Tuesday, October 26, 2004
Just a brief word to those who might be wondering, "where on earth has Noah gone? Is he on vacation again? Doesn't he ever work?"
No, I am not on vacation. Yes, I work. Working is, in fact, why I have, sadly, had little time for the blog lately. I've got a whole mess of Post-Its cluttering up my computer at work with ideas for things to write about that I haven't had a chance to get to yet. Sometimes these things become obsolete before I get around to them; sometimes I eventually get around to them. Right now, the obsolete before written percentage is rather high.
I'm writing this from London, where I'm travelling on business. Tomorrow I fly to Brussels. Then home for a week, then off to Tokyo for a week on business. So I can't quite promise that I'll get to any of the things I want to write about. I hope I'll be able to set down my final thoughts on the election before the election actually happens!
I do want to thank people who've written me emails or who have posted comments in response to various pieces. I frequently don't have time to respond, certainly not the way I'd like, but I'm pretty sure I've read everything I've been sent.
Finally: if you're still sore that I've been so absent, have mercy: yesterday was my birthday. You wouldn't want to beat up on a guy the day after his birthday, would you?
Thursday, October 14, 2004
I've been AWOL on the debates because (a) I don't own a television; (b) I missed half of them because of Jewish holidays. But, based on the combination of radio and transcripts, my opinion was that Kerry clearly won the first one, Cheney won the VP debate, Bush won the second Presidential debate, and Kerry won the most recent debate. But since I couldn't see anyone scowling or smirking or what-have-you, I could have this all totally wrong.
Everybody seems to agree Bush lost the first debate badly. I think Cheney won the VP debate, but I may be biased because Edwards' voice makes me want to scratch his face. (I have a *much* more negative view of Edwards that just about anyone else I know; I also seem to have a much *less* negative view of Kerry than most Republicans, or even many Democrats. I think Kerry's frequently wrong, but I don't think he's an abomination. Then again, I don't think Joschka Fischer is so terrible either.) I thought Bush won the second debate because his attacks on Kerry were sharp and effective and Kerry was neither. But it's been pointed out to me that Bush said very little in defense of his own policies, particularly in Iraq, and I have to concede that's true.
I thought the third debate was pretty lame. Bush could be running much stronger with respect to his domestic record. He is not tying his domestic record into a convincing package that explains why you should vote for him and not for Kerry. Most of what he brags about is spending money. Then he brags about tax cuts. Then he attacks Kerry for being fiscally irresponsible. It doesn't add up. Kerry came off as a guy who promises too much and probably won't deliver, but Bush came off as a guy who's right hand doesn't know what his left hand is spending. I think Bush came out more where the country is on cultural issues, but I don't think the debate matters much in that regard; evangelicals are already energized for Bush, and their opponents are energized for Kerry. If you are voting on abortion, or same-sex marriage, you already know who you are voting for.
In the end, I thought Kerry won the debate for three reasons. He sounded more Presidential than the President: calm, forceful, clear, organized. Bush sounded tentative and rarely had comebacks when specific claims were challenged. Second, I thought Bush's attacks on Kerry's Senate record fell flat. He kept asserting that Kerry was very left-wing, but Kerry had substantive comebacks and Bush didn't have follow-ups. Kerry's actual positions *are* those of a very conventional liberal - with the caveat that he does seem genuinely concerned about not busting the budget, and therefore probably just won't do a lot of what he says he'll do. But he succeeded, I think, in portaying himself as more of a centrist than he is, and that's a loss for the President. Third, I thought Kerry had a very appealing-sounding health-care plan, and that Bush's attacks on that plan, and defenses of his own record, were unconvincing. This is one of the two best Democrat domestic issues, along with job loss, and I thought Kerry did a good job, and Bush a very poor job, on both. Bush has a very appealing education spiel, but he never explained why we need to vote for him to achieve his education objectives given that Kerry's only response was that he'd throw even more money at the same approach as Bush. That may be false, but Bush never said that Kerry wants to *gut* his education reforms; he never made the case for *electing a Republican* on this issue. So why vote for him? Why not vote for the more "generous" guy who says he has the same reform ideas?
At this point, I think Bush is at least even odds to lose, if not worse. At the end of last month, I made some predictions about the Electoral College and which states Bush and Kerry would win, respectively. I think Kerry's 224 Electoral Votes are still solid, and I think he's more likely than he was to win all his "whisker" states (though it's possible he'd lose Minnesota). Bush, on the other hand, is vulnerable in Ohio, Wisconsin and all of his "whisker" states (Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico). I still expect him to win Colorado, Florida and West Virginia, just as I expect Kerry to win Pennsylvania, Michigan, Maine and New Hampshire (all of these states are polling close). Right now, the national polls are close to tied, with a small Bush lead on average. But undecideds will probably break for Kerry, and if turnout is high then Democrats probably pick up a point or so. And turnout will probably be high. So if trends don't change, Kerry probably wins the popular vote, in which case he probably wins all the vulnerable Bush states (with the possible exception of Wisconsin) and hence the election.
Bush needs the dynamic to change. It could, of course. Kerry has absolutely not closed the sale. No one has closed the sale.
This election, I have always thought, comes down to one thing. Who do you trust to fight the war for the next four years? Are you buoyed by Bush's clear vision and determination, or alarmed by his refusal to take responsibility and inability to process negative empirical data? Are you reassured by Kerry's calmness and thoughtfulness, or are you unnerved by his lack of appreciation of the threat, tendency to procrastination and his habit of trying to have the Iraq war every which way?
I think the country views Iraq as a mistake. Maybe the mistake was how the war was fought and maybe it was that we fought it at all, but no one thinks it has worked out well. Bush could have put this election away by reassuring people about his judgement and ability to adjust to setbacks and learn from mistakes, and *then* emphasizing his steely determination, his appreciation of the threat, the manifold ways we're fighting the war on terror *apart* from Iraq, and the need to leave Iraq as victors and not as the vanquished. He didn't do that. Instead, he's taken the tack that if he knew then what he knows now *he would have done everything the same.* That only reinforces legitimate concerns people have about his judgement; it's alarming, not reassuring. As a consequence, Kerry has been able to thrash him on Iraq, and all Bush can say in response is, effectively, you'd have done even worse. We can debate whether Bush made sensible decisions on Iraq given the information available at the time. But regardless of our views on that question, Bush's never-admit-error communications strategy has undermined public confidence in his leadership ability, and made this election closer than it needed to be. Bush is a war President presiding over a basically decent economy, with a substantial record of legislative accomplishment and on the right side (from the country's perspective) of a litany of cultural issues, facing a candidate with a thin and dogmatically liberal Senate record and an off-putting demeanor. If he loses, it will be because of *character*, his supposed strong-suit, and he'll have nobody but himself to blame.
Wednesday, October 13, 2004
Wow! Steve Sailer, I think you've really gotten through to Mickey Kaus.
I suspect Kaus is right: a new conventional wisdom on immigration is developing faster than our straight-jacketed politics can handle it. The question then is: what will we do about it?
When it became accepted that welfare, by contributing to broken homes, was fuelling the growth of the underclass, in turn fuelling high crime rates, this eventually led to welfare reform - which has already had profoundly positive effects. With respect to immigration, a majority has opposed illegal immigration for decades, but the issue rarely rises to the top tier of concerns - particularly in the go-go 1990s when labor markets were tight. 9-11 added a new dimension to the "negative externalities" of open borders - the risk of terrorists swimming in an ocean of illegal immigration. I think that's the aspect that's potentially leading to a tipping point on the issue, where the country actually cares about the issue with enough intensity to do something about it (as crime, in the 1980s and early 1990s, got bad enough that people went from griping about welfare to demanding the government do something about it).
