Monday, January 31, 2005

He must hate freedom

Tim Cavanaugh of Reason magazine argues that the war in Iraq was not vindicated by Sunday's apparently successful election, but he notes that it's an argument most war opponents are ill-prepared to make.

I sympathize with these naysayers, mainly because I too believe the invasion of Iraq was a bad idea and is not made worthwhile by a day's worth of soul-stirring images of happy voters. But I wonder why the skeptics weren't better prepared, since it has been clear for many months that some sort of election was looming, and it was only logical that war supporters would seize on the very fact of a vote to declare a Midway-style tide-turning victory against their ideological opponents. Perhaps my fellow skeptics have been too drunk on the steady stream of bad news coming from Iraq in the past year, but they should have seen this coming.

The hawks have been winning the argument over the rightness of the Iraq war all along. They won it, obviously and most decisively, in 2003, when the invasion took place right on schedule, according to the hawks' very precise specifications. But they will also win the ultimate argument over whether it was all worth it—a much more important argument because that's the one America will look to during the perfunctory debate that precedes our next military intervention. The hawks won't win that argument because the results will be so clearly good (if anything, the results in Iraq have been and will continue to be ambiguous), but because, as my colleague Brian Doherty has shown,
time is always on the side of the hawks. The groundwork for validating the Iraq war is already well in place, and in a few years the case will be embarrassingly easy to make: That wasn't so bad, was it—a few thousand dead to subdue a land mass larger than Vietnam? And since, on balance, things will always be better in the future than they were now, any improvements can easily be attributed to the war itself. Look, the argument will go, Qaddafi only tried to assassinate one Saudi official this year: Clearly, he got the message of the Iraq war. The editor of an opposition paper in Damascus has been released from prison: The regime must be feeling the pressure of the newly free Iraq. Saudi Arabia says it may review its policy on punitive amputations: Good thing we didn't listen to the Blame America First crowd back in 2003.

Which isn't to say we shouldn't celebrate the good news coming from Iraq, because if you want bad things to happen there merely so your side can prevail in an argument, then you must not care for your country, or the cause of peace. But if things do turn out right, it won't be because of good policy. Sometimes, as they say, it is better to be lucky than good.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

That Man

Daniel Gross offers a concise and compelling defense of the New Deal in the wake of its continued assault by the GOP:

The theory that new taxes and regulation would inevitably hamper economic growth and destroy America exerted a powerful hold on the minds of the business establishment and the economic right in the 1930s—just as it does today. FDR's proposals seemed to fly in the basic everything these experts knew about how the economy works. In particular, FDR upended the hallowed equation: taxes and regulation equals tyranny and depression.

But a funny thing happened on the road to serfdom. FDR may have gone too far on occasion. He was great, not perfect. And the consumer-based economy that defines our age emerged only after World War II. But the economy did come back to life. Gross domestic product rose 90 percent between 1933 and 1941. Far from turning the United States into a Western version of the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, the New Deal allowed the United States to function as the world's bulwark against both. The institutions that stood at the heart of the American experiment—representative democracy, the separation of powers, a system of managerial capitalism, liquid capital markets—survived in a world gone mad.

It's difficult to discern the short-term political gain for Republicans to try to dismantle Social Security now. So the payoff must be more psychological or intellectual. Now that they indisputably control all three branches of government, Republicans finally have the opportunity to slay some of the liberal demons that have been bedeviling them for so long.

The point is not that we shouldn't reform, modernize or jettison many long-standing government programs and regulations. Rather, it's that we should be mindful of the historic forces that gave birth to the economic and political systems we have today. The United States avoided the malevolent ideologies that afflicted much of the rest of the world during the 20th century because it had a political system that is dynamic and responsive to the needs of the day, not to any specific dogma.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Nanook of the North

Ladies and gentlemen, your vice president:

Cheney stood out in a sea of black-coated world leaders because he was wearing an olive drab parka with a fur-trimmed hood. It is embroidered with his name. It reminded one of the way in which children's clothes are inscribed with their names before they are sent away to camp. And indeed, the vice president looked like an awkward boy amid the well-dressed adults.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Batter up

There's little original but much that bears repeating in this essay about Major League Baseball steroid hypocrisy. Baseball purists are fretting because Barry Bonds stands to break the all-time homerun record, and he already holds the single-season record. But many Major League milestones were set at a time when many athletes also had an unfair competitive advantage:

In the 20th Century, baseball was America's Favorite Past Time, second only to invading small countries. Baseball players and their records were cultural icons; every kid knew the batting averages and rbi's of their favorite players. How many wins? How many hits in a season? How many homeruns? What did DiMaggio do today? When Ruth was asked why he was paid more than the Depression-plagued President, he responded "because I had a better year."

