Sunday, December 17, 2006
Saturday, November 11, 2006
Odds are the Senate will not be overly shaken up; a slim Republican majority is being replaced by a slim Democratic majority, and that Democratic majority is shaky, since it includes newly christened independent Joe Lieberman. Lieberman is a Democrat at heart - but he's always been unafraid to cross party lines when he believes its the right thing to do (his support for the war in Iraq, which is what pushed him out of the party by giving Ned Lamont the keys to Connecticut's Democratic primary, definitely qualifies), and given the Democrat's institutional support of Lamont in the election he's probably less likely than ever to buy into the whole "party discipline" idea. Throw in the fact that neither party has the votes to break a filibuster, and odds are that aside from a few cosmetic changes (committee chairmanships switching parties and Harry Reid settling into the majority leader's office) it will probably be business as usual in the upper house of Congress.
The House of Representatives, though? Well, that's a whole 'nother story, and it looks like its going to be a real bare knuckles throwdown. Putting on her moderate hat just before the election, new Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi pledged not to push impeachment, but the Congressman holding the gavel - newly minted chairman of the judiciary committee John Conyers - seems to agree with her now, though he wrote what many are calling the case for impeachment only a year ago. It will be interesting to see what position he takes a year from now, particularly if any other possible Constitutional issues come out. One of the war's (and the President's) most outspoken (and rude) critics, New York's own Charlie Rangel, is set to assume the chairman's seat in the Ways and Means committee, which puts him in position to block the administration's economic policy, beginning with his refusal to extend the Bush tax cuts past their current 2010 expiration date (and for the record, I think that's the right decision). As new Chairman of the Appropriations committee, Robert Byrd - who has been one of the most vocal critics of the Iraq war - could lead a charge to defund the war in Iraq (or at least squeeze the Pentagon to a very uncomfortable point). If he does that, American servicemen and women are going to be the biggest losers in what will likely devolve into a game of political chicken where the only people at risk of crashing are the ones not in control of the cars: Byrd could slice the budget, hoping the added risk to army personnel will force President Bush to end the war (which as Commander-in-chief is entirely at the President's discretion) and the White House could refuse to blink, hoping that an outcry at Byrd hurting the troops will force him to back off (and there's no question that Republican talk radio would do its part to whip up just such an outcry). And if we get into a real budget fight, Bush could always choose to veto the budget and allow a shut down of parts of the federal government, which is what Clinton did to Newt Gingrich way back when.
All in all, the next two years look like a gridlocked mess that may have us looking back on the last 6 years as an example of government running smoothely. And that, folks, is a frightening thought.
Thursday, October 26, 2006
- The right to marriage; and
- The rights of marriage.
Here's the thing. As a religious jew, I believe that engaging in homosexual acts is a moral wrong. And as a religious jew, the word "marriage" defines a religious status afforded to a particular relationship between a man and a woman. But then again, in Judaism, the status of "marriage" - and the religious obligations and benefits conferred by that status - only applies to a jewish man and a jewish woman. Jewish law does not deal with the status of non-jews, and neither a civil marriage nor a clerical marriage would confer any status change in how jewish law applied to the couple. And, of course, Jewish law would not confer the religious status of "marriage" on a jewish couple married in a civil ceremony.
Why am I giving a seminar on Jewish marriage law? Because what should be obvious from this description is that what the word "marriage" means to me as a religious Jew has nothing at all to do with what the word "marriage" means to me as a matter of American law. American law confers marital status - and the rights and obligations that come with it under American law (which, needless to say, are different from those that come with "marriage" in Judaism) - on jews and non-jews equally, on couples married by clerics and judges equally.
And what the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled - correctly - is that there is no legitimate societal reason to deny those rights and privileges provided by the American law of marriage to homosexual couples who are willing to also take the burdens and obligations conferred by the American law of marriage.
