Friday, January 30, 2009

Republicans balk on recovery legislation

The House of Representatives passed an economic stimulus package on Wednesday without a single Republican vote. The legislation is aimed at helping the economy recover from the ongoing collapse over the past several months. These Republicans, of course, are representatives of what had been the majority party in the legislative and executive branches of government for most of the past eight years and, in no small way, hold responsibility for the current state of the economy. Mitchell Bard sums up the situation:

… Obama's solid victory in November, if nothing else, would make it clear that the bankrupt (literally) policies of the last eight years would no longer be seriously considered as a solution. I certainly knew that the Republicans would try to claw their way back to power, but I never imagined they would pull a Groundhog Day, acting as if the absolute meltdown of the last eight years hadn't happened. After all, by electing Obama, the American people pretty directly rejected the failed ways of doing business.

Of the myriad problems George W. Bush and his enablers in Congress left on Obama's desk, the most pressing is perceived to be the economy. So Obama's first major legislative initiative was the stimulus package. Under the market-cures-all philosophy of the last administration (and, in fairness, every administration going back to Ronald Reagan), the financial system collapsed as the greed and irresponsibility of institutions finally reached a tipping point. But what was even more acute during the last eight years was the historic and devastating redistribution of wealth, whereby Bush's tax cuts for the rich and unfailing support for corporate interests led to a situation where, as former Rep. David Bonior put it on Meet the Press on January 11:

"over the last 20 years, the top 10 percent took 90 percent of the income gains in this -- in the country. And the top 1 percent took roughly 60 percent. And the top 1/10th of 1 percent took 35 percent of that. I mean, it's skewed the wrong way."

The system of tax cuts and the like turned the surplus of the Clinton years into a massive deficit, even before the $700 billion financial bailout and current stimulus package came into play. And the Bush years allowed massive gains for the wealthy, all while middle class wages, in real dollars, fell.

So, if nothing else, we should all be in agreement that the Bush years were a debacle, and that the policies of the administration need to be rejected, much like the bake sale/casino night of my analogy.

And yet, on the first major piece of legislation that the popular new president advanced, what did the Republicans in the House do? Suggest a bake sale/casino night.

On the January 11 Meet the Press episode I mentioned above, all of the economists, liberals and conservatives, agreed that some kind of stimulus is necessary to kick-start the economy. Economists will also tell you that if you genuinely want to stimulate consumer spending, tax cuts, especially for the middle class and wealthy, are less effective than government spending, since those tax cuts are more likely to be saved than spent. Programs that aid those in trouble (like food stamps and extended unemployment insurance), as well as programs that create jobs (like infrastructure projects), are far more effective in stimulating consumer spending.

And despite all of this information, not one single Republican member of the House voted for the stimulus bill yesterday. (It still passed, 244-188, with 11 Democrats joining the 177 Republicans in opposing the bill.) Not one. Zero. Zippo. Nada. Nil. None. There wasn't one Republican in the whole House of Representatives who could see his or her way clear to support legislation to help our tanking economy, even if they thought the bill wasn't perfect. And what was the primary objection of the Republicans, based on the GOP's suggested alternative bill (that was voted down by the House)? They wanted more tax cuts.

Seriously? More freakin' tax cuts? What's next? Are they going to be asking for less regulations on Wall Street? Another invasion of Iraq? Were they not watching what happened the last eight years (and, more importantly, what the American people voted for in November)?


The bottom line is that this country is in a very dark place right now, and the reason we're there is not a mystery. It is, in large part, the direct result of a set of policies advocated and carried out by the Bush administration. Those policies, including tax cuts for the rich and the facilitation of movement of wealth from the lower and middle classes to the upper class, have failed. While Republicans are free to oppose President Obama's solutions to this mess if they think they have better ideas, merely advocating the old failed policies should not be tolerated.

Obama deserves credit for trying to foster a bipartisan atmosphere in Washington, and I laud his efforts in this regards. But if the Republicans are going to be obstructionist, clinging to failed policies and trying to score political points by keeping the new president from passing the programs he wants (or at least making them look partisan), Obama and the Democrats have to move forward on their own. They have large majorities in both houses and, more importantly, the mandate of a solid presidential election win.

