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Checks, Balances and National Security

[ 0 ] September 14, 2007 |

Ben Wittes points out, correctly, that although Jack Goldsmith has been critical of some aspects of the Bush administration he remains a statist conservative. (“Jack Goldsmith is no human-rights lawyer,” says Wittes; he means this as a compliment.) But while I certainly agree that expanding executive power via Congress is preferable to the Yoo strategy of just making farcical arguments about the Constitution granting unlimited arbitrary war-making authority to the executive, it hardly follows from this that all expansions of executive power are desirable. I haven’t received the Goldsmith book yet, so I can’t judge the quality of his arguments, but Wittes seems, as he has before, to simply assume that expansions of executive authority enhance national security. For example, he continues to misconstrue the criticism of the recent Democratic capitulation on FISA:

The idea that the president ought to have a fairly free hand in the war on terrorism, but that the source of his freedom should be congressional permission for bold action, rather than broad claims of inherent presidential power, lacks much of a constituency today. The ire directed at Democrats who supported the recent temporary FISA amendment is one dispiriting indication of that.

Except, of course, that most of this ire was not based on some principle that congressional expansions of presidential power are inherently wrong. To repeat, the Senate leadership and the administration hammered out a deal that would expand power in some ways, but retaining clear definitions and meaningful oversight. Unless “fairly free hand” means “virtually unconstrained arbitrary power,” there’s no necessary contradiction here.

And this is related to the overall problem with the assumption that expansions of executive power — especially those that remove any oversight — improve national security. But this assumption is false. As Stephen Holmes argues in his recent book:

Would weakening the constitutional system of checks and balances, for example, help the executive become more focused and less reckless? This is unlikely. Indeed, the Administration’s desire to circumvent traditional checks and balances patently weakened its capacity for critical thought and self-correction, preparing the way for its gratuitous invasion to invade Iraq. To defend ourselves against our most dangerous enemies, we do not need unrestricted government, We need intelligent government. And no Administration that shields itself compulsively from criticism has a prayer of being even sporadically intelligent.

While Congressional delegation of unconstrained power to the executive may be more legally defensible, it doesn’t solve the underlying problems that caused the framers to place constitutional constraints on executive warmaking power in the first place. Particularly relevant here is that under the FISA bill that was passed Congress has no effective way of knowing in many cases whether the policy is working or not. Not only is this bad for civil liberties, it’s bad for national security, unless you believe that it’s sound policy to place blind faith in the competence and judgment of an administration whose competence and judgment have repeatedly proven to be catastrophically bad.

Ready For Pickup…

[ 0 ] September 14, 2007 |

Jeanne Shaheen is throwing her hat into the New Hampshire Senate race. Even better: “In a trial heat, 54 percent of 524 Granite Staters interviewed favored her and 38 percent favored Sununu.” I continue to be pretty confident that this is a Dem pickup…

King Midas In Reverse

[ 0 ] September 13, 2007 |

Wheeler and Marshall on the role of Bush crony Ray “Son of Howard” Hunt in the collapse of the Iraq oil deal, which would seem to ensure that nothing remotely resembling a viable Iraqi state is on the horizon. The frightening thing about Iraq has always been that it would be enormously difficult to construct a functioning (let alone democratic) Iraqi state out of no civil society and longstanding sectarian conflict if the leadership of the country that razed the previous state had any idea what it was doing.

