Taking the Bait Again

In the late seventies, the folks on the North Side in Pittsburgh had a problem. How do you take a product that people find really irritating, and isn’t all that interesting, and make something that everyone wants to rush out and buy? Heinz faced that problem and the problem was their ketchup, a rather ordinary condiment. There was a bottle of their ketchup on every table in every low-end restaurant in America, and one in almost every kitchen cabinet in America, but sales were slowing. The damned stuff wouldn’t come out of the bottle. Pound your fist on the bottom of the bottle – nothing – unless it all spurted out in one large glop. Shake the inverted bottle vigorously over your burger – nothing. You just had to wait. The problem was viscosity – the stuff was thick – and it really wasn’t worth the wait. It was just ketchup. People were giving up on it. This wouldn’t do.

Heinz tried squeeze-bottles but no one liked them. Their glass bottle had become iconic – that was part of the brand, that bottle shaped just-so that was supposed to be on the table – and there was certainly no way to thin-out the product, so it would pour easily. They’d be selling lightly-spiced sugared tomato juice. No one would buy that, so they were stuck, but there’s nothing a clever advertising campaign can’t fix. There was a way to make viscosity a virtue. Starting in 1979 there were all those ads for Heinz Ketchup featuring Carly Simon’s 1971 hit song Anticipation – here is one of them – and those worked wonders. Sales recovered.

The Carly Simon song did it. Anticipation is delicious, even if the product, when it arrives, is the same old stuff. The wait makes it better. The wait makes it worth it. Carly Simon later said that song was all about how cool and wonderful she felt as she waited to go on a date with Cat Stevens – the pop star who soon converted to Islam and disappeared into urban Brazil for a few decades and is still on our no-fly lists. Oops. But the feeling of anticipation was glorious. She got a Grammy nomination. Heinz sold a lot of ketchup. President Obama should be so lucky. Everyone knows what coming, the same old stuff – another long war in the Middle East, and that is really irritating too – but he’s making us wait for the grand plan. He’s been thinking about that plan. America has been waiting. In the ketchup spot the one cute little boy says to the other, “Your ketchup is so slow!” They stare at his hamburger and the other cute little boy smiles – the wait itself is fascinating, and good things come to those who wait, of course, and the Carly Simon song swells on the soundtrack. If only it were so, but we are reenacting that vignette in our own way with this.

At Salon, Jim Newell puts it this way:

Not too long ago, President Obama was excoriated in the press for what was arguably the single greatest gaffe in human history: “We don’t have a strategy yet.” It was one of those “classic gaffes” in the sense that it supposedly summed up everything wrong with his presidency. It was also one of those “classic gaffes” in that it was taken out of a context that would have rendered it a fairly mundane statement. He was saying that his administration was reviewing military options about how to address ISIS in Syria and would need a little bit more time before settling on the proper plan and taking it to the public. As we wrote, the Worst Gaffe in History was just Obama noting that he needed another week or two to flesh out the details for a prolonged military campaign. This guy! Taking an extra few days to polish off a strategy instead of just bombing ISIS for a while and seeing what happens? What a clown.

Hopefully everyone had a good time spitting fury over nothing. Because now the hecklers are in the position of getting the prolonged military intervention for which they asked.

That would be this:

The Obama administration is preparing to carry out a campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria that may take three years to complete, requiring a sustained effort that could last until after President Obama has left office, according to senior administration officials.

The first phase, an air campaign with nearly 145 airstrikes in the past month, is already underway to protect ethnic and religious minorities and American diplomatic, intelligence and military personnel, and their facilities, as well as to begin rolling back ISIS gains in northern and western Iraq.

The next phase, which would begin sometime after Iraq forms a more inclusive government, scheduled this week, is expected to involve an intensified effort to train, to advise or equip the Iraqi military, Kurdish fighters and possibly members of Sunni tribes.

The final, toughest and most politically controversial phase of the operation – destroying the terrorist army in its sanctuary inside Syria — might not be completed until the next administration. Indeed, some Pentagon planners envision a military campaign lasting at least 36 months.

Newell covers how that was received:

Already this sounds quite ambitious, to put it politely, and concerning to those who worry about the U.S. getting bogged down in a multi-year military intervention spread across multiple countries – because that’s specifically what’s being proposed.

But the critics aren’t satisfied, because Obama has taken the deployment of ground troops off the table. It’s no surprise that this upsets the neoconservative Weekly Standard, who whines incredulously this morning, “A Long War against ISIS – With No Ground Troops?” Maximalist hawks gonna be maximalist hawks, we suppose, and that means pouting with clenched fists in the corner about how the latest war in the Middle East won’t be war-y enough for their liking.

But Newell saves his ironic wrath for the National Journal’s Ron Fournier in this column which Newell sums up this way:

Fournier argues that Obama’s pledge not to deploy ground troops offers an advantage to The Enemy, who now has a concrete view of the limit of American resolve and can plan accordingly. It would be wiser for Obama, Fournier writes, to not signal any such limit – to play a bit of the madman strategy and keep the option of ground troops on the table, just to keep ISIS guessing. Since Obama is going against the book on this one, as Fournier sees it, his decision against deploying ground troops must be a political one ahead of midterms. And last but not least, “doves” are the ones who should be most concerned about Obama making a decision based on politics, because a shift in public opinion toward deploying ground troops might lead to the deployment of ground troops.

Newell is a bit exasperated:

On the latter point, we’re going to suggest that the public is not going to be in favor of deploying occupying forces to Syria and Iraq any time soon, barring some sort of ISIS-sponsored nuclear attack on America’s cities. Despite Fournier’s clever contortions, people who don’t want ground troops deployed to Syria and Iraq should be happy that President Obama has ruled out deploying ground troops to Syria and Iraq. It’s not that complicated.

And there’s no mystery here:

If Obama has been consistent on one issue from the time he emerged on the scene in 2004 through the present, it’s that he’s wary of military occupations of foreign countries. Such occupations cost incalculable amounts of blood and treasure, they engender backlash against Americans across the region, and they’re difficult to ever end because the fledgling government comes to rely on the occupying army for security without picking up the slack itself. It doesn’t strike us as some batty political calculation when Obama says he doesn’t want to get into that situation.

Ah, but two American journalists were beheaded! That calls for something warlike:

Americans are increasingly concerned that ISIS represents a direct terror threat, fearful that ISIS agents are living in the United States, according to a new CNN/ORC International poll. Most now support military action against the terrorist group.

Seven in 10 Americans believe ISIS has the resources to launch an attack against the United States, just days before President Barack Obama plans to address the nation on the subject.

The poll released Monday shows that Americans favor:

– Additional airstrikes against ISIS (76% favor, 23% oppose)

– Military aid to forces fighting ISIS (62% favor, 37% oppose)

– Providing humanitarian aid to people fleeing ISIS (83% favor, 16% oppose)

Digby (Heather Parton) comments:

They do not favor boots on the ground though although I don’t know why. If these monsters are here in der Homeland plotting to invade Dubuque you’d think Americans would want the government to pull out all the stops. But I guess they figure we can use our “superpowers” to defeat the crazed terrorists over there so they won’t deploy their evil plots here without having to lose any soldiers. We just have to use our best secret laser beam technology to “take out” the bad guys without risking the lives of anyone important. We can do that. We’re that good.

We Americans don’t go by “keep calm and carry on” or even “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Our credo is: “ohmygodbombsomethingnowtheyarecomingtokillusallinourbeds!”

She can only point to There is no specific or credible threat of an ISIS terror attack on the US and “No, we don’t have any information about credible planning for an attack” and “At this point, we have no credible information that ISIS is planning to attack the United States” and While there’s no credible threat to the U.S. as a result of recent American airstrikes in Iraq, officials remain concerned that Islamic State supporters could attack overseas targets with little warning and so on and so forth.

We may be panicking. Or we may think there’s something wonderful in that Heinz bottle when it’s only ketchup. Or we may be being baited, and Jonah Shepp reminds us about two dead American journalists:

Foley and Sotloff are but two among nearly 70 journalists killed while covering the conflict in Syria, hundreds who have been brutally murdered by ISIS jihadists in similarly gruesome fashion, and nearly 200,000 casualties of a civil war gone hopelessly off the rails.

Andrew Sullivan runs with that:

The two beheadings seem to have turned public and elite opinion in ways that none of this previous horror has. In a month, the discourse has shifted from whether to counter ISIS to how to do so. In a month, everyone has agreed, it appears that ISIS is a menace and that there has to be a US-led coalition to degrade and defeat it. The slippery slope toward the logic of war – which would be, by any estimation, a mere continuation of the war begun in 2003 – has been so greased there seems barely any friction.

This is the striking new fact of America this fall: re-starting the war in Iraq is now something that does not elicit immediate and horrified rejection by the president or the Congress. The GOP is daring Obama to go all-in as GWB, Round Two.

That’s odd, and Sullivan cites the New York Times’ David Carr suggesting we’ve been taken in by a slick television advertisement:

The executioner is cocky and ruthless, seemingly eager to get to the task at hand. When he does attack his bound victim, only the beginning is shown and then there is a fade to black. Once the picture returns, the head of the victim is carefully arranged on the body, all the violence of the act displayed in a bloody tableau. There is another cutaway, and the next potential victim is shown with a warning that he may be next.

“It is an interesting aesthetic choice not to show the actual beheading,” Alex Gibney, a documentary filmmaker, said. “I can’t be sure, but they seemed to dial it back just enough so that it would get passed around. In a way, it makes it all the more chilling, that it was so carefully stage-managed and edited to achieve the maximum impact.”

They might have hired a good ad agency, but it is effective, as Sullivan notes:

Like the horrifying images of 9/11, these images scramble our minds. And they are designed to. They are designed to awake the primordial instincts and the existential fear that Salafist fundamentalists thrive on. The direct spoken message to Obama puts this unbalanced British loser on a par with the president of a super-power – and, by reacting so comprehensively to it – the president has unwittingly given these poseurs a much bigger platform. More to the point, by already committing the United States to ultimately destroying ISIS, the president has committed this country to a war he was elected to avoid. Don’t tell me about “no ground troops”. If your mission is destroying something, and ground troops become at some point essential to that mission, the mission will creep – or they will claim victory.

Obama took the bait and Sullivan is deeply disappointed, and he speaks from experience:

I deeply distrust wars that are prompted by this kind of emotion, however justified the emotion may be.

I lost my judgment completely as 9/11 coursed through my frontal cortex – and made errors that helped spawn more terror (like the current ISIS-dominated Sunni insurgency in Iraq). Many, many of us did. And when these slick, cartoonish nihilists press buttons designed to generate a reaction that they can then leverage some more, they are pulling the strings, not us.

That is what all good advertising does, it pulls the strings and makes us buy crap that’s really irritating, and isn’t all that interesting, and we miss the point, as far as Sullivan sees it:

The struggle in the Middle East right now is an infinitely complex series of overlapping civil wars, religious wars, and sectarian passions, exacerbated by demography, water, and the breaking of Iraq in 2003. It seems clear they are going to rage for years if not decades. What’s happening in Sunni Iraq right now is exactly what happened during the first insurgency: Salafists taking advantage of Sunni resentment to build an insurgency. But the fissures are obvious: even now, ISIS is murdering fellow Sunnis as well as Shiites and Turkmen and every other kind of infidel. The regional actors – placing bets and money and arms on various factions – pull all sorts of strings that can make any American initiative moot. And if we prevail, we will win no friends, merely new enemies.

What is happening in Iraq right now isn’t a war of Islam against the West. It is Islam against itself. And by making it our war, we may simply be endorsing a self-fulfilling prophesy. If any president were elected to avoid that, it was Obama.

Sullivan agrees with James Medaille:

Allow me to offer one hard and fast rule: to Americanize a civil war is to lose it. Not immediately, alas. In the short term, you get “mission accomplished”; in the long term, you get defeat. As soon as America takes over, America loses. The Vietnam War was going to be won or lost by the Vietnamese. The only question was which faction would triumph. When one faction entrusted their responsibilities to the Americans, they felt less need to defend themselves. Their defense became an American responsibility. When you outsource your defense, you become defenseless.


If we didn’t learn by now that trying to control or effect change in that part of the world by proxy or directly is a mug’s game, our amnesia truly is debilitating.

I await a full explanation of the actual, specific threat that ISIS poses to the US that requires a declaration of war; I certainly expect that the president should go to the Senate for a declaration of war after a robust debate; and I want an airing of all the many unintended consequences of entering into that vortex again.

Dream on. That’s not going to happen. We’ll wait and wait and wait and then get the same old stuff, not a real war, just a sort-of war, and we certainly won’t get peace of any sort. And we won’t know quite who we’re fighting for or against. Juan Cole explains that:

US air strikes on ISIL in Iraq have alternated with Iranian air strikes on ISIL positions. It seems likely to me that the two air forces are coordinating in at least a minimal way, otherwise there would be a danger of them hitting each other rather than ISIL. … Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, is alleged to have just authorized Iranian forces to coordinate with American ones. The denials from other Iranian politicians are likely merely camouflage for a policy that would dismay Iran hardliners.

Slate’s Joshua Keating discusses how tricky this really is:

There are obviously key points of conflict between Iran and the United States, not least of which is the country’s controversial nuclear program. A new round of talks about that issue is set to begin in New York this month. Any open acknowledgment of cooperation between the countries with regards to ISIS would likely make the U.S. Congress, hardliners in Tehran, and the Israeli government, go absolutely berserk. But if the two nations continue to escalate the fight against a common enemy, it’s going to require some level of coordination. I don’t see Iran being formally invited into Obama’s “coalition of the willing.”

But they’ll be there. Some folks just won’t be invited, even if they’re welcome. We’ll just pretend they’re not there.

