Saturday, August 23, 2008


An excellent choice, I think.

At various times I have favored Wesley Clark and Tom Daschle. But by the time this decision was made, Biden was my choice. As much as I hate to say it, I agree with
David Brooks on this one.

It just isn’t in Obama’s nature to engage in hand-to-hand political combat. His strength is bringing people together, not dividing them with polarizing partisan warfare. That is one important reason I think he will be a good president. But it is also clear that McCain and his fellow Republicans, including the Rove junior varsity that is now running the McCain campaign, will respect no bounds in how low and how ruthlessly they will fight. I don’t think any leading Democrat is fully capable of fighting at their level (which is one reason I am a Democrat). But Biden is a good fighter. And he does it with a quick wit. (He had probably the best single line of the campaign to date during the primaries: “There are only three things [Rudy Giuliani] mentions in a sentence -- a noun, a verb, and 9/11.”). He will be able to hold his own against anyone in the VP debate and will be able to fight back against everything and anything the Republicans throw at the ticket. And he has a compelling personal story.

For reasons I can’t comprehend, polls show that McCain still holds a big lead over Obama on ability to manage foreign policy. Biden has an even better resume (and a much better track record of judgment) on that score than McCain.

Similarly, it has become clear that the focus of the McCain campaign is to challenge Obama’s experience and readiness to lead. I had come to the conclusion that Obama needed a VP pick who would bolster the ticket with respect to experience. Biden was elected to the Senate at age 29 in 1974. He has more experience than McCain and is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

He is a working-class Catholic – a group where Obama could use help (especially in Ohio). And Biden does well with the retired set in Florida.

For those who might think this pick undermines Obama’s message of change I would just say, “What. A skinny black guy with a funny name isn’t enough?”

This decision reaffirms my respect for Obama’s judgment.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

tribalism and self-righteousness

We humans are the most social of the higher species. We’re tribal by nature. It’s genetically hard-wired into us. That tribalism can manifest itself as nationalism, religious affiliation, racial identity, and countless other ways. They can range from rooting for our alma mater to identification with a political party. Some forms of tribalism are good, some harmless, some not so good. For example, most people would agree that racial identity probably has more potential for harm than good. On the other hand, being a fan of your city’s professional sports team is probably harmless at worst (unless you are a Mariners fan, in which case it is an exercise in futility and frustration). Personally, I believe the tribalism of the city sports fan is a good thing. A strong tribal identification with your city probably makes you marginally more inclined to care about other aspects of your community, like the quality of schools, parks and other aspects of civic life.

I tend to view nationalism as a particularly dangerous form of tribalism if for no other reason than nations maintain militaries and can and often do go to war against each other (something that cities don’t, at least not in this day and age).

Tribalism isn’t inherently good or bad, but it is an aspect of our species we should be conscious of and we need to guard against its excesses – with the worst excess being war.

In a somewhat related vein, my friend, the science fiction writer David Brin, has a theory that among the forms of addiction to which we are vulnerable is self-righteous indignation. He writes about chemically-mediated states of arousal -- especially those involving dopamine and other messenger chemicals that are active in mediating pleasure response – that self-reinforce patterns of behavior. He notes that, “Sanctimony, or a sense of righteous outrage, can feel so intense and delicious that many people actively seek to return to it, again and again. Moreover …this trait crosses all boundaries of ideology.” There is pleasure in knowing “with subjective certainty, that you are right and your opponents are deeply, despicably wrong.” This can exacerbate our political and ideological polarization: “We have entered an era of rising ideological division and a ‘culture war’ that increasingly stymies our knack at problem-solving. Nowadays, few adversarial groups seem capable of negotiating peaceful consensus solutions to problems, especially with opponents that are perceived as even more unreasonably dogmatic than they are. … Might recent exaggerated levels of bilious social division be partly attributed to an all-too human tendency to fall into addictive patterns of self-doping, by wallowing in a pleasurable mental state? A state that undermines our ability to empathize with opponents, accept criticism, or negotiate practical solutions to problems?”

(And, yes, I will confess to these same tendencies toward tribalism and self-righteousness, as these posts attest.)

Brin’s observation is consistent with my own belief that our individual and collective capacity for self-delusion is almost infinite. We can justify just about any self-serving behavior – to a degree that would be almost incomprehensible to an objective observer. Researchers and writers on the subject of evolutionary psychology have come to similar conclusions. We are likely to be more persistent and more persuasive – and therefore more effective in securing the things we need and want – when we are convinced of our own nobility and blamelessness. Indeed, we easily fall into a sense of victimhood. If we are an aggrieved party, then our own aggression or selfishness is nothing but a justified response to the outrages perpetrated upon us.

Show me a bully or an aggressor and I will show you someone who almost certainly believes himself to be the victim of some outrage or humiliation -- or the defender of someone subjected to such outrages or humiliations. The more hostile and aggressive the behavior, the more likely it is coming from someone who believes himself to be a victim. Psychologically, the victimhood is necessary to justify the aggression. And it is not limited by logic or any objective reality – our capacity for self-delusion is almost infinite.

If you listen to right-wing talk radio or FOX News, you would think that the most aggrieved victims on the planet are testosterone-fueled, middle-aged white American males. There is literally no limit to the outrages perpetrated upon them on a regular basis. They have every reason to be angry and hateful.

I’ve been thinking about this in light of the current conflict in Georgia. I have been surprised at how quickly so many Americans have reverted to full-on Cold War hostility toward Russia and outrage at the their behavior in Georgia. Leading that charge has been John McCain. Indeed, McCain’s demonization of Russia goes back years. As far back as 2006, he was urging Bush to
boycott the G-8 meeting in St. Petersburg. Even before recent events in Georgia, he was saying that Russia should be kicked out of the G-8 (and China refused entry) while admitting Brazil and India. He has proposed the creation of an “Alliance of Democracies” that would be “our side” in a new Cold War. He has long supported extending NATO right up to Russia’s borders and into the former Soviet Union. Even while our military is already overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, McCain is threatening military action against Iran and proposing a set of policies to bring about a new Cold War against Russia (and, it appears, isolation of China, as well).

Make no mistake about it, McCain is all about war. It is war that made him a national hero and that has served as the foundation of his political career to this day. He comes from a family of warriors – his father and grandfather were both four-star Admirals. And that raises another fear – that he shares with our current president an Oedipal problem. Bush and McCain were both underachieving screw-ups in their respective youths, bridling under the yoke of their super-achieving fathers. Like Bush, McCain was a “legacy” in his father’s alma mater. And like Bush, he performed poorly – in McCain’s case, finishing 894 out of his class of 899 at the Naval Academy (and he probably wouldn’t have graduated at all had he not been the son of a four-star admiral). Bush sought to finish what his dad started in Iraq, expressing the belief that war was necessary for a president to achieve true “greatness.” And can anyone doubt that McCain needs war to cap off his life story and ultimately surpass his father and grandfather as a military man? He very apparently is bored by things like economics, health care and the like. The one thing that really gets his juices flowing is war – or the prospect of war.

And that, of course, requires enemies. In McCain’s case, it apparently doesn’t particularly matter who. Russia is the obvious candidate today. But Iran will do. Maybe China in due course. In October of 2001 – even before the Bush team started beating the drums of war – McCain was
among the first to seek war against Iraq:

Within a month [of 9-11, McCain] made clear his priority. “Very obviously Iraq is the first country,” he declared on CNN. By Jan. 2, Mr. McCain was on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea, yelling to a crowd of sailors and airmen: "Next up, Baghdad!"