What types of rights and privileges are we talking about? A few were listed in the Court's decision - eliminating the need to engage in lengthy and expensive legal processes of "cross-adopting" each other's children (a heterosexual who marries a spouse with children has no need legally adopt the children to have rights as a parent) or changing a last name, qualifying for benefits that employers must automatically provide for employee spouses, rights of inheritance, a family member's right to visit in the hospital, and others.
And the burdens? The requirement of financial support for a spouse and their children, the need for a divorce to dissolve the relationship and begin a new relationship with another individual, the alimony payments and financial unwinding that comes with it, and other of the legal consequences of marriage that can negatively impact one party or the other.
So long as homosexuals are willing to accept the burdens of marriage as well as the privileges, there is no legitimate societal interest in denying them the right to do so.
Now, the New Jersey case was somewhat unique, in that because New Jersey had already adopted a domestic partnership law providing homosexual couples some of the rights of heterosexual married couples, the state could not raise the usual rationales for denying homosexuals marital rights - (in the New jersey Supreme Court's words) "encouraging procreation" and "creating the optimal living environment for children" - because the domestic partnership law indicates that the legislature did not see that as a significant problem. But even without the domestic partnership law, those arguments don't make much sense. Homosexual couples exist with or without marital rights, and they are not going to procreate more or less because of marital rights. And homosexual couples already have children - as they are fully allowed to in every state in the nation - without marital rights.
In other words, if the argument for denying homosexuals marital rights hinges on procreation or preventing homosexuals from having or raising children, the fact is it hasn't worked. (It's also worth noting that the two arguments are inherently contradictory, since if granting homosexuals marriage will discourage procreation, then it could not simultaneously increase the incidence of "non-optimal living conditions for children", and vice versa). It's hard to justify refusing to grant homosexuals marital rights on the basis of alleged policy benefits that clearly haven't materialized.
That said, I also think that the Court got it right when they left it to the legislature to determine what to call the institution that will provide homosexuals with marital rights. (That issue, by the way, was the only disagreement among the Justices; while the decision is being reported as a 4-3 split, the Court ruled 7-0 that homosexuals were entitled to marital rights. The three dissenting Justices would have ruled that the institution must be called "marriage.") Why is that?
Because requiring that the institution be called "marriage" has nothing to do with providing equal rights for homosexuals. It has to do with providing for equal "perception" in the minds of others - something that, unfortunately, cannot be legislated. Requiring that the institution be termed "marriage" would be an attempt to legislate the private perceptions of individuals.
As for me, even if the legislature calls it a civil union or something other than "marriage", I'll refer to any homosexual couples who enter into the relationship defined by the statute the New Jersey legislature enacts as "married." Because all that english word means to me is "endowed with the rights and obligations of marriage" - and homosexual couples who "enter into civil unions" (if that's what they're called) will fit that definition just as much as heterosexual couples who "get married" - jewish or not, clerical or not.
New Jersey got it right - and, if elected, I'd push for applying the New Jersey paradigm across the country.
Monday, October 09, 2006
In contrast, the worldwide average production cost for conventional oil is roughly $12/barrel. The problem is obvious - even at the lower cost-per-barrel Shell has reached, oil shale technology is only profitable in a world where oil prices are above $30 per barrel. Conventional oil will remain profitable even if the price tumbles below $30/barrel. That may be hard to contemplate in today's world of $70 a barrel oil, but as these graphs from WTRG Economics demonstrate, even counting the recent spike in oil prices the worldwide average for oil has stayed within the $20-25/barrel range for a century and a half.
So while it may make economic sense to exploit oil shale right now, when oil prices are high, in the ten years it will take to truly ramp up to meaningful production levels the price of oil may drop. Worse, whatever the price of oil does in the next ten years, the very act of producing large amounts of oil from oil shale will drive the worldwide oil price down; flooding the market with oil produced from oil shale - and the proven oil shale reserves of the United States alone are three times the size of Saudi Arabia's conventional oil reserves, so production would flood the market - would drastically alter the supply and demand equation that has oil priced as high as it is right now.
