Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Grand Hosed Party

Even legalizing pot is more popular than conservatives now. I'm not exactly the first to point out that they're in trouble, but why not get it in writing, right?

Conservatives built their power as an insurgency. No, not that kind of insurgency, I mean the kind best executed by middle aged men: an insurgency of media, of rhetoric, of communication. Conservative media gave them an outlet against political forces that annoyed them and let them act as if they were taking America back. And after 9/11, when the rank and file became an order of magnitude more patriotic and conscious of security, they found eager recruits; heads nodding to their platitudes about destroying our enemies and standing firm in the face of evil and all that. But it was merely a temporary outgrowth of a slowly festering echo chamber, and that outgrowth inflated egos and accelerated the demise of the late 20th century GOP. And now that the public supports liberalism once again, it is proving to be a completely worn out and ineffective opposition.

The last hero of the GOP, George W. Bush, was the final compromise between the corporatist and fundamentalist elements of the GOP: a well-connected free-market-enough folksy Texan with enough "bipartisan" bonafides; too Baptist for liberals, but not too Baptist for Wall Street. We know how that turned out. In the 2008 primary the GOP couldn't find such a compromise; its biggest supporters were torn between Giuliani, Romney and Huckabee, and ended up with McCain. By coincidence, McCain had enough pull from independents to poll decently against Obama and Clinton, who weren't being too civil when McCain sewed things up. His supporters were unenthusiastic however, and it was enthusiasm which was credited for securing Republican victories in 2000 and 2004.

But the first truly vivid evidence of the dysfunction of conservative advocacy was the selection of Sarah Palin. Duh you say. If I'd been blogging at the time you could have read this in a more timely fashion (thought it would have been no more original), but nothing since has changed my mind about this: the Palin selection was based on a massive underestimation of Hillary Clinton's supporters. Clinton's desperate final attempts to win the nomination riled up a few of her supporters into supporting McCain out of spite even into the convention, but this group was wildly exaggerated by the media (due to its man-bites-dog nature).

So the conservative leadership entered the VP selection process needing to drum up enthusiasm while appealing to additional voters (since it was still behind in the polls). In my opinion it decided that it should nominate a woman because a lot of disgruntled feminist Clinton supporters would peel off and support her - just because the nominee was female - regardless of her politics.

It's pretty clear that only a straw feminist would do this; any with half a brain would vote for a candidate who actually supports feminism regardless of his genitalia. But conservatives don't talk to liberals unless they must, so they ceased to devise strategies to defeat their actual opponents; rather, they go after the imaginary idiotic opponent in their heads.

We're seeing it again with opposition to Obama's spending programs. It's just a constant repetition of "spending bad! spending bad! spending bad!" The only counter-proposal is tax cuts. And it's not working; support for the Obama and his programs vastly overshadows support for the GOP. This strategy again grows out of the echo chamber; electoral defeat has convinced them that Americans don't like them. They ask themselves why - themselves, not their actual opponents, because they don't talk to their actual opponents. And their answer is the one thing conservatives didn't like about the GOP over the last 8 years: the fact that it didn't actually control its spending, at all, whatsoever. So now they've learned their lesson, and oppose spending! It looks cynical and self-serving even if it's an earnest attempt by the party to correct what it perceives as its mistake.

And now we see Bobby Jindal giving an ineffective opposition speech after Obama's quasi-SOTU. Apart from the fact that the GOP clearly hasn't learned its lesson from the Palin debacle and thus trotted out a dark skinned skinny dude thinking that matters, it was poorly delivered, failed to respond to Obama, and actually mentioned Hurricane Katrina:
Today in Washington, some are promising that government will rescue us from the economic storms raging all around us.

Those of us who lived through Hurricane Katrina -- we have our doubts.

Let me tell you a story.

During Katrina, I visited Sheriff Harry Lee, a Democrat and a good friend of mine. When I walked into his makeshift office, I'd never seen him so angry. He was yelling into the phone: "Well, I'm the Sheriff and if you don't like it you can come and arrest me!" I asked him: "Sheriff, what's got you so mad?" He told me that he had put out a call for volunteers to come with their boats to rescue people who were trapped on their rooftops by the floodwaters. The boats were all lined up ready to go, when some bureaucrat showed up and told them they couldn't go out on the water unless they had proof of insurance and registration. I told him, "Sheriff, that's ridiculous." And before I knew it, he was yelling into the phone: "Congressman Jindal is here, and he says you can come and arrest him too!" Harry just told the boaters to ignore the bureaucrats and go start rescuing people.

There is a lesson in this experience: The strength of America is not found in our government. It is found in the compassionate hearts and the enterprising spirit of our citizens. We are grateful for the support we have received from across the nation for the ongoing recovery efforts. This spirit got Louisiana through the hurricanes and this spirit will get our nation through the storms we face today.

Katrina was the death knell of the Bush administration - obviously the federal government can't magically rescue everyone at once from a disaster of that magnitude, but the incompetence and lack of preparedness was just stunning at the time, even to people who are cynical of government. For Jindal to try and pivot and use it as evidence that government in general is ineffective is just stunningly tone-deaf - more evidence of an organization that isn't listening to its opponents. It's such a misstep, it probably discredits the argument for other purposes - that is, if it had any teeth when coming from Republicans anyway.

There are all sorts of reasons why a government agency is inefficient. Primary among them is the fact the government is not necessarily efficient - that is, it will continue to exist regardless of its efficiency, as opposed to a private enterprise in a competitive market. But all that said, the GOP didn't even try to make FEMA efficient; it headed it with a laughably unqualified crony and sent its resources to Iraq. The public saw this, and liberals found themselves with a decent counterargument to the "government is inefficient" argument: that if you elect people who say government is inefficient, they will make it inefficient through apathy.

Jindal's reference demonstrates that the GOP isn't even vaguely aware of this argument, and has no idea how the public remembers Katrina. Mark my words: the GOP will not rise again until it discards and discredits its echo chamber, and until right wingers start opposing it and grow so disgusted that they support the conservative version of Ralph Nader. The GOP's inability or unwillingness to do this has caused a liberal victory so complete, that policies are being instituted that even Andrew Sullivan doesn't like.

