If you are desperately trying, as I am, to get a grip on the Hamdi, Padilla, and Guantanamo (Rasul v. Bush), decisions from today, might I suggest you start with Prof. Balkin?

What I have figured out: this is a fine, if not spectacular victory for civil liberties...the "Guantanamo exists in an alternate universe where there is no legal system" argument died a welcome death...still no word on what "until the end of hostilities" means, and who gets to decide that...Scalia, in a moment of redemption, threw down against his old hunting buddy...Clarence Thomas sees some compelling value in reframing the US as a quasi military dictatorship...more to come, I hope.


Why journalists sound like idiots even though they're actually smarter than you

Brad DeLong has a fine new installment from the department of "Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps" here, in which he proposes an answer for how journalism's best and brightest can day after day turn out articles which read like transcripts of competing interests' press releases (see Bumiller, Elizabeth). Or that twilight zone feeling one gets reading a news article reporting different numbers derived from the same policy proposal; one understands that proponents will spin the arithmetic, but don't journalists have calculators, too?

In addition to Brad's compelling description of the quite banal reasons that very talented reporters are unlikely to report independently on substantive questions, the interesting bit to me lies in how the public talks about these issues, particularly economics.

For a nation that is regularly lectured on how desperately it needs a massive dose of Econ 101, we sure do get into heated arguments about fairly technical economic points. Pundits you wouldn't trust to summarize a novel for you toss about theories concerning "inflation" or "flexible labor markets" as though they had just finished crunching the numbers, while all sorts of "causal" relationships are invented which somehow always manage to result in the columnist's desired political outcome.

Surely there are exceptions, and I would suggest that Paul Krugman's real popularity comes not from his take no prisoners assaults on Bush, but from the fact that he actually is a real economist, who, agree with him or not, is doing real economics in his column, as evidenced by the National Review running an entire feature with Don Luskin solely to (not) pick apart Krugman's economic commentary.

But I digress.

The reason Americans need an economic class is not for their own edification or the enrichment of the discourse, but because the popular language of economics has become a remarkably potent rhetorical tool. Politicians are not idiots. They know that regardless of their optimism, or their ideas for education, or their macho posturing on foreign policy, elections have historically been won and lost on the health of the economy. In the hands of today's great spin machines, that knowledge translates into a rich distortion of words, signifiers, and logic structures culled and repackaged from the economics discipline.

Witness the Bush camp's current campaign to promote the 'truth' of his economic 'recovery'. The argument they are asking the public to buy regarding the tax cuts is not simply, "I will give you cash", but rather a somewhat complex scenario where by producers are emboldened to create jobs by virtue of the greater capital they have acquired through tax cuts. That it is based on 'real' models of supply side economics is irrelevant. This is an argument they expect voters to respond to because they have created an economic theory with an appealing logic. Kerry's challenge is to create a contrary but similarly appealing economic story. Banking on the fact that voters' personal experience corresponds to an unfavorable view of their or their neighbors' economic situations, and that he can effectively argue this is connected to Bush's policy.

Of course, this manipulation of economics is enabled by several very frustrating facts. First, that economics as a discipline is inherently incredibly vague and inconclusive, prone to wildly different results and assumptions. Second, the complete lack of public understanding as to how much government actions, and specifically, the actions of the executive affect the economy at large. Misunderstandings in this realm are perhaps the most lucrative fodder for enterprising PR flacks.

But back to the point. The appropriation and manipulation of economics language in modern mass politics is a fascinating story, and at the root of many of the more inane, artificial debates that fill screen inches these days. Good subject for a book, anyone?


That movie

Saw Faranheit 9/11 last night, and mostly enjoyed it. Moore has largely suspended his most provocative ticks, i.e., he spins the creepy circumstantial evidence of the Bush family's relationship to the Saudis, the behind-the-scenes oil interests in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc., but stops short of any explicit conspiracy theories. Many on the right will hold this up as an example of Moore's failings (see Hitchens, Christopher, here), and in many ways it is.