Vladimir Putin won’t be invited of course. He turned out to be a real jerk, our real enemy, and NATO’s enemy, and everyone’s enemy – but you never know. In the Washington Post, Ishaan Tharoor reports here that ISIS may have some two hundred Chechen fighters that should worry Putin:

Here’s a slightly new geopolitical wrinkle. Earlier this week, the Islamic State issued a video challenging a powerful global leader. But this time, it was not President Obama or one of his counterparts in Europe. It was Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the video, fighters pose atop Russian military equipment, including a fighter jet, captured from the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This is the Agence France-Presse transcription of what follows:

“This is a message to you, oh Vladimir Putin, these are the jets that you have sent to Bashar, we will send them to you, God willing, remember that,” said one fighter in Arabic, according to Russian-language captions provided in the video. “And we will liberate Chechnya and the entire Caucasus, God willing,” said the militant. “The Islamic State is and will be and it is expanding, God willing.”

Maybe Obama will announce that Putin will join us in fighting the ISIS crowd, but probably not. He will say here we go again, pretty much on our own – because he took the bait. He had to. That’s what we expect of him. And sooner or later there will be boots on the ground, our boots. And back in the seventies it was that wonderful stuff that would slowly slide out of that Heinz bottle, eventually. Wait, wait, wait – listen to Carly Simon sing and then… there it was, just ordinary ketchup after all. This is like that.

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Surprised by the Next New World

“The man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.”

Willy Loman – the salesman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman – offers that advice to his son. Sure, the neighbor’s son is a hot-shit lawyer who just argued a case in front of the Supreme Court. That’s fine, and he may be liked, but is he well-liked? That’s the point Loman is making. You see, being well-liked is what really matters – that’s where the big money is, and the power, and, most of all, the respect. Everyone knows that. And Miller’s rather heavy-handed 1949 play explores what an empty delusion that is – and how it destroys a man, and a family, and by implication a nation. The play is a unpleasant critique of the American Dream – bourgeois consumer capitalism is a complex system that prospers and grows by leaps and bounds if you have what is in essence a nation of salesmen, where everyone is selling everyone else stuff no one really needs. That is the consumer economy. But then how do you sell all that useless crap? You use your winning personality. People like you, they come to trust you, and then they hand over their cash – and you hand them the keys to that cherry used Studebaker, or that third life insurance policy. The ones who succeed in such a system are those who are well-liked, extremely well-liked, and Miller hammered us over the head with the emptiness of such a socioeconomic system, and its sadness. The play was a tragedy, after all. It was also a critique of capitalism in its way. If you don’t have the patience for Karl Marx or Thomas Piketty, read the Miller play – or if you’re just not that into reading, go see it. There’s always a revival playing somewhere. Actors love it. They love chewing the scenery – boasting, then in despair, and then overwhelmed by the cruel world, in an oddly noble way – and Loman is easier to play that Lear. The language is flat, plain American.

The cruel world that finally overwhelms Willy Loman is, however, not exactly the world that Miller imagined. The tragedy here was caused by a structural change in the economy at the time. It wasn’t that glad-handing salesmen were becoming obsolete, replaced nerdy technical experts who actually had to know their stuff – the triumph of expertise over personality. Salesmen were becoming obsolete. Grocery stores were becoming self-service supermarkets, where no one was selling you anything. You rolled your shopping cart down the aisles and dropped things in. The “selling” was done in newspaper display ads, and on radio and then television, and eventually with coupons in the mail, and now on the internet. Now the supermarkets let you check out and bag your own groceries at automated kiosks, and if you prefer no human interaction at all, order on line. In most cities, Amazon or others will drop your order at your front door in an hour or two. Department stores followed suit, replaced by places like Target and GAP and whatnot. Walk around, grab what seems cool, try it on if you can find a dressing room, and then stand in line at the check-out area. There are no salespeople, as such – you’re on your own – and there are no bookstores anymore, where you can chat with the staff about what’s good, or controversial, or interesting. Amazon killed those too. Read the reviews on their site and order the book, or don’t. No one is pressuring you. Car salesmen may be the next to go – find what you want on line, compare prices in the area, use the service that finds the dealer who will provide the one car at the price you found, print the coupon and take it to the dealer. Hand them a check and they’ll hand you the keys. You can do that in Los Angeles now. Who needs Willy Loman? Miller’s tragic hero was one of the first to be done in by a structural change in the economy. A wave of change was coming. He was the first to go under.

Miller couldn’t have known any of this at the time, but there was a new disconnectedness coming, far beyond anything he imagined, and in the Los Angeles Times, Marc Dunkelman – the fellow whose new book is The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community – explains things this way:

In many cases, we’ve been fooled into presuming that modernity serves only to broaden our horizons because people with different perspectives are now only a few mouse clicks away. But that assumption conflates the ability to connect with the same predilection. Even beyond the careful algorithms Google and Facebook use to circumscribe what we see online, technology lets us make contact with one another without registering our full identities.

Two generations ago, a member of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society looking to hock a vintage baseball card would likely have had to come face to face with a buyer – even if she’d pinned a picture of President Kennedy on her lapel. Today, by contrast, a tea partier can sell memorabilia to a Latino immigrant on eBay, and neither is any the wiser for it. The spirit of American commerce once compelled us to know one another in depth. Today, by contrast, we frequently engage entirely on the surface.

We can’t discount the blessings of the new norm. Most of us find comfort living inside pockets of like-minded acquaintances. And keeping antagonistic communities separated can tamp down the tension between them.

But if the magic of the American experience was born in the cultural mélange of our broader diversity, something has been lost along the way.

That may be so. The spirit of American commerce did once compel us to know one another in depth, but that was Willy Loman’s world. He woke up one day at the dawn of the next new world. He couldn’t deal with it. He couldn’t accept it. It was there, nevertheless, and Arthur Miller could have never imagined how disconnected everything and everyone iwould become, and now we have our own specific problems.

One of those problems is that one third of us don’t work for anyone now. In Reason Magazine, Elizabeth Nolan Brown reports that at least a third of Americans are currently doing freelance work, and most of those are doing that freelance work as their main source of income, and they have an association that has just confirmed that:

A new report shows some 53 million Americans – or 34 percent of the U.S. workforce – are now working as freelancers in some capacity. “This is more than an economic change,” asserts the report, a joint effort from the Freelancer’s Union and freelance marketplaces eDesk and eLance. It’s also “a cultural and social shift” that will “have major impacts on how Americans conceive of and organize their lives, their communities, and their economic power.”

This is the next new world, and it may be just fine:

When it comes to millennials, we see an even more freelance-heavy generation. About 38 percent of those under age 35 are freelancing, compared to 32 percent of those 35 and older. Millennial freelancers are also more likely to look for job with a “positive impact on the world” – 62 percent of the younger group said this was important, versus 54 percent of older freelancers. Finding freelance work that’s “exciting” is also more important (62 percent versus 47 percent). …

To its credit, the new report remains relatively agnostic about whether these updated employment realities are better or worse than the previous paradigm(s), an agnosticism I share. There’s just no use crying over a culture and economy we won’t get back. What matters is what is happening now, why it’s happening, and how to adjust our political and cultural expectations to accommodate it.

At the Washington Monthly, David Atkins has a few things to say about that:

Libertarians, of course, tend to get excited about this trend, seeing it as a pure form of free interactive capitalism in line with the much-ballyhooed “sharing economy.”

However, as a proud freelancer myself for over a decade (I fall into the “freelance business owner” category), I can attest that it’s not really a workable model for society. As with all things in unregulated libertarian capitalism, opportunity potential is high but the downside risk is enormous. It’s often difficult to make long-term plans since you aren’t sure if the freelance work is going to keep coming – and the nature of freelance work itself means that it’s hard to even plan a weekend getaway, much less a vacation, because if there’s a project required to happen at a certain time you can’t pass up the opportunity to take it on.

Project-to-project work is a bitch, and the irony is that you do become a salesman, marketing your skills twenty-four hours a day, every single day. People need to know you can swoop in, fix everything, and be gone the next day (or month) – and they’ll never have to add you to their payroll, or provide any benefits, or even think of you again. It’s a great deal. People need to know that. You’re main job will actually be drumming up new business. People need to know there’s one really amazing hired gun out there, and that happens to be you. You will lead a life of never-ending self-promotion, just like Willy Loman. And you’ll never have a steady job.

Some might find that exciting – a life of telling others how wonderful you are, then having to prove it over and over again, to new people each time, and the freedom that comes with having no boss, really, but Atkins doubts that everyone feels that way:

Not everyone has the personality to deal with the level of uncertainty involved in freelancing. Most people like to know what they can count on, and don’t want to be forced to constantly be doing business development and singing for their supper every night. Also, a freelance economy reduces the necessary commitment of employers to their employees, whom they can increasingly treat as contractors to be discarded at the earliest convenience.

Elizabeth Brown at Reason is probably right that the new employment models are here to stay and we can’t go back. But what follows from that premise is that where corporate America can or will no longer provide the required amount of certainty in people’s lives, it falls to government and society to make up the difference through increased safety nets, guarantees and even basic income programs.

There are those who would say that certainty is for wimps, or girly-men or something, not for Real Americans who are all about rugged individualism and personal responsibility and self-reliance. They would say there is no required amount of certainty in people’s lives at all. Those who require certainty are like whiney little children. They should grow up, but Atkins doesn’t think so:

Simply letting the economy slide into the enforced uncertainty of the freelance economy without helping workers achieve dignity and stability is not an acceptable outcome.

Is that the government’s business? Libertarians, and most Republicans, might think not. Everyone should be on their own, like adults, damn it. The massive disconnectedness that Arthur Miller only hinted at in 1949 has become politically institutionalized.

Ben Casselman and Andrew Flowers cover how this massive disconnectedness works economically:

In the three years following the end of the Great Recession, the typical American family’s income declined 5 percent, its wealth fell 2 percent, it saved no more for retirement, and it was saddled with even more student debt. The only households to see income gains were the highest earners, and the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest widened.

These are the dispiriting results from the Federal Reserve’s latest triennial report, the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF), which was released on Thursday. The SCF is a massive enterprise, conducted by the Fed in conjunction with the U.S. Treasury Department. More than 6,000 families were interviewed in 2013, and their responses were weighted by demographic characteristics to get a realistic national picture.

And it wasn’t a pretty picture:

Young people were hit especially hard. Thursday’s report provided yet more evidence that today’s young people risk becoming a “lost generation” economically. The median family headed by someone under 35 earned $35,300 in 2013, down 6 percent from 2010 and down nearly 20 percent from 2001. Those figures may understate the magnitude of the problem: Many young people are living with their parents because they can’t afford to strike out on their own; they aren’t included in the Fed’s figures because they don’t count as their own households. Young people have also become less likely to own their own homes (35.6 percent listed their primary residence as an asset in 2013, down from 40.6 percent in 2007) and much more likely to have student debt (41.7 percent in 2013, up from 33.8 percent in 2007). Whether by choice or by necessity, young people are also taking fewer financial risks, holding more of their assets in cash and less in stocks.

We seem to have managed to disconnect an entire generation from the economy, perhaps permanently, and this may be the first of many generations to follow. David Leonhardt argues here that this will turn all of these young folks into severe conservatives, or even Tea Party folks – the government let this happen, so government is bad and we should have less of it, or none of it, because they were betrayed by government. They’ll vote Republican for the rest of their lives, unless this or that Republican is a useless squish.

That’s an interesting theory, which glosses over the fact that both Republicans and Democrats got us into this – no one’s hands are clean – and Atkins comments on this too:

Mention the problems of young households to a politician or pundit and they’re likely to talk about student loans and the minimum wage. It’s true that student loans are a huge burden and that the minimum wage needs increasing. But those two policy items are just the bare beginning of the problems facing Millennials in the new economy.

The bigger challenge is low wages and high cost of living – particularly in terms of housing. Older generations are fond of making fun of Millennials for claiming to be broke while buying the latest iPhone – but particularly in urban areas where most of the attractive jobs are, no amount of scrimping and saving will allow the average young adult to break into the real estate market or even afford a decent rental. So why not splurge on a gadget or some vinyl records now and again? It’s not as if most young people can make real financial progress toward the biggest goals without acquiring a job that puts them into at least the top two (if not the very top) quintile of American incomes.

The disconnection between the very top and everyone else is complete now. We just woke up in the next new world. Like Willly Loman, we can’t seem to accept it, and we certainly can’t deal with it:

Right now neither party is addressing that problem. There are a lot of young people who make above minimum wage and never went to college. There are a lot of hardworking young people without student debt burdens who are nonetheless struggling to just get by. And no policy solutions seem to be forthcoming for them. Republicans offer even more brutal economic libertarianism, while Democrats tend to continue to focus on inflating asset values while minimizing the damage to the elderly and those who are “left behind.”

Yeah, keep inflation and interest rates low, so all assets cost no more than they ever have, or cost even less, even if it stalls the economy and causes massive unemployment. It’s a delicate balance, but here Atkins gets into the nuts and bolts of that decision:

Talk about jobs and wages to most sectors of the American left, and you’re likely to hear that the problems in the modern economy are mostly political rather than structural: essentially, that changes to tax, labor and trade law created an easier environment for companies to reduce wages and outsource labor.

That is certainly true to a large extent. But it’s also undeniable that the march of technology has done much to alter the labor market terrain, often in subtle ways. When people think of mechanization they usually think of a big robot taking a manufacturing job from someone in a hard hat. But most of the biggest effects are much more subtle: instead of machines making cars, think primarily of Amazon.com slashing retail jobs, or Instagram killing Kodak, or big data analysis putting armies of researchers out of work. Better communications and travel technology has also made the global supply chain more efficient, eliminating some of the roadblocks to outsourcing labor.

In the next new world, here already whether we like it or not, there are fewer and fewer jobs, period, although we pretend that’s no so:

One of the most common responses to this argument is that technological change has always been with us, and that new jobs always arise to replace the old ones. But that hasn’t been the case. Internet-related jobs still haven’t come close to replacing the quantity and quality of work that the digital revolution eliminated.

Another argument is that the manufacturing work usually to be done by human hands and that if we just institute trade protections, those jobs will come back onshore.

Isn’t it pretty to think so? Sure, so Atkins cites an item on how robots are taking Chinese jobs too:

Industrial robots, whose market in China is showing promising signs as workers get replaced due to higher labor costs. A lot of domestic robot manufacturers want to join the party and slice a piece of cake with foreign competitors. But they seem to be facing a tough road ahead… According to International Federation of Robotics, nearly 180,000 industrial robots were sold worldwide in 2013, with a fifth of those sales being in China.

