Good Year Bad Year

Facebook hasn’t quite killed the Christmas letter yet, although the Christmas card industry is dying. Fewer Christmas cards arrive each year. A single post in Facebook, with a cute graphic, covers most everyone, even those random imaginary friends – those from the past you only vaguely remember but who say they remember you. It’s very efficient, but it’s not personal, and it’s certainly sparse. That’s why a few Christmas cards still arrive, the ones with the long what-happened-this-year narrative about how wonderful the year has been, unless it wasn’t. Cousin Bruce graduated from law school. Cousin Clara opened a candle shop in Butte, after her release from prison. Someone else had a fine time in the hospital and is all better now. The trip to Equator was amazing, or maybe it was Bulgaria.

This is the sort of thing most folks skim and discard. Someone else is trying to wrap their head around what the hell happened this year, and that’s their struggle, not yours. They’re writing to themselves. Sometimes it is interesting to tag along as they try to make sense of things, to work out whether the year was a net-positive or a net-negative, but usually it’s rather tedious – and a bit embarrassing too. Why are they telling you this stuff? Are they seeking approval, or forgiveness, or are they agreeing with Camus about the absurd, or are they contemplating the mysterious ways of God, which no one will ever understand but which everyone should accept?

Maybe it’s just December, as the days grow short and the year ends. Winter evenings are a time for contemplation. There’s not much else to do.

It’s the same in public life too. As the year ends, the media begins to run endless items on what to make of the major events of the year, and whose year was a net-positive or a net-negative. Bill Cosby had a bad year. Chris Christie had a bad year, and the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza says President Obama had the worst year of all:

In 2014, President Obama’s past caught up with him. His sixth year in office was, inarguably, his worst, when the problems that had been building throughout his second term all came crashing down around him.

The year began with Obama proposing a set of reforms to the National Security Agency, a result of ongoing national security leaks, and ended with midterm elections that saw his party lose its Senate majority largely because of the president’s unpopularity.

In between were continued challenges to the Affordable Care Act, America’s reentry into Iraq – a war the president had long vowed to exit – and memoirs from former Cabinet officials questioning Obama’s decision-making and judgment.

It’s simply over for this guy:

Now, all that appears left for the Obama presidency is a narrowing of both vision and accomplishment. What tied together all of 2014’s failures, stumbles and necessary evils was a growing sense among the public that Obama simply isn’t up to the job to which he has been twice elected.

Consider this: In CNN-Opinion Research Corp. polling in December 2008, more than three-quarters of Americans said that the phrase “can manage the government effectively” applied to Obama; by March 2014, just 43 percent said the same. (And that was before problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs were revealed later that month.) A late 2013 Washington Post-ABC News poll found a similar result, with just 41 percent of respondents saying Obama “is a good manager.” A Pew Research Center survey in July showed that 44 percent of respondents believed that Obama was “able to get things done,” a number not far from the 42 percent of people who said the same of George W. Bush at a similar point in his presidency.

They’re just alike now:

Every early move Obama made – from his campaign promise of “change” to the “team of rivals” idea for his Cabinet – was driven by the notion that this president, unlike the man he replaced, was all about turning the government into a pure meritocracy that would run things right.

But that idea began to unravel with a rapid-fire series of scandals: the revelation that the IRS was targeting tea party groups for special scrutiny, the Edward Snowden leaks about NSA surveillance and the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov, to name three that happened in 2013.

That unraveling sped up over the past 12 months – fueled, interestingly enough, by foreign policy stumbles by the president and his team.

Obama’s longtime pledge to “reset” relations with Russia was exposed as frighteningly naive when President Vladimir Putin moved into eastern Ukraine with impunity. Obama’s response to Putin’s aggression – sanctions – was derided as using a spray bottle to put out a five-alarm fire.

Then there was Iraq, the “dumb war” that Obama was elected in no small measure to end. He seemed to do that once, removing the last combat troops from the country in 2011. But then came the rise of the Islamic State, the militant group that now controls much of Iraq and Syria, made particularly infamous by its heinous tactic of beheading captives.

And so on and so forth. Cillizza’s Christmas letter is long and detailed, as most are, and it ends with this:

President Obama, for becoming a victim of history rather than a writer of it, you had the worst year in Washington. Congrats, or something.

The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart, however, just doesn’t see it that way:

Remember when pundits loved Barack Obama? It’s been quite a few years now. But I suspect some of the adoration is about to come back.

He’s serious, and he cites three reasons:

The first is that politically, Obama’s immigration gamble is working. Fearful of alienating Hispanics or shutting down the government, Republican leaders have largely abandoned hope of overturning Obama’s move. What’s more, Obama’s approval ratings are up 15 points among Hispanics but have not dropped among Anglo whites. Add immigration to health-care reform and the fiscal stimulus and more commentators will start noticing that, whether you like Obama’s agenda or not, it’s been the most consequential of any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson.

Then there’s the economy:

The third quarter saw the fastest job growth in three years, and the unemployment rate is now 5.8 percent, down from 10 percent in 2009. Gas prices are also plunging. And there’s evidence Americans are beginning to notice… consumer confidence has just hit its highest mark in eight years. Even if the improving economy doesn’t boost Obama’s approval rating, it’s likely to improve the way he’s seen by the Beltway press. And given the role a strong economy played in buoying Bill Clinton’s approval ratings in the late 1990s, despite the Monica Lewinsky scandal, it’s quite possible that Obama’s will rise too, which will further fuel the journalistic perception that Obama is back.

Journalistic perception, then, is the third reason:

This year’s dominant storyline was about Obama and the midterm elections. Most key Senate races took place in red and purple states where Democratic candidates distanced themselves from Obama, thus magnifying the media’s perception that he was a political pariah.

Next year, however, the story won’t be 2014 but 2016. And the Democratic story, in all likelihood, will be Hillary Clinton’s march toward her party’s nomination. While Obama was certainly unpopular this fall in states like Kentucky, he remains quite popular among the liberal activists who play an outsized role in Democratic primaries. In fact, Obama retains a connection to many them that Hillary Clinton has never enjoyed. The closer she comes to the nomination, the more nostalgic some of those grassroots liberals will become about Obama.

Context is everything:

Just last week, in a slap at Clinton, 300 former Obama campaign staffers signed a letter urging Elizabeth Warren to run. In the year to come, there will be many more reminders that in 2008 Obama generated a passion among liberals that Hillary Clinton did not, and may still not. That storyline will make Obama look good.

That’s why Beinart ends his net-positive or net-negative assessment with this:

Every presidency has its media cycles. Journalists like to build up, tear down and then build up again. This year, Obama’s media coverage has been horrendous. According to The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, Obama had the worst year of any major figure in Washington. But it’s precisely because so many journalists share Cillizza’s views that our easily bored tribe will now try to push the pendulum back – which won’t be very hard at all.

These two fellows disagree, but Obama can write his own year-end Christmas letter. Presidents do that, except they do that in the traditional year-end press conference, before they head off for Christmas vacation. George Bush headed off for his ranch in Texas each year. Obama heads off to Hawaii, where he was born – not Kenya or Krypton, and yes, Hawaii really is part of the United States. And this year Obama did offer his net-positive or net-negative assessment of the year, and saw a net-positive, and let it rip:

President Obama on Friday chastised Sony Pictures for shelving a satirical movie following a North Korean cyberattack and vowed that the United States would take retaliatory action against the hermit nation. “I think they made a mistake,” the president said of Sony’s decision to stop distribution of the movie. “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.”

That was the issue of the day, but the whole year was the bigger issue:

He called 2014 “a breakthrough year for America,” citing the recent pickup in job growth, new enrollees in health-care exchanges, climate agreements with China and this week’s opening to Cuba.

“As a country, we have every right to be proud of what we’ve accomplished: more jobs, more people insured, a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, booming energy,” Obama declared. “Take any metric that you want, America’s resurgence is real. We are better off.”

There was this too:

On Afghanistan, which is now the longest war in American history, Obama quickly noted that American combat operations would cease in two weeks and more American troops would be home for the holidays than at any other time in the last decade.

“Yes, there were crises that we had to tackle around the world, many that were unanticipated,” Obama said, citing the U.S. role in leading coalitions to check Russian aggression in Ukraine, halt the advance of Islamic State militants in the Middle East and fight Ebola in Africa.

“We have every right to be proud of what we’ve accomplished,” he said.

And there was this:

The president celebrated his breakthrough deal with Cuba, which normalized relations with Havana for the first time since the Eisenhower administration and predicted that change would slowly come to a nation that has been stuck in place for more than 50 years.

Obama played down the possibility of a meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro during the remaining years of his presidency, saying that such a visit wasn’t “in the cards.” But he was confident that the island, which he called a “hermetically sealed society,” would open in “fits and starts.”

“I’m a fairly young man, so I imagine that at some point in my life, I will have the opportunity to visit Cuba and enjoy interacting with the Cuban people,” Obama said.

And he said he’d be glad to work with Congress, the new Republican Congress, if they wanted to get a few things done for a change – otherwise he would do what he could do with executive actions, while he was waiting for them to get their act together. And there was the race issue:

As the nation’s first black president, Obama has often faced critics on both the right and left who cite high unemployment and poverty rates among black Americans. While noting that racial gaps still exist in employment and education, Obama insisted that the experience of being black in America has improved since his historic election in 2008.

“Like the rest of America, black America in the aggregate is better off now than it was when I came into office,” Obama said. “The jobs that have been created, the people who’ve gotten health insurance, the housing equity that’s been recovered, the 401 pensions that have been recovered – a lot of those folks are African Americans. They’re better off than they were.”

But the president also acknowledged the awakened racial tensions that have spurred protests in several American cities, noting that there is “a growing awareness in the broader population” of the perception of race-based inequalities in the justice system.

But even there, there’s hope:

“I actually think it’s been a healthy conversation that we’ve had. These are not new phenomena. The fact that they’re now surfacing, in part because people are able to film what have just been, in the past, stories passed on around the kitchen table, allows people to, you know, make their own assessments and evaluations,” Obama said. “And you’re not going to solve the problem if it’s not being talked about.”

So, let’s talk. This year-end letter was rather positive, and Slate’s John Dickerson emphasizes how unusual it was:

In November, President Obama’s party took a pounding at the polls. In the press conference the day after, Obama avoided offering a word or descriptive phrase to encapsulate the catastrophe. (It’s something he and past presidents have often done in the wake of a drubbing.) He then sort of refused to take the loss, reminding the world that he too had a constituency: the voters who elected him and re-elected him, a larger group than had just handed Republicans control of the Senate.

In the 40 days between that press conference and the one he gave Friday, the president has worked that same seam – unburdened and loose from having no more elections to face. First, he announced his support for strong net neutrality, then he announced a climate deal with China – secret and long in the making – that helped jump-start progress in global talks, then he issued the executive order protecting as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants. After that came an EPA ruling on ozone emissions, a budget deal to keep the government open, and the historic deal opening diplomatic relations with Cuba.

This press conference was an exclamation point on this dash in his presidency. Obama clearly seemed pleased with the way things have been going. He said he still remained open to working with Republicans, and he said nothing ill of them. His goal next year, he said, was to separate those things that he and Republicans agree on (tax reform, infrastructure improvements, and trade) from those things they will fight passionately over (everything else).

The guy simply refuses to be a lame duck, and he now gets feisty:

Obama did have a little chin music for network television executives whose representatives he didn’t call on during the 45-minute event. He only called on female correspondents, in another sign that in ways big and small he’s going to do things his way. …

In fact, Obama had a lot to say about who we are. Asked about race relations in America, he expanded his remarks to talk about the general resilience and goodness of the American people. It was his own long-standing paean to American Exceptionalism, though his critics say he is only capable of running down the country.

“The vast majority of people are just trying to do the right thing. People are basically good and have good intentions,” he said. He said his general theme for the end of the year was, “We’ve gone through difficult times. … But through persistent effort and faith in the American people, things get better. The economy has gotten better. Our ability to generate clean energy has gotten better. We know more about how to educate our kids. We solve problems. Ebola is a real crisis. You get a mistake in the first case because it’s not something that’s been seen before. We fix it. … And it may not get fixed in the time frame of the news cycle, but it gets fixed. And, you know, part of what I hope, as we reflect on the New Year, this should generate is some confidence. America knows how to solve problems. And when we work together, we can’t be stopped.”

You wanna argue with that? Make my day. This was defiance. No one expected that. That’s what Vladimir Putin specializes in, but Paul Krugman suggests Putin can’t pull that off:

If you’re the type who finds macho posturing impressive, Vladimir Putin is your kind of guy. Sure enough, many American conservatives seem to have an embarrassing crush on the swaggering strongman. “That is what you call a leader,” enthused Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, after Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine without debate or deliberation.

But Mr. Putin never had the resources to back his swagger. Russia has an economy roughly the same size as Brazil’s. And, as we’re now seeing, it’s highly vulnerable to financial crisis – a vulnerability that has a lot to do with the nature of the Putin regime.

For those who haven’t been keeping track: The ruble has been sliding gradually since August, when Mr. Putin openly committed Russian troops to the conflict in Ukraine. A few weeks ago, however, the slide turned into a plunge. Extreme measures, including a huge rise in interest rates and pressure on private companies to stop holding dollars, have done no more than stabilize the ruble far below its previous level. And all indications are that the Russian economy is heading for a nasty recession.

The rest is a detailed discussion of market forces, mainly the collapse of oil prices, and the bizarre structure of the Russian economy – Krugman is an economist after all – but the point is that swagger and defiance are pathetic when things are falling apart. Putin hasn’t figured that out, and neither have our swaggering Republicans, but like Obama, Putin had his year-end press conference, which was appropriately pathetic, all three hours of it.

Katie Zavadski watched that press conference so you don’t have to:

Putin denied accusations that he is inciting a major international conflict in Ukraine, accusing the West – particularly the U.S. – of being in a pot-calling-the-kettle-black situation. “Our budget is $50 billion – the Pentagon budget is 10 times higher. Does anyone listen to us at all? Does anyone have a dialogue with us? No,” he said. “All we hear is ‘mind your own business.’ In the Ukrainian crisis I believe we are right and our Western partners are wrong.” …

But weighing most heavily on the minds of everyone in attendance was the ruble’s recent downward spiral. At the Wednesday low, one U.S. dollar was buying 79 rubles, though the free-fall appears to have stabilized. For some, Tuesday’s value drop called to mind a similar incident 20 years ago, now known as Black Tuesday. He attributed a significant portion of these ongoing economic woes to Western sanctions, introduced in part because of his annexation of Crimea. But the president also told Russians not to worry, assuring them that the economy would rebound. (Indeed, the ruble was up to 61 to a dollar during his address.) “Our economy will overcome the current situation. How much time will be needed for that? Under the most unfavorable circumstances I think it will take about two years,” he said.

