More signs of the coming Apocalype:

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Oslo

December 11, 2009

I wasn’t expecting much from Obama’s speech in Oslo – it’s not a particularly consequential event, and politically there are far more potential downsides than upsides (it only takes one little blurb that can be taken out of context and amplified, unfortunately, for the righties to go to town and harp endlessly about apologies and weakness and whatnot).

But there were a number of interesting things in there. The president, of course, was in the uncomfortable position of accepting the Nobel Peace Prize at a time when well over 100,000 US soldiers were fighting in two wars. In fact, Obama’s announcement that the war in Afghanistan would be escalated came only days before (which itself may not have been coincidental, given right-wing speculation – never to be taken seriously, of course – that the administration would be pressured to back off from the fight as a result of the prize). The fact that this is a war-time president was, therefore, on everyone’s mind in Oslo, and it’s no surprise that President Obama addressed this head-on.

What’s interesting, however, is that he didn’t truly offer any fully elaborated justification for Afghanistan. He discussed “just war,” but only so far as to take on pacifism and rigidly non-violent approaches to international affairs. There’s a lot of room, to say the least, between Gandhi and wars of choice like Iraq and Afghanistan. One can accept that wars are sometimes, or even frequently, necessary without believing that the invasions and nearly decade long occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq were.

The president also addressed just war in the sense of a war’s conduct, rejecting torture and other violations of internationally accepted rules of combat. He didn’t go much further than boilerplate on this issue, and chose not to address some of the continuing controversies over America’s treatment of detainees or whether (or how) the United States should deal with war crimes committed under the previous administration.

Again, I didn’t expect more, or even really this much, so this shouldn’t be taken as criticism but rather observation. I certainly did not expect the president to offer a disposition on America’s justification for escalating the war in Afghanistan, and I’m well aware that the results would have been quite poor were he to have attempted to do so. From the point of view of political horse-racing, the speech was excellent. From the point of view of US interests, well, I don’t think the Nobel makes a difference much one way or the other – no speech would have made our wars easier to win, our alliances tighter, prevented global warming, or blanketed us with manna from heaven. But just looking at the content of the speech, well (and again, not surprisingly!), there really wasn’t a whole lot there. And yet it hinted on issues that Americans should be thinking about quite deeply: when America should go to war both in terms of our interests and our morals, the ethics we should adhere to in their conduct, and the significance of our alliances and international institutions.

As a final note, I was pleased to hear Obama say that hope for the future lies not in changes to human nature, but in the strength of our institutions. I wholeheartedly agree, and think that this needed to be said in, of all places, Europe. There is a tendency among Europeans, particularly on the left (and, I’m sorry to say, among fellow lefties here in the States!), to say, or at least to quietly assume, that human nature among certain groups has somehow progressed since the Second World War. In particular, that Europeans somehow learned their lessons from the horrors of WWII and from Hitlerism and have somehow woken up from the prolonged nightmare of human history. Having stared into the abyss, they have now somehow become Enlightened Post-Humans.

This is bullshit. We are the same violent and mentally fucked-up animals that we were 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 10,000 years ago. Human institutions have changed over those years profoundly, and we have learned new and clever ways to keep our darkest inclinations in check. But they are there. And if these institutions were to disappear tomorrow, we would rather quickly revert to a Lord-of-the-Flies-type state of nature.

To think otherwise is, indeed, naive. Additionally, this view of humanity – that we are not and never will be angels – is at the core of founding principles of the United States. These views were quite explicitly held by the Founders (who themselves were most certainly not the virtuous and wise Disney cartoon characters we’ve made them out to be).

Furthermore, the left holds no monopoly over this way of thinking. A similarly unhealthy view of human nature underlies the obsession of many on the right with the Glorious Nature of American Culture and Our Way of Life. They worship Real Americans who watch NASCAR, eat loads of meat, hunt, and live in the sticks. They expound endlessly about the virtues of the American People (or at least the “Real” ones). This, too, is bullshit. You don’t have to be a world traveler to notice that America is populated with the same bunch of self-important and self-interested imbeciles as the rest of the world. Our government was purposely set up to divide power and weaken the majority’s ability to dictate law because of this very fact. We’re just not all that.

Unfortunately Obama is right. War, and the horrors that go along with, is all to often the ethical choice. Pacifism is not in itself a virtue. We will never progress beyond human violence.

