James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Filibuster

  • Bad News, Good Headline

    The importance of one verb and one noun

    On the New York Times site just now:

    What is very good, and accurate, about this headline: the verb "blocks" and the noun "filibuster."

    On why those two words are important—in contrast, say, to the word "fails" in the headline below from the same paper (and same reporter) in similar circumstances less than three months ago—see this compendium of items on reporters' and editors' discomfort in using the plain word "filibuster" to describe what is going on.  


    Poorly done, Senate Republicans; nicely done, NYT.

    Update: The headline on today's story was better than the article itself, whose second paragraph read as follows:

    The vote was 54 to 42, with 60 votes needed to advance the measure.

    For "advance the measure" read "break a threatened filibuster."

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  • Friday Update: Filibuster, Surveillance State, Political Macho, and Other Hardy Perennials

    A word we should use more frequently ("filibuster"), and one we should use less ("tough")

    1) Fun with filibusters. Here we go again. Fellow news writers, it is really not that hard to work the word "filibuster" into your stories that deal with minority obstructionism. Yesterday we learned from the AP:

    WASHINGTON (AP) -- Bowing to the Pentagon, the Senate agreed after impassioned debate Thursday to leave the authority to prosecute rapes and other serious crimes with military commanders in a struggle that highlighted the growing role of women in Congress.

    The vote was 55-45 in favor of stripping commanders of that authority, but that was short of the 60 necessary to move ahead on the legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

    In the same length or less, you can be clearer about what happened. See for yourself:

    [before] but that was short of the 60 necessary to move ahead on the legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

    [after] but that was short of the 60 needed to break a threatened filibuster of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's bill.

    Why does this matter? Because of the venerable "defining deviancy downward" phenomenon. Through the first two centuries of American history, it was not normal to apply a 60-vote filibuster threat to every routine piece of legislation. That's a recent innovation, and distortion. Each time press reports treat a 60-vote threshold as normal, they contribute to a de facto rewriting of the Constitution.

    Seriously, it's very easy to do this the right way.

    2) Fun with security over-reach. Or maybe not so fun. I am grateful to a reader and fellow Cirrus pilot who sends this note about a surveillance intrusion I find surprising, even given everything else we've learned.

    You can read all the details from Papers, Please, and in the court complaint filed last month, but here is the gist: Armed Customs/Border Patrol agents (CBP) detained and questioned a U.S. citizen whose citizenship was never in doubt, and who was not trying to leave or enter the country. They did so based on the contents of romantic messages they had somehow seen in her personal email. As it happens, this citizen was a 50-something professor at Indiana University (and former CBS employee—as you'll see, her age is relevant), and the detention took place about as far as you can get from any U.S. border, in Indianapolis.

    I've written to CBP to ask their side of the story, but at face value it seems to be another of the ratchet-like expansions of routine surveillance/security-state extensions that over time become the new normal. It's almost as if you put a frog into a pot of lukewarm water ...

    3) China, Russia, and Ukraine. The backstory here involves China's ongoing attempts to match its recently tightened internal political controls with its desire to expand its "soft power" attraction to the rest of the world. CNN's Jaime FlorCruz and Paul Armstrong do a nice job of explaining a related dilemma: how China tries to balance its desire to improve Sino-Russian relations with its longstanding Rule Number One of foreign policy, which is that countries should mind their own business and not interfere in one another's affairs. The story explains what this means for Ukraine and Crimea and what China is likely to do.

    Bonus background point: For both better and worse, the Chinese leadership has less experience as a participant in fast-breaking international crises than do European countries, Russia, or of course the U.S. Therefore its first reaction when trouble brews up is often to seem paralyzed. Sometimes that creates problems, but overall it's probably healthier than a trigger-happy impulse to do something in response to the emergencies of each news cycle.

    Which leads us to ...

    4) Fun with manliness. Usually there is no point quoting from or even mentioning NYT op-ed columns. The ones that are interesting you already know about.

    But because I found myself agreeing with every single word of the opening paragraph of the latest column by Tom Friedman, I wanted to say so, and quote the paragraph. His column began:

    Just as we’ve turned the coverage of politics into sports, we’re doing the same with geopolitics. There is much nonsense being written about how Vladimir Putin showed how he is “tougher” than Barack Obama and how Obama now needs to demonstrate his manhood. This is how great powers get drawn into the politics of small tribes and end up in great wars that end badly for everyone. We vastly exaggerate Putin’s strength—so does he—and we vastly underestimate our own strength, and ability to weaken him through nonmilitary means.

    Yes about the everything-as-sport pathology of the media. Yes about the conversion of everything into "toughness." (If you don't know anything about the substance of an issue—hey, where is this Crimea place anyway?—you can always sound authoritative about who snookered whom, who blinked, etc.) Yes about great powers and small wars.* Yes about misreading Russia's (or China's) strength, and our own.

    It would be OK with me if Friedman made this the boilerplate first (or last) paragraph of every column he writes for a while.

    While I'm at it, I might as well cite a paragraph from Nick Kristof I agreed with too. He quotes bellicose rantings from usual pro-interventionist suspects, ranging from John McCain to the Washington Post's editorial page. He replies:

    Oh, come on! The villain here is named Putin, not Obama, and we should have learned to feel nervous when hawks jump up and down and say “do something!” We tried that in Iraq. When there are no good options, a flexing of muscles by NATO or by American warships in the Black Sea would only reinforce President Vladimir Putin’s narrative to his home audience while raising the risk of conflict by accident or miscalculation.

    Here is something to think about: Friedman and Kristof, who are warning against the impulse to prove our "toughness" by shooting things up, spent significant shares of their reporting careers based in the actual world, outside the United States. Many of the people who are most insistently yelling "Do something!" or "Obama's a wimp," from commentators to politicians, have a firsthand experience of "toughness" and its consequences largely confined to the Acela Corridor, attack ads, think tanks and policy papers, and the green room.**

    Bear that in mind when you hear the next get-tough announcement on cable news or read it in a column. Does this person's imagination of "face" and toughness extend much outside the U.S. political realm?


    * To spare those tempted to write in and remind me: Yes in fact I am aware that a dozen years ago Friedman was very prominently in the "do something!" camp about Iraq. I'll let you search for the "suck on this" video yourself. I disagreed with him then but very much agree with him now.

    ** John McCain is an obvious exception. That he so bravely withstood and surmounted his ordeal as a POW in Vietnam remains to his lasting credit and will always deserve respect. It also took place in an entirely different strategic world—Vietnam now often acts as a de facto U.S. ally in struggles over Chinese influence in the Pacific. His claim to AIPAC that "nobody believes in American strength" suggests to me that he needs to get out more.

