Mike Kueber's Blog

July 7, 2011

Secular Humanism

A few days ago on talk radio, I heard the host disparage a politician as a “secular humanist.”  Although I hadn’t heard the term used for several years (I don’t often listen to talk radio), I recalled that conservative pundits and sages in the past had used this term in connection with the moral decline of America (abortion, drugs, sex).  It was time, I decided, to take another look at these people and their quasi-religion.

According to my Bible (Wikipedia), Secular Humanism is:

  • A philosophy that espouses human reason, ethics, and justice, and the search for human fulfillment. It specifically rejects religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience or superstition as the basis of morality and decision-making.  Secular Humanism is a comprehensive life stance that focuses on the way human beings can lead happy and functional lives….  Fundamental to the concept of Secular Humanism is the strongly held viewpoint that ideology — be it religious or political — must be thoroughly examined by each individual and not simply accepted or rejected on faith.  Along with this, an essential part of Secular Humanism is a continually adapting search for truth, primarily through science and philosophy.”

That is quite a mouthful.  Although those values strike me as imminently reasonable for America, especially as our nation becomes more diverse religiously, the problem is that Secular Humanism doesn’t recognize a role for religion in government, and starting in the mid-20th century, according to Wikipedia, religious fundamentalists and the religious right began using the term in hostile fashion.  In 1943 a prominent Christian (the Archbishop of Canterbury) warned that Christian tradition “was in danger of being undermined by a Secular Humanism which hoped to retain Christian values without Christian faith.”  (That reminds me of a term –cultural Jew – that I encountered when I was studying what it meant to be a Jew, and a few weeks ago I saw the concept applied to
Catholicism for the first time when a writer claimed to be a cultural Catholic.)  Theologians have blamed Secular Humanism generally for moral relativism and specifically for the prevalence of drugs, sex, feminism, pornography, abortion, and homosexuality.

Does faith have a place in political decision-making?  Kevin Phillips in his book Theocracy was gravely concerned about the presidential actions taken by George W. Bush because Bush suggested that he was acting as an agent for Christ/God.  Of course, that is simply an extension of Bush’s belief in American exceptionalism.

Although the values of most of our Founding Fathers were informed by their Christianity, it is significant that they did not directly include religion or God in the Constitution other than to provide for Freedom of Religion and the so-called separation of church & state.  As America attempts to be a just and moral government that enables its citizens to search for personal fulfillment, it seems logical that its decisions must be based on reason rather than one any
specific religious doctrine.

June 29, 2011

The U.S. Constitution – does it still matter?

The title of this posting was a question posed on the cover of Time magazine this week.  Fortunately, only the first few paragraphs are available on-line.

No, that was not a typo.  I said “fortunately” because the article was so poorly written that its author could have been a college kid submitting a
term paper.  The author was, in fact, Richard Stengel, the managing editor of Time magazine, which probably explains how such a sophomoric article found its way into Time magazine.  Either his editors were too cowed to do their job or Stengel haughtily rejected their help.

I am blogging about the article because it raised an important topic – i.e., the relevance of the U.S. Constitution toward four transcendent issues in America:

  1. Making war as applied to Libya
  2. Defaulting on the national debt
  3. Interstate commerce as applied to ObamaCare
  4. Birthright citizenship

Making war

The first issue revolves around the War Powers Resolution.  The Resolution, which became law in 1973, was designed to prevent another Vietnam and end the string of undeclared wars since WWII.  It allows the president to initiate military action without a declaration of war, but requires the military action to cease if Congress doesn’t give its approval within 60 days.  This seems like a very reasonable accommodation of (a) modern exigencies and (b) the Constitutional provision, “The Congress shall have power… to declare war.

The Resolution was passed despite a presidential veto, and every president has asserted that it is unconstitutional because it infringes on his constitutional power to “be commander in chief.”  But President Obama is the first president to engage in an extended military action (Libya) without obtaining Congressional approval.

Stengel’s take on this issue – he mildly chides President Obama for ignoring the following position staked out by candidate Obama: “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”  And he lamely excuses Obama because, “since 1973, Presidents have at best paid lip service to the resolution.”  The excuse is lame because, although previous presidents have claimed that the resolution was unconstitutional, they nevertheless complied with it, including George W. Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Stengel complains that our Founders created this problem by drafting provisions that are conflicting.  That is hogwash.  If this issue ever gets
before the Supreme Court, they will certainly be able to reconcile the Congress’s power to declare war with the President’s power to be the commander in chief.  Without explanation, Stengel concludes this section by saying, “this matter will not end up in the Supreme Court.  Congress does not really want the responsibility of deciding whether to send troops to places like Libya.  It just doesn’t want the President to do so in a way that makes it look superfluous and impotent.

