Friday, June 29, 2012

July 2, our real Independence Day

The 4th of July really ought to be celebrated on the 2nd, for it was on July 2, 1776, that the Continental Congress voted, 12 states for, none against, that the colonies "are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states."  The next day, John Adams wrote to his wife, "The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary Festival.... It ought to be solemnized with bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other...."

In fact, the 3rd and 4th of July were taken up with debate and amendments to the 1,338-word explanation written by Thomas Jefferson and a small committee. A vote approving the text was taken on the 4th, but the actual parchment was not signed until August 2. That document used the July 4 date, and we've been stuck with it ever since.

There's another reason for celebrating July 2 -- for it was on that date, eleven years later in the same building in Philadelphia, that the Constitutional Convention broke its deadlock over how to organize the new government. Virginia had proposed proportional representation  by population, including slaves. The small states, led by New Jersey proposed equal representation of the states in Congress. The debate and defeat of various plans left many small state delegates angry and frustrated, and drove the convention to the verge of collapse. Many considered leaving the convention if their rights were not protected. Delegates on both sides became more heated and intransigent.

The small states had a point. The three largest states of Virginia, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts had 45% of the U.S. population and would need only one other state to have a working majority over all other states. On many issues the three most southern states – Georgia and the Carolinas – sided with the big three. Though small at the time, they all expected to grow much larger and saw such an informal alliance as helpful to their other interests. 

On July 2, 1787, Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut pressed his resolution for equal representation in the Senate, but with some absentees and some still unexplained vote switches, the delegates tied on the question. That was a parliamentary defeat for the small states, but a game-changing, emotional victory because it kept alive their alternative. On reflection, other delegates realized that this issue of Senate composition could destroy any chance at government reform. They agreed to turn the question over to a committee, and three days later, the committee recommended equal votes in the Senate. At the end of the tumultuous week, the delegates approved the plan.

This broke the logjam on other issues as well. With small state rights protected, their delegates were more willing to strengthen the executive and the central government. By mid-July, delegates agreed on a single executive and gave him veto power.

Those are two strong reasons for venerating and celebrating July 2 -- with "bonfires and illuminations" and good beer. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Master Roberts

I'm not a lawyer, but I have done a lot of research on the writing of the Constitution and its implementation in the early years of the Republic. II also think I know a little about politics.

While I have no way of knowing whether the Chief Justice in fact holds any of the views I will ascribe to him, I suggest these hypotheses as highly plausible.

-- Roberts recognized growing criticism of the Court for partisanship and welcomed a way of reducing those attacks.
-- He was personally opposed to the Affordable Care Act but recognized the weight of judicial precedents in favor of its constitutionality.
-- He found, and occupied, a clever middle ground that gave both liberals and conservatives much that was pleasing to them.
-- For the conservatives, he opposed the validity of the individual mandate under the Commerce Clause and opened the door for later challenges to social legislation under it; he also took a more restrictive position on Medicaid and its burdens on the states.
-- For the liberals, he upheld the basic law under the congressional taxing power.
-- Cleverly, Roberts got the court to say that, though the law was a tax, it was not subject to the 1867 Anti-Injunction Act preventing judicial review of taxes until they are actually collected.

Deft work, Mr. Chief Justice.

UPDATE: I see that a legal analyst also finds evidence in the wording of the opinion that there was some back room maneuvering. And Ezra Klein makes some points similar to my own.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

count the military operations now underway

As required by law and complied with by President Obama, we now have our latest six-monthly report on ongoing U.S. military operations.  The New York Times was alone in my survey of the media in reporting on this, but the White House made a formal release of the presidential letter to Congress.

If you read the letter, you'll see that we are now involved in several military operations: "against al-qa'ida, the Taliban, and associated forces" in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen; in Iraq; in three countries in Central Africa; in Egypt; in Kosovo; and on the high seas in "maritime interception operations" discussed only in a "classified annex." 

Is this imperial overstretch?  At least we can't say we haven't been told.

inside scoops

I'm a sucker for insider accounts of U.S. foreign policymaking. I've acquired a sizable library of memoirs by officials (while recognizing that most are self-serving, insufficiently detailed, and often written by ghost writers) and journalistic accounts like those of Bob Woodward and others.

