Monday, April 30, 2007

About Me

Infrequently Asked Questions About Consilience:

Q: Why is it called Consilience?

A: It refers to a E. O. Wilson book about the unity of knowledge. I wholemindedly agree that all knowledge is connected and truly understood by building upward from physical sciences. I believe that everything in the physical world is at root black and white, even if in practice it's so complex it's hard to reach accurate understanding. When it comes to human emotions goals, things become subjective, because we're not all built the same.

Q: I don't get it. This isn't a scientific site. Tell me again why the name.

A: That's not strictly a question, is it? Nevertheless, it more refers to how I look at the world, and what's here is what I'm thinking about. Like most blogs, it's self-absorbed, but one hopes, interesting to some people.

Q: Why don't you sign with your real name?

A: All I will say is that I have a good reason.

Q: Can you sign my arm/scalp/internal organs?

A: Due to high call volume, we may not be able to fulfill all such requests, especially if major reconstructive surgery is thereafter required. Please contact my assistant Chet with all requests.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Fundamentalist Justice

Reason Magazine's blog highlights the twisted justice of fundamentalism well and succinctly:

Compassion at Work

A Saudi Arabian 19-year-old woman identified only as G was kidnapped at knife-point and raped 14 times by a group of men. When her brother found out, he beat her up for dishonoring the family. Five men were arrested a convicted for the rapes and given sentences of 10 months to five years. But the woman was also charged with being alone with a man who was not a relative. She has been convicted and sentenced to 90 lashes.

The Permanent Cabinet Member

In 2000, I was with quite a few other people in lauding the choice of Dick Cheney to be George W. Bush's vice presidential running mate. He seemed a perfect complement to Bush: experienced, cool, hard-nosed, and supremely knowledgeable of the insider's game.

That analysis was largely true, but who was aware of the radical remake of the government in the form of greatly increased executive power that Cheney and allies like Donald Rumsfeld had in mind? Or how it would be so amplified by the War on Terror?

I don't think Cheney is evil incarnate like some, but even now wields immense power in this administration, and on some key issues, has long since lost his way. His ideology makes him believe that toughness in foreign policy, something that was missing under President Clinton, is a strategy in itself.

None of that is news to anyone. But what it got me thinking about this morning was the desired role of a vice president.

Up until Al Gore, vice presidents were almost universally powerless, the position shunned by many leading political candidates. Gore took things up several notches, and Cheney's power in the administration is off the charts.

I've always thought this increase in power was a good trend, because it only made sense to get another capable advisor and actor available to the president. Another cabinet member, really.

But there is one inescapable problem. If VPs turn out to be a bad choices, they can't be dismissed. Yes, they can be jettisoned for a re-election bid, and Bush should have done just that for 2004. But why would he? Bush had no problem with Cheney, it was people outside his administration. They weren't large in number in November of 2004, but have grown significantly since.

Hillary Clinton is another example, of course. Her mismanagement of health care in 1994 did much to bring on the 1994 Republican House victory, and a presidential spouse with great power isn't going anywhere either.

I still think the expanded role for vice presidents is a good thing, but it gives me more pause.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Idealism vs. Realism: Turkey

Christopher Beam's article from this week's New Republic is an example of excellent analysis of a complex foreign policy issue. It illustrates that even when all the facts are agreed upon, there are often multiple, legitimate to proceed.

At issue is the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Turks between 1915 and 1923 (some would argue longer). As Beam writes, the matter is settled history for everyone except Turks: The Young Turks of the World War I-era Ottoman Empire rounded up and executed several hundred Armenian intellectuals on April 24th, 1915, and proceeded to kill upwards of a million others over the next eight years. It is often considered the world's first genocide.

Turks deny this as a matter of national pride, again bringing up the puzzling (to me, anyway) concept of collective guilt. I understand a government's long-term accountability for past actions, but not a group of people who were not even born at the time. Turkish denial of its history is all that drags many of them into complicity with those actions.

