November 26, 2013
November 26, 2013
November 21, 2013
By Richard Greener
America owes the filibuster to Aaron Burr. Yes, that Aaron Burr! Were there no other reason to end this procedural folly, its initiator should be reason enough. In addition to his more clearly recalled public activities, Burr did serve as a Senator from New York in the 1790s. It was Sen. Burr's procedural suggestion, not formally adopted until a year after his death in 1805, that allowed for the production that is a filibuster. For more than a century afterward there was no way to stop one should a filibuster take over and bring all Senate proceedings to a halt. In 1917 Rule 22 was instituted establishing a vote that could end a filibuster and restore normality to the Senate. Rule 22 has been modified since, most recently just now.
It puzzles me. Here I am, 57 years old, a former diplomat, I've been eating chocolate most of my life, I love chocolate, I know what good chocolate tastes like, yet I have trouble finding any chocolate that I genuinely enjoy. I'm surrounded, it seems, by insidious commercial chocolate, none of it tasty. I've tried, for example, just about every chocolate offered by my local Whole Foods, many of them organic, some very expensive, but most downright awful. So when the store recently put a new product offering on the shelves it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I bought an Ocho organic coconut bar — indeed, more, perhaps, in the spirit of experimental research than anything else. But, of course, hope also springs eternal! Long story short, I was completely smitten at the first bite. This is a marvelous confection, everything that you'd always wanted a Mounds bar to be; perhaps even what many people (wrongly) remember a Mounds bar to have been once upon a time. Rich, chewy, coconut tasting coconut — real coconut, and organic, too — coated with just the right amount of super premium dark chocolate, and just the right size for a satisfying snack. It's far and away the best coconut bar I've ever had and one of the top ten chocolate bars of any kind I've ever had.
November 8, 2013
A couple of Belgian orthopedic surgeons have (re)discovered an unknown knee ligament. The mainstream news is treating their finding as an oddity, amusing but only potentially important if there turn out to be practical implications when performing knee surgery. That narrative does make a certain amount of sense. But what's not being considered in the news — a really fascinating thing — is how the ligament (a big honking thing) could have remained invisible for the roughly hundred and fifty years since a Parisian surgeon first described it. Consider what had to have happened. How many hundreds of thousands of medical students went into their anatomy classes and during dissection exercises noticed this tissue around the knee, but when they couldn't find it mentioned in their texts promptly forgot about it? How many professors of medicine never paid attention to what their eyes told them? 'Gee whiz,' they all assumed, 'any structure that large must have been well documented ages ago,' so they all, students and professors alike, concluded it wasn't possible that they were seeing what they were seeing. Such universal acculturated blindness is truly mind-boggling. What it should remind us of is that in many other areas of life the things that everybody accepts as being true, or complete, may not be. Nor are these experiences mere oddities: collectively we overlook massive (and obvious) things, even critically important things, all too often.
November 7, 2013
First of all, I'm not fond of the name Twitter and I absolutely recoil at the word tweet. But having said that, I'm finding — despite my increasingly old-fogeyish traits — that Twitter is indeed an extremely useful social technology. It's taken me long enough! Back in 2007 when Twitter was just getting started several EP listeners vigorously urged me to set up an account. One listener set up an account for me (now defunct) and another (I have no idea who) set up an account that's been regularly tweeting about the current week's podcast. Well, OK, I don't need to know. Anyhow, belatedly, and probably due to today's IPO, over the past few weeks I decided to take a closer look and — what a shock! — I quickly realized that Twitter is highly efficient both for collecting or browsing quality curated material and also for researching the background of potential EP Podcast guests. Naturally, of course, it can also be sort of a distraction but that can be fun. Long story short, I'm entering the Twitterverse. To follow yours truly please see the new button on the left.
November 3, 2013
Early this morning I added another 30 Gigabytes of storage to the EP site. An entirely successful effort. A few glitches here and there and the site still has some software problems to deal with behind the scenes, but everything in terms of your site usability is working more or less normally as it should. The next thing will be to update our Movable Type installation to the latest version, which I'll get done fairly soon. And that, btw, should make the commenting process much easier. Whew!
October 30, 2013
With this Friday's podcast I'll be taking some time off. Frankly, I'm exhausted. I need to sleep for a couple weeks straight. Then the holidays are always very busy. Long story short, I need and deserve a break! Also I need to strategize, e.g., I need time to think.
