Sunday, January 31, 2010

"He Said 'Pad'... Huh huh huh huh"

A surprising number of media outlets seems to be going into "Beavis and Butthead" mode over the Apple iPad. Either repeating or "covering" the "joke":
Then there are the jokes bouncing around the Web about the name's suggestion of a feminine-hygiene product. A headline in the Winnipeg Free Press reads: "The iPad Is a Really Bad Name. Period."
You know, there's just nothing particulary funny or taboo about the word "pad".

If Steve Jobs declares a larger version, branding the two options as 'mini' and 'maxi', I'll concede that it would be a bad branding decision. (But guess what - he hasn't.)

Perhaps It Would Be Too Presidential....

If I were a Republican Senator with aspirations to become President, knowing that pretty soon a Democratic healthcare reform bill almost certainly will be passed by the House with an associated bill to be passed in the Senate through reconciliation, I would consider angering the rest of "The Party of No" by revising the Senate bill with what will likely be the content of the reconciliation bill, stripping out the outrageous pork (sorry Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu), making some modest adjustments to the legislation, and stripping the bill down to a more essential form, then propose to the Dems that I (or I and a handful of other Republicans) would join them in negotiating over the details of the revised bill and moving forward in a bipartisan fashion. I could honestly declare to the nation that I pruned hundreds of millions of dollars of pork from the bill (again, sorry Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu), stripped out hundreds or thousands of pages of complexity, and made the bill less complex and 'scary', and proclaim that although the bill still skews 'too far to the left' it was necessary to compromise to 'save' the nation from a 'far more liberal' bill.

But that's something a leader might do. The Senate doesn't create many leaders, and the present group of Republicans might best be described as followers. Not lemmings - their obstructionist groupthink so far has pushed one Democratic seat off the cliff while they're holding tight - but certainly not leaders. Certainly not presidential.

Seriously, they're talking about Mitt Romney as a likely Republican presidential candidate in 2012. Does Mitt actually do anything other than talk about running for President? Travel between his mansions, vacations and shopping excursions don't count.

Not only would the Senator be able to lay claim (and perhaps attach his name) to one of the most significant bills of the modern era (a bit sad, that is, given how modest the proposed reforms actually are), he would stand out as a leader - bridging the partisan divide. His party may hate him for it, but that could actually play well with independents.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Citizens United Was an Activist Decision

... Despite its defenders arguments to the contrary, it's a deeply political decision that is not driven by either textualism or originalism, and it could change a lot. But it might not change much at all. Large corporations have already found ways to funnel money into political campaigns; I expect the amounts will continue to increase, but that was going to happen anyway. I expect that it will make it easier for corporations and their lobbyists to push right up to the edge of that gray area between "offering financial support" and "offering a bribe". But it's pretty clear from the healthcare debate, when various special interest groups require up-front payoffs to "support" the legislation, that we're well past the point where they were merely supporting candidates whose interests happen to align with theirs, or that they're seeking access to persuade politicians, and in fact they own any number of votes on both sides of the aisle.

Let's take the first possible horrible outcome - a corporation, or a consortium of corporations, decide to bankroll a Senator or Congressman, or even a Presidential candidate, by pouring funds into support for her campaign at a level vastly beyond what their opponents could reasonably raise. Sure, we can imagine a future where this is par for the course - where various special interests overtly back each candidate, perhaps to the point that their outfits look like parodies of NASCAR jumpsuits during campaign appearances. But if the funding is on the record, the first billion dollar baby to run for office may find that there is an enormous public backlash. Also, frankly, it's not that expensive to buy votes "the old fashioned way". In the most overt (and yes, criminal) quid pro quo I know of, the cost of buying a Member of Congress was five cents on the dollar - less if you bought in bulk.

Okay, so what about the scenario where the lobbyist goes to a politician and says, "If you vote against my corporation, we'll dump $20 million into support for a primary challenge or your opponent in the next election." I can already picture the press conference where the politician, in high dudgeon, denounces the company and its threat and calls for an FBI investigation. Would you then want to be the political opponent who "benefits" from the money?

As for foreign-owned and foreign-controlled corporations? Well, there is some danger there under the majority opinion, but I expect that at least on of the Justices (Samuel "Not True" Alito) has some mechanism in mind for limiting their investment in political campaigns once the isssue reaches the court. How that can be done in a fair and sensible matter, dealing with varying levels of foreign interest and control, is something he has yet to spell out - and I believe it will be a much more complex task than he apparently imagines when the issue arises and he votes to grant cert.... No, I'm giving him too much credit. He'll punt. The Citizens United majority will leave it to Congress to write a law addressing the issue of foreign money and then will decline to review the portions that are hard to square with what they wrote.

That's not to say that Citizens United is harmless, or close to it. The decision will make it much harder to reign in lobbying and corporate control of the political process. Of course, that presupposes that a Congressional majority truly wants to reign in special interest money, and....

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Why Not Automatically Adjust Tax Rates to Balance the Budget

We're not going to have a federal balanced budget amendment, nor would one be a good idea. At times deficit spending benefits the economy, at times there will be national emergencies that require short-term spending, at times there will be a financial downturn that reduces tax revenues but could (or would) be worsened by a tax increase... and the remedy for Congress passing a budget that wasn't balanced would be imposed by the courts? So a federal judge would rewrite the federal budget?

But there is something we could do in times of non-emergency to balance the budget. We could simply have the tax rate automatically adjust itself such that tax revenues equalled the prior year's annual expenditure. Perhaps, until we're deficit-free, "plus five percent" so we could pay down the deficit. Deficit hawks should be giddy with excitement at the idea. It needn't be regressive - the percentage increase could be higher for higher tax brackets and capital gains. If we somehow manage to run a surplus beyond the 5%, to keep the Alan Greenspans of the world happy - those who don't want to pay down the deficit too quickly - that would trigger an equivalent, automatic tax cut.

How to avoid having a president declare each year an emergency year to avoid triggering the automatic tax increase? Include a poison pill for emergency years - a national wealth tax imposed during periods of emergency, let's say 0.5% with a $25 million exemption, applied to individuals and corporations alike. Oh, as if the uber-rich would ever be taxed like that... Let's say, a 2% tax increase for the highest tax bracket and a 5% increase for capital gains. Or something similar - the point being that the uber-rich will not tolerate a perpetual state of emergency that they have to subsidize.

You would think this would be a Republican Party dream - rather than fretting about tax rates or cuts, they could put their money where their mouth is. Reduce the size and scope of government, triggering tax reductions that could increase productivity and (in their world of laughable Laffer Curves) increase tax revenue. The Tea Party movement should love it as well - slight short-term pain, but leading to a reduced budget deficit, balanced budget... everything they believe they want. And if politicians don't deliver, the pain in people's pocketbooks will inspire them to vote them out.

I'm just astounded that this isn't part of the Republican Party platform.1

Update: Even Republicans who support PAYGO... vote against it. The party of "no".
1. If you missed the sarcasm in this post, well....

Jobs Aren't Coming Back

At least, not like they used to be.

The job market has evolved considerably over the past half-century. We've moved away from the concept of a career as something that happens with a single employer to something that happens over a series of employers. We've moved away from manufacturing jobs in favor of service and information-based employment. We've moved away from pensions to self-funded retirement accounts. We've moved away from unions in favor of at-will employment. We've moved away from any sense of "sharing the wealth" in favor of compensation schemes that overwhelmingly favor top management, with wage stagnation for workers even when profits and productivity soar. And yet, to hear people talking about "jobs bills" or "jobs creation", you would think that none of that had occurred - that we were back in the heady, post-WWII period where anybody with a good head on her shoulders could get a "great job" and a "career".

Through that time we've gone from the possibility of a blue collar job as often the primary or only source of income for a family, into an era where absent specialized job skills a blue collar worker is much less likely to earn a middle class wage and even less likely to expect long-term job stability. In recent decades, thanks largely to outsourcing and automation, that phenomenon has crept into the clerical and technical fields, and increasingly affects professionals. Companies that once might have hired recent college graduates into entry level research, editing or technical jobs are able to either hire adequately qualified professionals overseas, or are able to find experienced freelancers who will do the work as needed. A lot of jobs that have disappeared with the current recession aren't coming back - the employers have found alternatives that come at a lower cost, are more flexible, and which may be superior to recruiting, hiring and training new employees, perhaps all three.

