A Pithy Sum-Up of the Structural Ailment of U.S. Government

The bigger problem with Obama's approach is his failure to address—at least so far—the reform of Medicare and Social Security. Without big reductions in spending on these programs, the kinds of investments in the future prosperity that Obama envisions won't be possible. We'll continue to evolve toward a government whose primary function is transferring income from working people to retirees. You don't have to frame this dynamic in racial terms, as Ross Douthat does, to see it as a recipe for social misery. The simple generational unfairness, as well as the drain on economic vitality, is going to become increasingly apparent. If Obama wants to offer a convincing vision of the federal government's role, he will need to recognize the growing imbalance between generosity for the old and investment in future generations. Preserving our biggest entitlement programs in their current form because they have a powerful constituency is hardly a progressive stance. It's the definition of reactionary liberalism.

That's Jacob Weisberg, at Slate.

Kicking the Kid Down the Road

Since "kicking the can down the road" is a cliche, Andrew Biggs proposes a replacement phrase for use when discussing America's federal budget: kicking the kid down the road.

After all, it’s our kids, not cans, who will feel the boot as multiplying debt forces future taxpayers to do even more with even less.

Along these lines, Matt Yglesias cries foul at possible social security cuts that would exempt current beneficiaries (i.e. older folks today) yet cut payouts for future beneficiaries.

You frequently hear of the need to exempt everyone over the age of 55 from any possible cuts. That’s nice for them and encourages them to go right on complaining about out of control spending. But the average 55 year-old will still be alive and collecting benefits in 2035 so the long-term budgetary implications of this “let the geezers keep their full benefits while they whine about how Democrats are bankrupting the country” are actually pretty significant.

As Matt says, we have a large and loud class of older folks calling for fiscal austerity measures — which is good — but the pain should be spread evenly, and certainly not unduly shouldered by the kids and grandkids of today, who, besides, had nothing to do with creating this mess in the first place.

Tom Friedman from Cairo

There are so many awesome Charlie Rose segments. A couple days ago Tom Friedman was on the show in Cairo. I watched the first 20 minutes. I had two reactions.

1) Friedman's enthusiasm for the revolution in Egypt is absolutely contagious.

2) His use of metaphor and imagery to convey points is so effective. Listen for "you never wash a rented car" or "they're going to have to pay retail, not wholesale." He's the king of metaphor in his writing. Seeing him deploy metaphors so effectively in real-time lends further credence to the idea that one can train to think in metaphors, not just write or speak in metaphors.


Why “Sputnik” Doesn’t Fire Up Americans

Will Wilkinson on Obama's state of the union address and the follies of telling Americans that this is our "Sputnik moment":

I'm lucky to have been in the last cohort of American children to grow up with the living fear of total nuclear annihilation. That "the world's fastest computer" now chugs away in China hardly leaves fourth-graders contemplating the futility of ducking under their desks as a widening ball of atomic fire races to melt their helpless flesh. Nor does the swiftness of Chinese microprocessors excite my competitive spirit. It makes me eager to buy a new ThinkPad.

Here's the essence of the Lexington post Will links to:

It is not hard to see why the Sputnik era appeals to Mr Obama. For all the talk they hear about China’s headlong investment in infrastructure, American voters are lukewarm about their own government’s spending, especially if debt or taxes must rise to pay for it. A new Sputnik moment might change their minds. But in the 1960s Americans were sure their system could deliver the goods. Today they are perplexed by the success of China’s model and divided on how, if it is even possible, to restore the health of their own. They should resolve that quarrel on its merits and keep the China scare out of it. 


Despite what polls and pundits say, I think most Americans are not terribly anxious about America the country "falling behind" China the country. When a person's job gets shipped overseas, he cares. When a product is cheap or not cheap on the shelves of Wal-Mart, he cares. Abstract talk about American exceptionalism and the importance of the U.S. being number one, as if there were one ultimate ranking? Hard to get fired up.

I'm obviously pro-innovation, pro-growth, etc., but I'm not convinced that the marketing effort undertaken by Obama and many pundits — namely, declaring now a Sputnik moment, implicitly vis-a-vis China — is the going to effectively galvanize the average American to innovate or in some other way feel extra inspired to help grow the economy.


