Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ten Years in Review
I've been trying to sum it all up in a way that doesn't seem ponderous, cheesy or both, without success. All I can come up with is that this was a much, much better decade for me and for most of the people I care about than it was for the country or the world--this year in particular, as I traveled to Australia and Japan, had a much quicker and easier recovery from open heart surgery than I could have hoped for, saw my brother get married, and got a new job at the end of it (as did Annie).

Clearly, this beats the alternative, though it's a little disconcerting to feel out of step with the times. May the year and decade to come be as good for me and mine, and may the wider world catch up.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

We're Still Waiting for Us
Ross Douthat has mostly disappointed me as the New York Times' token right-winger in the paper's editorial stable. Particularly compared to his blogging at the Atlantic, Douthat often has come across as a ponderous scold, dutifully promulgating Republican talking points within somewhat-to-very disingenuous examinations of issues and slightly creepy forays into pop-culture philosophizing.

But his piece in Saturday's paper on "The Obama Way" reminds me why I had some regard for Douthat in the first place: when he can put the BS aside, the guy has a pretty sharp eye.

Obama baffles observers, I suspect, because he’s an ideologue and a pragmatist all at once. He’s a doctrinaire liberal who’s always willing to cut a deal and grab for half the loaf. He has the policy preferences of a progressive blogger, but the governing style of a seasoned Beltway wheeler-dealer.
In hindsight, the most prescient sentence penned during the presidential campaign belongs to Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker. “Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama,” he wrote in July 2008, “is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them.”

Both right and left have had trouble processing Obama’s institutionalism. Conservatives have exaggerated his liberal instincts into radicalism, ignoring the fact that a president who takes advice from Lawrence Summers and Robert Gates probably isn’t a closet Marxist-Leninist. The left has been frustrated, again and again, by the gulf between Obama’s professed principles and the compromises that he’s willing to accept, and some liberals have become convinced that he isn’t one of them at all.

They’re wrong. Absent political constraints, Obama would probably side with the liberal line on almost every issue. It’s just that he’s more acutely conscious of the limits of his powers and less willing to start fights that he might lose than many supporters would prefer. In this regard, he most resembles Ronald Reagan and Edward Kennedy. Both were highly ideological politicians who trained themselves to work within the system. Both preferred cutting deals to walking away from the negotiating table.

Actually, I don't think this is quite right. Douthat overstates Obama's core liberalism: if that were correct, he'd start engaging on issues with much farther left positions than has been the case. On health care, he might have used the specter of a single-payer plan at the jump to ensure that a public option survived into the final bill, for instance; instead, he expressed just enough support for a public option to keep it alive as a bargaining chip, but ultimately didn't expend any political capital to save it.

This take also misses a big piece of Obama's institutionalism: his deference to Congress. Perhaps this is more political expediency--letting the legislators take the lead is a good way to somewhat insulate the White House when things go sour--but I have to believe that the former Constitutional law professor and Senator has some fairly strong views about Article I. (This is lost, of course, on the right-wing hysterics who bleat about the incipient tyranny of Obama: at least when it comes to domestic policymaking, he might be the most institutionally deferential president we've had since Ford or even Eisenhower.)

But Douthat nails the essential pragmatism--which is why I thought the guy could be a successful president in the first place. I have the feeling that Obama's first year might look much better from the perspective of 20-30 years down the road than it did in real time--much as Reagan's has. (This is a point Andrew Sullivan keeps making as well. I think the analogy is somewhat overstated: Reagan had a large clutch of Southern Democrats who supported him on most big issues, giving everything he did a veneer of bipartisanship beyond Obama's wildest dreams, for one thing. But politically, barring some new disaster, it seems likely Obama will hit a dramatic economic upswing leading into his bid for re-election, and if he wins as convincingly as Reagan did in 1984, he might yet effect a similar political realignment.)

