This afternoon I spent an hour and fifteen minutes on a conference call with three “senior administration officials” who gave me a preview of Obama’s speech and strategy. I spent most of the time on the call pulling my hair out.
I am very concerned about the decision to escalate and in particular to get involved in Syria. Very concerned.
But, first, let me give you the good news. The good news is that this policy has been set by some very, very smart well-intentioned people who are not bullshitting to deceive the country into supporting their plan. They have been deliberate and methodical, and the steps they have taken so far have made a lot of sense and have saved a lot of lives.
Here’s what they are getting right. First, they couldn’t do anything in Iraq until Prime Minister Maliki was gone because they would have been perceived as the Shia’s air force. They forced him out and they did it in consultation and with the consent of both Sunni powers and Iran. There are important Sunnis in Iraq, like the governor of Anbar Province, who are eager to work with us and with the new government in Baghdad. As a result of vigorous efforts in recent weeks, for the first time in a long time the regional powers are coming together rather than plotting to destroy each other. The people they are sending to Iraq and the strikes they are carrying out are being done at the request and with the blessing of the Iraqi government and with the consent of the regional powers. And their involvement in Syria is calibrated in a way that it has at least the potential to destroy ISIS without simultaneously helping the Assad regime gain ground or cause the Sunni powers to turn against the effort.
Now, the bad news. It may be difficult to get the Iraqi army and the Kurds’ peshmerga to become an effective fighting force even with American air power. We saw how effective this kind of arrangement can be when the Northern Alliance routed the Taliban, so don’t totally discount it, but the Northern Alliance was a more united armed force that was able to hold things together for a time after victory. The Iraqi and Kurdish forces are as likely to fight each other as ISIS.
Next there is the problem with Assad. The civil war will not end until Assad is gone. The administration doesn’t want to talk about a post-Assad Syria. They don’t have a plan for what to do with Syria anymore than Bush had a plan for what to do with Iraq.
We can train and equip so-called moderate opponents of Assad, but we’re going to run into problems with our relations with both Russia and Iran if we try to send them into Damascus. The administration doesn’t want to talk about that. What they did assure me is that they’ve spent the last two years working with so-called moderates and now they have a comfort level and the intelligence to feel like they know who they’re dealing with. They think they have opened the pipelines into Syria to where they can get the weapons into the correct hands. I’m glad they didn’t spend the last two years arming ISIS, but the fall of Mosul shows what can happen even with the best vetting in the world.
Here’s my problem. This plan is not bad by any means. It’s close to as good as I could come up with on my own. But it’s a very difficult plan to execute that relies on the American people being very patient. And I don’t believe that the American people are going to be patient. I worry that they will not get the time they need to make this work. I am not even sure any plan can work.
On the upside, the coalition they are putting together has the potential to end the sectarian warfare and improve relations between nations, and it could ultimately save many lives. I am really torn about this. I’m definitely feeling like Hamlet tonight.
What the poor need now, according to some pundits, is more inflation.
The latest to make the argument is Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, writing at The Week. Others argue further that central banks throughout the developed world have been held back from generating the required inflation because it would hurt the rich.
This sort of class-based analysis of monetary policy isn’t confined only to supporters of looser money. The mirror-image argument comes from the hard-money crowd: Low interest rates have helped rich stockholders while punishing poor savers and those on fixed incomes.
All these views seem mistaken to me, a result of looking at monetary policy the wrong way. Almost all of us share an interest in avoiding and escaping economic slumps; it’s just that we disagree about how to do so.
I share Gobry’s view that monetary policy has been too tight in recent years (especially in Europe). But in general a higher inflation rate won’t help the poor and hurt the rich — or, at least, it won’t have any major long-run effect on the distribution of income. If there’s a temporary and unanticipated increase in the inflation rate, it might redistribute some wealth, but only for a short time. If the Federal Reserve permanently raised its inflation target — from 2 percent a year to, say, 4 percent — it would be baked into nominal wages and nominal interest rates, leaving everyone more or less where they were.
Thinking about the past few years, though, it seems to me that a focus on distributional effects misses what’s important. The Fed’s monetary policy was much too tight in 2008 and helped cause a sharp economic downturn. Its tightness since then has impeded the recovery. But wouldn’t rich people have been better off if the Fed hadn’t caused that downturn, and hadn’t impeded the recovery?
The conventional view of the Fed’s effect on savers seems short-sighted as well: If it had followed a looser policy throughout these years, real interest rates would probably be higher than they are now, and savers would be doing better. But was 2008-2009, the recent period when monetary policy was at its tightest, a good time for savers? Was the early 1930s? If Milton Friedman was right that low interest rates can be a sign of excessive tightness — and he was — then we should consider the possibility that tightness doesn’t always serve the interests of savers.
So why are most conservatives so resistant to looser money? I don’t think we need to resort to arguments about their class interests or to convoluted psychological theories. Nobody likes the idea of paying higher prices, and so higher inflation is a hard sell. Conservatives formed a lot of their economic ideas in the 1970s, when inflation was high, and they remember how painful it was to get it back under control in the early 1980s.
We’re in a different era now. It’s not just that inflation is lower. We also now have market signals of future inflation that we lacked then — and they suggest inflation will be low for some time to come. And we’re dealing with the consequences of the first drop in nominal spending in decades. Most of the time, the conservative instinct to resist looser money is right. As a result, unfortunately, it persists even in the special circumstances when it isn’t.
A Catch to Aaron Blake at the Fix for his quick write-up of the four House incumbents who managed to lose primaries this year. As Blake points out, yesterday’s defeat of scandal-plagued Massachusetts Democrat John Tierney belongs with the thoroughly predictable and understandable losses of an accidental Michigan Republican, Kerry Bentivolio, and an aged Texas Republican, Ralph Hall. Members of the House really have to go out of their way to fail to be renominated.