  • In Honor of the Olympics, Let's Talk Filibuster

    What's the word I was looking for—the one that starts with "F" and applies when a bill gets 59 votes? Oh, yes, now it comes back to me: "Fail."

    Stop me if you've heard this one before:

    A large majority of the U.S. Senate votes in favor of a measure—in this case, senators representing nearly 70 percent of the U.S. population*. A minority threatens a filibuster to stop it. The majority falls just short of the supermajority needed to get its way. And our leading journalistic institutions tell us that ... the measure "failed."

    Yes, you have heard this before. But for the record, come on New York Times (source of the breaking-news flash above, and the story below, and which did get the word "filibuster" into the end of the second paragraph):

    And come on CNN (which did not manage to include the word filibuster):

    And come on Boston Globe—which in its defense was using the NYT story, though it presumably could write its own headlines:


    On the other hand, nicely done, Reuters!

    And welcome Politico!



    *Fun fact for the day: By my ballpark count, the 59 senators who voted for the bill represented states with just less than 70 percent of the U.S. population. The 41 who voted no represented just more than 30 percent of the population. With only 70 percent support, no wonder the bill "failed."

    The nightmare of article-writing nears the end of its cycle, at least for this issue. Coming soon, more reports from up-and-coming parts of America, plus what I learned by watching the pre-opening night of the Winter Olympics.

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  • Just Use the Damned Word: Filibuster

    Defining obstructionism down

    How not to do it: home page of the NYT just now. [And see intriguing update below.]

    Careful students can follow along as we review what's wrong here:

    1) "Necessary 60-vote threshold" implies some regular constitutional requirement, like the supermajorities necessary for impeachment trials or treaty approval. In fact incessant use of the filibuster is a recent, shift-of-norms phenomenon—and one of the goals of its practitioners is "defining obstructionism down" precisely so that its abuse will be treated as "necessary" and routine. 

    2) "Fell short" and "stalled" are intransitive verbs suggesting a weakness, failure, or insufficiency. In fact the nomination received a clear majority of 56 Senators, who as it happens probably represent about two-thirds of the population, but it was actively blocked rather than petering out on its own. To be fair, the headline uses the word "reject." 

    Courtesy of the WaPo, here is a how-to illustration of the way a lead story can note these realities:

     On point #1, we've got the plain word "filibuster." On point #2, we've got the transitive verbs "blocked" and "denied."

    What's really going on here? Below you see the current lineup of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, usually considered to be the most important appeals court not simply because of its jurisdiction over many federal regulatory cases but also because so many Supreme Court nominees come from there. 

    You'll see that the twice-elected Bill Clinton has three appointees on the court, as does the twice-elected George W. Bush. The single-term George H.W. Bush has one appointee, as does the current, twice-elected Barack Obama. The Republican filibuster strategy is an attempt to stall as long as possible before allowing Obama to fill those vacant seats. It's a kind of reverse court-packing, as Garrett Epps has explained; by extension, it's an attempt to spread abuse of the minority-blocking power in the Senate to another branch of government. Agree with the policy or disagree, but call it what it is. Please.

    I take it back! Or something. Two minutes after posting, as I check the NYT story again to add its URL link, I see this quite hearteningly different first paragraph:

    WASHINGTON — President Obama’s latest choice to fill one of the vacancies on a powerful appeals court went down in a filibuster on Tuesday as Senate Republicans blocked another White House nominee — the third in two weeks — and deepened a growing conflict with Democrats over presidential appointments.

     On the one hand, the previous version was up there for quite a while. Its posting time said 8:06 p.m.; I did a screen grab three-plus hours later. On the other hand, it's different now. However this came about, thanks.

  • Sunday Shutdown Reader: Harold Varmus on Self-Destruction in the Sciences

    "Now that the shutdown is nearing the end of its second week, further consequences are coming into view ..." 

    This has already showed up a few places on-line, but I had not seen it until a reader sent it to me, and I think it deserves wide circulation. 

    Last week, as the shutdown ground on, Harold Varmus, the director of the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, sent the message below to NIH-affiliated researchers. 

    Varmus—that's not him on the right—is as well-known and -respected as any contemporary figure in American science. He received the Nobel Prize (with Michael Bishop) for work in discovering the genetic origins of cancer; he was himself a successful director of the entire NIH during the Clinton Administration; he then ran the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York for 10 years before returning to head the NCI unit of the NIH. Back in 1999 I wrote an article about him in The New Yorker, and since then we have stayed in touch.

    Here is what Varmus is telling his colleagues about the current conditions for their research. For the record, I was alerted to Varmus's message by one of its recipients, a cancer researcher at a major East Coast university. I asked Varmus to confirm that it was real, which he did, but I did not get it from him.

    From: [Harold Varmus email addresss]

    Date: Friday, October 11, 2013 2:36 PM

    Subject: Message from Harold Varmus

    To NCI staff, grantees, advisors, reviewers and others:

    I am writing to keep you abreast of the ways in which the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and its extramural and intramural research programs have been --- and are likely to be --- affected by the current shutdown of the federal government.  And I am also writing to ask for your help in responding to the difficult situation that we are likely to face when the government is reopened.

    As you have doubtless seen in the media, if not experienced directly, the NCI, along with the rest of the NIH, has been obliged to place on furlough many valuable employees, presently about 80 percent of our staff.  While all components of the NCI have furloughed many personnel, most of those we have been able to exempt from furlough are in our intramural programs and needed to preserve ongoing research protocols, ensure laboratory safety, care for experimental animals, and, especially, serve our patients at the Clinical Research Center.  This situation has been hard for everyone, particularly for many of our trainees, who have been told to limit their activities on campus to those permitted during the shutdown.  They, like regular staff members, are unable to travel to scientific meetings or to perform much of the research they came to NCI to do.

    Although the shutdown has been felt most acutely by our staff and investigators in the intramural program, the effects on the extramural research community are likely to become progressively greater as the situation persists.  Presently, the vast majority of NCI’s extramural staff is furloughed, which means that many NCI staff members are unable to provide their usual administrative and programmatic support services to extramural grantees.  Furthermore, many grantees, especially those responsible for planning collaborative work, including clinical trials, have been limited in their abilities to conduct important meetings that require NCI staff and support.  Still, we have been able to exempt from furlough some program officers who provide oversight and guidance for clinical trials that were initiated prior to the shutdown.  Moreover, the length of the shutdown has not been great enough to affect most ongoing research activities at extramural sites.  Since the Payment Management System has remained operational, we also continue to process requests to obtain expected funds for most of the grants awarded to our extramural investigators.  However, that may not be possible if an award was made with restrictive terms or if a request triggers a need for additional interactions.