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer recently addressed the application of the War Powers Resolution to the military action in Libya.  Unlike Stengel, he provided an explanation for why the courts haven’t resolved this issue – “Moreover, the judiciary, which under our
system is the ultimate arbiter of constitutionality, has consistently refused to adjudicate this ‘political question’ (to quote one appellate court judge) and thus resolve with finality the separation-of-powers dispute between the other two co-equal branches

Like Krauthammer, I think the War Powers Resolution was a reasonable reconciliation of the constitutional provisions.  It reminds me of the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion, in which the Supreme Court balanced the privacy interests of women against the public interest in protecting the life of a fetus.  That is the type of public-policy decision, however, that should be made by legislatures, not the courts.  I wish President Obama would do what all previous Presidents have done – respect the law.

Debt ceiling

My conservative drinking friend thinks that the Founding Fathers had no idea that Congress would become such a profligate spender and, if they had, they would have included a balanced-budget provision in the Constitution.  In fact, however, the Founding Fathers knew that America had incurred huge debt during the Revolutionary War and they specifically approved the practice in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution – “The Congress shall have power … to borrow money on the credit of the United States.”

Regarding the possibility of default because on Congress’s failure to raise the debt limit, Stengel makes a suggestion that I haven’t previously heard – i.e., that the Constitution doesn’t allow government to default on its debt.  His suggestion is based on Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, which reads, “The validity of the public debt of the United States… shall not be questioned.”  The Amendment, which was passed shortly after the Civil War, was intended to affirm the Union’s Civil War debt while repudiating all Confederate debt.

According to Stengel, if Congress refuses to increase the debt ceiling, President Obama would be constitutionally authorized to take extraordinary measures such as ordering “the Treasury to produce binding debt instruments … sell assets, furlough workers, freeze checks.”  I have never heard of this possible scenario, and during President Obama’s press conference today, he did not refer to it when he was asked about the possibility of default.  Let’s hope that this doomsday scenario never occurs.

Interstate commerce

The U.S. Constitution authorizes Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce.  During law school, I learned that the Supreme Court has interpreted this provision extremely liberally, once holding that the provision authorizes the federal government to regulate a farmer who is growing grain for his own consumption.  In recent years, however, there has been push-back by constitutional conservatives against this expansive interpretation on the basis of the 10th Amendment, which says that all powers not expressly granted to Congress shall be reserved to the states, and with respect to ObamaCare, several federal judges have bought this argument.

Stengel’s legal defense of ObamaCare includes several glaring faults:

  1. He fails to mention the 10th Amendment.
  2. He notes that government can compel us to buy car insurance, but fails to recognize the important distinction that car insurance is compelled under a state’s police powers, not the federal government’s power over interstate commerce.
  3. He says it’s silly to argue that health care – which accounts for 17% of the U.S. economy – doesn’t involve interstate commerce, but fails to recognize that conservatives are arguing that the individual mandate is unconstitutional, not the entire law.

Birthright citizenship

The principle objective of the post-Civil War 14th Amendment was to grant citizenship to former slaves.  It reads, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the State wherein they reside.”  The problem with that wording is that it creates so-called birthright citizenship, i.e., if you are physically born in
the United States, you’re a citizen.  The United States is one of the few countries in the world that grants birthright citizenship.

Birthright citizenship has become extremely problematic in America because there are millions of illegal immigrants who are having babies, so-called “anchor babies.”  The anchor babies are American citizens entitled to a vast array of welfare and can eventually, as adults, sponsor their parents into the United States.  Until then, however, their parents are entitled to little more than deportation.

Stengel concedes that Congress was not thinking about illegal immigration when it drafted the 14th Amendment, but he gives short shrift to the argument from constitutional conservatives that the Amendment doesn’t apply to illegal immigrants because of the term, “subject to the jurisdiction thereof.”  Stengel haughtily asserts without explanation that “this argument doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.”  I have reviewed the judicial precedent on this issue, and there is nothing definitive.

Stengel also concedes that birthright citizenship makes no sense, yet he asserts, “There are liberals and conservatives alike who oppose changing
birthright citizenship
It’s seen as a core American value.”  That is hogwash.  I don’t know of a single well-known conservative who endorses birthright citizenship.  If there were, why didn’t Stengel name the person?

