Sunday, July 20, 2008

Does Economics Trump All?

Academics use a number of election prediction models, and almost all rely on macroeconomic variables—GDP growth, inflation, unemployment, etc. Most of these models predicted a Gore win in 2000 (which was actually correct since he won the popular vote) and a Bush win in 2004. At the moment the models predict a resounding Obama win in 2008, based on dreary economic news as we head into the election.

Obviously these models are not 100% accurate; their architects freely admit that factors such as wars, disasters, and issues of character also influence voting patterns. But they stick by their fundamental insistence that it is the economy which ultimately dictates election outcomes.

In aggregate, there is little to dispute about these models. If Americans are feeling good about their economic prospects, by and large they can be expected to vote for the candidate who represents the party in power; if they think their economic prospects are dim, they will vote for the opposing party.

But hidden behind the national numbers are huge state-by-state and regional disparities that can’t be explained by economics alone. In huge swaths of the South as well as parts of the Midwest (e.g., Utah) the GOP has consistently outpolled Democrats by margins that correlated poorly if at all with economic factors.

It is these areas where “culture war” issues and race play a major factor, often turning economics into a secondary and even a tertiary issue. Large numbers of voters in these regions are genuinely more concerned about gay marriage, the government taking away their guns, abortion, the perceived dilution of American culture because of illegal immigration, and fears of an even more secular America. While the economy may still influences these voters, their ballots often end up going to the candidates who promise a kind of cultural security which they feel is slipping way.

Some political observers, like author and WSJ columnist Thomas Frank, take this as evidence that people have been duped into voting against their economic interests, when in fact it is evidence that these people simply give priority to issues other than economics.

When rich investment bankers in New York vote Democratic, nobody says they’ve been duped, even though they may very well be voting against their immediate economic interests since Democrats generally favor higher taxes for the rich*. If asked to justify their votes, these well-off Democrats might cite the party’s liberal social positions or less belligerent foreign policy; in exchange for these positions, they’re willing to accept higher taxes.

But when poor whites vote Republican because they oppose gay marriage or abortion, they’re assumed to be gullible. Unfortunately for Democrats and economic progressives, the disproportionate electoral sway of America’s Deep South and Midwestern states hands these “values” voters extra weight both in the Electoral College and the Senate.

In the end, it’s hard to accept any uni-causal case for the election of a U.S. president. There are too many factors, too many cross-currents, and it’s impossible to sort them out. The economy ultimately may swing the election, and certainly it will be more important than it was in 2004; but there are many motivations that can sway people on the margins, and have large electoral impacts.

As the Democrats have learned, in order to truly be competitive in certain parts of the country they have had to tone down their gun control rhetoric, speak more openly about faith and religion, and walk a fine line on gay rights (opposing gay marriage while supporting civil unions). This is what many voters in these regions want to hear, and the strategy has begun to pay dividends: Democrats are winning elections for state offices and Congressional seats in once-solid GOP territory, and Obama is competitive in states that haven’t voted Democratic for 40+ years.

The Republicans are in a much more difficult position because America overall is more socially liberal and economically progressive than the mainstream GOP. The party’s success this decade in some sense represents an anomaly; Bush actually lost in 2000, and won in 2004 largely because of a fearful citizenry that wanted to support a “war-time president.” Looking forward, it is hard to see how the far right’s message will resonate with voters, especially younger voters whose only taste of GOP rule has been an administration characterized by epic incompetence, cronyism, anti-intellectualism, and economic downturn. It will be interesting to see how the GOP retools, especially if they lose big in November.

Stay tuned….

*Wealthy individuals voting Democratic might be right to think that their long-run economic prospects under Democratic rule will be better than under Republican rule even if their immediate economic interests take a hit.

P.S. See here for a very interesting analysis of economic performance under Democratic and Republican administrations; it may surprise you.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Revenge of the Nerds

Last month the world got a glimpse into Karl Rove’s mind when he said this about Obama:

"Even if you never met him, you know this guy. He's the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by."

Put aside that most Americans have never been inside a country club, or the fact that a black man could easily face discrimination at such an institution. If we substitute “school dance” for “country club,” and picture a 17-year-old Karl Rove as one of the passersby, it’s not hard to imagine this scene playing out: Rove is the nerdy loser who never gets the girl, who has to bear the taunts of better looking and more popular students, and he’s emotionally scarred by the experience. Viewed through this lens, we can better understand his lifelong quest to get back at all those who made him feel so low as a teenager.

The same goes for one of America’s most annoying pseudo-intellectuals, Jonah Goldberg, whose book “Liberal Fascism” reads like a 500-page poke in the eye at all the people who at some point or another threw the word “fascist” in his direction. Again, it is easy to imagine a young Goldberg sitting in his room alone at night, incensed, plotting how he was going to have the last laugh, no matter how ridiculous, inflammatory, or intellectually dishonest he needed to be.

So what’s the point of all this?

There are a few. First, as much as the readers of this site would like more reason and rationality in politics, the people who practice it are often motivated by just about everything other than the public good—a quest for power and attention, perhaps a profound sense of victimization and alienation (Tom DeLay, for instance, was a bug exterminator who became incensed at the environmental regulations he was forced to follow). And in politics, as in so much else, it is often the loudest voices which most influence policy, those who feel aggrieved, rightly or wrongly, who fight the hardest.

Finally, insecurity may be the strongest of all human emotions: a potent combination of fear, uncertainty, estrangement, and desperation. We all experience insecurity at some point in our life, sometimes throughout. Politicians and pundits who become adept at playing on our feelings of insecurity are often the most successful. Why? Because those who are insecure are often seeking explanations for their plight, consciously or not. They are quick to accept scapegoats and rationalizations (which is why minorities like gays, blacks, immigrants, atheists and today’s favorite, “intellectual elites,” are typically in the cross-hairs).

I am not sure how to combat the bad feelings that insecurity brings to the surface. The best antidote I know is a consistent and unyielding campaign to eschew excessive emotional appeals, to stick to facts and reasoned arguments.

But still I wonder: if Karl Rove had had a few more friends back in high school, maybe the world could have been spared the last eight years of the Bush Administration.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, July 6, 2008

Running On Empty

Americans are feeling pain at the pump; gas prices going into the July 4th weekend hit a record high national average of $4.09 for regular unleaded, up $1.14 from a year ago and roughly triple what it was when Bush took office. Oil has topped $145 a barrel and high fuel costs are leading to price increases across a wide swath of products.

But in truth, U.S. gas prices are low by world standards. As this chart shows, there are many developed nations where the average price of a gallon of gas is between $7 and $10.

Most of these nations are not being hurt as much by the current oil price shock because their governments were smart and made gas expensive long ago. This created incentives for better public transit, more fuel-efficient vehicles and industrial processes, and shorter commutes. For decades, many U.S. economists have been urging higher gasoline taxes for exactly these reasons; unfortunately, their advice has fallen on deaf ears.

As the price of oil plummeted in the 1990s, the SUV craze took hold and Detroit automakers ignored the lessons of the 1970s and 80s. Not only did these behemoths lead to more urban sprawl and less automotive safety, America’s carbon footprint grew enormously. Politicians of both parties took the myopic, short-term view. They could have seized on this period of low gas prices as an opportunity to phase in a higher gasoline tax, and move towards a more fuel-efficient and less oil-dependent society. They didn’t.

Fast forward to September 12, 2001.

Of the 19 hijackers who changed the world the previous day, 15 came from Saudi Arabia. We knew then that Saudi oil money financed extremist groups. Iran and Iraq, two other nations that represented serious national security challenges also relied on oil money, as well as Russia and Venezuela.

Given the growing threat of global warming, any serious U.S. effort in 2001 to reduce its oil dependency would have been warmly greeted by the world community, especially the Europeans. The massive investments in technology required for such an endeavor would have helped reinvigorate manufacturing in the U.S. and the American auto industry.

Instead, an administration run by oilmen told us that conservation is for hippies and that all America needed to do was go shopping.

Fast forward to the present.

Virtually all of the worst-case scenarios of 2001 have come to pass. Rogue, terrorist-sponsoring oil states are awash in cash, which they are using to fund groups hostile to America. Here at home, there’s a long list of problems: the economy is teetering on recession, auto sales are slumping sharply, with GM and Chrysler headed toward bankruptcy, and the U.S. has recorded its sixth straight month of job losses; at the same time, not coincidentally, the threat of global warming continues to accelerate. And while Bush and Cheney continue to beg the Saudis to open the taps a little more, the Saudis are putting pressure on us to raise interest rates (in order to strengthen the dollar) at a time when the financial sector would be further weakened by such a move.

And we have no one but ourselves to blame.

All of these outcomes were both predictable and avoidable. In April of 1977 President Jimmy Carter put forth a comprehensive energy policy that is amazing in its detail and prescience. In the speech Carter calls for collective sacrifice and warns us not to get sidetracked by the sudden drop in oil prices because of the need to plan for the long-run. Carter was largely scoffed at and ignored and now we have to live with the results (Nixon also devoted some of his 1974 State of the Union speech to energy issues, although he did not offer nearly as comprehensive an assessment of both the problems and the solutions).

Unfortunately, when it comes to sound energy policy the U.S. has been running on empty for way too long, and we’re going to have to suffer for a while before things turn around.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Clarifying Election Part II

The following comment by Geraldine Ferraro may have been the stupidest of the entire primary season:

“If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of any color, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”

If Obama had an Anglo name and spoke with a Southern drawl, is there anyone in their right mind who doesn’t think he would now be ahead of McCain by 20 points in the national polls? And be ahead in at least 35 out of 50 states?

But Obama has a foreign name (including Hussein for a middle name), has lived abroad, has Muslim relatives, and is black; unfortunately, all of these factors represent serious drawbacks for him with a sizeable segment of the electorate. These are people who in 2008 remain at least slightly xenophobic, racist, or susceptible to accusations and insinuations that somehow Obama represents the “other”.

Think I’m exaggerating?

Just take a look at McCain’s first general election ad, which begins with the narration: “The American President Americans Have Been Waiting For.” If McCain is an “American President,” then what is Obama? An “un-American” president? This from the team that has said it wants to run a “clean” campaign, but won’t even try to control advertising by so-called 527s and other outside groups that are gearing up for what is likely to be one of the nastiest campaigns in recent memory.

There are numerous rumors already flying over the internet about Obama being anti-Semitic or refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, about Michelle Obama using the slur “whitey,” even questions regarding the legitimacy of Obama’s birth certificate (all of which can be debunked at Fight the Smears).

