The Manchurian Pundit

Put this in the department of specious comparisons.  David Brooks seems to be in China, where he personally interviewed some of the survivors of the devastating earthquake that struck Sichuan province.  He concludes:

These were weird, unnerving interviews, and I don’t pretend to understand what’s going on in the minds of people who have suffered such blows and remained so optimistic. All I can imagine is that the history of this province has given these people a stripped-down, pragmatic mentality: Move on or go crazy. Don’t dwell. Look to the positive. Fix what needs fixing. Work together.

I don’t know if it’s emotionally sustainable or even healthy, but it raises at least one interesting question. When you compare these people to the emotional Sturm und Drang over lesser things on reality TV, you do wonder if we Americans are a nation of whiners.

I guess I could imagine more.  Maybe the (still authoritarian) Chinese government's press handlers really know what they're doing.  Not only did Brooks buy their story, he advanced it by comparing it to the worst American TV culture has to offer.  I'll never look at Big Brother the same way again.

*I changed "totalitarian" to "authoritarian" because it seems more accurate.

Unilateral multilateralism

George Will has lately been a little more restrained, holding back his usual parade of straw men in favor of directionless overly written meditations on baseball or the lack of human progress.  Today he throws himself back into the thick of things with an analysis of what the very complicated situation in the Caucusus means for the US election.  What does it mean?  Well, it means that Obama is a sissy, and McCain is Mr.Tough guy. To be fair it doesn't seem that Will endorses McCain's attitude (it's unclear what Will's view is), but it is obvious that he ridicules Obama's.  He can, of course, ridicule Obama's position all he wants, but he should try to be more effective.  He writes:

On ABC's "This Week," Richardson, auditioning to be Barack Obama's running mate, disqualified himself. Clinging to the Obama campaign's talking points like a drunk to a lamppost, Richardson said that this crisis proves the wisdom of Obama's zest for diplomacy and that America should get the U.N. Security Council "to pass a strong resolution getting the Russians to show some restraint." Apparently Richardson was ambassador to the United Nations for 19 months without noticing that Russia has a Security Council veto.

This crisis illustrates, redundantly, the paralysis of the United Nations regarding major powers, hence regarding major events, and the fictitiousness of the European Union regarding foreign policy. Does this disturb Obama's serenity about the efficacy of diplomacy? Obama's second statement about the crisis, in which he tardily acknowledged Russia's invasion, underscored the folly of his first, which echoed the Bush administration's initial evenhandedness. "Now," said Obama, "is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint."

I think anyone can tell that Richardon's initial point (whatever may be its merits) is primarily a historical one (one about how things should have gone before this point).  Now that the US has exhausted itself on belligerent unilateralism, Russia is free to act as it wants–belligerently, as it turns out, and unilaterally.  What can the US do about it?  Not a lot (at least, not belligerently or unilaterally).  Now contrast this with McCain's rather different answer to a different question:    

John McCain, the "life is real, life is earnest" candidate, says he has looked into Putin's eyes and seen "a K, a G and a B." But McCain owes the thug thanks, as does America's electorate. Putin has abruptly pulled the presidential campaign up from preoccupation with plumbing the shallows of John Edwards and wondering what "catharsis" is "owed" to disappointed Clintonites.

McCain, who has called upon Russia "to immediately and unconditionally . . . withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory," favors expelling Russia from the Group of Eight, and organizing a league of democracies to act where the United Nations is impotent, which is whenever the subject is important. But Georgia, whose desire for NATO membership had U.S. support, is not in NATO because some prospective members of McCain's league of democracies, e.g., Germany, thought that starting membership talks with Georgia would complicate the project of propitiating Russia. NATO is scheduled to review the question of Georgia's membership in December. Where now do Obama and McCain stand?

If Georgia were in NATO, would NATO now be at war with Russia? More likely, Russia would not be in Georgia. Only once in NATO's 59 years has the territory of a member been invaded — the British Falklands, by Argentina, in 1982.

Will is oblivious the obvious contradiction: what means will McCain use to achieve these ends?  What will convince NATO and the other members of the G-8 (as well as the non-yet-existent "league of democracies") to embrace his objectives?  Will it be diplomacy? 

It turns out, or so it seems to me, that for all the tough talk, McCain and Obama really agree on the fundamental importance of negotiation and diplomacy, they just may disagree on the means.

Hawaii 4-11

Here's a point about narrative.  Yesterday on ABC's "This Week" Cokie Roberts said:

ROBERTS: Yeah, that he has certainly come nowhere near closing the deal. As we've talked about before, in this year that should be such a Democratic year given all the other indices, he is tied in the polls and stage-sided in the polls and going off this week to a vacation in Hawaii —

VICTORIA CLARKE (former Pentagon spokeswoman): Right.

