Thursday, March 27, 2014

Too Big to Fix

“Looking back, one sees that the crisis was inevitable, if for no other reason than that these too-big-to-fail firms would push the boundaries until there was a crisis.”
—Thomas Hoenig, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation director

A strange thing happened to me a couple of years ago. I filled out a direct debit mandate to pay my monthly cell (or mobile, as it’s called here) phone bill. Soon after, a not-insignificant sum of money (that I did not owe) was taken out of my checking account by the mobile phone company.

I rang up the company to inform them of their error, and they advised me to fill out a certain form with my bank. I trustingly attempted to follow this advice only to learn that the form was for seeking reimbursement through my bank’s insurance. Needless to say, the bank had no interest in having their insurance pay for a mistake (or theft) that had nothing to do with them. I went back to the mobile phone company, where I met nothing but resistance—to the point where I had to have a proper row with the fellow I was dealing with. But no matter how much I argued with him, he insisted that there was no way to rectify the error. At one point, he finally burst forth with, “My hands are tied. You Americans have made everything so bloody complicated with your damned Sarbox.”

In the end, I threatened to register a complaint with the Irish Commission for Communications Regulation, and a few days later the money was restored to my bank account, as mysteriously as it had disappeared. To this day, however, I have never figured out exactly what Sarbox (the Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002, also known as the Public Company Accounting Reform and Investor Protection Act) had to do with my mobile phone account.

Sarbox imposed all kinds of reporting requirements on American companies and companies wanting to do business in America. It was a reaction to a number of business scandals, notably the collapse of Enron. It had a major impact on the way businesses operate, and it is the reason I always laugh when Democrats try to paint the Bush Administration as some kind of period of massive “deregulation.”

Whatever problems Sarbox was designed to solve, it obviously didn’t work because at the end of the Bush Administration we had a major financial crisis. The solution for this was another major round of regulation, in the form of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010. So did that finally fix the country’s financial problems? Does that piece of legislation make another financial crisis less likely?

If you believe that a fundamental problem of the economy is that financial institutions have grown too large, through mergers and acquisitions, only to end up requiring taxpayers to bail them out when they get into trouble because they are Too Big To Fail, then the answer would have to be a resounding no.

An analysis by Hester Peirce and Robert Greene of George Mason University shows that the United States’s bank assets have become even more concentrated in the wake of Sarbox and Dodd-Frank. In 2000 the five largest banks held 30.1 percent of the country’s banking assets, and small banks (those with $10 billion or less in assets) held 27.5 percent. In 2013, the five largest held 46.6 percent and the small banks held 18.6 percent. The small banks’ share of domestic deposits dropped by 9.8 percent just in the period following the passage of Dodd-Frank.

Is this something that would have happened, even without the passage of those two major bills? Almost certainly not, since it is the added cost of complying with government regulations that is driving smaller banks out of business. “The Dodd-Frank Act, passed in 2010, imposes a new set of regulations that are disproportionately burdensome to small banks,” write Peirce and Greene, “Moreover, by designating the largest financial institutions as ‘systemically important,’ Dodd-Frank creates a market expectation that designated firms are too big to fail and generates funding and other competitive advantages for the largest US banks.”

In other words, with Dodd-Frank the government is already laying the groundwork for the next big bailout and, in so doing, is issuing what may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Having too many assets concentrated in a few large banks makes a financial crisis more likely, as explained in the quote above by FDIC director Thomas Hoenig. When a small bank gets into trouble, it mainly affects the owners of the bank. When a huge bank or a group of huge banks get into trouble, they have an incentive to make things even worse because they know they can get bailed out. If the politicians were truly serious about avoiding another financial crisis, they would be putting limits on the size of banks rather than providing incentives for them to grow even larger.

When you see this happen over and over again, it becomes depressing. It is only a matter of time until the next big business failure ends up hurting employees, shareholders and ultimately the taxpayers who will fund the inevitable bailout. The “solution” will then once again be a major voluminous bill named after another pair of politicians, adding yet another layer of regulations and requirements. Those who favor the bill will be styled as courageous and looking out for the little guy. Those who refuse to go along will be painted as uncaring and in the pocket of fat cats.