Three things: First, the final phase of the Annual Podcast Awards starts on Friday. In this phase listeners can vote once per day for fifteen days. If every EP listener did that we might have an outside chance of winning our category but, to be realistic, I know we're not highly demonstrative. Besides, the number of EP listeners is, in some cases, more than a thousand times smaller than the audience of other shows in the running. I'll vote for EP every day that I can remember to do it and you should feel free to vote too but, please, don't knock yourself out. Second, the show this Friday is a bit of a departure in that it's a short monologue. I've been wanting to do monologues for years but have never been able to figure out how to fit the format into my workflow. So ending the season this way gives me a goal of sorts. And, third, I'll be upgrading the storage capacity at EP sometime in the next week, probably in the early morning on Sunday. It's a necessary upgrade because we're hitting our current storage limit of 30 Gigabytes. I'm implementing the upgrade myself. (It used to be BlueHost tech support would do this sort of maintenance for a paid, new service, but those days are long gone ever since BlueHost, though a series of buyers, ended up in the hands of some investment bankers.) If all goes well the site will be down for about half an hour. If I make a mistake it may take longer...
I'll continue blogging sporadically through New Year's — our new season should begin on Friday, January 3d 2014. All best! g.
October 28, 2013
The Affordable Care Act is not just a kludge, as Paul Krugman puts it, but some sort of tragic, lovelorn Frankenstein monster. Mr. Obama, if he'd worked at it any, could have gotten a much better bill out of the Senate with only Democratic votes. And then easily passed that bill in the House. But he wanted to appease and include at least a few Republicans. Bad choice. Nevertheless, the Affordable Care Act is and always will be his signature legislative achievement, passed in the teeth of unrelenting Republican hostility. Mr. Obama, if he'd worked at it any, would have insured that the law would be implemented successfully. But he didn't. His troubling lack of engagement here suggests a lack of engagement elsewhere, possibly across the board. By and large, however, he gets a pass for being an incompetent manager. One wonders whether mainstream reporters have any idea about how our government bureaucracy works.
October 27, 2013
For the seventh year in a row, the EP Podcast has been selected as one of the top ten finalists at the Annual Podcast Awards, in the political/news category. It was a very tough competition this year and we couldn't have made it without EP listener support — the number of nominations (just one per listener) counted for 40% of the judges' scoring. So, THANKS!!! Other finalists in the category include Democracy Now, the Slate Political Gabfest, the Majority Report with Sam Seder, and No Agenda, with Adam Curry (who more or less invented podcasting) and syndicated columnist John C. Dvorak. There were a couple smaller shows like ours that in years past became finalists but didn't this year, and one smaller show that's new. Of the ten, five shows have staff, professional production facilities, large audiences, etc. (I'm fairly sure, by the way, that, as usual, the EP audience is the smallest among the finalists or, if not the smallest, then definitely the second smallest.) Two shows, though they couldn't be described as "professionally produced," are large radical Libertarian operations. Three, including EP, appear to be home-brewed. Anyhow, good on all of us. ☺
October 25, 2013
The tea party — it's not fair to lay the blame anywhere else — managed to shut down the government and bring the U.S. to the brink of default. Given such outsized influence it's natural to assume that lots of high quality studies have been done, that the tea party has been thoroughly described and, even if not yet completely understood, then at least put into a reasonable perspective. Unfortunately, that assumption seems to be wrong.
October 16, 2013
By Richard Greener
The 69 Tea Party members of the House of Representatives, our 113th Congress, are all Republicans, but they should more honestly be called neo-Confederates. The name they prefer for themselves is a dramatic demonstration of historical ignorance. As neo-Confederates, their influence, power and actual representation in the House is an exact match for how this nation made its initial, horrendous constitutional error resulting in our Civil War.
The modern Tea Party likes to think of itself as the rebellious patriots dumping tea into Boston harbor protesting higher taxes. "Taxed Enough Already" is how the Tea Party faithful interpret their "Tea" name, isn't it? In their blissful ignorance they miss the ironic facts. The British Tax Act of 1773 didn't raise taxes on tea — it practically eliminated them altogether. So, who was hurt by this? As astute thinkers might guess, those injured were colonial tea smugglers who were bringing in more than a million tons of tea yearly via the ports of Charleston, SC in the south and Boston in the north. Taxed enough? Not hardly. Without heavy taxes to evade, what's there for smugglers to do? The Tea Act pretty much put them out of business. The actual Tea Party in the harbor was a mob action — not a mob of people, and certainly not Indians, but rather a mob — as in mobsters. Not patriots. They were gangsters. The leading tea smuggler in Boston, the signature dealer so to speak, was said to be John Hancock. Among his partners, his attorney John Adams. A rebel has to make a living.
