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Archive for April, 2012

On the Value of Getting bin Laden

[ 88 ] April 30, 2012 |

I don’t have too much to add to Greg Sargent’s take on the “Jimmy Carter would have given the order” Romney claim, but just to summarize:

1. The mission that killed bin Laden was risky in operational terms, in international political terms, and probably in domestic political terms. It’s not quite right to say that the failure of Eagle Claw cost Carter the 1980 election, but it surely didn’t help. Moreover, Obama could opted for the less risky, more destructive, less certain bombing attack.
2. There is no guarantee whatsoever that Republicans would have given Obama a pass on the failure of the mission to net bin Laden, or if it had resulted in substantial U.S. casualties. 2011 ain’t 1980; indeed, I’d have been extremely surprised if the failure of a bin Laden mission didn’t become central to alterna-Romney’s national security pitch.
3. Romney accepted this risk in 2007 when he implied that getting bin Laden wasn’t a priority. Romney may have even been right (although killing or capturing bin Laden was clearly worth some risk), but in saying so he clearly put himself in foreseeable political jeopardy. As it turned out, the mission could be accomplished at substantially less cost than Romney suggested, which is also a problem.
4. This is what it looks like when Democrats go for the jugular. It’s hardly barbaric for the campaign to trumpet the President’s role in killing a man suspected of the mass murder of Americans.

Caro and Generational Perceptions Of LBJ

[ 76 ] April 30, 2012 |

Reading the profile of Robert Caro Erik discussed earlier, I was immediately struck by this:

Caro can tell you exactly how Moses heedlessly rammed the Cross Bronx Expressway through a middle-class neighborhood, displacing thousands of families, and exactly how Johnson stole the Texas Senate election of 1948, winning by 87 spurious votes. These stories still fill him with outrage but also with something like wonder, the two emotions that sustain him in what amounts to a solitary, Dickensian occupation with long hours and few holidays.

The thing is, I suspect that Caro is equally outraged about the “theft” of the 1948 Texas Senate election as he is by the building of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, even though to talk about a candidate “stealing” the 1948 Texas Democratic primary is essentially meaningless. There wasn’t going to be a fair contest for the votes; while LBJ certainly committed electoral fraud, since the result of unilateral disarmament by Johnson’s campaign would have been seeing the competing electoral fraud of the neoconfederate faction of Texas Democratic Party triumph like it did in 1942, it’s understandable that he chose not to do so. At any rate, the comparison sums up the fundamental problem with the first two volumes of Caro’s LBJ bio: he seemed to start with a conviction that LBJ was like Robert Moses only worse, when in fact LBJ was in many important respects pretty much the opposite of Robert Moses.

I suspect the key issue is that for many liberals of Caro’s generation, Vietnam seemed like almost entirely LBJ’s disaster, while the remarkable domestic triumphs of his administration seemed inevitable. People like me, who see LBJ’s domestic record as significantly more progressive than FDR’s (let alone the typical president) and see JFK and many others as sharing in the responsibility for Vietnam, are going to be at odds with some of Caro’s fundamental view of Johnson.

Even making some allowances, there’s no way around the fact that Means of Ascent is an almost unmitigated catastrophe; I’ll return to that in a follow-up post, with the hope that the New Republic will put the classic Sidney Blumenthal review up. At Erik’s suggestion I’ve been re-reading the Path to Power, and he’s right that I gave it less credit than it deserved because of the sour aftertaste of the second volume. It’s still problematic at some respects, and it made me wonder if a lot of the words that his editors cut out of The Power Broker involved Moses’s early life. The telling detail about a person in power doing important things can be great; about a teenager Caro’s piling-on method can seem mean-spirited. (After the umpteenth demonstration of how LBJ didn’t get laid as much in college as he implied or about his influence of a minor student contest etc. etc. you expect a four-chapter demonstration proving that he once cheated at cribbage.) The years covered in the first two books would have been much better suited to one. Still, it also has a lot of great stuff about Texas politics and a lot of what Caro unearths about LBJ is fascinating.

Fortunately, by Master of the Senate Caro largely pulled himself together, and it’s almost as great as The Power Broker. Part of this, I’m sure, is the stinging criticism Means of Ascent deservedly received. But I’m also guessing that part of it is the complete collapse of the New Deal coalition that happened between the second and third books; nobody could believe that there was something inevitable about the apparent liberal consensus of the mid 60s anymore, and the newfound appreciation for the Great Society helps balance the portrayal. While you can still sense his instinctive attraction to the patrician reactionary Caro isn’t suckered by Richard Russell the same way he got embarrassingly suckered by the myth of Coke Stevenson. Hopefully the new one continues in the new vein; I can’t wait.

