Lawrence Summers as Fed Chair: The View From Climate Policy

Lawrence Summers: Does The Emperor Have Any Clothes?
Lawrence Summers: Does The Emperor Have Any Clothes?

Lots of debate in Blogistan and elsewhere about President Obama’s apparent desire to appoint Larry Summers as Fed Chair.  We know (or at least we think we know) that he is brilliant, but he has a strange tendency to get matters of judgment wrong.  He supported the abolition of Glass-Steagall, endorsed deregulation of the financial industry, and seems to have little desire to admit that he got these things wrong.  Plus, there are sexist overtones to the seeming refusal to want to appoint current Fed vice-chair Janet Yellen, an outstanding economist in her own right.

All right.  But what does this have to do with climate policy?

Interestingly, a few years ago, Summers participated in a Council on Foreign Relations task force regarding climate policy options.  Like all CFR task forces, this one was self-consciously centrist, chaired by former New York Governor George Pataki (relatively moderate Republican, especially on climate issues) and former Iowa Governor (and now Agriculture Secretary) Tom Vilsack (moderate Democrat).  Its report, Confronting Climate Change: A Strategy for US Foreign Policy, is a quite comprehensive view of the stakes of climate policy, at least as of June 2008, when it was written.  It recommends putting a price on carbon, reducing emissions to the Kyoto level, and several other policy options.  Summers signed it.

But interestingly, Summers also appended a very short “comment” to the report, which says something about potential behavior as Fed Chair (how much is up to the reader).

Here are the two key graphs of his comment:

I have signed this report because it makes the need for urgent action on climate change clear and presents a smart and thoughtful agenda for reducing U.S. emissions, building international consensus, and promoting international action, with which I broadly concur.

The Task Force rightly notes that the costs of addressing climate change are highly uncertain, but I remain concerned that many policymakers do not sufficiently appreciate how large these uncertainties are or the consequences of paying them insufficient attention. Environmental certainty enjoys much attention while uncertainty over the cost of cutting emissions receives too little. This balance is wrong, particularly in the short term, since emissions in any given year matter little, while high costs, even for a short period, can cause substantial economic harm, particularly to the most vulnerable.

A few things jump out here:

1)  Summers gets the politics of climate change exactly 100% wrong.  The gravamen of his argument, i.e. “we are hurtling toward overregulation in the climate sphere” was wrong at the time and has been proved to be completely inaccurate.  To the extent that a Fed Chair has to be cognizant of political trends, this is not a good sign.  Anyone can get political prognostication wrong: but to go out of your way to get it wrong is a black mark.

2)  Summers makes no real substantive contribution in his comment.  He seems simply to want to emphasize, “I am thinking about things that no one else is.”  This on a task force with some of the leading thinkers in the field.  This does not bode well for a position like Fed Chair, which requires building consensus.

3)  He was wrong about what other people are thinking about.  Scholars and policymakers have been thinking about uncertainty all the time and had done so for more than a decade.

4)  To the extent that his emphasis on short-term costs and long-term benefits is a sub silentio call for a carbon tax, he was also wrong about its salience: the carbon tax idea was being promoted literally by dozens of scholars and policymakers.

5)  To the extent that his emphasis on short-term costs and long-term benefits is a restatement of the need of a high discount rate, it is not backed up by any facts or reasoning.  It also is wrong on the absence of short-term costs.

I keep hearing that Summers is a very brilliant man, and would do a wonderful job as Fed Chair.  To the extent that his intervention in climate policy is any indication, there is absolutely no evidence of this, and in fact the evidence demonstrates the opposite.  I’m assuming for the time being that the Emperor has clothes: but it would be nice to see them eventually.

Beware the Celebrity Who Refers to Himself in the Third Person

So advises Jemima Khan regarding Julian Assange in The Times today [£]. She is the latest in a long string of former Assange supporters to have a wakey wakey moment about the WikiLeaks wide boy, and deserves credit for going public rather than slinking away silently and without apology as have many other people who once defended him.

In fairness to all his dupes, Assange clearly is a talented con man, and The Times notes that he continues to be astonishingly successful at mulcting people to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds.* He will never be completely isolated. Just as even the most twisted conifer retains some sap, enough people tend toward adolescent idealization or inability to admit error to ensure that Assange retains a few groupies in perpetuity.

Khan also argues, and I strongly agree, that Assange should be forced to face his accusers in a rape trial. His narcissism, sense of entitlement and chronic dishonesty are all consistent with being a rapist, but let him have his day in court before rendering definitive judgement (or more accurately, let the women who are accusing him have theirs, as he is the one who is preventing the trial from happening).