While America has come a long way from its overtly racist past, there is simply no doubt that racial fears, conscious and unconscious, will play a major role in this election. This November will show us whether a solid majority of Americans will be able to resist the smears, the coded racist slurs, and the dumbing down of the real issues by a media bent on sensationalism (and let’s not forget to mention a rightwing attack machine that will do absolutely anything in order to win).

This is not to suggest that any vote for McCain is a vote prompted by racist fears, any more than the votes against Hillary were all due to misogynist leanings. We still have five months to go; there are likely to be many ups and downs over the campaign, and surprises could occur that might alter the fundamental dynamics of the race.

But if the underlying trends continue and Obama loses, it will likely be that an onslaught of negative and untruthful scare tactics tipped the balance against him.

That is a huge reason why this election is so important.

Is America truly ready to move beyond its racist past? Can we be led by our hopes, and not by our fears and prejudices? Election 2008 will provide a serious reality check, perhaps the most clarifying moment of a generation.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

American Dominance In The 21st Century?

A spate of articles and books in recent months (e.g., Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World) raise the question of whether America will remain the dominant economic power in the coming decades; no one really doubts that America will remain the dominant military power. I just returned from a two-week trip to China, which got me thinking about the subject since one can’t fail to be impressed by the rise of this Asian power.

I am ambivalent about the issue. On one hand, as an American I want my country to remain strong and prosperous; but I also am an internationalist, and want to see prosperity spread across the world. Fortunately, it need not be a zero-sum game. American greatness can coexist with rapid wealth generation in the emerging markets.

In fact, an argument can be made that American wealth is partially dependent on the rise of the developing world: our historic low interest rates and (until recently) extremely low inflation are due in part to the high savings rates and low labor costs in Asia and the Middle East.

The key looking forward is to realize that American dominance is not some force of nature that is destined to continue. It is instead the result of specific policies and characteristics of the American economy and society that must constantly be revisited, revised, and maintained. Mistakes have been made that have weakened America’s economic position, but these mistakes can be rectified.

Here are four missteps, coupled with new opportunities, to consider as we look towards a new administration and getting back on the right economic track:

1. Nowhere has the failure of leadership been more damaging than in the U.S. auto sector. Both Republican and Democratic administrations have coddled Detroit; a combination of corporate mismanagement and intransigent, short-sighted unions has blocked all efforts at meaningful fuel efficiency for decades. Free-market advocates are finally seeing some vindication, decades late, now that high gas prices and tumbling demand for SUVs is forcing Detroit to see what thinking people have known for decades: fuel-efficient cars are the wave of the future. It is too early to tell whether Detroit will be able to recover, but there are encouraging signs: GM is pursuing plug-in electric vehicles, and both Obama and McCain support a cap on carbon emissions (although McCain oddly seems to forget that he does).

2. One way America has become so affluent is by recruiting the best of the best from across the world. Skimming the cream from countries across the globe has helped the U.S. to the highest living standards for any country remotely comparable in size. However, since 9/11, the enactment of anti-immigrant policies has slowed the influx of engineers, computer scientists, biochemists, doctors, et al. While tighter immigration controls are no doubt warranted, America should be expanding visa applications for the best and the brightest. This is an area that doesn’t make headlines, but it should be watched carefully.

3. Green technology, nanotechnology, and biotechnology are likely to be the leading areas for rapid growth and breakout products that dramatically impact global society. The U.S. nanotechnology industry seems in good shape, but our biotech industry has suffered under the anti-science policies promulgated by the Bush Administration at the insistence of the religious right. Legitimate moral issues related to cloning need to be addressed, but blocking embryonic stem-cell research that has the potential to cure major illnesses is both unwise and unconscionable. The embryos used in the process are already slated for destruction; in fact, a consistent “pro-life” stance would oppose fertility clinics, a fact which the right never mentions. Both Obama and McCain support lifting the ban on federal funding for stem-cell research (but given McCain’s numerous reversals and pandering to the right, I am not confident he will maintain this position; we’ll see).

4. The final issue is more long-term: America’s debt. America is the world’s most heavily indebted nation, both the government and the people. This has been possible because the rest of the world has sought the safety of U.S.-backed treasuries, but it will not persist indefinitely (especially as other countries begin to consume more and the emerging markets become more attractive for investment). High levels of American debt will inevitably result in higher domestic interest rates and lower economic growth. Higher taxes are also likely, especially if the federal deficit continues to rise. Neither Obama’s nor McCain’s fiscal plans make tackling the debt a priority, but McCain’s plan is much worse overall; it would increase the deficit by an estimated $5.7 trillion over the next decade. Regardless of what the government does, individual Americans should get their fiscal houses in order: we need to pay down our debts and increase our saving rates.

In conclusion, predictions of America’s economic decline are probably premature. At the same time, continued American dominance is in no way preordained. It will take hard work and sound policies; as always, a little luck wouldn’t hurt either.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

All Politics Is Moral

In many parts of the world disagreements between groups are often settled through violence and mayhem. The singular achievement of liberal democracies is that we settle our differences through the political process and rarely resort to violence; this is no small feat.

But make no mistake: our current political battles represent life and death struggles. They include a woman’s right to choose, civil rights for gays, universal health care, global warming, and war policy. In short, choosing a president of the United States is one of the most consequential acts a citizen ever performs.

Every time we vote, we make serious moral judgments; there is no escaping this, since politics is little more than the act of converting public morals into public policy. Everything from tax rates to teacher pay to toxic chemical standards to social security payments is at its root a moral decision about what is right and wrong for society.

It should be clear that we cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the last eight years, which have harmed so many millions both here and abroad.

Unfortunately, repeating these mistakes is what John McCain promises to do on virtually every issue. He has not only embraced the Bush economic policy, but his tax proposals are even more regressive and would result in more debt ($5.7 trillion); he has called for the overturning of Roe v. Wade and promised to appoint justices like Alito and Scalia (who not only would take away women’s reproductive rights, but whose views on the scope of executive power are truly frightening); he strongly supports the Iraq War and argues for an open-ended U.S. military occupation; he voted against the children’s health insurance bills and is ideologically opposed to any form of universal health insurance; even his support for climate change legislation is tempered by his support for windfall profits for the oil and energy industries.

As Albert Einstein noted, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. A vote for John McCain is a vote for more of the same disastrous policies.

I make no apologies for claiming that people who would vote for someone who doesn’t want to provide health insurance for poor children, who wants to further enrich the rich, and who thinks the Iraq War was a good idea, are taking positions which I consider both foolish and immoral. Political differences this great represent sharply opposing values and worldviews, and there’s nothing wrong with discussing them frankly.

In fact, America would be in better shape if people spoke up more often about injustice and incompetence without fear of being labeled strident or divisive. Mature people need not be afraid of offending others with direct talk, even if it sometimes includes recriminations (no doubt, all of us have probably done things or held views that we now view as foolish or unethical—it’s part of being human).

What separates ideologues and political hacks from reasoned critics is not the absence of strong language; it’s openness to opposing views, respecting people who don’t share our views, admitting that we could be wrong, and, of course, backing up claims with solid arguments.

In no small part, the reason that Democrats and progressives have failed to achieve many of their goals over the past decades is because they’ve failed to cast public policies in clear moral terms. Voters don’t often get excited over policy details, but they do get excited over principles.

Ironically, many of these Democrats and progressives (who have largely ceded all moral discourse to the religious right) are now worried that Obama’s “beyond partisanship” posture ignores the political struggles that will be required to enact his agenda.

They shouldn’t worry; Obama definitely gets it. He doesn’t believe that the entrenched interest groups and power centers will simply roll over for him.

His great gift is his ability to couch the major issues of the day in clear moral terms—what’s fair, what’s right, what’s sensible—and in this way appeal to the compassion and reasonableness of the American people.

He doesn’t need to convince every last American that his views are best. But by not shying away from making forceful statements about what’s right and what’s wrong, he very well may be able to convince a solid majority.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, June 8, 2008

A Clarifying Election

Now that Barack Obama has wrapped up the Democratic nomination, the American people are in store for a historic election. Obama is truly a phenomenon: a man who has swiftly risen through the ranks of Democratic politics though a combination of rhetorical skills, his tranquil and composed demeanor, and the nature of this unique historical moment. He doesn’t have McCain’s long history in government and military service nor Clinton’s political stature, but he is no doubt formidable.

With Obama and McCain as the nominees, the U.S. electorate will truly get a choice between two very different approaches to both domestic and foreign policy. While much was made of the small policy differences between Clinton and Obama, it is Obama’s initial and unwavering opposition to the Iraq War that helps to solidify the contrast between the Democratic and Republican candidates for president in 2008.

As readers of this site know, I have never subscribed to the Thomas Franks school of thought. In his book What’s The Matter With Kansas?, Franks posits that many working-class Americans have been duped into voting for the GOP all these years against their own economic interests. While Americans may be genuinely ignorant about many aspects of foreign affairs and public policy, they do know the basic differences between the major political parties.

When Americans go to the ballot box, those whose greatest desires are to see abortion criminalized and gays denied civil rights will correctly choose the Republican candidate; those who want the estate tax eliminated and corporate tax rates slashed are also correct to pull the lever for the GOP, the same as those who prefer a more militaristic and hard-nosed approach to foreign policy. I find these reasons not only wrong-headed, but largely immoral and foolish; but they are not irrational based on the values these voters profess.

Bush’s reelection in 2004 (and GOP gains in both houses of Congress) represented something of an anomaly; Americans were still reeling from the shock of 9/11, and the Iraq War was still supported by a majority of the population. It seemed to me at the time that the incompetence and pettiness of the Bush Administration were clear for all to see, but I understand how many Americans wanted, and chose, to give the president the benefit of the doubt.

Fast forward to 2008.

It is now obvious to almost everyone that these past eight years are likely to be remembered as a “lost decade,” one in which Americans were led by the worst president in our history. America is weaker, poorer, more fractured, less competitive, and less respected than it was in 2000; it will take years to reverse the damage that has been wrought by ideologues who put loyalty over expertise, and turned the U.S. government into a system of allegiance to cronies over competence.

While John McCain would likely represent an improvement over the Bush Administration (which isn’t really saying much), his positions on foreign policy, fiscal policy, and executive power are almost identical. Barack Obama, on the other hand, offers significantly different proposals on all fronts: a more diplomatic and focused strategy for combating terrorism, a more progressive tax system, universal healthcare, transparency in government, and a serious alternative energy policy.

