Monthly Archives: December 2010

The One (Bill) That Got Away

The Liberal Ironist’s applause for the Obama Administration and 111th Congress’s legislative productivity minimized a significant failure–and overlooked another outright–of what should have been fairly-procedural initiatives.  The Democratic President and Congress’s failure to act on both of these measures decisively could come back to haunt the Democrats, and quite possibly the country as a whole–unless a Republican Representative from Florida sticks to his guns.  The 1st failure was the FY 2011 Federal budget, which was covered through a series of short continuing resolutions for the first 5 1/2 months of the fiscal year, through mid-March.  At that time House Republicans will attempt to follow through on their commitment in the Pledge to America to cut $100 billion from domestic discretionary spending.  The 2nd significant procedural failure was the further deferment of the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2009.  As with the rest of the Federal budget, new highway bill is proposed to come up for a vote some time in early 2011–according to new House Transportation Committee chairman John Mica (R-FL), preferably in January.

The Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2009, successor to the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportatin Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), the $286.4 billion highway bill that covered the Federal share of highway and transit funding for FY 2005 through FY 2009.  Since the start of October 2009, SAFETEA has simply been renewed at present funding levels adjusted for inflation, as is customary for continuing resolutions.  While Federal highway bills often come under criticism as a source of “pork-barrel” spending, all earmarks constitute a very small part of the overall Federal budget, and Federal highway and transit spending has been a central component in the construction and maintenance of our country’s transportation network since the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.  That legislation that created the Interstate Highway System, linking together America’s cities by road and in many metropolitan areas providing the local highway network used in daily commuting.

Federal highway and transit funding deserves a vocal defense in the face of those who decry it as a source of pork or a driver of “sprawl.”  The Federal Government isn’t just relied upon for the construction and maintenance of the Interstate and US routes; around the country many state and county highway projects depend upon Federal grants as well.  These grants are contributed to specific projects undertaken by cash-strapped state and country governments and then decried as “pork spending.”  In reality these Federal contributions are often essential for the economic benefit of new infrastructure construction.  Since the days when Robert Moses could personally plan and oversee construction of hundreds of miles of bridges, tunnels, parkways and expressways in the New York metropolitan area from 1924 to 1968, many parts of the country have gradually gone from congested to paralyzed due to lack of the political will required to substantially invest in new transportation infrastructure.  Our pitiful collective failure even to maintain the outstanding infrastructure constructed throughout the mid-20th century is a reality that poses a stark contrast to the contemporary Republican Party’s mythology about being the party of optimism and national strength.

But this time our savior may actually be a Republican, the incoming chairman of the House Transportation Committee.  PBS conducted an interview of John Mica back in June 2009 in which he expressed his disapproval with the Obama Administration’s decision to postpone the next highway bill with an 18-month continuing resolution and, more-remarkably, expressed support for the Democrat-led Transportation Committee’s proposed highway and transit bill that would commit over $500 billion in spending on transportation infrastructure–an unprecedented amount of which would be spent on transit projects.  He had a reasonable explanation for the postponement of the large bill: “I think that they’ve got themselves overextended with taking on many controversial measures.”  The Liberal Ironist celebrates the passage of most of those “controversial measures,” but it’s long-since time we saw the renewal of our national commitment to the transportation system.

The Liberal Ironist has never discussed the highway bill before, because it’s…well, kind of boring.  But a recurring theme of this blog is the responsible actions of public figures that sometimes elude us because they are not dramatic.  The impressive infrastructure built in our country from the 1930s through the 1970s is the work of American ingenuity–and American government–and is one of the central drivers not only of our economic productivity but also a pervading determinant, for better or worse, of our lifestyles.  In spite of his party’s commitment to sharply-reduce Federal spending, Representative Mica seems to understand this well:

 

BLUEPRINT AMERICA: In terms of your role as a Representative from Florida, and getting funding for your state and your district, what needs to happen to that process?

REP. MICA: Well, I’m more interested in the country at large in terms of infrastructure. If we can provide adequate funds for improvements across the country, then it benefits every district – not just my own. Simply, I’m not taking a parochial viewpoint for my own district or for my own state.