Wait … I forgot one, didn’t I? The final round of primaries made it more clear than ever what a freakish event the defeat of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor earlier this year really was. As Blake points out, there was no Tea Party surge this time (in large part because mainstream Republicans decided to ape Tea Party rhetoric and already shared Tea Party policy positions). There was no close historical comparison when it happened, and the rest of the primary calendar hasn’t offered any.
There are two questions of interpretation from Cantor’s ouster. One is whether future Republicans treat it as a fluke with no greater lessons for them than perhaps a general reminder to always pay attention to the district, or whether they see it as yet another reason to worry more about potential primary defeat than about general elections. Neither is a particularly serious threat, but politicians are paranoid by nature, and the only real question is what they will be paranoid about. Rational calculations don’t always enter into it.
The other question is whether Republicans will interpret Cantor’s defeat as a reason to avoid leadership posts. Serving in those positions has always been somewhat risky; leadership is always going to be a trade-off in which ambitious politicians gain more influence within the House in exchange for commitments and obligations that can be electorally dangerous. The more those risks are occasionally realized, the more potential leaders will opt out — and the smaller the pool for leadership positions, the worse the odds of producing quality people for those positions.
I’d love to see some reporting on how the Cantor defeat is being interpreted.
Defeat in Vietnam, the OPEC oil embargo, Watergate, rising crime rates, and the first signs of the collapsing blue-collar economy marked the mid-1970s as among the toughest periods in American history.
Rick Perlstein’s current best-seller, Invisible Bridge, chronicles that time. It portrays the rise of Ronald Reagan from the Nixon presidency’s Watergate demise to the bitterly-contested 1976 Republican nomination fight between Reagan and then-incumbent president Gerald Ford.
Harold Pollack: You’re one of the few historians who’s doing this work in a free-standing way. You’re not a professor. You’re a writer. That’s a difficult path. I can’t say I know too many other folk who are able to do that.
Rick Perlstein: Yeah. There have been some challenges. Luckily, I’m now in a very stable place and have been able to put together a solid living doing this. I went to graduate school. I was in a Ph.D program in American Studies. It was much more oriented towards abstruse academic stuff. I really wanted to reach a wider audience. I moved to New York and got into journalism.
HP: The style and sweep of this book does reach a wide audience. Its infusion of popular culture within a broader narrative has reminded several people of William Manchester’s The glory and the dream. It’s a very long book, but it actually reads very quickly…..
RP: You’re not the first person to note the similarity, actually. But I’ve never read that Manchester book. Taylor Branch’s Parting the Water series on Martin Luther King was the real role model among serious books that made me think, “Oh, I want to do a big 3-book series.” It used the biography of a single figure to tell a story about the broader political culture.
HP: One criticism of your book, is that Ronald Reagan, as a person, is less interesting than Martin Luther King .
RP: Less interesting than Richard Nixon!
The FBI’ depredations
HP: One of the weirder moments of the 1970s was when Bernadine Dohrn and some others on the violent left getting a certain vicarious thrill out of the Manson family’s crimes.
RP: That was part of it, too. You have this incredibly bizarre two-week period in September of 1975, in which, there’s one assassination attempt by a woman–which was something traumatic about that in itself–who was a Manson family follower. She wanted justice for Charles Manson, which meant freeing him, because he was seen as this noble guy. Two weeks later, another woman takes a shot at President Ford and wants Patty Hearst to be freed. It’s not only these crazy things are happening and these harbingers of madness, but these lunatics have constituencies .
Patty Hearst was able to stay on the lam for a year, because there was this underground support network of people who thought that she was doing something really cool, when she robbed a bank and said her parents were fascist insects that were preying on the heart of the people.
HP: An irony of this period is the way the FBI combined the sinister and the incompetent as it chased after the Weathermen and others. Some of those they chased after were people just exercising their normal rights. Others were actual criminals or terrorists. The FBI was not very good at the job of actually catching the people setting bombs, even though the FBI spent a lot of time worried about the political threats from less violent people.
RP: That’s another forgotten part of the 70′s: how the malignancy of the FBI, the CIA, and this thing no one had heard of, the NSA, were exposed in these series of House and Senate hearings. People remember the Church committee. There was also this poor prophet without honor, Otis Pike. He was a congressman from upstate New York who led extraordinary hearings in the House about the CIA. They proved not only that the CIA was running assassination squads against foreign leaders, but that the CIA was incompetent at gathering intelligence.
Otis Pike revealed that the week before the Yom Kippur War, the CIA had announced to the president that he could expect peace in the Middle East. It really speaks to what we’ve been going on with the intelligence agencies. The reason they go after these whistle blowers isn’t so much as they claim, that sources and methods must be protected, but that they’re hiding their own incompetence.
Martin Luther King
As far as the FBI goes, November 20, 1975, was an important day in the book for two reasons. That’s when Ronald Reagan announces officially that he’s running for president against Gerald Ford. It’s also the day that the Church committee uncovers that the FBI had sent a dossier to Martin Luther King of transcripts from their bugging of him. They sent a poison pen letter designed to try to get him to commit suicide after he’s named a Nobel Laureate.
How they come together in the book is this: Ronald Reagan gives a press conference at the National Press Club announcing his presidential campaign. One of the reporters asked him what he thought of the news that morning, that the FBI had done this. You remember Reagan’s answer?
HP: I do not, but it was not a positive one.
RP: He said that he hadn’t read the papers that morning. It was like: “no comment.” This blithe affect in the face of what others considered chaos was, to my mind, central to his appeal.
HP: Later as president, Reagan was once asked whether King was a Communist during the debate over the King holiday. Reagan said: “We will know in about 35 years.” (He later apologized for that comment.)
RP: This is a favorite subject of mine– conservative attempts to co-opt the memory of Martin Luther King. When Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, Ronald Reagan said, and I quote it in Nixonland, basically that King had it coming: “It’s the sort of great tragedy when we begin compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they would break.” In other words, How can you say: “It’s okay to sit in the middle of the street, when that’s illegal and tell an assassin that he can’t follow his views?” That was Reagan’s interpretation of civil disobedience.
