The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Class War Ahead

It Just Might Work This Time

A study of real income growth over time recently appeared in the prestigious Journal of Economic Literature. It found that the richest Americans, the “one percent” so frequently criticized by Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protestors, garnered an impressive fifty-eight percent of all income growth experienced over the past thirty-five years. During the Clinton Administration years, noted for an economic boom as well as attempts at federal government fiscal discipline, the top earners only captured forty-five percent of income growth. During the years of the George W. Bush Administration, their share skyrocketed to sixty-five percent of all growth.

This study is rather like the climate change studies I wrote about last time. It documents a trend with factual certainty. Exactly what the numbers indicate/portend and what to do in response is a little less clear.
A sign left behind by Occupy
Wall Street protestors in New
York City's Zuccotti Park

President Obama traveled to Osawatomie Kansas where he gave a major policy address that even his own supporters concede was also a major partisan political speech in his re-election campaign. In it, Obama laid heavy responsibility for the nation’s current economic distress, as well as our seeming inability to recover from it, on the wealthy, both individuals and businesses, for failing to play by the rules and pay a larger share as justified by their larger rewards.

Obama maintained, “This is not class warfare. It’s math . . . I will not support any plan that puts all the burden for closing our deficit on ordinary Americans. And I will veto any bill that changes benefits for those who rely on Medicare . . . We are not going to have a one-sided deal that hurts the folks who are most vulnerable.”

The Republican response was swift and unanimous – the President was indeed waging class warfare in an irresponsible, dangerous manner. Conservative pundits joined the chorus. “This is populism so crude that it channels not Teddy Roosevelt so much as Hugo Chavez,” sniped Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer in a savage deconstruction of Obama’s speech. “According to Obama, anyone who opposes his common sense solution for banks is just evil,” fumed Dan Gainor, Boone Pickens Fellow, on FOX News.

Their response was unsurprising. Thomas Frank, author of What’s The Matter With Kansas, expounds on the ability of conservatives to counter complaints against Wall Street and big business by branding critics as elitists, out of touch with the traditional values of mainstream Americans. It is an argument that “resonated powerfully among white swing voters crucial to the ascendance of the Republican Party over the last four decades,” adds Thomas Edsall in the New York Times.

Unfortunately for them, this argument has lost appeal in recent years, contends Michael Kinsley, writing at Bloomberg View. “Because of the financial crisis of 2008, the scandals that went with it, and growing income inequality, financial class war arguments are gaining more traction and the cultural class war has almost disappeared.” Likewise, exhortations by Republican GOP hopefuls that Americans just need an opportunity to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps fall flat because they “fail to address the anxiety and anger of those millions of Americans who suddenly find themselves with no job, no health insurance and no money to pay the mortgage,” Edsall rues.

No matter how you may feel about the practice, poll after poll suggests that the rhetoric labeled “class warfare” by conservatives is finally shifting political fortunes back toward Obama and the Democrats. It comes after a long drought of good news following the 2010 midterm elections. A November Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found respondents favored Democratic policies (i.e. elimination of tax breaks for the wealthy and tougher regulation of banks and corporations) over Republican policies (i.e. spending cuts, minimize regulations, and reject all tax increases) by a two to one margin.

An ABC/Washington Post poll found more than three fifths of respondents said the wealth gap had grown larger. Respondents favored the federal government “pursue policies that try to reduce the gap between wealthy and less well-off Americans,” again by a two to one margin.

An October CBS/New York Times poll found only twelve percent of respondents believed Obama Administration policies favor the rich, while sixty-nine percent believed Republican policies did. A more recent Washington Post poll found forty-seven percent of respondents agreed the GOP represents the interests of the nation’s rich – lower but still larger than those who said the same about Democrats.

A recent Gallup Poll found sixty-six percent of respondents favor increasing taxes on individuals earning over $200,000 per year. Seventy percent want to end corporate tax deductions to pay for Obama’s proposed American Jobs Act.

Perhaps most disturbing for conservatives, apparently Obama achieved this increase in populist sentiment without voters viewing him as a divisive figure. A FOX News poll found fifty-six percent of respondents believed Obama was pursuing his campaign strategy to bring Americans together. This included fifty-three percent of Independents and sixty-eight percent of moderates. It also included fifty-eight percent of individuals who earn over $50,000 annually.

Republican pollster Frank Luntz recently addressed the Republican Governor’s Association, where he told them he is “scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death.” He warned the group that OWS and other populist movements are “having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.” He suggested conservatives carefully spin their arguments, taking care to avoid certain buzzwords that are currently harmful to them (i.e. “pay for performance” versus “bonus”).

However, some of Luntz’s suggestions hold chilling reminders for conservatives as to how badly the tone of the debate has shifted against them. He recommended using the phrase “taking from the rich” over “taxing the rich” because “Americans actually do want to tax the rich.” He also recommended they assert their desire to defend “hardworking taxpayers” rather than “the middle class” because “Americans don’t trust Republicans to defend [the middle class].”

Luntz even recommended avoiding the term “capitalism” because “The public . . . still prefers capitalism to socialism but they think capitalism is immoral.” It comes back to an admonition I offered anti-government conservatives in June 2010. Even if they realized complete success in the mid-term elections, I warned, they were “in for a shock by how little confidence this same public has in their own panacea to all problems – free market capitalism,” whose “luster has dimmed considerably for most Americans in recent years.”

Conservatives have long claimed that private enterprise, even at its worst, is always more effective and efficient at running anything than government is. It became almost cliché because people accepted it as obvious. Nowadays, such claims carry far less credibility. I believe this is the principal reason why Obama is having such success without the usual elitist backlash often suffered by Democrats.

During his Osawatomie speech, Obama assured, “Now, unless you’re a financial institution whose business model is built on breaking the law, cheating consumers, or making risky bets that could damage the entire economy, you have nothing to fear from these new rules.” Conservatives counter this does not mean the President is against banks that do not play by the rules; they assure it means Obama and Democrats are against all banks and capitalism. This has been effective strategy for them in the past. So far this campaign, not so much.

As the OWS camps are slowly giving way to local ordinances and winter cold, both supporters and critics have been asking, “Now what?” of a movement whose goals were never especially clear. At least one Republican pollster seems to think they have already exerted political impact. Personally, I doubt they were the catalyst for Obama’s new boldness but it is likely they provide supporting comfort for him in its execution. The signs of things to come are there to read in the detritus left behind from their occupation stage – Class War Ahead.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Climate Of Skepticism

Both Sides in the Global Warming Debate Need to Back Down from Claims of Absolute Certainty

Reuters, the BBC, and other news organizations have run stories lately about a “drought” in snowfall at several prominent Swiss ski resorts. There has been no heavy snowfall since October, forcing several resorts to push back the start of the season. The stories include grim photos of snow-free slopes. Doctor David Stephenson, head of climate research at England’s Reading University, warns that in fifteen years time many Swiss resorts at lower elevations could have no snow at all. If snow-free Swiss Alps are not proof that something is amiss, what will serve to convince climate change doubters?

Unfortunately, global warming supporters pushing such stories are part of the problem. Doubters point to unrealized dire predictions as justifying their views. Much like the doubters, the supporters in this case falls into the trap of mistaking weather, the day-to-day meteorological conditions affecting a specific place, with climate, the long-term prevalent meteorological conditions of a region or larger area. Even extreme changes in weather ultimately have low impact because they are short lived. Conversely, even minute changes in climate have substantial impact because they persist.

Skiers overlook snow-free slopes at
the Swiss ski resort of Verbier

For the record, I am a supporter of global warming/ climate change and I also feel it is likely that human activities play some role in the observable trend. However, supporters must adhere to the same standards must as doubters. If a cool summer in a warm climate somewhere does not disprove global warming, a snow-free autumn in Switzerland equally fails to prove it. Meteorologists are already predicting December snows will break the drought.

A more relevant recent story is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's 2011 Arctic Report Card, which states “a new normal” for the Arctic, consisting of “less ice, thinner ice, younger ice.” The report has mentioned similar conditions in the past but this is the first time it declares them as enduring rather than transitory.

Even more germane are the recent findings release by the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) study. The project was established by University of California physics professor Richard Muller, an ardent doubter prior to his role in the study. Muller openly expressed suspicions that past studies, including those by NASA, the Hadley Center, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had “concealed discordant data.” Among his funding source were the Koch brothers, who have donated large sums to organizations lobbying against human-caused global warming.

BEST reviewed and assessed the accuracy of existing land temperature data from fifteen previous studies, amounting to some 1.6 billion records dating back to the year 1800. The warming of the Earth about one degree Celsius since the 1950s, their primary finding, almost exactly matched the findings of the earlier studies. BEST verified that global warming was real and disproved claims that climate scientists proposing it were engaged in an elaborate hoax/fraud.