BLUEPRINT AMERICA: You are a Republican – and you support transportation and infrastructure spending?

REP. MICA: Well, I tell you though, if you’re on the Transportation Committee long enough, even if you’re a fiscal conservative, which I consider myself to be, you quickly see the benefits of transportation investment. Simply, I became a mass transit fan because it’s so much more cost effective than building a highway. Also, it’s good for energy, it’s good for the environment – and that’s why I like it.

BLUEPRINT AMERICA: If anything, you’d say that your time in Congress and on the Transportation Committee has brought you around to these ideas?

REP. MICA: Yes. And, seeing the cost of one person in one car…

Wikileaks Doesn’t Know What It’s Doing, or Doesn’t Care

Christopher Albon, blogging for The Atlantic, reported recently on Wikileaks’ embarrassment of Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai for support of international economic sanctions on Zimbabwe as a means of pressuring the government to institute reforms.  He entitled this entry, rightly, “How Wikileaks Just Set Back Democracy in Zimbabwe.” On Christmas Eve, 2009, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who holds his post as a result of a settlement with longtime Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe following elections marred by allegations of fraud and even violence, met with leaders of several Western governments to ask that sanctions continue; now Wikileaks has leaked the routine diplomatic cable reporting this conversation.  Now Tsvangirai is under investigation for treason for his support of international sanctions.  Albon acknowledged that the treason investigation might not stick; however, the point may have been simply to broadcast Tsvangirai’s support for the sanctions, which are obviously extremely unpopular in underdeveloped and inflation-ridden Zimbabwe.

Once again, we see that Wikileaks isn’t trying to bring accountability to government here or abroad; it is simply trying to undermine our government’s normal diplomatic operations. Julian Assange talked explicitly about doing just this years ago, on his blog.  Julian Assange is not Woodward and Bernstein, and he isn’t Daniel Ellsberg; he is a long-time hacker who doesn’t stay in one place for long and won’t talk about himself.  Some people credulously swallow his indirect but sensationalist claims about collusion among governments and the role of the United States in international politics because of ideological foreign policy and torture and reconstruction scandals following the low-transparency environment and lack of media probity during the early days of the Iraq War.  While these are serious issues, the Liberal Ironist has only seen 1 scoop emerge from the vast trove of Defense Department documents and State Department cables–the deplorable performance of the various expensive “security contractors” with narrow mandates operating in the Iraq and Afghan war theaters.  Aside from that, whether bombshells or open secrets, Wikileaks’ extended publicity stunt has been conspicuously absent of transformational revelations.  Occasionally, though, these leaked documents look set to cause trouble for the wrong people, and only for the wrong people.

Morgan Tsvangirai colluded with foreign governments in order to pressure Robert Mugabe into further political reform.  This seemed to be working, but now it has backfired because the man whose actions brought the sanctions on Zimbabwe–read: Mugabe–has found a way to harp on the paranoia which broad economic decline and the sanctions have spawned.

Though I agree with Mr. Albon that a prosecution of Mr. Tsvangirai is unlikely, the damage to Tsvangirai’s reputation will be more-than-sufficient.  In the meantime the sanctions will continue, and Zimbabwe–an impoverished, disease-stricken and isolated country with a basket case economy–will likely be without credible political opposition.  For this I blame Robert Mugabe for manipulating a defeated people at every turn, and Julian Assange and Wikileaks for sacrificing a growing number of foreign nationals in various ways to their one obsessive cause of embarrassing the US government.  To say that access to information always increases accountability is nothing but an article of faith, and one that can’t really be demonstrated; I for one acknowledge that information is never received objectively.