In 2013, China surpassed Japan for the first time to become the world’s biggest and fastest-growing robot market with sales of about 37,000 industrial robots .Experts predict that China’s robot market will grow to be more than one trillion yuan in a year or two. The Lucrative industry has attracted many investors who’re diving in. In Shanghai, a robot industrial park is currently under construction and that’s expected to generate and send out around 60 billion yuan worth of products. Parks of the same scale are also being built in the cities of Shenyang, Qingdao and the municipality of Chongqing.


The reality is that there just isn’t enough high-paying work available in the private sector for the number of people that want to work, and that problem is only going to worsen over time. The answer isn’t just to rejigger trade and tax policy. The answer has to be a greater expansion of government-sponsored jobs, and disconnecting basic human dignity from the necessity of “having a job.”

Good luck with that, in a society where one’s moral worth is measured by one’s financial success – a sign that God has favored them with the right genes and the right connections, and the right cutthroat attitude, and His good luck in all things – where the free market is the final arbiter that judges men’s souls. What else was Romney’s forty-seven percent comment about? The job you have is everything. Ask Willy Loman, and now add the latest factor. Everyone is now quite thoroughly disconnected from each other, and becoming disconnected from traditional employment. We’ll all be freelancers soon, hustling up whatever consulting work we can find, on our own. Willy Loman had it easy. He wouldn’t know what to make of all this. Maybe no one knows.

Posted in Our New Economy Order | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Identifying the Implausible

Experiences accumulate – live long enough and you’ll find yourself in the thick of things you never imagined. We were all long-haired radicals out to change the world in college in the late sixties, more or less, but two decades later it was that afternoon at the Pentagon, making small talk with Ronald Reagan’s second secretary of defense, Frank Carlucci, simply because the second father-in-law was one of Reagan’s assistant secretaries of defense. Then it was off to the Christmas party hosted by the eccentric surgeon general at the time, C. Everett Koop. How did that happen to a bleeding-heart liberal? It seems to have had something to do with leaving teaching in the early eighties and heading off to California, then finding a job in aerospace – in training and development, nothing fancy – and then drinks with folks after work, and the usual parties, and then hooking up with someone when things clicked. It happens, but it seems odd to have been chatting away with the top guys in Washington back in the day when Saddam Hussein was our ally – they said so, because Saddam Hussein would cause those creeps in Iran no end of trouble. That was all they said, and the rest was typical Republican stuff – spend lavishly on the military and cut taxes on the rich (the only good people in America) and end welfare, because there were all those welfare queens out there, and marginalize whatever long-haired hippies were still left over from the damned sixties. It seemed best to nod politely and say nothing. At least Koop smoked a pipe. We had something in common.

The marriage didn’t last, but these things kept happening. No one knows anyone who has argued in front of the Supreme Court, or only important people know such important people, but a decade ago there was the woman who was commenting on the same Paris website a friend was managing, who realized we should have known each other from college, but didn’t. We traded lots of emails about France and this and that, but as she was then an assistant state attorney general in the Midwest, the talk turned to law, mostly about capital punishment. She was all for it. Bleeding-heart liberals from the sixties are not, so we both clicked away at our keyboards. Nothing came of it, but she had her stories about arguing in front of Antonin Scalia. It seems he really was a mean bastard, and dismissive. He didn’t want to hear it, whatever it was. Everyone knows this now, after all these years, but she was there. She had her stories. She didn’t like being treated like a silly little girl. Scalia might not have intended that, but that’s how she felt – and sorry, those stories are private. She was unhappy.

The question had to come up. What did she want? Ah, that was easy. She preferred arguing before a gentleman, perhaps, and she made it clear she was impressed with Richard Posner – appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1981 to the Chicago-based Seventh US Circuit Court of Appeals. He asked good questions that made her think harder, and he wasn’t stuck in the mud of any particular ideology or grand legal theory about what the framers were really thinking about on some Tuesday afternoon long ago. He’d listen and think too. He’d also written articles and books on the law and economics, the law and literature, and on the federal judiciary, on moral theory, on intellectual property, on antitrust law, on public intellectuals, and on legal history too. Cool, and he was dead-flat fluent in French too – but that never came up. Yes, he was a conservative, but he was and is a pragmatist. He seems to loathe Republicans in general, not that he cares for most Democrats. He likes to think for himself. The one curious thing about this is that in 1969, Posner joined the faculty of the University of Chicago’s law school, where he’s still a senior lecturer and where his son, Eric Posner, is a professor specializing in constitutional law. Eric Posner and Barack Obama were classmates at Harvard Law School. It’s a small world, or these constitutional law guys stick together. But Posner, the elder, the judge, was her guy.

We’ve drifted apart since then, but two years ago there was the Scalia-Posner feud that Eric Segall explained at the time:

Over the last couple of weeks, Justice Antonin Scalia and Judge Richard Posner have been engaged in an unusual public feud over the role that legal rules play in judicial decision making. In The New Republic, Judge Posner wrote an exceptionally harsh review of Scalia’s new book Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, written with Bryan Garner. Scalia’s book presents over 50 canons or legal rules that he and Garner suggest can and do help judges decide hard legal issues. In a lengthy response, Posner demonstrates that Scalia’s rules cannot decide cases, that the sources and cases the authors cite don’t stand for the propositions for which they are asserted, and that, of course, at the end of the day, what decides cases are the judges’ personal and political values, preferences, and balancing of the equities of the parties’ positions, not pre-existing legal rules.

Do legal rules and canons of interpretation decide cases? Of course not, Posner argues forcefully and persuasively. After his review was published, Scalia followers, fellow conservatives, and Garner, the co-author, took great offense in various forms of social media.

It was ON! Segall covers all the back-and-forth, but the salient points seem to be these:

There is a lot more going on here, and much more at stake, than an “inside baseball” squabble over legal rules. In light of Scalia’s importance as a political actor who makes a big difference to how this country is governed, the question is whether he is an appropriate messenger for the proposition that judging involves mostly rule following and not the exercise of personal discretion. The answer is no.

Scalia purports to be a “textualist-originalist” and he claims to apply that philosophy to his work on the Court. Constitutional interpretation should be about text and history, not personal values. The problem is that almost no one believes this anymore and Scalia’s public defense of the indefensible probably accounts for the tone of Posner’s review.

An example:

The drafters of the Fourteenth Amendment did not believe racial preferences for blacks violated the Equal Protection Clause, yet Scalia, despite his alleged devotion to originalism, has never voted to uphold an affirmative action program. The drafters of the First Amendment believed that corporations had no legal status separate from the rights given them by the state, yet Scalia claims corporations have the same First Amendment rights as natural persons. And, just to be politically neutral about all this, the founding fathers would not have recognized flag burning as “speech” protected by the First Amendment, yet Scalia voted to reverse the conviction of a flag burner on First Amendment grounds. Scalia relies no more (or less) on text or history than any other Supreme Court Justice; he just indignantly claims that he does.

Posner told Scalia, politely, and in detail, that he was full of shit, because things don’t work that way:

Because Posner believes judging, especially at the Supreme Court level, is about values and discretion, he urges the Court to defer to the elected branches absent a clear conflict between a law and constitutional text. Scalia does not apply such deference, though he often claims he does.

Do judges decide by rules or by discretion? Hell, if they decide by rules alone, those rules written down over two hundred years ago, and amended occasionally but very rarely, then the work of the Supreme Court could be automated. All of computer programming comes down to interlocking rules-based if-then operations. Any desktop computer could handle Supreme Court decisions. Someone might even write a smartphone app for this sort of thing. Scalia was arguing that he could be replaced by a few thousand lines of well-written code, as long as he gets to write the code.

Posner doesn’t work that way:

Acting with unusual swiftness, a federal appeals court in Chicago upheld on Thursday lower court decisions that found same-sex marriage bans in Indiana and Wisconsin unconstitutional, blasting arguments in favor of the bans as “so full of holes” that they were laughable.

The decision by the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, coming just nine days after oral arguments were held, joined the tide of recent cases across the nation declaring same-sex marriage bans discriminatory.

But while the ruling marked a clear-cut victory for gay rights, nothing will immediately change in either Wisconsin or Indiana for same-sex couples. Both states vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, adding to a growing list of cases from other states with pending petitions before the nation’s highest court.

Yep, this will go to the Supreme Court, and Posner is sticking it to Scalia:

The strongly worded opinion written by Judge Richard Posner echoed his pointed questioning during the arguments on Aug. 26. He described the gay and lesbian community as among the most “misunderstood, and discriminated-against minorities in the history of the world” and said that the denial of their right to marry has been a source of “continuing pain.”

“Marriage confers respectability on a sexual relationship,” wrote Posner, a Republican appointee. “To exclude a couple from marriage is thus to deny it a coveted status.”

Known for his independence as well as a caustic wit, Posner had particularly harsh words for the argument made by attorneys for Indiana that marriage is intended only for procreation and therefore only heterosexuals should benefit from the perks of matrimony, such as filing taxes jointly. The judge noted that infertile heterosexuals were free to marry – even first cousins.

“Why are they allowed to reap the benefits accorded marriages of fertile couples, and homosexuals are not?” Posner said. He said Indiana had “invented an insidious form of discrimination: favoring first cousins provided they are not of the same sex, over homosexuals.”

What will Scalia make if that? Mark Joseph Stern sees this:

In his opinion, Posner does not sound like a man aiming to have his words etched in the history books or praised by future generations. Rather, he sounds like a man who has listened to all the arguments against gay marriage, analyzed them cautiously and thoroughly, and found himself absolutely disgusted by their sophistry and rank bigotry. …

Ironically, by writing an opinion so fixated on the facts at hand, Posner may have actually written the one gay marriage ruling that the Supreme Court takes to heart. Other, more legacy-minded judges have attempted to sketch out a revised framework for constitutional marriage equality, granting gay people heightened judicial scrutiny and declaring marriage a fundamental right. But Posner isn’t interested in making new law: The statutes before him are so irrational, so senseless and unreasonable, that they’re noxious to the U.S. Constitution under almost any interpretation of the equal protection clause.

Stern quotes Posner:

The government thinks that straight couples tend to be sexually irresponsible, producing unwanted children by the carload, and so must be pressured (in the form of government encouragement of marriage through a combination of sticks and carrots) to marry, but that gay couples, unable as they are to produce children wanted or unwanted, are model parents – model citizens really – so have no need for marriage.

And this:

Heterosexuals get drunk and pregnant, producing unwanted children; their reward is to be allowed to marry. Homosexual couples do not produce unwanted children; their reward is to be denied the right to marry. Go figure.


This is all very amusing. But Posner has a serious moral and legal point to make. The states’ arguments against gay marriage aren’t just irrational: They’re insulting, degrading, and downright cruel to the adopted children of gay couples. Posner describes this case as being, “at a deeper level,” about “the welfare of American children.” Two hundred thousand children are being raised by gay couples in America, including several thousand in Indiana and Wisconsin. Both states admit that children benefit psychologically and economically from having married parents. These facts would seem to suggest a compelling interest in support of gay marriage, since banning it actively, demonstrably harms children. …

But who could gay marriage bans possibly benefit? Once again, Posner asked this question at oral argument and received an evasive response.

It’s clear from his opinion that Posner has rifled through the states’ extensive briefs to find an answer to this question – and come up short. There is simply no harm, Posner writes, “tangible, secular, material-physical or financial, or … focused and direct” done to anybody by permitting gay marriage. Conservative Christians may be offended, but “there is no way they are going to be hurt by it in a way that the law would take cognizance of.”

Stern is impressed:

The modern arguments against gay marriage may be breathtakingly silly – but by mocking them, we ignore the profound harms that marriage bans inflict on gay people and their families. By placing these families at the center of his analysis, Posner restores the equal protection clause to its rightful place as the safeguard for all whom the state seeks to harm unjustly. His message for those who hope to demean gay people and their children is clear: Not on my watch.

Posner might say he was only being pragmatic, but in the Washington Post, Dale Carpenter finds that refreshing:

In short, the opinion is a tour-de-force Posner special. It avoids constitutional-law jargon in favor of substance, omits unnecessary string citations (indeed, whole pages are free of any citations), and eschews footnotes altogether. It doesn’t hurt the cause of same-sex marriage that, after Learned Hand, Posner is the most influential and prolific federal judge never to serve on the Supreme Court. He’s not always right, but he’s always formidable.

Ari Ezra Waldman adds this:

When we started on this journey, states were arguing that gay marriage would do manifest, irreparable damage to the institution of marriage. No one was ever sure what that meant, but even that argument has been sidelined to the trash. By now, the arguments make literally no sense.

Judge Posner, a lion of the appellate judiciary, has had enough. His playful opinion is his way of expressing frustration at the continued life of these anti-equality bromides.

Reuters chose the correct pull-quote:

A U.S. appeals court judge known for his outspoken views described arguments by Wisconsin and Indiana defending bans on gay marriage as “totally implausible” on Thursday, in a ruling in favor of same-sex couples.

That is what Posner said of Scalia’s mechanistic rules-based if-then Grand Theory of All Legal Questions two years ago. Sometimes you defer to the political process, as Greg Epps colorfully explains:

Competing with William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor once wrote, is an inevitably losing proposition: “Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.”

Federal District Judge Martin Feldman may feel like that luckless muleskinner today. His decision affirming a state ban on same-sex marriage appeared Wednesday. On Thursday, the Dixie Limited, in the person of Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, ran over him going the other way.

In an opinion for a unanimous three-judge panel, Posner upheld a district-court ruling that struck down same-sex marriage bans in Indiana and Wisconsin. The opinion is a Posnerian tour de force: clear, clever, thorough, witty, and – well – odd. It replies to most of the arguments Feldman accepted, including the most important one – the argument that the courts should defer to the political process in matters of social policy.

The guy had it coming:

At this point, we know all the arguments against marriage equality: Procreation. Tradition. Morality. Caution about social change. Democratic process. Feldman’s opinion had a kind of listless, get-off-my-lawn tone. You kids and your same-sex marriage, can just count me out, he seems to be saying. Procreation, slippery slope, democratic process, can I go now?

