Thursday, December 31, 2009

Quote of the Year

The Quote of the Year for 2009 comes from the same person as last year: my brother Ted. Two years in a row! Way to go, Ted! At some point during Thanksgiving, as we were talking about politics (a favorite topic in the Halbert household), Ted said:
"There are some people who are still in shock that Barack Obama is president."
Which sums up the whole year fairly well. We opened with Obama's inaugural, a momentous and historic occasion. We wrestled with the stimulus, cash for clunkers, winding down the war in Iraq, a nuclear Iran, amping up the war in Afghanistan, and, of course, health care. And bailing out GM and Chrysler. And dealing with climate change. I think Obama has handled all of these well. There have been some disappointments: I think he's been too secretive and hasn't loosened the grip of the executive branch on its own power as much as I would like.

My paternal grandparents would have been among the people in shock at Barack Obama as president. They were both smart people, but they would not have been able to understand it, let alone appreciate why my siblings and I were so enthusiastic about his candidacy and presidency.

History - particularly American history - is always partially about the differences between generations. This problem is ever more acute today, because as the pace of technological change continually speeds up, the younger generations are ever more capable of moving and thinking faster than older generations. My paternal grandfather was born in February 1905. That's only 14 months after the Wright brothers flew, and only 40 years after the end of the Civil War. Both of those events were always ancient history to me. Not to him.

For people under 30, the idea of a black president with an unusual name is not even remotely strange or bizarre. For many people over 80, who were in their 40's and 50's when Archie Bunker was on the air, it's too weird to understand. They're still in shock.

But they're also still Americans, and they understand that, as powerful as the president is, the system is far more powerful, and as much as they may disagree with the president, they still have a place in the country. They may call him a Muslim or somehow unAmerican, they may chant slogans about taking their country back.

But they can't. Obama is as American as any teabagger or Glenn Beck fan. Or me or my brother.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Quote of the Day

"Well, no one said it would be easy."

-Andrew Sullivan, in his excellent assessment of Obama's first year. He makes the very good point - which should be obvious - that one of Obama's great achievements this year was preventing a second Great Depression.

He also mentions that the right is furious at Obama because they sense that he is changing the dialogue to a degree similar to how Reagan changed it. Except, of course, that Obama is swinging the pendulum back towards government activism, rather than away from it.

It has been said of FDR that he saved capitalism from itself. I think Obama is doing the same thing - he is preserving capitalism despite the best efforts of capitalists to wreck things.

What is driving conservatives nuts is that Obama is turning out to be better at saving capitalism than Republicans. That's gotta hurt.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Quote of the Day

"Parts of the US electorate that agree on nothing else are united in their disappointment at Barack Obama's first year as president. He must be doing something right."

Editorial in today's Financial Times. The English seem to have a sense of the absurd grounded in reality that works really, really well.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Purging Books

The New York Times has a funky human-interest item about purging books from your personal library. They asked several prominent book people, i.e. some professors, novelists, and the owner of The Strand, about what to do when they have too many books. Most acknowledge an occasional weeding-out process.

I've done this a few times. In college, I went on a long book-buying binge. It lasted several years. It was something of an obsession. I bought all kinds of "classic" books very cheaply - at used book stores, garage sales, book fairs, you name it. A couple of years after college, I had about 4,000 books. At some point, I needed to get rid of them, and I needed money.

I loaded up my parents' van with several hundred books. I took them to John King Books, the largest used book store in Detroit, and one of the largest in the world. It's absolutely huge - 4 floors, and each floor is easily 5,000 feet. It dwarfs any Borders or Barnes & Noble. Some old guy with a thick white beard offered me $125 for the lot. I turned him down, because I was sure I could get more somewhere else.

I went to another used book store and sold a chunk for $100. Went to another and sold a chunk of the remainder for $20. Went to another and finally got rid of the last few for $3. Total: $123. It was a good lesson in negotiating and efficiency.

