Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

Site Meter This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
Kudos to The New Republic for publishing such a convincing rebuttal of the magazine's editorial line on Darfur. My own feelings about the conflict are hardening, basically because I have yet to talk to a single person, on the right or the left, who advocates intervention who can explain how intervention would be successful. My earlier thoughts on the topic are here and here.

Friday, May 26, 2006
Couple more notes on the politics of the Senate vote.

- There are five Republicans in the Senate who think they could be the next President: Allen, Brownback, Frist, Hagel and McCain. Only Allen voted against the bill. I don't think that helps Allen all that much, because he was always going to run as the most right-wing of the viable candidates. I think this vote buries Chuck Hagel, whose only hope was to be the candidate of a paleo revolt furious about Iraq. It also buries Frist, if he wasn't already six feet under. Brownback was never a serious option and, anyhow, he's running as the bleeding-heart Christian so his vote makes sense and won't make a difference to his appeal. So this vote probably helps Romney and (if he runs) Giuliani at the expense of McCain, because the (substantial) contingent within the GOP that will be furious about the bill will now consider McCain the worst of the four top GOP contenders for the nomination. McCain is doing with immigration-restrictionists exactly what he did with Christian conservatives in 2000. He'll probably figure out his mistake right about two years too late. Meanwhile, tying down Romney (and Giuliani, if he runs) on this bill specifically should be toward the top of the list of journalists' questions. The question is simple: do you incline more towards the Senate or the House approach on immigration? And if the choice is a vote for the Senate bill or a vote for no bill at all, which way would you vote? That still leaves open an answer of "I favor the Third Way on immigration" whatever that may be, but it demands an answer to a real choice now facing both Houses and the President in Washington.

- Of the fourteen GOP Senators up for re-election this year (*not* counting Frist, who is not running), ten voted against the bill. The four who voted for it: Chafee, DeWine, Lugar and Snowe. Chafee is the archtypical RINO, and Snowe is a liberal Republican, so no surprise in either case. Lugar will be Senator for life so there's nothing much to discuss here. DeWine is the interesting vote, particularly given that Santorum and Talent, who are both fighting tough re-election battles, each voted against the bill. And I don't imagine that the politics of immigration are that different in Missouri and Pennsylvania than they are in Ohio. It will be interesting to see if this vote matters (or is interpreted to have mattered in retrospect) in any of these three races.

- In any event, the contrast between the last two points is, I think, very instructive. GOP Senators facing the voters in their state voted largely against this bill. GOP Senators who want to be President voted largely in favor of this bill. That suggests a rather different balance of power between interests in the race for President as compared with the race for a Senate seat.

- Speaking of geography: I note that while Texas native President Bush has been the prime mover behind the immigration bill, both Texas Senators - Kaye Bailey Hutchinson and John Cornyn - voted against. McCain was the big gun pushing for a liberal bill in the Senate, but the other Senator from his state - John Kyl, a good friend of McCain's - voted against. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina voted in favor, while Jim DeMint, the junior Senator, voted against. Frist (Tennessee) voted for and Alexander against. Bennett (Utah) voted for and Hatch against. Gregg (New Hampshire) voted for and Sununu against. Warner (Virginia) voted for and Allen against. Craig (Idaho) voted for and Crapo against. There is a regional bias in the overall vote, of course - the Northeast voted overwhelmingly for, the South somewhat against, with the Midwest and West voting for by about the margins of the Senate as a whole. But given that the GOP pretty much owns the South while the Democrats pretty much own the Northeast and West Coast, the party split largely explains the geographic split rather than vice versa. That said, I will note that there are 21 states that elected 2 GOP Senators; of these, eleven are arguably Southern states and, of these, in seven cases (AL, GA, MO, MS, NC, OK, TX) both votes were against and in four case (KY, SC, TN, VA) the vote split. And in only one state outside of the South (broadly construed - I'm including Missouri in the South, which is questionable) did both GOP Senators vote against (that was Wyoming), while in three such states (AK, ME, OH) both Senators voted for. So there does appear to be more willingness on the part of Southern GOP Senators to vote against than on the part of Western GOP Senators. Which is interesting, given that states like Arizona (split) and New Mexico (in favor) are the ones on the front lines.

- There are rumors of a fight brewing below the surface over who will replace Frist when he retires and who will replace Santorum if he loses. The presumptive heir to Frist is Mitch McConnell, who has the support of Bob Bennett and Judd Gregg. The rumors are that Lott may try to regain the leadership if 2006 turns out to be a debacle, and that even if he doesn't challenge McConnell he may run for whip if Santorum loses (as he is likely to do). I note that McConnell, Bennett and Gregg all voted for the immigration bill, and that Lott voted against.

- Just how incented are the various parties to get a bill passed? Take it as a given that there is no chance of the House prevailing in conference; the Senate vote was lopsidedly in favor, and the House is in disarray, not to mention that nobody wants to embarrass the President by presenting him with a bill he wants to veto (which he would certainly do to an enforcement-only bill). So the practical choice is: something that looks like the Senate's bill or nothing at all. Given that the GOP Senators who are actually up for re-election largely voted against, it's hard for me to see how the Senate has a strong political incentives to get a bill passed. By contrast, the House GOP clearly feels that passing an enforcement-only bill helps them. So: do they convince themselves that passing the Senate bill enables them to go home and brag that they "did something" about immigration? Or do they decide that doing the wrong thing is worse than doing nothing at all? Phone calls over Memorial Day weekend will probably have some effect on how they answer this question. But I think at this point it's lose-lose: a bad bill will dishearten the base and weaken the GOP in November, while no bill will make it look like the GOP can't accomplish anything, and weaken the GOP in November. I don't think Mickey Kaus is right that the House could embarrass the Senate by passing a watered-down enforcement-only bill. How, precisely, does the House present the Senate with an up-or-down choice? The bill that gets voted on is what comes out of conference, right? Why do the Senators in conference agree to a bill that embarrasses them? The bottom line is: if there's no bill, the Senators who voted against and who voted in favor each think they are OK (or they wouldn't have voted that way). The antis go home and say, "we stopped a bad bill" and the pros go home and say "we passed a good bill but the House is scared of Lou Dobbs." It's the House that is most vulnerable on this issue, which is why the Senate is daring to try to strongarm them into agreeing to the opposite of what they believe, just to show they are "doing something."

- If Derb is looking for GOP Senators he can still support and who might need help this year, top of the list is Jim Talent, because he's very vulnerable but could still win his race. Other (possibly) vulnerable incumbents who voted against include: Rick Santorum (very likely to lose), John Kyl (very likely to win), and Conrad Burns (who has Abramoff problems and who I suspect will lose). I remember liking Talent when he was a House member, but he hasn't made much of a mark as a Senator, for good or ill.

Writing about the immigration bill, Derb pulls his punches, as usual. But I can't say I disagree with him much. We've been told that trying to stop illegal immigration is like King Canute trying to command the tide to recede. But did we have to command the tide to become a tsunami?

Well, the Senate has done it again. In the comprehensive immigration reform bill, they have passed what may be the worst piece of legislation ever, surpassing even the Medicare drug bill.

What pushes it over the edge is the inclusion of an incredibly poorly thought-out guestworker program. The program is massive. It is not focused on normalizing the status of seasonal agricultural workers (we already have a program for that, actually). And it is self-contradictory on multiple points. It's nominally for temporary workers, but President Bush explicitly rejected an amendment requiring such workers to go home when their specified term is up. It's designed for relatively low-skill employment but it extends Davis-Bacon privileges to all guestworkers. It's supposed to reduce the incentive to come in illegally by providing a clear legal path to work here, but the new process is incredibly complicated and confusing and will require a new bureaucracy to enforce (assuming it is enforced, which, based on past experience, it doubtful).

And, even ignoring all this, in my own opinion a guestworker program as such is something we should not want. We should want people who come to America to identify with America, and we should not make our economy dependent on an imported class of bondsmen. That's not what America is about.

The very attempt to be comprehensive has resulted in an incoherent mess that fails to respond to any of the various immigration questions in a coherent way.

This bill does not make it easier for large corporations to manage their global workforce and to quickly get the skilled workers they need in a timely fashion. It expands our existing hodge-podge system without simplifying it. We're still making it too hard for the people we really want to come to get here.

The bill does not comprehensively control the border, the one thing that the GOP base demands and that the country as a whole clearly wants.

The bill does not clearly reduce the incentives for people to come to America illegally. By amnestying those who are already here and creating a complex new infrastructure for bringing in guestworkers who are not intended to be on a citizenship track, the bill actually creates substantial incentives for additional illegal immigration.

Inasmuch as the reason the Senate is considering the issue is that the country is upset about illegal immigration, the bill is a massive non-sequitur.

Immigration is not my issue. There are three million immigrants in my home town, and I can't see that New York City has been hurt by them. But this legislation is an abomination.

