Saturday, May 31, 2003

I haven't written about the recent FCC proposed regulatory change to allow media companies to become even larger and swallow up more of the media landscape. I find the issue incredibly depressing because 1) the proposed changes are terrible policy, and 2) there is no way they are going to be stopped.

But the whole episode demonstrates the danger of an argument that has been advanced in many other regulatory debates over the last two decades. The argument is that there is nothing inherently wrong with large business entities, and thus the burden is on opponents to come up with arguments why entities shouldn't be allowed to dominate their markets.

This argument directly contravenes the received common wisdom concerning regulation in this country from about 1890 to 1980. The legislative policy behind the federal antitrust laws, and the charter of many regulatory agencies like the FCC, was that the ideal market consists of a multitude of small entities competing against each other. While not every market can be converted to the ideal, there was not a serious question that a market in that state should be precluded by regulation from stagnating into oligopoly and then sinking into eventual monopoly.

Now, there are some qualifiers involved, principally industries featuring strong economies of scale. But there is no evidence that media companies of all things feature strong economies of scale. Is the marginal cost of a company producing its 100th sitcom really lower than the marginal cost of another company producing its 20th? That's silly on its face.

The arguments for the benefits of allowing media conglomeration are incredibly evanescent. They fall along two lines. The first are airy assertions of the benefits of synergy. The second are really dressing up monopoly returns as a benefit instead of a social cost (i.e., giving advertising customers "greater penetration" in their markets). Neither comes close to justifying variance from what should be the default position of preventing markets from becoming too concentrated unless there is a very good reason particular to the industry involved that justifies doing so. Maybe when Americans see the travesty that has taken place in commercial radio repeted with commercial television programming, they will realize what was at stake.
Friday, May 30, 2003

The ever-insightful Steve Soto has the analysis here
  TOTALLY 80's

On the radio, there is a lot of nostalgia for the 1980s, but I think they're missing it by a century or so. The real parallels are with the Guilded Age. Let' go to the checklist.

Single party government by Republicans? Check.

Disparities between rich and poor widening rapidly? Check.

Conservative judiciary in place to overturn the rare liberal piece of legislation? Check.

Shortages of space in hospitals exacerbating disease among poor? Check.

People in Executive Branch arguing that America should become an imperial power? Check.

Large corporations buying up legislators? Check.

All is in order. You are now free to prey upon the country. 
Thursday, May 29, 2003

In competitive chess, a classic mistake is to make your plans for the game but assume your opponent won't do much in the meantime but wait for you to carry out your ingenious scheme. I know one guy who referred to this syndrome as "playing as if you were playing against a statute."

The neocons seemed to have fallen prey to this failing. They think they will carry out their plans while the world waits for it to happen. But of course other players are putting their counter-vailing plans into effect. Iran has speeded up efforts to develop a nuclear weapon to stave off invasion. Russia and China are beginning to work out how to start an alliance against American hegemony. Russia/China. (Expect the next invites to go to France and Germany). And the fundamentalists in Pakistan are growing ever stronger because of how we humiliated Musharraff while stiffing Afghanistani reconstruction.Pakistan.

In other words, before the neocons get to the end of their plan, all sorts of counter-moves will be made to stop them. I'd feel a lot better if they gave the slightest inclination they expected some counter-moves and have a plan for stopping them. But all indications are they think they're playing a statute. I just hope we don't lose too many pieces before someone else takes over the play for our side. 

Shermaclay. shermaclay. 

Has clearly become the Bush Administration's deception on weapons of mass destruction. The links below come via a variety of other blogs, so I can't credit any of them but the source documents.

The first bombshell is Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz's admission here that weapons of mass destruction were advanced as the primary justification for the war for political reasons:

Wolfowitz, seen as one of the most hawkish figures in the Bush administration's policy on Iraq, said President Saddam Hussein (news - web sites)'s alleged cache of chemical, biological and possibly nuclear weapons was merely one of several reasons behind the decision to go to war.