Posner’s tone is not fatigue but Five-Hour Energy. He does not rebut arguments against same-sex marriage, but rather (to paraphrase an old Southern threat) beats them to a pulp, puts the pulp into a sack, and then beats on the sack.

And he quotes Posner on that:

One wouldn’t know, reading Wisconsin’s brief, that there is or ever has been discrimination against homosexuals anywhere in the United States. The state either is oblivious to, or thinks irrelevant, that until quite recently homosexuality was anathematized by the vast majority of heterosexuals (which means, the vast majority of the American people), including by most Americans who were otherwise quite liberal. Homosexuals had, as homosexuals, no rights; homosexual sex was criminal (though rarely prosecuted); homosexuals were formally banned from the armed forces and many other types of government work (though again enforcement was sporadic); and there were no laws prohibiting employment discrimination against homosexuals.

Then Epps ticks off Posner’s take on the “big” issues:

Opposite-sex marriage is traditional? “Tradition per se has no positive or negative significance. There are good traditions … bad traditions that are historical realities such as cannibalism, foot-binding, and suttee, and traditions that from a public-policy standpoint are neither good nor bad (such as trick-or-treating on Halloween). Tradition per se therefore cannot be a lawful ground for discrimination – regardless of the age of the tradition.”

“Caution” in allowing social change? Stubbornness is prejudice, not caution: “At the oral argument the state’s lawyer conceded that he had no knowledge of any study underway to determine the possible effects on heterosexual marriage in Wisconsin of allowing same-sex marriage.”

“Protecting” traditional marriage? “What Wisconsin has not told us is whether any heterosexuals have been harmed by same-sex marriage.”

The democratic process? “Minorities trampled on by the democratic process have recourse to the courts; the recourse is called constitutional law.”

Yeah, there is that, and two years after he covered the original Scalia-Posner spat, Eric Segall is again discussing it in terms of cases Posner will force up to Scalia, including this one:

The University of Notre Dame didn’t want to provide certain forms of required contraception to its students and employees so it went to court seeking a religious exemption. The bizarre thing about the case is Notre Dame was already exempt. What it wanted was not to fill out the form that would have guaranteed the university an exemption. Notre Dame claimed, to most people’s disbelief, that filling out the short form and asking for the exemption was itself a substantial burden on its religious exercise.

Posner would have none of it. At the oral argument, he took a harsh tone with the lawyer for Notre Dame who refused again and again to answer directly how filling out a piece of paper could possibly be a “substantial burden on religion…”

Eventually, Notre Dame lost (the court of appeals uses three-judge panels) and the final opinion written by Posner said this: “The novelty of Notre Dame’s claim – not for the exemption, which it has, but for the right to have it without having to ask for it – deserves emphasis … What makes this case and others like it involving the contraception exemption paradoxical and virtually unprecedented is that the beneficiaries of the religious exemption are claiming that the exemption process itself imposes a substantial burden on their religious faiths … The process of claiming one’s exemption is the opposite of cumbersome. It amounts to signing one’s name and mailing the signed form to two addresses.”

From the oral argument through the decision, Posner seemed shocked at the idea that Notre Dame would challenge an exemption given to it by the federal government on the basis that it – gasp – had to ask for it.

Posner knows an implausible argument when he sees one, and he’ll tear to shreds with simple logic and devastating clarity and more than a little wit, and dare the Supreme Court to take up his appellate-level decision rather than let it stand. Scalia will no doubt get nasty and rage a bit, and talk about what the framers specifically said about the morality of birth control by means of a pill mass-produced in central New Jersey containing low-dose artificial hormones, or what they had to say about gay marriage – but he’ll have to make it up. And no one has come up with that Constitutionality Computer yet, where you plug in the facts of the case and the decision is sent to your smartphone. He’s out of luck there.

These two are quite a pair, and it’s easy to see what that woman who had argued before each of them was getting at. It would be a pleasure to argue in front of Posner. It would be fun to be challenged and go back and forth on these things. It sure beats getting berated and sneered at. It’s good to have known someone who had both experiences. But how did that happen? Go figure.

Posted in Antonin Scalia, Gay Marriage, Richard Posner, Supreme Court Issues | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

What to Worry About

Here it is, the end of the first week in September, and Obama doesn’t have a comprehensive strategy for dealing with those ISIS folks, yet – he’s still working on it. In Estonia on NATO business, Obama’s message was mixed – we’d either wipe them out, or degrade their capabilities so much that they’d be quite manageable. Which was it? Obama wasn’t clear, and John McCain and Lindsey Graham and everyone on Fox News were livid about this, although no one had any useful policy suggestions, other than doing something.

Most of the talk was about how we should have stayed in Iraq, to force Maliki to be nice to the local Sunnis and to teach his army that you stand and fight – you don’t abandon all the fancy American hardware in the field and run away. And of course we should have supported the rebels in Syria two years ago, because some of them were probably not jihadist jerks at the time, and with enough effort we might have figured out which of those who opposed Assad didn’t take the idea of a Sunni caliphate all that seriously. There were only two or three hundred rebel groups at the time, and they all hated it other, but we could have armed someone or other. Now they’d all morphed into ISIS – so we should wipe out ISIS – because they’re out to topple Assad. No wait, they’re out to topple the new post-Maliki government in Iraq too. We should help them topple Assad, and then wipe them out, before they topple the Iraqi government, which we spent eight years and five thousand American lives and one or two trillion dollars setting up, which then asked us to get the hell out. We decided it would be fine if the Shiites were in charge – their choice – and now they’re far more comfortable dealing with Iran, our enemy from way back, then they are in dealing with us.

These things happen, but Obama should deal with ISIS and tell us all what the grand plan is. He should have a grand plan, even if no one has any idea of what that should be, and he should tell the American people all about it. Then they’ll say it’s stupid. We should just wipe out those ISIS guys, with no boots on the ground, and without supporting Assad, who really is a monster, even if those who want to toss him out are even bigger monsters.

Simple, isn’t it? Obama doesn’t think so, and he gained an odd ally this week, a pundit for the conservative National Journal, Ron Fournier – the former Washington bureau chief at the Associated Press who left there in 2010 after a bumpy ride. In July 2008, when the House Oversight Committee was investigating the death of Pat Tillman, they uncovered a curious email from Fournier to Karl Rove telling Rove to “keep up the fight” – Tillman’s death by friendly fire could be spun to make the Bush team look good, somehow. That year, 2008, was also when Fournier was writing background pieces for the Associated Press, all of which somehow proved that Obama was not fit to be president. Drudge and Hot Air and all the other angry-right sites picked those up, and it was obvious the Associated Press had an “impartiality” problem on their hands. They parted ways. Fournier dropped the pretense – he works for the angry right now, as one of the “thoughtful ones” over there.

That could do him in, because he now writes this about feckless Obama and the existential threat of ISIS – “A columnist should never admit uncertainty, but here’s mine: I’m not ready to side with the hawks or the doves.”

Something happened. For once, Ron Fournier isn’t dead sure about everything. He openly admits to all the complications here, most of which stemmed from the mess we made of Iraq, and especially from all the lies and all the eager incompetence that led us into that rather stupid war, and he adds this:

President Obama is a living reflection of this psychological context. Uncertain and contradictory, Obama is grasping for the right mix of hawk and dove to rally Americans, unite the world, and confront ISIS without locking the United States into another unholy mess.

God bless him. It’s a hellish task. Obama’s lack of clarity so far has drawn criticism from the across the political spectrum, including from me… Two loyal readers remind me by email, and for different reasons, that Obama needs time to get this right.

He does? Fournier won’t be swapping emails with Karl Rove again anytime soon, and at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum is surprised and can only add this:

Sometimes you have to make a fast decision, even if you have limited knowledge. That’s life. But other times you don’t, and you’d be foolish to lock yourself into a decision when you have time to collect more intelligence. This is the true lesson of leadership: Make decisions as fast as possible, but no faster. That’s what Obama is doing.

Is that so bad? It really would be nice to get this right this time. Perhaps we can wait for a sensible decision, even if waiting for one seems to be something that’s not very American at all. The outrage generators will always be out there. See Hannity Regular Erik Rush: Obama Setting up ISIS Base in New Mexico to Stage Terror Attacks – but that seems unlikely. It’s a Fox News kind of thing. Obama is not a secret member of ISIS plotting the end of America, with our taxpayer dollars. He just wants to get things right this time, and the Ukrainian business is like that too. That situation is complicated by reluctant allies and interlocking economies, which Vladimir Putin knows. We have to outthink him, and outmaneuver him, and then drag our allies along. These things take time. Rolling in the tanks would be quick and easy. World War III would be easy. Give it time. There are other things to worry about.

One could, for example, worry about the economy:

Hundreds of fast-food workers and labor allies demanding a $15-an-hour wage were arrested in sit-ins around the country on Thursday, as the protesters used civil disobedience to call attention to their cause.

Organizers said nearly 500 protesters were arrested in three dozen cities – including Chicago, Detroit, Las Vegas, New York and Little Rock, Ark. All told, the sit-ins took place in about 150 cities nationwide, the organizers said. …

“I’m doing this for better pay,” said Crystal Harris, a McDonald’s worker from St. Louis, minutes before she sat down in the middle of 42nd Street in Manhattan outside a McDonald’s restaurant about 7:30 a.m. on Thursday. “I struggle to make ends meet on $7.50 an hour.”

The protesters carried signs saying, “Low Pay Is Not O.K.,” “On Strike to Lift My Family Up,” and “Whatever It Takes: $15 and Union Rights.” They also want McDonald’s and other fast-food chains to agree not to fight a unionization drive.

These people don’t care about ISIS or the Ukraine – they’re in a world of hurt – and the economic system is stacked against them, so they’re getting together and fighting back:

The Service Employees International Union, which has spent more than $10 million underwriting the fast-food movement, sought to add more protesters and decibels to the efforts on Thursday by getting home care aides to join the picket lines for the first time. The SEIU which represents hundreds of thousands of health care workers and janitors, hopes that the push for $15 will help lift the wages of many home care workers and other low-wage health care workers.

“With the integration of home care workers into this effort, this is starting to become a larger low-wage workers’ movement,” said Kendall Fells, organizing director for the movement, known as Fast Food Forward.

Rob Green, executive director of the National Council of Chain Restaurants, was critical of the sit-ins. “Encouraging activities that put both restaurant workers and their customers in danger of physical harm is not only irresponsible, it’s disturbing,” he said in a statement. “Unions are calling it ‘civil disobedience’ when in reality, this choreographed activity is trespassing and it’s illegal.”

We seem to have reached a point where the underclass had had just about enough of this, and the establishment, so to speak, thinks they’ll ruin everything:

Restaurant trade groups have repeatedly denounced the call for a $15 hourly wage, saying it would push up menu prices and result in less hiring of fast-food workers, especially entry-level, low-skilled employees. The International Franchise Association says a $15 wage would wipe out the profit margins at many fast-food restaurants. Fast-food workers receive an average of about $9 an hour.

All of that has been disputed over and over, and will continue to be disputed, but it comes down to a simple idea. Businesses cannot make money if they have to keep paying higher and higher wages. They cannot raise their prices or they’ll lose business. If everyone worked for minimum wage, the current one – or better yet, worked for free – then businesses would thrive and we’d have boom times again. Workers say they cannot live on minimum wage, and they’re certainly not going to work for free and starve, so they’ll take action, even if everyone in America hates unions, because they’re corrupt and kind of communist or something. Economists will tell you that low wages do increase profits, but also point out that low wages mean that people have less money in their pockets, and the more you force pay to stay low, or go lower, the less consumer demand there is, slowing the economy. No one can buy much of anything, and if you force wages low enough, consumer demand collapses, and then the economy collapses. So, do you want profitable businesses, eventually with no customers, or do you want folks to have money in their pockets, buying the goods and services businesses provide, at the cost of smaller profits? Choose one. And choose quickly. We’re running out of time here.

That’s a problem that’s a little closer to home than Mosul or Kiev. Of course any banker will tell you there’s a simple solution to all this. Have those who can’t even afford to buy cat food for their dinner take out loans. Then they can buy stuff and pay the bank a bit each week, and then then that bank can put all these unsecured loans on their books as assets – money they are owed by contract – and aggregate those “assets” in investment instruments they can sell to others, investment instruments that can be split up and resold again and again to many others, each party making a fat profit each time. Problem solved – wages stay low, so businesses thrive, and everyone has lots of cash to spend on whatever they want, and the bankers get really, really rich. It worked before, didn’t it? Offer those McDonalds workers big loans with teaser rates. What could go wrong?

Okay, forget that. A consumer economy depends on consumers with actual money in their pockets, buying things – consuming, as it were. That’s not all that hard a concept, but spend a day watching the financial wizards on CNBC endlessly discussing why the economy still seems to stink. What’s wrong with the American consumer? Why aren’t people buying things – is it bad marketing, or the wrong product, is it foolish management, or have tastes changed, or is it Obamacare, or the weather? No, folks don’t have the money to buy stuff, and they’ll be damned if they’ll go into more debt. You are the people who love low labor costs, and love those very cool massive layoffs that make a company lean and mean and competitive again. What did you expect?

This is something to worry about, while Obama worries about ISIS and Putin, and now there’s new data to worry about:

The richest 10% of Americans were the only group whose median incomes rose in the last three years, the Federal Reserve said Thursday in a report on consumer finances.

The Fed said that incomes declined for every other group from 2010 to 2013, widening the gap between the richest Americans and everyone else.

We managed to create an economy where real wages have dropped for ninety percent of consumers, collapsing demand:

The report found that median incomes, adjusted for inflation, for the top 10% rose 2%, to $223,200 from $217,900. Median income fell 4% for the bottom 20%, to $15,200 from $15,800.

For the middle 20%, incomes dropped 6%, to $48,700 from $51,800.

The information, from the Fed’s latest “Survey of Consumer Finances,” echoed findings of other studies of the effect of the Great Recession on U.S. households. The very wealthy have benefited the most from gains in the stock market and housing values after the recession. But poor and middle-income people, who depend more on wages, have been hurt by sluggish growth in pay even after the downturn officially ended in June 2009.