    Now that the shutdown is nearing the end of its second week, however, further consequences are coming into view.  While grant applications can be accepted and stored at grants.gov, the NIH Office of Extramural Research has discouraged submissions, and applications will not be processed further until normal business operations are restored through Congressional appropriations.  (See the OER’s message at http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-13-126.html).

    Furthermore, NCI’s Division of Extramural Activities (DEA) has postponed until undetermined dates several site visits to evaluate re-competing centers and large grant applications, and it has postponed more than a dozen meetings to review grant applications.   Thus, the NCI’s grant review cycle could be significantly delayed, threatening a smooth restart of NCI’s support of extramural research, even if the NIH reopens relatively soon.

    This situation could have serious effects on the review and funding of virtually all NCI programs, including NCI-designated Cancer Centers, program project and SPORE grants, training awards, and individual research project grants.  Questions or concerns about these matters should be sent to [several named NIH officials].  

    Part of the reason I am writing at this time is to prepare you for the possibility that we at the NCI (and presumably others at the NIH) will be asking reviewers and advisors to adapt to abrupt and inconvenient changes in the scheduling of meetings to review grant applications and oversee programs.  These changes may require you to alter long-standing plans to attend worthwhile events.  But avoiding a major crisis in grant-making and program development this year may be possible only if all members of the NCI communities are willing to help alleviate the consequences of the shutdown.

    Needless to say, all of us at the NCI hope that the current situation is resolved quickly, but we have no way to know when the shutdown will end.  In the meantime, I encourage all of you to monitor major media outlets regularly, as we do, for updates on the status of federal operations.  As long as the shutdown continues, the NCI will remain committed to advancing our common cause---research to control cancer---as best we can within the limits of the law.  Your patience, persistence, and flexibility are very much appreciated during this unhappy and uncertain time.

    Harold Varmus

    Director, NCI

    The extra message from the researcher who sent this on to me:

    Mr. Fallows,

    As an  oncologist, I'd like to share with you this email from Harold Varmus, Director of the National Cancer Institute.  It will give you an idea of how the cancer research community—and therefore current and future cancer patients—are affected by the shutdown.

    Second, I wanted to share a thought, prompted by the maps from the "reader in California" that appear in [this post]. One of the motivations behind Muslim extremism, I believe, is the sense of being left behind that exists in much of the Arab and Muslim world.  Looking at the maps in your post, I can't help but think that one of the motivations behind Tea Party extremism is the sense of being left behind—in numerous cultural, economic and sociodemographic ways--that likely exists in those areas of America whose representatives are pushing to defund Obamacare.

    Obviously there is a lot more to say on this researcher's second point. For the moment, remember that a small number of politicians are inflicting this damage on countless millions of people in America and around the world. And the situation could have been solved at any point if John Boehner had only brought a budget measure for a vote in the House. 

  • I Hope This Is Our Final Shutdown Reader: Map, Airplanes, ChiComs

    What 32 committed people, and one timorous speaker, can do to everyone else

    Maps: I give you this one, from our friends at Esri, of the cities most affected by the shutdown. Click on the numbers at the left, and the map will show you more info for the respective cities.

    Of course this understates the geographic extent of the impact, since it shows only direct Federal payroll numbers and not the ripple effects of cancelled research projects, tourism falloffs at the National Parks, and so on. But it's a start.

    Airplanes: I give you this story, from Bloomberg, on why sales in America's leading manufactured-export sector, aerospace, are stalled by the shutdown too.

    Hundreds of sales from vendors as varied as Airbus SAS and individuals are stalled as the Federal Aviation Administration’s aircraft-registration office remains shuttered. Titles for $2.5 billion of jetliners, small planes and helicopters may be in limbo if the shutdown runs into next week.

    “This is a mess,” said William King, a vice president at Cirrus Aircraft Corp., which installs parachutes on its planes so they float to the ground in an engine failure. “Even if they settle this out quickly in the next 10 days, we could still be in a position of not meeting our delivery numbers by Jan. 1.”

    The snags are part of the economic ripple effects from the first government shutdown in 17 years. Five U.S. senators urged FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in a letter this week to reopen the Oklahoma City-based registry because it’s “inflicting unnecessary hardship on aviation industries.”

    ChiComs: We hear this from the FT.

    This may be nearing its end. When and after it does, let us not forget the 32 people, and the one House speaker too scared of them to stave off this disaster, who have caused such mindless, cumulative damage.

  • The Monday-Morning Shutdown Mailbag: Crossing the Rubicon

    Applying, and mis-applying, history to our current predicament

    Default? Who cares? I assume that the notion below has been circulating on talk shows or web sites*, because I've gotten a bunch of messages making the same claim. A reader writes:

    Default on the US national debt? Nothing new about that. Three times in US history the US has defaulted on its sovereign obligations. Once just after the Revolutionary War in 1790 when the treasury obligations, then valued at 75 cents on the dollar were "restructured" resulting in large losses to the creditors. And again in 1933 when the US went off the gold standard so that paper certificates could no longer be exchanged for gold. And yet again in 2008 when the Federal Reserve cut interest rates below the rate of inflation, a move which has cost savers over $100 billion so far with no end in sight. Another default? So what?  

    Why it's hard to engage arguments like this one. What's wrong with the argument above? The three cases this reader mentions are very different from one another, and completely different from what is contemplated now. I suspect that anyone who knows U.S. or economic history realizes this already, and that anyone who doesn't is not ready to be convinced of it by a list of similarities and differences.** A reader responds to a similar aspect in the "shutdown? What shutdown?" note I cited yesterday.

    The reader you quote in your Sunday Shutdown #2 report is a good example of the sort of attitude that has me avoiding all discussion of politics with conservatives.  It's true that sometimes you can have a reasoned discussion with folks coming from the right wing, but mostly I just encounter what I have to think is a kind of feigned ignorance.  

    Did the reader really expect immediate chaos in the aftermath of the shutdown?  No. But did anyone? No. It's the perfect straw man argument. Does the writer really think there are no short and long term consequences for the country and himself by extension?  He can't be that naive.

    Does the reader really believe "The Left" is trying to bully WWII vets?  Does he really believe that national parks and monument should be left open and unguarded in the absence of the park rangers that normally keep visitors safe and facilities clean?  I'm almost certain he does not....

    I think this is what we reap of what has been sown by the right-wing media, the radio hosts and talking heads.  I'm convinced that people like the writer of this email are simply aping what they see and hear from the Rush's and O'Reilly's, which is:  what's right and reasonable and accurate doesn't matter; winning is what matters. They'll take on all of your straw men.  If you confront them with a real argument, they just move on the next straw man on their list.

    In that context, one of many fascinating details from this New York magazine Q-and-A with Antonin Scalia is the implication that he now gets a lot of his news from "talk guys" on the radio.

