Monthly Archives: November 2010

Peter Beinart’s take on the latest wikileaks stash seems about right to me: no significant surprises, no great scandals (apart from the fact that the leak was not prevented in the first place), all very interesting in a voyeuristic sort of way–but how, he asks, are diplomats supposed to do their job if they are denied confidential communication with HQ? As Timothy Garton Ash says:

There is a public interest in understanding how the world works and what is done in our name. There is a public interest in the confidential conduct of foreign policy. The two public interests conflict.

Yes, but whose job is it to resolve this conflict? Do we really want to put Julian Assange in charge? The New York Times, the Guardian and the other wikileaks collaborators say they have taken care to ensure that nobody has been put at risk by the selections they have published–but they have certainly not condemned Assange’s activities, and indeed that would be an awkward thing for them to do, given their role in facilitating them. Assange, obviously, is not interested in balancing the two interests. He is not releasing secrets judiciously, arguing that the benefits outweigh the harm in each specific case. The whole point is that he is releasing documents by the hundreds of thousands–indiscriminately, for which the only rationale can be that the very idea of official secrecy is wrong.

I’m not saying that this view is completely indefensible, only that among those who look kindly on the wikileaks project somebody, surely, ought to be trying to defend it. Assange isn’t going to. He seems to regard the evil of official secrecy as a simple truth requiring no further comment. The wikileaks promoters disagree: they appear to recognize the dilemma. But they feel under no obligation to say more. They are capitalizing on the sheer scale of the leaks–which is what, more than any specific disclosure, has caused their notoriety–yet spare themselves the inconvenience of discussing the very question which the size of the leaks immediately raises. And they are sanctimonious about it, too.

Expectations for the international climate change talks in Cancún are low, but not low enough. The failure of the previous gathering in Copenhagen ought to have ended any remaining doubt: the quest for a binding global treaty to cut carbon emissions, at least for now, is over.

Robert Kaplan notes in the FT (Attacks that may signal a Pyongyang implosion) that the Obama administration has up to now been emphasising its focus on East Asia, partly as respite from the mixed news (at best) from Afghanistan and Iraq. So much for that. The optimistic take on renewed North Korean hostility is that it is a sign of a regime in its death throes, but be careful what you wish for, says Kaplan.

A sudden implosion could unleash the mother of all humanitarian problems, with massive refugee flows toward the Chinese border and a semi-starving population of 23m becoming the ward of the international community – in effect the ward of the US, Chinese and South Korean armies. Yet while regime change in the North is welcome in the abstract, we should remember that the only thing that might be worse than a totalitarian government is no government at all: a lesson we all should have learnt from Iraq.

This weekend’s Nato summit in Lisbon concluded a flurry of top-level international meetings that, from President Barack Obama’s point of view, were frustrating, unproductive, or plain embarrassing. However, his advisers wish you to know that US standing in the world is not the least bit diminished. Really, they say, there is a great deal of misunderstanding about this.

Martin Wolf draws my attention to the G20 communiqué (the really honest version).

[1] WE, THE LEADERS OF THE G20, are united in our conviction that by working together we can secure a more prosperous future for the citizens of all countries.

[2] However, empty platitudes aside, if presented with an opportunity to make the citizens of our own country more prosperous at the expense of someone else’s country, 20 out of 20 of us will take it, most of the time.

There’s more…

Republican Scott Brown and Democrat Ron Wyden have a radical plan to change the health-care law that, according to Max Fisher at Atlantic Wire, could please both proponents and opponents of the reform law. I’m not sure “plan” is quite the right word, though. In section 1332(a) of the Affordable Care Act, change 2017 to 2014. That’s it.

As Politico explains, starting in 2017, Section 1332 of ACA already allows states to opt out of the individual mandate and other provisions, and lets them set up alternative arrangements of their own. These alternative schemes would receive the same amount of federal support as before, as long as they satisfied certain restrictions. The new Brown-Wyden “plan” would grant them this freedom three years earlier, in 2014, meaning that they would never have to set up a mandate-based system in the first place. The idea is simple: Let states go their own way from the outset, and we will find out what works best.

Is this “repeal and replace” or, as Ezra Klein calls it in praising the proposal, “compete and succeed”? The answer is both. Remarkable that the 2017 waiver provision attracted so little attention before. Just bringing it forward three years as good as repeals the law–as a plan for reform, even if not as a statement of goals.

Joel Kotkin has an excellent column in Forbes about the economic plight of California (thanks, RCP). The notion that the state embodies American enterprise and innovation at their most flourishing is seriously out of date. Broken government and a lagging economy have become mutually reinforcing, and the state seems to lack the capacity, or even the desire, to break the circle. As Kotkin says, California’s poverty and unemployment rates are two and three percentage points worse, respectively, than the national averages. Its income and sales taxes are very high–but not nearly high enough to cover the corresponding state-government outlays. A poll of more more than 600 CEOs ranked its business climate dead last in the US. People are moving out. Kotkin observes:

This state of crisis is likely to become the norm for the Golden State. In contrast to other hard-hit states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada, which all opted for pro-business, fiscally responsible candidates, California voters decisively handed virtually total power to a motley coalition of Democratic-machine politicians, public employee unions, green activists and rent-seeking special interests.

