Tuesday, September 30, 2008

I Hate Polls (Sort Of)

I read them, but I hate them. Actually, I'll acknowledge a like-hate relationship. They can be highly informative, or highly misleading. The way you phrase a question can dramatically skew the outcome, as can any number of other factors. For political junkies, they can be a lot of fun.

But although polls inspire much triumphalism and gloominess, what do they really mean? About six weeks ago, we heard a continuous whine from partisans and pundits that Obama wasn't polling at over 50%, and that this somehow meant he couldn't close the deal. As if you can close an election that far out in a nation that's pretty evenly divided, absent a horrendous scandal befalling your opponent. Then McCain had his post-convention/Palin bounce, and it was nothing but doom and gloom from Obama's supporters. Now Obama's polling significantly ahead of McCain, he's over 50% in a couple of polls, and we have people claiming that unless something big happens McCain can't win.

Guess what - the economic problems we're presently facing are big, and they happened. Lots of things can happen in five weeks, and it's not that you want any game-changers to come along, as they're often catastrophic, but... they could. And perhaps what we're seeing right now is a "financial bail-out bill bounce", not something that will hold any more than the McCain post-convention bounce. So let's take the polls for what they're worth, but remember that we're still five weeks away from the only poll that matters.

Monday, September 29, 2008

"How We Became the United States of France"

Worth reading. It probably would have been funnier yesterday, and it will probably seem less satirical tomorrow.

Personally, I'm in the "France is a nice place to visit, but..." category. That said, it's a really nice place to visit. If you're staying in Paris, check out the Hotel Saint James near Place Victor Hugo - tourists (who want to be a bit off the beaten tourist path) should check for good specials, and everybody else should max out the corporate credit card.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Good Health Insurance? That's for Rich People

John McCain opines,
[McCain a]ppeared to concede that his health care plan would result in higher taxes for some. McCain favors a $5,000 annual tax credit to help individuals and families afford health insurance, but that could leader employers to drop their current plans, including some that could not be replaced for $5,000.

"It depends on, on, on what plan they have," McCain said. "But that's usually the wealthiest people. Ordinary working Americans have the kind of, or an overwhelming majority have the health insurance plans that this tax credit, refundable tax credit, will actually put more money in their pockets for the purchase of health care than what they had before."
So as McCain sees it, most people have crappy insurance and thus would profit from McCain's proposal?

No offense, John, and conceding that you're a rich person who doesn't have to care, but how much would cost you to obtain insurance - even crappy insurance - on the private market? How much would the coverage you receive as a Senator cost if you had to purchase equivalent coverage as an individual? The official McCain campaign position:
While still having the option of employer-based coverage, every family will receive a direct refundable tax credit - effectively cash - of $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families to offset the cost of insurance.
A dose of reality:
In 2007, employer health insurance premiums increased by 6.1 percent - two times the rate of inflation. The annual premium for an employer health plan covering a family of four averaged nearly $12,100. The annual premium for single coverage averaged over $4,400.
Even if we assume that the cost of insurance won't rise for individuals purchasing coverage as individuals, as opposed to at group rates through an employer-sponsored plan, and even if we assume that the average cost of health care is misleading with a median cost of insurance considerably below the average, this doesn't sound like a good deal for working people or their families. If the goal is to lock working people into policies with minimal coverage, though, it sounds like a heckuva plan.

The Absurdity of Running Against Earmarks

John McCain's official campaign position on earmarks:
I will veto every bill with earmarks, until the Congress stops sending bills with earmarks.
John McCain, acting as a Senator:
Republican presidential candidate John McCain said Sunday he probably would have voted for legislation to keep the federal government running after midweek, even though it was packed with the kind of "outrageous pork-barrel spending" he has long opposed.

"That's the way they always do," the Arizona senator said dismissively of fellow lawmakers. "You put in the, you put in the good deals, and then you put in the pork, as well." He said separate votes should be allowed on the bill's different provisions.

McCain did not vote on the measure when it cleared Congress on Saturday, although he returned to Washington after Friday night's campaign debate in Mississippi. McCain said he was working on other matters at the time of the vote, including negotiations on a bailout of the financial industry.

"I certainly would have done everything in my power to remove those earmarks," he told ABC's "This Week" in an interview. "But I may have voted for it if, I probably would have ended up voting for it, but I decry a system where individual members are, are faced with taking all this unacceptable, outrageous stuff that has contributed to the largest growth in spending since the Great Society."
So as a Senator he sees the necessity of voting for a bill, loaded with earmarks, to keep the government running or to avoid a financial crisis, but as President he would veto the bill and shut down the government or allow the credit markets to freeze up? Why do I doubt that.

Focusing on government waste and excess is easy because there are so many measures that either appear wasteful or are wasteful, and people don't like to see their taxpayer dollars wasted. But they're a reality in our political system, and it's not realistic to threaten to veto "every bill" that contains earmarks. There's also the question of whether particular earmarks, even those that are among the easiest to ridicule, are inappropriate uses of federal funds. Does McCain understand the purpose of analyzing bear DNA in Montana? If so, does he oppose the goals of those who requested and obtained that earmark? Also, unfortunately, we can't balance the budget, or even make an appreciable dent in the deficit, even with the total elimination of earmarks - technically they don't even increase the budget, but instead allocate funds that have already been appropriated to specific projects.

I'm singling out McCain hear because of the particular absurdity of his concession that, yes, he would vote for bills with earmarks (and in fact voted in favor of the bill containing the Grizzly Bear DNA earmark). I'm not sure, though, if it is worse to throw out fake "solutions" to deficits, or to take Obama's approach, pretty much ignoring the issue. I don't expect Presidential candidates to spend a lot of time talking about how to balance a budget, save perhaps for those rare occasions when they're fighting over how to burn through a budget surplus. But I wish we were in a culture where we could have a mature discussion of deficits and tax policy within the context of a Presidential election, or for that matter at any other time. There's a media failure here, but it's also a societal failure of will.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Sometimes a Bargain Hunter Just Can't Resist....

It seems like so long ago, but it was only about six months. I was commenting to a bank manager at Chase about how I had ended up with a Chase account through a series of bank mergers. The bank manager replied that they had expanded considerably through mergers, but were "done with that for a while." But you know, things change.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Trying to Pull Rank

A "Rodney Dangerfield" parenting moment while kidding around with my (almost four-year-old) daughter....
Emma: Why do you want me to do that?

Me: Because I'm the boss of you.

Emma: You're not the boss.

Me: Okay, then who's the boss of you?

Emma: Mommy's the boss.

Where Men are Men and the Sheep Are....

Okay, no jokes about Calhoun County. But in light of a recent ruling by the Michigan Court of Appeals, that acts of bestiality don't require registration as a sex offender, I think there's room for a difference of opinion. Is this a good rulling? Or is it baaaaaaad?

(Read the opinion here [PDF])

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Urging Caution

Dan Larison can't quite buy into Michael Gerson-style bail-out enthusiasm.
If the consequences of rejecting the plan are as bad as the administration says, why would the plan’s primary beneficiaries not jump at the chance to have the government purchase these toxic assets? If they wouldn’t jump at the chance, doesn’t that suggest that things may not be quite as bleak as we are being told? Isn’t it then reasonable to ask why Congress and the public should be railroaded into accepting a deeply flawed plan?
Dare I say, typical of Larson (and I mean that in a good way), you can read more, and more, and more (with no doubt more to come) on his blog.

Just Look How They Were Duped By FNMA....

McCain's economic advisors1, drawn from the American Enterprise Institute, seem to be pushing a "poor little rich guys" line, where the entire present fiscal crisis was foisted upon wide-eyed innocents at the nation's financial institutions by evil executives at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. (And oh, were they innocent.) Let's not understate the FNMA/FDMC role, or the bipartisan failure of Congressional oversight, but c'mon.

CJR brings us some of the allegations made against major players in the mortgage industry, in quiz form.
I believe my former colleagues, in rushing into such high-concept fare, have underplayed a good story. Sure, we have an idea that bad practices occurred, along with bad judgment, but do we really know the sweep of it all? Since it’s just us business reporters here—just us chickens—let me illustrate what I mean with a quiz. Match the allegation with the institution. Answers are at the end of the piece.