Ultimately Stengel concludes that resolving the birthright-citizenship issue will not resolve the bigger issue of illegal immigration.  For that, he recommends a carrot-and-stick approach.  The carrot is to make immigration easier and to give a path to citizenship to undocumented young people who go to college or join the military.  The stick is workplace enforcement and better enforcement.

Stengel concludes his article by quoting Judge Learned Hand, one of the greatest non-Supreme Court jurists in American history, who said the following in a speech during WWII:

  • “I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much on our constitutions, upon laws and upon courts.  Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.”

Stengel rephrased this sentiment by warning, “The Constitution does not protect our spirit of liberty; our spirit of liberty protects the Constitution.  The Constitution serves the nation; the nation does not serve the Constitution.  That’s what the framers would say.”

Sounds like Stengel is not a constitutional conservative.  Rather, he sees the Constitution as a living document that “is more a guardrail for our society than a traffic cop…. a st of principles, not a code of laws.”  I think the framers wanted the Constitution to live and grow through amendments, not through the liberal thinking of arrogant jurists.

If the Constitution is construed to provide citizenship to children born to illegal immigrants, the Constitution should be amended.  If the Constitution is construed to empower the federal government to force individuals to buy health insurance, the Constitution should be amended.  If the Supreme Court determines that the War Powers Resolution is unconstitutional, then it should reconcile the Congressional power to declare war with the Presidential power as commander in chief.  And finally, if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling, the Supreme Court will decide whether the President has extraordinary powers to avoid default.

The U.S. Constitution is not as dysfunctional as liberals like to think.

June 27, 2011

An open letter to Mayor Castro re: illegal immigration

Dear Mr. Mayor:

At this year’s annual meeting of the State Bar of Texas, I had the pleasure of attending a “Civil Conversation about Immigration Reform.”  Most of the panelists provided relevant information, but failed to explore possible solutions to the intractable problem of twelve million illegal immigrants.  By contrast, you failed to provide much relevant information, but suggested a new mindset that might help us resolve the problem.  I agree that a new mindset would be helpful, but there are problems with your suggestion and I think there is a better alternative.

Your suggestion was that a path to citizenship should not be associated with amnesty, but rather it should be considered as analogous to deferred adjudication.  Application of this analogy would enable government to assess some penalties and require certain conduct, and upon the satisfaction of those terms, individuals would become legally documented.

The problem with this analogy is that individuals typically aren’t allowed to pocket their gains under deferred adjudication.  Instead they are required to cough up any gains through restitution.  By allowing illegal immigrants to earn legal status, you are allowing them to “profit from their illegal acts.”  (I’m sure you have heard that sound bite coming from opponents to amnesty.)

My suggested alternative is to apply the legal concept of adverse possession (squatter’s rights) – i.e., title to real property can be obtained without compensation by holding the property in a manner that conflicts with the true owner’s rights for a specified period.  Based on this analogy, America can be found to have waived its right to deport an undocumented immigrant who has lived in America and set down roots for a specified period (e.g., five to ten years).  This analogy not only enables illegal immigrants to benefit from their acts, but also limits the benefit to those
immigrants who have been productive residents in America for a significant period of time.

As you probably know, providing a path to citizenship for long-term illegal residents was a cornerstone to George W. Bush’s proposal.  Thus, this is a position for bipartisan compromise if the timing is right and the presentation is done right.

Good luck.


Mike Kueber

April 13, 2011

Balancing the budget – current developments

Paul Ryan’s balanced-budget proposal has revived the conversation that seemed to die when the Bowles-Simpson plan failed to secure the super-majority arbitrarily imposed by President Obama.  The revival is a good thing.  But now there is talk that President Obama is going to formally adopt a variation of Bowles-Simpson as a moderate alternative to Ryan’s proposal.  Although I believe that the Bowles-Simpson plan is better than Ryan’s because it relies partially on tax increases, I am concerned that Obama’s support might be the kiss of death.  He has become such a partisan president that his support of Bowles-Simpson will inevitably cause many conservatives to oppose it.  Bowles-Simpson is currently being brought to Congress by the so-called “gang of six,” a bipartisan group of three Democratic and three Republican senators, and I believe that its prospects will not be helped by Obama’s support.