It liberals' resurgent new-media organizations shut themselves off to the rest of the world the way conservatives' did, the same fate awaits them.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Links of the Week

California is falling into the ocean, figuratively speaking.
Oregon wants its breweries to move.
Another mutual fund is a scam.
Pepsi Throwback.
Balko exposes the corrupt Mississippi forensics team once and for all.
The Dow hit a 6 year low this week.



Matt Yglesias says he "noted with amazement" here that conservative commentators are rediscovering the threat of executive power now that they do not hold it.

Is it really all that amazing? I think a better word would be "predictable" or perhaps "in retrospect, glaringly obvious." Maybe Matt is being sarcastic.

It should also be noted that we are also seeing the reverse.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Hurf Durf Returns

I think I feel like blogging again. We'll see. I mostly caught the itch after reading through my archives. Even if I am my only reader, the writing is gratifying. Some favorite posts:

The Sound and Fury of Barr and Ruwart
Drug Doublethink
Happy Meal For Algernon
Anecdote Party!
The Simple Truth
Always Look On The Bright Side Of Appalling Human Misery

Read any other posts at your own risk, as they may be indefensible garbage. Or written by Durf, who is a separate person, honest.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Sound and Fury of Barr and Ruwart

In the spring of 1999, I turned 18 and joined the Libertarian Party. In the spring of 2008, while I barbecued, the Libertarian Party held its convention and decided who it would nominate for President of the United States. And Dave Weigel of Reason was there to live-blog it. As it turns out they use some sort of instant run-off system, where the delegates vote for their favorite candidate in successive rounds, the lowest vote-getter dropping out after each round. Eventually it came down to Bob Barr and Mary Ruwart tied ahead of Wayne Allyn Root, and Root's delegates ended up going to Barr after the last runoff, giving him the victory.

Bob Barr is, of course, a former Republican Congressman from Georgia, and a recent convert to libertarianism. As recently as 2000 he was an active supporter of the War On Drugs, and he voted in favor of the Patriot Act, but a recent change of heart led him to lobby for the Marijuana Policy Project and, well, seek the presidential nomination of the Libertarian Party.

There are two interesting things about the doomed Ruwart campaign. The first is that it constituted a significant backlash against the Barr candidacy. His entourage drew boos at the convention, and (according to Weigel) many of her supporters believed that the Barr/Root ticket constituted some sort of outsider takeover of the party.

The second interesting thing about Ruwart's campaign is that she said this:
Children who willingly participate in sexual acts have the right to make that decision as well, even if it's distasteful to us personally. Some children will make poor choices just as some adults do in smoking and drinking to excess. When we outlaw child pornography, the prices paid for child performers rise, increasing the incentives for parents to use children against their will.
Quote via the first site that came up on google.

This position isn't merely wrong - it has collateral damage. She's using an argument centered around black market unintended consequence that is deployed by all sorts of libertarians arguing against victimless crimes such as drug use or prostitution, to defend acts that most certainly have victims. One could just as easily make the argument that banning murder increases the price of hitmen, increasing the incentives for people to kill for money.

To continue to support such a candidate after such a misstep shows an incredible lack of judgment. Let's start with the media. Which headline do you suppose is more likely to make it onto the Drudge Report: "Libertarians nominate Mary Ruwart", or "Libertarian Presidential nominee wants to legalize child pornography"? For how many people would that story be their first and/or most lasting impression of the Libertarian Party? And how many of them would be reminded of Ruwart's argument next time they heard someone attack the Drug War for creating and sustaining black markets? All the Ruwart nomination would have accomplished for the LP is a load of bad press, and an immense distraction from the discussion of the issues that Libertarians actually care about.

Meanwhile, candidate Christine Smith remains incensed about the Barr nomination:
I cannot support someone for the LP presidential nominee who is former CIA, a federal prosecutor responsible for incarcerating people for laws we as libertarians oppose, a supporter of the Patriot Act, voted for the unjust invasion of Iraq, author of The Defense of Marriage Act, supports foreign aid, one whose stances are un-libertarian to the core - on immigration-gay equality-the drug war (research what he wants to do currently in Columbia and in Latin America in general--this is not a libertarian who wants to end the drug war--this is not a non-interventionist candidate). He would have much to prove, over time, before a libertarian such as myself would trust him enough to support him to hold any LP office. I cannot support Root for the LP VP as he is someone who endorsed John McCain, defines marriage as only between a man and woman, supports foreign aid, and believes war with Iran would be the right war. Now saying a few of the "right words" suddenly does not, for me, make either one a libertarian. As I told CSPAN during an interview after my initial remarks, I think Barr is a wolf in sheep's clothing (and I view Root as a counterfeit libertarian). However, to clarify, I do not think he nor Barr has deceived Libertarians so much as Libertarians know exactly what these men are - but they just do not care.

Am I misreading this, or is there a contingent out there that believes Barr is pretending to have converted to libertarianism in order to secure the nomination? That he's engaging in an elaborate coup? Here's a question, and a segue.

To what end?

Let's be fair, after all. We're not talking about the next president of the United States. We're talking about the nomination of a candidate from a third party which hasn't received more than 500,000 votes in a presidential election since 1980. The Libertarian convention more resembles a role-playing convention than an actual political convention; the primary difference is that D&D players know that nothing is actually happening.

The most consequential third party candidates of the post-Reagan era are of course, Ross Perot and Ralph Nader. Perot is an interesting and unique figure who probably deserves more study than he gets; certainly more than I feel like giving him, and since his 1992 campaign occurred when I was well under 5 feet tall, I don't remember much from the time, aside from a goofy voice and a lot of charts. His wikipedia article indicates that he held a variety of positions each of which have mainstream support, but taken together are as far as I know unique to him:
With such declared policies as balancing the federal budget, firm pro-choice stance, expansion of the war on drugs, ending outsourcing of jobs, opposition to gun control, belief in protectionism on trade, his support of the Environmental Protection Agency and enacting electronic direct democracy via "electronic town halls," he became a potential candidate and soon polled roughly even with the two major party candidates.

His candidacy was completely orthogonal to all of the existing parties, including the libertarians. Being pro-choice kept him out of the GOP, and opposition to gun control kept him away from the Democrats (such a position might not be such a detriment today). And his protectionist and pro-WoD positions put him in a decidedly unlibertarian camp. Thus he arguably (and according to exit polls) drew equally from both parties.

