Thursday, December 30, 2010

A New START for a New Year

I recently finished George Friedman's "The Next 100 Years." I recommend it, not because I agree with most of it, but because it has some excellent nuggets, and the author does a superb job walking through his logic. That makes it easy for the reader to determine where he and Friedman diverge.

Friedman's major point is that geopolitics will dominate the next century, just as it did the last.  While that initially seemed a sound point, he then makes a too-literal argument for geopolitics--that nation-state war will continue just as it did in the 1800's and early 1900's. That's where he goes wrong, and where the New START treaty comes in.

The argument most opponents of New START make is that it doesn't restrict tactical nuclear weapons. (The other argument is that missile defense is discussed in the preamble, which the Senate, in its ratification, specified is not legally binding.)  It doesn't, but the lack of limits on tactical nukes really shouldn't be a surprise in a treaty called the STrategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

While Russia can certainly invade Georgia if it wants to, it doesn't need tactical nuclear weapons to do it.  It can do so simply because of its size.  It cannot, however, invade a NATO member.  Or, more precisly, it dare not.  Russia invaded Georgia for many reasons, but not the least of which was making the point to NATO that they should choose their friends carefully.  True, but the reverse is also true--it is unlikely Russia is willing to risk war, let alone nuclear war, by challenging NATO so blatantly.  The Soviet Union never risked it.

And, if Russia won't risk nuclear retaliation, what good are its thousands of tactical nukes?  I think Friedman goes wrong when he thinks European nations will return to their pre-World War II ways because of "geopolitics." In the world he supposes, possession of nuclear weapons becomes the guarantor of national survival, and any advanced nation-state can develop a nuclear weapon in a matter of years, not decades.  But--and this is key--nukes are not a weapon that can be used to coerce.  Doing so is simply not credible. 

It is possible, however unlikely, that nation-states might risk the 21st century equivalent of a conventional "border war," but Russia threatening to use tactical nukes in any situation is simply not credible--the risk is too great.  The last thing Russia wants is NATO members abandoning the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and developing their own defensive nuclear arsenal.  So, given that, Russia's tactical nukes are a threat only as far as they are at risk of loss or theft.  That certainly has a probability greater than 0, but the logical follow-on to that concern is that anything we can do to reduce the Russian nuclear arsenal equals progress.

Russia may not see it that way, but ultimately, that doesn't really matter.  What does matter is that Russia has made clear they wouldn't be interested in a New START follow-on if they couldn't count on the US to ratify the deal they negotiated.  Geopolitics aside, that's actually a pretty reasonable position.  Would you talk to a car dealer or realtor that offered you a deal, and then reneged without good cause? Doubtful.

So, ultimately, New START simply restarts old START, and shaves a few more warheads off the Moscow Treaty limits negotiated under the Bush administration. Yes, there are some limits on launchers, but those are questions the military has dealt with since the original SALT talks.  There are many good questions about whether we negotiated the best deal possible, but that's a separate issue.  The Senate can certainly address that later, if they're really interested.  Secretary Clinton will certainly testify next year on many things, and that might be an excellent question.

But, ultimately, ratification was an easy choice--little downside, a necessary step to further progress, and lays the foundation for the real conversation yet to come.

Happy New Year.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Rivera and Steele: You're Missing the Point

In keeping with my rule to blog only when my thought isn't yesterday's news, memo to Geraldo Rivera and Michael Steele:  your argument on whether to raise taxes on the "rich" completely misses the point.  (Some would say you're accepting their premise, but that's not my point, either.)

This isn't about philosophy; it's about economics.  Philosophically, we can argue all day about whether the "rich" can "afford" to pay more, and where the line should be drawn.  Wrong argument.  Cutting taxes on the middle class increases demand, because they'll spend the money (or so the theory goes).  Ditto for cutting taxes on the poor. (Oops, they don't pay income taxes.  Withdrawn.)  Cutting taxes on the "rich" increases investment.  And, no, I don't mean, "Let's go buy some stock."  I mean capital investment, as in, "I think I'll open that new store this year.  I think I'll buy that new machine this year.  I think I'll invest in Bob's new idea.  I hope there's labor available, because we'll need five more workers."

It's an old saw, but I really never have seen a poor person create a job.  You need "extra" money for capital investment--you have to pay your rent, pay your employees, pay yourself, and pay your taxes.  Then, if you have some income left over, you can expand--and create jobs.