There's a new crop of books on the Obama administration -- by Jim Mann, David Sanger, Rajiv Chandresakaran, and Daniel Klaidman--  that I have just begun to read, some of which have been excerpted in the press. It's clear from the reviews, however, that most of the authors' key sources worked either in the White House or the State Department. These journalists had few sources, and thus little understanding and perspective of the military viewpoint on the controversies they describe. Maybe we'll have to wait for Secretary Gates or Admiral Mullen or some Pentagon-based journalist to provide that. Meanwhile, join me in reading these accounts with the necessary filters and questions.

laudable oversight

Use of drones against terrorists has generated a lot of controversy, but we can all take comfort from the fact that the congressional intelligence committees are regularly informed of each CIA strike and have an opportunity to raise questions and criticisms. The Los Angeles Times reports hat there are regular reviews, including videos of strikes and the intelligence used to justify them. One senior staffer is quoted as saying he wasn't aware of anything "inappropriate."  Remember, too, that while many parts of Congress are mired in trench warfare partisanship, the intelligence oversight committees have been largely free of that.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Learn to be a lobbyist for $600

I was shocked to learn of a 116-page report based on surveys of congressional staffers and registered lobbyists that the authors are selling for $600. Among the earth-shaking findings: staffers prefer email contacts; lobbyists like to meet in person [so they can tell or introduce their clients]; staffers grant access in the hope of obtaining credible and reliable information; for staffers, the most valuable information source is the Congressional Research Service.

I'm not going to pay $600 for this. Fortunately, Politico has a summary story -- for free.

But this points to a larger point about information about Congress: it's expensive, and many people are willing to pay the high prices. In many cases, the most significant information is not what routinely makes the public record in congressional hearings and debates; it's who said what to whom in the cloakroom, or what group is planning what initiative.

That kind of information is especially valuable to lobbyists, so they'll pay. Politico now has a subscription enws service in addition to its free daily paper; starting cost for the minimal subscription is $2500 per year. BloombergGov is hiring journalists [hooray!] for its subscription service costing $5700 per year.  The old standbys that we academics rely on --the newspaper RollCall and the CQ Weekly -- now cost around $600 per year each.

Knowledge is power, but only the rich can afford to gain the knowledge.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Hamiltonians vs Jeffersonians

One of the delights of having time to read for pleasure is that I encounter a lot of good --or good enough -- books. My latest happy discovery is Michael Lind's Land of Promise , a breezy economic history of the United States with a central thesis I find quite persuasive -- that America made its greatest growth and achieved economic dominance when it followed Hamiltonian principles and would never have achieved as much if it had followed Jefferson.

It was the Hamilton-Whig tradition that called for national economic policy, support to infant industries, federal support for infrastructure and education. Jefferson really did believe in a nation of farmers, as in this shocking quote from his 1782 Notes on the State of Virginia: “The political economists of Europe have established it as a principle that every state should endeavor to manufacture for itself; and this principle, like many others, we should transfer to America, without calculating the difference of circumstance which should often produce a difference of result. In Europe the lands are either cultivated, or locked up against the cultivator. Manufacture must therefore be resorted to of necessity, not of choice, to support the surplus of their people. But we have an immensity of land courting the industry of the husbandman … while we have land to labor, then, let us never see our citizens occupied at a workbench.” [Emphasis supplied]

Lind also notes that "free trade" was an anathema to leading political figures like Theodore Roosevelt, who said in 1895, “Thank God I am not a free-trader. In this country pernicious indulgence in the doctrine of free trade seems inevitably to produce fatty degeneration of the moral fibre.”

experimental subjects

I made a little extra money participating in psychological experiments when I was a student. But I was puzzled how the researchers could deduce so much about human nature from their select samples of undergraduate students. I know I messed up someone's research project when I was asked to identify sounds by calling one "a Polish L" [written thusly Ł and pronounced something like a W].

Anyway, I now see in the Economist that scientists are finding nonconfirming results when they run classic experiments with non-western, non-rich and well-educated people.  One way of finding such populations for their experiments, however, is a crowdsourcing site on the Internet. I guess they can get people with some important differences from US undergraduates, but it's far from a random population sample.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

what's the law among friends?