1. Handed out copies of the movie Boiler Room as a training tape

2. Partnered to sell its “PayOption Arms” with a brokerage owned by a five-time felon, whose convictions included gun-related charges

3. Forbade loan officers to check borrower income on certain loans

4. Ran an “art department” in its Tampa office, where documents were altered

5. Settled allegations of institutionalized marketing deception that covered two million customers

6. Developed “FastQual,” a program designed to approve borrowers in twelve seconds

7. Incentivized brokers and loan officers through “yield spread premiums” and other compensation schemes to put borrowers into more expensive loans

8. Tapped two kegs of beer at weekly staff meetings

A. Citigroup

B. Countrywide

C. Ameriquest

D. IndyMac

E. Merit Financial

F. New Century

G. All of the above

This is not a take-home exam. If you don’t get more than two of seven, I think we have work to do.
Click through and read (or scroll) to the bottom for the answers.
1. McCain Senior Economic Advisor Kevin Hasset's breathless, sensational headline, "How the Democrats Created the Financial Crisis", has been parroted throughout much of the right-wing blogosphere, his argument (while remaining the display of partisanship you would expect from an active McCain advisor) suggests broader Congressional responsibility. Curiously, a mere six months ago, he wasn't so sure we were even in a bubble and argued that the primary cause of any inflation in home values was excessive land use regulation. In the interim he was arguing that protecting polar bears would bring us $200/bbl oil, and presumably was whispering, "The fundamentals of our economy are strong" in McCain's ear.

McCain Advisor Peter Wallison can point to a better track record on FNMA/FDMC, and is a bit more circumspect in his headline, even if he tries to distract his readers from a bipartisan history of Congressional and regulatory failure, and overstate the role of FNMA/FDMC.

Faith-Based Economics

They say that fools rush in where angels fear to tread. If that's the case, Michael Gerson's definitely not on the side of the angels:
A sitting president normally must accept the boring constraints of real-world choices. Campaigns can inhabit the utopia of their own ambitions.

But it is President Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, by proposing the massive government purchase of bad debt, who have assumed the mantle of Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is John McCain and Barack Obama who are playing the role of Roosevelt's more timid, forgotten foils, "Martin, Barton and Fish."
He hearkens to His Master's Voice, but the best defense he can come up with is, "Bush is the new FDR"? That's the sort of comparison a wag might drop on a Bush supporter right as he takes a sip of his cocktail, with the hope of seeing it spray from his nose. I actually think Gerson is being sincere in this comparison, perhaps because he sees the Great Society programs as compassionate conservatism in action. But is there any rational basis for this parallel, other than "This is potentially a really big, really bad financial crisis?"

Gerson's argument boils down to, "Bush has an idea! Yet McCain wants to step back and see the big picture before acting, and Obama is being cautious." Is Bush's proposal any good? Well, it's from Bush and it's "massive", and apparently that's all Gerson needs to know. (What would Gerson say to those who argue that FDR's fiscal policy was unwise and prolonged the depression?)

We might ask Gerson, "How have things worked out when we blindly followed Bush's other 'big ideas'", but I suspect Gerson would actually tell us, "Everything turned out great!" So of course we should turn over almost a trillion dollars, forbid any judicial or legislative oversight, and... hope things turned out as well as they did in hunting down Bin Laden... Iraq... New Orleans... (Or is it that he wants us to "double down" on the assumption that no President can have a losing streak this long without eventually getting something right, with this being Bush's last card.)

Nigerian Email Scam Update

Mike at Crime & Federalism warns of of the latest version.... Watch out, because a lot of people seem to be about to fall for this one.

Monday, September 22, 2008

If Kristol, Reich, Mallaby and Krugman Are All Skeptical....

Although you may not get a sense of it from reading this blog, as I focus on the 10% at issue, I don't much care for the brand of debate where people focus exclusively on the 10% of issues that give rise to contentious political debate, rather than the remaining, soft 90% of issues where people are mostly indifferent or are largely in agreement. Despite occasional controversy, it's hard to find someone who gets hot under the collar because our nation "doesn't have the sense" to eliminate the Electoral College. You would have to work pretty darn hard to find somebody who is incensed that we don't have a unicameral legislature, or that Presidents are elected every four years. You may find people who scoff in one direction or the other at notions of an "ownership society", but general concepts of capitalism and private property are uncontroversial.

But sometimes the stars align in funny ways, and a consensus forms among people on an issue that is controversial despite their political differences, or get incensed on a topic where the mainstream media seems to be largely reacting with a shrug. Perhaps it isn't too surprising that Paul Krugman, economist, and Sebastian Mallaby, defender of the financial industry, both question the Bush Administration's proposed $700 billion financial industry bailout. Given what's known of the plan, I would be surprised to see any economist not demand additional details or question the viability of the plan as proposed. And Mallaby's defense of the financial industry necessarily involves making the industry responsible for its own failings. When you advocate leaving the industry largely unregulated such that financial geniuses can find clever ways to make money without the interference of government, you can't credibly argue that when those geniuses mess up - big time - that the government should bail them out with a blank check.

Krugman's instinct may be toward more regulation and Mallaby's toward less, but their common ground is to try to hold financial institutions responsible. Putting things in very simple terms, with regulation you risk stifling innovation, and you may still the source of an eventual financial crisis. With less regulation (and I'm not aware of anybody who is seriously involved with these issues who advocates none) you risk what we're seeing right now, but you enjoy the fruits of the innovation that might otherwise occur. Under the Mallaby approach, holding financial institutions responsible for their own failures is even more critical, as that's the check that is supposed to keep them responsible in their experimentation and innovation.

Robert Reich is a very smart man, but he also has a clear political affiliation, as does Bill Kristol. Reich offers some proposals that, apparently, would make this bailout acceptable to him. (Contrast that with Mallaby, who proposed alternate plans that might achieve the desired effect without a taxpayer subsidy.) Reich's credulity - this is a plan he seems to believe we can fix - lends credence to Kristol's worry, which is sufficient in magnitude to overwhelm his more typical deference to the latest party memo:
[The plan] would enable the Treasury, without Congressionally approved guidelines as to pricing or procedure, to purchase hundreds of billions of dollars of financial assets, and hire private firms to manage and sell them, presumably at their discretion There are no provisions for - or even promises of - disclosure, accountability or transparency. Surely Congress can at least ask some hard questions about such an open-ended commitment.

And I’ve been shocked by the number of (mostly conservative) experts I’ve spoken with who aren’t at all confident that the Bush administration has even the basics right — or who think that the plan, though it looks simple on paper, will prove to be a nightmare in practice.

But will political leaders dare oppose it?
It depends upon how much cover they get. And despite Kristol's skepticism of the plan as a whole, his proposed fixes for the plan are far less significant than Reich's.
Comments by McCain on Sunday suggest he might propose an amendment along the lines of one I received in an e-mail message from a fellow semi-populist conservative: “Any institution selling securities under this legislation to the Treasury Department shall not be allowed to compensate any officer or employee with a higher salary next year than that paid the president of the United States.” This would punish overpaid Wall Streeters and, more important, limit participation in the bailout to institutions really in trouble.
Reduced salaries for one year? You could drive a semi through the loopholes that idea creates. But to his credit, Kristol ends up more in Mallaby's and Krugman's territory than in Reich's:
While assuring the public and the financial markets that his administration will act forcefully and swiftly to deal with the crisis, [McCain] could decide that he must oppose the bailout as the panicked product of a discredited administration, an irresponsible Congress, and a feckless financial establishment, all of which got us into this fine mess.
Many have observed our society's tendency to cheer on capitalism and private profits, but to socialize losses. This appears to be a grotesque example of the Bush Administration doing exactly that - with the financial industry eagerly demanding an even larger bailout of all of its junk assets. I'll credit Reich, Mallaby and Krugman with far more knowledge of economics and market theory than I, so (dare I say, like Kristol - I guess we're in that area of overlap that's so often hidden in plain sight) I'm operating more on instinct. But my instincts are screaming, "This is an incredibly bad deal for everybody but Bush, Paulson and a handful of financial elites."
Update: Dean Baker observes,
If the bailout were properly structured, firms would not be lining up to get in. It should be a last resort that involves selling most of the firm to the government, as happened with AIG. If banks are lining up to get in, then the people who designed the bailout should be chased out of town.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Battle of the Sound Bites

Eagerly awaiting Friday's debate? This is about what I expect.
You may be familiar with some of the dramatic, history-turning moments. Gerry Ford saying in 1976 that there was no Soviet domination of Poland. Ronald Reagan asking voters in 1980 to devastating effect: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Bill Clinton locking eyes with a citizen in 1992 who asked him to put a human face on the deficit problem, as George HW Bush stood by mute. Al Gore sighing too much in 2000.

If that last example doesn't seem of a piece with the others, there's a reason. These days, debates aren't 90 minutes. They're 72 hours. In today's American media culture of cable television and ideologically competing blogs, there is first the debate itself and then the debate over the debate. The latter is hashed out over the three days following the debate, during which the instant, debate-night conventional wisdom can be turned on its head by the side that has the more aggressive spin operation.
I can hardly wait.

