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: Politics

  • If Doctors Don't Like Electronic Medical Records, Should We Care?

    "Yes, there are problems in any technology implementation and there always will be. But fewer people die. Yes, it is important to connect with the patient. But fewer people die. Yes, the opportunity to pad billing is obscene. But fewer people die."

    How critics imagine the new record-keeping system. ( Wikimedia commons )

    Dr. David Blumenthal, who now is head of the Commonwealth Fund, has been a friend since we both were teenagers. It was a sign of his medical / tech / policy skills that the newly arrived Obama administration put him in charge of encouraging a shift toward use of electronic medical records. It is evidence of his admirably good-humored big-tent personality that David still takes my calls after the many rounds of back-and-forth we've posted here in response to his original Q&A in our April issue, about why the shift has been so difficult and taken so long.

    For those joining us late, you can check out installments onetwothree,  four, and fiveHerewith number six, on the particular question of how the non-expert public -- those of us who experience the medical system mainly as patients and bill-payers -- should assess the opinions of physicians, nurses, and other inside participants. Should we give them more weight, because of their first-hand expertise? Less weight, because of possible institutional bias or blind-spots? Both at once? See for yourself.

    First, the concerns of two physicians. One on the West Coast writes:

    I am a family practice physician in western Washington state. I have been practicing for 25 years.  Ten years ago I was excited about about the potential of electronic technology to improve patient care. Today I am profoundly disappointed.  

    I am currently working in three different EHRs (electronic health records). Two are OK, i.e. allow me to efficiently document a patient visit with clinically relevant data.  The other one is cumbersome beyond belief. It is a company with outstanding marketing capability that won over our administrators. It falls far short of meeting the needs of those of us trying to improve patient care.  Intrinsically it fails to produce a note useful for other doctors. To achieve that end, I use time-consuming work arounds. Sad I think. 

    I believe that primary care is valuable to patients but also has potential to limit costs.....

    I have included a reference to one of my favorite articles from the New England Journal of Medicine, including the first paragraph of the article:

    "It is a widely accepted myth that medicine requires complex, highly specialized information-technology (IT) systems. This myth continues to justify soaring IT costs, burdensome physician workloads, and stagnation in innovation — while doctors become increasingly bound to documentation and communication products that are functionally decades behind those they use in their 'civilian' life.

    And from a doctor in Kentucky:

    As a 50 y/o it infuriates me when I read that only physicians less than 40 are comfortable with EMR’s because they grew up with them. Well that’s crap. My first computer was a Commodore 64 which I learned to program. I am very familiar with computers and have 4 networked together in my home.

    That being said I would agree with Dr. Wait [from this post] in that EMR’s are not ready for primetime. If EMR’s were so great, no one would have to bribe and penalize us to use less. They generate a tidal wave of information. The important data gets lost in the overwhelming volume of mostly useless information. I used to dictate my notes and they would then scanned into the computer. The note was legible and concise. I could find it anywhere. Then the EMR came. It takes 20 minutes to do what used to take 30 seconds. I get a note that is less than useful. It is full of errors that I can’t correct. Information that others have entered that is clearly wrong that I can’t remove. I no longer try. The only important part now of my notes are the HPI and the plan. The rest is just garbage.

    To give you an example my EMR won’t let me enter a subtotal hysterectomy in the past surgical history. Even when I supply the correct CPT code the EMR calls this  a Total hysterectomy, which is not correct and can lead to errors in determining who needs a pap smear.

    So EMR remain not ready for primetime. I’m not sure why I can’t continue to dictate and allow the transcriptionist to fill in the EMR. It would work so much better.

    Now for a different view, from an informed non-expert. This reader, a physics professor at a university in the South, uses the distinctive phrase of the day to suggest that we apply a discount to complaints from today's practitioners:

    I've been reading the back and forth over electronic medical records. It seems the opposition comes, by and large, from doctors. Because why?

    Because problems. There's lots of smoke and mirrors about interconnectivity, about interacting with the computer instead of the patient, about sleazy increased billing but all of that is in service of a single point of view: let's never change until we can change to something perfect. In other words, the underlying point is "don't make me change the way I'm used to doing things."

    This all misses the main point. To me, what is overriding importance is the undeniable fact that ANY system that does NOT rely on the memory of the patient for long term medical history storage is NECESSARILY a better system no matter how badly it sucks. The VA has proved this over the last couple of decades as measured by the fact that fewer people die. Better information management beats clever doctoring every time.

    Yes, there are problems in any technology implementation and there always will be. But fewer people die. Yes, it is important to connect with the patient. But fewer people die. Yes, the opportunity to pad billing is obscene. But fewer people die. Any large scale IT rollout has problems. The question is do the benefits outweigh the time invested in ironing out those problems. Most of us would say yes because fewer people die. I wonder why physicians are so reluctant to say that? Didn't they swear an oath or something?

    I also wonder how many of these physicians, when directing their gimlet eye to another field such as public education, are equally skeptical of, say, massive online courses or teachers attending to the computer instead of their students, or teaching to the test? I somehow doubt it.

    I think when you are the person dealing with a system day after day, it is easy to let your detailed knowledge of its problems overwhelm the vaguer notion of its benefits. You don't have a direct experience of a patient who didn't die, but you do have a direct experience of a technical snafu. 

     Thanks to experts and non-experts for writing in, and to David Blumenthal for opening this view into a world that affects us all.

    Previous post

  • But Seriously Now, Why Do Doctors Still Make You Fill Out Forms on Clipboards?

    "Meditative practices emphasize returning to one’s breath. The clinical equivalent of this is to return to one’s patient. "

    Growth of "Hospitalists," a relatively new medical specialty discussed in the last note below. ( Society of Hospital Medicine )

    We'll get back to St. Marys, Georgia, later today. For now, let's dip back into the mailbag for the latest array of views -- most from doctors or other medical professionals, some from technologists, some from "ordinary" patients -- on the pluses and minuses of the shift to electronic medical records. For background: my original Q&A with Dr. David Blumenthal, who directed the electronic-records program at the start of the Obama administration. That article also has links to four previous rounds of discussion -- and, why not, here they are again. One, two, three, and four. Now, eight more ways of looking at electronic medical records.

    1) "Unremitting folly" and "lack of leadership," and apart from that it has some problems. A negative verdict:

    I am a recently retired family physician and was formerly a physicist. Fifty years ago I was programming a mainframe computer in Fortran and am currently using the Python language to pursue several interests. I have experience with 4 different EHRs. Though not a computer expert, I am neither a technophobe nor a Luddite. 

    My purpose in writing to you is to draw your attention to the elephant in the room. In brief, the rollout of electronic health records (“EHRs”) in the United States is a story of unremitting folly, lack of leadership, opportunities wasted, and a stiff dose of medical academic hubris.

    Anyone involved with medicine or information technology (“IT”) has surely been aware for 3 decades or more that EHRs were coming, someday, somehow. The potential advantages were always clear enough. Broadly speaking, they were ready access to individual patient data at the point of care and aggregated patient data, “big data", to be mined somehow for new medical knowledge.

    Standards for medical records were developed, but were overly broad and insufficiently specific (see, for example, HL-7).  The Department of Defense and the Department of Veteran Affairs were interested in developing a systems-wide EHR, which probably discouraged any entrepreneur reluctant to develop a product only to see the government version become a national standard. 

    The lack of a clear standard is a major issue. EHRs, like computer operating systems, are a highly path-dependent technology.  The system you buy today will be yours to live with for the next 20 years, even if no system available today meets your needs.  A good example of this path dependence is the history of Unix-like versus Microsoft versus Apple operating systems.  Unfortunately, the EHR mandate ignores the lesson.

    We now see a technology not ready for deployment being imposed on hospitals and other health care systems. They can buy in with some help from the federal treasury or wait and be penalized for not being on line, an interesting new form of under funded federal mandate. Health care systems are scrambling to enlarge IT departments. Different vendors’ systems are largely not interoperable. This is more than a nuisance when patients self-refer between health care providers.

    For a physician seeing patients in clinic an EHR can be an astonishing impediment. We are rebuked, often deservedly, for being insufficiently engaged with our patients, yet now must spend more time in front of computer displays. (“Why can’t I find a nurse? They are in the patients’ rooms because the computer system is down.”)  

    The practice of medicine involves intensely personal encounters; indeed the patient-physician relationship is what makes being a primary care physician such a privilege.  The EHR does not accommodate narrative analysis of a patient encounter, also known as the personal touch. 

    Voice recognition requires time-consuming, highly distracting concurrent proofreading, quite unlike dictation transcribed by human intelligence.  

    Examination rooms are small (and are not going to grow), requiring that the physician’s back be toward the patient when addressing the computer. [JF note: several previous reader-messages have suggested solutions to this problem.] In the examination room the EHR is marginally effective and utterly inefficient. The human-machine interface is crude and by itself should have precluded widespread deployment of EHRs at this time. 

    EHRs have real potential for “encouraging” adherence to guidelines purported to improve “quality of care.” This is at best a mixed blessing. Many, probably most, guidelines are not solidly grounded in evidence or serve the self-interests of their authors. Until the guidelines industry is brought to heel, patients are at risk of negative benefit.  The diabetes-industrial complex is a good illustration of this. 

    The entire history of EHRs in the United States is worthy of a full-length book. An overdue technology, it is here to stay, as it should.  However, the fact remains that it was overpromised and recklessly deployed.  There are lessons to be learned, if and only if analyzed and reported by persons without a personal stake in the matter.