The problem is, Turkey has repeatedly threatened foreign governments with retaliation should they publicly say the genocide even happened. And they followed through in the case of France. This seems incredible when one considers the likelihood of a Western government denying the Holocaust.

But here's the rub: Turkey is of strong strategic importance to the West, and not just for crass economic reasons. Turkey is the long-standing proof that an Islamic country can be secular and democratic (though not without its problems), something especially important now. America wants to further that example by ensuring Turkey's entry into the E.U. They are in a vital position next to not just Iraq, but a potential future Kurdish imbroglio.

So: There was an Armenian genocide, and our continued refusal to call it such in public is an insult to the memory of those who died, and Armenians who still live. And as Beam points out, defying Turkey would re-establish some much-needed moral authority.

But there are significant risks as well, and I believe there is no cut-and-dried answer.

What would I do? This may seem like a bit of a punt, but it's more an admission that I don't know all the facts. Briefly, I think I would work to get as much of the rest of the world on board and call it genocide, if I'm reasonably sure that doing so would not do serious long-term damage to Turkey's direction in the world. This would not just give moral authority, but would set a good example of leading the rest of the world on same.

If odds are that doing so would carry a good risk of sending Turkey away from secularism, I would reluctantly hold against the greater evil, and not feel one bit good about it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Rauch & Reason

Perhaps I'm extraordinarily late to the party, but I became an instant fan of Jonathan Rauch over the weekend. He's been a writer for many years for publications like National Journal, Reason, and The Economist. He seems just the type of reasonable, self-aware centrist that I find so compelling.

I found him while reading my Reason RSS feed, where editor-in-chief Nick Gillespie interviews Rauch. The link is here. Some highlights:

" is clear that the average Republican member of Congress is to the right of the average Republican partisan, who is to the right of the average American. You have the same leaning in the opposite direction in the Democratic Party. Reflect on the fact that until fairly recently, the House Majority Leader was Tom Delay (R-Texas) and the House Minority Leader was Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Just think about how much of the country that leaves out. That is not a coincidence."


"I'm a radical incrementalist. I believe in fomenting revolutionary change on a geological timescale. Life is long. We don't have to do everything right away. I'm a little bit of a fatalist about solving problems and reforming things for the sake of it. I think we have to be careful that a lot of reform is just movement."


"When you get right down to it, there doesn't seem to be really much of a constituency in this country for reducing the size of government in painful or unpleasant ways. Even Barry Goldwater, when he ran for president, announced that he wouldn't cut any farm subsidies, for example.

Government is an enormous ecosystem. It is, in its way, as decentralized and unmanageable as the ecosystem out there in nature. You can change the input and you'll get some change in the output, but if I've learned one thing in 25 years in Washington, it's that there far too many interests and actors for any politician to do more than work the margins. But working the margins is very, very important."


I think Maureen Dowd is very good at what she does. But the problem is that lots of people who aren't any good at it think this is journalism."


reason: You have a favorite bit of advice to younger people, don't you?

Rauch: Don't go to law school unless you want to be a lawyer.

There is also a link to an excellent article he wrote in early 1996 for Reason analyzing the early results on the reform battle between the Gingrich Congress and President Clinton. Much of it is as relevant today as then.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Redefining Roe

Almost unnoticed this week was Ruth Bader Ginsburg's dissent in the Supreme Court's narrow 5-4 ruling allowing a ban on partial birth abortion. As Cass R. Sunstein shows in his L.A. Times editorial, Ginsburg is attempting to reestablish the basis for abortion rights as equality, rather than privacy.

In this week's case, Ginsburg, now the only woman on the court, attempted to re-conceive the foundations of the abortion right, basing it on well-established constitutional principles of equality. Borrowing from her 1985 argument, she said that legal challenges to restrictions on abortion procedures "do not seek to vindicate some generalized notion of privacy; rather, they center on a woman's autonomy to determine her life's course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature."

