumstances, though, were almost unique: a Stanford graduate, working at a DC think tank, who got frustrated with all the complaining about the war (which he personally opposed) and just decided to get involved. It was, to my mind, both incredibly admirable and almost incomprehensible.

Everybody professes support for the troops, and I tend to believe that they mean it. But talk, of course, is cheap; few of us have offered anything beyond words, and, shamefully, our government hasn't asked us to do so--unless you count Tom DeLay's profession that nothing is more important in wartime than tax cuts, or George W. Bush's sympathy for everyone who's had to sit through bummer TV images from the combat zone.

This guest op-ed in Friday's NYT, by the wife of an Iraq war vet, makes this point far more eloquently than I could, and suggests the proper response:

Though some claim that all Americans are making sacrifices for the war on terrorism, it’s just not true. The few who are sent to fight and those left behind who are an intimate part of their daily lives are the ones whose mental health, finances and relationships are taking the hit.

A universal draft would certainly help spread the sacrifice. But we all know that the privileged will find a way to avoid serving, as they did by paying $300 during the Civil War or claiming college deferments during Vietnam.

What we need is a war tax, dedicated to financing the support services needed by military families and combat veterans. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a long-term costs-of-war tax. Because the tax I’m proposing, like the needs it’s intended to meet, will not end when the war does.

Historically, war taxes are how America finances its military conflicts — taxes on income, beverages, tobacco, utilities and more. The federal government first imposed what became a 3 percent tax on long-distance telephone calls in 1898 to help pay for the Spanish-American War. Since then, it’s been repealed, most recently last summer, and reinstated several times.
If a phone tax were reinstated, or a tax on oil or clothing — something we use in proportion to our income — then all Americans would wind up shouldering at least a small portion of the burden of our nation’s wars. Military families would be exempt.

Unlike the old phone tax, however, this new tax must be dedicated to financing programs that support and heal combat veterans and their families during deployment and afterward — combat trauma counseling, respite child care, part-time jobs for spouses trying to make ends meet, marriage counseling. These programs have always suffered from meager budgets, and while the public’s interest will inevitably move on, the needs won’t go away as long as America has a military.

I couldn't agree more with this. The Bush administration and the Congress--Republican-run through the first four years of the war, in Democratic hands now--have compounded their disastrous management of the war, and near-total lack of interest in accountability and oversight, by shoddy treatment of those who have sacrificed the most, during and after their service, and by allowing those individuals and their families to bear all the costs. (We'll all pay later, I guess, considering that this conflict has been fought "off the books"; that's immoral too.) I guess it's consistent with the general Republican philosophy that each of us is essentially on our own, that collective action is at best unnecessary and at worst immoral, and that government has no real community role at all aside from providing basic security and, in most but not all cases, ensuring that private property is sacrosanct.

But we are a community. Whatever one thinks of their mission, those Americans in uniform aren't just fighting for their families, or for a paycheck, or for corporate profits. All those things might be true, but in some sense they're also defending our ideals and values. We all should help foot the bill--and if this slight fiscal imposition acts in future as something of a check against engaging in dumb-assed wars just because some simpleton president feels his balls are in question, or a vice-president sees an opportunity to redraw a map or service a former employer's balance sheet, or a bunch of crypto-Trotskyites with messianic delusions envision a chance to commit heroic revolution by proxy, so much the better.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Market Magic, Market Madness
What a dreary, miserable week this has been for political news. You've got the totally fallacious story the right wing is pushing about Nancy Pelosi's travel "demands"--so outrageous and offensive that the freakin' White House is siding with her; you've got the utterly absurd "controversy" about what John Edwards' bloggers wrote online before they became John Edwards' bloggers, with the ever-charming Bill "I can't stop talking about anal sex" Donohue presuming to make staffing decisions for Democratic presidential campaigns; and this comes after the embarrassing spectacle of Congress proving itself unable even to conduct a real debate about Iraq--even granting that doing this now is four years too late.