However, this is far from definitive proof by supporters. First, while BEST’s results are the biggest, most comprehensive, and impartial study to date, their results are only as good as their data. Muller has said, “The [land based] temperature station quality is largely awful.” At least seventy percent of the stations have the potential for error between two to five degrees. “The margin of error for the stations is at least three times larger than the estimated warming,” Muller concludes.

Libertarian scholar, Peter Ferrara, writing in Forbes, takes exception with almost everything about the study. While BEST attempted to debunk criticisms of “urban heat island effect,” Ferrara points out the data still comes “from temperature stations on land, which covers less than thirty percent of the earth’s surface.” However, he is only warming up to his topic.

Ferrara notes that weather satellites show no warming in the upper atmosphere since their record began in 1979. Weather balloons independently confirm their results. The UN’s climate models project human-made global warming would result in a “hotspot” in the troposphere, about six miles above the Earth’s surface, in tropical areas. However, weather balloons and satellites actually show a slight cooling there.

Ferrara also holds the UN model’s assumptions up to doubt. Atmospheric temperature data from NASA’s Terra satellite demonstrates much more heat escapes back out to space than is assumed captured in the atmosphere by greenhouse effects under the UN’s climate models. A major experiment by the European Organization for Nuclear Research suggests the sun’s cosmic rays, resulting from sunspots, have a much greater effect on Earth’s temperatures than assumed by the UN’s model.

Mueller admits BEST’s warming trend is not uniformly constant but a majority decision, with fully one-third of all land-based stations reporting global cooling. Moreover, Ferrara argues their records do not show persistent warming following persistent growth of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Rather, it shows an up and down pattern of temperatures, more consistent with natural causes.

Ferrara’s questioning, while providing healthy skepticism to the debate, comes not from a dispassionate skeptic but a lifelong global warming denier. He engages in elaborate spinning of data to reinforce predetermined bias. Because error could exist, it must exist. If there is any room for doubt, dismiss the concept as worthless. There are a lot of babies lying next to bathwater on the ground at the bottom of Ferrara’s ivory tower. He accuses climate change supporters of “religious orthodoxy” and a “fading catechism” but smugly concludes that global warming is not merely over-hyped but entirely imaginary.

Daniel Botkin, president of the Center for the Study of the Environment and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, deplores the absolutism this topic inspires in the scientific community. “Not only is it poor science to claim absolute truth but it also leads to the kind of destructive and distrustful debate we've had in last decade about global warming,” he writes in the Wall Street Journal.

Botkin has been warning about the possibility of human-induced global warming since the 1970s. However, he raised hackles with colleagues in 2007, when concerns over global warming were at their height of popularity, by insisting, “Global warming doesn't matter except to the extent that it will affect life – ours and that of all living things on Earth. And . . . the evidence that global warming will have serious effects on life is thin. Most evidence suggests the contrary.”

I differ with Botkin, finding the impact more noticeable than him. However, I concede his take is more reality-based than frantic warnings issued by some ardent supporters. Despite disturbing trends, the polar ice caps have not melted, polar bears are not extinct, and New York City is not sitting under ten feet of water.

A new study funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation stresses global warming is real and will have multiple serious impacts. However, it also warns that severe estimates, such as those put forth by a 2007 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), are unlikely. For example, the UN IPCC report estimated that Earth surface temperatures could rise from four and a half to eleven and a half degrees Fahrenheit. The new study suggests four degrees is actually the upper limit of the potential rise.

If climate change supporters want to build credibility with doubters, we need to be our own best skeptics and critics. Dire predictions are causing us to lose credibility and shore up the scoffing of global warming deniers. We need to end cherry picking data to find egregious but isolated examples of unseasonal warming. Likewise, no more doomsday prophesizing geared more toward eliciting donations than knowledge. On the other hand, doubters need to end cherry picking data to find examples at odds with models and stressing them exclusively as disproving the model.

What is needed is a climate of true skepticism, in which data trends are recognized as valid but not definitive. Science works best when all attempt unbiased analysis of an issue from the same vantage point, instead of taking sides around it. Unfortunately, there is as little of that in the air right now for climate change as there is snow in Switzerland. What is more, given this topic’s controversial and often combative past, the chance of any developing sometime soon has about the same chance as a snowball in hell.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Out Of The Smoke

Will Gingrich Turn Out To Be the Anti-Romney, Romney-Lite, or Hyper-Romney?

As Herman Cain’s popularity declines in the wake of multiple sexual harassment allegations, GOP Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney finally finds himself . . . now in a tie with Newt Gingrich. After a disastrous campaign kickoff, Gingrich recently experienced a surge in the polls, triggered by Cain’s deterioration and a string of solid debate performances. His former spokesperson, Rick Tyler, predicted this outcome back when many political commentators were pronouncing Gingrich dead on arrival.

“Surely they had killed him off . . . But out of the billowing smoke and dust of tweets and trivia emerged Gingrich, once again ready to lead those who won’t be intimated by the political elite and are ready to take on the challenges America faces.”
Current Republican Presidential
hopeful and former individual
mandate advocate Newt Gingrich

It is yet another indication that the conservative core simply cannot bring itself to embrace Romney. Their distrust centers on Romney’s moderate-to-liberal past and nothing is more anathema to them than the fact that Obama based his federal healthcare reform law, so despised by them, upon Romeny’s own program in Massachusetts, with its dreaded individual mandate. They fear Obama will be able to campaign effectively against Romney in the general election on this basis alone.

Romney has been walking a tightrope, defending his record to the right delicately balanced against assurances to the right that he opposes the individual mandate. There were things he would do differently in Massachusetts, given the benefit of hindsight, he concedes. Moreover, even things that worked for his state will not necessarily translate to the federal level.

Neither potential GOP voters nor his Republican challengers are buying it. During a recent appearance on FOX News, Michele Bachman fumed, “We have candidates that are compromised on the individual health care mandate, which is Obamacare.” She damned Romney not only for implementing it in Massachusetts but insisted, “It was [his] idea.” Romney received a challenge along the same line during a GOP debate at the Western Republican Leadership Conference.

It is unsurprising that Romney’s denials resound so weakly. His connection to and endorsement of individual mandates goes back a long way.

Romney first endorsed the individual mandate on NBC’s Meet the Press in 1993, long before it was a controversial topic. “I am for people, individuals – exactly like automobile insurance – individuals having health insurance and being required to have health insurance.”

A decade later, he collaborated with then Senator and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to promote a more centrist solution to healthcare reform than her doomed attempt at a single-payer system. A July 2005 article in Hotline about one of their joint appearances described Romney as endorsing not just state-based mandates but “some federal mandates” as well. A New York Sun article about the same event reported, “Both politicians appeared to endorse proposals to require all individuals to have some form of health coverage.”

Romney’s writings also betray his true feelings. In 2005, he wrote, “You have a responsibility to buy insurance . . . We need some significant changes to ensure that every American is insured, but we should make it clear that a 21st Century Intelligent System requires everyone to participate in the insurance system.”

In a June 2007 op-ed piece for the Des Moines Register, Romney wrote, “Personal responsibility extends to the purchase of health insurance. Citizens should not be able to cheat their neighbors by not buying insurance, particularly when they can afford it, and expect others to pay for their care when they need it.”

Again, in 2008, he wrote, “We should insist that everyone above a certain level buy coverage (or, if they are opposed to insurance, post a bond).”

Despite his efforts to distance himself from past rhetoric, Romney continues to contradict himself occasionally regarding individual mandates. As recently as May 2011, he told Meet the Press, “I’ve said consistently we ought to have some requirement that you either have health insurance or you post a bond or in some way you indicate you’re going to be held accountable.” When asked by the show’s host if this constituted a mandate, Romney characterized it as “a variation on it.”

Little wonder then that the far right continues to recoil from Romney. It is also unsurprising they would turn back for a hard second look at Gingrich. No straight shooter like Newt is going to be unclear about his opposition to Obamacare . . .

. . . except their hard second look is going to discover that every quote and cited writing above came not from Mitt Romney but from Newt Gingrich. And if such sentiments and history make Romney unattractive to the Republican base, it seems unlikely that Gingrich will get a pass for them either.

This scrutiny has already started. Dana Millbank of the Washington Post judges Gingrich as a potential anti-Romney and finds him wanting. “His problem . . . is that he is entirely too moderate . . . The ideas that made him a conservative revolutionary in 1994 make him squishy in 2012.”

Gene Healy of the Cato Institute is even more caustic. In an op-ed piece for the Washington Examiner, Healy groans, “Has it really come to this? Newt Gingrich as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney? . . . Yet a look at his record reveals that Newt is hardly the ‘anti-Mitt’ – he's Mitt Romney with more baggage and bolder hand gestures.”

In fairness, Gingrich vigorously contends he has changed his mind about the individual mandate. Of course, Romney does too and this hasn’t gotten him very far to date. It is reasonable to expect Obama’s handlers to hammer Gingrich hard about this, if given a chance in the general election. For that matter, none other than Romney will probably run the issue into the ground during the primaries.

Gingrich’s attacker on this subject during the debate was Romney. “Actually, Newt, we got the idea of an individual mandate from you,” he told Gingrich.