He is the ultimate ceiling for third party candidacies, but his run was top-down from the start; he was going to spend his money to run for president, and whoever wanted to support him could do so. He did not arise from a nomination process.

The above cannot be said for Ralph Nader, whose history is much more well known, because it caused the election of our current (awful) president.

The LP has been sufficiently orthogonal and unsuccessful to avoid blame for this or that major party candidate losing/winning presidential elections, but Barr's candidacy has the potential to change both of those factors. A lot of conservatives dissatisfied with McCain may look his way, and he brings a lot more legitimacy to the nomination than say, Michael Badnarik. If he truly does what the Smith/Ruwart camp fears, and draws the party rightward away from its principles, then he would destroy the party's orthogonality, and possibly end up to blame for a narrow Obama victory over McCain.

How would that help conservatives? How would that enhance the personal fame and fortune of Bob Barr? Assuming he knows this, what possible reason could he have to pretend to convert to libertarianism, if he is not actually a libertarian?

Ultimately, these conspiracy whisperings betray the ultimate delusion of big-L activists: that the LP is actually an effective outlet for working to increase / restore the personal liberty of American citizens. It is not.

Ross Perot had success partly because he represented a set of relatively mainstream ideas, some of which ran counter to either party, and partly because he self-financed his campaign and thus did not grow out of an existing political organization. It's difficult to envision a scenario under which a candidate with his positions would arise out of a coherent political organization; and indeed, the Reform Party he spawned was never able to field another serious candidate.

Even if the LP avoids the Barr-as-Nader scenario, it will never produce a Perot. Its best case scenario is that it gradually builds support while maintaining a delicate balance of positions; not drifting close enough to either major party to siphon more votes from one than the other in a close general election. But as that support increases, it will tempt the major parties (especially when they are in the minority) to adopt libertarian positions on a few issues to draw voters away. The only reason this process did not destroy Perot in 1992, is because he came out of nowhere and built up a large base of support before they could react.

It's easy to envision the two major political parties as sinister, monolithic entities that do not respond to political opinion, but that's wrong. The parties certainly have inertia but they are ultimately organic outgrowths of the political environment of the time, and if the political winds change, they change with them. If the Libertarian Party gets a significant vote, their best positions will be siphoned off. We see that with the Republicans adopting (however tepidly) budget-cutting and free market positions, and the Democrats opposing (however tepidly) further expansions of the surveillance state. These inroads are small because libertarians are a small constituency compared to, say, the camps that want to nationalize health care or initiate a pre-emptive war with Iran. That's the reality of this country and of a first-past-the-post election system.

The reason that the LP gets a trivial amount of votes every year isn't any diabolical conspiracy, and it's not because they haven't seen your favorite candidate's name on a blimp. It's that not very many people actually think libertarians are right. The only way to change this is to argue libertarian positions on issues and convince people to agree with you. The LP does this, but only as a side project, or as a means to the end of trying to shoot the moon and win an election. It puts on a dog and pony show to select a hopeless presidential candidate. It spends hundreds of thousands of dollars hiring petitioners to get that hopeless candidate on the ballot. That's money that could go to the ACLU, or the Cato Institute, or the Innocence Project.

Many libertarians despise both relevant parties and cannot stomach voting for their candidates. That is a perfectly understandable position, which I happen to share most of the time. But supporting the LP is a waste of scarce resources. You'll accomplish just as much by writing in Batman and keeping your money. If you want a revolution, get people on your side first, and bust out the torches and pitchforks second.


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Drug Doublethink

Julian Sanchez has dredged up an ancient campaign scandal that dates all the way back to two months ago, to make a general point about our national attitude towards the drug war:
I just found myself thinking about the case of Bill Shaheen, Hillary Clinton's former New Hampshire campaign co-chair, who had to resign after suggesting that Barack Obama—who has admitted using marijuana and cocaine as a young man—would be pressed in a general election to answer questions about whether he had ever been a cocaine dealer. Now, this was rightly regarded as incredibly slimy, and perhaps also as an attempt to invoke ugly racial stereotypes. But then it seems as though, at some point, some kind of consensus was reached that bringing up the candidates drug history at all was some kind of sleazy, dirty campaigning. Recall this exchange from Hardball: [snip]
Now, this is all right with me: I think the laws prohibiting cocaine and marijuana are foolish and wrong, that there's nothing especially shameful about having used them, and that so long as we're talking about use that ended long ago, it's a private matter that shouldn't be used as campaign fodder. What I find surprising—or at any rate, inconsistent—is that so many folks in mainstream politics and media seem to be on board with that third point given how few are prepared to publicly endorse the first two. Because our government does, in fact, send people to prison for using cocaine and marijuana. And it seems a little odd to get the vapors at the prospect of anyone criticizing a candidate for behavior that they concede, at least tacitly, it would have been perfectly legitimate to lock him away for.
Megan McArdle adds:
As an avid drug legalizer myself, I should like to see someone ask this question:
Senator, you used cocaine and marijuana. Would it have been just and right for you to have been sentenced to multi-year prison terms under today's drug laws?
Now, this would certainly be a great gotcha question for Obama, from which he would deftly segue into whatever his painfully moderate "treatment" ideas are. But there's more to it than this; Julian's original observation, that for some reason the media finds it taboo to attack a candidate's drug use history, and also finds it taboo to attack the drug laws that would have landed that candidate in jail and aborted his political career had he been pulled over by the wrong cop at the wrong time, is a window into our entire national attitude towards drugs.

The reason this bit of doublethink persists is that People Using Drugs is perceived by a large chunk of Americans not as a manifestation of evil, but merely as a Problem. Individual users of drugs are portrayed not as villains, but as fools; not evil, merely doing something stupid that can/will ruin their lives. Thus Obama doesn't deserve scorn for using drugs in the past, because it wasn't an act of malice or neglect for others; merely a personal mistake that he no longer commits. People don't support drug laws because they want to round up all the potheads and throw them in jail, thus ruining their lives far more than the drugs themselves ever could; they support them because they want there to be a deterrent that prevents those poor fools from using drugs in the first place.

