Monday, September 29, 2008

When the Left Sucks as Bad as the Right
I just got perhaps the most brain-dead e-mail I've ever received, from the super-left Working Families Party here in New York.

Everything I've hated about the Cheney/DeLay Republicans is in evidence here: the blind partisanship, mindless scapegoating, one-size-fits-all policy "solutions," the staggering hypocrisy, the near-total misunderstanding of how the world actually works. Grab your nose plugs and knee-high rubber boots; here we go.

Dear WFP Supporter,

The House vote against the bailout bill is shocking and fascinating at the same time. It appears to be a combination of an unusual right-left alliance. House Republicans are angry that the bailout isn't based on "free-enterprise" principles, or so they reflexively say. More likely they are furious at President Bush for having led them into the minority-party wilderness, and they are acting out. They are not an impressive bunch.

Much more interesting are the Democrats. 95 voted no (adding to the Rs 133 No votes). It's not entirely clear, but it seems like the Democrats who voted "no" mostly did so out of a sense that the bailout was still too generous to Wall Street hot-shots who caused the problem in the first place.

In other words... Republicans who voted against the bailout measure did so because they're ill-behaved children, and their statements about doing so on grounds of principle are obviously dishonest. But Democrats who opposed the measure are (we think) not only principled, but actually heroic.

(The truth, as Nate Silver details, is that the common factor of bailout opponents across party lines was that many were in close races for re-election. This thing is terribly unpopular in the country, and a vote to "bail out the Wall Street fat cats" easily could have been worth 4-5 points in a close race.)

Anyway, back to the dumbassery:

Now it's back to the House Democratic Leadership. They will "fix" the bill and get it done. The drop on Wall Street will demand it. The question is -- who will they conciliate to get the votes they need? If Pelosi has nerve, she will do what it takes to get Democratic votes, which will mean a proposal focused less on home lenders and more on homeowners. The problem is -- she does not want a bill that relies only on Democratic votes, because the bailout is not popular with voters and she doesn't want to take the blame if it goes sour (as it certainly could).

It's a truism of American politics that when government undertakes something momentous and/or unpopular, it must do so on a bipartisan basis--both because the two parties must share the political risk, and because it's the only way to guarantee some measure of sustained commitment to the policy. Think back three years to the Bush effort to partially privatize Social Security. The Republicans had the votes to pass their plan in the House; as they had done on so many other measures, they could have rammed it through there and forced the Democrats to deny cloture in the Senate, gambling that they could win on the politics. But they didn't, because the measure was unpopular. The Clinton health care reform effort of 1993-94 is probably an even better example; the political risks of "government-run health care" were perceived as too high for the Democrats to run alone. (They might have miscalculated there, given what happened that November.)

In the current decade, for that matter, the DeLay/Frist Congresses pushed through legislation on party-line votes again and again; this is in no small part why the public currently perceives the Republicans as "owning" this disaster. But apparently for the True Believers on the left, just as their counterparts on the right, this is all part of Doing the Right Thing.

It gets even crazier when the WFP offers its ideas for a revised measure:

What to do? We are no experts, but, it turns out, the experts aren't really experts. Our principles lead us to the view that the Democrats should make it a fairer, more progressive response to Wall Street's crisis. They need to trust that people will reward them for standing up for working and middle-class people instead of kow-towing to the wealthy.

How might the revised bill look that is different than the original?

* The costs must NOT be borne by working families. If we need to bail out Wall Street, we need to make sure that Wall Street pays for it, by imposing a steep surcharge on incomes over a million dollars a year and a small tax on all financial transactions (as New York did until 1981).

* The final plan MUST re-regulate Wall Street. Any bailout needs to reverse the deregulation of Wall Street that led to this crisis, including breaking up banks that are "too big to fail."
* It must be a bailout for homeowners, not for home lenders. We need to compel any institution that gets taxpayer assistance to renegotiate loan terms. Where foreclosure is unavoidable, families should be guaranteed the right to remain in their homes as renters. And the bill needs to include direct assistance to families in financial trouble, including expanded Unemployment Insurance and Home Heating Oil assistance.

More broadly, the bailout can't stand in the way of the broader economic stimulus package that is desperately needed.

I really don't even know where to start with all this. The mindless notion that $1 million in 1981 is anything like $1 million in 2008? The apparent historical coincidence that the revival of New York City in particular began around the time that this "surcharge" was repealed? The idea that anyone who makes over $1 million a year is "Wall Street," in that they should be made to pay for the crimes? It's too easy to label these people Bolsheviks, and I'm really trying to resist... but this is basically the post-modern expropriation of the kulaks. (If the WFP calls for the toiling masses to burn down the McMansions, we'll know for sure.)

As for "a bailout for homeowners, not for home lenders," this amounts to rewarding irresponsible behavior for some while punishing it for others. Again, maybe I'm showing my bourgeois homeowner undies here... but my wife and I didn't take a crazy mortgage to buy a place we couldn't afford. I'm not feeling particularly inclined to see my tax dollars rescue those who did from the consequences of their unwise decisions. The ameliorative measures are one thing; there's ample economic justification to take action that lead to fewer people losing their homes. And where there was exploitation--as there surely was--some reconsideration of loan terms is probably appropriate. But let's not "bail out" anybody, much less justify selective aid based on a super-simplistic notion of class.