Brief Follow-Up

[ 0 ] September 12, 2007 |

I don’t have time to respond to all the comments in this thread, but a couple of quick points:

  • I have learned by now that it is hopeless to expect anyone in the “aesthetic issues are moral issues” camp to ever address this point, but nonetheless I note that the key question is whether weight has a substantial effect on health as an independent variable. What is not in any dispute is that 1)vigorous exercise at least 3-4 times a week and 2)a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains have strongly beneficial health effects, whatever effect they have on what your body looks like. So what, exactly, is the added value of hectoring people about fat as a way of rationalizing one’s a priori aesthetic preferences? Particularly given the quite considerable costs of this moralizing, which are largely absent from addressing the far more important questions of exercise and diet?
  • This article is kind of the worst of both worlds. It characterizes a regulation addressing “the obesity crisis” (sic) as the government trying “to get between you and your cheeseburger.” The regulation in question: a requirement that restaurants provide calorie counts. Although more nutritional information would be better, this regulation is hardly “nanny statism” in the pejorative sense, but in fact reflects exactly the kind of regulations that governments should be passing. Creating informed consumers is perfectly reasonable, and given the incentive that restaurants have to shield information about the potentially bad health effects of their products from consumers it’s appropriate for a measure of regulation in this area. If the government stops people from buying something altogether, then we can talk about “nanny statism.”

My Kinda Town

[ 0 ] September 12, 2007 |

Light posting will continue for another couple days, as I am in Chicago to give a talk at the Northwestern Law School tomorrow. I’m staying at a lovely hotel in Evanston, which would be considerably more clever had I been aware at the time of the booking that the Northwestern Law School is, in fact, in downtown Chicago. Given the proximity of the hotel to the friends I’m seeing here and the fact that the going rate for a Motel 6 scheduled for demolition next month in the Loop is roughly $2,000 an hour, however, it works well enough anyway.

Two salient facts from the flight. The first is that JetBlue is finally flying from NYC-Chicago, sweet. The second is that my flight today (which the attendant assured me was near capacity on most flights) was barely half full. Are people actually superstitious about flying on 9/11?

JAMA Denial

[ 0 ] September 11, 2007 |

You may remember the JAMA study which showed that the range of weight generally defined as “overweight” (as opposed to normal, underweight, or obese) was actually associated with the best health outcomes. (See the full study here.) Paul Campos has an excellent article about how the Harvard School of Public Health has, in spite of these results, continued to push claims that people should optimally be at the low end of their “normal” BMI range (108 and 129 pounds for women and men of average height, respectively.) This “flies directly in the face of the actual data.” The main techniques are mischaracterizing the JAMA study, ignoring their own results when they yield inconvenient data, and relying on their own inferior data pool. The bottom line:

Of course, one reason the Harvard claims are treated with such respect is that they tell people what they want to hear. Their claims dovetail perfectly with social prejudices that declare one can never be too rich or too thin, and with the widespread desire to believe that sickness and death can be avoided if one follows the rules laid down by the appropriate authority figures. Combine these factors with the social cachet wielded by the Harvard name, a willingness to make brazen assertions that run from serious exaggerations to outright lies, and lazy journalism of the “some say the Earth is flat; others claim it’s round; the truth no doubt lies somewhere in the middle” type, of which the Scientific American article is only the most recent example, and you have a recipe for an epidemic of wildly misleading statements dressed up in the guise of authoritative scientific discourse.

The conflation of health and weight is about aesthetics and class, not health.

Indefensible Corn Subsidies: This Time It’s Personal

[ 0 ] September 11, 2007 |

Apparently, among the many other bad side effects, the massive amount of corn being grown is pushing up the price of other commodities. For example, “Heineken, the brewery giant, said beer prices might have to be raised because so many crops are being planted and diverted to bio-fuel production that the supply of barley and hops is being reduced.”

My question: what the hell does the price of hops matter to Heineken? It’s almost as crazy as saying that the price of dairy products would affect the price of a McDonald’s shake…

Bribery Will Get You (Almost) Everywhere

[ 0 ] September 11, 2007 |

Many thanks to our regular reader Howard for favoring me with some hot jazz selections from my wish list: namely, Abbey Sings Abbey and Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian. Many thanks! Indeed, I’m so grateful I’ll even say something nice about Howard’s beloved Yankees:

OK, not really, but you can see what I’m driving at. However, if a Republican wants to buy me something to say nice about Sam Alito — hey, I’ll betray my principles up to a point!