And yet the admittedly impressive list of legislative accomplishments it looks like Obama will be able to claim by the time he gives his State of the Union speech isn't exactly thrilling many on the left who worked so hard to get him into the White House and invested such hopes in his presidency. While they're blaming Obama--understandably, I believe, given large choices like the administration's deference to Congress and smaller ones such as not drawing lines on health care--that strikes me as less than half the story. A recent conversation on "Bill Moyers Journal" between the host, American Prospect editor Robert Kuttner and Rolling Stone contributor Matt Taibbi--all opinionated liberals who have been disappointed with the first year of this presidency--covered much of this ground, and Kuttner made a fantastic point:

The other thing that's missing, if you compare him with Roosevelt or LBJ or Lincoln, the other thing that's missing is a social movement. In all of these great periods of transformation, you had social movements doing a complicated dance with the president, where sometimes they were working with him, sometimes they were beating up on him. That certainly describes the civil rights movement and Lyndon Johnson. It describes the abolitionists and Lincoln. It describes the labor movement and Roosevelt. Where's the movement?

My strong suspicion is that Obama understands this--and if anything, maybe he's been too subtle about communicating it. We know that there's enough of a "movement" on the left to power a campaign such as his to the Democratic nomination, and he's enough of a centrist to win the presidency from that perch. But the work of the organized left obviously isn't complete: it seems they can't yet exert a political price for taking them for granted, and I don't believe they've made a compelling case to the country why more liberal solutions will be embraced.

Unfortunately, it's not likely that Obama ever again will have as favorable an alignment in Congress as he does right now. At best, he'll have about a 10-12 seat majority in the Senate (down from 20 now) and maybe 20-30 in the House for the balance of his presidency. That will mean either changing the rules of the Senate, as many are beginning to talk about, or finding some Republicans willing to take a role in governing again. The man and the movement will have a lot of work to do.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Welcome to the Big Leagues
No, this isn't another baseball post; it's addressed to the Democrats and liberal activists hoping that the health care bill dies in the Senate. To put it succinctly, they're frakkin' nuts.

This isn't to offer a blanket defense of the measure. Frankly, there's a lot wrong with it--at least in the sense that it could be much, much better. My personal gripe list? I'd have loved to keep the Medicare buy-in for Americans ages 55 to 64, I think the individual mandate to buy insurance could be designed better (I like this idea, which suggests letting people opt out of the mandate but blocks them from opting back in afterwards for five years), and I would have included some degree of malpractice reform--which isn't the panacea the bad-faith Republicans present it as, but would help at the margin and isn't in because the Dems are shills for the trial lawyers. I also would have liked some more forceful reforms to push the system toward rewarding outcomes rather than interventions of any type whether effective or not--though it's possible that the cost controls measures that are included eventually will yield that result.

Maybe there's more; I don't present myself as a health care policy expert. But the guys whom I do regard as experts, people like Ezra Klein (here and here, and really throughout his excellent blog over the last few weeks, which I'll be adding to the permanent links around here) and Jonathan Cohn (here and here), are foursquare behind this measure. So are Nate Silver (here and here, among other places), Paul Starr and Mark Schmitt, as astute among liberal-leaning big picture political thinkers as you'll find anywhere.

They support the measure--again, while being fully attuned to its faults--for a myriad of reasons that I think are worth reading and considering in detail (which is my polite way of saying that I'm not gonna do that here). But boiled down, the two "for" arguments are that this measure still does much more good than harm, and that the track record of major social welfare reforms is that they get better, not worse, over time. Social Security and Medicare weren't what they are today when they were first passed; subsequent Congresses responded to public concerns over the flaws of those measures and improved them. So too will health coverage, which all but becomes an entitlement, be improved over time. We're getting a foot in the door, a nose in the tent, or whatever body part into an opening you choose to contemplate.

Really, though, it's even more fundamental than that. The Democrats--the progressive movement in America, arguably even the totality of people in this country who retain some faith in government's ability to take on and positively address major structural problems--need to win this one, and the win here is passing something. Enacting a bill that one can plausibly call "health coverage reform" would represent the biggest success for progressives in more than a generation. I know the polls are bad; as of yesterday, even the miserable status quo polls preferably to the measure.

