Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Tuesday, January 31, 2006
Last month, in my usual year-end charity posting, I mentioned a new charter school whose board I had joined: Democracy Prep, to open in Harlem this summer. We held a "friendraiser" last week, which I felt went rather well. Here is one write-up about the event, from a blog devoted to NY State charter schools (the blogger, a former education-beat reporter for the NY Daily News, is the author of this book, which I have just ordered).

Anyone interested in hearing more about the school, or who would like to know how they could help, please don't hesitate to email me.

Apparently, I'm better at predicting Oscar nominations for movies I haven't seen this year than I am at predicting political events about which I'm reasonably well-informed. I made four predictions of Best Picture nominees, of which three were nominated; five predictions of Best Actor nominees of whom four were nominated; and three predictions of Best Actress nominees of whom two were nominated. That's a pretty good percentage. Was this year particularly obvious? Or was it blind luck. It can't be skill, and it certainly can't be knowledge because I haven't seen any of the movies in question.

If I actually get the winners right, I shall buy myself a chocolate.

You know, I've noticed that as I age I recall less and less what I have just done. (From my youth I had always forgotten what I was supposed to do, but this forgetting what I have just done appears to be a progressive disease.) Among the many distressing examples of this disorder is my increasing inability to recall what books I have just read.

And so, as an aide to my own memoir, and hopefully for the marginal edification of my few, devoted readers, I'm inaugurating a book diary: a list, and brief commentary, on the books I've read in the past month. Herewith the first installment, for January, 2006.

(Where possible - well, actually, where convenient - I will link to the actual edition of the book in question that I read.)

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. What a gorgeous translation! I first tackled this classic doorstop on a trip through northeastern Europe (Budapest-Prague-all over Poland-Riga-Saint Petersburg-Stockholm-Helsinki) in (I'm pretty sure) the Constance Garnett translation. Opening the Pevear-Volokhonsky version, I was startled by the immediacy and the humor of the writing; the lugubrious of the Garnett was almost entirely lacking. The prose had a rougher texture, something you were conscious of in an entirely good way. Is it necessary for me to say anything about Dostoevsky? He's still worth grappling with. His characters are not fully convincing as people; they still bear too heavy a burden of allegory to truly come alive (though one great virtue of this translation is that the narrator approaches the status of a real character, which greatly enhances the novel). He is still in love with death, death's power to transform souls, something that properly should be distrusted. The right answer to "Nabokov or Dostoevsky?" is still "Tolstoy." Or, "Chekhov." But he and those who love him are still worth arguing with, even when - especially when - they are profoundly wrong.

Prisoner's Dilemma, by William Poundstone. I bought this book because I very much liked Labyrinths of Reason, which I read many years ago, and was interested in learning more about John von Neumann and his work. More of the book, I would say, is devoted to biography and history than to actual discussion of game theory. Unfortunately, Poundstone is strongest in explaining game theory for the layman; the biographical sections are interesting for their content, but rather artless. The book is organized to put the biographical info up front, followed by Cold War "context" history, followed by actual discussion of what game theory is. The author's purpose would probably have been better served by alternating chapters on history/biography and math, in the manner of Prime Obsession. But I still enjoyed it at the end of the day.

The Right War?: The Conservative Debate on Iraq, edited by Gary Rosen. Rosen has collected a very good cross-section of conservative opinion on the war in Iraq from 2004 and 2005. Some of the pieces are rather too short to fully support their own arguments, but the flip side of this decision is that so many authors, with a variety of different perspectives, could be included. I had, unfortunately, read most of these pieces when they were originally published, so there was not too much new for me here. Silver lining: that meant this was a really quick read. More unfortunate was Rosen's decision to limit himself to post-war debate. It would have been useful to see to what extent people on both sides changed their tune over the course of the conflict, either because as the war progressed they changed their minds or because they did not change their minds, and (therefore) had to change their arguments. Some of the authors included refer to their earlier positions and relate their current views to what they have learned since then, but even so we are getting their own recollections of their past views rather than the straight dope. The biggest problem with this book, though, is that there is no actual debate; the various "sides" of the argument don't really engage each other beyond their initial salvos. Even when people are literally engaged in debate - as, for example, the famous Krauthammer-Fukuyama exchange from last year - the hottest engagements are not on substance but motive-questioning accusations. That is truly a shame. It does not speak well of our democracy, and in particular it speaks poorly of supporters of the war in Iraq, that the actual debate in the debate -engaging the opposition's arguments in detail and attempting to refute them - has been so thin. Silver lining: it is an excellent sign that the editor of Commentary thinks it would be a good idea if a real debate were happening, and hence edited this book.

The Facts of Winter, by Paul Poissel, translated by Paul Lafarge. Lafarge is a friend of mine, with two other books under his belt, The Artist of the Missing and Haussmann, or the Distinction, the latter purportedly a translation from the French of a 1920s-era novel by the obscure poet Paul Poissel. Poissel really got his hooks into my friend, who began, Tlon-like, to fill the world with "incursions" from Poissel, including this website and the aforementioned Fait d'Hiver. The book is successful on its own terms: Poissel is a reasonably persuasive early 20th-century French poet, and this book of "manufactured" dreams sounds reasonably like the sort of thing Poissel would write. The concluding essay about Poissel also succeeds on its own terms: as a little short-story about a literary researcher and as a commentary on Lafarge's project of creating Poissel itself. The book is full of French puns (it's a facing-page translation) most of which I don't get because, well, I don't read French. If you do, and you like the period Lafarge/Poissel are working in, you'll probably really enjoy this little book. If you are Ross Douthat, you might find the book a little too . . . nice.