    On other historical parallels, a reader correctly notes the frequent misuse of "decline of Rome" reasoning but nonetheless says there is a parallel to be drawn. It concerns what we've discussed here over the years in the context of filibuster abuse: namely, what happens when norms collapse in a norm-based system.

    Aside from the US Civil War, much of the shutdown situation hearkens back to the late Roman Republic. It's common for people who are interested in ancient Rome to call out nearly every situation in American political life as a parallel to the Roman Republic, myself included. Often as not we are missing or ignoring crucial context. However, as the government shutdown morphs into a government default, I think the lessons loom larger. It is a prime example of what can happen when norms collapse in a system of government based on norms. 

    In 59 BCE, Julius Caesar was co-consul with Marcus Bibulus, who was ardent foe of the Caesar/Pompey (above)/Crassus alliance we know now as the First Triumvirate. The first thing Caesar did was propose a law that let the Roman state purchase land to give to Pompey's soldiers as payment, which Bibulus promplty stalled to death in the Senate. In response, Caesar took it to the Centuriate Assembly where after a bitter political fight, the bill was ready to be passed. In a desperate move to postpone the bill, Bibulus declared that every remaining day until the end of his consulship that the Assemby could meet was a holy day. This meant that the Assembly couldn't legally meet, killing the bill and every other bill Caesar might want to present.

    Caesar responded to this obvious breach of norms by breaching the norms right back, sending his lictors who threw Bibulus out of the chamber, smashed his symbol of office, and for good measure dumped a chamber pot over him. Following this, Bibulus retreated to his estate and continued "observing the sky for omens" while Caesar ran the government, since doing so technically meant that no legislation that was passed was valid.

    The original government shutdown if you will. While I often refer to Speaker Boehner as Speaker Bibulus, Obama has not taken the corresponding path of Julius Caesar. Indeed, the US government is arranged how it is because the founders thought that it would prevent the same kind of problems that plagued the late Republic. Unfortunately they, like so many, overlooked the ingenuity of fools. 

    The next example is Caesar's later crossing of the Rubicon with his armies, setting off a civil war. His enemies in Rome were waiting for him to return so they could convict him on charges including his actions against Bibulus during his consulship.

    Speaker Boehner has his own Rubicon in front of him. He knows that if offers a clean debt ceiling and/or spending bill, his time as Speaker is finished. Democrats will not save him but to use him. The best anyone will remember him for is that he didn't cause a catastrophe, which is damning with faint praise. Even if Boehner decides the country is more important than the Speakership, the next Speaker will face the same real political forces that pushed Boehner to where he is now. And the next one if he or she blinks. And the one after that. We still have well over a year before any new House members will be seated. Someone in the current Republican caucus, in the line of succession, will believe that they can profit from that chaos and shove the country over the edge. Then we'll all have to put another country together from whatever pieces are left.

    And, this morning's note of cheer from an American abroad:

    I'm currently in Japan attending an international technical conference and a number of us from the Anglophone countries (in this case: Australia, Canada, UK and USA) gathered for dinner.  We've all known each other for years and have developed some pretty strong friendships, so we all speak very candidly about politics when we're all out together.   

    We were discussing the current governance crisis in the US, when one of my colleagues put it quite blunty and said, "The single biggest threat to the current peace and prosperity of my country is the United States.  You're all lucky you can hide behind your military because the actions of your government warrant a military intervention to protect the rest of us from your foolish actions." The rest of the group all nodded their heads in agreement. 

    Now, I don't want to make too much of this statement and claim it represents the consensus view of their countrymen, but the fact that our three closest allies all view the United States as the biggest single threat they face should make any sober-minded person stop dead in their tracks and reflect upon the extreme damage this Republican-lead temper tantrum is causing. I should say that these are all proudly conservative voters in their home countries.   

    Next up: more cheer at the regional level. 

    Update * It appears that one of the web sites conveying this impression might have been, ummm, our own.

    ** For the record:

    • In 1790, the infant U.S. dollar played virtually no role in world finance or commerce, versus its central role now.
    • In 1933, the developed world was sinking into depression largely because of the foolish reluctance to go off the Gold Standard before that; for details, this is one more excuse to read the great Lords of Finance.
    • In 2008, interest rates went below zero in inflation-adjusted terms, both as a result of and as an attempt to offset the world financial/economic collapse. 

    None of these had anything whatsoever to do with a politically engineered refusal to honor sovereign debt.

  • Your Sunday Shutdown Reader #2

    Only one thing is harder than agreeing on blame for the current morass. That is imagining a way out. 

    Naturally enough this follows Sunday Shutdown Reader #1, earlier today. And, yes, it's still Sunday where I am, on the West Coast.

    Invest in America? Nah, we're closed down. From a member of the U.S. Foreign Service:

    Many of us diplomats have been recruiting foreign companies from around the world to attend the first big invest-in-the-USA conference being organized by the US Dept of Commerce on October 31 in Washington DC.

     In 2011 President Obama launched the SelectUSA initiative to bring the federal government into promoting foreign investment in the USA and tasked Commerce's diplomats and the State Dept. to recruit investment.  It's been pretty successful and one of our primary selling points has been the stability of the United States as compared to some of our competitors (e.g. China).  Hundreds of potential investors from 34 countries have registered to attend.  

    In the midst of recruitment and preparation for this high-profile investment event the SelectUSA office at Commerce has been furloughed.  The event is threatened and if it has to be cancelled because of the shutdown it will be major egg on our face around the world.  It will pretty much undermine our pitch based on stability.  The Tea Party might not welcome job-creating investments from foreigners but the millions of Americans working for foreign investors probably feel differently.

    From an American in Asia:

    Hello from Kobe, Japan where it is increasingly embarrassing to explain my country and its Elmer Gantry-like leaders.

    I'm reading in Reuters that Boehner now says there is no way the House will pass a clean bill to raise the debt ceiling when something occurred to me that, under normal circumstances I would relegate to the conspiracy bin...

    I fear the new plan for the Republican Party is to absolutely refuse to raise the debt ceiling, thereby forcing Obama to take extraordinary measures to stave off a catastrophic global depression, so they can then attempt to impeach him.  They know their policy proposals are garbage and have no chance of being accepted and the only way they can truly save face is by impeaching the President.

    On the self-lobotomization front, the shutdown means the end of this year's Antarctic research project. As Scientific American reports:

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) is likely to cancel the US Antarctic program’s upcoming field season if the US government shutdown persists through mid-October—jeopardizing hundreds of scientists’ work in glaciology, ecology and astrophysics.

    But as a reader / tech writer adds, "A nice gap in the data record would make it easier to discredit science in the future."  