According to the mainstream pundits, Ryan’s budget proposal is almost dead-on-arrival because it takes on two sacrosanct programs – Medicare and Medicaid.  The Medicare reform is especially dangerous because everyone knows that seniors vote at a much higher percentage than other Americans.  Two things about this punditry are false:

  1. Medicaid is not Medicare.  Pundits conflate Medicare and Medicaid even though they are dramatically different.  Medicare is significantly similar to Social Security, the other senior-citizen program, but Medicaid is more like Welfare, which the American public was very amenable to trimming back by Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich in 1996.
  2. Ryan is grandfathering Medicare for seniors.  Although the Ryan proposal is leaving Medicare unchanged for anyone 55 or older, Democrats are suggesting that they will be able to demagogue the issue in 2012 so that current seniors feel threatened. That cynical suggestion takes on some validity after hearing Chris Matthews recently argue that Ryan’s proposal would put all seniors at risk after a lifetime of paying for their Medicare benefits.  Factually, that is false.

Conceptually, I like Ryan’s proposal to reform Medicare by shifting to guaranteed-contribution vouchers and to reform Medicaid by shifting to block grants to the states, but those are changes that are not possible in a divided Congress.  George Bush found that out in 2005 when he tried to reform Social Security with privatized accounts (which, incidentally, was a similarly good idea).  With a divided Congress, it is better to reform Medicare and Medicaid with the tweaking suggested by Bowles-Simpson.  Fundamental reform of Medicare and Medicaid, along with the repeal of ObamaCare, will be feasible only if the Republicans take control about Congress and the Presidency in 2012.

April 4, 2011

Campaign-finance reform and bundling

The federal campaign-finance law attempts to reduce the political influence of fat cats by limiting contributions to $2,300.  But fat cats and politicians have figured a way around that.  As reported in an article in USA Today, fat cats are allowed to “bundle” contributions from family, friends, and business associates, and thereby get credit from a politician for hundreds of thousands of dollars of contributions.  According to the article, John McCain had 530 bundlers in 2008, and Barack Obama has already asked 450 of his previous bundlers to pony up $350,000 by the end of 2011.  I believe George W. Bush was the politician who pioneered this method of fundraising.  In 2000, he had 212 so-called pioneers, each of whom collected at least $100,000 for him.

Bundling is so obviously against the spirit of the campaign-finance law that I am shocked that voters turn a blind eye to it.  I suspect that too many voters don’t care enough about fat-cat influence through bundling, just like they don’t care about fat-cat influence through PAC contributions.  That’s a bad/sad thing.

Reform legislation could mitigate the problem with bundling by prohibiting contributors from giving money directly to candidates.  Instead, contributors would send money to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), and then the FEC would forward it to the candidates without any identifying information.  By reducing the influence of campaign contributions, this process would inevitably reduce the amount of money flowing into campaigns.  And we can all agree that less expensive campaigns would be a good thing.

March 25, 2011

Should we be in Libya?

I recently posted on my Facebook wall a NY Times column by Nicholas Kristof that approved the American intervention in Libya because, according to Kristof’s reporting, American was being welcomed as a liberator in Libya.   By way of contrast, Kristof said that our intervention in Iraq was seen as an occupation.  On my Facebook wall, I commented that liberal Kristof was being as generous toward the actions taken by liberal President Obama as he had been oppositional toward the actions taken by his Obama’s predecessor, conservative George W. Bush.  That comment prompted a Facebook friend to ask what I thought about America’s actions in Libya, and I responded as follows:

  • My first position is to defer to the president. I hate it when Republicans and Democrats argue foreign policy to the voters.  That’s usually above our pay grade.  I agree with the Libya move because of the 10-0 vote in the UN and the universal support, but I think America needs to reserve the right to act unilaterally, too.  Cowboy up.  E tu?” 

Upon further reflection, I decided to expand on that response.

When I grew up, there was a generally accepted adage that “politics ends at the water’s edge.”  Huffington Post blogger Chris Weigant says the phrase has come to mean “that when presidents act in fast-developing situations around the world, they shouldn’t be undercut by partisan griping at home, while the events are still in motion,” and he suggests that Egypt was a perfect example of when it should be applied.  Weigant supports his argument by citing the complete quote from Michigan senator Arthur Vandenberg, who coined the phrase in the late 40s:

  • To me, bipartisan foreign policy means a mutual effort, under our indispensable, two-party system, to unite our official voice at the water’s edge so that America speaks with one voice to those who would divide and conquer us and the free world.  It does not involve the remotest surrender of free debate in determining our position. On the contrary, frank co-operation and free debate are indispensable to ultimate unity. In a word, it simply seeks national security ahead of partisan advantage.  Every foreign policy must be totally debated (and I think the record proves it has been) and the ‘loyal opposition’ is under special obligation to see that this occurs.”

I think Weigant’s interpretation is entirely too narrow because a one-voice foreign policy extends to more than “fast-developing situations … while the events are still in motion.”  As I indicated in a recent blog, I think Senator Harry Reid was irresponsible when he said the following shortly after George W. Bush ordered the surge in Iraq – “The war is lost, the surge is not accomplishing anything.”     Respectful debate is fine, but Senator Reid was clearly pursuing partisan advantage. 

