Tuesday, July 31, 2012

An Israeli Settler's Facepalm Column

For reasons I'm not sure that I want them to explain, the New York Times editorial board thought it would be a good idea to publish a whinge from an Israeli settler, Dani Dayan, who, after sharing with us a self-serving history of the conflict and complaining how unfair it would be to make settlers leave the occupied Palestinian territories, sputters about a "two state solution". That he, an immigrant from Argentina, has a greater legal and moral claim to the land upon which he lives than those whose families have been on that same land, without interruption, for thousands of years.
Moreover, the Palestinians have repeatedly refused to implement a negotiated two-state solution. The American government and its European allies should abandon this failed formula once and for all and accept that the Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria are not going anywhere.
It's entirely the fault of the Palestinians, you see, that they have not implemented a settlement that does not exist and has never existed. One wonders, was Dayan chuckling when he wrote that line? He has to know that the primary purpose of constructing settlements throughout the occupied West Bank was to frustrate the peace process and to prevent a two-state solution. Dayan admits, "In the areas targeted for evacuation most of us are ideologically motivated and do not live here for economic reasons." Yet now he purports that a one-state outcome he has actively pursued for decades is somehow the "fault" of the Palestinians and gloat that the settlement enterprise he helps lead is now so entrenched and enormous that it's functionally impossible to remove? Yes, he does, and the New York Times blithely publishes his calumny.

Worse, the author feigns ignorance about why pretty much everybody other than his community of settlers prefers a two-state solution. While he has fevered dreams of "The influx of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere [that] would convert the new state into a hotbed of extremism", with the dismally poor and underdeveloped West Bank imagined to be a huge magnet for immigration, paranoia is not a good substitute for common sense.

Why look to how Palestinians live in Jordan, next door to the West Bank, when out from under the thumb of occupation, when you can instead paint a video game fantasy. And as always, a fair retort to "We would have to reoccupy", rather unlikely given the terms and placement of peacekeepers in association with any settlement, is "If that were to actually become true, no one will be able to question the legitimacy of Israel's action." A Palestinian land would be no more dangerous to Israel than is Lebanon, which isn't to say that such a situation would be ideal but it would be manageable.

There are two good reasons to support a two-state solution, and they're interrelated. The first is that we are talking about two people with two different cultures, different religions and very different interpretations of the same modern history. The logistics of integrating those two populations into a single nation state are complicated. Sorry Robert Frost, good fences don't always make good neighbors. It's reasonable to infer that Dayan has no interest in having Palestinian neighbors, at least living any closer than the ones he might see through the scope on a sniper's rifle.

Second, the complexity of a one-state solution that preserves a good outcome for both peoples cannot be underestimated. Israel would combine itself with the occupied territories into a state that has a significant demographic problem - an inevitable Palestinian Muslim majority. If peace brings the immediate right of return to Palestinian refugees - a right that advocates of the two-state solution would limit to the new Palestinian state, the demographic shift from Jewish majority to Palestinian majority could be almost immediate.

Demographics were the impetus for Ariel Sharon's withdrawal of settlements from the Gaza Strip - he hoped to be able to argue that Gaza was no longer under Israeli occupation such that he could subtract its population from the number of Palestinians living under occupation. But once you declare a single state, you can no longer resort to the conceit that "They're on their own lands." You're stuck with either making the Palestinian people citizens, somehow forcing them to leave or formally adopting a system of Apartheid.

The strongest arguments against a one state solution come from people who are concerned for the future of Israel - who don't want it to cease being a Jewish State, but who see that as inevitable under a one state solution that does not actively embrace Apartheid, either refusing citizenship to Palestinians or giving them a second class status that amounts to the same thing.

Opponents of a peaceful settlement and two state solution, including those behind the settlement of the occupied territories, have a point. They have created facts on the ground that will make it extremely difficult to implement a two state solution. It's not unreasonable for Dayan to declare victory. But rather than pointing fingers at the Palestinians and trying to make it their fault that he moved onto their land, as part of an admitted effort to keep them from having a state of their own, it's time for him to acknowledge the price of that victory.

Once you accept Dayan's declaration of victory, the road by which we reached this point becomes a distraction. If we are to drop all pretense that the two lands and peoples can be separated, we must create a plan for their integration. What type of single state does Dayan want Israel to become? The three choices for Dayan are ethnic cleansing, Apartheid and democracy.

The question to Dayan becomes, "Now that you've declared victory, what's your plan for physically integrating Israel and the occupied territories, and for creating a democratic system which protects the religious rights and freedoms of both peoples once they have all been granted the right to vote and be represented in the Knesset? If he doesn't have an answer, it surely cannot be because the issue has never occurred to him. It's a front and center concern for those who advocate and oppose the one-state solution. If he's unwilling to explain how he would integrate the state, the reasonable inference is that he opposes a democratic solution.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Mitt Romney's European Tour

The consensus appears to be that it's a good thing that "Americans don't care about foreign policy" because the world tour that Romney's backers were touting as how he would demonstrate his capacity and leadership to the world, and leave Obama green with jealousy, has turned into a seemingly endless series of unforced errors.

British political cartoonists don't seem at all inclined to give politicians the benefit of the doubt, and unflattering depictions are par for the course. But I think Steve Bell is pretty much capturing the European impression of Romney.

People tell me that Romney is a man of intelligence, although clearly not a man who thinks or understand a whit about foreign policy issues (or what it means to punch a clock, get his hands dirty, worry about being able to pay rent...). If I take their word for it, the inevitable conclusion is that Romney believes everybody else is a rube, that his supporters are not only too stupid to tell when he's lying, they'll cheer his every lie, defend his every misrepresentation, dismiss even the most obvious mistake. So far it's working, so there remains a significant possibility that Willard "Mitt for Brains" Romney will be keeping political cartoonists happy for a long time.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Saturday, July 28, 2012

If a Study Isn't Published....

Dean Baker describes a NYT reporter's reaction to the use of an unpublished study on the possible health risks of fracking as a basis for forming public policy:
From his blogpost, it sounds like Revkin gave Hill a really serious grilling about the ethics of allowing her unpublished study to influence debate on a major national issue. (Don't you wish reporters would just once give the same sort of grilling to Jamie Dimon or some other corporate honcho?)
There is something to be said for distinguishing published studies from unpublished studies, and peer reviewed studies from those that have not been submitted for peer review. But let's not forget, many publications exist to push an agenda, and lots of junk gets through peer review - you still have to be careful. When you're looking at unpublished research, it's more than fair to explore why it's not published and whether it's likely to be published. There are plenty of examples of people grabbing an unpublished concept based upon data that turns out to be erroneous or incomplete and... end up embarrassing themselves. (Again, that can also happen with published, peer reviewed studies - it's just that on the whole it's less likely.)

But that last sentence hints at another problem. Much of our nation's public policy is driven by assumption and ideology, not data. Politicians (and newspaper columnists) will at times express skepticism of science, with that skepticism at times more driven by ideology than by concern for the merits of a study, and may be quick to point out that a particular study is (or may be) incomplete, flawed, inaccurate.... But when it comes to making an actual decision, all too often we get assumption-based legislation driven not by any sort of study or analysis, but because the politician believes it will help him get reelected, or it's what lobbyists and special interests want.1
1. Arguably, that's a subset of things that a politician believes will help him get reelected, but let's not forget those who position themselves to profit once they leave office, and perhaps before.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Broad Praise vs. Hard Criticism on Foreign Policy

Okay, what's going on here. First, David Brooks has shared some harsh words for the foreign policy positions of Mitt Romeny, which he ascribes to Romney's opportunism and an attempt to distinguish himself from President Obama.
Mitt Romney has been wandering around the country trying to find a place to disagree with Barack Obama,” he said during a panel discussion at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition’s annual conference. “He’s desperately trying, and every time he does, he looks like an idiot, because he has to say something so far out there on Russia or whatever it is.
A plausible alternative explanation is that Romney, like G.W. Bush and Sarah Palin, has little interest in or knowledge of international affairs and foreign policy, and is a painfully slow study. That he accepts and is repeating positions that were drilled into him by members of his foreign policy team. That he's not attempting to distinguish himself from the President by making reckless statements on foreign policy issues that, for the most part, the nation at large isn't following. This is one of the few areas where we don't have a track record of contradictions to point to, and it seems quite possible that Romney means what he says.

Brooks is predictably more circumspect about Romney in his print column, but he extends quite a few compliments to President Obama. Obama pays attention to details, shifts his policies when and as necessary, "has shown a good ability to combine a realist, power-politics mind-set with a warm appreciation of democracy and human rights", "has also shown an impressive ability to learn along the way", "has managed ambiguity well", has "dealt with uncertainty pretty well", and "has also managed the tension between multilateral and unilateral action".

Daniel Larison takes issue with some of the actions that Brooks views as successes, as well as to some of Brooks' criticisms, and also notes that Brooks omits mention of Russia and Syria. For reasons Larison has long pointed out, Russia could be a "case in point" for Brooks' thesis, with Obama implementing a thoughtful, effective policy and Romney spouting nonsense. But on the whole Brooks is commenting more on a thought process than on policy.

