Oct 082013
 
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Republicans, as has been widely recognized, have painted themselves into a corner on funding the government and raising the debt ceiling.

They’re not going to get any of what they’re demanding. Instead, they’re going to be humiliated after having been revealed as incompetent fanatics. A Continuing Resolution will be approved, the debt ceiling will be raised, and—because, thankfully, even in what has become the Party of Crazy-Stupid there are still enough marginally reality-tethered people to understand that crashing the world economy might be a wee bit bad—the hostage (meaning, all of us, at a global scale) will not be shot.

The result will be the worst possible outcome for them: the Republican Party as a whole has crashed in the polls, and there is now a legitimate possibility that they could lose the House instead of sewing up both houses of Congress as they had hoped. That’s in the swing districts. In the safe ones, members of the Evil Semi-Lunatic Caucus risk primary challenges from the Batshit Caucus, meaning we could see more of this down the road if they do retain the House.

I said this was coming ‘way back, and I am certainly enjoying it now that it is here, despite the fact that I, like everyone else, happen to be sitting atop the powder keg over which these idiots are waving matches.

Today, though, I just want to make one brief observation, which is about True Believers and effectiveness:

They do not go together in the slightest.

Zealotry is about insistence on How The World Should Be. Typically, it is built on axioms about How The World Is. These are generally simplistic, absolutist, and without nuance. If you’re on the right, it’s Jesus the Mean-Spirited Fascist, and Obama the Kenyan Muslim Antichrist, and sociamalism causing Teh Gay and feminazism and science and other Bad Things, and the War on Christmas. Oh, and Tax Cuts Create Wonderland.

When you believe stuff like that, you are incredibly hampered in your ability to get anything done. No effective path—even one that moves things in the direction of your goals—can be charted that doesn’t involve some aspect of soft-pedaling, deferring, or deprioritizing some of your agenda in order to advance some other part of it.

Which is why we have the spectacle of the House sending a ransom note to the White House consisting of a demand that basically every hard-right wet dream that was repudiated by voters in the last Presidential election and could not possibly make its way through Congress be surrendered  before the GOP will agree to fund the government.

Because, to hell with the legislative process in the Constitution, right? What we want is The Right Thing, To Be Had By Any Means Necessary.

It’s a losing strategy, and they’re going to rue the day they decided to let Ted Cruz use them as tools for his imaginary ascent.

My point, though, isn’t so much about that as it is about the zealotry. The noisiest grief I get from friends on the left (supposedly) is rooted in exactly the same kind of black-and-white oversimplification and fanaticism. If it wasn’t single payer health care, it was Obama and the Democrats being corporate stooges and selling out to the insurance industry. If it involved the possibility of killing anybody, it was off the table as a military/diplomacy strategy…even though that’s exactly what it takes to force an enemy to stand down.

You’ve heard something like this from me before, but I’ll say it again: principles are easy. Principles, in fact, are like opinions, which are like…

Well, in any case, everybody has them, of one sort or another.

The hard part is in making something happen in reality that conforms to some degree to your principles. And very frequently, that happens at the cost of something dear.

That’s why great progressive leaders are often criticized in some quarters because of the deals they had to make in order to achieve the strides they did. FDR’s salary cap on Social Security taxation, for example. Or Gandhi’s agreement to allow India to be partitioned in order for both of the resulting parts of it to be independent. Or Brower’s deal on Glen Canyon Dam.

Those actions, painful as they are to examine, weren’t outliers or aberrations. They were the cost of progress.

You cannot solve problems if you start from the standpoint of insisting on only one acceptable outcome and one acceptable path to get there.

100% or nothing really just means “nothing” here on Planet Earth. ”No compromise!” is the motto of someone throwing himself into the wood chipper of history. It ain’t heroic. It’s just dumb. It doesn’t work.

The nutjobs holding the world hostage right now won’t learn the lesson even as they go over the cliff of their own making, because they are mentally ill.

But the lesson holds both for right and left: it isn’t True Believers that make things happen in the world. It’s problem-solvers with values, heart, and creative flexibility.

At publication, the Dragon was STUFFED WITH POPCORN

Jun 222013
 
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Recently, what with all the Snowden/NSA mishegas, some of my friends have run with their prejudices to climb on the ZOMG! Spooks! Everywhere! bandwagon, and have accordingly become furious with me for failing to join them (the logic for which I posted previously).

Among the characterizations cast by some of these critics has been the suggestion that the reason I do not agree with them is because (they say) I am a “centrist” (or, sometimes, a “liberal”), while they style themselves “progressives”.