So, should we be in Libya?  Ultimately the president is the commander in chief, subject to Congress’s exclusive authority to declare war.   As I mentioned to my friend, I think that, because foreign policy decisions are ultra-complicated and are affected by information not available to us, we should not be second-guessing the president.  Foreign policy should become a partisan issue only rarely – e.g., Vietnam.

March 24, 2011

Do defined-benefits pension plans deserve to die?

Earlier this morning, I heard a FOX News opinionator suggest that defined-benefits pension plans (DB plan) have no place in America.  Because his position seemed a bit extreme (I have a DB plan from USAA), I wasn’t entirely focused when he explained that the economic status of virtually everyone is affected by the ups and downs of the economy, so why should retirees be any different.  As the morning went on, however, I kept returning to his explanation and found it persuasive.

For those who don’t recall the difference between the two major types of pension, a defined-contribution pension plan (DC plan) is like a 401k.  A defined amount of money (a percentage of an employee’s salary) is put into the plan, but the amount coming out to a retiree depends on how well the money is invested.  If the money is invested conservatively, it will probably have a small positive return of 2-5% annually.  If it is invested aggressively, it might have a negative return or a positive return of more than 10% annually. 

By contrast, a defined-benefits pension plan (DB plan) pays a pension amount that can be calculated by multiplying an employee’s salary times years of service times a pre-determined multiplier.  For example, an employee with a $100k salary and 40 years of service and a 2% multiplier would receive an annual pension of $80k ($100k x 40 x 2%).  Common variations with the salary calculation include whether only the final year is counted, the highest year, or the highest three or five consecutive years.  Public employers tend toward a shorter term, while private employers tend toward a longer term.  When employers base their calculation on a single year, there is a tendency to load up on overtime pay in that year.  Public employers also tend toward a higher multiplier.  Some employers further limit the years of service to a maximum of 30 years. 

My former employer USAA had a pension plan based on the average of the highest five years of salary, with a 30-year maximum and a 1.5 multiplier.  Thus, using the same example as above, a USAA employee’s pension could be reduced by almost half – i.e. $40,500 ($90k x 30 x 1.5%).      

Perhaps the greatest variation in a DB plan is the age of retirement.  A DB plan can provide full benefits at age 65, like Social Security does.  My previous employer USAA gave full benefits at age 62.  Most government employers give full benefits at a much earlier age – either at age 55 or after 30 years of service.  This variation is so expensive because government employees can easily draw retirement for more years than they worked.

Although employees may contribute some of their salary toward a DB plan, the employer is responsible for putting away enough money to satisfy its pension obligations (unlike the federal government and Social Security).  When the business and investments are going good, an employer is more able to pay into its pension fund; when the economy is bad, those payments are difficult.

Public v. private pensions

The verdict of private employers is in, and they have eliminated their DB plans and shifted to DC plans, including USAA which discontinued its pension several years ago.  Ironically, DB plans have survived in the public sector even though the public-sector plans have traditionally been much more generous.  In fact, I went bike-riding this past weekend with a state employee from Colorado who told me that their multiplier (2.5%) was even more generous than Texas’s (2.3%). 

One could argue that public employees are significantly sheltered from the economic cycle during their employment and thus continuing this shelter during their retirement is appropriate.  I disagree.  As my old boss at USAA used to say during his employee meetings, the company works better when everyone realizes how interdependent we are on each other.  We don’t want public employees thinking, “I got mine, Jack.  What’s your problem?” 

Social Security is the grand-daddy of all defined-benefits plans, and George W. Bush was soundly rebuffed when he tried to convert part of Social Security away from defined benefits and toward defined contribution.  Although that part of Social Security that serves as a safety net should remain a defined benefit, the other part should be converted to a defined contribution.  I remain optimistic that good ideas like that will eventually be accepted by Americans.

March 23, 2011

The power to make war

Republicans are supposed to be sticklers about constitutional niceties – they often describe themselves as constitutional conservatives.  As a practical matter, however, they don’t let constitutional niceties get in the way of America making war at the drop of a hat.  Thus, you did not hear objection from Republicans when Barack Obama recently decided to make war against Libya without any authorization from Congress. 

A couple of nights ago on Bill O’Reilly’s show, Karl Rove noted that, although George W. Bush received Congressional authorization prior to fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration did not believe such authorization was constitutionally required.  Rove explained that, although the Constitution gives Congress the right to declare war, the Constitution also makes the President the commander in chief, and that right implies the right to make war.  If that were true, why bother giving Congress the right to declare war?

