Going to do another war to prove we won the first one?

This is sounding uncomfortably familiar. The Bush team is motivating a war with Iran with the kind of hard-headed intelligence and open-eyed analysis it perfected for the Iraq disaster, but not planning for the war, with the same insouciance with which it made no particular plans for the Iraq war.

Not planning for a war is not at all the same as planning not to have a war, as the arrival of another carrier group in the Persian Gulf makes clear. Anyway, the Iranians are almost all Shi’a, so what could go wrong?


Argillaceous pedal extremities

John Shalikashvili seems unashamed to report that his version of leadership is to follow his troops wherever they want to go, pandering to bigotry and ignorance along the way. Back in 1993, he didn’t want gays in the military because he thought the other soldiers wouldn’t like them, but now that polling indicates it’s not a problem, he’s on board; wow! Give the man a white horse and a sword to wave around!

It’s wrong to whale on someone who has thought about an issue and changed his mind; it’s called learning and it’s admirable. When [what you now recognize as] an earlier error has made others pay a lot of dues, it’s nice to apologize. But learning isn’t what the general is displaying; he says he was right then and he’s right now, nor is there any apology, not to the gays denied careers for which they were well qualified, not to the soldiers who died for want of backup from the best possible team of buddies, not to the taxpayers who paid extra for the comfort of higher management.

Harry Truman, in contrast, ordered the integration of the armed forces when the white soldiers weren’t at all in favor of it, because he was the chief and it was the right thing to do. The military learned to fight as a racially mixed institution pretty quickly and any residual racism didn’t ruin our combat capacity. Shalikashvili should be ashamed of himself both as a general and as a person.

Feeling Safer Yet?–Part I

With the Democrats’ acquisition of subpoena power, we will start learning in nauseating detail just how badly the Bush Administration has undermined American national security (thus, the new category). Already, we’ve been getting dribs and drabs, including this overlooked nugget from an excellent piece in TAP by Lawrence Korb and Max Bergmann, pointing out that there are no troops left to “surge”:

Currently there are no active or reserve Army combat units outside of Iraq and Afghanistan that are rated as “combat ready.” To ensure that troops fighting in Iraq have the equipment they need, units rotating out of Iraq have been leaving behind their equipment for units taking their place. The units that return home are so depleted that the Marines have been referring to this phase as the “post-deployment death spiral.” The additional units sent to Iraq would not have enough body armor, radios, and armored vehicles or training (since without equipment, non-deployed units cannot train properly).

In an effort to equip these additional units, equipment would have to be taken from troops stationed in places like Korea and National Guard units in the United States. This would leave the country dangerously exposed, without sufficient force strength to deter potential adversaries from possible aggressive action.

NO active or reserve Army units outside Iraq and Afghanistan that are combat ready? None? Recall that candidate Bush attacked Clinton in 2000 for inadequate readiness, a charge that (like virtually all public statements he has made) was a lie.

We can place too much emphasis on the readiness measurement, but this does appear to be evidence that Bush has violated his oath to “defend” the Constitution. His best excuse here is that the oath does say that he will do so “to the best of my ability.” Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Stern report 1: why has Sir Humphrey turned green?

Stern report on the economics of climate change: first part of a multi-post comment

  • Climate change presents a unique challenge for economics: it is the greatest example of market failure we have ever seen.


  • There is still time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change if strong collective action starts now.



  • It is already very clear that the economic risks of inaction in the face of climate change are very severe.


These messages give the radical flavour of the Stern report, a large study on the economics of climate change published, surprisingly, a fortnight ago by the stuffy British Treasury. It bears the name of the Whitehall mandarin and LSE professor Sir Nicholas Stern, the former head of the British Government’s economics service and Chief Economist at the World Bank.

So this is a political as well as an academic document. Why is Gordon Brown sponsoring it?

Continue reading “Stern report 1: why has Sir Humphrey turned green?”

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Augusto Pinochet has $160 million worth of gold stashed away. Wouldn’t you like to know whether any American individuals or institutions got a taste of that wealth?

I’ve never been able to understand my leftist friends who admire Fidel Castro, or my rightist friends who admire Augusto Pinochet.

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Three rabbis ordained in Dresden.

Unalloyed good news is rare, so I wanted to raise my virtual glass to this. Last Thursday three rabbis were ordained in Dresden, the first in Germany since the Holocaust. (I wonder if “ordination” is the right technical term?) The rabbis trained at a Progressive rabbinical seminary attached to the University of Potsdam; another Orthodox college in Berlin will graduate its first rabbis soon.

There was apparently a lot of coverage in the German media – see here for the ZDF (German public TV) report. The BBC ran the story prominently too.

