Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hating When I'm Right
When Hillary Clinton entered the presidential race last January, I wrote the following:

[T]he advantages of money and organization are probably largest in the first stretch of the nomination race. With seven or eight candidates in the field, she can win pluralities in the high 20s and low 30s; as the field thins, those dropping out will be under pressure to endorse the likely winner, and eventually it could and probably will come down to Hillary versus Not-HIllary. At that point, a ton of institutional weight falls upon Not-Hillary: stop resisting the inevitable, stop doing the Republicans' oppo work for them, stop squandering resources we'll need for November. Unless she's been bloodied by then, Not-Hillary won't win that duel.

In the last couple months, Sen. Clinton has taken the lead in all the early primary states and increasingly projected the aura of "inevitability" that had been speculated about since she entered the race. Last night's Democratic debate, in Philadelphia, was more interesting than most of them have been, and exposed a number of her weaknesses as a candidate--but almost certainly did nothing to change the basic dynamic of the race. The storyline--and in these things, considering they're always more read about than watched, the storyline is always crucial--was that Sen. Clinton's opponents were approaching now-or-never time to cut into her lead and would come out swinging. They did, and scored some points on her Iran war-enabling, penchant for secrecy, and general proclivity to triangulate. But nothing ultimately happen to make me doubt that she'll be the nominee, or that the general election will proceed as I thought it would nine months ago--as close, and bitterly fought, as it will be free of substance, ultimately doing little either to roll back the damage of the Bush years or to address the major crises we will soon face.

It's too bad, because if everyone who will vote this winter had watched the debate, they would have seen Sen. Clinton revealed as the moderate Republican she essentially is.

  • Has a foreign policy bias in favor of confrontation and war? Check.

  • Ardently courts special interests? Check.

  • Pulls the Thomas Frank Two-Step of rhetorical bait (attacking Bush in every statement) and switch (closely resembling Bush on war, executive power, secrecy and fuzzy answers)? Check.

Barack Obama remarked that the Republican contenders talk about Sen. Clinton because “it’s a fight they’re comfortable with.” While this is accurate, it leaves out two points. One (and Sen. Dodd obliquely got at this) is that the Republicans talk her up because to their primary voters doing so is like waving the red cape before the bull; they hate her, and hate--for her, and for us, and on some abstract level for Muslims/terrorists/foreigners/gays/whatever--is what motivates the modern Right. Two is that not only are the Republicans supremely comfortable running against her, the press is as or more comfortable pushing her forward. This is true both at the newsroom and boardroom level: the first group knows how to cover her, and the second know she won’t screw with them.

I’ve heard it said that Hillary Clinton appeals to the low-information voter. While there’s probably a touch of snobbishness in this sentiment, there’s also definitely more than a little truth. Those who see no need to go beyond the generalities and platitudes she spouts, who find it thrilling to see another Clinton (hard to imagine) or the first woman (a lot easier to picture, though I still have trouble understanding how the wife of a former president becoming president represents a true advance for feminism), are satisfied. Those of us less willing to go on faith and less trusting in the good judgment of people who've made catastrophically bad calls again and again, not so much.

It’s not a coincidence that her spokeszombies intone “strength and experience” in every prepared statement, or that she used the phrase last night, or that she twice gave a canned line about "not balancing Social Security on the backs of the elderly." The Clintonistas think the public only absorbs sound bites and simple arguments. They might well be correct, but this strikes me as a case of pandering to the lowest common denominator and then hoping the rest of us on the left side of the spectrum “fall in line” against the Republican adversary–-rather than trying to raise the level of our national conversation, which strikes me as a key element in leadership.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Fan Democracy?
As my hopes dim for public life in America, at least for the 2008 election cycle, I'm starting to think about power in other avenues. Maybe it's inspired by The Power Broker, the classic critical biography of Robert Moses, which I'm about 430 pages into; Moses began his long public career as an idealist, a man admirable in every way, but soon embraced dark means to achieve worthy ends, and later the means justified themselves as he became a sort of J. Edgar Hoover of public works. The author, Robert Caro, condemns Moses' sins and transgressions, but the point to me is how this man in the second stage of his career--when he'd abandoned procedural idealism but was still acting for goals any person of good faith would support--educated himself as to the tools of power and their uses.

I'm not really thinking about parks and bridges and roadways, though; I'm thinking about baseball, as usual.

The emergence of the internet hasn't revolutionalized baseball, but it's certainly revolutionized fandom. I remember in April 1993, as a sophomore in college, receiving an e-mail about a new listserv (I didn't know what that word meant) devoted to the Philadelphia Phillies, inviting me to join. For the next eight years or so, this was the primary vehicle of my fandom; with no internet at that point, I had the listserv and the AP wire, which featured game stories and was accessible through the university network, to keep me informed. (It's amazing to me now that I used to routinely go to sleep not knowing whether the Phils had won or lost; this happened, I think, exactly once in the 2007 season, the September game at St. Louis when Rod Barajas came off the bench to get the game-winning hit in the 13th inning. I'd pooped out around the 10th, after driving all day from a conference in upstate NY and maybe four hours' sleep the night before.) Over that period, the listserv evolved from fanboy basics to a fairly sophisticated news relay service, publishing (probably illegally) the game stories and other pieces from the Philly papers, trade rumors, and for awhile the contributions of Phils ace Curt Schilling. (Sideline: there's a terrific piece about Schilling, who's always been both huckster and hero, on the NYT site today.)