Oddly, Brooks doesn't seem to realize that the President approaches domestic issues in the same manner. I guess there's also a possibility that Brooks does see the similarity, but favors domestic policy changes that aren't likely to be brought about through Obama's conservatism - his preference to make changes within the system, observe, test, modify, over more radical solutions supported by political factions on either side.

I'll give Brooks some credit for complimenting a President he hopes will lose in November, but I'll temper that by pointing out that by omitting Russia from discussion, and failing to directly compare and contrast the candidates' Russia policy, Brooks does his readers no favors. It may well be to Obama's credit that foreign policy is a background issue but, as Brooks obviously knows, our nation could face huge, negative consequences if we shift from Obama's carefully thought-out policy to approaches Brooks himself deems idiotic - and unlike Brooks, I am not comfortable assuming that Mitt is needlessly engaging in demagoguery over issues nobody cares about, as opposed to articulating policy positions that he actually believes.

Do You Really Want a Touch-Screen Notebook Computer?

I'll admit it, one of my pet peeves is going to my portable computer, opening it up, and finding somebody's fingerprints all over my screen. I have at times found myself telling people, "Please point, don't touch", when they're drawing my attention to a detail displayed on my computer monitor. When I have to sit and stare at a screen, I want it to be nice and clean. And I'm far from a "neat freak".

The idea of touch screens on portable computers is interesting. I can see how some of the elements of the iPad interface would translate well to a portable computer, or even a desktop computer. But even with an iPad, sometimes you move to a new location, experience a shift in the lighting, or find that something is stuck to its surface and... it's cleaning time! I suspect that the few times I would want to use a touch-screen interface on a fully featured portable or desktop computer would be vastly outnumbered by the number of times I would find myself wishing for a clean screen, and that in most of those occasions I can do just fine with a mouse or trackpad.

Perhaps the concept will work better on a computer that's more of a tablet than a portable, an iPad-plus. Microsoft appears to believe so. But I'm presently leaning toward Steve Jobs-style skepticism that, once the novelty wears off, people will get much use out of touch screens on their regular computers.

The Failure of No Child Left Behind Does Not Justify Greater Federal Intervention

David Gerson states the obvious - that the Obama Administration is backing away from the legislative failure known as "No Child Left Behind". While observing that pretty much everybody has concluded that the law turned out to be a misguided failure, for reasons the law's critics were citing pretty much from day one, it's not clear if Gerson himself acknowledges how poorly conceived the law was. How it doomed good schools to be branded as failures while emphasizing standardized tests (as Gerson himself puts it, an "obsessive focus on test results"), and redirecting incredible amounts of money from education into test prep and payments to test providers.
Right and left — Republican governors and teachers unions — have found rare ideological agreement on educational federalism.

The only problem: Education is a massive failure of federalism.
By a "failure of federalism", does Gerson mean that state and local governments weren't up to the task of educating children? Is he arguing that any time a president, or a president's speech writer, identifies an issue in which states are faltering he should step in with sweeping legislation, driven largely by assumption and ideology, to impose standards and controls over what had previously been a state issue?

Gerson argues,
By the second half of the 20th century, America’s public schools were betraying many of the students in their charge, including the overwhelming majority of poor and minority students.
How many is "many"? Gerson cannot seem to make up his mind about whether this was a broad-based crisis requiring across-the-board federal intervention, or if this was a problem largely isolated to inner cities and poverty-stricken areas, in which case broad-based federal intervention would be both unnecessarily intrusive and unnecessarily expensive. Gerson focuses on race and poverty, suggesting that the only case he sees is the former, which should mean that he would oppose a NCLB-type law. He was the one who invoked federalism - if the federal government can achieve its goals with the use of a tack hammer, why employ a sledgehammer?

Gerson shares this gem:
It is true that highly centralized governmental systems can be arrogant and mediocre. Public education demonstrates that a highly decentralized governmental system can also be arrogant and mediocre, particularly when parents are denied objective information about educational outcomes.
So, yes, government can be arrogant and mediocre at all levels. Thanks for sharing. The historic thought with education, though, is that it was a local government issue, with local school boards overseeing local schools, responding to local needs and concerns. Some fail? That's inevitable. But why does Gerson believe that success is more likely following federal intervention, or that involvement in public school policy is an appropriate exercise of federal power?

Gerson whines that people didn't make enough of an effort to improve or refine the law, which has now been in effect for more than a decade. One wonders why Gerson has not taken a similar stance in relation to, say, any major Obama Administration initiative. "Don't complain that it's misguided or oversteps the proper role of the federal government, work to fix it!" He sneers that teachers who suggest that the law's "obsessive focus" on standardized testing takes the joy out of teaching are in fact motivated by a desire to avoid accountability. His preferred solution? Less federalism, more direct federal control - which does seem to be consistent with his tenure with the Bush Administration. Never admit a mistake and, when a policy appears to be failing, double down.
Why is NCLB so unpopular? Because it exposes the failure of adults in the lives of children. And the bipartisan response of many governors, educators and legislators — alarmingly, predictably — is to excuse the adults.
Actually, NCLB is unpopular because it is a poorly conceived law that has wasted an incredible amount of money and didn't work. If it had been modified to the point that it might have "worked" it would be unrecognizable. To say that the conditions imposed by the Obama Administration are an improvement over NCLB would be to damn them with faint praise, but Congress hasn't acted, Congress won't act, so there you go.

As Yong Zhao sarcastically notes, Gerson wants us to follow the lead of the wrong nation (and the Common Core Standards initiative is largely "more of the same"):
America has almost caught up with China, and actually in some areas surpassed it. Thanks to No Child Left Behind, America can now claim to have even more frequent high stakes standardized tests than China. It can also be proud to be more serious than China about the test results because it uses test scores to break up schools, fire school leaders, and publicly humiliate teachers, while China does not have the guts to do any of that. China only gives those schools and teachers with high test scoring students some extra money. America has also successfully reduced time on nonsense school activities such as music, arts, sports, science, social studies, lunch time, and field trips, something it has wanted to do since the 1950s when surpassing the former Soviet Union was the aspiration. And the silly Chinese are working hard to push those nonsense activities into schools.
Perhaps Gerson can reflect on the past decade of experience and share some ideas for how NCLB might be improved or, better yet, replaced with something that doesn't confuse success on standardized tests with quality education. I'll grant, his chosen approach is easier - pretend that parents and communities aren't part of the equation, treat teachers with disdain, and stick with a failed policy because if you do it for longer, or do it harder, it might magically start working.

Congress has a playground right in front of it, through which it can demonstrate how federal intervention, programs and initiatives can turn around a school district and leave no child behind, the D.C. Public Schools. Here's a wild idea, how about asking Congress to lead by example, demonstrating in D.C. that its ideas and initiatives can work, then asking states to sign on to proven techniques for improving troubled schools? If D.C. won't agree to participate, pick an inner city, any inner city - you'll find one that's willing to take a ton of federal money to reinvent itself.

That seems more sensible than doubling down on failure, doesn't it? Better than finger-pointing, complaining that a bad law would work if somebody else fixed it? In Gerson's eyes, when are any of the self-described "adults" of the Bush Administration to be held responsible for their actions and inaction?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

"I'll Believe It When I See It"

Via The Non Sequitur,

The Top Issues That Romney Should (But Won't) Address

If Mitt Romney wants to move the campaign from the non-serious to the serious, to move from fabricated attacks to substantive discussion, ere are some issues I would like to see him address:
  1. Climate Change: Let's skip past the B.S. and acknowledge the facts. The world is getting hotter and all of the world's nations are going to be affected, some far more seriously than others. What policy should the U.S. take in response to climate change, and if you propose anything but inaction how will you lead the world on the issue?

  2. Trade Deficits: If our nation runs a trade deficit, that deficit must be "paid for" with some combination of government debt or private debt. Do you believe that foreign nations will, in effect, subsidize our consumers forever, or do you believe that the trade deficit matters and should be reduced? If you want to reduce trade deficits, what steps will you take to bring about a reduction? If not, how do you propose that our nation's position in the global marketplace can be sustained over the long-term?

  3. Terrorism: Since George W. Bush left office, the approach to the "war on terror" has shifted from starting large, traditional wars in nation states to launching small commando raids and drone strikes around the world. While a good case can be made that the new approach is the better one for combating groups planning terror attacks against the U.S., its interests and allies, the lack of Congressional oversight over the choice of targets and use of drones creates serious questions about the proper scope of executive power, while also raising serious resentment against the U.S. in areas where drone strikes are occurring. What will you do to address those concerns, and what will be your policy on the selection of targets (including U.S. citizens) and whether and when to order commando raids or drone strikes on selected targets?