It is no secret who I think would be the better president. But in the event Obama doesn’t win, it will be an extremely illuminating moment nonetheless.

If the American people choose John McCain for president, I will have to conclude that the majority of Americans do not share my values or my vision for the future.

Given how much energy I invest in national politics, this will be hard news for me to accept, but I will do so. I will turn my attention to more local issues and the international stage. I will not move to Canada or bemoan America, but I will realize that on the national level America is not the country I hoped it would be.

I do not think this will happen. I look forward to many years of discussing an Obama Administration: its many achievements as well as its missteps.

Either way, November 2008 will be a major clarifying moment in American history. I look forward to it.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Israel’s 60th Birthday: Some Thoughts

This week marked the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state. As Jeffery Goldberg at the Atlantic Monthly points out, Israel is the culmination of one of the most successful nationalist movements of the last century, and yet it still faces stark questions with respect to its identity and future.

I am Jewish by birth: my mother is Jewish, and Judaism is a matrilineal religion/culture. Like many Jews raised in New York City in a secular home with little exposure to explicitly Jewish culture, I have mixed emotions about both Judaism and Israel. I know that my ancestors were often singled out and persecuted, and that to this day Jews are still a hated minority in many parts of the world. I do not take lightly the struggles and pain of the Jewish people.

There are many things about Jewish culture that I respect, particularly its strong intellectual tradition and the fact that Jews by and large do not believe in proselytizing. At the same time, my strong aversion to organized religion puts me at odds with much of Jewish identity; I also find the notion of a “chosen people” offensive.

It is with respect to the state of Israel that my feelings are most mixed. There is something uplifting about a people so long reviled and persecuted finally realizing their dream of a state of their own, one which they have turned into the most prosperous in the Middle East. But the human costs on both sides have been tremendous; I’ve been reading about the history of the Israelis and the Palestinians for more than a decade, and I’m still not sure where the blame really lies.

Some things, however, are clear.

There is no doubt that suicide bombing is evil, and that the Arab states bent on Israel’s destruction are largely filled with vile opportunists who use the Palestinians as pawns to deflect attention away from their own corruption. Israel is not free from blame, either. The continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank clearly violates both international law and any proper sense of justice.

More importantly, the very nature of a “Jewish state” troubles me.

The essence of liberal democracy is that states are defined by ideals, not by ethnicity; yet so much of Israeli domestic and foreign policy is driven by the goal of maintaining a majority ethnic Jewish population. Because of higher Arab birth rates, this ultimately means that Israel will either have to create a two-tiered socioeconomic system (akin to apartheid in South Africa) or somehow decrease its Arab population (through expulsion or other means). In some ways the Jews may be suffering the “winner’s curse”: after thousands of years of struggle, they return to their homeland only to see demographics deny them their dream.

The bottom line is that Israel will eventually be faced with a difficult choice—either be democratic or be Jewish. Since I believe strongly in democracy, my own choice is clear; yet I can still sympathize with the fears and hopes of my ethnic relatives half-way across the world.

I hope and dream that one day humanity will be drawn together by shared ideals of freedom and universal human rights. In the meantime, religious and ethnic bonds will remain some of the strongest that both keep people together and tear them apart. Israel is ground zero for this dynamic, and will likely be for the foreseeable future.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, May 4, 2008

Let’s Get Religion out of Politics

If there’s one lesson to learn from the Reverend Wright controversy, it is that it’s past time to get religion out of politics. While Senator Obama’s pastor occupied the spotlight this past week, preachers with equally ridiculous and offensive views have been linked to GOP leaders for decades. Both Democrats and Republicans should work to keep religion out of the public square.

Both the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence make absolutely clear that religion is a private affair that should not be the basis for any government policy. At the same time there’s no doubt that candidates’ religious views influence their morals, and this is a valid topic for discussion.

It would be illuminating, for instance, to see a presidential debate in which the candidates were called on to discuss how their religious beliefs influence their attitudes towards war, healthcare, education, science, and taxation. Perhaps even more important, it would be great to hear what they think about the separation of church and state in modern-day America.

The least we can ask for is a politics free of the influence of incendiary and ignorant preachers of any stripe.

Unfortunately, as E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post points out, there’s a double-standard at work: if the preachers are white and right wing, they don’t get the same scrutiny as when they’re black and liberal (or associated with liberals). If the media paid close attention to the pastors in John McCain’s circle, the public would soon learn that his are no less offensive than Reverend Wright.

So their views would cancel each other out, and make no difference in November. This would be a great development. Senator McCain doesn’t wear his religion on his sleeve, nor does Senator Obama. That means we might yet get a debate that isn’t about distractions, but focuses instead on the issues that actually matter for America and the world.

P.S. As usual, please make your views known to the traditional media—both carrots and sticks—praise them for covering real issues and rebuke them when they emphasize trivialities. I’m beginning to sense a backlash against the mindlessness, which bodes well for the fall.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Ending Mindlessness In The Traditional Media

The real elitists in American politics are the pundits and the news media who think that flag pins, “likability”, and the color of one’s skin or one’s gender are the most important issues in the campaign for the presidency of the most powerful country in the world. With an economy slipping into recession, no end in sight for two of the longest wars in U.S. history, an administration that has endorsed torture, and a looming environmental crisis, the nation’s major news sources have no shortage of serious issues to report on. Instead, we get an endless stream of distractions and trivialities.

Adding insult to injury, the nation’s opinion pages routinely contain lectures on what it really means to understand rural America—these from blowhards living in the posh D.C. suburbs who skip from one gala dinner to the next.

This has to stop. The stakes are simply too high.

The only way it will is if we the people demand something different. Some of us are already doing this by switching to new media sources, which is one reason why newspaper circulation and network news audiences are steadily declining. We also need to speak up loud and clear when the mainstream media stoop to new lows, as ABC did with its mindless Obama-Clinton “debate”. And of course we can continue to build alternative sources, as this website and tons of others has attempted to do.

More than anything, what has exposed the mediocrity of the traditional media is the plethora of superior perspectives put forth on the web by academics, thinkers, and concerned citizens. Many of the pieces that I read on blogs, for which the writers are generally unpaid, are better than what people are earning six-figure salaries to produce.

But let us not pretend that alternative media can do it alone. The large resources of the major newspapers and networks enable them to do the kind of original reporting that blogs and other independent sources can’t possibly match. Only National Public Radio, probably the best overall source of news, can begin to compete, and even its resources are tiny by comparison.

It is possible to envision a future in which the traditional media forego mindlessness and return to in-depth coverage of serious issues and a focus on real priorities. Combine this with continued scrutiny by blogs, and the more varied commentary that comes with them, and America could easily become the most informed nation in the world. Given the disproportionate power that we wield on the international stage, we should aim for no less.

Take-home point: Make your voices heard. Whenever you hear or read a particularly mindless story, give the media a call or send an email expressing your discontent. And when they run a great story, let them know as well.

P.S. As if on cue, an entire issue of mindlessness at Newsweek. Let the editors know what you think at: Editors

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

What’s The Matter With Obama?

There is no doubt that Obama’s recent comments that many rural Americans feel “bitter” about their economic situation, leading them to “cling” to guns, religion, and anti-gay and anti-immigrant sentiments, represent his worst political mistake to date. Both Clinton and McCain promptly jumped all over the comments, as well as the news media (ridiculously so in Wednesday’s ABC News “debate”).

That Obama made these comments in a closed meeting in San Francisco makes them all the more damaging. We will know soon whether this seriously damages his poll numbers; Obama is that rare politician who can take a terrible gaffe and turn it into a “teaching moment” (e.g., the Wright controversy).

Back in 2005 I wrote about this issue while disputing the main thesis in Thomas Franks’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas. Franks lays out in detail the ways in which rural Americans are distracted by “culture war” issues and duped into voting against their economic self-interest. I laid out in some detail why this argument—Obama’s argument (and Jim Webb’s too)—is somewhat elitist, but more importantly, wrong.

Issue by issue, I showed that for many Americans certain “values” issues trump economics, and that voters are making rational choices, just not in the way the left and Democrats would like.

This week Larry Bartels from Princeton took up my critique, and offered a different explanation. Analyzing socioeconomic data and poll results, Bartels makes the case that low income Americans do vote based more on economic issues, while the relatively affluent take socio-cultural issues more into account (perhaps because they don’t have to worry as much about money).

In some ways the 2008 Presidential Election will present a test, however imperfect, of this thesis. Assuming Obama is the Democratic nominee, Americans will have a choice between a candidate with an unambiguously progressive domestic agenda and a candidate who believes that Bush’s domestic agenda was too progressive.

If come November, with the economy likely in a recession or just coming out of one, McCain were still able to beat Obama, we would have to conclude that the majority of Americans are not primarily swayed by economic issues when it comes to voting.

If this transpires it will usher in a day of reckoning for the Democratic Party and the entire progressive movement, both of which would need to radically rethink their view of government and American values. Stay tuned.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Humbler and More Truthful American Narrative

The controversy surrounding the comments of Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, has once again highlighted a major divide in American politics. At one extreme are those who believe that America is an exceptional nation chosen by God to bring democracy and justice to the world; at the other are those who hold that America is no different than other imperial powers. Formed in slavery and genocide, it is as responsible as any other nation for the atrocities that stain human history.

Many on the left criticize those on the right for what they view as a form of mindless and blind patriotism, of obliviousness to the evils committed by Americans. Those on the right view many leftists as bordering on traitorous, unable to recognize that America has more often than not been a benevolent power that has sacrificed greatly to promote freedom around the globe.

The middle ground is rarely articulated in American political discourse, and yet this is where the truth lies. What we need is a humbler and more truthful American narrative.

Such a narrative would begin by acknowledging the great tragedies of Native American genocide and black slavery, the legacies of which linger to this day. It would recognize that slavery hardly ended with the Civil War; it continued in one form or another until WW II, and then morphed into an extremist racial segregation that continued until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In fact, of the more than 350 years of American history, fewer than 50 have been characterized by even a modicum of decency towards black Americans. It is not an exaggeration to describe the treatment of blacks in America as domestic terrorism, made all the more evil because it was perpetrated by American citizens against other American citizens who happened to be of a different color.

But the evils that were committed against blacks, Indians, and other immigrant groups throughout American history have always been tempered by the ideals set forth in our founding documents. The Declaration of Independence states that all men are created equal. This was a revolutionary doctrine, and it was always there to prick the consciences of those who realized what it said about our treatment of blacks and Native Americans and yes, women too. Over generations, the ideal that all men and women are equal helped to create one of the most multi-ethnic and economically mobile civilizations of all time. America may be a nation of sinners, but it is also a nation that strives to live up to its ideals and to overcome its moral imperfections.

