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January 28, 2005

I don't have time to blog this properly, but I wanted to pass along a link to this first-rate backgrounder on the role that the Internet is, and isn't, playing in the Iraqi elections, by my pseudonymous POL friend and colleague, Buzz Webster. As always, nice work, Buzz.

January 26, 2005

As a lifelong admirer of the 35th president, it pains me to say this, but Jeff Jarvis (to whom I've already approvingly linked elsewhere this morning) is blaming the wrong Jack for this country's tragically misguided policy of deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill. It's not Jack Nicholson's fault. It's Jack Kennedy's, as Pat Moynihan explained on the Senate floor some years ago:

This is a cautionary tale, instructive of what is possible and also what we ought to be aware of. I was in the Harriman administration in New York in the 1950s. Early in 1955, Harriman met with his new Commissioner of Mental Hygiene, Paul Hoch, who described the development of a tranquilizer derived from rauwolfia by Dr. Nathan S. Kline at what was then known as Rockland State Hospital (it is now the Rockland Psychiatric Center) in Orangeburg. The medication had been clinically tested and appeared to be an effective treatment of many patients. Dr. Hoch recommended that it be used system wide; Harriman found the money.

That same year Congress created a Joint Commission on Mental Health and Illness with a view to formulating ``comprehensive and realistic recommendations'' in this area which was then a matter of considerable public concern. Year after year the population of mental institutions grew; year after year new facilities had to be built. Ballot measures to approve the issuance of general obligation bonds for building the facilities appeared just about every election. Or so it seemed.

The discovery of tranquilizers was adventitious. Physicians were seeking cures for disorders they were just beginning to understand. Even a limited success made it possible to believe that the incidence of this particular range of disorders, which had seemingly required persons to be confined against their will or even awareness, could be greatly reduced. The Congressional Commission submitted its report in 1961; it was seen to propose a nationwide program of deinstitutionalization.

Late in 1961 President Kennedy appointed an interagency committee to prepare legislative recommendations based on the report. I represented Secretary of Labor Arthur J. Goldberg on this committee and drafted its final submission. This included the recommendation of the National Institute of Mental Health that 2,000 "community mental health centers" (one for every 100,000 people) be built by 1980. A buoyant Presidential Message to Congress followed early in 1963. "If we apply our medical knowledge and social insights fully," President Kennedy stated, "all but a small portion of the mentally ill can eventually achieve a wholesome and a constructive social adjustment." A "concerted national attack on mental disorders [was] now possible and practical." The President signed the Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act on October 31, 1963 -- his last public bill signing ceremony. He gave me a pen.

The mental hospitals emptied out. The number of patients in state and county mental hospitals peaked in 1955 at 558,922 and has declined every year since then, to 61,722 in 1996. But we never came near to building the 2,000 community mental health centers. Only some 482 received Federal construction funds from 1963 to 1980. The next year, 1981, the program was folded into the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health block grant program, where it disappeared from view.

Talk about unintended consequences. . . .

"Dan Rather is at the end of his career. I'm at the beginning of mine."

-- Former Tribune Media Services columnist Armstrong Williams, in a recent appearance before the Greater Mullins [SC] Chamber of Commerce

(Via Jim Romenesko)

January 25, 2005

Mystery writer Ed Gorman has a new address, as does erstwhile Pandagonian Ezra Klein (via Kevin Drum). Good luck in your new digs, folks.

And they said a policy like that could never work.

January 23, 2005

Privatize, privatize, privatize.

POSTSCRIPT: In addition to the rather amusing reportage on the GOP's feckless, George-Orwell-by-way-of-Wile-E-Coyote efforts to eliminate the word "privatize" from the Social Security debate, there's another reason to click over and take a look at the article linked above: it contains a textbook example of what's sometimes called the "phony balance" problem. You see, according to the article's author, Mike Allen, Democrats are no better than Republicans on this; we want to make the word "crisis" disappear.

Only that's not true. We Dems haven't tried to make the word disappear -- we've simply argued that the Republicans' privatizers' own numbers don't support the idea that there is one, which would make the president's repeated use of the term inappropriate. There's a big difference. And it would be a real service to their readers if smart, talented reporters like Mike Allen quit pretending that they're incapable of grasping those sorts of distinctions.