War is the ultimate exercise in tribalism. And to create enemies, you need outrages that justify your self-righteous indignation. At least in a democracy, people generally don’t go to war without believing themselves to be victims or the defenders of victims – or otherwise fully entitled to our self-righteous indignation. Even in the case of our unprovoked war of aggression against Iraq – a country that posed no imminent threat to us or any other country – fully 70% of the American people believed at the time that Saddam was directly involved in the 9-11 attacks. We were victims, just responding to his attack upon us. (Recall Bush’s 2004 debate against Kerry where he justified the Iraq war with the statement, “the enemy attacked us.” Of course, he used the word “enemy” rather than “Iraq” because Iraq hadn’t attack us. But the obvious point was that we were just responding to a provocation.)

By contrast, one of the things that has struck me about Barack Obama is that, to a remarkable degree, he doesn’t seen to view the world in tribal terms. His autobiography, “Dreams from My Father,” suggests that his relative lack of tribalism comes from his own struggle with self-identity as a biracial child, raised by a white mother and white grandparents but viewed as “black” by the rest of the world. He grew up viewing himself as part of no tribe. Whatever the reason, he is unusually empathetic. This can be a liability for him in his run for the president. In the Democratic debates, he tended to answer questions with long prefatory explanations indicating that he understood and respected various viewpoints on a subject before stating his own views. It led him to de-emphasize external manifestations of tribal patriotism – like lapel flag pins – until it became a political issue. And he is loath to engage in attack politics and negative campaigning. These are all traits that I believe would make him an excellent president, but which can be hindrances to attaining that position.

McCain, on the other hand, is deeply tribal. He is also rash and impetuous. He tends toward hyperbolic rhetoric that leads to somewhat hysterical over-reaction (but always over-reaction toward the creation of enemies for whom the threat of a military response is the obvious – and justified – response).

As Matt Welch (the author of “McCain: The Myth of a Maverick”) wrote recently:

McCain's Georgian Hyperbole
Exaggerating threats is a feature, not a bug, of McCainite neoconservatism, and reveals much about what kind of president he'd make.

Matt Welch August 18, 2008

On Thursday of last week, Republican presidential nominee John McCain said that Russia's invasion of Georgia was "the first probably serious crisis internationally since the end of the Cold War." This is most certainly not true, at least according to the last two decades' worth of foreign policy assessments from one John McCain.

In December 1990, two months after Germany reunified and four months after Saddam Hussein did unto Kuwait far worse than what Vladimir Putin has so far done unto Georgia, the Arizona senator asserted that "the peace and security of the world for future generations [demand] that the world community act decisively to end the Gulf Crisis now." Pretty serious stuff.

In January 1994, he described North Korea's nuclear weapons program as "the most dangerous and immediate expression" of "the greatest challenge to U.S. security and world stability today," and warned that "there can be no serious doubt that our vital national interests are imperiled." Serious!

In an April 1999 speech that everyone considering voting for McCain should go read now, the rogue-state rollbacker said that "America's most important values—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—are under vicious assault by the Milosevic regime," requiring "an immediate and manifold increase in the violence against Serbia proper and Serbian forces in Kosovo," including mobilization of "infantry and armored divisions for a possible ground war." Très sérieux!

And of course, during the current campaign, he has repeatedly reminded voters that he's running for president to confront "the transcendent issue of our time: the battle and struggle against radical Islamic extremism." Which, he argued at a Republican debate in June 2007, "is a force of evil that is within our shores.... My friends, this is a transcendent struggle between good and evil. Everything we stand for and believe in is at stake here." If that isn't a "probably serious crisis internationally," then the
phrase truly has no meaning. …

Matt Yglesias picked on the same theme:
[N]ot only is Russia on the march beyond Tbilisi to Ukraine, Finland, and substantial swathes of Poland but that’s not even the transcendent issue of our time. And North Korea’s nuclear program is “the greatest challenge to U.S. security and world stability today” but that’s not the transcendent issue of our time. And Islamism is the transcendent issue of our time, but not a serious international crisis or an especially great challenge to U.S. security and world stability. Now of course there’s no way to make sense of that, because it’s not supposed to make any kind of sense. McCain just thinks that overreacting is the right reaction to everything. It’s a hysteria-based foreign policy.

Max Bergmann compares McCain’s tendency toward hyperbolic rhetoric to that of a TV pundit:

McCain’s approach and tone on foreign policy has always been more emblematic of a TV pundit rather than a sober president. While McCain has attacked Obama as the "celebrity" candidate, the fact is that a bad place to be over the last 25 years has been between John McCain and a TV camera. The New York Times on Sunday noted that one of the first things McCain did after 9-11 was go on just about every TV program - where he incidentally called for attacking about four countries. …

But TV appearances encourage sound bites, over-the-top rhetoric, and good one-liners, not reasoned and nuanced diplomatic language. … Thus on almost every crisis or incident over the last decade, McCain has sounded the alarm, ratcheted up the rhetoric and often called for military action - with almost no regards to the practical implications of such an approach.

The big concern with a McCain presidency – a concern which I am surprised has not been vocalized more fully – is that the U.S. will lurch from crisis to crisis, confrontation to confrontation, whether it be with Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria, Saudi Arabia, etc. The danger is that McCain’s pundit-like rhetoric will entrap the U.S. in descending spiral of foreign policy brinksmanship. Just think about the very likely scenario of McCain giving Iran/Russia a rhetorical ultimatum and Iran/Russia ignoring it. Now we are stuck - either we lose face by not following through on our threats or we follow through and go to war. We can’t afford such a reckless approach after the last eight years. For the next eight we need a president not a pundit.

McCain’s reaction to events over recent weeks just reaffirm his tendency toward foreign policy brinksmanship.

McCain often says that the president he would model himself after is Teddy Roosevelt. And while there are many things about TR to admire, those are not apparently the things that McCain would emulate.

Obviously there is the superficial fact that TR, at age 42, was and to this day remains the youngest president ever. McCain, at 72, would be the oldest man ever elected president. But on substance, the two men also differ markedly. TR advocated a “death tax” and a progressive income tax. McCain is proposing to enact the largest, deficit-exploding tax cuts ever – at a time we are fighting two wars and running record long-term structural budget deficits. TR created the first national parks and national wildlife refuges (Yellowstone alone would qualify him as a great president). McCain is making the centerpiece of his campaign opening up protected areas to oil drilling. TR was a political progressive who strongly supported labor unions and went after big business trusts with a vengeance. McCain is anti-union and virtually his entire senior campaign team consists of veteran lobbyists for big business. Indeed, the differences between TR and McCain and so extreme and so complete, it makes you wonder how in the world he could hold up TR as his model president.

There is one element of TR’s legacy I failed to note. He loved war. The glory of it. The manly virtues it drew forth. Like McCain, he built his political career on his war record. As assistant secretary of the Navy he urged war against Spain over Cuba and placed the navy on a war-time footing. When the US eventually started the Spanish-American War, TR helped create the all-volunteer “Rough Riders.” (Of course, the US started the Spanish-American war not to seize Spain’s imperial territories including Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, to name a few. It was because of Spain’s outrage in sinking the USS Maine – which, as it turns out was “bad intelligence”. Nonetheless, we were just victims seeking to do justice by liberating Spain’s territories.) TR’s leading of the charge of the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill in Cuba was the act that made him a national hero and propelled his political career.

No wonder McCain models himself after TR. A ”war hero” needs a war – especially if he wants to be a “great president.”

And I’m sure McCain will come up with plenty of self-righteous indignation for our tribe to justify it.