There is something profoundly broken in Washington. This is not the first bill that has been produced in this decade that seems designed to be a disaster. The farm bill, highway bill and energy bills were hodge-podges designed to waste money and achieve little. Bush's tax bills had a few sensible core ideas but were also filled with anti-productive loopholes and loaded with gimmicks like automatic sunset provisions that no one could possibly favor on the merits; they were designed with public-relations in mind more than policy. The reorganization of the government that created the Homeland Security Department was barely thought-out and has proved a disaster; ditto for the reorganization of intelligence. And then we had the Medicare drug bill, an amalgam of the worst ideas of both parties. And now we have this immigration monstrosity.

This was not always the case. In the 1980s and 1990s, Congress was able to craft a variety of bills that basically did what they said. Reagan's 1981 tax cuts and 1986 tax reform each did basically what they were supposed to do. Welfare reform and farm-subsidies reform in the 1990s each did basically what they were supposed to do. The 1986 immigration bill, for all that it is much-criticized in retrospect, was sold as an amnesty; it failed, in large part because it was not enforced, but it was not designed to fail, nor was it structured and sold in a deceptive manner.

Something has gone very, very wrong in Washington. Occam's Razor would suggest that what has gone wrong is that the Bush Administration is completely indifferent to the legislative process. On some deep level, they don't care whether we have good laws. That is a very, very damning indictment, far more damning, in my view, than the charge that they are simply incompetent or that they are deceptive, saying one thing but intending another. It may also be an insufficient explanation; Congress, and the Senate in particular, seems almost eager to take mediocre bills and by heroic effort transform them into positively awful bills. But if the President cared about whether we have good laws, some of these laws would not be on the books. So presumably he doesn't care.

It would probably be best if no laws whatever were passed between now and January 2009. I simply no longer trust Washington to produce legislation on any topic whatever.

It's funny. Until Al Gore actually started talking, I was one of those thinking, "you know, he'd be a pretty good candidate."

I mean, he won the popular vote in 2000. He never voted for the Iraq war, a war the country now believes was a pretty clear mistake. He served as VP, so he has executive and foreign policy experience. He's credible in the business community and beloved by the "netroots." And he's not Hillary. What's not to like.

Then he started talking. And reminded me that Al Gore is just about the worst politician ever to achieve such prominence, or the most successful politician ever to have such terrible political skills.

The Democratic fantasy is that Gore is the new Bobby Kennedy, the one-time insider who transformed himself into the conscience of the nation. Or, to pick an analogy from the other side of the aisle, he's the Democratic Richard Nixon: tanned, rested and ready to take the executive power that he should have gotten the first time around. And on paper, he fits the bill.

And then he starts talking.

JPod's right. If he runs, Hillary will simply squish him.

For the sake of Marty Peretz's health, I hope he just takes a pass.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006
JPod points to an interesting piece by Glenn Reynolds on why fertility has fallen. Reynolds adds social factors that have made parenting more work and less fun to a list of economic factors offered by Phillip Longman.

But . . . fertility is falling everywhere.

Japan, China and South Korea; Thailand, Vietnam and Sri Lanka; Brazil, Trinidad and Cuba; Russia, Ukraine and Poland; Italy, Spain and Greece; Iran, Turkey and Algeria. Care to guess what these countries have in common? A total fertility rate below replacement.

Of course, there are big chunks of the world where fertility is well above replacement: chunks of the Muslim Middle East and most of Africa, as well as Malaysia, the Philippines, Paraguay and a few other places still have total fertility rates above 3 children/woman. But most of Latin America has a TFR in the 2.5 children/woman region, and still dropping, with the largest country (Brazil) already below replacement - and, contrary to popular belief, there are numerous Muslim countries that are below that 3 children/woman TFR (as noted, Iran, Turkey and Algeria are below 2 children/woman; in addition Egypt, Morocco and Jordan are all below 3 children/woman; super-fertile countries like Afghanistan and Yemen are outliers rather than the norm even in the Muslim world).

Longman thinks that the cost of kids has risen primarily because of the expense of education. That's a persuasive argument for the developed world - but for Algeria? Vietnam? Brazil? Reynolds thinks one culprit is that raising kids is more work and less fun. Again: reasonable for America, but I don't even think this does much to explain Italy or Russia, much less Iran and Sri Lanka.

Economic, social and religious factors unquestionably make a difference around the edges. Why do Britain and Sweden have a so much higher total fertility rate than Spain or Latvia? The answer probably has economic, social, maybe also religious factors; the legacy of Francoism and Stalinism probably plays in as well. Why has South Korean fertility fallen so far so fast realtive to, say, Taiwan? Again, economic and social factors probably relate to the answer. Or Tunisia's relative to Syria's? But in big-picture terms, fertility is falling everywhere, in Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and secular societies, in rich and poor countries, and that demands a big-picture explanation that works across so many varied locations.

The two big-picture answers that have the most explanatory power are: (1) urbanization, and (2) female empowerment (and specifically access to contraception). Countries where the population is overwhelmingly urban (e.g., Japan) have among the world's lowest fertility, and urbanization seems to correlate with drops in fertility almost universally. (There are exceptions, of course; Ulster and Gaza are very dense, but have surprisingly high fertility rates because the people there view themselves consciously to be engaged in a demographic war with hated enemies.) I find it very hard to see how either of these trends - greater urbanization and greater empowerment for women - reverse themselves in any major society any time soon. And yes, that includes a world in which Islam continues to make advances against the secular world. Iran is a mullahocracy and has below-replacement fertility. Algeria is a country that voted for an Islamist regime in the 1990s and now has below-replacement fertility. These are not secular societies, not even to the degree that Turkey is (and that's not very far - Turkey's population is overwhelmingly devout and the current regime has an Islamist character, albeit a moderate one). Therefore, any effort to shore up fertility is necessarily going to be swimming against the tide. A country like Italy, with a fertility rate below 1.3 children/woman, has a real problem on its hands, and should examine the economic and social factors that might be driving fertility to such low levels. A country like Finland, with a total fertility rate just above 1.7 children/woman, probably won't be able to do much to get that level up. Finland will probably shrink until young Finns feel like there's enough elbow room (down at the southern end of the country where there are occasional warm days) to make 3-child families seem perfectly reasonable.

Very sensible piece from Robert Samuelson today about immigration. I should have acknowledged the interaction between aging and immigration as another good restrictionist argument - particularly because it is usually touted as an argument *for* high immigration levels.

The usual argument is that immigration is needed to redress the looming imbalance between the number of workers and retirees. But this is false for three reasons. First, low-skill immigrants don't add as much value as retiring workers take out; the number of additional low-skill workers you'd need to generate enough value to pay for the retiring baby boomers is staggering. Second, immigrants don't come alone. They bring families - not only children, but also parents. Yes, they may bring the total fertility rate up and thereby bring somewhat more demographic balance, but bringing parents partly offsets this. Third, and most important, low-wage immigrants will themselves retire. And because they will fall in the lower end of the income distribution, their retirement will be subsidized - and their healthcare will be massively subsidized. It's this factor that pushes low-skill immigrants into the net-loss category in terms of the solvency of our entitlement programs. Mass low-skill immigration not only doesn't fix our entitlement problem; it makes it worse.

The way to solve our entitlement problem is extremely simple: we have to extend our working lives to offset the extension of our actual lifespans. Everything else is either window-dressing or a non-sequitur. (Social Security "reform" of the sort advocated by President Bush was a back-door way of cutting benefits, and I favored it for precisely that reason.)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006
Thanks for the link, Steve.

Just to be clear about one thing, though: my post about immigration was not intended to lay out my position on the matter. Rather, it was intended to make the case, devil's advocate style, for the President's position on the matter. (Not that I'm suggesting that the President is the devil, you understand.)

Myself, I'm in the mushy middle on immigration, which really isn't my issue.

Reasons I think large-scale immigration is a good idea:

I basically buy my argument below about political stability in Mexico, though I think the immigration "valve" will be insufficient if Mexico doesn't deal swiftly and ruthlessly with its corruption problem. And while there are vast numbers of potential immigrants in China, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, etc., these countries are an ocean away and while we could not completely eliminate illegal human traffic from these countries, limiting that traffic should be much easier than ending migration from Mexico, and the consequences to us of political instability on the other side of the world if the emigration "valve" is shut much less meaningful.

I think all else being equal (which, of course, it never is) immigration is a net positive for the immigrant (for the many obvious reasons), for the world (because the immigrant is more productive in his new situation and productivity is what makes the world go 'round), and for the receiving country (because we garner some of the benefits of that increased productivity, though how much of the benefit it debatable).

I share the romantic notion that America's identity as a nation of immigrants is part of what makes us great; it doesn't trump everything by any means, but it's something I look on positively. I also note that New York City, my home, is profoundly dependent on immigration for its continued vitality, as New York's middle and working class is increasingly imported from abroad.