For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on," Wolfowitz was quoted as saying in Vanity Fair magazine's July issue.

Just as shocking was his admission that a huge motivation for him was caving in to Osama Bin Laden's long-term demand that U.S. troops vacate Saudi Arabia:

Wolfowitz said another reason for the invasion had been "almost unnoticed but huge" -- namely that the ousting of Saddam would allow the United States to remove its troops from Saudi Arabia, where their presence had long been a major al Qaeda grievance.

Put this admission together with Billmon's devestating chronology of administration claims about weapons of mass destruction here.

Now, put this together with statements like that from hard-core hawk Mark Bowden that administration lying about weapons of mass destruction to induce us into war is simply not acceptable no matter how bad Saddam was here

In sum, the administration is admitting that weapons of mass destruction were not the real issue but merely a selling point to get us into the war, their mistatements in selling the war are amply documented, and at least some hawkish conservatives consider this kind of lying unacceptable. Sounds like the conditions for a perfect political storm are brewing. Will our fine and able media disseminate this information to the general public? Stop your snickering. Cross your fingers and hope they do.

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

In the post below about building democracy overseas, I mentioned that the administration had failed to lay the political ground work necessary to prepare this country to make the sacrifices necessary to democratize Iraq. The administration's failure to do so raises the question debated frequently on the left side of the Blogosphere about the administration's foreign policy adventures: incompetence or venality?

To date, I had thought that at least some component of the neocons were sincere in their desire to democratize the Middle East. I thought they had a point that supporting despots in the Middle East is not merely morally flawed, but self-defeating in practical terms since the policy simply stokes Muslim rage and creates an ever-increasing supply of terrorists. I knew not all neocons felt this way, and it was an open question how much the real powers in the administration bought into this aspect of the neocon vision, but I thought it was a significant part of the neocon policy framework.

Not anymore. I had my doubts when I read the stories last week about Wolfowitz criticizing the Turkish military for not delivering support for the Iraq war despite the overwhelming opposition of the Turkish people. That's not something a true proponent of democratization would ever say. But this story about the neocons wanting to focus Iranian opposition around the heir to the Pahlavi throne establishes the point:
Pahlavi Rides Again

If you wanted to democratize Iran, the last person you would bring to the party is a Pahlavi. No one could do more to alienate the parliamentarians and students who would provide the core of any democratizing forces in Iran. I should have known better; the neocons in power are simply not interested in democratizing the Middle East. 

It seems the administration's constantly shifting rationales for the Iraq war have finally settled on getting rid of Saddam and installing democracy in his stead. After all, not much is left of their other arguments since the weapons of mass destruction are nowhere to be found and the links to Al Qaeda never materialized. Everyone's favorite example of America assisting in the construction of overseas democracy is post-WWII Germany and Japan. Critics have pointed out differences between 2003 Iraq and 1945 Germany and Japan to argue that democratization won't work this time around.

But the most important difference may be here, not there. In 1945, America had just fought a massive war, had over 300,000 soldiers killed in combat, and felt that war arose in large part because the peace after World War I had been mishandled. In other words, the American people were extremely committed to doing whatever was necessary to ensure that the aftermath of World War II was handled the right way so that they would never again have to fight a massive war in Europe. Some of the ablest statesmen we've ever had linked this desire to the program to rebuild Western Europe into functioning capitalist democracies. As the Cold War got chillier in the late 1940s, the desire to build up democracies that would join our side and resist the advance of the communism added another aspect of self-interest to American support for the program.

America in 2003 is quite different. The administration did not sell this war on the grounds that we would have to stick around afterwards to build democracy. Sure, that possibility was mentioned, but a realistic accounting of the cost was always hidden. Indeed, Lawrence Lindsey was fired for quantifying the cost before the war started. Also, because the links between toppling Saddam and 9/11 are evanescent if not non-existent, the anger people fell about 9/11 has not been channeled into support for a rebuilding program. Nor is it easy to convince people to make sacrifices to build democracy overseas at the same time you are convincing them that they deserve a tax cut so they can hold onto more of "their money."