The Fed survey found that the median income for all families stood at $46,700 in 2013, down 5% from 2010.

The Fed does this survey every three years, and this was the most troubling yet. Cut almost everyone’s income by five percent every three years and bad things are going to happen. The fast food workers are just the start of the troubles to come, but our political system isn’t set up for them, or most everyone else:

Former House majority leader Eric Cantor is joining a Wall Street investment bank as vice chairman and managing director, the firm announced this morning.

The firm, Moelis & Co., said Cantor will be based in the New York office of the global company and will soon open an office in Washington. Moelis, with 500 employees, is known as a fast-growing “boutique” firm that advises companies and investors on mergers, acquisitions and risk.

It will use Cantor, 51, to help it compete for business, according to the Wall Street Journal, which broke the story. He will also advise corporate clients on takeovers and “other deals,” the Journal reported.

Cantor, a lawyer, does not have a Wall Street background, though he was considered a friend of Wall Street in Congress. According to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, individuals and committees associated with the securities and investment business were the leading donors among industries to Cantor’s reelection bid, giving a combined total of about $1.4 million during the primary election cycle in 2013 and 2014.

The figure is not unusual for a member of the Republican leadership in Congress.

The figure might not be unusual for Hillary Clinton either, and Annie Lowrey talks about this move with Dennis Kelleher, “a former corporate lawyer and longtime Senate staffer who now heads the nonprofit Better Markets” and Kelleher offers this:

Wall Street is after what it’s always buying in Washington: access, influence, and unfair advantage. And Cantor is a big catch for anybody who wants access.

Look, if you’re in congressional leadership for X number of years, you know plenty that’s worth a lot of money. If you’re the majority leader, who’s in charge of the agenda and vote counting? One of your jobs is to make sure you’re doling out favors to people. There are dozens and dozens of House members indebted to Eric Cantor for the things he’s done for them. You’re worth a lot.

In addition, Eric Cantor knows why some things got done and other things didn’t get done. He knows why someone voted for or against a bill or amendment. He knows how to strategically target everybody in the House on the issues that anybody cares about in a way that’s close to unique. He’s not going to crudely do it in a way that puts the scarlet-L lobbyist on his lapel. He and the rest of the influence peddlers at the highest level of government work the shadows and do indirectly what the law prohibits them from doing directly.

At Bloomberg, Matt Levine sees it this way:

Cantor is there as a show of importance. Important people like to deal with other important people, and every important person Moelis hires makes it more likely that other important people will deal with them – important people with important piles of money to be spent on important advisory fees. It’s a simple business, but it’s the business they’ve chosen.

Beyond the importance peddling, is there influence peddling? Ah, sure, probably. “Hire us for your merger because our vice chairman is important” is a perfectly reasonable sales pitch. “Hire us for your merger because our vice chairman knows a lot of people in Washington and can probably get you through antitrust approval” is also a good pitch, no? That’s probably some part of what “to advise clients on strategic matters” means.

That’s how things work, and Patrick Caldwell notes it’s not just Republicans:

Democrats sell out, too. In 2010, former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh announced his plans to retire in 2010 in a New York Times op-ed that bemoaned the lack of bipartisan friendships in the modern Senate and attacked the influence of money in politics. Yet shortly after he left Congress, Bayh signed up with law firm McGuireWoods and private equity firm Apollo Global Management and began acting as a lobbyist for corporate clients in all but name. Less than a year later, he joined the US Chamber of Commerce as an adviser. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) pulled a similar trick, promising “no lobbying, no lobbying,” before taking a $1-million-plus job as the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, Hollywood’s main lobbying group.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 417 ex-lawmakers hold lobbyist or lobbyist-like jobs.

They deal with the top ten percent, not the losers, and then there’s Richard Fink (his real name) who is the Koch brothers’ top political strategist, who took some time from his busy schedule to explain why his two guys at the top of the top of One Percent are having real problems reaching the “middle third” of the country that’s not really into Koch Brothers Patriotic Libertarianism:

“Yeah, we want to decrease regulations. Why? It’s because we can make more profit, OK? Yeah, cut government spending so we don’t have to pay so much taxes” said Fink. “There’s truth in that… But the middle part of the country doesn’t see it that way.”

“When we focus on decreasing government spending, over-criminalization, decreasing taxes, it doesn’t do it, OK? We’ve been reaching the [middle] third by telling them what’s important – what we think is important should be important to them. And they’re not responding and don’t like it, OK? Well, we get business – what do we do? We want to find out what the customer wants, right, not what we want them to buy,” he said.

Keven Drum has a bit of fun with that:

Imagine that. When the middle third of the country hears the message that regulations should be cut back so that corporations can make more money, it doesn’t respond well. So what’s the answer? Find out what they do respond to and use that as an excuse for less regulation instead. Ixnay on the ofitpray!

But this is an odd problem:

As Fink says, this is pretty ordinary marketing. Still, it’ll be interesting to see what they come up with. Obviously the Kochians feel like they need a new set of selling points for reduced corporate regulation and it needs to be something that Joe and Jane Sixpack can identify with. I wonder what it’s going to be.

Who knows? They’ll come up with something, something the McDonalds workers can chant in the streets. Eliminate the capital gains tax! Eliminate the capital gains tax! Abolish the EPA! Abolish the EPA!

No, that’s not going to happen. It’s too late now. While ISIS was beheading journalists and Putin was pretending he didn’t invade Ukraine, and dared us to do something about it, things here started to come to a head. We’re finally coming to understand who really who really runs what we thought was our country, for their friends. Now THAT is something to worry about.

Posted in Economic Issues, Income Inequality | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Here in Trash-Talk Nation

Trash talk isn’t football, but the fans love it. It’s often better than the game – some mean-looking chemically enhanced monster of a guy will say those other guys are pathetic punks, and call out a few by name, and say they’re going to get beat so badly they’ll hang their heads in shame, crying for their mommies, if they’re not carried off the field on stretchers, unconscious. It’s a tactic. The first step in establishing total dominance is to create some sense of uncertainty in those you wish to dominate – at least that seems to be the idea – but it never really works. These are professional football players. They do what they do – no one is going to “get inside their head” when the task is clear, and a task they have performed many times, refining what works and what doesn’t. Talk is talk, but then trash talk does get people in the seats or avidly watching every moment on television, and the replays too. The league won’t stop the trash talk. It’s simply great marketing, and it’s free.

Muhammad Ali may have started this. Before each fight he would playfully explain how he was going to dismantle and embarrass his opponent – he’d float like a butterfly and sting like a bee or whatever. These pronouncements were often alliterative and ironic on many levels, and sometimes infuriatingly subtle. He opponents could only master a resentful scowl, because they were befuddled and now a bit uncertain – boxers are not very facile, generally, and they don’t like thinking much. If they did, they wouldn’t be boxers, and that was the trick here. Ali’s odd words were his first actual punches. They were going down.

Now we’re used to trash talk, this marketing tool and sometimes useful tool of dominance, useful if the other guy does laugh in your face, and then offer his own more clever trash talk. Trash talk has become a tool of diplomacy, or always was a tool of diplomacy. In the late fifties, Nikita Khrushchev sneered at the decadent capitalist west and said he would bury us, or communism would bury us, or something. That didn’t work out. We didn’t quake in our shoes, but it was worth a try, and it was great marketing for his product. Unfortunately, his product was defective. It happens. Pro football players know that all too well, and maybe diplomats and world leaders know that too. Trash talk is useful, if done well, and our current troubles with ISIS (or ISIL) are caused by their trash talk. They have themselves a real caliphate, and they’re going to take over the world, and bury us. Their particular trash talk also comes with visual aids – the beheadings and the stonings and crucifixions, slavery, and that business of taxing those who refuse to convert to Islam, or killing them. That’s been rather effective. They got inside our heads, even if there’s no way they’ll bury us. We now wonder if they really could take over the world. They spooked us. They pulled a Muhammad Ali on us.

That calls for trash talk back, right at them, and President Obama, in Estonia on NATO matters, decided to give it a go:

President Obama vowed on Wednesday to punish the Sunni militants whose videotaped beheadings of two American journalists he said had “repulsed” the world, saying the United States would lead a regional and international coalition to beat back the terrorists.

“Our objective is clear, and that is: degrade and destroy ISIL so that it’s no longer a threat, not just to Iraq but also to the region and to the United States,” Mr. Obama said, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He was speaking at a news conference here on the eve of a NATO summit meeting in Wales, as pressure built for him to articulate a broader military strategy to take on the ISIS militants.

“It’s not only that we’re going to be bringing to justice those who perpetrated this terrible crime against these two fine young men,” the president said. “The United States will continue to lead a regional and international effort against the kind of barbaric and ultimately empty vision” the group represents.

And they’ll go running home to their mommies, if they’re still alive, but many assumed that Obama was just blowing smoke, because he’s just not a trash talking kind of guy:

Mr. Obama’s strongly worded statement came after he drew criticism from allies and foes last week, when he said that he had not yet developed a strategy for confronting ISIS in Syria.

The damned guy is still carefully working on a comprehensive strategy when he should be in the face of these ISIS jerks. He should tell them off, so he did. A comprehensive strategy would be nice too, but trash talk matters. Tell them they’re going to lose. You can figure out how to make that happen later. Many were happy that Obama at least came up with some matching in-your-face trash talk. That’ll worry them.

It won’t, and ABC News points out that this wasn’t even very good trash talk:

President Obama has condemned the beheading of U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff, saying “we will not be intimidated … justice will be done.”

But he offered a mixed message today about what exactly the United States wants to do about ISIS.

At first, the president offered what seemed to be an unambiguous goal. “The bottom line is this: Our objective is clear and that is to degrade and destroy ISIL so it is no longer a threat,” he said.

That would be an expansion of what the president and top White House officials have said previously. They have steadfastly avoided saying the goal of U.S. policy is the destruction of ISIS, instead citing more modest objectives: protecting Americans, protecting Iraqi infrastructure, stopping a humanitarian disaster, etc.

But when ABC News Radio White House correspondent Ann Compton today asked the president to clarify whether the United States now wants ISIS destroyed, the president seemed to significantly backtrack.

“Our objective is to make sure they aren’t an ongoing threat to the region,” he said.

Then it got even worse:

“We know that if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its military capability to the point where it is a manageable problem.”

Making ISIS a “manageable problem” sounds like a far cry from destroying it.

Obama is just no good at this. He’s no Muhammad Ali. He’s no Nikita Khrushchev. Paul Waldman explains the problem:

President Obama responded to the videotaped murder of journalist Steven Sotloff by ISIS, saying, “We will not be intimidated,” and “Their horrific acts only unite us as a country and stiffen our resolve to take the fight against these terrorists.” This more confrontational rhetoric suggests that an acceleration of American military action will not be long in coming. If ISIS was hoping to draw that military response by killing Americans and disseminating the acts in videos, it looks like they’ll be getting their wish.

At the same time, however, members of the media (and conservatives, of course) were jumping all over Obama for another line: “We know that if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its military capability to the point where it is a manageable problem.” The sin here was apparently the word “manageable.”

That’s not a word that should ever be used in diplomatic trash talk:

If Obama had said, “My plan is to go over there and punch Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the face, whereupon all his followers will disappear in a puff of smoke and we’ll never have to worry about them again,” he would have been praised for being “tough.” But because he is acknowledging that dealing with ISIS is going to be a complex process that will play out over an extended period of time, Obama will get pilloried.

You’re supposed to say, “I’ll crush ‘em, and it’ll all be over in a week.” And history shows that this is exactly what the American public wants. The kind of overseas involvements that maintain strong public support are those that end quickly, with an emphatic victory. This isn’t going to be one of those, which means that in the court of public opinion, Obama is all but doomed.

Obama is doomed as Fox News reports:

The remarks are likely to sow confusion on Capitol Hill, and possibly among allies.

“Are we going to contain ISIS or are we going to crush ISIS? And the president has not answered that,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., told Fox News, reacting to the president’s remarks.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., in a written statement, criticized the president’s “mixed messages” on the Islamic State. “The time to stop and destroy ISIL is now,” he said.

Speaking Tuesday night on Fox News, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the Islamic State has “got to be destroyed” and claimed the president does not yet have a strategy to implement that.

Waldman reminds us that we’ve seen this before:

The ridiculous hand-flapping over the fact that Obama used the words “manageable problem” in relation to ISIS is reminiscent of the 2004 presidential campaign. John Kerry suggested that the “war on terror” wasn’t something that would end with a victory parade, instead saying the best-case scenario was to reduce terrorism to the point where it no longer required a constant war footing and public panic. “As a former law enforcement person, I know we’re never going to end prostitution. We’re never going to end illegal gambling,” he said. “But we’re going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn’t on the rise. It isn’t threatening people’s lives every day, and fundamentally, it’s something that you continue to fight, but it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.”

Naturally, everyone in the media screamed “Gaffe!” and George W. Bush’s campaign immediately turned it into an attack ad. In all ended for the best, because Bush won reelection, and by the time he left office in 2009, there were no more terrorists anywhere in the world and the tactic of killing civilians to achieve political ends had vanished from the earth forever.

There’s the trash talk before the game and then there’s the game itself. Those are two different things, and Waldman argues we get that two confused:

It’s clear that neither the media nor the public has much tolerance for military undertakings that are complicated, lengthy, and have uncertain outcomes. If you look back at public opinion in past conflicts, what you see is that there’s usually strong support at the outset, particularly if it seems like the objectives are clear and everything will be concluded quickly. The trouble is that with a couple of exceptions, that’s not how things turn out. If we can wrap up the little war in a week or two, as with Grenada or Gulf War I, then approval remains high. But the longer it goes, the more public support degrades over time, as it did on Afghanistan and Iraq.

Of course, a lengthy war is in most cases one that isn’t going swimmingly, almost by definition. But the nature of ISIS – a well-funded group spread out over a wide geographic area – means that defeating them (or reducing them to a manageable problem) isn’t something that could be accomplished with a couple of weeks of bombing, unless you also wanted to kill a few million of the people we’re trying to save from them in the process.