The Ecuadoran government has painted itself in a corner by staking national prestige on protecting Assange, and it is not clear that they can climb down without feeling humiliated. The US, UK and Swedish governments are probably in no mood to do Ecuador any favours, but nonetheless should do the decent thing: Agree to allow the Ecuadoran embassy staff to send Julian out for coffee and then feign shock as they denounce his ensuing arrest. Assange will milk his apprehension for more publicity, but a good relationship with Ecuador simply matters more in the long term than does this vile little man.

*However, it has to be said that none of the RBC bloggers who wrote about WikiLeaks was taken in by him even for a moment.

Obama’s New Leverage: Implement The Defense Sequester

There is much bemoaning in Blue Blogistan that by agreeing to the fiscal cliff deal, President Obama relinquished his leverage of the sunsetting Bush tax cuts.  (Markos says that the higher tax rates are the President’s “ONLY leverage.”).  Even those who aren’t angry think that somehow he has little leverage left.  I don’t think that that’s right.

Consider the defense sequester, which Very Serious People inside the Beltway believe to be some sort of problem.  I see no basis for this belief.

If the defense sequester is implemented, then defense budget will be — what it was in FY 2007, when we still had hundreds of thousands of troops in Iraq.  Keep that in mind the next time you read about how the sequester will give us a “hollow force.”  Did we have a hollow force during the Dubya Regency?

Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations has made the point succinctly:

The Bipartisan Policy Center projected that defense sequestration, if triggered, would lower the Pentagon’s budget (excluding war costs) for fiscal year 2013 to $498 billion. As then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates quipped in July 2009: “If the Department of Defense can’t figure out a way to defend the United States on half a trillion dollars a year, then our problems are much bigger than anything that can be cured by buying a few more ships and planes.”

Conservatives often make similar arguments about domestic spending: “we are just going back to what we were spending five years ago!”  Progressives reject this, and I think rightfully, because our population is greater, and economic conditions are different (e.g. spending the same on Food Stamps during a recession and during an expansion makes no sense under Economics 101).  Would the same principle apply to defense spending?  Hardly.  There is noting about cyclical conditions that makes spending money on a bloated military establishment equivalent to spending on counter-cyclical policies such as Food Stamps and unemployment benefits.  Just as importantly, the terms of the defense sequester specifically allow the President to exempt salaries and benefits for military personnel, and President Obama has already ordered this exemption.  If advocates of ending the sequester believe that it is the best way to maintain counter-cyclical policies, then they must do things that thus far they have refused to do: 1) show why defense spending represent good counter-cyclical policy; and 2) give up the right-wing Republican nonsense that we should reduce spending in the first place.

Many of the most detailed arguments in favor of the defense sequester come from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank that I admit I had not heard of before: its crucial backgrounder on the defense sequester can be found here.  Is it a real operation, or a fake think tank like the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, a Koch-funded libertarian whack job outfit that became briefly famous for “finding” that Al Gore’s home in Tennessee was an energy guzzler (a claim that has yet to be confirmed)?  CSBA looks to be the real deal, or at least hardly a left-wing front: it’s board members include David McCurdy, Pete Dupont, and James Woolsey.  Whatever else one might say about it, its people aren’t hanging out with Wavy Gravy.

The sequester method is hardly the best one to effect long-term, measured reductions in the defense establishment.  But we should not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Defense Secretary Panetta has been egregiously irresponsible with his Chicken Little warnings about what will happen if the sequester is implemented.  A new Defense Secretary cannot come too quickly.

President Obama needs to use the leverage that the defense sequester gives him.  The Republicans want to get rid of the defense sequester — badly.  By now, we should all be past the silly notion that the GOP wants to reduce spending: it only wants to reduce spending that could possibly assist low-income and working Americans.  Very well, the President has to say: I will veto any bill that gets rid of the defense sequester unless I get my own priorities in spending and revenue.  End of story. 

And conversely, if the President does not use this leverage, and instead agrees to benefit cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and crucial domestic priorities, he will have no one to blame but himself.

Richard Grenell

…was recruited to the Romney campaign as an expert in national security – this means Romney’s team thought he was the best person for the job (did I mention, the job is national security?) – and has plausible credentials in the field.  Mitt Romney let his gay-bashers run him out of town without a peep, so we have another data point on Romney’s character: not only is he OK with anti-gay prejudice, and not only won’t he stand up for his people (the morale meter at Romneyville must be bouncing on the zero peg), but he is willing to sacrifice national security to please a bunch of ignorant bigots.  What a guy; spineless, bigoted and treasonous.