All of which means that we are unlikely to put the resources into Iraq that would be necessary to make democratization work. A steady stream of suicide bombings and guerilla war will remind people of Somalia or the Israeli experience on the West Bank, inspiring thoughts of just leaving the mess behind. Plus, it's easy to envision anti-Bush campaign ads in October 2004 juxtaposing equipment paid for by American tax dollars going into Iraqi hospitals and schools while Iowa hospitals and Oregon schools are closing for lack of funds. A tag line something like, "Why does President Bush care more about helping Iraqis than helping Americans?" might mean the end of Iraqi reconstruction shortly after Inauguration Day in 2005.

If I recall correctly, it took around four years to rebuild Germany and seven years to rebuild Japan. There is nowhere near the political will in this country to hang around Iraq that long if it goes badly, a factor the neocons should have worked into their master plan before, not after, deciding to invade Iraq. 
Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Or does anyone else find it ironic that conservative Republicans win out over liberal Democrats in the public mind on the issues of patriotism and who is more "American?" After all, which group is aligned with those who wave the Stars and Bars, symbol of the most widespread and destructive act of treason ever committed against the United States? That we have reached the point where neo-Confederates can play the patriotism card without fear of counter-attack just shows how one-sided political dialogue has become in this country. 
Sunday, May 25, 2003

In the Spring of 1864 the Union's Army of the Potomac fought a battle called the Wilderness that went much like their battle in the Spring of 1863 called Chancelorsville. As Bruce Catton says, "Each time, a Union army with a great advantage in numbers had plunged into a forest where numbers did not help much, had seen its flanks broken in, and had had very heavy losses." The soldiers expected that the Army of the Potomac would do what it always did after getting thumped by Robert E. Lee, retreat back to Washington to lick its wounds, reinforce, and reorganize. The army marched down a road and came to a cross-road. They knew the left fork would take them back to Washington while the right fork would take them on to Richmond.

When they got there, General Grant was waiting on horseback. Saying little as always, he made it clear that the army was taking the right fork; they were carrying the fight further South. And his men cheered and cheered. Again Catton says it best, "They had had their fill of desperate fighting, and this pitiless little man was leading them into nothing except more fighting, and probably there would be no end to it, but at least he was not leading them back in sullen acceptance of defeat, and somewhere, many miles ahead, there would be victory for those who lived to see it." This Memorial Day, I'll be thinking of all those who cheered but didn't live to see the victory their deaths made possible. Those are the type of people who made the country we enjoy living in. 

As a veteran primary watcher, I thought 18 months ago or so that only two guys had a realistic shot at the nomination: John Kerry and Jack Edwards. (In other words, even before Al Gore took a pass, I didn’t think he’d make it if he ran).

I didn’t see how Joe Lieberman could get the nomination. For one thing, he is too conservative for most Democrats. Now some people will point to his vote on this or that, or his rating by some organization or another, and say that he is not all that conservative. But you can tell most about a politician by what he emphasizes, what he wants to be known for. Before this campaign, Lieberman’s whipped out his megaphone to scold Clinton over the Lewinsky affair, scold Hollywood over “immoral” entertainment, and keep the SEC from cracking down on accounting shenanigans in the late 1990s. That’s hardly a liberal agenda. Worse, he got his clock cleaned by Dick Cheney in the 2000 Vice-Presidential debate by being too mealy-mouthed. That’s not a promising sign for any Democrat, given the criticism they will have to withstand from the Mighty Wurlitzer. Most fundamentally from the standpoint of political handicapping, Lieberman wore poorly over the course of the 2000 campaign. Most people were disposed to like Lieberman when Gore picked him as a running mate, but ended up thinking Lieberman was kinda smarmy, what Eddie Haskel turned out to be when he grew up. Since, as Mark Shields says, casting a vote for President is the most personal vote most people ever cast, these sorts of personal, emotional reactions matter.