As the internet emerged and grew and added functionality, the listserv started to feel needlessly constraining, and when I became aware of Philliesphans in late 2002 I switched my time and mindshare there. During the next four years I made over 10,000 posts there--I'm not particularly proud of this, especially considering that a good chunk of that was squandered on idiotic political fights, with idiots--and a bit more than halfway through that time, I started The Good Phight with a few friends from that community. In December of '06 BackSheGoes emerged from a schism within Philliesphans, and I joined that community as a moderator. (The host/founder was one of the right-wingers I'd argued with on the former site, and reactionary politics notwithstanding he turned out to be a pretty good guy, so that at least represented some value from my time.) It's been a great not-quite year over there, and we've integrated it with TGP to the extent practically feasible.

The point of all this isn't to recap how much time I've wasted on online fandom, but that these evolving forums (fora?) represent a formalizing of community that was well-nigh impossible twenty years ago, and difficult ten years ago. Through the early '90s, the fans you knew were family and friends, and those you were aware of were the other 20-40,000 people in the park, people who called into the sports radio shows, and so on. You couldn't really coordinate anything with them, and you couldn't plausibly claim to have a particularly informed opinion because the data--the statistics, the game records, video, et cetera--weren't readily available to anyone but the insiders. None of this is true anymore. One of the primary functions of The Good Phight is to debunk the moronic "conventional wisdom" frequently espoused by the Phillies and and their guild of stenographers in the Philly media. And on both that site and BackSheGoes, we argue every day about possible courses of action for the team as well as what they actually do.

This is all a lot of fun, of course, but it hasn't meant anything--at least not yet. There are no real-world consequences to our theoretical power gain by virtue of having the data to form independent conclusions and coordinate with potentially many thousands of other fans. At times over the last two years (most prominently right after the Abreu trade/heist of 2006), a few of us have raised the quixotic notion of trying to force the sale of the team. But a few hundred signatures on an internet petition is unlikely even to register public notice, and to my knowledge the next canceled season ticket plan from this mini-movement will be the first.

The specific issue on which I'd like to test this nascent fan power is the possible elevation of assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. to the GM chair, probably after the 2008 season. Amaro is universally considered the heir apparent, and many of us believe the only reason he didn't get the job after Ed Wade's firing at the end of the 2005 season is that the PR-conscious Phillies knew there would be outraged reaction. With the division title this year, they have some credibility to make an in-house replacement when current GM Pat Gillick retires... but Amaro seems no more qualified for the job now than he was then.

Amaro is a second-generation Phillie, a former bat boy for the 1980 world champs and a (lousy) bench player for the club during the '90s. He has a degree from Stanford University, and he would in some sense fulfill the mandate for greater diversity in front offices announced (but rarely followed up upon) by the Commissioner's office. But unlike Gillick, fellow AGM Mike Arbuckle, or even newly hired top scout Chuck Lamar, Amaro has no tangible organizational accomplishments he can tout. HIs current responsibilities include "negotiating contracts and handling medical issues"; I would characterize the team's work in those two areas as, respectively, a mild plus and a big minus. The Brett Myers deal last off-season was okay, the Chase Utley deal looks pretty good. On the other hand, it doesn't feel like the Ryan Howard situation was handled well, though that tale will be told in earnest this winter with Howard eligible for arbitration. The "medical issues," though, is tough to see as anything but a complete meltdown: in short, the Phillies traded for Freddy Garcia and his shredded arm without getting assurances, and they didn't sign Joe Borowski who went on to save 40 games for Cleveland (albeit with a high ERA and mediocre secondary numbers--but he still would have been no worse than the second-best full-year reliever on the roster).

More worrisome is that I've heard, second-hand but from multiple sources, that Amaro's both an asshole and a fool. He's reputed to be entirely dismissive of performance analysis; even Gillick, the epitome of old school, has expressed an appreciation for statistical metrics. The potential for a GM who's invincible in his arrogance to get fleeced in trade is almost incalculable. It's always worth repeating that "Moneyball," the best written account of the performance analysis revolution, isn't about "stats" per se but rather finding and exploiting irrational valuations in the market of baseball talent. If this characterization is correct, Amaro is a walking irrationality--and thus ripe for exploitation.