He signed the Martin Luther King holiday when there was no political alternative, but this idea of wishing away conflict and that he could do it with such confidence, when everyone else was so ambivalent, was pretty remarkable.
Of course, there were other appeals. Many people responded to Reagan’s small-government appeal. But I mean look: Gerald Ford issued dozens of vetoes and he was a real small government conservative. He was probably the most conservative president we had, certainly in generations. A scholar, a political scientist did a study at the 1976 Republican Convention that I cite over and over, in which he interviewed people and said, why do you support Reagan and why do you support Ford? No one said: “Reagan thinks we should have lower taxes,” because Ford thought we should have lower taxes. It was all: “Reagan radiates this confidence and Ford radiates this diffidence and nuance.”
Reagan vs. Ford
HP: Some might regard Ford as a tragic figure in the book. He’s this plodding guy who ends up as president through this circuitous route
RP: Because he’s mediocre. Because he could get confirmed because he hadn’t made any enemies. Because he took no risks.
HP: All of a sudden Ford’s challenged by Ronald Reagan, in a way that no incumbent President expects to be.
RP: Reagan is so good at pinning Ford into a corner rhetorically because of Ford’s responsibility for governing a country and having to make compromises. I always say, being a president in the 70′s, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
That’s one of my refrains. When it comes to the Panama Canal—which was really the issue that Reagan almost rode to the Republican nomination–All these people were saying: “You lost a bunch of primaries. You had your fun, now get out of the sand box.”
Anyone who studied the issue from this empirical establishment perspective saw that the Panama Canal Treaty had never even been looked at by a Panamanian before it was signed. It was a true artifact of high imperialism. Panamanians were rioting regularly, because they had this imperial force right in the middle of their country—which had been invented in order to break it off of Columbia. Ronald Reagan comes up with this refrain, “We built it. We paid for it. It’s ours.”
He promoted this idea that somehow the establishment, Harry Kissinger in this case (whom, by the way Reagan had supported down the line when the Nixon administration was in office) was somehow selling off America, piece by piece. That they’d be giving up Omaha next. Reagan really struck this post-Vietnam mood. People really wanted to believe that nothing could keep America down, even reality and facts and geo-strategic calculation.
HP: It’s striking how Nixon quieted the extreme right while he was in office.
RP: He did. The conservative movement doesn’t even show up in Nixonland. That’s because he did such a good job in making them a non-factor in American politics.
Past and current conservative populism
HP: It’s natural to compare the Tea Party with the earlier followers of Ronald Reagan. How does the current Tea Party movement compare o the earlier rise of the new right that you chronicled?
RP: As you know, I am very big on the continuities within American right-wing populism, at least since The New Deal. I think the biggest difference is the sociological infrastructure, based in Washington and northern Virginia, that’s so good at identifying and leveraging grass roots complaints. It’s so good, and so sophisticated. That was completely different. Although one of the stories I tell concerns its emergence.
Another difference is the ability of business interests to leverage the conservative movement to anti-Keynesian politics, when big business had been the spine of the Keynesian approach and the post-war social contract.
Another difference is that the mainstream media has become professionalized in a way that legitimizes any planting of a flag by a right-wing politician as a poll in the debate. As they plant their flag further and further to the right, not only the media, but also Barack Obama, legitimate it as a responsible negotiating position. Which means that the center goes further and further to the right, as ratified by the forces of the establishment. That’s a big difference.
The John Birch Society was coming out in 1961 and saying pretty much the same things the National Review saying now, even though the John Birch Society was kicked out of the pages of the National Review. In the early 60′s, the John Birch Society was considered this quasi-fascist formation that was a danger to the continued civic health of the country.
There was a cover story on the John Birch Society in Time magazine, which basically treated its positions as illegitimate. I compared them in one of my essays to Time magazine’s cover profile of Glenn Beck, which followed one a couple years earlier about Ann Coulter. It wasn’t: “These people are tearing apart the fabric of America,” it was, “Wow. Look at these interesting people. Aren’t they interesting?”
HP: I agree with you that there is no gatekeeper function in the same way today There’s no way to marginalize the extreme right in quite the same way it was in 1960.
It’s also true that the not-so-extreme right was saying some pretty shocking things. If Americans today went to the library and start reading back issues of the National Review from the late 1950′s or early 1960′s, most people under the age of 50 would be rather shocked. Maybe the John Birch Society was marginalized. What was not marginalized was straightforward support for segregation and other policies that are not permitted in respectable conversation today. Glenn Beck is not standing up and saying what William Buckley was saying: explicitly defending the disenfranchisement of African-American voters.
RP: No, Beck’s talking about the disenfranchisement of Arab-Americans instead. The frontier of which groups are included in the national conversation, and which are excluded, keeps on changing. There’ll always be an other to hate. Some talk about the idea that the Muslim brotherhood is literally infiltrating the White House and taking over the decision-making process apparatus in the state department. That’s very much parallel to what we heard about African-Americans and Communists in the 1950′s.
HP: I think that we are a more liberal society in 2014. You have to go out to people like Ann Coulter to find things like that today.
RP: Consider: We have a Supreme Court justice who’s most reactionary. He’s a black man married to a blonde woman, which was a lynching offense in our lifetimes. I can imagine a Supreme Court justice married to someone of the same sex, voting twenty years from now to outlaw the minimum wage. I’m not sure that’s progress .
Clinton will be traveling this weekend to Iowa — a state far more special than yours — to attend Democratic Senator Tom Harkin’s fish fry. What’s most remarkable about the trip is how rare this kind of politicking is by someone who, by all accounts save her own, is a leading candidate for president in 2016.