This was defiant whining, and Neal Cassidy notes this:

Insofar as Russia’s fate depends on what happens to the oil price, Putin’s guess that things will pick up by the end of 2016 is as legitimate as anybody else’s. While he was speaking, the Saudi oil minister, Ali al-Naimi, was also saying, in Riyadh, that the current collapse would prove to be temporary. But Putin’s claim that, by the end of 2016, Russia will have successfully diversified its economy beyond energy is hopeful, to say the least. Indeed, a bit later in his press conference, when a reporter from Pravda asked about the country’s “oil addiction,” he acknowledged as much. “We are trying to create more favorable conditions for the development of production, but it is moving forward with difficulty,” Putin said.

He’s got nothing, as he has no options:

A prominent political observer and professor of National Research University Higher School of Economics, Vladimir Ryzhkov, summarized Putin’s statements for The Daily Beast: no plans for new reforms, no radical changes of staff or re-appointments. Not a word mentioned about the crazy growth of prices and public poverty. Why did Putin not give Russians any comforting promises? “Because he is waiting for oil to become expensive again, and everything to go back to normal soon. He does not have a clear understanding of how deep the crisis is – that’s why he is afraid to make any abrupt moves,” Ryzhkov said. Meanwhile, Russia is sinking ever deeper into its economic morass.

There’s not much that can be done about that, and in spite of what Chris Cillizza says, Obama had a good year. Putin didn’t. But as the days grow short and the year ends, when winter evenings are a time for contemplation, and a time for looking back and assessing whether the year was net-positive or net-negative, you have to work with what you’ve got. Swaggering isn’t wise. In fact, it’s embarrassing. That’s why most of us never read those Christmas letters. That’s just people talking to themselves.

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The Hollywood Magnet

Some places are magnets – Manhattan, Paris, Hollywood – you’re going to end up there one day, somehow, and maybe you’ll stay, and maybe the move from upstate New York in 1981 was inevitable. The marriage had ended and the prospect of teaching English at that prep school, year after year, and ending up perhaps beloved but certainly insignificant, seemed like death. The walls were closing in. Los Angeles was the answer, and a job in the real world – aerospace out here was booming at the time. The military needed lots of satellites and other gizmos, and Hughes and all the rest needed support staff for the scientists and engineers who created all that secret stuff no one could talk about. Life was good, and Manhattan Beach was cool. The rent was cheap – the landlord was a PhD researcher at Rand Corporation over in Santa Monica, an expert on game theory as it applies to global thermonuclear war, who had bought up a lot of small beach apartment buildings in his spare time, to get rich too. He was cool, but Manhattan Beach wasn’t Hollywood. That was still far away – if ten miles is far away. It is. Ten miles is an hour’s drive in Los Angeles.

Hollywood would have to wait. A second marriage led to living in a leafy and pleasant condo-complex in Culver City not far from the old MGM Studios – Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Singing in the Rain, An American in Paris, and so on – that place. The condos had been built on what had been the old back lot. Tarzan – Johnny Weissmuller – had swum in the lake by the parking lot. But that was all gone by then, and MGM was gone too. Sony-Columbia-TriStar took over the old studios, behind those high walls. No one knew what went on in there, and then circumstances led to moving down to San Pedro, the gritty port city down by Long Beach. The place was full of stevedores and longshoremen, and Croatians. Hollywood was just twenty miles up the freeway, but it might as well have been on the moon. The studios sent crews down for location shoots, when they needed that moody east-coast On the Waterfront ambience. Then they left.

It was time to leave too. The second marriage had ended and all options were open. It was finally time for Hollywood, the Dream Factory, as they say, the place that invents popular culture for the world, or at least expresses it in condensed and intensified form for the world, confirming the details for everyone. How else does everyone know what’s cool, and what’s not? This was the center of it all, the belly of the beast, or the heart of darkness.

This apartment just above the Sunset Strip seemed just about right, with a view out east across the hills to the observatory where James Dean was that rebel, without a cause, being moody. Schwab’s Drugstore was once down on the corner – there’s a shopping mall there now – and the Oscars shut down the streets here each year for a week. They hand those out a few blocks away. The after-parties are here on the Strip, but after twenty years here, Hollywood seems like a silly place. It is visually fascinating – see the photography site and its archives – but movies don’t really matter that much. Ten years ago it was hanging with the studio crowd – the below-the-line bean-counters and crafts folks, and a studio facilities manager, in charge of allocating office and production space – but even they turned out to be a self-absorbed and self-referential and a self-congratulatory lot. They admire each other, or wonder if they should, this week, given this weekend’s box-office figures. The industry is serenely insular. That may be a defense mechanism.

It is a defense mechanism. The problem is that the movies are basically an adolescent art form – not that the technology isn’t all grown up. The current technology is superb, and Hollywood’s marketing is peerless, even if it is incessant – but the product itself has to be condensed and intensified for the widest possible audience. The subtle becomes blatant. The complex becomes simple, as there’s no time for nuance. The movie has to grab you to make back its production and marketing costs, much less make a profit. It can’t be deep. It has to be compelling. Tolstoy can be deep. He will use nine hundred pages. When you’ve got a bit under two hours, on average, deep is out of the question – and thus most movies are the simple forceful stuff that is the essence of adolescence, and the target demographic is usually the eighteen to twenty-four crowd, who buy most of the movie tickets. It’s a perfect match.

Late each year the studios do release their “serious” films for the older demographic, their loss-leaders they hope will win an Oscar for hinting at something like depth and nuance. Those are their “prestige” films, not really intended to make money. The money is in the condensed and intensified broadly-drawn in-your-face movies. Some are dark, like the three Christopher Nolan Batman films, and some are sunny and warm like the Shrek movies, but none of them are terribly important in the grand scheme of things. They’re entertainment after all. They shouldn’t be taken seriously, and that’s what makes living in the heart of Hollywood so ironic. These people take all this stuff seriously? After twenty years here that now seems amazing. It was amazing after the first year here.

The inevitable happened. There would be no more wrap parties with the self-absorbed and self-referential and self-congratulatory folks at Musso and Frank. That got old real fast. Hollywood invents no more than entertainment, some of it quite wonderful, but none of it very important. There’s no need to take it seriously, but don’t tell that to that fellow with the bad haircut in North Korea:

Hackers caused tens of millions of dollars in damage last month to Sony Pictures’ computers, destroyed valuable files, leaked five films, four of them unreleased, and exposed private employment information including 47,000 Social Security numbers. In response to the cyberattack and a threat against movie theaters, Sony canceled the Christmas Day release of “The Interview,” a comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco that depicts a fictional assassination of Kim.

And now we knew who took this movie far too seriously, although there’s not much we can do:

With intelligence analysts quietly pointing to North Korea as having a hand in the destructive hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment computers, Obama administration officials scrambled Thursday to consider what, if anything, they should do in response.

Options are limited, partly because the United States already imposes strict sanctions on North Korea’s economy and because the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, relishes confrontation with the West. White House officials are wary of playing into an effort by nuclear-armed North Korea to provoke the U.S. into a direct confrontation.

“How do you sanction the world’s most heavily sanctioned country?” asked John Park, a specialist on Northeast Asia at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

You could tell the guy it’s only a movie, but that’s not going to work:

The Obama administration has stopped short of saying openly that North Korea was involved in the intrusion. Such an allegation would probably bring about calls for a response, and with an unwillingness to lay out its evidence, lack of available economic punishments and little desire for acts of war, the White House so far appears reluctant to make a public accusation. …

Spokesman Josh Earnest would say only that the White House considers the breach of one of Hollywood’s largest studios to be a “serious national security matter.”

The administration is considering a range of options, he said, but wants to take care not to respond in a way that legitimizes those behind the attack. The attackers might try to provoke the U.S. to “enhance their standing,” Earnest said, indirectly nodding to North Korea’s appetite for needling other countries.

And there’s that other problem:

Proving that North Korea was involved won’t be easy. The attack was reportedly routed through servers in Singapore, Thailand and Bolivia. Experts believe that North Korea lacks the capability to infiltrate Sony’s computers on its own and would have required the assistance of mercenary computer hackers, and possibly disgruntled Sony insiders.

Though most citizens in isolated, impoverished North Korea have no access to computers or the Internet, a small stable of highly skilled hackers are believed to work for the country. Computer attacks are a useful tool for North Korea’s aims of provocation because they are inexpensive to carry out and can be plausibly denied, experts said.

North Korea is “really working on their cyber capability; it gives a poorer nation international reach,” retired Brig. Gen. Michael McDaniel, a former Pentagon official, said.

The public information linking North Korea to the attack is largely circumstantial.

And someone’s hopping mad:

In June, the nation called the plot of “The Interview” an “act of war.” After the attack on Sony began, though, North Korea said it had no part. Still, it lauded the hacking as a “righteous deed of supporters and sympathizers.”

Somehow what was only a silly film became a matter of national security, and Ann Hornaday, the Washington Post’s movie critic, considers what Sony pulling the film really means:

The truth that the Sony “Interview” debacle has laid bare is that all films are political, from the most banal escapist romp to the self-valorizing action adventures we aggressively send to the overseas markets – especially in Asia – that account for around 70 percent of the movie industry’s profits.

That point was inadvertently proved with perhaps the most provocative kernel of information that emerged during the disorienting past few days. In the middle of the swirl, the Daily Beast revealed communications between Sony Entertainment chief executive Michael Lynton and the State Department, which told him that “The Interview” had the potential of actually moving the needle in North Korea.

Ah, Michael Lynton worried that someone, other than the industry insiders, would actually take one of their movies seriously, and he had called a friend in Santa Monica:

Lynton had already run the project by a specialist at the Rand Corp. (where he sits on the board of trustees). In a June e-mail, Rand defense analyst Bruce Bennett wrote to Lynton: “I have been clear that the assassination of Kim Jong Un is the most likely path to a collapse of the North Korean government. Thus while toning down the ending may reduce the North Korean response, I believe that a story that talks about the removal of the Kim family regime and the creation of a new government by the North Korean people (well, at least the elites) will start some real thinking in South Korea and, I believe, in the North once the DVD leaks into the North (which it almost certainly will).”

Lynton subsequently wrote back: “Bruce – Spoke to someone very senior in State (confidentially). He agreed with everything you have been saying. Everything. I will fill you in when we speak.”

They decided to release the film anyway, a miscalculation:

Even films that don’t culminate in the assassination of a sitting world leader possess their own politics: As purveyors of the culture we all swim in, they possess commensurate elemental power, from informing what we expect from life to modeling how we treat one another. …

Meanwhile, the fallout from waking the dragon has begun, with Fox dropping Steve Carell’s adaptation of the graphic novel “Pyongyang” on Wednesday. “I find it ironic that fear is eliminating the possibility to tell stories that depict our ability to overcome fear,” said the film’s director, Gore Verbinski. On Thursday, Paramount canceled planned screenings of the 2004 parody “Team America: World Police” – which included a spoof on former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Oh my! The whole industry is in trouble, and now they say it’s so unfair, but Hornaday isn’t buying it:

One of the most enduring wish-fulfillment fantasies that Hollywood sells is that you can have it both ways. You can have your work taken seriously at think tanks and panels, yet insist that it’s “only” entertainment. You can couch ideology in the rhetoric of “complexity,” and evade responsibility to the truth by invoking moral “gray areas.” As depressing as the “Interview” spectacle has been as political theater, at least it has reinvested otherwise trivial, disposable cultural products with the meaning they’ve had all along.

In other words, movies matter, whether they shouldn’t or don’t want to. There might have been a time when the studios’ calculus of whether to make a movie had only to do with budgets, box office and ancillary revenue streams. Now, they might ask themselves what movies are worth fighting for to the bitter end.

As for fighting for something like this to the bitter end, the cyber war expert Peter Singer calls Sony canceling the theatrical release of The Interview a case study in how not to respond to terrorism threats:

We have just communicated to any would-be attacker that we will do whatever they want.

It is mind-boggling to me, particularly when you compare it to real things that have actually happened. Someone killed 12 people and shot another 70 people at the opening night of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises. They kept that movie in the theaters. You issue an anonymous cyber threat that you do not have the capability to carry out? We pulled a movie from 18,000 theaters.

Eugene Volokh adds this:

I sympathize with the theaters’ situation – they’re in the business of showing patrons a good time, and they’re rightly not interested in becoming free speech martyrs, even if there’s only a small chance that they’ll be attacked. Moreover, the very threats may well keep moviegoers away from theater complexes that are showing the movie, thus reducing revenue from all the screens at the complex.

But behavior that is rewarded is repeated.

Thugs who oppose movies that are hostile to North Korea, China, Russia, Iran, the Islamic State, and extremist Islam generally, or any other country or religion, will learn the lesson. The same will go as to thugs who are willing to use threats of violence to squelch expression they oppose for reasons related to abortion, environmentalism, animal rights and so on.

This isn’t even about the goofy movie any longer, and Ron Dreher notes here that studios are already self-censoring:

Production on a new thriller starring Steve Carell and based in North Korea has now been cancelled. So film studios are afraid that what happened to Sony will happen to them. It is easy to imagine that studios and publishers will be intimidated into canceling or never taking on all kinds of projects on a wide variety of topics, simply out of legitimate fear of cybercrime or worse. Troubling.

Todd VanDerWerff sees that too:

This decision was driven as much by placating theatre owners as much as anybody else, but it also has the effect of essentially writing off a whole area of the map.

What happens when someone wants to make a dumb action movie set in North Korea? Or a romantic comedy on both sides of the Korean border (as improbable as that would be)? Or a serious, weighty political drama about the struggles of the North Korean people, aimed at winning some Oscars? What do the bean-counters say then?

Slate’s Fred Kaplan, however, sees something new here:

Most cyberattacks to date – by China, Russia, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Israel, the United States, and a dozen or so other nations, as well as scads of gangsters and simple mischief-makers – have been mounted in order to steal money, patents, credit card numbers, or national-security secrets.

Whoever hacked Sony (probably a North Korean agency or contractor) did so to put pressure on free speech – in effect, to alter American popular culture and suppress constitutional rights.

Matt Devost, president and CEO of FusionX LLC, one of the leading computer-security firms dotting the Washington suburbs, told me in an email this morning, “This is the dawn of a new age. No longer do you have to worry just about the theft of money or intellectual property, but also about attacks that are designed to be as destructive as possible – and to influence your behavior.”