Why did the community choose Dresden for the ceremony, as it’s 125 miles south from Berlin or Potsdam?

Continue reading “Roses”

Alito, judges, and moral values

I was a little sore at Prof. Bainbridge for using my post on Alito as a punching bag in a way that would be off the mark if he had read the whole thing, so I held off responding until now. I’m also impatient with the straw man dichotomy between judges who respect the law meticulously and judges who careen in all directions recklessly doing whatever they want, as though those distinct types comprise the universe of choice. Mark’s post below demonstrates one central way in which even a very conservative judge’s fundamental beliefs will affect his decisions. But there’s more to this.

In the first place, cases that come to the Supreme Court are hard cases, meaning that legitimate values (including values set out abstractly in laws like the constitution) and settled laws conflict. Decisions may turn on whether the value of stable expectations (“an old tax is a good tax”) or protection of a constitutional right (“a poll tax for voting is not a good tax”) should count more to decide the case at hand, and no parsing the technical record of law will answer this, any more than scrutiny of the nutrition label will help you decide whether to make your kid’s birthday cake from chocolate or vanilla mix. The kind of values justices hold in especially high regard will tilt decisions on the whole one way or another, and it’s entirely appropriate for the president and the senate to try to read these values and use them in making appointment decisions.

Prof. Bainbridge does corporate law, a context in which the parties are usually not people, have no human rights, and cannot suffer (I know, shareholders and employees figure in it) and in which the issues for all I know can always be settled by reference to statutes. But among the laws important to appellate practice is the constitution, whose preamble says its purpose is to “establish justice”, an abstraction that simply cannot be used without interpretation and specification for cases. At one time, that word meant a defendant should only have to put his hand in the boiling water for a few seconds to see if he was guilty – that it would be unjust to cook him until his flesh fell off the bones. Now we have a different idea, Miranda rights and such like. But what it means in practice will always depend on its expression in the mental constitution of judges, an expression that cannot be blank, nothing, or labile and contingent on the case at hand.

The idea that a decision must properly flow only from the enacted statutes (the unique expression of political will) of a state and not from the contradictory holdings of lower courts which are to be resolved, or precedents of higher courts, is the foundation of the Roman Law model that contrasts with the Common Law system used in Anglo-Saxon countries, including ours. It may or may not be a better system, but we haven’t bought it; in any case, it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to even where it lives, as the immortal 1976 Hastings Law Review article by Prof. Merryman (“The Refrigerator of Bernard Buffet”) demonstrates.

It is also impossible to decide the big cases properly looking through a knothole only at the law. Even tough conservatives seem to think Brown was decided properly, and that holding depended greatly on sociological research by academics. In using evidence like this, the relative weight of different moral values of the justices has to matter (I don’t mean this normatively, I mean it positively): my problem with Alito is simply that the moral value of human rights and justness seem to be fairly far down his salience scale compared to other things that matter to him. This will matter when he votes on close cases, and it’s entirely an appropriate concern of the Senate and the public.

How to Write Talking Points–Alito Edition

Kevin Drum is unsure about what the “battle cry” against Alito ought to be. After all, he notes, Alito hasn’t really come out and said anything outrageous.

Is Alito fudging furiously? Probably. But it still doesn’t give liberals much of a purchase to lead a battle against his nomination. Subtle arguments about the nature of stare decisis and the precise extent of the president’s Article II powers just aren’t going to get very many people ready to take to the streets with pitchforks. So what’s the battle cry?

Here’s where it’s a political liability that Drum is smart, principled, and intellectually honest. The point here is not to have a subtle debate about jurisprudence. It would be tremendous if we could actually have one, but when pundits start talking about having a “public debate” about an issue, that’s when I get little nauseous.

The formula here is actually much simpler. Here’s how you do it. Pay attention, class:

1) Find positions that you believe Alito will take as a justice and have some basis in the record. Say it’s executive power: you believe that Alito will exceesivly defer to executive power and Presidential demands.

2) Don’t worry that Alito has said (correctly) that there is a “twilight zone” when thinking about executive power that no one is sure about. True, this isn’t a good “battle cry”, but—

3) Instead, get a bunch of focus groups to find just the right phrase that will resonate with the public (or key groups therein) that expresses their fear of overweening executive power. For the sake of argument, let’s say that that phrase is “imperial presidency” (which I doubt, but that’s why Frank Luntz makes the big bucks, not me)

4) Encapsulate that phrase in a sound bite, say, “we need to stop Alito’s imperial presidency”

5) Get your senators, sympathetic press people, talking heads, bloggers, newspaper letter-writers, everybody to master this phrase;–


6) Say it OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN. Everywhere. In every context. As an answer to every question.