Thirty years ago a college graduate might have been told that he would have three, four, five employers over his career. Twenty years ago a college graduate might have heard that if he stayed on a job for five years, that would be a long time. Today college graduates are being advised that they may have three, four, five different careers over the course of their lifetimes - that to maintain employment they'll have to constantly keep an eye on the future and take advantages of opportunities to expand their skills or retrain, as the job they have today may not even exist in five years. Moreover, many will find themselves in the position of consultants or freelancers, competing for contracts that carry neither job security nor benefits. Often working for employers who care less about their résumé than what they'll charge per hour or per contract. No, I'm not arguing that all jobs will disappear, but many will - including a lot of what were once entry-level jobs for college graduates.

Meanwhile, better paying domestic manufacturing jobs will continue to trend toward a skilled, educated workforce. For those fields requiring skilled manual labor, I see a trend toward the manufacture of higher-end products (with fewer domestic jobs) as has occurred in the domestic furniture industry. New technologies will continue to affect every major field of employment, including the skilled trades, increasing efficiency and perhaps quality while reducing man-hours. Computers are already decent at taking dictation; that will only improve. Electronic file transfers will continue to reduce the need for copy services and express mail, office supplies, book, music and video stores, traditional newspapers... and a lot of service and retail jobs.

So workers looking for jobs, many of whom have been unemployed for a year or more, are demanding to know what President Obama is going to do to create jobs. That is, when they're not at "tea parties" demanding that the government cut spending. Sorry, but the only way the President can "create jobs" for the masses is through government spending - and most of those jobs last only as long as the funding lasts. Pick your poison - smaller government, reduced spending, and waiting for the economy to generate more jobs, or massive government stimulus bills that may (or may not) kick-start the economy, and will create some (but not enough) jobs while we're waiting for the economy to recover. But don't be surprised if, whichever poison you pick, things don't turn out the way you expect.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Motive for Cloning a Website

A Florida personal injury firm is, understandably, upset that its website was cloned (with some minor changes) and put online on behalf of a fictitious firm based in Manchester, England.
Gordon & Doner is represented in the trademark infringement suit by Doner and Edward McHale of McHale & Slavin in Palm Beach Gardens. John Rizvi, a copyright attorney with Gold & Rizvi in Plantation who is not involved in the litigation, said he had never heard of a similar cyberhijacking.

"I'm trying to figure out a motive," he said. So are the attorneys at Gordon & Doner.

"Our lawyer, Michael Slavin, surmises that it may be a ploy to knock us down on Google," Doner said.
I expect that an investigation will uncover a different motive.

The fake website,, is registered to the email address, "" That site,, is registered to an address in Engugu, Enugu, Nigeria. With a fake website for a law firm based in London, and an easily detected connection to Nigeria, the odds seem extremely high that the cloned law firm site was to be used to add credibility to a 419 scam. These scammers have a history of "borrowing" real names and logos, and of creating fake websites for "banks" and "lawyers" who are referenced in their letters and emails. Heck - a few years ago, they borrowed a logo from one of my sites. What easier way of getting a content-rich, credible looking website than to steal a real one? Another news article observes,
Indeed, an astute purveyor of legal services might have noticed that all was not right with Maslin & Associates. For instance, one of the photographs lifted from the Gordon & Doner law firm featured a tropical backdrop, not exactly typical of the famously gray English climate. And lawyers aren't known as "attorneys" in England: They go by the titles of solicitor or barrister.
If you've read any quantity of emails from 419 scammers, you know from the proliferation of spelling and grammatical errors that they're not particularly concerned that astute readers will catch on to the scam - that's a given. It's a volume business.

Monday, January 25, 2010

When The Nation Faces Big Problems....

Think small. I recognize that political conservatism often involves resistance to change, and that it's perfectly human to fear change. But Douthat approaches the topic of special interests and factions as if it's something new. And to the extent that a desire to bring about big solutions to big problems can be seen as a disease, his cure is far worse.
You can make big changes to small programs, and small changes to big ones. But comprehensive solutions tend to produce comprehensive resistance. And the more sweeping the stakes, the greater the chance of political disaster — whether your name is Clinton or Gingrich, Bush or Obama — when your bill goes down to defeat.
So the lesson Douthat derives from history is that when things get hard, you should quit? When the going gets tough, Douthat's outta here?

Douthat appears to embrace the theory that before the New Deal and the Civil Rights Era, the country was a big love-in. Easy solutions to big problems. Lots of happiness, hugs, and happy little bunny rabbits. Never mind that the country was born in revolution, with the founders of our nation being anything but inclined to think small. Never mind that awkward little civil war.
Under Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, liberals created a federal leviathan that taxes, regulates and redistributes across every walk of American life. In the process, though, they bound the hands of future generations of reformers. Programs became entrenched. Bureaucracies proliferated. Subsidies became “entitlements,” tax breaks became part of the informal social contract. And our government was transformed, slowly but irreversibly, into a “large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform.”
And nothing like that has happened in other areas of government favored by his party, such as the military, or in energy and farm subsidies. Nothing like that has happened in religious organizations like the Catholic Church, or in private industry - light and nimble, they are. Not when you can use your Republican tunnel vision to hone in on the New Deal and Civil Rights as bugbears that tie our nation in knots. I mean, who even wants civil rights, or a decent retirement.

As usual, it's not clear whether Douthat's being disingenuous or clueless. He focuses on the ugly process by which the health care bill was (almost) created, and then asserts, falsely, that the proposed legislation represents a "sweeping reform". The bill preserves the status quo, compelling those presently uninsured to buy their health insurance from existing private insurance companies. While Douthat imagines, in the place of reform, a series of meaningless baby steps, it's actually impossible to engage in meaningful reform without creating a complex bill.

Further, even though he focuses on process, he emphasizes the fears and concerns of various demographic groups without asking how those fears arose. That is, he has not one word to offer about the disinformation spread by his party and its allies that was deliberately calculated to create fear and opposition to reform. If he understands the policy, he does his readers a disservice by offering a (hopefully premature) post-mortem that fails to address the gulf between policy and perception. It goes without saying that he fails to address the role of the media, and notably of pundits and commentators like himself, to educate the public about the facts. (But it's easier, and more fun, to focus on the personalities and conflicts, right?) No, you can't fight human nature, but you don't have to exploit its darkest aspects in order to achieve political goals you can't achieve honestly.

The funny thing? Douthat relies very heavily on Jonathan Rauch in support of his (party memo) argument that the Dems should abandon health reform. And he knows what Rauch has to say about this specific bill:
Since my column today draws on Jonathan Rauch’s “Government’s End” to critique the Democrats’ attempt at a comprehensive health care bill, it’s only fair to note that Rauch himself thinks the legislation is worth saving.
Of course it's only fair to note that Rauch supports the bill. In fact would be a dishonest distortion to rely exclusively on Rauch in an attack on healthcare reform without noting how Rauch applies his own ideas to the subject matter of the column. So what are we to make of the fact that Douthat only makes the disclosure on his blog, not in his column?

Douthat sees Ronald Reagan as having "tried and failed to purge Washington of wasteful spending" - to me, that highlights how young Douthat is. He remembers Reagan, the legend, not Reagan, the President who promised to balance the budget then ran up record deficits. But does Douthat deny that it's a fight worth fighting? Does Douthat truly want a world in which we roll back Civil Rights Era legislation in order to reduce the size of government? Does he truly want to eliminate Social Security and Medicare? (He didn't mention the fight for women's suffrage....)

Thinking small is no magic cure to passing legislation. Nobody actually believes that meaningful healthcare reform can be passed incrementally. The various aspects of reform are too interconnected to pass piecemeal. (And we're back to the same question - does Douthat truly not know this?) Moreover, let's say that it were, when you go from one bill to, lets say ten small bills, opponents of healthcare reform simply put away the elephant guns and pull out the flyswatter.

Small thinkers like Douthat help ensure that our nation won't act on big issues until we reach a point of crisis. It's not enough that the system is obviously unsustainable. The sky must literally be falling. With a more responsible press and a more responsible opposition party, we could be enacting meaningful solutions to some big problems, right now. With enough Republicans on board, the least responsible Dems could be cut out of the process. Win-win, right? Sadly, Douthat seems intent upon representing the worst of punditry and the worst of his party. Does he know the meaning of the word "courage"?