That leaves regulation and stimulus. As a goo-goo type above all else, I couldn't agree more with the point about "re-regulation." But I have this nagging feeling that wedging a complicated set of rules that should strike a balance between encouraging growth and fostering irresponsible behavior into a measure where time is a factor--in the supercharged atmosphere of a presidential campaign, no less--might not work out so well. The same goes for the stimulus idea--which, in this presentation, just happens to include all the things the WFP always calls for. I happen to think they're good ideas. But let them win on their own merits, rather than using the DeLay tactic of jamming them through as an add-on to something else.

It's profoundly depressing how much these guys resemble their putative adversaries when it comes to tactics and style.

I don't claim to be an expert either, but maybe what they should do is allocate a small (in this context, anyway) chunk of the total money now, to send a message to the markets--which, if I understand the psychology of it at all, are waiting for some sign that action is forthcoming. To preserve leverage, Congress could make disbursement of the balance of it provisional upon passing the regulatory regime and, if a majority wants it, a stimulus package. This time frame also would ease the pressure by virtue of pushing the policy moment beyond the election. Call me crazy, but I suspect it's easier to take a "tough" vote in February of an odd-numbered year than September of an even.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Great Moments in Awful Planning
Around 4:30 Sunday afternoon, the New York Mets concluded their 2008 season in miserably disappointing fashion, losing 4-2 to the Florida Marlins to finish one game back for the National League wild card. Just as on the last Sunday of the 2007 campaign, the Mets lost a game they needed to win, at the hands of the Marlins, in front of a shocked and despondent home crowd.

About a half-hour later, the team held its "Shea Goodbye" ceremony to close out Shea Stadium, its home for the last 45 seasons. To my mild surprise, most of the sellout crowd stayed around--though they did boo Mr. Met when he tore off the "1" banner on the outfield fence, used all season to indicate how many games remained to be played at the old brick pile out in Queens, to reveal the logo of the new Citi Field, which opens next April.

(A very brief aside: I'm all about booing Mr. Met. As a Philadelphian, I feel like it's a personal insult whenever the p/a announcer describes the mascot--a guy in a baseball uniform with a big baseball for a head--as "the best mascot in baseball." Our Large Green Whatever sets the standard--always has, always will.)

I didn't watch all of the ceremony, which seemed mostly to consist of introducing conspicuous Mets of ancient and recent vintage--from Yogi Berra, whom I didn't remember managed the team for awhile in the '70s, and Willie Mays, whose short Mets career I've always understood is best forgotten, to the frequently odious Dave Kingman, more recent heroes like Mike Piazza, and all-time Met great Tom Seaver. A couple current Mets broadcasters, 1986 World Champion teammates Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez, were recognized and honored; it must have been strange to sit in the booth watching the club's playoff hopes dwindle and finally die, then rush downstairs to don a replica jersey and take the field for a quick beauty pageant wave.

Perhaps grateful for the distraction of happier times, the crowd seemed to get somewhat into it as the event wore on and the more recent stars took their bows. But it's hard to imagine any real fond feeling after watching the team fall short in agonizing fashion for a second straight year. Obviously the way things worked out--closing the stadium literally minutes after finishing one of its most painful memories--was a worst-case scenario. But other, rosier scenarios, from a play-in game that would have come tomorrow had the Mets won today, to a few World Series dates in late October, might have been awkward as well: why "Shea Goodbye" when great moments might have remained in the old yard? And there wasn't even additional money to be made, far as I could tell. It was just badly conceptualized, and probably they should have avoided the whole thing rather than tempting the always-perverse baseball gods.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Debate as Afterthought
So I made a prudent decision last night to watch the conclusion of the Phillies' 8-4 win over Washington rather than the presidential debate in real time. After processing the Phils' win and Mets' defeat, I did catch some of the rebroadcast on C-SPAN.

The consensus of the punditocracy was that the debate ended as a "draw." Taegan Goddard's reaction was pretty representative:

The first debate of the general election campaign probably didn't change anyone's mind. Both McCain and Obama looked presidential. While each man landed some blows, neither came close to being knocked down. If forced to choose a winner, I'd give the very slight edge to Obama since the debate was primarily on foreign policy which is McCain's strongest issue.

Focus groups seem to have given Obama the edge, and I think another thread of the commentary--that Obama, simply by virtue of standing alongside an opponent with a much longer track record in the public eye and not screwing up egregiously, might have taken a long step toward victory--probably holds some validity. This race is sometimes compared to 1980, when the country was sick of Jimmy Carter and the Democrats, but unsure about Reagan to the point where Carter held a lead through Labor Day; once Reagan held his own in the debates, the pubic was sufficiently reassured to give him an overwhelming victory.