Monday, August 18, 2008

recommended reading

Here are three good New York Times op-ed pieces from the past week. In all cases, they are worth reading in their entirety. I excerpted a few bits from each

Frank Rich is great, as usual:

The Candidate We Still Don’t Know

… So why isn’t Obama romping? The obvious answer — and both the excessively genteel Obama campaign and a too-compliant press bear responsibility for it — is that the public doesn’t know who on earth John McCain is. …

What is widely known is the skin-deep, out-of-date McCain image. As this fairy tale has it, the hero who survived the Hanoi Hilton has stood up as rebelliously in Washington as he did to his Vietnamese captors. He strenuously opposed the execution of the Iraq war; he slammed the president’s response to Katrina; he fought the “agents of intolerance” of the religious right; he crusaded against the G.O.P. House leader Tom DeLay, the criminal lobbyist Jack Abramoff and their coterie of influence-peddlers.

With the exception of McCain’s imprisonment in Vietnam, every aspect of this profile in courage is inaccurate or defunct.

McCain never called for Donald Rumsfeld to be fired and didn’t start criticizing the war plan until late August 2003, nearly four months after “Mission Accomplished.” By then the growing insurgency was undeniable. On the day Hurricane Katrina hit, McCain laughed it up with the oblivious president at a birthday photo-op in Arizona. McCain didn’t get to New Orleans for another six months and didn’t sharply express public criticism of the Bush response to the calamity until this April, when he traveled to the Gulf Coast in desperate search of election-year pageantry surrounding him with black extras.

McCain long ago embraced the right’s agents of intolerance, even spending months courting the Rev. John Hagee, whose fringe views about Roman Catholics and the Holocaust were known to anyone who can use the Internet. (Once the McCain campaign discovered YouTube, it ditched Hagee.) On Monday McCain is scheduled to appear at an Atlanta fund-raiser being promoted by Ralph Reed, who is not only the former aide de camp to one of the agents of intolerance McCain once vilified (Pat Robertson) but is also the former Abramoff acolyte showcased in McCain’s own Senate investigation of Indian casino lobbying.

Though the McCain campaign announced a new no-lobbyists policy three months after The Washington Post’s February report that lobbyists were “essentially running” the whole operation, the fact remains that McCain’s top officials and fund-raisers have past financial ties to nearly every domestic and foreign flashpoint, from Fannie Mae to Blackwater to Ahmad Chalabi to the government of Georgia. No sooner does McCain flip-flop on oil drilling than a bevy of Hess Oil family members and executives, not to mention a lowly Hess office manager and his wife, each give a maximum $28,500 to the Republican Party.

While reporters at The Post and The New York Times have been vetting McCain, many others give him a free pass. Their default cliché is to present him as the Old Faithful everyone already knows. They routinely salute his “independence,” his “maverick image” and his “renegade reputation” — as the hackneyed script was reiterated by Karl Rove in a Wall Street Journal op-ed column last week. At Talking Points Memo, the essential blog vigilantly pursuing the McCain revelations often ignored elsewhere, Josh Marshall accurately observes that the Republican candidate is “graded on a curve.”

Most Americans still don’t know, as Marshall writes, that on the campaign trail
“McCain frequently forgets key elements of policies, gets countries’ names wrong, forgets things he’s said only hours or days before and is frequently
just confused.” Most Americans still don’t know it is precisely for this reason that the McCain campaign has now shut down the press’s previously unfettered access to the candidate on the Straight Talk Express. …

Some of those who know McCain best — Republicans — are tougher on him than the press is. Rita Hauser, who was a Bush financial chairwoman in New York in 2000 and served on the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board in the administration’s first term, joined other players in the G.O.P. establishment in forming Republicans for Obama last week. Why? The leadership qualities she admires in Obama — temperament, sustained judgment, the ability to play well with others — are missing in McCain. “He doesn’t listen carefully to people and make reasoned judgments,” Hauser told me. “If John says ‘I’m going with so and so,’ you can’t count on that the next morning,” she complained, adding, “That’s not the man we want for president.” …

As everyone says, polls are meaningless in the summers of election years. Especially this year, when there’s one candidate whose real story has yet to be fully told.

Bob Herbert makes some of the same points I made in my post, “drilling for stupidity”:

An Empty Promise

… As Senator Kerry and many others have pointed out, it would be nearly 10 years before any oil at all would be realized from new offshore leases. So your adorable 7- or 8-year-old would be just about 17 and clamoring for a license when this new oil
started coming online.

Maximum capacity from these new leases wouldn’t be reached until 2030, when that 7- or 8-year-old is approaching 30, finished with college and graduate school, and very likely married with children.

And even then — after more than two decades and who knows how many graduations, weddings, funerals and family cars — even then, the amount of oil expected to come from these leases would have little or no effect on the price of gasoline at the pump.

Assuming that everything over all those years goes all right, it is estimated that an additional 200,000 barrels of oil a day would come from the additional offshore drilling. That’s a tiny share of the world’s daily output of 85 million or so barrels.

Here’s what the Energy Information Administration, the statistical agency that provides official data for the federal government, had to say about the anticipated additional output from offshore drilling:

“Because oil prices are determined on the international market ... any impact on average wellhead prices is expected to be insignificant.”

Did anyone mention that to the … 63 percent of respondents to an ABC News poll who want the embargo on new offshore drilling to be lifted by the federal
government? …

Tom Friedman points out McCain’s perfect record on alternative energy – perfectly in opposition (despite his campaign ads showing wind turbines and claiming he stands for alternative energy):

Eight Strikes and You’re Out

[O]n July 30, … the Senate was voting for the eighth time in the past year on a broad, vitally important bill — S. 3335 — that would have extended the investment tax credits for installing solar energy and the production tax credits for building wind turbines and other energy-efficiency systems.

Both the wind and solar industries depend on these credits — which expire in December — to scale their businesses and become competitive with coal, oil and natural gas. Unlike offshore drilling, these credits could have an immediate impact on America’s energy profile.

Senator McCain did not show up for the crucial vote on July 30, and the renewable energy bill was defeated for the eighth time. In fact, John McCain has a perfect record on this renewable energy legislation. He has missed all eight votes over the last year — which effectively counts as a no vote each time. Once, he was even in the Senate and wouldn’t leave his office to vote.

… Despite that, McCain’s campaign commercial running during the Olympics shows a bunch of spinning wind turbines — the very wind turbines that he would not cast a vote to subsidize, even though he supports big subsidies for nuclear power. …

The fact that Congress has failed eight times to renew them is largely because of a hard core of Republican senators who either don’t want to give Democrats such a victory in an election year or simply don’t believe in renewable energy.

What impact does this have? In the solar industry today there is a rush to finish any project that would be up and running by Dec. 31 — when the credits expire — and most everything beyond that is now on hold. Consider the Solana concentrated solar power plant, 70 miles southwest of Phoenix in McCain’s home state. It is the biggest proposed concentrating solar energy project ever. The farsighted local utility is ready to buy its power.

But because of the Senate’s refusal to extend the solar tax credits, “we cannot get our bank financing,” said Fred Morse, a senior adviser for the American operations of Abengoa Solar, which is building the project. “Without the credits, the numbers don’t work.” Some 2,000 construction jobs are on hold.

Roger Efird is president of Suntech America — a major Chinese-owned solar panel maker that actually wants to build a new factory in America. They’ve been scouting the country for sites, and several governors have been courting them. But Efird told me that when the solar credits failed to pass the Senate, his boss told him: “Don’t set up any more meetings with governors. It makes absolutely no sense to do this if we don’t have stability in the incentive programs.”

One of the biggest canards peddled by Big Oil is that, “Sure, we’ll need wind and solar energy, but it’s just not cost effective yet.” They’ve been saying that for 30 years. What these tax credits are designed to do is to stimulate investments by many players in solar and wind so these technologies can quickly move down the learning curve and become competitive with coal and oil — which is why some people are trying to block them.