Who Are We?: The Challenges to America's National Identity, by Samuel Huntington. I would spend more time on this except that, if you want to learn more about this book, you can look pretty much anywhere; it was reviewed by everybody. Huntington makes several important arguments in the book - about the nature of American identity (as a settler society, and as a Protestant nation) and about the challenge of the current mass immigration (in terms of numbers, in terms of the dominance of a single, nearby country, and in terms of the lack of confidence of the culture that is absorbing them). But this book has three very serious weaknesses. First, it is not data-heavy enough. I don't mean that Huntington needs to dump lots of tables and charts in our lap. I mean that some parts of his argument need to be backed by data, and those parts are generally backed by the plural of anecdote. Second, it is insufficiently comparative in its method. Huntington compares America's current immigration with past immigration. He does not do enough to examine how other bi-cultural societies - Canada, Belgium, Malaysia, India, Israel, South Africa - have functioned or not functioned. If we are headed in the direction of an Anglo-Spanish bi-cultural state - one of the possibilities Huntington entertains - it behooves him to explore more seriously what such an outcome might mean, rather than simply say that this would be a big change from what America has been historically (which is true). Third, and finally, he seems to have gotten cold feet in his final chapter. Huntington comes close to arguing that one of the "solutions" to the problem of American identity in a new multi-racial and multi-cultural America is a reinvigoration of America as a Christian (even Protestant) nation - that is, to center American identity not in race or secular culture or in an abstract creed but in religion. There is considerable evidence that this is precisely what is happening, to some extent consciously: that precisely because we find it harder to call ourselves a white or Anglo nation, we are, in compensation, more and more thinking of ourselves as a Christian nation - the Christian nation par excellence. This is a stratum of American identity that goes very deep down, as Huntington shows. But instead of exploring how American identity is changing to revolve more closely around this specifically Christian axis, Huntington contents himself with pointing out America's religious "exceptionalism" among industrial nations, and leave it at that. The result is a much weaker conclusion than the book's early chapters presaged. In any event, very much worth reading and debating, but far from the definitive statement on the topic.

Now I'm in the middle of Seven Types of Ambiguity, by William Empson. But I'll write about that when I'm finished with it, and the other books I read next month.

Monday, January 30, 2006
Oh, and that prediction I made a while ago that Alito would get 70 votes? I meant that cloture would get 70 votes. Yeah. That's what I meant.

Maybe I'm reading the wrong outlets, but there seem to be a lot of people trying to convince me that Hamas' landslide victory in the PA elections is actually a good thing. There are at least five arguments made why this is so, and all of them strike me as fundamentally wrong-headed.

1. Now Hamas is accountable. They won an election. They're running the show. Hamas has grown in strenght partly because of the obvious failure of Fatah to accomplish anything material for the Palestinian Arabs - forget not having a state, they don't even have reliable electricity and running water. If Hamas fails to achieve anything better, the people who voted for them this time will look elsewhere. Were Hamas not accountable for the (presumed inevitable) failure of their program, they would continue to gain in strength. A Hamas victory is therefore a necessary precondition to Hamas' ultimate defeat, a good thing.

Do I need to point out what's wrong with this argument? I don't mean the slightly complicated reasons why it's wrong: that Hamas may not allow another free election, which would make them not truly accountable; that Hamas' victory may not be due to Fatah's failures to deliver running water so much as Hamas' perceived success in driving Israel out of Gaza; that there is no basis for thinking that should the PA's electorate turn against Hamas they will turn to some more accommodating alternative, as opposed to an even more radical one (this is not impossible: al-Qaeda has, reportedly, begun to operate for the first time in Palestinian Arab cities, and is competing with Hamas and Islamic Jihad by trying to out-crazy them). Forget all that, and just read the last sentence again. The bit about the bad guys' victory leading to their defeat. That is the core of this argument, isn't it? Can you say it with a straight face? I can't.

2. Okay, but that's not the only way accountability could work. Hamas now has strong incentives to moderate - to keep the cash flowing from the US, Europe and Israel, for one thing. Now that Hamas has power, they'll want to keep it. If the best way to keep it is to moderate, then we may see Hamas moderate itself. And that would be a huge victory for the good guys, wouldn't it?

Yes it would. Except that I don't think the incentives to moderate are that strong. Fatah had very strong incentives to present a moderate image - and it did so. But neither Arafat nor Abbas did anything to moderate the actual radicalism of the Palestinian terrorist organizations. Arafat actively supported those allied with Fatah and reached a kind of modus vivendi with Hamas; Abbas had no clout to do anything at all even if he had the inclination. Why can't Hamas play the same game? And, if they don't play the same game, isn't that an indication that Hamas - probably correctly - perceives that the real threat to their power would come from moderation, not continued radicalism? Moderation, after all, would make them accountable. Look what happened to the last guys who tried that strategy.

3. Well, at least the mere fact that there was a free and fair election proves that progress is (or at least was) being made in spreading democracy. One would have thought that Fatah would never have permitted a Hamas victory. That they did proves that the democracy meme is spreading. And that is good news even if this particular result is bad news.