  4. Military Spending: Do you believe that there is any waste, fat or excess in the U.S. military and defense budgets? If not, please make the economic case for our present weapons systems, actual and under development, vast network of military bases, and other expenditures that come under frequent attack, even from within your party? If so, what programs would you modify or cut? What military expenditures do you deem the most crucial to the nation's interest, and which do you deem to be the least? How would you search for efficiencies and, once identified, how would you implement more efficient practices or policies? How will your policies, one way or the other, affect military spending in present and future budgets? How will they affect national defense, as well as overseas military commitments and activities? Are there any world conflicts in which you would increase or decrease a U.S. military role and presence and, if so, which ones, for what purpose, and at what cost?

  5. Russia and Eastern Europe: What are your policies on our relations with Russia and Eastern Europe. Over the course of your campaign you have proposed a number of policies that would antagonize Russia, and have criticized Obama Administration policies on U.S.-Russian relations that appear to have significantly improved our nation's relations with Russia. What will be your approach to Russia, issue-by-issue, and what impact do you expect those policies to have on U.S.-Russian relations or Russian cooperation with U.S. political, military and economic goals? For example, allowing former Soviet Bloc nations to join NATO, whether or not such a move might be justified for other reasons, or implementing ballistic missile defense technologies on Russian's border, could cause Russia to cease its cooperation with and facilitation of U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan, to cooperate with sanctions against nations like Iran, or otherwise act in a manner contrary to U.S. goals and interests. What balances will you draw, and why do you believe they will work?

  6. Banking Regulation: Even after the near-collapse of the financial industry and the government bailouts of banks, some of the nation's (and world's) largest financial institutions have continued to engage in acts that range from incompetent to reckless to criminal. What regulations would you support to prevent a recurrence of a financial industry collapse? How can you guarantee that the U.S. taxpayer will never again be asked to bail out bankers - let alone before every penny of shareholder and bondholder money has been extracted to try to solve the bank's problem without moral hazard?

  7. Health Care: If you truly are of the position that the Affordable Care Act is an atrocity that must be repealed, despite its remarkable similarity to the plan you signed into law as governor of Massachusetts, exactly what do you propose to implement in its place? One would expect a business leader to look at other companies and identify possible ways to increase efficiency or save costs - would you look to other approaches to health insurance in the industrialized world, and bring their best elements to the U.S.? If so, which ones? If not, why not?

    What concrete proposals can you share to address healthcare costs and healthcare inflation? Should the government have a policy on end of life care and, if so, what should that policy be? If not, how do you propose to get health care costs in check without taking a position on the leading contributor to that cost?

  8. Employment and Wages: Do you believe that a strong middle class is important to American Society? Are you concerned that middle class wages are stagnant, middle class jobs are disappearing, and middle class workers are feeling enormous financial pressure? If so, what policies do you propose that will help improve the financial well-being of the middle class and expand the pool of middle class jobs? If not, why not?

  9. National Debt: As a businessman, you did not shy away from debt. Quite the opposite, one of your tactics was to acquire companies with low debt and then significantly increase their debt load. If you would add debt to a company to invest in infrastructure or extract profits for your investors, aren't you confirming that the problem is not the debt itself but the cost of that money? As head of a private equity firm, if you acquired a business enterprise is able to borrow at extremely low rates, rates that with inflation amount to a break-even or possibly even a negative interest rate, what would you do? Would you apply different principles as President, refusing to borrow what amounts to "free money" in a time of crisis to invest in the nation's infrastructure at a time when such an investment could significantly boost employment and future competitiveness? If so, why?

  10. Deficit Spending: You have argued against deficit spending, even in a time of severe economic crisis, but you have not proposed a credible plan for balancing the budget. You have instead endorsed a budget that cuts unspecified domestic spending, cuts taxes for the wealthy and for corporations, and as a result increases the budget. If you in fact are concerned about deficit spending, exactly what cuts will you made to reduce domestic spending? Will you make any cuts to military spending and if so, exactly what will you cut? If it is necessary to raise taxes to balance the budget, what taxes will you raise and by what amounts?

  11. Infrastructure Improvement: On a related note, our nation has a lot of looming problems - decaying roads, bridges and water distribution systems, an archaic power grid, and the like. We are even lagging other nations in telecommunications and high speed Internet services. What policies will you enact to address those issues? How much money will you allocate to those issues and, if none, how would you justify a continued neglect of infrastructure for an additional four to eight years under your leadership?

  12. Iran and North Korea: As you know, our nation and our allies have employed sanctions against "rogue regimes" for many decades. Until a few years ago, proponents of sanctions could point to Libya as "the exception that proves the rule," with Gadhafi's abandonment of certain weapons programs offered as proof that sanctions and international isolation can work. If the goal is merely to slow the development of weapons programs sanctions may have an impact, but there's no evidence that sanctions will stop the development of such programs.

    You have expressed that it is important to address North Korea's military posturing and nuclear arsenal, as well as the possibility that Iran might develop nuclear weapons, but to achieve those goals you focus on new, stronger sanctions. Exactly what new sanctions do you propose, and what evidence can you offer that they will work? What will be the measure of success or failure for your sanctions, and what additional steps will you take if your sanctions fail? Under what circumstances would you find that war with Iran or North Korea was in the best interest of the United States and, for each nation, describe what you believe the war would look like, the anticipated cost of the war, both economic and human, and your plan for the post-war period.

  13. Campaign Finance Reform and Transparency: Do you believe that it is important to reduce the influence of wealthy corporations and individuals on elections, or at least to slow or stop the trend by which election costs are skyrocketing and politicians start fundraising for the next election the day after they win the current election? If so, what concrete measures do you support to address the issues of campaign funding and donor transparency? If not, why not?

  14. The Middle East: What policies do you favor to produce politically stable, politically friendly governments in the Middle East, and how will those policies be implemented by your administration?

  15. China: You have expressed that China doesn't play fair in the global marketplace. At the same time, China has emerged as a very important economic partner, providing labor for many U.S. and international corporations while also investing heavily in U.S. Treasury Bonds. What are the exact issues you hope to resolve between the U.S. and China, what steps will you take to address those issues, what will you do when China inevitably pushes back, and what do you believe will be the consequences of your policies and action on relations and trade between the U.S. and China?

  16. Immigration: Unlike most Americans, your family has directly benefited from the immigration policies of one of our neighbors, Mexico, and your grandparents were able to take up residence in Mexico in response to what they perceived as religious persecution in the United States. As a business leader you are familiar with companies that bring workers into the U.S. on various types of employment visas. As a homeowner, you have used immigrant labor to maintain the grounds of your home. How have your experiences influenced your perspective on immigration? What is your preferred immigration policy for the United States, including for family reunification, asylum, for skilled workers, for unskilled workers, and for international students and scholars?

  17. Pakistan and Afghanistan: What are your proposals for creating and sustaining stable regimes in Pakistan and Afghanistan that, even if not friendly to the U.S., are at least not unfriendly and are unwilling to host groups that are hostile to U.S. interests? What will you do to address the possibility that Pakistan might export nuclear technology, or that a collapse of its government might cause nuclear weapons to fall into unfriendly hands?

  18. Poverty: Speaking in broad terms, we have two populations of people in poverty. The first group will emerge from poverty over time. The second group will not, and is at risk of becoming part of a generational cycle of poverty. What help can and should the government offer to each group? How can we help ensure that people in the first group do successfully emerge from poverty, rather than potentially falling into the second group? What policies do you propose that will help us break the cycle of poverty, first by helping impoverished adults find their way into jobs and careers, and second to minimize the risk that their children will become part of a cycle of poverty?

  19. Intellectual Property: As you know, intellectual property law is very important to inventors and businesses. If you cannot protect your inventions and your creativity you operated under a severely reduced incentive, perhaps even a disincentive, to make serious investments of time and money in new technology and new ideas. At the same time we have created a byzantine system of patents that makes it virtually impossible to produce a new technology that doesn't violate somebody's patent, and literally impossible for a company to be certain that its new invention is not going to be subject to a claim that it violates a competitor's patent, or one held by a "patent troll". We have allowed copyrights to be extended well beyond the life of the creator, stifling derivative works even long after the creator's death.

    What policies do you propose to protect inventors on both sides of the equation - those whose inventions merit protection, and those who become the targets of demands or litigation despite their having no knowledge or awareness of the patent they have allegedly infringed and having made a good faith effort to respect the intellectual property rights of others? How will you balance those interests? What measures do you propose to protect companies from international or domestic piracy, and how will you balance the rights of intellectual property owners against the privacy rights of consumers, their right to use or control their own legitimately purchased or licensed products, and their legitimate fair use of copyrighted material? Would you support or oppose a new SOPA/PIPA-type law? If the former, under what terms? If the latter, on what basis, and would you veto any such law that came across your desk?

  20. Federal Criminal Law: Do you agree that federal criminal laws extend too far into the realm of state and local concerns, and criminalize a lot of conduct that should at most be the subject of a civil legal action? If so, please share some examples of criminal laws that you believe represent federal government overreach, and what steps you will take to roll back or at least prevent additional overreach.