According to his supporters, one of the great things about President Bush is that he says what he means, and means what he says.

Except, of course, when he doesn't.

January 21, 2005

Though I've been doing my damnedest to avoid any involvement whatsoever in the ultimately useless debate over the size and scope of President Bush's inaugural festivities, this post by John Cole really does seem to require some sort of response:

If I hear one more Democrat say this inauguration is costing too much, I am going to blow a gasket. Eight years after Bill Clinton's 33 million dollar inaugural, 40 million is apparently too much.

Most annoying is the association between the tsunami, or this idiot's association of the inauguration expense with the fallacy of unarmored vehicles in Iraq. Private donors are paying for the inauguration, but this is nothing new- Democrats are always quick to tel people how to spend their money.

But, as Bob Herbert explains in today's NYT, it's not about the money. It's about the appallingly bad taste:

In January 1945, with World War II still raging, Franklin Roosevelt insisted on a low-key inauguration. Already gravely ill, he began his address by saying, "Mr. Chief Justice, Mr. Vice President, my friends, you will understand and, I believe, agree with my wish that the form of this inauguration be simple and its words brief."

Times have changed. President Bush and his equally tone-deaf supporters spent the past few days partying hard while Americans, Iraqis and others continued to suffer and die in the Iraq conflagration. Nothing was too good for the princes and princesses of the new American plutocracy. Tens of millions of dollars were spent on fireworks, cocktail receptions, gala dinners and sumptuous balls.

President Bush sought and won reelection as a "wartime president," which -- given the fact that 9/11, and our response to it, did take place on his watch -- was perfectly appropriate, I think. As is his opponents' insistence that he now make some effort to govern like one.

POSTSCRIPT: The nature of the blogosphere is such that we often only refer to our opposite numbers when we think that they're wrong about something. So I'd like to take a moment to point out that the aforementioned John Cole is ofttimes right, as, for example, he clearly is here.

January 20, 2005

Good luck and best wishes, Mr. President.

UPDATE: And why do I make myself say these sorts of things? Probably, in part at least, so that I can feel entirely justified in looking down my nose at shameful, low-rent crap like this.

CLARIFICATION: A reader correctly notes that the object of my scorn and derision would have been clearer had the update above read, "...shameful, low-rent behavior, like that described here."

In July of 2003, when I was just beginning my utterly futile campaign to lure Delaware Sen. Joe Biden into the Democratic primaries, Madeleine Begun Kane was kind enough to mention the centerpiece of that effort, the Biden for President site, on her must-read weblog, Mad Kane's Notables. So I have to say that I'm delighted to now be able to return the favor by directing you to her new project, the President Boxer blog.

Here's hoping that Madeleine's efforts come to a happier end than mine. To echo her comments of the time, I'm not sure how I feel about a draft Biden Boxer movement -- but I'm certainly a big fan of the person behind it.

January 19, 2005

The WSJ-sponsored debate on Social Security between econobloggers Arnold Kling and Max Sawicky is well worth reading, if only to reflect upon the enormous gulf between President Bush's recent flights of rhetorical fancy on this subject ("flat bust, bankrupt") and his fellow conservative's more restrained and responsible delineation of the problem:

Arnold Kling writes: Max, I guess the first thing we have to try to resolve is whether Social Security can be safely left alone. Here are my thoughts on that subject.

If the definition of a crisis is that we could wake up tomorrow unable to pay benefits to those retired or about to retire, then we are not in a crisis.

What we do have is a legitimate reason to be concerned about the rate at which we are piling up government promises to future retirees in the middle of this century. If you add up the obligations under Social Security, Medicare and other government spending, including interest on the national debt, baseline projections are quite discouraging. We are not on a sustainable path, and something will have to give. Although we might earmark sufficient taxes to fund Social Security, that will only worsen the fiscal train wreck in the rest of the budget. Our future promises need to be more prudent.