Drug dealers, on the other hand, are not treated so charitably. In reality, drugs sell themselves. Any libertarian will tell you that if you arrest one drug dealer, his competition just moves in to take his place. But in the media narrative, drug dealers are villains: the true criminals, who smuggle this illegal stuff across the border, convince people to use drugs for the first time, etc. Plus, they're only in it to make money.

This is why Obama's admitted drug use became a much bigger scandal when people speculated about him sellingdrugs, even though that speculation was groundless. And it's also why Americans as a whole, when determining what additional government solution to deploy against the persistent problem of drug use, find it much more palatable to go after drug dealers, even though doing so is ineffective.

One wonders whether the tail is wagging the dog here. The commerce clause enables the federal government to go after drug "trafficking", whereas possession laws tend to be passed at the state level, so the federal government has an incentive to encourage the national media to villainize the people it is actually able to arrest.

But largely, the national attitude is that more people using drugs would be bad and less people using drugs would be good and thus the government should adopt a policy that reduces drug use. Whatever policy the government chooses to adopt rapidly falls victim to the Something fallacy (something must be done, this is something, therefore this must be done). And like any other policy, attackers of the means are painted as attackers of the ends. Just as conservatives interpret criticism of the Iraq war as a desire for America to Lose the War On Terror, just as liberals intepret criticism of social programs as hatred of poor people, criticism of drug policy is lambasted as a desire to increase drug use.

People have begun to recognize the profound immorality of jailing someone who merely makes a poor decision, but they fear that legalizing drugs would cause more people to use them, and are afraid of being seen as a "drug apologist". So it's extremely easy to latch on to a third party, the villainous drug dealer, and direct their ire in that direction. Meanwhile, the question of whether drug possession laws are themselves justified is sheepishly ignored.

I propose a pair of followup questions for Obama:
Would it have been just and right for whoever you bought drugs from to serve a long prison term for selling them to you? Would you have stopped using illegal drugs if that had occurred?

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

All Musicals Suck

My Year of Flops takes on Rent:
Ah, but what about the music, you say? Doesn’t that redeem the whole sorry endeavor? Uh, no. Below are some particularly choice lyrics from this Pulitzer and Tony-winning work of super-genius:

“How do you write a song when the chords sound wrong though they once sounded right and rare/When the notes sound sour where is the power/You once had to ignite the air”

“The music ignites the night with passionate fire”

“feel the heat of the future’s glow”

“How do you leave the past behind when it keeps finding ways to get to your heart”

“Truth like a blazing fire, an eternal flame”

“I think I dropped my stash. It was pure. Is it on the floor?”

“Live in my house/I’ll be your shelter/Just pay me back with one thousand kisses.”

“I’d forgotten how to smile until your candle burned my skin”

“You’ll never share true love until you love yourself.”

Larson’s lyrics, treacly powerless ballads and MOR melodies are less Stephen Soundheim than The Apple outtake. It seems incredibly perverse to make a musical about Gen-Xers, the most cynical and sarcastic generation known to man, wholly devoid of cynicism and sarcasm. Rent consequently feels like a Disneyland stage show about those crazy Gen-Xers with their bicuriosity and crazy drug addictions and shameless love of hoofing and crooning. Here there’s no problem that can’t be overcome with singing/dancing and/or moxie.


Saturday, December 22, 2007

Hey Look, a Link

Someday I intend to write a big long link-heavy Ron Paul post. Someday.

For now, here's a Greenwald post that even IOZ approves of.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Since When Is Congress Fair

Over at Balloon Juice we have this post, attempting (unsuccessfully) to defend the FairTax proposal against an onslaught of liberal commenters.

As a jumping off point let's grab one of many comments:
I haven’t been following these posts, so forgive me if this has been brought up before, but the fatal flaw I see in this scheme is the assumption that big business would pass any savings realized under it on to the consumer, instead of taking it as profits.

In my considerable years on the planet, I’ve found it to be a rare occurence. In fact, off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single time it’s happened. Seems to me, they’ve sold corporate dereg on the same premise in the past.

Dereg of the cable industry was supposed to lower our cable bills. Anybody ever get a reduction in rates? Same with electricity. Competition was supposed to lower rates and they were supposed to use their profits to upgrade the grids. Didn’t happen. Why should anyone believe it would happen here?

Not exactly a model of political discourse but it serves my purpose. In discussions like this, where a government action potentially reduces the costs of producing a product, people often either state that the costs will all be passed down to the consumer, or will all be kept by the company. Both are gross oversimplifications. If a market is competitive, competition drives prices downward until firms decide it's not profitable to sell, and consumers reap benefits from any increase in supply-side efficiency. In more monopolistic situations (complete monopolies are a myth, as is perfect competition, but some markets are more competitive / less monopolistic than others), producers don't end up lowering prices as much when their costs go down because consumers will pay anyway.

The point of the above is not to imply anything about the FairTax's progressivity or lack thereof; my point is this: even if FairTax results in prices and taxes collected staying roughly the same throughout the economy, the effect will not be the same throughout every industry. And not just because of differences in the level of competition; items whose production is more labor intensive than others will see a greater cost reduction from the elimination of the income tax.

There will be winners and losers, and you can bet the losing industries will make a big stink - if they don't go out of business entirely. The losers will be big losers, because this will be a massive transition. To paraphrase Lone Star from Spaceballs, this isn't about money; it's about a shitload of money.

For a "libertarian" proposal, the FairTax displays a remarkable amount of faith in the legislative process. It presumes that our current Congress, if given the chance to recreate a tax which collects dollars numbered in the TRILLIONS, won't end up giving all sorts of exemptions and favors to politically connected industries. It presumes that all the industries adversely affected by the seismic shift in tax collection won't lobby for exemptions. It presumes that a massive national consumption tax won't get tweaked for purposes of social manipulation - i.e., increasing the taxes on cigarettes or SUVs or abortions, or decreasing the tax on condoms or corn or miniature American flags.

But let's assume that, by some miracle, the FairTax that passes initially imposes exactly the same tax on every good and service. That's how it's written up according to; the "pre-bate" is just a function of whether you're filing jointly and how many kids you have.

Our present tax system didn't come about all at once; it's not like we all started filling out 1040s and saving our charity receipts as soon as the 16th amendment passed. There will still be a massive incentive to tweak the tax code after the initial FairTax is passed, and even if it starts off the same for all goods and services, it won't stay that way for long. The political fallout from the massive, uneven transition will only increase the pressure to tweak the system.

