Monthly Archives: July 2009

Recruiting Ex-Presidents

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on July 13, 2009, at

(Written prior to the earthquake of 2010, but relevant)

It’s an odd life for American heads of state. After learning and practicing the lessons of leadership at the highest level and serving their country for, at most, eight years, they are termed-out and must retire to fundraising, public speaking, and unofficial political influence. Is leadership really in such great supply that there are no official duties for the likes of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush?

In our hemisphere, no less

Take a look at Haiti, a nation whose corrupt, unstable institutions have hampered its development as much as frequent natural disasters and the desperate poverty of its citizens. Haiti is the recipient of American foreign aid, diplomatic missions, and numerous visits by well-meaning politicians — everyone from Clinton to Jimmy Carter. Yet poverty, unemployment, corruption, and lack of infrastructure remain facts of daily life for huge segments of the Haitian populace. What Haiti really needs is good leadership in the form of a powerful world leader.

Bill Clinton, stopping by Port-au-Prince on a recent charitable visit, noted that his 1994 restoration of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the twice-deposed former president of Haiti, was the beginning of something good. Why not follow through and give the Greater Antilles nation the leadership it so sorely needs? If Bill Clinton became the chief executive of Haiti, for example, his leadership could set the country on a path to recovery that René Préval, the divisive current president, may not be able to realize. Simply by virtue of who he is, Clinton enjoys a higher level of worldwide political capital than Préval, and would probably be able to command the attention of other world leaders in a way that Préval can’t.

What at first seems impossible should not. Haiti is not a rival; its goals are not likely to conflict with American policy. But just to be sure that he is not put in a position with a national conflict of interest, Bill Clinton would not have responsibility for foreign policy among his duties — hence the “chief executive” title. His service to Haiti, far from somehow compromising his loyalty to the United States, would benefit both nations, as a troubled state would gain a measure of stability and prosperity, adding security in the hemisphere and the world’s political goodwill would be reflected back upon Clinton and the U.S.

And just across the border

Mexico, meanwhile, is currently struggling with drug enforcement. President Filipe Calderon has stepped up enforcement efforts and the violence in border cities such as Juarez has skyrocketed.  The violent turf battles have been especially difficult to stop in part because of bribery and corruption within public institutions, from the police up to the courts.

Mexico’s drug and violence problems will probably require more government intervention, not less: more organization, more control, and more authority for law enforcement. This is an area in which former president Bush has more than suitable experience. President Bush oversaw the buildup of the largest intelligence and security network in history. While his programs were highly controversial in the United States for the way they prioritized intelligence and security issues over civil liberties, it may be what Mexico needs in order to successfully fight its internal drug war. Bush could be the Mexican drug czar and help that government assert greater authority in the fight against bloodshed and drug trafficking.

Bush concentrated power in the executive branch and conducted national security initiatives in secret.   While this approach nearly caused a Constitutional crisis in the United States, Bush would work at the discretion of the Mexican President Calderon.  The Mexicans would have to make their own decision about the proper balance of civil liberties and law enforcement.  In Mexico, it has not been easy to find politicians to oversee the enforcement of drug laws who are not themselves tainted by connections with the cartels.

Would developing nations ever want a former American head of state to take command? Not likely, given the current global climate of suspicion and uncertainty. It’s true that in a certain light, the idea bears a resemblance to the colonial practices of an earlier era. But that’s the wrong way to think about it. What is being proposed here, is more about leadership. A politician’s strengths need not pass into obsolescence after a certain number of years, not if international political leadership became a professionalized industry. The demand for experienced leaders is unquestionable; what’s needed now is the supply. The route is uncertain and new rules will surely have to be devised, but this is still an experiment worth making.

President Obama Reaches Out to the Muslim world

Originally published at

President Barack Obama’s recent speech, delivered in Cairo, Egypt and broadcast worldwide was historic, visionary and ingenious.
From its rhetorical highlight “America is not – and never will be – at war with Islam” to refashioning American policy on democracies abroad:  “we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people,”  the speech was ambitious to the point of reasserting American international leadership.

President Barack Obama’s recent speech, delivered in Cairo, Egypt and broadcast worldwide was historic, visionary and ingenious.