Keep on thinking small.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Questions That Will Continue to Go Unanswered

CJR quotes Bloomberg, establishing that some of the excuses used by the Fed for refusing to negotiate for reduced payments to AIG's counterparties is a fiction.
French law didn’t stop Societe Generale and BNP Paribas SA from taking $1 billion to settle $3.5 billion of trades the same month with New York-based bond insurer Ambac Financial Group Inc., according to three people familiar with the matter. Ambac’s ability to negotiate a discount while the central bank of the world’s biggest economy didn’t adds another question for lawmakers as they examine the most contentious transaction of the government’s bailout of the U.S. banking system.
28.5%? I may be missing something, but to my eye that's quite a bit less than 100%.
Question number one for Geithner, whom Bloomberg helpfully points out is testifying before Congress next week, ought to be to explain that and to justify his statement to the SIGTARP.
If he's asked, and unfortunately that's a big "if", expect a blizzard of words that attempt to run out the clock on whomever is asking the question. Why is it that I doubt that he'll admit that it was a back-door bailout that provided massive benefits to banking institutions like Goldman Sachs.
AIG tried to persuade its counterparties to accept payments of 60 cents on the dollar before the New York Fed took over negotiations, according to people familiar with the matter.

Update: More from CJR on a significant effort to cover up the backdoor bailout.

You Should Sacrifice For Others

Take it from Nicholas Kristof. Writing of a teenager who convinced her family to sell its manse and to donate half of the value to charity, Kristof writes,
Eventually, that’s what the family did. The project — crazy, impetuous and utterly inspiring — is chronicled in a book by father and daughter scheduled to be published next month: “The Power of Half.” It’s a book that, frankly, I’d be nervous about leaving around where my own teenage kids might find it. An impressionable child reads this, and the next thing you know your whole family is out on the street.
The joke about his own teenagers is illustrative of what is sometimes referred to as limousine liberalism. Yes, the family did move from their first house to one half its size and cost. Yes, they dedicated half of the proceeds form the sale of their larger home to charity. But please, before asking that your readers share in similar sacrifice (while joking about your own reluctance), how about some context?
  • House #1, 6,162 square feet, equipped with its own elevator, five beds, four baths, eight fireplaces, recently sold for $1,450,000.

  • House #2, 2,986 square feet, three beds, four baths, sold for $962,200.

I don't mean to belittle the act of moving into a smaller home and donating a substantial amount of money to charity. But really....
Back home, our friends and family kept asking us, "What is it like to live in half the space?" Before we downsized, we were a little worried. Would we feel squeezed? Or like we'd made too big a sacrifice? Two years later, I can tell you: It's the best move we ever made.

Of course, our new house required some lifestyle adjustments. In our old home, French doors opened onto a balcony and a wooded yard, and sunshine filled the kitchen. The views from our current kitchen are obscured by our neighbor's house. Our pots and pans fit in the cabinets, but that's about the extent of the space. We can't open the silverware drawer without closing the dishwasher first.
Squeezing a family of four into a 3,000 square foot, four bathroom, $million home? What sort of peer group do you think we're talking about that their first question is "How do you survive?" Also, in context, it's apparent that the family could have afforded to both dedicate half of the house's value to charity while remaining in the larger home. It's on a smaller scale, but Kristof's column still feels a bit like the statement, "Bill Gates gave $1 billion to his charitable foundation - and please don't ask what I have done - but what have you done lately?"

From what I can see about the Salwens, what they're doing is admirable. They've moved on from successful first careers that gave them considerable financial security and are now following a path that is largely focused on self-transformation through helping others. They respect the fact that others are probably not positioned to follow a similar path,
We had more than enough house, and it was something we could cut in half to help those in need. But most people can find some commodity in their lives they could give up, whether it's time (halving the hours of TV you watch each week and volunteering instead?) or stuff (donating half the clothes in your closet?). Like us, your family could set out to make a small difference in the world—and transform yourselves in the process.
According to Kristof, the Salwen's "aim [is] to encourage people to step off the treadmill of accumulation, to define themselves by what they give as well as by what they possess." I just find it interesting that the message is presented to the mass market, rather than being directed at the millionaires and billionaires of our society who rage and froth at the notion of a half-percent tax increase to help the less fortunate. I really wish Kristof, being quite fortunate himself, had taken a step beyond telling his readers what they should do - or joking about what his own kids might ask of him - and telling us of the sacrifices the book inspired him to make.

Such an... Insight

Why is it that the self-professed "smartest people in the room" often seem more tedious than insightful?
But Avatar replaces dreams with wish-fulfilment. It has shocks, but programmatically excludes surprises. From time to time, when the explosions were particularly soothing, I would take off my 3D glasses and look around the audience. The place was crammed. Their black plastic glasses all faced the front. Their hand moved mechanically to the ice-creams, the popcorn, and the nachos on their laps (£6.80 with a big tub of sugary drink for free). They thought they were seeing a lesson about ecology and the perils of greed.
Yes, Andrew. Everybody but you is a mindless drone, incapable of seeing the flaws of Avatar and absorbing the movie as if it's a deep parable, which no doubt is why yours is the first critical essay on the film (except for all the others). Thanks for sharing.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Corporation as a "Speech Tool"

In the latest in a series of silly posts by the law professors at The Volokh Conspiracy, defending the Supreme Court's treatment of corporations as if they're living, breathing human beings, Ilya Somin contends that we need not look at corporations as exercising independent speech - that they're tools used by real people to advance their arguments.
When corporations “speak,” they are just a means that individuals use to exercise their rights of free speech — often a more effective means than the available alternatives. And just as the right protected in Griswold actually was a human right rather than a right belonging to the contraceptives, property rights are rights of human owners, not rights belonging to tracts of land or objects.
That's a decent public policy argument for allowing corporations to have some speech rights, and you know what? Virtually no one contends that corporations should have no protected speech rights. But that doesn't mean they are persons entitled to the full protection of the First Amendment. It's similar to Somin's prior post that the owners of corporations are real people. Well, duh. I personally own a corporation... but when it turns 18 I don't get to vote twice.

I have yet to see a compelling answer from advocates of corporate free speech absolutism for corporations as to why a corporate entity that exists only by virtue of a license from the state can't be limited by that state in the extent of its "personhood". We actually do restrict the speech of certain entities that want to qualify for tax advantages - churches, charitable organizations - why is that constitutional? Given that corporations pay a different tax rate than real, living breathing human beings, would those tax advantages justify similar limits on their speech rights? Or are we going to strip away the restrictions on political lobbying and advocacy for political candidates that we impose on some corporations but not others?

Justices like Scalia and Thomas praise themselves for staying within the confines of the language of a statute or the Constitution. (They don't always do that, but we're not supposed to notice.) Justices and judges who follow their school of interpretation will tell you that if it's not in the statute it's not their job to insert new language - that's the job of the legislature. There's nothing in the Constitution that would suggest that references to the People are meant to encompass fictitious persons. To the extent that legislatures have chosen to grant rights to corporations, for good public policy reasons, there's nothing in the constitution that says "they can't limit those rights" or "they can't offer substantially fewer rights than the Constitution grants to living, breathing human beings." It's pure judicial activism to rewrite the Constitution in the manner of the Citizens United majority.

If they believed their own words, Justices like Scalia and Thomas would apologize that although they think it would be a good idea to amend the Constitution to grant full (or near-full) rights to Corporations, but that it's not their job to judicially rewrite our nation's founding document. But... they don't. (But when it comes to the rights of real people, particularly people who aren't sufficiently deferential to authority, broad limits on speech are easily rationalized. Stupid kid was 18 - he should have formed the "Bong Hits for Jesus Corporation" and held up a constitutionally protected advertisement.)
No Person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the Age of twenty five Years, and been seven Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen
I think Apple, born in California and now 34 years old, would be an excellent Member of Congress. And it's almost old enough to become President!
Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.
So why does the census discriminate against states like Delaware and Nevada by not including their corporations? Those states deserve more Members of Congress! Shenanigans!

