The weakness of retrospective conservatism

I don’t know why I made the mistake of reading David Brooks. This is a mistake that I’ve avoided making for so long. Why must I make it now?

Anyway, I’ll be quick. Brooks’s point is basically that people expect their government to do massive social engineering and do it well, and that they should rather expect it to fail: the systems government is engineering are just too massive to engineer them well. This is by way of telling us that government isn’t going to get us out of this recession, and that it’s foolhardy to expect that.

Let’s imagine it had gone the other way: Alan Greenspan had jacked up interest rates to prick the housing bubble a few years back, or any number of regulatory steps had been taken to tighten lending standards. Then Brooks would have nothing to talk about today.

Or go back to Hurricane Katrina. There were various conservative pundits, solemnly averring that the government’s disastrous response was just proof that central planning never works, and that people should never expect to get any help from anyone but themselves and their families. But had the government — at all levels — done its job, we never would have heard them claiming that this was proof of the government’s wisdom.

If we want to talk about the failures of central planning, let’s talk about war, or the DoD. There could be nothing more centralized, more hierarchical, or more literally regimented than the U.S. military — yet this is supposed to be why conservatives are all about the military. It’s a killing machine precisely because it is focused, like a massive machine, on the task of destroying other militaries.

So do we see David Brooks shaking his head from side to side as he sighs, telling us that war is not the answer because central planning never works? The closest we get to that is an apology, after the fact, for having supported the invasion of Iraq.

The best we can say, then, is that Brooks has learned his lesson, and will never again support conservative-friendly centralized government projects; he’ll be just as intolerant of conservative government causes as he is of liberal ones. We’ll just see about that.

Why don't Republicans ever grow "wary"?

Meta-news observation: the New York Times’s top-leftmost headline right now reads “Democrats Grow Wary as Health Bill Advances,” with the lead saying that “Despite progress, Democrats face a tight legislative deadline and basic questions about whether their health proposals might do more harm than good.”

Republicans, in the media narrative, are never wary. “GOP Fears That Tax Cuts May Not Revitalize Economy.” Or “Invading Iraq May Destabilize Country And Bankrupt U.S., Fear Republicans.” Or “Torture Maybe Not Awesome.” These are headlines that I myself have never seen.

A few possibilities strike me:

  • The media have a story they love to sell, in which the Democrats are constantly riven by their pusillanimity.

  • The Democrats really are riven by their pusillanimity.

  • At the moment, the Democratic party’s health-care initiatives are at the whim of the six deadly hypocrites. The game theory here would be remarkable: getting up to 60 Democrats in the Senate means that certain policies become more likely than they were when there were only 59 Democrats. Since certain policies are now achievable that weren’t before, policies can now be blocked that wouldn’t even have been considered before. Those who have the power to block thereby gain much more power than they had before. If the blockers succeed, this suggests that the Democrats are worse off by having a bit too much power than they were by having not enough. Which, if you think about it, is completely insane. This is not something that happens to Republicans. I hope I’m wrong about the mechanics of Senate power; if I’m right, it’s too sad to even contemplate.

Somehow this makes me very grumpy

It could just be that I didn’t sleep well last night and that the coffee hasn’t entirely kicked in yet, but the sight of Hearst Corp. trying to “do for periodicals what Amazon’s Kindle is doing for books” (via Bookslut) irritates me.

Hearst, whose catalog of magazines includes titles such as Cosmopolitan and Esquire, as well as the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, sees that the downward trend of print publications may never recover, and instead will one day be replaced completely by digital content. Looking to jump on the bandwagon early, the company’s wireless e-reader will feature a large-format screen designed to showcase articles and advertisements.

I hope it was that piece’s author, Chris Iaquinta, who decided to call this “jump[ing] on the bandwagon early,” rather than Hearst. If it was Hearst, they’re already dead. The web had taken off by 1996; any company that is just now realizing that “print publications … will one day be replaced completely by digital content” has been asleep for a decade and change.

Advice to publishers: the Kindle is not the future. The web is the future (and, in fact, the present). Pay attention to what the New York Times is doing (e.g., their Open blog). They understand the web. While there’s still some question about whether they’ll survive the shift to the web, they’ll certainly do better than a company that takes its cues from the Kindle.

Obama and the Weathermen: a letter to the New York Times's Public Editor

Below, a letter sent just now to the New York Times’s Public Editor. Now that I reread it, I realize that I probably meant “libel” rather than “slander.” Drat.

Date: Sat, 4 Oct 2008 15:08:54 -0400
From: Stephen R Laniel <>
To: Public Editor <>
Subject: Is it really newsworthy that Obama is not connected to the Weathermen?

To the editor,

Yale law professor Jack Balkin lets us know [1] that with John McCain running behind in the polls with only a month to go until the election, his campaign will pull out all the stops to win. So is it any coincidence that the New York Times ran a front-page article [2] in which Obama is rumored to be connected to the radical Weathermen?

I hope I’m wrong. What I infer is that the Times has been played, yet again, by the nation’s smear merchants. We have to wait until the sixth paragraph of that article to read that at the very worst, there is a tenuous connection between Mr. Obama and Mr. Ayers. Clearly if this is on the front page of the New York Times, it must have some electoral relevance; it surely isn’t just errant gossip of the sort one finds in a tabloid.

What could its electoral relevance be? Correct me if I’m wrong, but it can only be relevant as part of the continuing “story,” which the right wing has tried to plant for months, suggesting that Mr. Obama is a crypto-radical. When the “radical Muslim” label failed, they fell back to “radical anti-American” (Reverend Wright), and now “radical hippie.” This despite the fact that the Weathermen fell apart in the early seventies, when Obama wasn’t yet in his teens.

Please try to convince me that the Times didn’t just plant an electorally irrelevant piece of near-slander on its front page at the behest of the right wing.

Steve Laniel

I’ll be posting this letter on my blog, at .

[1] –
[2] –

Stephen R. Laniel
Cell: +(617) 308-5571
PGP key:

Obama and the Weathermen

On the front page of the New York Times right now: an article about Obama downplaying his connections with the founder of the Weathermen. At the same time, Jack Balkin writes

McCain is about to throw yet another Hail Mary pass: he is going all out with negative campaigning. Since this election has basically been about whether voters trust Obama enough to make him President, and since he seems to have passed the test of basic trustworthiness following the first debate, McCain’s goal must now be to destroy that sense of comfort. He must now do everything in his power to so tarnish Obama that voters will find him alien, radical, and downright scary.

If this is McCain’s endgame strategy, and the evidence suggests that it is, the press must pay attention not only to what McCain says, but also his surrogates and coordinated supporters are saying. McCain is behind in most of the swing states and he has to win almost all of them to become President. At this point McCain really has nothing to lose.

It is true that McCain’s own reputation may be in tatters by the end for engaging in such a scorched-earth strategy, but he doesn’t have to be admired and respected to win. He just has to be loathed less than his opponent.

Coincidence? I think not. Let’s try again with the Obama Is A Scary Muslim Radical angle. Let’s foist this story on a pliant press. Even if there’s no truth to it, the headline will be “No Truth To Radicalism Story, Says Obama Campaign.”

According to the Wikipedia entry on the Weathermen, “The Weathermen largely disintegrated shortly after the US reached a peace accord in Vietnam in 1973.” Barack Obama was born in 1961. So when the Weathermen disintegrated, Obama was 12.

Now then. Could anything possibly be less interesting than Obama’s relationship with a founder of an organization that stopped being relevant 20 years before Obama took office?

32 days until the election…