From its rhetorical highlight “America is not – and never will be – at war with Islam” to refashioning American policy on democracies abroad:  “we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people,”  the speech was ambitious to the point of reasserting American international leadership.  Full Story

Recession Rant

Photo: caveman92223; licensed creative commons

By Marc Seltzer; originally published July 12, 2009, at

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As I watch news coverage of the ongoing economic crisis and responsive stimulus legislation, I am constantly reminded of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine, where the comics discuss names of their team’s baseball players:

Abbott:  Well, let’s see, we have on the bags, Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third…

Costello: That’s what I want to find out.

Abbott: I say Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third.

Costello: Are you the manager?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: You gonna be the coach too?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: And you don’t know the fellows’ names?

Abbott: Well I should.

In October 2008, when the sky was falling, and several of the biggest entities in the financial system collapsed, economists and journalists couldn’t bring themselves to say the “R” word.

We were deep in a Recession, as it turned out.  This recession started nearly a full year earlier, in December 2007.  But the National Bureau of Economic Research(NBER), which makes the call based on economic statistics over a period of months, allowed us to endure the near collapse of the financial system without an official proclamation.

Costello: Well then who’s on first?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: I mean the fellow’s name.

Abbott: Who.

Costello: The guy on first.

Abbott: Who.

Costello: The first baseman.

Abbott: Who.

While economists and journalists did focus on the credit crisis, conveying the dire nature of what they were seeing, and making suggestions that we might be heading toward the unthinkable – a Great Depression Sequel – we still couldn’t use the word Recession.

Then, in December (after it was announced we had been in a recession all along), the press sought to make up for lost time.  Missing out on a full year’s worth of recession talk, they cut loose with a flurry of descriptors:  a deep recession, prolonged recession, economic crisis, catastrophe, financial disaster and what may turn out to be true, the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

Costello: The guy playing…

Abbott: Who is on first!

Costello: I’m asking YOU who’s on first

Abbott: That’s the man’s name.

Costello: That’s who’s name?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: Well go ahead and tell me.

Abbott: That’s it.

Costello: That’s who?

Abbott: Yes.

750 banks fell within months of the 1929 stock market crash which began The Great Depression.  As many as 9,000 banks continued to fail during the 1930’s.  FDIC Insurance was nonexistent, so people simply lost their money when their bank ran out of funds.

13 banks have failed so far in 2009.  Another 25 failed in 2008.

The contemporary government response has been swift, if not altogether logical.  

Deposits up to $250,000 are now guaranteed by the federal government.  Under the TARP bailout program, banks may be given funds to keep them solvent and lending.  There is a fair amount of confusion over the purpose of the program and whether healthy banks or failing ones are actually seeing the government support.  Some initial money went to Citigroup, a behemoth multi-national organization considered “too big to fail” following the events in October of 2008, when investment bank Bear Sterns failed and cracked the confidence of the entire financial system.

Costello: Look, you gotta first baseman?

Abbott: Certainly.

Costello: Who’s playing first?

Abbott: That’s right.

Costello: When you pay off the first baseman every month, who gets the money?

Abbott: Every dollar of it.

The initial $700 billion bailout was passed in November of last year and was renamed a recovery package in December.  That was soon followed by a $789 billion stimulus bill.  And as furious as we all are at the cost of this crisis, be ready for toxic asset and real estate stabilization plans which will likely total even more than these first two.

Only $500 billion of the stimulus bill is true government spending.  The rest is tax relief or, in the case of the bailouts, investments in companies that should, in theory (it worked before in Sweden), allow the government to recoup the invested money in a few years.

Costello: All I’m trying to find out is the fellow’s name on first base.

Abbott: Who.

Costello: The guy that gets…

Abbott: That’s it.

Costello: Who gets the money…

Abbott: He does, every dollar. Sometimes his wife comes down and collects it.

Costello: Whose wife?

Abbott: Yes.

The original stimulus bill was designed to create 2-4 million new jobs.  Then, as the economy began losing a 500,000 jobs a month, the language changed to “save or create” 3-4 million jobs.

Politicians and pundits who say the stimulus bill will turn the economy around may overstate the case.  So too, those who doubt it will save or create a single job.

A more reasonable assessment is that it will soften the blow and make a long-lasting recession more tolerable.

What We Wont Learn from the Sotomayor Confirmation Hearings

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on July 11, 2009, at

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If there is one legal question that is profound and topical, the discussion of which would be deeply thought provoking and educational in the Supreme Court nomination hearings of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, it is the constitutional division of power between the different branches of government.