Given Mr. Kling's underlying assumptions about the way the world does and should work, that's a pretty fair-minded assessment of the situation, and it leaves me with these two questions: (a) If even a deeply committed privatizer like Arnold Kling is now prepared to acknowledge that there's no "crisis" in Social Security, isn't it time for the rest of us to retire that silly trope once and for all? And (b) when, exactly, did we start to find it utterly unremarkable that bloggers consistently hold themselves to a higher standard of basic truthfulness than the national press corps holds the president of the United States?

(Via Glenn Reynolds.)

POSTSCRIPT: You know, I was in such a hurry to wrap this post up that I managed to leave out a rather important point: Game, set and match to Mr. Sawicky.

January 17, 2005

MSNBC chief economics correspondent Martin Wolk examines President Bush's recent (and rather fantastical) claims about Social Security, and concludes that the man from Midland would do well to heed the sage words of his political paterfamilias, President Reagan: "For too long, too many people dependent on Social Security have been cruelly frightened by individuals seeking political gain through demagoguery and outright falsehood, and this must stop. The future of Social Security is much too important to be used as a political football."

Indeed.

January 15, 2005

Sadly, I find myself in complete agreement with our friends on the right when they say that Dan Rather has simply got to go. That said, though, I can't help but wonder where these high-minded defenders of journalistic purity were just a few short years ago, when conservative darling John Stossel was forced to issue an on-air apology for presenting phony scientific test results on ABC's 20/20.

As you can see if you follow the links above, the issues raised were virtually identical to those in the Rather case: A reporter with a reputation for political advocacy was caught red-handed using trumped-up evidence on a network newsmagazine, and he then compounded his sin by refusing to acknowledge it immediately. Strangely, though, I don't remember hearing any calls for Mr. Stossel's head from the folks who are now (rightly) demanding Gunga Dan's.

Hmmm. Apparent evidence of a conservative double standard. Whodathunkit, huh?


UPDATE: Of course, it's not too late for conservatives to avoid the charge of hypocrisy here. After all, Mr. Stossel is still employed by ABC News -- and it's not as if there's a statute of limitations on bad journalism.

ANOTHER UPDATE: An emailer asks if I really want to see Stossel fired for a five-year-old mistake, and the honest answer to that question is ... no, I guess I don't. Then again, I also don't spend my free time composing stirring blog posts on the transcendent importance of moral clarity in American public life. . . .

NOTE: Edited slightly for style on Jan. 19.

January 14, 2005

The same crowd that proudly sported "Don't Blame Me, I Voted For Bush" bumper stickers in the 90s is now outraged -- outraged I tell you -- over the fact that a few budding entrepreneurs are trying to turn a quick buck* by selling blue bracelets to disappointed Kerry voters.

Cuz that's just what we need, you know -- another heaping helping of rank hypocrisy and manufactured outrage from our friends in the GOP.

*CORRECTION: I should have read the AP article linked above more carefully. The folks selling the bracelets are actually donating some or all of the proceeds to charity. My apologies for the error.

January 13, 2005

At first blush, I just assumed that yesterday's Supreme Court ruling on mandatory minimums was, as the nation's most famous inmate would say, a good thing. But after reading Dana Mulhauser's piece on the decision over at TNR, I now realize that I failed to take an important factor into consideration when making that judgment: namely, the jaw-dropping, eye-popping, never-ceases-to-amaze witlessness of the US Congress.

In an anxiously awaited decision, the Supreme Court today took the mandatory federal sentencing guidelines and made them voluntary. The immediate effect is a healthy one: Judges will again be given some element of discretion in handing down sentences, probably leading to a less mechanistic and more thoughtful administration of justice. But the repercussions don't end there. Congress is sure to act, and quickly. Its likely response will be to again take sentencing power away from judges, this time giving it to juries. If that's what happens, then the final result could be confusion, illogic, and ultimately a system that treats defendants with less fairness, not more.

The problem, as Mulhauser goes on to explain, is that any legislative "fix" designed to save mandatory minimums would, in all likelihood, require juries to start issuing what are called "specialized verdicts" -- that is, a verdict not only on the defendant's guilt, but also on any issues that might bear on sentencing, such as whether a gun was used in the commission of the crime, or whether the accused acted with malice. And because we go to such great lengths in this country to ensure that our juries have absolutely no concept of what their verdicts mean in terms of sentencing, this could well leave us with a system in which no human being who was actually in possession of all the relevant facts would have any role in determining the proper punishment in a federal criminal case. Mr. Grisham, meet Mr. Kafka. And, both of you, meet Mr. Hugo.