In the new year, the once and again Gov. Jerry Brown, who has some conservative fiscal instincts, will be hard-pressed to convince Democratic legislators who get much of their funding from public-sector unions to trim spending. Perhaps more troubling, Brown’s own extremism on climate change policy–backed by rent-seeking Silicon Valley investors with big bets on renewable fuels–virtually assures a further tightening of a regulatory regime that will slow an economic recovery in every industry from manufacturing and agriculture to home-building.

The state has placed a big bet on its “green jobs” strategy–a bet that voters endorsed on November 2 when they defeated Prop 23, which would have nullified California’s Global Warming Solutions Act. As a result, the state remains committed to a unilateral carbon abatement policy. This can have no perceptible impact on global emissions, of course. The case for the policy, aside from expressing solidarity with a cause voters believe to be right, is that the added regulatory burden on Californian businesses will stimulate the growth of new clean-energy businesses, and new green jobs. At least, this is what people tell me. A cruel delusion, says Kotkin:

Given the likely direction of the new GOP-dominated House of Representatives in Washington, massive federal subsidies for the solar and wind industries, as well as such boondoggles as high-speed rail, are likely to be scaled back significantly. Without subsidies, federal loans or draconian national regulations, many green-related ventures will cut as oppose to add jobs, as is already beginning to occur. The survivors, increasingly forced to compete on a market basis, will likely move to China, Arizona or even Texas, already the nation’s leader in wind energy production.

If California is an example of liberals living large, Texas–low taxes, friendliest business climate in the country, rapid middle-income job growth, net inward migration–is rather the opposite. They make for an arresting comparison.

With House Democrats preparing to re-elect Nancy Pelosi as their leader–on the face of it, an act of electoral self-wounding that calls for psychiatric intervention–the question arises, what are they thinking? Jonathan Allen and John Harris set out five reasons in Politico: standing up to Obama (he’ll tack to the middle, and the House will have to push back); loyalty; fear; “she’s got game”; pride; and there’s nobody else. (I know that’s six reasons: take it up with them.)

These reasons all makes sense, but I think give too little weight to the fact that most House Democrats simply think Pelosi is right on the issues. You could argue this factor is folded into “standing up to [a more triangulating] Obama”, and maybe into “pride” as well; but I’d say it deserves explicit recognition. When you’re right, you’re right. There’s something admirable about voting for a leader who’s ideas are (in your view) just correct.

The problem is, too many voters disagree that her ideas are correct–or at least, this would be the straightforward interpretation of the mid-terms. Many Democrats challenge that interpretation, of course. The psychiatrically interesting dimension of support in the House for Pelosi is not “she’s right, so I’m supporting her” (which make sense) but “she’s right, and most voters agree with her, which would have been obvious at the polls if only the White House hadn’t kept caving in to the GOP” (which calls into question the sanity of the people saying it). I hear many Democrats arguing this, and I am curious to know how many of them actually believe it.

Quite possibly, all of them. It reminds me very much of the British Labour party in the 1980s. Pre-Blair, a steady though diminishing majority of party stalwarts said that the Tories kept winning elections because Labour wasn’t socialist enough. The height of this folly (as it was subsequently shown to be) was the vote in 1980 to make Michael Foot rather than Denis Healey party leader after Jim Callaghan. Foot’s election split the party, which went down to a landslide defeat in 1983, having campaigned on a hard-left election manifesto deemed (by a Labour moderate) “the longest suicide note in history.” Undaunted, true believers in the party put this and subsequent defeats down to a failure to be socialist enough. I think they believed it.

This year Barack Obama, US president, appointed a bipartisan commission to look into ways of curbing public borrowing. Last week, speaking for themselves rather than for the panel as a whole, its chairmen – Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, and Alan Simpson, a Republican – published a series of options and recommendations. Their work was attacked by progressives and conservatives alike. Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats’ leader in the House of Representatives, dismissed it out of hand: “Simply unacceptable”, she said.

The Bowles-Simpson proposals are a great public service, I think, even though the form and timing of the announcement were disconcerting. The full deficit commission is due to report soon. It would have been better to announce a single plan then, supported by an impressive majority of the members; doubtless the two co-chairmen would have preferred that too. Presumably, with no such consensus emerging, they decided to rush a joint proposal out rather than have it die in private talks without seeing light of day. Trouble is, the other members might see this pre-emption as a licence for them to go their own way too. This would defeat the main purpose of forming the commission in the first place: bridging political differences. If we end up with a mess of competing proposals, none commanding cross-party support, we will be back where we started.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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