I don't know what's to be done here, but at least a little more scrutiny as to the succession for Phils GM, and laying the groundwork for fan reaction if our worst fears are realized, seem like possibly attainable outcomes.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

As If I Wasn't Bummed Enough Already
By way of Andrew Sullivan's blog, which I'm coming to like more and more, here's an article from the libertarian Reason Foundation--a group that tends to lean right, but has had no love for the Bushes and neocons--that makes all the points I've been trying to articulate about Hillary Clinton's yen to perpetuate the Imperial Presidency:

[W]hen you strip away the partisan coating, Mrs. Clinton's grandiose, big-government vision is really no different than that envisioned by the neoconservatives so loathed by the left. Clinton, remember, not only voted for the Iraq war, she still hasn't conceded she was wrong to do so, and has made no promise to end it any time soon.
Hillary Clinton voted for both the Patriot Act and its reauthorization. She voted for building a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. She voted to loosen restrictions limiting the federal government's ability to wiretap cell phones. In the past, she has supported a robust role for the federal government in enforcing "decency" standards in television and music. She teamed up with former Sen. Rick Santorum on a bill calling for the federal government to restrict the sale of violent video games.
What about secrecy and executive power? It's difficult to see Hillary Clinton voluntarily handing back all of those extra-constitutional executive powers claimed by President Bush. Her husband's administration, for example, copiously invoked dubious "executive privilege" claims to keep from complying with congressional subpoenas and open records requests—claims the left now (correctly, in my view) regularly criticizes the Bush administration for invoking.

Hillary Clinton herself went to court to keep meetings of her Health Care Task Force secret from the public, something conservatives were quick to point out when leftists criticize Vice President Cheney's similar efforts to keep meetings of his Energy Task Force secret.
That jibes with a February 2007 New York Times article on Clinton explaining her refusal to back down from her vote for the Iraq war: "Mrs. Clinton's belief in executive power and authority is another factor weighing against an apology, advisers said... she believes that a president usually deserves the benefit of the doubt from Congress on matters of executive authority."
[A]n increasingly imperial presidency isn't good for our republic.

Neither is our overly interventionist foreign policy, or the continuing erosion of our civil liberties, be it in the name of "family values," government paternalism, the war on drugs, or the war on terror.

Activists on the left... should also realize that even if they succeed in electing Hillary Clinton to the White House, it's likely that the only real resulting change in Washington will be that come 2009, we'll merely have a Democrat pursuing the same misguided policies.

Much like the point I made earlier about how "spite voting" on the left could propel the Democrat uninformed Republicans hate the most into the White House, the author cites "the temptation on the left to want to stick it to their political opponents by putting their worst nightmare in the White House." But this won't mean a whole lot two years from now, when Madame President Clinton screws over the unions with another awful trade bill, orders air strikes against whoever the dark-skinned villain of that moment might be, and further seals the archives of all previous Bush and Clinton administrations. At that point, millions of Democrats are going to smack their foreheads, ask themselves what the fuck they were thinking, and find themselves forced to choose between defending a president they deplore and disagree with, and letting the same people they'd tried to spite by putting her into power run rampant in national politics.
We're Done with Democracy
The big political news of the weekend is coming out of the Values Voters Summit, a gathering of far-right Christianist groups to which all the Republican candidates have made pilgrimmage to pander. The utterly shameless Mitt Romney and Rabid Rudy Giuliani have taken shots at each other, and TV's Fred Thompson evidently seemed even less interested than usual; remember, TV's Fred's only in the race because his hot harpy right-wing wife really wants to be First Lady. I think it's probably about 50-50 that the marriage ends within a year of his campaign ending, and that's absolutely no more than four months off. Oddly, I sort of admire Thompson's refusal, whether from sloth or principle, to deliver the Hate in a cause he's not really feeling. Gail Collins nicely captures the rage-addled essence of these "Christians" in her op-ed column today.

This is a miserably depressing time for American politics. The large minority of the electorate represented, to a greater or lesser extent, by the people at the "Summit" live in a self-defined world where any resemblence to objective reality is purely coincidental--a world in which Iraq was a heroic (and successful!) undertaking, all taxes are confiscatory gambits of a malevolent polity determined to enrich non-white welfare recipients and leftist libertines at the expense of God-fearing families, and the only thing to fault George W. Bush for is not pushing hard enough to amend the Constitution to discriminate against homosexuals. Meanwhile, a plurality of the majority that rejects this insane worldview seems set to empower a woman who seems to have no guiding principle except power and shares most or all of the core assumptions that have informed the Bush administration these last seven disastrous years. Her election will do nothing but ensure that the awful politics of the last sixteen years--characterized by zero-sum partisan fights over generally small matters, viciously personal and blind to the larger issues--continues for at least another four.

Actually, I suspect Hillary Clinton will unite the country much as Bush has--in rejection of her governance--but to an even greater extent: while the 30 percent or so who still support the Deciderer have proven themselves far more loyal to ideology than empirical input, categorical Clinton supporters will prove to be far fewer in number. It's almost impossible to be ideologically bound to someone who has no ideology. She similarly won't be able to count on a cult of personality following, because she also has, or at least shows, no personality. The liberals who find her tolerable or even likable now will have defected inside two years; they'll cheer Russ Feingold in his noble and doomed attempt to primary her in 2012, and a lot of them will sit at home or vote third-party when Jeb Bush wrests away the Crown and Scepter that November.

