October 29, 2004

MAKE UP YOUR MIND ALREADY!!! One by one, the undecided voters in my family have fallen, two to Bush and one to none of the above. I’ve lingered, though. I know that few people believed this, but this wasn’t some stunt; I’ve honestly been undecided. A couple of times I came {imagine two fingers pressed together} this close to deciding for Kerry, on the grounds that Bush is a pigheaded incompetent; one time I decided I was going Bush, because Kerry is a rank opportunist and a multilateralist naif. But then something has always pulled me back into the battleground of indecision. I’ve been here before; I voted for Gore in 2000 at the last minute, and then switched my allegiance during the Florida Ballot Wars. What can I say? I’m a flip-flopper nuanced.

But now I’ve decided. You can read the endorsement at my blog (where you can comment), or click for an extended entry. As you can see, I was up into the wee-sma hours writing this, so be kind on any grammatical errors or typos you may find.

One more thing: though I’ve decided who to vote for, it wasn’t an easy choice, and I won’t be too jubilant if he wins, nor downcast if his opponent comes in. Like all Americans (I hope), I’ll be wishing whoever wins the best of luck in Iraq and a rising economic tide to lift all boats.


What a long, agonising trip its been. Throughout the process, I’ve been subjected to approximately 8 zillion exhortations along the lines of “How on earth could you consider voting for that son-of-a-bitch?” People who bemoan the increasing partisanship of our society will be pleased to hear that both parties seem to be thoroughly united in the belief that anyone who is not voting their way is either a drooling moron or a venal hatemonger, out to destory All That Is Good and Fine in This Great Nation of Ours.

So before I give you my endorsement, I thought I’d run you through the metrics I’ve been using to weigh the election, and how I ultimately came out on them.

The Environment: Kerry wins by a hair here, but only a hair, because he supports moronic CAFE standards instead of sensible emissions taxes. He’s made idiotic promises about getting to 20% of our energy from alternative fuels, a promise which is made as predictibly as the rising of the sun by presidential candidates, to little effect. Bush is better on nuclear energy, but not much. Kerry gets the bonus here because he cares more, though not a whole hell of a lot more, about the negative externalities of various economic activities, than does Bush. Warning to Dems, though: you almost lost this over his grovelling to the coal industry.

Education: Bush by a landslide. The Democrats are simply too hostage to the teacher’s unions to be even marginally credible on education: any attempts to reform the system end up being captured by the unions, and do little more than funnel extra money into teachers’ pockets. (An approach I’m all in favour of if it gets us better results, which so far it manifestly hasn’t). I’d prefer that Bush go farther, with vouchers for example, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by NCLB. As Gerard Baker said about Bush, NCLB has made all the right enemies.

Health Care: In a normal year, I’d look at Bush’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Medicare prescription drug plan, and be tempted to call it a wash. However, John Kerry has managed to scare the bejeesus out of me with his health care plan. Play semantic games all you want; when you’ve got a plan that would qualify half the families in America for Medicaid, that’s what I call a government takeover of the healthcare system. I’m against it. Reallly really really against it. Bush easily gets my vote here.

Gay marriage: Kerry. I’m against the FMA; regardless of what you think about gay marriage, writing the damn thing into the constitution is, in the words of PJ O’Rourke, pinning a “kick me” sign on the backside of the majesty of the law. However, since the thing has not a snowball’s chance in hell of passing the state legislatures, I can’t say this swings my vote much one way or the other.

The Supreme Court: Bush. A number of commenters have tried to convince me not to vote for Bush by trying to scare me with dire tales about another Scalia or Thomas appointed to the bench. Folks, this is like trying to scare me with a free Porsche. I’d be in heaven with nine Clarence Thomases on the bench. Why am I supposed to be so scared, again? Oh, right, abortion. News flash: libertarian does not equal pro choice, and pro-choice does not equal pro-Roe. As it happens, I’m pro-choice (reluctantly), but I’m against Roe v. Wade; I think the matter should be decided at the state level, and NARAL can use all the money it raises to lobby to provide bus tickets and nice hotel rooms to women wanting abortions in states where it is illegal.