Against “Authenticity”: Zombie-Eyed Granny Starving Edition

[ 75 ] April 30, 2012 |

Jon Chait’s dissection of Paul Ryan is essential reading. Before getting to the heart of the article, there’s another point I’d like to emphasize. You remember James Stewart — using the same legendary reporting skills that caused him to accuse Hillary Clinton of committing a felony based on a tax form he failed to turn over — praising Ryan for being open to increased capital gains taxes when in fact Ryan favors eliminating them altogether? Well, Chait talked to him, and the results are pure (if depressing) gold:

After Obama assailed Ryan’s budget, Stewart wrote a second column insisting that Ryan’s plans were just the sort of goals liberals shared. He quoted Ryan as writing, in his manifesto, “The social safety net is failing society’s most vulnerable citizens.” Stewart is flabbergasted that Democrats could be so partisan as to attack a figure who believes something so uncontroversial. “Does anyone,” Stewart wrote in his follow-up, “Democrat or Republican, seriously disagree?”

The disagreement, I suggested to Stewart, is that Ryan believes the social safety net is failing society’s most vulnerable citizens by spending too much money on them. As Ryan has said, “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency”—which is to say, plying the poor with such inducements as food stamps and health insurance for their children has sapped their desire to achieve, a problem Ryan proposes to solve by targeting them for the lion’s share of deficit reduction. Stewart waves away the distinction. “I was pointing out that, at least rhetorically, you can find some common ground,” he says. Stewart, explaining his evaluation of Ryan to me, repeatedly cited the missing details in his plan as a hopeful sign of Ryan’s accommodating aims. “He seems very straightforward,” he tells me. “He doesn’t seem cunning. He seems very genuine.”

Stewart’s responses in defense of Ryan are an object lesson in why 99.9% of theater critic analysis of politicians is useless. First of all, once a reporter has a narrative of authenticity or genuineness about a political figure, anything can be neatly wedged in to fit. Including, amazingly enough, citing Ryan’s failure to take responsibility for the specific spending cuts his broader policy framework would require on behalf of his honesty and moderation.

But, more importantly, even when it’s less implausible or tautological the problem with this kind of evaluation is that it’s worthless on its face. As Chait says, looked at from the right angle Ryan’s assertions that he doesn’t believe the safety net is working for the poor are perfectly “genuine” — he thinks it’s not working and therefore we should pretty much eliminate it at the federal level. But this “rhetorical overlap” is only relevant to claims that he’s a moderate fiscal conservative who liberals can work with if there’s any substantive overlap with people who believe that the United States’ already tattered safety net should be strengthened — which there isn’t. But as I’ll also discuss this week with respect to Robert Caro, there’s a certain kind of centrist or even liberal journalist who’s always a sucker for arch-reactionary politics presented in the form of superficially genteel personalities.

This Day in Labor History: April 30, 1894

[ 13 ] April 30, 2012 |

On April 30, 1894, Coxey’s Army, a rag-tag group of unemployed Americans, marched into Washington, D.C., demanding federal jobs for the unemployed. Articulating ideas that would be accepted by New Dealers forty years later, Coxey’s Army scared the nation’s political and capitalist elites, who feared hordes of the unworthy poor were attacking the fundamental tenets of capitalism.

The Panic of 1893 destroyed the American economy. Caused by massive (and corrupt) railroad speculation and exacerbated by the terrible economic policies of the Cleveland Administration, the Panic of 1893 led to the greatest depression in American history before 1929. Lasting five years, unemployment reached as high as 18%, banks failed left and right, and currency supplies dried up after Congress repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. The post-Civil War economy had been marked with ups and downs, but the Panic of 1893 convinced many Americans that the Gilded Age economy flat out did not work in their favor.

Jacob Coxey owned a sand quarry in Massillon, Ohio. Although personally wealthy, Coxey was outraged at the government’s lack of response to the poverty he saw around him. In response, he organized a protest march of the unemployed to Washington, D.C. On March 25, 1894, 100 men marched out of Massillon. Other groups began forming around the country to join the march of the unemployed. Coxey hoped his group would reach 100,000, but by the time he reached Washington, only about 500 men had joined.