ROBERTS: — does not make any sense whatsoever. I know his grandmother lives in Hawaii and I know Hawaii is a state, but it has the look of him going off to some sort of foreign, exotic place. He should be in Myrtle Beach, and, you know, if he's going to take a vacation at this time.

CLARKE: Well, and —

ROBERTS: And I just think that, you know, this is not the time to do that.

Last I checked, Hawaii is a state in the Union (with a governor, a couple of senators, etc).  It also happens to be the state where Obama was born, which fact makes him eligible to run for President of the United States.

Have we embedded video before?

This is fun.


 But, it raises a more interesting logical point. Commentators and pundits treat positions as though they are arbitrary "commitments"–this  is some sort of political "decisionism" that reduces everything to ideology.This simplifies their job, the only thing they have to track is whether a candidate is 'for' or 'against' something. It also makes for nice narratives of the flip-flop sort. 

What is obfuscated by this lens is that people hold their commitments for reasons. Obama might oppose opening the OCS and ANWR to drilling as a means to the goal of energy independence or lowering gas prices in the short term and long term because there is no reason to believe that they are a means to these ends.

 He can quite consistently support the same policy for some other end–in this case, to gain investment in alternative energy that will probably help move us towards less dependence on foreign energy, help make transportation and other energy uses cheaper, and (pace Krauthammer, maybe "save the planet").

Of course, this subtlety can't be explained in an interview or you suddenly start to look all Al Gore. The viewer either gets this or she/he doesn't. The interviewer deliberately obfuscates a distinction (I suspect) he understands in order to play the "brash interviewer" role he's seen on Fox.

Even after O. makes the point, less pedantically than I have, the interviewer tries the same trick with Yucca mountain. 

I guess that there is a sort of scope fallacy, or a sort amphiboly. "Obama opposes drilling for reason x." becomes "Obama opposes drilling." Or maybe a mistake in generalization: "Obama opposes drilling for reason x" "Obama always opposes drilling." 



The people in your neighborhood

Barack Obama and John McCain may be running for President, but Gail Collins is running for Maureen Dowd.  She writes,

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 was never violently opposed to offshore drilling, he has now embraced it 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.

And (continuing directly):

“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.

How silly.  In a similar vein, another of the grand liberal pundits, Ruth Marcus, musters her inner literary critic to discuss Obama's "pivot" (nice basketball metaphor) to populism: 

This turn to populism is not an extreme political makeover. Rather, it's a distinct tonal shift as the Democratic presidential candidate finishes a trip through three swing states — Michigan, Ohio and Indiana — where blue-collar voters aren't necessarily on board. Listen to Obama, and you hear the distant strains of Al Gore 2000: "the people versus the powerful." 

Whether there is something inauthentic about this "pivot" Marcus doesn't bother to say (and she gives no reason to think it is inauthentic other than the use of the word "shift").  But she devotes an entire column to the idea that there is a shift, which must be a part of some kind of inauthentic strategy, or some kind of pander:

Obama circled back to our conversation when a questioner at yesterday's town hall meeting asked why he singled out oil companies. This time his answer ventured beyond refinery capacity and widgets.

"So the question is, does it make more sense for the oil companies to pay for it or does it make more sense for the struggling waitress who is barely getting by to pay for it?" he said. "And the answer is, I'm going to fight for the waitress, not because I hate the oil companies but because I think it's more fair."

Also, waitresses vote.

Perhaps no one but a cynical newspaper columnist would pretend to be surprised by the "tonal shifts" in stump speeches versus interviews with cynical newspaper columnists.

Sojourner Truth

E.J.Dionne writes in today's Post:

The great opportunity this year for less scrupulous Republican strategists is that Obama is both black and a Columbia-and-Harvard-educated former professor who lived in the intellectually rarified precincts of Hyde Park in Chicago, Manhattan's Upper West Side and Cambridge, Mass. They can go after him subtly on race and overtly on elitism. They can turn the facts of Obama's life into mutually reinforcing liabilities.

As if on cue, David Brooks responds:

And the root of it is probably this: Obama has been a sojourner. He opened his book “Dreams From My Father” with a quotation from Chronicles: “For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers.”

There is a sense that because of his unique background and temperament, Obama lives apart. He put one foot in the institutions he rose through on his journey but never fully engaged. As a result, voters have trouble placing him in his context, understanding the roots and values in which he is ineluctably embedded.

Of course there is no evidence for Brooks' assertion that "voters have trouble [unsure, etc.]" other than the fact that Obama is not crushing McCain in the polls.  It seems Brooks is the one who has trouble placing Obama.  Given the vast amount of empirical data about voter preferences, Brooks would be better served seeking his explanatory story there.