Palin's Email Hacker

If this turns out to be accurate... How embarrassing for dad.

McCain's Stance on Social Security

FactCheck.org has challenged Obama's campaign over his depiction of McCain's Social Security plan. And I think that they're right, that if Obama's campaign is referring to the "Bush-McCain privatization plan", that it's fair to look at the terms of Bush's 2005 privatization plan and criticize the Obama campaign's exaggerations and distortions.

But what are we to make of the void?
While McCain has voted in favor creating private Social Security accounts in the past, and endorsed Bush's 2005 proposal (which never came to a vote in Congress), he is not making a strong push for them as part of his campaign. In fact, a search for the term "Social Security" on the McCain-Palin Web site brings up the following: "No documents were found."
That's true - except it's misleading, as the problem is with McCain's search algorithm. Compare Google's search results.

But they're still mostly right - John McCain's statements on Social Security are sparse and hollow. For example,
Reform Social Security: John McCain will fight to save the future of Social Security and believes that we may meet our obligations to the retirees of today and the future without raising taxes. John McCain supports supplementing the current Social Security system with personal accounts -- but not as a substitute for addressing benefit promises that cannot be kept. John McCain will reach across the aisle, but if the Democrats do not act, he will. No problem is in more need of honesty than the looming financial challenges of entitlement programs. Americans have the right to know the truth and John McCain will not leave office without fixing the problems that threatens our future prosperity and power.
So apparently John McCain will work to "meet our obligations to the retirees of today and the future" except for those "promises that cannot be kept"? That's awfully nebulous. Is there a more coherent statement of McCain's plan?
Politicians refuse to talk straight about Social Security and Medicare: the current Social Security system is unsustainable. Period. A half century ago, sixteen American workers supported every retiree. Today, it's just three. Soon, it will be only two. If we don't make some tough choices, Social Security and Medicare either won't be there for our children and grandchildren or we will have had to raise taxes so dramatically to support them that we will crush the prosperity of average Americans.
Okay, this must be what we're all looking for. So on to the "straight talk":
I will fight to save the future of Social Security and Medicare by reaching my hand across the aisle, but if the Democrats won't act, give me the responsibility and I will. If Congress won't act, I will demand an up or down vote on my plan. No problem is in more need of honesty than the looming insolvency of our entitlement programs. No government program is the object of more political posturing and spin than Social Security and Medicare. Americans have the right to know the truth, no matter how bad it is. I won't leave office without doing everything I can to fix the fiscal problem that, more than any other, threatens our future prosperity and power.
So his "straight talk" is that he'll "reach across the aisle" to demand of Congress a plan he deems acceptable. (Apparently we have to read his mind to know what would be acceptable.) If they don't, he'll offer a "take it or leave it" plan, and if they say, "Thanks, but we'll leave it," he'll ask that they vote on his plan anyway. Whatever his plan happens to be. And since we have "the right to know the truth" about his plan, "no matter how bad it is", he's going to keep every detail of his plan secret.


Just like his secret plan to capture Bin Laden.

There's plenty of room to savage McCain on the Social Security issue without exaggerating. "McCain says that some of our Social Security benefit promises cannot be kept. But he won't tell us which promises aren't worth keeping, or whether he intends to break the promises made to retirees who rely on Social Security to make ends meet. McCain has promised us 'straight talk' on Social Security, but he doesn't deliver. Is that another of the promises he doesn't plan to keep?"

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Bailout

Paul Krugman shares some skepticism about the financial system bailout:
I hate to say this, but looking at the plan as leaked, I have to say no deal. Not unless Treasury explains, very clearly, why this is supposed to work, other than through having taxpayers pay premium prices for lousy assets.
He contrasts the present bailout with the S&L bailout, noting that there is "nothing that gives taxpayers a stake in the upside, nothing that ensures that the money is used to stabilize the system rather than reward the undeserving."

But I suspect that's the point of the plan.

You Gotta Love Those Odds

According to Rasmussen,
Market data is updated on a 24/7 basis by market participants and current give Obama a 51.3 % chance of victory. Expectations for McCain are at 47.4 %.
So... 1.3% Ron Paul?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Everything's Coming Up Roses

What is it with Bush's economic advisors, anyway? First Phil Gramm, now this:
Things today just aren't that bad. Sure, there are trouble spots in the economy, as the government takeover of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and jitters about Wall Street firm Lehman Brothers, amply demonstrate. And unemployment figures are up a bit, too. None of this, however, is cause for depression - or exaggerated Depression comparisons.
No, they're not that bad... if you're wealthy. It's just not so great for everybody else. If you live in Michigan, where "recession" is a multi-year reality, it's hard to see any bright lights at the end of the tunnel.

It's a lot easier to wave around red herrings, such as, "It's a wild overstatement to compare our current situation to a depression", than it is to address the financial difficulties our nation faces. Difficulties compounded by the vast amounts borrowed and spent on the Iraq War. You can view that war as an absolute necessity or an utter frivolity, but there can be little mistake as to the effect of its trillion dollar price tag on our nation's budget. Further, not all comparisons to the Great Depression are overblown - they may not indicate that we have another depression on our horizon, but they highlight how serious our post-Bush financial predicament has become.

Luskin attempts to reassure us,
Moreover, MBA data show that today's foreclosures are concentrated in that small fraction of U.S. homes financed by subprime mortgages. Such homes make up only 12 percent of all mortgages, yet account for 52 percent of foreclosures. This suggests that today's mortgage difficulties are probably a side effect of the otherwise happy fact that, over the past several years, millions of Americans of modest means have come to own their own homes for the first time.
Well then, somebody had better clue my bank in, because they seem to think my neighborhood is at risk.

As for savings, Luskin tries to pull a fast one - take a quote from Obama that relates to recent financial data and pretend it's about the latest figures - figures for one quarter that post-date Obama's statement and are likely anomalous
Let's hope, despite the dearth of evidence, that the most recent figures do represent a turnaround. Luskin, unfortunately, presents no evidence of that, but otherwise the trend appears to be as Obama described - and it's ugly. But it does not appear that Luskin's trying to be honest here - he appears to be trying to distract us from the trends by comparing one of the best savings rates for a single quarter under Bush to one of the worst under Clinton.
And to be fair, [McCain] isn't immune to the Depression-exaggeration virus, either. At a campaign news conference in July, my fellow adviser Steve Forbes warned that Obama was seeking "the biggest tax increase since Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression." Factual? Almost certainly not.
Almost? Wouldn't "big fat lie" be more accurate?
But at least Forbes wasn't dissing the economy -- he was dissing Obama.
Ah. So it's okay to tell outright lies about a candidate, as long as you don't state what appears to be the truth about the economy in an unflattering light.

Luskin can't help himself from defending Phil Gramm:
McCain campaign adviser and former U.S. senator Phil Gramm was right in July when he said that our current state "is a mental recession." Maybe he was out of line when he added that the United States has become "a nation of whiners." But when it comes to the economy, we have surely become a nation of exaggerators.
Does Luskin have a mirror handy? Because from where I'm sitting Luskin is either exaggerating himself, or is wearing rose-colored glasses.

Bad War Coverage

Fred Hiatt personifies a lot of the problems with the mainstream media, not the least of which is its coverage of the Iraq war. Throughout the conflict, the media focus has been on military action and violence. There's been scant coverage of the political situation in Iraq, or how inter- and even intra-sectarian conflicts continues to pose an impediment to peace and the withdrawal of forces. Hiatt, a reliable cheerleader for the war, now brings us this:
It's easy to forget the utter hopelessness that had settled on Washington with regard to Iraq less than two years ago.
Sure, it's easy to forget because without high levels of violence, the mainstream media sees little need to even cover the war. Britney's public meltdown? Lipstick on a pig? Those are stories.
And it's easy to forget the nearly universal skepticism that greeted President Bush's announcement of a new strategy in January 2007.
It's easy to forget how well-grounded that skepticism was, given the abject incompetence of the Bush Administration's conduct of the war to that point. A lot of the skepticism wasn't directed at the idea that more troops could reduce violence - it was a question of, "Is this too little, too late." As it turns out, the Anbar Awakening had a profound effect on levels of violence, as has the effective ethnic segregation of formerly integrated neighborhoods of Baghdad. Those aren't effects of "the surge", though, and it isn't even clear to what degree the surge has helped with recent successes in Iraq. Don't take my word for it - take the word of General Petraeus:1
So would the Sunni Awakening have succeeded without the surge? Possibly, he concedes, but the surge came at that time and helped empower Sunni leaders, paying their fighters and backing them up on the streets. This is where Seneca the Younger comes in: "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."
It would be reasonable to credit the Bush Administration for letting its military leaders (finally) move away from its bad strategies of the preceding five years, so as to create the opportunity. But instead, people like Hiatt consistently ignore the positions of people who are aware of the facts on the ground in order to spin the fiction that everything is about the surge, and only the surge. My suspicion is that Hiatt is acting deliberately, as this fiction allows him to support McCain and attack Obama (consistent with Hiatt's own preferred interventionist foreign policy), whereas telling the truth would hamper him in his political goals.