Beyond who "won" and "lost," what I did notice==from my admittedly biased perspective--was a difference in how they approached the questions, which seems like a decent proxy for "how they think."

Obama takes an analytical, systemic approach. In the economic part of the debate, he essentially made the case that if voters concerned about the budget should consider how his policies around taxes and expenditures are going to move the numbers, and how they will affect voters directly. When the conversation turned toward Iraq, he tried to focus on how we got there and whether we should ever have started the war, and asked viewers to consider who had shown the right judgment on the original question, and who would have the right judgment next time.

McCain goes much more for the gut. He tried to make his big arguments by implications and through little examples: that Obama's history of requesting earmarks as a Senator shows that he has no credibility as a responsible budgeter, while McCain's endless inveighing against earmarks shows his own fiscal prudence. On Iraq, he went for the emotional hit of describing his experience watching a couple hundred military personnel re-enlist, asking the country to "let us win." He's a little blurry on what "letting them win" specifically would entail, though more compelling when he sets out the consequences of failure. It's obvious that he's more concerned with avoiding "defeat" than specifically defining "victory"; by implication, "victory" to McCain is the avoidance of "defeat."

I want a rational decision-maker as president above all else. Obama I think came across as more rational. Maybe that's only to me, because I agree with him on more of the specifics. But that was my impression of both candidates from a process standpoint.

My only other reaction of note was that even after all the ugly and silly stuff in this campaign, it felt good to see in McCain a national Republican leader who didn't inspire in me the total disbelief and disgust that Bush did, and still does. Wrong as I think he is on issue after issue, McCain doesn't make me think, "How the hell did this fucking simpleton even make it up there, and what does it say about the country that he did?"

Though I'm thinking Sarah Palin--whose stunning incoherence in her interview with Katie Couric should terrify anyone with a grasp of McCain's actuarial prospects--will fill that void during the vice-presidential debate next week.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Does McCain Really Believe Himself?
Here's the first part of the "60 Minutes" report last night with John McCain. Note, at about 12:30 into the segment, the gulf between the words he speaks and his body language on the question of whether Palin is ready to serve as president...

Even at this late date, enough of McCain's old reformer cred comes through in the interview--the nugget about moving the political office out of the West Wing was a nice touch, as was the idea of naming Andrew Cuomo (much as I dislike the guy personally) as SEC chief--that I still find him clearly preferable to sociopaths like Romney or, god forbid, Il Douche Giuliani. But this is a guy in his 70s, with a history of skin cancer, who endured something unimaginably taxing and horrific as a younger man. And Palin is more frightening than either Romney, who at least is smart, or Giuliani, whose paranoia and autocratic tendencies are much better documented. It makes me sad to think that McCain probably grasps all this on some level--and is willing to run the risk in order to boost his own chances to sit in the big chair.

This Newsweek piece on the meaning and risk of the Palin candidacy, by the atheist writer Sam Harris, strikes me as right on.

What is so unnerving about the candidacy of Sarah Palin is the degree to which she represents—and her supporters celebrate—the joyful marriage of confidence and ignorance. Watching her deny to Gibson that she had ever harbored the slightest doubt about her readiness to take command of the world's only superpower, one got the feeling that Palin would gladly assume any responsibility on earth:

"Governor Palin, are you ready at this moment to perform surgery on this child's brain?"

"Of course, Charlie. I have several boys of my own, and I'm an avid hunter."

"But governor, this is neurosurgery, and you have no training as a surgeon of any kind."

"That's just the point, Charlie. The American people want change in how we make medical decisions in this country. And when faced with a challenge, you cannot blink."

The prospects of a Palin administration are far more frightening, in fact, than those of a Palin Institute for Pediatric Neurosurgery. Ask yourself: how has "elitism" become a bad word in American politics? There is simply no other walk of life in which extraordinary talent and rigorous training are denigrated. We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases. And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence. When it comes to choosing the people whose thoughts and actions will decide the fates of millions, then we suddenly want someone just like us, someone fit to have a beer with, someone down-to-earth—in fact, almost anyone, provided that he or she doesn't seem too intelligent or well educated.

Perhaps it's time for "our side" to start fighting the culture wars in earnest--to make the case that, yes, education and skills and judgment and temperament all matter, and should be celebrated rather than disparaged. And that, whatever Palin's (or Obama's, or anybody's) faith, the country must run itself on the common ground of shared secular values.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

McCain Was Really Onto Something

Some thoughts on the emerging politics and policymaking of the economic crisis:

  • The urge to find a scapegoat seems overwhelming, as Glenn Greenwald illustrates. McCain feels your rage: on 60 Minutes he actually described himself as enraged. Everybody does. The question is whether McCain and others "acknowledging" the public's rage will suffice in place of actual punishment...

  • Some are already pointing out that the bailout, representing such a massive government intervention into the economy and characterized by so many of the things Republicans use to scare the public about a bigger government role in, say, health care, will move people toward saying, “If this is socialism, let us embrace it.” At the level of democratic politics, most people would find it more important to have health coverage than to take pride in the fact that our economy is structured slightly (and inconsistently, and thus hypocritically) more like a certain model of capitalism (crony) than it would be if we did national health care.