How would these records have changed if African Americans (and Latinos of African ancestry) had been included during the 60 year period of color line baseball? What impact would black players have had on the records of the all-white baseball players? Would Ruth have still hit 714 homeruns if he had to face pitchers like Satchel Paige, Leon Day or Smokey Joe Williams?

It seems unlikely.

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Safe, legal and rare

Critics of Hillary Clinton will say that the New York senator's efforts to seek common ground with the anti-abortion movement is a cynical, poll-driven attempt to shed the early perception that she's the kind of Northeastern liberal who would lead the Democratic party to defeat in 2008 at the hands of red state America. And they'd be right. But that doesn't mean it's not a smart thing for both her and her party. A majority of Americans do not want to see women lose access to legal abortions. But they also see abortion as an outcome to be avoided, a tragedy even if they do not equate it with murder. President Bush understands this--you'll recall the conciliatory language he used in his 2000 GOP convention speech. President Clinton understood it too when he called for making abortion "safe, legal and rare." Let's hope the rest of the party understands it as well.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Are they saying boo, or Boo-urns?

Well, the Steelers game really sucked. I was really excited to see the Steelers get to the Super Bowl, as I was in graduate school in Ohio the last time they went. I was the only person jumping up and down when they beat the Colts in the AFC title game, and when I watched the Super Bowl, I was the only person disappointed at their loss.

Look on the bright side: Even if the Steelers had beaten the Patriots, and then gone on to win the Super Bowl, we'd still be living in an overtaxed, broke, mismanaged city run by a corrupt political machine. So cheer up.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Here we go

Bill Steigerwald discusses his waning passion for the Steelers in his Trib column:

What has turned me off most, however, is the slimy politics practiced by the NFL. The league and wealthy owners like the Rooneys have cynically exploited their local popularity and exaggerated economic clout to extort billions in taxpayer dollars for dozens of new football stadiums.

But no matter how much we love them or think we need them for economic or psychological reasons, the Steelers don't deserve a dime of public subsidy, any more than Eat 'n Park or the Penguins do. Even if the Steelers go to the Super Bowl, which I hope they do, accepting stolen goods from politicians is still a major penalty.

Driving home Bill's point is this profile of the Rooneys and how they have turned the Steelers into one of the nation's most profitable sports franchises. The Rooneys told public officials in 1994 that they were considering selling the team. What a coincidence that a few years later city, county and state officials agreed to bankroll the cost of a lucrative new stadium:

The Rooneys put up $100 million of the $281 million construction price, but recouped more than half of their investment by selling naming rights to H.J. Heinz for $57 million. Another source of revenue were controversial seat licenses, which ranged in price from $200 to $800.

The trade-off for up-front construction costs was a lease agreement that allowed the team to keep more of the revenues generated by the new stadium. Under their lease, the Steelers keep the big-ticket items -- revenue from 6,600 club seats, a portion of parking fees, the naming rights and most of the gate proceeds. At Three Rivers, the team paid $70,000 per game, plus 10 percent of the revenue, as rent to the Stadium Authority.

One estimate put the lease cost to the Steelers of $2.5 million in their last year at Three Rivers Stadium. At Heinz Field, the team pays the Sports and Exhibition Authority $250,000 a year in rent.

Don't forget that the Steelers also share development rights with the Pirates for the land between their two publicly funded playgrounds, and that the Rooneys got a $4 million state grant to build an amphitheater next to Heinz Field. Also interesting in this article is Dan Rooney's unsentimental attitude towards winning a Super Bowl:

Although he is excited by the prospect of the Steelers' winning a fifth Super Bowl, Rooney said winning an NFL championship actually reduces profits because of additional daily expenses while adding little more than "emotional" value to the franchise's net worth.

The Forbes franchise survey seems to support Rooney's contention. It estimated the value of the New England Patriots increased by 14 percent over the past year, less than the Steelers' 18 percent gain.

I love the Steelers, and I hope they win today. But let's not forget Bill's point--the Steelers are a business, whose primary motivation is to maximize profits. They are no more a community asset than any other local business. When it comes to public policy, let's stop treating them as such.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

The union label

This City Journal article delves into the history of public-sector unions and describes the stranglehold they have over urban politics.