That’s pretty scary:

The precedent is disturbing. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of people in the world – ranging from military cyber officers to clever teenagers – have the means and talent to hack into corporate computers, especially those of arts and entertainment companies, which have never thought of themselves as cyberattack victims and have therefore never taken more than the most basic precautions. Will hackers now threaten to raid and expose the computer files of other studios, publishers, art museums, and record companies if their executives don’t cancel some other movie, book, exhibition, or album?

This has already happened:

Last February, Las Vegas Sands Corp. – which owns the Sands, Venetian, and Palazzo hotel-casinos – was hacked by Iranians, in revenge for a speech given by its CEO, Sheldon Adelson, calling for a nuclear attack on Iran.

Adelson may be a distasteful figure, but he has the right to express his views without having to worry about some anonymous techie from across the oceans wiping out his computer servers at a cost of $40 million in damages. (The damages to the Sony attack could total as much as $100 million.)

And there may have been more cyberattacks of this sort on who knows how many other companies. Adelson covered up the true scope and nature of the attack on his company until an article just this month in Bloomberg Businessweek revealed the full details. Dell SecureWorks, the firm Adelson hired to trace the intrusion, concluded that the “attack was in response to CEO comments regarding Iran.” Adelson had that line excised before releasing the report.

Who can say what, now? That’s the issue, and one beyond Hollywood:

Should the U.S. government play some role in protesting this attack, taking retaliatory measures, or helping to prevent, trace, and repel such attacks in the future? In other words, is this a matter to be left to the private companies affected – or does it cross some line into the realm of diplomacy, national security, or (in the Sony case) a defense of American values?

The government and private industry – especially software, computer, and telecommunications companies – have been tossing around these questions for 30 years. The debate turned particularly fierce during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Clinton’s adviser on counter-terrorism and infrastructure-protection, Richard Clarke (who would later start a consulting firm on cyber security and write a book called Cyber War), argued for imposing mandatory security requirements on companies and utilities. Clinton’s economic advisers, as well as several CEOs, firmly resisted.

As a compromise, Clinton created ISACs, or “information sharing and analysis centers,” in which government agencies would help companies better secure their servers and networks. Presidents Bush and Obama strengthened these centers, but the arrangements remained voluntary – at the insistence of the private companies, which abhor regulation, and several civil liberties organizations, which are leery of any government intrusions into the Internet.

Forget this one movie and look at the big picture:

Another problem in coming up with national policy on these issues is “attribution.” If a missile lands on American soil, its trajectory can be traced to the launch pad. If a server or network is crashed, the hacker’s signature can be traced, but it’s common for hackers to hijack other servers or hop from one platform to another. Sophisticated analysts – in the CIA, NSA, and a growing number of private computer-security companies – can usually track down the source, but it’s not a sure thing. North Korean spokesmen have praised, but denied involvement in, the Sony hacking. Even if President Obama were inclined to take some sort of action, would he do so without proof that Kim’s regime was the culprit?

But what happens now, after the hacking of a major movie studio and hotel-casino chain, when it’s clear that every American enterprise might be hacked by foreigners – and when not just their assets, but their beliefs and public remarks might be the targets?

Will they now start requesting government assistance? Should the government assume responsibility for their security? And if so, how?

This is a mess:

It may be the dawn of a new age, but the glimmerings of this dawn lit up the sky decades ago, and those with the power and money to confront its challenges have evaded their responsibilities or been beaten down in their efforts. There never has been a serious debate about the issue’s costs, risks, benefits, and complexities. Maybe the unlikely pair of Sony Pictures and Sheldon Adelson will force the debate to happen now.

Or maybe they won’t. It seems that among the thousands of leaked Sony emails are those showing all the executives agreeing that this was a really crappy movie in the first place – and they knew that all along. It was puerile adolescent nonsense. That was in private “secure” emails of course. No one here admits, publicly, that Hollywood is a silly place. No one told the North Koreans. Maybe you have to actually live here to understand that – and maybe it’s time to move to Manhattan or Paris.

Posted in Cyber Warfare | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Assuring That a Cigar is Only a Cigar

No one ends up where they expected to be. Graduate school was Pope and Swift and ivy-covered walls. Teaching was that Dead Poet’s Society thing at a prep school in upstate New York, but that was maddening – each year the kids all left to go lead lives in the real world, for better or worse. The teacher stays, and prepares for the next wave, kids who will head out into the big wide world the next June, while the teacher stays, again. There may be something noble in that, but there’s certainly something deadly, and dead, in that too. It was time to head out too, to Southern California. Why not? And why not something other than teaching – something like doing?

No one ends up where they expected to be, but almost twenty-years later, the title of Senior Systems Manager sounded pretty nifty, even if there was always that worry about being discovered to be an imposter, who shouldn’t be there at all – someone whose heart really wasn’t in it and kept daydreaming about places far away and long ago. That day eventually came – and it was a bit of a relief to shrug and walk away from the woes of the management of large-scale systems, which really was a dull business – but before it came there were those years as a corporate warrior. The job was to fly off to odd places and meet with everyone there, who had screwed everything up, and figure out a way to unscrew things, by getting everyone to rethink the problem at hand. It wasn’t all that different than teaching, actually – but you had to talk about getting some legacy system, running COBOL or something, to talk to the new thin-client cloud-based new stuff, not about Hamlet or Homer or Dickens. It was unpleasant.

The only good thing about that was the long flights, six or seven miles up, each weekend or so, from one coast to the other – there’s peace to be found up there – and, for two years, chatting with the guys at customs. That was the gig in London, Ontario, and flying home to Los Angeles each weekend meant going through customs at Pittsburgh International, with the switch from the little plane across the lake to the big plane across the continent. Show the passport, chat a bit about the Steelers or Pirates or Penguins – it was always the same customs agent, an old fellow who loved his hometown teams – and declare that there was nothing to declare. But we were both in on the joke. It was the late nineties, the United States had had a trade embargo with Cuba in place since 1961, and Canada and everyone else in the world didn’t, so there were always Cuban cigars in the suitcase for the nephews. The custom agent knew it. We both knew it. There was just no point in hassling anyone about cigars. Who cares?

The cigars really weren’t that good anyway. They weren’t all that different from other high-end cigars rolled in Miami, not Havana. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar – but they were Cubans, the real thing, so the nephews were impressed. And no one took the embargo seriously, even if our government had been very serious:

It began on 19 October 1960 (almost two years after the Batista regime was deposed by the Cuban Revolution) when the US placed an embargo on exports to Cuba (except for food and medicine). On 7 February 1962 this was extended to include almost all imports. Currently, the Cuban embargo is enforced mainly with six statutes: the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the Cuba Assets Control Regulations of 1963, the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, the Helms–Burton Act of 1996, and the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000.

The Cuban Democracy Act was signed into law in 1992 with the stated purpose of maintaining sanctions on Cuba so long as the Cuban government refuses to move toward “democratization and greater respect for human rights”. In 1996, Congress passed the Helms–Burton Act, which further restricted United States citizens from doing business in or with Cuba, and mandated restrictions on giving public or private assistance to any successor government in Havana unless and until certain claims against the Cuban government are met. In 1999, U.S. President Bill Clinton expanded the trade embargo even further by also disallowing foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies to trade with Cuba.

Why? Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement against the government of Fulgencio Batista had started July 1953 and finally ousted that Batista guy on January 1, 1959 – which we thought was a fine thing. Batista was a jerk, a corrupt and sleazy dictator, and Castro had done what we had done in 1776 – so all was fine, until Castro gave his big speech at the UN and announced Cuba would now be a communist nation. No one saw that coming, and even if this was more about economic and social equality, enforced by the state, and not that much about a geopolitical alignment with the Soviet Union, this was a threat. We had a communist nation ninety miles south of Key West. We had to do something.

In April 1961 it was that Bay of Pigs invasion – a CIA operation to land a small group of Cuban exiles there, to establish a beachhead and move out, inspiring all Cubans to rise up and take back Cuba from Castro. This has been planned by the Eisenhower administration and when Kennedy was told about it, he said fine – go ahead – and he was soon sorry for that. That was a disaster. Launched from Guatemala, our Cuban guys were defeated within three days, by the Cuban armed forces under the direct command of Fidel Castro, no less. Castro was the hero of his nation, looking heroic, just like a leader should. President Kennedy said oops. The next year it was the Cuban Missile Crisis – the Soviets put nuclear missiles in Cuba, aimed at us. Kennedy did better this time – he forced the Soviets to back down and remove the missiles, and agreed we’d remove our nuclear missiles in Turkey, aimed at the Soviets. No one wanted global thermonuclear war. The CIA would stick to plots to kill Castro in sneaky ways – poison cigars and such – but that never did work.

The odd thing is that those were the last two major events. Cuba did turn out to be a nasty place – economic and social equality, enforced by the state, was enforced brutally. There would be no real elections, the state could take what it wanted from anyone, and there would be no free press and no dissent. Many went to jail, and many died there, and many more hopped onto anything that would float and headed in the general direction of Key West. Those who made it got special treatment – lots of aid to get them on their feet and a quick and easy path to citizenship. Cuban-Americans represent maybe three percent of all the Hispanics in America, and they’re the chosen ones. The other ninety-seven percent of Hispanics here in America rather loathe them. They certainly resent them, and that’s a matter we gringos should remember. All conservative Hispanic Republican conservatives, like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, are Cuban-Americans. Such representatives are representative.

As for Cuba geopolitically, Cuba only mattered in the early sixties. The Soviets took their missiles and left and never thought much of Cuba again. Cuba had been useful once, but that was a long time ago, and these days everyone else, except for the aging Cuban exiles in Miami, has forgotten Cuba too. The place is quiet. They don’t harbor al-Qaeda or ISIS or the Taliban. Those guys don’t think of them and the Cubans don’t seem to care one way or the other about the war on terror. They have no position on Israel and the Palestinians, or on who owns Ukraine. They have no position on much of anything, even if we still designate them a State Sponsor of Terrorism. No one is sure why, now. We just do. No one ends up where you expect them to be.

But we won’t deal with them, damn it. No trade, no diplomatic relations, until they change their ways – and that will make them think twice!

After fifty-three years they haven’t thought twice. Maybe we should. That’s what President Obama decided we should do:

President Obama on Wednesday ordered the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba and the opening of an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century as he vowed to “cut loose the shackles of the past” and sweep aside one of the last vestiges of the Cold War.

The surprise announcement came at the end of 18 months of secret talks that produced a prisoner swap negotiated with the help of Pope Francis and concluded by a telephone call between Mr. Obama and President Raúl Castro. The historic deal broke an enduring stalemate between two countries divided by just 90 miles of water but oceans of mistrust and hostility dating from the days of Theodore Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill and the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cuban missile crisis.

“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” Mr. Obama said in a nationally televised statement from the White House. The deal, he added, will “begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas” and move beyond a “rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”

Those of us who were twelve when Castro swept to power resent that, but he has a point, and he has the Pope on his side, although Republicans do hate this new Pope, and they hate this change:

Republicans, along with a senior Democrat [the Cuban-American Senator Robert Menendez of course] quickly characterized the rapprochement with the Castro family as appeasement of the hemisphere’s leading dictatorship. Republican lawmakers who will take control of the Senate as well as the House next month made clear they would resist lifting the 54-year-old trade embargo.

“This entire policy shift announced today is based on an illusion, on a lie, the lie and the illusion that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people,” said Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and son of Cuban immigrants. “All this is going to do is give the Castro regime, which controls every aspect of Cuban life, the opportunity to manipulate these changes to perpetuate itself in power.”

There’s something odd about saying that – we talk to China and Vietnam after all, and the Saudis are pretty nasty to their own people, particularly women, but of course the Saudis have oil. China has the biggest potential customer base in the world. Vietnam is a useful thorn in the side of the Chinese, if the Chinese get too uppity. We talk to them all, and trade with them all. Why is Cuba any different? Obama swapped a few prisoners with Raúl, to get things moving. Israel does that sort of thing all the time. And things did move:

Mr. Castro spoke simultaneously on Cuban television, taking to the airwaves with no introduction and announcing that he had spoken by telephone with Mr. Obama on Tuesday.

“We have been able to make headway in the solution of some topics of mutual interest for both nations,” he declared, emphasizing the release of the three Cubans. “President Obama’s decision deserves the respect and acknowledgment of our people.”

Only afterward did Mr. Castro mention the reopening of diplomatic relations. “This in no way means that the heart of the matter has been resolved,” he said. “The economic, commercial and financial blockade, which causes enormous human and economic damages to our country, must cease.” But, he added, “The progress made in our exchanges proves that it is possible to find solutions to many problems.”

It’s a start, after fifty-three years, and this was the start:

While the United States has no embassy in Havana, there is a bare-bones facility called an interests section that can be upgraded, currently led by a diplomat, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who will become the chargé d’affaires pending the nomination and confirmation of an ambassador.

Mr. Obama has instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to begin the process of removing Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism, and the president announced that he would attend a regional Summit of the Americas next spring that Mr. Castro is also to attend. Mr. Obama will send an assistant secretary of state to Havana next month to talk about migration, and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker may lead a commercial mission.

Mr. Obama’s decision will ease travel restrictions for family visits, public performances, and professional, educational and religious activities, among other things, but ordinary tourism will still be banned under the law. Mr. Obama will also allow greater banking ties, making it possible to use credit and debit cards in Cuba, and American travelers will be allowed to import up to $400 worth of goods from Cuba, including up to $100 in tobacco and alcohol products.

“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s time for a new approach.”

He added that he shared the commitment to freedom for Cuba. “The question is how we uphold that commitment,” he said. “I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.”

Yes, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the classic definition of insanity, and yes, you can bring back cigars now, but Alex Massie also sees this:

This is not – repeat not – going soft on Cuba. It’s getting tough with Cuba.

The old approach has had half a century to work and yet, golly, the Castro’s are still there, still running their sunshine-soaked island gulag. By any reasonable measure the old approach has failed. Every sensible person knows this. Every reasonable person knows just about any alternative policy could hardly do worse. So why not try something different? If the embargo was going to topple the Castros’ nasty little regime it would have done so by now. Perhaps capitalism should be given a chance instead.

There are other benefits to this startling eruption of sanity. American relations with the rest of Latin America have long been complicated by the stupidity of its Cuban policy. A reset here allows – in theory at least – an improvement in this area too. It is hard to see how this opening can hurt the United States anywhere in the western hemisphere.

Marco Rubio doesn’t see it that way:

“The President’s decision to reward the Castro regime and begin the path toward the normalization of relations with Cuba is inexplicable,” said Rubio in a statement. “Cuba, like Syria, Iran, and Sudan, remains a state sponsor of terrorism… Appeasing the Castro brothers will only cause other tyrants from Caracas to Tehran to Pyongyang to see that they can take advantage of President Obama’s naiveté during his final two years in office. As a result, America will be less safe as a result of the President’s change in policy.”