  • Perhaps the most pernicious and vexing kind of affliction is the kind you can’t fight without badly hurting yourself. That we simply can’t, in a relatively consequence-free way (i.e. without the collapse of the credit markets), let the bad Wall Street baddies reap the consequences of their own irresponsibility—as we’re told Americans should do, mind you, just makes us all the angrier. It also reminds us that we’re all at least indirectly culpable ourselves—in the same way that abusive or neglectful parents of a child who tortures small animals or sets fires might be culpable (and that the child might be shown some degree of mercy as a result).

  • The rational response to this would be to try and change the rules of the game such that this kind of deep corruption becomes more difficult. But the corruption continues to feed the same people who set the rules… thanks to our campaign finance system. John McCain was really onto something when he focused on that: I always thought it was an admirable indication of his faith in the American people to make smart decisions when donors' thumbs were removed from the policymaking scale. That he hasn't said a word about this in the last couple weeks--arguably his single biggest item of "reform" cred--shows just how far he has gone from his tun-of-the-century heterodoxy.
The Feelies Return
I got one of those pleasant shocks yesterday afternoon while reading through some concert listings: the Feelies, a legendary band from New Jersey whom I loved as a kid, are playing two shows this weekend in New York City. Late last night I bought one ticket to see them at the Bowery Ballroom this evening; the mere fact that I'll be leaving the house after taking in simultaneous Eagles and Phillies games, both starting at 4, is enormous tribute to how excited I am at seeing these guys.

I've written before here about how so many of the bands I idolized as a teenager have reunited in recent years. Great as it's been to get the chance to see Camper van Beethoven and Mission of Burma among others, at times it almost annoys me: I'm just not sure what the point is of having Echo and the Bunnymen playing at Radio City Music Hall, as they did this week, other than the obvious profit motive. The Feelies are a little bit different, though: they seem to be doing it the right way. For one thing, it's almost like they were summoned back into existence.

The Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore recalled seeing the Feelies at the Mudd Club in the late ’70s. “They came out and proceeded to just mow the place down with their guitar playing,” he said. “And these guys were buttoned-up-collars nerd boys from the ’burbs. They were totally straight from the backyard cookout. So it was cool to be not cool.”

When Sonic Youth was asked to choose an opening act for its Fourth of July show this Friday in Battery Park, the date made Mr. Moore think about the Feelies. “I had this fond memory of the Feelies always playing on American holidays,” Mr. Moore said. “I thought, ‘Why don’t we get the Feelies? Do they exist?’ ”

That was a complicated question. Mr. Mercer, who had been playing in other groups with Feelies members, said he and Mr. Million had been talking for years about reconvening the band. “It’s not like we got mad at each other and said, ‘We broke up,’ ” Mr. Million said in a telephone interview. “We just stopped playing, as we had done periodically since we got together.”

This is true: the original Feelies lineup played in and around New York (they're from north Jersey) in the late '70s, released one album, "Crazy Rhythms," in 1980, and then essentially broke up for five or six years while playing in other combinations and under other names. They came back together to release their greatest album, "The Good Earth" and appear (playing Monkees and David Bowie covers) in Jonathan Demme's movie "Something Wild"--my favorite film as a teenager--in 1986. Then they tried to ride the not-quite-cresting wave of alternative rock, releasing strong but unspectacular albums in 1988 and 1991 before hanging 'em up. The article I linked to above notes that guitarist Bill Million simply quit and moved to Florida without leaving any contact information.

Something about their songs continued to resonate, though. The same article notes that Volvo used the Feelies song "Let's Go," from The Good Earth, in a car commercial; later it turned up on the soundtrack to "The Squid and the Whale" (making it the only Feelies song available on iTunes). I also remember hearing "Slow Down" in another car ad. I'm sure that the profit motive did play a substantial part in the band's willingness to perform with Sonic Youth and its current limited slate of shows, in NYC and points north, over the next month or so. But that they're writing together again--as Burma has since reuniting, and as Dinosaur, the Pixies and other high-profile re-formed groups haven't--seems to add something more to it.

Probably it's going to feel a little weird as a 35 year-old man tonight, watching a quintet of 40= and 50-something musicians bashing through songs I first heard as a teen. But I can't wait.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Bracing for Impact
On Tuesday, in the space of about fifteen minutes, I received e-mails from two colleagues, both freelancers, asking if I had any leads for work possibilities. Unfortunately, I didn't. These colleagues, one a journalist and the other a statistician, are both highly skilled individuals who have long track records and a lot of well wishers in our field; that both of them are having as hard a time finding gigs as I am is pretty frightening.