In other words, there are significant economic reasons why oil shale is not and likely will not be a significant feature of the oil economy in the near future. As increased supply drove worldwide oil prices down, oil shale oil producers would tighten production (and, if necessary, cease production entirely) as it became less profitable. The result would be the U.S. getting far less strategic benefit from oil shale oil production than it might otherwise be able to.
Which is why I would propose government intervention in the market - or, more accurately, government activity in the market. The U.S. government should (and if I were President, would) guarantee all oil shale producers a profit margin of 6% on all oil shale produced in the U.S. at a cost of $30/barrel or less, up to a total of 7.5 billion barrels per year (the total U.S. oil consumption for 2004 according to the department of energy). The 6% figure is a slight drop from the average oil industry profit margin for the third quarter of 2005, which was 8.2% according to Gravmag. The drop in profit margin makes sense because of the absence of risk that the government guarantee would entail. To encourage continued reduction in production costs, I would propose a 50/50 split of any production cost decreases - that is, if production costs decline from $30/barrel to $29/barrel, the profit margin would be calculated as though the production costs had only dropped from $30/barrel to $29.50/barrel - and therefore the nominal 6% profit margin would actually be incrementally greater.
Lets talk dollars and cents for a second. At a production cost of $30/barrel, a 6% profit would be $2.10, or a total sale price of $32.10/barrel. If the market price for oil remained above $32.10/barrel, the guarantee would be irrelevant and the U.S. government would pay nothing. If the market price for oil dipped below $32.10/barrel, the U.S. would purchase the oil directly and then either use it, resell it on the market at market price, or add it to the Strategic Oil Reserve, as it chose. At most - that is if the oil shale producers produced the full 7.5 billion barrels and the market price of oil dipped to $0 - the program would cost $240B, or 1/10 of the 2005 U.S. budget. Assuming oil stabilizes at $10/barrel, that cost would drop to $165B, and at $20/barrel, the cost would be $95B. And, that money would: (1) be taxable by the government, allowing it to recover several billion dollars directly; (2) support a massive increase in the domestic economy, as oil shale production would provide jobs and other influxes of cash to the Wyoming, Colorado and Utah economies (which would, of course, be taxable); and - if worldwide oil prices stayed high until oil shale production came on line - (3) lower the cost of goods by driving down the cost of oil either as a resource in production (such as plastics) or an addition to the costs of transportation (in the form of high gas prices).
More importantly, those are primarily economic assessments. As I mentioned in the first post, the real impact of oil shale production would be geopolitical - stemming the flow of petrodollars to regimes such as Iran, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, forever eliminating the threat of the "oil weapon" and dramatically reducing the influence of OPEC and its members on global policy issues. Looked at in that light, the funding for this initiative would be as much in America's national security interests as would any weapons development initiative put forward by the Pentagon.
Saturday, September 16, 2006
For now, since I'm swamped with work, I'll keep it simple. Part of America's oil problem is the fact that people fail to recognize that it isn't a unitary problem. There are two interrelated but distinct aspects to America's oil problem.
The first aspect is environmental, or inherent. It has nothing to do with where the oil comes from; the problem is oil itself. The only real solution to the environmental problems posed by oil is finding or developing viable alternative energy sources. To someone primarily concerned with this aspect of America's oil problem, the discovery of a vast new American oil field would be a tragedy, since it would enable the oil economy to continue on its current path for longer.
The second aspect of America's oil problem is geopolitical. It has nothing to do with oil in and of itself and everything to do with where we get it from and the political clout oil resources provide countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, the strategic threat of the "oil weapon" and the problems of relying on possibly hostile countries for a vital natural resource. There are two possible solutions to this problem - a move to alternative energy sources or a significant American source of oil. To someone primarily concerned with this aspect of the problem, the discovery of a vast new American oil field would be a cause for celebration, since it would significantly alter the geopolitical playing field.