Over the years, I've occasionally gone through my remaining books and performed a purge. There are always a few moments of "No, I really don't need this." The last time was a few months ago. I still had several boxes of books in my parents' basement. This time, I took the load to John King, and they didn't want them. Wouldn't pay me for them. The best they could do was store credit. $70. I tried to give that away to my parents or a friend, but no one would take it. I've still got it. I went to another book store with the ones that John King wouldn't even exchange for store credit, and got $17 cash. For books that were worth probably $250-$300 new.

What we're seeing here is the blessing and curse of efficiency. Over the course of the 20th century, it became easier and easier to print and distribute books. As they became cheaper, it got easier to collect them. But as the cost decreased, so did the value. One reason I feel comfortable getting rid of books is that I know I can almost always find any particular book again.
In some respects, it's somehow sad to see books lose their value. But there are upsides. Given that they are now so cheap as to be almost worthless, it's easy to give them away. There are still many places on this planet that could use more books - small town libraries, prisons, even developing countries. There are programs that send books from our overstuffed personal libraries and bookstores to these places.
Of course, the downside of books being so easy to make is that it takes a certain amount of resources to make them. The Kindle and its ilk are rendering physical books less and less relevant. They're also letting us read books with far less use of resources.
Physical books have lost their value. But knowledge and writing have not.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

USC wins the Emerald Bowl!

Well, the football gods smiled on the University of Southern California yesterday, as the almighty Trojans beat Boston College, 24-13. In a nice touch, Patt Morrison interviewed Pete Carroll yesterday in the LA Times. Carroll is one of the best college football coaches ever, and one of the most important people in Los Angeles. He's also a great guy who does a lot for the community, and does a lot without getting any credit for it. Props to the LA Times for running this series of Patt Morrison interviews. One thing that the LA Times has done exceptionally well over the last few years is experiment with their Op-Ed page, and this is a great example.

Matt Barkley threw two interceptions, but he was also 27 for 37, for 350 yards. We'll take that. Here's a video highlight. Now I just have to figure out why it's called "the Emerald Bowl."

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Ross Douthat on Obama's First Year

I've been thinking about blogging about Obama's first year, but didn't have a hook. Ross Douthat provided one. He writes today about how Obama has confounded so many people during his first year. Douthat is a good writer, but elegant confusion is still confusion.

Obama baffles observers, I suspect, because he’s an ideologue and a pragmatist all at once. He’s a doctrinaire liberal who’s always willing to cut a deal and grab for half the loaf.
On DailyKos, DemFromCT has a great response:

Ross, your homework assignment is to write an essay starting with "Obama is a doctrinaire liberal because..."
On one of the most important social issues defining the liberal agenda today, gay marriage, Obama is to the right of just about every liberal: he's in favor of traditional marriage, and always has been. Part of that may be political calculation, part of that may be his honest belief. I don't know, and I don't care. Gay marriage is currently opposed by a majority of Americans, and vehemently opposed by a significant minority. That will change over time, but there is absolutely nothing that Obama can do about it now, or probably at any time during his presidency. The Defense of Marriage Act is not going to be overturned for at least 10 years, if not 20 or more. That's not being pragmatic or even realistic: that's not being stupid. But it also renders any definition of Obama as a "doctrinaire liberal" a little problematic. See also: willingness to use force as an instrument of foreign policy.

In this column we see one of the classic perils of punditry: generalizing from one's own experience to that of the population at large. Obama confounds Douthat because he is not conforming to the conservative stereotype of liberals. Part of that stereotype is that liberals hate capitalism. That used to be true, and it's still true for some. But Josh Marshall, Markos Moulitsas, Jon Stewart, and Arianna Huffington are all highly successful and influential liberal activists and highly successful and influential entrepreneurs and capitalists. Liberals have gotten over their antipathy to capitalism. The Cold War is over. Thanks, we realized that. Bt, dt: been there, done that.

Liberals are still highly critical of many large and exploitative capitalist organizations, like Chevron and Goldman Sachs, but there's a difference between ExxonMobil and capitalism. Liberals may not love capitalism the way conservatives do, but they've learned to live with it. So when Obama saves large banks from going under, most liberals understand that Obama is doing what is necessary to keep the system from going under. They may not be thrilled that Obama is doing it, but they direct most of their anger at the banks, not Obama.