“That’s not true. You got it from the Heritage Foundation,” replied a flustered Gingrich.

“And you never supported them?” Romney countered.

“I agreed with them,” Gingrich conceded.

“Oh, okay,” Romney coolly corrected. “That’s what I’m saying. We got the idea from you and the Heritage Foundation.”

“Okay. A little broader,” said Gingrich, mollified although undoubtedly still unhappy with the exchange.

Ross Douthat of the New York Times believes this issue is unlikely to sour the conservative base on Gingrich because his appeal lies elsewhere. “[Gingrich] is less a traditional conservative than he is a kind of right-wing futurist . . . But whereas most right-wing futurists tend to be libertarians who take a somewhat jaundiced view of partisan politics, for Gingrich civilization itself hangs in the balance in every election cycle. The glittering future he descries can only be won through a confrontation with the enemies of progress – namely, liberal Democrats.”

Somewhat in line with this analysis, Gingrich argues, plausibly, that his past attraction to the individual mandate was because it seemed a saner alternative than the even more draconian (i.e. “socialist”) measures advocated by Hillary Clinton in the 1990s.

However, conservative thinker Peter Sunderman addresses why this could be a weakness for Gingrich too. “Republican party leaders have had a hard time addressing health policy issues over the last few years," he writes in the Libertarian journal Reason. Rather than make a prolonged case for health policy that does not involve endless expansion of entitlements and insurance subsidies, the GOP has instead focused primarily on reacting to Democratic proposals.”

If Gingrich is poised to become the next conservative darling of this Presidential election cycle, then the question remains as to exactly what kind of a darling he really is. Is he the anti-Romney, Romney-lite, or hyper-Romney? Gingrich needs to get a credible answer to this question soon. Otherwise, scrutiny by the Republican core may find that the man who emerged out of the smoke of disaster did so from smoke that he was blowing.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Joe Paterno’s Shameful Failure Provides a Teachable Moment

According to the Urban Dictionary, a big man on campus (B.M.O.C.) is “a highly respected person, or someone in a position of authority (e.g. ‘You gotta check with the B.M.O.C. before you make that move’.)” In the comic strip Peanuts, one of Snoopy’s personas, Joe Cool, is a B.M.O.C., if only in his own mind. Another college Joe – Paterno, in this case – and B.M.O.C. was summarily fired by the Penn State Board of Trustees on Wednesday. Earlier in the day, Paterno announced his intention to retire as Penn State’s head football coach at the end of the current season.

Both announcements were part of the fallout from the indictment of former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on forty counts of sexual abuse against eight underage boys over a fifteen year period. Sandusky founded a charity, called Second Mile, which provides programs for disadvantaged youth. He used the organization to find troubled, vulnerable boys on whom to prey. He is, simply put, a monster.

Two campus Joes - Snoopy (left) as Joe Cool still hangin'
around while Joe Paterno (right) heads into ignominy

The university and local police became suspicious of Sandusky as early as 1998. It seems hard to believe Paterno was unaware of the rumors. Regardless, Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant coach reported to Paterno in 2002 that he personally witnessed Sandusky having anal sex with a boy he assumed to be about ten years old in the showers of the Penn State locker room. The next day, Paterno referred the matter to his boss, Athletic Director Tim Curley, and then . . . did nothing more. Curley also ignored the report.

When the story first broke, Paterno issued a statement in which he insisted, “I did what I was supposed to with the one charge brought to my attention.” This is absolutely true. Moreover, there is no evidence Paterno was complicit in any sexual abuse against children. He is not a monster. He is, simply put, an abject failure as a coach, a leader, and a B.M.O.C. Sandusky’s sins were driven by some sick compulsion that he obviously could not control and well may not understand; Paterno’s failing go to the very heart of his job responsibilities and the persona he portrayed.

In his retirement statement, Paterno conceded, “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.” He also claimed his decision was solely with the school’s best interests at heart. “The Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status . . . I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can.” A cynic might conclude Paterno was simply attempting to save himself from further scrutiny, firing, or worse. However, even taking him at his word, it was woefully too little and far too late.

Attempting to pass himself off as middle management rendered powerless by university bureaucracy is particularly galling. The person committing the crime (Sandusky) was a former player under Paterno; so was the person (McQueary) reporting the incident to him; so was the person (Curley) to whom Paterno passed the buck. The B.M.O.C. in this situation was clearly Paterno. Curley had previously tried to force Paterno to retire – twice – back in 2004 but lacked the clout to do so.

Paterno recently became the most winning NCAA Division 1 coach of all time. I do not agree with FOX Sports columnist Jason Whitlock that “There should be an asterisk next to JoePa’s 409 victories.” Paterno’s successes on the football field are incontestable. However, much of Paterno’s reputation derived from his reputation as a straight shooter, a decent guy, a proud molder of the “young men who have been entrusted to my care,” to use his own words. The motto of his football program was “Success with Honor.” This incident has permanently stained that reputation deeper than any asterisk and just as incontestably.

Yet even in his nadir, Paterno provides a teachable moment for those whose success or failure means far more than a winning or losing football season.

Prime Minister George Papandreou of Greece and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy both were fired this week, although they would probably prefer to insist they chose retirement. Both are B.M.O.C.’s for their respective countries and governments. Both were once popular figures, beloved in spite of their foibles and sometimes because of them.

Both now face scorn at home and by the international community because their nations teeter on the brink of economic collapse. Neither was solely or even primarily responsible for the problem but both saw it coming and did nothing substantial to stop it. As a result, they lost trust with their Parties, their people, and the rest of the world. Once they lost that trust, they were finished.

Then there is President Obama, the big man on our own national campus. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds an impressive seventy-six percent of those surveyed feel the current economic structure of the country unfairly favors a small proportion of the rich over everyone else. Fifty-three percent believe in significantly cutting the national debut by reducing spending and the size of government. Forty percent agree with both of these principles. What is more, half of all respondents poll identify (strongly) with Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party.

These numbers cause MSNBC’s First Read to conclude, “Heading into 2012, America is looking for a populist . . . There's an angry electorate out there, ideologically spread across the political spectrum.” Obama began his term as a champion for the working and middle class with large legislative packages, such as his economic stimulus and healthcare reform. However, these both were watered down as a kind of peace offering to conservatives who opposed them. This was to no avail for a GOP uninterested in compromise.

In early 2010, I predicted Obama would turn toward a more populist approach with financial reform. Instead, he seemed to become even more passive and willing to allow opponents to co-opt issues and direct the political conversation. He has been adopting a fighting tone of late but many are skeptical this is nothing more than empty re-election campaign rhetoric.

Papandreou nearly scuttled the Greek bailout deal with the European Union by a cynical populist attempt to subject it to a public referendum. Likewise, Berlusconi has thrown Italy into even greater instability by a cynical populist insistence on elections instead of an interim government. In both cases, these leaders seem transparent in attempting to buy time and save their political hides rather than making tough/unpopular choices in their countries’ best interests.

The United States has a way to go with its own economic problems before it reaches the same degree of crisis faced by Greece and Italy. However, the unappealing vibe I get too often from Obama is that he is so obsessed with keeping his legacy untarnished as to prohibit him from doing the dirty work required to build an actual resume. He may win a second term and prove himself more Clinton than Carter. However, even Clinton’s Presidency – for all its admitted right-center accomplishments – is as easily viewed a disappointment for the progressive reforms it never realized.

“No guts, no glory,” is what Paterno might tell Obama if the President played for him. Obama certainly entered his Presidency with a reputation for being Joe Cool. However, as Paterno illustrates, he could leave it with a far less desirable reputation. And once a B.M.O.C. losses trust, his aura of coolness . . . he is finished.

The Penn State Board of Trustees has sent Paterno to the showers. Whatever treatment he receives there is likely to be better than that received by the ten year old boy whose welfare he ignored. As for Obama, he has a year in which to prove to voters that he is more than the average Joe.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Goldfish Syndrome

Maybe the Lack of Leadership We Perceive Is Due to a Lack of Followers

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou will be leaving office, following a no-confidence vote in parliament. The affair has thrown his already beleaguered nation into even more chaos. The vote resulted from Papandreou’s startling decision to subject a bailout deal negotiated with the European Union to a public referendum, followed by his equally abrupt decision to withdraw the referendum. These twin moves were like political shock and awe on the Greek parliament, Greece’s EU neighbors, and the world economy.

“We are like goldfish, waiting with our mouths open,” lamented writer Petros Tatsopoulos on Greek television, about the ongoing drama.
Carassius auratus auratus  –
the common goldfish

Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson sees it as a microcosm of poor leadership in response to harsh economic realities across the planet. “The global economy is faltering and no country has assumed leadership in organizing recovery. There is a loss of control, a vacuum of power,” he frets. “Time was when the United States automatically assumed the leadership role . . . [but] America’s capacity and desire to lead have flagged.”