I've spent a lot of the last two months or so reading books by a novelist named Steve Erickson. He's probably best characterized as a post-modernist in the style of Don Delillo, though he adds obsessions with sex and pop culture to Delillo's mix of time, historical pivot points and official and personal violence. Erickson also shares Delillo's ongoing fascination with the meaning of America, and for about fifteen years from the early '90s to 2004 he popped up from time to time as a commentator on the intersection of politics and culture. One piece he wrote that strikes me as especially resonant appeared in early 1995, shortly after the Gingrich takeover of Congress. It's evidently gone from the interwebs now, but here's the key bit:

History is clear that democracy cannot long navigate a sea of national rage. Untempered by rationale and open-mindedness, fury eventually consumes democracy rather than nourishes it, because it overwhelms our tolerance, our willingness to be reasonably informed, our determination to hold ourselves accountable for what we decide. Most important, it overwhelms our basic faith in democracy itself and our belief in the individual freedoms that are inviolate to the power of the majority, identified by the Declaration of Independence as endowed by God and codified in the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. We display less and less patience with what we previously held to be inalienable, less and less patience with democracy’s inherent messiness and inefficiency and the morass of conflicting interests that are read in democracy’s results. We display less patience, in other words, with other Americans.

A deep freeze has settled in the American soul. The nation gets meaner and more petty until rage is the only national passion left -- and then it is anger not at those on top, which is the anger America was born of, but at those on the bottom. ... This myth, that the process has grown helplessly out of touch with what we really want and feel and need, is the opposite of the truth. The truth is that we are the problem with America. The process and politicians, the lobbyists and “special” interests -- by which we mean any interest that doesn’t penterain to us -- have reflected us all too perfectly; and we hate them for it.

From dismal campaign to dismal campaign, we demand “change” and then give every indication of wanting nothing of the sort and of not having the slightest idea what we ever meant by it in the first place. Confronted with change that is truly profound or revolutionary, which is to say unavoidably painful and disorienting, we scurry back to the status quo that so infuriated us to begin with, and that not so long ago we claimed was unacceptable.

I've maintained for years that rage is the biggest, arguably the only, motivator for those on the right. The unhinged hatred of "liberals" on display every time a Sean Hannity or Ann Coulter or Dick Cheney or Clarence Thomas gets in front of a camera isn't extraordinary; it's reflected in the filler speech some right-wing functionary is probably giving right now at the "Values Voter Summit." One major difference I perceive between the left--at least, this particular left-leaning guy--and the right is that I wish they'd just go away, while they seem to wish me dead and burning forever in a Hell I don't believe exists.

"Spite voting" is the reason why so many millions of people who didn't particularly like George W. Bush in 2004, and certainly didn't think he was doing a very good job, voted for him anyway: to stick it to John Kerry, and to stick it to you and me.

This is America, not Denmark. In this country, tens of millions of people choose to watch FoxNews not simply because Americans are credulous idiots or at the behest of some right-wing corporate cabal, but because average Americans respect viciousness. They are attracted to viciousness for a lot of reasons. In part, it reminds them of their bosses, whom they secretly adore. Americans hate themselves for the way they behave in public, always smiling and nodding their heads with accompanying really?s and uh-huhs to show that they're listening to the other person, never having the guts to say what they really feel. So they vicariously scream and bully others into submission through right-wing surrogate-brutes. Spending time watching Sean Hannity is enough for your average American white male to feel less cowardly than he really is.

The left won't accept this awful truth about the American soul, a beast that they believe they can fix "if only the people knew the Truth."

But what if the Truth is that Americans don't want to know the Truth? What if Americans consciously choose lies over truth when given the chance—and not even very interesting lies, but rather the blandest, dumbest and meanest lies? What if Americans are not a likeable people? The left's wires short-circuit when confronted with this terrible possibility; the right, on the other hand, warmly embraces Middle America's rank soul and exploits it to their full advantage. The Republicans know Americans better than the left. They know that it's not so much Goering's famous "bigger lie" that works here, but the dumber the lie, the more they want to hear it repeated.
The reason is simple. The underlying major premise of humanist-leftist ideology states that people are intrinsically sympathetic. If people are defiantly mean and craven, the humanist-left structure falters. "Why the fuck should I bother fighting for Middle Americans," they ask, "if they're just as loathsome, in their own petty way, as their exploiters, with whom they actively collaborate?"

But we on the left are, increasingly, guilty of the same thing. For one thing, it hurts to be told, by the President and his Men (and women), that we aren't really Americans. Erickson shrewdly observes that this was probably the biggest reason why so many people became enthusiastic about Howard Dean in 2003-2004; he was the one Democrat of that time to stand up and scream (literally, alas) that, yes, we are Americans and we're damn well entitled to be treated as such. I admit that the only reason I could even consider voting for Hillary Clinton--hell, the only reason I voted for her in her first Senate campaign, the same year Bush stole the presidency--is to stick it right back to them. The mania of spite voting is real, and increasingly it's bipartisan.

There's probably a cultural/societal component to this as well. I also believe this is the Age of Selfish Pleasures, and that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. The rise of mass media in the 20th century created a somewhat unified culture for the first time: suddenly, people in Iowa and New York and Alaska and Louisiana were listening to, then watching, the same things, and the differences between those places and the people who lived in them began to diminish. Then, as mass media diversified--a thousand cable channels, then uncountable millions of websites--the newly coherent whole fractured to a greater extent than ever before. We could make our own amusement, and those personalized entertainments are so engrossing that now many of us, certainly myself, couldn't tell you what the highest-rated TV shows even are. Suddenly people in New York, or Iowa, or Alaska, or Georgia, had as little or less in common with those a hundred yards away as with those a thousand miles away. If you don't feel community with those even within shouting distance, it's unlikely that you'll feel a national sense.