O RLY?

Well, let’s take a look.

I support marriage equality and absolute civil equality for women and racial, sexual, ethnic and religious minorities; absolute abortion rights for women and birth control rights for everyone; guaranteed publicly funded universal health care; a 90% top taxation rate; the Buffett rule; a carbon tax; enforceable and stringent international climate protection rules; reassertion of Glass-Steagel; a hard cap on total corporate executive compensation at 50x the income of the lowest-paid employee; a cap on inheritance at $10 million per beneficiary; affirmative action; withdrawal from GATT and the WTO; predication of foreign aid on recipients’ meeting stringent human rights standards (and no free pass to Israel in this regard); an end to the death penalty; a livable minimum wage; rigorous consumer, workers’ rights, environmental and workplace safety regulations; immigration reform; sharp reductions in military spending (and reallocation of those funds to programs to improve the infrastructure, opportunities and quality of life of the American people); a guaranteed post-secondary education for every American who completes high school or an equivalent and wants one; universal voter registration; a paid holiday for every American on election days; overturning Citizens United; solely public funding and time limits (say, 3 months) to all political campaigns; elimination of the definition of corporations as “persons” under the law; an end to all subsidies and tax breaks to nonrenewable energy industries and agribusiness except family farms occupied and worked by the owners; re-application of the Fairness Doctrine in all televised and radio media, broadcast or not; a ban on private ownership of any firearm less than 3’ long, able to hold more than 6 rounds at a time or able to shoot more than one round in a firing; mandatory, scientifically correct sex education for all students, whether their parents want them to have it or not; legalization and taxation of marijuana; an end to the “pledge of allegiance”; a transaction tax on financial transactions such as security sales; an end to supermajority legislative requirements of all kinds and at every level; elimination of tax deductions on contributions to religious organizations; and removal of all references to “God” from US money and US elected legislatures at every level: period, full stop.

If that’s a centrist, I guess Eugene Debs and Abbie Hoffman were, too.

So okay, the characterization doesn’t hold water (duh!) But thinking about it, I got onto the larger question: what is a “progressive”, really? Is it a just a checklist of policy positions, or is it something more?

I’d say that politics isn’t a thought problem. It’s not about taking a pledge, joining a club or talking like the rest of the cool kids.

It’s about results.

It’s about what happens in the real world.

And that means that the only meaningful definition of a progressive is “one who acts to advance societal movement in the direction of fairness, justice, the common good, environmental stewardship, a robust, informed democracy, ensuring that all citizens are safe from privation and have opportunities to improve themselves, peaceful resolution of differences when possible, working, efficient, up-to-date and well-maintained public facilities and services, and personal liberty up to–but not beyond–the point at which it infringes on those of others or the common good.”

There are two moving parts in this definition. It requires not only a set of values, but also behavior in a manner intended to cause policy and society to move in the direction of those values. And here is where a deep chasm opens between me and the friends who want to characterize me as “not progressive”.

I see little evidence that these friends expend much consideration of what policies are workable, politically feasible or even actually put into place. Their politics aren’t about doing anything: they’re about taking a position. More than anything, they are about how they wish to understand themselves and to be seen as opinion holders. The politics they articulate are about their view of themselves—their chosen identities—rather than about actual intent to accomplish social change.

Unless it completely implements the ideal they claim to support, the folks I’m describing will castigate policy movement in a positive direction as weak tea, and trash those who achieved such movement as having “sold out”…up to and including accusing such policy makers of being in the pockets of the very interests the new policy reins in.

In the eyes of people who think like this, a step forward doesn’t count. Only the ideal on the wish list counts. So the significant step forward of the Affordable Care Act is, in their eyes, a “sell-out to the insurance industry” because “Obama is a corporatist puppet”—which provides them the double pleasure of  staking out a position of moral superiority to the product of the dirty, dirty world by contrasting it with the bright shiny ideas in their heads, and of casting themselves as having “higher standards” which have been disappointed by the failure of those who are in the trenches and doing the work.

Indeed, few of the folks I’m talking about have ever invested much time or energy in engaging the legislative process or participating in electoral campaigns. Adamant as they may be in their opinions they also, by and large, dismiss our public institutions and the systems we have for pursuing political change as irretrievably corrupt. To the degree they have advocated for policies, it has generally been from the sidelines in ineffectual but personally satisfying symbolic gestures like protest marches.

