J.J. Goldberg

What Have I Done? Lot of Watergate Under a Bridge

By J.J. Goldberg

Scene from Gov. Christie’s morning staff meeting?

The pivotal moment from the classic 1957 film “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” in which British prisoner-of-war officer Alec Guinness comes face to face with his obsessive and misguided attempt to build his legacy on a bridge. The parallel to the current moment isn’t entirely perfect, other than the narrow one of the man in the middle standing back, looking at the foolishness that brought him to ruin and asking the existential question: What have I done? It’s one of the great films of all times and won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Guinness.

I don’t know what it is that puts so many of our political scandals at, near or over a body of water. But this new one, more than any I can think of, bears a structural resemblance to Watergate.

Narrowly speaking, “Worse Than Watergate” refers to a 2004 book by former Nixon aide John Dean that reviews the George W. Bush administration and its obsessions with secrecy. In a larger sense, the phrase has become a tool used in order to magnify the seeming importance of any putative political scandal by likening it to the one we look back to as granddaddy of them. The phrase seems to emerge most often from the mouths of those who are trying to make a big deal out of nothing, as in Benghazi or Whitewater.

Last May, Mother Jones ran a useful little chart comparing the major political scandals of the last century according to two main metrics: how serious they were as violations of the public trust, and how large they loom in the public memory. Where does ChristieBridge fit it?

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Poverty Shock: Stats Show Ills Began in 2001, Not '07

By J.J. Goldberg

Cruikshank/Wikimedia Commons
“Please, sir, I want some more”

Just in time for the fall harvest festival of Sukkot, the U.S. Census Bureau has published what we might call a 2013 update of America’s own Harvest of Shame: a comprehensive annual report on the state of income, poverty and health insurance in the United States.

To be fair, it’s not all bad news. For example, the report shows that 2012 was the first year since 2007, before the economy collapsed, that America’s median household income didn’t decline. It was statistically the same in 2012 as it was in 2011, roughly $51,000. That was also the first year since 2007 that there was no statistically significant increase in the number of people in poverty (46 million) or their percentage of the population (15%). All three numbers are still worse than they were in 2007, but at least they’ve stopped deteriorating. That’s the good news.

Pretty much all the rest of it is bad news, some of it shockingly so. Between 2000 and 2012 the median income for non-elderly households declined a whopping 11.6%, or $7,490 after correcting for inflation. Among African-American households the decline was 14.8%. A full 27% of blacks live in poverty, nearly 11 million people in all. Close to half (44%) of all Americans in poverty are living in what’s called “deep poverty,” with an income that’s less than half the poverty line. And the number of people under 65 receiving health insurance on the job dropped by 13.7 million or 10.8% in those 12 years (almost all before Obamacare kicked in).

The only income group reported by the Census Bureau to have gained income since 2009 is the top 5%, which saw a median gain of 0.6%, or $1,846. Everybody else lost.

Some of the information in the report is quite surprising. Remember President Reagan’s quip in 1987, “In the 60s we waged a war on poverty and poverty won”? It turns out he was dead wrong. The poverty rate plummeted during the 1960s, from about 22% of the population in 1959 to about 11% in 1973. It stayed roughly level until about 1978 and then started climbing, reaching 15% in 1982, the second year of Reagan’s presidency. (Hence the increase in poverty that he correctly perceived in 1987 was actually his handiwork.) It stayed up around 15% until 1993, the first year of Bill Clinton’s presidency, when it began dropping again, reaching 11.3% in 2000, Clinton’s last year. The next year, the first of the Bush administration it began climbing steadily, reaching 15% in 2011. In fact, contrary to what you might think, there was no dramatic jump in poverty after 2007. It’s just been a steady climb since 2000.

Likewise, median income declined between 2000 and 2007, though only a bit, then proceeded to plummet. In other words, some of our troubles began when the economy collapsed, but important parts of the disaster began directly after the Supreme Court’s historic December 2000 ruling in Bush v. Gore. It takes some digging to find out, though. The Census report doesn’t highlight this at all. It’s all built around the post-2007 collapse.

A separate income study, this one based on Internal Revenue Service figures, was released September 3 by economist Emmanuel Saez at the University of California-Berkeley. It shows that average family incomes (as opposed to median) grew by 6% between 2009 and 2012. But nearly all the gain went to families in the top 1% of the population, whose income grew 31.4%. The other 99% saw an average gain of 0.4%. (And based on the above Census Bureau numbers, even that paltry increase seems to have gone mostly to the top 5%.) The Los Angeles Times published a summary of the Berkeley study on September 11.