But the Democrats need to ignore that data--which, as I noted a few days back, the polls really just show that the public is in a foul mood. They're in a foul mood because the economy still sucks for anyone who wasn't loaded three years ago and/or isn't well educated, and they're fed up with Washington because, in their eyes, this debate is taking friggin' forever. That it's the Republicans, who simply want to deny the White House a win without any regard for the policy consequences, who are holding things up, doesn't register.

Emotions are running high in this debate. Nobody loves the measure. But when those passions fade, what we're going to have--if this passes--is a major step forward for disadvantaged Americans, and a framework for a much better health care system in years to come. I wish all those on the left who are fired up to kill this bill would instead take the smart tactical approach and turn their energies toward figuring out how they'll improve it once the foundation is laid. They need to accept the reality that this is what it means to govern: you fight as hard as you can, take what you can get, celebrate the wins and mourn the losses, and then immediately turn to making it better.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"A Dream Come True"
At the beginning of this decade in 2000, Phillies ace Curt Schilling basically talked his way out of town. Upset that the team wouldn't sign him to a lucrative contract extension a year and a half before his deal was up and convinced that ownership would never show the financial and organizational commitment to winning that he himself felt, the large right-hander parlayed his excellence on the baseball diamond and his uncanny talent for generating media attention into a trade to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Two years later, third baseman Scott Rolen followed pretty much the same path--with the important difference that the team did want to pay Rolen an astonishing amount of money. But he just hated one or more of the manager, Veterans Stadium, and the city of Philadelphia so much that he turned down their offer, and after general manager Ed Wade misplayed his hand in the Rolen situation even more egregiously than he had Schilling, the Indiana native finagled his way to "baseball heaven" in St. Louis through a trade. (Five and a half years later, when Rolen had soured on the Cardinals organization, he did it again and wound up moving on to Toronto--making the Phils look considerably better in retrospect.)

Schilling and Rolen were the signature players of the Phillies in the 1990s, remaining so into the new decade, and they both couldn't get out of town fast enough. Their attitude seemed of a piece with the team's uniquely miserable history and the decrepit stadium in which they played. Through the 2002 season that saw Rolen shipped out, the team had posted losing records in all but two of the previous sixteen years.

But it began to change that winter. Despite Rolen's judgment, the team wasn't far off: they'd posted one of those winning records in 2001 and finished just game below .500 in '02. A good young nucleus was in place on the field, with more talent--Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels, to name three--already in the organization. And they knew they'd be opening a new stadium in 2004. So in early December 2002, the Phillies went out and signed the biggest name on the free-agent market, slugging first baseman Jim Thome, to what was by far the biggest contract in team history: six years, $85 million, with a vesting seventh year that brought the total value to $98 million. And with that, the Phillies were back on the baseball map in a sustained way for the first time in about 20 years.

The thing about the Thome contract, though, was that they overpaid. The only other serious suitor was the Cleveland Indians, Thome's old team, who offered fewer years and much less total money--something like four years, $55 million. The Indians were on the downswing as a franchise, and had fired their manager and Thome's close friend, Charlie Manuel, the previous summer. But it was known that if the deals were remotely comparable, he would have stayed in Cleveland. Only when the Phils guaranteed the sixth year and added the seventh (2009) as an easily reached vesting option did he sign his name.

Which is what makes today's conclusion to the team's yearlong pursuit of former Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay so astounding to me. Unlike Schilling and Rolen, Halladay talked his way *to* Philadelphia. Halladay's contract included a full no-trade clause, and he made it clear to Toronto management that he'd only waive it for a few teams, including the Phillies. It took two Blue Jays general managers and considerable giving way on the part of Phils GM Ruben Amaro Jr, who ultimately dealt several prospects he'd previously characterized as guys he absolutely wouldn't trade--plus, by most accounts, the unfortunate decision to trade Cliff Lee, the onetime Indians ace whom the team had acquired instead of Halladay last July, to provide payroll relief and replenish the minor-league system depleted in the Halladay deal--but the match has been made.

