Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Obama Won

The best quote of the election came from Andrew Sullivan on Colbert:
there's a black man in power who has nothing to lose

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Obama acknowledges that it's not solely the executive's job to reign itself in

I believe the exchange below between Obama and Jon Stewart on The Daily Show (Oct 18) lends support to my previous post about what Obama really thinks about civil liberties and limits on executive powers.

In particular, this sentence suggests a high level of self-awareness on this topic: "not only am I reigned in, but any president is reigned in".

However, this being the run-up to the election, he starts to back pedal towards the end. This is not exactly a powerful defense "we have modified them, and built a — a legal structure, and safeguards in place that weren’t there before". And it can't be, because there's not much there to defend.

Here's the relevant part of the transcript:
OBAMA: You know one of the things we’ve got to do is — is — is put a legal architecture in place and we need congressional help to do that, to make sure that not only am I reigned in, but any president is reigned in, in terms of some of the decisions that we’re making. Now there are some tradeoffs. I mean there are times where there are bad folks somewhere on the other side of the world, and you’ve got to make a call, and it’s not optimal. But when you look at our track record, what we’ve been able to do is to say, we ended the war in Iraq. We’re — we’re winding down the war in Afghanistan. We’ve gone after al-Qaeda and its leadership. It’s true that al-Qaeda is still active, at least sort of remnants of it are staging in other parts of North Africa and the Middle East.

And sometimes you’ve got to make some tough calls, but you can do so in a way that’s consistent with…

STEWART: Right.

OBAMA: …international law, and with American law.

STEWART: Within that, as it ratchets down, I think people have been surprised to see the strength of the Bush era, warrantless wiretapping laws and those types of things, not also be lessened. That the — the strictures that he put in place that people might have thought were government over-reaching, and that maybe they had a mind that — that you would perhaps tone down, you haven’t?

OBAMA: Well you know the truth is actually, we have modified them, and built a — a legal structure, and safeguards in place that weren’t there before. On a whole range of issues. Now that — they’re not real sexy issues. They’re not the kind of things that you’re going to…

Monday, October 01, 2012

It's not the job of the sitting president to rein in the powers of the executive

UPDATE II: Conor Friedersdorf won't vote for Mitt either.

UPDATE: Just came across this post from Kevin Drum (don't know how I missed/forgot it). Kevin, inspired by Daniel Klaidman's Kill or Capture book, says that Obama caved on national security because of lack of support from Democrats. I take that as an argument in support of this post. Bottom line is that the voting public aren't putting pressure on Democrats which means there's no pressure on Congress.

I've read Conor Friedersdorf (@conor64) for years, and I've come to respect his independent thought and criticism of Republicans and Democrats alike.

Recently, he explained why he won't vote for Obama. It comes down to Obama's doubling down on the civil liberty violations that George Bush Jr. started after 9/11. With regular drone killing of Pakistanis Obama has left Bush in the dust (read almost anything by Glenn Greenwald for more.)

Now, I was as outraged as the next guy over Bush's secret prisons, torture, and all the rest. And I was very disappointed to see Obama continue most of these "police state" policies (sans the torture). But unlike Conor I have come to accept this side of Obama over the years. Does that make me an Obama apologist like most of these people?

Maybe, but I don't think so. Because it's not the job of the sitting president to rein in the powers of the executive.

I would be willing to bet Obama was genuinely outraged by the civil liberty violations under the Bush administration. But when he came into office, he realized the Commander in Chief is responsible for a huge security apparatus with hundreds of thousands of people. And these people need a leader in order to be effective and keep America safe. And if there ever were another 9/11 style attack, these people and the American public would want to know that their leader had done everything in his power to prevent it.

I think Conor should direct his verbal firepower at other branches of government, notably Congress. Just like it's not the JP Morgan CEO's job to reform the financial industry, I don't think it's the sitting president's job to curb executive power. Especially when there's no public relations benefit to doing so.

Agree? Disagree? Reply or follow me on twitter -- @mkvalsvik.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Economist has a piece on how low social status is bad for your health, and why.  Which I find fascinating.