As Richard K. Lester, an energy-innovation expert at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, notes, “The best chance we have — perhaps the only chance” of addressing the combined challenges of energy supply and demand, climate change
and energy security “is to accelerate the introduction of new technologies for
energy supply and use and deploy them on a very large scale.”

This, he argues, will take more than a Manhattan Project. It will require a fundamental reshaping by government of the prices and regulations and
research-and-development budgets that shape the energy market. Without taxing
fossil fuels so they become more expensive and giving subsidies to renewable fuels so they become more competitive — and changing regulations so more people and companies have an interest in energy efficiency — we will not get innovation in clean power at the scale we need.

That is what this election should be focusing on. Everything else is just bogus rhetoric designed by cynical candidates who think Americans are so stupid — so bloody stupid — that if you just show them wind turbines in your Olympics ad they’ll actually think you showed up and voted for such renewable power — when you didn’t.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

georgia on my mind

… or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love John McCain.

You can be forgiven if you haven’t been following closely the fighting between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia. But there are two lessons that we all absolutely must take away from these events:

1/ Under no circumstances should John McCain become president of the United States and you should do everything you can between now and November 4 to make sure that is the case.

2/ We need to break our economic addiction to oil ASAP, with an effort on the scale of World War II, if necessary.

This was one of those “3 a.m. moments” that this election was supposedly all about (before McCain put
oil drilling and Paris Hilton front and center). And McCain failed it. Disastrously. Worse than our worst fears. It is now apparent that McCain would be even more impulsively belligerent than Bush and even more arrogant and unwise in heeding the war-mongering urgings of his neocons advisors.

Putin’s Russia

First some preliminary observations. Russia is run by some really nasty people. Russia is a great nation with a long history of power politics and fighting dirty and we shouldn’t expect that to change anytime soon. Notwithstanding that George W. Bush “looked the man in the eye” got “a sense of his soul” and “found him to be very .. trustworthy,” Putin is an ex-KGB thug and continues to act accordingly. But, unlike George Bush in the US, he is HUGELY popular within Russia. That is because he brought post-Soviet Russia back up from humiliation and economic ruin by wrestling the country back from the oligarchs, making them pay taxes and re-nationalizing the county’s vast oil wealth. He stabilized Russia’s tax revenue and slowly refilled the country’s empty treasury. He also began to push back against Western (i.e., US) humiliation and restore central control over the provinces seeking autonomy. Russians, like Americans, are nationalistic and these were and are all popular moves. Under Putin (and record high oil prices), Russia is enjoying an economic boom.

It’s worth recalling that in the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian economy contracted by 60 percent (by contrast, our current economic crisis has so far entailed essentially flat economic growth for a few quarters). By 1993 almost half of Russia’s population was living in poverty, defined as living on $25/month or less. Life expectancy fell dramatically and Russia’s population dropped by about three-quarters of a million people. Meanwhile, great fortunes were made overnight, as party bosses and others with connections cashed in their Soviet-era power and privileges, taking advantage of their insider positions to win exclusive government contracts and licenses and to acquire financial credits and supplies at artificially low, state-subsidized prices in order to acquire former State assets at bargain prices and then transact business at high market prices. Billionaires sprung up like wildflowers after a spring rain even while the Russian economy as a whole was practically destitute. (Like an extreme version of Republican crony capitalism.) After Russia’s financial collapse in 1998, tax revenue wasn’t sufficient even to pay the interest on its loans from the West, let alone provide public services. It was in this context that Putin was elected president by an overwhelming margin. Given his success overseeing Russia’s subsequent economic and political re-emergence, it is hardly surprising that he is popular.

It’s also worth recalling that George Bush did just about everything he could to humiliate Russia, particularly the expansion of NATO into the Baltics and plans to deploy a (worthless) missile defense system in the Poland (in the process ditching the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty), both moves adamantly opposed by Russia. The Iraq war also could be seen as a provocation, taking advantage of the power vacuum left by the break-up of the Soviet Union and Russia’s subsequent decline in power to (unsuccessfully) project US military power further into the heart of the world’s major oil producing region (including an air base in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan).

Bush continued to push into the former Soviet Union, egging on Georgia’s young Western-educated president, Mikheil Saakashvili, to apply for NATO membership and send 2000 troops to Iraq. The US, in return, provided Georgia with tactical training and sophisticated weapons from our military. NATO’s European members rejected Bush’s urgings to fast-track Georgia’s application for membership, understanding the geo-strategic implications of expanding NATO’s boundaries right up to Russia’s borders. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Finally, we should note that – unfortunately – in the year 2008, OIL = POWER and Russia has a lot of it Russia exports about 7 million barrels of oil a day, second only to Saudi Arabia. The US imports about 13 million barrels of oil a day, more than any other country in the world. The problem isn’t production – we produce almost as much oil as Russia. It is consumption – we consume a quarter of the world’s oil production.` And with less than 2% of the
world’s proven reserves, there isn’t much we can do about that except use a lot less oil. But that is a bigger subject.

Georgia and South Ossetia

So what the heck is going on in Georgia and South Ossetia?

The (UK) Times has some
useful background. As the name “South” Ossetia suggests, there is also a “North” Ossetia, which is an autonomous republic of the Russian Federation. The majority of the Ossetes living south of the main Caucasus range in Georgia wish to unite with their fellow Ossetes living to the north. Georgians, regarding South Ossetia as both a legal and historic part of their national territory, refuse to accept this.

As the Times explains:

As the Soviet Union began to crumble in 1989, and Georgian nationalist moves for independence gathered pace, so too did Ossete nationalism and demands for separation from Georgia.

The Ossete national movement was encouraged by the Soviet Government in an effort to exert pressure against Georgian independence.

In November 1989 the Soviet assembly of the South Ossetian autonomous region passed a motion calling for union with North Ossetia. …

A year later, after the election in Georgia of a pro-independence government led by the extreme nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the same assembly declared South Ossetia a Soviet republic separate from Georgia. The Gamsakhurdia Government then sent thousands of Georgian armed police and nationalist militia into the region. These were fought to a standstill by local Ossete militia backed by Soviet Interior Ministry troops.

… Russian forces have remained as the de facto defenders of the South Ossetian separatist region. …

… Russia’s policy is driven by a mixture of emotion and calculation. The Russian security establishment likes the Ossetes, who have been Russian allies for more than 250 years. They loathe the Georgians for their anti-Russian nationalism and alliance
with the US. …

What remains is an absolute determination not to be defeated by Georgia and not to suffer the humiliation of having to abandon Russia’s South Ossete client state, with everything that this would mean for Russian prestige in other areas. Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin made it clear again and again that if Georgia attacked South Ossetia, Russia would fight. Georgian advocates in the West claimed that Moscow was only bluffing. It wasn’t.

And then there is – surprise – the subject of oil again. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which opened in 2005 and traverses Georgia was intended expressly as a way to by-pass Russia to export oil from Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to the West (and to Israel, in particular). The Great Game geopolitics of oil at work again. As long as demand for oil continues to skyrocket globally, the resources of the Caucuses are going to be a flashpoint. (When are we going to free ourselves of this poison??!?)

Bush and Cheney, being waste products of the oil industry, have been encouraging Georgian independence, and by training Georgia’s armed forces, supplying sophisticated military equipment and dangling the prospect of Georgia’s membership in NATO, wittingly or unwittingly destabilized the region. The “
headstrong and reckless” Saakashvili came to believe that he could seize South Ossetia with the backing of the US. The ruthless and uncompromising Putin, on the other hand, wasn’t about to cede Georgia to the US sphere of influence and risk further destabilizing other regions such as the Ukraine (which is also seeking NATO membership).