But no.  Brooks would rather make observations of the very silly kind–the kind that could characterize anyone of us at any time.  For example:

And so it goes. He is a liberal, but not fully liberal. He has sometimes opposed the Chicago political establishment, but is also part of it. He spoke at a rally against the Iraq war, while distancing himself from many antiwar activists.

Isn't this the narrative that many supporters of McCain use in his favor (he bucks the party trend–he's a maverick, etc.)?  All of this to establish the point that Obama is some kind of careerist cipher, whose very success, independence, and upward mobility are signs that he doesn't really belong.  Of course Brooks has expanded the trope somewhat–by insisting that the sheer fact of living an indentifiable cariacature constitutes a virtue.

Krauthammer and Krugman

I began writing this thinking that I was going to accuse Krauthammer of suppressing evidence when he  argues for drilling in ANWR and lifting the moratorium on outer continental shelf drilling since at first glance he seems to completely ignore the environmental argument based on global warming.

His argument runs like this:

  1. Reducing dependence on foreign oil is in the national interest.
  2. Opening up domestic energy resources for development will reduce dependence on foreign oil.
  3. Therefore we should open up ANWR and the outer continental shelf for development.

Notice that this isn't McCain's silly and discredited argument that opening up these resources will address pump prices. Instead it looks like perfectly nice argument: A practical syllogism arguing for a means to an end. Presumably he is arguing that 2 is the best means to achieve 1. If that's so, then he should consider alternatives such as reducing our consumption of oil.

Consider: 25 years ago, nearly 60 percent of U.S. petroleum was produced domestically. Today it's 25 percent. From its peak in 1970, U.S. production has declined a staggering 47 percent. The world consumes 86 million barrels a day, the United States, roughly 20 million. We need the stuff to run our cars and planes and economy. Where does it come from? 

Skipping the results of several hours of reading DOE reports on the oil resources (see comments) it looks like the best case from opening up both of ANWR and OCS is around 1 million barrels of oil per day in the late 2020's. That's pretty significant given our current imports of 15 million barrels a day (7%)–roughly equivalent to the imports from Nigeria this year). So, it seems that we must grant as plausible that these measures would reduce dependence on foreign oil.

But the interesting part of the argument is this

The net environmental effect of Pelosi's no-drilling willfulness is negative. Outsourcing U.S. oil production does nothing to lessen worldwide environmental despoliation. It simply exports it to more corrupt, less efficient, more unstable parts of the world — thereby increasing net planetary damage. 

I had thought that he was just ignoring Pelosi's real concern with opening up these resources, that is, I believe, their contribution to anthropogenic global warming. He only focuses on "environmental despoiliation" which looks at first like the effects local to the extraction and transportation of oil, and not its consumption.

The assumption he makes is that the rate of consumption of oil will be unaffected whether we open up these resources or not. The question then is merely one of where the oil is extracted. And, if opening up these resources has as little effect on price as opponents of drilling say, then it can't be argued that not exploiting these resources will contribute to a reduction in consumption.

The argument opposed to drilling has three options it seems to me:

1. NIMBY (we just don't want to mess up our environment–we're happy to let others do it).

2. Detailed argumentation that opening up ANWR and OCS have a likelihood of greater local environmental damage than drilling in Nigeria etc.

3. The total carbon consumption argument. Any increase in access to carbon based fuels is undesirable because of the the dangers of climate change.

I probably believe that 3 is a good argument (1 is probably a good argument though it might have moral difficulties, and I don't know enough to judge 2). But, if we really believed it (generally) we would probably have to support capping of imports or bans on importing oil from new developments. We would have to either accept that oil prices should continue to increase or that the rest of the world should stop developing. 

Krugman attacks McCain's ridiculous claims linking the moratoria on OCS development and gas prices. But he draws a more significant lesson from this.

Hence my concern: if a completely bogus claim that environmental protection is raising energy prices can get this much political traction, what are the chances of getting serious action against global warming? After all, a cap-and-trade system would in effect be a tax on carbon (though Mr. McCain apparently doesn’t know that), and really would raise energy prices.

The only way we’re going to get action, I’d suggest, is if those who stand in the way of action come to be perceived as not just wrong but immoral. Incidentally, that’s why I was disappointed with Barack Obama’s response to Mr. McCain’s energy posturing — that it was “the same old politics.” Mr. Obama was dismissive when he should have been outraged.

This doesn't address Krauthammer's security based argument, but it does point out that we are still far from ready to defend never mind implement the consequences of the total carbon consumption argument. To oppose ANWR and OCS exploitation on these grounds commits us to an argument that no new carbon fuel resources should be developed and that the only way to address rising fuel costs is to reduce demand worldwide.

If there is a flaw in the argument it is this: The argument that Krauthammer needs to address, however, is whether it would be a better means to energy independence to reduce consumption by those same 1 million barrels a day in 2030 than to open ANWR and OCS to drilling.