The op-ed page at the New York Times is pretty bad, what with Dowd, Kristol and Friedman, but the op-ed page at the Washington Post is worse.  To end the year on a negative note, here's Ruth Marcus on why an Obama administration should not pursue criminal charges against Bush administration officials who broke the law.  The whole thing amounts to a classic ignoratio elenchi–none of Marcus's arguments prove or really even support the conclusion that criminal prosecution against Bush administration officials should not be pursued.  My comements in brackets.

First, criminal prosecution isn't the only or necessarily the most effective mechanism for deterrence. To the extent that they weigh the potential penalties for their actions, government officials worry as much about dealing with career-ruining internal investigations or being hauled before congressional committees. Criminal prosecution and conviction requires such a high level of proof of conscious wrongdoing that the likelihood of those other punishments is much greater. [deterrence isn't the only point of criminal prosecution].

Second, the looming threat of criminal sanctions did not do much to deter the actions of Bush administration officials. "The Terror Presidency," former Justice Department official Jack Goldsmith's account of the legal battles within the administration over torture and wiretapping, is replete with accounts of how officials proceeded despite their omnipresent concerns about legal jeopardy.

"In my two years in the government, I witnessed top officials and bureaucrats in the White House and throughout the administration openly worrying that investigators acting with the benefit of hindsight in a different political environment would impose criminal penalties on heat-of-battle judgment calls," Goldsmith writes. [Goldsmith's characterization only underscores the dubious legality of the actions of administration officials]

Third, punishment is not the only way to prevent wrongdoing. If someone is caught breaking into your house, by all means, press charges. But you might also want to consider installing an alarm system or buying stronger locks. Responsible congressional oversight, an essential tool for checking executive branch excesses, was lacking for much of the Bush administration. [This is the same as one.  It's also just irrelevant.]

Fourth, there is a cost to pursuing criminal charges. As appalling as waterboarding is, for example, it was pursued with the analysis and approval of lawyers who concluded, however wrongly, that it did not rise to the level of torture. If government officials cannot safely rely on legal advice, they will err on the side of excessive timidity. [All criminal defendants can find lawyers who can argue however erroneously that they're client did nothing illegal–this does not make it legal]

Fifth, focusing governmental energy on uncovering and punishing the actions of the past will inevitably drain energy and political capital from the new administration. It would be a better use of the administration's time to figure out how to close Guantanamo and deal with the remaining prisoners. [these are not mutually exclusive]

In a State of the Union address in 2003, Bush uttered the following words about Saddam:

The dictator who is assembling the world's most dangerous weapons has already used them on whole villages — leaving thousands of his own citizens dead, blind, or disfigured. Iraqi refugees tell us how forced confessions are obtained — by torturing children while their parents are made to watch. International human rights groups have catalogued other methods used in the torture chambers of Iraq: electric shock, burning with hot irons, dripping acid on the skin, mutilation with electric drills, cutting out tongues, and rape. If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning. (Applause.) 

Saddam's leaving thousands of Iraqis dead and obtaining false confessions through torture were lawlessness on a scale worthy of military invasion at the cost of thousands of lives of killed and wounded soldiers and civilians.  One would think that such things might be worthy of criminal investigation, and, perhaps, prosecution.

5,000 years

In the spirit of the season, let's reflect on the words of the Reverend Warren, a man noted for the fact that he, perhaps alone among right wing evangelicals, does not always blame the poor and the sick for their condition.  But that doesn't stop him from being a rather sorry thinker when it comes to homosexuality.  In an interview with, he says:

The issue to me, I’m not opposed to that as much as I’m opposed to redefinition of a 5,000 year definition of marriage. I’m opposed to having a brother and sister being together and calling that marriage. I’m opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that marriage. I’m opposed to one guy having multiple wives and calling that marriage.

[Question] Do you think those are equivalent to gays getting married?