October 15, 2013
Sticking with current events, once more scheduling on short notice, I managed to talk with Dr. Louis Fisher, one of America's preeminent experts on the nuts and bolts of government operations. Lou was forty years with the Library of Congress, has published about twenty books and almost five hundred articles and, of course, has been recognized with scores of prestigious awards. He's a details guy, and his details are about as authoritative as details get. I asked Lou, "On a scale of one to ten, how serious is this budget/debt ceiling crisis?" "A ten," he told me. "So it's a constitutional crisis?" I wanted to know. "Oh yes," he replied. And he doesn't see any easy or quick resolution. Our views differ regarding the merits of extra-constitutional action by the President, but that's immaterial. Lou's deep historical knowledge and his accumulated wisdom about the workings of Congress are most helpful. No, this is certainly not a normal situation.
October 13, 2013
Please to connect the dots: In recent years the Senate filibuster and threat of filibuster — almost always originating on the Republican side of the aisle — has brought normal business to a near halt. It seems fair to say that this is where the Republicans' worst nihilistic impulses got started. Whether consciously or unconsciously House Republicans are now, finally, in the process of emulating the Senate, using obscure rules to undermine government. To, in effect, delegitimize democracy. But have you seen explicit connections being drawn between Senate and House obstructionism? I haven't. Probably it's worth noting, though, because stamping out House obstructionism at this point could never be entirely successful without a corresponding effort in the Senate. Just a thought...
October 8, 2013
Just for the sake of argument let's suppose that Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama don't reach agreement over the debt ceiling before it's breached and that the President — against his wishes — decides he must issue debt unilaterally to pay the bills because, obviously, it would be absolutely contrary to the national interest to cast the U.S., and the world, into economic Armageddon. OK. Barack Obama saves the economy. Most Americans are grateful. People around the world heave a sigh of relief. Amongst Republicans there's much gnashing of teeth and an immediate move to impeach the President. House Republicans do so. Impeachment doesn't get through the Senate but American politics at that point is anything but normal: what else might happen?
October 7, 2013
Think about it for a moment: What's the most awful weapon in the political terrorist's arsenal? It's fear. And in terrorist think-tanks that's what they teach. When Tea Party ideologues shut down the U.S. government and threaten a default on U.S. debt they're all about the fear — and they know it. So while it's critical not to give in to their impossible demands it's also critical not to give in to fear. Anger over hostage-taking, fine; outrage over violating American political norms, perfectly appropriate; disgust over legislative bungling, quite normal. But fear of what might happen shouldn't rattle us.
October 5, 2013
On very short notice I managed to set up an interview with Gary Noesner, until 2003 the FBI's chief hostage negotiator. A fairly senior guy and, indisputably, one of the top hostage negotiators in the world. He agreed to talk with me about how the budget/debt standoff between the President and Congress might be given some necessary context from the point of view of FBI expertise. It was quite a struggle to try to nudge him away from a position of impartiality and, to be honest, I didn't entirely succeed. But my guess is that if we were to sit down over a few cold beers he'd tell me he thinks the Republican right is completely crazy and that Speaker Boehner is their weakest link. Just a guess. In any case I have great respect for Gary and I'm sure that his counsel is worth having. Also, his memoir, Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator (Random House, 2010), is an exciting and unusually thoughtful read.
October 3, 2013
According to Byron York's estimate there are thirty to fifty die-hard Tea Party Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives. So the question practically asks itself: what percentage of the American public do they represent? A detailed analysis and the actual math are beyond me (some mainstream reporter with time on their hands should do it), but figuring that there are about forty real die-hards and that they won their districts by something over fifty percent, a not unreasonable guesstimate puts the percentage of the public they represent at about five percent, give or take a percentage point or two. The follow on question does, indeed, ask itself: according to what political logic should five percent of the population be allowed to thwart the will of the majority? What philosophical rationalization could such a tyranny by the minority over the majority possibly have?
I would respectfully suggest that only the logic of slavery, suffused throughout the U.S. Constitution, explains such an outrageous, unnatural political outcome.
October 1, 2013
From 2007 to 2012 each and every year the EP Podcast has been one of ten finalists for best political podcast at the Annual Podcast Awards, in the company of such shows as the Democracy Now Podcast, the Slate Podcast and the Rachel Maddow Show Podcast. That's quite an accomplishment, and it's mainly thanks to you! With the nominating process for this year's competition now open, please take a minute to again nominate the EP Podcast. It's simple. Fill out the nomination form just one time for 2013 and you're done. Please nominate Electric Politics in the Politics/News category and, if you want, in the meta-category of Peoples Choice. Nominations close on October 15th — Thanks very, very much for participating!!