Coxey’s Army

Coxey’s Army is another example of how late 19th century Americans had great difficulty understanding the economic changes overwhelming their lives. Republican free labor ideology had fallen by the wayside for elites during the 1870s. The growth of massive corporations after the Civil War quickly led Republican Party leaders into a full-fledged defense of plutocracy. But a huge number of native-born Americans still believed that the natural employer-employee relationship was one of mutual respect, with workers laboring in small shops, independently, or as farmers. Many immigrants from Europe knew how to respond to their degraded conditions–through radical ideologies such as anarchism and socialism. But for native-born Americans uncomfortable with so-called foreign ideologies, responses were deeply varied, including joining craft unions like the American Federation of Labor, supporting simple ideas that would supposedly solve all problems like Henry George’s single tax or the Knights of Labor’s 8-hour day, opposition to immigration, etc. This helps explain the intense popularity of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Coxey’s Army was another manifestation of American workers attempting to come to grips with an economy out of their control. Demanding government employment was a sensible response to the crisis workers faced.

Unfortunately, the president in 1894 was Grover Cleveland, a man with even less sympathy for working-class people than your usual Gilded Age president. A man who just a few months later would crush the Pullman Strike, Cleveland was less than enthusiastic to hear the calls of the unemployed. Coxey’s Army freaked out the forces of order. Newspapers attacked this so-called radical movement, painting it in harsh terms. When Coxey’s Army reached Washington, a reduced force in any case because of official harassment, it attempted to camp on the lawn of the Capitol. But the Army immediately kicked it out. The next day, May 1, Coxey then attempted to read a statement on the steps of the Capitol, but was arrested for trespassing. Yes, an American citizen was arrested for trespassing at the seat of government. Specifically, he was charged with walking on the grass of the Capitol. Coxey’s allies in Congress did read the speech into the Congressional Record. An excerpt:

We stand here to-day in behalf of millions of toilers whose petitions have been buried in committee rooms, whose prayers have been unresponded to, and whose opportunities for honest, remunerative, productive labor have been taken from them by unjust legislation, which protects idlers, speculators, and gamblers: we come to remind the Congress here assembled of the declaration of a United States Senator, “that for a quarter of a century the rich have been growing richer, the poor poorer and that by the close of the present century the middle class will have disappeared as the struggle for existence becomes fierce and relentless.

Coxey’s Army at the Capitol

Coxey served 20 days in prison and was fined $5. Coxey continued his political actions, unsuccessfully running for Congress in 1894 and serving as a delegate to the Populist Party convention in 1896, as well as being two-time Populist nominee for governor of the Buckeye State. He also named his youngest child Legal Tender Coxey, a reflection of his obsession with monetary reform. He stayed active in politics throughout his very long life, finally winning the position of mayor of Massillon in 1931.

Coxey’s Army however completely collapsed upon his arrest. There was no real ideology tying it together–like so much native-born American protest in the late 19th century, it was a single person with a single idea. When the authorities cracked down on that single person, there was nothing else to sustain the movement. It became a touchstone for the Populist movement, but then even Populism genuflected to the single idea of free silver by 1896.

There’s not a ton of recent historical work on Coxey’s Army. For further reading, I’d recommend Carlos Schwantes, Coxey’s Army: An American Odyssey.

This series has also covered the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 and the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.

Legislature As Theater

[ 2 ] April 30, 2012 |

Using control of the agenda to force the opposition into unpopular votes doesn’t have much of an impact on elections at the presidential level (although a little more at the state and local level). Still, given that Republican control of the House makes passing worthwhile legislation an impossibility, there’s no reason for Senate Democrats not to do it.

Ty Cobb, Class Act

[ 44 ] April 30, 2012 |

Great stuff.

Except for the part about Cobb entering the stands to beat a man who had lost his fingers in a printing press.

Using “Federalism” To Advance Republican Interests

[ 19 ] April 30, 2012 |

I referenced it briefly last Friday, but I have a column up at the Guardian about the potential for the Roberts Court to push the “federalism revolution” to much more indefensible ends than the Rehnquist Court did.