Oh , I do. For 5,000 years, marriage has been defined by every single culture and every single religion – this is not a Christian issue. Buddhist, Muslims, Jews – historically, marriage is a man and a woman. And the reason I supported Proposition 8, is really a free speech issue. Because first the court overrode the will of the people, but second there were all kinds of threats that if that did not pass then any pastor could be considered doing hate speech if he shared his views that he didn’t think homosexuality was the most natural way for relationships, and that would be hate speech. We should have freedom of speech, ok? And you should be able to have freedom of speech to make your position and I should be able to have freedom of speech to make my position, and can’t we do this in a civil way.

In the interest of Christian charity, someone should point out that marriage has not been defined in every single culture as that between one man and one woman.  Sometimes, it turns out, that the Kings of Israel had to have many many many wives and then concubines beyond that (Lucky them, some might add).  Some cultures, get this, define marriage as that between one woman and many men–it's called polyandry–or marriage to many dudes.

Aside from picking and choosing which passages of the Bible to endorse and which cultural practices to remember, the Reverend Warren is confused about the nature of definitions and free speech.  In the first place, he can define marriage however he wants in his church.  No one would force him to recognize the marriage of a brother and a sister (which he considers by the way equivalent to gay marriage).  Recognizing the legal right of two unrelated adults to contract however they want does not entail any alteration in the fabric of the universe of definitions–in the world of Platonic forms, or the divine mind, or wherever these things exist.  Besides, as Warren points out, this particular definition of marriage, on his view, extends back only 5,000 years.  That number of years, even in the relatively short span of human history, is but a drop in the bucket (sidenote: why does Warren repeat "5,000 years"?  Is he a young earther?).

As for freedom of speech, the court "overriding" the will of the people does not ipso facto constitute a violation of freedom of speech.  Sometimes that's the court's job.  And Warren can continue to preach that Gayness can or shoudl be cured in his church.  He has, after all, a right to be wrong.  No one will take that away from him.   


So it turns out that my dear governor was everything everyone thought he would be.  One local media person covering the current and hopefully soon to be former governor's long ago Congressional campaign, said that after talking to him, "you wanted to check your wallet and take a shower."  Eugene Robinson feels the same way, more or less, that everyone does.  Whether any of the charges are really justified will have to wait for trial, as it should. Nonetheless, Robinson, a member of the liberal media, has found a way to imagine Obama into the middle of this mess.  

In handling questions about the arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich — for allegedly trying to sell President-elect Barack Obama's former Senate seat to the highest bidder — Obama has gone strictly by the book. His statements have been cautious and precise, careful not to get ahead of the facts or make declarations that might later have to be retracted.

For most politicians, that would be good enough. For Obama, who inspired the nation with a promise of "change we can believe in," it's not.

The scandal involves Obama in only the most tangential way, as far as anyone knows, and actually seems to cast him in a favorable light. But the longer he leaves obvious questions unanswered, the longer the president-elect will have to talk about the seamier side of Illinois politics rather than initiatives such as saving the U.S. auto industry or revamping health care.

By all accounts, Obama is a pretty careful guy.  He's about to be inaugurated President of the United States, so he's justifiably careful about the legal implications of what he says.  He's probably also knows that whatever he says will receive heavy amount of interpretation. Regardless, he has called upon his staff to reveal any contacts with Blagojevich, and he has asked the governor to resign from office.  What more does Robinson want?  What would constitute "change" in this circumstance?  Robinson answers:

None of this is likely to hurt Obama in any material way or even dim the glow of his victory and upcoming inauguration. But maybe it can be a lesson. Real "change" would be throwing away the playbook and getting all the facts out now, rather than later. 

That's pretty silly.  And it's an impossibly stupid standard for "change."  It's not unlike asking someone participating in a legal battle not to seek legal counsel–why, after all, would he need legal counsel if he's not guilty?

Holden Caufield Redux

Bashing the institutions that didn't accept your college application might be thought to be a national pass-time in our "class free" nation.There's something oddly satisfying about sneering at the elite schools and the "preppies" "elites" etc. that we suppose inhabit them. But, sometimes the reasons for sneering are more interestingly political and argumentative. Here's a nice example from the "left."