And then good, smart, principled conservatives like Eugene Volokh and Steve Bainbridge and Stuart Taylor will rightfully protest, and say that Alito’s never actually said that, and that the situation is really much more complex, and that we all know that there is some kind of inherent executive power (which is true) and that shouldn’t you be ashamed of yourselves for simplifying the issue this way.


Note that this isn’t about outright lying; it’s about using a genuine concern based on reasonable information, and turning it into a clear political slogan. Outright lying often works (see, e.g. Bush’s 2000 attacks on Gore for mendacity, which was itself an outright lie), but this isn’t that strategy. Instead, this is like the Bush 2004 campaign’s attacks on John Kerry for flip-flopping. The fact is that Kerry is not the most principled of politicians, and while you could have written a thoughtful policy piece on his inconsistencies, it’s easier just to say “flip-flopper.”

This is not the most sanguine or edifying view of politics, and it clashes with the most cherished values of the university, which of course favors reasoned discussion. But it’s far more realistic, and it’s less cynical than some other strategies than I can think of (again, see Bush 2000–or most of his other campaigns.)

Bottom line: It is unrealistic to think that the other side will provide your talking points for you. That’s your job.

That is all.

Early Reflections on Miers

The nomination of Miers will obviously generate a lot more information about the candidate than we have now, but from what’s out there so far, it’s typical of too many appointments in this administration generally: an insult to the institution and the public on grounds of the mediocrity of the candidate, and a callous mistreatment of the nominee herself. It’s insulting because it embodies the idea that a candidate of no real distinction is suitable for a high and important office as long as she doesn’t have a disqualifying scandal in her past, and it’s abusive of Ms. Miers because it sets her up for failure in a position whose duties are almost certainly beyond her. What is life really like for Justice Thomas, always a day late and a dollar short of the intellectual life of his workplace? Do the people who sent Michael Brown to do a senior manager’s job feel any guilt at the pratfall they set him up for?

Ms. Miers has no record of ever doing anything important except chairing a commission during a cleanup of a state agency in trouble (not, for example, being the executive director actually doing the cleanup). There are dozens of state lottery and gambling commissions and hundreds of members thereof in the last twenty years; what makes her special? The bar associations she’s headed are just two of hundreds, which again have had thousands of presidents. These positions are in themselves admirable and respectable, but convey no special distinction (at the level of this nomination for this job) whatever.

Otherwise, there’s not a book or an article or a bill or a program or an idea to her credit, just conventional lawyerly service to this and that client, the sort of thing thousands and thousands of partners in top law firms do every day. Except for failing to save Bush from himself and his bad lieutenants, she appears to have made no big difference to anything important, ever. At the same time, the buzz on her style (and it’s not much more than that, yet) is extreme formality and insularity, lack of forest-tree discrimination, and an inability to collaborate. The Supreme Court is a collegial environment, and ability to abstract and see the big picture background against which a given case is a figure would seem to be pretty important.

The quality that rings like a bell through her press notices is personal loyalty to George W. Bush. This is beyond irrelevance; it’s truly bizarre and troubling to offer it as qualification for Supreme Court Justice. Does W expect to be calling her up from time to time to dictate votes? Is she expected to decide cases for twenty years by guessing what that great legal mind W would want? If not, how could it possibly be a point of merit for this job?

Ms. Miers was the first woman to have various positions. This is to her credit, but among all the thousands of “first woman to do X”, not in and of itself a very big selling point. It should probably be discounted by her total lack of direct experience of what being a woman professional is for those who have children or even spouses. Miers may know something about sexual harassment and discrimination, but again, we’re talking about a job of which there are only eight others in the world. A professional woman’s perspective is a selling point for it, but for the most part, Miers’ is no more than second hand or observational.

Probably the most insolent quality of this nomination derives from her recent job experience, where her duties since 2001 have been as an inside, direct, advisor to the president, including a stint managing his access to information. In the current case, the idea that such a resume merits consideration for any high office is beyond satire and beyond ridicule, because this administration has a nearly unblemished record of taking bad advice, ignoring useful information, and making catastrophic choices on a steady and varied stream of international and national policies. Anyone suspected of being in the advisory chain that generated this record would seem to be flatly disqualified from any job involving good judgment or insight, at least on a prima facie basis.

There was a time when it was expected that the Supreme Court was a body of really special and distinguished legal thinkers, whether left- or right-flavored. Roberts was no shoo-in on this ground, but not outside the pale, and may well fulfil the promise of his career to date. Miers is not even in the ball park on any of the evidence we have so far.