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Almost Single Digits

[ 18 ] February 25, 2008 |

Late last week there was news of President Bush’s new approval ratings, which are his lowest ever: 19%.

Other polls have him slightly higher (in the 20s). I take such perverse joy in this. I think the day he hits 9%, I may have to throw a little party.

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The Non-Sequitur Defense

[ 84 ] February 25, 2008 |

A commenter recommends this diary defending the candidacy of Ralph Nader, making an argument I’ve heard many times before. I agree strongly with the diarist that we should get rid of the electoral college and institute instant runoff voting, and mildly agree that a PR system would be preferable to first-past-the-post (although a PR system creates some serious problems with a separation-of-powers system.)

The problem, of course, is that Ralph Nader’s candidacies have done absolutely nothing to bring these things about, and at least two of them (direct vote for president and PR) are because they would require small states or incumbents to give up vested interests. It’s silly to defend Nader by saying that if we had a different electoral system he wouldn’t have thrown the election to Bush. We don’t, and he did, and I don’t see how putting George Bush in the White House took us closer to instant-runoff voting.

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[ 47 ] February 25, 2008 |

Didn’t see the ceremony. Glad to see No Country win Best Picture; it wasn’t my very favorite picture of the year, but as I said last year it’s again the best movie to win Best Picture since Annie Hall, and the class this year was unusually strong.

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More On Experience

[ 38 ] February 25, 2008 |

Kevin Drum objects to my argument about experience, claiming that Obama’s experience will be a disadvantage against McCain but Clinton’s would not. I’m not entirely convinced. It’s worth untangling the normative and empirical issues here. The heart of Kevin’s argument is this: “Like it or not, most voters have a sort of vague operational view of experience that means something like “involvement in big league politics.” And on that score, Hillary gets 15 years: 8 years as an activist first lady and 7 years as U.S. senator. Obama, conversely, gets a total of 3 years as U.S. senator.” The problem here is that this seems pretty arbitrary, with the general criteria selected to give Clinton maximum advantage. Do most voters believe that serving as first lady counts as full “involvement in big league politics” but Obama’s longer (and arguably more effective) history as a legislator doesn’t count at all? Maybe, maybe not. The difficult first lady question is particularly crucial, because without full credit Clinton is clearly at a major disadvantage to McCain if experience matters, and my guess is that voters not only won’t give full credit to this but will indeed give less credit to it than I would consider appropriate. At any rate, it’s even less clear that this qualified edge in experience matters very much. Consider not only this year’s Dem race but compare Bill Clinton (zero years big time experience by Kevin’s criteria) against the lengthy resume of George H.W. Bush, or the latter’s son against Al Gore. Either voters evaluate experience in a more nuanced manner than Kevin suggests, or it’s a pretty trivial consideration. Perhaps a little of both, but pols from Henry Clay to Robert Dole might suggest that it’s more the latter. (Or maybe the things that go along with experience in politics make candidates unattractive for other reasons.)

On the normative question, I have a hard time believing that Obama’s somewhat greater inexperience make him much riskier than Clinton. Clinton’s extra Senate term means pretty much nothing, especially since she got the most important question of her tenure wrong. Her first lady experience may be marginally more relevant than Obama’s good state legislative record, community organizing, and work in legal academia, but it’s hard to see that it would compel you to vote for anyone you otherwise wouldn’t. (And this cuts both ways; some Clinton supporters may think I’m underrating the importance of her experience in the White House, but I also don’t think that her husband’s general failure to mobilize support for major progressive reform is much of an indicator of what Hillary Clinton would do as president.) The Presidency is sui generis, and you really are rolling the dice either way (including McCain, even though he’s the most experienced.) None of the major remaining candidates has experience that really sheds much light on how effective they’d be. You pull the lever and takes your chances.

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Birthday Girl

[ 16 ] February 24, 2008 |

Greta — one of the more neurotic and sweet dogs you’d ever want to meet — turns six today. I’m baking her a cake, which is just the sort of thing to do when a Newfoundland makes it 2/3 of the way through the average lifespan of her breed. She’s also going to receive a giant rawhide covered with some variety of meaty goo.

I’m setting the odds at 4-1 that she’ll heave all this on the rug by early evening.

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[ 66 ] February 24, 2008 |

Reactionary vanity candidate Ralph Nader is apparently pleased enough with record of the man he put in the White House that he’s running again in hopes that we can get four more years of similar policy outcomes. This time, of course, it won’t matter. Unlike in 2000, I believe that the vast majority of people willing to see the parties as indistinguishable after 8 years of Bush really are people unlikely to vote for any Democrat until they try to grab the true pulse of the American people and run a Chairman Bob Avakian/Mumia ticket. I’m more sad than angry about what Nader will do to his reputation with another pointless Republican-funded campaign at this late date.