Here's Dana Mulhauser again, wrapping things up:

When a judge decides sentencing factors, that judge knows the implications and can act accordingly. When a jury decides, it has no idea of the implications. By handing sentencing responsibility to a group that doesn't have access to the implications of its actions, Congress would be creating less informed and less fair decisions. And because, on appeal, juries' decisions are given more deference than judges' decisions, defendants would have a tougher time getting overly harsh sentences overturned. Maybe if Congress is going to give juries the power that used to belong to judges, it should give them the information, too. Otherwise, today's Supreme Court decision could end up being a very good ruling with very bad consequences.

Sounds worrisome, doesn't it? But, friends, there is reason for hope: after all, this criminal justice nightmare will never come to pass if Congress just decides to show half as much concern for your rights as it always does for Tom DeLay's....

POSTSCRIPT: Congratulations to TalkLeft's TChris, who successfully argued this case before the High Court.

January 12, 2005

"Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised." -- President Bush, March 17, 2003

"If you're 20 years old, in your mid-20's, and you're beginning to work, I want you to think about a Social Security system that will be flat bust, bankrupt, unless the United States Congress has got the willingness to act now." -- President Bush, yesterday

January 11, 2005

Slate's Tim Noah finds a small but telling example of GOP hypocrisy.

January 10, 2005

If all goes according to plan, I'll be away from my desk for most of the day today. Look for fresh posts to start popping up again sometime tonight or tomorrow morning.

January 07, 2005

White House paid commentator to promote law (USA TODAY)

Seeking to build support among black families for its education reform law, the Bush administration paid a prominent black pundit $240,000 to promote the law on his nationally syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same.

The campaign, part of an effort to promote No Child Left Behind (NCLB), required commentator Armstrong Williams "to regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts," and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots that aired during the show in 2004.

Williams said Thursday he understands that critics could find the arrangement unethical, but "I wanted to do it because it's something I believe in."

The top Democrat on the House Education Committee, Rep. George Miller of California, called the contract "a very questionable use of taxpayers' money" that is "probably illegal." He said he will ask his Republican counterpart to join him in requesting an investigation.

The contract, detailed in documents obtained by USA TODAY through a Freedom of Information Act request, also shows that the Education Department, through the Ketchum public relations firm, arranged with Williams to use contacts with America's Black Forum, a group of black broadcast journalists, "to encourage the producers to periodically address" NCLB. He persuaded radio and TV personality Steve Harvey to invite Paige onto his show twice. Harvey's manager, Rushion McDonald, confirmed the appearances.

Williams said he does not recall disclosing the contract to audiences on the air but told colleagues about it when urging them to promote NCLB.

Lovely.

UPDATE: Tribune syndicate cuts ties with Williams

Okay, maybe that's overstating a bit. But I do share Glenn's sense of, well, not unease exactly, but something in that neighborhood, about the Wikipedia project. There is, of course, a place for unsanctioned expertise and benighted disquisition on the Internet (like the sign in the mall says, You Are Here), but it should always be clearly labeled as such. And I'm not at all certain that Wikipedia's self-designation as "the free encyclopedia," with nary a caveat to be found on its article pages, passes that test.

POSTSCRIPT: Like Instapundit, I don't want this post to be seen as "a big slam on Wikipedia." In fact, I'm a real fan of the project. I simply think that the editors need to find a way to make its limitations clearer to those who happen upon an entry via, say, a Google search. In short, I'm not asking Wikipedia to be a scholarly resource like the Encyclopedia Britannica -- just a little more transparent about the fact that it isn't.

MORE: Via Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky has a very different take on all this. And while Shirky's undoubtedly right (he almost always is) when he argues that our definition of the word "encyclopedia" will evolve enough over time to encompass "a communally-compiled and non-authoritative" knowledge base like Wikipedia, his analysis essentially elides the question of whether it should. And given the epistemological difficulties we've had for the last year or so over here on the political side of the blogosphere (and in American public life more broadly), with left, right, and center arguing not over policy or even politics in any traditional sense, but over the nature of reality itself, that would seem to be a worthwhile question to consider.