Jeffery Goldberg counters with this:

Critics of Obama’s Cuba initiative have a point: There is no way to guarantee the success, in human-rights terms, of this dramatic new opening. But time has discredited the alternative vision. The seemingly never-ending embargo did nothing to bring about the conclusion of the seemingly never-ending rule of the Castro brothers. After 50 years of trying one thing and seeing that thing fail, and fail again, it was about time that the United States tries something else.

Matthew Yglesias thinks they both miss the point:

While the Cuban government has a genuinely awful human rights record, it’s hard to argue that that explains US policy towards Cuba. While Cuba is the only country in the Western Hemisphere rated “not free” by Freedom House, it’s hardly the only such country in the world. The United States conducts normal diplomatic relations with China and Vietnam, who run similarly repressive regimes. And the United States considers not-free states such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Jordan to be close allies worthy not only of normal diplomatic relations but deep military and security assistance.

Cuba policy, in other words, has been driven by Cold War strategy and domestic politics much more than by human rights. That’s why with the Cold War issues now obsolete and the domestic politics changing, US policy is set to change too – even without significant change in Cuba’s human rights situation.

There no downside here and Daniel Larison adds this:

The administration deserves credit for trying to make such a significant change to Cuba policy. When relations are restored with Havana, it will be a genuinely praiseworthy achievement of Obama’s second term. Normalization with Cuba is broadly popular in the U.S. and has been becoming more so over the years, but there is a dedicated core of supporters of the status quo that will presumably put up strong resistance to these changes. Let’s hope that they’re unsuccessful in any attempt to delay or derail this rapprochement.

There is that Cuba Lobby, as they call it, but Noah Feldman thinks that can be managed:

The risk that Obama carries in taking on a concentrated lobby isn’t totally unfamiliar to him. After all, he tried to take on the NRA by pushing gun control after the Newtown shootings. When he lost, the political cost to him was much less than the cost of doing nothing. With regard to Israel, Obama has tread much more carefully, limiting himself to the unmistakable message that he thinks West Bank settlements are an obstacle to peace and that Benjamin Netanyahu is, too. Many pro-Israel lobbying groups detest him for it, but they haven’t yet had the occasion to go to war against him.

With the end of his presidency in view, Obama has to take risks if he wants to score some legacy points. His gamble on Cuba may not be fully realized. But the results will have implications for the structure of American interest group politics more broadly.

Yes, the structure of American interest group politics will have to move beyond the first three years of the sixties, and Phillip Peters says that time has come:

As recently as 2000, Cuban Americans broke three-to-one for Republicans in Presidential elections, but no more. In 2012, exit polls showed them splitting 50-50 between President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney. Considering that the president had mildly liberalized Cuba policies in his first term and Governor Romney was calling for a return to President Bush’s hardline policies, this was a shocking result.

But it was not a fluke: it reflects changing policy preferences in a Cuban-American community increasingly populated by younger generations and more recent immigrants. A 2014 Florida International University (FIU) poll showed that for the first time since its surveys began in 1991, a majority of Cuban Americans, 52 percent, wants to end the embargo. (During the 1990s, five FIU polls showed average 85 percent support for the embargo.) Among those under age 30, 62 percent want to end the embargo and 88 percent want to re-establish full diplomatic relations with Havana.

Daniel Larison adds this:

Normalizing relations with Cuba shouldn’t be seen as a “reward” for the regime. It is the removal of a barrier that has been senselessly maintained for more than five decades. If anyone is being punished by the embargo, it is the people in America and Cuba that would otherwise have productive commercial and cultural exchanges. The U.S. gains nothing by persisting in the embargo. On the contrary, it needlessly alienates Latin American governments and puts the U.S. in the absurd position of defending a Cold War relic. Normalization is twenty years overdue, and nothing will be gained by delaying it any longer.

This had to happen. Why not now, and Kevin Drum notes that Obama is on quite a roll:

November 10: Surprised everyone by announcing his support for strong net neutrality.

November 11: Concluded a climate deal with China that was not only important in its own right, but has since been widely credited with jumpstarting progress at the Lima talks last week.

November 20: Issued an executive order protecting millions of undocumented workers from the threat of deportation.

November 26: Signed off on an important new EPA rule significantly limiting ozone emissions.

December 15: Took a quiet victory lap as Western financial sanctions considerably sharpened the pain of Vladimir Putin’s imploding economy.

December 16: Got nearly everything he wanted during the lame duck congressional session, and more. Democrats confirmed all important pending nominees, and then got Republican consent to several dozen lesser ones as well.

December 17: Announced a historic renormalization of relations with Cuba.

I guess you can add to that a non-event: In its second year, Obamacare signups are going smoothly and ahead of target.

Think about that:

It’s been quite the whirlwind month for our bored, exhausted, disengaged president, hasn’t it?

All of these things are worthwhile in their own right, of course, but there’s a political angle to all of them as well: they seriously mess with Republican heads. GOP leaders had plans for January, but now they may or may not be able to do much about them. Instead, they’re going to have to deal with enraged tea partiers insisting that they spend time trying to repeal Obama’s actions. They can’t, of course, but they have to show that they’re trying. So there’s a good chance that they’ll spend their first few months in semi-chaos, responding to Obama’s provocations instead of working on their own agenda.

Was that part of the plan? Beats me – but it seems to be working pretty well so far.

No one ends up where they expected to be. Cool.

Posted in Cuba, Normalizing Relations with Cuba | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Evil Empire That Never Was

Old enemies are the best enemies, because they’re always out there as a reference point. They’re bad and we’re good, or if we’re not good about many things, at least we’re better than them. That was the Cold War. We had defeated the totally evil Nazis and the totally evil Japanese, and had slowly made them our close allies, and the new reference point would be the Russians, in the form of the Soviet Union, and communism everywhere, godless communism. We were better and our system was better. Those communists were atheists. “In God we trust” was adopted as our official motto in 1956, and on Flag Day, 1954, the words “under God” had been added to the Pledge of Allegiance, which every kid in America dutifully recited each morning at school. This was about which way of life was better, and we had something to prove, and this came to a head on July 24, 1959, at the famous Kitchen Debate in Moscow – Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the opening of the American National Exhibition there, in the nifty model kitchen of a nifty entire model house that we said anyone in America could afford. It was a cultural-exchange thing, and this amazingly American kitchen was filled with all the latest labor-saving gizmos and amusements, showing what a capitalist consumer market could do for everyone. Khrushchev wasn’t buying it. It was all toys. Nixon told him it was all great stuff, and the very reason communism was doomed. They argued back and forth, but of course nothing was resolved. We were enemies, and enemies need each other, as a foil. That debate wasn’t supposed to be resolved. Khrushchev was fond of saying he’d bury us, which was a little over the top. He only meant that communism was such an overwhelmingly better system for ordering human affairs that all nations would someday see the light and reject capitalism and each become another subsidiary part of the grand Union of Soviet Socialist States, which would be everywhere.

Things didn’t work out that way. Communism just wasn’t the overwhelmingly better system for ordering human affairs – it was pretty crappy, actually – and it has mostly disappeared. Russia itself became a merely socialist country, but with a private sector, with a small number of very rich guys who kept their profits to themselves, and bought villas in Italy and glass penthouses high above Manhattan and massive yachts they moor in Monaco. Russia had abandoned communism for highly-selective capitalism, for those who knew the right people. Russia became a rather corrupt oligarchy, where now no one cares about who’s a proper atheist or not, as that’s hardly relevant now – but they were still our enemies. Ronald Reagan had called the Soviet Union the Evil Empire and had stood at the Berlin Wall and shouted out “Tear Down this Wall!” That was cool, but it was coming down anyway.

That should have been obvious. Their satellite-states had long wanted out – Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia a decade later, and there was that Solidarity Movement in Poland – and the Soviet economy was collapsing. There were many reasons the Soviet Union lost control of its satellite states behind the Iron Curtain in 1989, and those included a disastrous war in Afghanistan and plummeting oil prices, creating a severe economic crisis. Even the absurdly conservative American Enterprise Institute, where Reagan is God, because he ended the Cold War with no more than his steely gaze, recognizes this. That’s explained by their Yegor Gaidar:

The timeline of the collapse of the Soviet Union can be traced to September 13, 1985. On this date, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the minister of oil of Saudi Arabia, declared that the monarchy had decided to alter its oil policy radically. The Saudis stopped protecting oil prices, and Saudi Arabia quickly regained its share in the world market. During the next six months, oil production in Saudi Arabia increased fourfold, while oil prices collapsed by approximately the same amount in real terms. As a result, the Soviet Union lost approximately $20 billion per year, money without which the country simply could not survive.

That was the problem:

The Soviet leadership was confronted with a difficult decision on how to adjust… Instead of implementing actual reforms, the Soviet Union started to borrow money from abroad while its international credit rating was still strong. It borrowed heavily from 1985 to 1988, but in 1989 the Soviet economy stalled completely. The money was suddenly gone. The Soviet Union tried to create a consortium of 300 banks to provide a large loan for the Soviet Union in 1989, but was informed that only five of them would participate and, as a result, the loan would be twenty times smaller than needed.

The Soviet Union then received a final warning from the Deutsche Bank and from its international partners that the funds would never come from commercial sources. Instead, if the Soviet Union urgently needed the money, it would have to start negotiations directly with Western governments about so-called politically motivated credits. In 1985 the idea that the Soviet Union would begin bargaining for money in exchange for political concessions would have sounded absolutely preposterous to the Soviet leadership. In 1989 it became a reality, and Gorbachev understood the need for at least $100 billion from the West to prop up the oil-dependent Soviet economy.

That was the end of the Empire:

Government-to-government loans were bound to come with a number of rigid conditions. For instance, if the Soviet military crushed Solidarity Party demonstrations in Warsaw, the Soviet Union would not have received the desperately needed $100 billion from the West… The only option left for the Soviet elites was to begin immediate negotiations about the conditions of surrender. Gorbachev did not have to inform President George H. W. Bush at the Malta Summit in 1989 that the threat of force to support the communist regimes in Eastern Europe would not be employed. This was already evident at the time. Six weeks after the talks, no communist regime in Eastern Europe remained.

Hey, Reagan didn’t end the Cold War and put an end to the Evil Empire. The Saudis did, even if they didn’t mean to – they were just protecting their market share. But one thing leads to another, and Kevin Drum adds this:

This sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it? War, sanctions, an oil crash, and finally bankruptcy – and while history may not repeat itself, it sure does rhyme sometimes. Twenty-five years later Vladimir Putin has managed to back himself into a situation surprisingly similar to the one that led to the end of the Soviet Union and the final victory of the West – the very event that’s motivated almost everything he’s done over the past few years. This is either ironic or chilling, depending on your perspective.

History does repeat itself, and the New York Times provides the details of this collapse:

Despite the Russian central bank’s extraordinary move to defend the currency, the ruble’s value continued to slide on Tuesday, presenting President Vladimir V. Putin with an acute set of political and economic challenges.

Scenes that Russians hoped had receded into the past reappeared on the streets. Currency exchange signs blinked ever-changing digits. Russians rushed to appliance stores to buy washing machines or televisions to unload rubles. Unsure of prices, car dealerships like Volvo in Russia halted business, while Apple stopped online sales in the country.

After a middle-of-the night interest rate hike, a sense of economic chaos settled over the Russian capital. The ruble was in free fall, dropping under 80 rubles to the dollar, after opening the day at 64 to the dollar.

“We are seeing an economic crisis,” Natalia V. Akindinova, a professor at the Higher School of Economics, said in a telephone interview. “We are seeing a sharp devaluation of the ruble at a time when the central bank doesn’t have the reserves to influence the market, as it did in the past crises.”

Western sanctions and low oil prices will do that. Russia is expected to fall into a severe recession now, and they’re not alone:

Global investors are increasingly concerned that tumult in Russia might not be isolated. Many emerging markets like Venezuela and Nigeria are dependent on their energy exports, which are being hurt by the deep and sustained decline in oil prices. Oil is now trading at around $55 a barrel, compared to more than $100 a barrel this summer.

Half their income is now gone, but this hit Russia the hardest:

In Russia, investors are growing increasingly worried that the Kremlin has in effect decided to print money to address a growing debt problem. Traders are also raising concern that the cronyism and opaque insider dealings that have plagued business here have now spread to monetary policy.

According to analysts, the ruble’s fall on Monday was sparked by word of an opaque deal involving the central bank and the state-controlled oil company, Rosneft. The well-connected business executive running the company, Igor I. Sechin, a longtime associate of Mr. Putin, had apparently persuaded the central bank to effectively issue billions of new rubles to his company to help cover debts.

Corrupt oligarchies are, of course, unstable. Saving one or two of the well-connected billionaires, at the cost of the economy as a whole, solves nothing – except for the rich guy – and everyone knows it:

The governor of the central bank, Elvira Nabiullina, speaking on Russian television, said the interest rate decision had been made to stanch the fall of the ruble. In its moves, the Russian central bank also increased allotments of dollars to the Russian banking system to finance the purchase of rubles as part of the effort to stabilize the currency.

“We have to learn to live in a different zone, to orient ourselves more toward our own sources of financing,” she said. In her televised remarks, Ms. Nabiullina said Russia would not resort to capital controls to stem the ruble’s fall.

But traders have long fretted that Ms. Nabiullina, a former economy minister, lacked the political spine to stand up to Mr. Putin or his longtime allies like Mr. Sechin. And yet, though the absence of any credible independence by the central bank is at the heart of the ruble crisis today, it is unclear any figure in Russia could provide it given the ever more authoritarian nature of Mr. Putin’s rule.

This is his mess:

In the oil boom years, the government of Mr. Putin assumed an ever-larger role in the economy. Longtime associates of Mr. Putin’s from his hometown, St. Petersburg, or from his years in the Soviet KGB intelligence agency took the helms of huge new state-owned enterprises. All the while, the central bank and a liberal wing of economic policy advisers kept aloof from this politically driven divvying up of assets.

Now, market sentiment is shifting. A continued fall in the value of the ruble could present Mr. Putin with difficult choices and could make it more difficult to sustain the political support he has enjoyed at home even as his relations with the West have frayed.

He faces a particularly delicate dance with Russian companies, which are under significant financing strains. Russian corporations and banks are scheduled to repay $30 billion in foreign loans this month.

And next year, about $130 billion will be due. There is no obvious source for these hard currency payments other than the central bank, whose credibility is now being called into question.