In many ways, Papandreou’s ill-advised maneuver was not surprising to me. Last Sunday, the center-left Greek newspaper To Vima reported that a majority of Greeks viewed the EU bailout deal negatively. Papandreou was making a desperate populist bid to save his political hide. It failed because different concerns motivated parliament, including his own Socialist Party, than those motivating the public.

When politicians are out of sync with the public, conventional wisdom usually puts the blame on politicians. In this case, the Greek public is out of sync with reality. The EU bailout is not so much an escape as sufficient forgiveness of Greek loans as to allow that country to solve its debt problems with hard work. However, the Greek public has made it abundantly clear they do not want to undertake that hard work and they hate the EU for making them face it.

It is unlikely that the European Union hates Greece any less than Greece hates it at this point. However, the EU is in sync with reality and appreciates a default by Greece would prove far too damaging in today interconnected world. In contrast, the Greek people cannot see beyond the fishbowl of their own selfish concerns. They float at the top of that bowl, mouths agape, watching national events that seem almost alien to them and unwilling to participate in any solution beyond griping about government.

Some might argue that government has imposed the fishbowl upon them and Greece would do much better in the wild (i.e. free markets and default). The real problem, in my opinion, is isolation. Carp are a naturally gregarious species, as far as fish go. Fond of schooling, they seldom fight or compete in ways that harm one another. Goldfish may still retain these qualities but get little chance to practice them when swimming alone in their small bowls.

The situation is no different here at home than in Greece. Both Parties agree unemployment is a huge problem facing this country. Two job stimulus bills proposed by President Obama have died in the Senate. The latest failed, in part, because Senators Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, felt their personal conservative principles could not allow them to vote with the rest of the Party they normally caucus. Fifteen jobs bills passed by the Republican House have died in the same Senate because Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada places partisanship above negotiation and compromise.

If you hope for salvation from a Third Party, the current candidates are uninspiring. Occupy Wall Street is a fledgling movement that is still too preoccupied over its outrage about problems to construct and offer solutions. Its lack of leadership is a point of pride for its members. The Tea Party is a more mature movement but stresses small government and individual liberties so absolutely that they seem to see constructing metaphorical fishbowls as the solution to most national or global problems.

David Brooks summarized the situation nicely in the New York Times. “The United States is a country that has received many blessings, and once upon a time you could assume that Americans would come together to take advantage of them. But you can no longer make that assumption.”

In this sense, I agree that we suffer from a lack of leadership but not necessarily from a lack of leaders. There is a plethora of idea offered from both sides of the political spectrum. What we appear to be suffering from, in my opinion, is a dearth of followers. The latter is just as critical an input for leadership, after all.

Great leaders inspire others to follow them. In this case, Samuelson notes how “leaders can emphasize policies that encourage recovery and reject policies that retard it. Demonstrated leadership instills confidence that accelerates economic expansion.” Yet I wonder how easily any familiar leader – contemporary or historical – would fare with most modern Western societies.

The old saw runs that a leader without followers is just a guy out taking a walk. Conversely, I maintain that a school of carp that can not/will not swim together is nothing but a lot of goldfish in fishbowls. Our desire for results and benefits combined with our lack of will to commit, bear burdens, and even endure hardships leaves me thinking that far too many of us, like the Greeks, suffer from goldfish syndrome. Perhaps the time has come for us to stop waiting, shut our mouths, and learn to start swimming together again.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Learning To Owe

The Cost of Education Is Crushing the Opportunity We Mean It to Provide

The Occupy Wall Street movement has no formal goals but several consistent memes have emerged among the crowd demonstrations in various cities across the country. Most of these have to do with the concentration of wealth and the collusion/corruption between big business and government. However, a more selfish trend also has surfaced among the demonstrators – many want their college student loans forgiven.

A small, informal survey among New York protestors last week by equity research analyst David Maris found ninety-three percent of them advocated student-loan clemency. This idea actually is neither original to OWS nor unique among its members.
Sign bewailing large student loan debt
from one Occupy Wall Street protestor

New York University Professor Andrew Ross recently proposed a radical solution to student loan debts the he calls “A Pledge of Refusal.” The idea requires those who owe to sign a pledge to stop making payments on their student loans once the pledge garners a million signatures. Meanwhile, an online petition supporting student loan forgiveness has collected over a half million signatures.

President Obama announced a plan last week to provide student loan relief. First, he is reducing the maximum repayment on student loans from fifteen percent of discretionary annual income to ten percent. Second, he will allow borrowers to combine loans from the Family Education Loan Program with direct government loans, with a lower consolidated interest rate. Obama plans to use his Executive authority to bypass Congress for this program.

Democratic Representative Hansen Clarke of Michigan wants to go even further. He has introduced legislation (H.R. 365) that includes creating incentives for banks to negotiate with distressed lenders, providing tax credits for education expenses and student loan debt, and making more private student loans eligible for discharge in bankruptcy proceedings.

Both Obama’s and Clarke’s solutions fall short of general clemency but protestors are unlikely to obtain this remedy. A Rasmussen poll found only twenty-one percent of American adults in favor of blanket forgiveness as contrasted to sixty-six percent opposed. Many feel clemency would be unfair to lenders as well as those borrowers who repaid their student loans. At worst, they write off OWS protestors and other advocates for loan forgiveness as spoiled, lazy slackers who expect a free ride.

Such epithets are unfair, counters conservative columnist Nicholas Kristoff this week in the New York Times. “While alarmists seem to think that the movement is a ‘mob’ trying to overthrow capitalism, one can make a case that, on the contrary, it highlights the need to restore basic capitalist principles like accountability.” Kristoff goes on to deplore how “some financiers have chosen to live in a government-backed featherbed. Their platform seems to be socialism for tycoons and capitalism for the rest of us . . . they can privatize profits while socializing risk.”

Representative Clarke concurs that most protestors “are not asking for [a bailout]. They are simply asking for a system that is not rigged against them.” When big bankers and investment firms can make poor decisions without suffering obvious consequences, then the motivation for individuals requesting similar absolution may not be admirable but it is understandable.

While the current crop of students and recent graduates may be whining about the problem more than past generations, they face an objectively bigger problem. This year, the average borrower graduating from a four-year college left school with roughly $24,000 of student debt, with ten percent facing debt of $40,000 or more, according to the College Board. Total student loan debt will exceed $1 trillion this year and it now exceeds outstanding credit card debt, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Only seven percent of graduating bachelor’s degree holders come from the bottom quarter of income earners, as compared to twelve percent back in 1970. Intended as relief and opportunity for the distressed poor, student loans have become an unavoidable middle class reality. In addition, a series of laws passed by Congress last decade have increased the difficulty of discharging debt, including student loans, through bankruptcy.

The website College Scholarships reports on several programs that forgive or reduce student loan debt for graduates willing to work in high need/disadvantaged areas. The problem is such programs are limited to highly targeted professions, such as nurses, attorneys, and teachers. What is more, they often require a minimum of five years experience. Traditionally, graduates take such jobs immediately after graduation to acquire experience, when they are most inclined to social activism and less acclimated in their lifestyles to larger salaries.

I attended college for six years, ultimately earning a master’s level degree in 1984. I won several scholarships, based on merit; qualified for several grants, based on need; and I worked. In spite of this, I fell short of the necessary money for tuition and books on a couple of occasions. I took out a couple of federal student loans to make up the difference that I was able to repay within a few years of graduation.

Contrast my experience with that of Robert Applebaum, who graduated from Fordham Law School in 1998 with about $65,000 in debt. After going to work as an Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn, his salary forced him to put his student loans in “forbearance,” which prevents default but allows continued accrual of interest. Applebaum began repaying his loans upon leaving the DA’s office in 2004 but remains $88,000 in debt today.

Tommaso Boggia is an MPA candidate at Presidio Graduate School and an advocate for student loan clemency. He writes at the website Triple Pundit, “Regardless of work ethic, more and more middle class families are slipping into poverty, in part because of the heavy debt burden of house ownership and of pursuing a higher education degree . . . A whole generation is seeing their plans and ambitions shackled by the extra weight of their student loan payments. These young people are unable to buy a home, start a family, or do the socially important but underpaid jobs in the social services sector.”

In the post-World War II era, a college education was the chief means by which children from working poor families could leapfrog into the middle class or even affluence. Increasingly, however, the cost of this requirement is becoming the very thing holding them back from the opportunities promised by the American Dream.

The most cited reason for exploding debt is the ever-increasing cost of college. Average in-state tuition and fees at four-year public colleges rose an additional eight point three percent in 2001 alone, passing $8,000/year ($17,000/year with room and board). In addition, the American Council on Education notes that budget cuts and other austerity measures have reduced state appropriations to higher education by eighteen percent over the last three years.

Richard Vedder, Director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and author of the book Going Broke by Degree – Why College Costs Too Much, maintains that we are looking at the problem exactly backwards. Writing in the National Review, he argues that just as an abundance of easily obtainable, low interest mortgages spurred the housing bubble that caused the 2008 financial crisis, “Arguably, federal student financial assistance is creating a second bubble in higher education.”

