Friday, May 17, 2002

Orrin Judd suggests that Dubya's career can be better understood if we pay attention to the milieu from which he emerged. Well, you can't disagree with that. I'd just take a broader view than Judd. So, to try to put Bush's political career in some kind of larger perspective, here's a brief list of some of the signal events of his adult life:
  • Rather than serve in Vietnam, he finds a post in the Texas Air National Guard, somehow avoiding a very long waiting list. (He may have avoided more than that; records of his service have large gaps, there are no known witnesses to his attendance at required drills, and one man listed as his commanding officer can't ever recall seeing him).
  • Next, he tries to get into the University of Texas Law School, but can't make it in; the Dean notes in a letter that he's "sure there is a place for young George Bush somewhere," but that his test scores show he just doesn't have the smarts for Texas Law. So he winds up in his safety school --- Harvard Business.
  • After a dissolute, decade-long lost weekend, he finally starts out as a "businessman" in the oilpatch. As Judd notes, this was a depressed sector, and the best opportunities in the economy were probably elsewhere --- but it is where Dad had connections.
  • The businesses which he runs get into deep doodoo (as Dada might call it), but a buyer always materializes to bail Bush out, and the buyer is always quite kind to Dubya.
  • His next "business" venture is the Texas Rangers baseball team, where he is widely perceived as a figurehead for his partners, who put up almost all of the money.
  • And now, he enters politics, mentored every step of the way by donors with family ties, and placing extraordinary reliance in seasoned political operatives like Karen Hughes and Karl Rove, who line up for some reason behind a candidate with no political experience at all.

It seems a stretch to say this record shows any particular success at, or aptitude for, business. But there is a pattern. His positions are not earned; they are arranged. Wherever young Dubya wound up, whatever trouble he was in, there was always someone ready to make the deal, to do the favor, to pick up the check, to bail him out. None of his achievements are really his own.

The question is whether this helps explain anything about Bush the president. I think it does.

Consider foreign policy. It's clear, at this point, that his advisors are in two camps --- hawks, led by old Nixon hands Cheney and Rumsfeld, and doves, led by Powell. When they all agree on matters at hand, Bush can look good by sticking to the script. But when they disagree, and aren't giving him a consistent script to follow, he dithers, sometimes echoing one camp, sometimes the other, and sometimes just sounding pitifully confused. (Say, if you like, that he was humiliating himself in service of a grand master plan. I don't buy it).

But note how this tie is broken --- by the arrival of Dad's old friend from the oil bidness, the heir apparent to the Saudi throne, who promptly takes Young George in tow, and American foreign policy with it, surprised only to find that Young George "read only brief reports" about the Middle East, one of the most pressing problems in current American foreign policy, and was uninformed about the real conditions there. A lot of bloggers spend much more time keeping track of middle eastern affairs, and for us, it's just a hobby. It's Dubya's job.

(This via Little Green Footballs, which refers to the Saudi gentleman in question as the Clown Prince. But in view of his role in formulating American foreign policy, I think that's undignfied; it might be better to refer to him with his proper name and title: Assistant Secretary of State for Middle Eastern Affairs Abdullah bin Saud).

Or consider domestic policy, evidently the domain of Bush's political advisors, where no principle, including fiscal restraint, seems worth giving up cheap political points. Bush's welfare bill, for instance, demands 40 hours of work a week instead of 30, even though that is actually likely to cost government money to pay for child care, because "we put more welfare mothers to work" sounds good in a stump speech.

(You've gotta love these guys' vision of family values --- budgeting $300 million for ill-defined, feel-good "marriage classes" --- another campaign bullet point --- but making it far harder for single moms to take care of their own kids. This stuff collects votes, which is certainly an area where Bush, or rather his Svengalis, have demonstrated skill. But that doesn't necessarily lead to sound policy).

And we all know the story on tariffs (steel, wood, textiles, wherever there's a vote to be bought) and that farm bill.

The bottom line, as the Bull Moose has noted, is a presidency that serves its own stated agenda --- fiscal restraint, welfare reform, free trade, keeping government out of the market --- far less than Bill Clinton's did. And, fans of fiscal restraint, note that Clinton's point man on cost reductions, a guy with eight years experience in the nuts and bolts of restructuring government programs to improve efficiency and reduce waste, was running for President --- and instead, you voted for Bush. Congratulations.

Has Bush learned anything from business? Well, one thing does come to mind. Becoming aware that the United States had a bad reputation on the "Arab street", his administration hired an advertising executive, Charlotte Beers, who, as Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, is requesting $247 million for the next fiscal year for her publicity efforts. (I wonder how that compares to what she billed Uncle Ben's?) Hiring an advertising executive is something businessmen do. I have to give him that.