Hiatt also elides from history the overstated success and impact of the surge, which resulted in stories like this:
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, told the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees today that the surge in Iraq is showing progress, and that he believes troop reductions to pre-surge levels could begin by summer 2008 without jeopardizing gains made.
How well did that turn out, again?

Hiatt reinvents the success of the surge, consistent with the mainstream media's principal interest in covering acts of violence, as being about the violence, not about political progress. Although he is cautious enough to refer to the surge as creating only "a chance of success", Hiatt fails to describe any of the benchmarks of success described by the Bush Administration or how they have been met. Earlier this year we had columnists like Charles Krauthammer pretending that significant progress had been made on at least some of those criteria. But despite the amount of progress we were promises by the end of 2007, we're still waiting for even one of Bush's benchmarks to be fulfilled. So yes, changes of strategy combined with the surge created a significant window of opportunity - one Hiatt would be correct to celebrate - but it appears that under Bush's "leadership" that opportunity is (again) being squandered.

While Hiatt praises national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley for quietly lobbying for the surge, consistent with the rest of his piece he omits mention of others who played a role (and perhaps a more important role) in bringing about the policy changes that created the groundwork for the surge's contribution to holding down violence.2 Hiatt observes,
Out of that success, in fact, a new conventional wisdom seems to be settling on Washington - that the U.S. job in Iraq is nearing completion, and the time has come to move on to Afghanistan and other challenges.
Okay, let's call that the consensus. Has it arisen because of good media coverage and commentary about the realities in Iraq, or has it arisen due to the absence of good coverage and commentary? Hiatt's implicit answer: the latter:
If, as seems likely, the celebration is premature and U.S. troops will be needed in Iraq for some time to come, we can hope that the next national security adviser again has the strength to resist the crowd and the deftness to steer the country in the right direction.
If that's what Hiatt believes, why did he devote 98% of his column to suggesting the opposite - that the surge has been a great success, and vindicates Bush to the degree that historians will assess the surge "as an act of remarkable courage"? And how is it "an act of remarkable courage" to advance a policy when virtually everybody in your party has your back?
1. It's coincidence, but should we find some amusement in the fact that Petraeus likes to use the "lipstick on a pig" metaphor? And that his doing so was deemed "media-savvy"?

2. I'm content to assume that the surge has played a role in the reduction of violence, even a substantial role, but given the difficulty that even General Petraeus has in quantifying its contribution I'm not going to try to state a figure, save for observing that Hiatt's implied "100%" is both overconfident and overstated.

Purely a Coincidence, I'm Sure....

I just noticed that my bank has reduced the borrowing limit on my HELOC to about half what it was when I opened the line of credit two years ago. They've given themselves a considerable equity buffer above my maximum mortgage + maximum home equity borrowing, even as compared to the lowest priced houses in the neighborhood. (For the record, it's a modest 1950's subdivision where, to people who don't live here, "all the houses look alike" - and to the rest of us they look very similar.)

This doesn't really affect me, as I'm a conservative borrower, but I'm in a neighborhood where home values seem pretty stable and I have a credit rating that usually has banks lining up to try to loan me money.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

So... How Bad Are Things Going To Get?

We may be teetering on the edge of another financial crisis, and a possible recession that spans the Atlantic. How worried should we be?
Update: More on Lehman and our domestic mess.

Update 2: This is reassuring: "Will the U.S. financial system collapse today, or maybe over the next few days? I don’t think so - but I’m nowhere near certain. You see, Lehman Brothers, a major investment bank, is apparently about to go under. And nobody knows what will happen next."

Thought Police Unite!

No surprise here:
A United Nations agency is quietly drafting technical standards, proposed by the Chinese government, to define methods of tracing the original source of Internet communications and potentially curbing the ability of users to remain anonymous.
But who's teaming up with China?
The U.S. National Security Agency is also participating in the "IP Traceback" drafting group, named Q6/17, which is meeting next week in Geneva to work on the traceback proposal. Members of Q6/17 have declined to release key documents, and meetings are closed to the public.
Don't get me wrong, as there are legitimate national security interests involved in being able to track Internet activity back to its source, not just communication between criminals, but also attacks on computer systems and networks. But does anybody here think that China's primary focus is on fighting terrorism or DDOS attacks, as opposed to dissident thought? And who believes that even U.S. law enforcement will use this for "fighting terror" - the excuse used to get the camel's nose under the tent for an wide range of law enforcement tools since used primarily to target "ordinary" crime. Also, just as stolen or disposable cell phones are used by criminals who expect to be targeted through those technologies, criminals who wish to use the Internet will find ways to continue.

I don't personally try to erase my Internet tracks, so nobody would have to work very hard to track me down from my activity. Anonymous proxies are a bane to my Internet activities, as they contribute significantly to spamming. But regrettably I don't expect either Chinese or U.S. legal authorities to focus their energy on that particular form of Internet abuse. But people who have legitimate reasons to try to shield their identity - dissident thinkers - can thank the NSA for teaming up with China to help ensure that the Internet is not a safe place for freedom of thought.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

They Say That Like It's a Surprise....

The New York Times says,
Harsh advertisements and negative attacks are a staple of presidential campaigns, but Senator John McCain has drawn an avalanche of criticism this week from Democrats, independent groups and even some Republicans for regularly stretching the truth in attacking Senator Barack Obama’s record and positions.
It is no surprise that there are Republicans who want to run an honorable campaign. If anything should be a surprise, given the smears run against him in 2000, it's that McCain isn't one of them.

Faith-Based Condescension and Reproductive Rights

A few days ago Michael Gerson wrote a column describing Trig Palin as having "smashed the chromosomal barrier" by being proudly displayed by his mother at the Republican convention. Typical of Gerson, he offered a very superficial analysis of the issues and makes childish digs at the Democratic Party and attempts to advance a dishonest label ("eugenic abortion"), but it seemed mostly intended as a "feel good" piece - celebrating the erosion of the barriers between the mentally handicapped and the rest of society. What's a little "faith-based condescension" between friends, right?

No, Gerson has to take things a step further,
Dr. Andre Lalonde, the executive vice president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada, is "expressing concerns" that a "prominent public role model as the governor of Alaska and potential vice president of the United States completing a Down syndrome pregnancy may prompt other other women to make the same decision against abortion because of that genetic abnormality. And thereby reduce the number of abortions." This, Lalonde feels, would be problematic, because of women who aren't "prepared to deal with the consequences" of a Down syndrome child.

Many parents, of course, are not "prepared to deal with the consequences" of having a child, healthy or disabled - though this has nothing to do with the worth of such children once they are conceived. Down syndrome children are slow to learn and have physical challenges. They are also, in my experience, often loving and compassionate - which is an advantage they have on Dr. Lalonde.
Reading Gerson's rant, it occurred to me at this point that Gerson knows nothing about Dr. Lalonde, save for a second-hand account of his views on this single issue.

The original blog post Gerson found contained a (supposed) paraprhase of Lalonde's views,
He says not every woman is prepared to deal with the consequences of Down babies, who have developmental delays, some physical difficulties and often a shortened lifespan.
Gerson misrepresents these words as having come out of Dr. Lalonde's mouth:
This, Lalonde feels, would be problematic, because of women who aren't "prepared to deal with the consequences" of a Down syndrome child.
Worse, the author of that original blog post, Andrew Malcolm, didn't even get his facts straight. The post has been flushed down the memory hole, and replaced with a notice of error:
Doctor Lalonde's point of view should not have been portrayed as a concern that the number of abortions would decline but rather, as expressed in the Globe and Mail, that women would be influenced by Gov. Palin's decision to keep Down syndrome children that they were neither emotionally nor financially prepared to care for.
A columnist more intelligent or less lazy than Gerson might have even checked the original article before transforming an erroneous, second-hand paraphrase into a quote.
Giving women balanced information about the potential consequences of either decision does not mean they are being encouraged to abort their pregnancies, Dr. Lalonde said.

