Sunday, January 28, 2007

Just asking

A news release from U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg says he is introducing federal legislation that "would put the House on record in support of maintaining 500 land-based intercontinental missiles."

His overriding goal, as the news release makes clear, is to protect jobs at Malmstrom Air Force Base: "'Malmstrom is a key player in terms of U.S. missile defense,' said Rehberg, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. 'Additionally, Great Falls and the surrounding community depend on the jobs and revenue Malmstrom provides.'"

He rests his case by mentioning "threats from countries like Iran and North Korea." I'm not sure what countries are "like Iran and North Korea." Between them, those countries may have -- what? -- one or two missiles, none of which may, in fact, work.

So even if those two countries ganged up against us, plus all the countries like them, plus all the rest of the countries in the world, is there still any conceivable reason why we would ever need 500 land-based intercontinental missiles? And is there any chance at all that those 500 missiles provide greater security than they do risk to us because of the chance that one might get fired or explode unintentionally? And how much risk are we willing to bear to preserve a few government jobs in Great Falls?

Just wondering.

UPDATE: When I wrote the above, I had not yet seen this news release from Sen. Jon Tester: “I was disappointed to learn that the Air Force is targeting the elimination of fifty Minuteman III missiles from Malmstrom Air Force Base. Malmstrom is critical to our national security and the economy of North Central Montana. I will continue to fight for Malmstrom and the Air Force in the United States Senate and I will work toward getting another mission at the base."

We need a thousand missiles! More jobs!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Montana headlines

I'm behind the curve as usual, I suppose, but an e-mail just brought my attention to Montana Headlines, a blog devoted to commenting on The Billings Gazette "and beyond." It's an interesting idea, although I can't say I'm terribly impressed by the early entries (except for the one that says my analysis of a recent Gazette editorial "can't really be improved on").

The most recent post says The Gazette used quotation marks to make Republicans look bad in a recent op-ed piece. It's true that quotation marks can be used to indicate skepticism or disbelief, but I sure didn't see that in the ones here. Well, it will be fun to watch.

Minimum wage

The Democrats are beating up on Denny Rehberg for failing to back a minimum wage increase to $7.25. For once, I'm leaning to Denny's side.

It's not that I'm against a minimum wage. I would even support a modest increase and would have supported Montana's increase in November if not for the indexing provisions. But for my tiny business, $7.25 is a chunk. We've been struggling to overcome the Autopost disaster and essentially have broken even over the last 16 months. When money's that tight, every dollar counts. This would be a big hit.

Can't we pass it along to customers? No, because the big boys don't have to. So where would it come from? Either somebody goes away, or it comes out of my pocket. And believe me, as the business owner and all around drudge, I make nowhere near minimum wage.

Some people would say that people who can't afford to pay anymore than we do probably shouldn't be in business. Maybe they're right. But there are plenty of people who would rather make less money working for somebody like us than flipping burgers for McDonald's. Soon, they may not have that choice.

UPDATE: In comments, Dave Rye approvingly quotes a George Will column from a couple of weeks ago. Kevin Drum spanked Will for that here.

Fishing with Max

From the Washington Post:

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the new chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, is offering special interests a chance next month to go skiing and snowmobiling in Big Sky country. All it takes is a $2,000 donation per person or a $5,000 donation from a political action committee, according to a "Save the Date" solicitation his Glacier PAC sent out to lobbyists.

If lobbyists miss the first outing, they can still catch Baucus this summer for fly-fishing or horseback riding at "Camp Baucus," the invitation promises.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Wrong, wrong

The Gazette editorial board is wrong today about Dan McGee (scroll to the bottom). I'm sure McGee is sincere in his belief that the ethics initiative was unconstitutional, and he may even be right. His obligation to uphold the Constitution outweighs his obligation to uphold the majority opinion of Montana voters, so he is right to try to change a bill he thinks is unconstitutional, no matter where the bill originated. And he should try to change that bill in the least disruptive way -- that is, through the legislative process rather than through a lenghty lawsuit, which he probably in any case lacks standing to bring.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Congress and the Constitution

I'm really interested in the question of how much power Congress has to use its control of the purse strings to manage a war. Clearly, the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, although it never does that anymore. It seems clear to me also that Congress has the power to end war. But what about all of the points in between?

If Congress can, for example, restrict funds from being used to build up troop levels in Iraq, could it also pass a law requiring that, for instance, no money may be used to pay the salary of a general Congress considers incompetent?