It's time for the House Republicans to offer something useful or shut up and let the rest of us try and undo the mess they helped make. …

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Presuming the American people has a right to know about the workings of their government

Transparency and openness are crucial to democratic government. Information generated by public agencies is not the private property of bureaucrats and politicians to hide from the public. Restrictions on information keep the public in the dark as to what their government is doing and can cover up incompetence and wrong doing. With the possible exceptions of certain information pertaining to criminal investigations, national security, and individual privacy the public should have complete and timely access to all government documentation. That certainly was the intention of the passage of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

However, control of information is power and that power has not been given up without a struggle. Since the passage of the original FOIA successive administrations have swayed back and forth on how to interpret the requirements of the law. The Bush administration took an extremely restrictive view of what the American people should be allowed to know about the workings of their government. Fortunately, President Obama believes the American people can be trusted with that knowledge and has instructed federal agencies to err on the side of openness.

This is from Fred Kaplan in Slate:
It has received the least attention of his first-day decisions, but President Barack Obama's memorandum on reviving the Freedom of Information Act stands as the clearest signal yet that his campaign talk about "a new era of open government" wasn't just rhetoric; it's for real.

The key phrase comes right at the top: "The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails."

Later in the memo: "All agencies should adopt a presumption of disclosure. … The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA."

Furthermore, "In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies should act properly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public." In fact, "All agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public."

This could not be clearer. The new president was calling for a complete reversal of the Bush administration's directives on this matter—and a restoration of the Freedom of Information Act's original purpose.

The Bush era's tone was set in October 2001, when then-Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memo to all federal agencies, assuring them that if they were sued for refusing to release documents under the FOIA, the Justice Department would defend them in court as long as their decision had a "sound legal basis." This reversed a guideline, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, noting that the Justice Department would defend agencies' refusals only if releasing the documents would cause "foreseeable harm."

Ashcroft's guidance was reinforced in March 2002, when Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, issued a memo urging agencies to protect information that was "sensitive," even if it was unclassified.

Both memos were written in the aftermath of Sept. 11; the impulse behind them was, up to a point, understandable. However, the bureaucrats who control the documents—cautious by nature and sensitive to signals from on high—took the memos as cues to tighten the lid not just on legitimate national-security secrets (which the FOIA had always exempted from routine disclosure) but on everything.

The consequences were dramatic. From 1995 to 2001, federal agencies declassified 1.15 billion pages of documents under the Freedom of Information Act—an average of 190 million per year. From 2002 to 2006, after Ashcroft issued his memo, agencies declassified 182 million pages in total—an average of just 36 million per year, less than one-fifth the volume.

Even these statistics understate the stranglehold because, in many cases, even after the documents were declassified, the relevant agencies—the Pentagon, the CIA, the SEC, or whatever—refused to release them.


The Obama memo doesn't lay down new law. But it does order his attorney general and his budget director to devise new guidelines and regulations, which will have the force of new law—guidelines based on a presumption of disclosure, the exact opposite of the Bush-Ashcroft guidance.

Again, a presumption is not a requirement; the statute's exemptions covering genuine national-security secrets will no doubt remain in place. But presumptions matter to bureaucrats; they lay down what is expected; they set the boundaries of safe behavior. Under Bush-Ashcroft, the presumption was: When in doubt, classify and lock the archives down. Bureaucrats are always in some doubt, so they slammed the vaults and hid the keys. Obama is saying: When in doubt, if there's no demonstrable harm, open the gates. …
The bottom line -- democratic government should not be conducted behind closed curtains. This is a good beginning for the new administration.

You can read Kaplan’s entire piece here.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The role of labor in the quick response to the downing of the US Airways jet in the Hudson

Marcy Wheeler points out one little bit of information that seems to get overlooked the in press coverage about the landing of the US Airways passenger plane in the Hudson this past week and the rescue of everyone on that plane:
They're calling it a miracle--the successful landing of a US Airways jet in the Hudson and subsequent rescue of all 155 passengers. They're detailing the heroism of all involved, starting with the pilot and including cabin crew, ferry crews, and first responders. What they're not telling you is that just about every single one of these heros is a union member.
These unions either provide or promote the very safety training that was a big factor in the saving the lives of all 155 passengers. When union bashing raises its ugly head it is helpful to remember that all our lives are a little richer in ways that are not always obvious due the labor movement.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The problem isn’t the President, it’s the Presidency

Americans are very proud their democratic government. Civics textbooks espouse the virtues of elections and the separation of powers divided between the executive, judicial and legislative branches each with the power to check and balance the power of the other two branches.