Vedder also points out that government doles out loans without discrimination to a student’s prospects of success in college, despite the fact that over forty percent of those pursuing a bachelor’s degree fail to receive one within six years, or chances of success after college, regardless of whether a student’s field of study offers poor versus good job/career availability. During a 2011 PBS NewsHour appearance, Vedder argued American society must “open up opportunities for people to consider a variety of different options after high school, one of which is college, but there are many others.”

Most of us may not agree with those advocating total clemency for student loan debt. While this solution may be overly simplistic and impractical, it seems clear that some reforms are necessary – whether the efficiencies proposed by Obama, the incentives proposed by Clarke, or Vedder’s more draconian measures toward higher education in general. It also means we need to give OWS protestors and other loan forgiveness advocates more credit for identifying a real, substantive, and systemic problem beyond their selfish interests.

If we value an education for our children as much as we claim, our society has to find a way to re-engineer it back from the crushing burden it has become to more of the opportunity we aspire it to be. Right now, the main thing we are teaching our kids is learning to owe. This is neither opportunity nor American exceptionalism.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Deficiency Of Sunlight

Whether We View the Shalit Exchange as a Good Deal for Israel Depends on What We Decide We Value Most

Gilad Shalit finally returned home this week. Hamas militants captured Shalit inside Israel during a 2006 cross-border raid and imprisoned him in a secret underground location within the Gaza Strip for the past five years. Crowds in his hometown of Mitzpe Hila cheered his return. Initial exams indicated Shalit was in stable medical condition but still suffered from untreated shrapnel wounds received during his capture as well as complications from a deficiency of sunlight.

Israel had been negotiating with Hamas for Shalit’s release since his imprisonment. Egypt finally brokered a deal that exchanged him for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. On one side, Shalit’s family had spent years doggedly pushing for his release. On the other side, families of victims of the released Palestinians attempted to block the deal, arguing it thwarted justice. The Israeli supreme court decided to block the challenge, opening the door for Shalit’s return.

Freed soldier Gilad Shalit (center) is greeted by
Prime Minister Netanyahu upon his arrival in Israel

Cheering crowds in Gaza and the West Bank met the Palestinians exchanged for Shalit. The Arab world was thrilled, not only for their return but because it feels Hamas won big on this deal. “Israel was forced to pay the price,” crowed Khaled Mashaal, supreme leader of Hamas. In contrast, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu grimly called the swap, “the best possible agreement that we could have obtained.”

The deal certainly was lopsided in terms of sheer numbers. In exchange for a single soldier of its own, Israel agreed to release over a thousand Palestinians – four hundred forty-seven immediately and another five hundred fifty in two months from now.

More galling, many of those released were far worse than innocent bystanders rounded up by Israeli security forces for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Among those already released was Yehya Al-Sinwar, a Hamas militant given three life sentences and an additional thirty years for killing Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel. Others include Nasser Yatayma, involved in the 2002 suicide bombing of the Park Hotel in the city of Netanya that killed thirty people, and Ahlam Tamimi, involved in a 2001 Jerusalem pizzeria suicide bombing that killed fifteen people.

In fairness, the Palestinians also backed off from some of their initial demands. As a result, several terrorist architects, such as Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah ringleader of the savage Second Intifada, and Abbas Sayyad, organizer of the 2002 Passover attack on the Park Hotel, remain behind bars.

Before turning him over to Israeli officials, Egypt forced Shalit to do a controversial – some would say outrageous and disgusting – television interview, in which he was surrounded by many of the militants who had held him prisoner. At one point during the interview, Shalit said, “I really hope that this deal advances peace and not more military conflicts and wars between Israel and the Palestinians.” The Obama Administration also has expressed this wan hope.

However, all fear what Rainer Sollich, Middle East Bureau Chief for Deutsche Welle, recently wrote as the most likely outcome. “The opposite could happen. Hamas feels as if it is the victor in this unequal deal. Its militant course is being strengthened and encouraged . . . It wins back fighters. It gains political significance – and popularity.” An editorial in today’s Washington Post judges the deal will only “inject more poison into an already bitter standoff.”

A poll carried out by the Dahaf Institute and published Monday in the daily Yediot Ahronot showed an overwhelming seventy-nine percent of Israelis support the deal. Yet few are happy about it, beyond Shalit’s return. Many conservative Jews, inside and outside Israel, view it as anathema.

“One must sympathize with the Schalit family and the agony it endured ,” concedes Steven Goldberg, a Los Angeles trial lawyer in Frontpage Magazine. “Prime Minister [Netanyahu] and his Cabinet, however, have a more profound responsibility,” he goes on to reprimand. “They were obligated to resist emotional appeals and instead safeguard the people of Israel as a whole. They have failed abysmally . . . [This deal] will now mark our craven surrender to evil, to the shame of Israel and the entire Jewish nation.”

His colleague, Steven Plaut, an Associate Professor of Business Administration at the University of Haifa, goes even further in his condemnation. “It was a symbolic acquiescence by Israel to the terrorist point of view that has always insisted, much like the German Nazis, that murdering Jews is legitimate because Jewish life just ‘does not count,’ because Jews are sub-human.”

Nonsense, counters Hirsh Goodman, long-time Israeli journalist in the Jerusalem Post. “This is not about price . . . What it is about is that Israel never leaves a wounded soldier in the field, that its service men and women know – even if they are kept in the darkest dungeon, deep underground, no matter where – at home no effort will be spared to get them back.”

American jurist and political commentator Alan Dershowitz agrees. Writing at both Newsmax and the Huffington Post, he notes, “An important goal of terrorists is to force democracies to surrender their humanistic values.” Israel was not appeasing terrorists with this deal but courageously standing up for a cherished value, even at great political cost.

It is true that this deal may embolden Hamas to kidnap more Israelis. However, P. David Hornik, a freelance writer and translator in Beersheva Israel, shrugs that such “danger is inherent in being a Jewish, non-Muslim state in the Middle East, and fundamental to coping with it is a solidarity that goes to the deepest level of Israel’s ethos of survival in a hostile environment.”

Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain recently got himself into some hot water over the Shalit affair as the result of an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN. Blitzer posed a hypothetical in which freeing an American soldier held captive for five years by terrorists meant, “ya gotta free everybody at Guantanamo Bay . . . could you see yourself as President authorizing that kind of transfer?” While stipulating he would have to consider the situation carefully, Cain replied, “I could see myself authorizing that kind of transfer . . . I can make that call if I had to.”

Fellow candidates Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachman piled on Cain for his remarks during their debate in Las Vegas. Cain was flustered and began backpedaling. “I would have a policy that we do not negotiate with terrorists. We have to lay that principle down first . . . Now, then you have to look at each individual situation and consider all the facts.”

Then, in a post-debate interview with Anderson Cooper, Cain stated he had misspoken. He insisted he would always have a policy of not negotiating with terrorists and therefore would never swap a captured American soldier for Gitmo detainees.

Hirsh would lump Cain as part of “the real problem,” along with Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s Minister for Strategic Affairs and former career military officer, who was one of only three cabinet ministers voting against the Shalit exchange. He wonders what message this sent to Israel’s other soldiers. “Somehow I’m more worried about that, than not having to feed 1,000 terrorists three times a day,” he wryly concludes.

Faisal Al Qasim, a Syrian journalist, makes a similar argument. He refers to the Palestinians released in exchange for Shalit as “Shallots,” a colloquial Arabic word meaning “cheap shoes” and applied as a metaphor for things with little or no value.

“Why have the whole world including many Arab leaders been so busy trying to free Shalit when there are tens of thousands of Arab 'Shalloots' languishing in Israeli and other prisons unnoticed?” he opines in Gulf News. “Why are they so cheap and unimportant? . . . Have you ever seen an Arab government organizing a campaign to release one of its nationals from a foreign jail? . . . Have you ever seen an Arab government trying to get one of its citizens out of Guantanamo Bay camp? Not really. Have you ever seen an Arab regime trying to get its captives out of Israeli prisons? Forget about it.”

With this deal, Israel’s government sent the message that the life of one soldier was worth a thousand lives to them. In return, Hamas and Fatah sent the message that the lives of a thousand soldiers were worth nothing to them beyond the political hegemony they could buy. In a region where recent Arab Spring demonstrations suggest the common people desire and demand governments that respect their basic dignity, this deal may not be the complete triumph the Palestinian leadership wants to spin.

What implications does all this hold for the U.S. with our all-volunteer military? We expect soldiers to climb and stand guard atop the wall that separates us from our enemies. That climb might be all whole lot easier if each soldier knew their country was willing to sacrifice nearly as much for them as they are for it. Or is the message we mean to send that what we value most are martyrs to the justice of our cause? Because this sounds an awful lot like what the terrorists preach.