It doesn’t get worse than that, and Boris Y. Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, now in the political opposition, piled on – “This is a result of aggression and insanity in foreign policy, which led to sanctions.” And then oil prices collapsed of course. Putin – the man who grabbed Crimea and caused all the trouble in Ukraine, where things are still a mess – is finally getting what he deserves – so we should be happy.

Kevin Drum isn’t so sure of that:

A Russian economic crash could just be a crash. That would be bad for Russia, bad for Europe, and bad for the world. But it would hardly be the first time a midsize economy crashed. It would be bad but manageable.

Except that Russia has Vladimir Putin, Russia has a pretty sizeable and fairly competent military, and Russia has nukes. Putin has spent his entire career building his domestic popularity partly by blaming the West for every setback suffered by the Russian people, and that anti-Western campaign has reached virulent proportions over the past year or two. If the Russian economy does crash, and Putin decides that the best way to ride it out is to demagogue Europe and the West, as a way of deflecting popular anger away from his own ruinous policies, it’s hard to say what the consequences would be. When Argentina pursues a game plan like that, you end up with a messy court case and lots of diplomatic grandstanding. When Russia does it, things could go a lot further.

Drum thinks we should be careful:

I have precious little sympathy for Putin, whose success – such as it is – is based on a toxic stew of insecurities and quixotic appetites that have expressed themselves in a destructive brand of crude nativism; reactionary bigotry; disdain for the rule of law, both domestic and international; narrow and myopic economic vision; and dependence on an outdated and illiberal oligarchy to retain power. Nonetheless, there are kernels of legitimate grievance buried in many of these impulses, as well as kernels of necessity given both Russia’s culture and the post-Cold War collapse of its economy that has left it perilously dependent on extractive industries.

I don’t know if it’s too late to use the kernels as building blocks to improve, if not actually repair, Western relations with Putin’s Russia. But it’s still worth trying. A Russian crash may or may not come, but it’s hardly out of the realm of possibility. And if it happens, even a modest rapprochement between East and West could help avoid a disastrous outcome.

Damn, we’ll have to be nice to our old enemy, even if he is both evil and a jerk, just to keep him from doing something really stupid this time, something even more stupid than he’s already done. That hardly seems fair, but he’s in a tight spot, as Neil Irwin explains:

It may go without saying, but a 6.5 percentage point emergency interest rate increase announced in the middle of the night is not a sign of strength.

Drum comments on that too:

Russian central bankers hope that this will be an incentive for people to keep their money in Russia, earning high interest, instead of shipping rubles out of the country at warp speed and squirreling them away in any safe haven that comes to hand. And maybe it will work. Alternatively, as Irwin suggests, it may be viewed as a sign of desperation, causing Russia’s oligarchs to pile on the dilithium crystals and ship out their money even faster. You never know what’s going to work when a currency crisis goes into panic mode.

In any case, even if it works, the price is going to be high. Here in America, we argue about whether the Fed will choke off recovery if it raises interest rates to 2 percent. Russia is now at 17 percent. Even if this puts a halt to currency flight, it’s going to kill their economy. In Russia tonight, there are no good options left.

In the Washington Post, Matt O’Brien adds this:

Russia’s central bank raised interest rates from 10.5 to 17 percent at an emergency 1 a.m. meeting in an attempt to stop the ruble, which is down 50 percent on the year against the dollar, from falling any further. It’s a desperate move to save Russia’s currency that comes at the cost of sacrificing Russia’s economy.

But even that wasn’t enough. After a brief rally, the ruble resumed its cliff-diving ways on Tuesday, falling another 14 percent to a low of 80 rubles per dollar. It was 60 rubles per dollar just the day before. The problem is simple. Oil is still falling, and ordinary Russians don’t want to hold their money in rubles even if they get paid 17 percent interest to do so. In other words, there’s a well-justified panic. So now Russia is left with the double whammy of a collapsing currency and exorbitant interest rates. Checkmate.

O’Brien sees the problem here:

It’s a classic kind of emerging markets crisis. It’s only a small simplification, you see, to say that Russia doesn’t so much have an economy as it has an oil exporting business that subsidizes everything else. That’s why the combination of more supply from the United States, and less demand from Europe, China, and Japan has hit them particularly hard. Cheaper oil means Russian companies have fewer dollars to turn into rubles, which is just another way of saying that there’s less demand for rubles – so its price is falling. It hasn’t helped, of course, that sanctions over Russia’s incursion into Ukraine have already left Russia short on dollars.

Add it all up, and the ruble has fallen something like 22 percent against the dollar the past month, with 11 percent of that coming on Monday alone.

And this is only going to get worse. Russia, you see, is stuck in an economic Catch-22. Its economy needs lower interest rates to push up growth, but its companies need higher interest rates to push up the ruble and make all the dollars they borrowed not worth so much. So, to use a technical term, they’re screwed no matter what they do. If they had kept interest rates low, then the ruble would have continued to disintegrate, inflation would have spiked, and big corporations would have defaulted – but at least growth wouldn’t have fallen quite so much.

Instead, Russia has opted for the financial shock-and-awe of raising rates from 10.5 to 17 percent in one fell swoop. Rates that high will send Russia’s moribund economy into a deep recession.

And what do you know, history repeats itself:

Putin’s Russia, like the USSR before it, is only as strong as the price of oil. In the 1970s, we made the mistake of thinking that the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan meant we were losing the Cold War, when the reality was that they had stumbled into their own Vietnam and could only afford to feed their people as long as oil stayed sky-high. The USSR’s economic mirage, though, became apparent to everybody – none less than their own people, who had to scrounge in empty supermarkets – after oil prices bottomed out in the 1980s. That history is repeating itself now, just without the Marxism-Leninism. Putin could afford to invade Georgia and Ukraine when oil prices were comfortably in the triple digits, but not when they’re half that. Russia can’t afford anything then.

The empire ends, and Noah Millman suggests this could be the end for Putin:

If an economic meltdown leads to widespread popular discontent, the regime will have to respond in some way. The most appealing way – because it would be the least risky for the regime – would be to stage-manage a change in leadership that promises change while changing very little. But who is Putin’s Putin? Once upon a time, the obvious answer would have been Dmitri Medvedev. But in the wake of his administration, and his agreement to hand the Presidency back to Putin after one term, I’d argue Medvedev is too closely-identified with Putin to be a plausible replacement for the regime in the event of any real discontent. …

If the regime cannot stage a satisfactory bit of theater, then the remaining options are uglier. Putin could deliberately try to provoke the West in the hopes of blaming Russia’s economic troubles on foreigners. Or he could turn force inward against internal “enemies” of Russia. Or the regime could hand Putin’s head to the mob without a clear plan for succession, leading to a period without clear leadership at the top until someone emerges from the internal struggle for power. Least likely of all would be a genuinely revolutionary situation such as obtained in 1991. None of Russia’s organs of power are willing to take that kind of risk again.

Joshua Keating also sees nothing but trouble:

Putin can’t do much of anything about oil prices and any steps to cooperate with NATO to secure sanctions relief will make him look weak. There’s a fair chance, then, that he may actually escalate tensions to get back the rally-round-the-flag effect that has sustained his popularity through the Ukraine crisis. Russian jets continue to buzz the airspace of NATO countries, and the military recently carried out snap drills in Russia’s westernmost region, Kaliningrad. This doesn’t look like a leader on the verge of de-escalating.

This isn’t 1989 – Putin isn’t the sort of fellow who is going to say screw it, and then dismantle the loose empire he now has and take the cash to keep the lights on. It never was much of an empire, but it’s all he has. Old enemies may be the best enemies, always there when you need them, but we may not need this.

Posted in Collapse of the Russian Economy, Vladimir Putin | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

America Takes Its Lumps

History is lumpy. There’s no steady march of progress. America is doing just fine until, suddenly, it isn’t. No one saw the stock market crash of 1929 coming, and no one saw the total collapse of the economy at the end of the Bush years coming either. Yes, there were warnings each time, but no one took those seriously. But in 1929 the margin calls rolled in, and they couldn’t be covered. Sixty years later no one could cover the same sort of margin calls, this time called credit default swaps. It was the same sort of thing that just wasn’t going to happen, because it couldn’t happen.

Then it happened. Things were going just fine, and on a Friday afternoon, Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke told Congress that they needed seven hundred billion dollars, to cover all the calls, by Monday, or we’d have no banks and no financial system at all. The world as we knew it would end. It took Congress a few more days than that – getting fifty-one senators and 218 of 435 congressmen and congresswomen to agree on anything will take time – but they ponied up. They had no choice, and much of the delay was also probably caused by the suddenness of all this. Now could this be? Things had been going fine. What happened?

Accumulated underlying problems happened – matters that should have been considered had been dismissed as unimportant, or something that could be dealt with later. The march of progress would be slow and steady, damn it – but that’s not how history works. Dams burst, and that’s true of more than complex economic systems. That was true in the sixties, when the fifties seemed to have been going so well.

That’s how America felt. It’s no accident that one of the most popular television shows of the fifties was Father Knows Best – a gentle sitcom where the father really did know best, every week. There were no real problems, and the last episode aired on September 17, 1960, when there were. Public schools had been desegregated in 1954, and as the sixties began, it became clear that this had done little about the problem of institutional racism in America – the South wasn’t a happy place where the white folks got along just fine with the happy darkies. The civil rights movement gathered steam, there was Selma, there were murders and bombings, and King spoke in Washington, to hundreds of thousands, about how he had a dream, and then Congress actually passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, changing our institutions. Matters that should have been considered had been dismissed as unimportant, or something that could be dealt with later, now had to be dealt with, and they were. People took to the streets, as they did about our war in Vietnam. Father didn’t know best about racial justice, or even common decency, and he didn’t know best about going to war, far away, for vague aims, where we could never win, and where we should have never been in the first place.

The slow and steady fifties were over. Accumulated foolishness – about race and about sending our young men off to war, thinking that required no explanation – had reached a critical point. Perhaps those two things were related. Much of America had lost faith in the way things had always been, incrementally getting better, if you squinted real hard and used your imagination. Those in charge didn’t know best, and the women’s movement was next. Men didn’t know best. Sometimes women knew best, and they joined what might be seen as the same battle. With the pill, something new at the time, there was a sexual revolution too – daddy’s rules about good girls now seemed rather pointless – and of course popular music changed too. That would never be “safe” again, and young people started living in communes, studying Eastern religions. Robert Young and Jane Wyatt – and Betty “Princess” Anderson (Elinor Donahue) – just wouldn’t fit in.

Things had suddenly snowballed, and all of this seemed to be interrelated. Each movement fed off the other, as everything seemed to be being questioned, and conservative America wondered what the hell had happened – the fifties had been so stable. By the end of the sixties they had elected Richard Nixon, the father who always knew best, but it was too late. The dam had already burst. Too much had been ignored in the fifties, and most of it has been corrected. Nixon was the nostalgia candidate. Most Republicans are.

Things did settle down. The war ended. Nixon was gone soon enough, and Gerald Ford and then Jimmy Carter were mostly harmless, and Ronald Reagan was pure nostalgia for the fifties. The first George Bush was a technocrat, and eight years of Bill Clinton were eight years of middle-of-the-road policy, in spite of his sometimes absurd personality, and the second George Bush pretended there were no problems, even when there were. He left a total mess for Barack Obama to clean up, but Obama is No-Drama Obama – calm and cool and careful, in spite of what Fox News and Rush Limbaugh say of him, and Obama is black. He doesn’t often push racial issues. He can’t be the Angry Black Man – he’s the president, and he ended one of our current odd wars and is ending the other. The issues that roiled the sixties – war and race and women’s issues – roil nothing now. The economy is recovering too. All is well, except it isn’t. Another dam is about to burst.

Everyone senses this. The Ferguson and Staten Island grand juries each refused to indict their cops, for killing an unarmed black man, weeks ago, and people are still marching in the streets, all across the nation, and cops keep killing unarmed black men. There seems to be a new incident every few days, but, as in the sixties, something more may be going on, and in the New York Times, Mark Bittman tries to pull it all together:

The police killing unarmed civilians. Horrifying income inequality. Rotting infrastructure and an unsafe “safety net.” An inability to respond to climate, public health and environmental threats. A food system that causes disease. An occasionally dysfunctional and even cruel government. A sizable segment of the population excluded from work and subject to near-random incarceration.

You get it: This is the United States, which, with the incoming Congress, might actually get worse.

It’s one of those perfect storms we see now and then, where one set of discontents feeds off the other, perhaps because they’re interrelated:

This in part explains why we’re seeing spontaneous protests nationwide, protests that, in their scale, racial diversity, anger and largely nonviolent nature, are unusual if not unique. I was in four cities recently – New York, Washington, Berkeley and Oakland – and there were actions every night in each of them. Meanwhile, workers walked off the job in 190 cities on Dec. 4.

The root of the anger is inequality, about which statistics are mind-boggling: From 2009 to 2012 (that’s the most recent data), some 95 percent of new income has gone to the top 1 percent; the Walton family (owners of Walmart) have as much wealth as the bottom 42 percent of the country’s people combined; and “income mobility” now describes how the rich get richer while the poor … actually get poorer.

The progress of the last 40 years has been mostly cultural, culminating, the last couple of years, in the broad legalization of same-sex marriage. But by many other measures, especially economic, things have gotten worse, thanks to the establishment of neo-liberal principles – anti-unionism, deregulation, market fundamentalism and intensified, unconscionable greed – that began with Richard Nixon and picked up steam under Ronald Reagan. Too many are suffering now because too few were fighting then.

These things are actually interrelated:

In 1970, after spending a year in New York absorbed by concerns seemingly as disparate as ending the war, supporting the rights of Black Panthers to get fair trials (and avoid being murdered) and understanding the role of men in the women’s movement, I — and others – had conversations like this: “Let’s make people understand that all of those issues, plus poverty and racism and the environment and more, are all part of the same picture, and that fixing things means citizens have to regain power and work in their own interests.”

Of course we failed, as others did before and since. But these same things can be said now, and they’re being said by people of all colors. When underpaid workers begin their strikes by saying “I can’t breathe,” or by holding their hands over their heads and chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot,” they’re recognizing that their struggle is the same as that of African-Americans demanding dignity, respect and indeed safety on their own streets.

And of course it’s the same struggle.

Some people see that:

“It’s the same people,” says Saru Jayaraman, the director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “Young people working in fast food are the same people as those who are the victims of police brutality. So the Walmart folks are talking about #blacklivesmatter and the #blacklivesmatter folks are talking about taking on capital.”

The NAACP’s Rev. Dr. William Barber II, a leader of the “Moral Mondays” movement in North Carolina, captures the national yearning this reflects. “I believe that deep within our being as a nation there is a longing for a moral movement that plows deep into our souls,” he writes. “We are flowing together because we recognize that the intersectionality of all of these movements is our opportunity to fundamentally redirect America.”

