Next Stop: Reality

Nobody has acknowledged that
a) the bubble economies of tech and housing were not financially real,
b) we can not “recover” to a condition that was not financially real in the first place, and therefore
c) we need to start focusing on a transition to something close to reality,
which is a long ways from where we currently are.

— Charles Marohn, The Growth Ponzi Scheme

In this week’s Sift:

  • Presidents and Precedents. If President Obama’s manipulation of the War Powers Resolution process stands, what might a President Perry or Bachmann build on that foundation?
  • Ponziville: The Suburbs Are Unsustainable. Charles Marohn claims that sprawling suburbs are an inefficient use of infrastructure. But the problem stays hidden until the initial developments start to wear out.
  • Short Notes. Funny fake news vs. scary fake news. New Yorkers notice that same-sex marriage has not destroyed civilization in Boston. Matt Taibi demonstrates how not to attack Michele Bachmann. A Pulitzer-winner fesses up to being undocumented. Without illegal aliens, Georgia reaps only a metaphorical harvest. It’s not just the music that’s synthesized, it’s the girl. The First Amendment now protects data-mining. Vermont keeps heading towards single-payer health care. And more.
  • This Week’s Challenge. If you want to help in the Wisconsin recall elections, here’s how.

Presidents and Precedents

During the last administration, I often warned Republicans not to claim any powers for President Bush that they wouldn’t want President Hillary Clinton to have. Maybe they trusted W with extraordinary powers, but I hoped it might slow them down to imagine some future Democrat tapping phones without warrants or locking people up without charges.

It never worked.

Even so, I think it may be time to take my own medicine: Sure, I mostly trust President Obama, so I haven’t been watching our involvement in Libya as closely as I might. I know there are War Powers Resolution issues and Congress should be involved to some degree. But seeing congressional Republicans play chicken with the debt ceiling hasn’t made me wish that they had more opportunities to get in Obama’s way.

Still, today’s actions are tomorrow’s precedents. Eventually there will be another Republican president, maybe sooner than I think. And if someday President Bachmann decides to invade Sweden to protect the world from socialism, shouldn’t she have to make her case to Congress? Or somebody?

Maybe it’s time to pay attention.

The Founders’ Vision of War. The Constitution divides the nation’s war-making powers. The President is commander-in-chief (Article II, Section 2), but only Congress can raise armies or declare war (Article I, Section 8).

Why did the Founders do that? They believed that standing armies tempted rulers to impose their will by force. And the US had the unusual advantage of being far away from potential enemies. So they pictured a ground-up form of defense that would only require a sizable federal army on rare occasions.

Most common threats (criminal gangs, pirate or Indian raids) a community would handle itself, maybe with the help of neighboring communities. (Picture the colonial Minutemen or the posse that goes after the bank robbers in a western.) Larger threats (big Indian raids or slave uprisings) would be the responsibility of the state militias. Only when things really got out of hand, say if we were attacked by a European power, would a federal force be needed.

And those big wars would be rare, because we were going to stay out of “entangling alliances”. In President Washington’s Farewell Address, he wrote:

Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice? It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.

So most of the time the President would be commander-in-chief of not very much. When tensions rose, Congress would assemble an army and decide which countries to use it against. The commander-in-chief clause made sure those armies would report to a single commander, avoiding strategy-by-committee in Congress.

(BTW: This interpretation also makes sense out of the “well-regulated militia” clause of the Second Amendment: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” The people should keep and bear arms not so that they can overthrow the government — as the Tea Party would have it — but so that they don’t depend on a standing army that could be used against them.)

Rep. Lincoln. As a congressman, Abraham Lincoln opposed President Polk’s role in instigating the Mexican War. Arguing by letter with his law partner William Herndon in 1848, Lincoln wrote:

Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion … and you allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after having given him so much as you propose. …

The provision of the Constitution giving the war making power to Congress was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons: kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This our convention understood to be the most oppressive of all kingly oppressions, and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us. But your view destroys the whole matter, and places our President where kings have always stood.

Historical drift. The Founders’ vision slowly came apart. President Lincoln himself, facing an enemy within cannon-shot of the capital, acted on his own authority and sought congressional approval later. By 1900, the US had colonies of its own and intervened constantly in Latin America. We came out of the World Wars with global commitments and a world-spanning enemy. Now we were trying to entangle other nations in our alliances — NATO, SEATO, CENTO, OAS, etc.

Eventually, nuclear missiles threatened to destroy our cities in less time than it took Congress to assemble. So power accrued to the President because no one else was in a position to wield it.

Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia. The Korean War (1950-1953) was the first major conflict the US fought without a formal declaration of war. That looked like an aberration at the time, but instead it became the new model. Congress has not declared war since, but has indirectly signed off on presidential wars by continuing to fund them and occasionally endorsing them in resolutions like the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

President Nixon pushed presidential authority too far by bombing Cambodia secretly in 1969-70 and delivering misleading records to Congress when it investigated in 1972-73. Congress needed to take some power back.

The War Powers Resolution of 1973. Passed over Nixon’s veto, the WPR gives a president 48 hours to inform Congress of a military action, and then gives Congress 60 days to authorize it. If it does not, the President then has 30 days to disengage.