"We offer the woman the choice. We try to be as unbiased as possible," he said. "We're coming down to a moral decision and we all know moral decisions are personal decisions."
So yesterday we had Gerson lying about the statements of liberals, and using Christopher Hitchens, neither a liberal nor a Democrat, as his case in chief. Today we have Gerson fabricating a quote based upon another blogger's misinterpretation of a very simple article, to purport,
A claim like this one tears away the pretense of "choice" among some in the medical community.
At least Christopher Hitchens exists.

It's not a lie, as such, for Gerson to draw a false conclusion based upon what appears to be his incompetence - he apparently doesn't know the difference between a quote and a paraphrase, and doesn't have even a slight understanding of why you should check the purported sources of a blogger's information, particularly when the blogger hands you a link. He had a knee-jerk reaction based upon his preconceptions, and didn't much care about the morality or ethics of what he was doing. But to attempt to tar any portion of the medical community based upon something one doctor didn't even say? If somebody that incompetent worked for me, he would be looking for a new job.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Did They Overplay Their Hand?

This is about as blunt an article as I've seen from a mainstream source, directly contrasting the claims of Palin and McCain with the facts. Something could have been added to this, though:
In Alaska, meanwhile, the investigator looking into whether Palin abused her power as governor in trying to fire her former brother-in-law asked state lawmakers for the power to subpoena Palin's husband, Todd, a dozen others and the phone records of a top aide. The state House and Senate judiciary committees were expected to grant the request.

Palin told ABC she welcomed the investigation. "There's nothing to hide in this," she said.
Nothing to hide, yet still she's hiding stuff....

It Might Work, But...

It's a bit disheartening. I would prefer a way to get the focus of the campaign away from personalities (and suggestions that the candidates change theirs) and back on issues. Yet the author of this analyisis is probably correct, that to get back on top Obama should probably move away from the issues and focus on character.
In 1980, Richard Wirthlin - Ronald Reagan's chief strategist - made a fateful discovery. In his first poll he discovered that most people didn't like Reagan's positions on the issues, but nevertheless wanted to vote for Reagan. The reason, he figured out, is that voters vote for a president not primarily on the issues, but on five other "character" factors; values; authenticity; communication and connection; trust; and identity. In the Reagan-Carter and Reagan-Mondale debates, Mondale and Carter were ahead on the issues and lost the debates because the debates were not about the issues, but about those other five character factors. George W. Bush used the same observation in his two races. Gore and Kerry ran on the issues. Bush ran on those five factors.

In the 2008 nomination campaign, Hillary ran on the issues, while Obama ran on those five factors and won. McCain is now running a Reagan-Bush style character-based campaign on the Big Five factors. But Obama has switched to a campaign based "on the issues," like Hillary, Gore and Kerry. Obama has reality on his side. And the campaign is assuming that if you just tell people the truth, they will reason to the right conclusion. That's false and they should know better.
And even when we're speaking of character, we seem to be speaking of perceptions.

Gerson's Continuing Condescension

You might think that the nation's dumbest columnist would hesitate before being condescending to his readers, but no... today he even gives his brand of condescension a fair label, Faith-Based Condescension.

My regular readers (all three of you? ;-) ) may recall this suggestion from a few weeks back - a campaign ad poking fun at McCain's attacks on Obama's credentials:
I appreciate your work for civil rights. Me, I've fought my entire life for equal rights for everyone. But aren't you being presumptuous? You did some good things as a lawyer back in Illinois, but you're trying to become commander in chief. These are troubled times, my friend, times of war. You've never been on a battlefield. You've never commanded soldiers. What makes you think that you can govern a divided nation and defend our way of life?

Sorry, Mr. Lincoln, I just don't think you're qualified.
That was then, this is now. Lincoln is now used to defend Palin's lack of qualification:
There are reasons to question the choice of the commander of the Alaska National Guard as a prospective commander in chief (though there were equally serious reasons to doubt the military qualifications of another backwoods candidate, Abraham Lincoln, who served for a few months as a private and a captain in the Black Hawk War).1
See? She's just like Lincoln, so she's qualified.

Except "Honest Abe" would not have pretended his military record qualified him for the Presidency. It takes a great deal of chutzpah to argue that being in a state that's near Russia, or being commander in chief of a state's national guard but not making any decisions pertaining to state or national security, qualify you for higher office.

Now Gerson could have addressed the issue of Palin's qualifications honestly, but that would presuppose that he's an honest man. His brand of faith-based condescension does not involve honesty:
But instead of engaging this issue, liberals have been drawn, helpless and mesmerized -- like beetles to the vivid, blue paradise of the bug zapper -- toward criticizing Sarah Palin's religion.
Well... No. The mainstream coverage has almost exclusively focused on her qualifications. Her religious beliefs and questions they implicate have been raised, but not with any greater disrespect than those questions raised by the polical right about Sen. Lieberman's observation of the Sabbath back in 2000. And certainly nothing like the suspicion poured on JFK over his Catholicism. Sure, you can find people who will say and argue pretty much anything, but we're talking about the mainstream here, aren't we? Well, obviously not - that would be the honest approach, but it doesn't suit Gerson's purposes.

Gerson gives one quote - only one - to show the unfair treatment of Palin, and of course he doesn't attribute it. And, can you believe it... he's quoting the professionally ranting rabid athest, Christopher Hitchens.
She has inarticulately said that her gubernatorial work would be hampered "if the people of Alaska's heart isn't right with god." Her local shout-and-holler tabernacle apparently believes that Jews can be converted to Jesus and homosexuals can be "cured."
Hitchens is his best example of a "liberal" who is unfair to Palin? And why is he only complaining that Hitchens was unfair in describing Palin's church as opposed to her beliefs? Wasn't that part of what Hitchens sad vastly more relevant than whether he was fair in his description of her church? Gerson also lies by omission, failing to note that Hitchens also attacked Obama's religion:
Interviewed by Rick Warren at the grotesque Saddleback megachurch a short while ago, Sen. Barack Obama announced that Jesus had died on the cross to redeem him personally. How he knew this he did not say. But it will make it exceedingly difficult for him, or his outriders and apologists, to ridicule Palin for her own ludicrous biblical literalist beliefs.
Gerson gets even less honest from there. After suggesting that it's unfair to even ask Palin about her religious beliefs, he speaks of the role of religion in the advancement of "liberty, tolerance and pluralism". Yet even here he's internally inconsistent:
And, of course, Palin is portrayed as a "theocrat" -- a Muslim fundamentalist in lipstick.
If religion, per se, leads to these advancements, Gerson might have a point. But Gerson is also implicitly condemning Islam, and particularly Islamic fundamentalism. Gerson doesn't want Palin questioned because he agrees with her, but makes it obvious that he has no faith in other faiths - if she were Muslim, he would be among those waving a torch or a pitchfork. And so the lies continue:
Democratic politicians press their appeal to blue-collar workers and the working poor -- while liberal intellectuals and pundits express their disdain for the religious values and motivations of the poor and middle class themselves.
Except it's not onlyDemocrats and "liberal intellectuals" who are concerned about the role of religion in the political sphere. And that's true even if we presuppose that all of the founding fathers were Democrats and liberals. There are conservatives who are skeptical of Palin. And as we just discussed, when the shoe is on the other foot Gerson is among the first on the attack. His faith-based condescension toward secular values seeps out of his every word. His faith-based disdain for the religious values and motivations of Muslims is also patent. His leading concern is Christianity, and moreso his own personal brand of Christianity. Condescend toward any other belief, and you're still okay in his book - in fact, you're following his lead.

Meanwhile, in case you're taking notes, beyond his self-parodic comarison of Palin to Lincoln, Gerson never got around to actually telling us that he sees Palin as even slightly qualified for national office.
1. Lincoln was not involved in military action during his brief enlistments.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Lies, Lies and More Lies

From around the web:
  • Dan Larison wonders why the conservative media is unwilling to call out lies by the McCain Campaign - Tell the truth? "Why do that when lying works so well for them"

  • James Fallows asks whether the media will treat obviously false claims by Palin in the same manner as they treated obviously false claims by Hillary Clinton.

  • Michael Kinsley asks, Why do Lies Prevail - the primary "reason is that no one - not the media, not the campaign professionals, not the voters - cares enough about lying."

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Changing the Subject on Health Care

Robert Samuelson attacks the candidates for proposing how the uninsured might gain insurance coverage, by changing the subject to health care inflation. There's absolutely nothing wrong with his belief that the country has no moral imperative to ensure that all citizens have access to healthcare. Agree or disagree, it's a legitimate point of view. But that's an entirely different issue than "controlling costs".