FINAL NOTE: And, uh, no, I'm not trying to get into a debate on this subject with Clay Shirky. Unlike (perhaps) the Wikipedia, I'm very clear on my limitations. . . .

January 06, 2005

General Says Army Reserve Is Becoming a 'Broken' Force

The head of the Army Reserve has sent a sharply worded memo to other military leaders expressing "deepening concern" about the continued readiness of his troops, who have been used heavily in Iraq and Afghanistan, and warning that his branch of 200,000 soldiers "is rapidly degenerating into a 'broken' force."

In the memo, dated Dec. 20, Lt. Gen. James R. "Ron" Helmly lashed out at what he said were outdated and "dysfunctional" policies on mobilizing and managing the force. He complained that his repeated requests to adjust the policies to current realities have been rebuffed by Pentagon authorities.

The three-star general, who has a reputation for speaking bluntly, said the situation has reached a point at which the Army Reserve is "in grave danger of being unable to meet" its operational requirements if other national emergencies arise. Insistence on restrictive policies, he continued, "threatens to unhinge an already precariously balanced situation in which we are losing as many soldiers through no use as we are through the fear of overuse."

His pointed remarks represent the latest in a chorus of warnings from military officers and civilian defense specialists that the strains of overseas missions are badly fraying the U.S. Army. The distress has appeared most evident in reservist ranks. Both the Army Reserve and the National Guard last month disclosed significant recruiting slumps.

Hmmm. . . .

January 05, 2005

Yesterday, Matt Drudge made a very big deal out of CNN chief Jonathan Klein's "appalling lack of sensitivity" in using the phrase "flood the zone" to describe his network's approach to covering the tsunami in South Asia. So I'll certainly be stopping by The Drudge Report at frequent intervals today to see how he chooses to handle these even more unfortunate remarks by Texas congressman Tom DeLay.

NOTE: That's not a prediction that Drudge won't jump on the story, by the way. He may. More importantly, he should. And it will be, well, interesting to see whether or not he actually does.

UPDATE: Somewhere up there, I should have noted that the DeLay story was originally brought to light by Dawkins at American Coprophagia. My apologies for the oversight.

UPDATE 2: Ah, hell. If I'm going to (rather fecklessly) demand fairness from Drudge, I suppose I should try to display a little myself. To wit: Just as John Cole was wrong to brand Elizabeth Edwards a "b**ch" last October (before her illness was announced, of course), Armando over at Daily Kos isn't exactly elevating the debate when he refers to Attorney General-designate Alberto Gonzales as a "piece of s**t" today.

C'mon, folks. As Armando's post makes clear, we're talking about a man who stands accused of some rather serious transgressions. Can't we find a way to challenge his behavior without immediately calling our own into question?

Last week, at the height of the stingy/generous debate, I argued that each side was making an important point: Broadly speaking, conservatives were right to insist that the US is a relatively generous nation by just about any reasonable international standard, while lefties were equally correct in averring that our official response to the humanitarian crisis in South Asia -- still a little tepid at that point, frankly, but getting better by the day -- had to be viewed, in part at least, as a component of our public diplomacy efforts in the war on terror.

Thanks to the dramatic outpouring of public and private dollars in recent days, the first half of that formulation is now largely uncontroversial. And I'm happy to be able to report this morning that the second half seems to gaining ground as well, as this typically thoughtful (and, in fairness, slightly skeptical) post by James Joyner makes clear.

MORE: Powell hopes aid will help US image in Muslim world

January 04, 2005

Well, no, not really. But I am guest posting on Internet and politics issues over at BuzzWebster.com (the official blog of PoliticsOnline) this week, and you're welcome to stop by and take part in the festivities.

POSTSCRIPT: As always, there's a veritable potload of Full Disclosure information related to POL on your right.

It looks like the House GOP has started to come to its senses on ethics:

House Republicans suddenly reversed course Monday, deciding to retain a tough standard for lawmaker discipline and reinstate a rule that would force Majority Leader Tom DeLay to step aside if indicted by a Texas grand jury.