Me? Count me in the latter category. That doesn't mean I completely disregard the environmental necessity of moving away from oil. What it does mean is that I would consider the geopolitical implications of a significant American oil find more important than the environmental ones. Even if we found a hidden American oil reserve roughly the size of Saudi Arabia's, I would still be committed to alternative energy sources, because I believe that minimizing the environmental impact of our energy consumption is supremely important. But you'd better believe I'd do everything I could to tap that reserve - or ensure that the reserve got tapped by private enterprise, really - regardless of the environmental impact, because the geopolitical implications would be so important.
Of course, the key is that the oil resource be significant. I'm against opening up ANWR to drilling, because it is a relatively insignificant field, by all estimates, and the geopolitical benefits of the minor increase in worldwide oil production would be far outweighed by the environmental damage to ANWR.
But the Colorado oil shale? That's another story entirely.
Sunday, September 03, 2006
First of all, I believe that the issue of abortion needs to be finally and completely determined, for all of our sakes. As long as the right to an abortion (or, in the unlikely event that Roe v. Wade is reversed, the lack of that right) is dependent on the pronouncement of the Supreme Court, abortion will continue to be a divisive and over-emphasized issue, as each side of the debate seeks to have the Supreme Court alter its rulings. It also unduly politicizes the Supreme Court, as a jurist's stance on abortion can become a litmus test for their nomination or confirmation. And the need for a final determination means that for the good of the country any solution to the abortion issue should be enshrined in a constitutional amendment, which by its nature is more permanent than any judicial decision, and less susceptible to campaigns for reversal.
So, if elected I would propose a constitutional amendment on the issue of abortion, and let the nation decide whether to adopt it. Here's what its content would be (and why):
I would propose an amendment that enshrined the right to an abortion, for whatever reason, up until the point of fetal viability (the point at which the fetus could survive outside the womb with medical intervention, as measured by the earliest surviving premature baby). After fetal viability, abortion would only be available to save the life of the mother.
Why fetal viability? Because it avoids religious or spiritual questions about when a fetus is "alive" or "human" and focuses on the choice made by the woman. Prior to fetal viability, the choice to abort is the only way of terminating a pregnancy, and the fetus' presence in the womb is essential to its survival. After viability, the presence of the fetus in the womb is no longer necessary to its survival. It's certainly helpful - it has a better chance of surviving the longer it stays in the womb - but no longer the only possibility of the fetus surviving. As such, the decision to terminate the pregnancy by abortion is not just a choice to end the pregnancy that will necessarily kill the fetus - it is a choice to end the pregnancy specifically by killing the fetus, where there are other ways of ending the pregnancy that will not necessarily do so. And at that point, abortion should no longer be a legal option.
Full disclosure time. My personal views of abortion have very little to do with what I think is good policy, or should be legislated. As an orthodox Jew, I have a religious objection to abortions performed without any sort of medical necessity (a term that in Judaism may include psychological as well as physical harm to the mother) after the first 40 days of pregnancy. Judaism, of course, is not a valid basis for American law. On the other hand, Judaism generally takes a much more nuanced view of the status of a fetus than, say, Christianity does, and it's likely that the fact that I don't personally believe that abortion=murder is part of what allows me to suggest the policy outlined above.
"Let me sum up once more the last two principles. Their combination gives us a maxim which should take first place among all causes of victory in the modern art of war: 'Pursue one great decisive aim with force and determination.'"- Carl von Clausewitz, in Principles of War.
von Clausewitz was a Prussian General and perhaps the greatest military thinker in history, and analyzing our action and progress in Iraq, I've come to the conclusion that the major flaw in the current US approach to stabilizing Iraq is that we've ignored this basic principle. Instead of pursuing "one great decisive aim" (more on that further down), we have our forces spread across Iraq, pursuing 101 different ojectives. As of May 2005, the 100,000+ U.S. soldiers in Iraq were spread across over 100 bases.