    And, representing a large number of messages I've received in a similar vein, the ultimate game plan:

    I'm just a reader from Florida, but I have worked in politics and am tuned in the state's grassroots political infrastructure, particularly on the right. The rhetoric I am hearing these days is alarming. I have no idea if they constitute a majority of Florida Republicans, but the true believers are looking for a "final victory" over Obama/socialism/the majority of the country who disagree with them. 

    Default, to this group, is the objective. They believe that they can take the country back to before the New Deal by somehow forcing a 30 percent cut in government spending overnight. Even if Boehner does climb down, and even if moderates do manage to avoid default, refusing to ever raise the debt limit will become the next GOP litmus test. At this point though I expect the House will fail to raise the limit, the President will invoke the 14th Amendment to prevent catastrophe, and the House will impeach him for it. That will consume the rest of the year's political calendar. 

    I've always been a middle-of-the-road guy. But to me, voluntarily forcing the government to default is tantamount to sedition against the United States. There is no precedent for such no-holds-barred political combat outside what Lincoln faced in the 1860s. 

    A few more historical allusions:

    There is also a touch of "The Guns Of August." [Ie: the automaton-like, unthinking drift into catastrophic war.] The unthinkable could happen given the position the Republican House has locked itself into. There might even be people on the right that wouldn't mind a financial panic as a way to further beggar the country and allow them to undo more social programs than just  the ACA in order to achieve their long-term goal of undoing the New Deal.

    I see this growing crises as Obama's Lincoln moment. He must hold firm.

    And, the past is not past:

    Your reader questions: "'How many times do we have to refight the Civil War?'" 

    My answer: The Serbs have been refighting the Battle of Blackbird Fields since 1389.

    For the record, a representative example of the pro-shutdown messages that have come in:

    On the morning of the dreaded shutdown I awoke expecting to find our society on the verge of collapse, with Americans walking around aimlessly in the streets like zombies with no government bureaucrat to hold their hand through life.

    I was pleasantly surprised to find no such chaos.  Most of us who do no rely on our benevolent state for happiness remain unharmed and unaffected by partisan bickering, specifically, our President's refusal to grant individual citizens the same "breather" from this wonderful Obamacare law that those big, evil, greedy corporations were given.

    If anything, the shutdown has shown us that the Left is incapable of handling so much power, especially with their bullying of disabled WWII vets to score petty political points.... 

    [After I wrote back saying that I was glad that this writer did not work for NASA, NIH, etc, or rely on their works] Spare me the crocodile tears, James.  Suddenly after 5 years of consistently pathetic unemployment numbers, liberals suddenly care about jobs?  

    After the jump, one more message on the messiness of figuring out how this all ends. 

    More »

  • Your Sunday Shutdown Reader #1: In Defense of Boehner

    "How many times do we have to refight the Civil War?"

    Recently I argued that John Boehner's refusal to let a "clean" budget measure come up for a full House vote was "contemptible." That was because, in order to protect his own job as Speaker, he was allowing countless other Americans to lose their jobs or businesses through an entirely unnecessary shutdown.

    I'm not the first to use that term. But readers write to defend Boehner and his motives in a variety of ways. For the record, here is a sampling (and that's his official picture).

    He is playing the long game. This is one of many reader messages saying that Boehner is storing up for the "real" battle over the debt ceiling:

    I understand why you are viewing the Speaker with contempt.  But let me offer an alternative view.

    As you say, bringing a clean CR [continuing resolution] to a vote would likely cost him his position as Speaker.  That is, he gets to defy the Tea Party fanatics once, but only once.  Clearly he could do this over the clean Continuing Resolution, and thus end the pain that a lot of people are feeling.

    But if he did, what would happen next?  Next would be a bill to raise the debt ceiling.  The next speaker would likely not be inclined to fight the Tea Party on that one, so it would include the whole Tea Party laundry list of wants.  And it would fail to get anywhere in the Senate.  So America defaults.  Which would be catastrophic for the nation.

    So maybe, just maybe, the Speaker is doing the hard and thankless job of taking all the contempt you (and others) are giving him.  In order to use his one shot for a debt ceiling bill.  

    We will know in a couple more weeks whether that possibility is correct or not.  (I could, of course, be totally wrong.) But if it is, I submit that the nation (and the world) will owe Mr. Boehner an enormous debt of gratitude -- for being willing to take all the opprobrium being heaped upon him in order to be in a position to do what needs to be done.  

    The nation will survive and recover from a shutdown, even if (as seems likely) it ends up lasting a couple of months or more.  We would not, I suspect, recover from a default.  So maybe, just maybe, the Speaker is taking one for the team here.  Let's hope so.

    Similarly, let's think about his final moves:

    Let's give the man even a tiny bit of credit as a human being.  Then, if we are to believe that he really won't plunge they world economy into chaos in 2 weeks, let's think about his end game.

    Could he believe that he has only one more chance to allow a clean vote and it will have to be both on the budget and default together?

    If he allows a vote now to re-open the government, the nihilists and the lemmings in his own party will replace him with one of their own on the debt ceiling...

    On the larger question that nobody has asked, how is it that in a Democracy the minority parties can't even bring something up for a vote?  Seems like a decent democracy would have "Minority 'All You Can Vote' Fridays" at least once or twice a month. Sounds like something to look at.

    And, suppose we had a Speaker Eric Cantor

    I wonder what [Boehner's] personal endgame is here. I mean, what is the point of being Speaker if you are beholden to your backbenchers?

    That said, there needs to a face saving solution for him. Obama shouldn't have to negotiate over the CR and/or debt ceiling, but by the same token if the only option for Boehner is a humiliating request to Pelosi for votes, I don't see him doing it. 

    Further, I am not convinced that Boehner is the key. Let's say he does call a vote on a clean CR. It passes with Dem votes and moderate Republicans. The Republican extremists immediately petition to challenge his Speakership -- only need 50 votes to do that, right? Then Cantor knifes him. So we get the CR, but now Cantor is in charge. 

    You'd need Boehner to bring a CR to the floor, and then you'd need a consistent willingness and ability to use Discharge Petitions to undermine Cantor. But at that point, you've essentially posited two dozen or more GOP Reps voting consistently with the Dems... which just isn't credible. Getting a single Senator to switch parties is tricky, but doable. Getting two dozen GOP reps to do it is just not credible.

    On the possibility of a discharge petition, a reader points out that 20+ Republican House members have spoken up in favor of a "clean" vote — enough, with the Democrats, to constitute a House majority. He adds:

    Interesting to see if this gambit works. By my math 200 Democrats + 17 Republicans signing a petition to request John Boehner bring a motion to the floor with a clean CR would show the American people that a majority in the House wants to end the shut down. Then it would be up to Boehner to demonstrate why he doesn't end the shut down.

