Wednesday, January 31, 2007

An Evolving Appraisal of John Edwards

At the close of the 2004 campaign, I regarded Edwards as a decent human being, a relatively intelligent politician and a figure with particularly strong, though not extraordinary, charisma. His career as a trial lawyer and a one term senator gave me no evidence that he would be an effective leader, but neither did most of the candidates I had to choose from. I really liked his focus on poverty in his speeches, though his "Two Americas" rhetoric and his endless references to his mill working father drove me nuts after the 50th time I heard it.

Months after the campaign, I had the opportunity to hear him speak firsthand.

He was speaking under the pretense of promoting his new "focus" of eliminating poverty in America. His speech left me convinced, however, that it was just the beginning of his 2008 presidential campaign. His speech lacked any real substance. It was filled with the standard empty political bravado and appeals to the standard ideals that all politicians love to invoke, but never actually attempt to lead us towards. But at least I was reminded, three more times, that his father worked in a mill (I'm not joking, three times in 35 minutes).

In short, my opinion of him dropped.

Still, I have been keeping an eye on him. As Hillary and Obama work to wear each other down this year, he will continue to build on an already formidable campaign. He obviously did extremely well in 2004 and I do not think the ultimate failure to defeat Bush has damaged him to any significant degree as it did John Kerry. Furthermore, he has nationwide name recognition and a tested political machine that is in full swing and proving effective, despite the lack of media coverage he is receiving relative to Hillary and Barack.

In the speech I witnessed him give a couple years ago, I was frustrated with the standard appeal to ideals without a call to specific action. Edwards gave a bit of evidence in a recent interview that he may have learned that actual leadership requires both. The last several lines of the article caught my attention:

Edwards has decided to sell America on sacrifice.

"I am totally comfortable with the word sacrifice, with asking people to
sacrifice for their country," [Edwards] said.

Among the sacrifices:

To reduce carbon emissions, Edwards recognizes that people may have to pay
more for gasoline. And he is not ruling out new taxes or increasing old ones.

The universal health care plan he wants is going to be expensive and some
people will have to pay more.

Eradicating poverty, his signature issue, will also require more money from
taxpayers. And Edwards does not favor any new tax cuts for the

Isn't there a risk in asking voters to sacrifice while other candidates are
promising them things? I asked him.

"There is clearly a political risk, no question," he said. "But I
actually believe this is what America needs."

I am not quoting these lines because I agree with all these suggestions. I cite them because they are actual tangible ideas to support a broader notion that I think is essential to our economic prosperity as a nation: the need for sacrifice on the part of American citizens.

Three hundred billion dollar structural deficits, a perpetually increasing multi-trillion dollar national debt and a political culture that regards the mere discussion of tax increases as political suicide is not a sustainable situation for this country. Economic growth alone will not solve these problems. If Americans do not want higher taxes, that is fine - as long as they are willing to sacrifice some of their children's eventual Medicare insurance, Social Security benefits, and/or dramatically cut the funding for our military.

It is about time more serious politicians put the well-being of their country above their own ambition and say so to a public audience.

Edwards' new willingness to do so is encouraging. If he continues to do so to significant audiences, he has a fair chance of getting my vote.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Lugar's Iraq Strategy - A Must Read

Richard Lugar, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, published an outstanding article in the Washington Post today. Lugar lists numerous critical points in this essay, and I encourage every person reading this to take 5 -10 minutes to read the entire article.

It is a rare example of prominent politician offering specific tactical suggestions while also considering the greater strategic issues in the region.

Because Lugar is also a Republican, there is a glimmer of hope that his analysis will get some attention inside the White House.

I am going to leave his excellent description of the larger strategic situation for you to read, but I want to cite his tactical suggestions here because they are the only effective description that I am aware of for the "troop redeployment" many politicians cite as their strategy today. Lugar's plan cannot, with any honesty whatsoever, be cast as a "cut and run" policy, yet it would largely remove American forces from the sectarian portion of the conflict. It also lists with appealing specificity what U.S. troops would and would not be tasked with achieving.

Even as the president's Baghdad strategy goes forward, we need to plan for
a potent redeployment of U.S. forces in the region to defend oil assets, target
terrorist enclaves, deter adventurism by Iran and provide a buffer against
regional sectarian conflict. In the best case, we could supplement bases in
the Middle East with troops stationed outside urban areas in Iraq. Such a
redeployment would allow us to continue training Iraqi troops and delivering
economic assistance, but it would not require us to interpose ourselves
between Iraqi sectarian factions.