Is there any silver lining at all? Well, here’s something. I just heard a rumor that the mobile phone company that tried to rob me might be swallowed up by a larger company.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Land of Dreamers

“The credibility of the organization is in serious question by any credible observer. The record of the OAS in Venezuela is an embarrassment.”
—José Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch

In February a 17-year-old girl was attacked and robbed in San Cristóbal, a Venezuelan city on the border with Colombia. It was the kind of unfortunate incident that could and does happen in virtually any city in the world on any given evening. But in San Cristóbal it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Since the previous year the city’s University of the Andes’s Botanical Gardens had become overrun by drug dealers and criminals. This was part of a national trend that has resulted in Venezuela having one of the highest crime rates in the world. In San Cristóbal many of the criminals’ victims were students, and they lobbied for better security—in vain. After the February 3 attack, word of it spread and the next day students came out to protest. The police response was to arrest protestors and send them to a detention center hundreds of miles away in a city called Coro, where they were reportedly mistreated.

The student response was more protests—not only in San Cristóbal but across the country, including the capital Caracas. They’ve been going on ever since. Government forces have pushed back with force, using tear gas and water cannons. As of this writing, the reported death toll is 36. The government’s political opponents were quick to jump on the protest bandwagon. The most prominent was 42-year-old politician and economist Leopoldo López, and he was soon put behind bars by the government.

Obviously, the protests are not simply about unhappiness over the crime rate. Under the administrations of the late Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolás Maduro, oil-rich Venezuela is an economic basket case. Inflation is sky high and shoppers at markets face queues at times numbering more than a thousand. Maduro, who not only lacks his mentor’s charisma (which was always lost on me) but is clearly incompetent, won election to the presidency only narrowly and not without suspicions. And, given the government’s tight control on the media, the election could hardly have been considered very fair in any event.

According to reporting by The Wall Street Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady, the masked thugs on motorcycles who have been inflicting the most harm on the protestors are paramilitaries organized by the Chavista government.

One suspects that the situation in Venezuela would have gotten more worldwide attention if not for the even more dramatic events involving Ukraine. Reporting in the general international press has been sketchy at best. Some reports I have heard paint the student protestors as “middle class” or “conservative,” suggesting a bourgeois-vs.-poor narrative.

A rare high-profile mention of the situation came during the Academy Awards ceremony a few weeks ago when Best Supporting Actor Jared Leto expressed solidarity in his acceptance speech with “the dreamers” in Ukraine and Venezuela. Fellow actors Kevin Spacey and Forest Whitaker later tweeted their criticism of the Venezuelan government. Previously vocal Hollywood supporters of Chavez—Sean Penn, Danny Glover, Michael Moore—stayed silent. A photo showing Penn—who has deservedly earned praise for his relief work in Haiti—holding a sign in Spanish supporting Maduro showed up on Twitter, but it was pretty obvious that it had been composed à la Photoshop. More significant was criticism from musicians Willie Colón and, especially, Rubén Blades, whose political activist credentials are impeccable. Clearly stung, Maduro insisted on television that Blades had been misled by fascists. According to none other than Madonna (in a February tweet), “Fascism is alive and thriving in Venezuela” and “Maduro is not familiar with the phrase ‘Human Rights’!”

Events in Venezuela have divided Latin American countries. The protests have been ignored by the Organization of American States, which met in Washington on Friday. In an unusual move, Panama made Venezuelan opposition lawmaker María Corina Machado a temporary member of its delegation so that she could address the body, but delegates voted not to include her in the formal agenda. After hours of arguing, she was finally allowed to speak briefly in an ad hoc capacity. The delegates also took the unusual step, in a 22-to-11 vote, of barring the media from the session. The U.S., Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, Peru, Honduras, Costa Rica, Colombia, Paraguay and Chile supported her appearance. Brazil, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Argentina and various Caribbean countries joined Venezuela in opposition. Her plea for a resolution demanding that Venezuela release its political prisoners and respect freedom of speech went nowhere. Machado’s supporters fear that she could face arrest after her return to Venezuela.

Brazil’s rebuke of Machado apparently reflects the fact that Brazil is heavily invested in the Venezuelan economy. But it is a sad irony, given that Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff herself was once a student leader who stood up to authority and who, as a result, was tortured by her country’s military.

In the end, a lot of people choose sides based on ideology rather than on respect for democracy or human rights. That is how yesterday’s firebrand who used to fight authority can, later in life, become the defender of authority that abuses its power.