Americans, believing deeply that freedom is a universal right, have also sacrificed tremendously to help spread liberty throughout the world. Americans died by the hundreds of thousands fighting Nazism and Communism, wicked ideologies bent on world domination. Today American military bases around the world do more to prevent conflict than to incite it. While Iraq makes the headlines, no one hears about the relative peace and tranquility secured by American forces throughout much of the world.

America’s foreign policy has aided and abetted heinous crimes, but this was usually done to oppose what we understood to be even greater evils. For example, while there is no real excuse for American support of dictators and oppressors, we justified these steps during the Cold War in the face of Soviet aggression and expansionism. This irrationality reached its apex during the Vietnam War, when it became common practice to destroy entire villages in order to “save” them.

Despite all the contradictions and wrongdoings, the American experience has been marked by continual moral progress: by the knowledge that we must do more to live up to our highest ideals, and by our movement toward them. America will never be perfect, but this does not take away our legitimate right to try to influence world events. American power is best used with one eye on our own shortcomings, and the other on promoting those universal human rights that represent the best of who we are.

A more humble and truthful American narrative recognizes how easy it is to commit evil in the name of good, and the need to guard against this; at the same time, the narrative gives us confidence that our highest ideals are worth promoting across the globe.

P.S. A time stamp for the comments is coming soon. Thanks for your patience.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Conversations America Should Be Having

An honest, non-ideological conversation about our current economic problems requires us to abandon the clichés of “big government” versus “small government”. The real issue is effective government: what should be done and what’s the best way to do it?

We cannot afford a laissez-faire attitude toward the banking sector. Banks cannot be allowed to fail for the simple reason that they can take the rest of the economy down with them. This means that ultimately the public sector (our tax dollars) acts as a final insurer for the private banking sector, and banks know this. Without adequate regulation they will always be tempted to take unnecessary risks, knowing that the federal government will eventually come to their rescue.

The conversation we should be having is how best to ensure that banks are not allowed to take risks of such magnitude that they can undermine the entire credit system, while at the same time allowing them to innovate and provide low cost capital to the general economy. While the details of this balancing act must be left to experts in finance and banking, the basic concept is not beyond the ability of the average voter to comprehend, nor of politicians to explain. There should be zero tolerance for anyone who simply spouts “the markets should be allowed to work things out;” the markets haven’t worked things out, and this line of reasoning ignores the “moral hazard” argument noted above.

On to another topic.

Barack Obama gave what many consider a brilliant speech on race relations in America last week, and it has already gone viral on YouTube. Obama is that super-rare politician who can take a serious liability (in this case an error in judgment) and turn it into an asset through his own rhetorical skills.

What Obama’s speech only hinted at should be the topic for a larger American conversation: the fact that social class and access to power divide us even more than race. Racism surely persists in America, as do sexism and homophobia; but the greatest drivers of American inequality are divisions between rich and poor, between the less educated and the more educated, and between the well-connected and the unconnected.

The millions without healthcare come from all ethnicities and racial backgrounds; coal miners who are dying by the dozens in the Appalachians are poor whites, and they have watched for generations as big coal companies have literally removed the mountains from their communities; the millions of manufacturing jobs that are leaving the Midwest are throwing blacks, white, and Latinos out of work; the corporations who flout all sorts of health and safety laws, aided by a Congress and a court system that caters to their needs above the public interest, do not discriminate in the harm they inflict.

The notion that class is the primary source of injustice in America was recognized by none other than Martin Luther King Jr., who vehemently attacked economic inequality in the last years of his life. While he is revered for his successes in the Civil Rights Movement, his positions on economic fairness and social class were not well received by the mainstream; at the time of his assassination he had lost much of his earlier support.

This is one of America’s “dirty secrets”: it is always in the interests of the powerful for the disenfranchised to fight among themselves for the crumbs (e.g., poor whites against blacks, Latinos against blacks) while those in the chips laugh all the way to the bank. This is not to suggest that there are no grievances with a specific racial or ethnic component, but that these are ultimately secondary to class interests. One doesn’t have to be a Marxist to understand this.

At a time when the federal government is once again bailing out the elite to the tunes of hundreds of billions of dollars, we have a clear choice: we can remain distracted by race, or take a moment to examine the concentration of power in this country and realize how it disadvantages whole swaths of people across all racial and ethnic categories. Greed sees only the color green, and all it really cares about is power.

P.S. Check out Paul Krugman on the topic of financial regulation making lots of sense and raising real concerns. And while I find most of Bill Kristol's columns offensive here I actually somewhat agree with him.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Lost Decade

The terrorist attacks more than six years ago supposedly “changed everything”. They changed George Bush from someone who spoke forcefully against “nation-building” and foreign intervention into a president enamored with the idea of spreading democracy by force; they led the Administration to violate the Constitution on multiple occasions through warrantless domestic surveillance and the torture of enemy combatants; they provided cover for a far-right domestic agenda that the majority of Americans opposed.

But in one critical area 9/11 changed absolutely nothing: our dependence on Middle Eastern oil and the autocratic, terrorist-sponsoring regimes that benefit from this addiction.

Not only has the Bush Administration done nothing to diminish our reliance on Middle Eastern oil, Vice-President Cheney is on record mocking conservation as nothing more than a “personal virtue” (i.e., something only tree-huggers do), the GOP-led Congress passed energy bills that increased subsidies for oil companies (thereby further distorting markets against alternative energy), and the Administration sued the state of California for imposing a greenhouse gas reduction policy that would have resulted in higher fuel-efficiency mandates.

Let’s recap the results so far of this catastrophically misguided policy:

1. Oil prices (partly due to the effects of the Iraq War, which have crippled Iraq’s oil sector; see this NYT's piece on how insurgents are stealing Iraqi oil) are at records highs, which has helped stoke the highest inflation rate in decades and complicated efforts to deal with the coming recession

2. Oil-producing U.S. adversaries such as Iran, Venezuela, and Russia are awash in cash, helping to keep dictators in power and undermine democratic reform

3. So-called allies, such as Saudi Arabia, are also awash in cash, allowing them to stall on reforms and continue to funnel more money into the hands of terrorists

4. Our European allies are livid that we have not helped in any meaningful way to address global warming, which could be mitigated through comprehensive international efforts

5. Instead of tens of billions invested in alternative energy projects or tax rebates for the middle class, they’re going to the likes of Exxon-Mobil and Chevron (which routinely set corporate profit records every quarter)

Results like these all lead to the same conclusion. America’s long history of entanglement in the Middle East stems largely from our dependence on oil, and we will continue to be dragged into conflicts in the region until and unless we dramatically reduce the power of these regimes in the way that they would feel it most: their pocketbooks.

Following 9/11, a serious global push to reduce oil consumption would have sent a major signal to the Middle East regimes to either diversify their economies or witness their eventual decline. Ironically, having to face this reality would have provided significant incentives to liberalize their economies, which has proven to be one of the best paths to freedom and democracy.

Instead the Bush Administration took the low road, adopting policies guided by outdated thinking and its strong ties to the oil industry. Bush will leave behind many legacies of failure and incompetence, but this “lost decade” of wasted opportunity on the energy independence front may ultimately be seen as the most costly of all.

P.S. Check this article out in Sunday's WaPo for even more depressing analysis of how the Iraq War's impact on oil prices has hurt the U.S. economy and strengthened our adversaries.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Hope of a Post-Ideological Era

The terms “conservative” and “liberal”, while grounded in well-established philosophical traditions, have been turned almost upside down today. In fact, what we now call conservative was considered classical liberalism in the Europe of old.

The rise of extremist Christianity in the GOP is as contrary to true conservative principles as trade protectionism in the Democratic Party is to true liberal principles. For every Republican who touts the benefits of spreading democracy by force around the globe, a true conservative is rolling in the grave; similarly, true liberals stand aghast that Democrats never meet a problem that can’t be solved by throwing more money at it. The insane war on drugs, and the cowardice with which both Republicans and Democrats approach the issue of gun control, display profound disrespect for both conservatism and liberalism.

The Republican noise machine has been particularly successful at tarnishing the word “liberal”. On the other hand, the actions of the Bush Administration these past seven plus years have gone a long way toward blunting the advantage that the term “conservative” once held with respect to political identification.

The truth is that most of the issues we currently face do not break down easily along ideological lines; at root they are issues that require pragmatism, competence, and common sense. For example, in the richest nation in the world, the overwhelming majority of Americans realize that allowing millions of children to go without healthcare is morally wrong; end of story. The debate is how best to provide the coverage, not whether it should be provided.

With respect to globalization, no one really believes that we should or could turn back the clock. The vast majority realizes that U.S. companies need to remain competitive; they also realize that America needs to maintain some form of safety net, and help displaced workers better transition from one type of employment to the other. Workers should be able to take risks, and not live in constant fear of being one paycheck from bankruptcy. Again, the only debate is how best to get there.

On the topic of terrorism, no one doubts that there are bad actors out there who mean to do us serious harm; the question is how best to find them and deal with them, and not sacrifice our core ideals and liberties in the process.

None of these issues can be resolved by adopting an ideological mindset that refuses to seek alternative points of view or consider other tactics. What is needed is a reasoned approach, combined with flexibility, attention to detail, and follow-through by top-notch government authorities who are accountable to the people.

I chose the title for this piece because I think Barack Obama is the candidate with the most potential to usher in such an era of common sense approaches to policy without the ideological baggage that weighs so heavily on the American body politic. As the conservative columnist Stephen Hayes has noted, Obama’s rhetorical skill lies in his ability to show that he understands and respects opposing viewpoints, even as he points out why a certain course of action is preferable. He rarely uses terms like liberal or conservative; he has a way of elevating the dialogue above the labels that so often get in the way of clear thinking.

While McCain is trying to prove his “conservative” credentials (which seems to mean embracing Christian extremists like John Hagee, and flip-flopping on the Bush tax cuts), Hillary Clinton is staking out a fairly conventional partisan stance. None of this is to say that Obama is the only one who could help move us beyond the ideological divide, but that he seems to have the best chance this election cycle.

Regardless of who wins in November, I think we will begin to see a movement away from the conservative-liberal divide as a new political generation comes of age: a generation less interested in notions of ideological purity, and more interested in finding solutions to the problems that all of us face.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, March 2, 2008

Changing Of The Guard

We could be at a unique historical moment for both the Democratic and Republican parties.