  21. The Economy: We have been experiencing slow economic growth and slow job growth for far too long. As you know, the President's role in both boosting the economy and affecting job growth are overrated, but the President is in a position to advocate for economic policies and to influence the decisions made by the Federal Reserve. Assuming that the sluggish recovery continues, what policies do you propose to speed up the recovery and why do you believe they will be effective? If the recovery slows or stops, or we fall back into recession, what policies do you propose to respond to those problems and why do you believe they will be effective? If another catastrophe occurs, be it an economic bubble, a collapse of the Euro, or some other factor or catastrophe we may not have even considered, what measures will you take to insulate the U.S. economy from catastrophe and why do you believe those measures will be effective? What steps, if any, would you take to help stabilize the economic situation in Europe, or an economic problem that develops elsewhere in the world that might affect the U.S. economy? As you know, there was ample warning of both the Internet bubble and the housing bubble, yet concerns were dismissed. What steps will you take to identify growing problems, including economic bubbles, and how will you react if a potential problem is identified?

  22. Subsidies: When, if ever, should the government subsidize private enterprise? If you support subsidies, when should subsidies be given? What form should they take - cash grants, conditional loans, loan guarantees, tax credits, tax exemptions, etc. - and under what circumstances? How should the amounts of any subsidies be determined? What form or forms of government subsidy should never be extended to private enterprise, and why?

Note, I'm not offering these as questions for a debate between the candidates - as questions that can be avoided or evaded. If I want to see somebody talk around the issues, I can turn on the television and listen to the pablum that the mainstream media deems to be sufficient - assuming I'm lucky enough that somebody in the mainstream media is even asking about the big issues - or look at the candidates' websites. I would like to hear substantive commentary on these issues.

Please note also, by implication these are issues that have not been adequately addressed by the Obama Administration. In some cases, through its action or inaction, we know where the Obama Administration stands, and where its rhetoric departs from its actions. I would welcome the Obama Administration to specifically address these issues, the extent to which its present policies have failed, and its plans to resolve any shortcomings or improve how it handles these issues in the future.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Washington Post Offers Romney an "Out"

In another unsigned editorial, Fred Hiatt and his editorial board complain to Mitt Romney, "One year's tax return just isn't enough."

What will get the fiery breath of Fred Hiatt off of Mitt Romney's back? Twelve years, like George Romney offered? Don't be ridiculous.
He does not need to go as far as his father, who made public 12 years of tax returns when he was running for president in 1968....
How far does he have to go?
...but more than two years would be informative. The last Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), made public only two years of his tax returns before the election; others have provided many more.
So it would seem three would be nice, but release two years like John McCain and Hiatt will call it a day.

Romney's Need to Define Himself

Ross Douthat shares a thoughtful perspective on the struggles Mitt Romney faces as the Republican Convention and presidential debates approach. I'll note, though, that he falls prey to the tendency of the political junkie to obsess, months ahead of the election, over slight movements in the tracking polls as evidence that one candidate or another is likely to win. Douthat sees the lack of movement as reassuring,
So Obama isn’t actually being borne upward by the Bain contretemps any more than he was actually dragged down by his own “the private sector is doing fine” facepalm moment. Instead, public opinion has been remarkably stable since the spring, with both candidates moving up and down between the mid and high 40s, mostly within the margin of error.
I think he's mistaken, though, to suggest that the criticism of Romney on Bain, and the increasing number of Republicans who are calling on Romney to release his tax returns, can be dismissed based upon those poll results. They tie directly into what Douthat tells us Romney must do: Define himself in positive terms. He has abandoned his tenure as governor as a qualification for the White House, his tenure at the Olympics isn't really something he wants scrutinized, and that leaves Bain.

Romney's political opponents are aware of that. Four years ago we saw John McCain complain about Bain's outsourcing and dismiss it as a qualification for the presidency. Four months ago we saw Newt Gingrich accusing Romney of "vulture capitalism". If we use the words of Romney's surrogates, that pretty much means that Gingrich and McCain are socialists who don't even know what it means to be American.

Although Romney has devoted the past two decades attempting to position himself for the White House, and the past six years to actively campaigning, as Douthat observes, he has yet to define himself. He seems to be premising his entire campaign upon two things: 1. He's not Obama, and 2. rich people need more tax cuts. Did I leave anything out? Douthat seems to agree,
For Romney to accomplish the same feat, he will need to reassure voters that he represents something more than just a rubber stamp for the interests of the wealthiest Americans.
It's not as if Romeny's failure to "introduce himself" is new news.
When the press is all punched out, Romney will have $100 million and his own formidable political skills available to make his rebuttal. ... The fact is, Mitt Romney will have enough money and enough political skill to define himself when the time is right.
Update that to about a billion dollars and you might not realize that's what a Romney supporter was arguing five years ago. The same guy supporter, four years ago:
I hope Mr. Romney does well enough in Michigan today that he gets the opportunity to introduce the public to the real Mitt Romney.
Here we are, four years later, and it has become a joke:
Douthat believes that Romney should watch a few Reagan speeches and... emulate? Imitate? That Romney should articulate even a weak tea vision for America,
They would involve supplementing his critiques of the Obama White House’s crony capitalism with an acknowledgment of the financial sector’s sins as well. They would involve supplementing his promise to repeal the Democratic health care legislation with a vision of what might actually replace it. They might involve returning to a theme that he struck in April, when he suggested that this election will come down to “jobs and kids,” and offering more to struggling middle class parents than just a tax cut on their (meager) capital gains.
It tells you something, though, doesn't it, that we're almost four years past the collapse of the financial sector, and it's still necessary to ask Romney to acknowledge a problem? That the Governor who signed Romneycare into law demagogues against a federal law that, for all intents and purposes, is the same as the one he passed - and, despite claiming to have solutions and having previously suggested that he was the man to bring health insurance reform to the nation - has nothing to offer?

Douthat should note that Romney has offered "struggling middle class parents" more than "a tax cut on their (meager) capital gains" - he's offered to make it harder for them to get and keep health insurance, and to cut government programs that benefit them. I suspect that's not what Douthat has in mind. Douthat imagines that Romney could promise to get government off of our backs, Reagan-style? The man who can't utter a word of criticism for the financial sector, who pays lower taxes on his fortune than most working Americans, who has a $100 million IRA (based upon supposed $6,000 annual contributions), who has six houses, friends who own NASCAR teams and have private back yard golf courses.... Yeah, the government has crushed him.

Douthat's invocation of Reagan brought to mind the fact that, love him or hate him, the man had fantastic delivery. He cultivated an image, style of presentation, style and wit that was highly effective. Douthat inspired an image of Reagan, at my door, apologizing for running over my cat - and that by the end of his apology I would probably both like him and feel sorry for him. Romney? Why is it I'm picturing a stammering explanation punctuated at some point by the emergence of his checkbook?

Romney does need to define himself, but he needs to define himself credibly. I suspect that the reason we haven't been introduced to "the real Mitt Romney" is that his advisors have been trying out various costumes and personas, and are discovering that Romney really is the businessman in a suit, staid, boring, gray at the temples, and yes, self-interested, we've been seeing all along. Romney trying to be Reagan would likely seem as genuine as Dukakis in a tank.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why Won't Romney Defend Outsourcing?

Under the guise of balance, Fred Hiatt's editorial board has produced an unsigned editorial that basically accuses President Obama of being a meany-pants to Mitt Romney, right down to the cheap tactic I commented on the other day, taking the most extreme comment by a low-level campaign staffer, and pretending that it's representative. Not that we should be surprised, because that tactic was employed by one of Hiatt's own columnists. Hiatt and his board complain,
According to the Obama campaign, Mr. Romney’s claim of non-involvement in the fateful three years can’t be squared with some sworn documents he signed that describe him as Bain’s chief after 1999.
You might think that their next move would be to explain the consistency - to explain why Romney's claim that he departed Bain in 1999 can be squared with the SEC filings he signed stating that he continued to serve as CEO, President and sole shareholder. Alas, no, you instead get the predictable resort to the staffer - a resort to ridicule - followed by huffing that the issue is not "serious" because the matter has not been referred to the Justice Department. I guess that's consistent with Hiatt's apparent view on everything from how the nation ends up at war to torture and indefinite imprisonment to the financial industry debacle - unless somebody goes to jail, it can't possibly be serious.

Hiatt's crew uses the term "squabbling", which isn't at all accurate. A squabble is an argument. There's no argument here. What we are instead seeing is the Obama campaign goading Mitt Romney, and Romney reacting in a manner that serves primarily to draw attention to the fact that he's not being honest. No, I don't mean that Romney's refusal to speak candidly about his exact ties with Bain means that he was in fact actively managing his company, nor that his refusal to disclose his tax returns means that he has engaged in financial misconduct. But it's reasonable to infer that a person who says "I have nothing to hide", who then refuses to document his claims, is in fact hiding something. Hiatt's crew is simply giving him cover.