That’s ambitious, but all these movements are about fairness in various forms. Only the context changes:

It simply isn’t right to pay people a sub-living wage with no potential for more, and as the comedian Chris Rock says, employers would pay even less if they could get away with it.

The #blacklivesmatter movement – there’s no better description – is already having an impact as well. Don’t think for a second we’d be having a national debate about police brutality (one that includes many on the right), or a White House plan to examine and fix law enforcement, without demonstrations in the streets.

The initial Obama plan is encouraging but lacking, and that’s all the more reason to keep demonstrating. (What good are body cameras, by the way? The videotape of Rodney King’s beating was seen around the world yet resulted in acquittals; Eric Garner’s choking death, viewed millions of times online, didn’t even lead to a trial, even though police chokeholds are banned in New York City.) Besides, as Sanders says, “Even if every cop were a constitutional lawyer and a great person, if you have thirty percent unemployment among African-American young people you still have a huge problem.”

Even seemingly unrelated matters are related here too:

I have spent a great deal of time talking about the food movement and its potential, because to truly change the food system you really have to change just about everything: good nutrition stems from access to good food; access to good food isn’t going to happen without economic justice; that isn’t going to happen without taxing the superrich; and so on. The same is true of other issues: You can’t fix climate change or the environment without stopping the unlimited exploitation of natural and human resources… It’s the same with social well-being.

This sounds like the sixties:

Everything affects everything. It’s all tied together, and the starting place hardly matters: A just and righteous system will have a positive impact on everything we care about, just as an unjust, exploitative system makes everything worse.

Increasingly, it seems, there’s an appetite and even unity to take on the billionaire class. Let’s recognize that if we are seeing positive change now, it’s in part because elected officials respond to pressure, and let’s remember that that pressure must be maintained no matter who is in office. Even if Bernie Sanders were to become president, the need for pressure would continue.

Here we go again, except there are opposing forces. There’s this new item in the Atlantic from the University of Chicago’s John Paul Rollert, reporting on a conference on Objectivism, sponsored by the Ayn Rand Institute of course, that he attended last summer in Las Vegas, which may be the ultimate Randian paradise, where on your own you can bet it all and win big, or lose it all and ruin your life. Yeah. The slots and other games are rigged so that few can really win, but that’s guys like Sheldon Adelson and the other casino owners there doing their John Galt thing. Grab what you can and keep it all. Losers die, and should, but you won’t – and that’s the way life should be. Respect those who know how to make it big. Forget those who whine. Their problems are all their fault – but it’s never that simple:

A catechumen made his way to the microphone to ask the kind of question one might expect to be addressed by a session titled “The Inequality Debate.” Having spent a few days in Las Vegas, the young man was distressed by the evidence of poverty he had seen on the Strip, which can be considerable, given that Nevada’s tourism and housing industries were devastated by the financial crisis and the state still has the second-highest unemployment rate in the country. So much of the presentation seemed to revolve around a dispute between elites over the philosophical implications of inequality, he said, but what about “the street junkies? They are so miserable and they sleep on the street.” His question was simple: “Why isn’t the free market hiring those people?”

ARI Executive Director Yaron Brook’s response began unevenly, detouring through an observation about the malice of minimum-wage laws and a history of the progressive era before turning to the young man’s question. “None of these phenomena that you’re seeing out there, homeless people and so on, are phenomena of capitalism,” he declared. The people outside the gates of The Venetian, hustling in the 111-degree heat, their fates are the “phenomena of mixed economy,” the side-effects of social welfare policies and regulations. They exist despite capitalism, not because of it.

Rollert notes that since capitalism is The Unknown Ideal to Rand, it can safely be defended from “complicity with all human evil” of course, but Ed Kilgore isn’t so sure:

Something else in Rollert’s account struck me as even more interesting that the contrast between Objectivist economics and the actual economy: the irony of a philosophical movement that began as a cult of architecture as the apex of human creativity (in Rand’s The Fountainhead) meeting in the bizarre manmade fantasy-scape of Vegas’ Venetian, headquarters of the man who epitomizes contemporary capitalism’s reality far more than the fictional John Galt: Sheldon Adelson.

Kilgore notes Rollert explaining it this way:

As Rand famously described it, the “essence” of Objectivism was “man as a heroic being” with “productive achievement as his noblest activity.” It follows from this that every great work indicates a great man, making a dazzling skyscraper (Howard Roark’s achievement in The Fountainhead) or a revolutionary engine (John Galt’s in Atlas Shrugged) nothing less than a “monument to human morality….”

The Venetian Las Vegas is Sheldon Adelson’s monument to human morality. The hotel, which opened in 1999, replaced the venerable Sands Casino with a simulated medley of major sights in Venice. You can enter beneath an obelisk tower that recalls St. Mark’s Campanile before stepping onto a moving sidewalk to cross the arched back of the Rialto Bridge and glide into the Doge’s Palace. The actual palace in Venice received over 1.3 million visitors in 2010. The impostor receives 50,000 a day.

Once inside, you have to follow the arcade of shops along a faux canal, complete with recumbent lovers and crooning gondoliers, to find the gilded catacombs that are the conference halls. It’s not easy. Casino complexes are designed to disorient, denying those inside any sign of reality: where they are, what time it is, why, perhaps, they ought to go home already. Every time I turned a corner I seemed to find my way back into the casino, a coincidence that was at once irritating and entirely unremarkable.

Kilgore:

Not to mention appropriate – not just the endless channeling of visitors to the dens of vice and profit, but the celebration of capitalism in the temple of the golden calf.

That’s the other world, where most everyone who works at the Venetian works at minimum wage, and then goes out in the mean streets, where some nervous or heroic cop may shoot them, dead.

Heroic? Josh Marshall explains:

What interests me about these confrontations is this: I think people who are part of, or sympathetic to, the movement tied to Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and others sometimes miss just what deep wells of support and trust police have in the population. Police officers are consistently among the most trusted professions in the country, as attested in numerous public opinion surveys. That said, respect and trust and deference to police is heavily tied to public perceptions of the threats they protect us from.

One of his readers pushes back:

As one 70 year old Black man who was born and raised in “segregated America” and raised my son in the new and improved “post-racial” America, please let me help you out.

We supporters don’t “miss” the “deep wells of support and trust” police have in the majority population. They have always had such support and trust. It just doesn’t matter here. What you seem to miss is that the reason that such support and trust exists is due to the fact that what they are protecting the majority population from, in the minds of far too many in that population, is us! From the Slave patrollers to the rural sheriffs, to the modern police forces, the threat perceived most vividly by the population they “protect and serve” is that of the (violent) black person. Even a cursory look at the history and culture of this nation will reveal that in popular culture for many decades the majority culture was told to be scared of people of color. The result of this villainization of Black, Brown, Red and Yellow skin is a populace that believes, at least subconsciously, that any stranger with a dark skin is a potential threat. Thus the differing rates of charging and conviction between white and minority populations. It is that perception that drives a lot of the injustice minorities complain about.

I worked for over 30 years in the legal system of this country as an “officer of the court”. I have seen the disparity in criminal charges and sentencing up close and personal. I have seen the biased perceptions of our police result in imprisonment, beatings, mistreatment, and yes, even death. But it is not only the overt physical violence that minorities are subjected to, it is the presumption of guilt that we confront on a daily basis. It is the cop who pulls you over for a “routine” check because to him or her you look suspicious. It is the clerk who keeps a close eye on you when you step into the shop, because “you know those people steal”. It is the assumption that you will never be able to repay the loan you apply for, or afford the car you walk in to look at. It is the surprise that you see in the eyes of someone who has just been told you are a judge, not a bailiff. It is the fear you see in the eyes of an elderly White person who you pass on the street in the twilight hours.

I could regale you with many stories, experiences and scenarios that I, my family and friends have experienced. Not episodes of racism or racist acts in the common understanding of the terms, but just folks reacting based on unfamiliarity, lack of knowledge and cultural stereotypes. But the bottom line is that this reaction is a widely shared one in the majority population. And it can be deadly. They want their police to protect them from the black person in the mugshot on the front page of the newspaper. They don’t question his or her guilt. And they don’t question whatever actions the police take to apprehend them. And they don’t question whether I am any different.

This is what’s really going on:

I can tell you from experience that police officers are just like everybody else – they are not all the benevolent guardians of small children, grannies and fluffy puppies. They do over use their authority, they do have bad days and they do lie, cheat and steal. But just as importantly, they do mostly try to do what they are asked to do. And what they are too often asked to do is… to protect you… from me.

So it’s the sixties again:

Unfortunately Black people can’t change how White people perceive them. That is something they must do. But, we can fight to change how we are treated… and that is something we must do.

There is that, and horrifying income inequality, and rotting infrastructure and an unsafe safety net, and an inability to respond to climate, public health and environmental threats, and a food system that causes disease, and a dysfunctional and even cruel government, and a sizable segment of the population excluded from work, and so on and so forth. That’s quite a backlog of matters that should have been considered but seem to have been dismissed as unimportant, or something that could be dealt with later. They were neither, and the sixties return. History is not linear and smooth. It’s lumpy, and America is about to take its lumps, again.

Posted in Return of the Sixties | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Two for Torture

Of all the religious beliefs in the world there are few stranger than reincarnation, although that idea of a talking snake, that suggests eating an apple, is rather odd. After we die, do we come back as someone or something else – as a punishment or a reward or as some sort of cosmic joke? Were we someone or something else in the past? Does this happen over and over and over again, until we get our act together and get right with the universe? That seems absurd, although it’s pleasant to imagine you were a handsome prince in some past life, and if after this life you come back as a cockroach, well, you won’t know it. You’ll be a cockroach after all. Still, it’s odd to have been born on June 20, 1947, the very same day that the famous gangster Bugsy Siegel was murdered just down the street here in Beverly Hills. Siegel was one of the founders and leaders of Murder, Incorporated – not a nice fellow at all. Was he reborn that day in one of those of us who were born that day? That’s possible, but unlikely. Being born on that day simply means that you’re an old man now, with no murders to show for it.

Lots of things are that old. NBC’s Meet the Press debuted on November 6, 1947, and it’s still around too, even if it has gone through several incarnations. When Tim Russert hosted the thing it was once the highest-rated of the Sunday morning talk shows, in 2006, and then he died suddenly from a heart attack, and the guy who was a master at putting politicians on the spot was gone. His spirit, however, wasn’t reborn in anyone working at NBC, and the ratings hit rock-bottom. NBC is still looking for the reincarnation of Tim Russert, and at the moment they’re hoping it will be Chuck Todd – the network’s political director and the ultimate political junky. He’s covered every election at every level, everywhere, for many years, so he knows who’s up and who’s down, and he knows them personally, so he usually knows what’s going to happen, and why. He knows political momentum when he sees it, and he can smell the rot of a political loser before anyone else does. That means he’s the right man for the job, or maybe not.

The problem is that Chuck Todd is not a policy wonk. He’s fascinated with how our leaders come to power, and remain in power, and how they sometimes blow it and suddenly become total losers the country despises. He doesn’t seem all that concerned with what they do with their power, while they have it, for the good of the country or not. He’s hooked on politics, even when policy is the big issue of the day, so he just let Dick Cheney roll on, without quite putting him on the spot, when Cheney agreed to appear on Meet the Press and defend what had amounted to his policy of torture in the Bush years:

Former Vice President Dick Cheney on Sunday continued his fierce defense of harsh CIA interrogation tactics used in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, saying flatly that he “would do it again in a minute.”

Cheney said there is “no comparison” between the tactics and the deaths of American citizens on September 11, 2001, adding that the CIA “very carefully avoided” the practice of torture.

“Torture is what the al Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11,” Cheney said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “There is no comparison between that and what we did with respect to enhanced interrogation.”

Chuck Todd raised an eyebrow and asked few probing questions, just letting Cheney roll on:

The former vice president added that he was not concerned about the capture or interrogation of foreign nationals who were ultimately revealed to be innocent.

“I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective and our objective is to get the guys who did 9/11 and it is to avoid another attack against the United States,” he said.

The comments come after the release of a lengthy report spearheaded by Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee. That document asserted that interrogation tactics used on terror suspects were more brutal than previously known.

Of course they were, so a question or two was necessary:

Pressed by host Chuck Todd about whether the practice of “rectal rehydration” was acceptable, Cheney acknowledged that it was not part of the interrogation program. But, he added, “I believe it was done for medical reasons” – a notion that has been questioned by medical experts.

The former vice president also hit back against the report’s claim that President George W. Bush was misled about the extent of the practices.

“This man knew what we were doing,” he said, outlining daily briefings that included the president, the CIA director and himself. “He authorized it. He approved it.”

Politics aside, that’s a blockbuster. Cheney right there threw Bush under the bus. If he’s going to go down for this, so is George Bush – but neither of them is running for anything. Chuck Todd didn’t follow up on that. The New York Times’ Scott Shane, however, does note another bit of push-back:

The NBC host, Chuck Todd, pressed Mr. Cheney on what might constitute torture, reading actual episodes from the Senate report: Holding a prisoner in a coffin-sized box for 11 days? Handcuffing a prisoner’s wrists to an overhead bar for 22 hours a day? But Mr. Cheney gave no ground.

“I can’t tell from that specifically whether it was or not,” he replied.

He even declined to criticize CIA practices used on prisoners called “rectal feeding” and “rectal rehydration,” though he noted that “it was not one of the techniques approved” by the Justice Department. “I believe it was done for medical reasons,” he said. The Senate report suggests that it was largely used without medical orders to punish prisoners who refused water or food.

This was about punishment, not politics. It was about policy, and about the past:

In a sense, Mr. Cheney is continuing a fight that began inside the Bush administration, defending his own role in the first Bush term against the retreat from the most aggressive methods in the second term. At 73, nearly three years after a heart transplant, Mr. Cheney clearly feels his own legacy is at stake.

He was RIGHT in those first four years, damn it, but Scott Shane remembers something else from those first four years, as others probably do:

For some viewers, his gloves-off comments on Meet the Press may recall his many appearances being interviewed on Sunday morning television shows in late 2002 and early 2003 before the invasion of Iraq.

At that time, he repeatedly asserted that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al Qaeda, claims that turned out to be false. He also made a famously inaccurate prediction on the same show, Meet the Press, on March 16, 2003, that American troops would be “greeted as liberators.”

