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Ding Dong the Witch is Dead

7:16 am in Uncategorized by lvgaldieri

The trouble is, we’re not in Kansas anymore, and Kansas is no longer the place it used to be. The pursuit of Bin Laden has exhausted our treasure and killed thousands. It has transformed the state in countless ways and extended the reach of the state into our lives.

So this brief note, just to say I am not so sure the occasion calls for jubilation and dancing in the streets. Maybe, instead, it’s time for some sober reflection on where this decade-long pursuit has brought us, and where we go from here.

I look at the past ten years and I have no confidence – absolutely none — that our political leaders are up to the task, or that we, the people, will make or can make better choices about our foreign adventures or interventions and the protection of our own liberties.

The flag-waving celebrations at Ground Zero and outside the White House are over. Now everyone from Dick Cheney to the President has been quick to remind us that the War (or whatever it’s being called these days) isn’t; and — we are already being told – we must remain ever vigilant.

Why Pollard, Not Manning? Ask John McCain

6:02 pm in Uncategorized by lvgaldieri

Last week we learned that John McCain has joined the ranks of those calling for the release of Jonathan Pollard. Pollard, you will recall, was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for espionage – specifically for passing tens of thousands, “possibly over a million” U.S. classified documents to the Israelis, many of them related to the military activities of Arab states.

In a February 15, 1987 article for the Washington Post, Wolf Blitzer set out a partial list of the secret materials Pollard stole and passed on to his Israel handlers. The list reads eerily like a prologue to the past twenty-five years of American foreign policy: it includes American reconnaissance of the PLO, information about Iraqi and Syrian chemical warfare facilities, details of Soviet arms shipments to Syria and Lebanon, and reports on what was then Pakistan’s fledging nuclear weapons program. “What Pollard did,” wrote Blitzer at the time, “was to make virtually the entire U.S. intelligence-gathering apparatus available to Israel.” The Israelis found the intelligence Pollard provided “breathtaking”; Caspar Weinberger at the time called it “treason,” noting that once in Israeli hands the same information could pass easily to the Soviets.

According to the terms of his sentence, Pollard will be eligible for parole in 2015. But that is not soon enough for many American politicians, who range from Barney Frank to Anthony Weiner to Henry Kissinger, and now, McCain, who has done an “about face” on the matter: until recently he was adamantly opposed to Pollard’s release, telling the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that Pollard had “betrayed our nation.”

The argument for clemency usually takes a few forms: Pollard is ill (where have we heard that one before?). Freeing Pollard now will be a goodwill gesture toward the Israelis, and will help the Obama administration advance Middle East peace talks: but exactly how is unclear. Lawrence Korb, former Assistant Secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan, recently decried Pollard’s “harsh sentence” in an Op Ed for the conservative Jerusalem Post, claiming “whatever facts [Pollard] might know would have little effect on national security.”

Can’t the same be said for the classified information released on Wikileaks, and linked by the U.S. government, via Adrian Lamo, to Bradley Manning?

John McCain called Cablegate “an incredible breach of national security.” But in the moment of candor that just cost him his job, P.J. Crowley admitted that “from a State Department perspective, we’re not really embarrassed by what came out. A British colleague observed that his opinion of US diplomacy went up as a result of reading the cables.” So while Crowley thinks “Manning is in the right place” – why, and based on what evidence, he does not say — neither he nor anyone at the Pentagon will say that Wikileaks has harmed national security.

So it strikes me as curious that our leaders are eagerly lining up to advocate for the release of a convicted spy, but are unable to summon the courage to ask for the humane treatment of an Army private who has not even had his day in court.

A Connecticut Lobbyist in Obama’s Court

9:45 am in Uncategorized by lvgaldieri

There has been plenty of griping and grumbling over the past twenty-four hours about the President’s appointment of General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt to lead the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. While he may be an idol of corporate America, Immelt appears to be an unlikely champion of American job creation. “Since Immelt took over in 2001,” Shahien Nasiripour reports in an article on Huffington Post,

GE has shed 34,000 jobs in the U.S., according to its most recent annual filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. But it’s added 25,000 jobs overseas.
At the end of 2009, GE employed 36,000 more people abroad than it did in the U.S. In 2000, it was nearly the opposite.

To make matters worse, Connecticut-based GE has not exactly been focusing its investments on American innovation and growth: in 2008 and 2009, Nasiripour points out, GE decided “indefinitely” to invest earnings abroad, while booking losses at home: as a result, General Electric enjoyed a negative tax rate in 2009 and a low rate of around 5 percent in 2008.

It stands to reason that more inducements and allurements, in the form of corporate tax breaks, are in the works to help focus Immelt and other corporate leaders on job creation. To help bring some of those foreign investments home, Immelt and other corporate titans will most likely continue to push for making the Research and Development Tax Credit permanent. They give the impression they are holding the spirit of Thomas Edison hostage, and will only release him if their conditions are met.

