China and its Discontents

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The Hope Still Lives and the Dream Shall Never Die

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Below is a speech I gave at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center election party this morning.

Four years ago in the summer of ’08, I was an organizing fellow on the Obama for America campaign in the Manchester, NH field office (organizing fellow being a glorified name for an intern). I wouldn’t even turn 18 until that October, and it was my first campaign. It was an exciting time for a young person to be involved in politics. The most poignant time came that June, when I staffed the first joint campaign event between then candidate Obama and then gracious loser Hillary Clinton, in aptly named Unity, NH. Unity is one of those bucolic and placid rural little towns everyone thinks of when they think of presidential campaigning and New Hampshire. It has about 500 people, and about 3000 showed up for the event. Of course it was all grand political theater, if the name didn’t tip you off. A giant 50 foot American flag framed the two erstwhile competitors as they walked in for the benefit of the tv cameras. David Axelrod was standing on a grassy hill 20 yards away wearing shades, talking on his cell phone and surveying the situation. U2 was blasting on the sound system. Obama and Clinton were wearing the biggest grins of their careers, as if a grueling primary campaign had not just ended.

In that moment, I understood why people persist in working in such a blighted field as politics. The energy of the crowd and the magnetism of the speakers fed into each other in a kind of feedback loop. It was all a bit much for a very young 17-year old who, by the way, had not even started college yet.

About an hour after the event, after Obama and Clinton had left and a sudden rain had driven away the crowds, we were left to clean up. I remember walking up onto the stage, sitting on what seemed like a sacred stool, and looking out over the podium at an impossibly still scene, the same place an hour earlier that was full of such raw emotion. It felt good.

Four years later, the US and the world feel like a very different place. There’s a sense that America is searching for something that it lost, a common purpose, perhaps. Some of us feel that we’ve been collectively scarred and made impotent by the hollowing out of the American economy, ineffectual institutions, and debasing of a sense of community from a different age. But I have a feeling that America has experienced these kinds of problems before, and gotten through them. In fact, we even have a name for this continuous process of lament followed by renewal in American history: the jeremiad, named after the Biblical prophet Jeremiah. After every period of excess, we’ve always returned to the moral center, relying on traditional American values to move forward.

Some people might critique the campaign process as overly emotional. They want to rationally and logically vote for every candidate. But in a very important way, the campaign, as irrational as it is, is necessary. In the parlance of the Obama ’08 campaign, it gets us fired up, ready to go. This sort of emotional appeal represents a form of idealism that lifts us up out of the morass, and gets us working on the substantive stuff. At least in my own life, the naïveté has hopefully diminished somewhat but the optimism has never retreated. And in the words of Ted Kennedy, “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

Written by Will

November 6th, 2012 at 8:12 pm

Astonishing Die Welt Interview with Netanyahu

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This Die Welt interview with Netanyahu conducted on Holocaust Memorial Day (of all days) is astounding for various reasons:

  • Netanyahu compares Günter Grass to a “teenager in a Neo-Nazi party” for calling for inspections of Israel’s nuclear weapons in the poem “What Must Be Said.”
  • Netanyahu cements the Nazi-Iran analogy in front of a German audience.
  • Netanyahu misses any sense of perspective as he makes the jump from the Jewish people in WWII to the nuclear-armed Jewish state, speaking of the “power inversions” Grass makes in his poem when he supposedly conflates aggressors with victims, while completely ignoring the power inversion Netanyahu himself has just made in the analogy with the Holocaust.
  • And finally Netanyahu quotes Bernard Lewis, saying he thinks that in Iran’s mind, “mutually assured destruction is not deterrence but an inducement.” Netanyahu also exclaims, “This is not true!” when the interview begins a question saying, “Iran might be a vile regime but it hasn’t proven to be a suicidal regime…”

I can accept some arguments in favor of the hypothetical of striking Iran’s nuclear weapons program (for example, that Iran’s mere possession of nuclear weapons will remove constraints on Iran, which will respond by increasing its support of and the violence perpetrated by Hamas, Hezbollah, and terrorist and US interests-undermining and state-subverting activities in Iraq and Afghanistan).

But Netanyahu is not making those arguments. Netanyahu is making bad arguments that push the “jihad” mindset onto a nation-state that is interested in expanding its power and influence and preserving its existence like any other state.

Written by Will

April 22nd, 2012 at 6:03 pm

“Who’s The Rich Guy? Obama, Romney Duel Over Status”

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I spurted out my coffee when I read that headline in this morning’s Playbook. As James Fallows notes, this is yet another example of false equivalence in the media. Yes, President Obama is by far better off than the vast majority of Americans. But who is wealthier? Mitt wins this no contest.