Douthat's next mistake is completely misreading Obama's campaign:
It’s also puzzling because Obama promised exactly the opposite approach while running for the presidency. He campaigned as a postpartisan healer who would change the cynical ways of Washington — as a foe of both back-room deals and ideology-as-usual. But he’s governed as a conventional liberal who believes in the existing system, knows how to work it and accepts the limitations it imposes on him.
I find it bizarre that a columnist for the New York Times would take isolated bits of campaign rhetoric at face value, and then extrapolate from those snippets a governing philosophy. I find it equally bizarre that he thinks this is a clever contrast. Obama campaigned as someone who is willing to listen to his opponents, and engage them in dialogue - which is exactly what he has done. If his opponents refuse to return the favor, that's their fault, not his. Part of his "postpartisan healer" appeal is based on the fact that he does not govern from a position of anger, and he does not incite his followers to hate their opponents. Again, that's exactly what he has done. He can be critical of Republicans, but he refrains as much as possible from inflammatory rhetoric. You will never hear Barack Obama accuse his political opponents of being treasonous simply because they disagree with him. So we are getting what we expected, and what Obama sold - a politician who listens carefully to all sides of an argument, asks detailed, intelligent questions, and makes decisions based both on his personal beliefs and what reality is.

As for Obama's belief in the existing system. Of course Obama believes in the system as it exists. That's implicit in the fact that he ran for president, and held political office for many years before that. Again, this gets back to his ability to understand reality as it is. His campaign was a great example of this. He looked for the tactical and strategic weaknesses of his main opponents - Hillary and McCain - and developed strategies and tactics to beat them. Looking at his track record as a legislator, it should be clear that his ability to get things done is fused with his ability to compromise. Liberals should not be surprised by this: the same was true of Clinton. We also hated Bush because he took the exact opposite approach: he didn't ask questions, didn't listen to voices of dissent, made decisions based on ideology rather than reality, and wreaked havoc on the world. There are some liberals who are not thrilled that Obama is not a pure liberal. But there are also many liberals who are thrilled that, even when Obama does something they disagree with, they know that he has thought about it carefully.

I almost feel bad taking on Douthat, because it's like shooting fish in a barrel.
Conservatives have exaggerated his liberal instincts into radicalism, ignoring the fact that a president who takes advice from Lawrence Summers and Robert Gates probably isn’t a closet Marxist-Leninist.
This also ignores the fact that Marxist-Leninists are not elected to public office in the United States in the 21st century, with the possible exceptions of the occasional city councilmember in some very small town. About the only public figure I can think of who might be close to a Marxist-Leninist would be Noam Chomsky (and I'm not even sure about that), and I can't remember the last time I saw his name mentioned in a liberal blog.

Then there's this gem:
Absent political constraints, Obama would probably side with the liberal line on almost every issue. It’s just that he’s more acutely conscious of the limits of his powers and less willing to start fights that he might lose than many supporters would prefer.
This is called "one of the consequences of holding office, as opposed to being an activist." It's also sometimes referred to as "Poli Sci 101." It's categorically absurd to discuss how a president operates "[a]bsent political constraints." That's like talking about how Hollywood studios would make movies "absent the interests of the audience." Yes, Obama takes into account political considerations when making decisions. This is why he is called a "politician."

Douthat does make one point that is not utterly ridiculous, but still boneheaded.
Obama doesn’t enjoy the kind of deep credibility with his base that both Reagan and Kennedy spent decades building. When Kennedy told liberals that a given compromise was the best they could get, they believed him. Whether the issue is health care or Afghanistan, Obama’s word doesn’t carry the same weight.
Yes, Obama has frustrated many liberals. But talk about nostalgia warping history! I'm not a student of Kennedy, but my impression is that he didn't spend decades building credibility with liberals. He was a privileged member of the elite who didn't serve in the Senate much longer than Obama. I also seem to recall that Johnson - who had a much better life story and record of accomplishment as a liberal president than Kenndey - had a rather fractious relationship with young liberals, like, say, every person who went to Woodstock or bought a Beatles album.