If he’s afraid of a piece of garbage like Brian Fischer, it doesn’t bode well for his dealings with any foreign leader who can say “boo” in English.


“Young Guns” and the Squire of Gothos

Gen. Trelane (ret.) -- The Original GOP Young Gun

By now it is pretty obvious that the House GOP leadership is essentially devoid of ideas outside of Social Darwinism and Objectivism.  But I noticed the other day that its cultural pose is also one of pure puffery.

Consider “Young Guns,” the “book” theoretically authored by Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, and Kevin McCarthy.  “Young Guns” was also their term for Republican challengers to Democratic House members.  Notice something?

Neither Cantor, McCarthy, nor Ryan ever served in the military.  Essentially, all three are career party apparatchiks — Ryan and McCarthy were congressional aides; Cantor “worked” in the family’s real estate business for a while, but essentially, he graduated from law school and immediately started running for the state legislature.

There’s nothing wrong with that, although for people who claim that the private sector is so great, they sure have managed to stay far away from it.  But to avoid service while affecting a pose of military toughness is really quite pathetic.  And no wonder that Republican national security policy is really more about seeming tough — torture the bastards! — than understanding reality.  It is policy as wish fulfillment-fantasy.

It reminds me of a classic Star Trek episode, “The Squire of Gothos.”  Captain Kirk and the crew find themselves on a planet with a man who introduces himself as a General, challenges them to duels, and likes to re-enacts battles.  By the end of the episode, it becomes clear that he is quite literally a child, and his incorporeal parents send him, whining, back to his room.

Recall the architects of the disastrous Bush national security policies.  With the important exception of Rumsfeld, none of the neocons ever served.  Cheney famously got five deferments.  Wolfowitz never served.  Neither did Feith.  Neither did Libby.  Nor did Haynes, or Bybee, or Yoo.  Addington dropped out of the Naval Academy after less than a year.  Those who fought hardest against the administration from within, however, were usually the career military people — Eric Shinseki (now Veterans’ Affairs Secretary), the JAGs of all the services.

You would think that at some level, the House Republican military peacocks might be a little sheepish about this.  But no.  They advertise it.  There is something either deeply disturbing, or deeply fatuous, or both, here.

A couple of the GOP Congressmembers advanced by the “Young Guns” program did serve: Tom Rooney and Pete Sessions come to mind.  And as I said, I don’t think that it says something bad about someone that they didn’t serve.  I didn’t serve.  But there is something childish about those who did not serve then puffing up their military bearing.

Put another way, maybe we should acknowledge that Cantor, McCarthy, and Ryan are indeed “Young Guns.”  But the armaments are pop guns, and they are very, very young indeed.

If Korematsu Were Decided Today…

A couple of my students approached me today with what they thought was a rather disturbing discussion in their first year Constitutional Law class (I teach Property to the same group).

The class was discussing Korematsu v. United States, the infamous Supreme Court case from 1944, which upheld the internment of Japanese-American citizens.  Nothing so odd about that, especially in light of modern issues concerning national security and civil liberties.  But here’s the disturbing thing:

Virtually all of the students who commented defended the decision.  It was only after several minutes that any student spoke up and set forth the obvious issues, i.e. 1) that US citizens were convicted of simply being present in their country of citizenship; and 2) that German-Americans and Italian-Americans were not similarly treated.

I should quickly say that I don’t question the professor in this case at all (and neither did the students I spoke with).  He’s very good at raising open-ended questions and allowing the students to think (and speak) for themselves; no one would question his egalitarian and anti-racist bonafides.

So what happened here?

Well, perhaps this is one of those cases where everyone “knows” what the “right” answer is, viz., that Korematsu was an embarrassing abomination, so the students were attempting to argue against the obvious answer.  I wasn’t in the room, so it’s hard for me to tell.  But it doesn’t seem like this group: they don’t hesitate to speak up, but they won’t argue for the sake of arguing.

Rather, I wonder if the post-9/11 world has subtly but powerfully transformed our worldview.  I graduated from law school in 1993; I can’t imagine a room full of law students then defending Korematsu, and I certainly can’t imagine that occurring without a million hands popping up to attack it. 

The drip, drip, drip of anti-Muslim propaganda from the “respectable” organs of the Right and the constant MSM images of Muslim radicalism has made us more willing to understand or accept why decisionmakers would decide that for national security’s sake, perhaps one group has to be focused on.  We might accept profiling, which of course is a far cry from internment, but really, it was more serious then, and in fact they had attacked us, and while I certainly don’t like this and would try to do something else and of course the vast majority of Muslim-Americans are loyal citizens you can’t be too sure and….