Moore has not made a clear-eyed, unassailable indictment of the Bush administration. But his movie does bring to light, in some startling and marvelous ways, the contradictions of the last three years. And as much as you disagree with the specifics (his crude evasion of the humanitarian argument for the war, pitting Iraqi children flying kites and a voiceover about how this country had never threatened one American civilian life vs. the shock and awe bombing, is facile and naive), the broader themes he brings to life are chilling and right on, and this is no small achievement. There are plenty of left wing nutballs out there ready to spread outrageous theories and make shit up about Republicans. But you know what? Harvey Weinstein doesn't invest in their movies. That's the uncomfortable truth about Michael Moore: his genius doesn't lie in his control of the facts, but rather in his control of the absurd.

The sequence in "Farenheit" detailing H.W. Bush's relations with the Saudis (replete with rock song montage of G1 gladhanding various turban'd men) doesn't floor you because you have a revelation that the Bush-Saud cabal has taken over the world--it floors you because an American president, the man with more power than any over the future of the world, is pimping his connections, and your democratic prerogative, in exchange for his and others' enrichment. There's no secret there. And that's why Moore's movies are ultimately very simple. They are about injustice and dishonesty, and the lies we tell to convince ourselves it doesn't exist.

No one saw "Roger and Me" because they thought Moore had a solution for the inconsistencies of global capitalism and post-industrial cities. They saw it (and were moved by it) because it mirrored our secret doubts and guilts that our corporate culture's exhortation to be strong in the face of economic transition wasn't worth a whit compared to personal human suffering, and was in fact, unnervingly self-interested.

In essence, Farenheit 9/11 is offering a hypothetical. What if the people leading our country, the people in control of our safety and responsible for the lives of our neighbors and children in the military, was motivated by an unholy mix of inertia, greed, and cowardice? What would you tell yourslf to pretend this wasn't true? And what if you're telling yourself that right now? P.S. You are.

It's a dicey proposition, I know. Such is satire. And no doubt there are many people who will not use the film "responsibly". But watch the movie, and find yourself overwhelmed--not with Moore's airtight case, but with the nagging contradictions, the blindness we've allowed ourselves, and then ask whether that's any way to run a country.



Just returned from 9 days out west, in Las Vegas and Southern California. As I'm still trying to catch up on news from the week, I'll say a few words about the travel. Las Vegas was quite fascinating, if troubling. It is one of those man made environments that is constantly inventing new ways of describing its own peculiar artifice: from the tourists lined up to photograph the "landmarks" (the Paris casino with its faux Palais Garnier, Eiffel tower, and Pont Neuf); to the plaques affixed to the "New York, New York" hotel which commemorate the imitation skyline as a mourning site for September 11th victims; to the woman I stood next to on Siegfried and Roy Plaza who announced that she "loved the desert" due to all the "shopping and singing." Las Vegas the city is likewise remarkable in its own right. Looking out the window on the plane coming in, I was marvelling at the sheer barrenness of so much of the country--everything west of Kansas looked like the face of Mars as far as I could tell--and then suddenly a picture perfect suburb blooms from the desert. It is improbable, unsustainable, and utterly remarkable. Unfortunately for the Las Vegas miracle, after the weekend I came to the conclusion that one can probably find more legitimate debauchery on any Monday night in New York than one can find in the suffocating corporate fun of the new Las Vegas. One has the sense that people there (except for the hard core gamblers, of course) have somehow forgotten how to enjoy themselves, and have come hoping that the mega-conglomerates running the casinos can teach them again.

Then it was on to California, where I was smitten again, as usual. I still can't figure out what I would do there, or where I would live, but I wish I could be on vacation there permanently. For people attached to the Midwest or the East, California offers what must be an experience similar to that felt by early European visitors to the United States: the intoxication of being among people who consider theirs the newest history on earth. The tragic naivete, the irrepressible, sweet arrogance of people unfettered by reverence or obsession with their history--there is an easy contentment there which is priceless and not to be found elsewhere.


More on the Reagan tip

Good "Did Reagan end the Cold War? If so, how?" piece by Fred Kaplan here.

Don't forget

From Americablog: Reagan's press secretary during the AIDS crisis.


And we wonder how we get into these messes...

The state of Florida's renewed offensive to purge ex-felons from the voter rolls (and keep others from restoring their voting rights) should be an enormous outrage but somehow isn't (see this article from the Tampa Tribune, courtesy of Kleiman). Jeb Bush is once again going to run roughshod over democracy in order to deliver Florida for his brother, and no one seems to care. At least back in the day, these things were done in backrooms, out of the national spotlight, only to come out years later (i.e., Illinois in 1960). But this story is being reported on Morning Edition every week—there's no question about what's going on. This is a travesty that needs to happen.