On the Democratic side, Obama excepted, almost all of the major political figures were shaped by the civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War movements. They have a sense of moral indignation and fire that’s absent in Obama. His appeal (in addition to his charisma, charm and rhetorical skills) stems largely from his post-1960s outlook. To the older Democrats, change only comes about through hard struggle against unyielding forces; they consider Obama naïve to think otherwise, and arrogant as well because he believes the time has come to move beyond this narrow view of political progress.

Their frustration was clear in a recent discussion with one of Clinton’s biggest supporters, Geraldine Ferraro, in which she lambasted those who take for granted the gains in women’s rights, and fail to realize how hard-fought they were.

It is easy to understand how this core group of Democrats has come to believe that their contributions to social justice are being undervalued. Obama has taken pains to thank them and make clear that he wouldn’t be where he is if not for their efforts; at the same time he is unapologetic in his call for change, which is no doubt directed at them as much as at the GOP.

The change taking place on the Republican side has been more gradual, and took on particular resonance with the passing of William F. Buckley this past week. Buckley was the consummate intellectual elitist, a person whom the modern Republican Party came to loathe; he was the son of a rich oilman, educated with private tutors and in the best New England schools, spoke in a haughty British accent and routinely quoted Shakespeare, was an avid yachter, and to his dying day believed that the right to vote should be restricted to those who passed certain literacy tests.

To his dismay, the conservative movement that he helped created and the Republican Party that he called home took on an increasingly anti-intellectual bent. This anti-intellectualism reached its apex with the presidency of George W. Bush, who is almost proud that he can’t speak proper English and who uses his “ranch” in Texas as a stage set to prove his “heartland” credentials. Similarly, Buckley’s fierce but substantive and respectful debate program, Firing Line, has been replaced by Fox News and the likes of Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly; these men are many things, but gentlemen in the Buckley mold is not among them.

Buckley came around to believe that the Iraq War has been a failure and antithetical to true conservative principles; for this he was branded a senile old man and a coward by some of the very people whom he helped elevate to positions of power. This account of a debate between Buckley and Norman Podhoretz (an influential neocon who has never visited the Middle East, but has written books on the region and who claims that Iran must be bombed), is striking. Buckley asks Podhoretz if he’s at all embarrassed that Iraq didn’t have any WMD; to this, without a shred of evidence, Podhoretz claims that all the WMD were shipped to Syria.

If conservatism and the Republican Party are to regain their footing, their leaders would be wise to shed their anti-intellectualism and try to once again become the “party of ideas”. If the past seven plus years have taught us anything, it is this: when ideology and party loyalty come before competence and intellectual merit, the results are disastrous.

(In next week’s piece I will discuss Obama’s potential to actually further many key Democratic values in a way the old guard has been unable to do.)

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Where Conservatives Are Right

I was aghast the other day when I read this piece about a potential bailout of troubled homeowners. The article describes people, often with six-figure incomes, whose mortgages are now higher than the value of their homes. They are upper-middle class, they live in large homes and own several cars, and Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) is now asking that my tax money (and yours) be used to rescue them from their own bad decisions.

On this score, the conservative notion of personal responsibility and dealing with the consequences of one’s actions is absolutely right. These are not people who were duped by shady loan practices, but well-educated individuals with good jobs who exercised bad judgment. Liberals who say that no matter how foolishly people behave the government is there to bail them out are going too far.

There is another conservative position that I’m starting to warm to as well: doing away with campaign finance reform. This is an issue that conservatives feel so strongly about that it is McCain’s biggest Achilles Heel among hardcore Republicans. The Supreme Court has made it clear that limiting people’s contributions to campaigns is essentially a limit on free speech, and therefore a violation of the 1st Amendment.

Most attempts to limit private money in politics are meant to prevent the rise of politicians who, bankrolled by the wealthy and powerful, are able to outspend and outcompete all their rivals. There is also the fear that politicians will be bought off by big money, which will sway their votes. On both scores I think these fears are unwarranted.

The internet has almost completely negated the advantages of big money in politics; millions of small donors can now help candidates raise tens of millions of dollars a month (just ask Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and even Ron Paul). It is true that with unlimited contributions the uber-wealthy can surpass these amounts, but the law of diminishing returns keeps this advantage well in check; there’s only so much that money can do in any campaign.

With regards to the corruption that money brings to politics, this is where an active citizenry comes in. If there is evidence that politicians are trading votes for contributions from big business, or selling out the public interest for the interests of the few, then it is our responsibility to vote them out of office. Again, in the age of the internet, it is easy for almost anyone to get detailed information on candidates’ positions and records. Americans watch television an average of four hours a day: plenty of time to better inform ourselves about politics and our elected officials if we so choose. If we do not choose, and if those officials abuse the public trust, then we have only ourselves to blame. We get the government we deserve.

There is a strong need for government regulation and assistance in many facets of our lives, but conservatives are correct when they insist that we shouldn’t use government intervention as a substitute for taking responsibility for the major decisions in our life. Buying a house and voting for elected officials are two areas where people should be expected to invest significant time in their decisions, and be prepared to live with them.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Presidential Debates I’d Like To See

The presidential field will soon be narrowed to the final two: John McCain for the Republicans and Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton for the Democrats. Although it has become routine to claim that every presidential election is “pivotal,” “historic,” or “represents a major turning point,” this time the descriptions stand a good chance of turning out to be accurate.

America will have its first chance ever to elect a black man or a woman president, but that’s just the beginning of what’s at stake. American troops are fighting two foreign wars; the economy seems on the brink of a significant downturn; the long-term makeup of the Supreme Court hangs in the balance, and global warming seems to be accelerating. These issues, and who knows what more, will face the 44th president come next January.

This is why we need a vigorous series of presidential debates. The country deserves a detailed and sophisticated discussion of the major issues, not the superficial questioning that often passes for a debate.

One excellent proposal is for a debate entirely dedicated to science, an idea spearheaded by a group calling itself “Science Debate 2008”. Many of the country’s top scientists have signed on, and their idea has appeared in many major media outlets. After seven plus years of an administration openly hostile to science and scientific inquiry, this would be an amazingly refreshing event. Not only would it help inform the electorate about the candidates’ views on the major environmental, technological, and ethical issues that we are now confronting; it would also help to elevate science at a time when facts too often take a back seat to opinions and punditry.

In addition, a candidate who doesn’t believe in evolution, or thinks global warming is a hoax, or that frozen embryos are “people,” would have to describe what information they based their beliefs on, and defend these beliefs against respected members of the scientific community.

Another debate I would love to see is one dedicated to the candidates’ values: where they come from, how they inform their worldviews, and the implications of these values for their domestic and foreign policies. A candidate who cited “family values” would be asked to elaborate on what this means, and what role they think government should have in promoting these values. They would be asked how their values inform their priorities, e.g., what do their values tell them about growing income equality, about the size of the military budget relative to domestic spending, and about the difference between just and unjust wars.

In all these presidential debates I would like to see the candidates have the ability to ask each other questions, to have five minutes to make opening and closing statements, and for enough flexibility in the debate structure so that particularly important contrasts can be fully developed.

This isn’t too much to ask. It should be the norm.

For too long we Americans have allowed ourselves to be swayed by largely superficial aspects of the candidates’ personalities, appearance, and character (fueled in large part by the media’s infatuation with the trivial). It is time to demand more substantive and comprehensive debates in the run-up to the most important choice we make as citizens.

P.S. The Commission on Presidential Debates has no contact information on its website, so there is no apparent way to make suggestions directly to the Commission. Individuals can, however, add their names to the signatory list for the Science Debate at their website. As we get closer to the election I will update readers on how to voice your opinion on both the number and content of the debates.

P.P.S. Seems like a science debate with the Clinton and Obama proxies actually happened over the weekend. Check it.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

The State of Democracy 2008

It’s a mixed bag.

Here in the U.S. there is both good and bad news. On the positive front, turnout in the Democratic presidential primaries has shattered records week after week. While America is unique among modern democracies in its abysmal voter participation rates, there are hopeful signs. What is particularly inspiring is the increased youth vote; politicians continually urge young people to get out and vote, but no modern-day politician was able to get them there until now. In addition, while the role of big money in U.S. politics is rightly bemoaned, the fact that candidates can now raise hundreds of millions from small donors on the internet has tended to equalize the playing field and is a great development.

Two other developments, however, don’t bode well for U.S. democracy. The first is the Bush Administration’s continued blatant disregard for the rule of law and its now-admitted use of torture (for the disturbing details see Dahlia Lithwick’s piece in Slate). This will go down as a historic moral failing and a low point for American democracy.

The other troubling development is Hillary Clinton’s attempted power grab of the 366 delegates from Michigan and Florida. These states broke DNC rules by moving up their primaries; the DNC retaliated by stripping the delegates of their right to be seated at the convention. All the candidates agreed to abide by the DNC ruling and not to campaign in these states. But with the delegate race now looking incredibly tight, Hillary is making noises about seating the Michigan and Florida delegates; this despite the fact that Obama’s name wasn’t even on the ballot in Michigan, and both primaries, which Hillary “won,” were essentially a joke. Regular readers know that I’m an Obama supporter, but this is simply wrong. If she wins fair and square, fine; but what she’s suggesting is literally an attempt to steal the nomination, and it has the potential to destroy the Democratic Party and once again snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (for the sordid details see this piece in The New Republic).

On the global stage, unfortunately, the state of democracy and freedom is almost unambiguously bleak.

Freedom House recently published its 2007 rankings, and there has been a marked decline in democratic freedoms around the world: a global backsliding, led by such nations as China, Russia, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Chad, Pakistan (Al Qeada's home base), and a mélange of Middle Eastern autocrats. So much for Bush’s “Freedom Agenda”. People can argue all they want about how his foreign policies will be viewed 50 years from now; according to current measurements, those policies have failed.

All of this should remind us yet again how fragile democracy is; it needs to be consistently defended and protected. It is not the natural state for humanity, but a system that is eternally vulnerable.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Why Centrism Requires Partisanship

In earlier posts I have praised centrism; to me it’s not a mushy form of triangulation, but a pragmatic style of politics that takes the best from the left and the right.

Centrism is not without ideological principles, but ideology does not overwhelm facts. For example, a centrist position on abortion retains the ideological position that women have an inherent right to control their reproductive decisions; but centrists also recognize that late-term abortions confront us with ethical challenges that cannot automatically be resolved in favor of women’s rights.