If you find that thought as depressing as I do, then you may take some pleasure from the YouTube video on this page of the Peruvian newspaper El Comercio. Filmed last week at a debate at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in Santiago, it went viral in South America. A young Venezuelan woman is applauded by the audience when she tears into leftist Senator Alejandro Navarro, a defender of the Chavista regime. After telling of a journalist friend who was threatened for writing about the government, she yells at the senator, “Go live in Venezuela. I give it to you, I give you my home.”

Even if you don’t understand Spanish, her body language says it all.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Luck of the Irish

“For you stole Trevelyan’s corn
So the young might see the morn.
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay.”
—Pete St. John, “The Fields of Athenry”

People who make a living at political discourse have their pet phrases intended to invalidate what the other side says.

For example, conservative commentators will be quick to accuse the other side of “playing the race card.” The aim is to equate the mere suggestion of racism with an effort to shut down debate. In other words, it’s an attempt to undermine the other side’s argument by suggesting that the other side cannot make its points on the merits.

Pundits on the left have their pet phrases as well. One that I heard a lot last week was “dog whistle.” This is an accusation that conservatives are making an appeal to racists by speaking in a code that the racists are able to understand. The term refers to whistles that emit a frequency too high for humans to hear but which animals can hear.

There was an eruption of “dog whistle” mentioning last week after Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan went on Bill Bennett’s radio show and attributed chronic poverty in America to a “tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work.”

The reaction came fast and furious. California Congresswoman Barbara Lee responded, “Let’s be clear, when Mr. Ryan says ‘inner city,’ when he says, ‘culture,’ these are simply code words for what he really means: ‘black.’” Left-of-center columnists couldn’t get to their keyboards fast enough to echo her sentiments. Ana Marie Cox wrote in The Guardian that “it matters less if Ryan himself is racist or not—what matters is that his statements and actions don’t do anything to challenge or change racism in other people.” The The New York Times’s Paul Krugman wrote that “since conservatives can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the reality of what’s happening to opportunity in America, they’re left with nothing but that old-time dog whistle.”

And, frankly, as a target for such comments, Ryan definitely made himself low-hanging fruit. He acknowledged as much by later apologizing for being “inarticulate” and insisting that his comments were directed at society as whole and not at a specific group. He fell into the trap, as politicians sometimes do, of tailoring his words to a particular audience and forgetting that the rest of the country could hear him as well. Bennett’s listeners may not have minded his comments, but it never sounds good, when you are trying to solve a problem, to appear to be blaming the victim.

The rejoinder to Ryan that really caught my attention, however, was a piece in Sunday’s New York Times, written by Timothy Egan, the paper’s Pacific Northwest correspondent. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, Egan drew a comparison between the Irish-American Ryan and Charles Edward Trevelyan, the British government’s assistant treasury secretary in charge of administering famine relief for Ireland in the 1840s. Egan has a gift for painting human suffering with words (he won a National Book Award for The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl), and he used that gift to evoke the “skeletal people, dying en masse, the hollow-bellied children scrounging for nettles and blackberries” of the Irish Famine and, in so doing, tie them to Congressman Ryan.

Trevelyan is a villain here in Ireland to this day. He is immortalized in the lyrics of the folk ballad “The Fields of Athenry.” Trevelyan was not coy about what he really thought. Here is a sample: “The greatest evil we have to face is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the Irish people.” It would be hard to find such a direct attack on the moral character of an entire group of people today—i.e. one that does not need decoding by those adept at detecting dog whistles—unless maybe you read what is written about Republicans on the pages of The New York Times or The Guardian.

Egan generously allows, “There is no comparison, of course, between the de facto genocide that resulted from British policy, and conservative criticism of modern American poverty programs.” But then he goes on to drive home the comparison anyway.

See what is going on here? The discussion is less about what works and doesn’t work in solving the problem of poverty than about who cares and who doesn’t care. Yes, it’s wrong to imply that people are poor because they are too lazy to work, but isn’t it also wrong to imply that a politician who wants to find a way to increase participation in the economy is at heart genocidal?

Egan makes one telling historical slip in his attack on Ryan. In referring to “language that English Tories used to justify indifference to an epic tragedy,” he gives the impression that Trevelyan served a Conservative government. He was actually part of a Whig government. The Whig Party (precursor to the modern Liberal Party) had abolished slavery in the British Empire and enacted Catholic emancipation, but when it came to the Irish Famine its laissez-faire economic philosophy prevailed.