Their opinions are rooted firmly in convictions about “how things should be” but generally uninformed about how they are. And as such, their concept of the nature of American politics is an oversimplified cartoon in which Big Interests Own Politicians (of both major parties, because They’re All The Same) and Buy Elections, resulting in Orwellian Institutions which want to Exploit And Control Us All.

In this, they have a lot in common with the Tea Party, actually.

As someone who has actually been in that world and done stuff in the political sphere, I have a different view.

I’m here to suggest that if what you do undermines progress, you aren’t a progressive.

Trashing the character, competence or motivations or those who got you half a political loaf when you wanted a whole one isn’t progressive.

Setting the bar of acceptability at a pie-in-the-sky level and then erupting in outrage when you don’t get it isn’t progressive.

Starting with an assumption that public officials and institutions are corrupt, ill-intentioned or incompetent and seizing on every opportunity—however flimsy, however improbable—to confirm it in your mind and the minds of others is not progressive.

“Standing for principles” in a manner which makes it impossible for those principles to gain traction in the political sphere is not progressive.

Dismissing a policy maker as a walking dungheap because he hasn’t done exactly as you would like on every issue is not progressive.

The only thing such behavior does is to make progress less likely to occur. It saps voter enthusiasm on the left and undermines the openness of moderates and swing voters to seeing progressive positions as reasonable and viable.

I can also tell you that such backseat driving tempts those who do the heavy lifting which actually results in progress to chuck it all and get a job in the private sector. Policy work is hard. You may think being in Congress or a state legislature is all cocktail parties and being showered with lobbyist gifts, but it isn’t that at all, and particularly not for progressives, who don’t generally align with interests loaded with money.

We’re fighting against the odds anyway. When a policy maker who is pouring out the productive years of her life in the name of the greater good starts having to dig friendly fire out of her back, it’s not a surprise that she might want to quit and let her critics try to do better.

Unsatisfiable self-righteous outrage doesn’t do a damned thing for our country or the world. It is a self-indulgence, and one we can ill afford.

It is the antithesis of progressive. It sabotages progress.

Progressives don’t need to agree with everything an official or an advocate—or a blogger—does or says to forbear from impugning his character. They can express their desire for different policies than those under consideration without framing those working on these policies as betrayers, cowards, traitors, incompetents or criminals.

Progressives don’t have an all-or-nothing approach to politics. They understand that improvement happens one step at a time: you work for a gain, nail it down, celebrate, thank your allies and gear up for another one. That’s how history works.

Progressives don’t leap to endorse thinly-sourced conspiracy theories just because they confirm their prejudices.

You can choose to do those things, if you get some kind of satisfaction out of it, but I’ll tell you this: by no stretch of the imagination is it progressive.

Progressives help to create progress. They don’t impede it, belittle it, or undermine its exponents.

A left-wing concern troll is not a progressive.

Ralph Nader (at least, the version we’ve seen in the past 20 years) is not a progressive.

Dennis Kucinich is not a progressive.

Jane Hamsher, Cenk Uygur and Glenn Greenwald are not progressives.

They are something else. Whatever it is, it is not progressive.

 At publication, the Dragon was THINKING

Jun 132013
 
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Welcome back to the Green Dragon! Sorry we’ve been closed; as it turns out, Alexander the Great was buried in our parking lot. But the dig’s over, and we’re back in business. Here, try some of the new lager—it’s nice for warm weather.

I’ve been wrestling with friends on Facebook over the claims by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden of wholesale warrantless collection of private data by the NSA directly from the servers of the major internet companies. As far as I can tell, those who have swallowed this whole seem mostly to be projecting their fearful/angry beliefs onto “knowledge” that isn’t, and opting for outrage first, facts (maybe) later.

Some of these friends go so far as to suggest that there should be no government secrecy at all, which I find wildly naive. But for those who acknowledge that a nation cannot possibly operate diplomatically, militarily or to protect domestic security without keeping some information from those who don’t need to know it, there is still a steady howl over their “certainty” that their rights are being abridged.

Let’s start with facts. It is now becoming clear that Snowden’s claims are either quotes out of context or exaggerations. The initial Guardian report and the screeds of professional concern troll Glenn Greenwald stated that the NSA had direct access to the servers of the major ISPs, and was routinely sucking up your email, phone metadata, etc. without a warrant–a claim these companies vehemently and credibly deny.

As it turns out, that isn’t right, and the Guardian has now backed off the claim: in fact, the ISPs upload data requested from them by NSA or the FBI pursuant to a FISA court order to a secure FTP server that acts as a dropbox. Which is consistent with the steady denial of Snowden’s published claims by those who actually know the facts about the program.