As Bloomberg News reported last month, Clinton will be doing a fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in San Francisco with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. She has additional events in the works for the other big party committees — on behalf of the collective interests of Democratic senators, governors and the national committee.
A handful of fundraisers is not exactly a heavy campaign schedule in the midst of a hard-fought midterm election. Traditionally, if you want to be your party’s next presidential nominee, you run around the country making yourself useful to candidates — a fundraiser here, a few energetic remarks there. Richard Nixon worked himself silly in 1966. Here is a New York Times report of the Democratic Party’s last heir apparent, Vice President Al Gore, during the 1998 midterm before his 2000 presidential campaign:
After spending much of the fall campaigning for Democrats locked into close House races, Vice President Al Gore widened his reach today to help two Democrats who are fighting to secure seats in the Senate.
By helping other candidates, an aspiring nominee collects the proverbial chits, which can be cashed in later when the nominee needs a favor in turn. Gore was hardly unique in doing so.
It’s a measure of Clinton’s world-historical, galaxy-wide dominance, at least in this early phase of the presidential contest, that she doesn’t feel compelled to jet around the country doing favors for every Democrat in trouble. (There are a lot of them.) Gore, a sitting vice president, wanted chits. Clinton evidently doesn’t feel she needs them. Except, perhaps, in Iowa.
There’s a legend about the first day of school of Carl Friedrich Gauss, that shows how it should be done. The kids are aged seven or eight, and are supposed to have already learned at dame school to read, write and do simple addition. The teacher checks this – they all say, yes Sir, we can add up. So he tells them to add the numbers from 1 to 100. (So far this is terrible teaching, designed to put the poor kids in their place and establish his authority as alpha male). They take their slates and settle to it, squeak squeak. After ten minutes or so young Gauss lays down his slate, and folds his arms. The teacher warns him not to fool around. No Sir, I have worked it out, Sir, really. At the end of the hour the teacher collects the slates. All but one are of course wrong. Gauss has got it right : the method is to fold the series in two, 1 to 50, 51 to 100, and match them up: 1 +100, 2+99 etc. He has even written out the general formula. At this point the bad teacher becomes a good one. He recognizes that he has been gifted not a bright child, but a one-in-ten-million great talent, takes him aside for spacial coaching, and hands him on quite soon when he has taught all he knows.
It’s a legend, that is improved history. It’s not likely that it all happened in one day, but it is certain that the genius of the son of a village carpenter was recognized and nurtured. It could so easily have gone the other way, and it is to be feared that it very often does. For every Gauss, Picasso and Avery, there are several equal talents smothered by jealousy and ignorance.
Cohn’s case follows what most political scientists have been saying: For the most part, deliberately drawn district lines aren’t the reason Democrats have received fewer seats in recent elections than the raw number of votes might indicate. Gerrymandering, by conventional measures, has cost Democrats only a handful of seats, not close to enough for them to have taken a House majority in 2012, when Democratic candidates received more total votes than Republicans. Instead, what’s hurting Democrats is “clumping” — Democrats are increasingly rolling up huge margins in small geographic areas. The result is a few House districts with overwhelming Democratic majorities, which in the language of districting means “wasted” votes for Democrats (wasted, because in simple plurality elections anything more than a single vote win “wastes” votes for the winning candidate that could be used more efficiently in other districts).
Weigel counters that there’s no requirement that lines be drawn the way they are. He shows that although overwhelmingly Democratic Philadelphia has been packed into as few districts as possible by gerrymandering Republicans, overwhelmingly Democratic Montgomery County, Maryland, has been sliced up by gerrymandering Democrats to help them get (relatively slimmer) majorities in a bunch of districts. After all, the only legal and constitutional requirements for district lines are equal population and the changing rules about ethnic dilution, neither of which forces the results Cohn and others consider the “natural” result of partisan clumping.1
Weigel is quite correct that there is nothing natural or necessary about keeping those dense groups of Democrats together.
There are, however, important political reasons the lines are drawn that way. Yes, one could slice up any large Democratic city, scattering its votes to many House districts. But cities don’t want to be split that way. Most local governments want House districts that respect both local government lines and communities of interest. What’s more, local politicians (who might want to run for those House seats some day) probably want House districts they have a chance of winning. And, perhaps most important, those city governments and their politicians are overwhelmingly Democratic, and they have unusual clout with Democratic state legislators who otherwise would be in a position to gerrymander.
That’s all straight-up interest politics, which make it difficult for Democrats to carve up cities for optimal partisan results.
It’s also the case that some good-government districting criteria tend to work against this particular type of gerrymandering. Good government groups (inexplicably) love straight lines and compact districts; carving up cities into pie wedges will probably draw their fire. And yet there’s nothing politically “neutral” about straight lines and rectangular districts; given population partisan distributions, it’s easy to read the political implications of that kind of district — and with Democratic clumping in the cities, those lines will favor Republicans in most cases.
So although Weigel is correct that there’s no technical reason that a dense Democratic city can’t be mined for votes with an effective gerrymander, the practical reality is that some gerrymanders are a lot harder than others. Or, to put it another way, if the definition of gerrymander is simply drawing district lines for political reasons, then the problem for Democrats is that the way populations are distributed makes it a lot harder for them to enact partisan gerrymanders. So it’s basically correct to say that Republicans have only netted a handful of seats from those partisan gerrymanders.
1 There’s also a requirement that districts must be contiguous, but that’s been loosely interpreted, with population centers connected by thin corridors.