Written by Will

April 11th, 2012 at 10:06 pm

What’s Wrong with the Israel-Iran Nukes Story?

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The United States news media’s coverage of the possibility of Israel or the U.S. targeting Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program is not really about Iran; it is about us. Just as Herbert Gans noted that Vietnam was primarily a domestic news story in the 60’s and 70’s, the Iranian nuclear threat is also. (Gans, 37) Most recent news coverage has devolved into a few dominant narratives, representing different political factions. Different media outlets either report on or explicitly represent the factions, and they generally make arguments that have very little to do with the substantive evidence for or against the existence of Iran’s nuclear capability; rather, the news follows election year trends, the possibility of war as it relates to the Jewish population in the United States, and criticism of the political actors involved.

The first narrative, representing the contingent of neoconservatives who pushed for war with Iraq in 2003, also supports not only a limited tactical strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, but even a large-scale war. This perspective mainly shows up as representing the policy positions of the GOP presidential candidates or as the author’s view in opinion pieces. And then there is the narrative told by the traditional news sources such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. Most major news organizations were embarrassed by the general failure to “get it right” on Iraq a decade ago, when they almost uncritically accepted the administration’s arguments that Saddam Hussein possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). This time around, mainstream news is slightly more cautious in tone, but it still rarely publishes explicitly foreign-centric stories or stories with a serious consideration of the evidence on both sides, for and against Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons. The mainstream media much prefers to focus on the domestic political situation. Finally, there is the more liberal coverage, which often focuses on politics or criticisms of the neoconservatives for being so blithe about war.

Before one can even approach these narratives, one thing is glaringly clear: the news does not focus on the fact that the U.S. Intelligence Community still stands by its 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) stating that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003, and that Iran continues to only enrich nuclear fuel, which could be used for a variety of peaceful purposes. This was reported on once in February by The New York Times, and scarcely appears in any of the related articles that I surveyed, either at the New York Times or at any other news organization. Much more common is the domestic political news story: “U.S. Backers of Israel Pressure Obama Over Policy on Iran.” This story is far more newsworthy. Why write about the intelligence community when you can report on Eric Cantor at the meeting of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC): “We must stop following mirages in the Middle East and start following through on this reality: our mission in the Middle East is to drive our stake in the sand with our values—to proclaim our values rather than apologize for them.” If the news chose to highlight Senate testimony by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper saying that Iran is not building the bomb, the media would kill the most profitable and long-lasting angle by which to view a possible war with Iran. Political squabbles can extend on forever. The story will never end—according to Paul Begala (writing in The Daily Beast), war with Iran is one of the GOP’s biggest strengths going into this election year.

One factor complicating Israel’s and the United States’ decision to strike is the two countries’ on-and-off-again relationship. And it has become “a complication” in this otherwise calculating story of whether to strike Iran precisely because the media has made it so. President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have notoriously not gotten along—it is mentioned in almost every newspaper article where the two are discussed in tandem. And they are supposed to disagree: President Obama comes from the center-left party in the United States while Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party is partnered in a coalition government with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s nationalist and ultra-conservative Yisrael Beiteinu Party. But instead of focusing on the conflict between two governments based on legitimate policy differences, the media casts this as an acrimonious personal dispute between the two men. Why cast this as a story of, “If Mr. Obama trusted Mr. Netanyahu more, he might issue a more muscular statement of military threat to Iran…And if Mr. Netanyahu trusted Mr. Obama more, he would be less jumpy over every statement of caution emerging from Washington,” as so many stories do? Surely the entire diplomatic decision-making process does not rely solely on a pop-psychology assessment of the two.