Samuelson laments both the inflation in healthcare costs, as well as the provision of unnecessary or ineffective services. He argues that increased costs threaten the government's ability to pay for other programs, depresses wages, and transfers wealth from young, healthy workers "to the old, accomplished through taxes and the cross-subsidies of private insurance, because the old are the biggest users of medical care". Those are legitimate concerns that should be addressed. But what does any of that have to do with insuring the uninsured?

Of the uninsured, Samuelson tells us,
In 2008, their care will cost about $86 billion, estimates a study for the Kaiser Family Foundation. The uninsured pay about $30 billion themselves; the rest is uncompensated. Of course, no sane person wants to be without health insurance, and the uninsured receive less care and, by some studies, suffer abnormally high death rates.
Okay, so that's $56 billion passed on to other patients or to governments each year due to the needs of the uninsured. And the uninsured still "suffer abnormally high death rates". It would seem to benefit the insured to have that $56 billion covered by other health insurance policies, rather than being picked out of their pockets through taxes and the cost of their own medical care. Samuelson also ignores the fact that a big chunk of that money is for emergency room care, the place many uninsured people go for services that should be provided by a primary care physician. If you're concerned about waste, that's a big source of waste that expanded access to insurance could help remedy. So how does Samuelson respond to these facts?
But other studies suggest only minor disadvantages for the uninsured. One study compared the insured and uninsured after the onset of a chronic illness -- say, heart disease or diabetes. Outcomes differed little. After about six months, 20.4 percent of the insured and 20.9 percent of the uninsured judged themselves "better"; 32.2 percent of the insured and 35.2 percent of the uninsured rated themselves "worse." The rest saw no change.
Of course. The "But other studies" retort. Who cares which studies are better or more reliable, right? If two studies contradict each other, all you can do is throw up your hands in despair and walk away from the problem. No, really, if Samuelson feels sufficiently informed to speak on this subject, why isn't he capable of reading the studies and trying to determine which have greater validity?

The study he does reference, a six month follow up for patients diagnosed with lifetime chronic illness, doesn't seem convincing. It appears that both the insured and uninsured patients are getting treatment over that short time, so how much of a difference would you expect? More relevant measures include, were uninsured patients less likely to get a timely diagnosis? Timely initiation of treatment? Over the long-term were they less likely to continue treatment, or to limit their treatment due to their inability to afford medical supplies, equipment, medication, or return doctor visits? Is there a difference in their outcome over a period of years, or the duration of their lives? Were Samuelson to think about the issues he would recognize that nothing in the six month study is inconsistent with the previously cited "abnormally high death rates" study. It's quite possible to have similar outcomes over six months and wildly divergent outcomes over a longer time period.

Now let's look at Samuelson's actual figures. He claims that there were 46 million uninsured people last year. He claims that most of these people are young and healthy. He claims that (in 2003) the richest 1/5 of the population incurs $4,451 per person, per year in health care costs. He claims that the uninsured presently pay $30 billion per year for their own care and pass on to the rest of us some $56 billion in unpaid bills. He then claims that it will cost another $123 billion per year to provide the uninsured with insurance. That's $209 billion, or $4,543 per person, per year. Now I'll grant that his 2003 figure needs to be increased for inflation, but what Samuelson is telling us is that a disproportionately "young and relatively healthy" population that doesn't need insurance will incur medical costs roughly on par with the wealthy, who are far more likely to be older and to thus have the medical problems associated with age. He's cherry picking his figures, without paying any attention to whether they render his argument internally inconsistent.

But beyond the bad numbers and reasoning, the fact is that the problem of the uninsured is a different problem than healthcare inflation. Beyond mouthing that the cost of insurance will be an additional $123 billion, Samuelson provides no evidence or argument that this will result in further inflation of healthcare costs. It doesn't even occur to him that by moving uninsured care out of emergency rooms we might actually reduce unneeded testing and the other high costs of emergency room care.

If we ignore the change of subject, what does Samuelson tell us? The candidates need to focus less on universal coverage and more on "more electronic record-keeping, better case management, fewer dubious tests and procedures, and a fairer sharing of costs between the young and the old". In terms of the first three, what's his excuse for overlooking the fact that Obama explicitly endorses improved technology and electronic record-keeping as part of his healthcare reform proposal? Waste should be addressed, but it's difficult to address medical waste, as the moment you do the political right starts squawking about rationing, or "government bureaucrats telling your doctor what to do." The issue of the division of healthcare costs between the young and old isn't either an issue of cost control or an issue of universal coverage. It's reasonable to assert that wealthy people who can afford to do so should pick up an increased portion of their own medical bills, but it's understandable why that's not being suggested during an election year.

For now, let's try to do the following:
  • Stop pretending that universal health insurance coverage is incompatible with taking measures to limit healthcare inflation and waste.

  • Take an honest look at these separate issues - universality, waste, inflation and cost-shifting due to Medicare - set some priorities, and figure out which should be addressed first

Samuelson believes waste, inflation and cost-shifting should be our priorities? No problem. But lay out the actual case, rather than clouding the issue with false dichotomies and dubious financial claims.

Sexist, Yes. But Against Whom?

A few years back I was involved with a board that addressed family law issues. One lawyer on the board, an older man, would object to any proposal that suggested the treatment of men and women as equally capable parents. His beliefs boiled down to the idea that men were naturally disposed to working outside the home and bringing home an income, and women were naturally disposed to raise children. He never objected to working mothers or daycare, but instead objected to the idea of treating men as equally interested or equally capable parents. Based upon his preconceptions, upbringing, and the role he had taken for himself as a parent, he simply knew better. Yes, he would debate people on the issue, but no, there was no room for movement in his beliefs - he would only argue to try to convince challengers that they were wrong. After a while, people stopped engaging him and we got back to getting through the agenda in a timely manner.

As with ever other human endeavor, parenting skills, interest in parenting, and aptitude for parenting fall on a continuum. Some people (men and women) are very interested in becoming parents, while others are not. Some have a great deal of interest in raising their children, and others have little. And despite their best efforts, some who are interested in raising their children lack the aptitude to do so. I'm not going to try to argue whether men and women fall on the same continuum, or if there are gender differences resulting from societal pressures and biology, first because I'm not aware of any good research into the area, and second because it's not relevant to this analysis. (If any reader coming across this knows of research, please share it as a comment.)

Some have suggested that it is "sexist" to ask of Sarah Palin, "How can you take a high pressure, all-consuming job while you are raising five children." To the extent that the same question would not be asked of a man (and let's be honest - it generally will not), there is sexism at play. But it's not only sexism against women. When a man takes a high pressure, high hours job, the assumption is that somebody else will take over the primary parenting role. That could be a spouse or a nanny. Nobody defends the man by stating, "Maybe he's a superdad who can work 60-80 hours per week yet still make the kids' lunches, attend all of their plays and sports meets, make cookies for the bake sale...." It's just assumed that he does not.

If that's your assumption about a man who works a consuming job, it's not necessarily sexist. If you've ever worked that much, or have observed somebody who does, you know that the assumption is usually correct. That parent is often out of the house before the kids are up in the morning, back home after they've gone to bed, or both. There are only so many hours in the day, and if you spend ten or twelve of them at work (plus commute time) you're not spending them at home. The sexism comes in if you don't ask the question of a man, but ask it of a woman.

One thing that has been overlooked in this "who's taking care of the kids" nonsense is that there have been a lot of women in high-powered jobs, both in the public and private sector, who have kids at home. In recent memory the whispers have not involved "How does she have time to take care of the kids and work that job," but have instead been, "Did she pay Social Security taxes for her nanny?" It's misleading to argue that there's a judgment of women in this type of situation when it is known how they take care of their kids. Sure, there are some people who view it as anything from a dereliction of your proper gender role to entirely inexcusable (unless you're Sarah Palin) for a mother to work outside of the home, but beyond that fringe reliance on a nanny is broadly accepted.

It seems apparent that for now the McCain campaign is giddy about being able to accuse anybody who asks anything about Palin of "sexism", so they're not going to tell us how the Palins divide their parenting responsibilities. They appear to love having people jump to Palin's defense with the assumption that she's a supermom, and don't want to lay out facts that might contradict the myth. But unless your assumption is that a working dad with a high pressure job is an equivalent "superdad", that assumption is also predicated upon sexist assumptions.

When a working parent, man or woman, who has tried to balance work and career, wonders, "How could she possibly do it," there's not necessarily any sexism in their wonder. People with one or two kids and forty hour per week jobs struggle with these issues. And sorry, replying "Who are you to ask," or "Why don't you assume she's a supermom", doesn't clear things up. You know what? If in fact Palin somehow manages a highly involved parent with all of her kids despite her obligations as governor, she should be writing a book of parenting tips. It could be a bestseller. And if she's relying upon her husband or a third party to pick up the slack, she would do us a favor by saying so and ending all the speculation - including the buzz the National Enquirer is trying to generate by depicting her teenage children as all-but-feral. There's nothing wrong with being human.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

"Some Media Reports", Indeed....