Greenwald, characteristically, got it wrong and just keeps doubling down[UPDATE: that story has now been updated to show that the Guardian has now admitted that it got the story wrong]

The reality now coming out is an entirely different thing from Greenwald’s and the Guardian’s initial claim, and it isn’t in the least bit scary. The data collection is 1) limited to pertinent data about people under investigation; 2) meets a threshold justifying the judicial order in the eyes of a FISA judge; and 3) doesn’t under any circumstances enable intelligence agencies to filter or monitor the entire data throughput of these companies’ servers.

But those friends of mine who are prone to assume that government is just itching to go through their spam folders went with the first story, and most are sticking with it. It reinforces their prejudices, and no more information is welcome or required. My friends in this camp typically discount or completely dismiss the idea of threats to American lives; a couple have gone so far as to suggest that since car accidents kill more of us, we should pretty much just let terror attacks happen once in awhile in the name of preserving absolute data privacy.

Yesterday, General Keith Alexander, the current Director of the NSA, testified not only that dozens of actual terror attacks had been prevented by this program, and he would provide details in a closed session of Congress, but also that he wants a general overview of the program declassified, so Americans know specifically what it does.

Now, why would an evil Stalinist ubersnoop say such a thing in full light of the cameras? He could have declared that the information is classified and stopped there. By calling for greater transparency, he puts his own administration on the spot to follow through on his suggestion, and makes things far worse for them if they don’t. Why?

I’ll tell you why: because he knows that the program actually does balance privacy and security concerns, and operates within the rule of law. There is no other possible explanation…unless you believe that the declassified description of the program would be a deceptive smokescreen, rather than the truth. Which means you will never believe anything these institutions say, ever, and we’re now in the realm of ideology rather than reason.

My friends who have a reflexive suspicion of any agency with authority and power automatically assume the worst of such entities, and to me, that reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of governmental bureaucracies and the public employees who work for them. I’ve worked with a lot of employees of various public agencies in my career, and pretty much universally, what I’ve seen are people who believe they are serving the public and want to do what is in the public’s best interest.

They also want to keep their jobs. And going out on a limb with an overreach in application of authority is a great way not to do that.

I’d say it’s pretty much guaranteed that the civil service and line staff of entities like the CIA and NSA generally feel they are serving their country and helping to protect the people of the United States. They know that what they do has limits, and they have departments full of lawyers advising them to parse what those limits are.

Where things can go rotten is with the political appointees who head those agencies. There, you can have real problems. Put Cheney lapdog George Tenet in charge of the CIA, and agency staff will start being told to do things they really shouldn’t be doing, and that puts them in a bind.

A lot of intelligence people quit under the Bush misadministration, including National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism Richard Clarke, who proved to be a candid and truthful critic of the Iraq adventure, of the Bush gang’s malfeasance in ignoring evidence of the growing threat before 9/11, and of its dishonesty in selling the Iraq War later on. His integrity was so high that he ended his career rather than go with the gang’s agenda.

If you poke around, you’ll find a lot of reports that many who stayed at CIA hated the things they were being asked to do. The whole “enhanced interrogation” episode is a terrible black eye for the CIA, and they know it. I am certain that no one was more relieved than they were when the executive order came down from President Obama to end it. I believe that a part, at least, of the administration’s unwillingness to prosecute those associated with the program is because those who are truly guilty–Ashcroft, Gonzales, Tenet, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush–will never be touched. They have sovereign immunity. Only the little people would be taken down, and it wasn’t their idea. As it is, association with that program has become career poison: because of her involvement with it, the first woman to head the CIA’s Clandestine Service (as interim Director) was passed over for the permanent job.

There is no reason to believe that intelligence gatherers and analysts are scary people who are hell-bent to sniff out your Facebook friends and what kind of porn you’ve been surfing. Nor is there a reason to believe that wholesale trolling without warrants is taking place. Have we seen a wave of prosecutions of people based on information discovered through warrantless internet information seizures? No, we haven’t.

There is a difference between the men and women who have made their careers in doing what the vast majority must understand as serving the American people, and those who are appointed by Presidents to direct them. The former are trying to get the pertinent data in a legal way and to analyze it correctly: that is the best way to serve and the best course for their careers. While we would hope the latter had the same goal, we saw in the years of the Bush fiasco that when you appoint people who dismiss the Constitution as “just a piece of paper” to run intelligence agencies and the Departments of Justice and Defense, things can get pretty Orwellian.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act update of 2008 was intended to put a legal framework around the rogue and unaccountable behavior the Bush goons had committed. Yes, it’s a secret process—but it’s also a process which, again, requires approval by a judge before data collection and analysis occurs. A case has to be made that there is sufficient reason to target specific individuals with surveillance–the act does not allow a wholesale snoop into America’s internet traffic.