But (just a caution for excitable restrictionists) the push for welfare reform didn't lead to any change in divorce laws, even though divorce is a big contributor to the ranks of the working poor, because that would affect too many members of the middle and upper classes. And the middle and upper classes reap the lion's share of the benefits of our current immigration regime. What does that portend for any politics of immigration reform that does emerge during or after the next Administration?
I decreasingly believe that Americans are willing to continue with the status quo. But there are numerous choices of where we could go from here.
We could follow the Bush Administration approach, which would formalize into a guestworker program what is today informal and illegal immigration. Instead of sneaking into the country and looking for work in the underground economy, people would be processed by the government as formal guestworkers. The economic effects of uncontrolled immigration would remain essentially as they are, assuming they wouldn't become even more pronounced. (In brief: uncontrolled immigration lowers wages at the bottom of the scale and lowers prices for products produced by said labor.) So from an economic perspective, if you oppose high immigration (particularly of the unskilled) because you want to tighten labor markets and thereby help the working poor, Bush's approach is a big step in the wrong direction.
There are three advantages to Bush's proposed approach over the current system, however. First: security. Assuming it actually worked (which is, admittedly, questionable), we'd now at least know who was coming into the country and where they were. That should make it easier to catch terrorists, drug-dealers, car thieves and other undesireables who currently swim in an ocean of illegal immigration. Second: worker safety. If illegal immigrants become, effectively, legal, it will be easier to extend to them the basic protections of the law. That's a good thing not only for the immigrant workers but for American citizens in the communities they live in. Third: compensation. Formal guestworkers would be part of the tax system, and hence the drain on local resources from illegals would be lessened. Moreover (and this is not a feature of the Bush approach, but that approach does make it *possible*) businesses who employ formal guestworkers *could* be required to further compensate local communities for the negative externalities associated with immigration, in the way that the U.S. military compensates local communities for the resources that basing consumes. That's not possible now, needless to say, when it's technically illegal for employers to hire these people.
The disadvantages, of course, are familiar to immigration restrictionists. Immigration would probably increase, not decrease, under such a plan. Wages would be further depressed at the bottom of the scale. This would be offset nationally by a drop in prices for goods, which benefits everyone, but of course inequality would increase as the benefits would be spread across the economy while the drop in wages would primarily impact lower earners. And before anyone suggests that we could use other policies to compensate for this driver of inequality, long experience has shown that government redistribution of income through taxes and benefits is profoundly inefficient, economically destructive and doesn't work that well anyhow. The cultural impact of immigration, making it more difficult to assimilate newcomers to American norms in a conscious as opposed to haphazard way, would continue. Our educational system would continue to be badly stressed, as would the environment in certain overcrowded areas like Southern California.
There is a further disadvantage, however, that is not much discussed. I think it is extremely likely that, if a comprehensive guestworker program like Bush's were passed, America would consider abandoning birthright citizenship. If, after all, these people are coming on temporary visas, why should they be able to turn themselves into citizens just by having children? That's going to be a powerful political argument - and a very divisive one, even if it loses at the polls. Why? Because once we abandon birthright citizenship we have to debate: what makes one an American? And, other than "an American is someone born to Americans or in America" there's no good answer that isn't dangerously divisive.
America, after all, is not an ethno-national state like Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Israel or Japan. Each of these states give some degree of immigration preference to members of the national ethnic group born outside of the country. To varying degrees, the immigration laws of each of these countries are designed to facilitate (in Israel's case, to promote) the "return" of foreign-born members of the dominant ethnic group, and to maintain the ethno-national identity of the country. Some of these countries also lack birthright citizenship; guestworker families can trace their lineage in Germany through three generations without acquiring citizenship. While this presents social and political problems, this approach to citizenship is congruent with an ethno-national definition of the polity.
Such a definition cannot plausibly fit America, which is arguably the most ethnically diverse nation on earth (depending on how you count tribal and linguistic diversity in a place like New Guinea, and depending on how important a diversity of different *European* ethnic groups is to your definition of diversity). A campaign to abandon birthright citizenship would open up a very ugly argument over who is a "real" American, an argument that would surely take place across ethnic lines, and that would be very damaging to our national fabric. I think such a debate is likely if we continue in our current direction, and it will come quicker if we adopt the Bush approach to immigration reform of converting illegals to legal guestworkers, because such an approach almost necessarily *implies* the abandonment of birthright citizenship.
What are some of the alternatives to the Bush approach? I think there are, broadly speaking, three, and they can theoretically be adopted simultaneously: rationalize legal immigration; export more capital to Mexico; and seriously enforce immigration law.
First: rationalize legal immigration. Anyone who has actually tried to *honestly* deal with American immigration knows that we do not make it easy for people we should *want* to come here. Bend any Silicon Valley exec's ear and you'll get an impassioned speech on the subject of H1-b visas and how tough it is to get them for business-critical technical talent. How can we make it so tough to bring in people and so easy for people to sneak in?
Canada has a very liberal but highly rational immigration regime, with two primary components: a humanitarian component focused on accepting refugees from persecution and an economic component focused on attracting high-value, high-skill immigrants. Our own immigration regime is much less rational, focused as it is on a liberal definition of family-unification; in addition, we have a huge illegal-immigration problem that Canada does not have to the same degree.
Could we adopt Canada's approach? We could, but it raises questions of its own. Three stand out: How do you define "persecution"? How do you define "skill"? And at what point do high-skilled immigrants begin to pose a "national problem" comparable to the one that Sam Huntington worries about with respect to the Mexican immigration?
If you define "persecution" loosely enough, you with up flooded with migrants from unstable parts of the world. This is what has happened in much of Europe and in Canada. Essentially the entire population of Central Africa can call itself "persecuted" if that means you are at risk of personal violence because of your identity. Why? Because Central Africa is riven by dozens of tribal wars. Tens of millions of people have been displaced internally within the region for fear of their lives. All of them on some level can claim to be persecuted and hence eligible for asylum. Would it be humanitarian to accept them all? Yes. Is it realistic? No. But the difficulty is in defining "persecution" so as to get down to realistic numbers of the eligible without excluding people who with any justice should fit the definition. This is not an easy problem; every developed country is grappling with it right now.
Next: "skill." Clearly a brain surgeon is skilled and an illiterate beggar is unskilled. What about a nurse? What about someone who doesn't have a nursing degree but has performed as a medical assistant? What about a functionally illiterate man who has the skills of a master carpenter? What about someone with a degree from a prestigious university in literary criticism who wants to come here to be a nanny? What about someone without a college degree who has worked as a nanny for 20 years? Is "skill" a function of education? Of training in a formal discipline? Or of economic need? Are nurses "skilled" when we have a nursing shortage but "unskilled" when we have a surplus? How about teachers of Spanish? How about native Spanish speakers with college degrees but no education credentials who want to come here to teach Spanish? These are, again, real questions that we grapple with today in our immigration laws, and so does every other country, and I don't think we, in America, handle the question very well.
It seems very silly to me *not* to take economic need into account when considering immigration. It's one thing to say that if we have a shortage of lettuce pickers that we should just let wages rise until workers show up. It's quite another to say that if we have a shortage of nurses we should just make do for a few years until higher wages produce a bumper crop of natives with the proper credentials. But drawing the line is not at all obvious. And it will necessarily become a political process. Specifically, we are only going to face increasing demand for workers in the health and personal-care professions that are on the borderline in terms of whether you'd consider them "skilled" or "unskilled." We're currently importing lots of workers in these professions, from the Philippines and the Caribbean especially (that's my impression from New York; maybe California is importing them from elsewhere). This question is going to be contentious.