And not only did the pitcher, among the five best in the game and a possible future Hall of Famer, target Philadelphia as his destination; he agreed to a contract extension with the team almost certainly worth millions of dollars less than he could have made on the open market. Halladay's deal is for three years, $60 million, with two vesting options at the same average annual value of $20 million per; had the Red Sox and Yankees and Mets and Dodgers been involved, it's almost unimaginable that he would have gotten less than four or five years guaranteed, at a total value over $100 million. Knowing that the team wouldn't trade for him without the bargain extension, THE GUY TOOK LESS MONEY TO BE A PHILLIE.

From the press conference this afternoon:

"This is where I wanted to be. That was the bottom line for us. It was an easy decision. Once the opportunity came up to be a part of this it was something I couldn't pass up. I think there are things not only in business but in life that are worth it. For me, this is one of those things. There are so many positives to this for me and my family. I just couldn't pass it up."

"This is a dream come true. The longer you play in your carer the more important (winning) becomes. I've been able to establish myself, achieve things. The more I play, the more I realize how important that is for me. To see a team do it in back-to-back years and have that success says a lot about the players in the clubhouse and people that are putting the team together. It's not an accident. I want to be a part of that. I've heard great things about the people and great things about the organization. That is big for me."

"The biggest thing is having a chance to win and hopefully do it a couple of times. For me, that was the biggest factor."

That he made these two decisions, to highlight the Phils as the team he wanted to join and to accept less money--still a vast fortune, to be sure, but less than he could have made--as a condition of staying for awhile, is a tribute to what the team started to build even back when Schilling and Rolen were grousing their way out of town. The kids in the system then, Jimmy Rollins and Utley and Howard and Hamels, are superstars now. Thome's old friend Charlie Manuel, who was hired by the Phils organization almost as an afterthought that same winter of 2002-2003, has been the team's manager for five years now and is generally regarded as the greatest in its history. They'd built such a deep and talented minor-league system, through three GM regimes, that they could trade for both Lee and Halladay from their top prospects of just a year ago. They won back to back NL pennants, the first of which led to their becoming world f---ing champions, and with Halladay in the fold will start 2010 as favorites to become the first NL team in almost seventy years to make it three straight.

While part of me wonders what Scott Rolen thinks of all this, I'm mostly just gobsmacked and delighted that it all turned around so wonderfully in less than a decade. The circle is now complete.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Munch on My Poll
It's getting to the point where I wish I could install some filter on my computer to block out all results of public polling. Between the fickleness, the contradictions and the deep vein of ignorance that underlies it all, this information is really as useless as it is impossible for officials to ignore. Here are just two of many topical examples:

Skepticism of global warming is sharply up:

As U.S. negotiators fly to the Danish capital to forge a political agreement based on President Obama's proposal to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by about 17 percent, most of the American public doesn't know what the talks are about, according to the Harris survey.

Just 51 percent of adults questioned said they believed carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases would cause the Earth's average temperature to increase. Two years ago, fully 71 percent of respondents linked greenhouse gases directly to global warming.

But so is support for Congress to pass cap and trade legislation to mitigate its effects:

An Ipsos Public Affairs survey finds that 52% of respondents support a cap and trade plan, similar to that working through Congress, with 41% opposing the measure.

The poll also finds that messaging is make or break for the initiative: Support drops to 43%, with 55% opposed, when cap and trade raises monthly electrical bills by $25, but support jumps to 60%, with 36% opposed, when that same spike in prices accompanies the creation of "a significant number of 'green' jobs."

On health care, a majority of respondents oppose reform...

--Voters disapprove 52 – 38 percent of the health care reform proposal under consideration in Congress, and they disapprove 56 – 38 percent of President Obama’s handling of health care, down from 53 – 41 percent in a November 19 survey.