I don't share much in the romanticism of the egalitarian 1950s; a more stratified, less egalitarian society doesn't especially bother me as such, provided there is a lot of social mobility, the leading classes have a high degree of public spirit, and the truly needy are taken care of.

Reasons I think large-scale immigration, particularly of low-skill workers, is a bad idea:

I don't see any compelling reason why we need to import lots of low-skill workers when we are now a post-industrial economy shedding manufacturing jobs even faster than the rest of the world is. Importing people reduces our incentives to increase productivity (and productivity is what ultimately drives national wealth) and reduces the incentives for the countries where those people currently live to make the most of their comparative advantage (America basically should not have a textile industry any longer, and we certainly shouldn't import people to man it.)

Low-skill immigration is clearly a regressive tax in that the benefits disproportionately accrue to owners of capital and consumers of goods where the costs are born by current citizens who are competing for the same jobs.

America historically devoted a great deal of energy to assimilating newcomers, energy we are no longer willing to expend, and this must affect our assessment of how many such newcomers we can afford to take in before America begins to come apart at the seams.

The enormous current influx is straining certain communities to the breaking point, and while illegal immigration makes this burden much worse, legalizing that flow would only affect the burden at the margins, and, if it resulted in even increased volumes of people coming in, would likely make the strain worse.

There are a variety of reasons to believe that social mobility is slowing (for reasons that have nothing at all to do with President Bush's tax cuts, thank you), and that the influx of low-skilled workers now coming in will find it much more difficult to climb into the middle class than was the case for the immigrants of the turn of the century. If that is the case, then high levels of immigration dominated by unskilled laborers could indeed reproduce Latin American social patterns in the United States, something I definitely would not be happy about.

Most Americans want the overall level of immigration controlled if not outright reduced and illegal immigration ended. That sentiment should count for something.

Anyway, those are the persuasive pro- and con- arguments as I see them.

By the way, I haven't commented on the President's immigration speech because I didn't listen to it or read it. The universal after-the-fact consensus is that he said what everybody expected him to say. So what's to say?

I don't think President Bush's position on immigration, by the way, is at all surprising. Here are the propositions that, I believe, the President holds to be true. They are all disputable, but I think you'll agree that if true they add up to a case for the President's position on this matter.
  • Mexico is undergoing a transition to being a pretty-much developed economy. Per capita GDP has grown; trade with the United States has grown (as has direct investment in Mexico); Mexico now has a multiparty system that is reasonably democratic; etc.
  • Birth rates in Mexico are dropping rapidly; the total fertility rate in Mexico is currently estimated at 2.4 children/woman, and still dropping; they should be below replacement in 20 years.
  • The current high levels of illegal immigration are a temporary phenomenon, driven by two factors: the transition in the Mexican economy (which is dislocating rural populations) and the growth in the working-age population (because there's a time-lag between dropping fertility and the end of the growth of the labor force). Mexico is currently producing more workers than their economy can employ, but if the economy continues to grow and the fertility rate continues to drop, this will cease to be the case, again within about 20 years.
  • The United States has a profound interest in Mexico making its economic and political transition successfully. This means two things: not making the transition more difficult and not undermining Vicente Fox's PAN, which is the most pro-American and pro-market of the three major Mexican political parties.
  • If we were to seriously impede the surplus Mexican labor force from finding work in the United States, this would imperial that transition and turn Mexico in an anti-American direction, both because of the loss of remittances (which are crucial to the Mexican economy) and because Mexico would now have a big under-employment problem on its hands.
  • The United States is a huge and rich country. We can afford to absorb another 20 million immigrants from Mexico if we want and/or need to. Indeed, immigrants are a net addition to the United States because they tend to be hard-working self-starters. Mexican immigrants are, when one controls for economic status, disproportionately small-business owners. They are also disproportionately represented in the American armed forces. Mexican immigrants benefit because the opportunities in America are greater than they are in Mexico, and all Americans benefit because Mexicans willing to work hard for low pay keep prices down. It's a win-win situation.
  • We shouldn't worry about any possible difficulties assimilating Mexican immigrants because they are Christians just like us. We pray together, so we'll stay together. Immigrant parents overwhelmingly want their children to learn English to participate fully in American life, so we don't have to worry about Spanish linguistic ghettos persisting over the long term.
  • Immigration is a much bigger strain on a state with a big welfare state like California than on a stingy state like Texas. But since we're Republicans, we don't want to encourage a big welfare state, so this is not a reason to worry about high levels of immigration.
  • Right now, with such a huge influx of illegal immigrants, it's very difficult for the Feds to do the most important job with respect to protecting the border: keeping out criminals and terrorists. If we legalized every migrant who only wanted a job, we'd be able to devote more resources to keeping out the bad actors who we really don't want coming here.
  • A lot of the anxiety over immigration is just fear of change or a reaction to the suffering felt by specific communities near the border. A guestworker program would eliminate many of the stresses associated with illegal immigration, and if we can do some cosmetic things to reassure people that we care then the inchoate anxiety will abate.
  • Some people just don't like Mexicans. Screw them. But more important, make it clear that it is the head of the GOP saying: screw them. The GOP cannot afford to be seen as the white male party if it is to be successful over the long term.
  • More broadly, the GOP must be the party of optimism, of opportunity, of openness, and of other good things that begin with "o". There is no way to make opposition to immigration look like anything but pessimism and a bunker mentality. So even if shutting the border would win a close election here or there, it's a long-term loser because it defines the GOP as the party of fear rather than the party of hope.

Maybe I'm crazy, but this is basically what I think the President believes, and, if he believes all of the above, then there's no mystery why he favors a big guestworker program and an amnesty for those illegals already here.

Like I said, every one of these points can be debated. If you read Steve Sailer's blog, I'm sure you know the whole laundry list of arguments on the other side. Immigration is really not my issue, but I've tried to get up to speed on it because it seems to be pretty darned important to a whole lot of people. Mostly I wish that supporters of high immigration levels would stop condescending to opponents, and just make their case in a rational manner, and, as well, that immigration restrictionists would drop the conspiratorial talk, the talk of "treason" and the like that really is beyond the pale. Nobody is a traitor here. I don't see any treason in the argument I laid out above any more than I see inherent racism on the part of those who favor immigration restriction. In both cases, I see rational arguments that may well be wrong on multiple levels. If we can't have a rational argument with each other, then the only people who lose is us.

I want to make one other point, and I'm afraid I'm going to offend some people by doing so, so before I do, just remember how incredibly reasonable I am and how attentive I've been to the arguments of immigration restrictionists. I think I'm fairly rare in that regard; by and large, the only people I read who give restrictionist arguments credence are people who have already bought those arguments. That mostly speaks poorly of those who are in the pro-immigration camp than it does speak well for me, but I'm looking for credit anyhow.

Here it is. A very high percentage of articulate opponents of an amnesty for illegal aliens are themselves immigrants who came here legally. They know just how hard we make it for people who are law-abiding and would make excellent citizens to become such. It's quite clear that some of the emotion in their opposition to any kind of amnesty derives from their sense of having been played for chumps: they jumped through all the hoops to do things on the up-and-up, and here eleven million people who broke the rules are getting rewarded. They don't think that's fair, and it burns them up.

It's not fair. I don't have any good argument for why it is fair, because it isn't. And I agree absolutely that if you reward bad behavior, you get more of it. That is one of the many holes in the syllogism I presented above on behalf of the President.

But I want to point out something else. Life isn't fair. All sorts of people who don't play by the rules get rewarded. The fact is that the people who are being rewarded are not that similar to you. You came here with skills, an education, and a middle-class background. Illegal immigrants overwhelmingly come here with nothing. If this is the first time you've noticed that people with little or nothing bend or break the rules that the middle class is forced to play by, then you have not lived much. And if you haven't noticed that there are plenty of instances that go the other way - enforcement of the laws against drug possession, for example - then once again, you haven't lived much.

I really don't want to sound harsh here. But speaking for myself I am much more likely to listen to the policy implications of amnesty - that it will encourage more illegal immigration, for example - than I am to listen to the argument that amnesty is an insult to those who came here legally. On one level, of course it is. But I just don't think that's a good enough basis for a political upheaval such as is being called for in some quarters.

Andrew Sullivan, 11:57am. The secular religion of multiculturalism has the same tropes as a real religion. It constructs an abstract devil and posits one completely virtuous state of being. There can be no compromise between them.

Andrew Sullivan, 50 minutes later. Posts approvingly a long email from a reader about how conservative book titles are beyond parody. Exhibit A: Ann Coulter's new book, Godless. Subtitle: The Church of Liberalism.

I know, I should stop; this is too easy. But as the authentic voice of sweet reason, it bugs me that Sullivan, who claims that title himself, can't keep it straight for even one hour.