The lack of mention of privacy in the Constitution has always been the conservative argument charging judicial overstretch. Equality's place in that same document has long been agreed upon, so it will be fascinating to see if Ginsburg and others can make this argument stand up and gain acceptance in the long haul.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Thoughts on France's Weekend

First, from the BBC, a story on this weekend's French presidential election that reports that 8% of French Muslims plan to vote for National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Yes, the same Le Pen who has been running for many years primarily by capitalizing on French anger at immigrants, who are largely Muslim.

The reason for the 8% appears to be some weird, unholy alliance of people who object to gay men kissing on television.

So, they um, agree on that part anyway.

All awe at some voters aside, the upcoming election is an important one. Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy holds a small lead over Socialist Segolene Royal and surprise UDF center-right candidate Francois Bayrou. Le Pen has significant support, but is unlikely make it to the second round runoff voting on May 6th.

It is important I think that either Sarkozy or Bayrou win the race. Most French people know that the oppressive welfare state they've put themselves under is hurting their economic prospects and fueling civil unrest, and that it needs reform. But are they willing to vote for that reform? Under Royal, who is an attractive candidate in more ways than one, advocates a platform that would only make the hole deeper.

She has also been prone to numerous gaffes that to me indicate her unreadiness for this position. From the New York Times last week:

Eric Besson, her former chief economic adviser, quit over differences with her, then savaged her in a book published weeks later. He described her as making decisions solo, improvising policies without forethought and then portraying herself as the victim of a male-dominated news media to gain an advantage.

“I think, in all conscience, that Ségolène Royal should not become president of the republic,” he wrote. “I do not wish it for my country. I fear it for my children.”

Ms. Royal also has been criticized for trivializing the issues. At a women’s forum sponsored by Elle magazine last week, for example, she announced her three priorities for women: ending violence against women, securing more government aid for preschool children and putting the remains of Olympe de Gouges, the 18th-century feminist, into the Panthéon. The audience groaned.

During a campaign trip on March 30, Ms. Royal announced a new government-subsidized initiative to put unemployed youths to work, only to be attacked by her own camp and the far left for coming up with a warmed-over version of the government’s doomed job creation initiative put forth last year.

Ms. Royal has been most gaffe-prone on foreign policy terrain. On a visit to China in January, she visited the Great Wall, wearing white, the color of mourning in China.

Last Thursday, in discussing the fate of two Frenchmen held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan, she called for United Nations-imposed penalties for rulers like the Taliban, as if unaware that the Islamic extremists had been ousted in 2001.

When the interviewer pointed out that the Taliban were no longer in power, Ms. Royal ignored him and moved on.

Sarkozy and Bayrou are more serious candidates, and would at least have France start taking its medicine.

No candidate is likely to embrace America and drastically improve relations, but Sarkozy would improve them most. This would be a great asset to have in place for our next president, likely any of whom would also seek to improve our relations with France.

Tracking the Money

My sister today sent me this interesting map showing geographically where each of the presidential candidates raised their money in the first quarter.

Hillary got over $5 million of hers just from New York City and its northern suburbs. Bill Richardson amazingly raised about $2.8 million of his $6.2 million in New Mexico alone (almost all from individuals). Most candidates had stronger showings near home of course, but were generally more spread out.

It also includes data on size of contributions, how much came from PACs, and a search-by-zip code feature. It's worth taking a look.

Hmm...not a single dollar raised by Hillary in North Dakota...

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Self-Hating State

John Feffer of the International Relations Center published this piece today on the Foreign Policy Magazine blog. His first three paragraphs sum up his point:

The state, according to classical liberals, is a problem. It meddles in the economy. It over-regulates. Through the tax system, it robs Peter to pay Paul. If only the state would get out of the way, these purists argue, then the invisible hand of the market would magically set things right. Equilibrium would reign, and the gross national happiness of the country would rise like the temperature on a warm, summer day.

The Bush administration presides over a state. It negotiates with other states on an hourly basis. But the current administration harbors a deep streak of perversity: it is a self-hating state.