The power struggle between the branches is most notably implicated in the national debate over the Bush administration’s conduct of foreign policy and war.  President Bush and Vice-President Cheney asserted generally exclusive executive branch authority in the conduct of intelligence, detention of prisoners and avoidance of oversight in national security operations after 9/11.

Now that Bush and Cheney are out of power and more information is coming out about their conduct, opponents of such policies are on the attack, calling for investigation.  Only the most recent issue is whether Vice-President Cheney directed that the CIA withhold information from Congress that Congress has by law, demanded that the executive branch provide.  Other red-hot manifestations are whether the use of torture by the administration can be subject to explicit laws banning such activity, and whether the President was in fact required to brief congress regularly on its conduct of foreign policy and military action, as Congress has demanded.

Underlying this and other such conflicts is the question of constitutional authority in the different branches of government.  The President is the Commander-in-Chief.  Does this grant the President sole authority for decisions relating to national security, or is it an authority shared by the peoples’ representatives in Congress?

In the same vein, what are the limits of such Presidential authority?  Can the President authorize torture if he believes it is necessary for national defense?  If Congress requests that the President provide information on on-going military operations, can the President ignore the request if he believes that to follow it will harm the operations?

The ultimate answers to these questions cannot be known until the U.S. Supreme Court decides each issue in the context of specific facts presented in a lawsuit.  But a Supreme Court nominee could give us her reflections and a certain education.  This would be far more meaningful then the competing assertions of power by the administration and congress.  Of no more use are the pundits and professors who weigh in.  Almost universally, commentators take political positions based on desired outcomes, but give no real insight into what the Supreme Court would be likely to do.  The Supreme Court is deeply aware of its profound power and cautious about its legitimacy in asserting its authority over other branches of government – being the unelected branch.   Pundits have none of this real world caution.

Consequently, the Supreme Court tends to go to great lengths to avoid constitutional questions, instead deciding cases on smaller technical matters whenever possible.   There is nothing wrong with this judicial approach, except that it leaves many of us wondering where the bounds of legislative or executive power really are.

I, for one, have no doubt that they are not where the President and Congress say they are.

Supreme Court Reverses Sotomayor Panel in Ricci Case

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on July 8, 2009 at

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The Supreme Court recently overturned an opinion issued from a three-judge appellate panel including Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor. The core of the case turned on how a government agency, in this case the city of New Haven, Connecticut, should deal with potential discrimination against minority employees.

The city took a number of steps to address concerns about discrimination in promotions for fire department officer positions, such as making great efforts to create a race-neutral test and ensuring that minority officers from other departments participated in the candidate evaluation process. The lawsuit arose when the city decided to throw out the results of the firefighter promotion exams because no African-American applicants achieved top scores, meriting promotion.

The Supreme Court decision sheds some light on how government entities are expected to handle discrimination concerns. However, it does not fit as nicely into the affirmative action debate as commentators claim. It also fails to provide any significant evidence against Judge Sotomayor’s promotion to the U.S. Supreme Court.

It was white and Hispanic firefighters who sued the government in Ricci v. DeStefano when their success on the exams was disregarded. They lost their case in the lower courts and petitioned the Supreme Court for a final review. The Supreme Court found that once the promotion exams were completed, the city needed evidence that the exam was discriminatory, beyond just the results themselves, to justify disregarding those results. This, the city did not have. It had a history of discrimination, where only one of 21 fire captains was African-American, and it had a fear of lawsuits from unsuccessful black candidates, a legitimate concern recognized in the law guiding cities’ decision making on employment matters, but it did not have evidence that this test was unfairly discriminatory.

The Supreme Court decision was 5-4, with Justice Anthony Kennedy writing an opinion joined by Justices Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Chief Justice Roberts. The decision does not seem to overturn much law on affirmative action or to allow discrimination against minorities to go unchecked. It does say that once a hiring process is completed and candidates are ranked for promotion, it should not be upended without evidence that it was faulty.

The dissent would have allowed the city to disregard the test results in light of past discrimination and suspicion and potential legal challenges over the results themselves. There was evidence that another type of exam process might have yielded different results and the dissenting opinion considered that sufficient to put the test results into question and justify the city’s action.

Judge Sotomayor, along with two other appellate judges, had agreed with the trial judge that the city was within its rights to redress what it perceived was a problem in the test results. Justice Sotomayor will be asked about the decision in the nomination hearings next week. However, her position was hardly the type that should concern the judiciary committee reviewing her nomination. Sotomayor followed existing law on an issue where there is obviously substantial disagreement.