Justice Jackson’s Korematsu dissent warned that the decision established a principle that “then lies about like a loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need.”

Perhaps the weapon is still sitting there.

National security experts wanted. Those who have “close relationships with foreign nationals” need not apply.

Does befriending non-Americans harm one’s chances for security clearance?

Earlier today, someone from the federal government came to ask me some questions about a former student who had applied for a job requiring security clearance. The questions seemed to be standard ones off a form.

One question was (more or less) “Does [applicant] to your knowledge have close relationships with foreign nationals?” My honest answer was, prettied up for language, “yes, I think so, given that she was born in another country and has probably not disowned her entire family. Besides, there are a great many foreign students in her graduate program and I assume she treated them more like colleagues and friends than like pariahs.” Then, to avoid harming the student’s chances, I said much the same thing translated from the Snark.

Can anybody help me out here? I have at least three questions: (1) Has this question always been asked of people seeking clearance, or was it a McCarthy-era innovation? (2) Are people regularly denied clearance solely because too many of their friends are foreigners of a nationality we distrust (and if so, has anybody thought about how idiotic that is)? (3) Do other countries ask similar questions? I can’t imagine anybody in France being asked whether he or she suspiciously had friends in Belgium or Germany—yet I doubt many French security types spy for Belgium as a result.

The whole line of questioning strikes me as antediluvian in a complex and globalizing world in which close contact with non-Americans is becoming both ubiquitous among talented people in urban centers—especially among those with advanced degrees—and crucial to solving our problems of national security (and everything else). Several questions regarding the applicant’s loyalty or disloyalty to the United States were asked separately in the interview, and to my mind legitimately. Is there any conceivable rationale for keeping the question that’s solely about knowing too many fer-ners?

Glenn Beck, minion of the great conspiracy

Glenn Beck has revealed himself, finally, as a covert agent of the communist/socialist left-Islamic-fanatic-Code Pink-Obama-fluoridation-currency-abasing-job-killing conspiracy.  While ill-informed and unqualified naïfs like Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow give him the cover of ridicule, Beck advances his masters’ designs  by  describing just enough of the plotters’ workings (and for credibility, sticking assiduously to facts) to conceal the key coordinating element that would allow us to defend ourselves.

What keystone is missing from Beck’s carefully crafted deception? What central coordinating power, preparing across centuries for a simultaneous world coup, has he absolutely refused to recognize or even name? Think back to the small ads with pyramids on the inside covers of comic books and Popular Mechanics, and to matchbooks before these insidious little propaganda messages were blanked out to preserve security: who was secretly recruiting members with these harmless-sounding promises of ancient wisdom?

The Rosicrucians! Alchemists (think it’s an accident that wingers are trying to put us on a gold standard?), Freemasons (the Shriners have a crescent right in their trademark, for Pete’s sake!),  international (what more do you need to know?).  Code Pink? It’s a code alright, but it’s code for Rosae Crucis!

Beck has never once named this central organizing fraternity of menace obviously pulling the strings, and if you think it’s an oversight, you don’t understand what an agent of disinformation is. Why has he never identified a single Rosicrucian agent? Have you even studied Beck’s hand gesture signals when he tells you to look at the chart? How many Rosicrucians are already in place in your company, or the Congress, or planning havoc at Davos,  or blogging to each other in the cipher only they understand?

You don’t know any, right; you’re not supposed to! Do I need a blackboard to explain this? America, wake up!

King Canute

The OMB tries to stop civil servants from learning anything from the Wikileaks.

Via TPM: The OMB has sent a Kafkaesque (or perhaps Hellerian) memo to the entire US Federal bureaucracy.

The OMB’s general counsel directed the agencies to immediately tell their employees to “safeguard classified information” by not accessing Wikileaks over the Internet.
Classified information, the OMB notes, “remains classified … until it is declassified by an appropriate U.S. Government authority.”

The flimsy excuse is that ¨doing so risks that material still classified will be placed onto non-classified systems.” How? The risk is Assange´s email.

The usual rule is that confidences hold only so long as the content is not broadcast by a third party; because public is public. (The making of the confidence may well stay one.) An open secret is an oxymoron.

The ludicrous effort also fails to exploit one silver lining of the Wikileaks for the government, as a priceless trove of real and recent case studies for training and analysis. Federal employees should be ordered to study the Wikileaks in their areas of interest.

PS: Commenters please refrain from pointing out that Canute wasn´t an idiot, his seaside throne stunt was a rebuke to his courtiers for their servile flattery. And Grigori Potemkin was an able and effective viceroy. The historically false memes have their own life.