Subsequent presidents have groused, but have mostly gone along with the WPR, for the simple reason that it’s sound practice. (It’s a myth that presidents have all regarded the WPR as unconstitutional.) If you can’t get Congress to endorse a war at the beginning, before the bodies start coming home, then you’d better hope you can go in, declare victory, and get out in short order.

Obama and Libya. The bombing in Libya started on March 19, and Congress has not passed any authorization. So President Obama’s 30-days-to-disengage has run out. But instead of standing down, the administration sent a report to Congress making this claim:

The President is of the view that the current U.S. military operations in Libya are consistent with the War Powers Resolution and do not under that law require further congressional authorization, because U.S. military operations are distinct from the kind of “hostilities” contemplated by the Resolution’s 60 day termination provision.

Where did the President get that view? Not from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which is the official executive-branch body to study such issues. And not from the Pentagon general counsel, either. Instead, he followed the opinion of an ad-hoc group of executive-branch lawyers led by the White House counsel, who is not approved by the Senate and in some administrations is nothing more than the president’s personal lawyer.

Constitutionally, the President is not obliged to follow any particular legal advice. But Yale Law Professor Bruce Ackerman explained in the NYT why circumventing the OLC is a bad practice:

If the precedent Mr. Obama has created is allowed to stand, future presidents who do not like what the Justice Department is telling them could simply cite the example of Mr. Obama’s war in Libya and instruct the White House counsel to organize a supportive “coalition of the willing” made up of the administration’s top lawyers. Even if just one or two agreed, this would be enough to push ahead and claim that the law was on the president’s side.

Remember Mukasey’s Paradox from the Bush administration: Lawyers can’t commit crimes when they act under the orders of a president, and presidents can’t commit crimes when they act under the advice of lawyers — any lawyers, even if they were hired precisely to give that advice.

We don’t want to go down that track again, because it undermines the whole notion of the rule of law. Regardless of what you think of Libya or Obama or Congress, the really bad thing here is the precedent. Imagine what a President Rick Perry could do with it.

Ponziville: The Suburbs Are Unsustainable

In a classic Ponzi scheme, money from new investors pays off old investors — who then brag about the rate-of-return they’re getting and tempt even more new investors to get in. As long as inflow of new money grows exponentially, everybody stays happy. But that can’t continue forever, and so the scheme collapses.

Charles Marohn claims this model fits the suburbs:

the underlying financing mechanisms of the suburban era — our post-World War II pattern of development — operates like a classic Ponzi scheme, with ever-increasing rates of growth necessary to sustain long-term liabilities.

The model has been that state and federal money, developer investment, plus a small amount of local-government borrowing, builds the initial infrastructure of a suburb — roads, sewers, schools, etc. — and so the local tax base goes up accordingly. But the infrastructure has a life span, and the increased tax base is not sufficient to rebuild it when it wears out. The only way to hide this is with more growth — new sprawl that raises the tax base in the near term while adding more long-term liabilities.

In America, we have a ticking time bomb of unfunded liability for infrastructure maintenance. … The reason we have this gap is because the public yield from the suburban development pattern — the amount of tax revenue obtained per increment of liability assumed — is ridiculously low. Over a life cycle, a city frequently receives just a dime or two of revenue for each dollar of liability. … We’ve simply built in a way that is not financially productive.

I wish Marohn had said more about the urban side of the equation: By moving our rich people to the suburbs, we’ve also wrecked the tax base of our cities.

I’m struck by how Marohn’s vision dovetails with John Michael Greer’s model of long-term decline. Here’s my summary of what Greer says in The Long Descent,:

At its peak a society builds a larger capital base than it can maintain. From then on, the deferred maintenance periodically comes due in some big failure, which cascades through the system until things settle down at a lower level. Then the pattern repeats: The lower capital base generates enough resources to maintain itself day-to-day, but not long-term — eventually leading to the next big failure.

So: News Orleans can’t afford to maintain its dikes, which fail during Hurricane Katrina. Then New Orleans rebuilds, but not all the way. The new, lower tax base will be unable to maintain something else, which eventually will lead to another disaster and another contraction.

In the longer version of Marohn’s article (on his Strong Towns site), he starts prescribing rather than diagnosing:

a rational response is to start insisting that our places show a positive financial return. That will require a completely different approach to building our cities along with a completely different understanding of growth. If you need help getting started on this, check out our Starter Strategies for a Strong Town as well as our Strong Towns Placemaking Principles.

Short Notes

lt’s on: Funny fake news (Jon Stewart) is going after scary fake news (Fox).

Friday night, a same-sex marriage bill passed the Republican-controlled New York Senate, with 4 Republicans and 29 Democrats voting for it. Governor Cuomo signed it just before midnight, and it will take effect after 30 days, in late July. The NYT reports:

In New York, passage of the bill reflects rapidly evolving sentiment about same-sex unions. In 2004, according to a Quinnipiac poll, 37 percent of the state’s residents supported allowing same-sex couples to wed. This year, 58 percent of them did.