Political leaders and labor experts predicted that government-employee unions would use their monopoly power over public services to win contracts with work rules far more generous and undemanding than in the private sector, and that without the restraints on salaries and benefits that the free marketplace imposes on private firms, unions would win increasingly meaty compensation and pension packages that would be impossible to roll back once enacted.

But what critics did not anticipate was how far public-employee unions would move beyond collective bargaining and inject themselves into the electoral and legislative processes. Today, the endorsement of a public-sector union is crucial to the election of many local candidates, and public unions now often spend far more on lobbying and political advertising on local issues than any business group does.

Sound familiar, Pittsburghers?

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Please just go away

I wish John Kerry were being sworn in as president Thursday, and not George W. Bush. But he is quickly growing tiresome in defeat, and I have to agree with the sentiments expressed in the Wall Street Journal's Best of the Web:

John Kerry* "used Boston's annual Martin Luther King Jr. memorial breakfast yesterday to decry what he called the suppression of thousands of would-be voters last November," reports the Boston Globe:

"Thousands of people were suppressed in their efforts to vote. Voting machines were distributed in uneven ways," the former Democratic nominee told an enthusiastic audience of 1,200 at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in South Boston.

"In Democratic districts, it took people four, five, 11 hours to vote, while Republicans [went] through in 10 minutes. Same voting machines, same process, our America," Kerry said.

Dude, you lost. Get over it. And if there are problems with inadequate supplies of voting machines in Democratic districts, shouldn't the leaders of the Democratic Party be working with Democratic local officials to find a remedy, rather than whining about how unfair America is?

Democrats really need to stop pretending that the reason they keep losing elections is because Republicans cheat or because they fight dirty. Otherwise, they will keep losing.

Just say yes

Mike Seate has a nice column about a former police officer who now crusades against the war on drugs:

His main problems with the war on drugs are the astronomical costs in lives and money.

"What grinds me up is the way law enforcement people perpetuate the lie that arresting drug dealers will make a difference in the availability and strength of drugs," he said. "The smugglers are smart enough to factor in a loss of maybe 20 percent of a shipment. So even when there's a big bust, they just ship more."

It might seem odd for a former cop to question the sanity of locking up casual drug users, but Wooldridge said the $28,000 it costs to imprison a user for a year could be better spent on rehabilitation programs or tracking down violent criminals.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Train in vain

The federal government, which is bankrolling the Port Authority's North Shore T extension, has the nerve to demand the authority be able to balance its budget and afford the extenion's $740,000 annual operating costs before federal funds will be released for the project. I have a better idea: Kill this boondoggle altogether. The Port Authority ignored cheaper alternatives for the T extension in choosing to tunnel under the Allegheny River, and besides, there is no real demand for this. There is plenty of parking available for Pirates and Steelers games, and residents will see little benefit because with few exceptions they'll still have to take a bus to Downtown, unless they feel like hoofing it to the T.

Is it any wonder rural and suburban legislators are telling the Port Authority, hat in hand and threatening to cut service and raise fares, to get bent?

Saturday, January 15, 2005

No More Mr. Nice Guy

Since George W. Bush first assumed office in 2001, the Democrats have employed a go-along-to-get-along strategy. They not only deferred to and compromised with the GOP on many post-9/11 national security issues--perhaps understandable if short-sighted--but also on many domestic issues, such as the unnecessary tax cuts. What has this strategy wrought? Devestating mid-term election losses in 2002, and a demoralizing presidential election loss in 2004. And still it seems that many Democrats would rather seek out compromise than fight for their principals.

But as Michael Crowley points out in this New Republic essay, had Newt Gingrich been so easily rolled, he might never have engineered the electoral revolution that trounced a corrupt and recalcitrant Democratic majority from Congress in 1994. Crowley said it's high time that Democrats adopt these tactics. Some of the young bucks in the party, like Texas' Chris Bell, are eager to get their hands dirty, and as Crowley notes, their leaders are as anxious to distance themselves from such tactics as were the Republicans before Gingrich and his disciples captured the party:

Gingrich didn't care that Republican leaders of the time found him uncouth--just as senior Democrats were wary of Chris Bell's ethics crusade. "Be gentlemanly, and once you've made your point, get on with the business of governing," was the motto of Bob Michel, then the House GOP leader. But, in Gingrich's view, gentlemen were political losers.

One of the young Republicans who took a lesson from Gingrich's playbook was a guy named Rick Santorum, who had been elected to the House in 1990 and joined Gingrich's campaign against Democratic corruption and abuse of power. Whatever happened to Santorum? Oh, yeah, he got elected to the Senate in 1994, is now the number three man in the Senate, and is mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2008. (His name also has became a slang term for a byproduct of anal sex, but you can't win them all.)