And: numbers. Steve Sailer likes to say that he thinks American immigration should work like hiring at a big corporation: you want to select for the best people. Okay, but "best" for what job? Let me tell you, I worked at a company that thought the "best" people for every job were the people with the highest SAT scores. Guess what? There were a lot of jobs these guys weren't all that good at. We had an oversupply of people who thought they already knew everything, an undersupply of people who understood the value of *experience*, *knowledge* and *common sense* as opposed to pure intelligence and abstract reasoning. America "needs" a diverse array of talents. Many of these are things we don't know how to measure so well with tests.
But there's a deeper problem with this formulation: do we really want to import an overclass any more than we want to import an underclass? We already have a problem that the cultural and economic elite of the country is somewhat dislocated from and fails to identify with the majority of the people. The wealthy and well-educated often don't have family members in the military, or who work in blue-collar jobs. Already, people who work in banking, journalism, law, academia and other elite professions frequently find they identify better with members of their class from other countries than with their fellow citizens from different classes. Do we want to accentuate this trend by focusing our immigration policies on bringing in high-achievers from all over the world? Look at Canada, with its rational immigration policies and its national religion of multi-culturalism. Look at Britain, where economic dynamism is concentrated in multi-cultural London, and that city is increasingly divorced culturally, economically and even ethnically from "Middle England." Do we want America to develop along these lines, to a greater degree than it is already? Again, these are real questions.
The second alternative to the Bush approach: invest more in Mexican industrialization. President Bush said that the ultimate solution to illegal immigration is for Mexico to develop a broad middle class. He's right. America is in a unique situation globally, being a highly developed country with a long, porous border with a growing, populous underdeveloped country. Europe has a big problem with immigration from North Africa and the Middle East (and also from the former East bloc, by the way), which many there feel has gotten out of control, but they don't have anything like the numbers of illegal immigrants that we do because, in part, they don't have the same geographic vulnerability that we do. Immigration has a push and a pull component: the pull of jobs here, the push of poverty and unemployment there. Tackling the "push" component means changing Mexico.
Is really profound change possible? Could Mexico become a developed country? Well, I don't know. There's evidence on both sides of the ledger. Mexico has made enormous strides in democratizing and in developing its economy since the oil bust of the mid-1980s put an end to the easy good times. But Mexico isn't South Korea or Taiwan; it isn't even Thailand or Malaysia. It's got a long way to go to make it to the industrialized club, and it isn't moving fast enough.
Short of changing Mexico profoundly (or one possible route to doing so), what we can do is invest massively in Mexico-based industry. If there are plentiful manufacturing jobs in Sonora, that should to some extent reduce the impetus for Oaxacans to keep going all the way to Chicago for factory work. The main effort by Mexico and America to create a magnet for Mexican migration for jobs that is south of the Rio Grande is the maquiladora program. That's the key avowed purpose of the program: to get American industry to export capital to Mexico rather than import workers from Mexico. Note that the impact on American wage rates should be roughly similar in either case, since either way American capital is combining with low-cost Mexican labor. Investing in Mexico is effectively the same thing as "exporting jobs" - what John Kerry has been decrying on the campaign trail. But right now these are not jobs we're creating for *Americans* - we're importing the people who work at them. And if we export capital instead of importing people, we create positive externalities in Mexico rather than negative externalities in America.
I have the impression that the maquiladoras have become less important since NAFTA because they no longer get uniquely favorable export treatment to the U.S. But I don't know much about this area of policy. I imagine there are a few problems with the maquiladora approach, though. First, they probably don't pay as well as comparable jobs north of the border. So many people who come north for these jobs probably keep going. Second, precisely because the maquiladoras are located close to the border, and their managers are Americans coming from cities on the other side, we've seen the growth of sister cities that straddle the border, which, needless to say, facilitates the flow of people in both directions. El Paso is a prime example of this. To the extent that there are any advantages to being on the U.S. side (and it would be hard to eliminate all of them) the maquiladora program has made jumping the border only easier. Third, precisely because maquiladoras are American-managed, they probably have a relatively limited impact on developing a genuine Mexican middle class that could initiate a "virtuous circle" of development.
There are, broadly speaking, three models for developing a country like Mexico: the Indian model, the South Korean model, and the IMF model. The Indian model, which India is currently in the process of abandoning, was known as "import substitution" - when your economy needs something, make it locally rather than importing. The goal is economic self-sufficiency. No one believes in this model anymore - it's a pretty well proven economic loser - but nearly all countries practice it to some extent, for political reasons.
The South Korean model is known as "export-led development" - use subsidies, tariffs and restrictive laws with respect to foreign investment to politically direct development towards industries with large export markets, and continually climb the "value-added" ladder by moving into industries with a higher return to capital inputs. This model seems to have worked quite well for South Korea and Taiwan, and is currently being pursued by China. The great danger with this model is that it depends on patriotic and disinterested government leadership. This model, after all, is what is derided by the IMF types as "crony capitalism" - having the government direct the economy to this degree necessarily means cozy relationships between government and business leaders, and hence raises enormous risks of corruption. It's also a hard model to follow in a country with populist political traditions, since it implicitly asks worker to make the lion's share of the sacrifices for the sake of national development (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and now China are able to grow so fast in part because their people save enormous amounts of money, which they then invest at very unfavorable rates in domestic financial institutions that are the primary levers the government uses to direct national development; while the banks generally do terribly, and the workers who invest in them lose out, cheap capital makes it possible for the government to make lots of mistakes and still achieve their development objectives).
The IMF model is basically the liberal model - open your markets, float your currency, privatize state enterprises, increase transparency, run a tight fiscal and monetary policy and let international capital come in and develop your country's natural comparative advantage. The Wall Street Journal editors would modify this only very slightly; they would advise *not* floating your currency, but rather adopting a foreign currency as the effective legal tender in the country (through the implementation of a currency board), and they would ignore fiscal policy in the sense of whether the budget is balanced, and focus on reducing aggregate government spending. They think this is a major disagreement, but really their recommendations and the IMF's are variations on a theme of liberalism. The WSJ version of this model was practiced successfully by Hong Kong and Chile and was attempted, unsuccessfully, by Argentina (because the Argentines simply would not control spending); the IMF version is roughly what Thailand and Indonesia are trying, and what we've basically pushed on Mexico beginning with the maquiladora program and extending with NAFTA and the 1994 bailout. The upside of the liberal model is that it fits the theory; countries should grow the most when they liberalize their economy and invest where they have comparative advantage. The downside is political; this model increases economic insecurity, increases income disparities, and puts apparent control of the country in the hands of foreigners (and in the hands of "market-dominant minorities" to use Amy Chua's phrase). And, what is most apparent since the currency crises of 1997, the model puts small economies at the mercy of international capital flows. It might make a lot of sense of a small country to forego maximizing growth in the short term in exchange for reducing volatility and maintaining some degree of control over the national economy; that's certainly the decision Malaysia came to after 1997, which is why they rejected the IMF approach and imposed tight controls on the movement of capital. It's an approach that has worked very well for Malaysia.
With respect to Mexico, there are significant risks to either approach. The "export-led" model runs high risks because of Mexico's long history of corruption; because the country does not have a very high savings rate (something on which the model depends); and because the country has a populist political tradition that sees the government as the dispenser of benefits to the people (albeit these are always really paid for by the people - nobody said populism made *sense*) rather than a political tradition that emphasizes the people making sacrifices for the government (as in Japan, or China, or South Korea). So the South Korean model, if applied to Mexico, seems more likely to fail than succeed. But the liberal model runs high risks as well, again because of Mexico's populist political traditions, but also because there aren't a whole lot of success stories to point to with respect to this model of development. Precisely because the liberal model increases income disparities and puts the economy in the hands of foreign capital, it seems unlikely to lead to the rapid development of a middle class that can ease the "push" to emigrate to the U.S.