(Update: Judd responds. Apparently, he thinks its conspiracy-mongering on the scale of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to suggest that Dubya, a member of a notoriously tight-knit political clan, might be serving Dad's interests and getting favors in return, or to observe that the advisors Poppy found for him seem to be leading him around by the nose, and he has no idea what he himself believes when they disagree.

So to put it in words of (well, mostly) one syllable: while I can't say for sure where all Dubya's opportunities came from, I certainly wouldn't guess at any dark conspiracies to explain his charmed life --- just Dear Old Dad, trying to do his well-connected best for a favorite, if somewhat dimwitted son. It would be charming, if so many other people weren't getting screwed...).

In the trial of Enron's auditors, the argument of Enron's defenders reaches its logical conclusion:

The cross-examination was particularly unusual in a white-collar case, with the defense effectively arguing that the government's chief witness had never done anything wrong, while the witness countered repeatedly that he was indeed a felon.

Speaking of which, the last refuge of the Enron defender, in response, for instance, to the memos from Enron's lawyers acknowledging price gouging in California, seems to be "they did nothing illegal." I was going to write an extended satire on this, featuring a memo from Lay to Skilling bragging about the success of their lobbyists in getting the California regulations written so that highway robbery was legal, and a follow-up from the usual suspect crowing that Enron's critics still hadn't found any violation of the law.

But I've been overtaken by events. The other day, one of Enron's lawyers confirmed that Enron abandoned its market-gaming tactics after being repeatedly advised by its lawyers that they were against the law.

Thursday, May 16, 2002

So, the talk of the Blogsphere is the White House acknowledging that they had warning of al-Qaeda hijacking in advance, and their followup was less than impressive.

Where have you folks been all this time? One of the first things I blogged was a note on the lack of followup on the Moussaoui arrest, and when the indictment was announced, I made a note of the less than forthcoming answers which Mueller and Ashcroft gave in response to the obvious questions.

The real question is, if the White House now admits to a nonspecific warning about al-Qaeda hijackings, might they still be covering something up? One possibility comes from a report in the generally reputable Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (via the Washington Post) hinting at specific warnings about the use of commercial aircraft as weapons --- on September 13th.

(via Atrios, who is generally all over this; his taxonomy of tinfoil hats is particularly useful; he also has an amazing amount to say about what Ashcroft did do in response to the warnings in August; he stopped flying commercial).

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

And now... oversold fears of new technology: The Boston Globe rounds up the usual suspects to discuss some new technology that can make it look as if Peter Jennings really is telling America about your roommate's blind date --- if you have enough video of Jennings staring straight into a camera, not moving the rest of his face much. Kathleen Hall Jamieson thinks this pretty much puts the kibosh on video as evidence of, well, anything:

There is a certain point at which you raise the level of distrust to where it is hard to communicate through the medium... We will probably have to revert to a method common in the Middle Ages, which is eyewitness testimony. And there is probably something healthy in that.

And even computer scientist Demetri Terzopoulos thinks

... we are on a collision course with ethics. If you can make people say things they didn't say, then potentially all hell breaks loose.

What a stunning development. We have never before had the ability to convincingly fake a video. Faking Osama bin Laden's beard is far beyond the capabilities of contemporary makeup technology, even if you're shooting with a lousy camera.

But seriously, folks.

Society in general, and the legal system in particular, have been dealing with evidence in potentially forged media for centuries --- not just physical letters, but electronic stuff as well. Which is why, among other things, the legal system has procedures for tracking the chain of custody of the evidence in criminal cases, to make sure that the evidence is what it is purported to be. (Forging email convincingly is not hard, and at least one court case, alleging sexual harrassment at Oracle, has turned on such evidence. The forgery was detected by checking the email headers against the logs of the systems from which it was purportedly sent --- but if you're paranoid enough, you can certainly wonder how hard it would be to alter the logs).

Besides, eyewitness testimony has problems of its own.

(No, I don't think that video was faked, thanks for asking. A few subtle changes to the script would have made it much more convenient for the spooks, without changing its credibility in the least).