Gingrich may have been brought low by his own hubris, but his party no longer needed him. Now, of course, they are as corrupt as the Democratic majority they overthrew, and it is time for a Democratic Gingrich to emerge. Democrats need to stop worry about being labeled "obstructionists" unless they want to continue to be labeled "losers."

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Murphy's law

I missed this article yesterday in the PG about Jason Togyer's G.C. Murphy book.

Highway to Hell

Charles Rosenblum lays out everything that's wrong with the Mon-Fayette Expressway here. In particular, he discusses what it will do to Braddock:

Mon-Fayette advocates insist that the new traffic will benefit Braddock by encouraging development. That reasoning is simply false: Look at struggling East Ohio Street on the North Side near the Parkway North. It’s also creepy. Do they really have to destroy Braddock to save it? A few tens of millions of dollars to save historic Braddock was derided as an unrealistic pipedream. But now that it’s too late, a few billion to flatten what’s left for a highway -- there’s a great idea. ...

In an era of smart growth, sustainable development and a movement of people back to the cities, the idea of a new superhighway is more out-of-date than any under-maintained Victorian building ever was. It’s positively antediluvian.

Full disclosure: Rosenblum teaches at Carnegie Mellon. For more thoughts on the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and the Mon-Fayette Expressway, go here and here.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

They forgot to mention the brand promise

At last, an honest portrait of Pittsburgh in the national media:

Even though Pittsburgh has diversified, and the Steelers reflect this resourcefulness, in many ways the city represents America in a rear-view mirror. The region lost 158,000 manufacturing jobs and 289,000 residents between 1970 and 1990, according to Carnegie Mellon University.

Currently, the city faces a deep financial crisis, the N.H.L. players are locked out and the Pirates struggle to maintain relevance against teams in bigger markets, with deeper pockets.

In focusing on Pittsburgh's industrial past and its out-of-all-proportion devotion to the Steelers, this article was probably despised by the folks at the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance and all the other do-nothing groups who wring their hands and obsess over Pittsburgh's image, blaming our alleged "image problem" for our problems. But the truth is that many of the reports about the city by the national media are deceptively upbeat, portraying the city as we might want it to be, not as it is. It's not our image we have to apologize for, nor our past. Those are things we can't do much about anyway. Let's focus on the things we can.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Will they vote?

Christopher Hitchens, in drawing a contrast between the recent Palestinian elections and the upcoming elections in Iraq, makes a compelling argument for holding the Iraqi elections on time:

Reports seem to suggest that almost 70 percent of the Palestinians turned out to vote. Given the gruesome local exigencies, and the grudging way in which the Israelis allowed freedom of movement, this cannot possibly translate into a 30 percent endorsement of the call for a boycott by Hamas and by Islamic Jihad. One might award them 20 percent at best: roughly the proportion of Sunni Muslims in Iraq who don't want to have their future (or anyone else's) determined by ballot. Should one have postponed a Palestinian vote until these violent rejectionist forces were all "on board"?

The scheduled elections would seem to pose a lose-lose proposition for both the United States and Iraq. If elections go forward but a significant number of people, particularly among the Sunnis, are unable or unwilling to participate, the results will be seen as illegitimate, and the country may slip into civil war. (Not to mention an increase of violence against U.S. troops) On the other hand, should the U.S. and the provisional Iraqi government postpone the election, we will be handing the insurgents a major propaganda victory and squander whatever goodwill we might have left as liberators. Given that civil war may be inevitable, I'm tempted to go with the former scenario.

Leaving Downtown

The Post-Gazette, in this editorial praising the departing executive director of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, implicitly accepts two false premises that have been at the heart of the city's wrong-headed redevelopment initiatives. One is that making the city a nice place to visit is more important than making it a pleasant and affordable place to live. The other is that revitalizing Downtown is the key to revitalizing the city as a whole. This is backwards. Downtown's continued decline is a symptom of the city's problems, not their cause. You can dress it up in a nice suit and skillfully apply the makeup, but at the end of the day, a corpse is still a corpse.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

The wheels on the bus, continued

The Trib rightly takes the Port Authority of Allegheny County to task for crying poor to state lawmakers while wasting money on unnecessary expansion projects. The conservative Trib has driven this point home previously but it's hard to say this too many times:

How does inflating ridership projections on proposed new projects to secure taxpayer dollars -- only to have ridership never approach those numbers -- "serve the public"?

And then how does building these projects (which will beget even more empty buses and trolleys), when the existing system already isn't running with much operational or economic efficiency, "serve the public"?