Or is this what they mean by the radical center: somebody who, instead of levying hysterical charges against the guys on the other side, levies hysterical charges at both sides?

Monday, May 15, 2006
Want to know why McCain is not overestimated as front-runner for the GOP nomination? His speech in Lynchburg illustrates why. Byron York explains what McCain meant by the speech. Sounds to me like precisely the right tone. As I said a few days ago: if McCain can avoid showing contempt for his opponents, he'll solve the biggest of his problems.

Major General John Batiste just bought a house on the street where my sister-in-law lives in Rochester. Sounds like he'd be an interesting fellow to have as a neighbor.

"The difference [is] between a world-view, based on empirical evidence or reason or personal experience and open to debate, and a religion, based on an inerrant text or revelation or church authority and closed to doubt . . ."

The distinction drawn is Andrew Sullivan's. Now, here's my question. Sullivan claims to be a Christian - indeed, to be a real Christian, unlike Christianists who have wrongly fused a distorted understanding of their own faiths with a political agenda.

So: does Sullivan believe that Scripture is "inerrant"? Does he base his faith in "church authority"? Are his religious beliefs "closed to doubt"?

Sullivan wants to protect the liberal political order from what he sees as a threat from religious authoritarianism. But he also wants religion to import a liberal attitude towards its own truth claims from the dominant liberal political order. This is, in fact, precisely the dynamic that Peter Berkowitz teases out of John Rawls' work on religion and liberalism. It's also precisely what the theocons are reacting (if Sullivan is right, over-reacting) against.

If Sullivan would simply admit all this he would be far less annoying.

Thursday, May 11, 2006
This Luttig story strikes me as quite a big deal. I'm highly skeptical that Luttig would quit in this way out of simple pique at having been passed over for the Supreme Court. He's only 51; there's plenty of time for him to be appointed by a future Republican President to replace Stevens, or Ginsburg, or even Scalia or Kennedy. Luttig reportedly had lousy chemistry with President Bush, so he was never going to be appointed by this President, but what about a future President McCain, say? Moreover, I'm skeptical of the notion that he was bored or tired of being a judge. The couple of judges I know have great lives: a position of respect, lots of free time. And they don't have positions nearly as prestigious as Luttig's.

I admit, I hadn't been following the Padilla story that carefully, but the account in the Wall Street Journal is pretty persuasive that the Bush Administration undermined both the law and the position of Luttig personally with their shenanigans. And I'm not at all surprised by that. Add Luttig to the list of serious conservatives feeling deeply betrayed by the Bush Administration's overriding emphasis on politics and personal loyalty above all.

All that said, I wonder why everyone is assuming Luttig is now disqualifying himself for a future Supreme Court appointment. Who's to say that you can't return from the private sector to the public? The Executive branch does it all the time.

An interesting debate about Darfur between The New Republic (eight articles in the latest issue, including this editorial), Matt Yglesias, and Jane Galt. Here's my own take:

The New Republic is wrong that you can drop prudential considerations when genocide rears its head. A society can never drop prudential considerations. Individuals can, but societies cannot, because they are responsible for more than themselves and more than the present.

Jane Galt is somewhat wrong that all that matters is the death toll, not the ethnic dimension to conflict. I'm not 100% sure why she's wrong, but I think the reason has to do with, on the one hand, deterrability and, on the other hand, the follow-on consequences in the case of genocidal conflict. If we say that the physical extermination of an enemy people is a war aim, then it is hard to see how a regime with such aims can ever be brought back into a state of peaceful coexistence. A regime that pursues legitimate aims with illegitimate means might be able to be deterred into avoiding said means or rehabilitated after defeat. A regime that pursues fundamentally evil ends can only be eliminated itself. Genocide is the paradigm of an evil, illegitimate end. I say Galt is somewhat wrong because, really, it's not clear how many cases there are of this kind of evil; the Nazis fit the bill, and so do the Rwandan genocidaires, but I doubt the Turkish perpetrators of the Armenian genocide do, or the Serbian perpetrators of the Bosnian genocide. So either we need to define genocide sufficiently narrowly that I'm not clear it makes much of an impact on policy, or Galt turns out to be more right than wrong and we have to question why ethnic warfare (which is what a broader definition of genocide would amount to) as such is so much worse than other kinds of war against civilians.

On the other hand, Galt has a good point in that the African continent has suffered numerous and horrible human tragedies with greater death tolls than the ongoing massacres in Darfur. No one has seriously proposed an international intervention to pacify the Democratic Republic of Congo's territory, where over three million people are estimated to have been killed, to which we must add mass rapes, mutilations and enslavements, a scene of horror substantially worse than the quite-bad-enough situation in Darfur. If we are not to do anything substantial about the DRC, why are we to obliged to do so in Darfur? The reason must be something other than the moral requirement to end horrible evil.

In any event, if we define genocide narrowly in this way, the situation in Sudan most assuredly does not qualify, as Yglesias indeed argues it does not. That war is an ethnic war on civilians aimed at altering the ethnic composition of Darfur. If it is genocide, then assuredly so is the Russian war in Chechnya, to pick one example. I don't recall TNR demanding war with Russia. If they do not, then the reason must be prudential. I consider my first point to have been proven.

And even if we define genocide broadly, and agree there is a categorical imperative to end it, we are left with how to marry means to ends. My mother and numerous friends of mine went to Washington to protest the situation in Darfur and demand action. I asked every person I've met who went there what precisely did they want done. I have yet to get a single answer. TNR thinks that's because liberals are so down on America and the use of force that they can't ask for military action. I think it's because no one - certainly not TNR - has offered the American people a complete spec of what "muscular Wilsonianism" or whatever we're calling it these days would require in terms of force structure.

Actually, I'd like to see that. I'd like to see a rundown of what it would cost - in men and dollars - to implement a foreign policy vision consistent with an a priori commitment to military action in Darfur. I'd like to see best, middle and worst case scenarios - best case, a few shows of force make all the bad guys quake and we get peace and prosperity on the cheap; mid case, we get no deterrent effect and, as in Bosnia and Kossovo, we never get to leave, but there are negligible casualties; worst case we get multiple Iraq-type messes in places from Burma to Zimbabwe. Actually, that's not the absolute worst case, but even taking that for the worst case would be instructive. What would America's force structure and defense budget have to look like to support that kind of foreign policy? I'm not an expert, but there are people out there who could spec it out, and I'd like to know.

I'm pretty sure the reason the world is focused on Darfur and not the DRC is that in Darfur an Islamist government is beating up on African Muslims. So making a big deal about Darfur means defending black(er) people from lighter-skinned people, and, more important, means taking on an Islamist regime while still defending Muslims. And the relation to American national interests is oblique. In somebody's mind, that makes it the perfect war: a largely altruistic effort with just the right enemies to defend just the right victims. I don't think those kinds of PR considerations should be predominant when we're talking about war.

I should stress that if we can figure out ways to put the screws on Sudan in a way that makes sense, I'm all for it. I'm skeptical that we can actually get the Chinese to be helpful and, short of that, I'm skeptical we can do much short of taking military action. But I'm certainly open to that idea. I have nothing against human rights having an important role in foreign policy. I may have something against the categorical imperative, though.

It's interesting how the import of a phrase can change based on context, even as its meaning hasn't changed at all.

I may have mentioned at some point that, when we say the prayer for the State of Israel (which at my shul we sing before returning the sifrei Torah to the ark at the end of the Torah service on Saturday mornings), my custom is to add "sheh t'hi" which means "that she may be" in the first line of the prayer, as follows:

"Our Father in heaven, Rock of Israel and his redeemer, bless the State of Israel that she may be the first flowering of our redemption."

I insert the phrase as a dissent from the eschatological confidence of the unaltered line. Without the addition, the prayer avers that the State of Israel is the first flowering of our redemption - that is to say: that the Messianic Age is at hand, and the foundation of the State of Israel is the first sign thereof. I do not see how we can know anything of the kind, hence my dissenting emendation: I pray that God will bless the State of Israel that she may be the herald of the Messianic Age, rather than expressing any confidence at all that the redemption is already at hand.

This is a habit I picked up from a black hat (i.e. ultra-Orthodox) friend, who used the phrase as a way of splitting the difference between his fellow black hats who reject any theological significance of the State of Israel, and hence refuse to say the prayer, and Religious Zionists who believe, following Rav Kook, that the foundation of the State of Israel was indeed a sign that the inexorable End had begun. This friend considered himself a Zionist - indeed, a fiercely right-wing Zionist - and he thought that the foundation of Israel had great theological significance in that it made possible such future events as the rebuilding of the Temple, the reconstitution of the Sanhedrin, etc.; he just didn't think these future developments would inevitably follow the foundation of the State, and thought it appropriate to leave the future in God's hands.