The Economic Policy Institute, a labor-backed Washington think tank, pulled out some of the most interesting numbers from the Census Bureau’s report:

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As War Nears, Ghosts of Bush's Iraq Haunt Obama

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
President Obama discusses Syria, August 30. In background: Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite.

The United States moved several steps closer Friday to attacking Syria. President Obama strategized by phone with the British and French leaders, and briefly addressed reporters (video here, transcript here), just before a meeting with Baltic leaders, about the options he’s considering for responding to Syria’s reported use of chemical weapons. French president Francois Hollande responded in an interview with Le Monde to the British Parliament’s refusal to authorize military action against Syria, saying France would join an American action regardless of Britain’s decision. The British press was filled with anxious speculation on whether Parliament’s virtually unprecedented rebuff of a prime minister on a question of war and peace would force Cameron to resign. (The general consensus was that it won’t.)

Meanwhile, the United Nations confirmed that its weapons inspectors have completed their work on the ground and will leave Syria tomorrow (Saturday). Yediot Ahronot military affairs commentator Alex Fishman reported in its print edition, presumably based on his usually excellent Israeli military intelligence sources, that “the Americans will attack” within “12 to 24 hours after the U.N. inspectors leave Syria.”

Earlier, Secretary of State Kerry delivered a forceful speech (transcript here, video below) describing U.S. intelligence on Syrian chemical attack and laying out a moral case for action. The White House also released a four-page report summarizing the intelligence community’s assessment of the August 21 chemical attack, including advance planning, delivery systems and level of regime involvement. It said 1,429 people had been killed, including “at least” 426 children.

Hovering over all these actions, though, was the ever-present ghost of America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq under then-president George W. Bush. That war, of course, was ostensibly prompted by intelligence about non-conventional weapons, but the intelligence turned out to be wrong and the war turned into a prolonged quagmire. Both Obama and Kerry took pains in their remarks today to mention the Iraq war and insist that this case was nothing like that one. The Iraq experience was also the central issue in the British parliament’s shocking decision not to authorize military action against Syria. Thirty members of Cameron’s majority Conservative Party defected to vote with the Labour opposition. Cameron lost by 13 votes in the 650-member House of Commons that he supposedly controls by a hefty majority.

The extent to which the Iraq invasion still poisons debate and policy-making is evident everywhere in the Syria crisis. BuzzFeed reporters Evan McMorris-Santoro and Ben Smith, summarizing Obama’s dilemma yesterday, wrote:

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Many Little Qaedas: How War on Terror Backfired

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
President Obama and Yemen President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in Oval Office, August 1, 2013

Boy, President Obama is really taking it on the chin over the latest Al Qaeda threat and the closing of those 19 embassies.

On the right, he’s getting hammered by the likes of The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, the Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen, Long Island Republican Rep. Peter King and even the distinguished Bard College international relations scholar Walter Russell Mead, an Obama supporter, all accusing him of underestimating Al Qaeda’s resilience, foolishly dialing back the war on terror and trying to stop the bad guys by dialogue—all of which have brought us to this sorry juncture.

From the left comes Obama’s own campaign counter-terrorism adviser, La Salle University political scientist Michael Boyle, accusing him in the Guardian of foolishly continuing and even escalating the failed Bush administration policies that have simply made things worse and—brought us to this juncture.

Which is it? Did Obama recklessly take his foot off the gas in the war on terror, or did he recklessly floor it? Leave it to the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson to point out the essential point, which is that the wheels fell off this clunker a long time ago. It was the war-on-terror strategy that created the current crisis.

The truth is that U.S. foreign policy helped to create the decentralized al-Qaeda, a branch of which is believed to be trying to launch some kind of strike.

Robinson offers the perfect metaphor to illustrate the practical effect of the war on terror that we’ve been fighting against Al Qaeda for the past decade:

Al-Qaeda turns out to be like a pool of mercury. Hit it with a hammer and you end up with 10 little blobs instead of one big one.

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Why Social Security Isn't Broke, Why We Think It Is and Where the Money Went

By J.J. Goldberg

Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik has an essential piece today debunking what he calls “The Myth of the Social Security system’s financial shortfall.” It’s based on the newly-released 2010 report of the Social Security Trustees.

In fact, he argues, Social Security is doing fine, sort of. If there’s a problem, it’s the fact that it has been lending money to the general fund of the federal government for years to cover expenses that used to be covered by income taxes. The payroll tax has been steadily raised to keep Social Security solvent. The income taxes of the wealthiest Americans have been repeatedly, drastically lowered under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (Hiltzik leaves out Reagan, as I’ll show), leaving big holes in the general fund, which covers defense, national parks, highways, welfare and all the rest. The impoverished general fund has been borrowing from the flush Social Security trust fund to help cover the deficits.

