Tuesday, February 16, 2016

first precedents

We take so much for granted. The Constitution was crafted, then ratified; Washington was elected president and the new government took over. True, but in fact those developments were surrounded with uncertainty and the successful outcome far from assured at the time. Historian Fergus Bordewich, who recently wrote a fine history of the development of the District of Columbia as the nation's capital, now has a gripping story of The First Congress (Simon & Schuster).

Bordewich tells of the debates and factions of the new legislature, especially as they wrestled with financing the government and dealing with heavy war debts. He praises the parliamentary acumen of James Madison, the financial expertise of Alexander Hamilton, and the deferential aloofness of George Washington. He shows how the new congress began to fracture over federal power and slavery, yet also how lawmakers compromised in order to get necessary business done.  His most compelling story is the long-running dispute over where to seat the capital and the eventually tradeoff of a site on the Potomac in exchange for assumption of all state war debt.

As he summarizes:
Like every Congress since, the First Congress was characterized by the collision of opposing interests, ideological dogmatism, preening egos, personal and sectional distrust, self-dealing, and the dragging inertia of time-serving mediocrity. But all its members shared a common fear of failure and a determination to make government work even if it meant compromising on matters of deep principle.
I wish the current batch of lawmakers felt the same.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

the globalization of campaign finance

It's bad enough that American politics has been undermined by the collapse of campaign funding laws and limits, mostly because of a naive [or politically driven] Supreme Court. Now there's evidence that the insidious influence of outside money has become a global problem.

Simon Kuper of the Financial Times has details:
  At least the US process is corrupted chiefly by homegrown US money. In many countries, foreign funds now do the job.    Buying into other people’s political systems is a bright idea that is conquering the world. Various trends in globalisation have encouraged it: ever more countries hold elections; ever more major powers seek influence abroad; and ever more billionaires can afford to buy foreign elections.

For instance, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu typically gets more than 90 per cent of his funding for his primary campaigns from American donors.    In Britain’s coming European referendum, Goldman Sachs and other American banks are among the biggest funders of the anti-Brexit campaign. Meanwhile, says the OECD’s new report, Financing Democracy, “anti-Islam groups in the US have provided financial support to Dutch politician Geert Wilders . . . whose Freedom party is the least transparent Dutch parliamentary group and a rallying point for Europe’s far right.” A year before national elections, the Freedom party leads the Dutch polls.   

But let’s not single out American money. “The Kremlin is working hard to buy off and co-opt European political forces, funding both rightwing and leftwing anti-systemic parties throughout Europe,” says US vice-president Joe Biden. France’s Front National borrowed €9.4m from the First Czech Russian Bank in Moscow. Even xenophobic parties love foreign money. The Greek far-right Golden Dawn took the well-trodden Balkan nationalist path of fundraising among the diaspora in Australia, stopping only after media kicked up a fuss.  

Like global south-to-south trade, south-to-south political funding is growing fast. China likes to help out African ruling parties, says Patrick Smith, editor of the Africa Confidential newsletter. Officials of the African National Congress have long benefited from training at the Chinese Communist party’s leadership academy in Pudong. Now the ANC is creating a Chinese-inspired academy at home in Venterskroon. Possibly coincidentally, the ANC’s head of research discovered in the course of a Chinese study tour last year that China has “opposition parties, whose role was to assist the government to govern” — a model for South Africa’s “rowdy, noisy and disagreeable opposition”, he added, in a newspaper opinion piece.   

Middle Eastern regimes have also got into the campaign-finance game. Qatar funded various Islamist movements in the Arab spring (mostly betting on losing horses). 
Here's a link to the OECD report that Kuper mentions.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

hard truths about Syria

Max Fisher of Vox has a persuasive list  of what a mess Syria is in and how inadequate most proposed solutions are. He calls the peace talks doomed, a Sunni army a mirage, a no fly zone unhelpful. I agree. He also makes the telling point that America's allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia are making things worse.

I'd add another deeply troubling factor: the longer the war goes on, the greater the risk to Europe. The migrant crisis is already fraying the civility and unity of the European community and risks empowering groups who reject toleration and civil liberties.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

good people with bad ideas

It's discouraging to discover that people admirable for some reasons had a dark side. It's one thing to re-rank Woodrow Wilson lower on the scale of heroes because of his racism, but even more troubling to recognize how many bad ideas the supposedly great Progressives were.

Thomas Leonard, a historian of economics, teaches valuable lessons in his book, Illiberal Reformers. 
Early 20th century reformers, called Progressives, wanted to make government less corrupt, make government more democratic, and give government, especially the federal government, a larger role in the economy. I still believe that those are noble goals. Politics at the time was terribly corrupt in places and many were even denied the right to vote. Only the federal government had the power to stand up to the big Trusts that dominated the economy.

What Leonard makes embarrassingly clear, however, that the Progressives were elitists, not democrats, and that they had an unjustified faith in administration, provided it was done by one of their own. They accepted Darwinism but wanted to managed heredity and reduce the number of "unfit" people.

They thought they were scientists, but their science was clouded by moralism. [Leonard notes that 23 of the 55 founding members of the American Economic Association in 1885 were clergymen. Economics was based on the social gospel.]

The biggest sin of Progressives, in my view after reading Leonard, was their fondness for eugenics, the scientific racism that so many notables in the Progressive movement shared. Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Jane Addams, leading professors of what they called the social sciences, political liberals and conservatives -- large numbers embraced the teachings of eugenics.