    And on the big picture, from author and former longtime aide to GOP Senators, Mike Lofgren:

    For God’s sake, how many times do we have to refight the Civil War? You suggested a House discharge petition (which Pelosi is pursuing); I suggest taking off the kid gloves. How about drawing up articles of impeachment against the House and Senate instigators of the shutdown, since they are clearly nonfeasant with respect to their oaths of office, and their actions are causing substantive harm to the public interest? 

    Sunday Reader #2 coming this evening. 

  • Today's Shutdown Bonus: Why It's Harder for the Coast Guard to Find People Lost at Sea

    Studies in the self-lobotomization of a modern system

    Three points from readers:

    1) Forget about the discharge petition. As a reminder, a budget resolution to end the shutdown would pass in the House, if Speaker John Boehner would allow it to come to a vote.

    Yesterday I quoted a reader's suggestion that Democrats in the House should ally with a handful of Republican to force Boehner's hand, via the technique of a "discharge petition." Overnight many readers pointed to this article, by Sarah Binder on the poli-sci-oriented The Monkey Cage site, about why in reality that is not likely to work, at least in the short term.

    2) Non-essential vs. non-excepted. Yesterday I also quoted a business person who dealt often with federal agencies, on the annoying implications of the term "non-essential employee." A reader in the West says that a different term is now in use:

    One of your readers wrote, "Can we use some other word [for federal employees] other than "non-essential"? I don't think any employee is non essential and it demeans the works they are doing with dedication."

    Actually, the language *has* been changed: Federal employees who are "excepted" are not on furlough and must report to work (and work on "excepted" tasks or projects); "non-excepted" employees are furloughed. I've seen at least 1 news article that noted the language change but said they wouldn't follow along in order to "keep things simple". Another had the word right once and wrong once, but opted to use essential/non-essential most of the time.

    As background, I'm employed by a state university but my office is
    located at a federal research lab. (I write this only to establish credibility. I'm not allowed in my office during the shutdown and I can't access the federal computers and datasets, but I'm expected to work as best as I can and I will continue to be paid. I know I am fortunate compared to my federal colleagues!) The language "excepted" and "non-excepted" was used in all the materials sent out to us by [the federal agencies the writer's organization works with].

    3) Now, from a "non-essential"/"non-excepted" reader. The detail below is the real payoff of this reader's account, but the practical implication is this: With every hour that the shutdown goes on, the Coast Guard's understanding of currents, winds, weather fronts, and other trends in the ocean, and therefore it is less and less likely to be able to find people lost at sea

    Thank you for your columns on the shut-down. I'm a non-essential civil servant at NOAA so I am home without pay.

    The public is being told that the government is operating in a limited way to do what is necessary to protect life and property. I am writing to tell you an example of how the shut-down affects that behind the scenes.

    If a plane has to ditch, a boat is swamped, or someone falls overboard at sea, Coast Guard will do the search and rescue. No doubt the folks at CG who do that are essential and not furloughed. When they get a report of a man overboard the first thing they will do is put a marker at the last known location into two ocean models. These models mean to predict where the people and things on the surface will drift as time goes on, pushed by winds and currents.

    There are two models, a Navy model and the NOAA RTOFS [Real Time Ocean Forecast System] model, and they'll give slightly different answers, which is good, so CG will get a sense of the uncertainties in the model forecasts. (The models have essentially the same physics embodied in their computer code but they have slightly different ways of assimilating wind data.)

    I suppose the people at Coast Guard believe the models are reliable, and probably no one has told them that the models can get less reliable every day that the government is shut down. But the ocean circulation part of the model relies on assimilating data from active radar satellites that measure ocean surface wind speed, wave height, and "dynamic topography", which is the ocean equivalent of what high and low pressure systems are in the atmosphere. If the ocean model doesn't get these data, its prediction of currents gradually 'relaxes' (decays, more or less exponentially) away from a good approximation of the truth and toward an overall background state that is a climatological average.

    An analogous situation in weather forecasting would be if you stopped giving the computer models any info about barometric pressure, clouds, winds, and humidity, and then watched what happened to the accuracy of the daily forecast. Before long the forecast would have no fronts, shears, weather, etc. and would just look the same over hundreds of miles, just the background climate.

    NOAA operates only one of these active radar satellites for making these essential ocean measurements. .. To make a decent ocean forecast you need at least three of these satellites. There are three, but NOAA treats the other two as 'research', done on a 'best-effort' basis, and the scientists who built that research capacity are all out on furlough. If their computers go down, they aren't allowed back into their building to reboot, and the ocean forecast will quickly become useless for search and rescue.

    (Incidentally, the big international, once-a-year science conference on this kind of satellite oceanography is scheduled for next week but unless the government reopens, the NOAA scientists can't go.)

    So why aren't all three satellite data streams deemed essential? Basically, it is money. The US isn't investing in satellite technology as it should....

    So 'best effort basis' is how we do things, because it gives us flexibility and it is so much cheaper. But it means that (probably not just n Coast Guard search and rescue but in all kinds of stuff throughout the intelligence, defense, and civilian safety sectors) there are downstream things that are 'essential' that depend on (in ways the decision makers may not even be aware of) upstream stuff that is shut-down.

    So with each passing day, we're learning more about the surprising connection of public and private functions, national and international, military and civilian, and so on. That teaches us something, but the discoveries are not worth the cost. Especially considering that this is all at the behest of 40-some people who have determined that if the government isn't operating the way they like, they're happy for it to stop operating at all.  [Coast Guard photo]. 

  • The Two Basic Facts That Should Be in Every Shutdown Story

    If Congress could vote on a "clean" bill, it would end the shutdown tonight. So why isn't it allowed to vote?

    To people who follow politics these two facts are obvious. But they're not part of most "tragedy of gridlock" false-equivalence stories, and I believe they would come as news to most of the public. The two facts are:

    1. If the House of Representatives voted on a "clean" budget bill -- one that opened up the closed federal offices but did not attempt to defund the Obama health care program -- that bill would pass, and the shutdown would be over. Nearly all Democrats would vote for it, as would enough Republicans to end the shutdown and its related damage. (And of course it would pass has already passed the Senate, repeatedly, unless the minority dared filibuster it, and would be signed by the president.) For illustrations of the wanton damage, see here and here.
    2. So far House Speaker John Boehner has refused to let this vote occur. His Tea Party contingent knows how the vote would go and therefore does not want it to happen; and such is Boehner's fear of them, and fear for his job as Speaker, that he will not let it take place.

    These two points are why the normal D.C.-poohbah moanings about the need for compromise do not apply. The Democratic administration, and a sufficient number of Republicans, already agree and are ready enough to compromise to solve this problem. If the normal machinery of democracy were allowed to work, the manufactured crisis would be over. The only reason the senseless damage is being done is that hostage-takers have terrorized members of their own party. 