The Economy I don’t think the president has much, if anything, to do with how the economy runs, unless he’s one of those disastrous tinkerers, like FDR and Richard Nixon. Neither of the current candidates is such a lackwit, meaning that their impact on the economy will be minimal indeed. Neither candidate gets my vote here.

Trade George Bush. Yes, he did steel tariffs, but the way I look at it, he enacted something he knew was going to be overturned in order to get important concessions from congress, on fast-track, trade promotion authority, and the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Now we have freer trade and no steel tariffs. Trade is an area where the president is really important. There’s a lot an unwilling president can do to scuttle trade, and there are big talks coming up at the WTO. Kerry’s advisors are going around telling people he’s lying about trade, and he may well be; his record in the senate seems to be pretty good. But George Bush’s record seems to be pretty good as well, and he’s not making anti-trade noises, or nominating a protectionist to his ticket.

Corporate Welfare Kerry. The recent tax bill, which was supposed to provide adjustment assistance to exporters who lost a subsidy that was ruled illegal by the WTO, turned into a shameless giveaway to every business interest with a lobby and a dream. Not that George Bush could stop congress from larding the bill up with anti-market tax favours, but he could veto the bill, which he won’t. Kerry might; he gets my vote on this issue.

Tax policy: George Bush. Not because I’m one of those super-gung-ho supply siders who are committed to Bush’s rate reductions with their dying breath. I’m in favour of the rate reductions, but it’s not one of my primary issues. Lucky for George, he hit one of my primary issues: mitigating the adverse affects of the tax code on capital formation. I’m hugely in favour of equalising the treatment of cap gains and dividends; definitely in favour of lowering the tax rate on cap gains (at least until we eliminate the corporate income tax); and pretty much in favour of getting rid of the estate tax.

Poverty policy Liberals will scream, but George Bush gets this one. Kerry has one plan I like–increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit–but the rest of his programme is just standard Democratic same-old, same-old. I think raising the minimum wage is a moderately bad idea, and will have at best a trivial effect on welfare policy (most former welfare mothers already make above what John Kerry is proposing to raise the minimum to; the hike will disproportionately benefit middle class teenagers.) I wrote a piece on poverty recently, and what struck me is how excited the Republicans were about eradicating poverty, compared to the Democrats; Republicans are actually trying to change the environment in which poor kids grow up, rather than just raising the amount of money they spend. Education is a major piece of this, and there also George Bush has won my heart.

Entitlements George Bush. For all the hysteria, Bush’s plans for Social Security and Medicare are excessively modest. But he’s a dynamic go-getter compared to Kerry, whose plan for Social Security is to stand there watching while it collapses around our ears, and who wants to make Medicare more insolvent. Democrats are screaming that Bush’s plan will be expensive, but of course, if we actually showed the country’s current liabilities, rather than keeping the country’s books on the weird, not-quite-cash-basis our government uses, privatising would come out as at worst neutral. Meanwhile, it would keep the government from making more promises to people it can’t fulfill . . . people who will be badly hurt when the system goes bust. And it would take money from the government, which spends it on things that are at best economically neutral, and redirect that money into investments that will increase future productivity, helping us to bear the burden of an older population.

Civil Liberties Neither. I used to think that Janet Reno was the embodiment of all evil, after she helped gut the fourth amendment and pioneered the use of the paramilitary force to resolve child custody issues. Now I think that whoever becomes attorney general is driven mad by dreams of all the good they could do if only they had a lot more power. Both sides endorse the execrable drug war, which has done more to destroy civil liberties than any post-9/11 moves.

The Budget I’m against running deficits, not because of the economic effects, which I think are pretty small, but because we shouldn’t buy things for ourselves by writing IOU’s for our children to pay. But both candidates are pretty much equally bad on this measure; the deficits they’re promising are within a couple hundred billion of eachother over ten years, depending on which party you believe. I suspect that if Kerry passes his plan that number will be higher, because health care plans always seem to cost many times what they were promised to cost. But I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, and call it even-steven.

Foriegn policyHere it is: the big ticket. Which way do I go?

Let me outline what I think about the way the administration approached Iraq.