We all love democracy and we all support our troops but maybe this needs to be brought out into the glare of scrutiny to determine what these things really mean what we really value most. It is just possible that right now it is suffering from a deficiency of sunlight.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Flavor of Nuance

Cain versus Romney on Boldness, Simplicity

Mitt Romney said something in last week’s GOP debate that I liked very much. Romney, of course, is the candidate many Republican voters seem to agree has the experience and competence to be President but around whom the hard-right core cannot bring itself to coalesce. They doubt the authenticity of his conservative credentials. It is not Romney’s head that gives them trouble nor even his Mormon soul (saving some Evangelical Christians); it is his heart and gut.

As a result, other Republican hopefuls keep generating all the attention, at least temporarily. First, Michele Bachman raised Tea Party hopes high but simply seemed to wither away into irrelevance. Next, Newt Gingrich self-destructed before he could even get started. Then, Rick Perry exploded onto the scene, leapfrogging over Romney in the polls. He too quickly faded under media scrutiny and attacks from his rivals.

Hermain Cain (left) holds forth as
Mitt Romney (right) listens at the
GOP debate in New Hampshire
The new aspiring champion for the far right is former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, Herman Cain. Always appreciated for his bluntness and non-political background, Cain seemed on the verge of implosion after he criticized Perry for frequenting a Texas hunting camp with a racially “insensitive” appellation.

However, Perry’s fading reputation and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s decision not to run appears to have driven conservatives into Cain’s arms. First, a PPP poll showed Cain leading Romney in Iowa, thirty percent to twenty-two percent. Then a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll placed Cain atop the GOP field, with twenty-seven percent, as compared to twenty-three percent for Romney and a dismal sixteen percent for Perry. Finally, an IBOPE Zogby poll declared Cain with an astonishing twenty point lead over Romney.

Among Republican voters responding to the Zogby poll, thirty-eight percent said they would vote for Cain, versus eighteen percent for Romney, if their primary were held tomorrow. The same poll shows Cain edging out Obama in the general election by a two-point margin, whereas Romney loses to Obama by a one-point margin.

Thus, the focus was all on Cain when the Republican candidates met to debate last week at Dartmouth College in Hanover New Hampshire. Much of the debate centered around Cain’s 9-9-9 plan to revive the economy and stimulate employment. And no one raised the topic more than Cain himself.

The core tenet of 9-9-9 is virtually scrapping the entire current federal tax system and replacing it with a nine percent national sales tax, nine percent corporate tax rate, and nine percent personal income tax rate. All deductions and exemption are gone. A number of economists and budget groups have criticized 9-9-9, saying it does not raise enough income and shifts the tax burden from affluent to middle and lower class payers. Cain rejects such analyses as “incorrect” because they proceed from different assumptions than his own.

Cain likes his 9-9-9- plan because it is bold. He used the word “bold” to describe it seven times during the debate. He also likes his plan because it is simple, using that term in conjunction with it on three occasions. I get the impression, listening to him, that Cain inextricably connects boldness and simplicity in his mind.

“Therein lies the difference between me, the non- politician, and all of the politicians,” he asserts. “They want to pass what they think they can get passed rather than what we need, which is a bold solution.” Much of the boldness of 9-9-9 lies in its simplicity, according to Cain. “I can explain it in a minute!”

After scrutiny of Cain’s plan throughout much of the debate, Cain used a session in which candidates could ask questions of each other to go after Romney’s plan. “The 9-9-9 plan that I have proposed is simple, transparent, efficient, fair, and neutral,” he avowed. “My question is to Governor Romney. Can you name all fifty-nine points in your 160 page plan, and does it satisfy that criteria of being simple, transparent, efficient, fair, and neutral?”

The implications were obvious. Cain was offering a bold and simple plan that would get things done and would be understandable by all. Romney’s plan, in contrast, would be yet another law that legislators would need to vote for without truly comprehending or possibly even fully reading. Simple = good, complex = bad. This is a message that resonates powerfully and positively with many hard right Republican voters.

In response, Romney said something I liked very much. He did not attempt to evade the question, despite its potentially damning inference with the GOP core. Instead, he replied, “Herman, I have had the experience in my life of taking on some tough problems. And I must admit that simple answers are always very helpful, but oftentimes inadequate. And in my view, to get this economy going again, we're going to have to deal with more than just tax policy.”

As Gail Collins of the New York Times describes it, Romney then “whipped out the seven pillars of Romneyism, which support the fifty-nine points and can, therefore, be packed into one thirty second response.”

I do not mean to suggest that I think Herman Cain is stupid or naïve as a political candidate. As a new piece in The Atlantic points out, this is actually Cain’s second political race. He first ran in Georgia's 2004 Republican Senate primary. He ultimately lost that race to current Senator Johnny Isakson but he put up a surprisingly tough fight as a battling political outsider.

Stuart Stevens, a current Romney advisor who served as a consultant to Isakson in 2004 admits of Cain, “He scared the heck out of us.” Atlanta-based Republican strategist Tom Perdue concedes Cain entered that race “naive about politics” but grew much shrewder politically as a result.

I also do not mean to argue that Cain’s 9-9-9 plan is doomed to failure or Romney’s fifty-nine point plan is genius and clearly better. However, I definitely appreciate Romney’s nuanced view of tax policy and governance in general over Cain’s bold and simple approach.

Cain is correct that legislators are often wrong in settling too quickly for legislation just because it can pass and/or will not hurt them politically. On the other hand, what struggling Americans do not need right now is more easy-to-read legislation that cannot possibly pass Congress.

Maximizing simplicity is a virtue but not if done at all costs. You can explain nuclear physics sufficiently well in non-technical language to allow many workers without advanced engineering degrees to help run a nuclear power plant. However, this does not mean that nuclear physics or power plants are inherently simple. These are not areas in which unchecked boldness is desirable.

Cain asked Romney a leading question. Romney replied with a brave, thoughtful, grown-up answer. Cain counter response – “So, no, it is not simple, is what you are saying?” – would be quite the zinger on a high school junior varsity debate team but seems a little juvenile in Presidential politics.

Over the weekend, Cain finally gave in to evaluations by the Wall Street Journal and other sources by admitting, “Some people will pay more” under his plan. However, he refused to address concerns about the effects of his national sales tax when combined with similar state and local consumption taxes, arguing this was “muddying the water.”

As he attempts to avoid the fate of Bachman, Gingrich, and Perry, Cain deflects queries about himself as the latest GOP craze by joking, “No, there's a difference between the flavor of the week and Häagen-Dazs black walnut because it tastes good all the time.” The implication is that Cain is venerable black walnut. Unfortunately, ABC News did a little fact-checking and discovered Häagen-Dazs no longer makes black walnut ice cream. Cain is not the flavor of the week; he is a non-existent flavor.

Cain needs to eschew his fondness for the flavors of boldness and simplicity. While the opposite of simplicity can be (unnecessary) complication, “simple” is also the opposite of “intelligent,” “sophisticated,” “scrupulous,” and “mature.” These latter are not such bad qualities in a President. Cain’s audacity to take big bites from his political ice cream cone does carry the risk of accompanying brain freeze. More to the point, he needs to train his palate to appreciate the flavor of nuance.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

One Man's Mob, One Man's Democracy

Revolution or Not, Let the Occupy Wall Street Protestors Holler

What is one to make of Occupy Wall Street? The demonstrations began in New York City’s Zuccotti Park and subsequently spread to over seventy cities across the United States. Proponents hail them as a spontaneous, grassroots, populist revolution – the left’s version of the Tea Party, the U.S. version of the Arab Spring. Critics call them disorganized mobs, dupes, socialists, and un-American.

The movement began as the brainchild of the Adbusters Media Foundation, a left-wing Canadian organization. During the summer of 2011, they suggested peaceful occupation of Wall Street to protest corporate influence on democracy, the growing wealth gap, and the lack of repercussions/reforms for some of the largest perpetrators in the global financial crisis and subsequent economic downturn.

Occupy Wall Street protestors
in New York City
Other leftist groups pitched in to provide funding and infrastructure support. US Day of Rage, an Internet-based concern spread the initial word. Anonymous, another cyber-based collective promoting civil disobedience, subsequently did the same. has provided financial backing. The NYC General Assembly, an assortment of activists, artists, and students, did most of the organization and planning on the ground in New York. However, the bottom line is that the movement remains highly decentralized and disjointed, with no one person or group in charge.

That incoherence extends to the groups goals/demands. According to Adbusters, the “one demand” of the protests is for President Obama to “ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.”

Not unexpectedly, additional demands have arisen that are as diverse as each demonstration site and individual protestor – including those running the gamut from inane to offensive. However, several serious demands have emerged as trends among demonstrators, including raising taxes on the rich and corporations, ending corporate welfare, support for union, and protecting Medicare and Social Security benefits.

Influential supporters likening the protests to the Tea Party include Vice-President Joe Biden and former Democratic Senator from Wisconsin Russ Feingold, who stated, “This is like the Tea Party – only it’s real . . . By the time this is over, it will make the Tea Party look like . . . a tea party.”