I don't know a good answer to this question of how to help Mexico develop a robust middle class. To some extent it's already happening, at least in the north and in the D.F. But not in the poorer provinces that are the main sources of emigrants to the U.S. So my only insight to offer is: our efforts to date have focused on the development of the north, which is all to the good, but we need to develop strategies that will work in developing Mexico's poor south, so the Indians don't even start migrating *within* Mexico, the beginning of a trek that frequently leads to America.
Finally, the third alternative to the Bush approach: enforcing immigration law. I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this, because other people understand this aspect of the subject much better than I do. I'll merely point out a few things. First, that we passed employer sanctions in 1986, and the law is simply not enforced. So passing a law is not enough. And ensuring enforcement is hard to do; if strong political forces oppose enforcement of a law, how do you *mandate* that it is enforced? Second, one great political difficulty here, as the folks at the Center for Immigration Studies have voluminously documented, is that local and state law frequently actually prohibits enforcement of Federal law in this area. That suggests that the *national* politics of immigration and the *local* politics may not perfectly coincide. I know that here in New York, it would be politically disastrous to even talk about getting tough on illegal immigration; politicians compete over who can more ostentatiously proclaim their belief that "immigration status" should not be an issue. This is true even for law-and-order types like Mayor Giuliani.
Distasteful as it may be for the restrictionists to think this way, it might make sense for them to think about what *incentives* they might offer to states and localities with unhelpful laws to change their ways. Third, however angry Americans are about illegal immigration, and however fearful of criminals and possible terrorists who swim in the ocean of illegal immigrants, it is quite apparent that many, probably most, Americans also don't want to seem like harsh, nasty people who want to throw people who "haven't done anything wrong" out of the country. Restrictionists, then, should think about strategies for "encouraging voluntary compliance with the law" whether these strategies are carrots or sticks or both.
Restrictionists are starting to get excited that their issue is about to break out. I think they are right that it is about to break out. But I'd raise a key word of caution. The reason Bush's plan is going nowhere is that *Bush* has proposed it. He's a Republican, and a chunk of his base *hates* his plan. But what do you think would happen if Clinton (or Kerry) proposed the following?
(a) beef up border patrols with a massive increase in funding;
(b) create a generous guestworker program to "mate" employers with "willing" workers from foreign countries;
(c) rationalize legal immigration to make it more possible to bring in skilled workers and easier for immigrants who play by the rules to be naturalized;
(d) increase sanctions against employers for hiring illegals, and initiate a big crackdown to catch and imprison illegal immigrant criminals, sex-slavers, terrorists, etc.
That's a somewhat toughened version of Bush's approach; it means *expanded* immigration, but with an emphasis on how such an approach would help solve the *security* problems associated with illegal immigration. Don't you think that would play well? Where, precisely, is a Democrat going to lose votes with a plan like this? Blacks don't vote this issue, even though immigration hurts them. Hispanics wouldn't object unless there were some attempt to tighten rules for bringing in extended family members, and I haven't suggested that my hypothetical Democrat would propose doing *that*. Public-sector unions are pro-immigration, and they dominate the world of organized labor these days. Liberals, of course, would be supportive of the increase in immigration; business would love it; and "security Moms" (whoever they are) would be reassured that we were being both "tough" on security issues and "compassionate" towards people who just want to "put food on their family" as the President once said. Wouldn't this be a winning approach for a Democrat? I think it would.
The GOP is the party that is having a hard time keeping its restrictionist base and its big-business funders happy at the same time, which is why immigration is causing Bush agita. A Democrat would not have this problem, and could actually *gain* votes by adopting a pro-immigration but tough-on-security position like the above.
Something for restrictionists to think about.
I was making this argument at least five years ago. One of the many reasons I can't get on the FMA train (along with the fact that this is an inappropriate subject for the Constitution) is precisely that I think the fight to prohibit the redefinition of marriage as a unisex institution is deeply hypocritical. The push for same-sex marriage is not the cause of the decline of the marriage culture in America; it is a symptom. Why are so many focused on attacking the symptom while largely ignoring the cause? Because the symptom - same-sex marriage - is the subject of advocacy by an often-despised minority, while the cause - no-fault divorce - is something that affects the majority of the citizenry (given the prevalence of divorce in our society, I'd bet a majority of the citizenry falls into one of the following categories: divorced, parent of a divorcee, or child of a divorcee). I'm a Jew, but the metaphors that spring to mind are all Christian: casting the first stone at the adulterer, pointing out the mote in our neighbor's eye while ignoring the beam that is in our own, etc.
Saying there's a beam in our own eye doesn't mean the mote doesn't exist. Same-sex marriage would be a mistake. But it's not a mistake we're likely to make freely. The only states that have even talked about redefining marriage this way have been forced to do so by the courts. The solution to that problem is to punish the courts - systematically, by reducing their power, and not in an ad-hoc fashion by exempting this or that law from review or amending the Constitution every time they rule in a way the people dislike. Believe me, they'll get the message; they sure did in the 1930s.
But to reclaim a culture of marriage, we've got to focus on *marriage* and not on disparaging gay people or portraying them as a threat. And that means focusing primarily on divorce. No-fault divorce has been a disaster for women, whatever the feminists think. It has meant a free pass for men to abandon their wives, and leave their ex-wives with the primary burden of raising children (which they will always have; that's deep-wired biology, not culture). That is not something that can be rectified by joint custody arrangements (which can be horribly burdensome to children, and which many men do not seek) nor by "deadbeat dad" legislation (the burden of childraising is not strictly financial). There's overwhelming evidence that the prevalence of divorce has been bad for women (I think it's been bad for men, too, but not necessarily financially). People have talked about culture as "serial monogamy" - a version of polygamy where you can marry multiple times, but not simultaneously - and like polygamy but from the opposite direction, serial monogamy has harmed women and had profoundly damaging consequences for the social structure that underpins a healthy, democratic society.
We have got to restore the distinction in law between annulment and divorce. I'd be favorable to a liberal annulment law - i.e., relatively easy dissolution of marriage when there are no children. But this should not be an option once children are involved. Then, the only option should be divorce, and divorce should only be possible upon a finding of fault - adultery, cruelty, abandonment, something substantive that would have to be demonstrated in court. And society - and maybe even government; I'm open to the idea - should do whatever it can to promote reconciliation within marriage.
Would there still be divorce in such a world? Sure - there was divorce before no-fault; it wasn't unheard of. There will always be jurisdictions that maintain no-fault divorce (Nevada, presumably, if nowhere else) and there will be judges who are more or less liberal in defining "cruelty". But we're talking about changing a culture, not building a machine. Should divorcees be stigmatized? No - you don't stigmatize someone who's suffering, and frankly, even the party at fault in such a proceeding is suffering. Will there be more people trapped in unhappy marriages in such a world? Maybe; I don't know. The question turns on whether people who today would divorce, but in a world without no-fault would be stuck together (or stuck in adulterous non-marital relationships like Spencer Tracy and Kate Hepburn's) are happier today than they would be in a no-fault world. I don't know the answer to that. I know that a high percentage of divorcees get divorced again, suggesting that divorce isn't only breaking up bad marriages, but making it harder for some people to stay married regardless. But *even if* ending no-fault would mean that there are more unhappy marrieds, that might well be worth it *if it meant fewer troubled children.* And there is considerable evidence that children do better raised by parents who may not have a happy marriage but stay together for the sake of the kids than they do raised by parents who chose to divorce.