But this bit is really crazy:
Epigenetics—currently one of molecular biology’s hottest topics—is a process by which genes are activated or deactivated by the presence or absence of chemical structures called methyl and acetyl groups. Dr Tung and Dr Gilad found that methylation patterns were systematically different in high- and low-ranking animals. Crucially, these changes are generally passed on to the daughter cells produced when a cell divides, and are thus perpetuated throughout an animal’s life. To the extent that epigenetic marking is involved in creating social status, then, status may be being maintained by the animal’s cells as they replicate.
When reading history, I've always wondered why lowly peasants put up with their lot in life while defeated kings (and their offspring) manage to get back up on their thrones (or new thrones) without much protest.  This epigenetic marking stuff goes a long way towards explaining why (along with cultural norms, illiteracy, and such).

Sunday, August 07, 2011

My thoughts on the debt ceiling debacle

It's now been several days since Obama completely caved to Republican debt ceiling pressure, on an issue that even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell described as "a hostage that’s worth ransoming".

And while stocks have dropped and people are now talking about a double dip recession, we still don't know how bad it's going to get. As I'm writing this, US markets have not yet reacted to late Friday's news that S&P downgraded US debt. (Monday should be interesting, judging from the concerns of these important people.)

Predictably, liberals are piling on with criticism of Obama. Nobody likes it when their leader completely capitulates. One of my Facebook friends has started sending links to pro-Hillary articles again (she took a break when Hillary lost the 2008 primary).

So I found myself wondering: Would we have been better off with a hard-core liberal like Hillary, who presumably would have done a better job playing political hardball against take-no-prisoners Tea Party Republicans? After all, it's hard to argue that Obama's middle-of-the-road approach to negotiations is not pushing the country harder to the right.

On the other hand, there are those who say Obama may lose a battle here and there, but he's really a master chess player who will beat everyone in the end. He may not throw liberals a lot of red meat by taking and holding on to tough positions, but he wins on policy grounds by striking compromises and getting stuff done. Andrew Sullivan is perhaps the most articulate proponent of this view:
On policy: ending the US torture regime; prevention of a second Great Depression; enacting universal healthcare; taking the first serious steps toward reining in healthcare costs; two new female Supreme Court Justices; ending the gay ban in the military; ending the Iraq war; justifying his Afghan Surge by killing bin Laden and now disentangling with face saved; firming up alliances with India, Indonesia and Japan as counter-weights to China; bailing out the banks and auto companies without massive losses (and surging GM profits); advancing (slowly) balanced debt reduction without drastic cuts during the recession; and financial re-regulation.
I'm mostly in Sullivan's camp. But I think is the best feature of the Obama presidency is this: We have a president who respects the opinions of Congressional voters.

After all, if the population of the United States keeps voting for Tea Party activists and other far-right leaning Republicans, then policy (especially on spending and taxation) should take their views into account. That's what democracy is all about.

Fundamentally, I don't think the country is well served by having master tacticians (of either party) as presidents, even if it might serve my own personal agenda (fiscally moderate, socially liberal) in the short run.

Put in different terms: If you think the Tea Party is a destructive force, then it may be best to let them destroy some stuff so that people stop voting them into office. This argument is frequently made in Europe about right-wing extremist parties (such as the Progressive Party in Norway that Anders Breivik was briefly member of), and I think it's an important one. (Especially when you want to take oxygen away from extremists such as Breivik.)

Of course, there is no guarantee that actual destruction will prevent people from voting destruction-minded politicians into office. Especially since the media's cult of balance is likely to distort the picture. However, I believe "the truth" gets out eventually if the political system functions reasonably well.

And that, I suspect, is Obama's biggest concern: The health of the democratic process and our political system. And on that, he deserves our support. The alternative is the end of American leadership and pre-eminence in the world.

UPDATE: Having said all that, I do hope that Obama will read this Drew Westen piece: What Happened to Obama?.

Though unlike Westen I am more worried about the quality of the political system itself and less worried about the absence of superman-style personalities like the version of Obama he wants. If we want to make a better country then we should improve the press, elect better people to Congress, and contribute to better general discourse.

