The Military Budget

President Obama said he expected to save money by withdrawing troops from Iraq (which savings will actually show up in the budget now that Iraq and Afganistan spending is no longer “off-line”) and that saving is part of how he proposes to spend on things we all want like health care, education, and energy efficiency.  That is all well and good.  But the elephant in the room (and I don’t just mean Republicans, but also Democrats with their own self-interests) is military spending.

Congressman Barney Frank has an article in the March 2 issue of the Nation in which he talks about military spending.  He begins

I am a great believer in freedom of expression and am proud of those times when I have been one of a few members of Congress to oppose censorship. I still hold close to an absolutist position, but I have been tempted recently to make an exception, not by banning speech but by requiring it. I would be very happy if there was some way to make it a misdemeanor for people to talk about reducing the budget deficit without including a recommendation that we substantially cut military spending.

As Congressman Frank points out there has been a huge increase in the military budget and not all of it attributable to the Wars in Iraq and Afganistan.

It is particularly inexplicable that so many self-styled moderates ignore the extraordinary increase in military spending. After all, George W. Bush himself has acknowledged its importance. As the December 20 Wall Street Journal notes, “The president remains adamant his budget troubles were the result of a ramp-up in defense spending.” Bush then ends this rare burst of intellectual honesty by blaming all this “ramp-up” on the need to fight the war in Iraq.

Current plans call for us not only to spend hundreds of billions more in Iraq but to continue to spend even more over the next few years producing new weapons that might have been useful against the Soviet Union. Many of these weapons are technological marvels, but they have a central flaw: no conceivable enemy. It ought to be a requirement in spending all this money for a weapon that there be some need for it. In some cases we are developing weapons–in part because of nothing more than momentum–that lack not only a current military need but even a plausible use in any foreseeable future.

It is possible to debate how strong America should be militarily in relation to the rest of the world. But that is not a debate that needs to be entered into to reduce the military budget by a large amount. If, beginning one year from now, we were to cut military spending by 25 percent from its projected levels, we would still be immeasurably stronger than any combination of nations with whom we might be engaged.

So are there any signs of hope that we might, despite what will be a conservative outcry about “keeping America strong” and the loss of jobs from miliary spending (can’t many of those folks shift toward developing good things like better batteries for electric/hybrid cars?) and so on?  Christopher Hayes  in a companion piece to Frank’s writes

Indeed, over the past year Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made a series of speeches about shifting resources toward nonmilitary international engagement, as well as reducing spending on outdated weapons systems. “The spigot of defense spending that opened on 9/11 is closing,” he told senators on the Armed Services Committee in January. “The economic crisis and resulting budget pressures,” he said, would provide “one of those rare chances…to critically and ruthlessly separate appetites from real requirements, those things that are desirable in a perfect world from those things that are truly needed in light of the threats America faces and the missions we are likely to undertake in the years ahead.”

Obama expressed similar sentiments on the campaign trail: “I will cut tens of billions of dollars in wasteful spending,” he said in a campaign video. “I will cut investments in unproven missile defense systems. I will not weaponize space. I will slow our development of future combat systems.”

Most recently, Rahm Emanuel hinted on Meet the Press that the administration might have the Pentagon in its sights as part of its promise to trim fat from the budget. “We have about $300 billion in cost overruns,” he said. “That must be addressed, and we will be addressing it.”

We seem to be getting some mixed signals, however.  William Lynn from defense contractor Raytheon who has been described by Hayes (and others) as “never having met a weapons system he didn’t like”  has been appointed deputy defense secretary.  On the other hand,  Obama has just appointed Ashton Carter from the Kennedy School to be Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.  As far as I know, Dr. Carter has mostly worked on non proliferation issues and has no ties to any defense contractors.

Kenneth the Page Responds to Bobby Jindal

Jimmy Fallon has, I hope, put a this debate to rest.  In her introduction to the video posted for The Nation, Gabriela Resto-Montero says

Soon after Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s response to President Obama’s address to Congress, the internet was abuzz with comparisons between the earnest Jindal and “Kenneth the Page”, the sweet, southern page on 30 Rock. Actor Jack McBrayer dismisses the comparisons to the “Goober-nutorial” Jindal. What NBC comedic character will be the next Republican spokesperson?

Watch for yourself.