Hmm. I might give this some credence if there were evidence that anywhere in the Arab Muslim world democratization was showing signs of leading to anything but a similar result. Various people have been making happy noises about the possibility of an Assad downfall, or the minor thaw we've seen in Egypt. But the big victors if either country held a truly free election would certainly be the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah. If that's the case, then this alternative argument boils down to a version of one of the two previous arguments, each of which has already proved deficient to say the least.

4. Fine. But if you are so pessimistic, then you must agree with this point: at least it's good to be rid of illusions. Now we know what the Palestinian Arabs want: the destruction of Israel. Israel should therefore have a free hand diplomatically to do what is necessary for her security.

You think so? It seems to me you are also in need of being disillusioned. Please look at arguments #1 through 3 above. Don't those look like good arguments in the arsenal of someone eager to put the onus back on Israel and the West not to blow the latest opportunity for peace? Wouldn't it be terrible if Israel built up Hamas by attacking or isolating them, letting them blame Israel rather than their own policies for the sorry state of the Palestinian Arabs? Wouldn't it be awful if Israel discouraged the moderate "wing" of Hamas by treating them as if they all were terrorists? Isn't there something ironic in the Middle East's only (purported) democracy trying to turn one of the few freely elected Arab governments into a pariah? I've heard all of these arguments already. If you are inclined to oppose Israel diplomatically, you will be supplied with plenty of illusion-maintaining arguments. Hamas' election changes nothing in this regard.

5. I see. It seems you think there are no prospects for diplomatic progress, or indeed for peace, nor do you see Israel's diplomatic position improving in any circumstances. You believe that "it doesn't matter what the goyim think; what matters is what the Jews do." Surely, then, you can see the following silver lining in Hamas' election: it will bring about the inevitable final conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs more swiftly, when the correlation of forces still favors the Israelis. The West may retain its illusions, but not the Israeli people; they will be united in their determination to resist Hamas and preserve their country, whatever it takes.

And what, praytell, does it take? I instinctively resist "the worser the better" type arguments, but I don't disagree that, at the margins, the Hamas victory will further unify Israeli Jews, strengthen the hand of those who favor unilateral separation, and weaken those who favor renewed negotiations. The impact on the right end of the spectrum is more complicated; there are certainly those who will argue that Hamas' victory is the fruit of the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, and thus proves the follow of unilateral withdrawal, and your guess is as good as mine whether that argument will win more votes at the margin than the opposite, that Hamas' victory only proves that holding onto territories with large Arab majorities is folly because coexistence is impossible. If I had to bet, I'd bet it strengthens the separationists more than the far-right types, but it's not a sure thing. But here's something you don't hear people asking about: what is the likely impact of a Hamas victory on Israel's Arab citizen population? One can only assume that, already radicalized by Oslo and the war that followed it, they will be further radicalized. So you're trading a very marginal increase in unity among the already unified Israeli Jewish population for a potentially significant increase in division between Israeli Jews and Arabs. Remind me why this is a silver lining?

Sometimes bad news isn't good news in disguise. Sometimes it's just bad news.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006
And yet another prediction pretty obviously going poorly: Alito's vote total. There are still purportedly 22 undecided Democrats (plus Jeffords) but the overwhelming majority will vote against Alito. There are only three real questions: will the Democrats actually filibuster; if not, how many Democrat votes will Alito finally get; and will there be any GOP defections? I think the answer to the first question is still clearly "no." Whether Alito gets more than 60 "yea" votes total, though, I am no longer sure of.

Of course, I predicted a couple of weeks ago that Alito would get 70 votes; I predicted that the only defections from the Roberts "yea" camp of 78 would be: Dodd, Feingold, Kohl, Leahy, Levin, Murray and Wyden, with the possible addition of Carper, Salazar and Chafee among the defectors possibly offset by Menendez voting "yea." So far, of my 7-10 defectors, 6 have already declared against Alito and 4 (Levin, Murray, Carper and Chafee) have not declared. But 2 that I thought would vote "yea" - Baucus and Nelson of Florida - have already declared against. The most likely to vote to confirm among the undeclared are, I think, Pryor, Lincoln, Landrieu, Dorgan, Conrad and Byrd which - assuming Chafee is the only GOP Senator to vote against - would bring the total to 60. Tradesports now puts only a 24% chance of Alito getting more than 60 votes. That sounds like low odds to me, but not by much, and the odds of him getting more than 63 votes are very low indeed. 58-63 is probably a decent market on how many votes he gets.

Other predictions aren't going so well. Specifically, I am obviously out of touch on Israeli politics.

First I predicted that Sharon would not die this year. Well, he's not dead yet, but for all practical purposes that prediction was flat wrong.

Next, I argued that Kadima needed most urgently to legitimize its new leader, whether Olmert or whoever, by means of an election, if it was to hold together, to say nothing of actually winning an election. Looks like I was wrong about that: the party has closed ranks around Olmert and its electoral standing has held, without any electoral process, whether primary or caucus, being established. I keep expecting Israelis to behave as though they want to live under a normally functioning political system, but that's not the way the country works I guess.

Next, I predicted that Sharon's incapacitation might - might, mind you - give Shinui a new lease on life. Well, that was flat wrong, too: not only has Shinui gone from something like 4 to 6 seats in the polls to zero, but the party has now split in half and its founder has quit. I can't believe the religious, economic and political questions that animated Shinui are banished forever from the Israeli political scene, but it seems like their constituency is happy for the moment to vote Kadima to ensure a resolution - one way or the other - of the existential question of setting the border, and let all other questions wait until another day. Which, when I articulate it, I knew would be the case. I just thought that, since Shinui was the most obvious coalition partner for Kadima, and would more narrowly focus on religious disestablishment, economic liberalism and political reform, that enough voters would pick Shinui to keep the party alive. Looks like I was way wrong.