This is every inch the type of activism that "conservatives" claim to hate. Having failed at the ballot box, they went to court to get legislation from the bench. (I would call my examples, above, reductio ad absurdem, except it could be a mere four years from now that President Halliburton dispatches Vice President Xe to detain me for having such dissident thoughts. Presidents, after all, should be able to indefinitely detain anybody they deem a threat to the nation, right?)
Update: Somin adds,
I should clarify that in this post, as before, I’m not arguing that corporations themselves are “persons” with constitutional rights. Rather, I’m asserting that their owners and employees are such persons and that that status enables them to use corporations to exercise their constitutional rights.
Given that he's defending the Citizens United decision, that just doesn't ring true. The issue is not, and has never been, "Can Joe Smith give $100 to support a Member of Congress". Of course he can. The issue is whether the corporation, apart from Joe Smith, can give money and support in its own right. I accept that a public policy argument can be made to protect certain forms or levels of "corporate speech", and that there are times when individuals could point to corporations and other similar entities and say that speech limits on those entities violate their personal Constitutional rights, but it's not the Supreme Court's role to ignore the actual language of the Constitution - that, again, is legislation from the bench.

Further, if it's the individual right that is being burdened, why is the plaintiff a corporation seeking protection of its rights rather than owners or shareholders complaining that limits on corporations negatively affect their individual, constitutionally protected rights? If Joe Smith wants to give $100 to his corporation then direct his corporation to give the money to a Congressional campaign, he can leave out the middle man - Joe Smith don't need an activist decision giving the corporation additional rights to give his money to the campaign.

It's only if the corporation is making an independent assessment, even by virtue of the collective actions of the people who control it such that they diverge from what Joe could do individually, that Joe's personal speech rights are affected. In terms of monetary contributions, it's only when the contribution reflects corporation's independence from shareholders and owners with a minority interest (such that the same money could not flow directly from them, individually), or the distribution of funds vastly beyond what the owners would produce from their own pocket (this isn't about "mom and pop" firms) that it becomes necessary to find it "unconstitutional" to limit the corporation's "right" to shower money on political candidates and causes - because in the other contexts the money can still be contributed in equal volume.

It's not enough to say that some corporations, such as media corporations, are viewed as important tools to advance free speech. Again, if an individual has his rights affected by government restrictions on business entities, the individual can bring a lawsuit under the First Amendment - and nobody is disputing that living, breathing people enjoy full protections under the First Amendment.

Again, why is it that lawprofs like Somin get their noses bent out of shape when the nation's largest corporations are restricted in their "political speech", but don't even raise an eyebrow about the restrictions imposed on charitable organizations, churches... how about lobbyists representing foreign governments? The money may be foreign, but if it's a domestic non-profit owned by citizens, doesn't Somin's argument strip away any Constitution-based reason for treating it differently than any other for-profit enterprise?

Repeat It Often Enough....

And even very smart people will reflexively repeat your myth:
Whether this federal health care legislation or MassCare is good public policy is a different question. Obviously, I think they aren’t because they are unsustainable and unaffordable, but that isn’t my point here.
Let's see... The U.S. has the highest healthcare expenditures per capita in the world, and it has healthcare inflation at least as high as any other nation in the world. Including any number of nations that have ensured that 100% of their citizens and legal immigrants have comprehensive medical insurance. For all of that money we don't get the best outcomes. And the reason we can't pursue any of the proven, popular, less costly alternatives, despite our comparably massive national wealth, is that reform is "unaffordable"?

At the same time, I agree with Larison's point - the "unpopularity" of the healthcare legislation will fade away once it passes. But it appears the Dems prefer to walk away, or to doom themselves to another year (or half-century) of negotiations. It's better to lose elections, to be seen as weak and ineffective, than to lose special interest money.

If They Cared....

And, as they don't, it's purely hypothetical.

If the Senate cared about passing relatively progressive bills, or advancing President Obama's agenda, there's a pretty obvious way to break through the Republican Party's childish obstructionism. Give them a choice of two bills:
  1. A reasonable bill addressing the issue; and

  2. A compromise bill that, should the other bill not pass, will be passed into law through reconciliation.

For example, in the context of healthcare reform, they could propose a reconciliation bill that simply expands Medicaid coverage for lower wage earners, and provides for a Medicare buy-in for anybody over 50 who wants or needs to do so. They won't even have to pander to Joe Lieberman or bribe Ben Nelson to get 51 votes for the reconciliation bill. If the Republicans don't play ball, the Dems can pass what will be a very understandable and ultimately popular reform - and it's really hard to imagine either party letting a Medicare buy-in expire given the demographic involved.

The problem is, that won't get them the pork they want. And how do you get fifty-one votes for a progressive bill if the trough is empty?

Similarly, the Dems could pull the same sort of ploy the Republicans used in relation to the filibuster - "Join us in doing X or we'll exercise 'the nuclear option'" - Doing X in this case could be as simple as "join us in a debate over filibuster reform that will end gridlock - or, via the (your) nuclear option, we'll just do away with the entire thing."

That's an even bigger problem. The powers that be - the Senate leaders - are able to insert huge amounts of pork into bills in the name of 'getting sixty votes', and with that supermajority requirement a Senator like Lieberman can assure himself of millions of dollars by insisting that progressive elements (supported by 59 of his colleages) be stripped, and a senator like Ben Nelson can similarly block a bill unless he is granted a windfall for his state.

Doing away with the filibuster would mean that much less pork, and so many fewer special interest dollars flowing directly and indirectly into their pockets. Unthinkable!

The Dysfunctional Senate - Anyone Want To Argue?

Theorem: The reason that it took so long to get a healthcare reform bill through the Senate is that the 60 Democratic Senators did not actually want to pass a healthcare reform bill. Corollary: The reason they seem relaxed about the apparent failure of their own bill is that they're happy with that outcome.

Theorem: With V.P. Biden having all but said that he would follow through with the Republican idea - using the "nuclear option" to kill the current filibuster rules - if asked, the reason nobody in the Senate is even talking about that option is that the Democratic majority wants, likes, and benefits from the current rule.

Theorem: The problem isn't that the Dems don't have the spine to pass bills that benefit the public but may cause some degree of consternation to business interests (no matter how small); the problem is that nobody is paying them to act in the interest of the nation and its people.

I'm not stating that there aren't any Senate Dems who put the concepts of service to their nation ahead of the enrichment of themselves, their campaign coffers, their spouses and families. I'm just saying that there are relatively few of them.

Any iSlate Bets?

With Apple's new device about to be unveiled, any thoughts about how Apple hopes to define our future?

My stab in the dark is games: I expect that Apple will try to make its new device a "way cooler than the competition" alternative to the current generation of handheld video games.

Update: I'm not the only one.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

He Dreams of Gold[man]...

Sachs and Sachs of Gold[man].

CWD and I have occasionally debated whether Timothy Geithner is entitled to any benefit of the doubt, or if he should just be dismissed as a self-interested toady for the financial industry. They say "Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity", after all. (Even smart people can be stupid on certain occasions or certain subjects.)

But it looks like CWD was right, and Geithner's motivations have always been to advance the cause of avarice.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

David Brooks Goes Native

According to David Brooks, it is condescending to suggest that,
Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.
The "White Messiah" fable depicted in Avatar, he argues, represents "benevolent romanticism [that] can be just as condescending as the malevolent kind".

Except, of course, in Haiti:
Fourth, it’s time to promote locally led paternalism.... It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.
Why? Because, according to Brooks, their culture reflects "high levels of social mistrust," child neglect, and a failure to internalize responsibility, and their religion "spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile".

Now, I'll grant that Brooks tries to distinguish his contempt for "fixing" native cultures by imposing cruel, condescending imperialists by using the word "local" - apparently he envisions some sort of person who will go into Haiti and find, among the "native people" those who are "noble and spiritual and pure", then lead them on "a righteous crusade against" their "own rotten civilization", culture and religion. But I'm thinking I've heard this story before.

Isn't Brooks endorsing what could reasonably be deemed The White Missionary Fable?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Dismal Stimulus

Paul Krugman reminds us that he thought the Obama Administration's stimulus bill was too small, and suggests that the economy might not be as bleak had a larger bill passed. But isn't this an illustration of where the (dismal) science of economics works best - in hindsight? Perhaps a larger stimulus would have improved the economic and employment picture at this point in time. Perhaps we would have spent more money and ended up right where we are.