    2) "A patient's visit to the doctor is morphing into a billing session." From another practitioner:

    Maybe I’m late to the party here, but I thought I’d add a few additional perspectives regarding the matter of electronic medical record systems (EMRs).

    First, the good: A tremendous upside to EMRs is that they make the record so easily accessible. When I was a resident, I seemingly spent half of my time running around the hospital searching for patient charts and scans. Scans were the most maddening—the radiology file room was far from where my patients mostly were. Often, the file clerk wasn’t there. Other times, there were several teams ahead of me, and I’d waste 20 minutes standing there waiting for my turn. And then the scan may or may not even have been there—another team may have checked it out and taken it to their work room or the operating room.

    At my current institution (a large academic center) all of our scans are digital and can be viewed from any terminal in the complex and, via an encrypted connection, from any internet-connected computer anywhere. If one of my residents or a radiologist calls me regarding an important finding, I can be looking at the images and discussing the case in under a minute. I can show the images to colleagues, display them at a teaching conference, and use them to educate the patient and his family without worrying whether I’ll be able to get my hands on the films when I need them and without impeding anyone else’s access.

    Now the bad: Others have mentioned that EMRs make it easier to bill for higher levels of service. The larger issue is that, sadly, the patient’s visit to the doctor is morphing into a billing exercise with a clinical encounter appended to it. EMRs facilitate this process, but I think the causes lie upstream—with physicians, with the hospitals that increasingly employ us, and with our political choice to largely preserve a fee-for-service medical system.

    More recently, the billing imperative has been joined by the safety and quality imperatives. These are sorely needed, but they do sometimes distort medical practice and can even strain the doctor-patient relationship. Again, EMRs potentiate this but aren’t the cause. For example, one commonly used quality metric is a hospital or program’s ratio of observed to expected mortality. The numerator is straightforward, but arriving at the denominator requires prognostication based on the patients’ ages and the number, type, and severity of their various morbidities. Just as EMRs make it easier to document in such a way as to capture the highest possible charges, they also make it easier to document in such a way as to portray the highest possible severity of illness (and hence mortality risk). The hospital’s coders are constantly asking me to clarify various diagnoses that are unrelated to the patient’s presentation and that are often outside of my area of expertise. This diverts my attention away from direct patient care and instead toward the practice of massaging electronic medical records in order to optimize mortality ratios.

    For many physicians, the result of this pivot away from the individual patient and his clinical needs and toward the increasingly complex documentation of such is that medicine ceases to be an emotionally and intellectually fulfilling practice and becomes instead clerical work. We no longer spend a few extra minutes getting to know the patient and his family, perhaps learning something seemingly small but ultimately clinically important in the process. We instead spend unsatisfying time asking irrelevant questions (the review of systems) that allow us to check more boxes, bill a higher level of service, and make the patient appear as sick as possible.

    There’s a mental antidote to this pessimistic mindset, which is easier said than done given the cognitive loads under which we all labor—loads that are increased not only by the demands of using EMRs, but also by pagers, cell phones, various inboxes, etc. The antidote is to listen deeply and re-connect with the person in front of you. Meditative practices emphasize returning to one’s breath. The clinical equivalent of this is to return to one’s patient. A corollary to this is that my generation of medical educators, witnessing the end of the paper chart era while having many years of service ahead, must practice and teach the fundamentals of clinical medicine while helping trainees learn to marshal EMRs and other technologies appropriately.

    3) Comparison from France, and from Seattle

    Quote from one of your other readers: "[At] Group Health Cooperative in Puget Sound, electronic medical records were adopted decades ago, and are widely used and highly effective."

    Response: When I lost my insurance and the ability to stay with Group Health, I wanted to take my medical records. But they charged $45 to put them on a CD. Inexcusable even five years ago. They could just as easily have written a simple program to route records to a printer and handed me the stack of paper at nearly zero cost. Let alone providing the option to buy a USB stick for $5, with all records on it.... 

    Of (possible) interest: "The French way of cancer treatment", by Anya Schiffrin, from February 12, 2014.

    "In New York, my father, my mother and I would go to Sloan Kettering every Tuesday around 9:30 a.m. and wind up spending the entire day...feeling woozy, we'd get home by about 5:30 p.m.

    "[In Paris] A nurse would come to the house two days before my dad's treatment day to take his blood. When my dad appeared at the hospital, they were ready for him. The room was a little worn and there was often someone else in the next bed but, most important, there was no waiting. Total time at the Paris hospital each week: 90 minutes."...

    "When my dad needed to see specialists, for example...the specialists would all come to him. The team approach meant the nutritionist, oncologist, general practitioner and pharmacist spoke to each other and coordinated his care. As my dad said, 'It turns out there are solutions for the all the things we put up with in New York and accept as normal.' "

    Competition cannot provide these results, nor any market forces whatsoever. Regarding people as fellow humans can.

    4) And from Vietnam:

    [How it works there.] Go to the doctor. Begin the discussion at his/her desk. Your previous records have been reviewed in the data base. The doctor's hands rest on the desk.  She/he looks you in the eye and asks questions. Diagnosis made. Treatment recommended. If prescriptions are needed, they are input and transmitted electronically to the receptionist and the pharmacy. You make your co-pay pick up your drugs and depart.

    The efficiency is remarkable. I once had a CT scan at a gigantic clinic with a branch here and in California. The radiologist finished and said

    "Go get a cup of coffee and come back. I'll have your films in half an hour."

    EMR is a tool. A hammer is a tool. In the hands of persons with evil or avaricious intent, either one can do tremendous damage.

    5)  And Boston:

    About 4 years ago I changed health insurance plans and moved my business to a doctor who was a member of Partners Healthcare in the Boston area. I eventually discovered that the practice was connected to a medical records system that would allow any practitioner connected to that system to have immediate access to doctor’s notes, lab results, etc. related to my care. I could also email doctors, make appointments, obtain referrals, request subscriptions over the internet. I grew very comfortable with this. 

    Then my wife had a brain seizure and the EMTs took her to the nearest hospital. The hospital and the doctors who worked at that hospital were not connected to the EMR system we had been using. Problems ensued. 

    The hospital had no access to her history of care.

    I had to track down a doctor on a Sunday night and request complete information about my wife’s medications. The doctor had to send an email to my cell phone so that I could verbally communicate this critical information to the attending physician. 

    Drastic changes in medication were made with negative consequences. 

    I had not realized how much better care could be when you are using doctors who have access to an EMR system. But it is important that every doctor and hospital you use be connected to that system. 

    I will not consider using any medical service that is not connected to this EMR system in our area.

    6) And from a doctor's perspective in Boston:

    I am a surgeon who practiced in a solo private practice in a low income area in Massachusetts for 30 years. I bought an EHR in 2011 and participated in the incentive payment program from CMS and a subsequent audit in which the payment was recouped.

    As other physicians have pointed out , the EHR increased my workload by at least 20%.Dr Blumenthal and his team could have worked to make the VA EHR system, that the taxpayers paid to develop, available universally. Instead perhaps thousands of vendors were certified by the government . The price of these systems was always magically about the same: the $45000 in incentive payments that were promised by the CMS over 5 years.

    Once purchased, myriad other charges arose. The systems were clearly designed to maximize billing through justifying documentation modules. They also were set up to create reports to be forwarded to the government regarding "quality of practice." These mostly involved fairly crude measures like  bean counting how many patients had mammograms or colonoscopies.  With all this crammed in, the goal of creating  clear, informative documentation across a variety of specialties was bound to be lost .

    When these systems failed to serve particular practices or specialties well, , physicians were encouraged to develop their own templates and modifications. More time away from patient care and expense loomed.

    In Boston, there are three major hospital and physician practice systems based on the three medical schools: Tufts, Harvard, and BU. When a patient gets chest pain acutely , he will be taken by ambulance to the nearest facility.He may be transferred during his treatment to a different facility that may or may not be part of the hospital system where he was initially brought. His subsequent outpatient may again be not necessarily with physicians who work for the hospital system where he was treated. It is very likely that the various computer systems involved with the documentation of his care have no interconnectivity.

    At one of the many dinner meetings that we were invited to in 2010 and 2011 exhorting us to adopt the EHR , I queried an employee of the Mass ecolloborative, a federal  grant funded entity, about what priority CMS and the government were giving to the issue of interconnectivity. It seemed unlikely that the big, fiercely competitive  hospital systems and  the IT vendors would pursue this on their own . I specifically asked, when would an ER doctor seeing a patient at BU be able to see the records of the patient's previous care at Tufts or Harvard and she shook her head. So I ask if it would be in five years and she shook her head again . I tried ten years and she said "maybe" and then ,on prompting, said "they are talking about this."

    It seems: you are what you mandate, and the approach of Dr Blumenthal and his team, in my view, has  endorsed and augmented the free market model as regards IT and the large hospital chains and their internecine rivalries. The consequences to patients and independent practitioners are enfolding .

    So, what's a patient to do? In China, in the barefoot doctor days, they gave the paper charts to the patients  and let them carry them around.Not unlike in  the third world, many of my low income patients have smart phone access. In France, as TR Reid has reported, you can go to a doctor in their system and put your ID card through their reader and your updated EHR can be read off your chip. Patients need apps that can download and store these various differently configured EHRs. Like a lot of things regarding your health, when patients are empowered, things really can change.

    7) The technology has problems similar to the Pentagon's:

    1. Yes, some of the large health care systems such as Kaiser Permanente have deployed relatively effective electronic health record systems but what is seldom discussed are the huge cost-overruns associated with these deployments. 