So, I should stop predicting, right? Wrong. Can't stop myself.

Hamas looks like they've done well in their election. They will enter the government of the Palestinian Authority. Israel will continue to speak to the PA and attempt to start negotiations, but will not speak - formally at least - to Hamas ministers. This refusal will be used as an excuse by the PA to justify the failure of these negotiations. Israel will wind up withdrawing from much of Judea and Samaria without an agreement. Hamas will not disarm, and Israel will in short order wind up in a low-level shooting war with the PA and/or Hamas. Israel will unilaterally declare its borders, which will not be recognized by anyone but Micronesia. Not all of this will happen this year, but I expect all of this to happen.

Well, my track record for predictions is no longer a total wipeout thanks to the good citizens of Canada. Now let's see what the Italians do.

Oh, and I rather think Kevin Michael Grace is indulging in wishful thinking when he speculates that Harper has a "secret agenda" to break up Canada by separating from Quebec by legislation, not waiting for the Quebecois themselves to vote for separation. I do think Quebec will inevitably become a separate country, and I agree that this would be a good thing for Quebec, for Canada and, for that matter, for the United States, on my general principle that functional nation-states make better allies and are better for the state system generally than are dysfunctional states. (The same reasoning underlies my conviction that Israel must separate from the Palestinians and that the U.S. has been foolish in pushing for rapid EU expansion and against the deepening of the EU into something more resembling a sovereign state.) But it's very hard for me to believe that breaking up Canada would be a good political move, and Harper's pandering to Quebec should delay the inevitable by giving the Quebecois more reasons to stay and fewer to go, rather than hasten it.

(As an aside: one doesn't have to be a white nationalist, an ethnic determinist or even an immigration restrictionist to agree with Peter Brimelow that Canada would be a more functional nation-state without Quebec. One of the major downsides of Canada's official bi-culturalism is that it has led to official multi-culturalism, which means that there is decreasingly any "Canada" for immigrants to assimilate to, which means that immigration is, in practice, much more destructive of Canadian national identity than it would necessarily have to be in theory. Numbers matter, yes, but cultural confidence also matters. An Anglo Canada without Quebec would at least have a plausible path to constructing an identity from its Anglo-Celtic settler roots to which immigrants - who, I should note, come primarily from former British colonies like the sub-Continent - would be expected to assimilate to.)

Monday, January 09, 2006
Alito prediction: he will win every vote John Roberts got, minus the following:


Feingold and Wyden will switch because of concerns about Presidential powers, not abortion. Kohl will switch because of Feingold. Dodd, Leahy, Levin and Murray will switch because Alito is too conservative generally; I'm a little puzzled, still, that Dodd and Murray voted for Roberts, and I find it hard to imagine they'll do it again.

Tom Carper I know nothing about. He voted for Roberts and he's not on the judiciary committee (no Democrat on the committee will vote yea this time), so I'm guessing he'll vote for Alito, but I really have no idea.

Because of uncertainty about Carper, and more generally because I think it's more likely Alito loses additional Democratic votes beyond those enumerated above than that any of those enumerated vote in favor, I predict Alito gets a total of 70 votes: 55 Republicans and 15 Democrats (including Jeffords as a Democrat).

Three votes that will be interesting to watch: Chafee, Salazar and Menendez.

If Chafee votes "no" that's an indication he is not worried about a primary challenge, and is worried about the general election. I think he'll vote to confirm, but I don't think a defection is impossible.

If Salazar votes "no" that's an indication he's trying to move up within the Democratic Party. He's not up for reelection this year, and two votes for conservative Bush justices might be too much for the Democratic money-guys. This might be an opportunity for him to throw a sop to the left that they'll remember when he's talking up his prospects as a VP selection.

Menendez, meanwhile, had no opportunity to vote on Roberts. Alito is a New Jersey native and Menendez faces a tough fight to retain the seat he was appointed to by now-Governor Corzine last year. Does it help his chances to vote for Alito or against him? I don't know enough about the dynamics of that race, but it doesn't seem impossible to me that Menendez turns out to be a surprise Democratic yes vote. But it's certainly the less-likely choice.

All sorts of people are furious at the Florida Supreme Court for striking down that state's voucher plan, but if the plan was struck down under a Blaine Amendment (as I believe it was) then it would seem, presumptively, to be a perfectly good originalist outcome. After all, the Blaine Amendments of the various state constitutions were passed precisely to prevent what Florida's voucher program does: give public money to parents to send their kids to sectarian schools.

Which raises the real question: can someone explain to me why Florida still has a Blaine Amendment? These things were passed as an anti-Catholic measure more than a century ago. Today, Evangelical Protestants and Catholics of all stripes are basically on the same side in favoring more educational choice and not having a problem with public money finding its way into the hands of private religious schools. Florida is a Republican state with a big Catholic population - indeed, the Democratic Party in Florida depends increasingly on Catholic Latino (non-Cuban) votes, along with black votes (and black voters are generally strongly pro-voucher and pro-religious schools). Why does Florida still have a Blaine Amendment to their state constitution? Why would the sky fall if that constitution were amended? There are plenty of blue states where I'd expect a fight to remove a Blaine Amendment to be dicey, but Florida? What am I not getting?