So a few weeks ago, I was at lunch at a friend's house Saturday afternoon, and among the other guest was a left-wing Conservative rabbi who had lived a while in Israel. The rabbi commented to me that he noticed my inclusion of that phrase in the prayer for the State of Israel, and that I'm the only American besides himself whom he'd ever heard do that. I asked him where he picked up the phrase, and he commented that it was common currency among Masorti (Conservative) rabbis in Israel who are on the left, who want to pointedly distinguish themselves from the Religious Zionist camp that has been so profoundly involved in the settlement enterprise in the territories. These rabbis intended to indicate by adding the phrase that Israel will only herald the Messianic Age if it deserves to, that ethical behavior is a precondition, and that therefore the pro-settler right is wrong to use the language of the prayer and say: see: if we withdraw from territory then we are violating God's will, because only by settling all of the Land can the Messianic Age be brought to fruition.

Then, last week, the same rabbi came up to me after services on Saturday and relayed the following. Apparently, the same phrase has begun to turn up in extreme Religious Zionist circles. But for them it means almost exactly the opposite of what it means for the Masorti rabbis. Where previously these Religious Zionists had believed that the redemption could not be thwarted by human action, now they are worried that, by withdrawing from Gaza and preparing to withdraw from much of Judea and Samaria, the State of Israel has indeed forfeited its place as the herald of the Messianic Age. Therefore, some of these people are withdrawing from the State, preparing the ideological ground for a movement that would ultimately produce the true State of Israel on the ruins of the current, illegitimate State. Others, who are adding this phrase to their prayers, are staking out a middle ground, and by that phrase are expressing their hope that the State of Israel may yet change its ways, if not immediately than one day, and return to its proper mission, and so they are effectively praying for God to bless Israel with the will and the opportunity to return to the territories lately abandoned.

That the same phrase can mean three such different things, while in all cases retaining the larger connection between the State of Israel and Jewish eschatological hopes (albeit always deferred), strikes me as a testiment to its strength and rightness - and, indeed, a much better basis for religious "consensus" than the original, unaltered prayer. It seems to me that this is exactly what religious language should do, and that it would be a very good idea if the dissenting phraseology became the official phraseology on this point.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Andrew Sullivan links to the following story about the percentage of Americans under 5 that are non-white and notices something odd: the chart at the bottom shows only 4% of children under 5 are black. Sullivan seizes this datum and begins to fantasize about a country whose black population has been replaced by brown immigrants, kind of like Sullivan's home, Washington, D.C.

But it's just a freaking typo: the percentage of children under 5 who are black and who are Asian are obviously transposed. As the chart reads currently, there would be 3 million Asian-American children under 5 and only 800,000 black children under 5 - whereas there are 38 million black Americans and only 11 million Asian Americans in total. That would certainly be a story - a colossal Asian baby boom results in over 25% of all Asian-Americans being under 5 years old, while the black birth rate drops effectively to zero over the past 5 years! But it's just a typo: clearly, 4% of children under 5 are Asian, just like 4% of the population as a whole is Asian, and 15% of children under 5 are black, slightly above the 13% of the total population.

I guess Steven Levitt isn't the only one who needs to check the data now and again. If only these people would take a turn on a trading desk. They would lose a lot of money, and maybe learn something.

I've been meaning to write something for some time about McCain, and every time there's a news-based excuse I'm too busy to write anything. So I'll do it now.

McCain is the current front-runner for the GOP nomination for several reasons. First, he is not President Bush, and nobody thinks he is. Second, he seems to really want to be President. Third, he's still got a lot of credibility with certain kinds of swing voters, and even Democrats. Fourth, he's associated with clean government, and the GOP is currently suffering from (among other things) a serious K-street problem as well as some spectacular instances of out-and-out corruption. Fifth, McCain is serious about spending restraint, having opposed the Medicare drug bill, the highway bill, the farm bill and having made a career of opposing pork - all this in pointed contrast to both the President and Congress.

McCain also has big advantages over his three biggest potential primary opponents: Allen, Romney and Giuliani. Allen is way too much like Bush, and I don't think that's what the electorate will want after eight years. Romney and Giuliani pose at least as big a problem to the Christian Right as McCain does; both have more liberal records than McCain does (Rudy by a huge margin), plus Romney is a Mormon and Giuliani is a multiple-divorcee. If you look at the four of them, based on his record McCain is clearly the most conservative after Allen, and therefore the only option that is both plausibly conservative and plausibly electable. His biggest weakness relative to the field is that he's the only one who's never run anything; Allen was a Governor before going to the Senate, Romney is a Governor, and Giuliani ran a city so big it might as well count as a state. This is balanced, though, by the fact that McCain unquestionably has the best foreign policy credentials of the bunch, and we're in the middle of a war.

McCain, though, has some serious liabilities as well, some of which will matter mostly in the primaries but others that will matter in a general election. Two of these are personal, and five of them are policy-related. I'll address each in turn, and how I think McCain can address each of them.

His first personal liability is that he has evinced at times a certain contempt for his opponents. Contempt is not an attractive quality in a political leader, even when you agree with him that his opponents are wrong, if not contemptible. Contempt should be reserved for actual enemies, not for political opponents in a democratic system. And manifesting contempt for opponents within your own party whom you need to win a general election is worse than a crime: it's a mistake, and a stupid one. My impression is that McCain has done a lot to work on this particular problem, but that doesn't mean it won't recur at the most inopportune moment. Continuing to work on it is my advice. In particular, working on it with respect to everybody and not just specific previous objects of contempt is important. McCain has done a lot to mend fences with the Christian Right. Meanwhile he's showing immigration restrictionists today the same contempt he showed in 2000 for guys like Jerry Falwell.

The bigger personal problem McCain has is his devotion to lost causes, even to making himself one of those lost causes. Nothing succeeds like success, but McCain has made a career out of romantic failure. Nearly every policy cause McCain has championed has died in the legislature (campaign finance reform ironically excepted). All those spending bills I mentioned that McCain opposed? They all passed. And, most notably, his own 2000 Presidential campaign began to fall apart the moment it appeared to have a prayer of victory - namely, right after New Hampshire. I don't think Senator McCain had really ever considered that he might win, that he might become President, and he began to behave strangely during the whole period between the New Hampshire victory and the South Carolina loss. Once he lost South Carolina, he seemed happier, and he was at his happiest torpedoing (or so it seemed at the time) any future he had in the GOP, and doing as much damage as possible to the Bush juggernaut. What was this strange behavior about? Partly, no doubt, his feelings about Bush, and the fact that he let those feelings get in the way of rational decisionmaking does not speak well of him. But there's something else there, something deep inside that is part of what makes him attractive, but that if it comes to dominate will scare people away from him and cause him to lose - and that, if it comes to dominate when he is President, will be very dangerous. There is a Churchillian aspect to McCain. We would do well to remember what a weird fellow Churchill actually was, how unsuited he was to nearly any task of political life except the one that made him a national hero, leading Britain in her finest hour. I'm not sure how McCain can reassure on this score, but what I, at least, am looking for is a bit of a sign that he can play FDR - a coldly manipulative man if there ever was one - as well as Churchill.

The big risk for McCain is that his opponents will successfully attack him at one of his points of personal vulnerability in a way that successfully couples with an attack at one of his points of policy vulnerability. To that end, let me detail what I think are his five biggest areas of policy vulnerability, in ascending order of seriousness and intractability.

Guns. McCain has a history of being squishy on guns. In fact, he sponsored gun control legislation. This is totally unacceptable to the GOP base. Fortunately for McCain, this is an issue he can solve very easily, because guns are not a hot issue right now and Giuliani - his most dangerous opponent in the primaries - is even worse on the issue. I expect McCain to pander shamelessly to the NRA. In any event, in the general election, McCain vs. Clinton is an easy call for gun rights voters even if McCain doesn't pander to them at all.

Taxes. McCain voted against Bush's first big round of tax cuts, and his tax proposals in 2000 were neither serious in a policy sense nor appealing to people who vote on tax policy. McCain now champions extension of Bush's tax cuts, but his reasoning is not persuasive. What does he really believe on this issue? I think he believes that lower taxes are better than higher ones but balanced budgets are the top priority. That is to say: his tax stance is probably closer to Bob Dole's than Newt Gingrinch's. This is not enough to win over the Stephen Moores of the world. Fortunately, taxes are not the most salient issue in this campaign; fortunately as well, McCain has a relatively straightforward rhetorical out that is sufficiently in tune with what he believes and sufficiently appealing to both primary and general election voters. McCain should say that the next tax reform needs to bring back the Spirit of '86. We should lower the tax burden on businesses and families by closing loopholes and simplifying the code, lowering rates and broadening the base. I could list specific proposals I favor, but I won't do that here, both because that belongs in another post and because I don't think McCain needs to be specific. All he needs to say specifically is that he will not favor raising income tax rates or increasing the tax burden generally, and that his overall philosophy is: close loopholes, broaden the base, lower rates.