On the economic front centrist policies meld the recognition that market-based capitalism is the engine of our prosperity with the understanding that regulations are required to ensure equity and maintain health, safety, and environmental standards. Centrist economic policy neither fetishizes free markets nor demonizes them.

Centrists do not seek equal outcomes in America, but they do believe that government has a role in guaranteeing equal opportunity. There are legitimate differences on how best to provide this opportunity, but basic agreement with the idea that government resources should be used to make sure every American has a chance to excel and contribute to society.

Centrist foreign policy recognizes that America has a unique role to play as a world superpower, and that more often than not American influence has helped to tilt the world against authoritarianism and toward freedom. At the same time, America’s exceptionalism hardly makes us perfect; we have also engaged in unjust and unwise foreign interventions that have led to humanitarian disasters. Centrists don’t want isolationism, but they do want wise engagement and an emphasis first and foremost on diplomacy and economic tools.

Unfortunately, the GOP has drifted so far right during the Bush Administration that its guiding philosophy conforms to almost no centrist principles.

On domestic issues, GOP leaders seem to think that tax cuts alone (mostly for the wealthy) are the end all and be all. Nobody in the GOP talks about making college more affordable for the middle class, or increasing teacher pay in poor communities, or providing health care for poor children, or any of the other policies that are needed to truly provide equal opportunity. Instead the GOP lionizes the “market” and denigrates all forms of regulation, an approach that has taken us in swift succession from Enron to Katrina to the current subprime mess, costing hundreds of billions of dollars and ruining countless thousands of lives.

Things are little better on the foreign policy side. The Administration has had some success with North Korea and seems finally to be taking an interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it is too little too late. The Iraq War has been a disaster, and the bellicose militarism that has dominated the GOP’s strategy has hardly made America more secure: Al Qaeda is still potent and again gaining in strength, Iran is emboldened, Pakistan dangerously close to becoming a failed nuclear Islamic state. For the most part the GOP presidential nominees have learned nothing from this imprudent course, and spend their time trying to out-tough each other.

The only exception is Arizona Senator John McCain, who, despite some reactionary stances, comes closest to a centrist position; unfortunately for McCain, this is exactly why the GOP establishment can’t stand him. Except for him, the establishment all line up on the far right.

Across the aisle, however, the Democrats are mostly staunch centrists. There are Kucinichs in the party, but the leaders and the serious presidential candidates are textbook centrists on a wide range of issues.

This may change. The GOP was once home to many moderates (remember the Rockefeller Republicans?), and may be again. (Among the party’s presidential nominees, Mike Huckabee has shown an almost Democratic interest in workers who’ve lost jobs and families whose annual incomes are well short of six figures.)

But if you’re a real centrist, there’s no doubt you should be fighting to elect Democrats in 08.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Taking A Step Back

I’m really stuffed…..from all that humble pie I’ve been eating this past week. I thought Obama would cruise in New Hampshire, and he didn’t.

Even so I feel good. As one reader pointed out to me last week, my being a cheerleader for Barack doesn’t really fit with the tenor of this site. Nor does it really mesh with my own outlook. So after a little soul-searching here’s the deal:

I really don’t care much about the personalities in this race, including Obama. He is a fresh face from a young generation, and he represents a cosmopolitan vision of the world that I happen to think will serve America best in the 21st century.

But more than anything I’m sick of the “culture wars”, and really bothered by the notion that the U.S. presidency has become a form of dynastic rule. If Hillary’s name were anything but Clinton or Bush, I might like her a lot more. But it isn’t, and she brings with her a sense of entitlement that truly irks me. If she gets elected I guarantee Jeb Bush will challenge her down the road, and by then Chelsea can come in and try to knock him off. It’s ridiculous and it’s un-American.

That aside, there’s something even more fundamental that last week taught me: I’m as susceptible as anyone to soaring oratory and a warm smile, but what I really care about are ideas and policies.

The ideas and policies that I want from our next president are:

1. A more restrained and humble foreign policy

I don’t want isolationism, but I’ve had enough of the grand rhetoric about remaking the world. I think the worst foreign policy mistake we’ve made has been to elevate bin Laden and al Qaeda to the status of Hitler and Stalin; these cave-dwelling fanatics are dangerous and should be killed, but we have done more to increase their allure across the Muslim world than they could’ve ever dreamed of. This is not WW III; we need targeted policies focused on specific enemies, not sweeping rhetoric about the power of democracy (remember, if you will, that our own democracy tolerated terrorism against a good portion of our own citizens for well over a century).

2. Transparency in government and a commitment to the rule of law

There have been too many days during the Bush presidency when I have been ashamed to be an American. America should not torture, period. We should restore habeus corpus, period. The public has a right to know everything that is not absolutely necessary to be kept secret for national security purposes. If the government wants to spy on American citizens, it needs warrants. I want a president who understands all this without reservation.

3. Protection of minority rights

This includes gay rights, women’s rights, and voting rights. Protecting these rights is not “special-interest” politics; it is the bedrock of American democracy.

4. Science and reality-based governance

Religion is a personal matter and should have no bearing on public policy. Religious doctrines may sometimes takes us to the same place, but religion by itself is no basis for legislation. When it becomes so, we have arrived at a theocracy.

5. Free markets with social safety nets and proper regulation

The free market system is the most incredible wealth-generating system in the world, and every nation that wants to improve its standard of living is embracing it (or should be). But the free market system produces winners and losers and safety nets are necessary, e.g., guaranteed health care and retirement benefits. In addition, as we’ve come to realize, the environment can be a big loser when economies industrialize. This means that effective environmental regulation is crucial as well. I want elected officials who fully embrace capitalism, but who understand that regulations and safeguards are needed and will fight to get them.

There are many more issues that I care about, but these are the main ones. As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, the GOP has diverged so far from its roots, and is so dominated by religious fundamentalists, that I simply can’t vote for them at this point. That leaves me in the Democratic camp for ’08.

Until now I have backed Obama. Truth be told, the differences between the Democratic candidates are relatively small: a Clinton, Edwards, or Obama administration would likely be very similar and in line with my priorities outlined above.

I’ve sided with Obama because of what I mentioned above. I don’t like the idea of Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton; I don’t like the ferocious left-right partisanship that we’ve been seeing in Washington.

But above all, I want to win. I want a sane and competent government grounded in the real-world.

So I am now torn. If McCain becomes the GOP nominee, I am not so sure that Obama has a better chance at beating him than Hillary. If I knew for sure that Hillary would nominate Barack as the VP if she won, and McCain was definitely the GOP nominee, I might even switch and support her. I think Obama could handily beat anyone else on the GOP side, so I would stick with him if someone other than McCain gets the Republican nod.

I don’t know what I’ll do. I’m leaning heavily to supporting Obama no matter what because I finally want to vote for someone, and not base my support on political calculus and fear. My more pragmatic side isn’t so sure. Either way, I’m glad to be back concentrating on ideas and policies rather than personalities.

Next week: why even centrism requires partisanship these days.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Let’s Focus On Collective, Not Individual, Action

I’m a college professor and another semester has just ended. In my final class on environmental economics I stressed to my students that we shouldn’t get too fixated on individual actions, but instead focus on political and institutional change. I think most got the message, but not all.

These days activism has become overly identified with consumer choices. It’s easy to forget that solving our problems requires more than buying organic food (which in some cases may actually be worse for the environment), buying a hybrid car, or turning off the lights. Doing these things may be comforting, but they’re not the real answer.

The magnitude of problems such as climate change, deforestation, the collapse of fisheries, and species extinction requires major changes in laws and regulations from the federal level on down, and cooperation at the international level as well.

I try (not always successfully) to practice what I preach. Most of my charitable giving and volunteer time is now devoted to getting better politicians elected. Whether we like it or not, every time the President of the United States signs a bill or an executive order its impact is greater than the sum of all the actions that any number of ethically-minded individuals might make in their daily lives. On the international level, these impacts are only compounded.

For example, governments around the world spend upwards of a trillion dollars a year on subsidies that actually pay people to use resources unsustainably and pollute the environment (for more info check out this article). No matter what changes we make in our personal lives, we won’t be able to protect our critical ecosystems if we don’t stop this madness. The same for climate change: No amount of carbon offsets or fluorescent lights are going to be sufficient to mitigate climate change without government commitments to both cap greenhouse gas emissions and to establish adaptation strategies at the national and international levels.

The same goes for many issues not directly tied to environmental issues, e.g., the proliferation of WMD and the spread of infectious diseases. They all require government action.

Again, this is not to deny the role of individual choice and the impact these choices can have; I make the comparison only to emphasize that individual choices will never be sufficient without larger political and institutional change. Getting leaders elected who are willing to take on the special interests and promote the public good, and then holding these leaders to their promises, is the only viable long-term strategy for a more just and prosperous world.

Fortunately, in America we will have the chance in the New Year to finally put the back-sliding of the Bush years behind us and to elect a competent administration in its place.

Happy Holidays everyone!!

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, December 9, 2007

What Happened To The Once “Grand Old Party”?

What has happened to the Republican Party is tragic.

It has been taken over by fringe elements who contradict almost all the tenets of true conservatism. The GOP today is in almost complete disarray, with moderate Republicans (those who do not want to impose an intolerant brand of Christianity on all Americans) left standing on the sidelines with nowhere to turn.

Anyone who doubts this need look no further than the current dynamics of the GOP presidential nomination. Here we have Mike Huckabee, now the front-runner, who doesn’t believe in evolution, believes that the Bible is the literal word of god, as late as 1992 said that he wanted to isolate AIDs patients from the rest of society, and who claims that god is behind his rise in the polls, airing commercials in which he claims to be a “Christian leader”. At the same time Huckabee has been implying that Mitt Romney is not a true Christian, forcing Romney to give a speech about Mormonism in order to assuage voters concerns about his particularly bizarre religion.

Romney’s much anticipated speech only reinforced the view that the Republican presidential race is being dominated by religious concerns. Romney went out of his way to ignore and disrespect all Americans who do not believe in religion; at the same time, he fanned the flames of the culture wars by resurrecting the straw man of secularists out to ban religion from America public life. It was a perfect illustration of how far a once mighty and proud party has fallen.

Not to be outdone by Huckabee and Romney, John McCain, trying desperately to breathe some life into his flagging campaign, has taken to emphasizing that America is “a Christian nation”.

A party once concerned with fiscal discipline and defeating communism is now concerned with seeing who can mouth the most platitudes about Jesus, and promise to nominate court justices who will impose their views on the rest of us.