Friday, January 06, 2006
Just in case you thought I found the Abramoff scandal too boring too talk about: I don't. I just said the only interesting thing I had to say 6 months ago. But I'm rubbernecking along with the rest of y'all.

Thursday, January 05, 2006
Some other thoughts in the wake of Sharon's stroke.

First, when Sharon first formed Kadima I thought it made sense for both Likud and Labor to focus on uniting the right and left respectively rather than try to take centrist votes away from Kadima, both because National Union (for Likud), Meretz (for Labor) and Shas (for both) were easier prospects but also because if one party followed this strategy and the other fought Kadima for the center, the one who followed the "unite the extreme vote" strategy would win. Why? Because if, say, Labor played left and Likud played center, Likud would be squeezed from both directions - by Kadima and National Union - and Kadima would be fighting off Likud by playing hawkish, which would push marginal left-wing voters towards Labor. Only if both parties aimed to the center could either win with that strategy, which meant that neither should try. Post-stroke, I think everyone's instinct was to say that the game had changed, and now both traditional parties have a real chance to recapture the center. After thinking about it, I think this is false. It's only true if Kadima rapidly disintegrates; in that case: yes, both parties should aim for centrist votes. But if the Labor defectors, for example, don't rapidly rush back to Amir Peretz asking forgiveness, and Kadima more generally holds together, then I don't think Sharon's absence changes the calculation. This is especially true because of the nature of the two party leaders of Labor and Likud - the one a far leftist with no defense experience and little government experience of any kind, the latter a duplicitous Machiavel who has now twice destroyed his party - but it would be true even if these special factors did not obtain. Unless Kadima is an obvious also-ran party, it makes more sense for Labor and Likud to pile up votes on the extremes than to play for the center, simply because of the math.

Second, it is much more important for Kadima to come up with a party structure than a party platform. Kadima supposedly stands for nothing but political opportunism. Untrue. Kadima stands for something very straightfoward: they are the only party that can lead the withdrawal from the territories. Why? Because they are the only party with a leadership sufficiently credible and experienced on national security that is also committed to a withdrawal. No one will trust Amir Peretz, who still says nice things about Oslo, to safeguard their security. No one will trust Bibi to actually pull out. (Nor, for that matter, should anyone on the right trust him not to pull out. No one should trust him, period.) It is true that Kadima has no clear position on religion/state questions, or on economic questions, nor does it have a clear demographic base. All that is to the good, for now. No one is voting for Kadima for any reason but the one I mentioned. That happens to be the overwhelmingly most important issue in Israel today, which is why they should still be favored to win if they can convince Israelis that they can govern themselves. They'll never be permitted to govern the country if they don't prove that first. Which is why it is of paramount importance that the party develop some structure, and a legitimate process for selecting and leader and a list, and why the party platform is of secondary if not tertiary importance.

Third, Shinui has just been granted a new lease on life. They are Sharon's most natural coalition partner, but when Sharon left Likud to found Kadima they started to have a harder time convincing people of the continued need to vote for them. Now, Tommy Lapid can make his case again. Without Sharon around, people may be more interested in hedging their bets without weakening the centrist bloc as a whole. A vote for Shinui is a vote for the center, and a vote, effectively, to keep Kadima honest. Shinui actually stands for something beyond security and withdrawal, after all; they may be perceived by some as the conscience of the centrist bloc. Moreover, Shinui is a home for Labor-type voters who were willing to vote for Sharon but who will be reluctant to vote for Olmert or Mofaz or other Likudnik refugees, a place they would find demographically and ideologically friendly, more so, in some ways, than Amir Peretz's Labor. If Olmert has trouble holding on to these votes, Shinui has a good shot at taking them.

Fourth, it is very hard to see how Kadima forms a coalition without Labor. For that reason, it is critical that Kadima keep Labor's total down. If Kadima gets 30 seats, Labor 15, and Likud 20, Kadima will be the new governing party of Israel, Labor and Shinui will partner with it, and Likud will lead the opposition from the right. If Kadima gets 30 seats, Labor 25, and Likud 10, then Labor is really the opposition, and governing with it will be difficult, if for no other reason than Labor will always be tempted to bolt them government to re-run the election and win this time. But coalition with Likud, even if Likud is devastated, is unlikely; Likud now stands for nothing if not opposition to what Kadima was founded to achieve. A Likud that formed a coalition with Kadima might as well dissolve. Meanwhile, a coalition with neither Likud nor Labor is unlikely to be possible. Shas has trended sharply rightward on national questions, and anyhow Shinui and Shas won't sit together, and Shinui is certain to be in the coalition. Who does that leave? Maybe one or two of the smaller Orthodox parties. Even if Kadima gets 40 seats, it will be hard to see how it will form a coalition with nothing but Shinui and a minor religious party or two. So, if Kadima needs Labor, and therefore needs Labor to be weak, that suggests that nothing is more important than keeping folks like Chaim Ramon and especially Shimon Peres in the party. Nothing, that is, except assuring that none of them winds up being party leader.