The Culture War. McCain is not a culture warrior, neither of the Pat Robertson type nor the Pat Buchanan type nor the Robert Bork type. As Bill Kristol said during the 2000 campaign, the faith-based institution that McCain believes in is America. Good. Good for three reasons: because the culture war as such is a negative for America, even if you believe one side is pretty much right and the other side pretty much wrong; good because I get the impression that for some culture warriors cultural cues have come to matter more than actual policy, which is flat-out stupid, and McCain would force them to grow up; and good because, if you are on the right, having someone in the White House who isn't actually of your faction but knows which side his bread is buttered on may be the best of both worlds policy-wise. McCain has been doing exactly what I expected him to do with respect to Christian conservative leaders: he's been pledging his fealty publicly and privately. He's even pandering now on Intelligent Design, which I personally think is a political mistake as well as atrocious policy.

I think McCain's message on these issues needs to be very simple and clear. Number one, I'm my own man. Don't expect me to give any interest group a veto on my decisions. Number two, look at my record. I've got a pro-life record a mile long. I am a strong supporter of conservative, originalist and restrained jurisprudence. I believe in hard work, traditional families, grattitude towards the military, and one nation under God. In all my years in politics, I haven't changed my views on any of these bedrock questions, and I won't change them when I am President. That message, coupled with real effort to work on that personal contempt problem, should be sufficient. If it isn't, I'm afraid in my opinion that would be an indication of lack of seriousness on the part of the Christian Right. But I fully expect it will be sufficient.

That handles the policy side and the leadership of the Christian Right. But cultural comfort does matter to voters, and McCain will need to figure out how to address it. I think what McCain needs is to have an Oprah moment. He needs to talk about his relationship with his kids. He needs to find entrees to talking about family values - maybe do a speech about military families, the strains on their lives, how military dads can be wonderful role models but also absent ones. The "values voters" are somewhat more female than male, and vastly more lower-middle and middle-class than upper-middle or higher class. Approaching these voters is at least as much about solving McCain's image problem with women as about anything else (men love McCain; women find him much less appealing). I don't think McCain should publicly or privately kowtow to Dobson or Robertson or anyone else. I also don't think he needs to call people "agents of evil." I think if he is respectful without pandering, then a bit of humanizing talk will do wonders breaking through to the actual voters in the bloc. If McCain can avoid showing contempt, and the Christian Right can avoid demanding outright fealty, this is a problem that can be solved.

(An aside on this topic re: David Souter, who always comes up in the context of anyone who is not heart and soul part of the Christian Right who wants their support. First, the lesson of Souter for people who vote of judges should be: don't vote for someone who will put Warren Rudman in charge of the selection of Supreme Court judges, and don't buy a pure stealth nominee. The lesson cannot be: don't vote for anyone who isn't himself either a member of Opus Dei or the 700 Club. Second, President George H. W. Bush nominated lots of conservatives to the Federal bench; Souter was the exception - an important exception, but an exception - to a rule that was quite friendly to judicial conservatives. Third, Anthony Kennedy is at least as problematic for judicial conservatives and opponents of abortion as David Souter, and Kennedy was selected in part because people believed he would vote the "right" way because of his Catholicism. It didn't work out that way, and that's a caution to anyone who would make their voting decisions primarily on the basis of gut cultural comfort. Finally, in the same vein, the current President Bush, who's about as culturally friendly to Christian conservatives as any President could be, nominated Harriet Miers.)

Iraq. Now we're getting to the really tricky stuff, the stuff that can't be finessed. Iraq is McCain's biggest strength and his biggest weakness. His biggest strength because, like it or not, we're at war, and McCain is someone people will trust in fighting a war. He's a warrior himself, but he's also been deeply involved in defense and foreign policy issues for decades, and has a cogent and detailed critique of the conduct of the Iraq War specifically. But there is another edge to that sword. McCain is vulnerable on Iraq in three ways.

First, McCain has a not-entirely-undeserved reputation as the guy who never saw a war he didn't like. During the Kossovo intervention, when much of the GOP was questioning why we were in combat at all, McCain was saying we needed to send ground troops. On Iraq, McCain was an early advocate of putting more troops into the conflict, and he has maintained that position. McCain seems to have a much clearer idea than President Bush that "bear any burden, pay any price" could turn out to be quite a burden and quite a price - but he still believes in that kind of rhetoric. McCain is the only prominent candidate in the GOP primary who not only cannot hedge his support for the Iraq War but, really, is almost certainly going to be arguing that we need to do more - in Iraq and elsewhere - to prosecute the war, with a very expansive conception of the war's aims. That just may not be what the country wants to hear. They certainly will want to hear that the next President will be tough and determined and committed to defending America. But they just may want tough and determined prosecution of more limited war aims than McCain will articulate.

Second, and this is a bit of a subtle point, McCain could be a bit trapped by his difficult relations with President Bush. As I said, McCain has been a strong critic of aspects of the prosecution of the war - on the issue of torture, on how many troops were and are needed, etc. But because he's percieved - still - as a disloyal Republican, he can't press these criticisms too hard for fear of being accused of attacking the President. Moreover, such criticisms amount to saying "I wouldn't have made such dumb mistakes myself" and that kind of assertion can easily be spun by opponents as know-it-all arrogance. I'm not saying this is fair, mind you, but I do think it's part of the reality that McCain faces in this campaign. This is a unique problem for McCain, I think, because I don't think President Bush has a similar relationship with any of the other candidates that would cause him to be especially sensitive to the tone of criticism. And no matter how low the President's poll numbers, he'll have some influence over how things go in the primaries and, in contrast to President Reagan's behavior in 1988, I predict President Bush will use it.

Third, and most subtly, McCain's romantic attachment to lost causes that I alluded to earlier could seriously hurt him in any debate about Iraq. Does McCain have a plan for winning the war? I doubt it - on the general principle that there is no such plan as well as on the evidence of how he's talked about the war. Is there a McCain doctrine that encompasses an undertaking as massive as he would have had the Iraq War be even knowing that there was no Iraqi nuclear program? I can't think what it might be. Has McCain articulated what America's force structure would have to be to sustain any such McCain doctrine, and has he budgeted for such a force structure? I'm pretty sure the answer is "no." If Iraq has become one of McCain's lost causes, or if the electorate starts to worry that it has become one, they will drop him like a stone, as they should.

My advice to McCain on Iraq is: change the topic. Seriously. Make it clear that this is a big world with a lot of foreign policy issues to deal with, and that he, Senator McCain, is a man who can master them. Talk about how we need to rebuild the navy. Talk about how we're going to deal with China, in military and diplomatic terms, in terms of deterrence and eliciting cooperation. Talk about Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, etc. in sober and non-apocalyptic terms, as difficult problems that require sustained attention and a strong and steady hand to address. If McCain gets into a second-guessing contest over Iraq, he loses, because if the country wants to second-guess Iraq it will pick someone with less of an Iraq record. If he is competing over who people trust more to handle American foreign policy and defense generally, I'm confident he can win.

Immigration. From tricky to impossible. Senator McCain is to the left of President Bush on immigration. And President Bush is well to the left of the GOP's center of gravity on immigration. And McCain is, without question, the furthest left candidate on immigration with a chance of winning the GOP nomination. Yes, that includes Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani certainly has a record of being "soft" on illegal immigration. But it's worth pointing out that he compiled that record as Mayor of New York City. He had no role in actually setting immigration policy. Moreover, Giuliani has a strong law-and-order reputation. He could certainly shift gears and, for example, favor building a wall and then amnestying illegals already here without meaningfully contradicting his record. That wouldn't be enough to make Mark Krikorian happy, but it would put him well to the right of McCain. Moreover, McCain's atmospherics around immigration are designed to infuriate restrictionists, where Giuliani's are more neutral - that is to say, McCain shows contempt for folks like the Minutemen while Giuliani simply gushes about how wonderful immigrants are and how we should have more of them. I'm trying to be honest here. I think McCain is clearly a superior choice to Giuliani for voters for whom restricting abortion is towards the top of the list. I think Giuliani is clearly a superior choice to McCain for voters for whom immigration restriction is towards the top of the list. And, of course, Allen and Romney don't have the baggage either of these guys have on this issue.

McCain is, I think, the only nominee who would be likely to provoke a third-party challenge focused on immigration restriction. The question is how well such a nominee would do and how much damage would be done to McCain in a general election from such a challenge. If the contest is at all close, a single-issue candidate focused on immigration could certainly flip key states to the Democrats by siphoning off must-have votes from the GOP. One would think that McCain would be certain to hold Arizona as a favorite son, but any other candidate with his set of positions would, in a contest with a serious, well-funded third-party immigration restrictionist candidacy, be fighting for his life in that state. McCain's hope would have to be that he could make such profound inroads into independent voter territory that he could afford to lose voters to a third party on immigration.