That means there’s only one way this will play out:

Obama will increase our military involvement beyond the limited air campaign now going on. He may get a temporary rush of approval as everybody gets excited about a newly kinetic engagement, even though Republicans will say that whatever he’s doing is weak, and if he was stronger than we would have already defeated ISIS. But even in the best-case scenario, one involving the Iraqi government getting its act together, the conflict will stretch out over a long period of time. The public – and the press – will lose their taste for it, regardless of whether alternatives might have produced worse outcomes.

Yeah, but only sissies consider alternatives, and Peter Beinart examines that idea, in relation to an op-ed by John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who want the alternative to careful strategy, which is action, right now, which may not make sense:

One reason Obama isn’t bombing in Syria yet is that he’s not clear on what the goal would be. McCain and Graham are. “ISIS,” they write, “cannot be contained.” Why not? Hasn’t the U.S. been containing al-Qaeda – ISIS’s estranged older brother – for more than a decade now? But the two senators don’t pause to explain. “It must be confronted,” they declare. What does that mean? If the U.S. is bombing ISIS in Iraq, aren’t we confronting the group already?

McCain and Graham later clarify: The goal is to “defeat ISIS.” Excellent – how do we do that? 1) “It requires an inclusive government in Baghdad that shares power and wealth with Iraqi Sunnis.” OK, Obama just toppled a prime minister in service of that goal. But there are those decades of dictatorship, brutality, and sectarian slaughter to overcome. 2) “Mobilize America’s partners in a coordinated, multilateral effort.” OK, but those “partners” – which include pro-Muslim Brotherhood regimes like Turkey and Qatar and anti-Muslim Brotherhood ones like Egypt and Saudi Arabia – are jockeying fiercely with one another for influence across the Middle East. Not to mention the fact that they don’t listen to us all that much anymore. 3) Bring “an end to the conflict in Syria.”

How do we do that? Who knows? But we should do that, right now. Beinart doubts we can:

Last year, when George Washington University’s Marc Lynch surveyed scholars of civil wars, he found that “most contributors are … deeply pessimistic about the prospect for ending Syria’s civil war any time soon” because “Syria has among the worst possible configurations [of any civil war]: a highly fragmented opposition, many potential spoilers, and foreign actors intervening enough to keep the conflict raging but not enough to decisively end the war.” McCain and Graham don’t explain how to overcome all this. They simply note, in passing, that defeating ISIS will require ending Syria’s civil war. It’s like writing an op-ed that demands the United States “defeat” climate change and mentioning that, by the way, one of the prerequisites is the elimination of fossil fuels.

Any serious proposal for expanding American military involvement in Iraq into Syria must do one of two things. 1) Explain, in some detail, how bombing ISIS will strengthen the moderate Syrian opposition rather than other Sunni jihadist groups (for instance, al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate) and/or Bashar al-Assad. Or 2) explain why it’s worth bombing ISIS even if we strengthen other Sunni jihadist groups and/or Bashar al-Assad.

McCain and Graham haven’t thought this through, and Digby (Heather Parton) says anyone can see why:

McCain and Graham are talking about “optics” not strategy or policy. What they want is for president Obama to go on TV and talk about good and evil and how the oceans don’t protect us anymore and how we have to fight the bad guys and “take ‘em out.” They want tough talk. They need the US to be swinging its great big stick as hard as it can because that is how they perceive influence to be properly wielded. If you are calm or thoughtful or patient, it means you are showing weakness.

We have become a trash-talk nation, but trash talk has its limits, as Slate’s Joshua Keating notes here:

ISIS may be ruthless and fanatical, but it would be impossible to expand as quickly as it has thus far without an understanding of strategy. The group’s leaders surely know that they are likely drawing the U.S. military further into this conflict and believe this is to their advantage. Kurdish and Iraqi forces, with help from the U.S. and Iran, seem to be rolling back ISIS’s territorial gains in Iraq, so the group’s best hope of remaining a viable and prominent militant group may be to go underground and continue to inflict terror on its enemies. And those enemies aren’t just American. ISIS also recently released videos showing the beheading of a Kurdish peshmerga fighter and a Lebanese soldier. Hopefully this strategy will backfire before any more hostages are killed.

Trash talk can piss off the other side, and they can just beat the crap out of you for it. When the ESPN reporter sticks the microphone in your face before the game and asks if you’re going to win, because you’re the most awesome bad-ass team that ever played the game, smile enigmatically – and then go play the game. ISIS doesn’t get it, nor do McCain and Graham, and Keating later adds this:

ISIS may believe that it can continue to demonstrate that it can strike the U.S. by executing these prisoners, and that the U.S. isn’t going to do anything about it. If this really is their thinking, they don’t have a very good grasp of history. Americans are traditionally reluctant to go to war right up until they do. Saddam Hussein didn’t think the U.S. would really attack him either.

Saddam’s trash talk may have been his worst mistake, as we learned in 2008:

Saddam Hussein let the world think he had weapons of mass destruction to intimidate Iran and prevent the country from attacking Iraq, according to an FBI agent who interviewed the dictator after his 2003 capture.

According to a CBS report, Hussein claimed he didn’t anticipate that the United States would invade Iraq over WMD, agent George Piro said on “60 Minutes,” scheduled for Sunday broadcast.

“For him, it was critical that he was seen as still the strong, defiant Saddam. He thought that (faking having the weapons) would prevent the Iranians from reinvading Iraq,” said Piro.

That’s odd. Trash talk can actually kill you, but in the New Yorker, Dexter Filkins thinks something else might be going on here:

It’s hard to watch the video of Steven Sotloff’s last moments and not conclude … the ostensible objective of securing an Islamic state is nowhere near as important as killing people. For the guys who signed up for ISIS – including, especially, the masked man with the English accent who wielded the knife – killing is the real point of being there. Last month, when ISIS forces overran a Syrian Army base in the city of Raqqa, they beheaded dozens of soldiers and displayed their trophies on bloody spikes. “Here are heads that have ripened, that were ready for the plucking,” an ISIS fighter said in narration. Two soldiers were crucified. This sounds less like a battle than like some kind of macabre party.

If so, then whatever we say, however thundering and intimidating and righteous it might sound, might not make any difference at all. They’re not marketing this new caliphate that will bury us all – many of them are westerners who don’t know much about Islam at all. They’re just having fun, but that’s not the right word. Josh Marshall has another way of saying that:

Throughout the Cold War, there was a set place for Westerners who wanted a total opposition to liberal democracy and capitalism – either communism (though the appeal of Soviet-style communism waned in the second half of the Cold War) or the various strains of revolutionary socialism that emerged during the Cold War, whether it was Maoism, Cuba-inspired revolutionaries or the various left-wing terrorist groups in Europe like the Red Brigade or the Baader-Meinhof Gang.

I don’t mean to denude these movements of all their politics or portray them as mere matters of personal expression. Nor do I want to reduce Islam to its pretty tiny (though highly dangerous) ISIS-like variant. But if you wanted to say “no” to the entire edifice of capitalism and democracy and liberalism, there was a cluster of related ideologies on hand to buy into. And many did, some as personal belief, others as dilettantes, and others committing and even losing their lives.

Marshall calls this “a rage to oppose” – as good a term as any for the psychology of those looking for a cause, the more radical the better, and they’d love to trade trash talk with Obama, or the other guy:

Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday issued a sharp warning to ISIS militants, saying that after the United States is done grieving the death of two American journalists, their killers will have to answer for their actions.

“They should know we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice,” he forcefully told an audience at an event on the New Hampshire-Maine border, “because hell is where they will reside. Hell is where they will reside.”

Now THAT is real trash talk, but if Marshall is right, their answer to Uncle Joe would be trash talk right back at him – “Fine, let’s go there together, right now.” And Obama is the odd-man-out here. In Estonia, Obama tried that trash talk thing, perhaps because he was told he had to, but his heart wasn’t in it. He found himself reverting to his default position, realistic thoughtfulness. Waldman is right. In a trash-talk nation, such a man is doomed. We all are.

Posted in ISIS, Obama Too Cautious, Trash Talk | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Forced Learning

Summer is over and it’s back to school – but not really. Summer does not end at dawn on the Tuesday morning after the extended Labor Day weekend – the autumnal equinox is weeks away – it just feels like it’s the end of something, because it is. It’s back to work and back to school, except Americans who want to keep their jobs don’t dare take vacation and most school districts now start the new school year in late August, or earlier. Still, it feels like the end of summer, and so it is, and the back-to-school lesson this time is world geography. On the Tuesday morning after the extended Labor Day weekend the president flew off to Estonia – a tiny but pleasant little county at the far eastern end of the Baltic Sea, right up against Russia, along with its neighbors, the equally pleasant but unremarkable Latvia and Lithuania. Like them, Estonia has been part of Sweden and Denmark at times, and Finland, and was occupied by the Soviets in the early forties, and then occupied by the Nazi folks, then reoccupied by Soviets, and then became one of the Soviet Socialist Republics, until the Soviet Union fell apart in 1989 – and two years later they were finally on their own.

They thrived. There may be only 1.3 million people there, but the place is prosperous and totally wired – everyone has fast internet and all that. Western-style democracy and a consumer-based economy suited them. A quarter of the population is Russian, but those are the yokels. Estonia, along with Latvia and Lithuania, joined NATO in 2004 – they’re comfortable with the Western European thing, and all the NATO nations, including the United States, had always held that the Soviets had grabbed these three little countries illegally. When the Soviets were suddenly no more, and there was only a diminished Russia out there, they bolted and never looked back. Vladimir Putin may want these three little countries back, for Greater Russia or something, but it’s too late for that. They chose. They chose NATO, which is a mutual defense pact. An attack on Estonia is the same as an attack on Germany or France, or the United States. Deal with it.

That’s why there’s war in eastern Ukraine right now, and why Putin had grabbed the Crimea from Ukraine. Those Ukrainians rose up and overthrew Putin’s guy in Kiev and announced they’d be increasing trade ties with Western Europe, and scaling back trade ties with Moscow, and would be applying for NATO membership. They’d be Estonia, only bigger, and less obscure. That seems to be why Putin is doing his best to destabilize what’s left of Ukraine. Even if Russia doesn’t take over the place, Russia can force the government there to declare autonomous “culturally Russian” regions in the east and elsewhere, kind of like the arrangement the Kurds have in Iraq, so the central government then wouldn’t be much of a government at all, which NATO wouldn’t like at all. They’d prefer to deal with a real country. NATO would say no to their application. Ukraine would not become another Estonia.

That’s the plan. Russia doesn’t have the military resources to roll in and simply take back all the former Soviet Socialist Republics – the locals wouldn’t stand for it, nor would the world – but they can do their best to support the beleaguered Russian enclaves in those countries. With military aid for those oppressed minorities there, and a few thousand of their own troops on the ground, just to help out, they can, perhaps, make the wholly unified governments in this country or that into a rather useless loose federations, not real countries at all. NATO would fall apart. Russia would be safe, surrounded by geopolitical eunuchs. Ukraine is a test case. Obama is quite right in refusing to call it an invasion. It’s a test case in turning a unified nation into a loose federation of independent regions that the central government can’t really control – kind of like Iraq at the moment. It’s a work in progress.

That’s why Obama flew off to Estonia, to assure Estonia, and all of NATO, that Putin wasn’t going to get away with this – together, they’d stop him, somehow. Obama will then fly to Wales to meet with heads of all the NATO nations, to say the same thing, and not much may come of it. The NATO nations prefer that the United States takes care of the messy expensive stuff, and prefer that the United States impose its own sanctions on Russia, because their sanctions on Russia hurt them as much as they hurt Russia. Obama will propose a joint effort.

That should be interesting, but on this side of the pond there’s John McCain and that crew saying screw NATO – send heavy arms to the Ukrainians now, and the trainers to show them how to use them, and the advisors to show them when and where to use them, and the drones and all the electronic spy stuff so they know just what the bad guys are doing, where, and so on. If they need air support, we could provide that, and maybe should – but at least we arm them to the teeth, for now. That’s what we did in 1964 in South Vietnam after all – we armed them so they could defend themselves. This time it might work out better. Sure, Russia could see this as a major escalation and really pour in the tanks and troops, but we could escalate right back. We could carpet bomb those troops and tanks. If they respond to that by escalating again, sending in their air force, we escalate again by sending in ours, and so on – but we’re America, damn it. They’d back down, or we’d reach a stalemate, staring at each other, fully armed and ready to fire everything at each other but knowing we’d better not. That would end this.

That worked in the Cold War just fine, didn’t it? Mutually Assured Destruction assured peace, more or less. That seems to be the thought here, even if Obama seems to think there are other ways to approach this. He could be clearer about those, but that’s not to be. Events which seem to call for pulling the trigger keep coming up. On the same day that Obama left for Estonia, and everyone in America was trying to figure where the hell Estonia is and why such a place even matters, and whether there’d be a test on this, something else came, something that called for a response:

An Islamic militant group released a video on Tuesday showing the second beheading of an American hostage in two weeks and blamed President Obama for the killing. The video raised the pressure on the president to order military strikes on the group in its sanctuary in Syria.

The hostage, Steven J. Sotloff, is shown in the video kneeling like the previous victim, James Foley, while a masked figure stands above, wielding a knife. Mr. Sotloff addresses the camera and describes himself as “paying the price” for Mr. Obama’s decision to strike the group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, in northern Iraq.

That raised the stakes:

The killing raises difficult questions for Mr. Obama, who last Friday said he had not yet formulated a strategy for using military force against the militants in Syria. As news of Mr. Sotloff’s death broke on Tuesday afternoon, just before Mr. Obama left for a weeklong trip to Europe and a NATO summit meeting, the White House struggled to deal with the implications for the president’s policy.

“If genuine, we are appalled by the brutal murder of an innocent American journalist, and we express our deepest condolences to his family and friends,” a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, Bernadette Meehan, said of the video.

It is genuine, and the dilemma is clear:

“That pressure is often the enemy of good policy,” said Daniel J. Benjamin, a former State Department counterterrorism coordinator and now a scholar at Dartmouth College. “There will be a clamor for the president to take military action, which may not be effective. If he conducts airstrikes and does not get the desired effect, there’ll be pressure for more airstrikes, and then to put boots on the ground.”

