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Archive for February, 2009

Boomer Crash Explanation?

[ 0 ] February 17, 2009 |

Gitlin forwards me the following on the SSBN crash:

To the tactical oceanographer, the Atlantic may be less large than it at first appears. It seems the British sub was heading out to sea, while the French vessel was returning from patrol. Both captains, with similar boats on similar missions likely took the same factors into account, both choosing the stealthiest routes and the best hiding spots among the trenches and seamounts. After assessing surface traffic, known submarine operating areas, local thermoclines and salinity layers, the skippers met on a reciprocal course.

Perhaps we should see it as a tribute to their professionalism.

Makes as much sense as anything, I suppose. I am curious about the degree to which the French and Royal navies have worked together on submarine doctrine; professionalism in questions such as these often has a distinctly national hue, such that a professional in the Russian Navy might be expected to come to a different set of conclusion based on data than a professional in the USN. If the French and British have worked together on boomer-hiding-doctrine, it would certainly help explain why the two boats were accidentally at the same place at the same time.

Pompous Hack of the Day

[ 0 ] February 17, 2009 |

Syndicated columnist William F. George hops on the denialist bandwagon. And, yes, it is Sarah Palin’s party now.

With room to drop

[ 0 ] February 16, 2009 |

This set of presidential rankings, as Steve Benen points out, is not all that useful except as a conversation-starter.

Bearing that in mind, I’ll simply note the absurdity of keeping William Henry Harrison on the list. Ol’ Tip’s misplacement is thrown into high relief by virtue of his being ranked lower (39) than George W. Bush (a gentleman’s 36), which I’d expect even Bush partisans to recognize as a silly comparison. I have no quarrel with ranking Bush ahead, for the time being, of the three Democratic presidents — Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan — who set the stage for the Civil War; and I’m even willing to keep Andrew Johnson and Warren Harding on a lower rung for now, though I’d expect him to overtake Harding fairly soon.

But in all seriousness, we need to give Harrison the equivalent of a “No Basis” grade for his 32 days in office. It’s like he bought the books; showed up the first day, read the syllabus, completed his introductory assignment — a long and ponderous essay about his plans for the future and his thoughts on a republican system of government — and then just bailed out on the rest of the semester. Is that really so bad as to deserve 39th place? Sure, you have to knock him for “Performance in the Context of His Times,” performances that had conventionally including surviving to the end of four years. But can you really evaluate the guy in terms of “Moral Authority” or “Relations with Congress”? And so far as “Setting an Agenda” is concerned, Harrison is vastly underrated. Length and poor prose aside, there’s much to dislike about Harrison’s inaugural address — he spends several Broderian paragraphs complaining indirectly about the shrill tone of abolitionism, for example — but he offered some thoughtful words regarding the temptations of power and vowed that under no circumstances would he ever seek a second term in office. Then, as if to prove his point, he went ahead and decided not to even serve his first. And people were seriously bummed out about his death.

As President, Harrison died pure as the driven snow. It diminishes all of us to keep him in the rankings.

Also, Harrison has this tribute working in his favor:

(cross-posted at Edge of the American West)

Better Journalism, Please

[ 0 ] February 16, 2009 |

For some reason, the Atlantic continues to attract love letters to aircraft. I had hoped that Robert Kaplan’s ode to the B-2 Spirit would be sufficient embarrassment to the magazine to make the editors think twice about a second paean to an airborne weapons system. Unfortunately, the generally-more-reliable Mark Bowden falls manages very nearly the same level of sloppy affection for the F-22 as Kaplan did for the B-2. While not descending into purple prose that should, again, have embarrassed his editors (“If the cost of air supremacy is not paid in dollars, it may be paid in blood”) Bowden’s account includes a number of distortions/omissions, including the following:

  • He claims that “independent analysts” have determined that the Air Force will require 381 F-22s. I have no doubt that this is, in some sense, correct; at the same time, numerous other “independent analysts” have determined that the Air Force requires zero F-22s.
  • Bowden accepts the economic claims of F-22 advocates without engaging in any serious scrutiny. It’s certainly correct to suggest that shutting down the F-22 line will put people out of work and close factories all over the nation. It’s just as true that the money spent on the F-22 could be used to create jobs in other ways, or to cut taxes, or to cut the deficit. Maybe the F-22 is among the best choices for economic stimulus. I don’t know, Lockheed doesn’t know, and Mark Bowden doesn’t know either; I wish he would have bothered to ask, however.
  • Bowden claims that skilled pilots have little chance against aircraft more advanced than their own, which is to say that technological superiority is the primary determinant of air combat victory. This argument, it is fair to say, has not been supported by the evidence; in Korea, Vietnam, and the various Arab-Israeli wars, pilot expertise proved a much more important determinant of success than technology.
  • Bowden claims that foreign built fighters have demonstrated superiority to the F-15. While I think that there may be a fair argument based on avionics data, Bowden resorts to description of the Cope India exercises, in which American pilots suffered losses against Indian aircraft. “Independent analysts,” such that they are, have long contended that these exercises were rigged, and essentially conducted in order to advertise for the F-22. Bowden doesn’t bother to address these arguments, instead allowing himself to get rolled by the (admittedly) super cool USAF fighter pilots.
  • Bowden detaches consideration of the F-15′s capabilities from any appreciation of strategic reality. Even if the Su-30 could be regarded as tactically superior to the F-15, and even if Venzuelan pilots could match the intensity and duration of training that American pilots enjoy, it’s unclear what the possession of a squadron or two of the aircraft would do to transform the US-Venezuelan relationship. Bowden simply accepts, without the merest protest, that the United States must have massive qualitative and quantitative advantage at all times with every type of weapon system in order to maintain its security. That the Venezuelan Su-30s would likely be destroyed on the ground before being shot down by better trained American pilots flying with substantial quantitative advantage doesn’t merit his attention.

See also Duss and Yglesias.

Cross-posted to TAPPED

On the Indefensibility of the Filibuster

[ 1 ] February 16, 2009 |

With the discussion here and elsewhere in the blogosphere about the filibuster, I thought it was worth trying to get to the core of the issues. It is true, as djw and I have argued in detail, that the mere fact that the filibuster is “counter-majoritarian” does not make it a bad thing. But it’s also true that it’s not enough to point out that the American system has other counter-majoritarian features: each one requires its own justification. And when you think of things that way, it’s pretty obvious that the filibuster is indefensible. Let’s consider the key issues:

  • It should be clear, first of all, that adding additional veto points to the American system should require an especially high burden of proof. The result of the unusually high number of veto points compared to other liberal democracies has been worse policy outcomes with no discernible gain in human rights. Many of these veto points are constitutionally entrenched. But for those that aren’t — such as the filibuster — we have to ask whether the clear costs of an additional veto point carry any additional benefits. (And while I could care less about the intent of the framers on this question, Matt is also right that there’s no reason to believe that there was any intention for the Senate to have a supermajority requirement.)
  • It’s not enough to say that the filibuster protects “minorities.” The relevant question is whether the institution can be expected to protect underrepresented and disadvantaged “minorities” in the Carloene Products sense. “Counter-majoritarian” institutional features are defensible to the extent that they do that. And the problem with the filibuster, then, is that given the structure of the Senate the only minority reliably protected by the filibuster is rural conservatives: an already absurdly over-represented minority. And, of course, it’s worse than that: the primary effect of the filibuster historically has been to prevent legislative majorities from protecting discrete and insular minorities by thwarting various types of civil rights legislation. And it sure wasn’t affluent people who got hurt by the cuts urged by the Senate “centrists” using their filibuster leverage to water down the superior House legislation.
  • And what’s remarkable to me is that apologists for the filibuster not only don’t dispute this trend, they literally can’t cite a single example of the filibuster working to good ends. Hilzoy — who isn’t an apologist — gamely tries, saying that “To anyone who thinks it’s just obvious that the filibuster should be eliminated, I have three words for you: Janice Rogers Brown.” Well, with the filibuster, Janice Rogers Brown is on the D.C. Circuit, just as she would be without it, so I’m not sure what the argument is. We saved two years? (Indeed, it was foolish not to force the Republicans to permanently discredit the filibuster to get what they were going to get anyway.) But even if we want to change the example to Miguel Estrada, isolated examples can hardly provide much on an argument against overwhelming historical trend.
  • And there are additional good reasons why the filibuster overwhelmingly serves reactionary interests. At the federal level, progressives generally want the government to do more, not less; the filibuster veto point, then, provides asymmetrical opportunities for entrenched privilege against those that would change the status quo. Moreover, once established, major liberal programs are very difficult to get rid off; we didn’t need the filibuster to protect Social Security in 2004. And in terms of protecting civil liberties, spotty as its record is judicial review can point to many examples of value, while as far as I can tell the filibuster can’t point to any.