    I wish John Boehner were a vainer man. (And I wish that Boehner and vainer didn't rhyme, undercutting the point.) The way he could earn a place in history, admiring chapters in Profiles in Courage-type books, and even a long swing on the university-lecture circuit would be to defy his extremist minority. And maybe eventually he will.

    I am reminded of these points by a very good story this evening on NPR. It's this report, by All Things Considered host Melissa Block, based on an interview with Republican Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania (right). Dent has voted for the various defund-Obamacare resolutions that have come down the pike. But in the segment he explains why he thinks it's (obviously) time to return the government to normal functioning and work out health-policy differences through established channels.

    One reason to listen to this story: it shows, in contrast even to some other NPR coverage, how you can be "fair" in presenting a story without sinking into the mire of false-equivalence, "everyone's to blame"-ism. The other reason is for a reminder of the two basic points above.

    Very soon, I will return to our travelogue. 

  • False Equivalence Watch: A Keeper From the L.A. Times

    One proposal got 40 votes; another got 51; both of them "failed."

    Will get to security-state news of all sorts later today. For now, quite a remarkable illustration of the spread of the "false equivalence" outlook. For background on that concept, start here. The gist is:

    • for most of American history, the U.S. Senate has operated on a simple majority-vote basis, except for treaties, impeachment, and other limited cases;
    • since the GOP lost control of the Senate six years ago, Mitch McConnell's Senate minority has used filibuster threats at an unprecedented rate, requiring not a simple majority of 51 votes but a supermajority of 60 to get even routine business done or routine appointments approved;
    • the minority has sought to portray this approach not as a historical aberration but as perfectly routine. Thus every press account saying a measure "lost" rather than that it was "blocked" or "filibustered," takes us closer to this de facto Constitutional change. For more on why that matters, see this (and, for a positive example, this).
    Comes now the Los Angeles Times -- a paper I've read and loved since boyhood, my original employer when I had a newspaper route and then when I phoned in high-school sports scores [my point: I'm not a LAT-knocker]  -- with a story on attempts to put a cap on interest rates for student loans. Here was the headline:

    And here is the bulk of the story, setting out the details:

    So we have two plans, from the two opposing parties, each following a path to defeat. Sounds like one more case of everyone's-to-blame "gridlock." Then, in paragraph eight, we get this:


    Right; both plans "failed." One because only a minority of senators voted for it; the other, because a majority voted for it but not enough to surmount a filibuster threat. It's impossible to say which side is being more obstructionist; the issue is "unresolved" and is one more sign of modern dysfunction. [Thanks to reader MR.]

    This may violate some corollary to the Godwin Rule, but once again I give you George Orwell:
    But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.
  • Avoiding False Equivalence: The NYT Shows Us How

    See, it's not that hard just to say "filibuster"!


    Credit where it's due: one day after a NYT headline that used "Gridlock" to describe what was actually a deliberate obstructionist strategy, a front-page NYT story shows how to describe plainly what is going on, while observing the conventions of mainstream journalism. 

    As reminder/background for appreciating this story:
    • The Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is generally referred to as the second-most powerful court in the land, and is a standard training/recruiting ground for future Supreme Court nominees (including Roberts, Thomas, Scalia, and Ginsburg on the current Supreme Court).
    • The D.C. Circuit court has 11 seats, but until last week four of the seats were vacant. The remaining judges had a 4-3 Republican-Democratic tilt in terms of the presidents who chose them (one from the first George Bush, three from the second, three from Bill Clinton).
    • Until last week, Barack Obama had not placed anyone on the D.C. Circuit, despite those four empty seats. For a long time he didn't nominate anyone (!); then this year a nominee withdrew after Republicans filibustered her; and last week Sri Srinavasan was approved 97-0. Full background from Jeffrey Toobin.
    • Mitch McConnell's Republicans are now proposing, boldly, to keep Obama from having any further influence on the D.C. Circuit by removing the three now-empty seats and transferring them to some other less-influential circuit.
    That's the background from which the NYT story works. And it lays it all out in language of exemplary clarity and directness:
    If that strategy [abolishing the three vacant seats], which Democrats have compared to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's failed attempt to change the size of the Supreme Court, does not work, Republicans could filibuster Mr. Obama's nominees to prevent them from joining the court. Republicans currently hold 45 of the Senate's 100 seats, and 41 are needed for a filibuster.
    See, that's not so hard! And it wouldn't seem so remarkable, except for the flood of other stories saying that it takes 60 votes to "pass" a bill or "approve" a nominee, rather than to break a filibuster on those matters -- which require only a majority vote for approval. Well done, Michael Shear and NYT.

    That leaves us with the deeper problem, which a new post by Andrew Cohen describes with similar but more depressing clarity: the ability of a disciplined minority in the Senate to impede and eventually destroy the normal workings of governance, including staffing the judiciary. As Gov. Jerry Brown of California put it, in an interview I quoted recently: "We can't have a country based on the 60-vote standard ... I think 60 votes could end America's ability to govern itself."  Update: Also see this column by Jonathan Chait.
  • California's New 'Problem': Jerry Brown on the Sudden Surplus, and the Filibuster

    The Senate's abuse of the filibuster "could end America's ability to govern itself." And other interview outtakes.


    Lots of attention on a holiday weekend to the NYT's lead front-page story, by Adam Nagourney, about California's odd "problem" of having a rapidly-burgeoning state budget surplus. Less than three years after Arnold Schwarzenegger departed with a budget deficit in the tens of billions, a combination of tax increases and spending cuts is giving the state a big surplus. As the story puts it:

    At first glance, the situation should be welcome news in a state overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats, who have spent much of their time slashing programs they support... Instead, the surplus has set off a debate about the durability of new revenues, and whether the money should be used to reverse some of the spending cuts or set aside to guard against the inevitable next economic downturn.

    The new surplus figures are bigger than were known when I last spoke with Jerry Brown, in California in early April, for my story in the new issue. But he was all on top of this issue and the upcoming "what do we do with this money?" debate. Here are relevant parts from the story:

    The third and most publicized part of the California budget [after economic recovery, and spending cuts] turnaround was Brown's success last fall in winning passage of Proposition 30, which (among other things) raised high-end tax rates for several years, with a commitment to use the money to avoid cuts in school funding and to pay down the state debt. ... The higher rates will last for seven years, and Brown in his speeches told the biblical story of Joseph, Pharaoh, and the seven fat years and seven lean years. "The people have given us seven years of extra taxes," he said in his State of the State speech. "Let us follow the wisdom of Joseph, pay down our debts, and store up reserves against the leaner times that will surely come."