Mind you, I'm not interested (yet) in whether it would be smart for Congress to try to micro-manage a war. I'm just interested in how much power it has to do so. I'm sure there is bound to be some good commentary out there on the topic, but I haven't found it, and I don't have much time to look. Any suggestions?

Monday, January 15, 2007

Fiasco finale

I stayed home from work for a couple of hours this morning to finish Thomas Ricks' "Fiasco." Time was running out: I started teaching a professional writing class at Rocky last week and MSU-Billings starts tomorrow (for me, anyway; students start on Wednesday).

It's quite a book. At times it's possible to imagine that it isn't about current events at all. Rather, it's a military history of some distant conflict that need no longer concern us. Ricks describes military operations in great detail and with great skill, and even he acknowledges in his notes at the end that he was amazed at how much information already is available: official unit reports, on-the-record interviews with soldiers and commanders, PowerPoint presentations, blogs, e-mails, transcripts.

The book essentially ends at the end of 2005, with only a brief afterword to bring matters up to the middle of 2006. That means we don't get Ricks' view of the latest "surge," but it's not hard to guess what his critique would be. His basic complaint is that both civilian and military leadership used the wrong kind of tactics to fight the wrong kind of war. Doing more of something that already isn't working is unlikely to lead to better results.

Still, there are notes of optimism near the end. One is improved training in counterinsurgency; another is at least slightly improved performance by Iraqi soldiers. Most important may have been improved tactics that led to successful operations in Fallujah and Tall Afar. At the same time, improved logistics have led to much better conditions for American soldiers. That cuts both ways: It boosts safety and morale but makes soldiers less likely to mingle with ordinary Iraqis, who will ultimately choose the victors.

But a grim tone hangs over the entire volume. The successful operations may not translate well to Baghdad, which is much larger and would require far more troops. And Ricks ends with four possible scenarios for the long term, each more frightening than the one before. The best would be a result similar to the Philippines, where Americans learned in a year or two to adapt to local conditions and effectively ended the war while leaving behind an occupying force for decades. The nightmare scenario is that a modern-day Saladin could arise who would combine popular support with huge oil revenues to pose a threat to the entire Western world. Gulp.

SIDEBAR: Edward Luttwak writes in the new Harper's that improved counterinsurgency tactics are irrelevant. The most effective way to deal with insurgents has been known since at least the Romans: brutal retaliation against any civilians who happen to be anywhere that attacks originate. It worked great for the Nazis. Of course, Luttwak says, those tactics are unacceptable in 21st century America, so we should not expect to be winning any wars against insurgents.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Dumber and dumber

Rarely has a letter to the editor disptuing global warming (or anything else) left itself so vulnerable to point-by-point demoliton:

1. The earth is always changing. For example, many areas of Montana were covered by water millions of years ago as evidenced by many rimrocks showing sediment layers deposited by water.

True but irrelevant. The fact that the planet changes naturally doesn't make it immutable to change by humans.

2. Twelve thousand years ago, a glacier stretched across northern Montana and into Minnesota. The glacier melted and changed the flow of the Missouri River from the Big Sag of Chouteau County to the Big Bend towards Big Sandy.

True, I guess, but utterly irrelevant. See Point 1.

3. Gore enormously simplifies the relationship of cause and effect.

For example?

4. Many, many weather scientists do not believe that human activity has anything to do with climate change. Blaming humans is a sensational news story; giving credit to Mother Nature isn't.

No. Not many.

5. Global weather is far more complex and mysterious than we have the ability to understand. A couple hundred years of observation by us humans isn't long enough to gain a meaningful understanding.

Since knowledge is incomplete, we must refuse to act. So if an armed intruder enters your house and you can't tell whether or not his gun is loaded, you should ignore him.

6. Forest and prairie fires, volcanoes and dust storms generate thousands of times more atmospheric pollution than human activity.

Irrelevant, especially if, as Gore predicts, the effects of human activity are increasing.

7. During the 1960s, weather "experts" were warning of global cooling.

Not true. Some popular articles in the '60s did make this claim, but scientists were always more cautious. The mostly widely cited scientific study that suggested this hypothesis, in fact, specifically excluded any possible effects of human activity.

I thought all of that was just about the dumbest thing I had read until I looked at the comments beneath it. Man, oh man.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Straight facts

Ed links to a post that dissects (and mocks) the "new jouralism." It's a piece well worth reading, but I was most struck by this reader comment: "I'm willing to forgive a lot of grammar and punctuation mistakes - as long as the facts are straight."