Neither side is blameless here. Saakashvili – leading a country of less than five million people – clearly miscalculated when he sought to assert military control over South Ossetia, shelling the capitol with rockets and sending in the Georgian army. Putin took advantage of that miscalculation to send a message to Georgia, other independence-minded former Soviet republics, and to the world, that Russia is back and isn’t going to be pushed around any longer.

Don’t get me wrong. Georgian democracy is a great thing. Saakashvili, a 40-year old former New York lawyer, is a bright, idealistic guy. But how far do we want to encourage him to push Georgian independence? What are we prepared to do if it provokes a backlash? And what of our broader relationship with Russia? Are we better working with Russia on common problems (like global warming and Iran) or heading down the path to another Cold War? Those are questions you would hope our leaders would be considering.

Fred Kaplan notes,

Did [the Bush administration] really think Putin would sit by and see another border state (and former province of the Russian empire) slip away to the West? If they thought that Putin might not, what did they plan to do about it, and how firmly did they warn Saakashvili not to get too brash or provoke an outburst?

It's heartbreaking, but even more infuriating, to read so many Georgians
quoted in the New York Times—officials, soldiers, and citizens—wondering when the United States is coming to their rescue. It's infuriating because it's clear that Bush did everything to encourage them to believe that he would. …

[Bush enticed] Saakashvili with weapons, training, and talk of entry into NATO.
Of course the Georgians believed that if they got into a firefight with Russia,
the Americans would bail them out.

… If the Europeans had let Bush have his way [by admitting Georgia into NATO], we would now be obligated by treaty to send troops in Georgia's defense. That is to say, we would now be in a shooting war with the Russians. Those who might oppose entering such a war would be accused of "weakening our credibility" and "destroying the unity of the Western alliance."

… Is Georgia's continued control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia really worth war with Russia? Is its continued independence from Moscow's domination, if it comes to that, worth our going to war?

As you might expect, the neocons are already comparing this to Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938. Of course, they compare every nasty leader to Hitler and every act of aggression to the onset of World War III. Saddam was “Hitler” until we overthrew him. Then Iran’s Ahmadinejad became “Hitler.” Unfortunately, by overthrowing Iraq’s “Hitler”, we empowered Iran’s “Hitler” and then sought the help of Russia’s “Hitler” to contain Iran’s “Hitler. But to contain Russia’s “Hitler” we encouraged Georgia to assert itself which threw a wrench in things by attacking the friends of Russia’s “Hitler” and … oh, it’s all so confusing. Just tell me who is “good” and who is “evil” so we can threatened the evil people with military force unless they bow to our will. But, even spending more on the military than the rest of the world combined, as we do, there are limits to how many “Hitlers” we can take on at one time. At some point, maybe we have to seek to avoid wars – and de-escalate conflicts – rather than threatening more.

The reliably moronic and pro-war William Kristol is typical. In yesterday’s New York Times
column (why does he have a New York Times column?) he concludes by saying,

The United States, of course, is not without resources and allies to deal with these problems and threats. But at times we seem oddly timid and uncertain.

When the “civilized world” expostulated with Russia about Georgia in 1924, the Soviet regime was still weak. In Germany, Hitler was in jail. Only 16 years later, Britain stood virtually alone against a Nazi-Soviet axis. Is it not true today, as it was in the 1920s and ’30s, that delay and irresolution on the part of the democracies simply invite future threats and graver dangers?

And what exactly is it that we “delay” through our “irresolution”? And what are we too “timid” and “uncertain” to do? Go to war with Russia? And what are those “resources” that we are not without? The ones that are overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan?

At least the Wall Street Journal editorial page is capable of coming up with a new metaphor. Instead of “Hilter,” Putin is “
Vladimir Bonaparte” with “Napoleonic ambitions” (“The West needs to draw a line at Georgia. No matter who fired the first shot last week …”). So what happens if that “line” is crossed? Looks to me like Putin is the one drawing a line.

Bush, McCain and Obama

You can always count on Bush to say something stupid, and his
reaction to this crisis didn’t break with form:

"Russia has invaded a sovereign neighbouring state.... Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century.... We have no doubts about it. This is a deliberate attempt to destroy an entire country and change the regime."

Invading a sovereign state to destroy a country and change the regime isn't acceptable in the 21st century. Glad Bush let us know that

Cheney told Georgia's president that "Russian aggression must not go unanswered.” Asked to explain Cheney's phrase "must not go unanswered," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, "It means it must not stand." White House officials refused to indicate what recourse the United States might have if the attacks continue. As Kaplan notes,

We should all be interested to know what answer he is preparing or whether he was just dangling the Georgians on another few inches of string. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, told the Security Council, "This is completely unacceptable and crosses a line." Talk like that demands action. What's the plan?

condemned the violence and called on both sides to “show restraint” – a perfectly reasonable approach to take under the circumstances:

"I strongly condemn the outbreak of violence in Georgia, and urge an immediate end to armed conflict. Now is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint, and to avoid an escalation to full scale war. Georgia’s territorial integrity must be respected. All sides should enter into direct talks on behalf of stability in Georgia, and the United States, the United Nations Security Council, and the international community should fully support a peaceful resolution to this crisis."

But this caused the McCain campaign to
go ballistic (as their candidate is wont to do), complete with their own historical references:

In fact, the initial response from the Obama campaign was characterized by precisely the kind of rhetoric that the leaders of these nations warn against--a meaningless statement that equates the victim with the victimizer by calling on both sides to show restraint. Asking the Georgians to show restraint is like asking the Hungarians to show restraint as Russian tanks rolled into the country in 1956, or for restraint from the students in Prague in 1968.

The reaction of the Obama campaign to this crisis, so at odds with our democratic allies and yet so bizarrely in sync with Moscow, doesn't merely raise questions about Senator Obama's judgment--it answers them.

As it turns out, the Bush administration was using almost exactly the
same words as Obama:

"We urge restraint on all sides — that violence would be curtailed and that direct dialogue could ensue in order to help resolve their differences," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters.

Even Dick Cheney eventually came around to praising “

"The vice president praised President Saakashvili for his government's restraint, offers of cease-fire, and disengagement of Georgian forces from the zone of conflict in the South Ossetian region of the country," the statement said.

That left only McCain and the neocon nuts advising his campaign arguing against “restraint” – I guess Cheney just isn’t belligerent enough for them.

You will recall that even before this current crisis, McCain had called for Russia to be expelled from the G-8 (and China denied membership – ‘cause you just can’t have too many enemies). He also called for the creation of a “League of Democracies” to serve as our alliance in a new Cold War. So it is not surprising that McCain would like us to have a
treaty obligation to come to the defense of Georgia:

[McCain] said the NATO should reconsider its previous decision and set Georgia – which he called “one of the world’s first nations to adopt Christianity as an official religion’’ — on the path to becoming a member. “NATO’s decision to withhold a membership action plan for Georgia might have been viewed as a green light by Russia for its attacks on Georgia, and I urge the NATO allies to revisit the decision,’’ he said.

What does Georgia being one of the first nations to adopt Christianity as an “official religion” have to do with anything? Was he just seeking to reassure the Muslim world that a President McCain would pursue religious wars? Like Bush’s infamous “crusade”?

The father of our successful, bipartisan post World War II policy of “containment,” George Kennan, said in a
1997 op-ed in the New York Times that,

"[E]xpanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold war era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking."

Expanding NATO to Eastern Europe is one thing. But expanding it to republics of the former Soviet Union is another. These are treaty commitments requiring that we come to the military defense of other members. Is John McCain prepared to go to war with Russia to help Georgia bring South Ossetia under its control?