The Affordable Care Act was a sweeping piece of legislation with multiple, well-known goals, most notably to dramatically expand insurance coverage. Many of us who worked on the Act’s provisions regarding mental illness and substance use disorder believe that the care of these disorders will be transformed by the law. If you want to understand why, check out this [ungated] new journal article by the high-wattage wonks of the office of the HHS Assistant Secretary of Planning and Evaluation. Among the many valuable points it makes is how the ACA is increasing insurance coverage for people in late adolescence/early adulthood:
The ACA requires all group plans and individual policies (both inside and outside the marketplace) that offer dependent coverage of children to make such coverage available up to age 26. This provision has already improved access to care for many young people. In the first 9 months of 2012, among adults aged 19-25, the percentage uninsured decreased from 35.6% in the third quarter of 2010 (a recent high point in uninsurance) to 26.3% in the third quarter of 2012. There was a corresponding increase in private coverage for this age group, from 49.3% in the third quarter of 2010 (a recent low point in private coverage) to 56.7% in the third quarter of 2012.
The benefits of this change are not evident to many people, because they think of serious illnesses as starting in middle and old age. For cancer and heart disease, that’s generally true, but a striking feature of addiction and serious mental illness is that their age of onset is concentrated much earlier in life. For example, here are age of onset data from a study of 270 people with schizophrenia).
A chart for other serious mental illness or addictions would show the same pattern. Because of the ACA, families whose child experiences a mentally illness or addiction between the ages of 18 to 26 can now avoid substantial health and financial burdens that would otherwise complicate what is already a difficult situation.
A serving airman was refused re-enlistment because he crossed out the words “So help me God” in the oath he was told to take. (This is based on reporting by Air Force Times – not an especially radical journal – and the story quotes an Air Force spokeswoman, so I’m treating it as fact rather than mere allegation.)
According to the AF official, reciting the oath in full is required by statute. But until last October, the implementing regulations included a conscience clause; that somehow got omitted when the regulations were re-issued.
Of course the statute without the conscience clause is transparently unconstitutional; Article VI provides that “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” (It also allows officials to make an “affirmation” in place of an “oath.”) As the Supreme Court said back in 1946, “The test oath is abhorrent to our tradition.” Its use to bar non-Anglicans from public life (and the professions) in England was one of the grievances that spurred the Puritan/Quaker/Catholic exodus to the American colonies.
The aggrieved party in this case appears to be an atheist, but there are also pious Christians (e.g., Quakers) and Jews who scruple at invoking the Name, or indeed at swearing at all (thus the “affirmation” provision in Article VI). As a famous rabbi once said (Matt. 5:33-37):
Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths. But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne, nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.”
No doubt the airman will win his case, though if he does he will, equally undoubtedly, return to service a marked man with limited career prospects.
But if I were the President, or the Secretary of Defense, or the Secretary of the Air Force, or a member of one of the Armed Services Committees, I wouldn’t be satisfied with having the victim reinstated and the regulation re-issued in its previous, Constitutionally compliant, form. I’d worry about the bureaucratic culture within the Air Force that led to a deliberate decision as recently as last year to impose a burden on the scrupulous.
Of course I’m always delighted to see Republican politicians nailed for corruption: how else are we going to recruit conservatives to the cause of criminal justice reform? And there seems to be no doubt that Gov. McDonnell was using his office to line his pockets, though it’s less clear what Star Scientific thought it was going to get for its money.
But I just stumbled on a story that ran just after the indictment reporting that McDonnell was offered a plea deal and turned it down. The deal was for a plea to a single felony, no prison time, and no indictment of his wife. Instead he chose to fight the charges, and now both he and his wife face years behind bars.
To my eyes, that’s a problem, and the symptom of a bigger problem.
Start with the charges against Maureen McDonnell. I haven’t figured out the facts, so I can’t judge how responsible she was for what went on. It appears that on a personal level her guilt was in some sense greater than her husband’s, but he was the office-holder. In any case, whether she was charged with a crime should not have depended on whether someone else took a plea. If she deserved to be charged, she should have been; else, not.
Whether Maureen McDonnell deserves to go to prison or not, it seems to me obviously wrong for the prosecutors to use her as a pawn in negotiations with her husband, and to put her husband in a position where his decision to exercise his Constitutional right to a trial put his wife’s liberty in jeopardy. She shouldn’t be punished (or given a break) for someone else’s actions, and he shouldn’t have to face the threat that his intimates might be punished as well as himself.
This criticism puzzles my friends who are prosecutors. They tell me I just don’t understand how things work. In fact, I do understand. I just don’t approve.
Congress and the state legislatures - for reasons I don’t fully grasp - have decided to hire lots and lots of cops and other investigators, but not to create enough judges, hire enough prosecutors, or pay for enough public defense counsel to actually afford “a speedy and public trial” to the vast majority of defendants. As a result, the process of justice is now primarily a process of bargaining, with something like 95% of all dispositions (putting aside arrests never leading to a charge and cases dismissed along the way) by plea rather than verdict.
If the sentence after trial and conviction were the same as the sentence after a plea, there would be no reason for even a grossly guilty defendant not to “roll the dice” and hope to get lucky at trial, or at worst to defer the day of reckoning. So there has to be an inducement to plead guilty, in the form a more lenient sentence. That’s just the logic of the situation.
But that leaves open the key question: “more lenient” compared to what? Imagine that a prosecutor had in mind the appropriate sentence for some course of criminal conduct, all things considered. Is the plea bargain offered a discount from that ideally just sentence? Or, instead, is the just sentence offered as the bargain, with an unduly Draconian sentence (perhaps reflected in overcharging the case) held out as a threat if the defendant exercises what is, again, a Constitutional right?
Of course, since no one knows what the Platonically just sentence would be, there’s no obvious way to answer that question. But - in the absence of any check on the prosecutor’s discretion other than office policy - the temptation to use the threat to over-charge as a bargaining tool is ever-present.
Moreover, the insanely long sentences now routinely handed out in federal drug cases (which are about half of all federal cases) have, in my view, distorted the whole scale of values. Compared to the 10-year mandatory faced by a minor player in a one-kilo ($20,000) cocaine deal, even the multi-year term McDonnell is likely to draw hardly seems excessive. But that relative consideration doesn’t make his sentence any more reasonable on an absolute scale. What is the additional public value from having him behind bars for seven years rather than, say, two? (I don’t know how to do the Guideline calculation, but my guess is he’s looking at more than seven.)