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Are You Experienced?

[ 0 ] February 24, 2008 |

Related to this point, arguments for Clinton proceeding from her allegedly greater experience have always been unpersuasive, precisely because if Clinton’s rather marginal and contestable experiential advantages over Obama should be decisive any of the other major Democratic candidates would be unquestionably preferable to either. (And, even worse, the same would be true of McCain in the general.) Fortunately for the Dems in November, I also agree with Yglesias that experience tends to be “the time-honored election argument of losers.” I think there may be exceptions in cases of long-time executive or high-ranking military experience, but no viable candidate has that.

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Sunday Maritime Book Review: Stalin’s Ocean-Going Fleet

[ 14 ] February 24, 2008 |

Jurgen Rohwer and Mikhail Monakov wrote Stalin’s Ocean-Going Fleet in 2001, after the opening of Soviet archives had let considerable light onto Soviet Navy doctrinal and procurement decisions during the Stalin period. Rohwer is a German historian, and Monakov a Russian naval officer. The book concentrates on the period from 1935-1953, but inevitably compares that period to what came before and what came after. It’s a book that will appeal mainly to specialists, but that’s nevertheless chock full of yummy data and insight.

The Soviet Union emerged from the civil war with a small, obsolete fleet. While the Imperial Russian Navy had been a player, much of its strength had been destroyed at Tsushima, and new construction had not been sufficient to replace the losses before the beginning of the war (although the ships lost at Tsushima would of course have been obsolete by 1914 anyway). World War I served to weaken the reduced Russian Navy. Of the seven dreadnoughts built before or during the war, one exploded accidentally, one was scuttled by its crew to prevent seizure by the Germans, one was stolen by counter-revolutionaries and taken to Bizerta, and one burned down. Moreover, the three survivors were hopelessly obsolete by contemporary standards. The rest of the fleet wasn’t in much better shape.

Initial plans for reconstruction focused on the development of a force capable of executing a “jeune ecole” strategy; that is, an asymmetric force concentrating on sea denial and anti-commerce operations. Given the perilous state of Soviet industry, the weakness of the existing fleet, Russia’s geographic maritime limitations, and the profile of Russia’s most likely security threats, this was a sound assessment. However, there were other considerations. Although a revolutionary state, the Soviet Union proved just as susceptible to conceptions of prestige and power as any other state. The lesson of Mahan was that great powers had great fleets, and World War I had not sufficiently dissuaded the international community of this idea. Consequently, to be a great power the Soviet Union must possess a great fleet.

Plans were, to say the least, grandiose. The Soviet Union was cursed by bad maritime geography, in that the fleets protecting various parts of the USSR (Northern, Baltic, Black Sea, and Pacific) had great difficulty supporting one another in time of war. The solution was to build a fleet in each area that could establish local superiority. The 1937 construction plan called for the building of fourteen battleships and six battlecruisers by 1945. Eight would go to the Pacific, six to the Baltic, four to the Black Sea, and two to the Northern Fleet. Curiously, the battlefleets were to be complemented by only two aircraft carriers, one in the Pacific and one in the Northern. The irony of these plans is that, even in all of their unachievable grandiosity, they would have been insufficient to deliver victory on any front other than the Black Sea. By Soviet calculations, both the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Kriegsmarine would dwarf the Soviet contingents opposite them by 1945, and this assessment did not include an appreciation of the dominance that Japanese naval aviation would provide, much less an assessment of the German and Japanese geographic advantages.

The ship designs varied over time, with the battleships more or less resembling 60000 ton versions of the Italian Littorio class with 16″ guns, and the battlecruisers resembling the German Scharnhorsts, but with 12″ or 15″ guns. The aircraft carrier designs were considerably behind those of foreign contemporaries, being smaller, slower, and with a lower capacity than their American and Japanese counterparts. In addition to the capital ships a group of ten heavy cruisers was planned, displacing over 20000 tons and armed with 9 10″ guns. A substantial number of destroyers, submarines, and auxiliary vessels were also planned. In 1937 the Soviets approached the United States with a proposal to build Soviet battleships in American yards. Plans eventually emerged for a class of battleships displacing 45000 tons and armed with 10 16″ guns, but the US suspended cooperation after the Soviet invasion of Poland in fall 1939. Had plans gone forward, it’s likely that any construction would eventually have been incorporated in the USN.