So, basically, there’s nothing good to be said about the filibuster as it has historically been used. Defenses of the filibuster from a progressive point of view essentially require entering a land of fantasia where the relentlessly reactionary nature of the filibuster across various changes in legislative leadership and party coalitions is purely a coincidence, that progressives haven’t been able to use it not because of institutional realities but because people like LBJ just don’t grasp the finer points of legislative technique. This is, to put it mildly, implausible. The filibuster doesn’t protect underrepresented minorities in theory and hasn’t protected them in practice, and it would be best if it were abandoned at the first opportunity. Whether this will happen too late for decent health care reform to be passed, we’ll see.

UPDATE: A response to Publius’s point about the judicial filibuster can be found here.

On the Indefensibility of the Filibuster

[ 6 ] February 16, 2009 |

With the discussion here and elsewhere in the blogosphere about the filibuster, I thought it was worth trying to get to the core of the issues. It is true, as djw and I have argued in detail, that the mere fact that the filibuster is “counter-majoritarian” does not make it a bad thing. But it’s also true that it’s not enough to point out that the American system has other counter-majoritarian features: each one requires its own justification. And when you think of things that way, it’s pretty obvious that the filibuster is indefensible. Let’s consider the key issues:

  • It should be clear, first of all, that adding additional veto points to the American system should require an especially high burden of proof. The result of the unusually high number of veto points compared to other liberal democracies has been worse policy outcomes with no discernible gain in human rights. Many of these veto points are constitutionally entrenched. But for those that aren’t — the such filibuster — we have to ask whether the clear costs of an additional veto point carry any additional benefits. (And while I could care less about the intent of the framers on this question, Matt is also right that there’s no reason to believe that there was any intention for the Senate to have a supermajority requirement.)
  • It’s not enough to say that the filibuster protects “minorities.” The relevant question is whether the institution can be expected to protect underrepresented and disadvantaged “minorities” in the Carloene Products sense. “Counter-majoritarian” institutional features are defensible to the extent that they do that. And the problem with the filibuster, then, is that given the structure of the Senate the only minority reliably protected by the filibuster is rural conservatives: an already absurdly over-represented minority. And, of course, it’s worse than that: the primary effect of the filibuster historically has been to prevent legislative majorities from protecting discrete and insular minorities by thwarting various types of civil rights legislation. And it sure wasn’t affluent people who got hurt by the cuts urged by the Senate “centrists” using their filibuster leverage to water down the superior House legislation.
  • And what’s remarkable to me is that apologists for the filibuster not only don’t dispute this trend, they literally can’t cite a single example of the filibuster working to good ends. Hilzoy — who isn’t an apologist — gamely tries, saying that “To anyone who thinks it’s just obvious that the filibuster should be eliminated, I have three words for you: Janice Rogers Brown.” Well, with the filibuster, Janice Rogers Brown is on the D.C. Circuit, just as she would be without it, so I’m not sure what the argument is. We saved two years? (Indeed, it was foolish not to force the Republicans to permanently discredit the filibuster to get what they were going to get anyway.) But even if we want to change the example to Miguel Estrada, isolated examples can hardly provide much on an argument against overwhelming historical trend.
  • And there are additional good reasons why the filibuster overwhelmingly serves reactionary interests. At the federal level, progressives generally want the government to do more, not less; the filibuster veto point, then, provides asymmetrical opportunities for entrenched privilege against those that would change the status quo. Moreover, once established, major liberal programs are very difficult to get rid off; we didn’t need the filibuster to protect Social Security in 2004. And in terms of protecting civil liberties, spotty as its record is judicial review can point to many examples of value, while as far as I can tell the filibuster can’t point to any.

So, basically, there’s nothing good to be said about the filibuster as it has historically been used. Defenses of the filibuster from a progressive point of view essentially require entering a land of fantasia where the relentlessly reactionary nature of the filibuster across various changes in legislative leadership and party coalitions is purely a coincidence, that progressives haven’t been able to use it not because of institutional realities but because people like LBJ just don’t grasp the finer points of legislative technique. This is, to put it mildly, implausible. The filibuster doesn’t protect underrepresented minorities in theory and hasn’t protected them in practice, and it would be best if it were abandoned at the first opportunity. Whether this will happen too late for decent health care reform to be passed, we’ll see.