That’s a much faster increase than you can get just by the passing of an older generation. To me, it’s the natural result of the scare-tactics anti-gay activists have used. For a long time, their message has been that civilization will literally fall if men start marrying men. Such alarmism works as long as the practice is theoretical. But it starts to sound silly when New Yorkers can clearly see that civilization has not fallen in Boston or Montreal.

OK, California. You’re up.

In the current Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi writes a strangely self-defeating analysis of Michele Bachmann. He convincingly characterizes her as  a champion of the ignorant masses who feel abused by the ridicule of the educated. “Bachmann’s stature rises,” he writes, “every time she does something we laugh at.”

But he still can’t stop himself from heaping scorn on her rather than coolly cataloguing her flaws.

She is at once the most entertaining and the most dangerous kind of liar, a turbocharged cross between a born bullshit artist and a religious fanatic, for whom lying to the infidel is a kind of holy duty.

The article goes on like that. Taibbi’s rhetoric is entertaining if you already agree with him. But if you forward it to your fundamentalist cousin or aunt, they’ll think Taibbi despises people like them for not being as smart as he thinks he is. And they’ll want Bachmann to succeed, just to put Taibbi in his place.

The Des Moines Register has Romney and Bachmann neck-and-neck among likely Iowa-caucus-goers. Romney leads 23-22, but Bachmann is the second choice of 18% to Romney’s 10%. When folks realize Cain and Santorum aren’t going to make it, they’ll go to Bachmann.

In one graph, Gallup explains why Jon Huntsman is no threat to be nominated. His polling data shows two clear trends: name recognition up, positive intensity down. The more Republicans know him, the less they like him.

Another recent poll has President Obama beating all major Republicans in an unlikely place: Tennessee. Steve Singiser from Daily Kos Elections explains it like this: Tennessee is experiencing the same kind of Republican over-reach that has wrecked their poll numbers in Florida and Michigan. 2010 voters who thought they were voting for traditional Republicanism suddenly find themselves living in Kochistan.

Remember the Paul-is-dead rumor of 1969? (OK, maybe not if you’re under 50.) Well, Eguchi Aimi of the Japanese girl-band AKB48 has taken it one step further: She never existed to begin with. The uber-cute Ms. Aimi is a computer-generated synthesis of the cutest features of the other girls in the band.

Using the sad example of Chicago’s parking meters, Senator Durbin warns against the temptation to raise cash by selling off public assets at fire-sale prices. In particular he proposes that if federal money builds a local asset which the local government then sells, the feds should get their money back.

The DREAM Act, if it ever passes, is supposed to normalize the status of undocumented immigrants who came here as children and have done well since they arrived. It makes sense: The original sin belongs to their parents, not them, and they know no other country they can go back to. As they become adults, they keep breaking the law — forging documents, lying on forms — because all the other choices are worse.

Wednesday, young journalist Jose Antonio Vargas put his own face on this problem. In My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant he tells his story: He came to America from the Philippines at age 12, and found out he was here illegally at 16. But rather than pick fruit or work in a sweatshop, he got himself a job with the Washington Post and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer.

He told a lot of lies and forged a lot of documents to give himself those opportunities. But now that he has fessed up, the moral onus is on us: Do we send him back to the Philippines?

Meanwhile, the harsh new law that was supposed to keep illegal aliens out of Georgia is working. Blueberries, onions, and cucumbers are rotting in the fields. They’ve tried getting criminals to do the picking, but it’s not going so well.

In practice, “cutting the waste out of our school budget” means firing librarians.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser was in Justice Ann Walsh Bradley’s office last week, was asked to leave, and wound up with his hands around her neck. But it’s her fault. Just like it was Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s fault when Prosser called her a “bitch”. Those female judges … you know how they get. What’s a real man to do?

It’s been a very pro-corporate Supreme Court term, as I’ll outline after it ends next week. But the worst of it may be Sorrell v IMS Health, where corporate First-Amendment rights got their biggest boost since Citizens United. The Court threw out a Vermont law that stopped pharmacies from selling prescription data to data miners, who could then advise pharmaceutical companies on marketing to doctors. If you can see any legitimate free-speech issue there, your eyes are sharper than mine.

Vermont’s Senator Leahy called the decision “a win for data miners and large corporations and a loss for those of us who care about privacy not only in my home state of Vermont but across the nation.”

But Vermonters keep plugging with their New England common sense: They’re moving towards single-payer health care because it’s cheaper and it works better.

This Week’s Challenge

Right now Wisconsin is the central front in the struggle to defend the middle class and the public sector. Six Republican state senators and three Democrats are up for recall this summer, and the Republicans look far more vulnerable. Picking up three seats will flip the state senate to Democratic control. That would not only change the equation in Wisconsin, it would send a national message: Voters don’t support taking away workers’ rights, or cutting education to pay for corporate tax breaks.

You can contribute online through Act Blue. If you want to phone bank or volunteer in some other way, go to the Wisconsin Democratic Party web site.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift’s Facebook page.

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  • Larry Lutton  On June 28, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    Under Obama administration logic the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor wasn't an act of war because there were no boots on the ground.


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