The Bush crowd has spent the last six years undermining virtually all state functions with the possible exception of government surveillance and, of course, the Pentagon budget. It has weakened regulatory agencies, cut back social programs, slashed taxes for the wealthy, blurred the division between church and state, and opened up natural preserves to corporate exploitation. This campaign has been nothing less than an attempt to unravel the Great Society programs of the 1960s, rewind the New Deal legislation of the 1940s, and "roll back the 20th century," as William Greider wrote in a powerful piece in The Nation in 2003.

I've spoken over the last couple years with a number of fellow centrists. Many of us voted for Bush. The common theme for those of us who did is that we simply couldn't believe that a president could actually be this bad. It didn't make sense in our conception of the type of person who can get to be president. But while I may disagree with those who contend that Bush is evil, or may quibble with finer points of the vast array of arguments against his policies, it still amazes me to realize just how awful he has been.

I'm still struggling to understand the nuance of the administration's philosophy (if in fact there is a coherent one), but I can't say Feffer is necessarily wrong. It's an interesting definition in any event.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Ruling the Waves

Niall Ferguson, author of Colossus and The War of the World, argues in today's L.A. Times that the United States must retain and expand its ability to project naval power.


A strong blue water navy underpinned the military strategy of both Great Britain and America during their respective heydays, and Ferguson argues that having presidents now for nearly 30 years who lacked military service may be weakening our supremacy on the waves.

Ferguson goes a bit far in his analysis, however:

It is, of course, a great English-speaking tradition to undervalue military experience in politicians....Yet there is a lot to be said for militarism where military matters are concerned.

Neither Stanley Baldwin nor Neville Chamberlain, the architects of appeasement, had served in the armed forces. The same was true of their American counterparts, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. Their legacy was a near-fatal unreadiness for the greatest conflict of all time.

Being in the military certainly helps with perspective in the presidency, but it's a lot to imply that lack of service was the main reason. Let's just say that military experience is one of many factors we should consider as we choose for 2008.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Loss of Presidential Stature

I often hear it lamented that we don't have any greatly appealing candidates for the 2008 presidential nomination. I think this is exactly backwards, that we in fact have more larger-than-life, highly qualified (if not completely so) candidates running than we have in many years.

That said, Peggy Noonan makes an insightful point (doesn't she always?) about how little "stature" most of the candidates seem to be displaying, and she does it with her usual elegant prose.


Friday, April 13, 2007

We'll Talk...But Only With Pelosi!

The Islamic Army in Iraq is a Sunni insurgency group that recently split with Al Qaeda in Iraq after the latter started threatening and killing its members. I'd say that would do it.

One of its leaders, Ibrahim al-Shammari, told Al Jazeera:

The Islamic Army in Iraq is one of several nationalist groups which opposes hitting Iraqi civilians, but it has carried out high-profile attacks against multinational forces.

Al-Shammari said they would be willing to deal with the Americans if certain conditions are met.

"We, the Islamic Army in Iraq, are ready to negotiate, but only with the US congress.

"They are the representatives of the American people, and the Iraqi resistance represents the Iraqi people. We are ready to establish a dialogue with them, not with the arrogant US administration."

Now, I'll grant you that if Nancy Pelosi hadn't visited Syria, Mr. Al-Shammri likely would have just used a different ploy to put his enemies off balance. But is it possible that other groups will start picking up on the rhetoric of trying to divide Bush and Congress?

Why not? The American people are chronically unhappy with the job Bush is doing, and most don't seem to mind Pelosi's trip. I'm not predicting this will become a serious problem, but could end up actually mattering as well.

I'm angry about the lack of subtlety and understanding in Bush's foreign policy too. But someone from Congress of Pelosi's stature and profile visiting Syria, which for the rest of the world clearly appears to be a dissent from her president's stated policy, creates more problems than it potentially solves.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Hamburger, Not Steak

Mitt Romney isn't going to be the Republican presidential nominee.