Another famous maxim of war comes from another Prussian (they were good at war), Frederick the Great: "He who defends everything, defends nothing." Attempting to defend all possible targets equally leads to nothing being defended adequately. That aptly defines what is happening to the U.S. forces in Iraq; in attempting to stabilize the entirety of the country they have become ineffective at stabilizing any of it. John McCain called it "whack-a-mole": troops are moved from one pocket of resistance to another, temporarily quelling the insurgency in one area before being called to stamp it out in another - and allowing the insurgency to flare back up in the region they vacated.
All of which leads me to two conclusions. First, that the U.S. forces can't stabilize the entire country. And second, because of that, that they shouldn't be trying to.
One of the most successful anti-insurgency tactics in the history of warfare is the "ink spot" (or "oil spot") strategy - create a zone of security and opportunity within which the insurgents cannot operate and the benefits of peace are open and obvious, and the native support for the insurgents will begin to melt away, as areas outside the "ink spot" see the benefits and look to join in. I'm not the first person to argue that this is the method that should be applied to Iraq - Alex Krepinevich wrote a comprehensive article in Foreign Affairs nearly a year ago arguing just that. Where I break from the strategies I've seen is in the scope of the original ink spots. There really should be only two. The way forward in Iraq, I think lies in securing Baghdad and Kirkuk.
Back to von Clausewitz, for a second. He said something else (and something that may surprise the sizable group in the U.S. that derides the talk of "winning hearts and minds" as harming the U.S.' interests):
- von Clausewitz, Principles of War. von Clausewitz explains how public opinion can be won:
I. Warfare has three main objects:
(a) To conquer and destroy the armed power of the enemy;
(b) To take possession of his material and other sources of strength, and
(c) To gain public opinion.
von Clausewitz' emphasis on the capital is no accident. It is the emotional center of the country, the city that captures the imagination and loyalty of its citizens. The insurgents' ability to create instability in Baghdad - and the sectarian violence and retribution that has magnified that instability - is a tremendous morale boost for the insurgents, and a terrible blow to the U.S. and the fledgling Iraqi government. By contrast, the complete pacification of Baghdad would be a hammerblow to the insurgency. And von Clausewitz' first and second rules, which the U.S. has been ignoring, provide the map to accomplishing that goal.
4. Public opinion is won through great victories and the occupation of the enemy's capital.
5. The first and most important rule to observe in order to accomplish these purposes, is to use our entire forces with the utmost energy. Any moderation shown would leave us short of our aim. Even with everything in our favor, we should be unwise not to make the greatest effort in order to make the result perfectly certain. For such effort can never produce negative results. Suppose the country suffers greatly from this, no lasting dis- advantage will arise; for the greater the effort, the sooner the suffering will cease.
The moral impression created by these actions is of infinite importance. They make everyone confident of success, which is the best means for suddenly raising the nation's morale.
6. The second rule is to concentrate our power as much as possible against that section where the chief blows are to be delivered and to incur disadvantages elsewhere, so that our chances of success may increase at the decisive point. This will compensate for all other disadvantages.
7. The third rule is never to waste time. Unless important advantages are to be gained from hesitation, it is necessary to set to work at once. By this speed a hundred enemy measures are nipped in the bud, and public opinion is won most rapidly.
First, the U.S. forces in Iraq have to focus on the goal of wiping out the insurgency in Baghdad. That means both clearing the city of arms and explosives and preventing the import of arms and explosives into the city, as well as finding and containing the insurgents themselves. And to do that, the U.S. forces will need to use their "utmost energy" - putting aside missions external to securing Baghdad, even to the point of taking several steps back in the rest of Iraq. We need to be willing "to incur disadvantages elsewhere, so that our chances of success may increase at the decisive point." Intelligence assets in the rest of Iraq will need to be maintained, but if the insurgents want Fallujah, let them have it; if they want Ramadi and Tikrit, let them have it. They won't be able to keep it, but taking it back will need to be secondary to securing Baghdad.