Programming note: All comments left on this blog require a first and last name, and email address. Your email address will not show up on the site but it does show up to me in email. In the past I have usually deleted any comments that are not fully attributed, and will be more consistent about doing so going forward.

The (Charity) Work of Diplomats

(Me with two American diplomats and leaders of an Islmamic boarding school in Indonesia; August, 2010)

Rather than add to heap of analyses on Wikileaks, the soul of Julian Assange, privacy vs. transparency, and all the specific policy questions that have arisen — others are more qualified to comment there — I wish to react to these two sentences by Will Wilkinson:

The careerists scattered about the world in America's intelligence agencies, military, and consular offices largely operate behind a veil of secrecy executing policy which is itself largely secret. American citizens mostly have no idea what they are doing, or whether what they are doing is working out well.

It does seem like even informed, engaged Americans have no idea of the size and scope of the American diplomacy and intelligence apparatus overseas. And how should they? 22% of Americans have a passport. Some fraction of those people actually use their passport to travel overseas. And some (witheringly small) fraction of that number have needed the assistance of a U.S. consulate or embassy overseas — most likely for a quick visa/passport issue. Meanwhile, there are hardly ever reports state-side on the work of foreign service officers abroad. Add all this together, and I'm sure more than a few Americans were scratching their heads while reading the Wikileaks reports: Diplomatic cables? Political analyses? Ambassadors coming up with nicknames for foreign leaders? Who are these people and where do they come from?

This would have been me a couple years ago. I knew diddly squat about the U.S. State Department until I lost my passport in Switzerland in 2005. I went to Bern to get a new one and I had a positive impression of the Embassy there as very capable passport stampers.

Over the past year and a half, that's changed. I have enjoyed an up-close look at American public diplomacy in four countries. Partly this came from residing in another country for a period of time; partly this has come from working with a few embassies on some of their local economic development initiatives. Based on my (limited) experience, the stories we're reading about are the most salacious bits of a very large cache of documents (which itself is only a portion of the total communications of diplomats). The overwhelming majority of American diplomats' work around the world has little to do with advancing American self-interest and could better be described as charity work.

Yes, charity work. Almost entirely, diplomats engage in projects that aim to improve and enrich the local communities in which they work. They work towards democracy and economic advancement in the most general, agreeable ways. Despite being paid by the U.S. government (U.S. taxpayers), most of their work advances American self-interest only in the "peace and prosperity is better for everybody" kind of way.

A few examples. First, most embassies invite American citizens who are experts in their field to lead discussions on topics such as business, technology, education, dance, music, science, energy, and more. All the sessions are free for the local people. While working with embassies overseas, I saw one dance instructor lead classes for disabled children. I saw a New York jazz ensemble hold joint practice sessions and concerts with local musicians. I heard a green energy expert talking with local business leaders.

Second, the local staff themselves arrange on-going cultural and economic programs for locals. They'll facilitate roundtables on how to get a business off the ground. They'll organize events around the healing power of music. They put on events about higher education and how to get scholarships to attend universities abroad. Most of these programs are done in conjunction with the local staff of the embassies — citizens of the country who speak the language fluently and are employed full-time by the embassy.

Third, embassies fund an array of other programs for locals. In Cyprus, for example, the U.S. Embassy each year selects 15 high potential teenagers from the North and South side. (The country is divided.) They are flown to Denver, Colorado where a Cypriot facilitator leads a joint conversation about their respective cultures and the pursuit of peace. Even though the teens live just miles apart in Cyprus, for many it's their first time interacting with somebody on the other side of the U.N. dividing wall. It's also the first time many of them have been on an airplane.

Fourth, diplomats interface with the host government and offer assistance as requested. After the Chile earthquake, the U.S. Embassy spent millions of dollars and thousands of hours aiding the recovery.

None of this counts as traditional "foreign aid" — and yet, in many respects, it is. Of course, there will be skeptics who think American embassies are part of one grand conspiracy to spread American imperialism. There are indeed CIA agents in many embassies and there are diplomatic activities that directly support U.S. interests that may not be as warm and fuzzy as the aforementioned cultural programs. But as far as I can tell, that type of work is a small fraction of the overall activity set.