Concise, specific, and both tactical and strategic in its conception. I am certain there are opportunities to improve this plan, but it is the best one out of the many that I have read four years into this war.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Examining the Troop Surge in Iraq

Our recent - and perhaps last - major initiative in Iraq, has been characterized by the media, the Democrats, and now a few Republicans as a purely military tactic: more force to kill the bad guys and/or to police a civil war.

However, the President’s National Security Advisor, Stephen Hadley, insists that the troop surge is in fact a component of a broader new strategy that includes accelerated training of Iraqi forces, relaxed rules of military engagement and economic development enabled by a persisting presence of American and Iraqi troops to maintain security in newly pacified regions.

This strategy appears sensible on the surface. It makes me wonder what our objectives have been in the last four years if not these….

I think the answer to that question is that these are not new objectives.

Training the Iraqi security forces is an essential prerequisite for all the other initiatives Hadley cites. Consequently, it has been a top priority of U.S. efforts for a long time. It was at least 18 months ago when President Bush first pushed this strategy: “As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down”.

Yet it has become increasingly clear that this is a much more complex task than it seems. It is one thing to give a young Iraqi a weapon, basic military training and the title of “soldier”. It is apparently another to get them to put the interests of Iraq above those of their tribe or religious sect. If you find this notion questionable, this article, from the Council on Foreign Relations, discusses it in greater detail.

The fact that this deeply rooted obstacle is not being mentioned by any member of the Administration, and there are no visible sources of additional pressure on the Iraqi government to solve these problems internally (which is probably the only way they can be), makes me question if this new strategy has any chance of success.

Assuming the obstacle is real, it is a problem that will impede (if not render impossible) the progress of every other objective that Hadley lists in the “new” strategy. It is also a challenge that additional American force will – in no way whatsoever – address. I believe that this is the case. It is the most plausible explanation why we have made no visible progress in the streets of Iraq in the last 4 years, despite the laudable accomplishments of legitimate national elections and a respectable Iraqi Constitution.

At this point, I am a member of the McCain and Lieberman camp that refuses to ignore the high probability that withdrawing from this war before the Iraqi government’s sustainability is achieved would have catastrophic consequences for both American strategic interests and the Iraqi people. I respect their willingness to force a discussion of this reality despite the severe political consequences of doing so (it has cost Lieberman his party membership and may very well cost McCain the presidency).

Nevertheless, there is no reason to believe this surge will do anything more than cost more American lives, money and prestige. It will also continue to divert resources (not the least of which is the American public’s attention) from important and still solvable challenges including al-Qaeda, Afghanistan and the Iranian nuclear challenge.

This makes me think that if we are not going to really do what it takes to win – something truly new and innovative – something more than a marginal troop surge – then perhaps our best move (out of a list of utterly terrible options) is to leave…

I still cannot bring myself to fully accept this, but the more time that passes, the closer I get.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Iran Needs More of Our Attention

Iran barred 38 nuclear inspectors from the IAEA today.

This headline was fifth in the online Washington Post today (the first to appear in small print). It followed Bush's latest poll numbers, an article on the Senate's opposition to the troop surge, the resignation of Bill Parcels, and a couple of other articles I could argue are only slightly less trivial.

This is absurd.

The potential acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran, its blatant disregard for key international institutions, and the hostile statements of its elected leaders, deserves more press coverage and more attention by the American public, as does the disintegrating situation in Afghanistan.

Iraq has dominated the headlines more often than not over the last 4 years for understandable reasons. But at this point, President Bush's options in Iraq are limited, for better or worse. This troop surge may be his last real card to play, and truth be told, it is not a big one. We have had similar surges before. The reason this one is getting so much press coverage is because of the opposition to it - not because it is a new tactic (much less a new strategy).

The biggest foreign policy decisions remaining in the Bush Presidency - and quite possibly, the biggest military decisions remaining - will be concerning Iran.

The press needs to start doing a better job informing the public on this emergent crisis. The consequences of ignoring it could be enormous. One could argue that the need for extreme action on this issue is not imminent, and they would be right. But, primarily because of Iraq, America's options to act unilaterally if required are severely limited. Airstrikes would still be possible in theory, but the consequences of such action without substantial genuine international endorsement would be extreme.

We need a real coalition to address this threat no matter what actions are required, whether they be diplomatic, economic or military. As we have seen over the last several years, international cooperation and meaningful action take months, if not years, to coalesce - if they ever do.

We have to focus, and soon.

Encouraging News on Climate Change

This article was a rare piece of good news on climate change.