Occationally you get the feeling that a reporter is having entirely too much fun. Take this piece, for example. It seems that Robert Reich is alienating what might be seen as a natural constituency --- the short people of Massachusetts --- with an endless string of extremely bad jokes about his own vertically challenged status. This is a very serious political development, which does not deserve the joking headline, "Short people rise up in anger at Reich". This is just a Crummy article. Really, it is. The reporter assigned to the story was Karen E. Crummy.
Stephen Wolfram wants to rebuild science on a foundation of cellular automata:

Mr. Wolfram spins out elaborate speculations based on these ideas --- suggestions about free will, the structure of space, the nature of mathematics. "There is so much in the book," [computational neuroscientist Terry] Sejnowski said, "that it will be years, literally years, before people assimilate it." Meanwhile, reactions to Mr. Wolfram, he believes, will be "all over the map."

Mr. Wolfram is sanguine: "I am quite certain this is going to work. I have never deluded myself before."

Wolfram is an authentic genius --- one of those rare folks that even top-flight mathematicians and theoretical physicists refer to as "state of the art in human intelligence". He graduated from CalTech at the age of 20. With a Ph.D. The year after that, he won a MacArthur genius award. So, if anyone can create a useful new kind of mathematics, which is what this project seems to amount to, near as I can tell from this blurb in the Times, well, he's one of the few.

But when geniuses get wrapped up in their own private, secret projects, they don't always succeed. Newton, perhaps the greatest theoretical physicist in the history of the human species, carried one off to tremendous success with his Principia Mathematica, whose laws of motion provided the basis for a few hundred years' worth of subsequent work. But another grand project, which consumed much of his life, and may well have shortened it, was work in alchemy, which for all Newton's brilliance, got him absolutely nowhere.

Tuesday, May 14, 2002

Orrin Judd suggests that Bush's critics misunderstand him. When the American Prospect pointed out that Bush, while promising to stress education, submitted a budget which guts education programs, cutting more than $1 billion out of even programs cited for support in Bush's own No Child Left Behind Act, Judd riposted that:

One of the great mysteries of media coverage of George W. Bush is how the press can have completely failed to understand his administration's roots in the world of business.

Businessmen, of course, being noted for their lack of concern about money. Or something like that:

Think of this bill as a car and the administration as Ford Motor Company. The president promised buyers a spiffy new car. The various vice presidents of the company each have their own vision of what that car should be like and they have powerful constituencies behind them. The president lets the vps who he disagrees with claim some victories in the design process, knowing that he'll be able to cut and trim once manufacture begins. The car starts rolling out and, even if a very few of the vps are still willing to fight, their own constituents aren't. Meanwhile, the buyers get their car and they're happy.

Of course, when Ford was actually run like that in the 1950s, with the heads of divisions (particularly Jack Reith) clawing and scraping for advantage, pursuing their own big-picture ideas with, shall we say, a certain disregard for financial projections, the car it produced was the Edsel, and the ensuing fiscal bloodbath nearly sank the company. And the guy who sorted out the mess was Bob McNamara --- a compulsive micromanager whose head for detail was as legendary as his ineptitude at, and disdain for, backslapping personal politics, and whose tour in government, as Secretary of Defense, was a failure.

Beyond that, there are just a few problems with this analysis. Let's start with the characterization of Bush as a "big picture" guy who lets subordinates handle the details. The most basic way that shows up in government is federalism, where the details of a situation are left to local governments to handle in so far as is feasible. Except that isn't always the way it works under Bush --- see this WaPo op-ed by Jesse Ventura, pointing out that the Bush welfare proposal would ban programs in his state which have been quite effective, because Dubya just doesn't think that an education for welfare moms is a good investment. (What, after all, did he gain from his own?)

Then there's the characterization of Bush as a successful businessman. When the ExPatPundit pointed out that Bush's business career consisted of running three tiny Texas oil companies successively into the ground (probably with a few dozen employees each --- hardly Ford Motors), selling each of them off and somehow winding up twice in charge of the buyer, Judd dug himself in deeper, suggesting that the same skills are required to run a business of any size, which would certainly come as a surprise to the venture capitalists who try earnestly to ease successful founders out of their companies, because they believe those founders don't have the skill set to grow them to hundreds of employees, let alone thousands. (He also brings up Bush's busienss experience with the Texas Rangers baseball team, which also lost buckets of money on his watch, and where the main achievement of his tenure was soaking the taxpayers for a new ballpark).

Then there's the characterization of businessmen. It's true that a lot of executives don't pay much attention to the details of the companies they're managing --- in part because they aren't necessarily trained to deal with them; business schools often teach them that a trained manager can manage anything. (To be fair, it sometimes works out that way; Gerstner's career at Nabisco and AmEx seems to have been fine preparation for cleaning up the mess at IBM, to judge by results). But the one thing that they do care about in detail, sometimes obsessively, is fiscal results, in part because that's what they're judged by, particularly in the post-WhizKid era. Rock-star CEOs like "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap got their reputations by demanding his subordinates fire or sell whatever it took to get good numbers without worrying about the damage; Dunlap's reputation is suffering now because the hollowed out shells of his companies couldn't support their own weight.