Our tax system isn't complicated and corrupt because we tax income instead of consumption; it's complicated and corrupt because it involves a shitload of money. That's not going to change unless we implement ACTUAL libertarian ideas about social and military spending, as opposed to shell games like the FairTax. In other words, it's not going to change period.

This might sound like whiny obstructionism; we can't do anything because Congress will just screw it up! That's a fair objection in some cases, but FairTax is an attempt to swat a fly with a sledgehammer. Want to simplify the tax code? Simplify the tax code. Eliminate deductions and complications, one by one. Don't build a brand new trillion dollar institution from scratch on the reasoning that if it works perfectly well we'll all benefit. Talk about big government.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Plenty of Blame to Go Around

Some are more surprised than others at the latest revelation that Nancy Pelosi was among a small bipartisan group of Congresscritters briefed by the CIA in 2002 about our new and innovative interrogation techniques, including waterboarding. They did not object.

Now I have no less contempt for Democrats than anyone else, but let's think about this for a second - this was 2002. A quick google search reveals that President Bush's approval ratings in September of 2002 were 70%; even Cheney and Rumsfeld polled in the 60s. Failing to stridently oppose the neo-conservative agenda seems politically stupid for the Democrats now, but in 2002 it would have been a principled, prescient, honorable political suicide.

The nation was collectively insane in 2002. The President should never, ever have 70% approval ratings, let alone the 87% he had around when the Patriot Act passed. To expect the President not to abuse that power, and to expect the opposing party to put up an objection, is to forget what this country was like in 2002. Politicians willing to commit political suicide lose elections long before they make it to Congress. This is not news. Pelosi deserves no more and no less contempt than anyone else in the Democratic party for letting the popular president have his way in 2002. Our political system produces politicians, and successful politicians are concerned first and foremost with keeping their jobs.

I'm all for endorsing anti-torture candidates even if they're a little nuts, but this little episode doesn't tell me anything about Democrats or Pelosi that I didn't already know. The lesson here is that 70% approval rates are as ripe for abuse as any other form of power.


Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Local Knowledge, You Goddamn Technocrat

Sometimes I get my hopes up about Matt Yglesias. Here he is, exhibiting an admirable level of cynicism with respect to the staggeringly expensive missile defense system we're building to piss off Russia and defend against Iran's nonexistent nuclear weaponry:
Naturally, though, the exorbitant financial cost of the program counts as a point in its favor. The US would never want to build something cheap, useless, and incredibly damaging to our relationship with Russia. But since the missile defense initiatives are so damn costly, they're also incredibly profitable to the people who build them, and thus to the members of congress who get their campaign contributions and to the think tankers who they support. The best way to kill this initiative would be a scientific breakthrough that allowed its goals to be achieved cheaply and with some efficacy. If that was on hand, diplomatic considerations just might win out.
And then you get to posts like this:
In practice, arguments about federalism are almost universally made opportunistically. People favor devolving power to the states when they think doing so will produce policies they approve of, and people favor concentrating power in Washington when they think doing so will produce policies they approve of. Everyone knows this. And while one might condemn the hypocrisy of it all, this always strikes me as a good thing to be hypocritical about. I don't really have a principled view about the appropriate division of powers between states and the federal government and don't really intend to develop one. The congressional policy being enacted here seems to me to be a good one, so that's good enough for me.

I like Matt so I'll try and limit my ire to the title of the post, but if he wants a principled view I'll give him a principled view. Here it is:

If a function can be performed by a state or local government, it shouldn't be performed by the federal government.

A larger, more powerful government has more corruption, because bribing one official gets you more power. It has less efficiency, because its policies have to be implemented and enforced over a greater number of people in a larger geographic area.

Anyway, it's easy to recite the general arguments for federalism, and liberals who have been around the block have heard them before - and they'll be the first to point out that those arguments were used to defend some vile discriminatory practices that took place in the South. They can be forgiven for questioning the motives of people arguing federalist principles, but that does not render those principles meaningless. I'd argue that fundamental rights to equality under the law are much more necessarily federal than rules governing the nutritional content of school lunches.

The federal government, especially today, has a completely corrupt decision-making process. It is the ultimate sausage factory, and electing Democrats is not going to change that. Matt understands this when it comes to foreign policy, but he maintains a naive optimism that a good idea will stay a good idea after the federal government decides how to implement it - let alone the technocratic belief that if we just come up with The Right Policy we can solve all of our problems. Does he really want the federal government, granter of billions of fattening farm subsidies, making nutrition rules? Here's a clue.


Monday, November 26, 2007

May The Best Megalomaniac Win

Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.

To me, this Douglas Adams quote is an axiom; it's almost self-evident. And yet it would appear that many of those who are capable of getting themselves paid to write about politics not only do not read Douglas Adams, they actively believe the opposite:
For most of my time covering presidential elections, I shared the view that there was a direct correlation between the skills needed to be a great candidate and a great president. The chaotic and demanding requirements of running for president, I felt, were a perfect test for the toughest job in the world.
This particular specimen has changed his mind after a mere 4 presidential elections. Heroic!

Halperin is certainly not the first to lament that the media disproportionately covers "who is going to win, rather than who should win." I've long attributed this to cowardice and laziness. Suppose you are a political pundit for CNN, and Hillary just made a speech on her health care plan. You could attempt to cover whether this speech indicates that Hillary should win, but to do that you'd have to come up with an opinion on whether her health care plan is a good idea. It's possible to opine on that without being lambasted for bias, but difficult. One would have to do research, and studiously avoid value judgments; saying Hillary's plan is better than Obama's plan because of X Y and Z would be a big no-no, to say nothing of appearing even slightly hostile to a Republican candidate. So rather than do that, the easy and safe path is to talk about what the speech means for her campaign's likelihood of success. Hillary might win because this speech appeals to this demographic. Gore might lose because he sighed a lot. Bush might win because he has a casual demeanor. And so on.

But that theory proposes that journalists are aware that they should be covering policy and just can't do it, but this article confounds that; it implies that journalists actually believe that they're Doing The Right Thing when their coverage treats politics like sports, and boils everything down to victory and defeat, red team versus blue team.