UPDATE: A response to Publius’s point about the judicial filibuster can be found here.

Crow I’ll Happily Eat, But Not Quite Yet

[ 0 ] February 16, 2009 |

As Ezra points out, as did a certain visiting dignitary yesterday, it must be said (painfully in my case) that the initial returns on Obama going with the “inside the tent pissing out” strategy with Lieberman have been positive. During the stimulus debate, at least, the urine did not end up primarily on the feet of the Democratic leadership as I had assumed it would. It’s still too early to judge definitively; we’ll see what happens with health care. But, at the very least, a good reason to trust Obama’s judgment for the time being. If it can buy good votes and fake-”centrist” cred among the Villagers, I can live with Joe keeping his perks.

Collision

[ 0 ] February 16, 2009 |

Whoa.

Surprises, Cutting Both Ways

[ 0 ] February 15, 2009 |

On the one hand, I fully expected to love Synecdoche, New York. Dargis’s rave (though an outlier) seemed persuasive enough, I liked the premise since I first heard about, liked many of Kaufman’s previous scripts very much, and loved the cast. This feeling persisted for the promising first half-hour, and I continued to root for it after it started to become tedious. By the end, though, rather than being charitable about this failed project, I ended up disliking it more than its many flaws probably warranted. Admittedly, this is partly a strong personal aversion to the kind of bullying, formless, self-indulgent “creativity” — in the last half of this picture reminiscent of Gilliam or Burton at their worst — that seems to demand that you respect the filmmaker’s inventiveness while skipping over questions about whether said inventiveness is communicating anything of interest or serving any actual artistic purpose. Kaufman’s oversize ambitions can be charming, but this project goes off the rails and seems interminable at 120 minutes. While Being John Malkovich in particular made the difficult combination of clever whimsy and emtional pain and cruelty work with surprising effectiveness, here it just doesn’t. Without any characters to work with — even with those gamely played by Hoffman and Morton, we don’t learn anything interesting about them that wasn’t already clear a quarter of the way into the picture — the failure ratio of the whimsical gestures is high and the ongoing succession of death and illness and heartbreak has increasingly little emotional impact. Perhaps, as many have suggested, he needs a Jonze or Gondry to act as a counterweight.

On the other hand, I was very skeptical about Revolutionary Road. The reason for this was that I recently re-watched American Beauty, and was amazed by how bad it was. The Chris Cooper stuff was obviously terrible on first viewing, but on the second I found even a lot of what I liked or tolerated the first time unbearable. So I was worried that Sam Mendes would ruin Yates’s brilliant novel. But he doesn’t — it’s a very good and faithful adaptation. Although some reviewers have said that Revolutionary Road is the umpteenth hell-is-the-suburbs movie, this is misleading. It’s true that Yates saw sterility in the suburbs (which he also saw in Manhattan), and perhaps this attracted Mendes to the material. But while American Beauty is the common good-man-ruined-by-the-suburbs-and-his-shrewish-wife (with the misogyny, it should be noted, much more developed than the anti-suburbia — it’s not clear in the end exactly what the suburbs prevented Lester from doing) — narrative, Revolutionary Road is something different and much more interesting: Frank is a man who frequently recites cliches about the suburbs and the duties of family to conceal that there’s no there there, and April (far from bringing him down) sets the destructive Paris idea in motion because she also needs to convince herself that Frank has a depth that doesn’t actually exist. Mendes executes this very well, and he’s always been good with actors. The main flaws of the movie simply result from the fundamental problems of adapting a good novel — it’s less rich, and one misses great set pieces like the description of Frank’s strategies for putting off responsibilities at the office or the cruelty with which he dismisses the uncomfortable truths of his mistress’ roommate. I think the decision not to replace Yates’s free-indirect prose with voice-over narration was sound, but this results in some crucial information being lost (if possible, I would urge reading the novel first.) But there are also improvements. The always tiresome “crazy”-person-who-is-actually-the-sane-one device, by far the weakest part of the novel, is actually better here, partly because Shannon’s nomination was richly merited and partly because in the compressed format of the film his assessments of Frank and April are less redundant. It’s not a great movie, but it’s certainly far better than the one that won Mendes his Oscar.