--American voters say 63 – 30 percent that extending health insurance to all will raise their cost of health care, although they are split 47 – 46 percent on whether they are willing to pay more to make sure everyone is covered.

...but support the public option that's considered the most politically untenable aspect of the measure:

The new CNN poll like many others finds greater support (53% to 46%) for a "public option" than for the Senate Health Care Bill which just 36% support, and 61% oppose.

Not that they understand the public option: large majorities admit that they couldn't explain it to friends. The explanation behind this illuminates much of what's wrong with our entire system at the place where politics, policy and issues of substantive governance intersect:

This is one of those revelations that is newsworthy without being very new. Polling on the public option has long revealed that Americans loved the idea of a government-run insurance program -- until they hear any possible counter-argument. That's because polls aren't good barometers of popular support. They're good evidence that Americans feel perfectly comfortable taking hard stands on ideas they don't totally get.

Back in September the Washington Post released a poll that taught lawmakers this: (1) A majority (55 percent) support a government-sponsored health care plan. (2) A minority (46 percent) support health care reform overall. (3) A plurality (50 percent) support health care reform overall if you take out the public option. Killing the most popular part of health care reform makes health care reform more popular? I mean ... you figure that one out for yourself.

I guess I should add schizophrenia to the indictment of short attention span and ignorance laid out above. We despise the government, but want it to solve all our problems. We pay too much in taxes but will see services cut, even demonstrably wasteful ones, over our dead bodies. We're always for forceful response and bold action, until reality confounds us again by not immediately conforming to what we want it to be or, above all, moving as quickly as we wish it to.

It's easy and somewhat accurate to blame the media for this: people who should know better (but perhaps don't) cite these poll results and countless others--the public opposes the war in Afghanistan but approves of Obama's escalation speech--and present them as meaningful. The real kick in the teeth is that, in the sense that they bear some relationship to electoral outcomes and thus help set parameters for what government actually does, they do mean *something.* But parsing out informed opinion from received wisdom and context is almost impossible. At this moment, the public is in a foul mood about pretty much everything: right-wingers still hate the President and the Congressional majorities, those on the left feel mostly deep disappointment and betrayal, folks in the middle perceive little difference from two years ago in terms of lack of movement on key issues, and the millions suffering economically are just in despair and, I fear, increasingly receptive to demagogic messages. This helps explain why not only Obama is less popular than he was ten months ago, but a bunch of his possible Republican opponents in 2012 are as well.

It's no fun to admit this, but between official venality and mass public imbecility I find myself increasingly pessimistic that we'll ever have a functional political system again.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

No Good Options
I just read Obama's speech from last night on the escalation in Afghanistan; given the depressing nature of the material, I decided that it wasn't worth not going to the gym to watch it live.

I was adamantly against the escalation, seeing it as another sad perpetuation of our national policy of "when in doubt, choose more war" at a time when we particularly can't afford it and in a place where success is particularly unlikely. But I have to admit that the other choices on the table--withdrawal or perpetuating the status quo--are pretty much every bit as bad as escalating. Withdrawal means condemning that country to yet more open-ended misery, with the Taliban likely taking over again and women in particular facing nightmarish repression and torment. The status quo means that the Karzai-led kleptocracy muddles through for however much longer American and NATO troops are there to protect his crooked ass--and probably just defers the moment of decision.

So we'll try to force the issue. Andrew Sullivan seems to think that the notion here is to give the military basically what it wants, hope it works, and withdraw if it doesn't.

Obama was saying last night is that he is determined to return America to normal, to unplug this vast attempt at global control in Muslim countries that Bush and Cheney unleashed. He is trying to unwind the empire, not expand it.

How best to unwind the empire? By giving McChrystal what he wants and giving him a couple of years to deliver tangible results. If McChrystal delivers, fantastic. I will do a ritual self-flagellation and bow down to the man with no body-fat and a close relationship with 33 Kagans of various generations and genders. If McChrystal does his best and we still get nowhere, Obama will have demonstrated - not argued, demonstrated - that withdrawal is the least worst option.