Signs that Spring is coming

Yesterday, the Red Sox played their first exhibition games beating Boston College and losing to Minnesota.  Spring is just around the corner even though it was cold and blustery in Boston.  The big controversy seems to be whether the thrill of the Sox has worn off or not.  Exhibit A:  There are a few tickets left for a hand full of games in April and May.  As many of the bloggers pointed out, this has much to do with the state of the economy and little to do with becoming jaded about the Sox.  See Mazz’s Blog in

Meanwhile someone at work mentioned March Madness for the first time in a year.  My favorite league, the ACC, is busy with teams knocking each other off.  Question:  how do you maintain a high national ranking when everyone knows you will lose games in your league?  But, the North Carolina Tar Heels should, barring disaster in the ACC Tournament, get a number one seed.

The Boston Celtics are also readying themselves for the playoffs.  (Even as they lost last night to the Clippers, who are, I think the worst team in the NBA, in a close one.)  It looks as if they will be signing Stephon Marbury – maybe today.  I haven’t decided if that is good or bad.   Marc J. Spears wrote in the Boston Globe

Marbury  fell into the doghouse of then-Knicks coach Isiah Thomas during the 2007-08 season. With Thomas gone, new Knicks president Donnie Walsh and new coach Mike D’Antoni preferred a new script without Marbury last offseason. After being suspended from the team for allegedly refusing to play in a game, Marbury was outspoken about his disappointment. He eventually worked out a buyout Tuesday.

I’m sure there will be more on Marbury in the next few days.

Obama’s Speech

John Nichols has just posted his reaction to the speech in the Nation

Through much of his speech, Obama sounded a little like an emergency-room surgeon turning away from the operating table to explain what he had done and what he was about to do.

Yes, the patient is very sick, “But,” the physician-in-chief counseled, “while our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken; though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.”

On the other hand, Bobby Jindal’s debut on the national political stage did not compare at all to Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic Convention.  He needs to work on his delivery and also to make sure he is reacting to what the President actually said.

John Nichol’s take?

If Obama said “stimulate,” Jindal said “wait.”

If Obama said “invest,” Jindal said “cut taxes.”

If Obama said “Roosevelt,” Jindal said “Reagan.”

One of the great lies in American politics is the claim that responses to presidential addresses are never of any consequence. In fact, they invariably tell us what how serious a fight the president has on his hands.

The selection of Jindal was telling, indeed.

On Tuesday night, Barack Obama offered a comprehensive “yes, we can” promise.

Bobby Jindal responded with a narrow “no, we can’t” threat.

The battlelines could not be any more clearly drawn.

The choice could not be any more dramatic — or vital to the nation’s future.

While Jindal fretted Hoover-like about the new Democratic president’s “irresponsible” response to an old Republican crisis, Obama took the nothing-to-fear-but-fear itself position, telling Americans that, “The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation. The answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach. What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more.”

The Obama Code

George Lakoff on the the Obama Code is a new post (February 24) on Nate Silver’s  As Nate says, it is very long but worth reading and thinking about.  Here is my attempt to excerpt and summarize.  George Lakoff is a professor of professor of linguistics and cognitive science at the University of California at Berkley.

As President Obama prepares to address a joint session of Congress, what can we expect to hear?

The pundits will stress the nuts-and-bolts policy issues: the banking system, education, energy, health care. But beyond policy, there will be a vision of America—a moral vision and a view of unity that the pundits often miss.

What they miss is the Obama Code. For the sake of unity, the President tends to express his moral vision indirectly. Like other self-aware and highly articulate speakers, he connects with his audience using what cognitive scientists call the “cognitive unconscious.” Speaking naturally, he lets his deepest ideas simply structure what he is saying. If you follow him, the deep ideas are communicated unconsciously and automatically. The Code is his most effective way to bring the country together around fundamental American values.

For supporters of the President, it is crucial to understand the Code in order to talk overtly about the old values our new president is communicating. It is necessary because tens of millions of Americans—both conservatives and progressives—don’t yet perceive the vital sea change that Obama is bringing about.

The word “code” can refer to a system of either communication or morality. President Obama has integrated the two. The Obama Code is both moral and linguistic at once. The President is using his enormous skills as a communicator to express a moral system. As he has said, budgets are moral documents. His economic program is tied to his moral system and is discussed in the Code, as are just about all of his other policies.