What is most ironic (and points to another failure of traditional media) is that there is more news coverage about the Democrats being swayed by the far left than about the GOP having become a captive of the far right. Aside from Dennis Kucinich, all the Democratic contenders are almost perfect examples of centrism and moderation. For all the talk about MoveOn.org, Democrats have done almost nothing to curtail the Iraq War, not a single Democratic contender has come out in favor of gay marriage, and on the most contentious issues (Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and illegal immigration), the Democrats have sounded almost hawkish.

In contrast,virtually all of the Republican candidates are all appealing to the radical fringe on issue after issue, from religion to torture to immigration. With notable moderates either retiring (John Warner and Chuck Hagel) or being beaten by Democratic rivals (Lincoln Chafee), the GOP can only become even more extreme in the near term

This is discouraging news for America. Since 60 votes are needed to pass legislation in the Senate, a vocal minority can block legislation and wreak havoc (as we are already seeing).

Hopefully, true conservatives will somehow find their voice again and speak up against the religious fundamentalists who have taken over the GOP. Our nation’s policies would be much improved if the party could once again become a champion of conservative principles; I might not always agree with them (just as I don't always agree with Democrats), but at least their positions would be defensible.

Until that happens, I’ll be working work hard to defeat a Republican Party that wants to undermine American democracy and turn it into a theocracy.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, December 2, 2007

Bush & “Pro-Lifers” Still Wrong On Stem Cells

The discovery that stem cells may be able to be produced without destroying a human embryo was announced two weeks ago. Ever since, Bush supporters and “pro-life” Republicans have been waxing triumphant about how Bush was right to oppose federal funding for embryonic stem cell research: Michael Gerson of the Washington Post, writers at The National Review and The Weekly Standard, and this week, Charles Krauthammer, also of the Washington Post, whose article “Stem Cell Vindication” flatly declares that “Bush won”.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, which coincidentally also appeared in another Post article. That article quoted a prominent genetic scientist who said that the Bush-imposed federal ban on embryonic stem cell research probably set the field back four to five years. A new avenue of research has been developed, but valuable time has been lost.

Stem cell research is likely to yield new medicines that can alleviate suffering and prolong life, hopefully in the near future. Then we will be able to calculate the needless suffering that Bush and his “pro-life” supporters caused; then we will be able to see the damage that can be done when religious ideology dictates policy.

But all of this is lost on the “pro-life” apologists. Not one of them mentions that this new line of research represents an opportunity cost of lost time doing other research, or the fact that the overwhelming majority of scientists still supports continuing the earlier stem cell research (because it is too early to tell if the new avenue truly represents a complete and viable substitute).

Let me be clear: if this new research does make it unnecessary to destroy human embryos, that’s great. But it’s not the point. It never has been.

I have yet to meet a “pro-lifer” who opposes in vitro fertilization and calls it “murder”, even though embryos are destroyed in the process. The religious fundamentalists who tell us that abortion should be illegal are perfectly willing to let people go to great lengths to produce their own biological children; they know that the public would never agree to government interference in fertility decisions of this kind.

But when the destruction of an embryo might lead to a cure for cancer or paralysis (even an embryo that is going to be discarded anyway), the “pro-lifers” say that life can’t be taken. Their position is inherently inconsistent, and yet virtually no one calls them on it.

Hopefully, in 2009 we will elect a president who is willing to lift the ban on embryonic stem cell research. Let the best minds go figure out the best methods, unimpeded by religious fundamentalists.

Update:The Washington Post gets it right.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Giving Thanks Now (And Later)

This article in Foreign Policy points to many encouraging global trends. While you wouldn’t know it from reading the headlines, the chance of dying in an armed conflict is now at its lowest level in history. Longevity continues to improve virtually everywhere. In fact, on almost all measures humanity is progressing in substantive ways that we can all be thankful for.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t grave issues to deal with, but it’s good to put things in perspective. Compared to the challenges of the 20th century–two world wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War–the problems we face today are not as dire. And we’ll be going at them with much better technology and far more wealth.

Before we can even begin, though, we have to somehow shake off the modern perception that government is ineffective, inefficient, and corrupt. For decades this sentiment has been fostered by the “conservative” movement in the United States; in a huge irony, through incompetence, cronyism and scandals, it’s been demonstrated in spades by the Bush Administration.

Nobody doubts that Washington pursues some wasteful and ridiculous policies: agricultural subsidies and the “war on drugs” topping the list. But there’s no way we can tackle our major problems (like our dependence on foreign oil, and climate change) without a bold and committed government. We know that strong measures need to be taken, but somehow we’re unable to take them.

The core problem, the one we need to solve before we can start solving the other ones, is the fundamental distrust of government.

I just finished reading a book on the building of the atomic bomb during WW II, and I was amazed at the level of coordination that was required. The U.S. government constructed entire cities from scratch; the efforts of hundreds of thousands of people were channeled into a single effort that involved the most advanced science known at the time. Every resource that America could muster went toward the cause. As just one example, the amount of silver needed for the project was so great that it exhausted all the reserves in the entire country; the project was able to borrow the rest from the U.S. Treasury, which it then returned after the war.

The descriptions of the Manhattan Project reminded me, of course, of America’s efforts to put a man on the moon more than two decades later: another shared goal that required government leadership and a huge national investment. It saddens me that this type of government-led project seems so anachronistic today. Instead of a massive project after 9/11 to develop alternatives to oil, both to combat climate change and to weaken the petrol states that support terrorism, we were told to go shopping and tax cuts were showered on the rich.

More than anything, I hope that Americans in 2008 choose a leader who does not believe that government is the enemy. I hope this leader inspires us with a sense of national purpose, and reinstills real pride in government: not as a provider of earmarks and pork, but as the way to channel our incredible ingenuity and reach for the greater good.

Now that would definitely be something to give thanks for.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, November 4, 2007

A Plea For Media Seriousness

Like many, I am appalled by the lack of seriousness in the media’s coverage of the presidential contenders, particularly their televised debates. Questions like “what’s you favorite Bible verse?” and “have you ever seen a UFO?” have zero relevance and are an insult to our intelligence; the same for stories about whether Obama is “black enough,” whether Hillary’s laugh is grating, or the price of Edwards’s haircut. The apparent obsession with trivia, distractions, and vacuity is deservedly satirized in this Onion news clip.

But the topic is hardly comical; we are about to elect a new leader of the free world at a pivotal time. Why all the frivolity?

One standard explanation is that this is what people want: if they didn’t, the media wouldn’t supply it. There is certainly a grain of truth to this; people do spend an inordinate amount of time watching low quality shows, both news and entertainment. However this logic isn’t quite as sound when it comes to the presidential debates. For these the public has no options. Either we watch Tim Russert ask inane questions or we don’t watch at all; there is no alternative we can switch to.

But I think something more fundamental is occurring; what in economics is called “coordination failure”. The media business has become extremely competitive and risk-averse, and no media outlet wants to be the first to turn to more substantive issues and risk losing audience share to those that cater to the lowest common denominator.

Still there is a real hunger for more substantive news in the country. If all the major news organizations jointly resolved to only focus on issues of substance, I doubt highly that overall viewership would drop. In fact, I think the American people might wake up and ask themselves why they weren’t demanding more substance and real analysis all along.

So here’s my plea to the media empires of the world: please, please get together and agree to drop the triviality. Not every story has to focus on policy details only a wonk could love, but let’s at least get to the core issues. It would be good for your viewers, for your listeners, and ultimately for the world. You could start with this list of questions, put together for FoxNews by a contributor to Reason magazine.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Perfect Bait And Switch

Civilian control of the military is not only one of the great benefits of today’s democracies; it is also one of the most profound political developments of the modern era.

Clearly there are hazards to having the military in charge of those who may not have fought in wars, and therefore cannot know first-hand the horrors of war. But those hazards are small compared to having active-duty generals in charge of both a country’s military and politics. For instance, there is no shortage of military men whose experience in battle only increases their appetite for military incursions, and who are apt to view all foreign policy politics as contests of military might.

Probably no example in American history better demonstrates the benefits of civilian leadership over the military than the Cuban Missile Crisis. If the military leaders had had their way the U.S. would likely have bombed Cuba, believing that the Soviet nuclear warheads were not yet operational. In fact they were operational, and recent documents show that both Castro and the Soviets were prepared to launch a nuclear strike on America if Cuba was attacked. Only the wisdom and restraint of the Kennedy team, many of whom were formerly in the military, averted the disaster.

Most importantly, civilian leadership puts the responsibility for foreign policy and the conduct of war exactly where it should be: on elected officials who are accountable to the people. Without this check it would be much harder for the public to exert any influence on American foreign policy, including waging war.

And yet this chain of accountability has been utterly broken by one of the Bush Administration’s most effective “bait and switches”. Back in 2006 Bush started using the rhetoric that he was “listening to the generals”; it was a masterful way to shift the blame away from him and his administration so that he could contend that he was just following what the generals were telling him.

This tactic of deflecting attention away from his own failed policies reached its apex recently when he shifted all the attention to General Petraeus. No longer did Bush have to answer for his policy decisions; they were all in the hands of a single general who would periodically brief Congress.

And the media rolled over (yet again).

When Petraeus testified in September there were reams of media coverage dissecting his statistics and whether the “surge” was working; there was next to nothing on how Bush’s rationale for the war had shifted yet again (to we can’t leave because it will get worse). The Administration’s original metrics for success were barely discussed.

Most troubling about this shift is that it’s become increasingly clear (despite the mythology perpetrated by the Right) that the generals are not apolitical actors who “tell it like it is”. In fact they have their own agendas and are loathe to openly criticize Administration policy.

Until they retire that is.

General Sanchez, once a major cheerleader for the war, is the most recent retired general to change his tune once he begins collecting his pension. Just last week he unleashed a tirade of criticism on the administration and described the war as a colossal failure. One can only wonder whether there are any high-ranking military officers willing to openly criticize the war while they actually have some say in its conduct.

We now have a situation where the civilian leadership under Bush has absolved itself of responsibility and the generals are playing along. The result: an indefinite occupation which no one seems to have a clue how to end.

Expect lots more money down the drain and lots more body bags. And then Bush will tiptoe out of office and leave the mess to the next administration.

This is not how American democracy was supposed to work.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Aftermath Of Ahmadinejad’s Speech

Last week I made the case that Ahmadinejad’s request to lay a wreath at the World Trade Center site should have been approved. It wasn’t, but the Iranian President was invited to talk at Columbia University. Predictably, many on the right accused Columbia President Lee Bollinger of giving in to this dictator’s propaganda ploy.

The speech went ahead as planned, but something strange happened.