I was pleasantly surprised by Frost/Nixon too, but I’ll leave that for later. I suppose it could be argued that I should be more open-minded about Benjamin Button, but seriously — this kind of dialogue (and viewers of the film have informed me of even worse examples) is either the foundation of 1)a brutally funny Forrest Gump parody or 2)a terrible movie. And I don’t think anybody claims that it’s #1…

Make It Public

[ 0 ] February 15, 2009 |

The more that’s known about Yoo, Bybee and the Bush administration’s arbitrary torture regime, the better.

So…

[ 0 ] February 14, 2009 |

… what were thoughts on the mythos exposition last night on BSG? My first thoughts:

1. It made more sense than I expected.
2. It left some productive directions to take characters in, especially John and Ellen.
3. It’s good that they wrapped up so many of the major question with five episodes left, such that the primary dramatic events of the conclusion will be character rather than mythos driven.

And obviously, if you don’t want to see spoilers don’t click on the comments.

…and yes, I am a hero. A real, sex-getting hero.

From Colony to Superpower XI: Prelude to Hegemony

[ 0 ] February 14, 2009 |

Read Erik’s contribution first; for some reason he seems to think that Calvin Coolidge was a boring guy. He also talks a bit about US policy towards Latin America and the infant Soviet Union. I think that I found this chapter quite a bit more interesting than he did.

One of the strengths of Herring’s account is that he focuses on the behavior of private actors as much as the government itself. Private actors, from missionaries to bankers to investors, made an enormous contribution to US foreign policy during this decade. Such actors always play a role, of course, but the relative disinterest of Coolidge and Harding to foreign policy made the phenomenon particularly visible during their tenure. Indeed, two of the most important foreign policy programs pursued by these administrations, famine assistance to the Soviet Union and European debt relief, consisted substantially of government coordination of private assistance. The former may have saved the Soviet Union, while the latter preserved, for a while, the European peace. Reparations-driven financial collapse threatened the continent on more than one occasion, and the combination of public and private US diplomacy helped broker continued peace and stability. This accomplishment could not head off either the onset of the Great Depression or the collapse of the post-Great War political settlement, but it did serve to delay continental financial disaster. This pretty much represented the extent of US willingness to engage in a leadership role in European affairs; whether such limited engagement should be seen as admirable restraint or abdication of responsibility is a question for another day…

I had worried a bit about how Herring was going to treat the naval disarmament treaties, given his lack of attention to military affairs in previous chapters. Herring doesn’t disappoint, however; he makes clear the novelty of the treaties, the role that the US played in bringing them about, and the impact they had on Great Power relations in the 1920s. The treaties secured a balance of power between the five major naval players in the international system, and in so doing saved the budgets of Japan and the United Kingdom. That the US played such a pivotal role is notable given that its economy and productive capacity exceeded the other two competitors; it’s not quite right to say that the United States gave up a clear advantage (Japan and the UK had a fraying alliance), but neither is it quite wrong. The treaties placed limits on the number of capital ships allowed to the UK, the US, Japan, France, and Italy, and compelled the scrapping or demilitarization of many warships. In most cases, these warships were less than fifteen years old. It shouldn’t be surprise readers of this site that I think the interwar naval limitation treaties have been understudied in political science.

Herring pays a fair amount of attention to the Peace Progressives, a group of mostly Midwestern, mostly Republican lawmakers. The Peace Progressives believed in both world peace and fiscal responsibility; in so doing they made the (almost heretical in the current political climate) connection that weapons cost money, and that the interest of small government is best served by tight limitations on the size of military forces. The pursuit of international routes to peace (Kellogg-Briand Pact, for example) abetted the interest in fiscal responsibility by reducing the need for large military establishments. I think it’s odd that this combination (preference for low tax, low domestic expenditure, low defense expenditure) seems to occur so rarely in the American political context; perhaps the development of the military-industrial complex served to capture pro-business (such that the term has any meaning…) legislators, or the perceived threat of communism helped purge Republican party doves?

Finally, since I’m so late in producing my contribution, and as blogging time will be short while I’m in NYC, we’ll be pushing back chapter XII until next week.

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