Monday, March 31, 2014

the umpire strikes back

Some Stanford researchers say they have found regular biases in the conduct of baseball umpires. Not surprising, I suppose. But the article did bring to mind an old story about a rookie umpire preparing for his first major league game.

He went in turn to each of the three veteran umpires in the locker room to ask their philosophy about umpiring.

"I call 'em as I see 'em," said the first.

"I call 'em as they are," said the second.

The oldest and wisest umpire had a different point of view. "They ain't nothing 'til I call 'em."

That third viewpoint is a lot like they way members of Congress think about public policy.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

the shame of the states

America's federal system gives great latitude to the states to adopt different approaches to governance. They are, in the famous words of Justice Louis Brandeis, "laboratories of democracy." States pioneered progressive government, adopting public roles in referenda, recall, and ballot initiatives. Individual states led the way with a professional civil service and wages and hours laws. My homestate of Colorado was one of the earliest to grant the vote to women, in 1892.

Now, however, several states are enacting laws to restrict democracy, to shrink the number of voters, and to make it harder for people to register and vote. The New York Times notes that much of this action is in Republican-dominated swing states, where the legislatures are  reducing polling stations and early voting and imposing other barriers to broad participation.  Even Wisconsin, which has the second highest turnout in the nation and which  has elected a lot of Republicans recently, is trying to limit the franchise. The Texas attorney general, defending his state's restrictions in a civil-rights suit, denied that the law was intended to reduce black voting by admitting that it was targeted at Democrats of any color.

Tinkering with election laws for partisan advantages has a long and dishonorable history. Surely we can agree that our democracy would be stronger if we had the broadest possible participation in the political process. Enact safeguards against fraud, but don't make it so hard for willing voters to vote.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

robust diplomacy

The political vultures have been circling over President Obama in recent months, sensing and then charging weakness in foreign policy.  Some even claimed that Putin's seizure of Crimea occurred because the Russian president viewed Obama as weak.  The U.S. President said yesterday that in fact Russia was weak, and only a "regional power." Of course he'd say that.

But in fact, the Obama administration has performed remarkably well in recent weeks. The President seized the opportunity of the nuclear summit to conduct a G-7 meeting that agreed to boycott the G-8 summit in Sochi. He worked with European allies to establish serious sanctions against Russia, despite national differences over the issue. And he arranged for the first meeting in over a year between our two most important Asian allies, Japan and South Korea. That's pretty effective diplomacy for a supposedly weak U.S. president.

Best of all from the American point of view, the summit meetings dealt with real challenges instead of being derailed by backbiting over NSA surveillance.

the militarization of domestic policing

My dad was a policeman, so I have longstanding respect and admiration for those who serve and protect us. And I know that many of the bad guys have dangerous firepower. But I don't like the rush to acquire military-style combat equipment that can be deployed without much restraint against local people. Not every community really needs a SWAT team, and they certainly don't need to use them as aggressively as many now do.

The Economist reports: "that SWAT teams were deployed about 3,000 times in 1980 but are now used around 50,000 times a year. Some cities use them for routine patrols in high-crime areas. Baltimore and Dallas have used them to break up poker games. In 2010 New Haven, Connecticut sent a SWAT team to a bar suspected of serving under-age drinkers. That same year heavily-armed police raided barber shops around Orlando, Florida; they said they were hunting for guns and drugs but ended up arresting 34 people for “barbering without a licence”."

Lured by generous funding to fight drug dealers and now possible terrorists, local police are acquiring and using too much firepower, disproportionate to their real needs. Too much, already.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Irish hunger

I have no Irish ancestors that I know of, but I find the Irish people mostly charming and the Emerald Isle beautiful.  The more I learn of Irish history,the more tragic it seems. How could the English have been so brutal so often over the centuries?

Since American politicians believe in Blarney and boast any Irish connections they have around March 17, it's good that a writer named Egan has taken on a politician named Ryan over the consequences of hunger on the human soul. Timothy Egan skewers Congressman Paul Ryan for using the same kind of rhetoric against helping poor and hungry people that English officials did during the Great Famine of the 1840s. The comparisons are apt.

economist questions free trade

That's supposed to be a man bites dog headline.Most economists regularly and strongly defend tariff-lowering agreements, arguing that the broader benefits outweigh the individual disruptions and suffering.

Most economists, of course, never run for office or have to deal with voters that feel the pain of lost jobs much more than they recognize the supposed benefits of freer trade.

Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz criticizes the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement not because it would lower tariffs but because it would help corporate interests deal with government regulation. It's a point worth considering, even by those [myself included] who generally support these big trade deals -- and fault the Obama administration for not seeking fast-track trade promotion authority much earlier.

myths of the cold war

Historian Mark Kramer does a public service by listing five "myths about the cold war" in the Washington Post. I have frequently been bothered by commentators, often too young to have been politically aware during the tensest periods of the cold war, who claim that we knew who the enemy was; there was a stable balance of terror; we had a consistent and agreed policy of containment; and so forth.

As Kramer makes clear with historical examples, there was more uncertainty and conflict than we like to remember. And while anti-Soviet policies always seemed to be good politics, there was considerable disagreement over how best to tame the Russian bear.

Just as we should avoid overuse of iconic analogies like "Munich" or "Sarajevo," we should also avoid false but comforting readings of history.

Thursday, March 13, 2014


It's sad to see the CIA fighting with its Senate overseer, the Select Committee on Intelligence [SSCI]. They should be working together, for the security of us all. Instead, they are rushing toward a constitutional confrontation driven by increasing mutual suspicion. Here's a good timeline.

The apparent issue is whether the committee properly obtained and can make use of some documents prepared in 2009 and 2010 -- the "internal Panetta review" -- that has statements conflicting with the CIA's position on a draft SSCI report. That narrow issue raises important legal questions for both sides.

Those questions, however, cannot be separated from the broader context, where institutional, political, and personal factors loom large. The executive branch and its legislative overseers are in a permanent power struggle, even though the congressional intelligence panels have largely in recent years been defenders of the intelligence community. [Sen. Feinstein has been criticized by many of her fellow liberals for defending CIA drone attacks and NSA data collection.] But with evidence that the CIA searched computers assigned to the committee and sought criminal charges against staff, the SSCI has shifted into attack mode.

Whatever the facts are, they also are now viewed through a political prism. The committee launched its investigation of Bush era rendition and interrogation programs but later split over how much to criticize them. Republicans refused to support the still-classified 6,300 page report because it went too far. Thus, they have political incentives to side with the agency over the disputed documents, just as Democrats have institutional and political reasons to press ahead.

While Sen. Feinstein feels personally affronted by executive branch withholding of documents, Director Brennan has his own reasons for defending his agency, its people, and their morale.

It may turn out that this whole flap was the result of innocent human error, but both sides have now hardened their positions and escalated their concerns. They both ought to see ways to de-escalate.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

if only America was more like its army

That's the argument of Simon Kuper,a columnist for the Financial Times. He notes the the U.S. military is socialistic in its benefits; doesn't allow unauthorized weapons; embraces science; avoids racism; avoids excessive "patriotic posturing;" and likes big government.

Tongue in cheek, yes. But right on most of its particulars.

Rice pudding

Condoleezza Rice, a one-time Soviet expert and former Secretary of State, weighs in with her recommendations for handling Russia in the Post today.

She says: "Putin is playing for the long haul, cleverly exploiting every opening he sees. So must we, practicing strategic patience if he is to be stopped. Moscow is not immune from pressure."

Her only policy recommendation, however, is to restore American leadership, whatever that means.
Most important, the United States must restore its standing in the international community, which has been eroded by too many extended hands of friendship to our adversaries, sometimes at the expense of our friends. Continued inaction in Syria, which has strengthened Moscow’s hand in the Middle East, and signs that we are desperate for a nuclear agreement with Iran cannot be separated from Putin’s recent actions. Radically declining U.S. defense budgets signal that we no longer have the will or intention to sustain global order, as does talk of withdrawal from Afghanistan whether the security situation warrants it or not. We must not fail, as we did in Iraq, to leave behind a residual presence.
It's factually wrong to say U.S. defense budgets are "radically declining." The withdrawal from Iraq, of course, was based on an agreement signed by President Bush, and Afghanistan depends on agreement with the mercurial President Karzai. And while U.S. Syria policy has failed to achieve some of its goals, it's unclear what actions would be acceptable to Congress and effective.

Rice is trying to score political points rather than to propound a viable policy for dealing with Russia. "Leadership" requires followers -- and the Europeans for the most part lack the military capabilities that might frighten Putin. (Their defense budgets have been radically declining.) The Europeans also have economic vulnerabilities, including some to Russia itself, that hinders their cooperation.