Apparently, a key group of prominent business leaders is launching an initiative to encourage Congressional action on global warming. The details of the plan being advocated are scarce, but CNN reports that it is a "cap and trade" scheme. Based on my study of economics, this is probably the best way to balance the trade offs between reducing greenhouse gases, protecting the economy, and building a politically feasible plan.

It is quite remarkable that CEOs are taking the initiative on this issue. But are they motivated to save the environment, or are they just trying to mitigate their financial risk by taking the lead on the issue with the hope of gaining greater influence on the outcome?

Definitely the latter, but probably both, I think. After two years at a leading business school, I have learned firsthand that business leaders, on average, are not the heartless profiteers that many outside of the private sector think they are...

We will find out their intentions when specific discussions occur around setting "the cap" (the total emissions allowable in the economy). The lower the cap, the better for the environment, the more costly for business, and the more difficult to sell politically.

We'll see how this plays out, but it is an encouraging and necessary step. It will be interesting to see if President Bush addresses climate change in the State of the Union tomorrow. He is rapidly becoming one of the only leaders in the country not to list this challenge as a top priority.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Politics First, Policy...Later

One of the key items on the Democrats “First 100 Hours” agenda is lowering interest rates on subsidized federal student loans.

Specifically, they are proposing to halve interest rates from 6.8% to 3.4% over the next five years. I can’t help but be a fan of this proposal since it would save me several thousand, perhaps tens of thousands, of dollars over the next 10 or 15 years.

But the last three paragraphs of this article troubled me.

Apparently, the financial implications of this measure have not been seriously reviewed by the House Committee responsible for the bill (Education and Labor). Nevertheless, the Democrats are trying to push it through – it is after all, a popular political move (there are a lot of students like me – many of which have voting parents that also benefit from this measure).

It may very well turn out that this measure is also good policy – i.e. that the financial costs are totally justifiable. If there is any area in which government should be liberal in its use of resources, it is education – particularly in its financial aspects such as loans (whereas I think other areas of education need fundamental reform before committing more dollars).

Still, there is no reason that this policy should not have already been vetted. This is one of the Democrats top five priorities in this legislative session – surely they have done their homework to make sure that their top political priorities are also decent policy….right?

To not do so would be to put politics above policy – right out of the gate, no less. Isn’t that one of the main reasons the American people basically fired the Republicans in November? It is certainly the core reason that this country has record structural budget deficits and a crushing national debt.

Yes, of course I know that this kind of thing happens all the time in Washington. But if we continue to silently accept it, how can we ever expect anything different?

At least it makes me feel a little better to publicly complain about it.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Thoughts on Saddam's Execution

I heard a civil rights activist rail against the execution of Saddam Hussein recently. I must admit, I initially scoffed at her complaints. I did not really even give her argument a fair chance.

Although I think the administration of the death penalty in the United States has undeniable flaws, perhaps severe enough to warrant a moratorium on its practice, I support its use in principle. If someone with no mental deficiency is known without any doubt to have murdered a child for example, I see no place in our society for them – including in our prisons.

Given this belief, I consider Saddam Hussein to be as deserving of the death penalty as anyone else on the planet. Because of this, I did not stop to sufficiently consider the argument against killing him when and in the manner that it occurred.

Charles Krauthammer got through to me in a way that I never gave the civil rights activist the chance to do (perhaps I should have listened to my own previous post). I knew that Saddam had a public trial – I saw parts of it myself on TV. I knew that the government of Iraq was established via a fair and legitimate (though admittedly imperfect) election. Therefore, I did not feel it was a major stretch to assume the trial was similarly fair and the sentence legitimate.

But apparently, there were several material facts that I did not know to consider. I found one particularly unacceptable – I will quote Krauthammer directly:

“[The execution] was also carried out extra-constitutionally. The constitution
requires a death sentence to have the signature of the president and two vice
presidents, each representing one of the three major ethnic groups in the
country (Sunni, Shiite and Kurd). That provision is meant to prevent sectarian
killings. The president did not sign. Nouri al-Maliki (the Prime Minister)
contrived some work-around.”

Given the context of sectarian warfare that is literally on the verge of destroying the political entity known as Iraq, this is absolutely unacceptable. Even if the sectarian violence were not a factor, the legal precedent this act establishes could be devastating to the future of the nation. The new Iraqi Constitution is struggling to attain real meaning for a people that identify with a tribe and religious sect more than they do a national identity. Therefore, to disregard the national law on so clear and public a matter is inexcusable.