Republicans haven't made this argument yet, but they need to.  When the President says, "We can't afford to give this money to the rich!" they need to cut them off with economics, not ideology.  The ideological response is, "Mr. President, it's not your money.  It's theirs.  You're not giving them anything; you're choosing not to take it.  Let's cut spending, instead."  Good answer, but not the winning one.  The correct, winning response is, "We can't afford not to.  Your idea, sir, is that government spending will create jobs.  We've tried that.  It failed (again).  The only way to create jobs is for the private sector to do it--and they can't do it if you take away their capital."

Monday, October 18, 2010

Still Here; Just Busy

Just a note to anyone looking; I haven't stopped blogging, just been a bit busy.  Unfortunately, that means every time I see something interesting, it's been analyzed to death by the time I get back here.  And who wants to read a fresh blog about yesterday's news?  (Or, equally important, who wants to write one?)

I would like to point out one item, now that President Obama has discovered there's no such thing as a shovel-ready project.  Really?  I'm pretty sure I said that about a year ago.  I can't help but wonder if that says something about real-world experience having some value.

That said, it's going to be a very interesting election.  (No, I haven't been busy campaigning.  Interesting idea, though.)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Undocumented Pithiness

If I were to sum up the Left's recent comments decrying the vitriole, hate speech, and incivility of the Right, I think it would be, "Nothing says hypocrisy like one journalist accusing another of sedition."  Following his remarks on Chris Matthews' show, Klein has tried to justify his remarks, claiming that "dissent" isn't the same as "sedition," conveniently ignoring all the claims from the Left that George W. Bush was illegitimate--so, I suppose he would argue that those remarks were also seditious?  (Let's recall the Supreme Court settled that issue in a Consitutional manner, so if you don't like it, your recourse is to vote four years later, not to insist that he's not your President.)

But, the real reason for this post is to recognize true pithiness (with a nod to Mr. O'Reilly) when I read it.  I found this on (see "My Blog List"), but the quote is Mark Steyn in National Review:

"Nothing says sedition like citing the U.S. Constitution and quoting Thomas Jefferson."

Mrs. Clinton couldn't have said it better herself.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Nuclear Posture Review: A Whole Lot of Nothing

From Charles Krauthamer on the right to Newsweek on the left, everyone seems to be freaked out over the Nuclear Posture Review. President Obama has either given away our safety or made the greatest strides towards world peace since nuclear weapons were invented.

I think the NPR is a bunch of nothing. In the NPR, President Obama commits the United States to not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons any non-nuclear state that uses chemical or biological weapons against us, as long as they are in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Special exceptions are carved out for Iran and North Korea.

Seriously? And, which countries, exactly, are we worried about that 1) don't have nukes, 2) are in compliance with the NPT, and 3) might attack us with chemical or biological weapons? Oh, let's not forget the caveat that we might change our mind.

By my count, we're talking Syria now, Iran in the next few years, and maybe Burma (excuse me, Myanmar). Does anyone seriously think we'd attack Syria with nukes because they attack Israel with chemical weapons? I think Israel might solve that little problem. Iran? Self-solving. They either aren't a threat, or aren't in compliance with NPT. Burma? Same deal. So, the NPR actually says absolutely nothing that couldn't be said by the most right-wing President ever. That also means it's as meaningless as could be--it doesn't change our actual policy one whit. It sounds nice. But, re-read the Bush 2002 National Security Strategy, and ask whether it could have just as easily been written by President Clinton.

Let's not get overly excited, disappointed, or emotional about the NPR. It doesn't really change anything.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Health Care Redux

I'm still pondering what to say about the health care bill that's now law. Plenty of pundits have weighed in, and I'd rather not repeat what they've said. That said, I can't help but note 1) no one cared when Congressman Stupak received threats when he was voting against the bill, 2) if this is such a great idea, why does the majority of the American people oppose it, 3) how on Earth can spending a trillion dollars decrease the deficit? (Unless, of course, we're massively increasing taxes...?)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Democracy in Iraq

This month, Iraqis went to the polls, again. Key word, again. There's an old saying about authoritarian regimes, "One man, one vote, one time." Iraqis have now voted in as many elections as many adult Americans. (Given the 62% voter turnout in this latest election, they've voted in more elections than many Americans. Or Europeans, for that matter.)