Here’s the catch: The payroll tax is a regressive tax: the poorest Americans pay the same 7.65% as the richest Americans, and the rich don’t even pay a penny on earnings above $107,000 per year. Lowering income taxes on the rich, and then covering the shortfall by borrowing from a pot that’s mainly funded by the common folk (and mainly relied on by them) amounts to a massive redistribution of income from the poor to the rich. And that’s why the Social Security trust fund looks insolvent: It has been raided to cover money that used to be in the federal budget but is now in the pockets of the rich.

I know, I know: Letting the affluent keep their money (they’re basically the only ones who get to do that under these tax cuts) encourages investment and creates jobs. If anybody here still believes that, I’ve got a lovely oil well to sell you, conveniently located just south of historic New Orleans.

Here’s Hiltzik:

In recent years, during which conservatives have intensified their efforts to destroy one of the few U.S. government programs that actually works as intended, the report’s publication has become an occasion for hand-wringing and crocodile tears over the (supposedly) parlous state of the system’s finances.

This year’s report, which came out Thursday, is no exception. Within minutes of its release, some analysts were claiming that it projected a “shortfall” for Social Security this year of $41 billion.

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Obama Should Keep Bush's Word, But Bibi Needn't Keep Olmert's?

By J.J. Goldberg

Bibi Netanyahu’s visit to the Obama White House this week gives us an opportunity to watch history unfold. Or unravel. It’s hard to tell. Maybe it’s like that old Palmach song said, Rabotai, ha-historia hozeret (“Folks, history repeats itself”).

On the eve of the summit, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs is beating up on President Obama for failing to reaffirm George W. Bush’s April 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon. Bush had written that it was “unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” The president was endorsing Israel’s goal of keeping the major West Bank settlement blocs as part of the outcome of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

In reality, Bush wasn’t saying anything the Palestinians themselves hadn’t said. Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas said as much just the other day in an on-the-record interview with Israeli reporters. As the Jerusalem Post put it in its version of the interview, “Abbas said that in principle, the Palestinians have agreed to alterations in the 1967 border, as long as it was done on a one-to-one ratio.” Incidentally, Abbas has embraced that position as far back as his 1995 talks with Israel’s then-deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin.

Bush’s letter endorsed the idea of redrawing the border as a likely outcome of negotiations. The assumption was that the Palestinians could be expected to give Israel that reasonably desired outcome — as part of an agreement in which Israel gives the Palestinians an equally reasonably desired outcome.

So what’s JINSA’s beef?

In broad terms, JINSA is taking up a line that’s being touted by various voices on the Israeli right as the back-and-forth heats up: that Israel should receive its key demand on settlements before the actual negotiations begin. That way Israel can sit down and start negotiating from there. In other words, give me what I want in advance, and then we can sit down and discuss who’s willing to give up what.

In effect, the Israeli right doesn’t want Israel to have negotiate its relations with its neighbors on its own. It wants America to impose a solution. Of course JINSA wouldn’t put it that way.

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Roger (Cohen) and Me, Revisited

By J.J. Goldberg

It appears that my August 5-14 column about Roger Cohen has upset a few people, which is usually one of the perks of the job. But some of those who are upset with me are people I care about, and with them in mind I’d like to expand on my thoughts a bit, by way of explaining what I meant.

The column was originally meant to be a discussion of Cohen’s New York Times Magazine article from August 2, in which he attempted to explore the mechanics of American policy-making towards Iran. One of the framing elements of the piece was the role of Dennis Ross. I thought Cohen misfired badly in ways that seemed to me instructive, and even though I usually try to avoid personal attack pieces, I wanted to take apart that argument. However, as I re-read his Times columns since January, I found what struck me as a pattern of weak thinking, which seemed to shed light on the misjudgment I had found in the magazine piece. I started to flesh that out, and by the time I was done I didn’t have much room for the Dennis Ross argument and it was deadline time, so I rushed in a few more paragraphs and then I went with what I had, as they say. Now I see my original intention got lost.

So here is the original point: I don’t believe Dennis Ross is the problem in American Middle East policy. Just like I didn’t think Douglas Feith or Elliott Abrams were the problem with same in the Bush administration. Presidents (or, in rare cases, vice presidents) create their own teams, and they generally know perfectly well whom they are hiring. Certainly Obama knew what he was getting in Dennis Ross. He’s been an open book for years.

This is not to defend Ross’s views or his role in policy-making or execution. Certainly one can legitimately argue that Ross has had a negative role. Aaron Miller has pointed out ways in which he felt Ross’s role was negative. He was there and he has examples of things Ross did and said. I have a few stories of my own. The difference is that Miller’s claim is based on what Ross did, not who he is.

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