You might be forgiven for asking whether this is really the best way to spur American innovation, or whether Jeffrey Immelt and GE really have America’s best interests at heart. I’m sure Immelt believes he does; but can he, really? Maybe it all depends on how you sweeten the deal. Immelt himself reassured analysts and investors yesterday that he will always put GE first: “My commitment to GE and my leadership at GE, that doesn’t change,” he said on a conference call. He knows, I suppose, that no man can serve two masters.

The disturbing truth is that there really isn’t any great conflict of interest here: GE’s interests are not so far from American lawmakers’ interests. This happy consensus is largely the result of GE’s lobbying campaign, which in 2010 amounted to $39.3 million. $9 million of that campaign was dedicated to lobbying around a single project: the F-136 propulsion engine.

Developed for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet (a big $382 billion project), the F136 propulsion system is GE’s “alternative” to the F-135 propulsion system developed by Pratt & Whitney. An alternative. That is, there are no plans to use GE’s F-136 engine in the fighter jets. Pratt & Whitney won the government contract for the F-35’s propulsion system. You’d think that would have resolved the matter.

But these things have a momentum all their own. Funding for the F-136 started as an earmark in a defense bill, and grew. The Bush administration tried to kill the F-136 engine; Secretary Gates called it a “boondoggle,” and President Obama promised to veto any defense bill that included the GE engine. Robert Gibbs yesterday reiterated that the engine is “not something we need.” But GE, arguing that competition drives down costs, has lobbied and continues to lobby for its engine, running ads, working both sides of the aisle, and spreading its message through the press.

Newly elected House Republicans are not going to stop the F-136. Congress has already funded its development to the tune of $3 billion, and funding will continue unabated through March 4th of this year. And just yesterday, a GE spokesman told ABC News that “newly elevated leaders are even more likely to keep the engine program afloat.” It remains to be seen whether, come March, the President can or will stand his ground.

Can America Still Bring Good Things to Life?

3:20 pm in Uncategorized by lvgaldieri

When announcing the appointment of General Electric’s Jeffrey Immelt to lead the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness today, President Obama vowed to put “our economy into overdrive.” He meant what everybody took him to mean: we are now going to get things really going, shift America into high gear, pull out all the stops, discover our inner Edison, “build stuff and invent stuff,” and export it to the world.

But the word “overdrive” is probably not the word the President should have chosen. Or at least it commits him to positions he isn’t going to take – positions I wish he would take.

Indulge me for a moment. Overdrive is not just high gear. Overdrive also means better fuel economy. When you put your car into overdrive you get the best mileage per gallon, because the overdrive mechanism allows “cars to drive at freeway speed while the engine speed stays nice and slow.” Or, as the entry on Wikipedia puts it, overdrive “allows an automobile to cruise at sustained speed with reduced engine speed, leading to better fuel consumption, lower noise and lower wear.”

At the very heart of the President’s metaphor, then, are two ideas: one, economy, a more efficient or economical use of resources (or fuel) and two, sustainability, maintaining a constant speed without causing wear and tear. Right now, we are desperately in need of both: new ways of conserving the resources we have and a more sustainable way forward than the cycle of boom and bust, or dangerous exuberance followed by social collapse.

Those ideas were not on display today in Schenectady. There was some talk about clean energy – a business GE is in, and where, not surprisingly, Immelt thinks a “partnership” between the private and public sector is “essential.” But the main focus was on U.S. manufacturing and U.S. exports, which the President wants to double over the next five years. “For America to compete around the world, we need to export more goods around the world,” said the President. So we need to innovate and invent new “stuff,” or bring good things to life, as the people at GE used to say. “Inventors and dreamers and builders and creators,” we need to expand our manufacturing base and bring American products to the global marketplace.

Reading these remarks, I can almost hear the old General Electric jingle. “We still have that spirit of innovation,” Immelt said. “America is still home to the most creative and innovative businesses in the world,” said the President. We are “still” innovative, both leaders took care to say — almost as if we no longer believe it or doubt it’s true. We’ve still got it. Our force is not spent.

It’s great to be reassured of our continued prowess. There are, however, lots of unexamined assumptions at work here, and chief among these is one I’ve discussed in earlier posts: namely, the assumption that “innovation” is the surest path to “growth,” and that growth – even unsustainable growth – is good in and of itself.

Sustainability doesn’t really enter into this conversation – partly because, I suppose, it really isn’t a conversation. It’s all bluster and boosterism.

Nor would anyone at these events, the President least of all, take a step back and ask whether, while we are doubling our exports, we should also take some steps toward greater self-sufficiency. Doing that, especially when it comes to energy — and energy consumption — would leave us less exposed.

I’m not even convinced doubling our exports or even saying we are going to double our exports is the right thing — for the dollar, for trade agreements we have in place, for the very focus of American industry and innovation. For his part, Immelt has no doubts:

“It’s the right aspiration,” Immelt said of the president’s goal of doubling American exports to more than $2 trillion in five years, during a Nov. 6 interview in Mumbai, where he joined Obama for a meeting with business leaders. “We’ve done it in the last five years as a company.”