Given the nature of the problems that are causing the present malaise, I suspect that we would be in pretty much the same situation. Those aspects of the downturn that most affect "ordinary people" - people who have been out of work for a year or more - seem structural. Many will never again find jobs that paid as well as their former careers, and I just don't see how a larger stimulus bill would have generated sufficient jobs, even at the bottom end of the economy, to absorb the huge numbers of unemployed. The hope is less that a stimulus will, of itself, reinvigorate the economy and more that it will serve as a catalyst, helping to carry the country through a difficult time while the private sector kicks back into gear.

Now, if some serious, relatively pork-free infrastructure development would be part of a bill, whether it's called a "stimulus bill" or something else, I might be able to support it as an investment in the nature's future. No bridges to nowhere, please. But I'm still not sure that it will do much to kick-start the private sector. As for a "stimulus bill" that simply bails out states that haven't been responsible enough to prepare for or respond to an economic downturn, no strings attached? That seems like a recipe for perpetuating malaise, not turning it around. I don't want to understate the importance of maintaining the social safety net at times like this, but that seems more like a "treading water" or "bridging the gulf" bill than like something we should call a "stimulus".

Saturday, January 16, 2010

But I Unwrapped So Many Wonka Bars!

According to the New York Times, Law School no longer provides a "golden ticket". Do you find it surprising that the author seems to believe that there's no practice of law outside of Biglaw, and that everybody coming out of law school was getting six figure salaries until the recent crash? If you aren't aware of the two worlds of legal practice, check out the graph provided here, showing lawyer starting salaries from 2007.
While 16% of starting salaries were $160,000, far more, 38%, were $55,000 or less. The first peak in the graph reflects salaries of $40,000 to $60,000, with salaries of $40,000 and $50,000 each accounting for about 10% of salaries. Collectively, salaries in the $40,000 - $60,000 range (approximately the total area reflected under the left peak) accounted for 42% of salaries. Salaries reflected under the right peak, including the smaller bulge over $145,000, accounted for 22% of salaries.
The article observes some trends in law firms - smaller starting salaries, smaller bonuses, promotion based upon merit. The sort of things that weren't part of the picture when larger law firms were able to effectively charge their clients for their training costs, or when the labor market for appropriately pedigreed lawyers is tight. The article notes the trade-off involved - the ridiculous hours that associates at the top-paying law firms typically worked to earn those salaries. And it notes the changes in the attitudes of clients - desire for alternative billing arrangements, such as flat fees, and an unwillingness to pay $300/hour for an associate who is learning on the job. No mention of outsourcing, but that's on the horizon even for biglaw - set up a branch office in India where English-speaking law grads can do grunt work for a fraction of the cost of an associate in the U.S.
One 2008 graduate of a top-10 law school, who worked at a large Chicago firm for a year, said she spent days trying to look busy as business dried up while not billing a single hour, before being laid off last fall along with a quarter of the other first-year hires.

“We used to gather in someone’s office, close the door, and say, ‘I hate my life, why are we doing this?’ ” she said. Like most other young associates interviewed for this article, she asked that her name not be used for fear of jeopardizing her climb up the already rickety ladder of a law career.
It's a rhetorical question - they stay because of the golden handcuffs. Even when they're worried about layoffs, they're staying for the predictability of having a job and a (big) paycheck, not to mention the "prestige and self-identity of being a [Biglaw] lawyer". No surprises there. Another complains,
The worst thing about the field’s contraction, she said in an interview, is that it has walled off the traditional escape route — suffering at a law firm for a few years until you pay off your education loans, then moving onto a lower-paying but comfortable gig as in-house lawyer for a company.
The author of the article actually interviewed a lawyer who, after a relatively short tenure at a large law firm, started her own firm. The author also interviewed a former lawyer who became a psychiatrist about the stress created by the current legal job market. Yet there it is, ingrained into the theme of the article and the minds of many bright young lawyers, that you have to have a job that somebody else gives you.

I found this to be a bit amusing:
It is harder to maintain that sense of esteem now that your contract work is being farmed out to low-cost lawyers in Bangalore, and your client who is splitting up with her spouse can handle it herself with a $31.99 do-it-yourself divorce kit from Office Depot, said David Lat, the managing editor of Above the Law, a well-read blog about the legal industry
The outsourcing affecting larger law firms is interesting to me, given that I have done quite well over the years being the guy to whom smaller firms have outsourced difficult work - premium, not discount, services. There's a difference between writing a brief on a complex legal issue and writing a typical contract, but one thing that remains the same is that you must trust the person to whom you outsource legal work. Betray the trust, and you've lost a client. Do substandard work and it may take your client as long to review or fix it than it would have taken to do the work in-house. That's one of the factors that has slowed down legal outsourcing, but it has long seemed inevitable that some amount of legal outsourcing would occur.

But that second part really caught my eye. The loss of small divorce cases, of course, is much less of a concern to Biglaw than it is to smaller law firms. But really, if your client has so simple a divorce that she "can handle it herself with a $31.99 do-it-yourself divorce kit", shouldn't you raise that possibility with her before she pays you a lot of money for unneeded legal representation?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Random Memories

When I was about ten, we had a "guest" of some sort come to our class with a project for us to complete. We were divided into groups, and each group received an envelope of pieces for a simple puzzle - but no one had all of the required pieces. Our task was to trade with other groups so that we could complete the puzzle.

When my group opened our envelope we found a large number of identical pieces, and two other unique pieces - well short of the number we needed to complete the puzzle. You're probably guessing at this point that the pieces were distributed randomly, so we could simply go around the room trading our large set of pieces for the others we needed. Wrong. Everybody already had that puzzle piece. And we couldn't trade our other pieces without ending up exactly where we started - no, there was no artificial scarcity of those pieces such that we might have been able to do a two-for-one trade. It was one-for-one at best, so a trade would leave us exactly where we started. So, basically, we sat out the exercise while we watched the other groups complete their puzzles.

We did have options, I'll grant, but none that would have worked in a controlled classroom setting. We could have "declared war" on another group to take the pieces we needed. We could have attempted to trick other groups out of their pieces ("I'll trade you the pieces you need, hidden in this envelope, for the following..."). We could have tried stealing. Or begging. In retrospect, a war might have been fun, but by now you've figured out that we were in an impossible situation.

As no explanation was provided to the class, once we were done I asked our visitor why we were given no chance of succeeding. I was told that the exercise was to demonstrate international trade, and that we were in the position of a "have not" nation. Perhaps that was realistic, as none of the "haves" even noticed that our group existed, but there was a bit of a problem: they also didn't notice that they were supposed to be learning something beyond the immediate exercise of trading puzzle pieces. Even within my group the lesson was far from obvious. I think, by virtue of my asking, I was the only person who was let in on the little secret of what we were supposed to have learned.

Many years later, I went to see a documentary with a group of friends. One asked, "What's the movie about?" The response, "A journalist in Haiti."

"Oh, then it has an unhappy ending."

"How do you know?"

"Because it happened in Haiti."

Going back to my elementary school exercise for a moment, I don't think you have to have any great amount of insight to recognize why a nation that has virtually nothing in the way of resources has a difficult time emerging from poverty. You can argue that some form of paternalism could help Haiti improve itself, and you would probably be right, but perhaps you shouldn't do so after glorifying the rise of the resource-rich, uber-authoritarian People's Republican of China. (Is it something in the water at the Times building?)

You can also argue that there's "no consistently proven way to reduce corruption" or increase growth; but that doesn't mean we can't figure out, in retrospect, why a particular nation has high levels of corruption or why it hasn't grown. You can talk about how Haiti and the Dominican Republic share a desperately poor island, but that the Dominican Republic is much less desperate in its poverty and "has trees", but to then switch topics to China, the Barbados and Harlem suggests an overt effort to avoid drawing any lessons from Haiti's history. It's not as if Haiti's trees one day decided things were better in the Dominican Republic and snuck across the border - there's a history there.

Perhaps you should also start by recognizing that people who are mostly concerned with getting enough food to eat aren't going to be listening to your moral disapprobations over their own stomachs, no matter how benign your paternalism or how misguided you believe their religion to be. China has the puzzle pieces. Harlem has the puzzle pieces. Even controlling for massive earthquakes, Haiti still has to beg.
It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people - maybe just in a neighborhood or a school - with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.
That shouldn't be too hard. I suspect Haiti actually does have enough middle class people to fill up, um, one neighborhood1....