We never learn – one thing leads to another – but at least we learn our world geography. Did you know that Estonian is a language derived from Finnish and related to Hungarian? Now you do, and you now know Obama doesn’t like Cold War escalation traps:

As horrifying as this latest killing was, some former officials predicted that it would have little effect on Mr. Obama’s deliberations.

“Steve Sotloff’s murder was anticipated,” said Steven Simon, a former director on the National Security Council. “The unresolved issues relate to escalation within Syria.” The farther west the United States strikes ISIS, he said, the more it will be seen as intervening on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war.

All that Obama did was this:

On Tuesday evening, the White House announced that it had authorized a State Department request for 350 additional troops in Iraq “to protect our diplomatic facilities and personnel in Baghdad.” That would bring the number of American armed forces in Iraq to more than 1,100.

That’s a bit troubling, or it’s administrative. It will be called a weak-nothing of a response of course, but it wasn’t a response. It wasn’t related to the problem at hand. Escalation of force may not solve the problem at hand. Josh Marshall shares an email he received from a reader who was in military intelligence/counter-terrorism ops and has worked as a military contractor in Iraq:

Why is ISIL so successful? Simply put, they attack using simple combined arms but they hold two force multipliers – suicide bombers and a psychological force multiplier called TSV – Terror Shock Value. TSV is the projected belief (or reality) that the terror force that you are opposing will do anything to defeat you and once defeated will do the same to your family, friends and countrymen. TSV for ISIL is the belief that they will blow themselves up, they will capture and decapitate you and desecrate your body because they are invincible with what the Pakistanis call Jusbah E Jihad “Blood Lust for Jihad”.

I have worked the Iraq mission since 1987 and lived in and out of Iraq since 2003. TSV was Saddam’s most effective tool and there is some innate characteristic of the Iraqis that immobilizes them when faced with a vicious, assuredly deadly foe that will do exactly as they have done to others – and they will unsuccessfully try to bargain their way out of death by capitulating. The Kurds are not immune to ISIL’s TSV – 90% of which is propaganda seen on Facebook, Twitter and al-Arabiya. The Kurds have not fought a combat action of any size since 2003 and like the Iraqi Army it will take the Americans to give them the spine to get them to the first hurdle – they need a massive win to break the spell of ISIL’s TSV.

This is primarily psychological warfare. A massive “win” might break the spell, but it might not, and Jonathan Freedland suggests something else is going on here:

The state structures of both Iraq and Syria have all but collapsed. The result is a power vacuum of a kind that would have been recognized in the lawless Europe of seven or eight centuries ago – and which IS has exploited with the ruthless discipline of those long ago baronial warlords who turned themselves into European princes.

“Islamic State are jihadis with MBAs,” says [Iraq scholar Toby] Dodge, speaking of a movement so modern it has its own gift shop. He notes its combination of fierce religious ideology, financial acumen and tactical nous. “It’s Darwinian,” he adds, describing IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his inner circle as those strong enough to have survived the US hammering of al-Qaida in Iraq between 2007 and 2009. But what has been crucial, Dodge says, is “not ancient hatreds but this collapse of state power”.

Ah, this in a structural political problem, not a military one, but Robert Beckhusen sees military vulnerabilities:

Here’s the problem for ISIS. Since ISIS fighters operate semi-conventionally, they are easy pickings for these warplanes. It’s easier to hit vehicles and fixed artillery sites from the air than it is to strike individual insurgent fighters.

It is possible ISIS has limited anti-aircraft weapons, including shoulder-fired Stingers it took from the Iraqis. Indeed, the loss or capture of a U.S. pilot is a terrifying prospect for the White House. But the bulk of ISIS’s anti-aircraft weapons are DShK and ZU-23–2 heavy machine guns that the terror group has used with brutal effectiveness against Iraq’s dwindling helicopter gunship force—but which don’t stand much of a chance against fast, high-flying fighter planes.

Cool, but Anna Mulrine points out that others disagree:

The problem, some analysts point out, is that airstrikes tend to be most helpful against troops when they are massing. As it stands now, ISIS is “too big and too dispersed,” argues Christopher Harmer, senior Navy analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “They aren’t vulnerable to air strikes the way the Republican Guard was with their armored tanks and artillery tubes,” Mr. Harmer says. “Yes, ISIS has some of that – and we can hit it and should – but, fundamentally it’s a light infantry terrorist organization. You can’t beat those guys by dropping a couple of bombs here and there.”

Cut off their money. That’s an idea – but complicated, and slow – and at the New Republic, Graeme Wood suggests we look at it this way:

On June 29, 2014 – or the first of Ramadan, 1435, for those who prefer the Islamic calendar to the Gregorian – the leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) publicly uttered for the first time a word that means little to the average Westerner, but everything to some pious Muslims. The word is “caliph.” ISIS’s proclamation that day formally hacked the last two letters from its acronym (it’s now just “The Islamic State”) and declared Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, born Ibrahim ibn Awwad ibn Ibrahim ibn Ali ibn Muhammad al-Badri al-Samarrai, the Caliph of all Muslims and the Prince of the Believers.

Okay, fine, now we have to learn about caliphates:

For Muslims of a certain hyper-antiquarian inclination, these titles are not mere nomenclature. ISIS’s meticulous use of language and its almost pedantic adherence to its own interpretation of Islamic law have made it a strange enemy, fierce and unyielding but also scholarly and predictable. The Islamic State obsesses over words like “caliph” (Arabic: khalifa) and “caliphate” (khilafa), and news reports and social media from within ISIS have depicted frenzied chants of “The Caliphate is established!” The entire self-image and propaganda narrative of the Islamic State is based on emulating the early leaders of Islam, in particular the Prophet Muhammad and the four “rightly guided caliphs” who led Muslims from Muhammad’s death in 632 until 661. Within the lifetimes of these caliphs, the realm of Islam spread like spilled ink to the farthest corners of modern-day Iran and coastal Libya, despite small and humble origins.

Muslims consider that period a golden age and some, called Salafis, believe the military and political practices of its statesmen and warriors – barbaric by today’s standards but acceptable at the time – deserve to be revived.

Okay now it’s a history lesson, explaining all the beheadings and the stonings and crucifixions, slavery, and that business of taxing those who refuse to convert to Islam, or killing them. Al-Qaeda didn’t declare a caliphate, so this is odd:

Mostly … caliphate declarations have been rare because they are outrageously out of sync with history. The word conjures the majesty of bygone eras and of states that straddle continents. For a wandering group of hunted men like Al Qaeda to declare a caliphate would have been Pythonesque in its deluded grandeur, as if a few dozen Neo-Nazis or Italian fascists declared themselves the Holy Roman Empire or dressed up like Augustus Caesar. “Anybody who actively wishes to reestablish a caliphate must be deeply committed to a backward-looking view of Islam,” says [University of Chicago historian Fred] Donner. “The caliphate hasn’t been a functioning institution for over a thousand years.”

Jonah Shepp adds this:

The designation of the ISIS “caliphate” still smacks of delusional grandiosity more than anything else. There is no downplaying its brutality or denying that it would do great violence to the West if given the chance, but the Islamic State is no superpower: more than anything else, its sudden rise owes mainly to the fact that Syria and Iraq are fragile states, and its savagery has alerted the sleepwalking states of the Arab world to the threat of jihadism like never before. The enemies it is making on all sides, especially among other Muslims, would seem to suggest that ISIS may burn out nearly as quickly as it caught fire. Could the madness of ISIS be the final fever of a dying ideology?

What seems most promising to me in the backlash against ISIS is the extent to which that backlash relies on the genuine principles of Islam itself. We know that some of the fighters traveling from the West to fight alongside ISIS know next to nothing about the religion. We have evidence that jihadist movements like Boko Haram and the Taliban are widely despised in their spheres of influence.

Someone should tell these media-savvy ISIS folks that when the Fonz jumped the shark Happy Days was over, but Dean Obeidallah says they should be getting the memo now:

The religious and government leaders in Muslim-dominated countries have swiftly and unequivocally denounced ISIS as being un-Islamic. For example, in Malaysia, a nation with 20 million Muslims, the prime minister denounced ISIS as “appalling” and going against the teachings of Islam (only about 50 have joined ISIS from there). In Indonesia, Muslim leaders not only publicly condemned ISIS, the government criminalized support for the group. And while some allege that certain Saudi individuals are financially supporting ISIS, the Saudi government officially declared ISIS a terrorist group back in March and is arresting suspected ISIS recruiters. This can be a helpful guide to other nations in deterring ISIS from recruiting. A joint strategy of working with Muslim leaders in denouncing ISIS and criminalizing any support appears to be working. And to that end, on Monday, British Muslim leaders issued a fatwa (religious edict) condemning ISIS and announcing Muslims were religiously prohibited from joining ISIS.

Shepp sees the writing on the wall, although he mentions folks one might have to look up:

This all has me wondering if ISIS, the reductio ad absurdum of radical Islamism, doesn’t herald the downfall of that ideology altogether. Bear in mind that political Islam hasn’t always been exclusively reactionary: the first avowedly Islamic politics of the modern era, first articulated before the Muslim Brotherhood’s founders were even born, was the Islamic Modernism of Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida, and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. Here were pious Muslims arguing that Islam was fully compatible with rationalism and making arguments for universal literacy and women’s rights from the same Muslim revivalist standpoint from which Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb would later espouse a more conservative vision of Islamic politics in modernity.

The illiberal strain of Arab Islamism, its Iranian counterpart, and the more radical jihadist movements that grew out of these movements (or alongside them, depending on which historian you ask) have been the major representatives of political Islam in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

There will be a quiz on this later, but right now we’re talking about an aberration:

There’s no reason, however, to believe that this condition is permanent or that a less reactionary form of Islamic political thought, or even an Islamic liberalism after the model of the Modernists, could not take hold in the Muslim world given the right set of circumstances. Islamism, particularly in its more extreme varieties, has long articulated an Islamic state operating under a “pure” interpretation of Islamic law as a utopian vision. Now, here is an Islamic State, a “caliphate” no less, that claims to do just that, and the outcome is rather dystopian. Torture, gang rape, slave brides, beheadings, crucifixions, and child soldiers are not what most Muslims have in mind when they imagine the ideal Islamic society. I would wager that these horrors will turn more Muslims against radical Islamism than toward it. …

It’s certainly not “Islam” – at least not as any Muslim I know practices it. That’s why I suspect it will fail, like most grandiose visions of world domination do. And by radicalizing the Islamic heartland against radicalism, as it were, perhaps ISIS will take the entire edifice of radical Islamism down with it.

That is actually possible, and perhaps Obama knows this. We could be careful and let them hang themselves, so to speak, intervening only when necessary, to stop blatant genocide or assorted atrocities, being careful not to side with that Assad fellow, and being careful not to take sides in a regional if not global war of Sunnis against Shiites, as if that’s our concern. Or, conversely, we could bomb the shit out them in both Iraq and Syria, and anywhere else, and then send in four or five divisions to kill the rest of them. The public seems to lean toward tha second option, if we could avoid sending in the troops – but we’d have to anyway, to do the job right. Sigh.

Ah well, summer is over. It’s back to school. We’ve had our geography lesson and our history lesson so far. We know all about Estonia now, and Islamic political history. All of this will be on the final. But as everyone knows, it’s not what you learn but what you do with what you learn. What will we do with this?

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Box Office Politics

Pittsburgh was home and college was nearby, in Ohio, then it was graduate school in North Carolina, then the first job, teaching English in upstate New York – but California seemed inevitable. California seemed to be the center of things, perhaps where the American Dream was being worked out. In the sixties and seventies, and beyond, rock bands from all over had to play somewhere on the Sunset Strip, just down the street here, or down at the Troubadour, to establish themselves. From the fifties on, the television shows that showed America American families showed those families here in Los Angeles – Gidget, Ozzie and Harriet and so on – and the families who were supposed to be living elsewhere were pretending to be elsewhere, on soundstages here. Laverne and Shirley weren’t really in Milwaukee. The Golden Girls weren’t really in Miami. A base was being laid down out here – this is the way things really are, or how you wish they were – and with the music, this is cool, so you’d be wise to like it a lot, if you’d like to be cool, which you know you do.

It was the same with the movies, or even more so. Hollywood is the world, churning out endless movies, each of which is a bet on what people want to see, something to confirm to them that this is how things work in the world, for better or worse. Sometimes that’s explicit, in romantic comedies or buddy movies, and sometimes it’s implicit, in new takes on fairy tales or myths or Tolkien, or in science fiction. Avatar was about our world, really, with ten-foot-tall blue people. The good guys win. The only challenge is to make all this fresh, and if you can’t make it fresh, make it visually stunning. Computer graphics and advances in motion-capture have made that cheaper, and there are always ways to reimagine the good guys and bad guys, to make thing fresh, although that gets harder and harder. There are, however, comic books and video games. License the rights to Superman and Batman and Spiderman and you’re in business. Tap those. There’s a good summer blockbuster in there somewhere.

That’s where Hollywood makes its money, with summer blockbusters. When the kids go back to school the studios start releasing their “serious” movies, for Oscar consideration, as they say in their display ads in the trades out here. Those aren’t supposed to make money. They’re loss-leaders. The money is in showing the kids, and more than a few reluctant adults, the world as they think it should be – the good guys win – costumed super heroes defeat the most amazing elaborate villains, with lots of explosions. Maybe whole cities are destroyed. Maybe whole worlds explode. But the good guys win. It’s very satisfying. People pay good money to see that.