If we want mass transit to do nothing in particular and do it very well, then, by all means, the state Legislature should give the Port Authority and SEPTA all the money they want. But we can do better. Let's get started.

In the interest of airing all sides, you can find a nuanced and substantive defense of the Port Authority here.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

She turned me into a Newt

Even those of us who find his politics and personality distasteful have to give some grudging respect to Newt Gingrich. He is a man of vision who isn't afraid to talk about bold ideas, two qualities that helped propel him to Speaker of the House a decade ago and end 40 years of Democratic rule in Congress. But he's arrogant and mean, and in trying to gut numerous federal programs he vastly overestimated Americans' appetite for smaller government. (Most Americans want to cut government programs, except those that benefit them.) He was a perfect foil for Bill Clinton, who used Gingrich to rescue his own political fortunes.

Now, there's talk Gingrich may run for president, which I'm tempted to write off as a conspiracy to help Democrats raise money. I'm glad to hear he's a critic of the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq, yet despite my admiration for his political skills I find Gingrich to be a rather despicable human being. I also think his odds of winning a national election are slim. Or that's what I'd like to think, at least.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

The army you have

More evidence that Bush, Rumsfeld and company have been trying to fight the war in Iraq on the cheap: the head of the Army reserves says that his troops have been pushed to the breaking point.

In the memo, dated Dec. 20, Lt. Gen. James R. "Ron" Helmly lashed out at what he said were outdated and "dysfunctional" policies on mobilizing and managing the force. He complained that his repeated requests to adjust the policies to current realities have been rebuffed by Pentagon authorities.

The three-star general, who has a reputation for speaking bluntly, said the situation has reached a point at which the Army Reserve is "in grave danger of being unable to meet" its operational requirements if other national emergencies arise. Insistence on restrictive policies, he continued, "threatens to unhinge an already precariously balanced situation in which we are losing as many soldiers through no use as we are through the fear of overuse."

We knew before the war that the uniformed brass were skeptical of going to war in Iraq; but one of the foundations of our system of government is that civilians control the military, which means the military doesn't and shouldn't get to choose which wars to fight and which to avoid. But the evidence appears to be mounting that when it comes to how to fight, a matter on which the military should have the greatest say, they are being routinely ignored. One wonders if the ongoing violence in Iraq is the result.

UPDATE: My favorite anonymous commentator tells me there's more to the story.

Breaking the machine

The New York Times lays out Arnold Schwarzenhager's ambitious agenda this year in California, including a plan to take congressional redistricting away from the Legislature and giving it to a panel of retired judges. Redistricting has become a nice little racket for both parties, which in many states conspire to create districts that are safe for encumbents. It means few competitive seats and few real choices for voters:

According to The Cook Political Report, 151 Congressional seats were considered competitive after the redistricting that followed the 1990 census. After the 2000 redistricting, only 45 seats were considered competitive. In 2004, only 13 changed party hands and only 7 incumbents lost.

Of course, in California, it is the Guvinator's party, the GOP, which would stand to gain the most if the current system was changed, as Democrats are the majority in the Legislature, and the Legislature draws congressional districts. But that doesn't mean it's not a good idea. If Schwarzenhager makes good on his threat to take the matter to the voters if necessary, let's hope they do the right thing. Maybe it will an inspiration for the rest of us.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

The road to nowhere, continued

The Trib takes a good hard look at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and its wasteful expansion projects, including the Amos K. Hutchinson Bypass in Westmoreland County. Having family in the western part of Westmoreland County, I've been on that road on a handful of occassions, and I probably could have driven in reverse the entire trip and no one would have been the wiser. Sure enough, the Trib finds that it is carrying nowhere near the amount of traffic that "experts" predicted. It gets better:

The expansion projects, including the unfinished $4.3 billion Mon-Fayette Expressway, already have caused three toll increases.

Even as politicians pushed expansion, the 360-mile mainline was deteriorating. Turnpike officials raised tolls Aug. 1 by an average of 44 percent to pay for reconstruction, which will take 30 years to complete at a cost of $9 million to $10 million a mile.

How does the commission and its friends in the Legislature justify these projects? Why, they will be engines of economic development, of course. But as the Trib's article notes, there is scant evidence that the projects have boosted local economies, and certainly not remotely enough to justify the costs. Rather, the turnpike commission and its expansion projects are a source of political pork and patronage. The more I live in this state the more I realize that it is a bloated and corrupt government, as much as anything else, that holds Pennsylvania back. No amount of highways is going to change that.