The problem with making blustering threats is that you either have to back them up or you have to back down. Backing them up means war. Backing down means losing your credibility (which tends to make war more likely in the future). Even if Georgia is granted NATO membership, I don’t think anyone believes the US would go to war under circumstances like those this week. So what, really, is the point? Are we prepared to call Putin’s bluff? Are we sure he won’t call ours? And if a guy like Saalkashvili thinks we have his back, is he more likely to miscalculate, as he did this week?

For now, it appears Russia has inflicted the lesson it sought to deliver and is pulling back. After launching its military campaign in South Ossetia, Georgia had to withdraw within 48 hours. As a practical matter, Russia is in control of events in Georgia. The border will be where Russia decides to leave it. We should engage with Russia to come up with a security framework for Georgia that prevents any miscalculations in the future. But thanks to the serial strategic misadventures that comprise the Bush-Cheney foreign policy, we have no military credibility in this conflict and we would have no national interest in escalating this crisis even if we did.

What have we learned about John McCain this week? And does he intend to continuing making a new Cold War with Russia (and perhaps China) a theme of his campaign? Already, the president of Georgia is
quoting John McCain to a large crowd in Tbilisi, saying among other things that Poland’s continued freedom depends on the stance they are taking now in Georgia.

McCain even called Saalkashvili earlier in the day. Gee, if Barack Obama was egging on one side in a geo-politically dangerous shooting war, do you think he might be accused of being “presumptuous?” Is John McCain running America’s foreign policy?

Fred Kaplan’s
piece is worth reading. His conclusion may be the most important lesson of this conflict:
In the long term, the best way to take Russia down a notch (along with Iran, Venezuela, and other hostile powers overflowing with oil money) is to pursue policies and fund technologies that slash the demand for oil. The Georgia crisis should make clear, if it isn't already, that this is a matter of hard-headed national security.

And, heaven help us, don’t let John McCain get anywhere near the White House.

Monday, August 11, 2008

the world's oldest celebrity

Tom Tomorrow, who draws the This Modern World cartoon, often comments on how hard it has been to write political satire in the Bush era. Every time he thinks he has exaggerated Republican mendacity and evil to the limits of humor, they manage to top him. It makes it hard to figure out where to draw the line. He cited this problem last year when the right-wing noise machine demonized the family of 12-year old Graeme Frost who appeared in a Democratic radio pitch urging the expansion of the popular and successful State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which the Republicans were then filibustering in the Senate and Bush later vetoed. Graeme and his sister relied on the program for the treatment of severe brain injuries sustained in a car accident. As Tomorrow wrote at the time:

“I’m … reworking a cartoon I finished before I went on vacation, in which I used the idea of the Republican Hate Machine going after a child as one of those really wacky cartoon examples meant to parody their extremism. Except, in the intervening week, they actually did it. I’ve said this before, but these are difficult times for satirists; there’s almost nothing you can think of that’s more ridiculous or appalling than the things that are really happening.”

[Here’s the
cartoon he eventually came up with.]

Similarly, just when you think political campaigns and their media coverage couldn’t possibly get any more stupid and trivial, a presidential candidate thrusts Paris Hilton onto center stage. It’s too ridiculous even for a good
Onion parody. John McCain deserves a special place in Hell for making Paris Hilton the focus of our limited national attention span at a time we need to concentrate our collective will on repairing the damage from eight years of the worst president in US history.

But Hilton got the last laugh. Her video response to the McCain ad has now been viewed six and a half million times (and, no, I’m not going to link to it – she doesn’t need my help). She says of McCain, “He’s the oldest celebrity in the world, like super-old. Old enough to remember when dancing was a sin and beer was served in a bucket. But, is he ready to lead?” And she refers to him as, “the wrinkly white-haired guy.” I’m not sure this was the message the McCain camp was hoping to communicate (suggesting Hilton might actually be smarter than the McCain campaign team).

Of course, by labeling Obama a “celebrity,” the McCain camp intended to convey the impression that Obama is lacking in gravitas – a shallow creation of pop culture. Speaking to a crowd of over 200,000 Germans after a triumphant series of meetings with world leaders and a policy-altering tour of war zones was portrayed as the equivalent of the tabloid travails of a vacuous rich heiress (whose family, as it turns out, are maxed out McCain donors).

Let’s talk about “celebrity” – specifically, the “world’s oldest celebrity.”

What is a “celebrity”? Some people are celebrities because of some kind of truly outstanding talent or accomplishment – someone like Einstein or Gandhi, for example. Or a Tiger Woods. In the current context, however, the term is probably being used to mean someone who is famous simply for being famous. And how might one distinguish this less flattering form of “celebrity” from talent or accomplishment? You might begin by looking at his or her sheer volume of pop culture appearances bearing no relationship whatever to any particular talent or accomplishment – the fame of the famous.

So, let’s take a look at the
imdb page for John McCain (actually, I was going to copy the entire page, but it’s too long – so to summarize). By my quick approximate count, just since 2002 he’s appeared on the following TV shows (always as Himself):

Saturday Night Live (2 times)
Jay Leno (10 times)
Letterman (8 times)
Conan O’Brian (3 times)
Entertainment Tonight (2 times)
Live with Regis and Kathy Lee
Paula Zahn Now (3 times)
The View (2 times)
Tony Danza Show
Colbert Report
Daily Show (12 times)
Larry King Live (9 times)
The O’Reilly Factor (4 times)
Beyond the Glory

This is just a sampling. And this is just a few years worth – he has a three-decades long career of self-promotion. He even had a cameo in The Wedding Crashers.
Life must be grand!

(How, you might be asking yourself, does McCain make time for all of these TV appearances? He is the only member of the Senate to have missed over half the votes since this Congress began in January 2007 – missing fully 63% of all votes. Even Tim Johnson who suffered a near-fatal brain hemorrage and spent several months recovering has managed to cast more votes than McCain. McCain has missed 96 straight votes since April 8. He has missed 32 out of the last 36 meetings of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he is the ranking member.)

The thing about negative campaigning is that in order for a line of attack to be effective it must play into some kind of pre-existing or credible media narrative. For example, Democrats are always weak, phony, effete, unpatriotic and not entirely manly (especially if they are women). Whereas Republicans are strong, consistent, straight-talking, “regular” guys (even if they are women).

In every presidential campaign since Dukakis in 1988, the Democrat has been portrayed by the Republicans as a “flip-flopper”. That narrative was spun out briefly against Obama, but it failed to get much traction. That is probably because John McCain has changed his position on just about every issue you can imagine in the past two election cycles (and had, earlier in his career, changed his position on just about every issue you can imagine once before). So it doesn’t make a very effective line of attack against Obama. But it is NEVER a line of attack against a Republican. When they flip-flop, it is just conveniently-pragmatic ideological flexibility. Similarly, when John Edwards gets a $400 haircut it tanks his presidential campaign (fortunately for the Democratic party, as it turns out). But when John McCain wears $520 Ferragamo shoes wherever he goes … well, it is simply irrelevant. What’s wrong with a nice pair of shoes? But seriously, can you imagine the media narrative if Obama was wearing expensive designer shoes? Talk about being “elite” and “out of touch” (and above his station).

McCain even gets a free pass when he flies around on his rich trophy wife’s private jet to their eight or ten expensive homes.
Life must be grand, indeed! (Cindy McCain explained to Vogue the purchase of her seventh or eighth home: “When I bought the first [beach home], my husband, who is not a beach person, said, 'Oh this is such a waste of money; the kids will never go. Then it got to the point where they used it so much I couldn't get in the place. So I bought another one.” No big deal for someone who runs up $750,000 on her credit cards in one month.)