Now that we have the shutdown we really have to start worrying about the debt ceiling limit. According to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew the current limit will be reached "no later than October 17" and will then have to be raised in order for the U.S. to meet its obligations. If Republicans were to refuse to raise the limit, and if things worked according to their evil plan for blackmail, the United States would, for the first time in its history, default on its debt. In all likelihood that default would precipitate world financial Armageddon. The risk is enormous. If Republicans refuse to act one controversial solution would have the President simply ignore the debt ceiling law and continue to issue debt as usual. But wait! Maybe that debt ceiling law should be treated as a dead letter anyway. Coincidentally (and thanks to several days of Googling and some luck), I've found perhaps the most expert law professor in the country to talk about how the constitution governs, and does not govern, action on the debt ceiling. Neil Buchanan (see his 2012 and 2013 law review essays with Michael Dorf, here, and here) explains that Republicans seem bent on creating a situation, in his terms "a trilemma," where no matter what the President does he breaks the law. The question then becomes which law is least consequential when broken. Put this way, once legal precedent has been sliced and diced, continuing to issue debt as usual is clearly the least bad option. Buchanan and Dorf's analysis is reasonable, easily understood, and amazingly enough has not been contested in legal journals. If you can't stir up an argument among academics you know you're on to something. Also coincidentally, Buchanan and Dorf's analysis was recycled, sort of, with credit duly given, in an Op-ed by Henry Aaron in yesterday's New York Times; if you want a quick précis this is a good place to start. I would add that while Buchanan's writing may seem a tad technocratic, he is, in fact, an extremely liberal and thoughtful guy and I know that he and I are largely on the same wavelength. This is a great interview, not to be missed!
November 1, 2013
Color me skeptical but I don't see how a technocratic "third way" can be a sustainable political strategy. Instead — and perhaps I'm being too hard on the Democratic party here — all it really demonstrates is a failure of imagination. When ordinary people decide political questions they want more than merely logical policy arguments. They want to feel like they're doing the right thing. Yet when it comes to politics our language of moral choice has become chronically impoverished. Why is that, I wonder? ...Here's what I think, in about five minutes. Sapere audē.
October 25, 2013
Every journey starts with a single step. So, too, every revolution starts with a single idea, that justice requires a new social covenant. A revolution is about health care, but it's not about health care. It's about nuclear disarmament, but not about nuclear disarmament. It's about protecting the environment, but no, it's not. It is always, though, about democracy, a process that flows inevitably from justice if only ever imperfectly. To talk about democracy in America — and why people like the idea — I turned to the progressive activist David Cobb, who has a much better sense than I do of the pulse of the nation. Thanks, Brother! Total runtime thirty one minutes. Omne tulit pūnctum quī miscuit ūtile dulcī.
October 18, 2013
The budget and the national debt have become a political wedge that threatens to fracture America's constitutional order. Built-in constitutional tension has become dangerously unstable. If there's a potential fix through the electoral process (which I doubt) it's elusive: this crisis has been building for decades. What's clear, though, is that we can't continue to lurch from fiscal cliff-hanger to fiscal cliff-hanger. Indeed, that would be pretty much like having no government at all. To talk about how bad things have gotten I turned to Dr. Louis Fisher, who knows more about American governmental process than most. Thanks, Lou, for your rock solid perspective! Total runtime forty six minutes. Possunt quia posse videntur.
October 11, 2013
They're extremely agitated. They're desperate to get what they want but have run out of options. Now they've seized hostages and are making dire threats. You should keep the innocent safe but avoid deploying unnecessary force against the hostage-takers. What to do? For some advice on hostage situations — specifically on the House Republicans' budget/debt ceiling demands — I turned to Gary Noesner, formerly the chief of the FBI's Crisis Negotiation Unit. A thirty year FBI veteran, Gary is one of the top hostage negotiators in the world. His politically impartial advice is well worth listening to. And his memoir Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator (Random House, 2010) is a great read, highly recommended! Total runtime forty three minutes. Audī alteram partem.
October 4, 2013
If the President unilaterally blows past the debt ceiling he breaks the law. If he unilaterally chooses which programs not to fund so as to avoid blowing past the debt ceiling he breaks the law. If he, again unilaterally, raises taxes to stay under the debt ceiling he breaks the law. It's a trilemma... From a constitutional point of view there is a fundamental prohibition on Congress telling the President to do Congress' job. And from a narrower but not unimportant political perspective, does it make sense for Congress to vote for popular spending programs and then make the President make the unspecified, unpopular cuts? No! House Republicans think they have found leverage through the debt ceiling but in the final analysis that leverage works only against themselves. There may be some danger, though, that the President, if forced, chooses the wrong law to break. To explain all this I turned to the brilliant lawyer and economist Dr. Neil H. Buchanan, one of the few people in the country who understands what's happening. Thanks, Neil! Total runtime forty five minutes. Silent lēgēs inter arma.