It is reasonable to note that many of the columnists who work for the Post are right-wing partisans, serving up one hackish attack after another on the President. The fact that Hiatt doesn't mind the fact that the editorial and op/ed pages of his paper, print and electronic, are consistently full of childish attacks on the President from the likes of Jennifer Rubin, William Kristol, David Gerson, Kathleen Parker, Charles Krauthammer, George Will, Mark Thiessen, Ed Rogers... well, it's pretty clear that his paper isn't actually concerned about attacks that are hyperbolic, "derivative" or unfair. How many column inches of unsigned editorial space has the editorial board devoted to pushing back against right-wing depictions of the President as a socialist - an accusation presently being pushed by some of its aforementioned columnists? How many inches to pushing back against Romney's absurd accusation that Obama went on an "apology tour"? Would that be... none? How about individually? Any?

One response Hiatt might give is that not enough people buy into those arguments. That despite their being pervasively pushed by the right, notions of Obama as a socialist, Mitt Romney's fabricated "apology tour", birtherism, and the like don't matter because nobody who is informed or knowledgeable will fall for them. Never mind that if the proponents of those attacks agreed they would find some other nonsense to push. But that suggests an editorial board less concerned with truth than with rushing to the defense of a candidate who they see as flailing, and it would seem like a pretty thin rationalization for not taking similarly strong positions against the many false accusations raised against the President. Must a candidate be visibly drowning before he gets this type of lifeline?

The Board then attempts to do what Romney is unwilling to do: it attempts to make a case for the upside of outsourcing and offshoring. First they claim that international outsourcing (offshoring) creates as many jobs as it destroys, omitting the caveats that some of the people displaced by outsourcing will not find work in the same sector (i.e., will need to retrain and will likely never again achieve their former level of income) and that the study begins in 2000 ends in 2007 a very limited window that largely corresponds with the housing bubble and ends before the "great recession". They also argue that as corporations invest in foreign enterprises, they also invest in their domestic operations (albeit at a much lower level).

Are you seeing the problem here? The Post does, offering a small amount of sympathy followed by a large dose of condescension for displaced workers:
Of course, such studies are cold comfort to people who lose jobs, even temporarily. American workers’ anxiety is understandable, and an inclination to seek scapegoats in the executive suite, or overseas, is not surprising.
The condescension continues,
It is unsettling to realize that we are vulnerable to the same vicissitudes of international commerce with which other peoples have been coping for decades.
Is the editorial board seriously suggesting that Romney make that argument? It would be awkward enough for Romney to argue that outsourcing is a necessary evil in the global marketplace, helping to keep companies competitive both domestically and internationally, sometimes discretionary but in today's world often necessary, with the unfortunate effect that some workers will be displaced and blue collar wages will be significantly and permanently reduced. First, the populations of displaced workers who cannot find jobs or whose earning capacity has been permanently reduced are not going to buy into the conceit of "You win some, you lose some" or "It may be that the executives of your company got richer than ever while firing you and shipping your job to Asia, but don't go scapegoating them." Second, displaced workers are not going to respond well to the argument that "People in the developing world have suffered from low wages and job insecurity for many years, and they cope - why can't you?"

The editorial board lectures,
The president knows that the globalization of markets, including the market for labor, is irreversible, which is why he hasn’t proposed policies even remotely commensurate with his campaign’s alarmism. Rather, he’s for boosting education and infrastructure and tweaking the taxation of multinational firms’ foreign profits. If anyone has sounded protectionist, it’s Mr. Romney, who has promised to risk a trade conflict with China by labeling that country a currency manipulator.
What alarmism? His campaign has challenged Romney to explain how his record at Bain qualifies him to be President, and Romney has not been able to do so. His campaign challenged Romney to explain Bain's role in outsourcing jobs, and rather than explaining the economics of outsourcing or how it helped Bain's investments he's been whining, "That wasn't me, that was some other guy." That's pretty much it.

Meanwhile, no, Romney is not about to start a trade war with China. Even if they're unaware of the underlying facts, or don't care to point them out to Romney, I doubt that there's a person on the editorial board who doesn't recognize Romney's demagoguery for what it is.

You know what Romney could do? He could say, "You know what? The President and I are in agreement on outsourcing. We both know that it's a reality, there are sound economic reasons for outsourcing, and that it brings some genuine good to our society along with the bad. The President and I agree that we should help workers who are displaced by outsourcing and try to find ways to rebuild and maintain a strong middle class." But... he won't.

At the end, I'm reminded of my reaction to Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson - that the board is feigning disdain at a "squabble", oblivious to the fact that their part of the problem. But who knows - perhaps they're reveling in that fact. As their roster of right-wing columnists attests, they're not concerned with fairness and objectivity, and are happy to publish below-the-belt attacks. After all, if it sells papers, columns and page views, they make money.
In an ideal world, the president and his challenger would acknowledge that “creative destruction” is part of what helps an economy grow, while discussing the most cost-effective means of limiting and healing workers’ short-run pain. Alas, we don’t live in that world.
"Alas," says the paper that's part of the problem.

Attacks on Bain and Romney Aren't Attacks on Capitalism

Although some like to pretend otherwise, and to invoke the age-old tactic of suggesting that a political opponent a hypocrite,
Over the years of his presidency, Obama has not been a critic of globalization. There’s no real evidence that, when he’s off the campaign trail, he has any problem with outsourcing and offshoring. He has lavishly praised people like Steve Jobs who were prominent practitioners. He has hired people like Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, whose company embodies the upsides of globalization. His economic advisers have generally touted the benefits of globalization even as they worked to help those who are hurt by its downsides.

But, politically, this aggressive tactic has worked. It has shifted the focus of the race from being about big government, which Obama represents, to being about capitalism, which Romney represents.1
that argument has two significant flaws. First, there's no hypocrisy. Second, attacks on Bain, Romney and outsourcing are not attacks on capitalism.

On the first issue, David Brooks complains that the President seems to like leaders of industry such as Steve Jobs, and has employed people like Jeffrey Immelt. And you know what? Had Mitt Romney been applying for a job as a guy who pioneered a similar program in Massachusetts, and wanted to be personally involved in sharing that success with the rest of the nation, I suspect the Obama team would have considered him for the job. But liking somebody, expressing admiration for them within their sphere of competence, hiring them in one capacity or another... none of it constitutes the expression that "This person is qualified to be President".

I can acknowledge that Steve Jobs helped create Apple, and through that company transformed the way we interact with computers. I can say that he was both willing to make and learn from mistakes, and that some of his business and strategic decisions at Pixar and Apple showed tremendous insight and foresight. I can also say that I don't think that those skills would have translated into his being a great President of the United States and that, given his well-documented personality quirks, he might not have even ranked as good. Would Brooks disagree with any of that? I doubt it. So we're on the same page: Being a good to great business leader does not automatically translate into a qualification to be President.

On the second, the issue is not whether Obama has tried to stop globalization. If we're honest about it, it's a done deal. It would take years of enormous effort to significantly reduce our nation's role in the globalized economy, let alone to stop it, and there would be serious consequences to retreat.

Although Brooks acknowledges the upside of globalization, he brushes off the downside. His suggestion that the President is a hypocrite and his pretense - and I do believe he knows better - that the President is attacking capitalism is meant to distract people from the fact of that downside. Does Brooks doubt that, if interviewed or directly asked about global markets, the President would freely and ably address the upside of globalization? Again, I doubt it. But if not, we're effectively again on the same page: The problem isn't that Obama is attacking capitalism and globalization. The problem is that he's able to recognize and speak to the downside, while Mitt Romney is not.

The problem is that, despite Brooks' hagiographic effort to reinvent Romney's work as that of "an efficiency expert", taking "companies that were mediocre and sclerotic and try[ing] to make them efficient and dynamic". The problem is that, under that narrative, the American workers who are laid off in favor of outsourcing, domestic or international, are actual people, many of whom worked extremely hard for years in ways and under conditions Brooks can't even imagine. Obama's message to them is not "I'll stop globalization", it's "I understand your situation, and we need to work to find ways to get you back into the workforce in a decent job at reasonable pay."2 Romney's message, so far, seems to be "We had to fire you because your wages were too high. By the way, it's my opponent's fault that you're unemployed."3

And that's the rub.
1. Obama represents big government, it would seem, because he obtained passage of a healthcare reform package that is roughly the same as the one Romney ushered through in Massachusetts.

2. Brooks can call that a "big government" attitude if he wants, but this would be the same David Brooks who describes "doubling spending on science, pre-K education and adult retraining" as a "big idea". Does that make Brooks a big government conservative? An enemy of capitalism?

3. Brooks characterizes Romney's role as head of a private equity firm as follows,
It has been his job to be the corporate version of a personal trainer: take people who are puffy and self-indulgent and whip them into shape.
What about when the "personal trainer" decides it's better to kill his client, carve him into pieces and sell off the parts?

Brooks presents a cute metaphor, sure, but it misses the point. The private equity firm is out to make money, and to maximize the return on its investment over the shortest possible period. That often will involve improving efficiency, particularly if the plan is to sell the company, but the goal is to maximize profit, not to obtain the best outcome for any particular acquisition. If you look at the mismanagement of Chrysler under Cerberus Capital Management, you can see pretty clearly how little regard they had for the long-term viability or competitiveness of the company. They were out to put in as little money as possible while extracting as much value as possible.