The far right will accuse him of weakness - but they will do that anyway. All he need do is remind Americans of what the far right version of "strength" is: engaging an enemy on his own turf, sustaining an insurgency by our very presence, draining the Treasury of trillions, sacrificing more young men and women to shore up one of the most corrupt governments on earth, and basically returning to Bush-Cheney land. And that will be a very telling argument in 2012: do we want to go back to Cheneyism? To torture and endless occupation and a third war with a Muslim nation, Iran?

On reflection, Obama was saying something quite simple: one more try, guys. We owe it to those who have sacrificed already to try and finish the job. He has given the effort the full resources it needs at a time of real scarcity. He has given COIN doctrine one more chance to prove itself. He has put Petraeus and McChrystal and the 45 Kagans on notice: prove your case. And in this, I think Obama has found a middle balance that reflects where a lot of us are on this and that also offers a good faith chance for progress - with a good sense exit ramp after a reasonable length of time.

Maybe he's right, but my problem with it is that our politics don't really allow any president to be rational when it comes to "losing a war." In 2011, Obama will be starting his reelection campaign. If things are continuing to go to crap in Afghanistan, will he really begin a withdrawal? I just don't see it. Rahm Emanuel among others will make the case, echoing Lyndon Johnson, that the electorate will "forgive you for everything except being weak." Sullivan, and by extension Obama, posits a far more rational version of America than the one I perceive.

The one thing that could possibly upend this dynamic is the growing realization that we can't afford it. Democrats who are anti-war anyway, people like David Obey, are already getting on this train (and--not that my opinion particularly matters to anyone but me--it's a big part of my objection to the escalation); by 2011, as millions of Baby Boomers start to hit retirement age, some Republicans who for whatever reason can't call for huge cuts to entitlements might be there with them. The growing realization that our resources are finite and our finances aren't divinely assured of eternal solvency might be the factor that forces us into a rational assessment of costs and benefits.

But that's just a guess at what the tenor of public debate might be in eighteen months, as two political memes--the old chestnut that a president can't lose a war, and the upstart notion that a president can't blow the budget--directly collide. By then, this will be our longest war, ever.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Re-Learning to Love the Eagles
With an ugly but well-earned 27-24 win at home Sunday against Washington, the Eagles finish November with a 7-4 record that looks a lot better than the team generally has. The same problems of the last half-decade have surfaced again throughout the first eleven games of the 2009 season: shaky play-calling, awful clock management, trouble converting third-and-short situations and scoring in the red zone, over-reliance upon the blitz to pressure opposing quarterbacks. And they've added some new wrinkles this year: way too many penalties, struggles to protect the quarterback, and a more than occasional inability to stop opponents on third-and-long. Watching them play often feels like having dental work done.

And yet that 7-4 record is their best at this point in the season since 2004, when they started 10-1 and went to the Super Bowl. Last year at this juncture they were 5-5-1 and all but left for dead in the playoff race; they won four of their last five and two more in the playoffs before falling in the NFC Championship Game. In 2007, when they finished 8-8, Game 11 was a 31-28 loss to the Patriots team that ended the regular season 16-0--the first of three straight close losses to playoff teams in a season when seven of the Eagles' eight defeats were by eight points or less. In 2006, they were 5-6 thru eleven games, then came back to win their last five plus one in the playoffs behind unlikely hero quarterback Jeff Garcia. The year before that, they also reached this point at 5-6, but were fading fast in the midst of a 2-8 slide to end a miserable season.