And it's probably just going to get worse, based on two stories in Crain's New York Business today. The first is on the city's suddenly spiking unemployment rate:
The city’s unemployment rate increased nearly one percentage point last month, indicating that Wall Street’s woes are starting to take their toll on the local economy. At 5.8%, New York City’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate is still below the national average of 6.1%, but that gap is steadily closing.
New projections suggest Wall Street’s meltdown could cost New York up to 40,000 private-sector jobs and $3 billion in tax revenues over the next two years. The analysis includes the stock market drop, lost revenue from projected transactions and lost income tax revenue from Wall Street’s employees, which account for 5% of the city’s jobs, but 23% of its wages. Securities firms in the city have already cut 11,000 jobs since the employment peak in the summer of 2007, according to the state Department of Labor.

The job loss on Wall Street has an enormous ripple effect: it's estimated that each financial sector job lost accounts for between two and three jobs in other sectors, primarily personal services. If you drive a limo, run a flower shop, or provide catering, it's your crash too.

The other story is even more troubling in terms of what it likely will mean for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers in much, much worse shape than a few fretting freelancers--though it's bad news for us, too:
For New York’s nonprofits—which rely on the last three months of the year to raise about 50% of their annual budgets—Wall Street’s meltdown couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Though many charities are facing direct losses from companies like Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and Merrill Lynch & Co., fundraising experts said the biggest cuts are expected to come from individual donors who either work in the financial industry or are simply affected by the financial crisis.

“The real concern is that at a company like Lehman, which really nurtured employees to give back, having 25,000 employees not doing that anymore will be terrible,” said Doug Bauer, senior vice president at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. “The money that has emanated from Wall Street individuals is going to be restricted going forward.”

And so, too, will corporate donations. City Harvest, which delivers excess food from restaurants and other businesses to hunger relief agencies, received $100,000 from Lehman—one of its top five corporate donors—over the past two years. The six-figure checks from Lehman won’t be coming in anymore. And executives at the agency said such losses could multiply. City Harvest needs to raise $5.7 million during November and January, with $3 million expected to come in December alone.
Nonprofit executives said they expect the fallout to be significant enough to change the way the entire industry functions. Just as government, corporate and individual funding decreases, the need for social services is expected to increase exponentially.

“We have to think about new ways of doing business,” said Gordon J. Campbell, chief executive of United Way of New York City, who is planning a Town Hall meeting with corporate and nonprofit leaders to figure out ways for charities to survive and their clients to get the help they need. One likely outcome, according to Mr. Campbell and other experts, is that smaller nonprofits will be forced to merge or close down completely.
Lehman, which has recently made major grants to the Harlem Children’s Zone and DonorsChoose, gave $39 million in corporate and foundation grants in the 12 months ended November 2007, according to its Web site. Merrill Lynch provided more than $40 million in grants in 2006. Those gifts include a $5 million pledge to the Sesame Workshop and grants of more than $300,000 a year to the Asia Society.

While organizations such as CUF have been urging city leaders for years to take steps toward diversifying the local economy, and some efforts on this front have gone forward, the fact remains that when Wall Street thrives, the city thrives, as well as the reverse. The fallen financial behemoths are likely to drag down any number of nonprofits in their wake, putting hundreds if not thousands out of work and forcing many thousands more to scramble for services.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Where It Stands
I think the smallness of this year's presidential campaign has been thrown into sharp relief by the big, terrifying events of the last few weeks, from two hurricanes in the Gulf Coast to the crisis in the economy. John McCain took a lead in national polls and projections such as and by winning a string of "news cycles" that centered around Sarah Palin; the choice of Palin fired up Republican base voters previously cool to McCain, closing if not erasing the enthusiasm gap between the two campaigns, and rekindled the culture wars around the question of Palin's readiness and suitability for the presidency.

(For that matter, it occurred to me today that the much remarked-upon change of media hearts and minds regarding McCain, long a hero of the national press, probably helps bond the Christianist, Bush-approving base to the Republican nominee that much more strongly: those people might hate the press even more than they hate non-famous "elites.")

What some are suggesting is a nascent trend back toward Obama in the polls probably reflects a change in attention back toward the economy, where the Democrats have an advantage simply by virtue of being less affiliated with the deregulatory and wealth-concentrating excesses of this decade. That McCain has a tendency to fire repeatedly at his own feet when it comes to economic issues plays a part too. But Obama hasn't yet sealed the deal with the voters he'll need to win states like Ohio, Colorado and Virginia--the working-class and middle-class whites who voted for Bill Clinton in the '90s and, those who were Democrats, tended to favor his wife last winter and spring.

William Galston at the Democratic Strategist has some advice for how he can do this: focus like a laser on articulating, and then repeating and repeating and repeating, a clear message on the economy. Addressing the candidate directly, he writes:

When I say you have no message, here's what I mean:

First, you are not offering a coherent account of what has gone wrong with the economy - why it is no longer working for average families. People are anxious and bewildered; they want to know why jobs are disappearing, why incomes are stagnating, and why prices are soaring. If you don't offer an explanation, McCain's will carry the day by default: the problem is the corrupt, self-interested politicians in Washington; the solution is getting them - and government in general - out of the way.