Lakoff continues

Behind the Obama Code are seven crucial intellectual moves that I believe are historically, practically, and cognitively appropriate, as well as politically astute. They are not all obvious, and jointly they may seem mysterious. That is why it is worth sorting them out one-by-one.

The seven elements are:  values over programs; progressive values are American values; biconceptualism and the new bipartisanship; protection and empowerment; morality and economics; systemic causation and systemic risk; contested concepts and patriotic language.  Lakoff dissects each of these in turn.  A few of his more interesting observations

Every policy has a material aspect—the nuts and bolts of how it works— plus a typically implicit cognitive aspect that represents the values and ideas behind the nuts and bolts. The President knows the difference. He understands that those who see themselves as “progressive” or “conservative” all too often define those words in terms of programs rather than values. Even the programs championed by progressives may not fit what the President sees as the fundamental values of the country. He is seeking to align the programs of his administration with those values.

Progressive thought rests, first, on the value of empathy —- putting oneself in other people’s shoes, seeing the world through their eyes, and therefore caring about them. The second principle is acting on that care, taking responsibility both for oneself and others, social as well as individual responsibility. The third is acting to make oneself, the country, and the world better—what Obama has called an “ethic of excellence” toward creating “a more perfect union” politically.

Biconceptualism lay behind his invitation to Rick Warren to speak at the inaugural. Warren is a biconceptual, like many younger evangelicals. He shares Obama’s views of the environment, poverty, health, and social responsibility, though he is otherwise a conservative. Biconceptualism is behind his “courting” of Republican members of Congress. The idea is not to accept conservative moral views, but to find those issues where individual Republicans already share what he sees as fundamentally American values. He has “reached across the aisle” to Richard Luger on nuclear proliferation, but not on economics.….

Biconceptualism is central to Obama’s attempts to achieve unity —a unity based on his understanding of American values. The current economic failure gives him an opening to speak about the economy in terms of those ideals: caring about all, prosperity for all, responsibility for all by all, and good jobs for all who want to work.

Crises are times of opportunity. Budgets are moral statements. President Obama has put these ideas together. His economic program is a moral program and conversely. Why the quartet of leading economic issues—education, energy, health, banking? Because they are at the heart of government’s moral mission of protection and empowerment, and correspondingly, they are what is needed to act on empathy, social and personal responsibility, and making the future better. The economic crisis is also an opportunity. It requires him to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on the right things to do.

And then the summary

The Obama Code is based on seven deep, insightful, and subtle intellectual moves. What President Obama has been attempting in his speeches is a return to the original frames of the Framers, reconstituting what it means to be an American, to be patriotic, to be a citizen and to share in both the sacrifices and the glories of our country. In seeking “bipartisan” support, he is looking beyond political affiliations to those who share those values on particular issues. In his economic plan, he is attempting to realign our economy with the moral missions of government: protection and empowerment for all.

I don’t really think I’ve done justice to Dr. Lakoff in my summary and editing.  If this is interesting to you go to (link on my blogroll) and find Nate Silver’s post and spend some time reading it for yourself.

Republican Hysteria

So the head of the RNC, Michael Steel thinks the Recovery Act is no good because it only produces work and not jobs.  Alan Keyes doesn’t think President Obama is really a citizen and besides, he, Obama, is a well known communist.  Today a number of Republican Governors have rejected stimulus money.

Bob Cesca has a good post on Huffington Post.  His rant is excellent.  I don’t think he would be able to talk Rachel Maddow down about this.  One great observation

Yes, the Republicans have claimed to have “found their voice.” If this is true, then their “voice” sounds exactly like Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge and Michelle Malkin, depending on the day.

So what are these voices saying exactly?

For starters, Rush Limbaugh — the de facto leader of the Republican Party — said on his show Tuesday that the entire economic meltdown was actually precipitated by a conspiracy between George Soros and a cabal of billionaire liberals who deliberately sought to sabotage the world economy in order to get Barack Obama elected.

He, of course, has no real evidence for this, other than what the shadow people told him while he was tweaking his TV remotes.

Okay, so I made up the part about the shadow people, but the rest is seriously what Limbaugh was telling his audience of dittoheads yesterday. What Limbaugh doesn’t know, however, is that Soros is actually a hobbit who’s conspiring with Elvis to fake another Moon landing. (Shh!)