Sometimes media contortions to avoid contradicting political prevarications are unintentionally comical.

Back Seat Driving the Campaign

Wait a minute - that's the job of bloggers, not columnists, isn't it? Or is that just wishful thinking.

To the tune of "Let's Go Crazy", David Brooks lectures the candidates,
If I were advising the candidates, I’d tell them to double down on weirdness. Obama needs to occasionally criticize his own side. If he can’t take on his own party hacks, he’ll never reclaim the mantle of systemic change. Specifically, he needs to attack the snobs who are savaging Sarah Palin’s faith and family. Many liberals claim to love working-class families, but the moment they glimpse a hunter with an uneven college record, they hop on chairs and call for disinfectant. Obama needs to attack Bill Maher for calling her a stewardess and the rest of the coastal condescenders.

If I were McCain, I’d make the divided government argument explicit. The Republicans are intellectually unfit to govern right now, but balancing with Democrats, they might be able to do some good. I’d have McCain tell the country that he looks forward to working with Congressional Democrats, that he is confident they can achieve great things together.
David Brooks assures us that "Weirdness wins," but (surprise) provides no examples of weirdness propelling anybody into the Presidency. Brooks doesn't even believe himself, and immediately after suggesting that McCain's decisions are "weird" redefines that weirdness as "maverickism — against the entrenched powers and party orthodoxies". Brooks seems to know that "weird" is not good, unless you transform it into mavericky goodness.

As for Obama, Brooks thinks it would be weird in a good way for him to attack a comedian for making a joke about Sarah Palin. I can see how that would help Bill Maher, but I don't see what it would do for either Obama or Palin. Beyond that, Brooks offers one of his insipid generalizations about liberals, but in fact seems to be describing himself. When do you suppose he last had a "hunter with an uneven college record" over for cocktails? (I'm not familiar with Dick Cheney's college record, but if it's uneven I perhaps spoke in haste.)

Meanwhile, Richard Cohen wants Obama to be scrappier. Not to take on Bill Maher, but perhaps to act more like him. Cohen resents that Obama responds to questions not by sharing a zinger, but by suggesting that the media do its job:
Stephanopoulos vainly tried for some genuine reaction. In choosing Palin, did John McCain get someone who met the minimum test of being "capable of being president"? Everyone in America knows the answer to that. They know McCain picked someone so unqualified she has been hiding from the media because a question to her is like kryptonite to what's-his-name. But did Obama say anything like that? Here are his exact words: "Well, you know, I'll let you ask John McCain when he's on ABC." Boy, Palin will never get over that.
Perhaps Cohen wasn't thinking about the follow-up questions - "If that doesn't qualify her, why does this qualify you?" It may not be scrappy to sidestep a trap, but it is savvy. And Obama's right - the media should be asking Palin and McCain to back up their claims about her qualifications.
Maybe he's worried about how America would receive an angry black man or maybe he's just too cool to ever get hot, but the result is that we have little insight into his passions: What, above all, does he care about?
And McCain's kept his trademark temper under control because he's worried about being seen as an "angry white man"? Would that idea even occur to a mainstream pundit?

Okay, so Brooks wants everybody to be weird, and Cohen's angry that Obama's not angry enough, but... what about the issues?

Monday, September 08, 2008

Qualifications Don't Matter?

At the American Conservative, Dan Larison continues to display shell shock over McCain's choice of Palin:
But one sign in Albuquerque may have summed it up for Republican stalwarts: “Sarah - you had us at hello.” ~The Los Angeles Times
That really is the point, isn’t it? All Palin had to do was to show up, and these people were overjoyed regardless of what Palin had or hadn’t done. Much of the enthusiastic response from rank-and-file Republicans seems to be based in a simple desire for validation from the higher-ups, and in satisfying this disturbing hunger for approval it is as if all of McCain’s errors are forgiven and forgotten. This is exactly what Bush thought would happen when he nominated Harriet Miers on the assumption that evangelicals and religious conservatives would see her as one of them, and to some extent that is what happened. When the Bush administration tried to browbeat critics of the Miers nomination (which, I must stress, was a terrible nomination) with accusations of sexism and elitism, the same kinds of people who are now flinging those charges at Palin’s critics were outraged and became even more fiercely opposed to Miers.
What's the difference this time? Larison expresses concern about the "irrationality of mass democracy" and suggests why individual voters might react differently to the two situations. But the difference isn't coming from the bottom. I suspect that the "grass roots" would be as hostile to Palin as they were to Miers if they were told by their opinion leaders that they should oppose Palin. The difference is, key opinion leaders are ecstatic about Palin because they believe she is firmly wedded to a particular orthodoxy, and to them that is far more important than any understanding of the issues, experience, or objective qualification. They were uncertain about Miers - did she hold their political beliefs, and if so was she sufficiently dogmatic in her beliefs that she could be counted on to consistently hold their way as a Supreme Court Justice - so they advocated against her. They don't have those doubts about Palin.

You want to talk sexism? Take William Kristol, who can't seem to avoid making treacly, condescending comments about women.
Look the only people for Hillary Clinton are the Democratic establishment and white women… it would be crazy for the Democratic party to follow the establishment that’s led them to defeat year after year… White Women are a problem - but, you know… we all live with that…
“It’s the tears. She pretended to cry, the women felt sorry for her, and she won [the New Hampshire primary].”
If not Pawlenty or Romney, how about a woman, whose selection would presumably appeal to the aforementioned anguished Hillary supporters?
When speaking about men, Kristol finds experience to be of the utmost importance:
The two leading G.O.P. prospects have been Tim Pawlenty, the Minnesota governor, and Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. But with Biden’s foreign policy experience as a contrast, could McCain assure voters that the young Pawlenty is ready to take over, if need be, as commander in chief?
What word would Kristol give to his application of a different standard to the genders, such that what disqualifies a man in no way disqualifies a woman?
Should voters be alarmed by a relatively young or inexperienced vice-presidential candidate? No.
Kristol didn't suddenly triumph over his misogynistic tendencies. He's comfortable with Palin's rigidity on certain issues he deems key, and thus to him her inexperience and lack of qualification is irrelevant. One moment he's lobbying for Lieberman, and in almost the next breath he's lobbying for Palin. While I have joked about the differences between those candidates, let's not overlook the commonalities near and dear to Kristol's heart - with her sincere Pentecostal beliefs she is unlikely to retreat from the Iraq war, and perhaps broader war in the Middle East, Kristol is comfortable that her positions on the war align with her own. Just as he was comfortable with Lieberman's dogmatism on the war.

Note also that although Kristol was quick and strong in his dismissal of Pawlenty on the basis of inexperience, his lobbying for the choice of Palin long predates that column. There was not one sincere word in his opposition to Pawlenty.

Even now, as he defends his vice presidential candidate of choice, Kristol finds himself unable to speak to her merits. Instead he sneers at the media for daring to ask such questions as,
Who is Sarah Palin to suddenly show up on the national stage? We didn’t vet her. And we don’t approve of her.
You know, a media reaction like this:
I'm disappointed because I expected John McCain to nominate someone with a visible and distinguished track record on the national issues - someone like Joseph Lieberman, Condoleezza Rice, or Mitt Romney - to say nothing of Elizabeth Dole, Meg Whitman and Kay Bailey Hutchison. Sarah Palin has an impressive record as a small town mayor and a couple of years as governor. She has no national or foreign policy credentials that I know of.

I'm depressed. Having polls this close meant everything rode on this nomination - and that McCain had to be ready to choose a strong nominee. Apparently, he wasn't. It is very hard to avoid the conclusion that McCain flinched from a fight on social issues. Palin is undoubtedly a decent and competent person. But her selection will unavoidably be judged as reflecting a combination of cronyism and capitulation on the part of McCain.

I'm demoralized. What does this say about a possible McCain administration - leaving aside for a moment the future of the country? Surely this is a pick from weakness. Is McCain more broadly so weak? What are the prospects for a strong McCain presidency? What are the prospects for gaining solid GOP majorities in Congress in 2008 if conservatives are demoralized? And what elected officials will step forward to begin to lay the groundwork for conservative leadership after McCain?
Yes, that approach is absolutely deplorable when you're not at the heart of it. Then it was "How dare they call us sexist for opposing a clearly unqualified candidate." Now it's, "Qualifications don't matter, and it's sexist to even look at her history as governor and mayor." The common theme? People like Kristol spin up accusations of sexism as a shield against addressing the issues - why is Miers unqualified, or why is Palin qualified?