It turns out that Trevelyan was the quintessential government bureaucrat. He spent his whole career as a civil servant and colonial administrator. Apart from his association with the Irish Famine, he is chiefly remembered for co-authoring a landmark report called The Organisation of the Permanent Civil Service. His distasteful attitude towards the Irish aside, it doesn’t appear that he deliberately intended for people to starve, only that he was massively and tragically incompetent. The lesson here may not be that the English are inherently evil but that you really don’t want to be in the position of needing the government—any government—to save you.

What was excruciating for the starving Irish was the fact that stores of food were being shipped out to paying customers. While you can by no means compare the current California drought to the Irish Famine, you do hear a faint echo of that frustration in the anguished complaints of Central Valley farmers today who say that water which could have been diverted to reservoirs during wet years was flushed out to sea by government bureaucrats in a bid to preserve a species of bait fish.

Despite its tragic history of colonialism, famines and poverty, Ireland provides encouragement to other peoples in similar straits. Just a few generations after the time of Trevelyan, Ireland’s economy prospered to the point that it became the envy of many European countries. There are still problems and the vaunted Celtic Tiger had a massive collapse, but there is still no comparison today to the low standard of living of just a few decades ago. How did the Irish turn around their fortunes so quickly?

If you ask ordinary Irish people that question, they will mention European Union investment money and the luring of international corporations to the country. But one answer I hear over and over in particular would bring a smile to Paul Ryan. People say it is because of a culture of hard work.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Hot and Cold

“42.7 percent of all statistics are made up on the spot.”
—Comedian Steven Wright

Last Monday twenty-eight Democratic senators held a talkathon in order to raise awareness about the threat of climate change.

“Despite overwhelming scientific evidence and overwhelming public opinion, climate change deniers still exist,” said Majority Leader Harry Reid. “They exist in this country and in this Congress.”

Reid might want to take another look at public opinion. According to the Gallup organization’s website, a recent poll “puts climate change, along with the quality of the environment, near the bottom of a list of 15 issues Americans rated in Gallup’s March 6-9 survey. The economy, federal spending, and healthcare dominate Americans’ worries.”

Why such a disconnect between what so many politicians say and what most ordinary people think?

And it’s not just politicians who are sounding alarms about climate change. Most of the journalists that most people are likely to read or hear treat the issue of climate change as a very serious one. Every so often discussions can be heard on media-watching programs like public radio’s On the Media about whether journalists should even give print or air time to people disputing climate change orthodoxy since the debate on the topic is so clearly over.

But if the debate is truly over, why do all those senators need to stay up all night talking about it? After all, the surest way to know that a debate is over is to not be hearing people all the time still trying to get people to agree with them.

Part of the problem is that, as with so many contentious issues, people’s careless usage of the language (sometimes deliberately, sometimes lazily) confuses things. First off, let’s stipulate that the climate is changing. You’d have to be pretty dense to argue otherwise. After all, the earth’s climate has always been changing. If it had actually stopped changing at some point, I might well be living under glacier today. So the climate change debate—which may or may not be over—is not actually about whether the climate is changing.

And how is it changing at the moment? Well, let’s take a look at the best temperature records we have at our disposal. They indicate that we are in a warming trend that has been going on since the early 17th century, i.e. since the so-called “Little Ice Age” began to abate. The current warming trend has yet to reach the temperature level of the previous warming trend, which peaked around the year 1300. That one reached higher temperatures than the previous one, which peaked during the Roman Empire, but did not reach the temperatures of the one before that, which peaked around 1100 B.C.

It is worth noting that the current warming trend is, for the moment, on pause. Temperatures have effectively plateaued for the past decade and a half. People on one side the debate—which may or may not be over—argue (correctly) that this does not necessarily mean that the warming trend will not continue. People on the other side of the debate argue (also correctly) that this does not necessarily mean that the warming trend will continue. The latter people also point out (correctly) that the computer models cited by the other side did not predict the current pause. So when Harry Reid lashes out at “climate change deniers,” he is attacking people for denying something that not only hasn’t actually happened but is, in fact, just an educated—and occasionally revised—guess about what will happen.