Oops. Everyone makes mistakes, but Andrew Sullivan has had enough of this man:

Perhaps the only saving grace of this sociopath formerly in high office is that he understands that his legacy could well be as a war criminal unlike any in American history before him. That’s my only explanation for why he has to be out there day after day, year after year, attacking his predecessor, lambasting America’s return to civilization, and insisting that hanging people from shackles, freezing them to near-death, near-drowning them so that their abdomens are distended with water, anally raping them, breaking their limbs, keeping them awake so long they hallucinated, is not somehow torture. Ask yourself: have you ever met someone who believes that? Outside the professional criminal classes, that is.

And in his response today to the voluminous and undisputed evidence supplied by the CIA’s own internal documents, he has nothing specific or factual to say that can undermine any of it. He just insists, like a dad lost on a car trip, that he alone knows he’s not lost, whatever the map or GPS says.

Sullivan says that won’t fly:

His best talking point is that those who authorized and committed the torture were not interviewed by the committee – implying this was because of bias. But six months into the investigation, the attorney general announced his own study into CIA torture techniques. Here is Senator Feinstein’s account of what happened next:

“The committee’s Vice Chairman Kit Bond withdrew the minority’s participation in the study, citing the attorney general’s expanded investigation as the reason. The Department of Justice refused to coordinate its investigation with the Intelligence Committee’s review. As a result, possible interviewees could be subject to additional liability if they were interviewed. The CIA, citing the attorney general’s investigation, would not instruct its employees to participate in our interviews. (Source: classified CIA internal memo, February 26, 2010).”

So the CIA was ordering its employees not to be interviewed. In any case, there were plenty of previous interviews with CIA torturers, including from the CIA’s own internal investigation, there was a formal CIA response to all the charges (highly unpersuasive because they have to argue against their own records), and, so far as I know, the possibility of interviewing them all over again is still possible. Why doesn’t the committee take that up again under GOP leadership, if their perspective will allegedly alter the conclusions?

But in the Cheney interview, there is nothing faintly that rational.

Someone should have called him on that:

The CIA had a chance to rebut every one of the conclusions with other documents and failed to. This is preposterous.

Someone should have called him on that, but it wasn’t going to be Chuck Todd, so Sullivan seethes:

What I take from these statements is that the torture program was, for Cheney, partly an amateur thug’s idea of how you get intelligence, and partly simply a means of revenge. Yes: revenge. This was a torture program set up in order to vent rage and inflict revenge. It was a program that has no place in a civilized society.

Chuck Todd didn’t see that sociopath right in front of him:

He was then asked about the 26 people whom the CIA admits were tortured by mistake. One of them was even frozen to death. A sane and rational and decent human being, who presided over the program that did this, might say: “The decision to torture was an extremely agonizing one, but I still believe defensible. But of course the torture of innocent people is horrifying. I deeply regret the chaos and amateurism of the program in its early phases.”

So what did Cheney actually say? When confronted with the instance of Rahman Gul, the individual tortured to death, Todd asked what the US owed these torture victims. Cheney actually said this – “The problem I have is with all the folks we did release ended up on the battlefield … I have no problem [with torturing innocent people] as long as we achieved our objective.”

It doesn’t get any clearer than that. The man is a sociopath. He is a disgrace to his country. And he needs to be brought to justice.

Maybe so, but Cheney isn’t the only sociopath. Matt Ford identifies another:

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia weighed in on the debate surrounding the Senate torture report on Wednesday. “I don’t know what article of the Constitution that would contravene,” the AP quoted him telling a Swiss university audience in reference to torture.

It’s a surprising statement for a justice to make. After all, the Supreme Court has held torture to be unconstitutional since its ruling in Wilkerson v. Utah in 1878.

Here’s Ford’s refresher on that one:

In that case, the justices wondered what part of the Constitution would forbid such a cruel and unusual punishment – “Difficulty would attend the effort to define with exactness the extent of the constitutional provision which provides that cruel and unusual punishments shall not be inflicted; but it is safe to affirm that punishments of torture, such as those mentioned by the commentator referred to, and all others in the same line of unnecessary cruelty, are forbidden by that amendment to the Constitution.”

This is no long-forgotten passage in a minor opinion, either. The Court cited Wilkerson approvingly as recently as the 2008 death-penalty case Baze v. Rees where Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that “the Court has held that the Eighth Amendment forbids ‘punishments of torture … and all others in the same line of unnecessary cruelty,’ such as disemboweling, beheading, quartering, dissecting, and burning alive, all of which share the deliberate infliction of pain for the sake of pain.” Scalia did not join Roberts’s opinion then, but he did join a concurrence of it penned by Clarence Thomas that also cited aspects of Wilkerson.

This is odd, but Ford notes that another Swiss news source reports more detail:

The Swiss news site RTS provides a more complete recording of the event, where Scalia said, “We have laws against torture. The Constitution itself says nothing about torture. The Constitution speaks of punishment. If you condemn someone who has committed a crime to torture, that would be unconstitutional.”

This makes sense under the strictest possible reading of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment,” which Scalia often takes, but what about torture to obtain information? Scalia goes on: “We have never held that to be contrary to the Constitution. I don’t see any article of the Constitution that would contravene – listen, I think it’s very facile for people to say, ‘Oh, torture is terrible.’ You posit the situation where a person that you know for sure knows the location of a nuclear bomb that has been planted in Los Angeles and will kill millions of people. You think it’s an easy question? You think it’s clear that you cannot use extreme measures to get that information out of that person?”

Ford isn’t buying it:

His argument that the Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment but nothing else may be logically sound, but it’s morally disturbing. Scalia finds it unacceptable to torture someone after a lawful trial, but allowable to do it before or without one.

It would be one thing if Scalia limited himself to saying that only in exceedingly rare circumstances can torture be stomached, but he doesn’t. It’s facile for people to say “torture is terrible” because, well, it is. The United States has signed multiple treaties and passed multiple laws to that effect. Torture is a fundamental violation of human dignity. It’s so terrible that the Founding Fathers prohibited its use with the Eighth Amendment, as Scalia himself says.

There’s no getting around this:

To buttress his stance, the justice constructed a tale of nuclear terrorism in a major American city and a desperate race against time to save millions of lives. The Senate torture report shows how detached this hypothetical scenario is from reality. In the real world, CIA personnel tortured hundreds of detainees, including ones who committed no crimes. CIA officers and contractors waterboarded detainees, in some cases hundreds of times. CIA medical personnel flooded their orifices with nutrients via plastic tubes for “behavior control.” CIA officials denied detainees access to sanitary facilities and forced them to use diapers for humiliation. They forced detainees to stand on broken ankles. They subjected one to sleep deprivation for 56 hours until he could barely speak and was “visibly shaken by his hallucinations depicting dogs mauling and killing his sons and family.” They threatened to murder detainees’ children and sexually assault their mothers. They used the taped cries of an “intellectually challenged” detainee to coerce family members. They even shackled one detainee named Gul Rahman, naked, to a concrete floor in a “stress position,” where he died of hypothermia.

No time-bomb ticked as this happened. … “You think it’s an easy question?” Scalia asked. The answer to that seems easy, too.

It seems we have two sociopaths on our hands here, two for torture, as policy, and that’s far beyond politics. Chuck Todd was overmatched, but Jane Mayer in the New Yorker adds another twist:

It is clear now that from the start many of those involved in the program, which began in 2002, recognized its potential criminality. Before subjecting a detainee to interrogation, a 2002 cable notes, CIA officers sought assurances that he would “remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.”

Permanent, extrajudicial disappearance was apparently preferable to letting the prisoner ever tell what had been done to him. That logic may explain why no “high value detainee” subjected to the most extreme tactics and still in U.S. custody in Guantánamo has yet been given an open trial.

Meanwhile, in the part of the political world without sociopaths, there was this effort to deal with them:

In a White House meeting in early 2009, Greg Craig, President Obama’s White House Counsel, recommended the formation of an independent commission. Nearly every adviser in the room endorsed the idea, including such national-security hawks as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and the President’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Leon Panetta, the CIA director at the time, also supported it. Obama, however, said that he didn’t want to seem to be taking punitive measures against his predecessor, apparently because he still hoped to reach bipartisan agreement on issues such as closing Guantánamo.

Those for torture, like Cheney, will be just fine:

Obama has made plain in his public statements and in his executive orders that torture, which is how he forthrightly labelled the program, was unacceptable. But, in leaving matters to the Senate, he left the truth open to debate. He further complicated things by appointing John Brennan to run the CIA, even though Brennan, as a top officer in the agency, had worked closely with George Tenet, the director during the worst excesses of the program. Last Thursday, in a rare press conference, Brennan called the CIA’s past practices “abhorrent” but declined to say that they amounted to torture, undercutting Obama. Democrats called for Brennan and other CIA personnel to be “purged.” Senator Mark Udall, who sits on the Intelligence Committee, said, “If there is no moral leadership from the White House, what’s to stop the next White House and CIA director from supporting torture?”

We’ll always make room for sociopaths, somehow, but Sullivan offers this:

I sense a slight opening for a way forward. There is no question in my mind that these grotesque human rights violations will require justice – if only compensation for torture victims. I agree that not prosecuting open war crimes is equally intolerable in a democratic society – and sends a terrible message to all dictators and thugs across the planet that they can now torture at will. But there’s also an obvious next step…

The Intelligence Committee should insist on interviewing all the torture suspects who are busy complaining they didn’t get to give their take (even though interviews with them from the CIA’s internal review is in the report, as are the CIA’s full, considered response). For good measure, the Obama administration should provide to the committee all the documents it has on the torture program. In other words: let’s update the report with as much data as we can possibly find. I sincerely doubt that it will turn up anything less incriminating than the CIA’s own records, but this is so grave and foundational a matter, we should make every effort to have the equivalent of a Truth Commission. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report is a great start.

That’s unlikely to happen, and Peter Beinart explains why:

Torture, declared President Obama this week, in response to the newly released Senate report on CIA interrogation, is “contrary to who we are.” Maine Senator Angus King added that, “This is not America. This is not who we are.” According to Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth, “We are better than this.”

No, actually, we’re not. There’s something bizarre about responding to a 600-page document detailing systematic U.S. government torture by declaring that the real America – the one with good values – does not torture. It’s exoneration masquerading as outrage. Imagine someone beating you up and then, when confronted with the evidence, declaring that “I’m not really like that” or “that wasn’t the real me.” Your response is likely to be some variant of: “It sure as hell seemed like you when your fist was slamming into my nose.” A country, like a person, is what it does.

What a country does is its history:

The implication of the statements by Obama, King, and Yarmuth is that there is an essential, virtuous America whose purity the CIA defiled. But that’s silly. Aliens did not invade the United States on 9/11. In times of fear, war, and stress, Americans have always done things like this. In the 19th century, American slavery relied on torture. At the turn of the 20th century, when America began assembling its empire overseas, the U.S. army waterboarded Filipinos during the Spanish-American War. As part of the Phoenix Program, an effort to gain intelligence during the Vietnam War, CIA-trained interrogators delivered electric shocks to the genitals of some Vietnamese communists, and raped, starved, and beat others.

America has tortured throughout its history. And every time it has, some Americans have justified the brutality as necessary to protect the country from a savage enemy. Others have called it counterproductive and immoral. At different moments, the balance of power between these two groups shifts. But neither side in these debates speaks for the “real America.” The real America includes them both. Morally, we contain multitudes.

That means all this talk on Meet the Press and elsewhere gets us nowhere:

When you claim that the United States is intrinsically moral, and torture therefore represents an aberration, you undermine the fight against such practices. There is no innate moral sense that pushes America’s leaders to respect human rights. To the contrary, the U.S. political system is based on the recognition that since Americans – like all other human beings – are sinful creatures, and will abuse power, the best way to limit that abuse is to ensure that power is divided and balanced. In the 20th century, when American presidents helped establish first the League of Nations and then the United Nations, they recognized that – to a far more limited degree – the United States should submit to international laws and institutions that checked its power overseas. This stemmed in part from the belief that only by binding itself in systems of domestic and international law could the United States act differently from the totalitarian empires it opposed.

We need to think more clearly:

Being a successful American politician today requires declaring that America is different, blessed, exceptional. Thus, when other countries torture, it reflects their basic character. When we torture, it violates ours. But the wisest American thinkers have found a way to reconcile this need to feel special with the recognition that, as human beings, Americans are just as fallen as everyone else. In the mid-20th century, men like Reinhold Niebuhr argued that, paradoxically, the more Americans recognized their sinfulness, and restrained it within systems of law, the more America would prove its superiority over those totalitarian systems that refused such restraints.

After 9/11, while George W. Bush was announcing that God had deputized America to spread liberty around the world, his government was shredding the domestic and international restraints against torture built up over decades, and injecting food into inmates’ rectums. Those actions were not “contrary to who we are.” They were a manifestation of who we are. And the more we acknowledge that, the better our chances of becoming something different in the years to come.

Well, Reinhold Niebuhr is President Obama’s favorite theologian – for what that’s worth – and Obama seems to struggle with all this – for what that’s worth – but there’s always the political question. Steven Hayward at PowerLine now says Dick Cheney For President – because in answer to Chuck Todd’s question about a United Nations official who’s called for criminal prosecution, Cheney said this – “I have little respect for the United Nations, or for this individual, who doesn’t have a clue and had absolutely no responsibility for safeguarding this nation and going after the bastards that killed 3,000 Americans on 9/11.”

So much for the United States submitting to international laws and institutions that check our power, to help keep us on the straight and narrow, to help make us a better nation in spite of ourselves. Chuck Todd interviewed Dick Cheney, not Reinhold Niebuhr, and Chuck Todd is not a policy kind of guy. Chuck Todd probably wonders if, when Jeb Bush runs against Hillary Clinton, this third Bush, will be pro-torture. Hillary Clinton may be. She doesn’t read Reinhold Niebuhr, she reads the polls, and she loves going on Meet the Press.

But as for reincarnation, Dick Cheney is definitely coming back as a cockroach, if you believe in that sort of thing. And he probably was Bugsy Siegel in a past life – Murder, Incorporated and all that stuff.

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Taking the Actual Country Back

Americans like to keep things simple. Twitter is the preferred medium of public discourse now – if you can’t distill what you’re thinking down into one hundred forty characters, you’re not thinking clearly, or you’re a tedious windbag who really should be dismissed. Get to the point, damn it. Make it pithy – short but brilliant. You’ll have millions of “followers” – and given that, Americans have decided to talk to each other in short disconnected bursts. It’s not dialog, but this is not four words on a bumper sticker either. You can have your say, and if brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness its outward limbs and flourishes, you’ll be just fine. Just get to the point, or go away.