Yet contrary to the myth of equal powers, the reality is the executive – in the person of a single officer, the President – is the dominant branch of our national government with the other two serving as junior partners. The election of the President is based upon a Rube Goldberg system most Americans would have difficulty explaining called the Electoral College that gives disproportionate power to small states. The President is held accountable to the American people only once – during the campaign for re-election at the conclusion of the President’s first term. A President may only be impeached and removed for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors" – an absurdly high standard for a government that is supposed to be democratic. The President may as well be granted life tenure.

And the President has a wide range of powers unequaled in the other two branches of government. Whether or not these powers are used wisely and whether or not they are used with the support of the American people in our supposedly democratic system is beside the point. Less than a third of the American people approve of the job George Bush is doing as President yet he continues making decisions that affect all Americans and the world and there is nothing the American people can do about it. President Bush’s candidate (Senator John McCain) and President Bush’s party were clearly trounced in the national election in early November yet Bush remains in power two months after this rejection and there is nothing the American people can do about it.

George Bush is certainly a problem but he is not the problem. The problem is the office of the President and how it was structured in the Constitution.

Garret Epps has some ideas on how to reform the U.S. Presidency:
… while George W. Bush may have been a particularly bad driver, the presidency itself is, and always has been, an unreliable vehicle—with a cranky starter, an engine too big for the chassis, erratic steering, and virtually no brakes. It needs an overhaul, a comprehensive redo of Article II.

Constitutional change is a daunting prospect. But consider how often we have already changed the presidency; it is the Constitution’s most-amended feature. And this is the moment to think of reform—the public’s attention is focused on the Bush disaster, and ordinary people might be willing to look at the flaws in the office that allowed Bush to do what he did.

So how should the presidency be changed?

First, voters should elect presidents directly. And once the vote is counted, the president-elect (and the new Congress) should take office within a week. Americans accustomed to the current system will object that this would not allow enough time to assemble a Cabinet—but in England and France, the new chief executive considers ministerial nominations before the election. A shorter interregnum would force the creation of something like the British shadow cabinet, in which a candidate makes public the names of his key advisers. That would give voters important information, and provide the president with a running start.

Next, Article II should include a specific and limited set of presidential powers. The “unitary executive” theorists should no longer be allowed to spin a quasi-dictatorship out of the bare phrase executive power; like the responsibilities of Congress, those of the president should be clearly enumerated.

It should be made clear, for example, that the president’s powers as commander in chief do not crowd out the power of Congress to start—and stop—armed conflict. Likewise, the duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” needs to be clarified: it is not the power to decide which laws the president wants to follow, or to rewrite new statutes in “signing statements” after Congress has passed them; it is a duty to uphold the Constitution, valid treaties, and congressional statutes (which together, according to the Constitution, form “the supreme law of the land”).

After a transformative midterm election like that of 1994 or 2006, the nation should require a compromise between the rejected president and the new Congress. A president whose party has lost some minimum number of seats in Congress should be forced to form the equivalent of a national-unity government. This could be done by requiring the president to present a new Cabinet that includes members of both parties, which the new Congress would approve or disapprove as a whole—no drawn-out confirmation hearings on each nominee. If the president were unwilling to assemble such a government or unable to get congressional approval after, say, three tries, he would have to resign.

This would not give Congress control of the executive branch. A resigning president would be replaced by the vice president, who would not be subject to the new-Cabinet requirement. This new president might succeed politically where the previous one had failed (imagine Al Gore becoming president in 1995, and running in 1996—and perhaps in 2000—as an incumbent). And that possibility would discourage the new congressional majority from simply rejecting the compromise Cabinet. Resignation might be worse for them than approval.

As a final reform, we should reconsider the entire Hamiltonian concept of the “unitary executive.” When George Washington became president, he left a large organization (the Mount Vernon plantation) to head a smaller one (the federal government). But today, the executive branch is a behemoth, with control over law enforcement, the military, economic policy, education, the environment, and most other aspects of national life. That behemoth is responsible to one person, and that one person, as we have seen, is only loosely accountable to the electorate.

In other areas, the Framers solved this problem neatly: they divided power in order to protect against its abuse. Congress was split into the House and the Senate to ensure that the legislative process would not be so efficient as to absorb powers properly belonging to the other branches. The problem now is not an overweening Congress but an aggrandized executive branch; still, the remedy is the same. We should divide the executive branch between two elected officials—a president, and an attorney general who would be voted in during midterm elections.