It was just a few years ago that the intelligentsia spoke smugly about how silly George W. Bush was to believe that democracy could survive, let alone flourish, in the Middle East. This foolish man simply didn't understand that...well, these people just didn't have a culture that could support democracy. There were plenty of highbrow explanations--decades of living under dictators, the belief among some (radical) Muslims that a government created by Man was questioning God's will, or some other story.

It really came down to one thing: many of these elites didn't think (whisper) Arabs were up to it. The soft bigotry of low expectations doesn't stop at the water's edge, sadly. I was ready to celebrate how obviously wrong they've been proven, until I read the comments posted online following a New York Times article about the Iraqi election. I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry.

Overwhelmingly, the posters ridiculed the notion of Iraqi democracy. They were apparently still living in 2005, when the Iraqi army and police forces resembled Barney Fife more than competent organizations. Bush Derangement Syndrome was on clear display. (How long has he been gone?) Even after Newsweek acknowledged that victory in Iraq is finally close at hand, the smug, self-proclaimed, smarter-than-you-because-I-read-the-Times were insisting that the US military is still in the lead, it still occupies the entire country, and Maliki is a hand-picked stooge.

Ask any vet who's been to Iraq since the surge, and he or she will tell you the Iraqis have been in the lead for quite a while, the army and police are getting there, and Maliki is nobody's stooge but Maliki's (Basrah, anyone?). Frankly, a lot of them probably wish he was ours, because he causes them a lot of grief (albeit nothing like Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai). Of course, what would they know? They've only been there. They aren't writing comments from Massachusetts or California, so how could they know anything?

The really sad part wasn't the leftover BDS, or the tired claims we went there for the oil. (Wow, that worked out well, didn't it?) The sad part was the continuing, subtle racism on the part of these leftist elites. I say leftist based on the overall context of their comments, and I mean racism. The notion that these people could possibly understand democracy still seems absurd to them. These people are just fools under America's imperialist boot; fools who would reelect Saddam if he hadn't been hanged.

Which, of course, is the point--these people are religious (doesn't matter which one); these people are obviously right-wingers (Saddam and W were both dictators, right?); these people don't understand they aren't smart enough to govern themselves, and should be living obediently under their masters like the rest of the Middle East. Yet, some of the smuggest writers couldn't even keep straight which sect of Islam is the majority in Iraq (Shia, for the record) and which one Saddam belonged to (that would be Sunni).

Fortunately for the Middle East, and the world, these people don't listen to the naysayers. Last I checked, they had a civilization 5000 years ago. Iraqi democracy may or may not survive, but I seem to recall some European countries that have had similar problems. I think the Iraqis will do just fine.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Note to GOP: Stay on Message

If the Republicans in Congress have any sense, they’ve taken this week’s blizzard in Washington, DC, as an opportunity to hole up in a conference room somewhere and really think through what they’re going to say at their "bipartisan" health care meeting with the President.

The President has already telegraphed that he intends to call them obstructionists with no ideas, and then argue that we’re way too far down the track with the current bills to even consider starting over. If they’re going to counter him, Republicans will have to be a lot more agile than they have been. They’ll have to know their message and stay on it, which will mean figuring out who is quick enough on their feet to be the talking head. It might be better if they used some bench strength and left the CEO-lookalikes in the cloakroom.

First issue: that they have no ideas. They have to slap that one down, hard, fast, and relentlessly. If the President says it, the President must be mocked—politely, but mocked. They were successful in their last meeting with this technique. “The President says we have no ideas, and then reads from our plan to explain why it's wrong? Didn’t his staff tell him he was reading from our plan? ” Keep it light, but stay on that talking point until the interviewer acknowledges it. Better yet, replace, ‘his staff’ with ‘Rahm Emmanuel’ or ‘David Axelrod’—not likeable figures, but not targeting the President. 'Rules for Radicals' works both ways.

Second: that the train left last year. The American people pulled the emergency cord on that train. They don’t like it; they like it less every day, and Republicans aren’t about to help the Democrats pass something the American people don’t want. Democrats didn’t fail to pass their bill because of Republicans—they had all the votes they needed. Democrats failed to pass their bill because even their own members didn’t like it. Why would anyone with sense sign on to that? That’s like the captain of the Titanic complaining Republicans won’t help him rearrange the deck chairs!