In this case, all the prosecutors wanted was a guilty plea from the Governor. In other cases, they’re looking for more than a plea: they want “cooperation” against other defendants. Again, there’s a conceptual distinction between an offer of lenity in return for testimony and the threat of excessive harshness as a punishment for silence, but that’s not a distinction easily made in practice, and all the temptation is on the side of the excessive threat.
But my concern about bargaining for testimony goes much deeper than that. For a private party to litigation, offering a witness any material incentive for testifying - even for testifying truthfully - is a felony. So is threatening a witness to force him to testify: again, even if the resulting testimony is truthful. Only prosecutors are allowed to bribe witnesses (with the promise of lenity) and threaten them (with excessive sentences), with complete impunity.
There’s something wrong here. Why should a jury give any credence to such suborned or coerced testimony? Prosecutors reply that they’re careful to make sure that whatever the cooperating witness says can be independently verified, but what that means is just that the investigators and the prosecutor vouch for it. The testimony itself is obviously worthless, and the accompanying assertion that the witness hasn’t been offered anything is the flimsiest kind of legal fiction. I’m sure there’s a distinction in principle between testimony extracted under threat of the rack and testimony extracted under threat of fifteen years in a nasty prison, but that distinction must be such a subtle one that you need three years in law school to grasp it. To the rest of us peasants they look like pretty much the same animal.
But even coerced and induced testimony isn’t as morally disgusting as the practice of using threats to third parties - especially wives, girlfriends, children, parents, and siblings - to coerce guilty pleas. At the federal level, the routine use of that technique seems to go back to the early days of the Organized Crime Strike Forces. The history of the successful war on the Mafia started by Robert F. Kennedy as Attorney General and fought with diligence and creativity by prosecutors and investigators over the next thirty years has, so far as I know, yet to be written. It’s in many ways an inspiring story. The Mafia, with its open defiance of the law and its deep connections to political and economic power, represented an extraordinary threat and challenge, and extraordinary means were, in my view, justified in fighting back. (Consider the fact that the makers of the Godfather movie series needed to get permission to make it from the Mafia bosses who still controlled Las Vegas in the early 1970s.)
But of course the problem with extraordinary means is that they don’t stay extraordinary. Perhaps - though I doubt it - the practice of threatening intimates might have been justified by the need to break the power of the Gambinos and their ilk. But the McDonnell case - a rather routine piece of a politician’s greed - presented no such justification. By now, however, the use of such threats is now accepted as a normal item in the prosecutor’s toolkit.
An old legal adage I heard repeated more than once when I worked in the Criminal Division at DoJ holds that “The government carries its case when justice is done.” It seems to me that the current generation of prosecutors could usefully meditate on the truth of that maxim.
I think we are now up to three flights diverted because of tiffs between passengers over reclining seats. Discussion, in the air and in print, has mostly been in assertive mode: “I paid for this seat and you have no right to recline into it!/I paid for this seat including the space above your knees; the button is on my armrest!” It goes downhill from there. Ronald Coase is famous for demonstrating that when parties claiming the same resource can negotiate, there’s no efficiency loss by unambiguously assigning the resource to one or the other. What matters for GDP is that either the farmer or the cowboy has the rights, and that they both know which.
He’s not as famous, but should be, for showing that there are a lot more cases where the parties can’t make deals, and government needs to consider, at least in addition to tradition, political power, and the like, ‘who will best use the resource?’. Government here is the airline company, within some FAA constraints (like ‘no seats that recline into an exit row’), and it seems to me the rules are pretty clear: the ‘seat’ we are renting you is a trapezoidal solid that goes under the one in front and above the one behind you. United, at least, says it forbids the use of the anti-recline device that has triggered the latest dustups. But it’s not clear that they have the managerial capacity to motivate underpaid, overworked flight attendants supervising a coach section full of angry, surly passengers to implement the policy, and it’s crystal clear that they don’t understand that when passengers start duking it out with each other because the airline has put them in an impossible position, it don’t do the stockholders no good. It’s very expensive to divert a flight, and probably expensive to deliver a load of furious passengers who had a scary, miserable trip.
The rules worked reasonably well until the seats got so close together that some other stuff that used to be part of the deal disappeared, like the ability to use a laptop on the tray table, or travel with actual knees, when the seat in front came down (did you say “cross your legs?” What are you, some kind of nut?). The big problem here is not an angels-on-a-pinhead pilpul exercise in moral philosophy, it’s that airline company management is a dysfunctional culture mismatched to a competitive environment and to the predictable, known capacities of the customers it sells to, possibly crippled by a general IQ deficiency.
Why are the seats so small? The operating myth is that “American Airlines increased the seat pitch and fares, and everyone went to the competition with lower prices and smaller seats, so there.” I remember that episode, and all American managed to say about their product in marketing was that there was ‘more legroom’. How much more? What does that actually feel like to sit in? More than what? Was the price premium appropriate or gouging? No-one would try to sell soap that way!
Nor did they get Expedia and the other search sites to make it clear that that seat was not just like all the others that popped up with nothing but prices to distinguish them. Interestingly, that has recently changed; Expedia, at least, now shows an additional class of seating on the search entry page, if you click on “show options”, “Premium Economy”. And even if you don’t, each flight listing indicates the default seat pitch in inches. This is definitely progress!
OK, let’s do a test surf. From SFO to JFK RT, 5-7/XI/14, leaving about 7 AM and coming home at noon. “Economy” on Expedia brings up a bunch of options at around $340. Most have 31″ seats, tagged “Standard”; Virgin America offers “32″+ W”, tagged “Roomier” (I guess W means “wider”) for $393. A “Premium Economy” search offers only one airline, Virgin America, which has a seat 2″ longer (that’s two, the number just above one) for $1091. I know United has an “Economy plus” class; why isn’t it showing up? Of course the greater mystery is Virgin’s pricing, $6.15 each way for each of the first 32 inches of cabin space, and $175 each for the next two inches.