And when the media cannot play up “Bibi” and Obama’s disagreements, they focus on how the President and every other mainstream politician must remain unswervingly loyal to the state of Israel. One might think that these are two contradictory narratives. But this oath of support to Israel is apparently the sole metric by which Jewish Americans decide who to vote for. Obama, even after clashing with Netanyahu over military action against Iran and even after denouncing the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, cannot completely rebuke Israel (when push came to shove, he did not even follow-through with support of a UN resolution officially rebuking Israel for the “illegal” settlements). For the Republican Party, “fealty” to Israel is a solemn vow. For the Democratic Party, “fealty” to Israel is (mostly) a solemn vow. At this past week’s AIPAC meeting, President Obama assured the attendees that he is behind Israel every step of the way: “So there should not be a shred of doubt by now — when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.” In a blog post by Colum Lynch on, President Obama’s Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice is quoted as putting it in even more emotionally charged terms, relating her memories “as a 14 year-old tourist where she floated in the Dead Sea,” of a visit with then Senator Barack Obama where she touched the “charred long remnants of the rockets that Hamas continues to fire at the brave unyielding citizens of Sderot,” and of her favorite psalm, “’Hinei ma’tov u’ma-nayim, shevet ach-im gam ya-chad’ — or ‘how good it is and how pleasant when we sit together in brotherhood.’” Rice went even so far as to say: “Last October, when the Syrian regime’s ambassador, speaking in the Security Council, had the temerity — the chutzpah — to accuse the United States and Israel of being parties to genocide, I led our delegation in walking out.” (Ital added) How is this any different than when Obama delivers a sermon in a Black church speaking Ebonics? What is surprising about this whole episode is not just that Susan Rice quoted psalms in Hebrew that have an almost comically transparent political effect and chose to sprinkle in some Yiddish to play up the schtick—it is that the blogger, Lynch, not only thought to make a whole post revolve around that schtick but also to entitle it, “Has Susan Rice found her cojones moment?” And this happens in the media all the time. Do politicians say these things because they think the AIPAC attendees and the American Jewish population will simply accept it uncritically, that it won’t sound like pandering? And do journalists dutifully report these speeches because they don’t know any better? Or do they not want to make a fuss over a common political trope, so they pass it along with a nudge and a wink? Or did Lynch write that post because he actually supports these theatrics, and didn’t stop to think that his title might be misogynistic? It is hard to accept the last conclusion, but it is probably the most correct (perhaps a combination of the latter two).

But some in the media have commented on the absurdity of AIPAC and the reversal of Israel’s “client state” dynamic with the United States. Israel, after all, receives nearly three billion dollars annually in foreign aid from the United States. Why does the U.S. President, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, and politicians of all political stripes have to speak in emotional terms of their undying loyalty to the state of Israel, when it is in fact Israel that needs us more than we need them? In his blog at The Atlantic’s website, James Fallows noted (speaking of the President’s AIPAC speech), “I can’t think of another situation where an American president, speaking to an American audience on American soil, would find it necessary or dignified to plead his bona fides in a similar way.”

And in the latest issue of Washington Monthly, Paul Pillar makes the same meta-argument that this paper is making—that the rhetoric surrounding a possible war with Iran is not aligned with the evidence: “Strip away the bellicosity and political rhetoric, and what one finds is not rigorous analysis but a mixture of fear, fanciful speculation, and crude stereotyping…we find ourselves on the precipice of yet another such war—almost purely because the acceptable range of opinion on Iran has narrowed and ossified around the ‘sensible’ idea that all options must be pursued to prevent the country from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

The media is an intentional accomplice to political actors who want to sensationalize impending war with Iran. The media is interested in GOP conflict with the President over Israel and Iran because it is a better story, a more relatable story to the American public. The media cares about and politicians pander to the Jewish-American population because they are a substantial portion of their readership and electorate, respectively. But the media also forgets the essential truth behind any future war with Iran, as articulated by the President in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg: “[I]f people want to say about me that I have a profound preference for peace over war, that every time I order young men and women into a combat theater and then see the consequences on some of them, if they’re lucky enough to come back, that this weighs on me — I make no apologies for that. Because anybody who is sitting in my chair who isn’t mindful of the costs of war shouldn’t be here, because it’s serious business. These aren’t video games that we’re playing here.”

The Challenge for All of Us, Not Just Presidents

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A president needs empathy and emotional intelligence, so that he can prevail in political dealings with his own party and the opposition in Washington, and in face-to-face negotiations with foreign leaders, who otherwise will go away saying that this president is “weak” and that the country’s leadership role is suspect. He needs to be confident but not arrogant; open-minded but not a weather vane; resolute but still adaptable; historically minded but highly alert to the present; visionary but practical; personally disciplined but not a prig or martinet. He should be physically fit, disease-resistant, and capable of being fully alert at a moment’s notice when the phone rings at 3 a.m.—yet also able to sleep each night, despite unremitting tension and without chemical aids.

Ideally he would be self-aware enough that, in the center of a system that treats him as emperor-god, he could still recognize his own defects and try to offset them.

From James Fallow’s latest cover story on Obama in The Atlantic.

Written by Will

February 10th, 2012 at 8:16 am

Re: Central Moral Challenges

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He spoke for those who believe the country’s runaway debt is the central moral challenge of our time.

– David Brooks, on Mitch Daniels’ CPAC speech.