Damn Sullivan

If you haven't been already, and haven't eaten recently, go read Andrew Sullivan's running love fest on Reagan. How an HIV-positive gay man can slather over a president who never mentioned the word AIDS in office as the epidemic ravaged the gay community and abetted the rise of the anti-gay bigots to the national stage where they now want to amend the Constitution in order to enforce discrimination is way, way beyond me. I'm not saying Andrew has to condemn him to hell or anything--he's allowed a sober assessment as much as the next guy, but come on. You don't have to think Reagan wanted homosexuals to get the plague to understand that Ronald Reagan being president when he was was a very, very bad thing for gay people in the United States.

That said, he outdoes himself in this post (courtesy Atrios), where he burns Arthur Schlesinger for not believing the Soviet Union was "evil" because Schlesinger thought the Soviet economic system was doing well in 1982. This is some patently absurd bullcrap. Schlesinger has done more to speak out against facism and communism than almost any public intellectual over the past half century (see his eloquent and exceptionally enjoyable autobiography ). Only he did it smart. That's a lot more than one can say for Sullivan's "courageous fight for freedom," a smug enterprise which has probably cost the U.S. its legitimacy as a force for good in the world for a long time to come. For what you ask? Only Sullivan and his co-hawks' precious vanity as far as I can tell.


Maybe it was all a dream?

On the weekend before the eve of the referendum on the wild crazy ride that has been the Bush presidency, I find myself returning more frequently to the travesty of the 2000 election. I wonder if this will become a problem for historians in the future: why the protest was so muted, the outrage so quick to heal. Were Americans too full and lazy with their millenial consumer capitalism to really spend that much energy on politics? Does the election present some clues to the flaws inherent in the tension between democracy and a state built on the prerogatives of constitutional rule of law? Publius at Legal Fiction has the gory details, in case you've forgotten.


I know. It has been a while. My bad.

I've been trying to plow through Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, of which there will be much to say later, but it has been keeping me from the 'puter.

For now, please go read Fafblog! if you haven't already. It is deliciously funny, i.e., the recent Osama bin Laden interview:

FAFBLOG: So Osama bin Laden, how's evil doin?
OSAMA BIN LADEN: MWAHAHAHAHA! Oh, evil stands ready to triumph over good, little Fafnir!
FB: Oh I do not believe that Osama bin Laden! Good will always triumph over evil.
OBL: Not THIS time! This time I'm hatching my most diabolical scheme ever - my plot to elect JOHN KERRY president!
FB: Oh no!
OBL: Oh yes! I'm going to attack the United States in the next few months, forcing Americans to vote for Democrats! And nothing can stop me! [singing] Whatever O-sama wants... O-sama gets...
FB: But why, Osama bin Laden? Why?
OBL: Because of free trade. Free trade, affirmative action, abortion rights, equal marriage rights for gays, universal health care. Especially universal health care! Allah demands that martyr-blood flow in rivers through the infidel streets of America until the West has universal health care!
FB: I had no idea you were such a policy wonk Osama bin Laden.
OBL: For it is written, "Did not Truman put universal health coverage for all godless Americans in the Democratic Party platform fifty years ago? Let the gates of jihad be opened until every man, woman, and child is fully insured."
FB: Osama bin Laden you are insane! You have to know that universal health care is a crazy pipe dream, just like re-establishing the caliphate.
OBL: But it is not just John Kerry's domestic policies we covet. Allah smiles upon his foreign policies as well. Al Qaeda desires the conflict in Iraq to be internationalized and more troops and a more efficient "police and intelligence operation" approach to be brought to the war on terror. Because once the infidel dogs of the West fight the warriors of Allah with a quicker, lighter, multilateral approach... then, ah, THEN will we truly be able to destroy you!
FB: You will never get people to elect John Kerry, Osama bin Laden!
OBL: Yes we will! First we will launch a new terrorist attack on the US, forcing Americans to vote for Kerry! Then just to be sure we will launch a MoveOn-style blitz of negative anti-Bush ads using money collected from our 527s, while sending Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to plug the Democrats on Meet the Press and Hardball!
FB: Oh no!
OBL: Oh yes! And by the time I speak at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, America's fate will be sealed!
FB: You will never get away with this Osama bin Laden!