So do we burn all their books and take their names off all the university buildings? No. But we can use this as a teaching moment, to remind ourselves and others that good people can have bad ideas. and that we all should be wary of the hubris of certitude.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

spelling rules

There's a fight in France over French. The language authorities have adopted some minor spelling changes, especially elimination of the circumflex -- ^ -- over some vowels.

There is no similar body for English, where spelling was not standardized until late in the 18th century -- and still is split between British and American styles.

Exactly 110 years ago, that radical Republican Theodore Roosevelt tried to change spelling in US government documents. He drew on suggestions by a board of notables funded by Andrew Carnegie. Here's the story.
The Board wanted to make written English phonetic again, as it was long ago, before silent letters such as "e" (as in "axe"), "h" (as in "ghost"), "w" (as in "answer"), and "b" (as in "debt") crept in. However, silent letters were not the only aspect of spelling that bothered these gentlemen.
There were other commonly used words that were just more complex than they needed to be. For instance, the word "bureau" could much more easily be spelled if it was written as "buro." The word "enough" would be spelled more phonetically as "enuf," just as "though" could be simplified to "tho." And, of course, why have a "ph" combination in "phantasy" when it could much more easily be spelled "fantasy."
Unbeknownst to the Simplified Spelling Board, President Theodore Roosevelt sent a letter to the United States Government Printing Office on August 27, 1906. In this letter, Roosevelt ordered the Government Printing Office to use the new spellings of the 300 words detailed in the Simplified Spelling Board's circular in all documents emanating from the executive department.
President Roosevelt's public acceptance of simplified spelling caused a wave of reaction. Although there was public support in a few quarters, most of it was negative. Many newspapers began to ridicule the movement and lambasted the President in political cartoons. Congress was especially offended at the change, most likely because they had not been consulted. On December 13, 1906, the House of Representatives passed a resolution stating that it would use the spelling found in most dictionaries and not the new, simplified spelling in all official documents. With public sentiment against him, Roosevelt decided to rescind his order to the Government Printing Office.
Think how much money could have been saved by using shorter, phonetic words. Enuf sed.

can't get good help anymore

In the aftermath of last week's near-record snow in Washington, I saw many complaints from adults abut teenagers unwilling to shovel walks even for pay. What seemed a fair fee was spurned by kids eager to say inside and online.

We are not alone. The Financial Times reports that Moscow has an acute shortage of snow shovelers because Central Asian migrants have gone home.

The changing weather has also exposed a new reality in Russia’s labour market: as low oil prices threaten a second consecutive year of economic contraction, many of the central Asian migrants who once comprised most of the city’s army of snow cleaners have returned home. In their absence, employers are struggling to find Russians to replace them.
The dwindling migrant population has left Moscow’s communal services struggling to keep up with this year’s large snowfall. After the unexpected thaw last week, the mayor’s office advised people to stay home and drivers to take public transport so as to avoid large pools of black ice that have gone uncleared.    Some Muscovites have expressed their frustration by taking shovels in hand and piling mounds of snow in the streets and outside municipal buildings in protest.
Maybe this problem will be resolved by global warming.

Friday, February 5, 2016

who dunnit?

I confess. I like mystery novels -- and that means detective fiction and police procedurals and thrillers. For me, one of the biggest perks from working in the Senate was the ability to take home copies of the newest mysteries from the Library of Congress, where 2 copies of every book have to be deposited for copyright purposes. Now I have to wait in line at my local library.

I have some favorite authors, from John Buchan and Nicholas Blake to Ruth Rendell and Michael Connelly, and regional authors who write about places I enjoy visiting like Archer Mayor in Vermont and C.J. Box in Wyoming. [I find it hard, however, to get excited about stories set in Florida or Italy.]

Anyway, I was prompted to think about these books by an article listing the "rules" of detective fiction by various authors in the 1940s -- Raymond Chandler and S.S. Van Dine. Take a look.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

SecDef vs CJCS?

War on the Rocks has another provocative essay, this time on civil-military relations and military advice. Shawn Brimley and Loren DeJonge Schulman of CNAS suggest that this issue should be considered as lawmakers ponder how or whether to revise the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. That law accomplished a lot is improving America's ability to plan and fight joint military operations. Now the authors suggest changes in the relationship between the JCS Chairman and the Secretary of Defense. One of their ideas is for a true General Staff, something Congress explicitly prohibited because of fears of a Prussian-style military.

I'm not sure where I'd stand on the issue now, but I welcome the dialogue on these issues of civil-military relations and enhancing civilian control of the military.

boots on the ground

Nancy Youssef and Shane Harris of the Daily Beast complain that the Pentagon won't say how many U.S. military personnel are now in Iraq. But then they tell us anyway: 4,450 U.S. military personnel plus 7,000 contractors, 1,100 of whom are U.S. citizens.

If there's any lesson from the Vietnam war that military and civilian leaders, along with supporters and opponents of that conflict, agree on, it's Don't Play Numbers Games. Lyndon Johnson lost public trust when he repeatedly denied that he was escalating the war with additional troops and expanded missions. Robert McNamara lost the trust of the military and the American public by emphasizing "body counts" of enemy dead rather than accomplishment of military objectives.

For the most part -- with occasional lapses -- the U.S. military has avoided body counts as metrics for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Civilian officials shouldn't forget that lesson.

The increasingly heavy reliance on contractor personnel in those conflicts, however, tempted American officials to play numbers games by talking only about the military personnel on combat missions. That's an important figure, of course, but shouldn't be the only one revealed.

Now we are in the ridiculous posture of arguing over whether military advisers are "boots on the ground." Of course they are. We should be arguing over what the American forces are doing, and whether their numbers and missions make sense, not whether some arbitrary line has been crossed.