Divorce sends a profound message to children about the priority of the self over others, parents over children, happiness over responsibility. It teaches them about the impermanence and untrustworthiness of the world. The anxieties that divorce produces in children never go away. I don't want to overstate the case; plenty of children of divorced parents turn out healthy, well-adjusted, what-have-you. I consider myself to be so (most days, anyhow). But no child ever says, "I hope my parents get divorced" or "I'm glad my parents got divorced" - even children in truly abusive homes, where the only realistic solution is indeed separation from a dangerous parent, what the children want and need is for the parent to change, not for the family to dissolve.
If we had a healthy marriage culture in America, I don't think there would be any push to redefine marriage as a unisex institution, because we'd understand in our bones what marriage is for. Would there still be a push to create *some* kind of fair legal framework for gay families? Perhaps, and if there were I'd be pretty favorably inclined. If we don't want gays to live in the closet, then we have to think seriously about how they can live in the light, and that means thinking about how gay families are supposed to live. And I don't want gays to have to live in the closet; the closet is a dark and loney place, and a dangerous one to boot. But that would be a very different discussion than the one the courts are having about marriage today - a discussion about wrongs, not rights, about how to reduce suffering and promote health and virtue, not about how to mandate equality.
Finally, an open question to Andrew Sullivan: I can't tell if you're being sarcastic. Here's what Sullivan wrote about the above-linked article:
DIVORCE IS NEXT: Kudos for one evangelical for conceding that the battle to keep civil marriage an exclusively heterosexual privilege in the name of traditional values is hard to sustain given the high rate of straight divorce. So ... tighten up divorce! Why not combine state constitutional amendments "defending" marriage with bans on no-fault divorce? Well, you know the answer.
So here's my question: are you *predicting* that an attack on no-fault divorce is coming ("divorce is next" is how you title this item) and hence warning straights, in effect, "first they came for the gays"? Or are you mocking the Christian Right for *ignoring* divorce and focusing only on sins their flocks would not commit ("Why not combine . . . amendments 'defending' marriage with bands on no-fault divorce? Well, you know the answer.")? Are you attacking your opponents for *not* really caring about marriage, or warning us that they *do* really care? And what do you think we *should* do about divorce? Are you happy that no-fault divorce exists, or unhappy? Is freedom to exit marriage at will something important to how you understand marriage, or something that undermines that understanding? What, finally, does marriage *mean* to you, Mr. Sullivan, since you want it so badly. Just a basket of goodies? Or social approval of your relationship? You have devoted much of your public life to advocacy to redefine marriage to encompass your relationship with a hypothetical man who asks you to marry him. In the final analysis, and honestly, *why*?
Tuesday, October 12, 2004
This seems to be Beat Up On TNR Week. My apologies to Pete Beinart and Marty Peretz, both of whom I respect, but the latest pro-Kerry issue is just not terribly convincing.
Take a look, for example, at the cover story by Jonathan Chait, about how the GOP "invented" the charge of flip-flopping and applies it indiscriminately to all Democratic candidates.
The article really has two arguments. First, the GOP used to compete on issues, but when the Democrats neutralized several popular GOP issues by adopting the GOP line (specifically: becoming pro-death-penalty, pro-welfare-reform, and pro-middle-class-tax-cuts - that's the claim, anyhow) and the Cold War came to a close, the GOP no longer had any winning issues. So they switched to character attacks. Second, the GOP has focused on flip-flopping because it's an easy-to-digest character attack that the press loves (and, apparently, the press loves character attacks) and has figured out how to manipulate the press better than the Democrats do.
This is fascinating. Let's actually look at recent elections. In 1988, the GOP beat Mike Dukakis by calling him a liberal, liberal, liberal, tying him to Willie Horton and the ACLU and all that. This is supposedly what Democrats learned from when they nominated Bill Clinton, who called for ending welfare "as we know it" and who flew home to Arkansas to pull the switch on Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally handicapped convicted murderer. Chait would have us believe that the GOP thrashed Clinton for being a flip-flopper. But this was not primarily a GOP charge - it was a charge made by Clinton's primary opponents! Remember "pander-bear"? From Tom Harkin in the earliest days of the campaign to Paul Tsongas after his New Hampshire win to Jerry Brown in the campaign's waning days, the core charge by Clinton's primary opponents was that he would say anything to get elected. Who described Clinton as an "unusually good liar - unusually good"? Not Dan Quayle - Bob Kerrey.
Did the GOP pick up this line of attack in the general election? Of course they did. Just like they picked up Willie Horton from Al Gore, who inaugurated that attack against Dukakis. But let's not pretend that the charge that Clinton was especially adept at pandering was cooked up in some GOP idea-factory.
And character attacks go both ways. Did Clinton beat George H. W. Bush by calling hiim a right-wing extremist? Not primarily. He beat him primarily by portraying him as *out of touch* with ordinary people and hence *uncaring* about their economic distress. That's a character attack. It happens to be the standard character attack of Democrats against Republicans. It dovetails with the Democrats' economic message. But it isn't a policy argument; it's a character attack. They don't care. We do.
Of course, Clinton won. So you'd think the GOP would have learned that calling someone a flip-flopper and a liar was no substitute for substantive engagement. Guess what: they did. In 1994 they took control of both the House and the Senate by running a national, substantive campaign on the issues. They didn't win by saying Clinton was a liar and a flip-flopper. They won by saying that he was going to take away your guns, ration your health-care, that he'd raised your taxes and give your sons gay foxhole-mates. Fair or not, right or not, these are substantive attacks, not character attacks. And they won in a landslide.
Did Bob Dole run in 1996 primarily on the charge that Clinton is a flip-flopper? That would suggest that Dole actually ran a campaign on some coherent message, which certainly isn't how it seemed at the time. But Dole did run a campaign on character. The central message of that campaign wasn't: Clinton changes his positions. It was: Clinton is a lying, cheating, thieving, womanizing, snake-oil salesman who lets Hollywood freaks pay to jump up and down on Lincoln's bed. Plus he's a draft dodger and I, Dole, gave my arm for my country. That's why Dole was the "better man" - not because Clinton was a waffler and Dole a man of deep conviction and steely determination (Dole? the epitome of legislative process? the man who said, "I'll be another Reagan if that's what you want"?) but because Clinton was dishonorable and Dole honorable. Yep, that's a character attack. It's one that TNR promoted, by the way, because they thought it was true. They supported Clinton anyway, of course, because they agreed with him more than with Dole. So did the country. Funny how that works.
Then we come to Al Gore. Was Al Gore derided for changing his positions? Yes. But that wasn't the essence of the character attack on him either. Bush, after all, wasn't running in 2000 as Churchill. He was running as a "united not a divider" and a "reformer with results." He was running as someone who just wanted to solve problems, make government work better. Was there red meat in his campaign? Sure - on taxes, on missile defense, on the symbolism of faith. But there was at least as much emphasis on how Bush would be non-ideological and conciliatory, on how his agenda was just common sense.
Does that sound like a message designed to contrast with a flip-flopper? Nope. And, sure enough, the attack on Gore wasn't focused on how he bent with the political winds. It focused, rather, on three elements. First, Gore was called a liar. He was called a liar all the time. But Gore's lies were very different from Clinton's. Clinton's were ingratiating and manipulative, and the people ultimately forgave him these because, frankly, they figured he was lying *for* them and not just *to* them. (He may have been a snake-oil salesman, but we were shareholders in the snake-oil business, so we didn't complain.) Gore's lies were trivially self-serving and bespoke a man of profound insecurity. In Bush's own words, "he doesn't know who he is." That was the core charge against Gore: that he was a phony, to himself as much as to everyone else.