September 27, 2013
It's not so easy to balance the curiosity of a child with the cynicism of a policeman, or a secret agent. But Inspector O, of North Korea, manages to look for things where others dare not go. And finds his answers. A deeply satisfying literary figure, O also helps us look into the mirror at ourselves, possibly to be amused at our constant predicaments. Writing under the pseudonym James Church, a former western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia has brought out a series of five brilliant novels about the adventures of Inspector O — the latest, A Drop of Chinese Blood (Minotaur/Macmillan, 2012), featuring O's nephew, Major Bing. Great fun. Hopefully there will be many more! Total runtime fifty one minutes. Rīdendō dīcere vērum.
September 20, 2013
It's rare for an officer still in uniform to become a whistleblower. LTC Daniel L. Davis earned his bones reporting publicly the results of his investigations into how things are failing in Afghanistan. Now, refocused on a bigger picture, Danny is calling for a purge of high level military brass. And why not? It's a useful conversation to have. The fact is, our military is not immune from American political decay... Thanks, Danny! Total runtime thirty five minutes. Sal Atticum.
September 13, 2013
The notion that America can fix politics in the Middle East or anywhere else is laughable. It won't happen through our good example, and especially not through war. Unless, that is, we were prepared to take over the government of Bamboozlestan and occupy the place for several generations, which we're not. To explain how U.S. military doctrine became fatally flawed regarding counterinsurgency strategy I turned to Col. Gian Gentile, Ph.D., a professor at West Point and author of Wrong Turn: America's Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency. Thanks, Gian, for your most helpful insights! Total runtime forty six minutes. Obscūrum per obscūrius.
September 6, 2013
In September 2009, Najibullah Zazi — a naturalized American citizen who had been born in Afghanistan — loaded his car in Aurora, Colorado, drove to New York City, and prepared to blow himself up in the subway system. Trained in Pakistan by al-Qaeda, Zazi had used simple, readily available chemicals to brew himself a powerful TATP bomb. Thanks, however, to an email intercept (through NSA's now notorious PRISM program) the FBI learned of the plot, trailed Zazi, and finally arrested him. The Feds lucked out, especially since the NYPD almost spooked Zazi into the wind. This story could have turned out much differently! To tell it, Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, both Pulitzer Prize winning AP investigative reporters, authored Enemies Within (Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster, just published this week). And Matt was kind enough to talk with me. Total runtime thirty six minutes. Occultae inimīcitiae magis timendae sunt quam apertae.
August 30, 2013
America has many of the vestments of democracy but, in truth, not so much of the substance. Compared to advanced democracies abroad we're in a category by ourselves. What's possibly the most peculiar thing of all is that we're so unaware of how very, very different we are, or why that's the case, while at the same time we tout our political acumen to the world... not to mention that we punctuate our dime store evangelism with haphazard, often futile, and usually shockingly brutal applications of military power. American self-ignorance, compounded, has become a moral pathology. To put empirical comparisons in perspective and to field a few normative questions I turned to Dr. Arend Lijphart, a past President of the American Political Science Association and a renown expert on comparative government and democratic institutions. Also a really nice guy. Thanks Arend! Total runtime thirty eight minutes. Caesar nōn suprā grammaticōs.
August 23, 2013
It's becoming the age of the American Banana Republic. We haven't gotten there yet but we're heading straight for it and it's close. We should be ashamed. But parsing the policy that surrounds inequality gets complicated. Tim Noah has thus done a tremendous service by collecting the threads in his book The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do about It (Bloomsbury Press, 2012). A moderate, highly intelligent take on a massive problem. Thanks, Tim! Total runtime forty minutes. Vīvere est cōgitāre.
August 16, 2013
Even if it often seems like we live in a rat race that doesn't mean we must be rats. Indeed, most of us have much greater latitude than we realize to be happy, or at least happier than we already are. But don't take my word for it. Cutting edge research suggests simple lifestyle alternatives that could improve not only personal well-being but, with some imagination, our collective well-being too. Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending (Simon & Schuster, just published) by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, a deceptively simple and — in my view — deeply subversive book, reevaluates our constraints. Mike was very kind to take my questions seriously. Total runtime forty one minutes. Albō lapillō notāre diem.