Many on the right, including some who originally opposed the event, grudgingly admitted that it might have actually served U.S. interests. They were notably happy with Bollinger’s harsh treatment of Ahmadinejad (which in my view actually blunted Bollinger’s words and made him appear to be bowing to the right-leaning New York Post), but they were even more happy with Ahmadinejad’s miserable performance. Not only did he throw in more Holocaust denial rhetoric, he denied that there were gays in Iran, said Iranian women were the freest in the world, blurted out bizarre Koranic passages and requested that the messiah come soon. In short, for all the world to see, he came across as the fanatic and out-of-touch despot that he is.

Iranian television naturally tried to spin the event in their leader’s favor, showing selective clips and complaining about the rude treatment he received. But these passages from Iranian bloggers show clearly that in the age of the internet it is next to impossible to hide the truth, even for dictatorial regimes.

There are still those who claim that allowing Ahmadinejad to speak was a bad move since the U.S. has no obligation to provide any forum to a maniacal ruler. In my view this is myopic; it reeks of the hypocrisy that is all too common these days, and has contributed to America’s diminished standing in the world.

Iran is progressive compared to Saudi Arabia, and yet the Saudi royal family gets special tours of the Bush ranch in Crawford and family members walk arm in arm with the President. In Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to drive, and unmarried women are forbidden to appear with men in public. Meanwhile the royal family continues to bankroll terrorists around the world, which helps explain why a disproportionate number of foreign fighters coming into Iraq to kill Americans and Iraqis are in fact from Saudi Arabia.

President Mubarak of Egypt, who receives billions in U.S. aid, jails and tortures political dissidents. President Musharraf of Pakistan is not much better, yet he too gets face time with our top leaders and gets treated with extreme respect. And don’t forget those Sunni sheiks whom Bush just visited in Iraq for photo-ops, whom he said were “good men” fighting al Qaeda; only months ago they were major leaders of the insurgency and were shedding American blood.

But it is not consistency or fairness that leads me to advocate American forums for the world’s despots. It is because it is in our interests, as the Columbia event demonstrated. The more we can show how deranged the Ahmadinejads of the world are, while at the same time presenting ourselves as a free and open society confident in its values and its commitment to freedom and human rights, the surer we are to come away the winner. We cannot win every propaganda battle, every exchange of soundbites, but we will win the larger war of ideas. And we must not shy away from it.

A conservative friend of mine, once a supporter of President Bush, even one-upped me on this score. He suggested that we not only allow the dictators of the world to speak on our soil and debate us, but that we make it an open invitation with full expenses paid whenever they want. He too understands that this is not a left-right issue; all of us should be confident that America has nothing to fear from the rants of madmen. Hearing them out only shows our real strength to the world’s people.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Speech I Would Like To Have Heard From The President

(In response to the Iranian President’s request to lay a wreath at the World Trade Center site.)

Fellow Americans and citizens of the world:

It is no secret that the U.S. and Iran governments are at odds on many fronts. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that we are enemies. Iran is sponsoring terrorism throughout the Middle East, including Iraq and Afghanistan, where our soldiers are sometimes the victims. Iranian President Ahmadinejad has made thinly veiled threats against Israel, recently hosted a conference for Holocaust deniers, and has defied the United Nation’s mandate to curtail its nuclear program.

And now, before visiting this very same institution in New York City, he has asked that he be allowed to lay a wreath at the site of the greatest terrorist attack in our history.

Like many of you, my first reaction was disgust and anger.

But then I thought again about the great struggle we are in against the jihadists and the forces of extremism around the world.

Above all else, this is a struggle for hearts and minds. In the Cold War it was not military action that ended the strife, but the recognition that the Western system of free markets and democracy produced better outcomes and led to more prosperous societies. The same must happen today. Those in the Arab and Muslim world must come to realize that open societies, with human rights like freedom of speech and religion, are not tools of Western imperialism; instead they represent the highest aspirations of all peoples, including their own.

And so I put away my disgust and anger.

It is imperative to make clear that America has nothing to fear from the dictators and thugs of the world. We will win the war of ideas, and the jidadists and their ideology will be relegated to the dustbin of history. But we must engage in this battle in order to win it decisively.

And so I am welcoming the Iranian President to the World Trade Center site. His trip will demonstrate two things.

First, not that America is weak and bows to the whims of despots, but that America is a free society, one where even people with odious and objectionable views are allowed to express them. This is a sign of our strength and a signal to the Arab world: it is only the weak and desperate who restrict free speech and free expression, who limit people’s movements, who jail political dissidents.

Second, another key American trait is redemption. If the Iranian President truly wants to turn a new page by honoring our dead, let that be a first step towards a greater reconciliation. Let him withdraw his support for Hezbollah and Hamas; let him stop his nuclear program.

It is unlikely that Ahmadinejad will do any of these things. More than likely he will try to use his trip as a propaganda ploy. If this is the path he chooses, he will fail.

The world will see clearly that it is America that stands by its principles; that it is America that practices freedom, and not just preaches it; that it is America that offered goodwill even to its enemies in the hopes that they would change their ways; that it was America that allowed the President of Iran onto the site of our greatest and freshest wound, only to have him disrespect us.

And let it be known to all that America’s goodwill is not infinite; that we do not take it lightly when people abuse our goodwill and pursue policies of death and chaos; that when America finally loses its patience and is forced to bring its full resources to bear on those who want to harm us and our friends, that America was on the side of justice and the side of freedom.

Thank you my fellow Americans and citizens of the world.

Next Week: More on the competing notions about diplomacy and how to treat rogue actors on the world stage.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, September 9, 2007

Obama Live

Friday I had the opportunity to see Barack Obama give a speech in San Francisco (you can view some highlights here). While I had already heard him speak early this year, I barely had a glimpse of him then; this time he was right in front of me and there were big screens to each side. Most importantly, Obama has been refining his stump speech all year and the result was one of the best political speeches I have ever heard.

There is no doubt in my mind that if everyone in America had the opportunity that I had, Obama not only would win the Democratic primary but the presidency too.

Let me be clear. I do not think Obama is a savior or a miracle worker. I would likely be disappointed at some of the things he would do or say as president, and likely some of the expectations that he could radically transform Washington would go unfulfilled.

But there is no doubt that he would be a transformative and historic figure, partly because his rise is already the stuff of legend. Listening to Obama, it is clear that he understands the unique circumstances that made him first a Senator and now a major contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. These circumstances include a terribly unpopular president, the dawn of a new millennium, and a deep desire for something fresh and new. Obama has combined all of these with a political message that is much more pragmatic than ideological, a message which speaks to the optimism of the American psyche at a time when we have been fed little more than fear for the past six years.

The contrast in styles between our current president and Obama is striking, not only because of their different political views, but because of Obama’s charisma and articulateness. Whereas it is often painful to listen to Bush mangle even the simplest of phrases, if Obama becomes president people will be glued to the television every time he addresses the nation. My guess is that his speeches would become classics and be mined for soundbites for generations to come.

Obama plays a crowd like a master conductor, working his way from anecdotes, key principles, and his own insights to resounding declarations of what must be done to reclaim American greatness. He has no small bit of the preacher in him. His stump speech evokes patriotism in the best sense of the word, instilling pride and love of country, not empty jingoism.

One of the highlights of Friday’s speech came when he spoke about restoring America’s leadership in the world. He said he would go to the U.N. General Assembly and proudly declare that “America is back”. With respect to his disagreement with Hillary Clinton over speaking directly to our enemies, he declared sarcastically that he had no fear that he would lose a propaganda battle with the world’s dictators. He said a strong country, sure in its principles, has nothing to lose by engaging more with the world. Some of the biggest applause came when he said how he would restore habeus corpus and shut down Guantanamo and the CIA’s secret prisons, shouting that this is “not who we are”. Indeed.

I left the event feeling more excited about politics than I ever have, but strangely, also a little remorseful. If Obama doesn’t earn the nomination I will be very disappointed; America will have missed a historic opportunity and we will be the poorer for it.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, September 2, 2007

Will The Democrats Get Blamed For Losing Iraq?

Many supporters of the Iraq War are already preparing to blame the Democrats for “losing” the war. For these supporters the primary lesson of Vietnam appears to be that we would’ve won if only we had “stayed the course”: this despite a decade of heavy fighting which killed 2-3 million Vietnamese, left a rural peasant economy drenched in napalm and Agent Orange, took more ordinance than was dropped in all of World War II and cost over 58,000 American lives plus hundreds of thousands wounded, most of whom were supplied via a draft that fell disproportionately on the poor and disadvantaged.

This same reasoning is now being applied to Iraq. After almost five years of heavy fighting that shows no clear sign of abatement, hundreds of billions of dollars spent, and tens of thousands of American casualties*, we are once again being implored to remain steadfast and see the conflict through until we are “victorious”. And once again, as the narrative goes, the only obstacle to our eventual success are the Democrats, who want to draw down forces before the job is done.

I was born at the height of the Vietnam War. I’m too young to remember the political dynamics that played out in the seventies and eventually led to the election of Ronald Reagan and the supposed conservative ascendancy. Today many people suggest that the Democrats risk the same fate as they did 40 years ago, when their credibility on national security evaporated, if they force a withdrawal from Iraq and the situation gets even worse.

I do not think this scenario is likely to transpire, mainly because I do not think the parallels between the Vietnam era and today really hold up. The sixties were marked by enormous cultural changes (e.g., the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, increases in teenage drug use and sexual promiscuity) that came to be associated with the Democratic Party, and against which many Americans ultimately wearied of and rebelled against. It’s now 2007 and society has advanced dramatically; today it is the GOP’s perverse and hypocritical moralizing on social issues that is out of step with the rest of the country. In addition the only Democratic president in the seventies was Jimmy Carter, who was easily caricatured as a peacenik. Today all of the first and second tier potential Democratic presidential nominees have gone out of their way to portray themselves as tough on national security.

None of this is to suggest that the Democrats do not have their work cut out for them. Even if America elects a Democratic president in 2008, he or she will face the daunting and delicate task of somehow extricating the United States from Iraq and will have to take responsibility for the outcome. Given how badly the war has been managed I suspect that the American people will grant a Democratic president a great degree of leeway when things (as likely) become chaotic and messy. No one expects Iraq to become tranquil overnight or a Jeffersonian democracy anytime soon.

It seems to me that Americans are more sophisticated and reasonable than the war’s major supporters, who talk of “victory” as if it were some abstract concept devoid of costs and benefits: as if “victory” were something that we could simply will into being if o Sitemap