Second, Gore was attacked for corruption. This was a blatant attempt to tar Gore with Clinton's brush, and I suspect it was the weakest charge. But it stuck, largely because Gore *was* Clinton's VP, so there was no way for him entirely to avoid the Clinton taint. Gore thought this was all about sexual fidelity, and tried to counter by picking Lieberman as his VP and roto-rooting his wife's throat on TV, but sex was just a symptom and a symbol, and no matter how much Gore trumpeted that he loved his wife, that didn't really respond to the feeling that people had that Gore had laid down with a dog and woken up with fleas.
Third, Gore was attacked as - yup - a liberal. They didn't use that word so much, because it was passe. But the charge that Gore had liberal plans up his sleeve was an important part of the GOP attack. Guns figured heavily in the 2000 election; they probably cost Gore his home state. So did global warming, the International Criminal Court, etc. But Bush, cleverly, more frequently attacked him for being a reactionary liberal - that is, resisting reform because he was beholden to interest groups. That's how he attacked him on Social Security, education, and a host of other issues. Remember the GOP convention, how Bush mocked Gore for calling every Bush proposal a "risky scheme"? *That* was the core attack - not that Gore was a flip-flopper, but that he was against common-sense reform because Democratic interest groups objected.
The funny thing is that Gore promoted this image as a reactionary liberal and closet lefty. Gore is the one who adopted a no-concessions position on abortion. Gore is the one who attacked Bill Bradley for having second thoughts about affirmative action - and made his own VP recant his own second thoughts. Gore even attacked Bush at the third debate, demanding he clarify his position on affirmative action, which Gore pronounced himself to be in favor of without the slightest equivocation. And Gore's the one who bought Bob Shrum populism hook, line and sinker.
This, of course, was an image in considerable contrast to Gore's actual record, which was moderate to conservative as a Senator and as VP. Gore is the one who sided with Rubin in 1993, arguing for greater deficit reduction rather than more ambitious spending plans. Gore is the one who advised Clinton to sign the GOP welfare reform bill in 1996, which Marion Wright Edelman considered such a terrible betrayal. Gore is the one who advocated most forcefully that Clinton take a firmer hand both in Bosnia and in Kossovo. But Gore ran well to the left of his own record. Someone obviously told him he needed to. Why shouldn't the GOP have made hay out of that?
Again: did the GOP attack Gore as a flip-flopper, someone who shifted positions for advantage? Sure. They mocked him for his retroactive conversion on tobacco. They censured him for changing his position on abortion. They ridiculed him for constantly changing his plans for Social Security. All these were fair attacks. But they certainly weren't the essence of the GOP attack on Gore. As with Clinton, the character attacks on Gore were tailored to the genuine character flaws of the candidate, and were connected with genuine policy contrasts.
Gore was, of course, a singularly inept campaigner who never came up with a good line of attack against Bush (unlike Clinton, who crafted extremely intelligent character-based attacks on both of his opponents). But that certainly doesn't prove that the Democrats are incapable of mounting a character attack. They're doing a pretty good job of doing just that right now. They are attacking Bush for being out of touch, unwilling to admit mistakes, for lying and deceiving people and refusing to reveal bad news, for valuing ideological purity and loyalty over competence, etc. All of these are legitimate attacks, and all are character-based.
And what is Bush's main attack line against Kerry? Well, in this instance, the attack really is rooted in the attack that Kerry is a flip-flopper. That he has no core convictions, that he changes positions to suit the political winds, that he lacks political courage. That he can't stand up to Howard Dean, so how will he stand up to our country's enemies. This particular line of attack just so happens to resonate with Kerry's resume, in that (a) that resume is very thin (Kerry has never spent political capital to try to get a piece of legislation passed); (b) Kerry's line on Iraq is sufficiently incomprehensible that TNR's editors cannot make sense of it; (c) whenever Kerry has strayed into taking a position that Democratic interest groups object to - making noises about the failure of affirmative action, or about the need to modernize Social Security - he has beat a hasty and total retreat in the face of criticism. Politically, Kerry is the opposite of a profile in courage; he's an extraordinarily cautious politician who has avoided taking controversial positions. On top of that, he's not as good as Clinton was of telling people what they want to hear without apparently contradicting what he told some other group of people who disagree. On a number of issues - Israel and Cuba are probably the best examples - Kerry has told different groups stories that appear to flatly contradict one another. Can they be reconciled? Technically, they sometimes can; but that's not the point. The point is that Kerry has left both groups somewhat distrustful of his intentions rather than convincing both groups that he's fundamentally on their side, which is the trick Clinton used to pull off.
What's Kerry's defense against this character attack? He has two. The first is to say that he actually has a very consistent record, albeit a very liberal one. This is, needless to say, not the tack he wants to take, but it is implicitly part of the defense that Chait suggests. After all, the list of flip-flops isn't that long. It's certainly not as long or as damning as the list of positions that Kerry took at various points in his career - pro nuclear-freeze, anti-death-penalty, pro-abortion-funding, anti-welfare-reform, etc. - that the GOP has happily used to portray him as an out-of-the-mainstream Massachusetts liberal.
His other defense is that his own positions are more nuanced than the GOP makes them out to be. He doesn't change his position; he votes one way and then another because the details of one bill differ from those of another. This is a tough argument to make because of its subtlety, but that's not the only problem with it. It has two other, more fundamental problems. First, it frequently isn't true. Take the Patriot Act. Kerry claims he supported the bill and still does, but doesn't like the way Ashcroft is applying it. But this is nonsense. He gives essentially no examples of application that he objects to; what he objects to is the law itself. That suggests one of two things. Either Kerry voted for the law in the first place out of expediency rather than because he substantively agreed with it. Or he's posturing in his objections because he's playing to the Democratic base that never supported the law. In either case, he's opened himself entirely fairly to an attack on his lack of political convictions and courage.
The second, even deeper problem is that it elides the key question of when to sacrifice the perfect for the sake of the good. Let's take the $87 billion for Iraq, which is probably the most important item on the flip-flop list. Kerry claims that he supported the $87 billion, but would not vote for deficit financing. Sounds reasonable. But the vote he had to actually cast was not, "how will we finance this $87 billion" but "will we spend it". He voted no. That means, for him, that the question of financing was *more important* than the question of winning in Iraq. How can I say that? Because Joseph Biden, Senator from Delaware and a possible Secretary of State in a Kerry Administration, voted the other way. He *agreed* with Kerry that the $87 billion should be financed by cancelling tax cuts rather than growing the deficit. He voted for the alternative Democratic proposal just like Kerry did. But when that proposal lost, and the time came to vote on the only bill that actually might pass, Biden voted yes, and Kerry voted no.
Why does this matter? Can't we assume that Kerry in office would have spent the $87 billion and rolled back the tax cuts? Don't we know his policy preferences? Yes, we do - but we also know something about his policy priorities. Biden thought it was more important to take a clear position on Iraq than to take a clear position on taxes. Kerry thinks the opposite. If not, *why didn't he vote yes the way Biden did*? If we grant that the vote was pure symbolism, that Kerry knew the bill would pass, *what message was he trying to send* and how did it *differ* from the message Biden was sending?
Bush's attack line against Kerry on this point is entirely fair, and happens to be true. Kerry was posturing *against* the Iraq war in the primaries. That was the message. Kerry has *deliberately* tried to muddy the waters with respect to his Iraq position because he wants to be sure that he's on the right side of the issue come election day. And that's a pretty damning indictment of Kerry's character.