I didn’t see Dick Gephardt getting the nomination either. He’s the Bob Dole of the Democratic Party, hanging on until most of his national peers either get their shot or fell off the pace to the point where he’s one of the few left who can run for the White House credibly. Unlike Republicans, however, Democrats are not big on going with a guy just because it is supposed to be his turn. (Witness Muskie in 1972, Scoop Jackson in 1976, Hart and then Biden in 1988). Gephardt can say whatever he wants at this point, but he inspires no one. Like Lieberman, his fund-raising has been weak for an establishment candidate. If he won the nomination, he could well complete the transformation of the Democratic Party into the Washington Generals, a team that shows up to get beat just so we can delude ourselves into thinking we are watching a real game.

Kerry and Edwards have more palpable strengths. Kerry beat William Weld in Massachusetts. That may not sound like much, but Weld was incredibly popular in the state and Kerry beat him easily. That taught me not to underestimate Kerry. As for Edwards, he was the only one I saw with the sort of telegenic charisma that brings Bill Clinton to mind. As a trial lawyer, he figured to be well suited for the rough and tumble of attack politics. The entry of Sharpton, Braun, and Kucinich in the campaign did nothing to change my mind about the identity of the contenders with a real chance.

But two developments have broadened the possibilities. First is the entry of Bob Graham. Like Kerry, he brings a strong resume from his home state political career. Plus, he can legitimately criticize President Bush on the war on terrorism, which somebody has to do even if it doesn’t redound to his own benefit. I can see him rolling up the field from the center, putting Lieberman and Edwards out of the race to face the champion from the left, Kerry . . .

Or Howard Dean, the second development. National pundits like to attribute Dean’s surge in popularity to an “anti-war” movement, but they are missing the point. Dean was gaining momentum even before the war because he articulated the frustration of a lot of grass roots Democrats. The attack on Dean by the DLC and other establishment Democrats a week or two ago is a sign that they realize he is tapping into a sense of revolt among rank-and-file Democrats, who are sick of seeing their supposed leaders in Washington meekly roll over for Bush or give only the most tepid voice to opposition.

So it looks to work out this way. Gephardt wins in Iowa and moves on. Dean or Kerry wins New Hampshire and picks up the banner of the left. Edwards or Graham wins in South Carolina and picks up the banner of the center. As those three keep going, Gephardt eventually falls by the wayside because he is too bland and uninspiring, leaving the left candidate and the center candidate to fight the final duel for the nomination.

How cloudy is my crystal ball? Only time will tell.
Friday, May 23, 2003
  Steal this idea, please!


The Political Problem

Democrats confront a huge deficit in public confidence on national security issues. In 2002, they tried to take that deficit off the table by largely agreeing with President Bush on national security matters. That tactic clearly failed then and is doomed to fail in the future. Because Democrats are generally considered weaker on national security issues than Republicans, the Democratic agreement with Republicans is simply not credited. In other words, the general public and swing voters don’t believe Democrats are sincere in their agreement but are merely mouthing agreement in order to win elections. Under this view, the prospect that Democrats would revert to weak national security policies at the first opportunity is too great to entrust them with power.

The Substantive Problem

Prime Minister Blair gave the best diagnosis of the post-9/11 problem. He spotlighted the potential combination of two previously distinct threats: 1) terrorists who will not scruple to kill as many innocent Western civilians as they can, and 2) rogue states that are developing weapons of mass destruction. If the terrorists get their hands on the weapons, the result will be calamity. Although President Bush has focused national attention on the first prong, his record on the second is much weaker, as can be witnessed in his uncertain response to the North Korean nuclear threat, his unwillingness to fully fund the program to secure nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union, his passivity in the face of Pakistani-Indian nuclear brinkmanship, and his willingness to let Yemen obtain North Korean missiles.