Second: you are not offering a focused, parsimonious list of remedies for the economic ills you cite. As a result, few if any voters can actually cite a single signature economic proposal you have made. It's not that you don't have ideas. If anything, you have too many. At some point, more becomes less, and you are well beyond that point. You need to decide which three or four economic proposals are most important and repeat them relentlessly for the next seven weeks.

Your campaign already contains everything you need to do this. You could offer a focused economic message with four elements: rebuilding the United States, with an infrastructure bank, generating millions of good jobs that can't be outsourced; creating millions more jobs by leading the world in environmental innovation; significantly reducing the tax burden on average families; and offering health insurance to everyone at a price they can afford. If you say that about your economic plan - and nothing else - from now until November, there's a good chance your message will get through.

Third: you are not drawing crisp, punchy contrasts between your plans and McCain's. An example: the centerpiece of his health care plan is the taxation of employer-provided health care benefits. Pound away at that, and let him explain why throwing workers into the individual health insurance market unprotected is such a wonderful idea. And by the way, while your plan would increase coverage, his would do the opposite. Is that the change Americans want?

I agree that this is a great strategy for winning the election. It puts McCain on the defensive, on his weakest terrain--remembering that this is the guy who turns to Phil "Nation of Whiners" Gramm for economic advice, and has admitted that he's not a master of the subject.

Unfortunately, Obama is nowhere near as comfortable with economic issues as Bill Clinton (who probably could roll up 400 electoral votes if he were running this year) was. To which Galston, a former Clinton adviser, says: tough. "Three months ago, when you were riding high, the McCain campaign was flat on its back. But give McCain credit: when he was told that to win he had to change, he did. He focused, and he accepted a kind of discipline that he had previously resisted. Now it's your turn."

But while carrying off this strategy probably will win Obama the election--so long as the economy remains on the front burner, at least--it's not going to advance the basic philosophical concept I think will be key in addressing the issues of the next twenty years: reversing the Reagan-era truism that "government is not the solution; government is the problem." Even the focused, politically effective economic message Galston details implies a newly assertive role for the federal government-- the infrastructure bank, investing in "environmental innovation," healthcare provision, and so on--as does the tough talk Obama has offered on new regulations to ward against the sort of irresponsibility in financial markets that led to the bailouts announced this week. If he can get 51 percent of the public to buy into it--or reach the conclusion that McCain's more-of-same message represents something much worse--that's fine. But the entrenched opposition to that sort of larger public role won't be swept away by a squeaker victory, and as this excellent analysis by Rick Perlstein observes, such wins--and the sort of cautious approach Obama has advanced through most of the campaign--don't bode well for dramatic progressive advances. One could argue that he's already squandered the opportunity to really change the conversation.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace is Dead
I came back today from an overnight trip to Virginia to the awful news that the writer David Foster Wallace killed himself Friday night. He was 46 years old.

Wallace was an outstanding essayist and a supremely talented teller of stories who both "knew all the tricks" of postmodern fiction--and invented a few new ones, for that matter--and could create fully realized, emotionally alive characters to weave in and out of his byzantine, incredibly imaginative plots. His 1996 novel "Infinite Jest" featured some of the most brilliant writing I've ever enjoyed. Like Pynchon, DeLillo, Coover, Steve Erickson and David Mitchell, he both inspired me to want to write stories, and deeply intimidated me that I could ever approach that quality of work.

Any reader of Wallace's fiction knew that he had access to some of the darker places of the psyche. While I was reading Infinite Jest in 1996, I was in Chicago on a work assignment, going through a period of acute depression. I reached a section of the book that featured a character's attempted suicide and subsequent institutionalization, and felt amazed, and in some strange way grateful and even comforted, that he could so vividly capture that kind of despair.

Anyone who suffers depression knows that one of its most pernicious effects is the feeling of helpless, terminal aloneness. I felt a bit less alone after reading that part of Infinite Jest; eventually, and always provisionally, I found other ways of managing my depression. I came to the conclusion that aloneness, like most aspects of the human condition, is ambiguous: you're alone, in the most essential sense, but you're not uncared-for, and great comfort can derive from that. (This might be the single best thing about being married, actually.) Perhaps the saddest thing about Wallace taking his own life with so much of it left in front of him is that he couldn't find any comfort to sustain him against the darkness.

Two very worthwhile critical appreciations of David Foster Wallace can be found here and here.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

9/11 vs. National Renewal
Maybe it's my general bleak mood these days--informed by the Phillies, the election, and my evidently stalled career, not necessarily or consistently in that order--but I found this piece in today's Times incredibly moving:

And in the seventh year after the fall, the dust and debris of the towers cleared. And it became plain at last what had been wrought.
[A]round the whole earth, which had stood with America, there arose a great trouble, for it seemed to peoples abroad that a great nation, rich in flocks and herds and land and water, had been cast among thorns and Philistines; its promise betrayed, its light dimmed, its armies stretched, its budget broken, its principles compromised, its dollar diminished.

And it came to pass that this profligate nation, drinking oil with insatiable thirst, could not cure itself of this addiction, and so its wealth was transferred to other nations that did not always wish it well.