    Health care IT procurement in the large delivery systems is similar to the problems that the Pentagon experiences when it buys weapons systems---the systems usually work, but the costs are often much higher than expected (therefore, the net benefits are lower than expected).  This problem is not unique to the health care sector---as you know, development and installation of enterprise software systems is notoriously complex and even some of the most IT savvy corporations and government agencies have experienced huge cost overruns and outright failures in this area. 

    Unfortunately, there is sort of a conspiracy of silence in the health care sector about cost overruns.  Both the software vendors and the executives who run these organizations are loathe to acknowledge this problem, instead they would rather focus on the benefits (which to be sure are real in many instances) and not talk about the costs---for example, Kaiser Permanente's staff has published 3 books touting the benefits of its electronic health records system, but none of the books discuss the costs or many of the daunting technical and organizational challenges they confronted in building their system.  

    2.  The interoperability problem in health care IT has two dimensions.  The first dimension (and the one that gets the most attention) is the lack of interoperability across health care organizations (as noted by the one of the physicians who commented on the VA's system).  The other dimension, which receives relatively little attention, is the lack of interoperability within organizations. 

    Most large health care delivery organizations decide to keep some of their legacy systems when they decide to implement a new EHR---for example, they may decide to keep their existing radiology and lab order systems, which means they have to spend alot of money creating middleware that can facilitate communication between the old systems and the new EHR.  The cost of developing the middleware is often huge because of the absense of industry standards---this is major reason why cost overruns in this space are so common.

    8) And to round things out, illustrating the complexity of working any change in today's health-care system, the complicating fact of that rapidly growing medical specialty, the "hospitalist":

    After years of only needing to see my doctor (the same one since 1977 until 2013) I've had an up close and personal experience with the new system that has required new doctors (a new medical condition and the retirement of my family physician). 

    What has that meant to me as a patient?  Like the doctor you quoted, when I see my new family physician (still the same practice that is the home of thirty some years of handwritten charts), she is looking at the computer instead of me.  She's also asking the same redundant questions over and over again.  There is a third party in the room--the computer--that is getting the major share of the attention. 

    On the other hand, I love having prescriptions entered immediately.  The scary part: I have caught a number of mistakes: which prescriptions I'm actually taking, what the dosages are, what diagnoses I've had in the distant past at another medical facility.  As they say: garbage in, garbage out. The only good thing is that people are mentioning the "garbage" and asking me if it is true because it is more obvious.

    But the computer is just one part of the problem.  Here's a much scarier thing.  An elderly man with Parkinson's is admitted for emergency surgery that has nothing to do with the Parkinson's.  He suffers from constipation--a common side effect of the disease.  He has a regular routine of over the counter medication to help with the problem.  His wife explains to the medical staff that this is what is prescribed by his regular physician. 

    But his care is now overseen by a hospitalist.  His wife is told that the constipation issue is being handled as usual.  It isn't.  After five days, he is extremely bloated and uncomfortable and nothing has been done.  His wife pleads for help for him in the form of an enema. Did I mention that she is the kind of person who doesn't like to be demanding? The hospitalist (who has almost never visited him and operates through the computer and the nursing staff) orders an x ray and then an enhanced x ray.  Meanwhile the patient gets more and more uncomfortable.

    Eventually, relief is prescribed in the form of--an enema.  A human  conversation in the form of a doctor to doctor discussion of the patient's prior conditions and accommodations would have made his recovery from the surgery so much more comfortable.  Instead the inevitable discomfort of the surgery was made worse by adding more discomfort.

    My conclusion: medicine human to human connection as well as technology. I want my doctors to use technology effectively, but I also want them to listen to me and connect with me as a patient rather than as a disease.  I am very fortunate to have found a new doctor who has this combination, but I worry for all those who aren't getting that kind of care.  I'm also convinced that a human connection with doctors and nurses and other medical people helps us trust our care better and helps us follow through with our treatments.  It's not just warm and fuzzy stuff; it's part of our healing.

    Thanks to all. This is about 5% of the mail that has arrived on the topic. Will keep looking through it. 

    Previous post                                                                          Next post

  • Who's the Most Accomplished Republican Strategist of the Day?

    Is it Rove? Ailes? Either of the Koch brothers? Anyone in Congress? Or a statehouse? No, in fact it is...

    If a 15-year term for Supreme Court justices had applied when Roger Taney was appointed in 1836, he would no longer have been chief justice at the time of the Dred Scott case, for which he is now best known. (Matthew Brady via Wikimedia Commons)

    Tomorrow morning, we start in with a big installment of American Futures reports. For now, followup on two previous items, one and two, on what we have learned about the Supreme Court and Chief Justice John Roberts via the latest McCutcheon ruling.

    1) The most consequential Republican. A reader writes:

    I enjoyed  ...  the excellent Emily Bazelon piece that explains how he expertly cloaks his actions, seeming reasonable, judicious, and measured, while pursuing a radical, conservative political agenda.

    If you remember, I wrote you before the ACA case and predicted that Roberts would find a way to uphold it for purely political reasons.  In short, he recognized that throwing out the ACA would have two serious consequences—serious long term political costs to the conservative political cause, and undermining the credibility of the Supreme Court itself.

    When you step back and look at his judicial actions as Chief Justice, you come to one conclusion. Roberts can be properly seen as the most consequential and successful Republican politician of our time.  It may be that, given his overt political agenda, there will be an erosion of the reputation of the Supreme Court, as they continue to move laws in a direction that a majority of Americans (certainly younger Americans)  oppose.  But, in the phrase Krugman used when he criticized W and those around him, Roberts and his colleagues are "serious men", and we are stuck with his effective political activism for many years to come. Oh, well...

    2) John Roberts, John Marshall. From another reader: 

    My reaction at the time of the ACA decision was that Roberts had pulled a trick not unlike the one Marshall pulled with Madison v. Marbury. In the latter, Marshall found in favor of the plaintiff, which was against the interests of the Federalists who had appointed him, while creating the principle of Judicial Review which gave the Court, and himself in particular, ultimate power over Congressional "balls and strikes". In Sebelius, Roberts granted himself the power to define words. Thus "mandate" became "tax" and all was well with the law. What passed unobserved was that this new power to redefine the words in any given law meant that no law is worth the paper upon which it is printed until Roberts has interpreted it.

    Thus, "money" becomes "speech" and "corporations" become "persons".  "Rights" become "Grants", "Birth" becomes "Conception", "Privacy" becomes "License" and/or "Property".

    Of course, I agree with Marshall and I disagree with Roberts, but I have to admit that the sword cuts both ways. In his defense, Marshall was generally wise to create judicial unanimity in his decisions which gave them greater strength when the Court was weakest. On the whole, I would say that the Nation was fortunate to have Marshall on the bench for 35 years acting as a break against the autocrats in Virginia who leveraged their 3/5s electoral advantage in every direction. Had it been left to Jefferson, Dred Scott would have been decided in 1802 and the rest of history would have been very different.

    Today, Roberts has appropriated the dignity granted by Marshall and uses it to forge divisive and cynical rulings when the Court could not be stronger. For the time being, I am satisfied to let Roberts continue to redefine "democracy". I think this is a necessary part of the process. The excesses of the oligarchs will eventually bring their ruin. All I can hope is that it won't take a second Civil War to bring this about.

    3) The humblebrag was the tell. Another reader:

    It seems to me that there is a more obvious lesson from review Mr. Roberts' confirmation hearing: It is appropriate to be suspicious of anyone who brags about his or her humility and modesty. One could expand Mr. Roberts' cynicism by noting that he didn't explicitly say that *he* was humble and modest, only that these were appropriate qualities for a judge, and leading us to believe that he claimed these qualities for himself without actually making the claim. It is less damning if he intended to claim those qualities for himself, rather than intentionally misleading his audience.

    Criticism of your assessment calls for an analogy with False Equivalence, in which the scope of discourse has shifted so much that simply identifying something is labeled extreme.  A harsh assessment would be that Roberts, Alito, Thomas and Scalia have almost quit trying to look like anything except partisan hacks. Their decisions are inconsistent with one another as well as with precedent (which they ignore or misrepresent) and with reality. To suggest that Mr. Roberts is cynical is among the most restrained explanations for his conduct.

    4) Meanwhile, the realities.  From a reader in Virginia:

    I do want to make one point, being on the firing line of John Roberts' ACA decision to let states decide whether or not to accept the Medicaid expansion part of ACA. He knew exactly what he was doing, cynical to the core.

    In states where the Medicaid expansion was not approved (trending conservative/Southern), thousands of the poorest still have no healthcare coverage. Example: under $11,550/year income for a single person, no ACA subsidy for low cost insurance. You're on your own, same as before. Free clinics, or if you are too proud, go without, or get care, go bankrupt.

    People are suffering, sad and angry. They feel they were promised affordable healthcare and have been betrayed by Obama. Sometimes I patiently explain why our legislature in Virginia is having a battle over Medicaid right now, and sometimes I am too tired. I volunteered for several enrollment events sponsored by a non-profit organization here called Celebrate Healthcare. [I was recently in a newspaper photo], enrolling a young lady, one of the lucky ones. 

    Many of the rest are deeply disappointed. 

    Thanks, John Roberts, you innocent balls and strikes guy.....

    5) Not cynicism but something else.  A reader objects to my saying that John Roberts must have been either very naive, or simply cynical, in saying nine years ago that his ideal was the non-interventionist, "just call the balls and strikes" judge:

    Those are certainly two valid ways of looking at it. I find it very, very hard, given everything we know about the man, both personally and professionally, before and after his appointment to the Supreme Court, not to suspect he perjured himself. Entirely unprovable, of course. (At least, presumably.) But, honestly, I think in many ways it's the most respectful conclusion, rather than pretending a man of his intellect, training and experience could have been that naive. And if he WERE that naive, that alone makes him unqualified to lead the highest court in the land. 