Oh, and about McCain’s Arizona home. According to the “liberal media”, he has an “Arizona ranch.” Actually, it is 20 acres in a suburban subdivision, owned in trust by his rich former-rodeo-queen wife. But the media – which McCain describes as “his base” – are always getting invited to barbeques at McCain’s “Arizona ranch.” Like Bush’s Texas “ranch” that he bought in 1999 as he was gearing up for his presidential run. (Actually, at least in Bush’s case his “ranch” is 1600 acres in god-forsaken nowhere. And I believe there are actually animals running around for tax purposes.) Of course, John Kerry has an “Idaho ranch” about a mile from my own “Idaho ranch.” But, then, I remember back in 2004 it was just a big vacation home owned by his rich wife. That’s because we all know Democrats are effete elitists beholden to their rich wives, while Republicans are rugged individualists roaming their Western “ranches”.

From a great article on “ranches” as part of the Republican persona:

For months, the media has been reporting that Sen. John
McCain spends weekends at his "Arizona ranch," where he can be with his family,
visit with close friends or occasionally entertain possible vice presidential

The steady reference to the presumptive GOP presidential nominee's "Arizona ranch" projects a powerful image of the American cowboy that has long played an important role in presidential politics. The description of McCain's sliver of Arizona's outback as a "ranch," however, is misleading at best. And, perhaps inadvertently, it allows McCain to obscure his carpetbagger role in Arizona politics with a veneer of American mythology. …

But in McCain's case, his Yavapai County hideout wouldn't even qualify as a ranchette -- a term sometimes used derisively in the West to describe 40-acre parcels carved out of what were once-sprawling working cattle ranches. McCain's acreage is barely half that, coming in at a cozy 20.8 acres.

McCain, in fact, doesn't own his little slice of mesquite-studded high-desert, on the banks of Oak Creek, a lovely stream that meanders into the Verde River, one of the state's rivers most endangered by development. McCain's "ranch" is part of a trust and a limited partnership controlled by his wife -- the Cindy McCain Hensley Family Trust and the Sedona Hidden Valley Limited Partnership. …

The property is located in a "subdivision" where there is no cattle roping, branding or herding of heifers. Far from a ranch, McCain's getaway is really nothing more than a retreat. But the retired Navy captain and surge advocate certainly doesn't want the media stating that McCain went to his "Arizona retreat" for the weekend, lest that conjure up images of French cowardice.

Of course, the most famous Republican “rancher” was also the ultimate political “celebrity” – that Hollywood actor, Ronald Reagan. But whereas Obama is “all talk”, Reagan was “the Great Communicator.” See how it works?

As Garrison Keillor wrote in Salon:

And it's an amazing country where an Arizona multimillionaire can attack a Chicago South Sider as an elitist and hope to make it stick. The Chicagoan was brought up by a single mom who had big ambitions for him, and he got scholarshipped into Harvard Law and was made president of the law review, all of it on his own hook, whereas the Arizonan is the son of an admiral and was ushered into Annapolis though an indifferent student, much like the Current Occupant, both of them men who are very lucky that their fathers were born before they were. The Chicagoan, who grew up without a father, wrote a book on his own, using a computer. The Arizonan hired people to write his for him. But because the Chicagoan can say what he thinks and make sense and the Arizonan cannot do that for more than 30 seconds at a time, the old guy is hoping to portray the skinny guy as arrogant.

The son and grandson of four-star admirals, who finished 894 in his class of 899 at the Naval Academy, is calling the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review a vacuous “celebrity”.

It works because it all fits with the standard, tiresome media narratives.

But think about this: If you were running for the highest office in the land and had tens of millions – hundreds of millions – of dollars with which to educate the American people on the problems we as a nation need to address and the kind of leadership you would provide in addressing them, how would you spend that money? What themes would you thrust up into the mainstream of American consciousness, and what would that tell us about you as a candidate and as a prospective president? What does it say – about John McCain, not Barack Obama – that he has given us Paris Hilton?

The Obama campaign has its own video retort.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

drilling for stupidity

I had intended to write a comprehensive piece on energy – oil and gas prices, energy policy, etc. But the elevation by McCain and the Republicans of offshore drilling above all else – not just above all other energy policy or economic policy, but above all other campaign issues – has forced me to respond on that narrow issue in order to prevent my head from exploding.

The Republicans have found their issue for the 2008 campaign: “Drill here! Drill now!” As Paul Krugman
noted in this regard, “Republicans, once hailed as the ‘party of ideas,’ has become the party of stupid.”

Let’s start by getting a few basic facts out on the table.

Oil is a globally-traded commodity. The impact of US supply increases on the price of oil need to be viewed in the context of the global markets. Price is set at the margin, and there currently isn’t much spare oil production capacity globally. Increases in demand from places like China and India combined with tight supply result in big prices increases. (The effect of speculation and other variables on price is the subject of a more comprehensive piece.) Long term prices are headed up.

The US uses approximately 25 percent of the world’s annual oil production but has less than 2 percent of the world’s known oil reserves. So even big increases in US production won’t have much of an impact on the price of oil, especially as increases in global demand outpace any marginal increases in supply.

The Bush administration’s own Energy Information Administration in its
2007 Annual Energy Outlook included a case study to determine the effect that drilling for oil on the US Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) would have on US oil production and prices (compared with a “reference case” that included no OCS drilling). They concluded:

The projections in the OCS access case indicate that access
to the Pacific, Atlantic, and eastern Gulf regions would not have a significant
impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030. …
Total domestic production of crude oil from 2012 through 2030 in the OCS access
case is projected to be 1.6 percent higher than in the reference case, and 3
percent higher in 2030 alone, at 5.6 million barrels per day. For the lower 48
OCS, annual crude oil production in 2030 is projected to be 7 percent higher—2.4
million barrels per day in the OCS access case compared with 2.2 million barrels
per day in the reference case (Figure 20). Because oil prices are determined on
the international market, however, any impact on average wellhead prices is expected to be insignificant.

The report concluded that OCS production would peak in 2025 at a meager 220,000 barrels a day, which would account for less than one percent of daily demand in the US. Of course, that would be only a fraction of one percent of global demand.

Let’s review the facts: Opening up the US Outer Continental Shelf to oil drilling now would, at peak production almost 20 years from now, increase US production by less than one percent of US daily demand, with an insignificant effect on oil and gas prices.

And that is an optimistic case. Most of the additional OCS production assumed in the Energy Information Agency report is off the West Coast, and the governors of California, Washington and Oregon (and the voters of those states) are
vehemently opposed to any oil drilling off the coasts of their states. McCain and his fellow Republicans are not proposing that state objections be overridden – their offshore drilling plan would involve drilling off the coasts of only those states that agreed to allow it. So forget the West Coast.

Moreover, the report assumed no infrastructure constraints. But as the
New York Times reported in June:

As President Bush calls for repealing a ban on drilling off most of the coast of the United States, a shortage of ships used for deep-water offshore drilling promises to impede any rapid turnaround in oil exploration and supply.

In recent years, this global shortage of drill-ships has created a critical bottleneck, frustrating energy company executives and constraining their ability to exploit known reserves or find new ones. Slow growth in oil supplies, at a time of soaring demand, has been a major factor in the spike of oil and gasoline prices.

Mr. Bush called on Congress Wednesday to end a longstanding federal ban on offshore drilling and open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration, arguing that the steps were needed to lower gasoline prices and bolster national security. But even as oil trades at more than $135 a barrel — up from $68 a year ago — the world’s existing drill-ships are booked solid for the next five years. Some oil companies have been forced to postpone exploration while waiting for a drilling rig, executives and analysts said. …

“The crunch on rigs is everywhere,” said Alberto Guimaraes, a senior executive at Petrobras, the Brazilian oil company that has discovered some of the most promising offshore oil but has been unable to get at it.