Wherefore the balance of power in the world was altered in grievous ways, and new centers of authority arose, and they were no more persuaded by democracy than was the Pharaoh.

For Bush ruled over the whole nation, and so sure was he of his righteousness that he did neglect the costs of wanton consumption. And he believed that if the Lord created fossil fuel, fossil fuel must flow without end, as surely as the grape will yield wine.
Behold, so it was in the seventh year, and it seemed that America was doubly smitten, from without and within.

And, lo, a strange thing did come to pass. For as surely as the seasons do alternate, so the ruler and party that have brought woe to a nation must give way to others who can lead their people to plenty. How can the weary, flogged ass bear honey and balm and almonds and myrrh?

Yet many Americans believed the exhausted beast could still provide bounty. They did hold that a people called the French was to blame. They did accuse a creation called the United Nations. They did curse the ungodly sophisticates of Gotham and Hollywood and sinful Chicago; and, lo, they proclaimed God was on their side, and carried a gun, and Darwin was bunk, and truth resided in Alaska.

As literary exercise or polemical, I think this is really superb. But what Cohen doesn't get to (probably can't, in this context) is the very fact that 9/11 itself distorted the country's outlook, indeed somewhat deranged it--and that this derangement arguably has continued to the point that it's now an enduring, maybe permanent, part of our national character.

The country seems incapable of thinking clearly about anything. The campaign this year has disappointed me more than any I can remember--not primarily because of the advantage the Democrats seem to have squandered (though I'm certainly upset about that), but because six months ago it really was possible to argue, as the Economist did, that Obama and McCain represented "America at its best," and this campaign has shown us at our banal, mindless worst.

It would be easy to blame this on McCain's embrace of Rovian tactics and personnel, and the utterly cynical selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. (Matt Damon, of all people, has this exactly right--he calls it a bad Disney movie, while I thought of it as a hackneyed reality show plot.) And indeed, it's beyond laughable to position a campaign run by lobbyists with a vice-presidential nominee who could fairly be called the Queen of Pork as some kind of good-government reform crusade.

But Obama isn't blameless either. One of the charges made against him by some of the more thoughtful voices on the right is that he's never taken a politically risky position against his own party or its key interest groups. This strikes me as a fair criticism; the bravest thing he did that I can think of--going to the National Education Association and pledging to support merit pay for educators--didn't cost him the group's endorsement, and it's not a major part of Obama's campaign platform. More broadly, his skills as an orator seem to obscure a disturbing lack of substantial difference from any of the last three Democratic standard-bearers.

Seven years after 9/11, we're right back to tribalism and reptile-brain politics--which doesn't bode well for the sober, informed consideration of the key issues necessary for the democratic process of self-renewal to work. I think it's now fair to ask if this is a permanent condition.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Details, Details
I was wondering this evening whether anybody was going to bother to point out a seeming contradiction from this week's Republican convention: John McCain's one real enthusiastic domestic policy point was his condemnation of pork-laden spending bills ("earmarks"), yet he just chose as his running mate the governor of the state where pork is considered something close to a birthright.

Well, someone did:

"I know the governor of Alaska has been saying she's change, and that's great," Obama said. "She's a skillful politician. But, you know, when you've been taking all these earmarks when it's convenient, and then suddenly you're the champion anti-earmark person, that's not change. Come on! I mean, words mean something, you can't just make stuff up."

McCain has vowed to wipe out earmarks, which are targeted funding for specific projects that lawmakers put into spending bills. As governor, Palin originally supported earmarks for a controversial $398 million Alaska project dubbed the "bridge to nowhere." But she dropped her support after the state's likely share of the cost rose. She hung onto $27 million to build the approach road to the bridge.

Under Palin's leadership, Alaska this year asked for almost $300 per person in requests for pet projects from one of McCain's top adversaries: indicted Sen. Ted Stevens. That's more than any other state received, per person, from Congress for the current budget year. Other states got just $34 worth of local projects per person this year, on average, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington-based watchdog group.The state government's earmark requests to Congress in her first year in office exceeded $550 million, more than $800 per resident.

Emphasis mine. I wonder if anyone will ask Palin whether she'd like to give that money back, or would promise not to ask for it in next year's budget... oh, right: she's not allowed to talk to the press (or is it vice-versa?). I guess the next best thing would be to ask McCain if he thinks Alaska--a state where the economy is booming, thanks to oil revenues--is taking unfair advantage of taxpayers in the other forty-nine states, and if he would pledge to cut their cherished earmarks should he win next year.

You can't make this stuff up. It's like they assume nobody's even going to use any logic. Or Google.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Real Two Americas
Last year when I was in my big Steve Erickson phase, I read most of the guy's novels (highly recommended, particularly The Sea Came in at Midnight and its sequel, Our Ecstatic Days) and a few political essays he wrote. The mere fact of these surprised me, as Erickson the novelist is pretty far from topical--but his perspective turned out to be pretty close to mine. He articulated something that I've been thinking since at least 2004: one way to characterize American politics over the last 20-odd years is that we're in the midst of a Cold Civil War, where the cleavage isn't geographical but cultural and ideological. (Rick Perlstein's Nixonland--another great read which I wrote about here a couple times this summer--takes this ball and runs further back into history with it.)