In the long run, it's not hard to see how this could be a good thing. It's probably not that hard to chart a path from self-entertainment to self-fulfillment, and anything that helps break down hierarchies of control--the sort of hierarchy in its full glory at the "Summit"--is ultimately good for democracy. But for now, we're far from that, and there seems little to be done except to surf the web, play some video games and hope something good is on TV or at the movies. The public sphere is a no-man's land.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Rockholm Syndrome
I'll admit it: I'm rooting for the Rockies now. And I've even been watching the NLCS, earlier comparisons to televised Boggle notwithstanding.

This doesn't really make sense on my part. First of all, they did beat the Phillies and there's some atavistic craving for sweet, sweet vengeance; if the Indians knock off Boston and win the AL pennant, I'm sure I'll be pulling for the Tribe in the World Series, because I generally root for them. (And, damn, Cleveland needs a little joy. That town is like Philadelphia, only without the history or cuisine, and with maybe a third of the culture.)

Second, the Rockies are God Squadders, starting with their top management, and there's nothing I deplore more in sports, other than maybe Terrell Owens, than the sanctimonious assertion that God Almighty has taken a rooting interest. GM Dan O'Dowd, who brought in Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle--failures on the field and, at least in Neagle's case, conspicuous sinners off it--might be doing nothing more than kissing up to his boss, a Tom DeLay/George W. Bush-type reformed party animal who's now evidently into judging others. Or he might be sincere. Either way, it's grating. (Considering that Colorado is also home to some of the most obnoxious would-be theocrats in the country, it's doubly annoying that they're presumably weighing down the Rockie bandwagon these days.)

To be fair, I haven't heard any Rockies players rubbing this in anyone's face during the last few weeks--and with wins in 20 of their last 21 games, standing a victory away from the World Series after coming within one strike of not even making the playoffs, it's sort of understandable to entertain the notion that God might be on your side.

All that aside, though, what this team has accomplished is staggering. Winning 20 of 21 games against any schedule is impressive enough; the Rockies, though, have notched the last 19 of those victories against teams with winning records. In no more than one or two of those games (I'd need to go back and figure out exactly when the Dodgers were eliminated--they might have been done before the end of their final series against Colorado) were they playing against teams out of the race: the last seven were either play-in or playoff games, of course. And most of them have been close: the streak-starting 13-0 win over Florida wasn't, and two of the Rockies' seven wins against LA were by five runs or more; they beat Arizona 11-1 on Sept. 29, and I guess you could argue that the 10-5 win over the Phillies in Game Two of the NLDS wasn't close (though Manny Corpas earned a save, so the tying run was on deck late). Otherwise, they've all been relatively tight games.

Like the Phillies, the Rockies won in the regular season mostly on the strength of an overpowering offense. In the playoffs, though, they've done it with arms. Other than the five runs the Phils scored in Game Two, Colorado hasn't allowed more than two runs in any of their six playoff wins. The Rockies bullpen has allowed two runs in 23 innings; that's almost unimaginable.

When the Phillies lost, I was a little embarrassed that they got swept, particularly that they dropped the first two games at home. Now I'm almost feeling good about their role--and the fact that they battled in all three games--in what could prove to be the greatest run in baseball history.

(Archival note: if Arizona wins 10-0 tonight, I reserve the right to delete this post.)

Friday, October 12, 2007

Taking Kansas National
I watched the first hour or so of the Republican presidential debate in Michigan the other day. It was fascinating, just as a window into how willfully and completely these guys have disconnected themselves from American life as people experience it on a day-to-day basis. Asked about the economy, and the evident disconnect between statistics that show prosperity (stock market gains, low inflation and unemployment rates) and the widespread perception that we're in or approaching a recession, the candidates mostly responded that the strong economy is, in Fred Thompson's words, "the greatest story never told."

The truth, as anyone paying attention can tell you, is that the current economy closely resembles the hypothetical of Bill Gates in a room with a hundred retail clerks: on average, that's a roomful of millionaires. As The Wall Street Journal reports, the gains of those at the top more than offset the declines for those in the middle and bottom--so we have both statistical prosperty and widespread stagnation or deterioration:
The richest Americans' share of national income has hit a postwar record, surpassing the highs reached in the 1990s bull market, and underlining the divergence of economic fortunes blamed for fueling anxiety among American workers.

The wealthiest 1% of Americans earned 21.2% of all income in 2005, according to new data from the Internal Revenue Service. That is up sharply from 19% in 2004, and surpasses the previous high of 20.8% set in 2000, at the peak of the previous bull market in stocks.

The bottom 50% earned 12.8% of all income, down from 13.4% in 2004 and a bit less than their 13% share in 2000.
The IRS data go back only to 1986, but academic research suggests the rich last had this high a share of total income in the 1920s.