One can find fault with Morgan Tsvangirai’s scruples on either the intrinsic grounds of his dishonesty towards his own people or on account of the human toll sanctions imposed upon Zimbabweans in the intermediate-term; it still remains a fallacy to argue on that basis that Wikileaks’ disclosure of that conversation is automatically-justified.  This disclosure isn’t a meaningful blow for transparency, it is an injury from which the Zimbabwean opposition likely won’t recover.  Wikileaks disclosed this cable for the same reason as the others; to discourage our foreign service personnel from recording their observations so as to make our government’s operations less-efficient.  Assange long ago admitted in writing that this was the plan.  This isn’t really about accountability, it’s supposed to be about revolution.  Like most revolutionary gestures, it hurts the wrong people and helps the authoritarians win most arguments by changing the subject.

Ants Show Us What We Could Be, Not What We Have to Be

The Liberal Ironist just posted on the coming Ant World War, but wanted to say more about the Argentine ant in particular, and about the use of ants as a social metaphor for humans in general.  Wired ran a brief but fascinating account of the sophistication of ant behavior in war back in August, featuring an interview with ecologist Mark Moffett and some of his outstanding pictures.  People of varying degrees of education sometimes make overly-simplistic metaphors comparing humans to ants, but Argentine ants resemble humans both far more and far less than other ant species.  Moffett’s experiences have shown him both the uses and the limits of the “society as anthill” metaphor.

In the United States, any discussion of the Argentine ant warrants discussion of the supercolony.  This is where this stuff gets interesting: Instead of producing local anthills that die off with the death of their queen, the California Large Colony covers thousands of square miles from the Bay Area to the Mexican border.  You could transplant an Argentine ant of the California Large Colony from San Francisco to San Fernando, and the Argentine ants of the local San Fernando hill will identify her as a friendly, feed her and put her to work.  Queen ants produced within the supercolony stay within it.  It spreads mile by mile underground, with as many supercolony entrances from the surface as convenient simply producing the appearance of separate, unrelated anthills.  If the Argentine ants destroy the fire ants in California, the coastal region there won’t just have only 1 ant species underfoot, but essentially 1 anthill as well.  For other ant species, the death of the queen means the death of the hill; the supercolony allows them to pivot their population, distribute resources, centralize several queens to make breeding safer and more-efficient, and maintain a continuous society.

The ability of this species of ant–a creature that generally won’t associate beyond the level of the anthill–to secure territories of thousands of square miles which they commit to a common purpose is a profound achievement; if you consider what thousands of square miles looks like to an ant–particularly in comparison to the foraging grounds of a single anthill–this achievement looks positively exalted.  For perspective, a 6 foot 1 inch tall individual such as your Liberal Ironist is roughly 608 times as tall as a typical Argentine worker ant is long.

But then there is the absolute hostility of Argentine ants towards all other ant colonies, including those of unrelated Argentine ants.  “Ant wars” are already well-known; some ant species are even known for their social sophistication in taking worker ants of another species as “prisoners” to work for their hill in exchange for continued room and board.  What makes Argentine ants remarkable in this regard is their crudeness: They will swarm and destroy almost any ant from outside the colony that encroaches upon their territory.

These 2 interesting qualities of the Argentine ant–its vast continuous society and its intense hostility towards all unrelated ant colonies and ant species–are the key to its incredible invasive capacity, but this raised a question for biologists that the layperson might overlook: Why are Argentine ants so successful outside of their native habitat, while their population is relatively balanced there?  10 years ago, biologists at the University of California, San Diego, realized that the Argentine ant is as hostile to foreign colonies of Argentine ants as it is to other ant species; there are many different colonies of Argentine ants in their native habitat of northern Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil, but the vast supercolonies spanning wide stretches of several continents each descended from just one of them.  Almost the entire coastal expanse from San Francisco to San Diego is in principle just an extension of a certain colony of Argentine ants in South America; it appears that a similarly-sized New Zealand supercolony is a part of this same colony.  Argentine ants honed their fighting instincts against each other before several ants from one colony each made it out to other continents by sea, and upon getting a foothold in these new continents, their brood destroyed the indigenous inhabitants of the vast, unexplored regions they found.

Do I have to spell it out for you?