What?! Poverty, disease, and war are the central moral challenges of our time. What kind of world does David Brooks live in? Mitch Daniels is the dream candidate for pretty much one type of person: the pseudo-libertarian Washington media personality.

Written by Will

February 25th, 2011 at 8:14 am

NYTimes: China and the US a “Confrontational Relationship”

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Meaning to get to this for a while.

How big is the rift between China and the US?

Administration officials speak of an alarming loss of trust and confidence between China and the United States over the past two years, forcing them to scale back hopes of working with the Chinese on major challenges like climate change, nuclear nonproliferation and a new global economic order.

And David Shambaugh calls China “an increasingly narrow-minded, self-interested, truculent, hyper-nationalist and powerful country.” Ouch.

You can see this especially in Obama’s latest trip to Asia and his support for elevating India to the Security Council. This article was published before the trip and the midterm elections, and I definitely feel like some of the fear-mongering associated with the election has tempered slightly in the past few weeks. For a while, Blue Dogs and Tea Partiers alike were really shredding our precious guanxi (if there is one Chinese word you should know, it should be guanxi, or relationship). But the political system has now let out some steam.

There’s not much more analysis I can add that isn’t already covered excellently in the article (see below), only to say that we should neither disparage China’s (and our) growing calcification nor try to take an even harder-line to our relationship. This is simply a natural, and predictable reaction by the American public (and in reaction to them, Congress) to rather distressing bilateral economic policy conducted by both countries over the past decade.

To round out, here’s an especially pertinent section of analysis:

Political factors at home have contributed to the administration’s tougher posture.With the economy sputtering and unemployment high, Beijing has become an all-purpose target. In this Congressional election season, candidates in at least 30 races are demonizing China as a threat to American jobs.

At a time of partisan paralysis in Congress, anger over China’s currency has been one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement, culminating in the House’s overwhelming vote in September to threaten China with tariffs on its exports if Beijing did not let its currency, the renminbi, appreciate.

The trouble is that China’s own domestic forces may cause it to dig in its heels. With the Communist Party embarking on a transfer of leadership from President Hu Jintao to his anointed successor, Xi Jinping, the leadership is wary of changes that could hobble China’s growth.

Can Frank Luntz Be Serious?

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This is a joke:

“The last time Republicans gained control of the House, in 1994, they achieved more in the first 100 days than some Congresses have in two years. From welfare reform to tax cuts to a balanced budget amendment, they passed every one of their 10 ‘Contract With America’ items. … Once again, Republicans cannot be timid. American voters overwhelmingly support spending cuts to balance the budget; six in 10 of them support a 21 percent across-the-board cut in nonmilitary discretionary spending.”

Reality check: the 111th Congress, as in this Congress (yes, the one where Democrats have been in power), has been one of the most productive in history, on par with congress during the early years of both LBJ and FDR. Luntz cites: “welfare reform to tax cuts to a balanced budget amendment” as examples of Republican productivity 15 years ago. The problem is: everyone loves a tax cut. Everyone loves to cut welfare for Cadillac mommies. And the balanced budget amendment never passed the Senate. And then they shut down government over the deficit. So much for that: we got rid of the deficit by the end of the decade anyway, mostly because of a booming economy.

There are no natural constituencies against for what the Republicans are for. The poor on welfare don’t have a voice in government, but business does. While there might exist policy analysts who think certain tax cuts are bad for our budgets, there’s no constituency who is going to refuse one. Many Democratic priorities, however, require a gentler finesse in order to get passed. In other words, there are vested interests who will lose money if Congress acts for the greater good. It requires some politicking to persuade these vested interests, and that’s hard.

Here are some things the 111th Congress has accomplished: stimulus, which in itself represents a dramatic investment in infrastructure, schools, and a tax cut all rolled into one; healthcare reform, which could be split up into numerous major bills, such as closing the Medicare doughnut hole, providing coverage to 40 million Americans, requiring pre-existing conditions to be covered, allowing kids to stay on their parents’ plans until age 26, making sure all children have health insurance, and reducing the rise in the growth of healthcare spending; financial regulatory reform, which both forms a consumer protection agency to ward against faulty financial products that will explode in consumers’ faces, and derivatives that will likewise explode in bankers’ faces; Ted Kennedy’s final legacy, the SERVE America Act, which dramatically expands the number of young people serving in AmeriCorps and creates a ‘Social Innovation Fund’, which funds evidence-based programs with private and foundational support in pursuit of solving major social challenges; tobacco-regulation legislation; credit-card legislation, which establishes a credit-card bill of rights and bans arbitrary interest rate increases; fully funding and expanding the Veterans Administration; the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (for all the ladies out there); fully funding the Violence Against Women Act (again, for the ladies); student loan reform and increased access to Pell Grants; Promise Neighborhood legislation (one of my favorite, and under-exposed in the entire bunch); cracking down on mortgage fraud; and more jobs legislation than I can count, including the Advanced Manufacturing Fund for innovative manufacturing strategies, expanded loan programs in the Small Business Administration, Energy Partnership for the Americas, creating markets overseas for our clean-energy industries, fully funding the Community Development Block Grant, job-training programs for clean energy technologies, and of course, everything already in the Stimulus Act.