The easy explanation is that it's a rationalization; journalists (non-depressive ones) can't handle the idea that they're harming the political process, so when someone cooks up a theory telling them that what they're doing out of expedience is actually good for the country, their confirmation bias neurons kick into high gear and they smile, nod and put in an extra hour at the office the next day.

But I suspect that the rationalization goes deeper than that, and goes beyond journalism. After all, suppose that it's inappropriate to cover presidential elections as horse races, because being able to win a presidential election isn't the same as being an effective president. Doesn't that imply something about whether it's appropriate to pick our president via an election? Or, since no one has a better idea*, shouldn't we question whether it's appropriate to grant any significant power at all, let alone the near-dictatorial powers of the 21st century Commander In Chief, to the winner of our ridiculous national circus?

*I think it should be a 64-candidate single elimination tournament

Monday, October 01, 2007

Good News From Iraq

Here's something the liberal media doesn't want you to hear: Blackwater has been exonerated!
The report was written out of the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, the folks who hired Blackwater to provide security for US diplomats in Iraq. But it turns out that the State Department employee who interviewed the Blackwater folks and wrote the report, Darren Hanner ... well, he wasn't a State Department employee. He was another contractor from Blackwater.

So yes, you've got that right. We've now reached what can only be called the alpha and the omega of contracting accountability breakdown ridiculousness. We're outsourcing our investigations of Blackwater to Blackwater.

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Saturday, September 29, 2007

When Your Only Tool Is A Hammer

Mr. Giuliani, why is it that after years of support for gun control as mayor of NYC (where gun control is popular), now that you're speaking in front of the NRA as part of your campaign for the Republican nomination, you suddenly oppose it?
“I also think that there are some major intervening events — September 11, which cast somewhat of a different light on the Second Amendment, doesn’t change it fundamentally but perhaps highlights the necessity of it.”
Oh, okay. One more question. Why did you take a cell phone call from your (third) wife in the middle of your speech?
"And quite honestly, since Sept. 11, most of the time when we get on a plane, we talk to each other and just reaffirm the fact that we love each other," he said.
Source the first, source the second.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Happy Meal For Algernon

Pat Buchanan and Rick Perlstein have great posts/columns (sometimes, it's difficult to tell the difference) following a similar thing - the absurdity of our national overreaction to a visit from The New Hitler himself, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

We'll start with Rick, since he takes more time to summarize our collective abject terror at the prospect of Ahmadinejad setting foot on our precious Temple Of Never Forgetting:

Iran's president speaks at a great American university. That university's president, in the act of introducing his lecture, whines like a baby bereft of his pacifier that his guest is a big meany poopy-head. City Council members, too, and a rabbi, make like ten-year-olds, giving their press conference in front of a sign with his face struck through and the legend "Go To Hell." Up in Albany, Democratic leader Sheldon Silver treat the students of this great university like ten years olds, threatening to defund Columbia University lest censors like himself prove unable to shut the poor children's ears to difficult speech. (What, was he worried they'd be convinced, join the jihad?) Then a Republican presidential candidate chimes in—bye, bye, federalism!—saying Washington should starve the school of funds, too. American diplomats used to have the gumption to spar face to face with dreaded foreign leaders. Now they go on cable TV and whine about what a "travesty" it would have been to visit a site which properly should belong to the world. Hundreds of foreign nationals died in the World Trade Center on 9/11 (maybe even some of the Iranian!). Yet we have to systematically repress that—as if our national ego would crack like fine crystal if we were forced to acknowledge the mingling of American blood with that of mere foreigners.
I'd encourage you to ignore the immigration tangent, and click through to Rick's article to follow his links. Take it away, Pat:
What is it about this tiny man that induces such irrationality?

Answer: He is president of a nation that is a "state sponsor of terror," is seeking nuclear weapons, and is moving munitions to the Taliban and insurgents in Iraq.

But Libya was a "state sponsor of terror," and Col. Ghadafi was responsible for Pan Am 103, the Lockerbie massacre of school kids coming home for Christmas. And President Bush secretly negotiated a renewal of relations in return for Ghadafi giving up his nuclear program and compensating the families of the victims of that atrocity. Has Ahmadinejad ever committed an act of terror like this?

Richard Nixon went to Moscow and concluded strategic arms agreements while Moscow was the arms supplier of the enemy we were fighting in Vietnam that used, at Hue, mass murder as a war tactic.

Nixon went to Beijing to toast Mao Zedong, the greatest mass murderer in history, responsible for the deaths of 37,000 Americans in Korea, who was, in 1972, persecuting and murdering dissidents in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution run by his crazed wife, and transshipping Russian weapons into Vietnam.

And Nixon is today hailed as a statesman for having gone there.

In 1959, President Eisenhower rode up Pennsylvania Avenue in an open convertible with Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin's gauleiter in Ukraine, who, three years before his tour of the United States, had sent tanks into Budapest to butcher the patriots of the Hungarian Revolution.

What has Ahmadinejad done to rival these monsters?

Nothing of course, but actions don't matter like they used to. Back to Rick for some elaboration on the Khrushchev visit:
Nikita Khrushchev disembarked from his plane at Andrews Air Force Base to a 21-gun salute and a receiving line of 63 officials and bureaucrats, ending with President Eisenhower. He rode 13 miles with Ike in an open limousine to his guest quarters across from the White House. Then he met for two hours with Ike and his foreign policy team. Then came a white-tie state dinner. (The Soviets then put one on at the embassy for Ike.) He joshed with the CIA chief about pooling their intelligence data, since it probably all came from the same people—then was ushered upstairs to the East Wing for a leisurely gander at the Eisenhowers' family quarters. Visited the Agriculture Department's 12,000 acre research station ("If you didn't give a turkey a passport you couldn't tell the difference between a Communist and capitalist turkey"), spoke to the National Press Club, toured Manhattan, San Francisco (where he debated Walter Reuther on Stalin's crimes before a retinue of AFL-CIO leaders, or in K's words, "capitalist lackeys"), and Los Angeles (there he supped at the 20th Century Fox commissary, visited the set of the Frank Sinatra picture Can Can but to his great disappointment did not get to visit Disneyland), and sat down one more with the president, at Camp David. Mrs. K did the ladies-who-lunch circuit, with Pat Nixon as guide. Eleanor Roosevelt toured them through Hyde Park. It's not like it was all hearts and flowers. He bellowed that America, as Time magazine reported, "must close down its worldwide deterrent bases and disarm." Reporters asked him what he'd been doing during Stalin's blood purges, and the 1956 invasion of Hungary. A banquet of 27 industrialists tried to impress upon him the merits of capitalism. Nelson Rockefeller rapped with him about the Bible.