True enough, I suppose, but not often found in the real world. In my experience, the traits that make people good at grammar and punctuation also make them good at getting facts straight. I don't trust sloppy writers to have straight facts. I may have known an exception or two over the years, but damn few.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Fiasco II

I had to lay off "Fiasco" for a few days to catch up on getting out the paper and the end-of-the-year billing, but I invested a couple of more hours in it this morning.

The most remarkable thing about the book is the hard look it takes at the military's failures during the war. All but the most rabid war supporters have conceded that civilian mistakes made the war much harder than it had to be, but Ricks is the first I have read who holds the military's feet so close to the fire.

His basic critique: The military was so traumatized by Vietnam that instead of learning that war's lessons about how to fight counterinsurgency it simply ignored those lessons. Hard-won wisdom about waging war on insurgents gathered in Southeast Asia, as well as by the French in Algeria and the British in colonial wars, simply was unknown in much of the U.S. military, Ricks said.

The result was that tactical successes have not translated into strategic gains. The real battle is not between U.S. soldiers and insurgents; the real battle is for the support of the Iraqi people. U.S. ignorance about Iraqi language and customs, and its insistence on using overwhelming force to minimize casualties, have helped fuel civil war.

Ricks quotes one commander who in unapologetically defending his unit's ruthless tactics pointed out that he had lost no soldiers in combat. But Ricks argues that commanders must place their highest priority on winning the war, not just on avoiding casualties. If the only goal is to keep soldiers from getting hurt, then everybody could have just stayed home.

It's a bit bracing to read such a stern critique from someone who obviously knows his stuff. I've always been amazed at right wingers who readily assume that every single government employee, from the Cabinet down through Congress to the lowliest clerk in the Social Security office, is lazy and incompetent -- with one huge exception: the military. There every soldier is a hardworking hero and every officer is fearless and wise.

The reality, of course, is that the military is plagued by many of the same obstacles that make other aspects of government function so inefficiently. It's refreshing to hear from a journalist who has the guts to say so openly.

Balanced budget

U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg says he is sponsoring legislation to amend the U.S. Constitution to require the federal government to balance its budget.

"The spirit of the Balanced Budget Amendment is to stop using budget gimmicks to mislead the public about how taxpayer dollars are being spent," he said in a news release. "We balanced the budget in the Montana Legislature and there is no reason Congress shouldn't be able to do the same."

Actually, there are plenty of reasons, as Rehberg well knows. Just look at what the Bush administration did with the balanced budget it inherited. Regardless of what you thought of the tax cuts, do you suppose that a single American would have argued on Sept. 12, 2001, that we couldn't retaliate against Osama Bin Laden because there wasn't enough money in the budget?

Running the country just ain't the same as running Montana. Yes, Congress ought to do a far better job of balancing spending and revenues than it does. And it ought to cut out the budget gimmicks. No constitutional amendment is required for it do that -- just integrity and leadership.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Propaganda hacks

I have tried to be a good boy, but I felt particularly low and mean yesterday and visited Daily Pundit, Bill Quick's daily summary of all things incoherent.

His New Year's Eve text was the way MSM covered the 3,000th death of a U.S. soldier in Iraq. Quick surveyed the vast range of thousands of international newspaper and broadcast outlets and found nine that somewhere in their coverage used the phrase "grim milestone" to describe the death total. His conclusion: "Another Carnival of Originality brought to you by the propaganda hacks of the mainstream media."

Sure enough, if you enter "grim milestone" into Google, you get more than 600,000 hits. But if you enter "propaganda hacks," you get 1.3 million hits -- and two of the first three come from Daily Pundit. And those two don't include yesterday's entry.

Hacks of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your cliches.

Monday, January 01, 2007


My mother turned 94 on Thursday, and I am just back from visiting her and other family in South Texas for a few days. New fact I learned: My great-grandfather, who is buried in Nursery, Texas, fought for the 30th Kentucky Infantry during the Civil War. My brother Joe, who has done some research on all this, says that Crisps were fairly well represented on both sides of the war. So I come by my moderate extremism naturally.

I took the occasion of the trip to spend some birthday money on two books: "The Wal-Mart Effect" by Charles Fishman and "Fiasco" by Thomas Ricks. "Fiasco," an account of how things got so screwed up in Iraq, kept me occupied yesterday through 10 hours of airport layovers. Powerful stuff, about which more later.