Such judgments are hopelessly premature. If Occupy Wall Street is the left’s version of the Tea Party, it is akin to that movement in its earliest stages of angry rallies and town hall meetings. It is also far from spontaneous. Just as Tea Party funding and other support can be traced back to traditional right wing organization, so traditional left-wing organization and funding catalyzed and maneuvered this movement.

On the other hand, much like the Tea Party, the organizers would not have met with success, in terms of turnout and durability of the demonstrations, if they had not tapped into some type of grassroots, populist sentiments. And much like the Tea Party’s sponsors, the instigators behind Occupy Wall Street have already found their creation evolving into something beyond their initial vision and subsequent ability to control.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Republican Presidential aspirant Herman Cain forwarded an accusation expressed by others that the protests were “planned and orchestrated to distract from the failed policies of the Obama Administration.” Cain conceded he “[didn’t] have facts” to back up this charge.

Even if true, the reality is that demonstrators bear little resemblance to an Obama political rally. A survey conducted by New York Magazine found sixty-two percent of protestors expressed sentiments ranging from frustration to outright disappointment in the President. Over a quarter said they “never believed in him” as compared to only one percent who backed him unequivocally.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor articulated a common theme by expressing concerns about protestors as “growing mobs” who condoned “pitting Americans against Americans.” Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney characterized the occupations as “dangerous” and “class warfare,” while Herman Cain termed them “anti-capitalist.” While the New York Magazine survey found a third of the protestors considered capitalism “inherently immoral” and beyond saving, a plurality believed it to be fundamentally good but requiring better regulation.

As journalist and commentator Roland Martin opined on CNN, “Conservatives call this an assault on capitalism. No, Occupy Wall Street is about trying to bring some decency and honesty back to an industry that used to have some.”

Personally, I do not side with those that suggest the movement must gain a more coherent message in order to survive. While some tightening up is preferable and probably inevitable, the underlying concern(s) are already clear.

“Anyone who says he has no idea what these folks are protesting is not being truthful,” asserts media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, also on CNN. “Whether we agree with them or not, we all know what they are upset about and we all know that there are investment bankers working on Wall Street getting richer while things for most of the rest of us are getting tougher . . . [they aim] to force a reconsideration of the way the nation does business and offers hope to those of us who previously felt alone in our belief that the current economic system is broken.”

When Herman Cain derided protestors as misguided, scolding them, “Don't blame Wall Street, don't blame the big banks, if you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself,” he drew an admonishment from fellow Republican Ron Paul. “The system has been biased against the middle class and the poor . . . the people losing jobs, it wasn't their fault that we've followed a deeply flawed economic system.”

I also cannot agree with characterizations of demonstrations as unruly mobs. Reuters recently reported, “One of the hallmarks of the protests has been the relative lack of violence . . . the uprising has been relatively tame compared to the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999 or the Free Trade Area of the Americas protests in Miami in 2003.”

While I agree with those who argue Occupy Wall Street must find still more sources of non-corporate funding to perpetuate and grow, I suggest it needs to add age to its ranks at least as much as it does cash to its coffers. Youth is a demographic that traditionally seldom commands attention/influence or demonstrates protracted commitment. The initial protestors were largely young adults who had often never voted. Diversity has increased but it remains too early to decide if it can/will reach a critical mass that ensures viability.

Others have expressed the legitimate concern that Occupy Wall Street’s agenda, such as one exists, does not address some of the root causes of the financial meltdown. David Brooks of the New York Times expressed surprising frustration with the demonstrators in his October 11 column, arguing they were essentially sweating the small stuff, causing a political circus and once again resulting in missed opportunity for attempts at serious reforms. He terms the demonstrators “milquetoast radicals” for this reason.

I say “surprising” because if this movement has anything in common with the Arab Spring demonstrations that Brooks so admires, it would be the way protestors are attempting to express, albeit imperfectly, “universal aspirations for dignity, for political systems that listen to, respond to and respect the will of the people.” It will come about in this case by disentangling government from the corrupting influence of big money.

Peter Cohan, venture capitalist and author, argues in Forbes that Occupy Wall Street could have important and long-reaching impacts. “To limit corporate malefaction, we must limit the reach of corporate cash. If OWS inadvertently achieves that aim, society will continue to enjoy the benefits of the corporate state with fewer of its costs.”

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, responded to what he termed Eric Cantor’s “hypocrisy unbound” for disdaining Occupy Wall Street while celebrating the Tea Party. “I can't understand how one man's mob is another man's democracy,” said Carney. “I think both are expressions that are totally consistent with the American democratic tradition.”

I am highly skeptical that Occupy Wall Street will become the social revolution its progressive masterminds desire. Yet I see no reason to fear it as such either. At best, protestors are lighting the first small candles against a very big and inky darkness. If this is the case, let them shine! At worst, protestors are just cursing against the darkness. If this is the case, let them holler!

If protestors – whether Tea Partiers or Occupy Wall Street “hippies” – are really the start of a revolution, then the wisdom of former President John Kennedy in a 1962 White House speech comes to mind. “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Let them holler!

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Tyrants of Goodness

Jobs and Shuttlesworth Remind Us That Results Come at a Price

The deaths of two men were in the news last week. Everybody has heard of one of them. Steve Jobs, a co-founder of Apple Computer and its long time CEO, died at age fifty-six from pancreatic cancer. The other is less known. Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and long time civil rights demonstrator, died at age eighty-nine from old age and declining health resulting from a stroke suffered four years earlier.

There would not seem to be much in common, at first glance, between the white, middle-aged techno-wonk and elderly African American activist. Yet they had many qualities in common. Both were courageous visionaries, transforming whatever they touched. They were fearless and tough champions who earned respect from both colleagues and opponents. And both were widely regarded as being . . . well, assholes . . . a lot of the time.

The late Steve Jobs, Apple CEO and
inventor, and the late Reverend Fred
Shuttlesworth, civil rights activist
Shuttlesworth was a pastor his entire adult life, starting in 1953 at the Bethel Baptist Church of Birmingham Alabama, his hometown. In 1961, he moved to my hometown of Cincinnati Ohio, where he was pastor at Revelation Baptist Church and later Greater New Light Baptist Church until his retirement in 2006. He was an important leader in the early civil rights movement against segregation in the Old South, although he was eventually eclipsed by others, most notable the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

He often rubbed people the wrong way. He routinely used confrontation, antagonizing officials and even breaking what he felt were unjust laws in order to draw attention to problems. He endured attacks and beating numerous times in the early years of his activism and hundreds of jailings during his life. This not only earned him the enmity of white separatists but also troubled those who cherished propriety, including many in the black middle class.

Shuttlesworth repeatedly invited – some would say, “hounded” – King to visit Birmingham because of its repressive police force. King finally did and was subsequently arrested in the March on Birmingham. This was exactly according to plan. Shuttlesworth was the architect behind Project Confrontation, commonly known as Project C. This initiative stressed staged sit-ins, the release of politically charged manifestos, and other tactics to garner national awareness about racial injustice.

In his 1963 book, Why We Can't Wait, King hailed Shuttlesworth as “one of the nation's most courageous freedom fighters . . . a wiry, energetic and indomitable man.” Yet Shuttlesworth’s aggressiveness also aggravated King and he routinely strove to keep him at arm’s length. When he traveled to accept his Nobel Peace Prize one year later, Shuttlesworth was not included in his entourage, although King later insisted this was an oversight.

Shuttlesworth said his move to Cincinnati was an attempt to escape controversy but he continued his confrontational ways. He almost immediately began fighting with the congregation at his first ministry that led to a church split a few years later. He later immersed himself in a labor dispute between local grocery retailer Biggs and its employees. Shuttlesworth criticized the company for keeping out union organizers and providing weak 401(k) retirement and health insurance benefits.

He became president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he had helped found, in 2004. The organization's board suspended Shuttlesworth without comment a mere three months later after a dispute over a longtime official fired by him.

Shuttlesworth responded to criticisms against him by criticizing right back. He remained cheerfully unrepentant and unconcerned over any feathers he ruffled by his words and deeds. “Confrontation is not bad,” he once reflected. “Goodness is supposed to confront evil.”

Steve Jobs was as famous for being obnoxious as he was for being brilliant. That brilliance resulted in credit for him as “co-inventor” on over a hundred high-tech patents. Jobs was the “idea guy” in an industry filled with other highly educated, dazzling intellects. He pushed his designers and engineers to create products whose final use only he could fully envision. He often said he was as proud of his decisions to scrap products as his decision to champion his successes to market. His mood swung as frequently and broadly as his decisions.

When he announced his resignation as Apple CEO earlier this year, journalist Joe Nocera penned an appreciation in the New York Times that, in addition to numerous glowing accolades, described Jobs as “arrogant, sarcastic . . . paranoid . . . He was not a consensus-builder but a dictator who listened mainly to his own intuition. He was a maniacal micromanager . . . He could be absolutely brutal in meetings.”