But while xenocide is something Argentine ants have to do, genocide is just something human beings might do.  Mark Moffett, writing in The Scientist, issues an excellent caution about overextending the analogy of Argentine ants with humans:

“Supercolonies confound our notions about societies, populations and species like nothing else.  An Argentine ant society is separated socially and reproductively from all other Argentine ants by an intolerance of outsiders.  Their patriotism is so absolute that males are almost always killed if they enter the territory of the next supercolony.  That differs from people, whose cultures, albeit often violent toward each other, have a history of interbreeding that unifies our species. Since there’s almost no reproduction between supercolonies, each society effectively exists in isolation, as genetically separate as lions are from tigers.” (emphasis added)

This is precisely the point, though it isn’t made here in normative terms.  Human beings (in aggregate) do reproduce certain aggregate ant behaviors, but they never do these reflexively.  Variety and a capacity for assimilation are advantageous to our species because we can become cognizant of alternative means of social organization and prepare for them; ants are compelled in their social activities by pheromones, probably as involuntarily as we are in our feelings by certain secretions of our endocrine system.

So it will not do to use the anthill as a metaphor human society, because whether we remain a feudal anthill or form a national supercolony is determined by human practice and our cognition of it, not by our DNA; human “supercolonies,” for that matter, need not attack each other’s members on sight.  If our identities are not, unlike the Argentine ant’s, not just genetic but also cognitive endowments, then we always have alternative means of expressing (or repressing) them.  It is not naive to say that human beings can become what they want to be.  Rather the reverse: Our mundane practices, both individual and in aggregate, put everything that we are and will do at stake.

Red vs. Amber: A Non-Human World War

A worldwide war rages right now, one involving billions.  That’s right, I’m talking about the war between fire ants and Argentine ants.

Fire ants are already well-known in this country.  They have a somewhat-restrictive preferred diet and habitat, but considerable fertility and reproductive flexibility.  Males exist in their colonies only for the purpose of reproduction, and live for only about 4 days; several queens may live in the same nest.  They are so-named for the burning sensation experienced by those humans whom are stung–that’s right, stung–by them.  Fire ants are dominant and well-known throughout the American South.

Argentine ants are the species that is truly interesting.  They originate from the river lowlands of northern Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and southern Brazil.  Some time after 1890 they began to spread around the Earth by hitching rides on Argentine ships hauling coffee and sugar.  They favor warm and humid maritime environments; they have become well-established in California and the American Southeast.  They are much less-choosy than fire ants about their source of food.  They have been in the news for purposively wiping out competitor ant species–and incidentally endangering any species dependent upon those–at least since 1997.

They also unremittingly attack all other ant species, and even Argentine ants from other colonies.  In fact, within the warm, humid areas of North America that make good habitat for them, they may wipe out all native ant species–with the exception of fire ants, which are also prolific and similarly-aggressive.

In contrast with most native species, not only are fire ants capable defending their territory, but throughout their vast shared territory–not just in California and the American Southeast but throughout similar climactic regions around the Earth–fire ants and Argentine ants are involved in what appears to be the first world war by a non-human species.  The LA Times had a good summary of the mounting fire ant-Argentine ant war, at least as it affects California, with lots of references.  It’s worth noting that the article says that “Though the most the Southeast can hope for is controlling the ants, in California the goal is still eradication.”  This article dates back to 2001; both ant species are most definitely still in California.

Actually, California is center-stage in the Ant World War.  Even Mark Moffett, a well-known field researcher of ant behavior, thinks these species evenly-matched.  But while this prognosis remains undefined, that doesn’t mean it’s indeterminate; it is likely that, at least in 1 theater or another if not throughout these contested regions, 1 ant species will gain supremacy.

The Liberal Ironists’s next entry will discuss the extraordinary qualities which explain the Argentine ant’s success, and the crucial point missed in any humanity-as-anthill metaphor.

The DREAM Act Deferred

Note: If you thought of a catchier title for this entry, the Liberal Ironist would like to counter that (1) is has already been done–a lot, even by The National Review, and (2) he finds that movie monotonous-enough without a repetitive play on words referring to it.