A piece in RollCall explains how candidates' campaigns can coordinate their activities despite federal law that was intended to build a Great Wall between them.  I had long doubted the effectiveness of the existing law -- after all, each campaign can lay out its talking points and key objectives for all to see. This piece details additional ways that so-called "Independent Expenditures" can mesh with regular campaigns.

bipartisan secretary of state - another stupid idea

I don't know Aaron David Miller of Foreign Policy magazine, but I really doubt his wisdom and expertise when it comes to the Secretary of State. A few weeks ago he said that only a few of the officeholders were great, and that Hillary Clinton could never be great in the job because of her"anatomy." I criticized his reasoning then, and feel compelled to do the same in response to his latest piece calling for the next president to name a Secretary of State from the opposite party. While Miller notes that bipartisanship is not always good or achievable in US foreign policy, he thinks it would be nice to have a president and secretary from different parties to show the rest of the world how united we are on foreign policy. That's nice mood music, but it doesn't address the realities of policymaking. What counts is not the background of the nominee but the process the president follows to get advice, make decisions, and oversee compliance. In recent decades, most presidents have relied on their national security adviser -- and Miller has no proposal to deal with that situation. Some Democratic president have named Republicans to top posts at Defense and Treasury, and they have performed well. They may also have helped politically, especially on Capitol Hill. But these nominees succeeded because of their personal chemistry with the president and his White House staff. That's all that really counts.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

cyber war and world peace

At first, I nodded in agreement with Robert Wright's complaint that the Obama Administration was guilty of hypocrisy in practicing cyber attacks on Iran at the same time it was declaring cyber war immoral. On reflection, I think we need to make several distinctions that minimize the hypocrisy.

Cyber attacks belong somewhere in the middle of the escalation ladder between nasty word and nuclear weapons. They are more morally acceptable than explosives that injure or kill innocent civilians, but they can have harmful consequences to people and their livelihoods. Even within the cyber realm, espionage is more tolerable and widely practiced than attacks that destroy infrastructure.  In the case of Iran's nuclear activities, I think most people would agree that messing with their machines is less objectionable than murdering scientists.

I think there's a useful comparison here to anti-satellite weapons. U.S. military capabilities have long been  highly dependent on satellites for communications and intelligence, just as they are now dependent on secure computer connections. The United States has toyed with various anti-satellite approaches, many of which would only add to space debris and thus potential collateral damage to our own systems. The U.S., Russia, and China have each had symbolic tests of ASAT systems, but seem to have stopped short of full-scale development. Meanwhile, there are discussions under way for arms control measures.

Treaties won't prevent hostile actions, but they may set international norms and constrain their use. Even if the US has more to lose than others at the moment, all space-faring nations have an interest in avoiding the development and use of ASAT weapons.

I think that's where we are on cyber warfare, too. Some hostile actions are inevitable and better than the kinetic alternatives. But there might be international agreement on some red lines and distinctions that would make us all better off.


One of the most profound concepts I encountered in college was "trade-offs."  More of one thing usually means less of something else. I tried, with mixed success, to teach my own kids the value of applying that concept to their own daily choices.

It's obvious that America faces major economic problems and that the solutions require trade-offs. A new CBO report analyzes the choices. We can have reductions in the level of debt by increasing taxes or by draconian cuts in government spending and services, or by some combination of the two. If we insist on immediate action on debt, the economy will surely spiral into another recession. If we delay action, we may lack the political will to act in the future. To me, that argues for a comprehensive bargain that necessarily involves compromises, especially added revenues by Republicans and entitlement reforms by Democrats. I hope both sides are tough enough to bring it off.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

bureaucratic imperialists

Like most Americans, I have enormous admiration for our special operations forces, for their bravery and effectiveness. They deserve to grow in size (provided they don't suffer a loss of quality through expansion) and to receive strong budgets. But they need to be part of a balanced military and civilian national security capacity. The New York Times reports that the State Department and some in Congress are blocking a SOCOM proposal to create special foreign programs outside the normal foreign assistance laws, including a special contingency fund approved only last year. Good. We need more whole of government planning and coordination for national security, not less.

partisan divides

Years ago, I asked my great uncle why he and the rest of the family were Republicans. "When I was old enough to vote," he said, "I asked my father [a doctor from New Jersey] what the difference was between the parties. He said, 'The Republicans are for the gold standard and the protection of American industry.' And that was good enough for me."

A new Pew study says that, in the past quarter century, the biggest predictor of differences in value questions has been partisan identification -- and the gaps are growing wider.

And Stuart Rothenberg, in RollCall, notes that today's conservatives are quite different from those of the 1980s. A key difference, he notes, is the refusal to compromise, to get half a loaf now and work to get the rest later.

Both of these items augur bitter fights ahead, with even less chance of agreements.