As we are learning from the ongoing scandal of the torture memos, one of the drawbacks of a single executive is that Justice Department lawyers may consider it their job to twist the law to suit the White House. But the president is not their client; the United States is. Justice Department lawyers appointed by an elected attorney general would have no motive to distort law and logic to empower the president, while the White House counsel’s office, which does represent the president, would have every incentive to monitor the Justice Department to ensure that it did not tilt too strongly against the executive branch. The watchmen would watch each other.

This arrangement would hardly be unprecedented: most state governments elect an attorney general. The new Article II could make clear that the president has the responsibility for setting overall legal policy, just as governors do today.

None of these changes would erode the “separation of powers.” That happens only when a change gives one branch’s prerogatives to another branch. These changes refer in each instance back to the people, who are the proper source of all power. The changes would still leave plenty of room for “energy in the executive” but would afford far less opportunity for high-handedness, secrecy, and simple rigidity. They would allow presidential firmness, but not at the expense of democratic self-governance.

It’s not surprising that the Framers did not understand the perils of the office they designed. They were working in the dark, and they got a lot of things right. But we should not let our admiration for the Framers deter us from fixing their mistakes.

Our government is badly out of balance. There is a difference between executive energy and autocratic license; between leadership and authoritarianism; between the democratic firmness of a Lincoln and the authoritarian rigidity of a Bush. The challenge we face today is to find some advantage in Bush’s sorry legacy. Reform of the executive branch would be a good place to start.
This is from the current issue of the Atlantic. I strongly recommend you read Epps' piece in its entirety.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Does it make any difference whether or not Israel’s military actions in Gaza are “disproportionate”?

We have heard a lot about proportionality of Israel’s attacks on Gaza in response to rocket attacks upon Israel from Gaza either directed by Hamas or at least tolerated by Hamas. The implication in these arguments is proportionality is the yardstick to measure morality in actions between states.

The problem with proportionality arguments is they divert attention from more important questions. War between nations is not like two guys in a bar who get in an argument, lose their tempers, and engage in a fight. As Michael Walzer points out below, the purpose of war is to achieve political objectives and not an emotional reaction to a provocation. The first question to answer is whether or not the preferred political objective can reasonably be expected to come about by the pursuit of war and the second question, given the inevitability of civilian causalities during war, is whether or not all reasonable effort is being made to minimize civilian suffering.

Michael Walzer dissects “proportionality” and asks the harder questions about the conflict:
Let's talk about proportionality--or, more important, about its negative form. "Disproportionate" is the favorite critical term in current discussions of the morality of war. But most of the people who use it don't know what it means in international law or in just war theory. Curiously, they don't realize that it has been used far more often to justify than to criticize what we might think of as excessive violence. It is a dangerous idea.

Proportionality doesn't mean "tit for tat," as in the family feud. The Hatfields kill three McCoys, so the McCoys must kill three Hatfields. More than three, and they are breaking the rules of the feud, where proportionality means symmetry. The use of the term is different with regard to war, because war isn't an act of retribution; it isn't a backward-looking activity, and the law of even-Steven doesn't apply.

Like it or not, war is always purposive in character; it has a goal, an end-in-view. The end is often misconceived, but not always: to defeat the Nazis, to stop the dominos from falling, to rescue Kuwait, to destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Proportionality implies a measure, and the measure here is the value of the end-in-view. How many civilian deaths are "not disproportionate to" the value of defeating the Nazis? Answer that question, put that way, and you are likely to justify too much--and that is the way proportionality arguments have worked over most of their history.

The case is the same with arguments focused on particular acts of war. Consider the example of an American air raid on a German tank factory in World War Two that kills a number of civilians living nearby. The justification goes like this: The number of civilians killed is "not disproportionate to" the damage those tanks would do in days and months to come if they continued to roll off the assembly line. That is a good argument, and it does indeed justify some number of the unintended civilian deaths. But what number? How do you set an upper limit, given that there could be many tanks and much damage?

Because proportionality arguments are forward-looking, and because we don't have positive, but only speculative, knowledge about the future, we need to be very cautious in using this justification. The commentators and critics using it today, however, are not being cautious at all; they are not making any kind of measured judgment, not even a speculative kind. "Disproportionate" violence for them is simply violence they don't like, or it is violence committed by people they don't like.