That was certainly the case in the particular business culture which spawned Dubya's business career --- it's now known that when one of Dubya's early oil ventures was nearly belly-up, it got bailed out by Enron, a firm whose management was clearly dedicated to producing good-looking quarterly financial reports, even at the expense of substance.

Whatever Dubya's administration is producing, it isn't that.

(Two footnotes. First, for more on Ford, see "The Whiz Kids", by John Byrne. The "Whiz Kids" had run logistics for the Air Force during World War II, and actually were brought into Ford as detail guys and controllers. Before they arrived, Ford was run so loosely that Henry Sr. had actually banned org charts --- trying to make one was a firing offense --- and they were responsible for imposing strict financial controls, over the next twenty years or so, which ultimately left the company badly hobbled by its own red tape, but that's another rant. That all makes the excesses of Reith, a Whiz Kid himself, even more peculiar, but they happened anyway.

Second, Glenn Reynolds thought Judd's argument was worth citing. That should give pause to folks touting the new wonders of the blogosphere; even though it collectively delights in debunkings of community enemies like Fisk and Chomsky, it is all too often an echo chamber for its own brand of comfortable nonsense. But that's a topic for another day).

Monday, May 13, 2002

Republicans favor tax cuts as a way of restraining government waste: the only way they won't waste your money, say the campaign ads, is if they don't have it.

So, now we have Republicans in power, and what happens? Same as the last time; they got their tax cut, they don't have the money, and they're spending it anyway.

Think it doesn't add up? Don't complain; that's "fuzzy math"...

Sunday, May 12, 2002

Spinsanity is underwhelmed with a Victor Davis Hanson column in the National Review:

If Hanson wants to make his case for Israel, he should do so without assuming motivations and making cheap, jargon-based associations. Instead, he turns a piece supposedly about the Middle East crisis into a broadside against liberalisas our men would not fight here of their own free will, it was necessary to make them, whether they wanted to or not.m heavy on the pseudo-psychology and light on reason.

Uncharacteristic sloppiness, surely? Perhaps not. This Reason magazine review finds sloppy, slippery rhetoric at the core of Hanson's magnum opus, Carnage and Culture:

Hanson offers a series of battle narratives, from Salamis to Tet, illustrating his view of freedom as a military asset. In so doing, he turns everybody's "freedom" into the same value, despite disclaimers to the contrary: "What frightened Cortes's men about the Aztecs, aside from the continual sacrificial slaughter on the Great Pyramid, is what frightened the Greeks about Xerxes, the Venetians about the Ottomans, the British about the Zulus, and the Americans about the Japanese: the subservience of the individual to the state."

You have to love the tossed-off, "aside from the continual sacrificial slaughter." Digging through all the errors of reasoning in that sentence alone would take a steamshovel and a deep well of patience. It's hard to believe that the British, who were ruled by monarchs, saw something they identified as "the state" when they looked at the Zulus, and harder still to believe that the Spanish conquistadors descended upon the Americas with fevered cries of "One man, one vote!"

The review goes on to explain in detail how in several of his battle accounts, Hanson simply leaves out important facts which are inconvenient to his thesis. His account of the battle of Salamis, for instance, skips lightly over the skulduggery among the Greeks which led to the battle being fought there in the first place. Hanson says Salamis shows that "men fight better when they know that they have had the freedom to choose the occasion of their own deaths". But Herodotus reports that Themistocles goaded the Persians into setting up there, because he felt that "as our men would not fight here of their own free will, it was necessary to make them, whether they wanted to or not."

The appeal of this stuff isn't hard to see. Hanson's thesis, in effect, is that there is a shared core of beliefs within western culture (whatever that is) which has ineluctably led to its dominance, and that therefore, if we hold true to those beliefs, we have literally nothing to worry about, as continuing prosperity is assured. Which is certainly comforting.

I recently read a fairly good book about a culture which was, for a time, the master of all it surveyed, but which got too fond of thinking of its own comfortable beliefs, laws, and traditions as the cause of its position, and which became censorious and intolerant of the internal and external critics who repeatedly called the superiority of those beliefs, laws, and traditions into question --- "What Went Wrong" by Bernard Lewis.