I think we chose to go to Iraq, we didn’t have to. But I’m okay with that, unlike a lot of libertarians.

I think that the decision to invade Iraq had a lot of reasons behind it, of which only a few were discussed with America. And I’m also okay with that, unlike a lot of libertarians. The government, unfortunately, can’t have a secret closed-door meeting with the entire country in which it tells us what it is thinking. It has to conduct its discussion by press release. Imagine how much information you’d get from your family and friends, much less your boss, if the only way they could talk to you was to broadcast their words to a world listening with bated breath. Make the negotiations on the house you’re buying a little complicated, hmmm? Think your boss would give you the quarterly sales numbers, what with the competition breathing down your neck?

I think that there were people in the administration who were obsessed with Iraq, and that that drove the decision-making to some extent. That doesn’t mean the invasion was a bad idea, but it does worry me about the administration’s decision making.

I think that Iraq was not necessary to the war on terror, but I still think it’s possible that it could be a successful battle in it. A democratic Iraq would be a major victory in the region. Even an Iraq run by a Mubarrak would help, by making the region more stable, and denying terrorists a base; and it would be much better for the people of Iraq. It gets US troops off Saudi soil, which can only help.

I’m unconvinced by anti-war people screaming about screw-ups in the early weeks of the war, including the latest explosives flap. As a project manager, I know too well that when you operate in a tight time frame, no matter how much you plan, nothing goes according to plan. Something comes out of left field and makes half your planning obsolete, and the other half irrelevant.

I think that the administration drastically underestimated the popular resistance to our invasion. This allowed the insurgency to grow, which in turn has steadily eroded our popularity, as we are blamed for the sabotage-induced decline in infrastructure, and the growing insecurity. I think the administration failed to act decisvely against the insurgency, betraying a stubborn unwillingness to admit when they are wrong, or change plans even when the plans are clearly failing. I am deeply troubled by this. I think the administration was unwilling to take the political risk of asking for more troops, and have thus brought greater political risk upon themselves. This is my biggest concern with the administration.

I think that the administration’s plans worked very well on state actors: Libya, Syria, and Pakistan, to name a few, seem to be more cooperative now that they know we really might invade. Iran and North Korea are working on nuclear weapons, but they’ve been working on nuclear weapons since long before we invaded Iraq. I think they have had the opposite effect on non-state actors: I’m pretty sure we’re making terrorist recruiting easier.

But I’m not as sure as anti-war types that this makes us less secure. The biggest threat we face is nuclear or biological terrorism, and that’s the kind of terrorism that requires cooperation from state actors. Moreover, right now at least, all the new recruits are fighting soldiers in Iraq and not civilians in America. That could change, of course, but the only existential threat we face is nuclear terrorism. And nuclear terrorism is constrained not by the supply of recruits, but the supply of nukes, which terrorists wanted long before 9/11. The administration’s actions certainly haven’t increased the supply of nukes, and they may have decreased them. But I would like to see the administration pay more attention to non-state actors.

I think Abu Ghraib was a disgrace to the name of America, and Don Rumsfeld should have resigned. I don’t think that he caused it in any way, but I do think that when something this bad happens, high heads have to roll to show how deeply we regret the stain on our honor.

I think that retreating from Iraq would be a disaster. Even if it turns into a quagmire, I would far rather see us stay too long than bug out before we have to.

I think that George Bush has cost us a lot of goodwill in Europe. I am less convinced that Europe’s governments left us much choice.

I think that the greatest revelation of the Iraq war has been that we lack the military force to invade a smallish country with terrain that provides easy surveillence and movement. That’s a big problem; whether or not we should have invaded Iraq, I think it’s pretty important that the world’s last superpower should be able to, if it needs to. I also think that neither candidate has credibly addressed this issue, the administration because it doesn’t want to admit failure, and the Kerry team because they’re still wallowing in some fantasy where the UN sends us troops it doesn’t have and wouldn’t commit if it did.