Of course, most third party gambits never even get off the ground, forget about actually catching fire once launched. If it's a two-way race with Hillary Clinton, the worry is that she can successfully get to his right on immigration (likely) and thereby induce voters who care deeply about this issue to stay home if not to vote for her outright. Of course, it's possible that McCain pulls enough independent-minded "upbeats" to overwhelm any paleo-bleeding to the Democrats, but that's a bet, not a certainty.

I'm not sure what advice to give McCain on this one. In theory, someone with as much credibility as he has with pro-immigration types would be in an excellent Nixon-goes-to-China position. But (a) McCain doesn't want to go to China; (b) immigration isn't China. Nixon was breaking with Republican anti-Communist tradition by going to China; Bush, similarly, is breaking with Republican opposition to mass immigration by strongly supporting open borders, as is McCain, so for McCain to backtrack on immigration would be like Nixon (or Bush) tilting towards Taiwan. I suspect the best McCain can hope for is for the immigration-restrictionist vote to turn out to be vastly smaller than the percentage of voters who say they favor a restrictionist policy, so that the issue lacks salience in the primaries and no third-party challenge emerges. I'm not deep enough on this stuff to know whether that is the case or not. I will say that, again, expressions of contempt towards those with whom he disagrees on this policy issue exacerbate what I expect will be McCain's most intractable difficulty in securing the GOP nomination.

It's interesting from my perspective that the conventional wisdom is that McCain's biggest problem is the opposition of social conservatives. McCain has made it abundantly clear that he will play ball with them, and I'm pretty sure they'll play ball with him, particularly since there is no obvious standard-bearer for the Christian Right to coalesce around as an alternative. I also think it's strange that some people think taxes are going to be the big issue for McCain. I think McCain's biggest issues are going to be Iraq and immigration - that is to say: the same issues that Bush has. And the big economic policy area where I think McCain should worry segments of the GOP coalition is in the area of business regulation. I expect McCain to do fine - maybe much better than fine - on budgetary and tax matters, and considerably better than Bush on spending and trade. And his credibility as someone not in the pocket of big business makes it more likely that he could succeed with market-friendly reforms to entitlements than Bush has been. But McCain is a regulator; he believes in competition, but he thinks government needs to step in to make sure the market is competitive, just like his hero Teddy Roosevelt. Sometimes McCain is right about this, by the way, but he can clearly err in a regulatory direction in ways that will annoy conservatives as well as business. All-in, I think the McCain basket on economic questions is one conservatives should grab with both hands, but he's certainly not a Club for Growth purist if that's your bag.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006
I am now more than a month overdue for the latest book diary. Somehow, the last couple of months have not been good for book reading; I've been distracted, I guess. And, on top of that, I've been bogged down with one very interesting but very dense book that I keep putting down for breaks, which, of course, slows down my reading in general.

In any event, herewith 2-month diary, covering March and April:

The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, by James Wood. If Leon Wieseltier had been born a Christian, and a better writer, less enamored of his own aphorisms, he would have been James Wood. They share so many key traits: a ravenous intellect, a keen ear, nostalgia for a religious upbringing coupled with mature atheistic convictions, and a somewhat ponderous cultivated gravitas. I far prefer to read Wood, but it is no surprise that he has found a happy home in the back of The New Republic, along with other crusading traditionalist modernist (less of a contradiction than it sounds at first glance) critics like Jed Perle. I enjoyed this book of essays very much, the thesis of which is that the development of the novel is closely linked to the crisis in religious belief that struck Western civilization in the 19th century. I enjoyed the book very much even though I found the thesis somewhat problematic, and many of the chapters - the first one on More, the essay on Chekhov, the essay on Eliot - only tangentially related to the theme while others - on Austen, on Flaubert, on Melville - were much more closely tied in.

My problem with the thesis is twofold. First, I'm not convinced that psychological realism depended for its development on a crisis in religious belief. I find convincing psychological realism in all sorts of pre-modern texts: in Gilgamesh; in much of the narrative portions of the Pentateuch and in First and Second Samuel and in Ruth and Job; I think there's psychological realism in Homer and the Greek dramatists, in Beowulf and Njal's Saga, in Dante and Chaucer. I'm not convinced that the individual is a modern invention, but rather individualism - there were individuals in Homer, but they are embedded in an objective moral reality whereas for a modern individualist moral reality is something that develops within an individual moral consciousness (with input, of course, from external reality). And individualism in fiction, while it is a modern innovation, pre-dates (and may pre-figure) the Enlightenment, first budding in Chaucer and Boccaccio and coming to full flower in Shakespeare and Cervantes. I'm suggesting that Wood has his causality backwards.

And I should point out as well that only in a minority of modern novels is the individual moral quest - the forming of the self as the consequence of moral choices - the heart of the matter. Shakespeare's characters may change, and become something different at the end than they were at the start. (So do Chaucer's before him; his Troilus and Cresyde are very modern heroes.) But in many modern novels this is not the case. Dickens' heroes don't really change. George Eliot's do - she's probably the paradigm case for this view of the novel, which makes it all the more interesting that she doesn't merit a chapter in Wood's book - but Tolstoy's don't (or when they do - as with Ivan Illych or Father Sergius - it is by two explicit contradictions of Wood's conception of a modern novel's moral center: they make direct connection with the divine, and their individual personalities vanish). It's not hard to make a long list of truly sublime modern novels in which it's more true to say that their character is their destiny, that all they do is "become what they are" rather than change as a result of the moral choices they make. I'm not even sure many of Jane Austen's characters really change in the sense of becoming something other than what they were at the start; it may be more correct to say that Elizabeth, Emma and Anne come to understand themselves, and that they adapt to the truth about their characters, than to say that they change in any fundamental way. Joyce's epiphanies may be more paradigmatically modern than the idea of an individualistic moral quest. Wood might think that this is perfectly consonant with his thesis, but I'm not sure it is.

My other problem with Wood's thesis is that his diagnosis of the novel's decay is unconvincing. In a nutshell, Wood blames Flaubert for everything that has gone wrong, because Flaubert elevated style to the top of the heirarchy of novelistic values. In the short term, this had some wonderful consequences, but in the long term it led writers in a Byzantine direction, away from reality, especially internal human reality. I don't disagree with this at all, but I do question Wood's notion that style, and aestheticism generally, is a substitute for religion. The important thing about the religion of aesthetics, it seems to me, is not that it is a religion but that it is a false religion, a variety of gnosticism in that rather than providing a convincing account of reality it evades reality in favor of a solopsistic construction. So once again, I feel like Wood has his arrow of causality backwards: it is not that we took refuge in aestheticism and style because we lost religion but that the decay of our ability to relate to reality, manifested among other places in the exaltation of style, had a deleterious impact on religion.

All of which leads to the most puzzling thing about the book: that it does not grapple with those modern authors who themselves in their work most insistently grappled with the question of religion in modernity. He has a great chapter on Melville (again, something of a paradigm case for his thesis) but he doesn't discuss either George Eliot (as mentioned) or Dostoevsky. Each is very surprising. Eliot is, after all, the other side of the coin from Melville as a paradigm case: if Melville was sailing off into the future haunted by a God in whom he could not quite believe nor quite deny, Eliot was resolutely marching forward to the same old Protestant tune fully aware that the music had stopped but determined to march on anyway - in the process, creating one of the few successful representations of precisely the self-created moral character that Wood sees as the peak of the novel's art and, not incidentally, almost completely abjuring any smack of style. Dostoevsky, meanwhile, created truly great art of explicitly religious intent, but at the cost of sacrificing precisely the realistic inwardness that Wood so values. If both of these omissions astonish, a lower level of amazement may be registered at the omission, among the roster of more contemporary eminences (Murdoch, Pynchon, DeLillo, Updike, Roth, Morrison, Barnes) a chapter on the explicitly Catholic writers of the second half of the 20th century - people like Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy. Personally, I think both Percy and O'Connor suffer from the same fundamental flaw that mars much of Dostoevsky's work, but I'd really like to know what Wood thinks, and how his opinion fits in to his overall thesis.

Reading through the above, I recognize that I sound just a little too much like Harold Bloom in my attribution of occult power to literature itself (though, for me, gnostic is a term of abuse, not of praise). Which makes me nervous given how thoroughly Wood was able to trash the old man of the castle in his recent New Republic cover story. But be that as it may: I think I'm right, but I don't want to give the impression that I was disappointed by Wood's book of essays, which I enjoyed very much and heartily recommend. In fact, I've bought his other book of essays and intend to read it this summer.

* * *

The remaining mini-reviews of this book diary will be a bit less . . . maxi.