Saturday was a strangely-mixed day for the cause of civil rights; while the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” sailed triumphantly through the Senate by a vote of 65-31, the DREAM Act failed in the Senate 55-41.  As I said in the previous posed, the DREAM Act would have granted legal status and a path to citizenship, but not amnesty, to young undocumented immigrants enrolled for 2 years in a 4-year liberal arts college or who had completed 2 years of military service.  Like President George W. Bush‘s broader immigration reform proposal targeting millions of undocumented immigrants who could prove employment, it made economic sense, was fair to immigrants who had entered the country legally and already waited (unnecessarily long) to gain citizenship, would make law enforcement’s job easier in several ways and bring our immigration laws in to conformity with the reality that millions of people are living and working and even starting families in this country who just want to assimilate–but are invisible in our laws.  In short, I’m surprised that Senate Majority Leader Reid (D-NV, who is immortal) even bothered to put the DREAM Act on the agenda, because a minority of Senators representing a fraction of Americans was sure to block its passage.

David Broder wrote a good, angry column last spring on our needless expiation of the social and political consequences of failure to enact immigration reform.  I’m inclined to think it’s ultimately simpler than the “debated to death” perspective Broder seems to take; many Conservatives vaguely invoke the fact that undocumented immigrants have broken the law, as though that fact was somehow self-evidently more-important than the consequences of the law itself, or the law couldn’t be otherwise.  Conservatives whom are otherwise almost mute about the facts in point or the issues at stake with immigration generally will invoke a sudden, Platonic respect for the self-sufficient justification and immutability of the law when it comes to the approximately 10 million immigrants in the United States illegally, most of whom must be working to get by.

Before the failed vote for cloture, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), said “I want to make it clear to my colleagues, you won’t get many chances in the United States Senate, in the course of your career, to face clear votes on the issue of justice.”   He was right; but as Senator Jeff Sessions’ (R-AL) cynical invocation of the centrality of the law demonstrates, that cuts both ways.  The New York Times article on the filibuster of the DREAM Act shows Jeff Sessions doing his thing, invoking abstract principles no one believes in to fight legislation that is almost unassailable:

 

“’As part of this legislative session there has been no serious movement to do anything that would improve the grievous situation of illegality at our border,’ said Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who led the opposition to the bill as the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee.  ‘Leaders in Washington have not only tolerated lawlessness but, in fact, our policies have encouraged it.’

“Mr. Sessions added, ‘This bill is a law that at its fundamental core is a reward for illegal activity.’”

 

That’s the irony about being in a legislature; there is something weirdly-unprincipled about a lawmaker invoking the letter of existing law as the sole basis of his vote.   Perhaps the very-recent need for all Senate legislation to get 60 votes and all the surprise procedural objections have made the Liberal Ironist cynical.

Or maybe Senator Sessions and the other empty legalists blocking a path to citizenship for “illegals” are just race-baiting at the expense of millions of hard-working immigrants who desperately want to become Americans.  I wouldn’t rule that hypothesis out.

What a Lame-Duck Session It’s Been!

The Liberal Ironist feels vindicated for his past approval of the President‘s tax cut deal considering what has come out of the lame-duck session.  With only days left until the Great Reddening of the House of Representatives, the outgoing Democratic Congress is likely to be remembered as the most-ambitious and successful since the days of President Johnson‘s “Great Society.”  As segregation and the failure to enforce black Americans’ voting rights represented the most-serious failure of our political system at that time, so do I think the failure of the Federal Government to establish a comprehensive approach to rising costs in health care, growing gaps in health insurance coverage, “free-riding” on emergency medical benefits, lack of regular check-ups to prevent disease and overall disorganization and duplication in our health care system was its most-serious failure in our own.

But this isn’t an obituary for the Democratic Congress; this entry is about the achievements of the “lame-duck” session, and the way it vindicates the President’s tax cut deal with the Congressional Republicans.