UPDATE II: More good comments about Obama and the Westen piece from Kevin Drum and Andrew Sullivan. This, from a Sullivan reader (second link) has certainly been a wake-up call for me:
What you (and I) thought was a phenomenon mostly inherent/related to the Clintons and Bushes is structural; it has far more to do with the closed informational loop on the Right and the Aileses and Kristols and Norquists and Limbaughs guarding the door... guys who sure as hell weren't going to let Obama in, no matter how even-keeled his temperament or how many nice things he said about Reagan.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Economist: "Obama stimulus did not create jobs" and "In retrospect, stimulus was too small"

"Lexington", August 6th to 12th 2011 issue:
Mr Obama’s fate depends more on two big bets he placed well before the Republican capture of the House in November’s mid-terms. The health-care reform that chewed up political capital in his first two years tanked with voters, and more than $800 billion of stimulus spending has so far failed to deliver the hoped-for growth in jobs. The outcome of the next election will depend more on unemployment than on Mr Obama’s handling of the past month’s comic opera on the debt ceiling.
Regarding the stimulus, perhaps the author should have read "Six years into a lost decade" on the previous page:
Had the new Obama administration seen that the economy was shrinking at close to 9% per year, it might well have pushed for a much larger stimulus plan, and might reasonably have expected Congress to agree to it.
Perhaps the stimulus averted an even greater disaster, even though the "hoped-for growth in jobs" did not materialize. After all, you either believe in stimulus spending during recessions or you don't.

Also, I would love to hear more about how a Congress that just imposed severe austerity on a fragile economy might have been "reasonably expected" to agree to a bigger stimulus.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Why you should travel when young

Deep stuff:
The moment you meet people of other faiths whom you consider to be at least as decent, at least as religious, and at least as intelligent as you think you are, you will never be the same.
http://bit.ly/faiT5D

Monday, August 30, 2010

Social Media: The Generation Gap

I've been working on a social media search product recently, and I'm really excited about it. But I don't produce much social media content myself, so I figured I should start (on the general principle of eating your own dog food, etc).

I manned up and wrote:
Google Buzz is not getting much love: http://bit.ly/doLVii
However, a buddy from college was quick to remind me of my previous attitude:
fuck! you tweet, you facebook, you buzz... what are you trying to keep up with generation z for?
Anyway, it looks like Google is better at adapting to the future than my backward friends. The new realtime search looks like a step in the right direction.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Liberal atheists are more intelligent

Not sure if that's true. But this article spoke to my hobby-level interest in evolutionary psychology.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

What is happening in Massachusetts

As is obvious to any visitors to this space, this blog is almost dead. But as a Massachusetts resident I think the current events are worthy of my annual post.

By now most people are probably aware that a Republican (Scott Brown) has a real shot at winning Ted Kennedy's senate seat on Tuesday. The Democrat, Martha Coakley, is reported (notably via Huffington Post) to be a party operator with low charisma and limited abilities to stand up to the party establishment. I don't know if that's true or not but she certainly hasn't evoked strong feelings one way or the other the few times I've heard her speak.

However, while I can't pretend to know much about the candidates or even the Massachusetts electorate, I do have a strong opinion on what's going on right now. In essence, the centrist political establishment, including centrist media, is dead. And that is allowing extremists on both sides to dominate the political discourse. This has been clear on the right for a while (see Limbaugh, Rush and Palin, Sarah) but I think Massachusetts voters are showing us that it is also clear on the left.

Even a charismatic and talented centrist like Obama is not strong enough to withstand the strong forces that are leading Mass liberals to stay home in disappointment. Obama has not governed like a leftist Karl Rove, and liberals are pissed. He is actually trying to focus on policy and making the country and the world a better place, instead of bashing conservatives and preaching to the liberal base.

30 years ago the centrist political media establishment would have recognized that fact and they would have pointed it out to regular Joe Schmoe voters. But today's spineless infotainment media do the opposite: They uncritically give voice to extremists and thereby allow two blocks of voters to alternate between "red meat" candidates that campaign 24/7 and never get anything done.

I thought Obama was different, and I still think he is. But it looks as though that doesn't matter. He's a pawn in this political mob game just like the rest of us. And that worries me to the core...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Thoughts on the Election

This sums up how I feel perfectly:
One of the blessings of liberal democracy, in theory, is that we delegate the common fate to the most able , intelligent and motivated people among us, and, though we keep an eye on them and make them subject to recall and revision, we can cede our trust to them to do a more or less decent and able job most of the time. We trust them. For the first time in years, we can say now: the government is in the hands of skillful people with a sense of the real; we can live the live sin front of our eyes without worrying that some horror is happening behind our backs.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Osama Bin Laden Winning?