As Washington Post columnist George Will recently declared

  • “Congress’s power to declare war resembles a muscle that has atrophied from long abstention from proper exercise. This power was last exercised on June 5, 1942 (against Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary), almost 69 years, and many wars, ago. It thus may seem quaint, and certainly is quixotic, for Indiana’s Richard Lugar — ranking Republican on, and former chairman of, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — to say, correctly, that Congress should debate and vote on this.”
  • “There are those who think that if the United Nations gives the United States permission to wage war, the Constitution becomes irrelevant. Let us find out who in Congress supports this proposition, which should be resoundingly refuted, particularly by Republicans currently insisting that government, and especially the executive, should be on a short constitutional leash. If all Republican presidential aspirants are supine in the face of unfettered presidential war-making and humanitarian interventionism, the Republican field is radically insufficient.”

After the disaster in Vietnam, Congress attempted to rein-in presidential war-making by passing the War Powers Resolution in 1973.  This law requires a president to obtain Congressional authorization within 60 days of initiating hostilities.  If America is still fighting Gadhafi in 60 days, it will be interesting to see if the constitutional conservatives insist on a congressional vote.

P.S., a column by Maureen Dowd in today’s NY Times included the following quote from candidate Obama on presidential war-making powers:

  • As compelling as the gender split is, it’s even more interesting to look at the parallels between Obama and W.  Candidate Obama said about a possible strike on Iran, “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”  Yet both men started wars of choice with a decision-making process marked more by impulse and reaction than discipline and rigor.  Denouncing the last decade of “autopilot” for presidents ordering military operations, Senator Webb told Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC: “We have not had a debate. … This isn’t the way that our system is supposed to work.”

March 19, 2011

Sunday book review #20 – Decisions Points by George W. Bush

Last December, I suggested that there was so much interesting material in Decision Points that I would break my review into three parts, with the first part reviewing the five pre-9/11 chapters and the second and third parts on the chapters dealing with post-9/11 foreign policy and post-9/11 domestic policy.   After reviewing the first part of Decision Points, I was detoured by a series of books that became available at the SA Public Library.  One of those library books, Because It Is Wrong, critiqued Bush’s post-9/11 handling of surveillance and interrogation issues, which are precisely the issues that Bush discusses in Chapter Six of Decision Points – War Footing.  I review both Because It is Wrong and the War Footing chapter in a subsequent blog entry.   

After reading the library books, as well as a few others that squeezed ahead of it in my reading queue, I finally returned this week to Decision Points and found the remaining chapters to be even better than the early chapters.  The War Footing chapter is followed by separate chapters on Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Chapter Seven is titled “Afghanistan.”  Shortly after 9/11, Bush was briefed on three options for dealing with al Qaeda in Afghanistan – (1) cruise missile strikes, (2) cruise missiles and manned-bomber attacks, and (3) missiles, bombers, and boots on the ground against al Qaeda and the Taliban.  During the briefings, some advisors suggested dealing with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction at the same time.  Ultimately, Bush decided on option #3 (America would not be, as bin Laden suggested, “paper tigers who would run in less than 24 hours”), but he declined to take action against Iraq – “We would fight the war on terror on the offense, and the first battleground would be Afghanistan….  Unless I received definitive evidence typing Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 plot, I would work to resolve the Iraq problem diplomatically.”

In his 2000 campaign, Bush had said, “I would be very careful about using our troops as nation builders.”  Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and 9/11 changed his opinion.  But America was not prepared for nation-building, and Bush concedes that helping the Afghan people to build a functioning democracy has been more daunting that he anticipated.  He is confident, however, that we will ultimately succeed, especially since President Obama has apparently shares the same objective.

Chapter Eight, titled “Iraq,” describes the drawn-out process of going to war against Iraq.  Bush details (a) the evidence of weapons of mass destruction and (b) the diplomatic efforts to avoid war.  When those efforts failed, General Tommy Franks started war-planning.  He had been impressed by the ability of the military to destroy the Taliban and close al Qaeda camps without using a lot of troops.  The key to this so-called “light footprint” was that America was not viewed as invaders or occupies, and General Franks decided to apply the same strategy in Iraq.  Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested to General Franks that he would be better served applying the so-called Powell Doctrine (deploying massive, decisive force), but Franks chose not to adopt it and Bush decided to defer to his military advisors.  The Iraq chapter ends in 2004 after the successful invasion, but the story of the war will be picked up in a later chapter titled, “Surge.”