If you identify a company with significant real estate holdings, low debt, and a highly paid workforce, the "efficiency" introduced by a private equity firm may be to sell the real estate and lease it back, load up the company with debt, fire its workers and hire replacements at lower pay, and perhaps even to lower the quality of the company's products in order to save money on materials and production - the lease payments and interest become tax deductions, cash flow improves due to lowered production costs and lower wages, the cash holdings and proceeds from the loans and sale of assets can be pulled out by the private equity firm as fees and profits, and "everybody wins" except perhaps for the company, its workers, and its customers.

Leaving aside some of the tax loopholes that distort that process, yes, private equity firms serve a role in our system of capitalism and they can improve a company's efficiency. But it's not going to help Romney if he not only ignores the downside of his work, but also takes Brooks' lead and suggests that displaced workers represent fat that a company is fortunate to have shed. This isn't a narrative Romney wants to implicitly support:

Dirty Politics and Partisanship

Uh oh, Michael Gerson has discovered that politicians are being mean to each other, and he's condemnatory. Why, look how offended he is by:
  • The smear campaign, attributed to Karl Rove, that a politician with a long history of charitable work for abused children is a pedophile.

  • The push poll, suggesting that John McCain had an African-American daughter, benefiting Gerson's ex-boss, George W. Bush.

  • Whisper campaigns of the sort attributed to Karl Rove, that political opponents are gay.

  • The false attacks on John Kerry by "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth," which again benefited Gerson's boss while inspiring a new word for sleazy campaign tactics.

  • Attacks on President Obama as a "socialist".

  • Circulating flyers in churches, calling John McCain the "fag candidate", and suggesting that voters who didn't want homosexuals in the administration should vote for Bush.

  • Attacks on President Obama's religious faith, suggesting that he's a secret adherent of "black liberation theology".1

  • Attacks on President Obama as "palling around with terrorists".

  • False suggestions that the Obama Administration is anti-Catholic. (Oops.)

  • False suggestions that the President was born in Kenya and isn't a legitimate President.

  • President Obama's suggestion that Mitt Romney's record at Bain does not qualify him for the White House.

Note, I'm omitting the various wacko smears and conspiracy theories used to attack Clinton, as Gerson wasn't writing during that period and is a creature of the Bush/Rove machine. But I don't expect I would have much more luck finding Gerson expressing moral outrage that Clinton's political opponents were suggesting that he was guilty not only of financial impropriety, no matter what the facts turned out to be, but of murder.

Seriously, it's very difficult to find examples of Gerson actually arguing against dirty campaign tactics. Part of that could be self-interest, as it would not have done his career any good for Gerson to tell his boss, and his boss's "brain", that their campaign tactics were deplorable. Or it could be that he simply doesn't notice or care what's going on in the southbound lane.

It's fair to note that for a guy who supposedly wants a return to more mannered political campaigns, Gerson has been happy to ally himself with the worst of the attack gods, and for that matter at times to join their chorus. "Obama's not a bigot - but he surrounds himself with (anti-white) bigots". "He's arrogant and patronizing", an "elitist", an intellectual lightweight.2 But when it comes to disavowing sleazy tactics directed against the President or other Democratic politicians, Gerson's silence is deafening. Look what happens when he's put on the spot, and unable to avoid addressing the false suggestion that Obama is "secretly a Muslim",
I think that this is a reflection of polarization. It is a reflection of a conspiratorial tendency on the Internet, which is true on left and right, by the way.
You see, just like whispers that a candidate is a pedophile or has an illegitimate African American child, there's no way such rumors could be planned, orchestrated and advanced by politicians, their supporters and campaign staff. The best explanation is that it's the Internet's fault. Yeah, that's it. And both sides do it.
And so I you know, I think and it's not but is not historically unprecedented. If you look back, people accused Know-Nothings accused Abraham Lincoln of being a secret Catholic, OK? People accused Franklin Roosevelt of being a Jew, OK, because with policies that he pursued.

There is a long history in America of people using these kind of attacks. But it was disturbing then and it's disturbing now.
And these attacks are disturbing, but they're really no different from the attacks that have occurred throughout American political history. It's disturbing but when you look at the big picture, no biggie, you know?
Well, it puts the president in a different position. You know, to object to this makes it sound like being, you know, of this faith is somehow objectionable, which it isn't. So, it's he shouldn't, I don't think, change, you know, carry a big Bible around. That would be deeply cynical, and he's not going to do that. The good book says, you should pray in a closet. That's, I think, pretty good political advice.
Tongue-tied and twisted. What else can I find? The "Obama's not a patriot because he doesn't wear a flag pin" argument? Gerson tells us it's not that Obama isn't a patriot - he doesn't wear a flag pin because he's a condescending snob.
It is now possible to imagine Obama at a cocktail party with Kerry, Al Gore and Michael Dukakis, sharing a laugh about gun-toting, Bible-thumping, flag-pin-wearing, small-town Americans.
In other words, Gerson is more than happy to be part of the smear machine when it's advancing his own political goals and agenda.

Gerson, predictably, feigns offense at the "polarization" created by President Obama's criticisms of Bain, and then it's all claws and venom:
Whatever his intentions or provocations, Obama is now engaged in partisan polarization on an industrial scale. His campaign’s latest round of Bain charges is not politics as usual. It is the accusation of criminal impropriety — the filing of false government documents — without real evidence, as various fact-checking outfits have attested. Obama’s recent attack ad, “Firms,” reflects the sensibilities of a particularly nasty 13-year-old. It is difficult to imagine most Americans saying: “That’s just what American politics most needs — more juvenile viciousness.”
Well, the evidence of the filing of false government documents would be that Romney is claiming to have "retired" from Bain several years before he stopped reporting himself to the SEC as President, CEO and sole owner. Gerson also deliberately overstates his case, pulling in the most outrageous statement made by anybody associated with the Obama campaign and pretending it's representative.

If I ignore Gerson's over-the-top rhetoric, he does make a valid point. Just as with the suggestion that Bill Clinton was guilty of fraud and murder, it's pretty extreme to accuse somebody of criminal activity when you don't believe that the charge will be substantiated, let alone that the person will be prosecuted. Unlike Gerson, I'm more concerned about conspiracy theories that don't die, or that are advanced for weeks, months or years by a political campaign that knows them to be false, than I am with an off-hand comment by a low-level campaign staffer. But I guess if you approach the argument with any amount of perspective it becomes harder to bash the President in the name of comity.
These are not excesses; they are the essence of Obama’s current political strategy. He is attempting to destroy Romney before Romney can define himself, while using a series of issues — the mini-DREAM Act, voting rights and contraceptive controversies — to excite his base. The approach is not politically irrational. But it is premised on the avoidance of issues such as unemployment and the deficit. And it leaves little room for complaints about the brokenness of Washington.
Why, it's almost as if they looked at the tactics of political operatives like Karl Rove, or politicians like George W. Bush, and said, "If we define our opponent, even if unfairly, we can win an election we might otherwise lose". Is Gerson's fit of pique, then, that the Democrats have studied at the feet of the masters, such as his former boss? That as dubious as the tactics are, they're actually pulling this off in a cleaner, more honest manner than one would have seen from a G.W. Bush or Karl Rove? Because it's really difficult to believe that Gerson was blithely writing speeches for G.W. without ever noticing his boss's tactics.
But these tactics do have an effect on politics. The most partisan Democrats are encouraged and empowered. The most partisan Republicans gain an excuse for the next escalation. This is the nature of polarization: Both sides feel victimized, which becomes a justification to cross past limits and boundaries. Neither side feels responsible for the problem, while both contribute to it.
It's difficult to argue with that. By dragging politics into the sewer, politicians like George W. Bush, operatives like Karl Rove and enablers like Michael Gerson set us up for a continuation and escalation of the problem. Except for some reason, in this context, Gerson isn't stammering that this is not really any different than what we've seen throughout the history of the nation's political campaigns, or that we should blame the Internet.

Funny, this,
Obama and his political team have a history of viewing themselves as superior to Washington and the “Beltway mentality.” The president combines a feeling of superiority to politics with a determination to beat his opponents at their own grubby game. It allows him to view himself as a pure, transformative figure while employing the tactics of a Chicago pol.
Gerson opens with the arrogance smear he's been pushing for years. He then states that the President is using the tactics of his opponents - that is, Gerson is stating that the "grubby" tactics he deplores when used by Obama are the intellectual property of the Republican Party. And that means that Obama is "employing the tactics of a Chicago pol", never mind that he just told us that Obama is using the tactics of the Republican Party.

And that "Chicago pol" thing? That's a smear that Republicans have been directing at Obama since he arrived on the political scene, a favorite of the worst of the hacks. Perhaps Michael Gerson can point me to a time when he has pushed back against the smear before giving it his full embrace? Or am I more likely to find the opposite?