Does this mean I agree with the whole litany of Bush attacks on Kerry's character? No. I think the assertion that he would outsource American foreign policy to France is silly; things look very different from the Oval Office, and Kerry would quickly learn that France behaves like a rival more often than an ally. I think, for that matter, that Bush is wrong that Kerry lacks inner convictions. He clearly has certain convictions; he's averse to the use of force generally, for example. That's clear from a long record, and it is clear from the complicated dance he's tried to execute on Iraq. I think it's silly to assert that Kerry would abandon the fight against al Qaeda. No President is going to abandon that fight. It's less clear to me that Kerry will do anything to respond to the challenge from Iran, but then again, it's not clear to me what Bush's policy on that country is. (For that matter, it's not clear anymore to me what that policy should be - but you know, I'm not running for President.) I don't think Kerry is a traitor who hates America. I think he's a tempermentally cautious and procrastinating guy who will do absolutely nothing on anything until backed into a corner where he's forced to act.
But, as should be clear from the above, I think Bush's attacks on Kerry's character are responding to something real and important - just as I think Kerry's attacks on Bush's character are responding to something real and important.
Finally, let's look at the list of Bush flip-flops that Chait digs up to contrast with Kerry's. I'm going to ignore Bush prehistoric pro-choice position; if anyone asked him about it, I'm sure Bush would say quite simply that Jesus changed his heart and that led him to change his mind. McCain-Feingold is unquestionably an unprincipled flip-flop for which Bush has taken great heat from the conservative press. The rest of Chait's list consist of tactical decisions related to the war (the second UN vote, the creation of a Department of Homeland Security) or stonewalling the 9-11 Commission. I'm fascinated to know that Chait considers tactical reversals to be a sign of lack of principle, or that he considers Bush's opposition to a Department of Homeland Security to have been a matter of principle on which Bush should have gone down to the wire. Chait just isn't being serious here. As for the stonewalling: what exactly are we talking about here? What's the character flaw - that Bush caved or that Bush stonewalled in the first place? And again: what's the substantive principle at issue in this point?
There's a reason Chait came up with such a lame list of examples of Bush's flip-flopping. The reason is that (a) Bush's problem isn't flip-flopping, it's refusing to admit error and hence inability to correct it; (b) when Bush has accepted things he said he opposed, the instances look not like flip-flopping but like compromises. Bush wanted certain features in his education bill that he didn't get, but he signed the bill anyway. Ditto on tax cuts. Ditto on the farm bill. Ditto on Medicare. You can attack Bush for *compromising* too much on these bills, but that's very different from attacking him for *changing his position* in response to political pressure. (Again, McCain-Feingold is a clearly different case, where Bush reversed himself on a matter of principle without a plausible, non-political explanation, and the right-wing press has savaged him for it.) Sometimes, of course, Bush has been politically clever enough to coopt a popular idea hatched by the opposition - e.g., Homeland Security - and make it a winning issue of his own. This is almost the opposite of trying to embrace all sides of a controversial issue until it becomes clear who's on the winning side, which is what Kerry is charged - justly - with doing on Iraq.
There are real, substantive character charges to be made against President Bush. Kerry's making them. There are also real, substantive criticisms to be made with respect to the Iraq war. In different ways and from somewhat different directions, such criticisms are being made by a number of U.S. Senators, including Joe Biden, Chuck Hagel, John McCain, Ted Kennedy and Richard Lugar. Some of these folks supported the war from the beginning, some opposed it and some had a more nuanced view. Some think we need to fight harder to win and some think we need to find a decent way out. They all have an easier time attacking Bush's conduct of the war because there's some measure of consistency to how they have come to their views on the matter. They have responded to new information, and they may have changed their views as a result (Hagel certainly seems to have), but there is some logic to how they came to their views. That is not the case with Kerry, and that's his biggest difficulty in pressing the attack on Bush with respect to Iraq. And it's why Bush is rightly pressing on Kerry's character to deflect that attack.
Monday, October 11, 2004
BTW, anyone know why Rasmussen's poll is going the opposite way of pretty much all the others? And it's not like this is a GOP-biased poll. After the GOP convention, Rasmussen gave Bush a tiny bounce, where most polls gave him a high-single-digit or even double-digit one. Now, they show Bush pulling ahead where everyone else seems to show a tightening race. Anyone know why?
Whew! Holidays are finally over. Still digging my way out of an avalanche of old emails at work, but thought I'd take a brief break to blog about something that people think ought to matter in this election: energy policy.
Gregg Easterbrook, who usually has interesting things to say even when I ultimately conclude he's wrong, has a surprisingly awful piece in The New Republic about Kerry's energy policy. He's trying really, really hard to make Kerry sound great on the subject and to make Bush sound terrible. And he's totally unconvincing at both efforts.
Let's start off by debunking a myth: that we are dependent on Persian Gulf oil and could reduce that dependency by reducing oil consumption.
Now, it is true that we import an increasing share of our oil, much of it from the Persian Gulf region. But we are only dependent on that source of supply in the trivial sense that a sudden distruption of that supply would cause economic dislocation. We're not dependent in the more profound sense of having no practical alternative sources of supply.
If Saudi Arabia were the only or practically the only source of crude oil in the world, then certainly we would be very dependent on that country for our well-being, because we could not easily adapt to a decision by Saudi Arabia to cease selling us oil. It could take years, even decades, and trillions of dollars to re-tool our transportation infrastructure to run on something other than oil.
But Saudi Arabia is not the only or practically the only source of crude oil in the world, nor is the Persian Gulf more generally. Quite apart from Russia, Nigeria, Mexico, Venezuela and our own dwindling domestic sources of supply, the oil sands of Alberta have more oil readily accessible by existing technology than Saudi Arabia does. Ultimate reserves may be five or six times that.
The reason we don't import all our oil from Alberta is price. Saudi oil costs about $1 per barrel to pump. It's profitable to pump it at virtually any conceivable market price for crude. Oil can only be extracted from the sands of Alberta after an expensive process - at $50 a barrel, it's profitable, but at $25 a barrel (where oil would probably settle if geopolitical risk vanished overnight, according to a recent statement by Saudi Arabia's oil minister) the cost of extracting the oil is well above the value of the crude thus produced.
The simplest way to rid ourselves of "dependence" on Persian Gulf oil is to simply stop buying it. That would impose an immediate cost on our economy, because the price we would pay for oil would go up. But our dependency would be eliminated overnight. Of course, the economic impact of refusing to buy oil from the Persian Gulf would be the same as the economic impact of their refusing to sell it to us. And this is the terrible economic damage that we purportedly go to war periodically to prevent.
Easterbrook talks about how, if we increased fuel economy in modest ways, we could stop buying oil from the Persian Gulf. But we wouldn't stop buying oil from the Persian Gulf. We might even buy a *greater* percentage from there if we were more efficient - because if we consumed less oil, then the law of supply and demand should drive oil prices *down*, which in turn would mean a greater market share for the lowest-cost producer, which is Saudi Arabia. This is exactly what happened from the mid-1980s through the early 2000s: a collapse in oil prices led to greater demand on Persian Gulf oil specifically as more costly sources of supply stopped producing.
He also says that if we stopped buying oil from the sheikhs, then even if China and India and Europe continued to do so that would be their problem rather than ours. Okay. Let's think about that. Right now, America is much, much less dependent on Mideast oil than Europe, Japan or China. Nonetheless, we're the ones intervening in the region. What does that tell you about the correlation between oil "dependence" and military intervention? Perhaps we're intervening on their behalf? Okay, let's think about *that* for a minute. Japan has no domestic sources of oil. If we stopped buying oil from Saudi Arabia, and told Japan "guys, if you want oil, deal with them yourselves" what would be the impact on American relations with Japan? Well, either Japan would have to arm itself and prepare to conduct "wars for oil" to protect its source of supply. Or they would have to tilt towards China, and let China conduct said wars for them. Or it would have to tilt more strongly towards the Arab states - who, no doubt, will be more pro-American after we refuse to buy oil from them. Does no one remember that Japan's search for secure oil supplies was a major motivator of WWII?