Almost 100 percent of the oil companies are constrained in their investment program because there is no rig available,” he said. …

But drilling constraints are not the only problem facing international oil companies, which are seeking to expand at a furious pace after a decade of underinvestment in the 1990s. They have also had to contend with a doubling of development costs across the industry in the last five years, more acute competition for energy resources, shortages in steel, engineering and manufacturing capacity, and pressures posed by an aging work force.

On the other hand, McCain is out on the campaign trail saying that offshore drilling could produce more oil within a “matter of months”:

"There are some instances [that] within a matter of months they could be getting additional oil. In some cases, it would be a matter of a year. In some cases it could take longer than that, depending on the location and whether you use existing rigs or you have to install new rigs, but there's abundant resources in the view of the people who are in the business that could be exploited within a period of months."

This, of course, is a blatantly absurd proposition.

But everything is true if you just say it is true in the Republican fantasy world. For example, if you have been paying attention at all you have certainly hear Republicans and their shills in the punditocracy state the “fact” that new oil drilling techniques are so safe that there wasn’t a “single spill of oil” when Hurricane Katrina hammered the Gulf Coast two years ago. I’ve personally seen this “fact” stated at least a dozen times in the corporate media. In fact, in May 2006, the U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) published their offshore damage assessment: “113 platforms totally destroyed, and 457 pipelines damaged, 101 of those major lines with 10 inches or larger diameter.” In all, the hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused, "124 offshore spills for a total of 743,700 gallons, including six spills of 42,000 gallons or greater.” And just to drive the point home, last month, just as the Republican “no oil spills” myth-making apparatus was swinging into full gear, there was an oil spill of 400,000 gallons that shut down a 29 mile stretch of the Mississippi River to all shipping traffic.

Offshore drilling would contribute an insignificant amount of oil to the world oil markets, but the entire environmental brunt of the drilling would be borne by the United States, and particularly costal residents. Seems like a pretty bad deal. Indeed, until a few weeks ago, John McCain supported the country’s 25 year ban on offshore drilling.

So, bottom line, this whole Republican issue of offshore drilling is a big political fraud. Offshore drilling would have an insignificant effect on the supply and price of oil even at peak production almost twenty years from now. With all the corporate media’s coverage of the presidential campaign, and with all the pundits blathering non-stop on our cable channels and on the op-ed pages of the country’s newspapers, how hard would it be to communicate these few basic facts about the issue that Republicans have elevated to the top issue of the campaign (after Paris Hilton)? It’s not all that complex.

Even Texas oilman T-Boone Pickens, who spent millions in 2004 to fund the Swift Boat sliming of John Kerry, is saying the obvious. He is now spending tens of millions of dollars to educate Americans on the futility of domestic drilling as the solution to our energy problems:

“America is in a hole and it's getting deeper every day. We import 70% of our oil at a cost of $700 billion a year - four times the annual cost of the Iraq war.

I've been an oil man all my life, but this is one emergency we can't drill our way out of.”

Pickens this week even praised Obama’s energy speech:

“I’m strongly encouraged by Senator Obama’s speech on America’s energy future. Foreign oil is killing our economy and putting our nation at risk. When I started this campaign my goal was to make this the biggest issue in the coming election and the top priority to be addressed in the first hundred days of the next administration. This issue is clearly moving up in the priority of political debate; Senator Obama’s statement is an indication that is what is indeed happening.”

If the corporate media still doesn’t understand this issue, McCain’s senior economic advisor, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, made it easier for them back in June by acknowledging in a
conference call to reporters that new offshore drilling would have no immediate effect on supplies or prices. But, like McCain, he insisted that it would send a psychological signal to the markets. When cornered with the actual facts regarding supply and price, that is the Republican fall back: Psychology. This is in line with the belief on the part of McCain’s economic mentor, Phil Gramm, that the problems with the economy are just “mental” and we have just become a “nation of whiners.”

Indeed, this psychological effect is so strong, that Congressional Republicans are already claiming credit for oil prices falling from their peak last month. You can be forgiven if you didn’t know that Congressional Republicans have been staging a slumber party or sit-down strike or some such tantrum on the floor of the House since Congress went into recess. But even if you didn’t know about this, it has
already produced lower oil prices:

House Republicans on Tuesday said their protest of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) decision not to allow a vote on expanded offshore oil drilling has helped lower gas prices.

Heading into a third day of speeches in the near-empty chamber, Republicans acknowledged that the average price of gas and oil has declined in recent weeks. But they claimed credit for part of that reduction.

I think the market is responding to the fact that we are here talking,” said Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) at a joint press conference with other GOP lawmakers. “I think the market realizes this kind of pressure from Congress may, in fact, lead to a change in policy.”

The Republican members did not answer questions about whether they would take the blame if gas prices go up again.

Indeed, Republicans are now threatening to shut down the government if they don’t get a vote on offshore drilling. McCain is picking up on this theme. At a biker rally in South Dakota this week, McCain was yelling, “Tell them to come back and get to work!” he said, referring to Congress. “Tell them to get to work!” (There is no small amount of irony in this call on the part of McCain. He is the only member of the Senate who has missed more than 50% of the votes in the current Congress, having missed fully 63% of the votes since January 2007. He has missed every single Senate vote since early April and hasn’t attended a single committee or subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee all year. He has also skipped 32 of the last 36 meetings of the Senate Armed Services Committee.)

As Gail Collins wrote in the New York Times (“

The Energy Drill”):
“Tell them to come back and get to work!” John McCain yelled out. “Tell them to get to work!”

This was at a biker rally in South Dakota where McCain was wooing the crowd by demanding that Congress return to Washington and do something about the energy crisis. Demanding that Congress come back from vacation to do something is a time-honored political gambit. But is it the best line of attack for a senator who last showed up for a vote himself back in early spring? Perhaps not.

Also, there was the problem of tone. McCain has sometimes been charged with sounding like a cranky neighbor yelling at kids to get off the lawn. This time, he turned into a cranky neighbor who hires you to cut his grass and then follows you around, pointing out blades that you missed. …

While McCain … has now embraced [offshore drilling] as if it is not only the solution to our energy problems, but also the key to eternal salvation. Really, it’s a little scary. You can’t help wondering if he’s been captured by some kind of drilling cult.

“We’re not going to pay $4 a gallon for gas because we’re going to drill offshore, and we’re going to drill now. We’re going to drill here. We’re going to drill now!” he told the bikers. McCain is not at his best when he’s trying to rally a large group of people. He pushes too hard and sometimes winds up sounding less enthusiastic than, um, loony. It was under this exact circumstance that he volunteered Cindy for the Miss Buffalo Chip contest, though I truly do not believe he knew about the topless part.

McCain has been making this pitch quite a bit. In fact, as Obama points out, he frequently seems to be promising to drill through the floorboards of the stage where he’s speaking. Through constant repetition, he’s trying to fool the public into believing their gas prices will come down in the foreseeable future if more coastal areas are opened to drilling. And nobody really believes that, including John McCain. …

Since offshore drilling will have no effect on domestic oil prices in the short term, this is really a debate about how we want to be getting our energy supplies ten or twenty years from now. McCain and the Republicans party want to continue to base our energy policies on fossil fuels. But global warming alone demands that we devote our efforts to breaking that addiction. A junkie doesn’t solve his problems by stealing money for his next fix. If we are still desperate to increase our oil supplies by a fraction of one percent twenty years from now, we are in BIG trouble.

But John McCain and the Republican party want to focus the 2008 campaign on an energy policy built around the prospect of cheap gasoline.

Reminds me of the Sheryl Crow song "Gasoline":