It's the darndest thing - sometimes a people's belief "that is life is capricious and planning futile" is borne of the fact that their world is miserable. Sure, you have Nick Kristof to occasionally tell you of the glories of child sweatshop labor as a means to rise... if not out of poverty, at least away from the need to sell your children or prostitute yourself. But when companies decide to move their factories out of Haiti to the relative stability of China, where does that leave you?
1. I exaggerate, but:
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with 80% of the population living under the poverty line and 54% in abject poverty.
* * *
Household income or consumption by percentage share:
* lowest 10%: 0.7%
* highest 10%: 47.7% (2001)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

I Can't Believe Palin Got It Wrong

Despite her keen grasp of history, Sarah Palin flubs a "who's your favorite founding father" question?

She should have answered, "My favorite founding father is Jesus." Call "bullcrap" on that, Glenn Beck - I double dog dare ya.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Playing it Smart in Congress?

Harold Meyerson is worried about "time bombs" in the healthcare reform bill:
But there are some provisions in the pending legislation that, if included in the final bill, may well drape Democratic candidates with "Kick Me" signs come November. One of these is the excise tax on more costly health insurance policies, a feature of the Senate bill that President Obama supports but that is opposed by organized labor and most House Democrats. Another is the fine to be paid by individuals who decline any coverage -- it's a relatively small amount (the Senate bill sets it at $95 for the first year) but an issue that could loom large in the political wars to come.
There's something that the Democratic Party can do, however, to try to counter that. The House can pass some clear, simple bills - single issue bills - addressing those issues in a way that will be popular and easily understood by the public - then announce that they need bipartisanship to get the bills passed. Yes, they should use the word "bipartisanship". And they could make clear that all the Republican Party has to do, in the interest of helping the country and its people, is allow an "up or down vote" - even if not one Republican Senator is willing to support "this much needed reform, that will so help our nation's working families in these tough economic times," all the Republicans have to do - really, all four or five Republicans who want to help our nation and its people need to do - is take the modest step of agreeing not to use obstructionist tactics to prevent up-or-down votes.

Make it personal, if necessary, publicly directing the plea to end obstructionism at individual Republican senators whose constituents largely support the legislation (even better if they're in vulnerable seats) - and demand that Republican candidates running against Democratic incumbents or for open seats declare their support for the initiative (if popular in their state) and make clear that they will allow "up or down votes" on important issues.

Even David Broder should lap it up.

Gerson's Dose of Unreality

Although President Obama is an excellent speaker, one thing has been conspicuously lacking from his speeches: the takeaway. While G.W. and his speechwriters, by all accounts I've seen, would work on little catch phrases and sound bites to be replayed on the news and radio, Obama's speeches seem to go in the opposite direction. So while the phrasing quoted by Michael Gerson is a bit skewed, it's fair to observe,
James Fallows of the Atlantic says, "I'm not saying that his big set-piece speeches are cliche-free. . . . Often they're not even that 'well written,' in a fancy-phrasemaking sense." And further: "Indeed, I can hardly remember any phrase or sentence from any speech Obama has ever given."
It's not just in the TV (or radio) era, with this generation's brand of dismal mainstream media coverage, that makes a "good sound bite" valuable. If you think back to the "great speeches" of history, you're probably only going to recall a few key phrases - and you may even realize that you've never even heard the entire speech. It's not a strong defense of Obama's speeches that there are no "gratuitous bids for Barletts" - even if clear, concise statements worthy of Bartletts aren't placed into a speech intentionally, they should nonetheless occasionally emerge from a series of strong speeches.

But Gerson's not content to criticize Obama's speaking skills - or should I say, the skill of Obama's speechwriters, perhaps for fear of being accused of petulance or professional jealousy - as usual, he has to jump the shark:
Unasked is the question: Why can't original thought and intellectual seriousness also be expressed in speeches that are well written, cliche-free, polished, inspiring and memorable?
Um, Michael, you wrote speeched for G.W. for... how many years was it? And you and your fellow speechwriters didn't come up with a single speech that could fit that bill. I have to tell you, it takes considerable nerve (or considerable lack of insight) to make such a statement in light of your demand for more Presidential "passion" - a repeat of Gerson's prior focus on a lame Republican Party talking point - when you're beloved former lord and master offered little beyond the cliché under similar circumstances. "You are either with us or against us"; "Wanted, dead or alive", "Axis of evil", "Bring 'em on", "This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while".... And it remains the height of hypocrisy to complain of Obama's stern words in response to the "underwear bomber" without having said a peep about Bush's "I'm having a great, relaxing holiday here in Crawford" follow-up to Richard Reid's analogous attempt to take down an airline.

I'm far from the first to say this, but I don't want a President who hyperventilates over every incident, whether because he lacks control of his emotions or because he believes that an atmosphere of fear will serve him well come election time. Gerson claims to want that? Good for him. And perhaps that's what he told his ex-boss, right after G.W.'s detached, narcissistic follow-up to the shoe bombing incident. Gerson's advice to his former boss would apparently have sounded something like this:
What our party, um, I mean what the nation needs now is not a President who, several days after an attempted terrorist attack, wishes us Happy New Year, talks about his holiday and how relaxing it is to clear brush, to praise the FBI or to say that the system worked because some passengers saw what the guy on the plane was doing. Worse, you've allowed the guy to be charged as a civilian in federal court, yet you've said "we're now giving him a chance to tell us what he knows about terror and about Al Qaida" - are you trying to undermine Guantanamo, military tribunals, and "harsh interrogation". Look, even if you believe everything you said, believe that the shoe-bomber was no big deal, believe that we don't need to torture him, deny him access to lawyers, or try him in a military tribunal to find out what he knows, and believe that the system is working, it will work to your political advantage to ramp up the rhetoric - more passion, more inspiration of fear, and by all means, more clichés
That was then, this is now? Seriously, I'm sure that whenever G.W. responded to something like this with aplomb, somebody like Cheney was quick to grab him by the elbow and admonish him that he needed to ramp up the fear factor, with people like Gerson happy to write the new script. That, however, is not demonstrative of good leadership - quite the opposite.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Audacity of... Oh, Right. It's the Democrats

I hope this isn't true, but it wouldn't surprise me a bit.

If true, it demonstrates a level of dysfunction within the Democratic Party that belies the notion that the watered-down healthcare reform bill "would have been perfect" had only President Obama tried to forcefully ram a specific agenda down the throat of Congress. But one hopes that, about now, Rahm Emanuel is living up to his reputation.

Compromises End With Being Compromised?

Google has announced a new approach to China, that may end its operations in that country.

And Everything Falls Apart

As I was saying, the Tea Party knows what it opposes in the abstract. But any time somebody introduces specifics there's going to be rapid division. Frankly, events like the failed protest of the auto industry bailout reveal the Tea Party for what it is - a movement about them taking from us, without any concern for whether its members are receiving any of the benefits of society's largesse and even less whether they're paying for it.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Broder's "Distraction" Canard

A consistent theme of many critics of President Obama is that he's focusing on too many priorities, instead of the one that's near and dear to the critic's heart. I guess it's no surprise that David Broder is among them. As if President Obama could wake up one morning and decide that such trivialities as the economy were off of his agenda, and instead he was going to focus all of the nation's energies on whatever it is Broder or some other critic cares about that day.
Obama, on the other hand, came into Christmas Day with an overloaded set of self-imposed tasks.
You see? Everything Obama does that's not on Broder's wish list is a "self-imposed" task. Dealing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Self-imposed. Interational efforts, such as "renegotiating our relations with other powers in the world and attempting to enlist their help in confronting outlaw regimes in Iran and North Korea"? Self-imposed. Rescuing a "wounded economy"? Self-imposed. Trying to come up with regulations that would prevent a recurrence of the financial crisis? Self-imposed. Seriously.

But Broder believes that the "Christmas plot" has "shaken Obama like nothing else that happened in his first year", and might change his leadership style - that is, put his attention back on things Broder cares about. You might assume, in this context, that Broder wants the President to focus his attention on the terrorist groups that are inclined to attack us, or on the nations that still host their cells. But no.
Many have been looking for a similar shift of tone in his dealings with the dictators in Iran and North Korea and even in his tolerance for the politics-as-usual maneuverings of many Republicans and some Democrats in Congress.
Broder identifies two of his own priorities. First he wants the Obama Administration to prioritize a more militant approach to nations that had nothing to do with the attempted terrorist attack. Basically, to repeat the mistake of the Bush Administration in taking its eye off the ball in Afghanistan in order to advance a war of choice in Iraq. Distractions, indeed.