A Sullivan reader quotes the comedian Gary Shandling who may be on to something:
Seven years after 9/11, we are seeing Al Qaeda's long-term goal being realized: the destabilization and economic collapse of the United States.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Barack and George W.

This is just precious:
This also shows that George W Bush is a uniter after all: People are so fucking frustrated that even rednecks are willing to give a black guy a chance.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Iraq "Surge" Update

Since John McCain is now running around saying "I told you so" I thought I would do the same. Almost a year ago I wrote this about the pending "surge" in Iraq:
In essence, I think John McCain has the right attitude to the surge at this time. He made the following points on MTP which I agree with (this is from memory):
  • General Petraeus has a genuinely new plan for Iraq which insists on gaining control over Bagdad and Anbar province
  • General Casey's previous plan of slowly transferring control to Iraqi forces was ill conceived from the beginning and has been failing for over a year now
  • Bush deserves a lot of critisism for not realizing that Casey's plan was failing earlier and taking steps to correct it
  • General Petraeus has very solid credentials for this type of warfare (among other things, he helped oversee the military's new manual on counterinsurgency) and expert military opinion think his plan has a significant chance of success
  • Anyone who opposes the "surge" should advocate a clear alternative strategy, which most Democrats don't seem to be doing
However, I agree with this Sullivan reader's observation that the successful surge won't make much of a difference:
I don't have any doubt - and really, never did - that increasing the use of (and apparently, more properly deploying) American troops would reduce violence in Iraq. And I think that although Bush did this belatedly and only in response to political pressure he deserves (along with Gates and Petraeus) to be applauded for that.

But what does that have to do with the goals of the war?

As I understand it, we don't have a military goal - we have a hope that the Iraqis are able to put together a democratic government that is capable of unifying and securing the country. That has nothing to do with whether there is a lot or not a lot of violence in Iraq.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Secret U.S. Endorsement of Severe Interrogations - New York Times

A NYT must-read on the saga of Bush administration lawbreaking in the area of interrogation.

Yet More on the Heritability and Malleability of IQ

Yet More on the Heritability and Malleability of IQ (Via Andrew Sullivan). This post succeeded in convincing me that intelligence is so strongly affected by environmental factors that the conclusions drawn by the Bell Curve are likely vastly exaggerated.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Taking on the Bush-enabling Democrats in Congress

Glenn Greenwald is on the case and not a moment too soon:
It is staggering, and truly disgusting, that even in August, 2007 -- almost six years removed from the 9/11 attacks and with the Bush presidency cemented as one of the weakest and most despised in American history -- that George W. Bush can "demand" that the Congress jump and re-write legislation at his will, vesting in him still greater surveillance power, by warning them, based solely on his say-so, that if they fail to comply with his demands, the next Terrorist attack will be their fault.
I'll be very curious to see if Glenn will be as successful at influencing this debate as he has been when it comes to the role of establishment media figures in enabling the tragedies of the Bush presidency. For a small example of the latter see Frank Rich's column in today's NYT.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The MSM Wars

It takes a great deal of self-awareness to write something like this:
Something is stirring out there - as the Obama and Paul candidacies show. The polls show record levels of discontent. The logic for permanent engagement in the Middle East is far less cogent than it was only a year ago. And the capacity of Americans to throw their own elites overboard will be tested in the next two years.

I do not know where this is headed. A new isolationism? A new liberal hegemony? More of the same? But I have a feeling that those of us in the Beltway may be among the last to see it coming.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

2008 Favorite

In case you were wondering; I'm with this chick when it comes to 2008:

New Blog: nordicmodel

Posting has been slow lately as you've no doubt noticed. But here's someone else talking about Scandi issues:
A new blog, the topic is obvious, hat tip to New Economist. I've said it before, I'll say it again. No matter what your politics, contemporary northern Europe represents a high point in human civilization. If you're not deeply interested in the region, you should be. If you haven't visited, you must. Go, go, go. Travel is the starting point of learning social science.
H/t Ross