The “big fleet” plans met resistance in the Navy, which resulted in the execution of a significant percentage of the naval officer corps. The Red Army also resisted the expansion of the Navy, as it would have placed a severe strain on Soviet industrial capacity during the mid to late 1930s. Nevertheless, Stalin felt that the prestige effect of having a large fleet was worth the expense. Indeed, he made the argument explicitly as early as 1933. The Soviet experience in the Spanish Civil War bolstered Stalin’s case, as he believed that intervention by the Kriegsmarine and the Royal Navy had given their respective governments a larger voice in matters on the peninsula. The focus on prestige also led to some odd claims in internal discussions, such as the argument that existing Soviet battleships (which, by objective measures, were some of the worst battleships in the world) outclassed all but a few of their foreign contemporaries.

A combination of the danger of war and the serious limitations of the Soviet industrial base forced a curtailment of naval procurement in the late 1930s. Two battleships were laid down, but never completed, along with a host of smaller craft. Interestingly enough, the battleship ambitions survived the end of the war. Although the new construction had been destroyed, new plans for battleships and battlecruisers were drawn up, including a 1950 plan for a class of 70000 ton behemoths. Two battlecruisers (35000 tons, 9×12″ guns) were actually laid down in 1951. In spite of the apparent dominance of the aircraft carrier during World War II, Stalin remained interested in naval aviation only in a supporting role. To his mild credit, this was defensible in the context of the Black Sea or the Baltic, although it would have proved disastrous in the Pacific or the North Sea. The response of the naval staff to these demands was polite acquiescence, but the battlecruiser and battleship projects were cancelled shortly after Stalin’s death.

Rohwer and Monakov aren’t going to win any awards for prose styling, and they don’t make much of an effort to reach an audience that isn’t already abnormally intersted in Soviet interwar naval policy. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of data here, and in particular a lot that would be of interest to scholars of statebuilding and international society. What we have here is a country which understood itself to be an international pariah, and that suffered from the most severe economic and geographic roadblocks to maritime power. Nevertheless, whether because or in spite of the Soviet disdain for international society, the USSR embarked on an amazingly expensive effort to match foreign navies on a metric of international prestige that was deeply tied to conceptions of imperial, colonial power. Naval professionals understood the roadblocks (both before 1933 and after 1953) and adjusted their plans accordingly, but the civilian leadership had different priorities. It’s tempting and at least partially true to chalk the programs up to Stalin, but nevertheless interesting that socially driven conceptions of prestige loomed so large in his decision-making, or alternatively that they structured his understanding of the meaning of Soviet national security. I suspect there are also some lessons to be learned regarding recent Russian proposals to build half a dozen carrier battle groups and deploy them in the Pacific and with the North Fleet.

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Send Good Thoughts

[ 0 ] February 24, 2008 |

…to terrific blogger and friend of LGM Sara Anderson. Hope she’s well soon.

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Yes it is Neat…

[ 0 ] February 24, 2008 |

…But given the frequency with which I hear about women as “incubators” or “vessels,” I’m not exactly sure this is how I’d frame it.

Though I still do love xkcd for this and this (as Rob has noted).

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A Big Game?

[ 7 ] February 24, 2008 |

Apparently there’s some kind of basketball game going on in Memphis tonight. My sympathies are with the Tigers, rather than with the Great Orange Satan that preceded the Great Orange Satan.

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Next, we have Millard Fillmore’s foot on a keychain…

[ 0 ] February 23, 2008 |

In Lexington, Kentucky, somebody coughed up $17,000 on Friday night for what were supposed to be four strands of George Washington’s hair.

Christa Allen, a Colorado woman who once lived in Owsley County, sold them. Allen said she got the hair, which was pressed under glass in a locket and accompanied by a watch, from her father, a Philadelphia attorney.

Jamie Bates, owner of Thompson & Riley, which auctioned the hair, had hoped the auction would bring at least $75,000.

“I’ve never sold George Washington’s hair before; I don’t know,” Bates said before the auction.

Allen told potential buyers how the hair was handed down from person to person since it was clipped from Washington. The Historical Society of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, looked at Allen’s evidence and gave her its backing.

Eric James, president of The James Preservation Trust, discussed the chain of ownership of the hairs from the time Washington was briefly disinterred and his hair snipped in 1837.

I’m sure there’s all kinds of strange presidential refuse floating around among collectors — fingernails, used handkerchiefs, tiny jars of urine and such — but what I can’t for the life of me figure out is why GW’s casket would have been uncorked in 1837. This isn’t the sort of information that usually appears in presidential biographies, and ten minutes or so with Google have failed to turn up anything even remotely suggestive of an answer.

. . . John in comments spends eleven minutes with Google and discovers the reason for Washington’s bizarre resurfacing in 1837. The official explanation was that his tomb was “rapidly going to decay.” The real reason, as I’m sure everyone would suspect, was that the Whigs were hoping to reanimate him in time for the 1840 election. As it turned out, the party instead got William Henry Harrison, who croaked after a few dozen days in office. The stuffed and electrified corpse of George Washington, disgruntled Whigs were known to claim, would have performed at least as well.

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