The second complaint is almost a self-caricature. It gets back to Broder's consistent call for "bipartisanship", which in his mind always seems to translate into the Democrats making concessions in order to mollify unbending Republicans. How in the world does he expect President Obama to end the "politics-as-usual maneuverings of many Republicans" (shouldn't that read "all Republicans" - with no offense intended to those who pretended to play ball on healthcare reform before scurrying back to their party to vote "no")? I must have missed something... when was Obama appointed leader of the Republican Party? When did the Republican Party give up its objective - an objective that has been admitted by many of its leaders - to harm Obama through consistent obstruction of the legislative process?

So once again David Broder confuses the interest of the nation with his own whims and wishes, once again he makes a call for "bipartisanship" that is meaningless in the present political culture, and sure enough, he's oblivious to the fact that the pursuit of his own agenda would distract the Obama Administration not only from whatever we're now calling "the war on terror", but would be an incredible waste of the President's time and energy.

Meanwhile, why is it so hard for people like Broder to understand that a President is capable of tackling multiple issues, and has a large staff and cabinet to which many of the issues are largely delegated? Or is it actually that they would rather try to convince other people that a President can only tackle one issue at a time, even though they know better, to try to scuttle any initiatives not on their own agendas?

Thursday, January 07, 2010

True... and False

Michael Tomasky argues that, whatever was happening behind the scenes, President Obama should have made a big show about his response to the Christmas attempt to down a jetliner.
If I'd been advising him, I'd have said: fly back to Washington the day after Christmas. Don't just be engaged and concerned, as I have little doubt he was from Hawaii. Look engaged and concerned. In our climate, the latter is as important as the former. Cancel your vacation. Head back to your desk.
Tomasky attempts to argue a distinction between the way liberal and conservative minds respond to this type of situation:
The conservative mind is more likely to want to provoke some degree of alarm and concern - think back to the days of calls for constant vigilance against the communist menace, etc.

The liberal mind is more likely to want to reassure, to say that things really aren't as bad as they seem. I'm down with this point of view as a general matter, but there are moments when the situation demands, shall we say, a kind of symbolic clarity.
I think his description of the conservative mind might be better attributed to the conservative politician. I'm not sure that there are a great many conservatives who desire overblown, hysterical efforts to drive up their fear levels - even if we assume that they're more responsive to that type of manipulation than liberals.

Sure, the point is valid that liberals (and the Democrats) tend to come late to efforts to put spin on things, allowing others to get in the first word or impression. Sure, it's true that the Democrats' responses are typically more fact-based and reassuring, as compared to the Bush/Cheney response of "don't think too hard because you're supposed to be afraid". Perhaps there are lessons the Dems can draw from that, one of which I hope won't be to use misleading statements and overblown reactions to whip up a climate of fear. But let's be real for a minute.

Even had Obama done everything that the Republican talking heads say he "should have done" - which was a lot more than G.W. did under analogous circumstances - the criticism wouldn't be any lighter. It would just be the remaining subset of the current criticisms, plus a new set of made-up complaints. "He should have been calm and Presidential, but instead he acted hysterically and ran back to Washington, giving al Qaeda a huge victory."

A "Type B" Nation

So Cost Ricans are the happiest people on Earth? An alternative explanation to Kristof's "make schools, not war" - Tico time. It may often drive westerners crazy to try to do business in Costa Rica, but you never sense that they're stressing about schedules and deadlines.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

A Byproduct of Security Theater

Josh Marshall asks the question,
I tend to agree that if a young person gets on an international flight, not only with no checked luggage but no carry ons that suggest he plans on ever getting off the plane, that is sort of a tip off. But in these cases, I always wonder: Isn't it or why isn't it part of terrorist best practices to just bring some phony luggage? With all the trouble and subterfuge terrorists have to go to get stuff on planes, this seems fairly straightforward. This isn't a criticism of the policies. And obviously Abdulmutallab didn't do this. But in cases like this, I always do wonder: why?
I hate to say it, but... probably because it makes it easier to get through security. Nobody's going to be measuring your contraband shampoo as being 3.8 ounces, complaining that your computer has to be in a separate bin apart from its case, or finding a nail clipper with an unacceptably dangerous nail file attached.

Further, when you create a context that leads a significant number of travelers to check all of their luggage, you make it less suspicious when somebody goes through security empty-handed.

Political Projection

Much of the reaction to President Obama by his supporters (in some cases, former supporters) reminded me of the Perot campaign. Seriously. Ross Perot ran on a platform of change - the Reform Party - and a substantial number of voters rallied behind him even though, beyond a few stated policy positions, it wasn't particularly clear what he stood for. His personality-based campaign proved vulnerable to personality-based attacks, and some shrewd manipulation caused him to display a level of paranoia that made him appear less than suitable as a President, but large numbers of people voted for him anyway. Sure, some percentage of the vote was a protest vote, anticipating that he would lose, but it seems reasonable to infer that the majority of his voters the first time around (18.9% of the popular vote) and a significant majority the second time around (8% of the popular vote) wanted him to serve as President.

Barack Obama was a more serious, credible candidate than Ross Perot, but he benefited from a similar ambiguity. People weren't sure what he stood for, and were eager to project their own political wants and needs onto him. Even when he made clear statements of policy, many of his followers seemed happy to either ignore the statement or rationalize how he was "just saying that to get elected". Yet as we've since seen, for the most part, when you look at a clear policy statement from Candidate Obama, nine times out of ten it's what he's done as President. The stuff that's less clear? That, I believe, was a savvy response to his followers. He understood the psychological phenomenon at issue, and was happy to have it work to his benefit. The Republicans attempted to take him down with character attacks, but those resonated mostly with voters who were predisposed to believe them (i.e., Republicans).

There's another side to this coin, and that's to build a candidate who fits a paradigm. The Republican Party did this to a degree with Ronald Reagan, and made it an art form with G.W. Bush. Take an unknown man with an empty résumé who has the proper political pedigree, and manufacture a public image that just happens to correlate to what opinion polls say voters want from a President. Lots of props and costumes. Push the image hard during the run-up to the nomination process, make sure the nomination process is more of a coronation - you don't want dirt on the crown - and you end up with a viable candidate. With image being as important as it is in a modern political campaign, who can be surprised that G.W.'s carefully manufactured, managed and marketed image prevailed over Al Gore's?

But you can't build a real movement on projection. Consider, for example, Ross Perot's "Reform Party". When you put Perot's supporters together in a room and told them to find their commonalities and create a platform, it just wasn't going to happen. They were united in their concern about the economy and to some degree in big picture solutions, and they all wanted change from the status quo, but that's where the commonalities ended. It was a movement that could not support a party. President Obama built his movement from within the party but, despite the expectation of many of his followers that it would happen, the party is not part of his movement. President Obama is having a hard enough time getting his own party to advance his stated agenda, and never had a chance of implementing the type of radical change that many of his supporters want. Obama can be faulted for allowing people to believe he was "that powerful", but if you look at either the history of the Presidency or Obama's prior legislative history, there was no reason to believe that radical change would or could occur.

When Harold Meyerson complains that Obama is not tapping into his progressive supporters in order to effect more significant change, I think he's overlooking a couple of things: first, how much progressive change was incorporated into the House healthcare reform bill, and second, that no amount of progressive pressure was going to make Joe Lieberman an honest man. (And it wasn't just Joe Lieberman.) Moreover, the progressives who "could have been" mobilized for Obama have different priorities - they may feel neglected, but that's probably better than offending them by insisting that they accept a legislative agenda that they may not share, even as their own pet causes are left behind. It's less that Obama needs to rally his progressive supporters, and more that they need to coalesce, demonstrate themselves as a serious, coherent political movement, and pressure him.

At the cartoonish end of this is Richard Cohen, who informs us that President Obama "is a lean man of ideological clay who has let others mold his image", with a bottom line that's "forever on the move". He complains that Obama "lacks both an ideology and the pipes" to get past the "ideological yellers". But the reality is, if you've been willing to look, there's never been a big mystery as to who Obama is, and if you've been willing to listen there's never been a big mystery as to what he stands for. He's actually done a respectable job advancing his agenda, far better than most Presidents in their first year, and it isn't at all clear what Cohen thinks he could have accomplished by yelling louder.