And, as Obama somewhat courageously pointed out, considering his audience, the United States has, to a large degree, underwritten the stability and peace of many places in the world, especially Europe, over the past 65 years, and has done so at great expense in blood and treasure. It most certainly has not always gotten it right, and has certainly started more wars and caused more bloodshed and misery than was necessary to achieve this goal. But the point is not American beneficence – after all, we have only acted in our own considered self-interest. The point is that peace does not simply stem from peaceful intentions. It requires strong international institutions and, perhaps most importantly, careful attention to the balance of military power.

None of this, though, serves to justify the escalation of the war in Afghanistan.

Goodbye Washington Post

December 9, 2009

Sarah Palin has an op-ed in the Washington Post. No idea, of course, who wrote it, other than that it wasn’t a scientist. I’m not going to link to it. Nobody reads this blog, but I’m not taking the chance that the Post will get clicks from here. It argues that Obama should not go to Copenhagen because the science behind anthropogenic global warming is bunk. It’s all part of a “radical environmentalist” conspiracy, you see, and the East Anglia emails prove it.

I cannot stand Palin (this does not mean, though, that I don’t take her very, very seriously), but I do understand that there always have been and always will be Palins in this world. What I don’t understand is: (1) how John McCain could have elevated such a person to prominence (without him, she’d still be a nobody and more than likely would remain a nobody); (2) how he was never held to account for his recklessness and cynicism in picking her and then drummed out of public office in disgrace; and (3) how she is given a platform in the mainstream media (yes, that same media she claims to be the victim of) and, most importantly, not called on her bullshit.

Copenhagen is obviously going to be big in the news this week – it’ll be everybody’s lead story (unless something else happens with Tiger Woods or some kid [doesn’t] gets trapped in a balloon again). So of course anyone who wants to be in the spotlight has to run out and say stuff on climate change to get into the news cycle. All the major papers – the Post, the Times, FT, WSJ, etc. – will run op-eds on the topic. They get to choose a handful of op-eds out of thousands than will be submitted, including literally hundreds from experts and notable people.

The Post chose Palin. And it chose an article from Palin that flies in the face of a broad and deep scientific consensus and peddles in conspiracy theories.

Shame on them.

Their op-ed page is nothing more than a running joke at this point. And now Palin, who holds no public office and whose only elected offices were mayor of Shitsville, Alaska and governor of a small territory state, is apparently welcome to use the pages of the Washington Post as an extension of her own Facebook page. And is equally free to make outrageous and just plain false (and easily falsifiable) claims without any editor lifting so much as a finger.

Stimulus and Tax Cuts

December 4, 2009

Bruce Bartlett was a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and worked in H.W. Bush’s Treasury Dept. Now he writes for Forbes. But he was sounding the alarm about George W. Bush’s economic policies while W. was still in office, which of course makes him a left-wing communist in today’s parlance.

In his latest column, Bartlett evaluates the Obama stimulus and estimates its effect. He concludes (not atypically) that the stimulus worked, but the more interesting part is that the parts of the stimulus that worked best were outlays for goods and services (such as infrastructure investment), which produced the largest gains in GDP as a function of dollars spent from the government’s coffers. What worked the least? You guessed it: tax cuts. In particular, tax cuts aimed at the wealthy and at corporations (i.e., the Republicans’ solution to every economic problem), which overall produced less in terms of GDP than it cost in outlays.

He also calls the administrations estimate of roughly 650,000 jobs created by the stimulus “not unreasonable.”

2008’s Republican-sponsored tax rebate, by the way, did not have “any meaningful stimulative effect.”

The Republicans will continue to push tax cuts as a means to promote growth, even though there is no empirical evidence that this is true. There is no evidence, furthermore, that the not insignificant tax cuts under Bush had any positive effect on growth. Nonetheless, Republicans will push to make these cuts permanent. Apparently we are supposed to take it as an article of faith that tax cuts boost growth, even as taxes are now at historical lows in the United States (and are lower than almost any other developed country – and yes, this includes the corporate tax as well when one considers corporate loopholes). True, Japan has lower taxes than the United States, but I don’t think anyone wants to point to Japan to make the argument that lower taxes produce economic growth.

The Republicans should be held to account by our ineffective press corps and pushed to explain the economic theory they are relying on when they argue that tax cuts promote growth. ‘Reagan said so’ is not an acceptable answer (and taxes, by the way, were significantly higher when Reagan was president than they are now under Marxist-Leninist Obama).

h/t: Sully