Again: the oil in the ground is valuable. Saudi Arabia doesn't have most of the world's oil, much less the only oil in the world; it has the most *valuable* oil because it's the cheapest to extract. Owning that valuable resource gives the Saudis power. If we want to take away that power, the only way to do that is to take away - or destroy - the resource.
Now, I don't want to overstate the case here. Would it be prudent for America to reduce geopolitical risk to its economy? Yes. So it's not crazy to talk about finding other sources of oil or other energy sources altoghether, or even reducing consumption. But we should be clear about what we're talking about: improving the performance of the American economy by reducing the shock impact of political events in the Middle East. We're not talking about starving the sheikhs of the Persian Gulf of their oil revenue, and we're not talking about ending any concern we have about the security of that region.
So with all that background in mind, let's look at the actual case Easterbrook makes.
1. Easterbrook credits Carter's energy policy - higher fuel-economy standards coupled with deregulation of the natural gas market - with having broken the back of OPEC. But what broke OPEC's back was the determination by the Saudis to bankrupt the Iranians, which in turn was a consequence of the Iranian revolution. Oil prices didn't collapse until the mid-1980s. Meanwhile, deregulation is miles away from Kerry's energy approach, and CAFE standards distorted the auto market, and perversely encouraged the SUV craze (because trucks were exempt, and SUVs evolved from trucks). What, in turn, fueled our new "dependency" on Mideast oil was low oil prices, not some change in policy.
2. Easterbrook mocks Bush for supporting hydrogen fuel cell research. But while it is true that fuel cells are a long way from being a practical transportation fuel technology, they are the *only* plausible post-petroleum technology out there. Yes, fuel cells are an "energy medium" rather than a source of energy. That's the point: they are an energy medium that is *appropriate for transportation.* We already have ample alternatives to oil for our *electricity* needs - we get roughly 50% of our electricity from coal, 20% from nuclear, and 20% from renewable sources, which overwhelmingly means hydropower; only 10% comes from oil. Talk of achieving energy independence by transitioning to a hydrogen economy is still science fiction. But if we're going to invest money in pure research, this is a reasonable venue for it, because hydrogen is still far enough from commercial viability that private sources of funding are going to be relatively scarce. And if you want to power your car with solar or wind power, as Kerry seems to want, you will need hydrogen fuel cells as a medium.
3. Apart from an increase in MPG standards for cars and SUVs, Easterbrook describes Kerry's policy as follows: against drilling in Alaska; against nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain in Nevada; mandating 20% of electricity from renewables by 2020; and billions of investment in clean coal. All of these positions are - as Easterbrook himself admits - either poorly conceived or actively counterproductive.
- Both Easterbrook and TNR support drilling in Alaska, for the simple reason that it can be done, and can be done cleanly, so why not do it?
- Opposing Yucca amounts to either (a) opposing nuclear power (thereby increasing American dependence on oil and on fossil fuels generally) or (b) supporting the current, much less safe method of storing waste, in "rusting holding ponds . . . located close to cities." Easterbrook describes opposition to Yucca on safety grounds as "scientific illiteracy." Nevada is a state Bush dearly needs to hold, and his apostasy on Yucca (along with demographic changes, to be fair) put it in play. But Easterbrook thinks Kerry deserves the profile in courage award for energy policy.
- Kerry's definition of renewable energy sources does not include hydropower, because Greens hate dams. But there are no plausible other sources of large-scale power generation from renewable sources, and as Easterbrook himself notes, dams could be made much more efficient to deliver a lot more power. Again: why is his renewables plank a point in Kerry's favor if it is so stupidly conceived and so obviously based on pandering to green sentiment rather than a serious effort to promote domestic energy production?
- Finally, clean coal. This is, as Easterbrook notes, something Bush has pushed as well. It's no reason to back Kerry. And good technologies already exist; the problem is price. Easterbrook says a "cap and trade" approach to carbon would promote use of these technologies more effectively than regulation or subsidies, and laments that Kerry hasn't proposed this. Guess what? Cap and trade was an important part of *Bush's* response to Kyoto. Yes, it's gone nowhere. But who seems more amenable to a market-based approach to getting clean coal tech actually into use? I'll also note that Bush is the one who has emphasized that one reason utilities don't upgrade is that old plants are grandfathered in and exempt from many regulations that hit new plants, and renovations may result in a plant being reclassified as new, hence subject to more regulations. Again: who has the real handle on the problem? It sure doesn't sound like Kerry.
4. This leaves one and only one issue which Easterbrook says Kerry has got right and Bush wrong: MPG standards. Bush has opposed raising these standards or changing how SUVs are regulated under them; Kerry has pushed both. Sounds like a straightforward win for Kerry. Except that Easterbrook knows, and says in the article, that the existing CAFE framework for increasing these standards is a lousy, and terribly inefficient, way to promote the result of higher fuel efficiency. Nonetheless, this is the framework that Kerry advocated working through when he was a Senator. Now, as a candidate for President, Kerry has had to change his tune for fear of losing Michigan's electoral votes. So he supports subsidies instead of a regulatory approach: tax credits for people who buy fuel-efficient vehicles and $10 billion in subsidies to the auto companies to retool to produce these vehicles. But there are a few problems with this. First, the Clinton Administration threw money at Detroit for years to help them develop and produce fuel-efficient cars, without notable results. Second, there already is a tax credit for buying hybrid vehicles, and the vehicles are very popular at current gas prices. The reason there aren't more of them out there is that they aren't profitable for auto companies yet. But they are clearly the future, and the auto companies know that, and are already trying to figure out how to get there profitably.
5. The economically efficient way to get people to buy more fuel-efficient cars is to raise the price of auto fuel. That's happening now thanks to Bush's smashing success in increasing the geopolitical risk premium on Mideast oil production. Another couple of wars for oil in that part of the world and we'll have definitively disrupted supply, thereby ending our dependency once and for all. But seriously: the market is already responding to higher prices. One test of whether a candidate is serious about the subject of energy is whether he respects that. Kerry doesn't, and the best evidence is that he's criticizing Bush for filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve rather than releasing it to lower prices. This is so perverse it's disgusting, and it's a repeat of Al Gore's and Steve Forbes' similarly absurd statements about the SPR in the last Presidential election. The purpose of the SPR is to provide a cushion against a sudden disruption of supply. Right now, that cushion is provided by the Saudis, who can instantly pump just about any amount of crude. If the Saudis embargoed us, or if there were a disruption of their pumping capacity caused by terrorism, war or natural disaster, other sources of supply would take a bit longer to come online. That's what the SPR is for. It is not supposed to be used to manipulate the price of oil, and it most *certainly* is not supposed to be depleted at *precisely* the point in time when risks of supply disruption are higher than normal. Bush is doing exactly the right thing, and Kerry's response shows a lack of seriousness about terrorism as well as about energy.
Easterbrook admits that Bush's energy bill isn't nearly as bad as people made it out to be. In fact, the right way to characterize it - as with too many pieces of legislation lately - is a basically good bill buried under a mountain of pork. Drilling in Alaska makes sense. Rationalizing nuclear power insurance makes sense. But these are the elements for which it is criticized by the Democrats generally and by Kerry specifically.