The Solution

Either a party organ or a presidential candidate should propose to form a pact with a handful of other democratic countries. Pact members would begin a forceful campaign to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction to countries that don’t already have them (Iran, Syria) and then eliminate them from some countries that have already obtained them (North Korea, Pakistan, India). Marketing or political consulting types can come up with a better name, but I think of it as the “Atticus Pact,” named after the character in To Kill a Mockingbird who has to shoot a rabid dog before it bites someone. At early stages, the identity of the other countries might not necessarily be identified, but the thought would be to include countries like England, Russia, Australia, Turkey (to represent the Islamic Middle East), and an East Asian democracy (preferably Japan, perhaps the Philippines if Japan were unwilling or would be unhelpful).

The pact would take strong action, beginning with cajoling and moral suasion, but including the possibility of sanctions, blockades, seizures of shipments, Osirak type unannounced raids on facilities, or full military incursions leading to regime change, whatever is necessary to limit and eventually reduce the number of countries with access to weapons of mass destruction. The pact would co-ordinate with pre-existing multilateral organizations such as UNMOVIC and the International Atomic Energy Administration, but would reserve the right to act on its own if approval from the United Nations Security Council were not forthcoming. The rational for this provision is that weapons of mass destruction are simply too dangerous to be tolerated if the United Nations continues its reluctance to authorize force. The pact’s goal might even be the eventual elimination of all such weapons, even from member countries, but only after such weapons were blocked conclusively from unreliable countries.

The Substantive Advantage

Although terrorism must be fought, it will never be eliminated completely. As the recent Al Qaeda bombings demonstrate, decentralized terrorists groups, much like ordinary criminals, can usually be punished only after they have committed violence. We will try to catch as many as we can beforehand, but we will never get them all ahead of time. In contrast, weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, typically require governmental support, facilities and equipment that are more easily traced. In short, we have a much better chance of finding all mass destruction weapon facilities than we have of finding all the shadowy terrorists conspiring in private homes around the world.

The Political Advantage

The pact represents a strong step into territory where President Bush’s record is weak. Because it is multilateral, the pact concept avoids many of the objections that President Bush’s unilateralist positions have inspired. By promising to co-ordinate with UN institutions, the pact concept should appeal to the many who have hope for the future of that organization. By reserving the right to act without the UN, the pact concept should be resistant to criticisms from those who think the United States should not give the United Nations a veto over actions required by the United States’ own security needs. By promising to lead to fewer nuclear weapons, the pact concept should appeal to the anti-nuclear traditions of the Left. By promising to reduce the likelihood of weapons of mass destruction, the pact concept should appeal to many looking for ways to make the post-9/11 world safer.

The substantive answer to the post-9/11 problem also involves another component, a myriad of steps, including nation building, to “drain the swamp” where potential terrorists breed by improving the societies from which they spring. But if Democrats talk only about that aspect of the solution, they will sound to all too many independents and moderate Republicans like the worst caricature of liberals: people who blame American first and think a mammoth social program is the answer to every problem. By emphasizing the pact concept as a primary policy response to 9/11, Democrats will demonstrate that they are willing to take the tough actions necessary to save American lives, but are smart enough to do so effectively.

I've been wasting, er, um, investing so much time reading blogs that I've decided to take a shot at publishing my own in the far-fetched hope that I can add to the discussion. This blog is about what I think, not who I am, so you won't find rambling discourses about pets, favorite sports teams and the like. Rather, the focus is on current political and policy issues. In a desperate effort to demonstrate that my liberal arts education wasn't a waste of parental money designed to delay my entry into the labor force, I'll be bringing to the discussion various points from subjects like economics, history, and anything else I can grab that might make my points more pervasive.

If you read the blog, maybe you'll eventually figure out my political leanings. I'm kinda hoping to figure that out myself in the process. You'll find I'm generally somewhat left of center, but on particular issues I can range from far left to right. In other words, like almost everyone I've met, I don't sign on to each and every agenda of any party or political interest group. But be forewarned; I'm a Democrat and would desparately love to help resuscitate the comatose life form that used to be the party. Enjoy. 
Where Politics, Policy, Economics, History, and Foreign Affairs Mingle Uncomfortably

May 2003 / June 2003 / July 2003 /

Powered by Blogger