    6) Life tenure is a problem; there is no solution. If I could rewrite the Constitution, one of my first changes would be shifting the Supreme Court to a set of staggered 15-year terms rather than life tenure. Each president would get at least one pick, probably two; and there would not be such a premium on grim-reaper assessment of candidates, to see how long they're likely to stay active on the bench. A reader talks about life appointments more generally:

    In my view life tenure is a very, very dangerous thing. 

    I say that as someone who was recently granted academic tenure. I see it in academia now that mandatory retirement has been removed (by the Supreme Court in 1991 no less). Given the world I live in I'll take it, but it doesn't fundamentally change the fact that I think it is wrong.

    The upside of tenure is that it gives protection from an administration that can be vindictive when someone does research that is controversial. This is important. It also gives some freedom to try riskier projects that might not pay out for a while, which is very much how basic science is.

    The downside is that senior professors are often expensive and not very productive. The variations of deadwood faculty---the semi-senile senior professor wistfully reminiscing about when he was relevant while keeping a hand on the throat of the department or the embittered associate with the stalled career---are tropes for a reason. One of the reasons the academic job market is as congested and abusive as it is is because administrations can't get high priced senior faculty to retire. Extended contracts after a provisional period? Sure. So something like a contracts that were 3 years, 3 years, 7 years, 7 years, 5 years, 5 years, 3 years, 3 years, etc., would give a lot of its benefits with more flexibility. (In a sense, due to the way that funding works now, tenure isn't what it used to be anyway. At a lot of schools if you don't bring in enough to cover 80% of your salary you are terminated on financial exigency grounds anyway.)

    General officers in the first half of the 20th Century in the US Army are perhaps an even better illustration. John Pershing, was acting as a general officer with a set of captain's bars on his collar in the Philippines due to the strict seniority system. He was promoted to general by an act of Congress at Theodore Roosevelt's urging. When he was chosen as the commander of the AEF in 1917 he had to relieve an extraordinary proportion of general officers who would have been division commanders, many of whom where unable to handle the demands of the job due to being seriously overage. Then, lest we forget, there is the American Caesar: ”The problem with MacArthur was that he had been a general too long. He got his first star in 1918 and that means he’s had almost thirty years as a general. Thirty years of people playing to him and kissing his ass, and doing what he wants. That’s not good for anyone.” - Lieutenant General Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, US Army, 1944

    So for the federal bench, something like 10 year appointments [JF: or 15 for the Supreme Court] makes sense to me, with an opportunity for a 5 year reappointment, much like the FBI director's time in office. (Odd numbers were chosen carefully to be out of sync with the American electoral calendar.) It provides substantial insulation from politics, but as you have already indicated, the Court has played politics before. This is nothing new, as Roger Taney's reasoning in the Dred Scott case showed clearly. Having some turnover would help lower the stakes of appointments, too, which might well turn down the heat on the massively overheated confirmation process, while still preserving judicial independence and presidential legacies. 

    My assessment of the chances of this ever happening short of some kind of massive constitutional crisis? Nil. 

    I agree with all parts of this note, including the final paragraph.

    Previous post                                                                            Next post

  • Cynicism-in-Public-Life Contest, John Roberts Edition

    Life tenure in any public post is bad public policy, and other implications of the latest Supreme Court rulings

    Wikimedia Commons

    [Update: please see this follow-up item too.] If People magazine were based in D.C., instead of their Sexiest Man Alive specials they might run Most Cynical Person Alive contests. Obviously there are lots of candidates, but at this moment you would have to give the nod to John Roberts. 

    Let us travel back in time all the way to the summer of 2005. Take literally one minute to listen to these famous words from earnest young appeals-court judge John Roberts:

    Humility. Modesty. Restraint. Deference to precedent. "We're just calling balls and strikes."

    That guy sounded so great. Really, watch this minute-long video and think what it would be like to have a person like that on the bench.

    Instead we have a chief justice who:

    • in the "Obamacare" ruling two years ago, apparently decided that the institutional risk to the Court of blatantly coming across as just another branch of party politics outweighed the objections implicit in his prior rulings to the healthcare plan. So he found a way not to overturn the main legislative accomplishment of a president's first term, with all the hubbub that would ensue. As it happens, I was glad that the politics added up that way for him. But ...
    • in this week's McCutcheon ruling, following Citizens United, he made up out of nowhere his own interpretation of how electoral politics and favor-trading works*—trumping that of Congress, composed 100 percent of elected members. Plus he invented his own post-Founders, no-input-from-Congress, precedent-be-damned theory of what "corruption" means. As it happens, I disagree with the results of this one. But the main point is that in their activist political sensibility neither this judgment nor the Obamacare one had the slightest connection to the person who so self-effacingly presented himself for confirmation nine years ago.

    [* This interpretation, from the opinion:

    [T]he only type of corruption Congress may target is quid pro quo corruption. Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to such quid pro quo corruption. Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner “influence over or access to” elected officials or political parties.

    See if anyone who has worked in politics recognizes that bright-line definition of the role of money in affecting politicians' behavior. The elected politicians who passed the campaign-finance laws didn't understand it that way. Then watch that video again. About judicial "modesty."]

    Alito, Thomas, Scalia—not cynical. We know the deal with them. Kennedy—permanently enjoying his status as the man whose deliberations constitute the tie-breaking vote.  

    Roberts was the one who came in talking in such forelock-tugging terms about restraint and precedent, balls and strikes.

    Nearly a decade in, his record is that of one more politician. But—unlike James Byrnes, Fred Vinson, Hugo Black, Earl Warren, and Sandra Day O'Connor—one who didn't have to bother getting the public's votes. 


    For later discussion: Depending on actuarial trends, and the outcome of the next presidential election, whether Ruth Bader Ginsburg and perhaps Stephen Breyer will eventually be seen as having put personal over national interest.

    Life tenure for any public post is bad public policy. Individual justices can't do anything about that—though, who knows, John Roberts might try. They can do something about how long each of them decides to stay. Earl Warren left the Court at age 78, Potter Stewart at 66, Byron White at 76, Sandra Day O'Connor at 76, David Souter at 70. Any of us would like to keep doing satisfying work, and being important, as long as possible. I am sure Bill Clinton still rues the passage of the 22nd Amendment. But only nine of us, in a nation of 300-plus million, occupy positions with such decades-long effect on everyone else, and subject to such vagaries of national politics, as those on the Supreme Court. 

    Previous post                                          Next post (including update on this one)

  • 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.

  • Today in Security Theater, Air Force One Edition

    Thank you, Secret Service. But ... at airports?

    Wikimedia Commons
    Flight Aware, via Ari Ofsevit

    Ari Ofsevit, of the Boston area, sent out a Tweet this afternoon saying "If you're flying in to Boston right now, uh, you aren't." It included the image above, from Flight Aware.

    WTF? The answer is that Air Force One, bearing POTUS, was at Boston's Logan Airport, so other planes were not allowed to operate there. 

    It's always exciting to hear, on the normal Air Traffic Control frequency, calls involving AF1. "November Five Sierra Romeo, climb and maintain six thousand feet." "Climbing six thousand, Five Sierra Romeo." "Air Force One, contact Atlanta Center on one-two-two point three." "Atlanta Center, one-two-two point three, Air Force One." But the idea that the plane should paralyze normal airport operations by its mere existence is an extension of security theater that comes across as Caesarian grandiosity, no matter who occupies the White House. (I will always remember being at the Wright Brothers centennial at Kitty Hawk NC, in 2003, when suddenly AF1, bearing one-time National Guard pilot George W. Bush, arrived, and a Praetorian guard of security officials put the whole area under its control.) As Ofsevit said in a follow-up note:

    Watching POTUS fly in to Boston today (and listening in on LiveATC) I decided that it is quite silly anymore that we shut down the airport for AF1. Airports are just about as secure as it gets, and air traffic control is run in such a manner that there hasn't been a plane-to-plane collision in the US in decades. [JF note: For a riveting account of the most dramatic such collision, one between a TWA and a United flight over the Grand Canyon back in 1956, check out this.] Are we admitting that ATC is [fallible], since we ground everyone during presidential visits? Or is this a holdover from earlier days?

    I understand, say, keeping planes off the active runway and taxiway when AF1 is landing as a precaution. But keeping everyone at the gate until the president not only lands and taxis, but until his motorcade has left the airport? Does it make any sense?

    Once the plane is parked—usually on a section of airfield away from runways, taxiways and ramps, couldn't other planes push back and move towards the runways, and couldn't you land planes which have been circling?

    I think this is security theater at its finest, but maybe there's an aviation or security answer beyond that. Is there?

    On the Let's Be Reasonable side: American presidents are under a constant barrage of threats; Obama is under a special threat barrage of his own; it matters, and is a kind of miracle, that the violence against political figures that so grossly distorted the 1960s has not recurred. Thank you, Secret Service.

    But -- at an airport? Already the distillation of America's security state? To imagine that one of the other airliners conducting normal operations might constitute a threat would require: knowing in advance when Air Force One was about to arrive, which is usually announced at the last minute; knowing in advance which airline crews would be on which planes to carry out a threat, also subject to last-minute change; somehow getting something on those planes that might be dangerous; knowing exactly where those airplanes would be, on the airport's runways, taxiways, and gates, at the moment Air Force One was parked and vulnerable; disregarding ATC instructions so as somehow to impinge on Air Force One's space; and so on. Anything could happen, but ...