Had America suddenly succumbed to a fever of weak-kneed appeasement? Had the general running the country—the man who had faced down Hitler!—proven himself what the John Birch Society claimed he was: a conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy?

No. Nikita Khrushchev simply visited a nation that had character. That was mature, well-adjusted. A nation confident we were great. We had our neuroses, to be sure—plenty of them.

But look now what we have lost. Now when a bad guy crosses our threshhold, America becomes a pants-piddling mess.
Huge, massive block quotes I know, but they're so good I can't resist.

Pat's article is titled "Infantile Nation". Rick's goes by "Bed-Wetter Nation." Both imply the same, optimistic sentiment: that in time, we as a nation will mature and learn not to shit our pants at the slightest threat from abroad. If only it were true! We've been around for well over 200 years; we've been through a civil war, a couple of world wars, and a couple of stupid foreign entanglements. We are not toddlers; our stupidity is not a result of youth and inexperience. We have all the experience we need, and then some. We simply choose to ignore it.

No, the trend in this nation is not away from irrational fear, but towards it. Our notions of courage have been reshaped; it is no longer courageous to accept that death is a risk and proceed with principled actions anyway. It is now courageous to lash out, to commit whatever crimes we must in a fevered crusade to reduce to zero the probability that nasty brown people from the desert will blow us up. Never mind that doing so is roughly as feasible as traveling at the speed of light.

Furthermore, the self-serving notion among right wing pundits that the war is one of propaganda and will creates the idea that one can be courageous simply by saying the right things. It doesn't matter what you do, so long as you make sure you don't embolden the enemy by criticizing our troops!

I've owned two dogs in my life, and they reacted in different ways when I ran the vacuum cleaner. The first dog stood 6 feet away and barked incessantly at the vacuum until it was back in the closet; the second keeps its distance and meekly moves to a different room at her first opportunity. Which one was afraid of the vacuum? Both of them.

The most telling aspect of our reaction to Ahmadinejad's visit is that, for now, it's all talk; all politicians and pundits racing to the bottom to see who can be the bravest, the most post-9/11, the most "serious", by exhibiting the most hysterical reaction to a diplomatic visit. They claim that the visit is harmful because Ahmadinejad is only here for propaganda purposes. This is doubly ironic: first because their reaction is itself propaganda, and second because their reaction gives Ahmadinejad all the propaganda he could ever need. He is the bogeyman, the monster under the bed. He gives us nightmares. We bark at him from a safe distance until he goes away.

If any American leader could provoke a reaction like that in the Middle East, we'd elect him President in a second.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Drunk With Power? More Like Dusted

Remember 1994? The Party Of Limited Government? The death of the "liberal" idea that government can and should solve all of our problems?

Things have changed since then, haven't they? Let's take a trip into the mind of Newt Gingrich, with Reason's Dave Weigel serving as travel agent:

I believe the United States should have been prepared to use whatever resources were necessary to fundamentally change the region. You ask Reagan in 1979, "Do we have to use troops to make Poland a free country and collapse the Berlin Wall? I think he would have said "Probably not." And we didn't.

So you can't go back. I mean, we never fully mobilized. We never brought to bear all of our assets. We were never serious about this. What we've done is a series of reasonable management steps. We can manage the 23-day campaign to Baghdad. And then Bremer can manage the American administration of Iraq. But we never took seriously, backing up as the big step and saying "Wait a second, this is about a whole region." So pressuring the Syrians from day one, which was frankly easier than pressuring the Iraqis, if we were willing to do it.
Now, we have known for the last 20 years that the Abadan refinery is the only refinery in Iran. That Iran only produces 60 percent of its gas. That we have an entire Navy not occupied in Iraq. People say to me: "We're overstretched." Not in the Navy. So I start by saying countries that are serious, that have the most powerful economy on the planet, that have the most powerful military on the planet, that have the most cutting edge technology on the planet, could do lots of things. Tell me about the cell phones in Iran. Tell me about the computers in Iran. How much effort have we made to make sure the right software is there? How much effort have we made to give every student in Iran a free cell phone? To help organize the resistance? To do the things we did in Poland?

So I don't want to start and say "Yes, would invade" or "No, we wouldn't invade." I want to suggest to you that a grand strategy would have said "We're going to change the region." Now everybody who wants to change the region, I say, fine: You're on our team. Remember at one point Bush said "You're either with us or against us?" Well, what did that mean? With us for what?

I would suggest a grand strategy, if you work out this alternative history, of thinking creatively. Bring back the Reagan team, among other things. Bring back the pre-Stansfield Turner retirees from the CIA. People who had actually done this stuff. People the entire team that had done Afghanistan. There were lots of assets available in 2001 if we wanted to use them.

Nowhere in this "Grant Strategy" that Newt pines for is there so much as a peep about the limits of the power of the military to "change a region". Nowhere does he pause to consider what happens if we shoot for the moon and miss. Nowhere is there any talk about the inefficiency of government.

His entire dream is based on the idea that as long as we "sit back" and formulate a "grand strategy" to "change the region", we can do whatever we want. That we can change an entire society from the ground up, as long as we are "serious", "think creatively" and/or "bring to bear all of our assets".

It's pure delusion. The first Iraq war, with its easy, cartoonish victory over Saddam's army and laser-guided missiles flying down chimneys and whatnot, sprinkled PCP into our nation's collective sack of pot (television, I guess). It made us think our army was invincible and omnipotent. It's powerful and awesome, but just because you've got a powerful jackhammer doesn't mean you can perform oral surgery with it. Armies don't change things - they blow them up.