Let’s see what United actually offers. On their web site, I find comparable flights for $336, but I can’t find out the extra fare for legroom until I’m four screens in and have chosen flights….click…click….Ah, Economy Plus is $100 extra each way for five inches. Seat, $168/31 = $5.40 per inch; legroom $100/5 = $20 per inch.
Virgin’s pricing is too silly to discuss, but United’s is almost as stupid, because the inches they are selling for $20 are much, much cheaper to provide than the $5.40 kind. They don’t include any bag or passenger or seat weight (fuel!), or ticketing/processing overhead, or cabin service, or boarding time: just five inches of fuselage skin. United would be coining money selling empty space for five bucks an inch on this route — that would be a $20 premium each way, a number even the stingiest corporate travel officer would approve. One more time: if you can make money selling an inch of fuselage with a share of passenger and luggage for $5.40, you have to make much more money selling for that price with no-one in it.
But could they? Of course they could. Now, if you’re an airline executive, be sure to read the following sentence slowly, and feel free to make notes and move your lips if it helps:
use a bigger airplane and move the seats apart.
A couple of years ago I posted a similar analysis arguing for a no-frills business class at a rational, competitive price and obviously somehow failed to tilt the earth’s axis (SFO-FRA RT is still six times as expensive in business as coach). Air travel market practice and conventions are glacially improving, but I hold to my original thesis: this industry is in the hands of people who simply do not understand what they are doing. They are not profit-maximizers who make money gouging their passengers: they are nincompoops who mistreat their passengers and their stockholders alike.
The stakes are high, the chips exchange hands, and dreams crash as quickly as the cards are revealed: it’s got to be Texas Hold ‘Em. This week’s movie recommendation is John Dahl’s film about the underground world of professional poker players, known as Rounders (1998).
The story begins with Mike, played by Matt Damon, collecting together all of his secret stashes of cash to play a game of high-stakes poker. His opponent is Teddy KGB, a ‘connected’ guy played by John Malkovich, who possesses a comically unplaceable (perhaps Russian?) accent, a good eye for cards, and a peculiar love of Oreos. Teddy cleans Mike out for the $30k that was intended to fund Mike’s daytime occupation of a law school education. Lesson learned, Mike retires from poker and directs himself to honest work to fund his degree.
Before long, Mike’s childhood buddy Worm, played by Edward Norton, is released from prison. Worm has perfected his card hustle while inside: he would win money from inmates, that he would then strategically lose to the guards. This way, upon his release from prison, he’d have both a network of available games to play at the courtesy of his correctional officer friends, and a well-established reputation as an atrocious poker player. The situation is ripe for the hustle. However, some long-standing debts that Worm accrued before his sentence began have been carrying interest during his incarceration, and he needs Mike’s help to scrounge the cash together before his creditor Teddy KGB comes a-calling. The clock is ticking.
Damon at this point in his career was still enjoying the acclaim heaped upon him for playing a disaffected kid with unusual potential in Good Will Hunting. The differences between that role and this one are slight. While both Will Hunting and Mike McDermott are immensely capable, Will lacks direction whereas Mike lacks self-control. And the latter is far more difficult to sympathize with, even if there isn’t much else aside from the accent distinguishing the two roles - heck, Damon didn’t even go through the bother of getting rid of that irritating side-part.
Mike’s relentless (and frankly exhaustingly over-worked) sense of loyalty to Worm makes him a far less interesting character than Worm, whose unscrupulous approach to card playing means he has few compunctions with adding debts to Mike’s tab and even forcing Mike to take vicarious responsibility for Worm’s own indiscretions. Norton’s portrayal of the character Worm, who in turn is usually pretending to be some other character for the purposes of the hustle, is wonderful. It’s all there: the sweaty palms from the immensity of the stakes in play, the glint in the eye when the con works, and the droopy-shouldered resignation when it doesn’t. Characters deceptively playing other characters is familiar territory for Norton (e.g., The Score, Primal Fear – and dare I say The Incredible Hulk and Fight Club, albeit for different reasons?), and the gimmick is well executed.
Once you get past Damon and Norton in the two lead roles, however, much of the supporting cast is risibly flat (especially so for the female characters): Famke Janssen plays Petra, the moll from one of the underground clubs with a talent for the game and an eye for Mike; Gretchen Mol plays Jo, who as Mike’s girlfriend and fellow law student has twice the reason to be disappointed when his gambling comes at the expense of their life together; Martin Landau plays Dean Petrovsky, the law professor who has taken to mentoring Mike and for whom a daft backstory is constructed to explain his preposterous generosity toward Mike; John Turturro plays Knish, the only Rounder with whom we eventually come to sympathize. The acting’s not the problem, really - it’s just that they’re completely unbelievable as characters.
That said, Rounders is a film for those among you who love a card game film that takes no prisoners and isn’t afraid to play a little dirty from time to time (for more of that ilk, see my review of The Sting). Rather than post a trailer, here’s one of my favorite clips instead:
Ezra Klein noted earlier this week that my discipline, at least in the subfields that study U.S. politics, has moved into the mainstream of political journalism, and perhaps the mainstream of U.S. politics. That’s certainly true. At the American Political Science Association meeting in Washington last week, I spent most of my time blogging in the lobby of the hotel, that is, when I wasn’t being interrupted by — or was myself interrupting — Brendan Nyhan (who blogs for the New York Times), Dan Drezner (Washington Post), John Sides (Washington Post), Seth Masket (Pacific Standard) and other highly visible political scientists. As Ezra notes, reporters and practitioners alike read the Monkey Cage, Mischiefs of Faction, and other political science sites.
It’s nothing like the old days, when most reporters would call political scientists mainly to get someone authoritative to say for them what they intended to write in the first place. Some reporters were better than that, but not many. I certainly ran into my share of the bad version in the days before I started blogging.