And that brings us to the second of von Clausewitz' rules - we must "concentrate our power as much as possible against that section where the chief blows are to be delivered." Having 100,000+ troops spread out across Iraq is not working. We need to concentrate that force on Baghdad and its environs. A force that size would have the manpower to safely patrol the city, to pacify large areas, to guard marketplaces and mosques, to root out the weaponry in Baghdad and prevent more weapons from being brought in. Security in Baghdad would be accompanied by increased reconstruction and prosperity, which would make securing Baghdad a double blow to the insurgents: first, by imposing on the insurgency the humilliation of being unable to effectively strike in Iraq's most important city, and second by winning the support of the general Baghdad populace and demonstrating that Iraq without the insurgents would be a peaceful, stable and prosperous Iraq.
Importantly, a large and effective force in Baghdad could protect the Iraqi army and police recruits as they trained. And, eventually, those Iraqi troops could replace U.S. troops in holding Baghdad on a rolling basis, and those U.S. troops could move on to the next ink spot - Basra, Mosul or Najaf, most likely.
The one exception I would suggest to the "Baghdad First" strategy is Kirkuk. Kirkuk is defended by the Kurdish Peshmerga - an effective native force - has been spared much of the violence that has convulsed the rest of the country, and is a major source of oil (important if the Iraqi nation is to survive). Given its relatively secure status today, a small but potent U.S. force should remain in Kirkuk to ensure that it maintains its current level of security.
Let's be clear about something. I have no military background at all. None. I've never been in the armed forces, never so much as ran or even participated in a boyscout unit or a paintball game. So I don't think I'm qualified to plan military tactics; I can't even begin to suggest the hows by which the plan I've outlined would be put into motion. But what I do have some basic grasp of is military strategy. And three years into an Iraq war that I believed from the beginning would likely take close to a decade to truly win, it seems obvious to me that there needs to be a dramatic change in the overall strategy by which this war is being fought.
Friday, August 25, 2006
Isn't that how all political speeches should begin? Maybe, but that's not my style, and I'm throwing the Politician's Rule Book out anyway on this thing. So here's the deal:
I'm running for President of the United States in the 2016 election. Why 2016? Because it's the first year I'll be constitutionally eligible (I'll be 34 in 2012). Plus, it has the added practical bonus of being two elections away, which means that odds are I won't be running against a sitting President.
Why am I running at all? Well, first, because I think that I can do the job (though that doesn't matter very much unless I can convince a whole lot of other people of that as well). But second, and more importantly, because a campaign like this is important. The foundation of the American system is a belief in government of, by and for the people. But the way that American politics has developed, that ideal has been lost.
It's been lost as statesmen became politicians, relying on polls instead of their minds in determining policies and positions.
It's been lost as elected representatives stopped trying to govern and focused on trying to be reelected.
It's been lost as political parties metastasized from groups of like minded individuals supporting a common vision to self-sustaining entities that have long since placed the good of the country behind the good of the party, or simply convinced themselves that what is good for the party is what is good for the country.
It's been lost as the cost of campaigning has soared into the stratosphere, ensuring that only candidates with strong party backing or an independent source of funds (Ross Perot, anyone?) can have their voices heard.
And it's been lost as candidates ceased talking to voters and started talking at them, stopped speaking in their own words and started parroting the speeches their campaign managers had written for them, stopped campaigning on ideas and policies and began campaigning on slogans and sound bites.
That's why I'm doing this. Because, win or lose, I'm not going to campaign that way. Over the next ten years or so, I'll be posting my positions on various issues of the day - as fully fleshed out as I can make them - and my reasons for taking them. I make no promises to stubborn consistency, to holding to a position merely because I've taken it. In fact, I promise to change my positions should the facts change or should someone point out flaws in my reasoning. And one of the things I'm hoping for is that reader comments will help me strengthen and alter and tweak my positions where I do make mistakes, and where I may have missed an important fact or argument.
And whatever else, the words will be mine. Honest, blunt, and written without care for how they play politically.
Will that be enough to give me even a snowball's chance in 2016? Probably not, not unless there are a whole lot more of you out there reading this than I can imagine ever will. But either way, I think it'll be a hell of a ride.