Sometimes they don’t. In June, 2011, Warner Brothers misfired with The Green Lantern – about a test pilot selected to become the first human member of the Green Lantern Corps and is given a ring that grants him superpowers, who is then told to confront the evil Parallax, who threatens to upset the balance of power in the universe, and so on. This was no more preposterous than any other superhero movie, but somehow it fell flat. Maybe it was more of the same, or maybe it was just too awash in all-green scenes. Disney had more success with the Iron Man series, and Iron Man 3 was the top summer blockbuster two years later – the eccentric industrial magnate in the iron super-suit once again saves the world, but as played by the wisecracking Robert Downey, Jr. he’s kind of a hoot, and does not like war and violence at all. He just does what he has to do, and the good guys win. This seems to be some sort of muddled parable about technology and the military-industrial complex, but it’s great fun anyway. This year the top 2014 summer blockbusters seem to be Guardians of the Galaxy and Transformers: Age of Extinction – outpacing the reboot of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – as if that matters. Box office receipts are down almost fifteen percent this year. This might not be the year anyone wants to see some superhero, technologically enhanced, or a mutant turtle, save the world. The whole idea that one special person could save the world seems preposterous, no matter what the clever powers he had. At one time that should have been true, something audiences wanted to believe, but the world changed. That hopeful premise seems stupid. Hollywood didn’t account for that.

It’s Obama’s fault. He was supposed to be a superhero and he isn’t one. Those who wanted in are disappointed, like Michael Eric Dyson, sociology professor at Georgetown University who guest-hosts on MSNBC quite often, who said this:

If President Obama’s comments on race in the anguished aftermath of the not-guilty verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial gleamed in light, his words on the rage that has thumped Ferguson, Mo., were shrouded in darkness. They revealed a gifted leader whose palpable discomfort with discussing race has made him a sometimes unreliable and distant narrator of black life.

That’s nothing compared to Cornel West saying we wanted John Coltrane and we got Kenny G – and that really stings. The African-American community thought they had their own superhero, not a goofy pretty white boy pretending to play jazz, badly. They got a cautious politician, damn it, but it’s more than that. There are no superheroes for anyone, and Ezra Klein explained just before the summer blockbuster season:

Presidents consistently overpromise and under-deliver. What they need to say to get elected far outpaces what they can actually do in office. President Obama is a perfect example. His 2008 campaign didn’t just promise health-care reform, a stimulus bill, and financial regulation. It also promised a cap-and-trade bill to limit carbon emissions, comprehensive immigration reform, gun control, and much more. His presidency, he said, would be change American could believe in. But it’s clear now that much of the change he promised isn’t going to happen – in large part because he doesn’t have the power to make it happen.

You would think voters in general and professional media pundits in particular would, by now, be wise to this pattern. But they’re not. Each disappointment wounds anew. Each unchecked item on the to-do list is a surprise. Belief in the presidency seems to be entirely robust to the inability of any particular president to make good on their promises. And so the criticism is always the same: why can’t the president be more like the Green Lantern?

And Klein knows the problem:

According to Brendan Nyhan, the Dartmouth political scientist who coined the term, the Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency is “the belief that the president can achieve any political or policy objective if only he tries hard enough or uses the right tactics.” In other words, the American president is functionally all-powerful, and whenever he can’t get something done, it’s because he’s not trying hard enough, or not trying smart enough.

Nyhan further separates it into two variants: “the Reagan version of the Green Lantern Theory and the LBJ version of the Green Lantern Theory.” The Reagan version, he says, holds that “if you only communicate well enough the public will rally to your side.” The LBJ version says that “if the president only tried harder to win over congress they would vote through his legislative agenda.” In both cases, Nyhan argues, “we’ve been sold a false bill of goods.”

The full Nyhan item is here – but that’s the gist if it. It’s all nonsense, and Klein points out that Matthew Yglesias, in 2006, responding to an argument for bombing Iran, actually coined the term The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics:

A lot of people seem to think that American military might is like one of these power rings. They seem to think that, roughly speaking, we can accomplish absolutely anything in the world through the application of sufficient military force. The only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower.

What’s more, this theory can’t be empirically demonstrated to be wrong. Things that you or I might take as demonstrating the limited utility of military power to accomplish certain kinds of things are, instead, taken as evidence of lack of will. Thus we see that problems in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t reasons to avoid new military ventures, but reasons why we must embark upon them.

Needless to say, all this talk about lacking only “the will” to act has become fairly common, domestically too, although Klein adds this:

The Founding Fathers were rebelling against an out-of-control monarch. So they constructed a political system with a powerful legislature and a relatively weak executive. The result is that the US President has little formal power to make Congress do anything. He can’t force Congress to vote on a bill. He can’t force Congress to pass a bill. And even if he vetoes a bill Congress can simply overturn his veto. So in direct confrontations with Congress – and that describes much of American politics these days – the president has few options.

Green Lantern theorists don’t deny any of this. They just believe that there’s some vague combination of public speeches and private wheedling that the president can employ to bend Congress to his will.

Klein cites Ron Fournier who often makes that argument:

He could talk to the media and the public more often with a more compelling and sustained message. He could build enduring relationships in Washington rather than being so blatantly transactional with his time. He could work harder, and with more empathy, on Capitol Hill to find “win-win” opportunities with Republicans.


The problem with this is that the Green Lantern Theory isn’t just false. It’s often backwards. The basic idea is that more aggressive and consistent applications of presidential power will break down opposition. But political science research shows the truth is often just the opposite.

And then there’s the reality of this Congress, but Fournier strikes back:

You helped elect an untested presidential candidate, a man almost as liberal as you. He promised to heal the oceans, make health care an inalienable right, and transform Washington’s toxic culture. You mocked Republicans, independents, and squishy Democrats who had the audacity to criticize your guy, much less doubt the inevitability of his victory. President Obama won—twice—and then didn’t live up to anybody’s expectations, including his own.

What do you do? Well, if you’re Ezra Klein and a coterie of inflexibly progressive pundits, you repurpose an attack used against President George W. Bush’s bombastic approach to geopolitics. You call anybody who questions Obama’s leadership style a Green Lanternist.

It’s just not fair:

A Harvard-trained lawyer and constitutional scholar like Obama didn’t stumble into the 2008 presidential campaign unaware of the balance of powers, the polarization of politics, the rightward march of the GOP, and other structural limits on the presidency. He made those promises because he thought those goals were neither unreasonable nor unattainable. Either that – or he was lying. …

The inconvenient truth is that Klein’s kind of thinking lets the president off the hook, unaccountable for promises broken and opportunities lost. Rather than change Washington’s culture of polarization, zero-sum game politics, and spin, Obama surrendered to it almost immediately. On health insurance reform, government debt, and loosening immigration laws, Obama shares blame with obstinate House Republicans for fumbling potential compromise. On climate change and gun control, Obama knew (or should have known) his rhetoric was setting up voters for disappointment.

The Republicans would have compromised. All he had to do was what they asked. This does, of course, ignore what they were asking, and asking as the folks who had lost the election, and whose positions were, according to all polling, minority positions – but never mind. Klein and Fournier will argue forever about this. Many others will too. Obama is a weak leader. Why isn’t he a superhero? No one, except Ezra Klein, is happy, and Salon’s Joan Walsh is worried about the midterms:

The left, or some of it, disintegrates, a flank here promoting direct action over electoral politics (a debate that’s understandably renewed by events in Ferguson); a flank there preaching about a third party; and one over there fantasizing about the perfect left-wing challenge to the mainstream Democratic candidate, like that dreamy African-American senator who opposed the war in Iraq who looked so magical eight years ago. Meanwhile, Republicans count on division on the left and low turnout by the Democratic base of younger, poorer non-white voters, to help them take back the Senate.

And when they do, Mitch McConnell has promised only more obstruction and gridlock. I should point out that this isn’t just a byproduct of Republican victories, but one of the goals. It’s become obvious in the GOP’s approach to Obama that obstruction is at least partly intended to demoralize the reluctant, occasional voters in the Democratic base. For if there’s no action on those “gosh darn” issues, in McConnell’s words, like a minimum wage hike, student loan relief or extended unemployment insurance, let alone immigration reform or climate change, even after Obama became the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to win more than 50 percent of the vote twice, those of us who say that voting is the most reliable path to social change sound either foolish or dishonest. People say, why bother?

People did stop going to the superhero movies. Why bother? One guy, magic or not, isn’t going to make a difference. Why even bother watching a fantasy about such things?

Perhaps more and more Democrats feel that way, but Republicans don’t. They know one man can make a difference, and Media Matters reviews their thinking on who that man ought to be:

International incidents are a prime opportunity to daydream about foreign leaders who’d make better presidents than Barack Obama, at least inside the conservative media bubble. David Cameron has now joined Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu on the right’s list of foreigners they’d rather have in the Oval Office than the man the nation elected.

On August 28, President Obama delivered remarks on the U.S. military’s approach to the rising terror threat from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) and recent developments in Ukraine. Right-wing media figures responded with disdain, accusing the president of failing to view the Islamic State as a threat and even suggesting it’s understandable to think Obama sympathizes with terrorists. Yet when Cameron delivered similar remarks on the Islamic State’s threat to the United Kingdom the next day, the right’s response was much different. Fox News contributor Erick Erickson tweeted – “Can we borrow David Cameron? He fights.”

If this is all about the “will” of the superhero to use that special ring, to save the world, they know who has that courage, and it’s not any American:

In 2013, when the two heads of state supported opposing factions in the Syrian civil war, conservative outlets praised Putin as “the leader of the free world” and a “real He-Man” who demands respect, unlike the “gutless” Obama. Rush Limbaugh even appeared to take Putin’s side in the conflict.

Earlier this year, when Russian forces invaded Ukraine in violation of multiple international treaties, Rudy Giuliani took to Fox News to praise Putin as “what you call a leader,” in contrast to Obama. Other conservative outlets fawned over shirtless photos of the Russian leader while complaining that Obama wears “mom jeans” and is weak on foreign policy.

And when it comes to protecting America from threats posed by the Islamic State, right-wing media find Russia’s president preferable. Fox host Kimberly Guilfoyle wished that Putin could be the U.S. president for 48 hours to deal with the terror group, saying he could “get in here and get it done right.”

There may be a Draft Putin movement in 2016, but perhaps not. They do, however, love that other guy, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

If only Netanyahu were the president rather than Obama, the nation’s borders would be secure, according to Fox’s Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter. Discussing an influx of immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to flee violence in Central America, Coulter claimed that Netanyahu’s handling of Israel’s war with Gaza showed that he could be the nation’s answer to the immigration crisis. “I wish we could have Netanyahu as our president.” “Me, too,” Hannity quickly agreed.

He’d bomb them all, and kill them all, women and children too, or something. Hollywood movies can be dangerous, or at least lead to odd places. Ishaan Tharoor wrote a column in the Washington Post arguing that Obama was cautious at the time, but so was Putin in his way, and that was picked up by Drudge as one more expert saying Obama was a fool, no matter what was said about Obama, and Tharoor was a bit startled by some of the these comments he received:

President Putin is highly intelligent and by far the best leader in the world. The best leader I have seen in my life time. A man’s man who makes his own decisions and loves his country and its citizens!

Putin is a former KGB colonel. Obama is a former community organizer. Of course Putin is going to have a far better grasp of international affairs. That is obvious to anyone outside of the liberal echo chamber.

We would be wise to listen to Mr. Putin (and be aware that once we do he will try to manipulate us). He’s a real professional, and a very talented one Mr. Obama is a not very talented amateur. Mr. Putin’s job is to advance Russian interests, not ours. However American interests are not always diametrically opposed to those of Russia. We both have a lot in common in our desire to maintain some semblance of international law and world order.

I intend to name my first born son, Vladimir. How does “Vladimir Erickson” sound?

Putin loves his country. That’s difficult for many Americans to understand because we have been educated to hate our own country. Russia wants secure national borders. We (or at least the MSM and the liberal ruling elite) think that open borders and unrestricted illegal immigration are “so progressive”. Putin is a grown man who understands the nature of power (and how, when, and where to use it). Obama and friends are children by comparison. Russia pays its debts and understands that national wealth comes from production and trade. America thinks that “wealth” comes from borrowing and printing money. Russia will survive the 21st century. We are headed into bankruptcy and dissolution.

Putin was right. Right or wrong, he is a leader. Obama is a transformer. He has transformed us into a permanent welfare state with a backbreaking national debt, a declining healthcare system, a hoard of invaders – probably including terrorists – from the south, deteriorating race relations, a corrupt DOJ and IRS, and no credibility on the world stage.

Of course Vlad the Redeemer was right! He IS the West’s (and the World’s) last great hope…and the Muslims’ most formidable Super Foe. Tactical brilliance and courage under duress are the least of Vladimir Putin’s plethora of extremely laudable attributes… Thank the Lord that Putin has publicly avowed his unswerving dedication to protecting Christianity and Christians (as well as the rest of the Occidental world) from the Maniacal Muslim Menace.

It is too bad that we don’t have someone within the Administration with the insight, intelligence and guts that Putin continues to demonstrate. Obama looks like a trained monkey compared to Putin’s polished and clever moves on the International chessboard. Someone rightly observed that Putin plays chess while Obama plays checkers!

That a sample of only a few of them. There are lots more, so something is up here, as Martin Longman notes:

I voted against George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004, and I spent most of his presidency actively working against his administration with every tool at my disposal, but I never said or wrote that I would prefer that the country be led by a foreigner or a foreign leader… Someone needs to explain the right’s adoration for Vladimir Putin because it’s creeping me out.

Well, some have the same feeling about that new Guardians of the Galaxy movie with Chris Pratt as Peter Quill (the Star Lord) – the half human, half alien superhero – and Bradley Cooper as his sidekick Rocket, a genetically engineered raccoon who is a bounty hunter and mercenary and a master of weapons and battle tactics – and Vin Diesel as Groot, the tree-like humanoid who is the accomplice of Rocket, who doesn’t say much, because, you see, he’s pretty much a tree. It’s all good fun, but it is rather creepy, and maybe Vladimir Putin would fit right in. Add David Cameron and Benjamin Netanyahu and you’d really have something going. But real life isn’t these movies after all. This summer’s blockbusters did well enough, but the audience for such things is slowly dwindling. The whole idea that one special person could save the world has become increasingly preposterous, no matter what the clever powers he (or she) has. There’s no point in even fantasizing about that, these days. Hollywood will have to come up with something else next summer, unless it’s Vladimir Putin in outer space fighting odd monsters. Conservatives would pay to see that. They’re having those fantasies already.

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