So Israel's Gaza war was called "disproportionate" on day one, before anyone knew very much about how many people had been killed or who they were. The standard proportionality argument, looking ahead as these arguments rightly do, would come from the other side. Before the six months of cease-fire (when the fire never ceased), Hamas had only primitive and home-made rockets that could hit nearby small towns in Israel. By the end of the six months, they had far more advanced rockets, no longer home-made, that can hit cities 30 or 40 kilometers away. Another six months of the same kind of cease-fire, which is what many nations at the UN demanded, and Hamas would have rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv. And this is an organization explicitly committed to the destruction of Israel. How many civilian casualties are "not disproportionate to" the value of avoiding the rocketing of Tel Aviv? How many civilian casualties would America's leaders think were "not disproportionate to" the value of avoiding the rocketing of New York?

The answer, again, is too many. We have to make proportionality calculations, but those calculations won't provide the most important moral limits on warfare.

These are the questions that point us toward the important limits. First, before the war begins: Are there other ways of achieving the end-in-view? In the Israeli case, this question has shaped the intense political arguments that have been going on since the withdrawal from Gaza: What is the right way to stop the rocket attacks? How do you guarantee that Hamas won't acquire more and more advanced rocketry? Many policies have been advocated, and many have been tried.

Second, once the fighting begins, who is responsible for putting civilians in the line of fire? It is worth recalling that in the Lebanon war of 2006, Kofi Annan, then the Secretary-General of the UN, though he criticized Israel for a "disproportionate" response to Hezbollah's raid, also criticized Hezbollah--not just for firing rockets at civilians, but also for firing them from heavily populated civilian areas, so that any response would inevitably kill or injure civilians. I don't think that the new Secretary General has made the same criticism of Hamas, but Hamas clearly has a similar policy.

The third question: Is the attacking army acting in concrete ways to minimize the risks they impose on civilians? Are they taking risks themselves for that purpose? Armies choose tactics that are more or less protective of the civilian population, and we judge them by their choices. I haven't heard this question asked about the Gaza war by commentators and critics in the Western media; it is a hard question, since any answer would have to take into account the tactical choices of Hamas.

In fact, all three are hard questions, but they are the ones that have to be asked and answered if we are to make serious moral judgments about Gaza--or any other war. The question "Is it disproportionate?" isn't hard at all for people eager to say yes, but asked honestly, the answer will often be no, and that answer may justify more than we ought to justify. Asking the hard questions and worrying about the right answers--these are the moral obligations of commentators and critics, who are supposed to enlighten us about the moral obligations of soldiers. There hasn't been much enlightenment these last days.
And Matthew Yglesias considers the actions of both sides in the way the world really works :
…what’s most relevant for both sides here are separate elements of just war theory — possession of “right intention” and “reasonable prospects for success.” First from the Hamas side. As Israel’s critics will happily let you know, Palestinians have just cause for fighting against Israel. But Hamas’ actual cause isn’t the just cause of Palestinian independence but an unjust cause of aggression against Israel. And even if Hamas were fighting for a just cause, their method of untargeted rocket fire has no reasonable prospects for success. If the way the world worked was that you should some rockets at Sderot, damage some buildings and hurt a few people, and then suddenly Israeli officials are ready to shake hands on a deal that ends the occupation forever you might be tempted to say that the loss of civilian life would be proportionate to the ends being pursued. But that’s not how the world works and it doesn’t characterize Hamas’ war aims.

A lot of commentators seem to want to believe that the situation on the Israeli side is very different from this. In fact, I think it’s only a little different. In terms of “right intention” this is where the settlements come into play. As long as Israel is occupying illegal settlements in Palestinian territory, restricting Palestinian movement in order to defend them, and indeed expanding the settlements it becomes difficult to view any Israeli activity as purely defensive in nature. And, again, if the way the world worked was that attacking Gaza and causing suffering there led Palestinians to say “you know, these Hamas guys are bloodthirsty maniacs — let’s put some non-violent moderates in charge” you could understand this campaign as having reasonable prospects of success at securing enduring safety from Hamas rocket fire. But that’s not how the world works. So asking what kinds of Israeli actions might or might not be “proportionate” to those war aims is really neither here nor there. Everyone understands that this round of fighting will stop some day soon, but that the halt in fighting won’t create a permanent end to rocket fire.