The argument gets complicated because each side can—and does—come up with its own “trend” by cherry-picking the span of years that best supports its argument. And then there is the eyewitness evidence. Melting glaciers and shrinking ice cover make dramatic impressions, but only when we lose sight of the fact that there is much more to climate than average global temperatures and, again, each side cherry-picks its examples. Neither side is above using extreme short-term temperatures (summer heat waves, winter polar vortexes) to argue its case. But then, as a counter-argument, each side will then proclaim (correctly) that short-term fluctuations are pretty irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

But the climate change debate is further complicated in that it is a two-part proposition. The first question is whether global temperatures are rising. If they are, then the second question is, what is causing the warming? Let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that the warming trend will continue and even accelerate for the foreseeable future. Then what? Our Democratic friends in the Senate tell us that the warming is caused by the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels.

How do they know this? The “overwhelming scientific evidence” that Senator Reid cites is a reference to the oft-heard assertion that there is 97 percent scientific consensus on the issue. Where exactly did this consensus come from? If you trace it back to its origin, we find that there have been a series of surveys that always seem to arrive at the 97 percent consensus. The most recent is by former National Science Board member James L. Powell. When we look at Powell’s website, we find that he arrived at his number not by polling scientists but by counting scientific papers that he found by searching on certain keywords and then making a judgment as to whether or not each paper supported the notion of anthropogenic, or man-caused, climate change.

Powell did not approach his survey from a neutral position. As his website makes clear, he is an ardent campaigner on the issue and has written on the topic for The Nation. So it is probably not surprising that his survey apparently did not find anything written by the 31,487 scientists that signed a petition that read in part, “There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate.” When this is brought up, the other side rejects it on the grounds the petition’s signers come from a wide number of scientific fields and not specifically the field of climate science.

One climate scientist who disputes the notion that global warming currently poses a grave risk is Richard Lindzen of MIT. In January he was questioned by a committee of the British House of Commons about an assessment review from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). When asked about the climate change consensus, he said, “[T]here is so much penalty for saying that this is not an important problem that I don’t think people would go out on that limb…”

He continued, “You look at the credentials of some of these people and you realize that the world doesn’t have that many experts, that many ‘leading climate scientists.’” Committee chairman Tim Yeo asked if he was actually suggesting that climate scientists were somehow academically inferior. Replied Lindzen, “Oh yeah. I don’t think there’s any question that the brightest minds went into physics, math, chemistry…” Ouch.

I don’t know who’s right in the climate change debate, but I do know that it’s pretty clear that the debate is not over. And you can usually tell who is losing a debate by seeing which side wants to proclaim the debate over. And also by Gallup polls.

Dr. Lindzen may well have been unfair to the community of climate scientists. But it is worth bearing in mind who pays them. After all, there used to be a lot of scientists who kept finding that smoking had no harmful health effects. Their funding came from tobacco companies.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

News Hole

“Here we go. Okay, let’s get this out of the way. What did you come here to plug?”
—Zach Galifianakis, on

“Well, first of all, I think it’s fair to say I wouldn’t be with you here today if I didn’t have something to plug.”
—Barack Obama, on

When I studied abroad decades ago, there was a real sense of isolation in being so far from home. American news sources were not that easy to come by and, when available, were pricy for a student budget. No more. Nowadays everyone from the age of adolescence on—and oftentimes younger—has access to every news source in the world literally in the palm of his or her hand.

Thanks to the internet and satellite TV, there are times—as long as I don’t go outside of my house anyway—that I feel that I haven’t left America at all. If anything, I suspect that I pay more attention to news coming out of the U.S. than I would if I hadn’t moved abroad. Furthermore, my tablet and its apps, which efficiently find the news I’m interested in and organize it into very perusable formats, ensure that I consume more news than ever.

Is that true of everyone? Specifically, is it true of young people? I wonder because I have just watched—and laughed quite a bit at—the latest installment of Between Two Ferns, the mock talk show hosted by Zach Galifianakis on the Funny or Die website. It trades in the hip, post-modern, ironic kind of humor that is pervasive these days, and Galifianakis’s high-profile guests (his penultimate one was Justin Bieber, fresh off his recent tabloid headlines) go along with the joke that the host is a lazy, clueless dolt by playing into their own public personas. His latest guest, as you no doubt know, was none other than President Obama, who gamely played along with the gags—all the while pretending not to be amused.

Sample exchange: Obama: “Have you heard of the Affordable Care Act?” Galifianakis: “Oh yeah, I heard about that. It’s the thing that doesn’t work. Why would you get the guy who created the Zune to make your website?” I know it’s all supposed to be for laughs but, frankly, that is really unfair. It just so happens that I bought the very first Zune model when it came out and am still happy with it to this day.