In fact, I suspect if Americans gained more familiarity with the work of foreign service officers and State Department missions overseas, many would ask, "Why are my tax dollars going to all those programs? How does it benefit me?" The answer: it doesn't, really. That's probably why you don't hear about their work too much.

One other point. As you can tell from reading some of the cables, America's diplomats are smart. They are some of the most talented people in the federal government. Although a life in the foreign service is not an easy one — all that moving around seriously narrows the pool of possible mates and friends, and the mandate to keep up appearances surely gets tiring — I have seen how it can be so rewarding. If you love travel, consider the foreign service.

Bottom Line: While headlines like "Diplomats Told to Spy at U.N." command attention, many American diplomats engage in work that could better be described as foreign aid.

The Media’s Real Bias: Subservience to Power

Glenn Greenwald is just riffing informally, but man, he’s eloquent / persuasive in these five minutes on media bias:

Personal Identity and Decisionmaking

In George Packer's scathing review of George W. Bush's memoir, there's this:

For Bush, making decisions is an identity question: Who am I? The answer turns Presidential decisions into foregone conclusions: I am someone who believes in the dignity of life, I am the protector of the American people, I am a loyal boss, I am a good man who cares about other people, I am the calcium in the backbone. This sense of conviction made Bush a better candidate than the two Democrats he was fortunate to have as opponents in his Presidential campaigns. But real decisions, which demand the weighing of compelling contrary arguments and often present a choice between bad options, were psychologically intolerable to the Decider. They confused the identity question.
I probably agree with the personal criticism of Bush, and I definitely agree that the identity question corrupts anyone's rational, honest analysis.
I am reminded of Paul Graham's brilliant essay Keep Your Identity Small.

Tacit Liberal Support of Afghanistan War

MoveOn.org, one of the most influential liberal organizations in American politics, tops its homepage today with this key issue: “Rescue government from corporations and lobbyists.”

Meanwhile, the United States is engaged in the longest war in U.S. history, costing billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and ironically “increasing and multiplying the terror threats we face”…and there is no end in sight.

If John McCain were president making the same decisions as Barack Obama on the war in Afghanistan — sending 30,000 more troops, backpedaling on withdrawal dates — my liberal friends would be in the streets protesting. Instead, liberals are peddling decades-old lines about corporate greed. Is the glamour of Barack Obama really so strong that they quietly accept his agenda even if they disagree?

I am not qualified to analyze Afghanistan in a serious way. I have never been there, I have never served in the military, I know little about the region. But from everything I read, it appears the counterinsurgency operation right now is a clusterfuck. If you read about the history of Afghanistan, perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise. In George Friedman’s credible analysis, these sentences stood out: “The United States is trying to invent a national army where no nation exists, a task that assumes the primary loyalty of Afghans will shift from their clans to a national government, an unlikely proposition.”

Andrew Sullivan has been heating up the rhetoric on Obama:

This much we also know: Obama will run for re-election with far more troops in Afghanistan than Bush ever had – and a war and occupation stretching for ever into the future, with no realistic chance of success. Make no mistake: this is an imperialism of self-defense, a commitment to civilize even the least tractable culture on earth because Americans are too afraid of the consequences of withdrawal. And its deepest irony is that continuing this struggle will actually increase and multiply the terror threats we face – as it becomes once again a recruitment tool for Jihadists the world over.

Or here:

This is a war based on fear, premised on a contradiction, and doomed to carry on against reason and resources for the rest of our lives. Maybe this is why you supported Obama – to see the folly of nation-building extended indefinitely to the least promising wastelands on earth, as the US heads toward late-imperial bankruptcy. It is not a betrayal as such. But it is, in my view, a huge and metastasizing mistake.

So will Obama’s liberal base — the people he must listen to more than any other — speak up? Will they acknowledge that not actively opposing Obama’s insane escalation of the war in Afghanistan constitutes tacit support?

What Happened in California Yesterday

Totally depressing.

Meg Whitman doesn't vote for 28 years straight, spends $71 million dollars, and wins the Republican gubernatorial primary. In the U.S. Senate Republican primary, Carly Fiorina trails Tom Campbell, who I strongly supported, and so in the final weeks writes herself another $2 million check, floods the State with TV ads, and lands Sarah Palin's endorsement who robo-calls voters. Almost immediately, she takes a 14 point lead to the finish line.