Even without their other disadvantages--the Iraq War, the incompetence and dishonesty of the Bush administration, and the widespread perception of corruption--I honestly wonder how the Republicans expect to win next year when the party refuses even to acknowledge that most Americans are struggling to hold their ground, let alone get ahead. I suppose it has something to do with the core contention of modern conservatism that government can't do any good in matters other than war--so policy actions that might help improve families' circumstances but require some additional spending, like broadening college access or health coverage, are prima facie unacceptable.

Indeed, at the Michigan debate, which focused on economic issues, the presidential contenders talked not about addressing the problems of working families but the need to hold the line or force deeper cuts on "discretionary" spending (other than the military, of course) and "reform" non-discretionary programs like Social Security and Medicare so as to get the budget under control. That these programs are so popular that even Bush after his re-election and with Republican congressional majorities couldn't come close to "reforming" (read: undermining) them evidently didn't register.

I'm not the only person to note how weird this all is. The conservative David Brooks in today's New York Times warns his co-partisans that they're on the brink of losing this argument before it's even truly begun:

You’d think that [the Republicans would] start every election by putting themselves at the kitchen tables of middle-class families with ambitious kids. Their first questions would be: What are the barriers to their mobility? What concrete help do these people need to realize their dreams?

Yet at the Republican economic debate in Michigan this week, there was no talk of that. The candidates declared their fealty to general principles: free trade, lower taxes and reduced spending. They talked a lot about the line-item veto and the Chinese currency. But there was almost nothing that touched concretely on the lives of the ambitious working-class parents who are the backbone of the G.O.P.

Sometimes the candidates seemed more concerned with massaging the pleasure buttons of the Club for Growth than addressing the real concerns of the middle class. They talked far more about cutting corporate taxes, for example, than about a child tax credit for struggling families.
Instead this ground is being seized by a Democrat. Over the past few months, Hillary Clinton has issued a string of specific policy programs aimed directly at members of the aspiring middle class.

Yesterday, it was a tax credit for college. Earlier in the week, Clinton offered a plan to give families down the income scale access to 401(k)-style plans. Right now, 75 million workers have no employee-sponsored pension accounts. The way our tax code is structured, people up the income ladder get big tax incentives to save, while working people, who have the most trouble saving, get the smallest incentives.

Under the Clinton plan, if a family making up to $60,000 a year put $1,000 into a new 401(k) account, they would get a $1,000 matching tax credit. The plan would create millions of new investors. Struggling families could choose mutual fund options and participate in the capital markets. They’d be encouraged to move away from a month-to-month mentality to a saving-for-the-future mentality.

Clinton’s plan poaches on economic values that used to be associated with the Republican Party. Moreover, it undermines the populist worldview that is building on the left of her party. Instead of railing against globalization and the economic royalists, Clinton gives working people access to Wall Street and a way to profit from the global economy.

Brooks's column reminds me of the smartest policy piece I've ever read in a right-wing publication: "the Party of Sam's Club." Written about two years ago as the Bush administration was really starting to unravel, the authors shrewdly observed that the Republicans were losing touch with their own base: white middle-class and working-class families who were with them on social issues but starting to feel that the Republicans weren't addressing their domestic concerns. They urged the party leaders to flesh out and develop the Bush/Rove "big-government conservatism" that had been implied, if not promised, in 2000. Specific proposals included a child investment credit that's strikingly similar to what Hillary Clinton recently proposed (a very good idea, by the way); a variant on the universal individual mandate to purchase health care that Mitt Romney signed into law in Massachusetts (and has mostly disavowed on the campaign trail); and, most shockingly to me as I re-read it today, subsidizing low-wage work as part of a second phase of welfare reform.

If you've heard any of these ideas advanced by any Republican presidential candidate in this cycle, you've been paying much closer attention than I have. More likely, the problem is that the dominant interests in the Republican coalition couldn't give a rat's ass about any of this stuff: Brooks's jab at "the pleasure buttons of the Club for Growth" could have been written by most any Daily Kos poster. Maybe it's inevitable that when any group has unfettered access to power for as long as the Republican business interests have, they lose track of what it takes to retain that power in even a flawed and provisional democracy like ours.

In the absence of a viable domestic platform, maybe the Republicans plan to run another campaign on xenophobia, fear, and "social conservatism." Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter With Kansas?" sets out how this has been their model for a couple decades now. But it will be tough in 2008, for a few reasons: first, because the domestic issues are increasingly insistent, second, because their leading candidate is anathema to the social conservatives, and third, while support remains high for fighting "terrorism," there seems to be a broad consensus that the Republicans haven't done this in a smart way, either.

Other than demonizing Hillary Clinton or whatever Democrat becomes the face of the party, I find it almost impossible to see how they plan to win next year.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Madness of Boss George
The first round of the baseball playoffs is complete, with dismal results in all local precincts. The 2007 Phillies are no more, as are my wife's cherished Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. (Okay, she could generally care less about the Halos, but adores Mike Scioscia more than anyone really should.) The Cubs went down even more meekly than the Phils, setting up a National League Championship Series between Colorado and Arizona that promises to be about as compelling as televised Boggle. And, as of an hour or so ago, the New York Yankees were eliminated by the Cleveland Indians.