They have indeed totally lost their shpadoinkle and despite purely involuntary spikes in my blood pressure, it’s so much fun to watch. By successfully debunking their lies, rising above their bait and merely presenting a contrast of character, President Obama is making the Republican A-listers appear small, petty and absolutely befuddled. They’re frantically struggling to figure out how to counterpunch, so they’re grabbing, borrowing or downright plagiarizing ideas from anywhere, irrespective of the general quality of the idea. And if the Republicans are at all interested in continued survival, someone they respect should probably smack their hands and scold: Drop that filthy Limbaugh quote! You don’t know where it’s been!

But if this is their “voice” and they’re satisfied with it, I for one welcome the new Republican “voice” and wish them a hearty and very sincere: Good luck with that.

But seriously.  I think Alan Keyes, the New York Post cartoon, and other Republican outbursts come very close to threatening the President’s life.  Political opposition is one thing:  inciting violence is totally different.

P.D. James, Jill Patton Walsh/Dorothy Sayers

While I’ve been sick, I read P.D. James’ newest book, The Private Patient.  I enjoyed it so much, I went back and reread The Murder Room and The Lighthouse.  James is one of the few mystery novelists I read with a dictionary near by. 

James generally sets her novels in limited community situations – a small museum, on an island, in a country house/clinic and we get to know the residents intimately.  Her descriptions of the interactions between the residents, the police and the physical setting of the story build the narrative puzzle.  When I’m reading, I jump in my mind from one guilty party to the next and don’t settle on anyone in particular until near the very end. 

I also reread the two Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane novels by Jill Patton Walsh.  As I did the first time I read it, I found Thrones, Dominations a fascinating portrait of two very different marriages.  It also provides a glimpse into what happened to Peter and Harriet after Busman’s Honeymoon.  A Presumption of Death is not as strongly plotted (maybe because Patton Walsh rather than Sayers outlined the story), but I love the descriptions of life in wartime England.

Some Thoughts on President Obama’s First Month

I realize I’ve been neglecting my blog recently, but my excuse is that I had the flu last week.  I know that having a flu shot is supposed to prevent this, but as the nurse practitioner said, “It probably made a 5 to 7 day event into a 3 to 5 day one.”  Didn’t make me feel better, but at least I only missed 3 days of work.  Have to be there to help the City of Boston spend the stimulus bucks, you know.

So, how is the new President – and he is new even though it seems forever already – doing?  As Eugene Robinson wrote in the Washington Post on February 17

This is a presidency on steroids. Barack Obama’s executive actions alone would be enough for any new administration’s first month: decreeing an end to torture and the Guantanamo prison, extending health insurance to more children, reversing Bush-era policies on family planning. That the White House also managed to push through Congress a spending bill of unprecedented size and scope — designed both to provide an economic stimulus and reorder the nation’s priorities — is little short of astonishing.

I do wish that the Recovery Act (aka Stimulus Bill) had fewer tax cuts and more infrastruture, education, and arts money, but as Chris Hayes wrote in The Nation

Whatever its shortcomings, there is a lot of good stuff in the bill. As just one example: my parents were visiting this weekend and the whole time my dad, who works in public health in poor neighborhoods, was receiving promising updates on  his blackberry about just how much potential funding there would be for some of their programs.

As I said, there is money to spend.  So what of the Republican argument that taking the money means that there will be the expectation that programs – which the states can’t afford – will continue after the two years of the Recovery Act?  The main point of contention seems to be extention of unemployment benefits.  I’m afraid I don’t undertand the argument.  Hopefully in two years, other parts of the Recovery Act will have created jobs and there will no longer be a need to have massive unemployment benefits.

I have to admit that I worry about the Obama administration’s reluctance to consider prosecuting Bush administration officials.  I worry that we will somehow backslide on things like extraordinary rendition and the right of the prisoners to come to trial.  But then I am reassured by articles like Alexander Zaitchik’s recent post on AlterNet titled 5 Great Progressive Moves by Obama You Might Have Missed.  Zaitchik lists high speed rail funding, arms control, review of faith-based initiatives, broadband, and a reform minded drug czar.