There, that wasn't so hard, was it? So why is barely anyone else saying it?

Romney has raised huge money. He's got an impressive background as a competent businessman-turned-politician, who won in liberal Massachusetts no less, and gods know he's got the look and the hair.

But in the end he will turn out to be a politician who looked much better on paper than he ended up being in reality. Despite all his money, media interest, seemingly sound strategy of going after conservatives who feel unrepresented by any major candidates, and that impressive resume, he is simply not making the sale.

He has been hovering in the single digits in polling, and the latest USA Today/Gallup poll puts him at 3 percent. All that money is a nice thing to have, but politics has shown time and again that big dollars rarely create a win for an undesirable candidate.

What makes Romney undesirable? His shifts in opinion are well-chronicled, and while voters should allow for principled evolution and even some change that results from moving from a small to large stage, Romney's shifts are too many, too recent, and too inexplicable. He is simply too obvious in his nomination strategy, and he comes off as a man without any grounding. In a race against Rudy Giuliani and especially John McCain, the differences are too stark.

Romney adds to his problems by somehow simultaneously appearing calculated, yet still too often saying the wrong thing. His recent multi-gaffe performance to the heavily Cuban Miami-Dade GOP (and subsequent attempt to cover it up) aside, his reputation in Massachusetts was similar. He doesn't seem to have a good instinct for this sort of thing.

I don't know how much his religion (Mormon) will lose him votes, but I suspect it will not much hurt him (although specific religious statements he may make could do so).

Romney is not a terrible candidate by any means. Much of his positive bio is real and compelling. But I just don't see him being The Guy.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) has moved beyond the realm of excuse as a senator. There is no reasonable explanation for his behavior and views on environmentalism alone, and it is truly sad that his reactionary, unfounded perspectives are infecting the rest of his, and my, party.

Inhofe is well-known for saying that climate change is "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." Despite mountains of evidence and the vast majority of scientific opinion on the other side, Inhofe actually implied in a FOX News interview that we need not worry because, "God is still up there."

Has climate change been proven? No, only about 90% proven. It still could be wrong, but the fact is that we're nearly certain, and the consequences of being wrong and doing nothing could be catastrophic.

And yet our sorry ideologue from Oklahoma has the gall to say that instead of the "unresolved" science on global warming, we should put our trust in God, whose existence is not indicated by even a single shred of verifiable evidence. Yes, the jury's in on the existence of our supernatural overseer, senator.

Even if one accepts that God exists, the idea that we would base critical American policy on one small group's interpretation of his plans and intentions is wrong on so many levels.

Now comes word that Inhofe will expend his time as a legislator in blocking Al Gore from holding the North American leg of his Live Earth concert on the Capitol's West Front. Said Inhofe, "There has never been a partisan political event at the Capitol, and this is a partisan political event."

Well no, senator, it isn't. In case you weren't aware, the word partisan means "of a party," and a number of stars of the Republican party disagree with you. Governor Schwarzennegger, Senator McCain, and quite a few other important Republicans agree with most Americans that action needs to be taken on the environment. Just because you and G.O.P. congressional leadership is apparently using a climate change belief litmus test instead of actual merit in appointing its members to the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, doesn't mean it's a partisan issue.

Let's be very clear: environmentalism is not only backed by extensive evidence, it is now representative of the center of American politics. I don't mean far-left environmentalism, I mean the practical kind that believes in empirical evidence, knows we're messing things up pretty badly, and wants to do something significant about it, even if they don't always know what that is yet.

There is no rational position to be made for staying outside of this mainstream. It is attachment to the absolute dogma of free market principles and, at times, religious faith, that are keeping members of the Republican party from facing facts.

Conservatives often pride themselves on hard-headed realism in opposition to emotional idealism from liberals. They would do well to remember that dogma has no place in such a self-image. Climate change reactionaries are wrong, and I refuse to allow them to help make my party into a long-term minority without kicking and screaming a bit.