To review, the tax cut deal worked like so: The President convinced most Congressional Democrats and Republicans to work together to extend the Bush income tax cuts not just for the working- and middle-class (individuals earning up to $200,000 and families earning up to $250,000 a year), but also for the rich.  He also accepted a compromise on an increase in the estate tax, which had been lowered to 0% for 2010, to 35% for those bequeathing $5 million or more per individual, instead of an increase to the scheduled 55%.  This is what President Obama and the Democrats had to sacrifice: Our progressive tax structure…continues to be not-very-progressive–for the next 2 years.  What did the Democrats get from the deal?  A 13-month extension of unemployment benefits (which usually last about 26 weeks but which will currently last for a range of 60 weeks to 99 weeks in light of what is anomalous unemployment rates for Americans) and a 1-year Social Security payroll tax cut, which the President proposed as a replacement for his “Making Work Pay” working-class tax cut.  From an informative article on the Senate passage of the tax cut deal that ran in the New York Times: “The one-year payroll tax cut would reduce to 4.2 percent the 6.2 percent Social Security tax levied on income up to $106,800. For a family with $50,000 in annual income, the cut would yield tax savings of about $1,000. For a worker paying the maximum tax, it would provide savings of $2,136.”  All of this compromise came at the modest cost of $858 billion and the countless hours we Democrats and Republicans spent, imitating our public figures the way children imitate their parents, shrilly arguing with fellow party members over the merits of the deal.  But there was an added benefit to the passage of the tax cut deal, one previously discussed by the Liberal Ironist: As they said they would, Moderate Republicans stopped supporting filibusters on the remaining items on the lame-duck session’s docket–with one exception thus far.

And what a lame-duck session it’s been.  Congress passed a food safety bill designed to reform and strengthen the FDA–long overdue considering the embarrassingly unclean state of our food supply relative to other developed countries.  (The House just passed that bill today.)  The Senate repealed the wasteful and unnecessary “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy banning gays and lesbians from serving openly in the US military by a vote of 65-31 this Saturday.  Senator John Kerry (D-MA), who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, has calmly insisted for about a week that Senate Democrats will have 67 votes to ratify the New START Treaty with Russia, which sets new limits on both countries’ number of strategic nuclear weapons and establishes new monitoring protocols to enforce compliance.  His assurances were vindicated yesterday as the Senate voted 67-28 to end the filibuster of the Treaty and to move to a vote without further amendment.  That vote is expected today, and Senator Kerry said that as many as 3 other supporters of the Treaty were unable to attend the cloture vote.  “I think you’ll agree that in today’s political environment,” the Senator joked, “70 is the new 95!”

There have been some frustrating failures in the lame duck session–as I had been expecting.  The DREAM Act failed in the Senate 55-41 on Saturday, the same day the Senate voted for repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.  The DREAM Act would have granted legal status and a path to citizenship, but not amnesty, to young undocumented immigrants enrolled for 2 years in a 4-year liberal arts college or who completed 2 years of military service.  Also, the 2011 budget, which was supposed to be passed by September 30th (the 2011 Federal fiscal year starts in October), was abruptly filibustered by Senate Republicans–after they requested a large number of earmarks–and replaced with a 2 1/2 month continuing resolution.  This continuing resolution will take us to early March, by which time the large Republican House majority will now have to put up their proposed $100 billion in cuts to domestic discretionary programs months ahead of schedule.  (Some have called Republican partisan dirty tricks, but the Liberal Ironist thinks that this is clearly a response to the unexpectedly swift and harsh criticism Republicans faced from Tea Partiers over their previous support for continuing the fiscal year 2010 budget through 2011.)

After the 2012 elections, in theory anything could happen to the tax rates (“anything,” that is, aside from a return to revenue-maximizing top income tax rates, which would be somewhere closer to 69% than the current 35%), but I doubt overall taxes will remain this low after New Years’ Eve 2012.  Both the 20% estate tax cut and the Bush tax cuts will either have to be extended by President Obama in 2012 or, in the still-dim event of his loss of his re-election bid, get 60 votes in the Senate to pass to Republican President X’s desk.  That’s a reason for Congressional Republicans to try to work with the President.  And that’s what they’ve been doing.  But whatever helps Congressional Republicans make deals with a Democratic President makes it hard for a Republican Presidential candidate to attack him without looking like…well, Bob Dole in 1996.

See?  I told you the tax cut deal was a good one.