In the Democratic Senate race, Barbara Boxer easily beat Mickey Kaus. No surprise there, but the fact that Kaus garnered nearly 100,000 votes on the platform "I'm a Democrat who will not be a whore to unions and will not let them bankrupt our State as they have been doing" is itself a depressing indictment of the Democratic mainstream.

There are other reasons to find a tall building and jump. The grotesque amount of personal wealth involved. The fact that Sarah Palin, a Great American Embarrassment, has sway with so many voters and remains such a fixture on the GOP stage. The fiscal recklessness of San Francisco voters who easily approved yet more bond packages for school facilities despite zero evidence from the last 20 years that the city government is at all capable of managing money.

There's more. There's Fiorina mocking global warming by calling it "the weather"; there's the New Yorker profile of Tom Campbell that spent several paragraphs on whether Campbell way back when voted against taking aid money from the neediest in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and re-appropriating it as economic aid to Israel as was proposed, and whether that means AIPAC hates him forever; there's Steve Poizner's lockstep convictions that the way to solve California's fiscal problems is to lower taxes, lower taxes, lower taxes, because we all know that lowering taxes increases revenue!!!

There's politics for you.


"So Ben, seriously, why do you vote? You know your vote doesn't change the outcome of the election, right? Voting is irrational," asks the economics undergraduate. Why yes, I respond, my single vote won't decide the election, but studies show that when I vote it increases the likelihood my friends and family vote, and they will likely vote the way I do because people imitate the other people they know. It's magnified in my case because of The Blog and The Twitter. When I say, "I'm voting for John Doe," many thousands of other people may vote for John Doe as a result. And dozens or hundreds or thousands of additional votes — the chances that that decides an election go way up.

Career Lessons from Elena Kagan vs. Richard Posner

Consider the career paths and attitudes of two of the most prominent legal scholars in America.

Kaganhead Elena Kagan, recently nominated to the Supreme Court, according to profiles has been carefully plotting a career since, well, forever. Her youthful dream was to be a Supreme Court justice. At 17 she posed for her high school yearbook in a judge’s robe with a gavel and a quotation from Felix Frankfurter. She relentlessly worked toward this goal in her adult life, knowing what she would have to do to get there. "She was one of the most strategic people I’ve ever met, and that’s true across lots of aspects of her life. She is very effective at playing her cards in every setting I’ve seen," said John Palfrey, a law professor at Harvard. She published rarely; she did not speak out on controversial issues; she has been "extraordinarily — almost artistically — careful. I don’t know anyone who has had a conversation with her in which she expressed a personal conviction on a question of constitutional law in the past decade." Thus: she stands a good chance at enduring Senate confirmation hearings because she has given her opposition little ammunition. David Brooks called this willingness to suppress her mind for her career "kind of disturbing." Andrew Sullivan called her pure careerism "depressing."

Posnerhead Richard Posner, an appellate judge and Univ of Chicago law professor, may have been similarly ambitious when young (I'm not sure), but based on how he's lived his adult life it's clear that he values the pursuit of truth over a carefully cultivated resume. Posner is someone people agree is bright enough to be a Supreme Court justice but too eccentric so as to never pass a confirmation hearing. With jaw-dropping productivity he's shared his thoughts on nearly every topic under the sun. He applies his considerable intellectual heft to timely public debates. He's come out in support of legalizing marijuana, gay marriage, and other rational (if unpopular) ideas. In addition to his court opinions, where are the most cited in the land, he churns out a book a year and a blog post a week. With all this output, he inevitably gets some stuff wrong (sometimes a lot of stuff wrong), offends everyone at least once, and makes himself impossible to pin down. But what an inspiring mind and life!

The career results for each: Kagan will likely assume the top judicial position in the land. Posner will stay put at a close-to-the-top judicial position. The pure careerist achieves her goal. But at what cost?

I'd rather be close to the top and be able to live honestly and with the freedom to take risks than live a neutered life for 35 years in order to rise to the very top. I'd rather be myself than be a shallow, approval-seeking imitation of what is supposedly required to advance to the next level.

Bottom Line: In many professions it seems the sacrifices to go from A- to A+, from 2nd place to 1st place, are just not worth it.