The Post's diplomatic correspondent, Karen de Young, has an analysis that flatly contradicts Rice. It's not U.S. weakness, but American strength, that is bothering Putin.

Although some U.S. lawmakers have criticized Obama as appearing weak in the face of Russian aggression, U.S. officials believe that, if anything, Putin overestimates U.S. power.
In Putin’s worldview, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid inflaming an already volatile situation, the United States is responsible for engineering virtually every recent upheaval in the world, from the Arab Spring to revolution in Ukraine. And, despite Obama’s efforts to differentiate his own policies from those of his predecessors, Putin appears to see them as an unbroken continuum.

schmoozing with the Hill

The Associated Press reports that the White House is making a concerted effort to build better personal relations with members of Congress.

Among the changes was carving out about 45 minutes in the president's schedule each week for phone calls to a rotating group of three to five Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Obama used to have weekly congressional call time on his schedule, officials said, but it was dropped in 2012 as his re-election campaign picked up. Obama also asked his team to start inviting more lawmakers to fly with him on Air Force One and attend his events around the country.
The President  has also held more social gatherings for members -- "martinis and appetizers."

This can't hurt, but I doubt that it will help much. There is so much hyperpartisanship, even superficial civility is hard to generate. In the [good] old days, partisan debates were conducted with "we're right, you're wrong" arguments, and the debaters could have drinks as friends afterwards. Now the debates are "you're untrustworthy, you lie,  I don't want to be seen with you." That's not the basis for personal friendships.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

little things mean a lot

Years ago, I remember being shocked to read a report that large numbers of merchant families in some strife-torn African country [I forget which] were moving to Lebanon, then at the height of its civil war. How can things be so bad there, I wondered, that Beirut would seem secure?

I had the same feeling today reading a sad article in the Financial Times by a reporter who revisited people she knew in Baghdad. The level of violence now shocked her. Traveling even short distances could take hours because of the checkpoints. And one of her former drivers, now working for the UN in Iraq, had decided to move his family and take a UN job in Syria.

That's only an anecdote, not a statistic, but I think it tells a lot about the security situation in Iraq.

A statistical factoid I came across today also says a lot: 70% of the inmates in French prisons are Muslims. This comes from a new book by a British author that depicts a France much different from my current view, and one where the party politics are likely to be strongly influenced by this cultural divide.

My broader point is that we should be alert to these little things that may reflect current situations or portend future trends.

Putin: mastermind or improviser?

There are contrasting pictures of Russia's Ukraine intervention in the press today. The Financial Times portrays a secret Russian plot that was carried out masterfully. The pretexts for action fell into place as planned, and the operation succeeded. Western countries protested, but were calmed by Putin's apparent reasonableness and limited announced goals. Meanwhile in Russia, Putin's popularity jumped to the highest level in two years. [By the way, the FT also has a fascinating story behind its paywall saying that apparently Russia-based cyber attacks by a program called Snake have been ramping up in Ukraine in recent months.]

The New York Times has a different story. Its Moscow correspondent says that Putin made up his Ukraine policy on the go, with only limited input from his foreign policy officials.
The decision to invade Crimea, the officials and analysts said, was made not by the national security council but in secret among a smaller and shrinking circle of Mr. Putin’s closest and most trusted aides. The group excluded senior officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the cadre of comparatively liberal advisers who might have foreseen the economic impact and potential consequences of American and European sanctions.
The Times also suggests that the operation was conceived as a covert action in order not to violate Russia's position that the UN must approve international interventions. That explains Russian denials that the forces in Crimea are Russian.

It's possible, of course, that both pictures are accurate -- that Putin improvised rather than having a master plan, but that the Russian special forces sent to Crimea carried out a textbook operation.

the golden rule in Ukraine

Cynics and budgeteers have long spoken of "the golden rule" -- he who has the gold rules. There's new evidence that it may be applied in responding to the Russian activities in Ukraine. The author of a book on Putin and his oligarchs suggests in the NYTimes that the British government is putting money ahead of morality when considering sanctions:
Britain is ready to betray the United States to protect the City of London’s hold on dirty Russian money. And forget about Ukraine.
And the Washington Post reports that American businesses are rejecting sanctions unless most other countries go along.

This is a perennial complaint by the business community -- and a valid point since unilateral sanctions rarely have much impact.

On the other hand, toughness toward Russia has bipartisan political support and may prevail in the end.