So why did the president take time out of his busy schedule to do this? Because it was intended as a way (some have said a desperate way) to reach and encourage healthy young people to sign up for Obamacare so that insurance companies don’t go broke complying with the new healthcare law. Apparently, the traditional media have not yet convinced enough members of that age bracket to enroll.

It has always been true that teenagers and young adults do not follow the news as reliably as their elders, but something new is going on. In his blog a few months ago, TV critic David Zurawik noted that, during the previous eight years, viewership of the main evening newscasts on ABC, NBC and CBS had each declined 16, 17 and 22 percent, respectively. More stunning, though, is the drop in viewership of PBS’s NewsHour over the same period: a whopping 48 percent. (Zurawik got PBS’s numbers second-hand since PBS’s ratings, ironically for an organization whose first name is literally “Public,” are not made public.)

So hardly anyone is watching TV news then? Well, the Pew Research Center reports that 71 percent of Americans get their news from local stations, 65 percent from the networks and 38 percent from cable. Among cable news viewers, Fox News Channel is far and away the leader in viewership, with CNN and MSNBC tussling over a distant second place.

If I were an optimist, I might speculate that the large chunks of the population that aren’t getting their news from TV are getting it from newspapers and magazines. But we know from print circulation numbers that this isn’t the case. The internet then? Only the National Security Agency knows for sure. Let’s hope that young people are doing what I do and are using Feedly, Instapaper, Pocket and IFTTT to gather news and information from an array of media sources all over the globe—or at least reading the websites of some reliable newspapers.

I think I can understand why evening network TV news broadcasts are in decline. If you are serious about news, not only is their 22-minute “news hole” (the half-hour time slot less advertising) very brief, but half of it is typically taken up with soft features rather than hard news. As for cable, you can certainly find useful news programs, but if you do not choose carefully, you can wind up hearing a lot of the same information over and over—or else watching opinion programs that can entertain but not necessarily deliver a lot of real information.

The dramatic decline in PBS’s NewsHour viewership is particularly interesting because that program was supposedly designed to counteract the wasteland that is TV news. It certainly provides a much bigger news hole than the commercial broadcast networks. But its smaller budget has always meant that its “coverage” has largely consisted of talking-head interviews as opposed to field reporting. And its mindset has always been definitely inside-the-beltway and clearly identifying with the government establishment.

Personally, one NewsHour segment that I rarely miss is the Friday debate between commentators Mark Shields and David Brooks. They ostensibly provide left and right political perspective on the week’s news, and their discussion is useful for catching up with the latest talking points. Well, sort of. Shields is certainly a reliable—and, in fact, articulate and passionate—carrier of current Democratic talking points. How much is he in the tank? Well, on Friday I heard him actually defend the administration’s foreign policy by saying that the infamous “reset” with Russia somehow led to the election of the supposedly moderate Hassan Rouhani in Iran. I still haven’t gotten my jaw off the floor since that one.

On the other hand, Brooks—who is what passes for a token conservative at The New York Times, NPR and PBS—is a clearly interesting, intelligent and thoughtful man who speaks for a group that is, frankly, not much larger than just himself. To the extent that he represents thinking on the right, the best that can be said about him is that he is a good spokesman for a wing of the Republican Party that pretty much disappeared with Nelson Rockefeller.

In fairness, there was a show where you could see a weekly no-holds-barred debate between real honest-to-God modern liberals (such as Shields and NPR’s legal correspondent Nina Totenberg) and at least one true dyed-in-the-wool conservative (columnist Charles Krauthammer, a mainstay on Fox News). Produced by ABC affiliate WJLA and distributed to PBS stations, it was called Inside Washington and was hosted by Gordon Peterson. It began airing back in 1988 and was the successor to Agronsky & Co., which in 1969 pioneered the point-counterpoint format that would become a staple of television news.

It’s not clear exactly why Peterson pulled the plug on the granddaddy of talking-head political shows in December. Maybe he noticed that its potential future audience were all too busy streaming videos on

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

High Wire

“According to international law, we condemn the Russian Federation’s act of aggression. There is nothing strong in what Russia is doing.”
—John Kerry, yesterday in Kiev

“There is a strong belief that Russia’s action is violating international law. President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations.”
—Barack Obama, yesterday in Washington

Perhaps it’s because I have discussed the geo-strategist or “chessboard” way of looking at world events a couple of times recently that it now seems that, in every newspaper and on every TV channel I now turn to, everyone seems to be talking about “the chessboard.”