    In Washington DC, presidential "ground movements" -- the motorcades with all the police-motorcycle forerunners and the rest of the entourage -- have been worked out to paralyze the city as little as possible. Maybe we could apply that logic to airports too? Given that they are already so much more thoroughly controlled than our roads? Just a thought.

  • Why We Read More Than 1 Paper, Cont.

    The WSJ harmonization watch goes on.

    Thanks to Lawrence Wilkinson, @samsteinhp, and @bgavio for pointers to screenshot above and this installment in the ongoing saga. 

    Hypothesis undergoing long-term testing: Under the ownership of Rupert Murdoch, the "harmonization" of the Wall Street Journal shows up not on its editorial page, which was already the right-wing counterpart to Pravda, nor in the actual content of its articles, still the products of a generally first-rate reportorial staff.

    Instead it turns up in headlines, story play, and immediate Rorschach-test moments like this. Tonight's results once again fit the hypothesis.

    For previous steps down the harmonization road, see previous installments one, two, three, and four


    While I'm on the subject of the press, this update about US News. Lucy Byrd Lyons, a friend and former Atlantic colleague who now is communications manager for US News, wrote asking me to clarify my latest item about the magazine's zapping of its pre-2007 online archives. As part of the peroration I said, "The place where most people had assumed their work would 'live' for search and retrieval purposes, the magazine's own site, had been removed for the first 74 years' worth of the magazine's existence."

    Lucy Lyons reminds me that for most of the period after the magazine's founding in 1933, there was no Internet and thus no online version of its contents. Fair point! Even though many publications including the Atlantic have been investing for years in digitizing olden-days articles to bring them online. 

    Still, if anyone thought I meant that archives from the FDR or LBJ eras were being purged, sorry for the confusion. I didn't mean that. I meant that the first dozen-plus years of the magazine's online existence had, with no advance word, been eliminated. And while I'm at it, a representative message of the many I've received from the info-tech world:

    As someone who has been in IT technology for decades, the decision shouldn't be whether US News can afford to migrate the older archives into the new content management system (CMS) and if not, to remove them. 

    If it doesn't make economic sense to migrate them, then just leave them as is and have the new CMS provide a hook to the old system. With the low cost of servers and storage these days, running the old archive on a separate system would be cheap, although they may still have to maintain old software licenses. It may not be elegant but the new/old combination would work just fine, especially if there hasn't been a strong demand for the older archives. Access is key, performance is secondary.

    Here endeth the US News archive saga as far as I'm concerned. Although if anyone happened to store the USN appreciation I wrote of retired Air Force colonel and still-influential military theorist John Boyd when he died in 1997, I'd be glad to have it. I can't seem to find it online any more.  

    Previous post                                                                          Next post

  • A Whole New Way to Think About House of Cards: 'Throwing Like a Girl'

    What "The West Wing for werewolves" tells us about political satire

    To avoid spoilers, I won't tell you why Kevin Spacey is standing here, or what comes next. ( MLB.com )

    This post will end with the significance of how Kevin Spacey throws a baseball --in real life, and on screen (above). But it will take a little while to get there, and I hope you'll bear with me along a twisty trail.

    1) A contrast in styles: drama versus melodrama. I'm watching the original U.K.-BBC version of House of Cards, and its U.S.-Netflix remake, more or less in sync. Right now I've seen about half of Season Two of the U.S. version, and three of the four episodes of To Play the King, which was Season Two for the BBC. 

    I like them and recommend them both and will be sorry when I reach the end of either. But as time goes on, the contrasts between them become more evident.) For previous comparisons, see installments one, two, and three.

    Ian Richardson, the original FU, with his
    trademark line

    One difference is simply scale: Netflix offers more than three times as many episodes per season, 13 versus 4, and about ten times as many plot twists, sub-characters, shifts of scene, and so on. It's just bigger in every way, symbolized by the modern HD color that makes the original seem like black-and-white. The sex scenes are far more numerous and explicit. (Which is also a 1990s-broadcast vs 2014-non-broadcast shift.) The characters are louder, broader, and less subtle. Michael Dobbs, who wrote the British novel that begat this whole dramatic lineage, and who worked as a consultant on both renditions of the shows, has described the Netflix version as "The West Wing for werewolves." If you've seen them both you know what he means.

    Which leads to the other, related difference, that of tone. If I say it's drama (BBC) versus melodrama (Netflix), that sounds like a put-down but isn't. And remember, I am the farthest thing from a knee-jerk "Oh, the Brits are so classy!" guy. It's a difference in the palette with which the characters are drawn. Ian Richardson, as the British politician FU—Francis Urquhart—is a study in cold, controlled malice. As Frank Underwood, the American FU, Kevin Spacey is by comparison hamming it up and camping it up in every scene. For me, he is too obviously having fun—or so I thought until last night.

    2) A weak character: defect, or diabolically clever design? By a million miles, the least convincing character in the American House of Cards is the supposed President, Garrett Walker (played by Michael Gill—a capable actor who I assume is taking direction). Movie-and-TV presidents have varied widely, like their real-life models, but except in farces all of them have projected a sense of there-ness, in the Gertrude Stein definition. Martin Sheen's President Bartlet in West Wing and Dennis Haysbert's President Palmer in 24 are the clearest examples: you see these characters and think, OK, I understand how he got elected, and why the people around him defer to his judgment. Garrett Walker? Unt-uh. This guy is a peevish assistant-secretary type.

    I had considered that this was a weakness in the show, or a sign of its melodrama-rather-than-drama aspirations. But I have begun wondering whether I'm selling their producers short. It's all because of the "Frank Underwood Learns to Throw" sequence midway through Season Two, which I've just seen and is where the picture at the top of this post comes from.

    3) "Throwing Like a Girl," redux. Back during Bill Clinton's first term, I wrote an Atlantic article called "Throwing Like a Girl." I had a wonderful time reporting it, since that involved: interviewing the actor John Goodman (a former athlete who had learned to throw with his left had for his movie role as Babe Ruth); sitting with the tennis coach Vic Braden to watch bio-mechanics videos about the "kinetic chain" that leads to a proper throwing motion; and learning the simple trick that can make almost anyone "throw like a girl." You'll have to check out the article to see what that was.

    The article began when I saw side-by-side front-page photos of Bill and Hillary Clinton throwing out the first pitch at season-opening baseball games and wondered why they threw so differently. The obvious-when-you-think-about-it conclusion I came to was this:

    Throwing is a motion nearly anyone can do, but that no one starts out knowing how to do. That is, it is not like crawling or walking -- which children innately figure out -- and is like riding a bike, which anyone can do but only with opportunity and practice. (If you've never seen a bike, you're not going to be able to ride one. The first dozen times you try, you are going to fall down.) For whatever reason, the typical 12-year-old boy has spent more of his life throwing balls, stones, and sticks than the typical 12-year-old girl. Thus more boys than girls learn how to throw, and more girls than boys throw the way you do if you don't know how.

    (If you've read this far, I'll reward you with the secret: the way to prove this to yourself is to throw a ball or stone with your "off" hand -- the left, if you're right- handed. Most people have no practice throwing that way, so generally they will "throw like a girl." That's what John Goodman did when he practiced throwing leftie -- it took him a year to get ready to do it in front of the camera -- and is what I did when "researching" my article.)

    Update! Thanks to reader KG, here is a fabulous video, via Kottke.org, of men throwing with the "off" hand. The French music background makes it special.

    Men Throwing Rocks With The Other Hand from Juan Etchegaray on Vimeo.

    4) Which brings us back to Kevin Spacey. In a Season Two episode I've just seen, Kevin Spacey throws on-screen, and he is terrible. I would use a video clip if I saw one from Netflix online, but take it from me. 

    "Bad" throwing means: having your torso face the target head on, rather than being turned at an angle; having your elbow below your shoulder as the throw comes through; pushing the ball, with bent elbow as you release it, rather than hurling the ball with your elbow whipping to a straight position as you let go; and so on. Every one of them you see from Spacey's Frank Underwood. The muddy little screen grab at right understates the problem.

    When I first saw this I thought: Spacey's kidding himself! He in inside his own information bubble and doesn't realize how bad this looks on screen, just as he hasn't realized how weakly written or weakly acted the saga's President Walker is, and how overdrawn some of the others are. To be fair, I gave the writers credit for the ball-throwing homage to the brilliant opening passages of Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes (a very mild spoiler on my part). 

    Then, through the magic of the Internet, I started prowling around for other pictures of Kevin Spacey engaged in ball sports. And I discovered that the real-life Spacey had thrown out a first pitch at a real-world major league ball game. He did so last summer at Camden Yards, before an Orioles game. And—well, read the Charm City headline for yourself:

    So a person who in real life can throw perfectly well, is for dramatic purposes all-too-convincingly pretending that he can't. And what if ...  this means something about the series as a whole?

    5) Which really means coming back to Verbal Kint. Suddenly I was thinking of Spacey in the final few minutes of his breakthrough role in The Usual Suspects—when we see that pitiful Verbal Kint, shuffling and stuttering, is capable of a whole lot more than he has let us know. And suddenly, with this TV series as in that movie, you're looking back at the old evidence through a different lens.

    Maybe the President and other politicians come across as two-dimensional figures not because the writing and acting are bad—but because they're good, and the impression of two-dimensionality is what the series means to convey. Maybe Spacey's FU, unlike Ian Richardson's FU in England, is an exaggerated hambone villain not because he's self-indulgent but because he's being precise. That's how he sees, or wants to present, political leaders—and their consorts, like Robin Wright, and before her Kate Mara, as soap-opera villainesses?