In Chapter Nine, titled “Leading,” Bush describes his leadership style.  He describes how he worked with Ted Kennedy to pass the No Child Left Behind law and how a variety of compromises resulted in the flawed Medicare prescription-drug benefit.  But he laments his inability to reform Social Security and immigration laws.  In hindsight, he wishes he had attempted immigration reform early in his second term instead of going first for Social Security reform because the former had more bipartisan support.

Incidentally, I was happy to learn that Bush’s five-part proposed immigration reform was very similar to the proposal on which I ran for Congress: (1) hardened border security, (2) temporary-worker program, (3) enhanced enforcement with employers, (4) improved assimilation by requiring immigrants to learn English, and (5) a path to citizenship for long-term, working residents.

Also incidentally, Bush closed the Leading chapter by urging that Congressional districts be drawn by nonpartisan panels instead of legislatures.  He reasoned that legislatures tend to draw polarized districts, which result in polarized politicians, which result in dysfunctional government.  Although this is an excellent argument, talk is cheap – I don’t remember Bush speaking up on this issue when he was in a position to do something about it.

Chapter Ten is titled “Katrina,” which was the costliest national disaster in America’s history.  Bush does not do a lot of finger pointing (he never mentions the poor performance of the citizenry) and takes responsibility for government letting down its citizens – “Serious mistakes came at all levels, from the failure to order a timely evacuation of New Orleans to the disintegration of local security forces to the dreadful communications and coordination.  As the leader of the federal government, I should have recognized the deficiencies sooner and intervened faster.  I prided myself on my ability to make crisp and effective decisions.  Yet in the days after Katrina, that didn’t happen.  The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions.  It was that I took too long to decide.”  

Bush gives a detailed discussion of four important events:

  1. He pushed hard for Mayor Nagin to order a mandatory evacuation of the city.  The order came less than 24 hours before Katrina landed.
  2. His decision against visiting New Orleans shortly after the flood was correct because he would have interfered with the rescue efforts, but he should have landed in Baton Rouge to meet with the governor and show his concern.
  3. He pushed hard for Governor Blanco to authorize the federal government to take charge of security in New Orleans, but she never agreed.  Eventually, Bush sent in federal troops and General Honore, but because of Blanco’s resistance they had no law-enforcement authority.  Yet they succeeded in bringing order to the city.  “Had I known he could be so effective without the authority I assumed he needed, I would have cut off the legal debate and sent troops in without law enforcement powers several days earlier.”
  4. Although he had encouraged FEMA’s Mike Brown with, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” he eventually replaced Brown because Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff said Brown had frozen under pressure and became insubordinate.

Chapter Eleven, titled “Lazarus Effect,” describes Bush’s fight to secure funding for fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa.  Although Bush’s efforts are commendable, there really wasn’t a lot of opposition to overcome.  Getting Congress to spend money does not require superhuman efforts.

Chapter Twelve, titled “Surge,” brings us back to the war in Iraq.  By 2006, sectarian violence had caused the Iraq situation to deteriorate.  Even Republican whip Mitch McConnell was lobbying Bush to bring the troops home.  After the Democrats took control of both houses of Congress, new Speaker Pelosi declared, “The American people have spoken….  We must begin the responsible redeployment of our troops outside of Iraq.”  But Bush remained committed to prevailing in Iraq, and eventually he concluded that the “light footprint” strategy espoused by Rumsfeld and Generals Casey and Abizaid was the problem.  In its stead, he adopted a “surge” strategy developed by National Security Advisor Steve Hadley and General Petraeus.  At the close of one preliminary meeting with General Petraeus, Bush used the gambling expression that America was “doubling down,” and Petraeus one-upped him by responding that “we were all in.”  

Opposition to the surge was immense, with notable exceptions like Senators McCain, Graham, and Lieberman.  The House passed a nonbinding resolution disapproving the surge.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared, “The war is lost, the surge is not accomplishing anything.”  According to Bush, this declaration “was one of the most irresponsible acts I witnessed in my eight years in Washington.”  I agree that, for a leader in Congress, Reid’s statement was contemptible.        

Eventually, the surge succeeded, and it is enabling President Obama to conduct an orderly withdrawal.

Chapter Thirteen, titled “Freedom Agenda,” describes Bush’s efforts to implement the fourth prong of the Bush Doctrine throughout the world.  For those of you, like Sarah Palin, who aren’t familiar with the Bush Doctrine, it means:

  1. Make no distinction between terrorists and nations that harbor them.  We will hold both to account.
  2. Take the fight against terrorists to the enemy overseas before they can attack us at home.
  3. Confront threats before they fully materialize.
  4. Advance liberty and hope as an alternative to the enemy’s ideology of repression and fear.