The actions of Prime Minister Maliki make me seriously consider Krauthammer’s closing assertion that “We should not be surging American troops in defense of such a government.” The suggested surge is to establish the stability necessary for the Iraqi government to assert its rightful authority based on the democratically designed Iraqi Constitution. But if that government freely disregards that law – when the entire world is watching, no less – is there anything legitimate left for us to defend?

CK's original article is here.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Importance of Objectivity

It occurred to me that I have been pretty hard on President Bush in my last couple posts. Upon reflection, I do not regret anything I have said, nor do I think any of it is incorrect.

That being said, we live in a world in which praise or criticism of certain political figures often draws an immediate emotional response – often to the point that supporting arguments and facts behind the opinion are not seriously considered. The author is labeled a conservative or a liberal, and the reader/listener accepts or discounts what is written/said.

Above all else, it is my intention to remain objective and as fair as possible when posting to this site. I think that is the best way to learn, to communicate persuasively, and to maintain an environment that encourages readers to submit comments that will push my thinking.

This is not to say that I will not be noticeably emotional at times when I write. One can certainly be objective and/or fact-based when communicating about a subject they care passionately about – though it is admittedly more difficult most of the time.

Objectivity is a general rule that needs to be more broadly embraced by people directly involved in or otherwise closely following politics. I have seen too many people, some of them with absolutely brilliant intellects, totally unable (not just unwilling) to seriously evaluate the statements made by the President of the United States. I remember this in the 1990’s, before and after the impeachment, and I certainly see it almost daily today.

People across the political spectrum are guilty of this offense, and there is no doubt that many politicians give these people good cause to disregard many of their statements. Nevertheless, such conduct is intolerable. There is too much at stake to tune out our leaders, or to disagree by default.

Of course, genuine disagreement on policy goals, methods and even core values is inevitable. Intelligent debate arising from such disagreement is absolutely essential for the continued prosperity and, indeed, the fundamental security of the country. This is because no party or person has a monopoly on good ideas across all policy issues.

If you do not believe that, you should re-read this post several times – it is written exclusively for you.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Facts on Supply Side Economics

An intelligent friend of mine, with little experience in economics, recently asked me to explain supply side economics to him. Specifically, he was curious about the belief of supply-siders that tax cuts actually pay for themselves by increasing economic growth.

Although I was able to confidently tell him that the economics I had studied refuted this claim, I was not able to do so in a convincing manner, nor was I able to readily cite specific economists or other authorities to back up my claim.

Now I can.

Gregory Mankiw, formerly the Chairman of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors, recently made a statement estimating that cuts in capital gains taxes only recoup 50% of the revenue they lose – even over the long-term when investment and resulting economic growth are included. Cuts in income taxes do even less, he said – recouping only 17% of the revenue they cost.

If you are in need of a second source, the Congressional Budget Office recently released its own estimates. To quote the Washington Post article that provided the figures:

“On the most optimistic assumptions it could muster, the CBO found that tax cuts
would stimulate enough economic growth to replace 22 percent of lost revenue in
the first five years and 32 percent in the second five.”

These numbers speak for themselves and I would contend they are as reliable as any other set one could find.

The President recently disagreed with this assessment, "…it is also a fact that our tax cuts have fueled robust economic growth and record revenues."

He did not cite who or what institution provided him with his analysis.

I obtained my quote from Mankiw and the CBO from this editorial.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Maddening Hypocrisy

President Bush outlined a plan today to eliminate the budget deficit by 2012. The source article is here.

There are a lot of things that I could say about this article, but I can't help but focus on a single issue in this post.

From the article, a quote from the President:

"Congress needs to adopt real reform that requires full disclosure of the
sponsors, the costs, the recipients and the justifications for every earmark".

Apparently, an integral part of the President's budget plan is to curtail the pork laden budget practices that have become absurdly excessive in the Congress in recent years. This is a necessary step and I would be prepared to applaud the President publicly for it had he called for it at any point in the last six years when his fellow Republicans controlled both houses of Congress.

But to call for it now, though still good and necessary policy, is blatantly hypocritical. The fact that the President waited until the 7th year of his Presidency to press the issue of fiscal responsibility is an absolute failure of leadership. Particularly in a time of war, the President should have been more forceful in tightening the country's fiscal belt. Instead, our leadership has cut taxes and increased discretionary spending at one of the fastest rates in our entire history. The result, of course, has been record budget deficits.

At least Democrats typically do not cite fiscal responsibility as one of their strengths. As Americans, we can disagree on and debate methods and even certain values, but saying one thing and doing the exact opposite, particularly on this scale, is just unacceptable.

There are more issues worth discussing from the source article that led to this post. I will comment on a few of them in the coming days.