It’s the same in politics. You may have brilliant policy positions, carefully thought out, in detail, and subtle and nuanced, which is probably impressive – but voters aren’t going to be impressed. What’s the point? What’s your point? That’s what voters want to know, and in 2008, Barack Obama settled on “Hope” and “Yes We Can” – while John McCain settled on “Country First” – which didn’t work out for him. No one knew what he meant, even if he had been a war hero, for surviving many long years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, many long years ago. He chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. The world is a dangerous place, and she proudly knew next to nothing about it. McCain clearly hadn’t put country first, while Obama’s slogans made people feel good, even if they had no time, or patience, for thinking about his policy positions. Extreme simplification is an art. Compression can be a tricky business.

Two years later, the Tea Party got it right. That started off with a rant by Rick Santelli on CNBC about a federal program to help people with their crap mortgages when they faced losing their homes. That would involve federal guarantees, which would mean putting federal dollars at risk, and that was taxpayer money being used to bail out stupid people who actually believed lenders when the clever lenders told those folks they really could afford that amazingly complex mortgage with really low monthly payments, for a few years. Santelli didn’t see the stupidity of those who signed on the dotted line as his problem, or any taxpayer’s problem. The smart and successful people should never have to pay for the stupidity of gullible total losers, and that’s a fairly typical Republican position. This was also a disagreement about a minor government effort, which should have ended there, had Santelli not talked about the Boston Tea Party, which he said was about the same sort of thing, the evil of paying taxes for stupid stuff.

That set things off, because Obamacare was the same sort of thing, using tax money to help total losers, and then things moved to identifying who those total losers were, all of them. They were also gays, and Hispanics, and black folks – and Obama was a total loser too, having been born in Kenya. And he was a socialist too, or one of those Muslims – the ultimate total losers. And he was always apologizing for America. Maybe he was a terrorist himself. He seemed to want to understand them, not just kill them, and his wife wanted junk food off the lunch menus in public schools, which was the tyranny of the nanny state, big time. And the two of them were black, and everyone knows about “those” people.

Things were getting out of hand, until the Tea Party crowd decided it could all be compressed into one simple idea – they wanted their country back. That seemed to have something to do with Ozzie and Harriet and poodle skirts, and wholesome movies and blacks knowing their place, and gay folks hidden away, and the only Hispanics and Asians being the harmless and amusing Ricky Ricardo and Charlie Chan, a world of back-alley coat-hanger abortions only, with Jesus everywhere. That was the golden age of self-reliance, after all, the days before the government was always trying to fix things. The government didn’t take all your money and hand it out to those welfare queens that Ronald Reagan was always talking about. Neighbors helped neighbors. Churches fed the poor. People bought their own health insurance, if anyone would sell it to them. It was lots of things, but it was one thing in general. They wanted that country back. That was that general idea and not the specifics that swept them to power in the 2010 midterms, if power is being able to scare the crap out of the establishment Republicans in the House of Representatives, to keep them from working out ways to keep the government running, with that Obama fellow. They wanted their country back, even if it was imaginary, except for the parts that were awful for women and anyone who wasn’t white and the right sort of Christian.

Those may be quibbles. Their general positon, about wanting their country back, worked well enough, even if Mitt Romney couldn’t use it two years later. He couldn’t say he wanted his country back. His country was one of multimillionaires, like him, and a couple hundred billionaires. He was ridiculously rich, so his talk about the useless and morally reprehensible forty-seven percent, who like a government that does useful things for them, was morally reprehensible itself. That might be compressed into “I’ve got mine so screw you” – which just doesn’t cut it, not in this economy. When he said anyone could start a successful business – just borrow a couple of hundred thousand dollars from your parents – that sealed the deal. He couldn’t talk about taking our country back. He was from another planet.

The phrase does, however, have a compelling ring to it. Others could use it, because, imaginary countries aside, we live in this real one that Aaron Blake identifies:

1) A New York Times poll showed just 64 percent of Americans believe in the American Dream. That’s the lowest that number has been since at least 1996.

2) A Pew Research Center poll showed just under half – 49 percent – of Americans said they expect next year to be a better year than this year. That’s the lowest that’s been since the recession, and a couple years before, too.

3) An AP-GfK poll shows just 13 percent of Americans say they are confident that Republicans and President Obama can come together to address the country’s problems. (A similar question from Pew found just 20 percent expect Congress and Obama to “make progress” on important issues.)

So, to recap, Americans have hit low points on their belief in our country’s main economic principle, their general feelings about life and their faith in our government. That just about covers it.

Paul Campos sees this country:

Once a social system has moved all or nearly all of its members above the level of brute starvation, wealth and poverty soon become inherently relative concepts, but that doesn’t make them any less real. One of the consequences of living in an extremely rich country which features increasingly extreme wealth stratification is that people who would have been considered rich fifteen minutes ago are suddenly part of the “upper middle class.”

Take, for example, what has happened to economic relations within the American university.

It’s well known that American colleges and universities must increase their operating budgets every year at rates faster than inflation because of [many] reasons, and therefore it becomes inevitable, given the contemporary economic structure of the country as a whole, that these institutions will spend enormous amounts of time and money currying favor with super-wealthy potential donors. Giving money to a “non-profit” educational institution provides the masters of the universe with sweet tax breaks, while allowing them to indulge in the ego-gratifying pleasures of plastering their names all over various buildings and centers and even whole schools and colleges.

There’s no taking back the universities now. That will never be “your country” now, and Chris Cillizza adds this:

It’s easy to believe there is direct correlation between people not believing in the American Dream and prolonged periods of economic struggle. Which would explain the downward trend of the numbers in the Times poll over the last decade as the economy has sputtered. The question is whether the slowness of the current recovery is what’s to blame for the extended pessimism about hard work achieving results or whether we, as a country, have simply entered a different stage in our relationship with the idea of the American Dream.

There’s some reason to believe the latter explanation is more correct. Consider this, from the 2014 national exit poll: Almost half of all Americans – 48 percent – said they expected life for “future generations” to be “worse than life today,” while 22 percent said it would be better. Another 27 percent said life would be about the same. Do the math and you see that more than twice as many people are pessimistic about the future that they will leave their kids as those who are optimistic.

Tea Party rants about Obamacare won’t fix that. Obamacare may actually help matters. More than ten million people now have health insurance, who never had it before. You want to repeal Obamacare? You want to say, look, we took away health insurance from more than ten million people, ain’t it grand?

You’d better hope you can take away their votes too. Republicans are working on that of course, but angry people will find a way to vote, no matter how many hoops you decide to make them jump through. You may want your country back, but your country isn’t their country. They have a different idea of the American Dream, something they learned long ago in school, something about how if you work hard you can do well – you don’t have to be rich to get rich, or even survive – there’s a future for everyone in America. That’s the country they want to take back.

All they need is a champion, someone to say let’s take back the actual country, not the imaginary one with the girls in the poodle skirts, where certain people are simply invisible, because they don’t matter, and six rich guys run everything and everyone is happy with that. The message about taking the country back is the same. It simply refers to the real world.

They may have that champion:

For supporters of the $1.1 trillion spending bill that the House narrowly voted to pass on Thursday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is a force to be reckoned with.

The Democratic senator from Massachusetts took to the Senate floor late Friday in a last-minute effort to prevent the upper chamber from following the House’s lead and voting to pass the so-called “cromnibus” bill, which, Warren warns, contains “a dangerous provision that was slipped [in] … at the last minute solely to benefit Wall Street.”

The provision in question would weaken the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law. Still another provision garnering left-wing objection would expand the amount of money rich people could donate to political parties tenfold.

“You know,” Warren said Friday, “there is a lot of talk lately about how Dodd-Frank isn’t perfect. There is a lot of talk coming from Citigroup about how Dodd-Frank isn’t perfect. So let me say this to anyone who is listening at Citi – I agree with you. Dodd-Frank isn’t perfect. It should have broken you into pieces.”

Enough is enough, even if this isn’t going anywhere. Warren filed an amendment to strip the change to Dodd-Frank out of the legislation but Majority Leader Harry Reid would have to accept amendments to the legislation first, which he’d rather not do, and Warren doesn’t seem to want to filibuster the legislation. She just wants to make a point:

Warren moved to gather opposition to the spending bill early on, and not just in the Senate, but in the House as well. Flanked by House members at a press conference, Warren called on her colleagues in the lower chamber to kill the bill. “A vote for this bill is a vote for future taxpayer bailouts of Wall Street,” Warren said Thursday. “It is time for all of us to stand up and fight.”

Fight to get your country back, even if you lose this one battle, and others agree:

More than 300 former campaign staffers and organizers for President Barack Obama have signed on to a letter urging Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run for president in 2016, the latest effort to nudge the Democrat into the race.

The Obama alums said in the letter released Friday that they want someone who will “stand up for working families and take on the Wall Street banks and special interests.” The letter was released by Ready for Warren, a grassroots group promoting a potential campaign.

Hillary Clinton hasn’t announced yet, but everyone on Wall Street loves her, as much as they loved Mitt Romney, as she seems to be the sort that would have the government let them do any old thing they want. She doesn’t talk about the middle class getting screwed by them, and they appreciate that. People seem to have noticed:

The letter from dozens of former Obama field organizers and campaign staffers shows the interest in a Warren campaign even though she says she’s not running. Noting the tone of the letter, Warren spokeswoman Lacey Rose said the senator “has been pointedly questioning the Wall Street-centric culture that has existed at Treasury and understands that various insiders find that threatening.”

Some of the former campaign aides who signed the letter include: Rajeev Chopra, the chief information officer for Obama’s 2012 campaign; Stephen Geer, who led email and online fundraising in 2008; and Sam Graham-Felsen, the campaign’s chief blogger in 2008.

MoveOn.org announced earlier that it was starting a draft Warren campaign and promoting Warren in early presidential states Iowa and New Hampshire – they’ve decided to budget a million dollars for that. The middle class wants its country back. They sense it.

Salon’s Joan Walsh is a bit amazed by this:

The House passage of the omnibus spending act is on its face a defeat for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party that fought to block it. In the end, though, risking a government shutdown over the bill’s ugliest provisions – restoring government protection to risky bank maneuvers and raising the cap on party contributions, astronomically – was probably too much to expect. … House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi fought it ferociously, in the end she signaled that members could vote their conscience.

And what did that vote tell us about the Democratic Party? Most of the departing Blue Dogs who lost their seats voted for the bill, predictably. In a break with President Obama, who lobbied for it, most of the Congressional Black Caucus did not. The remaining House Democrats are going to be more reliably critical of Wall Street, and less inclined to bow to the White House. 2015 is going to be interesting.

I admit, for a few hours on Thursday I thought Democrats might be able to win the public relations battle if they blocked the bill. Why should taxpayers protect risk-taking banks? The story of how Citigroup wrote the provision, and Wall Street’s friends snuck it in, is so outrageous I thought it had a chance to carry the day. So Republicans wouldn’t pass a spending bill without this giveaway to Wall Street? That would make them responsible for a government shutdown. But Sen. Ted Cruz and his allies may have thought the same thing about their message when they shut down the government last year.

We’ll never know if Democrats could have mustered populist outrage over Washington catering to Wall Street in the event of a new shutdown. But what else did we learn from the battle?

We learned this:

We now know that Nancy Pelosi is through guaranteeing the votes for ugly messes liberals hate (like the debt ceiling and sequester deals) but that House Speaker John Boehner can’t pass alone. In a new Congress where many Blue Dogs lost their seats, this sets the stage for House Democrats to block elements of the GOP agenda, especially when there can be left-right alliances. Tea Party defenders say it was partly inspired by outrage at the 2008 Wall Street bailout and corporate-government cronyism; it would be nice if House adherents remembered those roots.

The Tea Party folks really should be saying that the government should not exist solely to help the rich guys on Wall Street, but the rich guys on Wall Street, at least the Koch brothers, fund them, because Tea Party folks hate all regulation more than they hate the fat cats always getting what they want, so Walsh can dream on. They’re not coming aboard, but Walsh says we do know this:

We also know that Elizabeth Warren wasn’t tamed by her ascent into Senate Democratic leadership; she was emboldened. While her star turn may increase the pressure on her to run for president… I still hope she doesn’t. A President Warren would lack a Sen. Warren protecting her left flank. Giving Warren more progressive Senate allies would be more politically productive than elevating her to the White House.

We’re also seeing a more clearly defined bloc of Wall Street critics emerge in the Democratic Party, just in time for 2016. The Warren-led battle over Treasury nominee Antonio Weiss is also heating up – and both fights pit the popular progressive against President Obama.

As for that, here’s some background:

Recently, these two sides have been battling over whether President Obama, who is a member of the neoliberal contingent, should withdraw his nomination of Antonio Weiss to be the next undersecretary for domestic finance at the Treasury Department (which is the bureaucracy’s third-most-powerful slot). Weiss is currently an employee of the financial powerhouse Lazard, where he specializes in mergers and acquisitions, and from whom he’s set to receive a $20 million bonus if he takes the government job. Warren has argued that Weiss has no experience with the issues pertinent to the Treasury position in question, and that his selection is yet another spin of the revolving door. Being the fly in the White House’s ointment on this issue has predictably earned Warren some criticism from elites; but the senator seems inclined to escalate the conflict rather than back down.

“We’d all scratch our heads if the president nominated a theoretical physicist to be surgeon general just because she had a background in science,” Warren said… “It’s no less puzzling to nominate an international mergers specialist to handle largely domestic issues at Treasury because he has a background in finance.” More striking, however, was Warren’s decision to transition from defending her stance on the Weiss nomination to criticizing those who have built and maintained the revolving door – Democrats included. “Time after time in government,” Warren said, “the Wall Street view prevails.”

Enough is enough, even in her own party, and Walsh thinks things may change:

Many news accounts have depicted the spending bill battle as Warren vs. Obama, setting up an ongoing clash between the two Democratic leaders. But I think the Warren vs. Obama story line can be overblown. It’s probably too much to expect the president to veto the spending bill and effectively shut down the government – clearly he doesn’t share my optimism that Democrats could win that P.R. battle. But if the noxious measures hidden in the bill came to him as individual pieces of legislation, he’d be under a new level of pressure from congressional Democrats to veto them, and I expect he would. Obama made clear that while he wanted Democrats to support the spending bill he shared their opposition to both provisions.

In fact, the next two years will be a test of who the president really is: the change agent who inspired progressives, or the guardian of Wall Street power that his left-wing detractors claim he is.

Walsh, of course, sees this from her own particular perspective, as a progressive Democrat. She’s pleased, but also seems a little frightened. This could be too good to be true. This could tear the party apart. But that misses the larger picture. Warren may have appeal beyond the Democratic Party. Lots of people want their country back, the real one, not the imaginary one. This could get interesting. What politician wants to support a few hundred guys on Wall Street when everyone else is getting edged out of what used to be the American Dream?

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