The multiple failures that beset the country, from our mismanaged economy to our shredded constitutional rights to our lack of universal health care to our imperial debacles in the Middle East, can be laid at the feet of our elite universities. Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford, along with most other elite schools, do a poor job educating students to think. They focus instead, through the filter of standardized tests, enrichment activities, advanced-placement classes, high-priced tutors, swanky private schools and blind deference to all authority, on creating hordes of competent systems managers. The collapse of the country runs in a direct line from the manicured quadrangles and halls in places like Cambridge, Mass., Princeton, N.J., and New Haven, Conn., to the financial and political centers of power.

Seems like the cause might be a tad oversimplified. There's plenty more ressentiment to be found here, but the conclusion of the piece seems interesting to me.

These elites, and the corporate system they serve, have ruined the country. These elite cannot solve our problems. They have been trained to find "solutions," such as the trillion-dollar bailout of banks and financial firms, that sustain the system. They will feed the beast until it dies. Don’t expect them to save us. They don’t know how. And when it all collapses, when our rotten financial system with its trillions in worthless assets implodes, and our imperial wars end in humiliation and defeat, they will be exposed as being as helpless, and as stupid, as the rest of us.

There's some sort of interesting argument here, involving a sort of argumentum ad "I told you so," or a sort of appeal to fear that provides emotional cover for the unsupported conclusion.

"My view that the products of the ivy league are stupid and helpless will be apparent when the whole system that they are trying to maintain collapses." 

1. If the whole system collapses, then the elites were stupid and helpless."

2. The elites are stupid and helpless.

To the degree that we fear that the antecedent of (1) might occur, we might conclude that (2) is true. But, there are other reasons that (1) might collapse other than the collective and stupidity and helplessness of the elites. So, even if we think it is likely that the whole system might collapse that should not provide us with reason to accept the conclusion.

There is sp,e other argument for (2) given throughout–but little of it seems particularly compelling. Some personal experience:

 I sat a few months ago with a former classmate from Harvard Divinity School who is now a theology professor. When I asked her what she was teaching, she unleashed a torrent of obscure academic code words. I did not understand, even with three years of seminary, what she was talking about. You can see this absurd retreat into specialized, impenetrable verbal enclaves in every graduate department across the country. The more these universities churn out these stunted men and women, the more we are flooded with a peculiar breed of specialist.

And some anecdotes about how everyone in high school was a phony and not that smart.

 I was sent to boarding school on a scholarship at the age of 10. . . These institutions, no matter how mediocre you are, feed students with the comforting self-delusion that they are there because they are not only the best but they deserve the best. You can see this attitude on display in every word uttered by George W. Bush. Here is a man with severely limited intellectual capacity and no moral core. He, along with Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who attended my boarding school and went on to Yale, is an example of the legions of self-centered mediocrities churned out by places like Andover, Yale and Harvard.

But, as far as I can see, there's not much more argument here than an oversimplified cause, a lot of Holden Caufield, and the interesting "I will have told you so" argument. 


Take me for a ride in your car, Tsar

In a tangential matter (well, tangential to The Non Sequitur), Steve Benen at Political Animal asks a question I've long wondered about.  He writes:

TNR reports on Obama's energy and environmental team:

"In addition to Carol Browner as the energy czar (but not czar, because apparently the transition folks don't like that word), Obama reportedly has selected the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's director Steve Chu to be energy secretary; New Jersey's Lisa Jackson as head of the EPA; and Los Angeles deputy mayor Nancy Sutley as chair of the Council on Environmental Quality. All are low-profile picks, and diverse ones."

I don't yet know enough about these people to say much, though from what I can tell, they sound like very strong picks. (More on the whole team here, here, and here; on Chu here and here; on Browner here; and on Jackson here.) But I was absolutely thrilled by one fact in this post: the claim that Obama and his team do not plan to use the word 'czar'.

Thank heavens. We've had drug czars, energy czars; we may yet get a car czar. I'm tired of czars. And why czars, anyways? They didn't do all that well in Russia, as far as I can tell. If we have to go against our democratic traditions, why not an Imperator, or a Pharoah, or a Basileus, or a Mikado? For that matter, why not an Energy Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or an ObaTlatoani? of Energy, or an Energy

Personally, I think we should just embrace the silliness of all these titles and designate Carol Browner our new Grand Energy Poobah.