What about Kerry? He’s been on the wrong side of pretty much every foriegn policy issue he addressed before he began running for president, from nuclear freeze to the first Iraq war. He’s been a borderline incompetent as a senator. I like Joe Biden, who is advising him on foreign policy, but that’s about all he has going for him. His votes since 9/11 have been so coldly opportunistic that I, the ultimate political cynic, actually feel a little tinge of disgust. So though liberals keep telling me that 9/11 changed everything, I have no way of knowing whether they changed John Kerry. Columns telling me to listen to what he’s saying elicit only a hollow laugh, since John Kerry has already made it abundantly clear that he’ll say pretty much anything to get elected. Not that this is exactly surprising behaviour in a politician.

Does it matter? There’s a pretty compelling argument to be made that the Bush administration has screwed up so badly that it’s practically impossible that the Kerry team could be worse. I have two problems with this argument. The first is that the people who’ve been making it to me mostly hated Bush before Iraq, before 9/11, and indeed before he got the Republican Party’s 2000 nomination. Bush could have been running the greatest foreign policy since Machiavelli, and they would still be arguing for me to take Kerry’s prospects on blind faith. And second, I’m not sure it’s true. Pulling out of Iraq would be worse than leaving a blundering administration there, and as Mickey Kaus said of The Economist‘s Kerry endorsement “it’s always a shaky moment in these non-peacenik endorsements when the writer tries to convince himself or herself that Kerry won’t bail out on Iraq prematurely, isn’t it? (Kerry has been ‘forthright about the need to win in Iraq,’ but do you trust him and if so why? Because Andrew Sullivan’s blogging will keep him honest?)” Still, the administration has screwed up in some major ways, leaving me wrestling with the question: how bad could Kerry be?

In the end, it comes down to how much risk the candidates will take. The Democratic policy on foriegn policy risk has been pretty much the same since McGovern: they won’t take any. They bug out at the first sign of casualties, and go in only when the foe is so tiny that we can smash them without committing ground troops.

The Republicans take risk. Bush took on a lot of it — and with it, the possibility that something could go wrong.

What does the country need now? Someone risk averse, to shepherd us through, or someone who will take bold action and possibly land us in a disaster? I think a lot of people have concluded, from the fact that Bush’s risky move has gone wrong, that risk aversion is therefore the superior strategy. But that doesn’t follow. Jimmy Carter running right now would to my mind be inarguably worse than George Bush for all his screw ups. On the other hand, Bush I would certainly be preferable to Bush II.

Unfortunately, I have neither Bush I nor Mr Carter on the stump to make my choice easy. I have the choices I have: between someone whose foriegn policy has been so risky as to be foolhardy, or someone who will not take the political risk of voting his conscience (whatever that may be) on the war; between someone whose commanding ability to chart a course and stick to it veers into pigheaded refusal to admit he’s wrong, and someone who takes four weeks to decide on a campaign bumper sticker design. Above all, I have to guess how Mr Kerry will be in office, because the president doesn’t have the luxuries of a senator or a campaigner; he has to decide what to do without the other senators to hide behind, and he cannot just go out and talk about his never-never plans when action is required. He doesn’t get to skip a vote, and dithering could be fatal to a lot more than his political career. When something goes badly wrong in Iraq, will Kerry stay the course, because it’s important, or will he take counsel of his fears, and his party’s left wing, and cut and run as soon as he decently can? Daniel Drezner advocates a minimax strategy, but it’s not clear to me that Kery represents a win.

Then there’s the question of what message electing Kerry would send. Does it make the world love us, because we got rid of the president they hate, or does it make them despise us, because we’ve just held a referendum on the Iraq war, and Bush lost?

Ultimately, I’ve decided to take the advice of a friend’s grandmother, who told me, on her wedding day, that I should never, ever marry a man thinking he’d change. “If you can’t live with him exactly the way he is,” she told me, “then don’t marry him, because he’ll say he’s going to change, and he might even try to change, but it’s one in a million that he actually will.”

Kerry’s record for the first fifteen years in the senate, before he knew what he needed to say in order to get elected, is not the record of anyone I want within spitting distance of the White House war room. Combine that with his deficits on domestic policy — Kerry’s health care plan would, in my opinon, kill far more people, and cost more, than the Iraq war ever will — and it’s finally clear. For all the administration’s screw -ups — and there have been many — I’m sticking with the devil I know. George Bush in 2004.