Obama's word carries weight with liberals for three reasons: his life story, the fact that he is about to sign a major piece of health care reform, and the fact that he thinks things through. One more time: Obama makes decisions based on asking intelligent questions about reality. This is what confounds Douthat: it's liberals who are the realists, not the conservatives who swear fealty to capitalism and its alleged grounding in the real world. There are some liberals who are frustrated with Obama. There were a fair number of liberals who were frustrated with Clinton. Remember welfare reform? Not real popular with liberals. There were conservatives who were frustrated with Reagan. Activists, intellectuals, and theorists are empowered by their willingness to pass judgment. There will always be people who pass judgment on politicians, because there will always be people who figure out a way to get paid to do so.

But the latest example of someone even remotely radical who challenged the establishment while running for political office is Ralph Nader, and most Kossacks bristle at the very mention of his name. He is persona non grata among a large chunk of the Democratic base. Like about 95% of the Democratic base. We have seen the price of enforcing ideological purity, and we are not interested in paying that price again. Obama frustrates some liberals. But he also gets things done. Big things.

If anything, it is a sign of Obama's success that he leaves his opponents so utterly confused. I understand Douthat's confusion, because I was in the same position in the 80's as I opposed Reagan. I just could not wrap my mind around the fact that so many people in this country voted for a man who seemed both so stupid and wrong. Later I realized that he wasn't as stupid as I thought he was, and liberalism had spent a large chunk of its intellectual energy. But before I realized that, I spent many years in denial about the failures of liberalism. The fact that the Berlin Wall fell while I was in college was a big help.

Conservatives are in the same place that I was. They're in denial about the failures of conservatism and furstrated because they can't get any traction attacking Obama. Remember the line that Obama was taking on too many things at once? Yeah, that didn't go anywhere. Obama as socialist? Sure, because socialists are so willing to spend billions propping up banks and saving old-line industrial behemoths.

The defining sign of Douthat's confusion is this line:

[U]sing cynical means to progressive ends (think of the pork-laden stimulus bill or the frantic vote-buying that preceded this week’s Senate health care votes) tends to confirm independent voters’ worst fears about liberal government: that it’s a racket rigged to benefit privileged insiders and a corrupt marketplace floated by our tax dollars.
"A racket rigged to benefit privileged insiders?" Is the man completely unaware that Dick Cheney was the former chairman of Haliburton? Has he forgotten that Bush pushed through massive tax cuts that benefited the rich? The last two Democratic presidents have been men who had absolutely no help in life from their fathers. The two before that weren't exactly East Coast elites. Yes, Obama has helped out banks. But Republicans are trying to paint Obama as an unAmerican socialist who is also tight with the Establishment. There are three terms to describe this failure to resolve contradictory ideas: 1) "cognitive dissonance," 2) "lack of connection to reality," and 3) "electoral failure."

Emerald Bowl tonight!

Tonight is the Emerald Bowl! Big excitement! This year, the Emerald Bowl is hosting the almighty Trojans of the University of Southern California, and some team from the east. Oh, wait, that's right, it's the Eagles of Boston College. I have a fair degree of respect for Boston College, since my sister went there, and I have decided not to engage in any trash talking about USC's opponent this year, in the spirit of humility required of USC fans at the end of this dismal season.

For those unaware, USC finished the year 8-4, which is a complete disaster. We did not win the PAC-10 conference championship, so we are not going to the Rose Bowl, let alone the BCS national championship game. But this is, I suppose, to be expected - with great success comes occasional failure.

Personally, I think of it this way: The Lakers and the Yankees both won championships, so I think I maxed out on my personal sports karma for the year. The Red Wings didn't win a championship, and the Redskins are playing like pathetic wimps. But I'll take two championships in one year, even if it means I have to sacrifice USC playing in the Rose Bowl.