The Freedom Agenda was implemented in several ways:

  • Supporting fledgling democracies in the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Georgia, and the Ukraine.
  • Encouraging dissidents and democratic reformers in repressive regimes like Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Venezuela.
  • Advocate for freedom while maintaining strategic relations with nations like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia, and China.

Bush says that in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, he placed much focus on the Middle East because “the great tide of freedom that swept much of the world during the second half of the twentieth century had largely bypassed one region: the Middle East.”

After describing successes in his Freedom Agenda, Bush concedes disappointment with Russia, Egypt, and Venezuela – “Still, given what I’d hoped Putin and I could accomplish in moving past the Cold War, Russia stands out as a disappointment in the freedom agenda.  Russia was not the only one.  I was hopeful that Egypt would be a leader for freedom and reform in the Arab world, just as it had been a leader for peace under Anwar Sadat a generation before.  Unfortunately, after a promising presidential election in 2005 that included opposition candidates, the government cracked down during the legislative elections later that year, jailing dissidents and bloggers who advocated a democratic alternative.  Venezuela also slid back from democracy.”

Chapter Fourteen, titled “Financial Crisis,” is the last chapter.  Bush said that Bernanke and Paulson, two of his best appointments, warned him that the crisis could be as bad as the Great Depression.  Bush’s great response – “If we’re really looking at another Great Depression, you can be damn sure I’m going to be Roosevelt, not Hoover.”  His actions reflected that sentiment – he bailed out the banks, AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and two auto manufacturers.

Also in this chapter, Bush responded to a couple of common criticisms relating to his role in causing the financial crisis:

  1. He failed to ask Americans to sacrifice while we were fighting two wars.  Bush counters that this wasn’t like World War Two where we had to convert to a war-based economy.  “I’ve always believed that the critics who alleged I wasn’t asking people to sacrifice were really complaining that I hadn’t raised taxes….  I am convinced that raising taxes after the devastation of 9/11 would have hurt our economy.”
  2. He squandered the massive surplus that he inherited.  “Much of the surplus was an illusion, based on the mistaken assumption that the 1990s boom would continue.  Once the recession and 9/11 hit, there was little surplus left.

Decision Points concludes with a short Epilogue, in which Bush reveals complete serenity about his presidency.  He believes that the central challenge of his presidency was to keep America safe and that mission was accomplished.  He “pursued his convictions without wavering, but changed course when necessary…trusted individuals to make choices in their lives… used America’s influence to advance freedom.”

I remember back in the 80s when I would defend Reagan against those who thought he was a dunce or a Neanderthal.  In my mind, Reagan was a national asset, and that’s how I’ve felt about George W. Bush.  After reading Decision Points, I believe that America was fortunate to have him as president from 2001-2009.

February 1, 2011

Same-sex marriage in Texas

Earlier today, there was a news report that Barbara Bush, the daughter of Bush-43, was endorsing same-sex marriage in her new home state of New York, where she runs a nonprofit health organization.    In a video released by The Human Rights Campaign, Bush said:

  • “I’m a New Yorker for marriage equality.  New York is about fairness and equality and everyone should have the right to marry the person that they love.”

The video was released in connection with a legislative effort in New York to legalize gay marriage.  Last year, a similar effort in NY succeeded in the State House, but was voted down in the State Senate.  Although Barbara appears to be giving unqualified support for gay marriage, a close reading of her statement suggests that she might be limiting her argument to New York. 

Obviously Barbara is famous as a Texan, and gay marriage in Texas was resoundingly defeated by the Texas voters in 2005 when they voted to amend the Texas Constitution to limit marriage to the union of one man and one women.  Proposition Two was supported by 76% of the voters and passed in 253 of 254 counties, with Travis County being the only outlier.

I hope that Barbara in her statement isn’t suggesting that Texans aren’t “about fairness and equality.”  According to the American judicial system, each state has the right to decide whether to recognize same-sex marriage, and Texans have clearly exercised their right. 

As Rick Perry opined in his book, Fed Up, people who like same-sex marriage and don’t like a lot of guns can either choose to live somewhere other than Texas or they can work toward changing the laws in Texas.  I don’t think there is any question that Texas will eventually legalize same-sex marriage, but that legalization should come when the people are ready for it.  I hope the rest of the country respects our decision and doesn’t start threatening boycotts, like they did will the MLK-holiday issue.

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