Short playoff series are the definition of "crapshoot," and the Tribe knocking off the Bombers was the only one I predicted correctly. (I really would have enjoyed that Cubs-Phillies NLCS... ) Cleveland's pitching was too good, and the Yankees' too suspect, for me to pick the local guys. But that the Yankees made it at all is fairly incredible. They mirrored the Phillies in many respects, coming back from a slow start--which lasted a full 50 games in their case--to reach the playoffs on the strength of a relentless and powerful offense. New York's pitching took as bad or worse a beating from injuries as the Phils'. And through it all, legendary manager Joe Torre kept his cool, never complained, supported his young GM Brian Cashman in not trading homegrown talent for veteran fixes... and led his club to a 73-39 record over their last 112 games, for a .651 winning percentage that's almost unfathomable in a baseball season of (I think) unprecedented parity. As his veteran arms faded, Torre and pitching coach Ron Guidry integrated a new cohort of Yankee pitchers that, always provided they stay healthy, seem all but certain to lead the team back to the title within a few years.

But if they do, it won't be Joe Torre who gets another championship ring. In a dick move reminiscent of what he did in the '70s and '80s to become arguably the most reviled sports owner since the O'Malleys took the Dodgers west, Big Stein recently stated, "I don't think we'd take him back if we don't win this series."

At the time he said this, the Yankees trailed two games to none. They'd gotten blown out in the opener when starter Chien-Ming Wang couldn't handle the Cleveland bats, but very nearly seized homefield advantage before squandering a 1-0 lead late in Game Two and ultimately losing 2-1 in 11 innings. Though I didn't see most of that game, I haven't heard anyone suggesting that Torre's decisions were to blame. (Joba Chamberlain, perhaps the most talented of the Yankees' kid pitchers, lost the lead with a wild pitch in the 8th inning, Mariano Rivera threw two scoreless, and Luis Vizcaino--clearly the third-best arm in the New York bullpen, after the two guys who already had pitched, took the loss in the 11th.) But even if Torre had done the managerial equivalent of pooping on the lineup card, without him you're almost certainly not in the playoffs to start with--and he's as beloved in the city as Steinbrenner is detested. A similar state of affairs seems to hold in the clubhouse; if Torre is fired, it's probably less likely that Rivera, star catcher Jorge Posada and the certain MVP, Alex Rodriguez, choose to come back for 2008.

As self-defeating as it seems--and as unseemly as it is for a 77 year-old billionaire to act with a four year-old's petulant need for instant gratification--this is in keeping with Steinbrenner's nature, and the public response from Torre and his players acknowledges as much. But Nate Silver at Baseball Prospectus thinks the old guy might just be off his nut.

What it suggests to me, though, is that most of us are lucky not to have our professional fates controlled by possibly unhinged nut jobs like Steinbrenner. Six hundred years ago, that guy probably could have had you put to death; now he mostly just hurts himself unless Brian Cashman, Stick Michael or whoever else is in the Yankee brain trust these days can talk him down.

I don't hate the Yankees as so many of my friends and family do. Baseball is more fun when they're good, and when they're good for the right reasons--as is the case now with Cashman's emphasis on building from within and being opportunistic in trades--the whole game improves because other organizations look to the replicable aspects of Yankee success. But Steinbrenner's such a miserable, tyrannical prick--and always has been--that I do derive a certain pleasure from knowing that he's unhappy. When one expects the near-impossible--in Big Stein's case, championships every single year--it's inevitable that the disappointment of defeat dwarfs the joy of victory.

Though it also might have to do with this curse-as if New Yorkers weren't likely to support the Dem anyway--I'll go out on a limb and predict that the first year after Steinbrenner dies, the Yankees will win their 27th championship.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Huckabee: What'm I, Chopped Liver?
My favorite unhinged right-win would-be theocrat, James Dobson, has an op-ed in the New York Times today threatening to take his flock--I use the sheep metaphor advisedly--out of the Republican Party if they don't nominate someone he deems acceptably opposed to abortion, The Gays, and whatever else freaks these people out. Referring to a meeting last weekend of "pro-family" leaders in Utah, the man I like to call the Christatollah writes:

After two hours of deliberation, we voted on a resolution that can be summarized as follows: If neither of the two major political parties nominates an individual who pledges himself or herself to the sanctity of human life, we will join others in voting for a minor-party candidate. Those agreeing with the proposition were invited to stand. The result was almost unanimous.

The other issue discussed at length concerned the advisability of creating a third party if Democrats and Republicans do indeed abandon the sanctity of human life and other traditional family values. Though there was some support for the proposal, no consensus emerged.

Speaking personally, and not for the organization I represent or the other leaders gathered in Salt Lake City, I firmly believe that the selection of a president should begin with a recommitment to traditional moral values and beliefs. Those include the sanctity of human life, the institution of marriage, and other inviolable pro-family principles. Only after that determination is made can the acceptability of a nominee be assessed.