Now I know I'm not alone in wondering whether Czar was meant to impart special powers to the Czar in question–special powers of despotism and failure.  

A Simple One

Nothing fancy. 

Teacher writes to the founder of the Helios project "which brings Linux to school kids in Austin."

 "Mr. Starks, I am sure you strongly believe in what you are doing but I cannot either support your efforts or allow them to happen in my classroom. At this point, I am not sure what you are doing is legal. No software is free and spreading that misconception is harmful. … This is a world where Windows runs on virtually every computer and putting on a carnival show for an operating system is not helping these children at all. I am sure if you contacted Microsoft, they would be more than happy to supply you with copies of an older version of Windows and that way, your computers would actually be of service to those receiving them…"

"Starks pens an eloquent reply, which contains a factoid I have not seen mentioned before: "The fact that you seem to believe that Microsoft is the end all and be-all is actually funny in a sad sort of way. Then again, being a good NEA member, you would spout the Union line. Microsoft has pumped tens of millions of dollars into your union. Of course you are going to 'recommend' Microsoft Windows."

I'll leave the question of eloquence aside, but the screaming ad hominem circumstantial is something a Logic teacher with an exam to write must love.

Foro Italico

The low cost of energy, federal subsidies in the form of expressways (but not public transportation) fueled (!) a migration of people out to that land of autonomy, low taxes, and self-sufficiency, the suburbs and exurbs.  Now of course people have realized that those place are soul-crushingly monotonous places to spend one's days.  David Brooks has also realized this.  And the massive FDR-style infrastructure of the Obama administration should step up to remedy the situation.  Nothing like small government conservatives!  He writes:

People overshot the mark. They moved to the exurbs because they wanted space and order. But once there, they found that they were missing community and social bonds. So in the past years there has been a new trend. Meeting places are popping up across the suburban landscape.

Anyway, now for David Brooks's proposal for the Obama plan:

To take advantage of the growing desire for community, the Obama plan would have to do two things. First, it would have to create new transportation patterns. The old metro design was based on a hub-and-spoke system — a series of highways that converged on an urban core. But in an age of multiple downtown nodes and complicated travel routes, it’s better to have a complex web of roads and rail systems.

Second, the Obama stimulus plan could help localities create suburban town squares. Many communities are trying to build focal points. The stimulus plan could build charter schools, pre-K centers, national service centers and other such programs around new civic hubs.

That stuff sounds really like a state-driven urban renewal plan once undertaken by a guy named Benito.  So much for Brooks' conservatives.  The people moved out to the burbs, turned it into a nightmare of alienation, traffic, and high fuel prices (they'll be back folks) and now they need to be bailed out by Obama in a massive suburban investment plan.  Why this?  Well, the alternative is just too boring to contemplate:

But alas, there’s no evidence so far that the Obama infrastructure plan is attached to any larger social vision. In fact, there is a real danger that the plan will retard innovation and entrench the past.

In a stimulus plan, the first job is to get money out the door quickly. That means you avoid anything that might require planning and creativity. You avoid anything that might require careful implementation or novel approaches. The quickest thing to do is simply throw money at things that already exist.

Sure enough, the Obama stimulus plan, at least as it has been sketched out so far, is notable for its lack of creativity. Obama wants to put more computers in classrooms, an old idea with dubious educational merit. He also proposes a series of ideas that are good but not exactly transformational: refurbishing the existing power grid; fixing the oldest roads and bridges; repairing schools; and renovating existing government buildings to make them more energy efficient.

This is the federal version of “This Old House.” And this is before the stimulus money gets diverted, as it inevitably will, to refurbish old companies. The auto bailout could eventually swallow $125 billion. After that, it could be the airlines and so on.

It's so boring and uncreative to fix decaying infrastructure in an infrastructure investment plan!  On my way to school this morning, I was bored to tears by the tedium of the mini lagoons of frozen dirty water festooning Bryn Mawr avenue, the sewers too aged to handle large but extremely common influxes of water.  I'm also bored by the idea that the power grid cannot handle green power innovation–what would be cool is a street with cafes and bookstores on it in a far out suburb.  Fixing this stuff shows a lack of creative vision.