Writing in February 2004, Erickson put it this way:

Ideology for both right and left has become an irresistible way of viewing the truth through the prism of philosophical biases. By its nature, ideology not only is at ease with intellectual dishonesty but thrives on it. Liberals with an expansive view of the Bill of Rights suddenly become strict constructionists when it comes to the Second Amendment, citing the maintenance of militias over the amendment's clear principal concern with protecting the individual from disarmament by the state. Conservatives with an abiding mistrust of civil liberties suddenly become champions of the First Amendment when it has to do with campaign-finance reform and the power of the very rich to influence how others vote. In a confused and weary America where the political center doesn't have the energy to take control of the most troubling issues of the time, ideology is a power base not so much for ideas — because original thinking is anathema to ideology — but for the passion that electorally moves the great non-ideological unwashed. Thus a debate as ethically, even metaphysically disquieting as the one over abortion, which involves nothing less than the unknowable answer to when humanity begins, is dominated by polar positions that will defend every "life" from the moment of conception and every "choice" up to the moment of birth, and that finally will reject one notion of humanity for another, whether it be that of the mother in whose body the fetus grows, or that of the child whom medical science has proved can now exist after a five-month pregnancy.
"Everyone says liberals love America, too," writes [Ann] Coulter. "No, they don't," and probably nothing is more indicative of the ineffectuality and incomprehension of secularists in this civil war than that they would argue. Because of course Coulter is right; it's not her America that secularists love. Secularists love the America of Tom Paine, not Cotton Mather, but they keep trying to reconcile the two, since both are part of America's story and since in fact such a reconciliation always has been the dream of America and those who invented it. The secular center won't accept that there's a culture war going on. In the desire to reach accommodation, secularists acquiesce to the right on the very meaning of Americanism, not to mention definitions of character. "At least he's a decent man," someone recently protested to me about George Bush, by which she meant in comparison to the last guy, of course, even when as a matter of public policy such "decency" means the abandonment of AmeriCorps programs, which allowed college students to pay off loans by teaching underprivileged children to read, in contrast with the expansion of the earned-income tax credit by the morally vitiated Clinton, who raised millions of people out of poverty as a result. It's a decency that impeaches a president for lying about a sexual affair but not about a war.
I am a traitor: When will we say it? As the gauntlet is hurled before us in the name of traditionalism, how often will we pick it up and offer it back, so we can be mugged with it? We should say that we are traitors of one America, patriots of another...

What he's talking about, of course, are two worldviews within one country, essentially irreconcilable.

I had hoped that this election year wouldn't primarily be about the clash of those two worldviews. Arguably the core appeal of both Barack Obama and John McCain is that they've shown the capacity to transcend those views: Obama's 2004 convention keynote speech was the most powerful call for American unity that I can remember, and McCain's undeniable political courage at many points in his career--and, until this year, his resolute insistence upon regarding Democrats as human beings and full Americans--both offered grounds to support this hope. But a week into the national political career of Sarah Palin, and particularly after watching her speech last night, that hope pretty much is gone.

Palin's rise and her "choices" offer both a highly disturbing window into that mindset on the other side, and a confirmation that ideology remains supreme on the hard right. I wasn't particularly moved either way by the revelation that Palin's daughter was pregnant and that she's going to bear her child; the episode offers a reminder that teenagers do irresponsible things and that their families are primarily obligated to support and love them. It's a brave and honorable choice (putting aside, for now, both that the Palins have the resources to make this a less painful choice than many other families would face, and that the governor would prefer to deprive all Americans of that choice) and, for the nothing it means, I wish them the best with it.

What stunned my wife and me was that the daughter, age 17, is getting married to the young man who knocked her up, and that nobody seems even interested in what this decision tells us. Call me cynical or hopelessly secular or whatever--and I absolutely agree that it's their choice to do this--but how can these two incomplete people have any notion of what a lifetime commitment through marriage even means? How can they take that seriously? But it hasn't even come up, as far as I can see. Evidently the mere fact that they're having the baby and getting married is enough on the right to end the conversation; the well being of all three individuals is something of an afterthought.

Palin's speech last night, particularly its mockery of "community organizers" but also its multiple untruths and distortions, was another stunner. In theory, Republicans should honor community organizers: they're the shock troops of the "armies of compassion" George W. Bush has called upon to take on some responsibilities previously considered within the public purview, and many of them--like Barack Obama in the late '80s--were and are affiliated with religious institutions, which enjoy greater trust and credibility within their communities than most other institutions. So why the hate? Is it coded racism? A broader sneer at the poor and neglected?

Opinion on the speech seems to follow this same divide: Republicans found it energizing and inspirational, Democrats nasty and substance-free. This too seems to confirm that, after all the hope for a better politics stirred up by Obama and McCain earlier this year, we're in for more of the same in the last two months of this race. The country deserves better, or so I'd like to think.