Anyway, what interests me is Ezra’s structural explanation for the change (as Jonathan Ladd notes, by supplying a structural explanation for the success of political science he is using our own methods to downgrade our personal responsibility for our success).
Ezra argues that it’s demand-sided: politics is changing, and what used to worked for journalists doesn’t work anymore. Reporters who used to be able to call the Senate Finance Committee chairman to find out what was going on have discovered that they’re apt to be misled because the things the chairman knows aren’t as important as they used to be.
I’m extremely skeptical of that explanation. Sure, political scientists can (help) explain partisan polarization, but plenty of Hill staffers knew all about it 20 or 30 years ago. More generally, political scientists may be relatively more useful than insiders just after times of great change (during change, I’m not so sure), but I’m not sure we’re at any special point of change right now.
No, the structural explanation isn’t change in political science or in politics, but change in the media. Specifically, the blogosphere. Bloggers, by nature, learn things by reading, not by making phone calls (they also do interviews, but I’ll bet they’re far more likely to rely on reading than old-style reporters were). Bloggers — not just Ezra, but Andrew Sullivan, Matt Yglesias, Greg Sargent or Kevin Drum — were extremely welcoming to political-scientist bloggers because there wasn’t a huge gap between their worlds.
As Ezra and other bloggers moved up the media food chain, they brought with them methods that made them better at what they did, whether that meant continuing to link to political scientists or downloading and reading academic articles when they wanted to know stuff. People trained in journalism schools, or by working the courthouse beat at local newspapers, wouldn’t have thought to do those things.
All that is mostly structural, but some of it was contingent — it just so happened that Ezra was especially interested in supporting political science (as he was when he invited me to guest blog for him), and that Andrew Sullivan is unusually supportive of new voices, and that they and others promoted norms among political bloggers that encouraged open discussion, inclusiveness and reciprocity. Had bloggers decided 10 years ago to link “up” (to more famous establishment folks) rather than “down” (to voices that weren’t known to the general public), the outcome would have been very different.
Because September is Suicide Prevention Month, I have written a piece for Washington Post’s Wonkblog describing the evidence supporting the likely benefits of the $76 million suicide prevention nets that will be installed on the Golden Gate Bridge. This was a compassionate policy decision by the Bridge District Board, who were responding to the agony of many grieving families. At the same time, it was economically defensible by any reasonable standard.
Willingness to pay analysis of lifesaving policies strikes many people, including me, as a bit cold around the heart. But it is also informative for weighing public policy choices because we will never have enough money to pay for every conceivable life-saving option. Was the suicide barrier a good investment from that viewpoint?
Austin Frakt has helpfully flagged a a new review in Health Economics of willingness to pay studies supports $98,879 as a reasonable estimate of how much people will pay for an added year of life. Keeping to round numbers for simplicity, let’s call that 100k and also make the reasonable (indeed conservative) round number assumption that, because suicide is most common among the late middle aged population, the average person who takes their own life would otherwise live another 20 years. That gives a back of the envelope assessment that it’s reasonable to pay at least $2 million to avert the typical suicide.
Based on research in this area, the nets on the Golden Gate Bridge can be expected to prevent (i.e., not just shift to another location) a suicide a month, which works out to a $24 million dollar return per year. Note that this estimate is even more conservative than it seems because the Bridge attracts more young adult suicides than do other means of suicide (i.e., they will live more than 20 more years), and, because there is clearly added value in averting the emotional suffering by the loved ones of people who jump from the Bridge.
Again rounding to keep the math simple, this means the investment in the suicide barrier pays for itself in a little over three years and then yields a massive return on investment forever after (If one assumed a million dollars of maintenance a year on the suicide prevention nets after they were installed, their annual economic return would be 2400%). That’s a spectacular return on investment relative to most investments we make in the mental health field.
[The Bridge district] approved toll funds for a $26.5 million median to separate opposing lanes of traffic to prevent head-on collisions. Since 1970, 16 people have died when cars veered into oncoming traffic. Over the same period, more than 70 times as many — at least 1,129 people — have leapt to their deaths.
Michael Barone doesn’t like what he’s heard about the most recent American Political Science Association conference, held over this past weekend in Washington, DC. Apparently, political science is avoiding the important topics:
There were more than 1,000 panels on a vast variety of subjects — but nothing on the presidency of Barack Obama or the upcoming 2014 elections.
That’s actually a pretty damning accusation. It’s also totally untrue. And Barone or his staffers or editors at the Washington Examiner could have figured that out very quickly by going to the on-line program for the APSA conference and typing search terms like “Obama” into the keyword field. Not all academic conferences make it this easy to search content, but APSA’s search engine actually isn’t bad. At any rate, by my count, there were around 15 conference papers concerning Obama, and those are just the ones that mentioned Obama’s name in the title. I’m quite confident there were many more addressing his presidency.
There were also a number of panels devoted to the 2014 midterm elections, including one on forecasting and another large plenary session featuring political scientists and journalists and chaired by the Monkey Cage’s John Sides. It was in a rather large venue on Saturday afternoon. Not sure how that got missed. Could there have been more panels on the 2014 elections? I suppose, but I’m not sure just how much attention should be devoted to an event that hasn’t yet occurred.
Now, in fairness, the piece that Barone linked to by Paul Rahe was somewhat more nuanced in its accusations, and Rahe appears to at least know how to use a search engine. And I’m not going to claim that political science has achieved the perfect balance in how it allots attention to political phenomena. But in general, I’d say that if you think the discipline needs to focus more on something, propose a paper on it. Better yet, put together a panel with other scholars on the topic. Try to influence an organized section to devote more attention to the topic, or, if you can’t find the appropriate section, start one. The discipline is more open to new ideas and self-criticism than many think, and it’s definitely covering more topics than Barone thinks it does.