Beyond all these concrete actions is political savvy.  I believe that Obama’s getting out of Washington to sell the Recovery Act and explain it to ordinary people in a setting where people were not pre-screened for their political views, was a smart move and may have saved it as Congress saw the reactions of those in the audience.  While it didn’t get any Republican votes, I think it helped with some of the Blue Dog Democrats.  We also saw his attempts to be bipartisan which were rebuffed by the Republicans.  As Chris Hayes points out

On the politics side of the ledger, Ben Smith notes Obama’s emphasis on the tax cuts in the bill. I’m not necessarily a fan, though politically it’s true that every single Republican member of congress can now be accused of “Voting against the biggest tax cut in history” come next election.” Clearly, this hasn’t escaped the White House’s notice.

So Where is Howard?

Howard Dean, former head of the Democratic National Committee and inventor of the 50-states strategy, still does not have a job in the Obama administration.  I’m not the only one asking what’s going on.

Alexander Zaitchik has a post on Alter-net headlined “Is Howard Dean Getting Screwed and Why?” 

Given the debt Obama clearly owes to Dean — as well as the personal respect the president is known to hold for him — many Dean netroots loyalists are confused as to why their man was not chosen to head the Health and Human Services Department, given his experience and interest in health care reform (Dean was a doctor before entering politics, and enacted major health care reforms as governor of Vermont).

OK.  Howard may not have the best relationship with some members of Congress (heard or read somewhere that Rahm Emmanuel didn’t like him) and maybe he wouldn’t be the right person to move health care reform, but how about making him Surgeon General? 

We haven’t heard about Dr. Gupta for a while now.  (And I say, thank godness.)  Howard Dean may not be a doctor on TV, but it seems to me that his personality is well suited to the chief doctor role.  I like the idea of Howard in the C. Everett Koop role. 

Can we start a campaign for Howard Dean as Surgeon General?

Two Birthdays

Two hundred years ago on February 12, two extraordinary men were born.  One on the American frontier and the other in England.  Besides their day of birth, what do Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin have in common?  Quite a bit it seems. 

Both men were family men who loved and cared for their childen.  Olivia Judson writes about Darwin

At the same time, he was a humane, gentle, decent man, a loving husband and father, and a loyal friend. Judging by his letters, he was also sometimes quite funny. He was, in other words, one of those rare beings, as likeable as he was impressive.

For example, after his marriage, Darwin worked at home, and his children (of the 10 he fathered, seven survived to adulthood) remembered playing in his study. Later, one of his sons recounted how, after an argument, his father came up to his room, sat on his bed, and apologized for losing his temper. And although often painted as a recluse, Darwin served as a local magistrate, meting out justice in his dining room.

Darwin is best known for the theory of evolution while Lincoln is known for his own political evolution.  Again, Judson on Darwin

The “Origin,” of course, is what he is best known for. This volume, colossal in scope yet minutely detailed, laid the foundations of modern biology. Here, Darwin presented extensive and compelling evidence that all living beings — including humans — have evolved from a common ancestor, and that natural selection is the chief force driving evolutionary change.

Eric Foner writes this about Lincoln in The Nation

Until well into the Civil War, Lincoln was not an advocate of immediate abolition. But he was well aware of the abolitionists’ significance in creating public sentiment hostile to slavery. Every schoolboy, Lincoln noted in 1858, recognized the names of William Wilberforce and Granville Sharpe, leaders of the earlier struggle to outlaw the Atlantic slave trade, “but who can now name a single man who labored to retard it?” On issue after issue–abolition in the nation’s capital, wartime emancipation, enlisting black soldiers, amending the Constitution to abolish slavery, allowing some blacks to vote–Lincoln came to occupy positions the abolitionists had first staked out. The destruction of slavery during the war offers an example, as relevant today as in Lincoln’s time, of how the combination of an engaged social movement and an enlightened leader can produce progressive social change.

Finally, both Darwin and Lincoln opposed slavery.  First, Judson on Darwin

Moreover, while many of his contemporaries approved of slavery, Darwin did not. He came from a family of ardent abolitionists, and he was revolted by what he saw in slave countries: “Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have stayed in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal …. It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty.”

And Lincoln, while not initally supporting immediate abolition did oppose slavery

“I have always hated slavery,” Lincoln once declared, “I think as much as any abolitionist.” He spoke of slavery as a “monstrous injustice,” a cancer that threatened the lifeblood of the American nation.

So let’s wish them both a very happy birthday!