Maybe in the long run, or at least in five year’s time, what’s good for General Electric will turn out to be good for the republic. How could it be otherwise?

I Came To Grieve and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

8:46 am in Uncategorized by lvgaldieri

Together T-ShirtWhat if the President of the United States gave a speech and all anybody could talk about the next day was the applause? That is not exactly where we find ourselves today, one day after Obama’s remarks at the University of Arizona last night; but it is hard not to talk about the raucousness of the crowd and wonder whether all that hooting and clapping and whistling and hollering was appropriate, and why the occasion wasn’t more serious and solemn.

Conservative commentator Tammy Bruce labeled it “massacre rally theater,” and thought the event outdid even the Paul Wellstone funeral in its cynical exploitation of tragedy. Others were appalled, or pretended to be appalled, by the “Together We Thrive” t-shirts distributed to the audience.

You can write most of that off as mere whining from the right. Of course the event was political; how could it not be? The conservatives protest too much, and they would have a better case if John Boehner had bothered to show up and shed some tears over someone other than himself. Still, I have to wonder how many people in that audience came expecting grief, prayer, or catharsis and left confused by the pep-rally atmosphere and the lousy t-shirt.

I was reminded less of the 2002 Wellstone memorial and more of the 2007 rally at Virginia Tech after Seung-Hui Cho went on a shooting spree, inspiring Nikki Giovanni to write yet another very bad poem and raise her arms in triumph as the Hokies in the bleachers let out war whoops. I guess all this cheering and hollering and chanting is one way people have of coming together and lifting themselves up after something inexplicable and terrible happens; and maybe we can’t expect restraint or dignity from a big college crowd, used to gathering at football games and basketball tournaments.

I worry, though, that in the face of shooting rampages or worse, the rally atmosphere makes nuanced discussion nearly impossible, and gives false hope, asking us to pretend we are less divided than we really are, and tries to bring closure prematurely when we should be asking ourselves some very hard questions about where we go from here.

To put it another way, I am not at all sure that Together We Thrive. Dissent and dissonance matter, too; a democracy thrives through difference and division. The whole “Together” theme feels Orwellian, to use an overused word; it celebrates a hive mentality, and smacks of a Utopian fantasy — that we can retreat from history and take refuge in some Togetherness or Unity, or the City of God (as the President himself suggested in his reference to Psalm 46), or that we can escape from the work of politics with a group hug and big, rousing cheer.

What’s Eating American Intellectuals?

9:33 am in Uncategorized by lvgaldieri

I had dinner the other night with a friend who has been worrying about the sorry plight of the liberal elite in the year of the Tea Party. Ivy Leaguers see themselves outflanked by Astroturfers, unsure of their prospects and unable to connect. My friend wondered aloud what liberal intellectuals now ought to do.

The conversation would not really have made much of an impression on me – it’s one of those conversations one is bound to have after an election like the last one — were it not for the curious way it began to resonate in subsequent days.

Walter Russell Mead echoed many of the themes of our dinner conversation in a post about the delusions of the “liberal intelligentsia,” who were misled by the Obama victory in 2008. People really just wanted things to get a little better after the disappointments and troubles of the Bush years, Mead argues; they didn’t want a liberal political agenda forced on them and watched over by the guardians of the liberal elite.

Delusional, disconnected, defeated.

But it’s not just liberals. Soon I found out that even more people were having virtually the same conversation we’d had. For instance, I came across these themes in a lament on Stephen Bainbridge’s blog, about the plight of the intellectual elite on the right. Bainbridge was responding to a post by Nils August Andresen, who has been publishing a series on FrumForum about the role of intellectuals – specifically academics, and even more specifically, Ivy League academics — in the GOP.

Bainbridge, Andresen and others are rightly worried that the GOP is turning over the reins of power to boobs on the tube and anti-intellectual demagogues. The Palin and Beck crowd can easily out-shout the Smart Guys. Populism threatens to make the GOP not just the party of no, but the party of no ideas.

It would be easy to multiply the examples. Intellectuals on both sides feel as if they are under siege, or desperately out of touch, as if they are being pushed out of public life, or – worse – that nobody’s listening.

It’s hard to decide what’s really going on here. Are these just post-election blues, or have intellectuals begun to grasp some greater truth, not just about the intellectual death of the GOP or what’s really the matter with Kansas, but about their own diminished, marginal social position?

This much seems tolerably clear. A society that does not accord a place of prestige to intellectuals hasn’t simply stopped believing in the wisdom of tenured faculty at Ivy League institutions. Professors can earn or lose public face — and the social status and access to power — that comes with it. But a society that excludes, marginalizes or mocks intellectual elites has lost a certain faith.

It has stopped believing in the idea that educated people have any special insight into human affairs, and maybe even that such insight is possible. And so it has stopped believing in the value of education – or at least a certain kind of education: the liberal arts, the study of history, language and society – and the power of ideas to help people make sense of history, the problems of the day, or the future. If this is where we are, or where things are heading, then I’m worried, too.