While these little sideshows play out, other priorities go unaddressed. As he generally does around this time every year, President Bush submitted a dishonest, bloated yet mean-spirited federal budget, heavy on defense spending (up 11 percent from last year), light on programs to enhance the upward economic mobility of low-income working families; fortunately, the new Democratic majority probably will block at least some, hopefully most of its nastier provisions. But the deficit and the costs of the war (including, prominently, replacing some of the equipment that's been junked in this debacle) will constrain new spending over the near future.

A second constraint in taking on the full range serious and worsening problems, however, is not budgetary but conceptual. This piece at names the problem as "market fundamentalism," describing it as "the exaggerated and quite irrational belief in the ability of markets to solve all problems... that has dominated our national political debate for a generation."

This might be the single most taboo subject in public discourse, but it's vitally important--and best to be debated openly. The one change I've noticed in my personal worldview as I progress (maybe that's not the word) ever deeper into my 30s is that I've become a confirmed believer in capitalism. It is pretty clearly the best wealth-generating model in history, and while it doesn't require personal liberty and free expression--as several Pacific Rim countries among others have sadly proven--free markets mutually reinforce with the rest of the freedoms we cherish. Capitalism isn't perfect; it's just far, far better than anything else that's been tried as an economic system for a large society.

It's been awhile since grad school, but I'm pretty sure that while markets maximize wealth, they don't--they can't, they aren't supposed to--optimize how it's distributed, or necessarily account for the externalities they produce. And that's assuming conditions of perfect competition, which never exist in the real world. The simplest form of this all-pervasive provlem is that the way we pay for our politics, somebody's thumb is always on the scale. It's this phenomenon that the article seeks to address head-on:

What do catastrophic climate change, the widening gulf between the wealthy and the poor, America's obesity epidemic, and our society's lack of care for the young and the elderly have in common? Each has powerful special interests who insist that we need to let the market work its private magic and that government action would create more problems than it would solve.

These interest groups also block any effort to enlist the government by invoking the arguments of market fundamentalism: Privatize everything, rely on yourself and expect nothing from your government.

Market fundamentalism has become like the air we breathe; we hardly notice it. Every time George W. Bush argues for more tax cuts, he relies on the unquestioned assumption that we all embrace market fundamentalism. Like religious fundamentalism, it is based more on faith than on reason. Through constant repetition, however, the American public has been bullied into believing that private spending is rational and efficient, while public spending is always wasteful and unproductive.

Last Sunday, the NYT ran a piece detailing the astonishing extent to which the Bush administration has privatized government services, a development that reflects this same mindset--as well as, of course, the constant Bush/Cheney emphasis on using government to reward and enrich friends and donors. No money was saved; if anything, quite the opposite. Outsourcing public functions becomes an end in itself; if it costs the taxpayer more for a contractor to perform the exact same function previously carried out by a government bureaucrat, the idea seems to be that this extra expense must be worth it, because any private employee inherently does a better job than any civil servant.

This would be funny were it not, in the context of rising deficits and falling service provision relative to need, so painful. Stripped of all the emotional associations, government is just one possible mechanism for accomplishing shared goals; at scale, it's probably the most efficient mechanism by which to do many of these things, particularly when it's beneficial to universalize (think of educational standards). Often, government is the only practical mechanism to carry out certain functions, as in national defense or some kinds of regulation. And--especially if you believe, or even want to believe, that it's still of, by and for all of us who vote and pay taxes--it has both a great deal of power to tangibly improve the conditions of life for millions, and the positive responsibility to moderate market outcomes.

Particularly toward the end of their mid-20th century heyday, American liberals were too quick to screw with markets. Now, though, the pendulum has swung too far the other way: we tolerate absurd inefficiencies in certain areas (health care) and some scary negative externalities (climate change) out of near-superstitious fear that interfering in some company's capacity for profit will cause something terrible to happen. In field after field, though, terrible things are happening now--and our undue deference to a distorted view of markets forces us to sit back and watch. Rather than market fundamentalism, we need market utilitarianism--the mindset that these systems are here to serve the community, not the other way around.