Does Gerson actually deplore dirty politics? Truly, even if I were to ignore his role in the Bush Presidency, and say, "It was just a job - perhaps he held his nose a lot and hated what he and his colleagues were doing," I would have a difficult time believing that Gerson is sincere. Because no man who gushes about Karl Rove,
Rove's main influence on the Republican Party has not been a series of tactical innovations but a series of strategic arguments. In this way, Rove is the opposite of a cynical political operator.
can credibly claim that he dislikes sleazy, dirty political campaigns. It seems much more reasonable to infer that what people like Gerson hate is when the other side appears to be gaining the upper hand.

Update: I guess I should note that David Brooks apparently got the same party memo as Gerson and is in full blown hack mode. Brooks intentionally misrepresents the Obama campaign as attacking capitalism, when he knows full well that the actual attack is on Romney's claim that his experience leading Bain qualifies him to be President.

If Romney stumbled through the primary campaign and right wing attacks on his "vulture capitalism", it doesn't speak highly of him that he still has not formulated a response to the criticism of his background as a qualification for the White House.
1. Gerson did write a condescending column, asserting that Rev. Jeremiah Wright is an adherent of black liberation theology and suggest that if the President was not aware of that he must have been sleeping through the services he attended. He fastidiously avoided stating, "I don't think the President holds these beliefs."

2. Gerson writes,
But it is hard to avoid the feeling that Obama has gained the nomination without fully earning it. Unlike Clinton or Bush, his intellectual contributions have been slight. The wave he rides may take him far -- but he is not determining its direction.

Nice Salary if You Can Get It

The odd bimodal salary curve for new lawyers is looking stranger than ever.

Note, in terms of the diminishing number of jobs at the high end, I said "nice salary," not "nice job." It's possible to find joy and fulfillment, I suppose, as an associate in a big firm, pulling down a fantastic salary as you learn the basics of how to practice law. But day after day, year after year, with a lower chance than ever of making partner? Not appealing to me....

Crony Capitalism and Romney's Olympics

Given the Romney team's baseless accusation that the Obama Administration engages in "crony capitalism", via Charles Pierce I give you Sports Illustrated on the Utah Winter Olympics.
Is this a great country or what? A millionaire developer wants a road built, the federal government supplies the cash to construct it. A billionaire ski-resort owner covets a choice piece of public land. No problem. The federal government arranges for him to have it. Some millionaire businessmen stand to profit nicely if the local highway network is vastly improved. Of course. The federal government provides the money.

How can you get yours, you ask? Easy. Just help your hometown land the Olympics. Then, when no one's looking, persuade the federal government to pay for a good chunk of the Games, including virtually any project to which the magic word Olympics can be attached.

For the past few years, while attention was focused on the Great Olympic Bribery Scandal—in which Salt Lake City boosters dispensed as much as $7 million in gifts, travel, scholarships, medical care, jobs and other goodies to IOC members (and their relatives and companions) to ensure that Utah's capital city would be chosen to host the 2002 Winter Games—private and public interests have siphoned an estimated $1.5 billion out of the U.S. Treasury, all in the name of those same Olympics.
It would seem that after running away from his record as Governor of Massachusetts, and seeing his tenure at Bain fade as an effective cornerstone for why he would be a good choice as President, Romney's out to open the door to his one remaining claim to fame (other than his family name).

The Insurance Industry Will Want a Fix, Not Repeal

Randy Barnett was ahead of the game when he invented the "action vs. inaction" distinction that almost took down the Affordable Care Act, but he's a bit slow when it comes to picking up the fanciful idea that if people think of the penalty for not buying insurance as a "tax", they'll be less likely to buy insurance than if they think it's a penalty. Even if nothing else changes.

Let's imagine that its... 2016? 2020? Something like that. We now have millions of people signed up for insurance through exchanges, or through individual policies that insurance companies can't refuse to to their pre-existing conditions. And let's imagine that the penalty for non-compliance is set at a level that's not inspiring enough people to sign up for insurance before they're actually sick. What's a poor insurance company to do.... I mean, other than raise their rates, which would be a pretty obvious response to increased costs.

But let's assume that Congress, faced with a choice between finding a way to increase the incentive to buy insurance and repealing the provisions that allow people with pre-existing medical conditions to obtain health insurance. Does Barnett imagine that Congress is going to allow insurance companies to dump clients who signed up for insurance because of their pre-existing conditions? That doesn't seem likely but, even if you say they don't have to accept new clients with pre-existing conditions, if you don't allow insurance companies to retroactively dump those clients their short-term financial position won't improve. And if things are so bad that the insurance companies can't sustain their profits, they won't be satisfied with, "Wait a few years, it will balance out in the end."

For that matter, why does Barnett believe insurance companies would want to dump expensive clients if they have another option - a way to keep those clients and maintain their profits? The goal of the insurance company, after all, is to make profits, and they will be very focused on the 80%/20% loss ratio. Getting rid of a client that has $800,000.00 in medical bills could cost them $200,000 toward overhead and profits. (Ain't free market capitalism grand? Or at some point are we going to admit how distorted and twisted the health insurance and healthcare markets have become?)

So really, Barnett should not be anticipating that insurance companies will clamor for repeal, any more than they wanted Medicare Advantage repealed when they couldn't compete as equals with the government. They will much more likely want an improved sanction for the non-purchase of insurance or, even better, a subsidy. Because, yay, free markets and all that.

I'm still of the position that Roberts' ruling will have no meaningful impact on how people respond to the mandate. I'll grant that with enough anti-mandate demagoguery more people may "opt out" than if they weren't actively being urged to do so by people who want to damage the ACA and its implementation, but that won't be because Roberts called the mandate a "tax". But really, once the ACA is firmly in place, even Republicans will be looking not to repeal it, but to fix it.

In fact, that's been their fear from day one.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Unfair Attacks in Political Campaigns

Do you know why politicians use unfair attacks in political campaigns? Why they avoid substantive issues while attempting to distort their opponent's record?

Because it works.

There's debate over whether the Swift Boat attack ads cost John Kerry the election, but there's little question but that those attacks, coupled with Kerry's delay in responding, seemingly arising from his misplaced trust that the media would dismiss the attacks as absurd, seriously harmed his public image.

The attacks on Kerry gave birth to the term, "swiftboating", the use of untrue allegations to attack your opponent's character and record. There was actually nothing new there, and if you look at some of the campaign treachery attributed to the kings of dirty politics such as Karl Rove, you will find lesser-known and less-remembered attacks that were as bad or worse.

But we're really talking about a matter of degree. It's a rare campaign where character is not an issue, with the individual candidates attempting to advance themselves as people of virtue, boasting of impeccable credentials, while suggesting at best that their opponent is less qualified.

Sometimes ignoring the attack works. Either the attack strikes the wrong note with the voters such that they don't care, or the accusation is "old news" by the time an election rolls around. G.W. Bush's history in the National Guard stands as an example. Do I know to what degree the allegations about string-pulling to get him in, his lackadaisical performance, or the circumstances of his discharge are true? No. I can suspect what happened based upon Bush's choice to remain silent and to prevent disclosure of his records, but I can't know. It didn't matter, because people weren't voting for Bush based upon his military record and largely accepted that pulling strings to get out of military service in Vietnam was not a big deal.

In the past, when discussing dirty politics, I've used the analogy of throwing spaghetti - you play around until you find something that sticks, something that resonates, and run with it. And yes, in today's politics that means identifying your opponent's strengths and poking and prodding them until you find a point of weakness, then pushing as hard as you can. The most fair, most honest attacks can fall flat. And unfair, dishonest attacks - swiftboating - can prove highly effective.

Right now we're seeing the Obama campaign push hard on Romney's record with Bain Capital, something Romney has made the cornerstone of his qualification to be President. A few years ago he had Romenycare and Bain, but Romney has been on a multi-year sprint away from his record as Governor of Massachusetts. Now it's just Bain. Romney is trying to push back, but so far his efforts have not been successful. The current attacks are resonating both with voters and with pundits who, even if they publicly deplore the attacks, can't seem to stop talking about them.

Are the attacks fair? I personally do think it's reasonable to argue that if you're characterizing yourself as President, CEO, and sole shareholder of a company, even if you're on a "leave of absence" you need to accept responsibility for what your company does. Romney is more than happy to claim credit for anything positive that is associated with Bain, not just for the period of his employment but through the present. But whenever you shine the light on the dark side of his company, he was "on a leave of absence" or "retired". Particularly given his past statements suggesting post-"retirement" involvement with Bain and its acquisitions, it appears that he can no longer have it both ways.

At the same time, I suspect that if Romney were to disclose his tax records, they would show that some of the criticisms are unfair or exaggerated. But I suspect that they would also paint a picture of Romney - of his wealth, of the trickery he uses to avoid taxes, of the various games ultra-rich people play - would do more harm to his image than attempting to weather the current round of attacks. I have heard it suggested that Romney's camp believes the cure would be worse than the disease - that to release his tax returns would paint a picture of a privileged elitist, documenting and potentiall taking massive tax deductions - well beyond what most families earn in a year - for just one of his many horses.