Whew. That was a lot. And it makes Frank Luntz argument look ridiculous. Luntz says the Democrats loss is not about “deficient personalities or insufficient communication,” but about wrong priorities. I’m sorry, but Democrats promised this exact agenda when they were elected, and they delivered.

Luntz’s policy suggestions are likewise inane:

(1) Balance the budget as quickly as possible through meaningful spending reductions, a hard spending cap and a constitutional amendment so that it never gets unbalanced again.

(2) Eliminate all earmarks until the budget is balanced, then require a two-thirds vote by Congress for future earmark legislation.

(3) Keep taxes down by requiring supermajorities for increases, and eventually enact tax reform with a simple, low, fair rate that drastically reduces the length of the IRS code.

(4) Create a blue-ribbon task force that engages in a complete, line-by-line forensic audit of federal agencies and programs to end waste and reduce red tape and bureaucracy.

(5) And require Congress to provide specific constitutional authorization for every bill it passes so that the government stays within the boundaries imagined by the founders.

1) Spending reductions won’t get the job done without reductions in the rate of spending growth, especially in the medical sector, while a spending cap is unwieldy and not specific enough; 2) earmarks comprise a pitifully small portion of the annual deficit; 3) supermajority-requirements for tax increases have ruined California’s budget outlook and are a bad idea, while a “simple, low, fair rate” (i.e. the flat tax) is regressive and rewards the rich while punishing the poor; 4) a line-by-line audit of the budget is already being done – there’s already a non-military discretionary spending freeze; 5) who decides what’s acceptable in the eyes of the Constitution? Some wackos think the Constitution was written by Moses. I think this is the job of the Supreme Court, a job it has successfully carried out since Marbury v. Madison.

Ultimately, collective political behavior can seem irrational. Democrats ran on a specific platform, got elected in historic numbers, passed most of their platform, and then got dumped in historic numbers. But really, it’s just the floundering economy, and the Federal Government’s inability to fix a massive sink-hole in demand (now if this were the Reagan recession, which was actually created by the Fed and interest rates were raised to break stratospheric inflation in the late 70’s, it would be a lot easier to fix – just lower interest rates). What do I take from all of this? The Democrats’ loss has to do with anything but their policy accomplishments, and the political winds during a massive recession can switch on a dime.

No, the Chinese aren’t this Sinister

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James Fallows calls this ad “the first spot from this campaign season you can imagine people actually remembering a decade from now.” Besides its glaring economic inaccuracies, the Chinese in 2030 come off looking rather evil. They’re really, really, really not!

Written by Will

October 22nd, 2010 at 3:14 am

Posted in China,Politics

Tagged with ,

No, David Brooks, Do Follow the Money

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David Brooks, whom it can be so easy to be disappointed with, answered the wrong question in his column several days ago (at this point – I’m a little late to the party). He starts with the factual that a) there’s been a lot of commentary on the role of money in politics recently, and then pivots to b) this commentary assumes campaign spending influences elections. He then proceeds to explain using numbers how campaign advertisements do little to elect candidates.

This is wrong. Why are journalists and activists complaining about money? The influence that money exerts on legislators! It’s besides the point whether or not the money is actually useful to campaigns. The reality is that regardless of whether it is effective, incumbent legislators spend way too much time on fundraising vs. legislating, and are enmeshed in a system that institutionalizes corruption. “Personal corruption,” as Lawrence Lessig has argued, is not as big a problem anymore (despite the highly-publicized instances of it). Rather, money rears its head in politics in subtler ways.

When representatives spend 70% of their time on the phone with fundraisers (I don’t have the energy to look up the citation, sorry), their attention is not where it should be. Their attention is with the people giving them money. Money buys attention, which subsequently influences legislation. Other patterns of influence surface in the bureaucracy, where drugs are tested for safety using industry-sponsored studies, and the coal industry is left to its own devices, destroying the environment mountain by mountain.

David Brooks, please don’t try to refute a position by misdirection next time.

Written by Will

October 22nd, 2010 at 3:00 am

Posted in Politics

Tagged with ,