The surprise dual decisions were made by Speaker Dennis Hastert and by DeLay who asked GOP colleagues to undo the extreme act of loyalty they handed him in November. Then, Republicans changed a party rule so DeLay could retain his leadership post if indicted by the grand jury in Austin that charged three of the Texas Republican's associates.

But they're not quite there yet.

Republicans voted to go ahead with another of their controversial ethics proposals and will ask the full House to approve a change that could curtail ethics committee investigations. Under the change, a Republican vote would be required before an inquiry can begin. The committee is evenly divided between the two parties, and under current rules a deadlock means an investigation begins automatically.

Honestly, I'd like nothing better than to be able to write a thoroughly positive post on this subject (as I did just the other day on the Bush administration's evolving response to the humanitarian crisis in South Asia). So, c'mon guys. You're so close to getting this one right. Don't let it slip away now.

(ABC News link via Kos.)

Matthew Yglesias explains the facts of life to some of my fellow third-wayers.

NOTE: See? I don't always take the DLC's side. . . .

January 03, 2005

In laying out his doctrine of containment in 1947, George Kennan wrote that anti-communism was not, in and of itself, enough to defeat the Soviet Union. The US also had to "measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation."

Writing in TNR, New Democrat Network president Simon Rosenberg argues that the current administration has failed to heed that lesson in the war on terror, and that that lapse has given Democrats just the opening they need in order to start formulating a better, more attractive alternative to the Bush national security agenda.

MORE: Sorry, I just realized that the TNR link above is subscription only. So here's a taste:

Today, the United States faces an administration that has failed to learn the critical lessons of the twentieth century and has only embraced one half of Kennan's synthesis. This administration is waging a campaign against terrorism, but it has failed to offer a credible vision of how the United States can move the world toward a peace and prosperity rooted in our own best ideals. Moreover, the Bush administration's failing Iraq policy and the serial lies about its intentions and principles have so tarnished U.S. standing abroad that they have unforgivably weakened our ability to conduct and win the struggle against Islamic extremism.

So 2004 is not 1947. The war against Islamic extremism is not the cold war, and Bush is not Roosevelt nor Truman. Our choices are different now. Yes, we as Democrats must articulate and embrace a muscular response to the threat of Islamic extremism and a twenty-first-century version of Kennan's vision of a United States that lives up to its own best traditions. We are also morally obligated to acknowledge that President Bush's record is deeply worthy of skepticism, and we can no more ignore those in our party who have rightfully voiced dissent than we can forget how we won the war against communism.

Our urgent goal as a party should be to work with those who have led the fight against Bush's dangerous policies and, together, to craft a new and compelling vision that is rooted in the very best of the United States and utterly defeats the threat of terrorism.

POSTSCRIPT: Yes, yes, I realize that there's all sorts of other stuff going on up there in those grafs -- most of it involving Rosenberg's campaign to become the next chairman of the DNC. But that's Jerome Armstrong's beat, and he's been covering it quite nicely so far without my assistance, thank you very much.

Oscar Wilde once famously opined that "there are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it." Some of our conservative friends may be about to learn that lesson the hard way:

Is it good for the republic that serving in Congress must be treated as a full-time job?

Newly elected Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma thinks not. And Coburn, who is also a physician, has already announced he will challenge a long-standing rule that bars him from continuing to practice medicine once he takes the oath of office Tuesday.

A conservative Republican, Coburn has always been a maverick in public life: During six tumultuous years in the House, where he served from 1995 to 2001, he cultivated an image as an angry renegade and a citizen legislator who scorned professional politicians.

But this time, he does not stand alone.

A significant number of conservative political thinkers agree that the country would benefit from a return to the tradition of the public servant who also remains a private citizen. That, it is argued, is the model handed down by the Founding Fathers.

So they say now. But I wonder how Sen. Coburn and the other "conservative political thinkers" mentioned in the piece are going to feel when America's trial lawyers suddenly realize that buying yourself a seat in the House or Senate is no longer a bar to suing the living bejeezus out of corporate America.