Third: Republican ideas. Pithy, clear, and specific, but it’s also time to be a policy wonk. The ideas have to be completely spelled out, in advance, in legislative language, or it’s a return to issue #1. They can’t be a hodgepodge of “ideas.” They have to be a complete package, one that addresses or refutes every aspect of the Democrats' argument. No weaseling; no deliberate ambiguity; no assuming the American people are idiots. Pound ‘em with substance. To wit:

Cost versus price. Democrats argue they want to keep costs down. A: No, Democrats are trying to control price. That’s not the same thing. Price controls lead to rationing. Everybody knows that. (Don’t forget the “everybody knows that” part.) The solution is really to control costs. Cut costs, and competition will drive down prices. So, the goal needs to be to drive down costs.

Cutting costs. A) Malpractice reform. (Stop calling it tort reform. I took civil law and still think it sounds like we’re talking pastry.) Get some doctors to work through the “But what about…” arguments, or just accept that tough cases make bad law. For that matter, go after the lawyers—argue we should cap their fees. Why does John Edwards deserve $28 million for winning a case? Any case? B) Let insurance companies compete across state lines. How can Democrats oppose that? Their bill requires everyone to buy insurance from those companies, so why wouldn’t they want everyone to get the best deal possible? No weaseling here—defend the insurance companies? Yes. “Folks, the President want you to think the insurance companies are evil. He’s been demonizing them and their profits. We recognize they may drive you nuts, but the reality is their profit margin is about 2%. 2%. If you make them completely non-profit, that isn’t going to save you any money. They aren't the problem, but they can be part of the solution.” C) Time for “the vision thing.” Here goes—

Vision. Health care ‘costs’ are climbing, with no end in sight. Democrats’ solution is to cap prices, and guarantee rationing. Even the President has acknowledged that we might have to cut back on end-of-life care. (“Maybe your grandmother should just take the pain pill.”) No, no, no. Republicans absolutely do not, will not, must not ever agree that the solution is for government to ration care, or for government to suggest that doctors ration care. Wrong approach. Dangerously slippery slope. Immoral. But…what about cost?

Here’s where it comes full circle, and Republicans haven’t yet answered the mail. Yes, end of life care is the most expensive, so pretending there isn’t a cost issue suggests this is all just cynical political positioning (or naiveté). And the answer is…Capitalism. With a capital C.

The solution to making end-of-life care more affordable is to make all care more affordable. To encourage research and development into new, cheaper drugs; new, cheaper treatments. To allow patients to pick insurance plans that only cover what they need. To figure out whether there are real things government can do to help out—say, by encouraging new medical research reactors to bring down the cost of radiopharmaceuticals. (You think radioisotopes grow on trees? Why do you think Iran claims it wants one?) Or, by allowing hospitals to depreciate new equipment faster. Or (gasp!) by making all hospitals tax-exempt. There's more, but this is getting long enough already.

On that last idea—cutting business taxes on hospitals—here’s the real trick. When Democrats argue, “But how will we pay for that?” do not accept the premise of the argument. This discussion is not about keeping tax dollars rolling into the Treasury. It’s about getting medical costs down. “How will we pay for that?” is a deliberate distraction.

Stay on message.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Democrats: The Party of "No"

No sooner had Scott Brown won the special election in Massachusetts, pundits began rerunning their schtick that the Republican party was, "The Party of No."

Actually, they have that backwards.

Brown's election means that the Democrats no longer have 60 seats in the Senate. Since 60 votes are required to cut off debate and call a vote, they must now get at least one Republican to agree with any legislation they intend to pass.

One Republican seems a pretty small requirement. When the Republicans controlled the Senate in a 50-50 tie, they needed 10 Democrats to invoke "cloture," and the people's business still got done.

The difference was that the Republicans listened to the Democrats' cries about the "rights of the minority." They had to, even if they thought those cries were disingenuous. But, Democrat Senators have gotten in the habit of saying, "No," every time the Republicans wanted that legislative body to perhaps consider something that some of them could support.

Democrats didn't need Republicans over the last year, so their answer was, "No. No, we won't consider your ideas; no we won't reach a compromise the American people might prefer; no, we won't even acknowledge that you have ideas." They ran with that last comment to every journalist they could find, pretending that the other side didn't even offer ideas. Sadly, too many journalists let them get away with it.

So, when your opposition won't listen to you, about all you have left is to say, "No. No, we don't agree with where you're going, and, no, we can't stop it, but, no you can't make us vote for it, either."

Republicans have had ideas all along, and have been offering them. Whether they're the best ideas ever, or utterly foolish, isn't the point. Democrats will now, at least, have to stop saying, "No."