    That's as far into the weeds as I can go right now. Any TV series that can make you wonder what it means has done something valuable, and by that standard both FUs have proved their work. On to more episodes this evening.

    Previous post                                                              Next post

  • 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.

    Previous post                                                                                      Next post

  • A Serving Soldier, on Cory Remsburg

    "Why was he deployed 10 times? Who the hell cares! What matters is that he was brave, and he volunteered his service, and his sacrifice was noble." Or so the Congress seemed to be thinking.

    Cory Remsburg, from 9Line.

    I won't drag this out indefinitely. (On the other hand, think about it: You may be saying to yourself, Okay, enough already, let this topic go, it's getting tedious. Meanwhile, Sgt. Remsburg and tens of thousands of other people will wake up every single morning for the rest of their lives and cope with the consequences of our open-ended wars.) Previously here and here.

    But here is another message from a person now in uniform: 

    Thanks for writing about Cory Remsburg. I had no idea that it had happened until I had read your article, so I popped over to YouTube to see what I had missed. I'm an active duty service member who, thankfully, has only had to deploy once (so far), and my reaction to it pretty much mirrors yours and probably most of your readers. I won't go into detail how frustrating it was to watch, but I think it put on display a larger cultural problem.
     
    At some point, during the last 12 years and some change the United States has been doing combat deployments, the people who deploy and the reasons for deploying them have become inseparable. People who deploy are undoubtedly brave (well, usually) and have to do absolutely shitty things to varying degrees, and deserve accolades for that. 

    The reasons behind the deployment are not always so praise-worthy, but to criticize the mission is seen as criticizing the *people*, taking away from what they gave up. I think the best recent example for this is Lone Survivor, where people saw that the movie maybe was critical of Operation Red Wings and lashed out against it, insisting that the *reason* behind the mission didn't matter, what mattered was how brave the SOCOM troops were. To criticize the reason why they were, and why multiple operators lost their lives, is to take away from their sacrifice.
     
    That's what happened when SFC Remsburg was introduced. Why was he deployed ten times? Who the hell cares! What matters is that he was brave, and he volunteered his service, and his sacrifice was noble. To question why he was sent, if it really was necessary for him to get blown up, is to question his sacrifice, which can not be tolerated.
     
    I'm a young guy, and can't really say if there's precedence for this sort of mentality in previous conflicts, but the best I can hope for is that when the conflict is over people will look back on it and say, "Yea, that was kind of screwed up."

    And one more reader note about the same Congress that so earnestly applauded Remsburg:

    The Cory Remsburg story seems like one more instance where we have lost our collective spirit to solve problems and take care of each other. As a previous emailer pointed out—10 tours of duty? It is no wonder these young men and women are returning home with serious problems.  

    I am the parent of 2 children in their 20's that have been spared this horror, and I know it is patently unfair, and in the long term, detrimental to who we are as a country. The recent passage of the Farm Bill which cut food stamps to millions is another example of disregarding our responsibilities to our fellow Americans.  

    To round it out and put it in context, a trenchant article by a Marine Corps adviser in Afghanistan on why our entire effort there is likely to come to nothing. 

  • Why the Cory Remsburg Tribute Will Be Seen as a Sign of Our Times, and a Bad One, Many Years From Now

    Taking The Long View of events one day in the past

    Barack Obama has always been said to take The Long View. It's a point he made several times in last night's speech, most explicitly here:

    Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.

    If you saw the speech, you should read
    this book. 

    That's the answer the president "wants" to give his grandchildren; it's not the answer I "expect" any of us to be able to give. But at least he raised the question and expressed a hope.

    There was another moment in the speech that I think will look worse in the long view. It was the emotionally charged ending, the tribute to the obviously courageous and grievously wounded Sergeant Cory Remsburg.

    The moment was powerful human and political drama; it reflected deserved credit and gratitude on Remsburg and his family; and as I wrote earlier today, I think it was entirely sincere on the president's part, as a similar tribute would have been from his predecessor George W. Bush. With the significant difference that Bush initiated the wars these men and women have fought in, and Obama has been winding them down. And so the most favorable reading of the moment, as John Cassidy has argued, is that the president was trying to dramatize to the rest of the government the human cost of the open-ended wars many of them have egged on.

    But I don't think that's how it came across to most of the Congress, or was processed by the commentariat. This was not presented as a "never again" moment; it was a "this is America's finest!" moment—which Cory Remsburg himself, and with his family, certainly is. (Also see Peter Beinart on this point.) For America as a whole, the episode did not show us at our finest. In the earlier item, I tried to explain why these few minutes will reflect badly on us and our times when our children's children view them years from now. Since the explanation was buried at the end of a long post, I repeat it at the end of this one.

    Here is a reader note that makes the point more directly. A soldier in an earlier war writes:

    When I was a draftee in the Army (1967-69) it was unusual to meet a soldier who'd served two tours in Vietnam and almost unheard of to meet one who'd served three tours. That's why I consider it almost unimaginable cruelty the sacrifices our politicians have forced on our troops in the past 12 years.  

    Ten tours! Good Lord, how much is a soldier—and his or her family—supposed to take in order to save a chickenhawk politician the odious task of voting for a draft to supply enough manpower for all the wars he wants others to fight? 

    A Congress that by default is pressuring the country toward war, most recently with Iran, and that would not dream of enacting either a special tax or any kind of enforced or shared service to sustain these wars, gives a prolonged, deserved ovation for a person who has dedicated his all to the country. Tears well up in many eyes; the cheering persists; the admiration for this young man is profound. Then everyone moves right on.

    Years from now, people can play this clip and see something about the culture of our times. It's a moment of which only the Remsburg family will be proud. 

    Update: Another note that just came in:

    I read about the reference to Cory Remsburg and pulled up the SOTU video to see what I had missed. Watching Mr. Remsburg wave his poorly functioning right hand with the help of his father, tears began to slowly well up.

    But as the applause continued and the camera panned over the collection of privileged white men, I started to feel angry and frustrated. It was difficult to hear the President speak about sacrifice while knowing that few of the clapping members of Congress will put any of their children in similar harm’s way.

    It was difficult to hear the President speak about Cory Remsburg as a case of an American fighting and pushing through adversity and life’s hard knocks, as if he was an entrepreneur who opened a business, went bankrupt, and is now working hard to rebuild a new business and provide for his family. This is a man who took 10 deployments overseas for reasons that members of Congress would struggle to explain in lucid and clear terms. I found it tasteless because it seemed that the President, as head of state and Chief in Command, wasn’t acknowledging his role in the adversity that Cory Remsburg and his family deal with every day.

    I don’t mean to blame the President directly, but I would like the plight of people like Cory Remsburg publicly framed as a time of reflection and accountability for members of both the legislative and the executive rather than an opening for a 90 second clapping routine.


    From earlier today, after seven other items about the speech.

    8) Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg. About the service and sacrifice of this brave man and other men and women like him, we cannot say enough. As Obama emphasized, Sgt. Remsburg's grave injury came on his tenth deployment. I do not doubt that Obama, like his wartime predecessors, is genuinely seized by both anguish and admiration about the people he has sent into harm's way. Even when, and perhaps more so when, like Obama he has been trying to withdraw those troops.

    And no one can doubt the drama and power of the speech's closing minutes.

    But while that moment reflected limitless credit on Sgt. Remsburg, his family, and others similarly situated; and while I believe it was genuinely respectful on the president's part, I don't think the sustained ovation reflected well on the America of 2014. It was a good and honorable moment for him and his family. But I think the spectacle should make most Americans uneasy.

    The vast majority of us play no part whatsoever in these prolonged overseas campaigns; people like Sgt. Remsburg go out on 10 deployments; we rousingly cheer their courage and will; and then we move on. Last month I mentioned that the most memorable book I read in 2013 was Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain. It's about a group of U.S. soldiers who barely survive a terrible encounter in Iraq, and then are paraded around in a halftime tribute at a big Dallas Cowboys game. The crowd at Cowboys Stadium cheers in very much the way the Capitol audience did last night—then they get back to watching the game.

  • SOTU in 8 Thought Drops

    The first seven are in different ways encouraging; number eight, less so.

    Ronald Reagan, back in the days of yore. Read on to discover why I am using this photo. (Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library)

    Not doing an annotated version this year, for mainly technical reasons. Thus this bullet-point version. (Plus, discussed the speech this morning on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, and last night right after the event on Charlie Rose.)

    1) Theme: it had one. The curse/burden of writing State of the Union messages, and the challenge in listening to them, is that their entire point is to be encyclopedic. It's the president's main shot at listing all the things he's hoping to do. Thus their standard "Turning now to foreign affairs ... " creaky-transition structure, and thus the difficulty of discerning any main theme.

    But this one had a theme, and a narrative-argumentative structure. That theme was: things are getting better -- and so, my colleagues in government, let's stop screwing them up. The positive part of the theme allowed Obama to make his version of a morning-in-America presentation: manufacturing up, energy imports and carbon emissions down, health coverage expanding. It also allowed him to make the must-do-more part: inequality and uneven opportunity are the main challenges to doing better. So let's deal with them.

    2) Bearing: Obama's mattered. The news of the past few months has all been of a diminished, aloof, estranged, premature-lame-duck Obama. If the man we'd seen last night had resembled the beaten-seeming Obama of the first 2012 Romney-Obama debate, the out-of-it verdict would have solidified. That wouldn't have moved him into permanent figurehead status, because "expert" judgments about politicians are notoriously fickle. (Bill Clinton is now viewed on all sides as a kind of sun king of political dexterity. After the defeat of his medical-care bill, a crushed-seeming President Clinton had to mewl at a press conference that he was "still relevant.") But it would have made things that much harder.