Les Chapman, a New Zealand engineer who worked at Apple in the late 1970s and early 1980s, agrees Jobs was a “difficult bugger to work with.” A 2008 profile of Jobs by CNN-Money natters, “He oozes smug superiority . . . No CEO is more willful, or more brazen, at making his own rules, in ways both good and bad.”

Stanford Management Science Professor Robert Sutton, who discusses Jobs in his 2007 book, The No Asshole Rule, contends, “The degree to which people in Silicon Valley are afraid of Jobs is unbelievable. He made people feel terrible; he made people cry.”

Another portrait of Jobs, this one in Fortune magazine, suggests fear of him was prevalent inside Apple as well, quoting employees who understandably wished to remain anonymous. “No one greets him or says hi to him . . . I remember him walking around the campus one time and groups of people in his way would just split and let him walk through . . . Employees are careful what they do. They know some mistakes are not forgivable.”

Shuttlesworth and Jobs not only survived but flourished despite their infuriating manners for several important reasons. They had phenomenal instincts and an annoying tendency to be on the right side of important arguments. They had a kind of charisma that won them loyalty from some even as it won them resentment from others and drove still others away. Most important, they were not just highly competent leaders but game-changers, capable of transforming their respective fields and bringing glory not only to themselves but also to those around them.

Shuttlesworth’s insistence on confrontation in Birmingham certainly helped reduce the violence suffered by young black demonstrators in that city. However, its images of water hoses, attack dogs, and riot stick beatings provided graphic illustrations of just how terrible Jim Crow law enforcement could be. King’s arrest and jailing led him to compose his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. While King’s reputation already flourished, this essay helped crystallize his message and defined the entire civil rights movement.

Jobs’s designs for Apple II and Macintosh pushed the ideas that personal computers should be powerful but also affordable and easy to use. He continued that work with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, forcing ever-widening connectivity into ever-shrinking, flexible devices. He also managed to revolutionize the music recording, publishing, telecommunications, and Internet industries along the way. He launched a series of successful films as head of Pixar Studios that helped drive the entire movie industry away from scale modeling, makeup, and other traditional special effects and toward highly realistic computer animation.

In light of this, it is understandable why so many tolerated and even venerated two such petulant characters. Palo Alto venture capitalist Jean-Louis Gasse, a former Apple executive, once observed about Jobs, “Democracies don't make great products. You need a competent tyrant.” This seems true of Shuttlesworth in his field too.

Jobs and Shuttlesworth were two tyrants of goodness. They never set out principally to offend; they just did not care if it was a by-product of their true intentions, which was to make the world a better place. They both succeeded in their missions.

I shudder at a world in which every leader was like Shuttlesworth and Jobs. Consensus building and compromise are still the way modern society gets the thing done. Few of us do our best when operating constantly outside of our comfort zones.

On the other hand, these two recently departed leaders remind us that sometimes the system works best when we allow the occasional irascible iconoclast to go around it. The results Jobs and Shuttlesworth achieved came at a price but mostly to themselves and, in the right doses, a price worth paying by the rest of us for the advances they provided. They will be missed. Good assholes are not easily found.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

When the Messenger Shoots the Message

The Disconnect Between Obama and Obama’s Ideas Among White Voters

An old proverb suggests it is rash and unwise to shoot the messenger just because we strongly dislike the message they bear. Yet what if we strongly dislike the messenger, whatever our reasons? If we shoot too frequently and too broadly, we could end up destroying the message along with the despised courier – a message that might just as easily contain good news as bad news. The National Journal thinks this might be what white voters are doing to President Obama.

As evidence, the magazine cites its most recent United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection survey. This poll, like many others, shows Obama’s overall approval rating among white voters at a dismal thirty-five percent or lower. Whites believe Obama worsened the economy, rather than improving it, by almost a three-to-one ratio. Likewise, white voters say, also by substantial margin, that they trust Republicans over Obama to handle deficits and the economy in general.

President Obama's popularity is less
than half that of some of his proposed
policies among white voters
On the other hand, when asked to rate five Obama proposals to control deficits and create jobs against five Republican ideas, white voters displayed a clear preference for Obama’s policies, scoring four of them in the top five.

Obama’s proposals to give tax cuts to businesses hiring new employees and/or paying raises to existing ones as well as giving funds to state and local governments to prevent teacher and public safety layoffs both garnered seventy percent approval or higher. Two other proposal to assist struggling homeowners refinance at lower rates and increased federal spending to rebuild public schools and transportation infrastructure both earned sixty percent plus approval.

Top Republicans ideas were not just less popular – at times, they bordered on unpopular. A GOP proposal to pass a Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was their only one in the top five. Proposals to extend the Bush tax cuts for all earners and cut corporate tax rates just managed to win majorities of approval. Proposals to require regulators to cut at least one existing regulation for every new one passed and repealing healthcare reform received less than fifty percent approval.

Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz argues this is bad news for Republicans because it demonstrates that white voters are souring on the GOP at least as fast as they are on Obama. I agree with him on this point. However, I feel skeptical toward his further contention that 2012 will defy conventional political wisdom, with voters looking forward, rather than backward, when judging Obama as the incumbent.

Instead, I am more inclined to agree with Republican pollster Glen Bolger, who predicts preferences toward his policies will not help Obama at the ballot box if significant improvements to the economy remain unperceived by Election Day 2012.

Even if it is only an interesting side note, the question persists as to why the divide between white voters’ fondness for Obama policies versus their mistrust of him as a politician and a leader?

The answer is not racism, anti-intellectualism, or anti-elitism on the part of white voters. Neither is it because Obama’s “increasingly ill-concealed expressions of contempt” toward those who disagree with him have promoted “increasingly widespread counter-contempt” from the public, as Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal neatly concludes. Nor is it because Obama is a Democratic candidate from a traditional blue state and therefore lacks “a feel for how people in the other Party think,” as the normally sensible David Brooks weirdly surmises in the New York Times.

Racism, anti-intellectualism, and contempt are still around in modern U.S. culture. However, they are but extreme examples of a larger, subtler fear and disillusionment on the part of many white Americans. Whites feel increasingly disconnected, apathetic, and even hostile toward government because they increasingly find it harder to connect with the people now running this country.

The problem is not that Barack Obama is black or raised by a single mother. The problem is that his father was from Kenya and/or that he spent a short period during his youth living in Indonesia and being educated in an Islamic madarasaa. On the Republican side, recent demurrals to run by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin leaves conservatives facing a frontrunner in Mitt Romney who is from the liberal Northeast and a Mormon.

There is nothing wrong with any of these things in their own right – they just are not what we commonly see in Presidential candidate biographies.

White voters feel increasingly marginalized and pushed out of power. Again, this is not racism. However, it is one thing for them to learn/practice tolerance toward traditionally discriminated minority groups. It is quite another thing to accept serenely new status as a minority group themselves.

Terry Nelson, an experienced high-ranking Republican operative, concedes that while support for Obama among lower-income, less-educated white voters – never high to being with – has dropped since 2008, “The truth is, Obama needs fewer white voters in 2012 than he did in 2008.” Nelson continues, “The country is changing. In every election cycle, every year, every day, this country becomes more ethnically diverse.”

There is precedent for Obama riding this trend to victory. In 2010, Democratic Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado prevailed as a first-time candidate against a Tea Party-backed opponent by assembling a coalition of Latino voters, college-educated transplants to Colorado, and Independents.

The rise of the largely white and conservative Tea Party, with its unconcealed hostility toward government and its desire for a return to “the Founders” and the past is rooted in (subconscious) fear among white voters that government is progressively no longer theirs to choose and control in this country.

Yet there is another side to this equation. Obama’s current unpopularity is also a creature of his own breeding. Polls show a majority of voters still do not blame him for the bulk of our current economic woes. However, two and half years into his Presidency earns him significant culpability for failure to fix or improve conditions.

His missteps included drifting right to avoid charges his ideology was too left, too much trust in the opposition working with him for the good of the nation, and too much trust in the legislators of his own Party to rise above partisan posturing and pork barrel boondoggling when drafting legislation he favored. His disconnection and cool passivity dismayed his liberal base, left Independents first confused and then disenchanted, and allowed his worst critics to define most debates.

It has been some time since his re-election bid was the President’s race to loose. Sometime during the faltering economic recovery this past summer, Obama hit a new critical mass politically, such that his re-election chances passed largely, if not entirely, beyond his control and became Republicans’ race to lose.

Hence, the National Journal’s reported disconnect between the (un)popularity of Obama versus Obama policies with white voters. Always alienated from this particular messenger to some degree, his failure to improve their lives and build trust that he understood their problems/shared their values caused many whites to start firing so frequently and so broadly at Obama that they are taking out his good ideas with him. What is more, the disrespect Obama experiences is so often self-inflicted that this may well be an instance when the messenger gets shot for shooting the message.

There is much I like about Obama but I feel confident the U.S. will get along just fine without him past 2012 if things work out that way. I am less sanguine of our chances without some of his good ideas passed into law.