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

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.

Monday, October 3, 2011

He Who Hesitates Stays Safe

Some Recent Examples Demonstrate Why Christie Might Not Reconsider

GOP politicos are abuzz that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is reconsidering whether to throw his hat into the ring as a Republican Presidential candidate. Christie repeatedly demurred earlier this year to exhortations that he run, citing his unreadiness to be President as well as work left undone in New Jersey.

If the rumors are true, it is easy to understand why Christie might find the present moment tempting. A summer of particularly bad economic data and record low approval numbers has left President Obama looking highly vulnerable. Moreover, conservative voters continue to express dissatisfaction with the current crop of declared Republican candidates. Many GOP political analysts and big-money donors are agog over Christie as a shiny avatar with the intelligence and political shrewdness of a Mitt Romney combined with the tough-talking populism of a Tea Partier.

Republican New Jersey Governor,
Chris Christie, speaking at the
Reagan Presidential Library

Elected Governor in 2009, Christie has built a sterling political reputation over the past couple of years. His popularity within New Jersey remains high. A Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll released in September shows him with fifty-four percent approval. Although unpopular when Christie first proposed it, voters in his state have come to respect Christie’s tough measures to deal with a $2.2 billion budget deficit in 2010. Indeed, the time seems so ripe for him to run for President that some find themselves flabbergasted and dismayed by Christie’s reticence.

Christie recently traveled to California, where he gave a major address at the Ronald Reagan Library. In it, he bashed Obama for what he called a “lack of leadership,” while touting his own accomplishments in New Jersey. Yet it was a moment during a question and answer session following the speech that caught all the media sound bites.

“I really implore you,” begged a woman in the audience, “as a citizen of this country to reconsider . . . Do it. Do it for my daughter. Do it for our grandchildren. Do it for our sons. Please, sir, we need you. Your country needs you to run for President.”

In the presence of so much positive reinforcement and desperate pleading, it is surely hard for Christie to avoid the lure of his own Presidential ambitions. I will not be surprised if he shortly announces his candidacy. At the same time, I also will not be surprised if he holds fast and refuses. Some recent political examples provide him an illustrative warning of how quickly the sweet taste currently in his mouth could turn sour.

Example one – Barack Obama. Four years ago, Obama, like Christie, was two years into his term in his first office with national exposure. He was a rapidly rising star within his Party. He was highly popular, with many Democratic voters fantasizing over him running. The Republican opposition was unpopular and viewed as ineffective. The Democrats had an early frontrunner in Hillary Clinton but nobody the base was truly excited about.

Party leaders and insiders convinced him that now was the time to make his move. Many shrewd advisors felt following conventional wisdom and waiting to gain experience and gravitas would work against Obama’s chances – he was better off running at an opportune moment than as a more seasoned politician. He won in the end but constantly fighting against that conventional wisdom such that, even today, his critics insist two and a half years experience actually being President still leaves him too inexperienced to be President.

Example two – Sarah Palin. Three years ago, she was a rapidly rising GOP star, recently elected to her first office with national exposure, when John McCain tapped her as his Vice-Presidential running mate. She gave a speech at the Republican Convention that electrified the hard-right base. Political observers were left wondering if McCain had truly pulled off a game-changing move.

Several interviews and further media scrutiny resulted in consternation by the Republican establishment and downright fear and loathing among moderates and Independents. Rather than augmenting and shoring up McCain’s shaking image with hard-core conservatives, she actually detracted from his reputation among them. She opened herself to attacks on her intelligence/basic competence and some genuinely vile attacks against her family. By the time of her defeat in the 2008 election, she had become a comic caricature of the promise she once represented.

However, perhaps the most germane example to give Christie’s current ambitions pause is Rick Perry. Only about a month ago, he vaulted over Mitt Romney in Republican polling immediately after entering the race. He appeared to be a true shining Southern star and a bona fide economic and social conservative. He was charismatic and his state had amassed a reputation for creating jobs rather than the healthcare reform system from which sprang Obamacare.

A couple of disastrous debate performances in Iowa and Florida, in which his opponents used his own published words to flay him, left Perry looking distinctly less shiny. He lost his frontrunner status almost before he could enjoy it. Voters looked askance on his policies as too liberal on illegal immigration and too draconian on Social Security reform. He suffered the twin humiliations of losing to Herman Cain in a Florida straw poll and hearing his wife defending him to vouchsafe he was “going to get better.”

There are other, practical concerns working against Christie. Recent announced intentions by Florida and other states to move up their primaries and caucuses only shortens a campaign season to which he would be a latecomer. Then there is scrutiny by the press and possible derision by popular culture. Christie likes to joke self-deprecatingly about being overweight. He may soon find many laughing at him and not with him on this topic.

“The new normal” in this country may apply to more than cautious investment on the part of banks and business. Politicians need only look around to see risk-taking with almost zero chance of growth. Politicians whose shine voters initially thought emanated from an internal glow have turned out to possess mere glare when placed in the spotlight. Christie has a good thing going for himself in New Jersey and throwing it away for a shot at the Presidency may not strike him as wisdom for good reason.

Rather than the adage “He who hesitates is lost,” the new normal promotes the philosophy, “He who hesitates stays safe.” Alternatively, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, “Better to remain in Trenton and be presumed an overweight savant with certainty than take your show on the road and raise doubt you are nothing but a fat fool.”