Finally, Sharon's entire Prime Ministership, and the rise of Kadima, proves that Israel needs a Presidential system and needs to move from proportional representation in the Knesset to at least a partially jurisdictional-based representation system. Israel faces existential questions. It has faced them for all of its history, but in its first three decades Israel was a much more unified society - not uniform, but unified. And since the decline and fall of the Labor Party it has done a much less good job of facing those questions. When a country faces existential questions, it needs a strong leader. A parliamentary system can produce a strong leader, but usually only when the society is relatively unified. When it is not - as in Israel, as in post-war Italy, as pre-war France and Germany - it produces either paralysis or incipient civil conflict. Sharon managed to pull the country together and govern as a strong leader by sheer force of personality, but the structure of government worked against him at every turn. And while Sharon successfully centralized power in his own hands, it is not obvious that civil liberties, or economic policy, or religious questions, or any of the other matters that divide Israelis should be dealt with the way establishing and securing the nation's borders should be, with a single, strong hand. That's why Israel needs a Presidential system: the people need to be able to vote for one man who can decisively lead on existential, national questions, while also voting for a constituency party. Israel had a system akin to this when they had direct election of the Prime Minister, but because the PM still had to form a coalition, and Knesset could still bring down the government, this system was fatally flawed, grossly over-inflating the power of sectarian parties at the expense of the center. A Presidential system would remove the ability of sectarians to hold the country hostage, but if the Knesset were still elected by proportional rep then they could still paralyze economic and social policy. (By the way: by sectarian parties I do not mean exclusively the religious parties, though Shas is the exemplar in this regard. Shinui is also a sectarian party; so was Am Echad back when it existed; so are the Arab parties.) That's one reason to move to an at least partly jurisdictional-based system. The other reason is that until Israel elects its parliament from geographic areas, there will be little incentive for Arab Israelis to vote for a mainstream party or for the mainstream parties to seriously court the Arab vote. And the alienation of Israel's Arab citizenry is the country's biggest long-term problem. This is a hobby horse I've been on for some time, but this whole Kadima business has only reinforced my convictions on this score.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006
Well, at this moment my second prediction for this year is not looking too good. Even if Sharon recovers (as I hope he does) he cannot responsibly remain in politics. If Kadima is to win the coming election, someone else must lead it. Who?

The obvious answer is Ehud Olmert, who is very close to Sharon, effectively his heir apparent, who has political experience, who has clearly had the same sincere conversion on the ultimate disposition of the territories as Sharon did, and who is currently acting Prime Minister. But he is deeply disliked by key figures in the party and widely disliked around the country. I don't know that he'd be a bad Prime Minister. I do know that, unless he wins a primary, he's going to be in a very poor position to hold the party together and win an election.

On the other hand, it seems unlikely in the extreme that Olmert would simply step aside to make way for Shaul Mofaz or Dan Meridor or, heaven forfend, someone who joined Kadima from Labor.

If they can manage to swing it, it would be very good for Kadima to hold a primary or at least a caucus of some kind to choose their leader. If I were a Kadima voter, I would instinctively incline to support Mofaz for leader simply because I think he'd be the most electable candidate, not because I have any specific attachment to him personally. (I like Dan Meridor, actually, but I think someone with a Hamlet complex of his dimensions would be a poor leader for the new party.)

My not-so-bold prediction: if Kadima's leader does not have clear legitimacy, if he has not earned the leadership of the party, then Kadima will struggle to win the next election. And if it does not win the next election, Kadima will dissolve almost immediately.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006
Oh, by the way: I made a prediction a couple of weeks ago about the transit strike. The day it ended, I opined that I was either spectacularly right or spectacularly wrong. At first it looked like I was wrong. Now it looks like I was right.

Monday, January 02, 2006
Predictions for 2006? Well, if we're going to do that, it behooves us to see how we did last year.

1. Major breakthrough in stem-cell research - using adult monkey stem-cells to treat monkeys. WRONG. The big science news of the year was, in my opinion, the new evidence of human evolution since the dawn of agriculture (likely caused by same). Greg Cochran is right: this is a big deal. And it suggests additional big deal results are coming.

2. Stocks up in Q1 then flat for the rest of the year; bonds flat for the first half of the year then down as short rates keep rising. WRONG, but I'm going to give myself a partial victory for the broader view that stocks would be unexciting (they went virtually nowhere). The bond prediction was just wrong; the yield curve is now inverted, which is weird considering there is still ample evidence of rising inflation. Weird is probably not good.

3. Oscars: I won't run down them all, but mostly WRONG. Jamie Foxx got Best Actor but I completely missed the Million Dollar Baby tsunami.

4. Philip Roth or Salman Rushdie to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. WRONG. But I'll be right some day.

5. Clarence Thomas nominated to replace Rehnquist for Chief Justice, Michael McConnell to take open seat, and Emilio Garza to replace O'Connor. WRONG, WRONG and WRONG.

6. Ariel Sharon to withdraw comprehensively from Gaza. RIGHT! I GOT ONE RIGHT!

7. Taiwan will not declare independence. RIGHT AGAIN! But this one is a negative prediction - something that won't happen - and those are too likely to be right to give much in the way of bragging rights.

8. Musharraf will survive the year. RIGHT AGAIN! But another negative prediction.

9. Brazil and Venezuela will form an anti-American alliance. WRONG! And yet, somehow, America hasn't seen fit to notice that Brazil is behaving so much better than I expected they would.

10. Saudi Arabia will not experience major unrest. RIGHT! But again, a negative prediction, the only kind I seem to get right.

11. There will either be a civil war in the Ukraine or, more likely, Russian ultra-nationalism will grow in strength partly in reaction to Ukraine pulling away from Russia and towards the West. RIGHT! At least, the latter, more likely part is right. And there's still time for a civil war to get going.