The other approach, which I find problematic, is to choose a candidate according to the likelihood of electoral success or failure. Polls don’t measure right and wrong; voting according to the possibility of winning or losing can lead directly to the compromise of one’s principles. In the present political climate, it could result in the abandonment of cherished beliefs that conservative Christians have promoted and defended for decades. Winning the presidential election is vitally important, but not at the expense of what we hold most dear.

This has been interpreted, probably correctly, as a shot across the bow of Rudy Giuliani, the Republican hopeful who has argued that conservatives should support him because, first, he's the only one who can beat Hillary Clinton, and second, whatever vitriol he lacks toward gays and women who shtup outside of marriage (which is what this is really about), he more than makes up for regarding Muslim Evildoers.

As there's no candidate I personally deplore more than Giuliani (though Senator Clinton herself isn't too far behind him), his misfortune is my pleasure. Without both sides of the Republican coalition--the rich elites who enjoy Golden Ages of Profitability whenever a Bush sits in the Oval Office, and the angry religious voters who evidently get gratification from hearing coded hymns or Bible verses in State of the Union addresses--they can't win nationally. Indeed, a new Rasmussen poll shows that in a three-way race between Clinton, Giuliani and a far-right third party candidate, Sen. Clinton wins easily with 46 percent of the vote; Rudy gets 30 percent, and "Gary Bauer" (hey, let's have some fun with this) gets 14.

What I wonder, though, is why the Dobsonites wouldn't just get behind former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. I've thought for awhile that Huckabee is the strongest general-election candidate the Republicans can muster anyway: he is, to paraphrase his own words, "conservative but not angry about it," an ordained minister, a public official of clearly superior competence than the Bush crowd (faint praise, but still), and solidly in line with the rightists on substance, and somewhat on style. He's a much better "retail" politician than Giuliani, and probably better than Mitt Romney or John McCain, and he's got enough economic populist credentials to run against a corporate pseudo-Dem like Clinton from the left on some issues.

I suppose the reason why the Dobsonites haven't gotten behind Huckabee is that doing so could risk a deeper schism with the Norquist wing of the Republican Party than merely sitting out next year's race, which many think the Democrats are certain to win anyway. Huckabee has taken fire from the small-government/anti-tax extremists for such sins as increasing state spending during his tenure and supporting levies such as a three-cent gas tax increase, four cents for diesel, so the state could make infrastructure improvements. The horror! Though he did eventually sign Norquist's no-new-taxes pledge, in March of this year, and he claims to support the thoroughly idiotic "Fair Tax" proposal,they likely still don't trust him. Remember that these guys both want low or no taxes and bad government--because every time FEMA bungles a Hurricane Katrina, it reinforces their core argument that the public sector is useless--and Huckabee was, as far as I can tell, a reasonably effective governor.

But in a Republican field where nobody has caught fire and a big chunk of the voting power is threatening to walk away, it seems strange to me that the rightists wouldn't get behind the candidate who both comes closest to their views and is generating the most buzz on the stump. Maybe it's not enough to be a conservative; maybe you really do have to be angry about it. In that case, there's always Alan Keyes...

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

A Protest Song for Our Time
I've become somewhat omnivorous in terms of music consumption: when someone says, "listen to this," and even better if he or she is willing to put it on a disc for ripping and later iPod uploading, I'm game. So it was a couple weeks back when a guy in my office burned a few hundred song files to a CD and I put them through the formats and added them to the 5,000-odd other tunes on the iPod.

Yesterday I'm walking to the subway and suddenly had my ears blown out, with my mind quickly following, by one of those songs, from the last Ted Leo & the Pharmacists album.

Here's the video, though I recommend turning the volume way up, closing your eyes and just listening, at least for the first time.

Below are the lyrics. Suffice it to say, though, that the song is so kinetic and heavy that I could see a tank commander getting as into it as the kid protesting his war...

Like a gray bird in a blue sky over a blue ocean civilized men fly,
Through puffy clouds and beautiful rainbows with the power and the speed
And the will to succeed, moneyed men fly high.
No need to clomp around through the ash,the rubble, and the mud.
No need for face-to-face, or even worse to put a perfectly spit-shined brand new pair of leather boots on the dirty, busty ground.
Oh sure, you could mobilize a million troops
(but a thousand could probably get the job done)
But then people start to ask questions,
So when you drop in and out of the white clouds in a blue sky,
Don't worry about them having to see the whites of your eyes.
Just let the payload fly and wing on home, my son - it's not your day to die.
And when the crying starts, you won't have to see their bloodshot eyes turn red,
And when the dying starts, you won't have to know a thing about who's dead.
This is your mission: pretend it's television, where the good guys always win,
And they're gonna win again, because you're gonna bomb.
Oh, they can keep talking - let 'em keep talking - they can talk while the bombs fall around them, for all I care.
But when you've had enough of this diplomatic bullshit and your patience is up well alright!
It's on, and they asked for it.
Ah, but you'll want to give yourself a minute, to take in the beauty of the sight.
As you come in over the mountains between the green earth and the sky and bomb yes.
In and out, no mess, no fuss.
And when the crying starts, you won't have to see their bloodshot eyes turn red.
And when the dying starts, you won't have to know a thing about who's dead.
This is your mission -- like television - where the good guys always win.
And we're gonna win again because you're gonna,