    So, all judgments are fluid. But—as he has time and again with "big" speeches—Obama improved his standing by seeming sunny, confident, relaxed, and engaged.

    You could say, "Reaganesque," by which I mean: seeming sunnily confident himself, seeming similarly confident about the country, and seeming (most of the time) amused and unflustered by the realities of political division, rather than embittered or scolding about them. 

    3) American Futures—the speech. It was considerate of the president to begin with a litany of local manufacturing start-ups and community public-private development efforts very much like the ones we've been chronicling in recent months. If he ever tires of Air Force One, there is a seat for him in our Cirrus.

    4) Inequality—the shrewd way he positioned it. The news before the speech was that Obama was going to dwell on the worst economic reality of the times, in the United States and virtually all other countries: things are getting better overall, but not for all or even most people. And his opponents were gearing up for a "we are shocked, just shocked by this descent into 'class war' " lament. 

    So when he talked about strictly economic issues, Obama kept carefully to a "growing pie" tone. It's great that rich people have done so well. Let's help everyone prosper. And when he worked the class-war beat, it was on a front where the Republicans dared not (sanely) oppose him: arguing that today's economy is unfair to women. I.e., to most Americans.

    5) Nicest deviation from prepared text—the missing "er." The official text of the speech had this passage about symbols of American opportunity:

    Here in America, our success should depend not on accident of birth, but the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams.  That’s what drew our forebears here.  It’s how the daughter of a factory worker is CEO of America’s largest automaker; how the son of a barkeeper is Speaker of the House; how the son of a single mom can be President of the greatest nation on Earth. 

    What Obama actually said about John Boehner was, "the son of a barkeep." A tiny difference that was ineffably charming. Boehner himself was manifestly charmed. And the sequence of examples here—first female head of General Motors (which, nudge-nudge, the government helped rescue); the son of a barkeep sitting here behind me; and only then the son of a single mother standing at the podium—put Obama's own story, which is (of course) tremendously important but which (of course) we all already know, in a broader "all in this together" frame.  

    Son of a barkeep acknowledges son of a single mother. Son of a used-car salesman applauds. Via Washington Post.

    6) Back to vintage-2008 Obama. On the substance, sentences I was very glad to hear: 

    So, even as we aggressively pursue terrorist networks—through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners—America must move off a permanent war footing .... And with the Afghan war ending, this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay—because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by  

    7) Laying down the law, in the right way—about Iran. Also very glad to hear these lines:

    Let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it.  For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed...  If Iran’s leaders do seize the chance, then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.

    And:

    If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

    Exactly. For later discussion, the way effective (finding bin Laden) and excessive (drone/surveillance) aspects of Obama's records should insulate him from the need to "prove" his toughness.

    8) Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg. About the service and sacrifice of this brave man and other men and women like him, we cannot say enough. As Obama emphasized, Sgt. Remsburg's grave injury came on his tenth deployment. I do not doubt that Obama, like his wartime predecessors, is genuinely seized by both anguish and admiration about the people he has sent into harm's way. Even when, and perhaps more so when, like Obama he has been trying to withdraw those troops.

    And no one can doubt the drama and power of the speech's closing minutes.

    But while that moment reflected limitless credit on Sgt. Remsburg, his family, and others similarly situated; and while I believe it was genuinely respectful on the president's part, I don't think the sustained ovation reflected well on the America of 2014. It was a good and honorable moment for him and his family. But I think the spectacle should make most Americans uneasy.

    The vast majority of us play no part whatsoever in these prolonged overseas campaigns; people like Sgt. Remsburg go out on 10 deployments; we rousingly cheer their courage and will; and then we move on. Last month I mentioned that the most memorable book I read in 2013 was Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain. It's about a group of U.S. soldiers who barely survive a terrible encounter in Iraq, and then are paraded around in a halftime tribute at a big Dallas Cowboys game. The crowd at Cowboys Stadium cheers in very much the way the Capitol audience did last night—then they get back to watching the game.

  • Friday Mid-Day Reader: Iran, Etc.

    The substance and the politics of several ensnarled issues.

    Following last night's China roundup, another batch of news items before we get back to Greenville, South Carolina:

    1) The Iran deal: substance. As a reminder, the interim U.S.-U.K.-French-German-Russian-Chinese deal with Iran holds no guarantees. But if it should succeed in re-integrating Iran as a "normal" country, the benefits to the world in general and the U.S. in particular would be enormous, similar in concept (though not in scale) to the benefits of re-integrating China a generation ago. Thus it is worth giving the negotiations every chance to succeed—and resisting the cynical congressional effort to guarantee failure by adding impossible poison-pill conditions.

    In the upcoming issue of The New York Review of Books, Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former National Security Council staffer on proliferation issues, underscores the importance of the deal and the danger of the congressional effort. Her essay, headline shown above, begins:

    In recent weeks, Iran and the United States, for the first time, have broken through more than a decade of impasse over Iran’s nuclear program. Significant differences remain, but at long last, both governments appear ready to work their way toward a resolution. Yet the US Congress, acting reflexively against Iran, and under intense pressure from Israel, seems ready to shatter the agreement with a bill that takes no account of Iranian political developments, misunderstands proliferation realities, and ignores the dire national security consequences for the United States.

    She goes on to make the case on all counts. As does Steven Walt, in Foreign Policy, with a catalogue of the sweeping benefits for the United States if relations with Iran should improve. And Fred Kaplan in Slate.

    Why is Congress threatening to make a deal impossible, before one can be struck? The only real opposition comes from some hardliners inside Iran, who have no U.S. constituency; plus the current governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel, who have an easier time getting the attention of U.S. legislators. Mathews says:

    Prime Minister Netanyahu greeted the agreement with a barrage of criticism. Even before it was completed he called it a “Christmas present” for Iran; later, “a historic mistake.” His too attentive audience on Capitol Hill followed suit. Many of the criticisms suggest that the critics haven’t appreciated the terms of the agreement. Senator Charles Schumer dismissed it as “disproportionate.” The observation is correct, but upside down, for Iran gave far more than it got.

    2) The Iran deal: politics. The poison-pill legislation is officially known as S. 1881, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 (full text here), and informally as the Kirk-Menendez bill, after Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ). Most Republicans say they're for it; the Obama administration is (obviously) dead-set against it. The only discernible reason why some Democrats are lining up with the GOP is AIPAC's strong push for the bill. 

    A report this week by Ron Kampeas in JTA is worth reading closely on the political dynamics. For instance:

    AIPAC has been stymied by a critical core of Senate Democrats who have sided with the Obama administration in the fight. While AIPAC’s bid to build a veto-busting majority has reached 59 — eight short of the needed 67 — it has stalled there in part because Democrats have more or less stopped signing on....

    AIPAC, however, says its bid to pass sanctions is on track.

    “Our top priority is stopping Iran’s nuclear program, and consequently we are very engaged in building support for the Menendez-Kirk bill which now has the bi-partisan co-sponsorship of 59 senators,” AIPAC’s spokesman, Marshall Wittman, wrote in an email to JTA. “This measure would provide our negotiators with critical leverage in their efforts to achieve a peaceful end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”

    Kampeas has an update on the substance and politics here. And John Hudson, in Foreign Policy, describes the pressure AIPAC is putting on Debbie Wasserman Schultz, longtime representative from Florida and national chair of the Democratic National Committee, to switch away from her announced support for the administration's approach. And Mathews's article says:

    The bill’s most egregious language explains why so many senators leapt onto this bandwagon: it has become a vehicle for expressing unquestioning support for Israel, rather than a deadly serious national security decision for the United States.... Senators report that AIPAC’s advocacy of the bill has been intensive, even by its usual standard.

    In two previous big showdowns with the administration—over Chuck Hagel's nomination as secretary of defense, and over military intervention in Syria—AIPAC de-escalated and said it hadn't really been looking for a fight, once it became clear things weren't going its way.* As the Iran-sanctions issue gets more attention, my bet is that something similar will happen. For good reason, there is zero American-public appetite for a showdown with Iran. Since the interim deal was announced, polls have shown support for giving the talks the best possible chance. E.g.:

    As the talks go on and everyone except the Saudis, the Netanyahu administration, and AIPAC extol their possibilities, it will be harder for leading Democrats to explain why it makes sense to defy their party's president, secretaries of state and defense, and congressional leadership, plus most of the rest of the world, on this issue. (Also see Greg Sargent in the WaPo, and another from Kampeas.)

    [* The Syria situation was of course muddled. Initially AIPAC and the administration were both pro-intervention. After Obama's surprise decision to seek Congressional authorization, AIPAC pushed hard for a pro-intervention vote.] 

    3) Gates and Afghanistan: substance. It's worth reading this analysis, by Gareth Porter, of Obama's first-term approval of a "surge" in Afghanistan. Robert Gates's book appeared to put Obama's approach in a bad light. Porter makes the contrary case:

    The Gates account omits two crucial historical facts necessary to understanding the issue. The first is that Obama agreed to the escalation only under strong pressure from his top national security officials and with very explicit reservations. The second is that Gen. David Petraeus reneged on his previous commitment to support Obama’s 2009 decision that troop withdrawal would begin by mid-2011.

    Further details in his essay.