I would not be satisfied with a process that allowed the CIA or NSA to determine on their own whose data they could access. The potential for abuse here is very serious, and there need to be some checks and balances. But I’m satisfied with the process as described. I don’t believe that the people who are appointed to the FISA court are ill-intentioned and don’t care about the Constitution. They’re judges—high-ranking judges—and they became judges by having some respect for the law. Barring any evidence to the contrary, I will go with what I have seen to be true: that people who choose public service by and large do, indeed, serve the public to the best of their ability.

The weak link in all this is in who is appointed to head these agencies, and in that, fortunately, we have a say. We get to decide who is President, and who is in the Senate to confirm nominees. It’s by no means a perfect system, but it isn’t anything like the Chinese government, either.

At the end of the day, this debate hinges on trust. My friends who fear and distrust institutions do not and will not give those institutions performing functions for which they have distaste (generally, security and intelligence gathering) the benefit of the doubt*. Their default position is to assume the worst of both leadership and functionaries of these agencies, whether or not evidence—or even a rational motive—for wrongdoing is present.

I don’t think that makes any sense. Checks and balances are necessary, but wholesale dismissal of everyone who works for the agencies that perform the grittier functions of government is neither rational nor a workable way of engaging the politics of the country.

It is not a benign and gentle world. There are people who mean Americans harm, and who have articulated as their express mission the killing of our fellow citizens through secretly planned surprise attacks. No government can or should just ignore such conspiracies, and the only way to disrupt them is to identify those who plan to carry them out and stop them before they do so.

That has to happen in a manner that balances the civil liberties of citizens with the requirement to provide them with security, and I believe that is what is happening now. The 8-year nightmare of the Bush/Cheney years was an outlier, I believe–and one which would be far harder to return to in the wake of the update to FISA.

So I hope that NSA Director Alexander gets his wish, and the outline of how PRISM works is declassified for public examination. The head of NSA under Bush said yesterday that the Obama Administration is much more transparent about these programs than was its predecessor–he’s hardly a Democratic partisan, and I think that is a good indicator, once again, that our President is basically a decent man who is trying to do his job with integrity.

 

At publication, the Dragon was WEARY

*Yet nearly all of them want the government to take over their health care (as do I). Hmm.

Obama Errs

 Posted by at 8:27 pm  National Politics
Apr 052013
 

onoz_omg2So, those of you who have accused me of being nothing but a cheerleader for the President, hear this:

I hate the proposed shift to chained CPI for federal inflation calculation. It’s probably more accurate, but that’s no consolation for people who get smaller increases going forward.

That said, I think it’s important to understand that chained CPI wasn’t just thrown on the table by itself. The President’s proposed budget is a package. It includes significant tax increases and loophole closures targeting wealthy individuals and corporations, and its clear that his intent is to get beyond the endless nattering about debt and deficits so we can start rebuilding the country.

I don’t know that I agree with him about that, but I’ve always credited him with thinking big, and this is the kind of thing you get when someone thinks big. The kind of person willing to take on third-rail subjects like health care and tax hikes and guns and DADT and DOMA and infrastructure and energy and brain R&D initiatives probably isn’t ABLE to ignore an issue as big as the nation’s problematic balance of accounts. He has to try to do something about it. And he’s looking at those dates–not that far in the future, let’s be honest–when SS and Medicare start going broke, and he wants to fix that, too.

Personally, I’m with Paul Krugman in that I don’t believe the deficit is nearly as big a deal as most people seem to believe it is. I think the solution on SS and Medicare is simple: get rid of the income ceiling on contributions and charge FICA on every nickel people earn.

But everyone knows that isn’t going to fly. Not now.

I don’t like this proposal. And I don’t necessarily believe the President’s dogged effort to come to grips with the nation’s balance of accounts is as important as he thinks it is, especially in times like these. But to me it’s still clear he is trying to do what would be best for the country, as he understands it. So I won’t trash him for it and start in on Teh Big Lefty Stoopid about how he’s a closet corporatist blah blah blah.

I just think he’s wrong here. I think he’s making an error in perception, because what his base, the press and the opposition are seeing isn’t the integrated package he clearly intended to offer.

They’re just seeing naked Social Security cuts offered up, and that’s a tactical mistake.

At publication, the Dragon was NONPLUSSED