On Sunday’s American news programs, everyone seemed to be discussing whether chess was a useful or applicable metaphor for international action and diplomacy. On Fox News Sunday House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers criticized U.S. handling of the Ukraine situation by quipping, “I think Putin is playing chess and I think we’re playing marbles.” I heard an even more amusing quote sometime earlier—the source of which now escapes me—that went something like this: Russia is playing chess, the West is playing checkers, and Obama is playing solitaire.

Generally speaking, people critical of the U.S. administration like the chess metaphor and those who defend it think that metaphor is outdated—if it was ever apt in the first place. Criticizing Russia’s occupation of the Crimean Peninsula, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Meet the Press, “This is an act of aggression that is completely trumped up in terms of its pretext. It’s really 19th century behavior in the 21st century.” If Kerry had his boss’s knack for snarky youthful vernacular, he might even have paraphrased the president’s debate quip to Mitt Romney and said, “Hey, Russia, the 19th century called and it wants its imperialism back.”

The most manful attack on the chessboard metaphor that I’ve seen to date comes from Sam Tanenhaus in a piece in Sunday’s New York Times. Tanenhaus is a historian, author and journalist, so I’m a little intimidated in challenging him. On the other hand, I have lived through pretty much the same span of history that he has, and my take is definitely different from his.

For one thing, his examples of Cold War “chess-piece gambits” are the American military actions in Korea and Vietnam. Uh, my dictionary says that a gambit is “an act or remark that is calculated to gain an advantage, especially at the outset of a situation.” Specifically, in chess a gambit is “an opening move in which a player makes a sacrifice, typically of a pawn, for the sake of a compensating advantage.” The wars in Korea and Vietnam were not gambits. They were the results of gambits that didn’t work out. Given Tanenhaus’s redefinition of the word gambit, it’s no wonder the metaphor doesn’t work for him. His preferred metaphor for the Cold War is “a frightening high-wire act.”

Most interestingly, though, in foreign policy terms he likens the current president specifically to three Republican presidents: Dwight Eisenhower (for avoiding military situations), Richard Nixon (for winding down a war and negotiating arms control) and Ronald Reagan (more arms control). He attempts no comparisons with such Democratic Obama predecessors as Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter.

Tanenhaus’s central example for refuting the chessboard metaphor, however, is the Cuban missile crisis which, as he explains, was defused by a secret bargain—as opposed to strategic maneuvers. With this characterization, he is repeating the standard American narrative for that nerve-racking episode: President Kennedy’s cool calm and his decisiveness avoided a potential nuclear war and got Soviet missiles out of Cuba, therefore America came out a winner. But, if you look at it from the Soviet point of view, the chessboard metaphor fits quite nicely. The United States put missiles in Turkey, which annoyed the Russians to no end. So they took advantage of the fact that the U.S. had a brand new, relatively young president and responded by putting missiles in Cuba. The ultimate result, from the Soviet point of view, was that the Russians ended up removing their Cuban missiles (leaving them no worse off than they were before) and that the U.S. also removed its missiles in Turkey (leaving the Russians better off). That sequence of move, counter-move and retreat certainly sounds like a lot of chess games I have played in my time.

That story of the placement of missiles has a more recent counterpart. After Russia intervened in the Georgian region of South Ossetia in 2008, President George W. Bush announced America’s intention to proceed with a planned missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. The stated aim was to protect against a future missile threat from Iran, but Russia treated it as a Western incursion into its sphere of influence. In 2009 President Obama scrapped the project. This annoyed the governments of Poland and the Czech Republic, which saw the project as a means to cement their inclusion in Western Europe. Even people who did not favor the project were surprised that Obama did not take the opportunity to use the missile project as a bargaining chip and exact something from the Russians in return. But that was back in the days when all the Russia foreign policy talk was about “the reset.”

Wouldn’t it be handy to have those missiles now to use as leverage or a bargaining chip in the Ukraine situation? Instead, the Ukraine situation is complicated by the fact that the U.S. has also put itself in the position of relying on Russia for any hope of influence in the situations in Syria and Iran.

If we are entering a new Cold War, let’s at least try to take some comfort from Sam Tanenhaus, who tells us that it isn’t about chess moves and strategy. Rather, according to him, it is “less a carefully structured game between masters than a frightening high-wire act, with leaders on both sides aware that a single misstep could plunge them into the abyss.”