[ 1 ] September 10, 2007 |

Attaturk notices the most salient aspect of yesterday’s Tom Friedman joint. If you actually needed a war to figure out the staggeringly obvious fact that the utter lack of the civil-society institutions might be extremely important to whether a state riven by sectarian conflict is a good candidate for democratic transition…you really shouldn’t be allowed to write about foreign affairs for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, let alone the New York Times.

A GOP Clark?

[ 0 ] September 10, 2007 |

As with Publius, it’s occurred to me looking at the less-than-rapturous reception to Fred Thompson in some of the blogosphere’s conservative precincts that there are may be a loose parallel between Clark’s campaign in ’04 and Thompson in ’08. The surprising early decline in support for the war created an obvious structural problem for the Dems in the last primary campaign: the best strategy was probably to make a strong case that the Iraq War was a counterproductive strategy that undermined national security and the struggle with terrorism. but a candidate that supported the war initially would be fatally compromised in trying to make this case and there was good reason to believe that although he had the right position Howard Dean probably wasn’t the ideal candidate to make the case. Clark — a Southern four-star general who had the right position on the war — seemed right on paper to address this, but his amateur-night campaign made that inoperative. (The great unanswered question is whether Clark had few innate political skills or whether he was just too green. I frankly lean towards the former; the very fact of his bizarrely late entry and decision to skip Iowa when running against two New Englanders doesn’t suggest a political mastermind.) Thompson, similarly, fills an obvious structural void: a plain vanilla Southern conservative acceptable to both pro-business conservatives and their cultural reactionary junior partners. But while unlike Clark he’s run a successful campaign (although getting elected as a Republican in Tennessee isn’t exactly rocket science), I strongly suspect that his good-on-paper candidacy will prove less effective in practice.

Of course, if this turns out to be true, the structural void is still there: somebody who would be disqualified by some factor in a normal year has to win by default. One implication of this is that –while I still don’t think he will win — my categorical assertions that Giulani has no chance are probably mistaken. Part of me is even tempted to say that even McCain could pull off a miracle Kerryesque comeback, although the fact that Steve Hayes and David Broder see it coming means that it’s probably safe to keep writing it off. If it’s not Romney, I still think that Huckabee may be able to appease the business wing of the party enough to be the next most likely nominee.

St. Pedro Day

[ 0 ] September 10, 2007 |

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Went to the Mets game yesterday courtesy of the great Roy Edroso and his lovely and gifted significant other. And the spirit of 1994 lived, as Pedro pitched five shutout innings and Moises Alou homered. Even more than before, Pedro isn’t going to throw a lot of innings; he has to nibble enough that batters will work some deep counts, and though his pitch count will be stretched a bit he’s a 6 inning pitcher at best now. But he’s still beautiful to watch, gutting it out without his A stuff and outsmarting hitters. (And he somehow hit a double.) Moises is unbelievable in his own right; he’s injury prone and 41, and yet he’s almost as good a hitter now as he’s ever been. (The last time he had an OPS+ significantly under his career total was ’03.) And I still can’t figure out how he hits out of that stance…

We were discussing that Shea is one demolition that nobody can lament; it’s a Robert Moses project that combines the charm of the 70s toilet bowl stadiums with the amenities of the relics. One thing I will miss, though, is the large capacity, which the new stadium (like most of the new ones) won’t have. One great thing about baseball is that outside of a few markets like contemporary Boston there are generally many games one could go to on a whim for a reasonable price, as we did this week: Pedro’s Shea debut, Sunday, let’s go! At the new park, though, one will have to split a season ticket or plan out purchases in advance, which isn’t as much fun.

The Horror of a Giuliani Presidency, Summarized

[ 0 ] September 10, 2007 |

I think this is sufficient: “Podhoretz, remember, is advising Rudy on foreign policy.” If that doesn’t make a Rudy! presidency scare the living piss out of you, I’m not sure what will. (cf. also here, here. And here.)

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