I prefer clean, above-board campaigns... I'm just not sure where to find one. So in this world I have to settle for being critical of dishonest campaigns and of the media's failure to try to ferret out the truth, while also accepting that being the focus of some dirty tricks is part of our process. I don't think it's every appropriate to exploit voter racism with false innuendo about a candidate or his family, or that a campaign can justify such tactics as falsely implying that a candidate who does charitable or humanitarian work with children is a pedophile. When something like that happens, I would like to see the media ferret out the truth and, should it be a political opponent, hold that person's feet to the fire. In the context of President Obama, it's an appalling failure of the mainstream media that somebody could be a "birther" and be taken seriously as a political candidate or commentator.

I would have been more sympathetic to John Kerry had he pushed back on the Swift Boat lies before they gained traction, but I do sympathize with the fact that once they gained traction the truth no longer mattered. Yes, the media does bear some responsibility, not only for failing to investigate or report known facts, but also for covering and perhaps giggling along with such "jokes" as the "purple heart" bandages. Of caring more about the horse race than the truth, of confusing "he said, she said" coverage with balance.

I admit that I'm uncomfortable with the tactic of implying something about your opponent that you suspect is not true "because it works", but I'm more sympathetic when it's the sort of innuendo I've already described than when it's something the candidate has the power to refute. I suspect that G.W.'s non-disclosure of his National Guard records was due to their revealing embarrassing details of privilege and string-pulling, with the gradual subsequent disclosures being "old news". Things did reach the point where a lot of records were released but, you know, aw, shucks.

And yes, I'll be a lot more sympathetic to your position if you're squeaky clean. If you're truly trying to rise above the fray, run a clean campaign, focus on the issues. If you're going to take potshots at your opponent, directly or through proxies, wink at claims and attacks you know are unfair or untrue, refuse to refute or stand against scurrilous attacks, don't cry to me when your opponent takes off the gloves. But guys, gloves or no, do try to keep it above the belt.

Update: I didn't have to wait very long for an illustration. If you want to complain, directly and through your proxies, that your opponent is being unfair to you, I will not weep for you if your very next move (consistent with any number of your prior moves) is to tell bald-faced lies about your opponent's on-the-record statements.

Protecting Romney from Criticism of Bain

Have you ever been in a car with somebody, waiting to pass an accident scene, while they observe that the traffic accident is not obstructing the road and that the only reason traffic is slow is because of the gawkers? And then, as they pass the accident, they themselves are distracted to the point that they don't notice that the car in front of them has driven on and they're now the gawker causing the slowdown?

The beltway pundits who call for more polite, mannered political campaigns remind me of that sort of driver. Actually, some of them seem a bit worse - some of them would stop their car in the roadway, get out, and share their opinions on the seriousness of the accident and whether it merited gawking, and offer running commentary about the other drivers passing the scene, oblivious to the fact that they've become part of the problem.

When the accident is cleared, they might recite that they're happy that it's over, but they'll keep bringing it up until the next accident comes along, and even then it may become a point of comparison. In many cases they'll talk incessantly about an accident in the northbound lane and, when you point out another accident, they'll express that accidents in the southbound lane are completely different.

Today, Robert Samuelson offers a lot of hand-wringing over problems in the northbound traffic lane, deploring what he calls "character assassination on the campaign trail". I don't follow Samuelson closely, so I am ready to stand corrected if he has in fact deplored past attacks on President Obama - Joe Wilson's outburst at the State of the Union Address, Justice Scalia's outburst from the bench, the entire "birther" phenomenon (Romney's contribution), absurd accusations that he's a socialist (in Romney's softened version, Obama "takes his political inspiration from Europe, from the socialist-democrats in Europe."), attacks on his religion, both his actual Christian faith and his imagined Muslim faith.... If Samuelson has ever demonstrated the slightest bit concerned about any of those acts of character assassination, I'm afraid I missed it.

But, oh, his heart melts for his friends in the financial industry.
Obama practices a cheap populism. He seems to presume that the complexities of the ACA and his repeated attacks on business (on oil companies, insurance companies, banks, hedge funds, private-equity funds and “the rich” in general) have no effect on the climate for investment or job creation. This is dubious.
It should be noted that Samuelson provides no context for any of this "repeated attacks", no quotes, no links. He also provides no evidence that any of President Obama's so-called attacks have resulted in any changes of policy, any economic impact, anything at all. "Dubious"? That's the best Samuelson can do? He thinks that substitutes for facts and evidence? I am aware that certain extremely wealthy people have complained that the President isn't sufficiently nice and deferential to them, and dares to suggest that they might bear some responsibility for the financial crisis and state of the economy. Samuelson apparently agrees with that. But when I look for what the President has actually said I find statements like this:
The tax cuts I’m proposing we get rid of are tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires; tax breaks for oil companies and hedge fund managers and corporate jet owners.

It would be nice if we could keep every tax break there is, but we’ve got to make some tough choices here if we want to reduce our deficit. And if we choose to keep those tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, if we choose to keep a tax break for corporate jet owners, if we choose to keep tax breaks for oil and gas companies that are making hundreds of billions of dollars, then that means we’ve got to cut some kids off from getting a college scholarship. That means we’ve got to stop funding certain grants for medical research. That means that food safety may be compromised. That means that Medicare has to bear a greater part of the burden. Those are the choices we have to make.
Or this:
While full recovery of the financial system will take a great deal more time and work, the growing stability resulting from these interventions means we're beginning to return to normalcy. But here's what I want to emphasize today: Normalcy cannot lead to complacency.

Unfortunately, there are some in the financial industry who are misreading this moment. Instead of learning the lessons of Lehman and the crisis from which we're still recovering, they're choosing to ignore those lessons. I'm convinced they do so not just at their own peril, but at our nation's. So I want everybody here to hear my words: We will not go back to the days of reckless behavior and unchecked excess that was at the heart of this crisis, where too many were motivated only by the appetite for quick kills and bloated bonuses. Those on Wall Street cannot resume taking risks without regard for consequences, and expect that next time, American taxpayers will be there to break their fall.
Does Samuelson have another, secret example of the President being mean? Because although I can characterize the elimination of tax breaks for corporate jets as symbolic, it's more than fair to suggest that calls for sacrifice should not stop with the middle class. Yet Samuelson sees that as an attack on "the rich"? Does Samuelson see a call for the end of subsidies as an attack on oil companies? An accurate assessment of the position taken by some within the financial industry, that the bailout signaled a right to return to business as usual, LIBOR fraud, reckless trading, manipulation of commodities prices, and the like, is an attack on "banks, hedge funds" and the like? Sadly, I expect so.

I'll present a counter-point from Paul Krugman:
In the wake of a devastating financial crisis, President Obama has enacted some modest and obviously needed regulation; he has proposed closing a few outrageous tax loopholes; and he has suggested that Mitt Romney’s history of buying and selling companies, often firing workers and gutting their pensions along the way, doesn’t make him the right man to run America’s economy.

Wall Street has responded — predictably, I suppose — by whining and throwing temper tantrums. And it has, in a way, been funny to see how childish and thin-skinned the Masters of the Universe turn out to be. Remember when Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group compared a proposal to limit his tax breaks to Hitler’s invasion of Poland? Remember when Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase characterized any discussion of income inequality as an attack on the very notion of success?
And I'll let you wager about which of the two gets invited to the billionaires' cocktail parties. As Krugman put it,
But here’s the thing: If Wall Streeters are spoiled brats, they are spoiled brats with immense power and wealth at their disposal. And what they’re trying to do with that power and wealth right now is buy themselves not just policies that serve their interests, but immunity from criticism.
Fear not, young bankers, Robert J. Samuelson has your back.

Why is Samuelson suddenly so concerned about "character assassination"? Why is he suddenly willing to advance the silly argument that the President's occasional, seemingly consistently accurate, statements about tax distribution and the financial industry, are somehow the cause of a slow recovery? It's pretty obvious: the President's reelection team is targeting Mitt Romney's tenure at Bain Capital for criticism, and those attacks appear to be working.

Samuelson is on the record about "character assassination," true or untrue, fair or unfair, in elections:
We have entered an era of constitutional censorship. Hardly anyone wants to admit this -- the legalized demolition of the First Amendment would seem shocking -- and so hardly anyone does. The evidence, though, abounds. The latest is the controversy over the anti-Kerry ads by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and parallel anti-Bush ads by Democratic "527" groups such as MoveOn.org. Let's assume (for argument's sake) that everything in these ads is untrue. Still, the United States' political tradition is that voters judge the truthfulness and relevance of campaign arguments. We haven't wanted our political speech filtered.
That is, unless it's working for the other side better than it's working for our own, in which case it's, "Look at that horrible accident in the northbound lane!"

Update: The substance of Samuelson's attacks on Obama, which were peripheral to the discussion above, have been ably tackled by Dean Baker.

Update 2: If Samuelson is concerned that Obama's occasional, accurate rhetoric is going to devastate the economic recovery by hurting the feelings of bankers, oh, how he must hate the facts.