    4) Gates and Afghanistan: politics.  Mike Lofgren, author of The Party Is Over and veteran of Republican-side congressional politics, has an unromantic assessment of Gates's career and judgment. E.g., what Lofgren saw as a Senate staffer, when Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld at DOD:

    Because the Senate Armed Services Committee was overjoyed at seeing the last of Rumsfeld, they asked Gates no awkward questions, either about current strategy or about past events in which Gates had either inside knowledge or active participation – the "tilt to Iraq" which strengthened Saddam Hussein and helped lead inexorably to the first Gulf war and then the invasion of Iraq; or the arming of the Afghan mujaheddin, which helped lay the groundwork both for 9/11 and the Afghan quagmire that bedevils us yet.

    No, at the time of the hearing, I got the sense that the Armed Services Committee members would have liked to carry him in triumph in a sedan chair to the floor of the Senate for confirmation, simply because he was not Rumsfeld.

    That is all. 

  • Iran Sanctions Update: Have Senators Actually Read This Bill?

    Sen. Dianne Feinstein: "We cannot let Israel determine when and where the United States goes to war."

    Recently I argued that a dozen-plus Senate Democrats were doing something strange and reckless in signing on with most Republicans in an effort that would abort a potential deal to limit Iran's nuclear ambitions. 

    As a reminder: The U.S. government, along with those of France, Germany, the U.K., China, and Russia, all think this years-in-the-making deal is worth exploring. The governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel manifestly do not. Nearly all Senate Republicans and a significant number of Democratic allies are effectively saying: the Saudis and Israelis see things more clearly. We stand with their judgment—not that of our own government, the European mainstays, and even the Russians and Chinese.

    Developments since then:

    1) From Peter Beinart, in Haaretz, an item based on an important technical analysis of the pro-sanctions bill. Senators sponsoring the bill, Beinart says, claim that they are only trying to "support" the diplomatic process. That proves mainly that they haven't read, or don't understand, what they're signing onto, because in several crucial ways the bill's requirements are directly contrary to what the U.S./U.K./France/Germany/Russia/China have already agreed to with Iran.

    Go to the technical analysis, by Edward Levine, for the point-by-point parsing. And you can see the full text of the bill itself here. But the two most obvious deal-breaker implications are: 

        (a) the requirement that, in order to lift sanctions, Obama must "certify" a number of extra things about Iran that are not germane to the agreement and are simply impossible to prove. For instance, Obama must demonstrate that "Iran has not directly, or through a proxy, supported, financed, planned, or otherwise carried out an act of terrorism against the United States or United States persons or property anywhere in the world," with no time limit on how far back (or forward) in time this certification is supposed to run. And:

       (b) several clauses and references that apparently support the "zero enrichment" demand laid down by Benjamin Netanyahu but explicitly not endorsed by the U.S. government. These clauses, with repeated requirements that Iran "terminate" or "dismantle" its "illicit nuclear programs," are ambiguous but can (and presumably would) be read as applying to the entirety of Iran's nuclear infrastructure, peaceful or otherwise. This could mean a demand that Iran give up the right not just to weapons-grade uranium but also to low-level enrichment suitable for power plants and other non-military use.

    For the background of the "zero enrichment" policy, see this 2009 paper by Matthew Bunn of Harvard's Belfer Center. He argues (as do many other people who have examined the issue) that the zero-option is theoretically appealing but in reality is completely unacceptable to Iran. Thus its inclusion in any set of "negotiating" points is a way to ensure that the negotiations fail. As Bunn puts it, "Insisting on zero will mean no agreement, leaving the world with the risks of acquiescence [to an Iranian nuclear-weapons program] or military strikes." 

    On the basis of logic like this, the United States and its partners have already agreed that Iran should be allowed to retain low-level enrichment capabilities. Also on this point, see The Washington Monthly, and a former Israeli intelligence chief on why low-level enrichment is reasonable for Iran. Plus President Obama's own comments at Brookings last month, on why any agreement will necessarily allow some limited enrichment. This is Obama speaking:

    Now, you’ll hear arguments, including potentially from the Prime Minister [Netanyahu], that say we can’t accept any enrichment on Iranian soil.  Period.  Full stop.  End of conversation... 

    One can envision an ideal world in which Iran said, we’ll destroy every element and facility and you name it, it’s all gone.  I can envision a world in which Congress passed every one of my bills that I put forward.  (Laughter.)  I mean, there are a lot of things that I can envision that would be wonderful.  (Laughter.) 

    But precisely because we don’t trust the nature of the Iranian regime, I think that we have to be more realistic and ask ourselves, what puts us in a strong position to assure ourselves that Iran is not having a nuclear weapon and that we are protected?  What is required to accomplish that, and how does that compare to other options that we might take?
     
    And it is my strong belief that we can envision a end state that gives us an assurance that even if they have some modest enrichment capability, it is so constrained and the inspections are so intrusive that they, as a practical matter, do not have breakout capacity.  

    To wrap this point up: The U.S. and its partners have already declared that they are not asking for the "zero option." That's the premise for the entire deal, and it is one that the Senate bill appears designed to reverse. It would be as if, in the middle of the SALT or START negotiations with the old Soviet Union, the Congress passed a bill requiring that any final agreement include the elimination of the full Soviet arsenal. 

    2) A speech on Tuesday by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, on another important and underpublicized clause in the sanctions bill. It's 501(2) (b) (5), which says it is the "sense of the Congress" that if Israel decides to strike Iran, the U.S. presumptively should back the effort:

    If the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran's nuclear weapon program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence;

    The "in accordance with the laws..." passage indicates that an Israeli decision would not technically constitute a U.S. declaration of war. It is the main distinction between this clause and a "key point" on AIPAC's current policy-agenda site, which reads: 

    3. America Must Stand with Israel.
    The United States must back Israel if it feels compelled in its own legitimate self-defense to take military action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

    But Feinstein, who supported the Iraq war, argued that such before-the-fact commitments unwisely limit U.S. options and could make conflict more likely. Her whole speech is worth reading, and you can see the C-Span video above. Here is the conclusion it built to:

    I deeply believe that a vote for this legislation will cause negotiations to collapse. The United States, not Iran, then becomes the party that risks fracturing the international coalition that has enabled our sanctions to succeed in the first place....

    And then:

    Let me acknowledge Israel's real, well-founded concerns that a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten its very existence. I don't disagree with that. I agree with it, but they are not there yet.

    While I recognize and share Israel's concern, we cannot let Israel determine when and where the United States goes to war. By stating that the United States should provide military support to Israel in a formal resolution should it attack Iran, I fear that is how this bill is going to be interpreted.

    3) From a reader:

     Here's my problem with your argument: it's incomplete.  How can a Democrat, or anyone, evaluate whether the agreement should be given a chance without seeing the agreement?  Yesterday we had two separate reports that, if true, would mean the agreement has *already* failed: 1) the Iranian's report of the terms (dubious, but the Administration continues to be coy and not release the main agreement or the reported side agreement) and 2) an alleged Russia-Iran deal that would obliterate the 6-month Agreement's limitations on sanctions.
     
    Personally I too am for Congress holding off, but I'm put off by the tone of the "pro-Deal" crowd that the legislature needs to blindly trust Obama here.  Isn't that what we did with George W. Bush?  (The distinction between Colin Powell's misleading portfolio on WMDs and Kerry's thusfar blank portfolio (or heavily redacted portfolio) is too subtle to have meaning here).  

    The point is not that Congress must embrace a deal without knowing its full details. That will come later, when—and if—final terms are agreed to. Rather the point is that Congress should not guarantee the failure of the negotiations before they've run their course, which is what the sanctions bill would do.


    If I had a senator, I would ask him or her to read this bill carefully, reflect on its destructive implications, and reflect as well, as Dianne Feinstein did in her speech, on the damage done by blank-check security legislation (from AUMF to the Patriot Act) over the past dozen-plus years. Then I would ask my hypothetical senators to vote 'No.'

    UPDATE: Anthony Cordesman has a valuable update on the CSIS site, in which he discusses the pluses and minuses of the administration playing good cop and Congress playing bad cop toward Iran. Really worth reading, but a few highlights. First, on U.S. aims:

    The United States now has every incentive to leverage the success of existing sanctions, take full advantage of the current climate, and to try to make the current negotiations work. They are by far the safest way to remove an Iranian nuclear threat, and it is critical to remember what the threat really is: The real objective is to deny Iran military capability, not to try to deny it technology it has already acquired.

    On the strength of the emerging potential deal:

    The P5+1 and the United States have not yet made fully public all of the terms of the progress they made in defining and implementing the terms of the interim agreement ...

    At least to date, however, the limits on Iran in terms of permitted activities, improved transparency, and increased inspection would make even the most covert production, testing, and deployment of nuclear weapons extraordinarily difficult. Iran might quietly get to the point of a crude test of a gun or implosion device, but this test could scarcely then remain covert...

    It is extraordinarily difficult to believe Iran could actually deploy reliable nuclear missile warheads and bombs without being detected

    On the Congress's role as hard-line bad cop:

    The key to success, however, will be for the “bad cop” to avoid pushing to the point of failure. The best way to move forward is to do what the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Harry Reid, evidently has already proposed to do: keep the option of new sanctions legislation constantly open, but not confront Iran and other nations by passing such legislation if and when the negotiations fail, or Iran is shown to violate an agreement.

    Defer a vote on new sanctions until the ongoing efforts to fully define and create enforcement provisions for interim agreement effort fail or Iran violates them. And if Iran does move forward and complies with the interim agreement – defer a sanctions vote until it is clear whether Iran agrees to and complies with a permanent agreement. 

    Overall: This bill is a reckless and destructive gesture, and Democrats from Cory Booker to Mark Warner to Michael Bennet to Richard Blumenthal should give it a careful look and back off. 

  • 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.

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

From This Author