The potential for upholding SB-1070 is actually the least bad of the three conservative arguments. The “sovereign immunity” line of cases has always been appalling, although limited in their consequences. The case against the constitutionality of the PPACA isn’t quite as legally weak — it at least isn’t contradicted by the text of the Constitution — but it is very weak and this weakness is much worse given that it’s being used against the centerpiece policy of an incumbent administration. But if the case for upholding SB-1070 isn’t as inherently weak, it’s still worth comparing the apparent rejection of the preemption by the conservatives on the Court with their embrace of a much weaker preemption argument in AT&T v. Concepcion. The latter case should serve as a crucial reminder of a crucial principle of American politics — i.e. nobody actually cares about federalism, very much including the Roberts Court if state law gets in the way of business interests.

Mad Men

[ 28 ] April 29, 2012 |

How many shows have reached such outstanding heights in the 5th season as Mad Men has done this year, episode after episode? The last 3 episodes especially have been just fantastic. And the comedic writing is so much higher this year. I find myself laughing out loud consistently, which I don’t remember doing before. Even The Wire slipped in season 5. I guess MASH and Seinfeld were pretty fantastic around season 5 and The Sopranos was always pretty great. But there’s not many shows still able to break new ground in their 5th season.

In other words, you west coast people need to be watching tonight.

Retirement Age

[ 48 ] April 29, 2012 |

And as an addendum to Paul’s post yesterday, it’s pretty easy to talk about the benefits of a retirement age of 74 when your job is to put on a bow tie and pontificate about things you may or may not know anything about. Give Will and everyone else employed by Fred Hiatt’s op-ed page a job cleaning bedpans 10 hours a day and I’m pretty sure we’d never hear about it again.

Ryan’s Quasi-Repudiation Of His Hero Ayn Rand

[ 79 ] April 29, 2012 |

Shorter Paul Ryan: When it comes to Ayn Rand, take the zombie-eyed granny starving, leave the atheism. The scene where everyone who was once guilty of an act of altruism gets asphyxiated, though, was awesome.

And, to be clear, his Rand worship isn’t just something the Lamestream Media made up.

Environmental Protection and Unions

[ 8 ] April 29, 2012 |

A couple of weeks ago, I slammed United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts for attacking the Environmental Protection Agency.

I have a piece up at Alternet exploring this issue in greater detail. An excerpt:

It makes little sense for Roberts to side with the coal companies on the EPA or anything else. The companies have little sympathy for the people of Appalachia. A century ago, they ruled the coal country like a fiefdom, murdering union organizers and forcing workers into generations of endemic poverty. It took organizers like Mother Jones and John L. Lewis to pull the companies out of the Middle Ages. In the 1880s and 1890s, coal companies in Tennessee used convicts as slave labor, leading to a major labor uprising in 1891. In 1921, West Virginia erupted into war after workers, tired of decades of oppression, took up arms when a sympathetic law enforcement was murdered by company thugs; over 100 union members were murdered in the weeks to follow. After decades of struggle, conditions for coal miners slowly improved, but the companies never stopped fighting against reforms. Thousands of miners died of black lung disease throughout the 20th century, but the companies refused to recognize the illness or grant compensation to victims until Congress passed the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.

The coal companies continue to treat workers’ lives as expendable. Coal mining remains one of the nation’s most dangerous professions. We rarely hear about the miner or two dying each month in accidents, but the death of 29 miners in 2010 at the Upper Big Branch Mine grabbed Americans’ fickle attention. Massey Energy, owner of Upper Big Branch, had a long history of labor violations and was openly contemptuous of safety regulations. Most of the coal industry reflects Massey’s indifference to worker health and safety.

Moreover, the mine companies have sought to reduce employment for decades. In 1920, 784,000 Americans were employed in the coal industry. By 2000, that number fell to 71,000 while coal production has increased. Not only have the companies looked to lay off as many workers as possible, but the certainly don’t care about the people of Appalachia at large. Mountaintop removal mining has destroyed forests and streambeds, remade the region’s geology, dumped toxic chemicals into waterways and rivers, and forced people off their land. Outside of climate change, mountaintop removal is the greatest ongoing environmental disaster in the United States.

The luckiest man who ever lived

[ 40 ] April 28, 2012 |

Hokemania

My brother was at the Cincinnati Reds’ game this afternoon, sitting a few rows up in the stands on the first base side. A ball was fouled off, and it bounced on one hop to a guy about five rows in front of him. On the very next pitch, the ball was fouled off again, and the same guy caught it.

OK somebody calculate the odds of this. Assume there are 250 pitches in a game, 5% of which result in balls going into the stands . . .

Seriously I bet this has never happened before.

BTW my brother a published a book this week, which those of you interested in Latin American history or drug policy or getting high would find very interesting.

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