Government can't end poverty, can't keep everyone from using drugs, can't make every 18-year old a virgin, can't keep everyone from driving drunk, and can't stop millions of central Americans from sneaking across the border. Nor can it change an entire society from religious, oil-fueled dictatorship to western-style democracy. The former ideas are at least (usually) expressed in statistics; you can argue that this or that policy will reduce drug use or illegal immigration or drunk driving fatalities. Yet Newt isn't talking about making the Middle East more democratic, and George Bush isn't talking about reducing terrorism. The goal of modern neoconservatism is a complete revolution, taking place in several nations, engineered by an external entity that most of the people of those nations hate. It's not something you can do halfway. It's all or nothing. The highest law in the land has to be eviscerated to accomplish it. And I'm not talking about the Constitution - I'm talking about Murphy's Law.


Monday, September 10, 2007


Since I typed up a bunch of stuff for the petition Mona linked to, might as well paste it here.

Dear Democrats,

You were elected as an opposition party, but you have failed to oppose an arrogant, incompetent president whose disastrous policies continue unabated. You swore an oath to defend the Constitution, but you have yielded despotic powers of warrantless wiretapping to to President Bush, out of an irrational fear of the political influence of the least popular executive in a half century. Your supporters demand an end to an unjust and pointless war, yet you continue to believe the propaganda of the executive branch, which continues to insist with manufactured evidence that another 6 months will bring significant progress. It will not. It will only bring more death and destruction, both to our troops and to the Iraqi people - remember them? - who overwhelmingly oppose our continued presence.

Furthermore, it is clear that all the allegations made five years ago regarding Saddam Hussein's imminent acquisition of weapons of mass destruction were mistakes at best, deliberate deceptions at worst - and yet the same arguments are being made by the same people with respect to Iran. These are also lies, and a war with Iran would be 10 times the disaster that the war with Iraq has been. And yet you do nothing to oppose it, and accept every administration assertion about Iran at face value.

This must change. The President is not a statesman; he is a tyrant who has rejected every founding principle of this nation. The statements of his administration need to be considered lies until independently proven true. He does not deserve your respect; you certainly will get no respect from him. I realize that without true control of the Senate, your political power is limited; however the extent to which you have submitted to his desires is despicable and disgusting. I don't demand impeachment. I demand forceful, substantive opposition.

Do your duty, uphold your oath, and oppose the President stridently and defiantly. This means voting against any bill he supports. This means rejecting the absurd proposition that anything stated by General Petraeus is any more objective than a Rush Limbaugh broadcast. If you do not, if you continue down your current path, history will remember you as cowards of the highest order. And I certainly won't vote for you again.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Least Surprising Headline Ever

Petraeus wants another Friedman Unit.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Anecdote Party!

Is it really news at this point when a Republican politician is involved in a gay sex scandal? Not really. But Hit & Run provides a couple of fun side items about the case. Balko:
Finally, any sympathy I might have felt for Craig evaporated when I read in the police report that he played the ol' "do you know who I am" game, by giving the cop his U.S. senator business card and asking, "What do you think of that?"
I don't have sympathy either, but I do have a lot of envy for that cop. What do I think of that? Wouldn't you like to know!

And then there's this great quote that Dave Weigel dug up:
Republican Sen. Larry Craig is citing Hillary Clinton as the reason he opposes renewing the Patriot Act in its current form, saying Mrs. Clinton is likely to abuse the security measure if she becomes president - unless additional safeguards are built in.

"There will come a day when there will not be a George W in the White House," Sen. Craig warned, after calling top conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh on Wednesday to explain his position. "And tragically enough, and I hope never, it could be a Hillary Clinton."

Craig wondered aloud: "Who will be her attorney general, and what might he or she do to your liberties and mine? There's the question."

The Idaho Republican told Limbaugh: "You know, I've been here a little while, and I remember Janet Reno, and I remember Waco and Ruby Ridge."

"And I fear the day that we get a president, not this president, who has a very liberal attorney general and sees the opportunity, to leap through the holes that are crafted in the Patriot Act, that could tread on our civil liberties."
It's like reading satire! I would think he would be sophisticated enough to come up with some bullshit "change of heart" justification for suddenly opposing the Patriot Act as soon as a Democrat sits in the White House, but he just came out and said it.

A Democrat sweep in 2008 looks fairly likely at this point; if we wake up in 2009 to a blue-team President and two-house Congressional majority, we will also wake up to a Republican party once again deploying libertarian arguments.

Fool me twice, shame on me.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Simple Truth, part 2

Hurf makes a good point below about safety, that is, that we can never perfectly achieve it. There is an important corollary to this idea, and that is that perfect safety is not only impossible but undesirable. Let me explain.

Something like 40,000 people die each year in car accidents. We could make ourselves safe from this formidable threat to our national security by outlawing the ownership and use of cars entirely and relentlessly prosecuting anyone who failed to comply. Of course a few subversive types would almost certainly try to hold on to their precious death machines, hiding them in barns and driving them in secret, or perhaps traveling (or even emigrating!) abroad to indulge their reckless desires. Tracking down the very last of these would require a few compromises in our treasured liberties but is any price too high for perfect safety?

Obviously this is a load of tripe and no one would seriously suggest such a thing. Yet, it is what we would have to do to make ourselves perfectly safe from car accidents. In rejecting the above plan we implicitly acknowledge that though safety is valuable, beyond a certain point it comes at too high a price, and given that we live in the real world where you have to pay that price, we don't want it. Car accidents are a trivial example, but this extends to nearly everything. You can eradicate an infectious disease like smallpox through well-executed public health policy. No public policy, no matter how well designed or implemented, can eradicate accidents, terrorism, crime, corruption, poverty, drugs, racism, sexism, or whatever the bogeyman of the day is. That doesn't mean that we want to have terrorism or crime or racism in the world, in and of themselves, only that given the constraints we face, we would rather live in a world where a small to moderate amount of Bad Things exist than pay the costs of reducing them further. Our experience with drugs, and alcohol before them, suggests that the optimal amount to tolerate may in some cases be quite large, when the costs we face to fight them are also large.

This is not to say that we should not fight terrorism, or crime, or whatever. It is simply to say that we not only cannot ever fully annihilate evil, that when the sacrifices are too great we should not even desire to do so. To come back to Hurf's context, we will not be safe from Iran whether they give up their ideology and weapons or not, so we must ask whether the safety we would gain at the margin is worth what we have to give up to get it. If we can achieve that by asking nicely, sounds great. If it means more decades of war and the further entrenchment of the American Police State, it's probably not worth it.