Hmmm. . . .

POSTSCRIPT: No , I don't really expect Coburn and Co. to get their way on this one. Still, it's an amusing scenario to ponder, don't you think?

In today's Washington Post, former Amtrak Reform Council member James Coston argues that any long-term solution to the problems facing passenger rail service here in the US has to start with a recognition that train travel is not (and can never be) just a business: it's also a federal transportation program like any other.

What does a federal transportation program look like? Simple: like our highway and airport programs. The federal government doesn't operate the vehicles or market the service. There's no such company as "Amcar" or "Amflight." Instead, Washington helps the states to fund a state-of-the-art infrastructure that private operators can have access to -- highways for private cars and commercial motor coaches, airports for airliners. Congress needs to stop focusing solely on Amtrak, a government-owned train company operating on obsolete private and public infrastructure, so that it can refocus on getting matching funds out to states and communities that want to build up their intercity railroad tracks and start running fast, frequent, comfortable trains that people will pay to ride.

As a train enthusiast, I have to admit that opening the door to fundamental change in the current system makes me a little nervous; fact is, an awful lot of folks in DC are bound and determined to let passenger rail die, and they're almost certain to try to use any major reform effort as a Trojan coach car to achieve that end. Still, what Coston says above makes sense. In the end, rail can only get well if it's organized like every other mode of transportation in the country, with private companies operating in a subsidized environment (and hiring their share of lobbyists to ensure that the subsidies are sufficient to keep the whole enterprise afloat).

After all, what's good for General Motors (and Ford and JetBlue and Southwest) is good for America -- and, therefore, American rail -- right?

UPDATE: Ogged weighs in, as do a number of his readers.

Robert Matsui and Shirley Chisholm.

January 02, 2005

Josh Marshall is right when he says that today's WaPo article on Social Security privatization starts badly, but once you get past the first graf or two, it's actually pretty good -- noting, for example, that the unfunded liabilities of the Bush tax cuts are nearly three times those of the Social Security trust fund that's supposedly in so much trouble, as well as the fact that the twenty-seven percent "cut" that supposedly looms in the out-years would actually leave recipients with higher benefits than they're getting now, even adjusted for inflation. In other words, Social Security is a much smaller fiscal problem than the one that Mr. Bush has created for himself, and even if the ultimate nightmare scenario were to come to pass, beneficiaries would still be better off in the future than they are today.

Some crisis, huh?

POSTSCRIPT: Hey, here's a thought: Maybe President Bush could hire David Kay and his team to find the Social Security crisis. Those guys know all about this administration's politically motivated snipe hunts. . . .

January 01, 2005

In today's Washington Post, Jim VandeHei shows moderate Republicans and Democrats what they're going to be up against as they try to stop President Bush and his allies from ending Social Security as we know it:

With Bush planning to unveil the details of his Social Security plan this month, several GOP groups close to the White House are asking the same donors who helped reelect Bush to fund an extensive campaign to convince Americans -- and skeptical lawmakers -- that Social Security is in crisis and that private accounts are the only cure.

Progress for America, an independent conservative group that backed Bush in the campaign, has set aside about $9 million to support the president's Social Security plan as well as other White House domestic priorities in the new year, said spokesman Brian McCabe. The group is asking its donors for much more, he said.

Stephen Moore, head of the conservative Club for Growth, has raised $1.5 million and hopes to hit a $15 million target when his fundraising drive ends.

But their contributions are likely to be dwarfed by those from corporate trade associations, spearheaded by the National Association of Manufacturers. Other likely contributors include the financial services and securities industries and other Fortune 500 companies, GOP officials say. White House officials, led by Karl Rove and Charles P. Blahous III, the president's policy point man on Social Security, are helping to shape the public relations campaign, said the officials, who talked about private discussions with the White House on the condition of anonymity.

"It could easily be a $50 million to $100 million cost to convince people this is legislation that needs to be enacted," Moore said. "It's going to be expensive" because "it's the most important public policy fight in 25 years," he said.

Mr. Moore is right about one thing: This is the most important public policy fight in the last 25 years. Here's hoping the responsible men and women in both parties are ready for it.

Happy New Year!

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