    And, about the shift in power between himself and the legislature about what to do in these new circumstances:

    "For me to get the budget cuts these past two years, I had to go to the legislature and say 'Please, please, please!' " he told me. "The Democrats"--who control the legislature--"didn't like it, but they agreed as part of getting the tax increase." In California, the governor has line-item-veto authority--one more indication of the legislature's feebleness--and Brown says he will use his veto power to resist spending increases. "The budget is more or less balanced," he told me. "To un­balance things now, they have to come through me. That is a real shift in power." Meanwhile, Brown's reduced and balanced budget includes more spending for what he considers the big challenges of the future: clean-energy initiatives, an expensive (and controversial) north-to-south high-speed-rail project, new canals and aqueducts, even California-based medical-research projects beyond those sponsored by the National Institutes of Health....
    Brown has tried to cut spending so much that the main complaints about him are from the left, and budget-related--­especially about his resistance to federal court orders to spend more on California's enormous and overcrowded prison system. "Fiscal discipline is not the enemy of our good intentions but the basis for realizing them," he said in this year's State of the State speech, justifying a hard line against letting spending increases sop up new revenues. "It is cruel to lead people on by expanding good programs, only to cut them back when the funding disappears."

    Now, here is a little more from that early-April on-the-record interview, beyond what we could fit in the magazine. My article was brim-full of quotes from Jerry Brown, but they amounted to about 5 percent of what he said in our talks. Here's the fuller-context version of how he set up the coming budget fights:

    We are governable. We balanced our budget. Arnold just borrowed money, but we're paying down our debts. Our job creation -- we're 50% faster than the national average. We lost 1.3 million jobs. But we are coming back. Our tax revenues are very volatile, but this increase will be over in seven years. We've got to learn to pay down our debts. We are paying them off at $1.5 billion every year. Then that will be $1.5 billion we don't have to spend.

    The [proposed new spending] bills are stacking up! It's like water on a causeway, it's going to come rolling down. But I'm here, and I'm going to make sure we're going to live within our means. They [meaning other politicians] haven't heard that yet. But they will hear it, as I continue to repeat it.

    I think the real test is whether we get through this year in a balanced way. For me to get the budget cuts these past two years, I had to go to the legislature and say 'Please, please, please!' The Democrats didn't like it, but they agreed as part of getting the tax increase. The budget is more or less balanced. To un­balance things now, they have to come through me. That is a real shift in power.

    All I have to do is hold that line. All I have got to do is play defense.

    I don't know enough about the details of the coming budget battles to judge the full merits of Brown's hold-the-line pledge versus the state's unaddressed needs. My point is that he was anticipating stories like today's.

    While I'm at it, here was another Jerry Brown riff that couldn't fit in the article. We were talking about the oddities of California's governing structure, especially the unique (among U.S. states) weakness of its legislature and unique power of the public through direct-democracy initiatives. I asked him what he thought about a related structural problem at the national level: the modern abuse of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate. For those joining us late, I am talking about the radical increase in filibuster threats in the past 6 years, which in effect means that it takes 60 votes (rather than the normal simple majority of 51) to get anything done. Brown was not a fan:

    We can't have a country based on the 60-vote standard. This is serious.

    We've never had to have 60 votes for appointments or day-to day-decisions. Really, you can't govern that way. That's a radical change.

    How can you govern? Does England have 60? [JF note: Obviously a rhetorical question. His point is that the U.S. has the drawbacks of parliamentary democracy, including political polarization -- without the benefits, namely the ability to get things done.] I think that 60 votes could end America's ability to govern itself. We have to get rid of it.

    That 60 votes is bad.

    Image of Joseph and Pharoah from here.

  • False Equivalence: We Have a New Champ

    Senators bravely overcome a filibuster -- so that they can filibuster a bill.

    This took place while I was on the road in China, so I didn't catch up with it until just now. It is an editorial in (surprise!) the WSJ ten days ago that represents a certain kind of perfection in false-equivalence / black-is-white thinking. As a reminder:

    • Through most of American history, the elaborate checks-and-balances that went into the U.S. Constitution included the Senate's function as a body that over-represented the minority (two votes for even tiny-population states) but that itself operated by majority rule. Super-majorities were required only in certain exceptional cases -- impeachment trials, treaty ratification, etc. The rest of the Senate's business was meant to run, and for 200+ years of American history had in fact run, on a simple-majority basis.

    • Starting six years ago, when the Democrats regained control of the Senate, the Republican minority under Mitch McConnell dramatically ramped up the use of threatened filibusters, toward the goal of establishing 60 votes, not 51, as the norm for appointments and legislation rather than an exceptional last-gasp measure.

    • The goal was not only to make this obstructionist practice routine but also to have it described as such by the press, which increasingly has gone along in saying that it takes 60 votes to "pass" a measure, rather than to break a filibuster.

    • An auxiliary goal is to make "gridlock," "dysfunction," and "logjam" in the Senate seem to be a caused-by-no-one phenomenon for which everyone is equally to blame -- especially a president who has failed to "lead" -- rather than an explicit blocking strategy by the minority party.
    Comes now the Wall Street Journal, which interestingly chastises the bumptious freshman Senator Ted Cruz for threatening a filibuster -- and follows that with a passage that is either astonishingly un-self-aware or quite formidably cunning.


    In case you can't read it from the photo above, the passage says (emphasis added):
    The strategy of Mr. Cruz and his comrades was to use the filibuster to block any gun control measure from even getting votes on the floor. We criticized that as misguided, since it would let Senate Democrats avoid difficult votes and open Republicans to Mr. Obama's criticism that they were obstructionists for blocking a Senate debate and votes.

    In the event, Mr. Cruz's GOP colleagues agreed with us. They helped to override his filibuster attempt and let the bill proceed to the floor. Whereupon a bipartisan coalition emerged that defeated the gun-control amendments, as each one failed to get 60 votes.
    In other words, the Republicans high-mindedly broke Ted Cruz's filibuster attempt -- so the measure could come to the floor and then be filibustered. If it had come up for a "normal" vote, it would have passed. The beauty part is that the editorial is devoted to criticizing Cruz for being sloppy with his facts.

    Thumbnail image for OrwellTyping.jpgI don't know which interpretation is worse: that the WSJ editorialist doesn't see what is dishonest and preposterous in this passage -- or that he or she does, and doesn't care. These lines from George Orwell's Politics and the English Language come unavoidably to mind:
    "If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better."
    Thanks also to many readers who pointed me to Charles Pierce's elaboration of the false-equivalence instinct at work in a recent column by Bill Keller, who I generally agree with except when he is endorsing war in either Iraq or Syria. Keller wrote in this latest column, "think tanks on both the right and the left have set up explicit lobbying arms, anointed leaders known not for academic credibility but for partisan ferocity, and picked their fights at least in part to help drive their fund-raising." But as Pierce points out, the real-world examples he gives all come from ... the right. The "partisans on both sides ..." reflex is very strong.


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