The Light Fantastic, by Terry Pratchett was recommended to me by the fourteen-year-old daughter of a friend. It has been a long time since a book so reminded me of my age. This is the kind of book I would have devoured, along with its many sequels, when I was fourteen; indeed, that's about the age I was when I read its precursor, The Color of Magic, which I remember cackling to on a family car trip to who knows where. But those days are gone, gone. I wonder if I would even find The Hitchhiker's Guide funny anymore? I suspect not. On the positive side, though, Pratchett's series has not been denounced by any prominent Christian leaders, as some other fantasy novels have.

* * *

I can't remember who recommended to me The Big Picture: Money and Power in Hollywood by Edward Jay Epstein. The book was OK, but not especially well-written, and rather over-fond of Fellata-ish superduperlatives. Epstein does a decent job walking through the economics of the contemporary movie industry, but I left with more nagging questions than good answers. Questions like: how much did antitrust matter in establishing the primacy of home entertainment over theater entertainment, and what would happen if the consent decree separating studios from theater chains were ended? Why, if children's movies are crucial to Hollywood's success, do the studios make so few good children's movies? And how was the present value of cashflow from Disney's intellectual property affected by Sonny Bono's untimely death? Seriously, if I understood the book correctly, theatrical releases of movies are, economically, now treated by Hollywood as a form of advertising, which is an interesting thing to learn and does indeed reshape how one thinks about the industry. But I've never understood categorically why an industry should ever wind up being shaped that way - I understand why internet startups gave away their product, because they believed there was a first-mover advantage and therefore it made sense to lose money to make money. But I don't understand why movies would have to be treated like ads, and I could see how thinking of movies that way could really screw up the artistic side of things. Maybe all I'm asking, in so many words, is why there isn't more price differentiation between different kinds of movies. In any event, the book was interesting, but less fun than I thought it would be. It did have the virtue, though, of being a very rare book that guys in the office actually wanted to borrow.

* * *

Permit me, as a Eli, my one Harvard-Yale joke. Actually, it's not really a joke; it's an authentic observation. In any event, here is the difference between people who go to Harvard and people who go to Yale. People go to Harvard because they know that they were destined, from birth, to run the world. And it behooves them, as future world-runners, to go to Harvard so they can most efficiently hobnob with the other fellows with whom they will ultimately be running the world.

By contrast, people who go to Yale know that the world isn't good enough to deserve having them to run it.

All this is by way of prologue to the question: is there anything more Harvard then writing a book about one's Harvard experiences right after graduating, as Ross Douthat did in Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class?

Douthat is a decent writer, and there are points in this book when I got really engrossed. But overall it was a bit of a disappointment. I think the reason is that Douthat tries to steer between the Scylla and Charybdis of pure memoir and pop sociology, when in fact he should have aimed straight for one or the other. I suspect he chose not to write a pure memoir because to write a memoir one has to look back on one's past life from some meaningful vantage point and, frankly, graduating from Harvard is not such a point. There is no epiphany that strikes at the end of Douthat's Harvard career, and the attempt to make 9-11 into such is probably the least emotionally convincing part of the book. But Douthat didn't do the research necessary, nor does he have the distance nor the keen eye for detail necessary to do either a Tom Wolfe or a David Brooks treatment of his chosen topic.

Given that, by his own admission, he didn't work all that hard on his school work, I wish Douthat had smelled a few more of the roses, reported a bit more on what they smelled like. My memories of Yale are dominated by things like: the sort-of girlfriend who wouldn't wear footwear and moved into our stairway landing after being thrown out of the library; the Wagner nut who made her own clothes and held tea parties in her room; the chain-smoking Korean who to all appearances owned only one pair of pants and spent four years perched in the same spot in Trumbull courtyard declaiming the glories of Rommel's military career to assorted passersby - in other words, I remember the quirky, even freaky people. I also remember a whole lot of serious conversation, and a lot of awkward identity-formation that might better have been accomplished in high school. What I don't remember is relentless status-seeking, or obsession with money. Is that because Yale people are just, well, better than Harvard people? Yes, of course. But what I've been trying to figure out is: is it also because we slackers are just better than the children of the baby boomers who followed us? Or is it all about the lame crowd Ross Douthat hung with?

Seriously, though, I went into the book inclined already to agree with Douthat on most of what he had to say. I am profoundly skeptical about meritocracy, and Harvard is the capital of meritocracy in America. But the book, while I enjoyed it, left me with more questions than answers about its own conclusions; left me more skeptical than I had been about my own conclusions about the way we are training our elite.

As I've said any number of times: I am pretty frankly elitist. I think elites are the motors of history, and that no society can survive without a patriotic elite at its head. The deep question for our society is not whether we have an elite but what the relationship is between that elite (or, rather, elites; we're a very big country, and there are lots of competing tribes at the top) and the rest of our society. If nothing else, Douthat's book is a "good thing" because it is asking that question.

* * *

The last book on my list I really shouldn't be reviewing yet, because, after two months, I still haven't finished it. It's A Savage War Of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, by Alistair Horne. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, but I should warn anyone who decides to open it: while extremely well-written and engrossing, it is nonetheless quite a slog. It feels, sometimes, like an almost minute-by-minute account of eight years of war. And that can get tiring.

I can't do the book justice here. So I'm just going to make a few big-picture observations about the war.

First: there are no military solutions to political problems. As Horne paints the picture, France, at least during the period that Challe was running things in Algeria, basically won the war on the battlefield. Indeed, they won it twice: they defeated the urban insurrection in the Battle of Algiers and they defeated the F.L.N. throughout the country by implementing the Challe plan. It was a brutal war, but in a military sense it was winnable. But it was not winnable in a political sense because there was no political solution that was stable over the long term. The F.L.N. would have returned under another guise ten years later even if it were crushed.

Second: no conflict is an island. France could not put the F.L.N. decisively out of business without taking the war to neighboring Tunisia at a minimum, something they were not willing nor diplomatically able to do. The Algerian War was draining the treasury and the army, and Algeria was of questionable value to France anyhow. De Gaulle understood this from the beginning. He also understood how the Algerian conflict was undermining the French state. (Ironically, precisely for that reason it gave de Gaulle the unique opportunity to reshape the French state in a stabler and more functional form, but then the same forces that brought him to power nearly toppled him.)

Third: nothing is unthinkable. The French wound up acceding to every demand of the F.L.N., when demands vastly short of what was ultimately accepted were originally deemed unthinkable. Indeed, the very rhetoric of unthinkability is, I think, a sound of profound weakness.

Fourth: terrorism works, but not for the obvious reason. Terrorism is militarily pointless. It also doesn't actually terrorize; the French who lived in Algeria did not flee the country, and the total death toll never rivaled other sources of random death like auto accidents. And it isn't actually that expensive in terms of the damage done, or wasn't then (obviously spectacular 9-11 style terrorism is different in that regard). Terrorism isn't really guerilla warfare; the F.L.N. never really controlled territory, fielded a real army, did the other sorts of things that we think of guerillas as doing. No, terrorism works because it turns individuals into collectives, and one collective cannot govern another collective, politically speaking. Civilized peoples understand terrorism to mean: I have no moral boundaries. But this is not what the F.L.N. meant. They did not mean, when they killed innocent bystanders, including children, that they would happily kill all French people, or that French people were not human, lesser beings who could be killed with impunity. Rather, they meant: the French are a single entity, and we will hurt that entity where we can. They were treating the French collectively, and the French responded in kind, with a collective punitive response that included herding villagers into concentration camps, torturing large numbers of people for information, etc. This was both necessary and intended: the purpose of terrorism was to force the communities apart, to make a political solution impossible. And this is why it works, when applied in a context similar to Algeria. (By contrast, the Red terrorism of the 1970s accomplished absolutely nothing, precisely because it was applied in such a different context.)

Lessons for America in Iraq, and for Israel in Judea and Samaria, leap out of every page. But what is most clear is the overall tragic character of the conflict, the sense that, really, things could not have progressed very differently. France could not surrender until she had proved that there was no solution that would keep Algeria French. The F.L.N. could not accept anything less than their maximal demands. And that also seems true of both our war in Iraq and Israel's attempt to disengage from the Palestinians.

The depressing thing is that Horne didn't know, when he wrote the book back in the early 1970s, what the ultimate fate of Algeria would be. The patriotic elite that (brutally and viciously) led the F.L.N. to victory turned corrupt in power, and ruined the country. After thirty years of decay, the country turned to the Islamists, ushering in a civil war that cost over 100,000 lives. Algerian nationalism was almost wholly negative; the F.L.N. had no vision for how to govern Algeria, only a determination to end French rule. It's not surprising that the Islamists ultimately grew to fill this vacuum, but Islamism is only marginally less free of content. The poverty of Arab politics only deepens with time. One can hope that Iraq proves the exception to this historic rule, but that hope has to triumph over considerable experience.