12. An anti-immigrant party will win a plurality of a major EU country's parliament, causing a major crisis in the EU. WRONG, so far as I know.

13. Muslims and/or "fundamentalist" Mormons will sue for official recognition of their polygamous unions in Canadian courts. NOT YET, but we're close enough on this one that I probably deserve part credit.

14. Tony Blair disestablishes the Church of England. WRONG. This probably won't happen until the reign of King Charles III, Defender of Faith (no "the").

15. There will be significant Jewish terrorism in an attempt to prevent the Gaza withdrawal. Thank-God this one was WRONG.

Well, now that I've established my comprehensively lousy track record, I'll make some predictions for 2006.

1. Senator John McCain will stage a significant Mountain-Muhammad confab with a major leader of the religious Right (e.g., Dobson, Colson - not Robertson, obviously) who will bless him in his quest for the GOP nomination. His GOP numbers will immediately improve and his general election numbers and image with the media will immediately drop as all concerned discover that he is a Republican. Giuliani will not run for President. The remaining GOP candidates will compete all year to position themselves as the anti-McCains. Tom Tancredo will declare that if McCain is the nominee, he will run for President as an independent. Whether or not to seize immigration as the issue on which to run against McCain becomes a major point of debate in the conservative blogosphere, but not in the actual campaign.

2. Kadima (Sharon's new party) will win a resounding victory in the Israeli parliamentary elections, but Sharon will still have difficulty cobbling together a coalition because (a) the parties to his right do better than expected, but they are committed to refuse to join a coalition unless further unilateral withdrawals are ruled out; (b) Labor and Meretz refuse, at least initially, to form a government with Sharon; and (c) Shinui (whose representation drops in half, but is still a factor) refuses to sit in a government with the ultra-Orthodox parties. Sharon uses his difficulties as the springboard to propose major changes to Israel's constitution making the Prime Minister more independent of the parliament. Outside of Israel, the least-noticed story about the Israeli elections is that the percentage of Labor votes coming from Arab voters hits an all-time high. Meanwhile, terrorist attacks planned in Gaza will prompt Israel to send the IDF back into the territory in a small-scale repeat of Operation Defensive Shield. Sharon will not die.

3. Canada will finally elect a Conservative government - barely. Italy, on the other hand, will elect Romano Prodi.

4. Hosni Mubarak will be hospitalized for a period of days, during which speculation about the stability of Egypt will spiral out of control. Then he'll come out of the hospital to rule for several more years.

5. Lopez Obrador will win the Mexican Presidency by a decisive margin. This will not be the end of the world, and in particular will not mean major changes in Mexican fiscal or monetary policy. But it will be the end of the period of remarkably friendly relations between Mexico and the U.S. that obtained under the last two presidencies, and a return to something resembling the historic norm - not adversarial relations, but not exactly friendly. Lopez Obrador will ostentatiously embrace Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales and will court the EU, China and Brazil as a way of "restraining" American imperialism, but this will mostly amount to rhetoric. Mexico, Bolivia and Venezuela will, however, declare that they are opposed to American attempts to combat the drug trade by military means, and cooperation in this area will be significantly affected.

6. Brokeback Mountain will win Best Picture. Other nominees: Walk the Line, Good Night and Good Luck, Munich, and I'm not sure what else. Ang Lee will win Best Director. Kiss Philip Seymour Hoffmann will win Best Actor for Capote. Other nominees: Heath Ledger for Brokeback Mountain, David Strathairn for Good Night and Good Luck, Joaquin Phoenix for Walk the Line, and Jeff Daniels for The Squid and the Whale. Reese Witherspoon will win Best Actress for Walk the Line. Laura Linney will also be nominated, for The Squid and the Whale, as will Judi Dench for Mrs. Henderson Presents, but I'm not sure who else. The Capote Oscar will be the second data point that will allow journalists to extrapolate a "trend" from Brokeback Mountain and 2005 will be known as the year of the "gay film breakout" in Hollywood. Someone somewhere will also notice that everyone nominated for everything this year is white. Maybe Morgan Freeman will be nominated for Best Voice for March of the Penguins so everyone can breathe easier. I should note that, of the films mentioned above, Penguins is the only one I've seen, though I really wanted to see Capote (and I suppose I will rent it).

7. Neither North Korea nor Iran will test a nuclear weapon. And neither country will be attacked by either the U.S. or any other country. Nor will either country experience regime change.

8. A major terrorist incident will occur in Russia, bigger than even the spectacular events that have already occurred. The last vestiges of democratic governance and the rule of law will be eliminated in response. Nonetheless, the West will conclude, collectively, that we had better continue betting on Putin because the alternatives - chess-playing dissenters notwithstanding - are worse.

9. Stocks will have a surprisingly strong year, led by business equipment, technology and telecom. The housing market will continue to soften and the dollar will weaken. Gains to stocks will be driven by: an upswing in business investment; an increase in corporate leverage, increasing returns to shareholders at the expense of bondholders; and utter legislative paralysis in Washington. There will be no Bernanke-panic-induced market tumble, but not because inflation is tame; inflation will be higher than anticipated by year-end.

10. Tom Delay will lose his House seat. Rick Santorum will lose his Senate seat. Harold Ford will win the open Senate seat in Tennessee. Nonetheless, the GOP will hold both houses of Congress, albeit by reduced margins. This will fool Republicans into thinking they are more popular than they are.