One suspects that Cohen falls into the camp of people who is disappointed that Obama's reality does not match his own projection; but for somebody who's supposedly politically attuned to the point that he has a Washington Post column, the fault for that has to be placed squarely with Cohen. Cohen can't muster consistency, quoting Yeats to inform us that "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity", right after stating that Obama should be louder and more passionate and implying that Obama's sole motivation is vanity.

In many ways, the oddest recent editorial touching on this subject is from David Brooks. Taking a perspective even less clueful than Cohen's, Brooks describes "tea partiers" as being largely a reaction against the educated class, and comes perilously close to describing its members as angry, bitter and clinging to their guns. (Dan Larison has responded to Brooks' poll-based arguments, and you can find more details about the poll here).
Over the course of this year, the tea party movement will probably be transformed. Right now, it is an amateurish movement with mediocre leadership. But several bright and polished politicians, like Marco Rubio of Florida and Gary Johnson of New Mexico, are unofficially competing to become its de facto leader. If they succeed, their movement is likely to outgrow its crude beginnings and become a major force in American politics. After all, it represents arguments that are deeply rooted in American history.
And I would not be surprised if Sarah Palin manages to become the leader of the movement and the first Presidential candidate of the "Tea Party Party". But with due respect to Brooks and his talk about how unnamed candidates in hypothetical contests line up against each other, this is the Reform Party, take whatever. The tea party movement can't be taken seriously until it coalesces, yet any effort to cause it to rally around a full political platform or a specific political leader is likely to cause it to shatter.

Brooks compares the tea party movement to the hippies of the 1960's, the feminists of the 1970's, the Christian Conservatives of the 1980's - all of whom did affect the political culture, but not as political parties. Despite the fact that the tea party movement is viewed more positively than either political party, it's future lies in either allying with the Republican Party (a party that is actively trying to coopt its energy and ideas) or by running to the right of the Republican Party - something that's likely to precipitate a plunge in both its membership and its poll numbers.

The biggest problem for those who want to hitch their political stars to the "tea party movement" is that it may have peaked too soon. After three more years of defining themselves by what their against, and failing to articulate anything that they're for, I'm not sure how much energy will be left in the movement. Teaming up with politicians who are too weak, too polarizing, or too unpopular to succeed within the Republican Party, also, doesn't seem like much of a recipe for success. History is full of movements and parties that had momentary political success, and even had significant influence on the dominant political parties, yet quickly faded into oblivion. President Obama won't be running for reelection as an enigma, as his record will be plain enough for even Richard Cohen to understand. Similarly, the tea party won't succeed if it fails to to coalesce around a set of ideas and principles (a platform), and history suggests that it won't survive that process.

Watch Ads and Earn...

Apple received a bit of media attention recently for a patent that describes hardware-based verification that somebody has watched an ad on their computer or mobile device. There was some speculation at the time that the goal might be to give away free hardware, with users watching ads in order to keep (for example) a free iPod or iPhone unlocked and working. Then Apple acquired a music streaming service - ten cent songs. Then it acquired Quattro Wireless, a firm specializing in mobile ads.

Some have speculated that Apple may use its aforementioned patent to offer free or steeply discounted hardware, requiring people to watch ads to keep it unlocked. That's possible, sure, but I am not betting on it. I don't think it's much fun to have to keep unlocking your hardware, nor do I think it's particularly sensible to give away hundreds of dollars of hardware in the hope that people will actually watch ads as opposed to dumping it in a drawer, while also diminishing any sense of exclusivity among those who have (and would continue to) pay for the same hardware without the ads.

I suspect that what we're going to see is a set of products aimed at people who might otherwise be inclined to get their music through unlicensed sources. Rather than trying to find an mp3 file online or through P2P services, they can watch an ad on their iPhone or iPod to get access to the song, or possibly even access to a streamed library of music otherwise available by subscription. Advertisers are happy because the demographic they're targeting can be confirmed to be watching their ads. Record company executives are happy because they get more revenue. Apple is happy because it sells more hardware to people interested in 'free music' - and those customers are happy because, although they have to watch ads from time to time to access everything they want, they don't pay anything out-of-pocket. Meanwhile the very broad patent language warns other manufacturers (such as you known who) that they aren't allowed to implement the same feature on their products.

And for people who are happy with the status quo, nothing changes.

Then again, based upon my track record of trying to anticipate moves by Steve Jobs, I'm probably completely wrong. ;-)

The Water Carriers of Fear

Michael Gerson provides his usual hollow-headed regurgitation of talking points and spin, carrying water for his party. Oh, the horrors of the Obama Administration:
A president can't be held responsible for every mistake at every level of government. But every level of government takes its cues from the president and his main advisers. And it is difficult to argue that the Obama administration has even attempted to create an atmosphere of urgency in the war on terror. The listless, coldblooded and clueless response of the Hawaii White House to the Christmas Day attack was only the most recent indication.
It's apparently "listless, coldblooded and clueless" - what Kathleen Parker, late to the memo but still earlier than Gerson, described as "cool detachment" - they're talking about this statement?
Thanks to the quick and heroic actions of passengers and crew, the suspect was immediately subdued, the fire was put out, and the plane landed safely. The suspect is now in custody and had been charged with attempting to destroy an aircraft. And a full investigation has been launched into this attempted act of terrorism and we will not rest until we find all who were involved and hold them accountable.

This was a serious reminder of the dangers that we face and the nature of those who threaten our homeland. Had the suspect succeeded in bringing down that plane it could have killed nearly 300 passengers and crew, innocent civilians preparing to celebrate the holidays with their families and friends.
As compared to GW's response to the Richard Reid "shoe bomber" incident? Ah, but as I've previously noted, "That's different". Besides... when did Gerson start writing for Bush? Maybe he wrote that wonderfully clueful opening, "I've got to tell you, there's nothing more relaxing than being in Crawford, Texas."

Really, what we're seeing is a response to polls that suggest, in no small part as a consequence of dishonest attacks on the Obama Administration, people are starting to view the Republican Party as more likely to prevent a future terrorist attack. When dishonesty works, people without honor run with it. Hence we have Gerson falsely claiming that the Obama Administration refuses to use the word terrorism, instead referring to "man-caused disasters", citing the mendacious Charles Krauthammer instead of the actual source that betrays their lie. It's typical of people who lack facts - misrepresent a statement in its entirety, knowing that few people have read or heard the real thing, or pluck a few words out of a larger speech or statement and lie about their meaning. After Gerson spent years writing speeches for G.W., he knows full well how the process works - neither he, nor former Mondale speech writer Charles Krauthammer - have any honest excuse - but that would only be relevant if we were dealing with honest people.

Gerson has apparently forgotten that his former lord and master ordered foreign national and terrorist Richard Reid, whose attempt to blow up an airliner mere months after 9/11, to be tried in a civilian court.
This civilian prosecution strategy would make sense if the goal is punishment for an attempted mass murderer. But it makes no sense if the goal is vigilance in the war on terrorism - gaining information to prevent future attacks.
And how did Bush react when his speech writer raised that challenge over Reid's civilian trial?
Abdulmutallab evidently talked a bit with FBI investigators when first captured. But any defense lawyer -- and now he has one -- will urge him to withhold information for use in bargaining with prosecutors down the road. The reality here is simple and shocking: A terrorist with current knowledge of al-Qaeda operations in Yemen has been told he has the right to remain silent.
So we're going to assume that Abdul Mutallab, knowing he was going to be tried in a civilian court, having been advised of his right to counsel, and cooperating with authorities is suddenly going to lawyer up and change his mind? And that, had he been stripped and hooded, drugged, and sent on a plane to Guantanamo, he would have been more cooperative?
As a foreign terrorist, he does not have [the] right [to remain silent] (as even the Obama administration has conceded by its use of military tribunals in other cases). And granting Abdulmutallab that privilege only because he tried to commit murder on American soil is an incentive of disturbing perversity.
Did Gerson just call G.W. Bush a pervert?

The only remaining question is whether Gerson believes any of his rhetoric - that is, whether he's merely a liar, or if he's both a liar and a coward.