But I am going to feel sorry for Boston College tomorrow.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The View From My Window

I took this picture from my office window a few days ago. It's not the best view from where I sit, but it does have the cool effect of showing snow visible from an office in downtown Los Angeles. I was going to take another picture today, since it's Christmas, and we have another clear view today (we usually have some kind of smog), but the batteries in my camera died. So hopefully tomorrow. Meanwhile, enjoy.

And, of course, props to Andrew Sullivan for his long-running feature "The View From Your Window." I'm going to order the book any day now.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Raining in LA

We're having a citywide hydration event here in Los Angeles. This is great for us, because we always need rain. So everybody is happy that it's raining. Reminds me of an old country song. Doesn't this take you back?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Obama on Afghanistan

I caught the last half of President Obama's speech on Afghanistan. I'm glad the decision has been made and there will be no more discussion of "dithering." I'm not all that thrilled with sending another 30,000 troops, but I am reluctantly supportive. Part of my rationale is that I trust Obama has thought this through thoroughly, and has weighed all of the options carefully. The other part of my rationale is that I basically agree with him, much as I don't want to.

There have been many comparisons of Afghanistan with Vietnam. Newsweek looked at the question of whether or not Vietnam was winnable. I don't think that's the right question. I think there are two questions about Vietnam that I haven't seen discussed much: 1) how was it related to WWII, and 2) So we lost - so what?

First, on the WWII question. American armies have a reputation for "fighting the last war," and supposedly that's what we did in Vietnam. But thinking about WWII also sheds some light on why we were there in the first place.

From the perspective of 40 years, it seems ridiculous that we were even in Vietnam. It's a small country thousands of miles away from us - what was the threat? Even the domino theory seems strange and absurd. I understood Vietnam when someone once explained something about California politics in the 1950's. California was conservative in the 50's because people were worried about war with China. That sounds absurd today - China is a large country, but it's also technologically years behind us. It's also across the Pacific ocean.

But so was Japan. In the 1950's, the idea of waging war across the Pacific was very plausible and scary. China was allied with Russia, which had a large military presence in Europe. A sea war in the Pacific, a land war in Europe - in the 1950's, that scenario was strongly reminiscent of WWII, except that Russia and China are both much larger than Germany and Japan. In that context, going to war in Vietnam makes more sense.

Which leads to the second question. We lost, but so what? We now have diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Cambodia went Communist, but no other countries in southeast Asia did. We lost the war in Vietnam, but, in retrospect, we didn't have to fight it at all. We won the ideological war. Of course, we didn't know that in the 1960's, but it's useful, I think, to realize that we won even though we lost.

I am confident that we will win the war against Islamic extremism, just like we won the war against communism. But while fighting in Vietnam was a result of thinking about a WWII-like scenario, Afghanistan is the mirror image of Vietnam. We know that al Queda is, in fact, a direct threat to us. As Obama pointed out in his speech, we are not fighting a nationalist insurgency. Even the geography is radically different: arid mountains vs. jungles.

The key difference between Vietnam and Afghanistan is that, while Vietnam was mostly self-contained, the war in Afghanistan has potential repercussions for its neighbors. Al Queda is in Pakistan, which, unlike Iraq, does have nuclear weapons. Pakistan also has an ongoing, unresolved border conflict with India. India has its own history of sectarian violence and terrorist attacks. India also borders China, and has differences with that country. To the west, Afghanistan borders Iran, quite the hotbed these days. Iran, of course, is developing nuclear weapons, is threatening Israel, and borders Iraq.

The war in Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan, or even the "war on terror." It could very easily spill into another country. It is already spilling into Pakistan.

But there are also positive developments. We are getting along much better with Russia these days. Turkey is a stable country with increasing influence in key areas, particularly Kurdistan. There may be a change of regime in Iran in the near future. If that happens, many things could change quickly, hopefully for the better. Saudi Arabia is very worried about all of this, and might make a dramatic move. We might capture Osama bin Laden. Gitmo will hopefully be closed soon.

We won the Cold War despite making a lot of incredibly stupid mistakes, like fighting in Vietnam. We have, are, and will continue to make many mistakes fighting Islamic terrorism. I don't think Obama's decision to send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan is one of them. At least I hope not.