11. Donald Rumsfeld will resign. He will not be replaced by John McCain or James Webb. So will John Snow. He will not be replaced by Larry Kudlow or James Cramer.

12. America will not substantially withdraw from Iraq; any troop drawdowns will be largely PR stunts. The news will continue to be a wearying mix of good and bad, with no signs of an end but no sufficiently dramatic negative news to change the political dynamic in America. Iraq will remain a unitary state, but not indefinitely; Kurdistan will eventually break off, but not this year.

13. General Motors will fire its CEO. The new CEO will be widely expected to take the company into Chapter 11 in 2007. A Chinese company will publicly speculate about purchasing some or all of GM's brands. Pat Buchanan will cite this as evidence of the imminent end of the Republic. He will be wrong.

14. John Derbyshire will actually read the first novel in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, and discover that he likes it very much. He will speculate aloud in The Corner about whether he is unconsciously trying to get himself fired. Fortunately for his wife and children, he'll decide he doesn't like the third book in the series, and is kept on.

15. Al Gore will form an exploratory committee pursuant to a Presidential campaign. So will John Kerry. The Gore announcement will be news. No one will notice what John Kerry does. (Yes, I am stealing this prediction outright from Mickey Kaus. Sue me.)

16. I will try my first bottle of wine from the Gobi Desert.

17. One "crisis" country in the news will be The Philippines. Some combination of terrorism, corruption, domestic instability, economic crisis - the country will be in the news, because bad things will be happening. However America responds, China will emerge the more influential in that country.

18. A referendum will be held to break up at least one of the following countries: Belgium, Canada, Italy, Bosnia, Iraq, Spain.

19. The German Party of Democratic Socialism will take a sharp nationalist turn. An utterly politically incorrect statement by a party leader - about deporting foreigners, or retaking Konigsberg, or something similary inflammatory - will give the party a noticeable boost to third place in the polls (very far behind the CDU/CSU and Social Democrats, but meaningfully ahead of the Free Democrats and Greens). As with Le Pen in France, the rise of the Unacceptable Right in Germany will prompt general hand-wringing and urgent calls to redouble efforts towards political union in Europe.

20. Japan's economic recovery will accelerate. It's nascent pro-natal policy initiatives will also begin to bear fruit, surprisingly quickly, albeit modestly. Japanese nationalism will also be on the rise, with increasing questions whether the country should change its constitution to permit a more robust forward defense, what naval and missile capabilities are necessary to deter a rising China, and whether Japan should even become a declared nuclear power in its own right. The rising sun will be a year-long news story in 2006.

21. Sam Alito will be confirmed with at least 65 and fewer than 75 votes. No other Supreme Court Justices will retire or die in 2006. Roe v. Wade will not be overturned.

22. Eliot Spitzer will be elected Governor of New York, as punishment for Pataki's sins. Steve Westly will be elected Governor of California, after upsetting Phil Angelides in the primary. Ted Strickland will be elected Governor of Ohio. By the end of 2006, Democrats will have elected a substantial number of Senators and Governors with White House potential - the GOP "bench strength" advantage will have evaporated. This won't matter for 2008 much, but it will in 2012, 2016 and 2020.

23. Carbs will be good for you again; the new health bugaboo will be caffeine.

24. Bruce Ratner will get whatever he wants development-wise. Larry Silverstein will not.

25. I will finally write a book.

Well, Happy New Year everybody! My New Year's celebration was actually quite tame; stayed home with the wife and son and (with the wife but not the son; he was asleep by then) watched the fireworks outside our window in Prospect Park, then went to bed. I didn't plan anything ambitious for New Year's because, well, only a few day's earlier we'd hosted our annual Hanukkah party, this year on the fourth night. Here's last year's menu. Here's 2003's. And here's 2005's menu:

Potato latkes with sour cream, apple sauce, salmon roe, and matjes herring
Fried cod cakes served with lime pickle
Deep fried radicchio, broccoli rabe and lemon slices (yes, fried lemon slices)
Deep fried polenta and anchovy sandwiches
Stuffed artichoke bottoms
Spinach quiche
Quinoa salad with roast eggplant, edamame and sauteed vegetables
Fennel and apple salad with tarragon and lemon vinaigrette
Roast vegetable medley
Hummus and crudites
Baked artichoke and parmesan dip
Cheese plate with crackers
Frozen pineapple and coconut truffles
Chocolate orange cake
Date and almond cake
Chocolate tart with a pecan crust topped with raspberries
Sufganiot (jelly donuts)
Assorted nuts, olives, pickles, dried fruits, cookies, chocolates and the like

The menu was complicated this year by the presence of numerous gluten-intolerant guests, so I made flourless latkes (my usual policy anyway), but also modified the cod cakes and polenta sandwiches to be gluten-free (in the first case I substituted a mix of ground almonds and cornstarch for flour; in the second, I coated with cornstarch rather than flour), and both cakes and the tart were entirely flourless, as were the truffles and most of the cookies. And everything worked, if I say so myself; I think this was the first year without any out-and-out culinary flops.

Things were also complicated by the presence of upwards of 75 guests.

Everything was homemade, except for the cookies (which were store bought) and the sufganiot and tiramisu (each of which was homemade, but made by a guest who brought them). I kind of went a little nuts this year, but everything was made in advance so I actually spent the party with guests, and enjoyed it immensely.

But I think if I have a dinner party in January, it will be a bit smaller.