The Vice President has two job responsibilities. First, she presides over the Senate and casts an occasional tie-breaking vote. Second, she sits around waiting to see if the President dies, in which case she assumes his office. Kristol assures us that this second role is some sort of historical footnote.
Should voters be alarmed by a relatively young or inexperienced vice-presidential candidate? No. Since 1900, five vice presidents have succeeded to the presidency during their term in office: Teddy Roosevelt in 1901, Calvin Coolidge in 1923, Harry Truman in 1945, Lyndon Johnson in 1963, and Gerald Ford in 1974. Teddy Roosevelt took over at age 42, becoming our youngest president, and he’s generally thought to have proved up to the job. Truman was V.P. for less than three months and had been kept in the dark by Franklin Roosevelt about such matters as the atom bomb — and he’s generally thought to have risen to the occasion. Character, judgment and the ability to learn seem to matter more to success as president than the number of years one’s been in Washington.
Did you catch that? Experience is irrelevant even in a President, because what really matters is "Character, judgment and the ability to learn". I suppose that makes this comment a demonstration of media misogyny?
And what exactly is her extensive experience in foreign policy or in anything? She's been a senator for six years. Obama's been a senator for two years. So, I mean, big deal.

She hasn't passed any legislation. He hasn't either. She sat in the White House while her husband was president.
And let's not forget Kristol's sneering at Obama's inexperience. Asserting different standards for a white candidate than a... no, let's not play Kristol's game on that one.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Saving The Party Without Ideas

David Frum has a lengthy opinion piece in the New York Times, arguing that economic inequality is not good for the Republican Party. For the most part, he's channeling his inner David Brooks - sharing superficial caricatures of American life, with a shallow analysis of what lies beneath.
I live in Washington, in a neighborhood that is home to lawyers, political consultants, television personalities and the chief executive of the TIAA-CREF pension fund. Not exactly an abode of the superrich, but the kind of neighborhood where almost nobody does her own yardwork or vacuums his own floor. Children’s birthday parties feature rented moon bounces or hired magicians. The local grocery stores offer elegant precooked dinners of salmon, duck and artichoke ravioli.
Right. And, I'm sure, it sells arugula. Let there be no doubt, by any definition other than (perhaps) his own, David Frum is among the "elite".

After noting that a mere four miles away, there's a neighborhood struggling with poverty, he depicts D.C. as an unequal nation where, increasingly, everybody votes Democratic:
As a general rule, the more unequal a place is, the more Democratic; the more equal, the more Republican.
David Frum grew up in Canada. I recognize that he was from a wealthy family and had a famous parent, but I still find it interesting that somebody with roots in Canada would make this type of generalization. Oh, you can point to the fact that Canadians are relatively socially conservative, and can even argue that their government is presently led by the Conservative Party. Yet the "big government" programs and "social safety net" that Frum would be among the first to denounce are untouchable.
My fellow conservatives and Republicans have tended not to worry very much about the widening of income inequalities. As long as there exists equality of opportunity - as long as everybody’s income is rising - who cares if some people get rich faster than others? Societies that try too hard to enforce equality deny important freedoms and inhibit wealth-creating enterprise. Individuals who worry overmuch about inequality can succumb to life-distorting envy and resentment.
Yet which group is most likely to feel that life-distorting envy and resentment. Did you guess, the already successful people just below Frum's class of wealth, who aspire to join it?
In fact, a poll of New Yorkers found that those who earned more than $200,000 a year were the most likely of any income group to agree that "seeing other people with money" makes them feel poor.
Perhaps due to his Canadian upbringing, Frum seems not to appreciate this nation's embrace of the Horatio Alger myth. In my opinion, the people he laments as turning away from the Republican Party aren't doing so out of envy, save perhaps for a few who want to move into his neighborhood.

What you see in nations like Canada and England is how a socially conservative population can reject what Frum urges us to regard as an inherently conservative view of the role of government. People like Frum assume that social conservatism automatically translates into economic conservatism. More cynical pundits and politicians flip that around - they exploit wedge issues to make voters believe that if they don't vote Republican they will end up with a government that will undermine their social values.

That latter group has it right - after all, if "red state" conservatives were voting based on conservative economic principles, we wouldn't be experiencing a series of close elections seemingly decided by those "wedge issues" - immigration, anti-gay ballot initiatives, etc. Despite its comparative economic homogeneity, this does not work as well in a nation like Canada, as due to the demographics of that country it seems to be harder to scare Canadians about the "other" - gay people, arugula-eating pro-choicers, scary foreigners, immigrants who are "trying to take our jobs".... Without those wedge issues, it's a lot harder to get people to vote against what they see as their economic interest.

Note that I'm not condescending to Canadians by telling them what their economic interests are, and thus suggesting how they should vote. I'm observing the reality. Canadians are not about to vote to significantly reduce or eliminate their national health plan, as they know it's not in their best interest. The Conservative Party knows that whatever social wedge issues it attempts to raise, it's not going to survive an election cycle if Canadians believe it will end Medicare. This type of issue is less pronounced in the U.S., although there seems to be a deep-seated Republican concern that a successful national health care system would have a similar effect here - people would reject an economic agenda that sought to undermine the program that is effective in providing them with healthcare.

Frum describes the argument over same-sex marriage as a "distraction", and yes it's a distraction from debate of economic issues. But it's a distraction that has been introduced and fostered by the Republican Party and that has benefited the Republican Party. Given all the magic shows he has surely seen while taking his kids to parties in his neighborhood, surely Frum recognizes the purpose of that sleight of hand - it's to keep people from noticing what the other hand is doing. Needless to say, that's not because the Republican Party believes that the public will support its agenda.

Frum also demonstrates an odd understanding of egalitarianism:
To witness the slow-motion withering of the G.O.P., drive a little farther west into the Washington metropolitan area, to Prince William County. Here is exurban America in all its fresh paint: vast tracts of inexpensive homes, schools built to the latest design, roads still black in their virgin asphalt.

Whether in Virginia, Missouri or Illinois, there are no more egalitarian and no more Republican places in the United States than these exurbs. The rich shun them, and the poor can find no easy foothold, but the middle-income, middle-educated, white married parents who form the backbone of the G.O.P. are drawn to them as if to a refuge.
Yes... what better demonstrates a classless society with equal access to power, influence, and wealth than a community the poor can't afford to enter, and which the rich view as far beneath them.

In classic "What's the Matter with Kansas" style, Frum suggests that these voters are turning away from the Republican Party due to lax Republican immigration policy, despite his belief that they are enriched by low-cost immigrant labor, speculating that they may resent paying "the higher local tax bills that can result from immigration." But if that's the reason, why wouldn't they be turning to a conservative, anti-immigration party or candidate instead of the Democratic Party?

It may be true, as Frum suggests, that the Republican Party would benefit from entering into the health care debate with meaningful proposals that could reign in inflation, and he describes some of the weak tea that a few within the Republican Party hold up as solutions, but he needs to come to terms with the fact that the primary reason that the Republican Party is terrified to enter the debate is that other than its usual scare tactics - it's "socialism", "a government bureaucrat will choose your doctor", etc. - their ideas are inferior.

And at the end of the day, whatever the merits of Frum's brand of economic conservatism, isn't that the problem? He is aligned with a party that, as evidenced by the last eight years of mismanagement, has no real interest in pursuing conservative economic policies. Their public lip service to economic conservatism is paper thin, and they aren't prepared to debate the issues. Frum dogmatically adheres to the view that the Republican Party could produce some compelling ideas, but for some reason just hasn't gotten around to doing so. The evidence suggests that he's waiting for a magic trick that will never come - what you see is what you get.

The Republican Party is now the party of distracting wedge issues, not the party of ideas. And you don't have to look past the hollow speeches at the Republican National Convention to know, that's not about to change. When Frum writes,
The prevailing Republican view - “of course government always fails, what do you expect it to do?” - is not what this slice of America expects to hear from the people asking to be entrusted with the government.
He needs to acknowledge that it's not only that we're expected to vote for a party that takes that view, it's also that they now have a very long record of failure.

Yes, as Frum suggests, the Republican Party is threatened by growing inequality, diminished opportunity, and middle class wage stagnation. As is the Democratic Party. As is the nation. Yes, it would be nice if we could move into a real debate about economic issues, and how to place the middle class on firmer economic ground. But right now there's an election going on and, as McCain's campaign will be the first to tell you, this election is not about issues. So we'll save that debate for another day.