So 7-4 isn't bad, especially when you consider they've done most or all of it without expected key contributors like Brian Westbrook, Shawn Andrews and Stewart Bradley--two former Pro Bowlers plus a guy who was expected to assume the leadership of the defense after the team let legendary safety Brian Dawkins leave as a free agent last winter--and with a slew of injuries to the offensive line, linebackers and secondary. Perhaps even more encouraging is that the emerging stars on offense--running back LeSean McCoy, wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, and tight end Brent Celek--are respectively 21, 23, 21, and 24. Donovan McNabb, the veteran quarterback who along with Westbrook is probably my all-time favorite Eagles player, has done an underrated great job guiding them toward NFL maturity.

Those kids, particularly McCoy and Maclin, keyed fourth-quarter comeback victories last week in Chicago and again in the game Sunday. The Eagles hadn't won a game in that manner, ripping it away from the other team at the end, since early last season; they'd done it once the year before, also against Washington, but that win had somewhat gotten lost in the cascade of taint-kick losses in 2007. Most of the team's wins since the start of that season had come when the game plan drawn up during the week had more or less worked all day long; but great football teams have to win both with elegant conception and gritted-teeth resilience after things go wrong.

Though no NFC teams look unbeatable to me (the Saints, who put their perfect record on the line Monday night against New England, are the closest), I don't give the Eagles a great chance of making the Super Bowl in February, much less winning it. Good quarterbacks kill them: without taking anything away from the Eagles for beating Chicago and Washington, better passers for either team would have won those games. They can't run the ball consistently, and coach Andy Reid remains all too prone to trip on his own mental shoelaces. (And there's evidently a good chance that Jackson and Celek, McNabb's two favorite targets, will miss at least next week's game with injuries sustained today.) My guess is that they'll finish 10-6 and might or might not win one playoff game before getting dispatched by the Saints or, ugh, Vikings. But considering both the youth of the roster and the toughness and growth they've shown, it feels like they might be back on the way up, building toward another legitimate shot at a title, rather than running in place as it's so often seemed since 2005.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Base Motivations
The online liberal community has its collective knickers in a twist over this poll for Daily Kos, which finds that while 81 percent of Republicans surveyed report themselves definitely planning or likely to vote in 2010 against 14 percent who are unlikely to vote or certain they will not, just 56 percent of Democrats intend to vote against 40 percent who say they probably or certainly won't. Midterm elections are won and lost on enthusiasm, and it's all on one side; that suggests near-certain doom for freshman and sophomore Democrats in moderate to conservative districts, like these folks.

This is the problem with a moderate and "pragmatic" (consider the scare quotes optional) governing course: nobody reads it that way. Supporters perceive a want of spine, and/or suspect that the promises made or implied during the last campaign were cynical plays for power; opponents meanwhile smell blood in the water. For Barack Obama in particular, the problem with raising voters' hopes to the extent that he did in the 2008 election is that doing so created much more room for disappointment. This is particularly so if you believe that Obama failed to convince his supporters that getting elected was just the first step to creating the change he called for--and the easiest.

But whether or not expectations were unrealistic--and putting aside considerations like the fact that the economic crisis was far more acute in January than most anyone thought it would be six months earlier--isn't important from the standpoint of next year's elections. The question is how close he and the Democrats in Congress have come to meeting them, and the answer, unfortunately, is "not very."

If you’d surveyed Obama voters in November 2008 about the three things they most wanted to see him do, I suspect the most common responses would have been “end the wars,” “turn around the economy,” and “fix health care.” Right now, he’s 0 for 3, and the one that's closest and most likely in the short term, health care, falls far short of what most informed liberals hoped it would be. (Moderates and conservatives who voted for Obama, meanwhile, seem to think it's unvarnished Bolshevism anyway.) Next week he's going to announce a big escalation of the war in Afghanistan, and while aggregate economic growth has returned, unemployment continues to rise and the only sector that's clearly recovered is finance.

He's also fallen way short on a range of issues that are lower-profile but perhaps closer to the hearts of what we might call "liberal values voters": full equality for gay Americans, ending or even curtailing the Bush-era terror policies (the failing that prompted me to take myself off email lists and stop donating money), and re-regulating the same financial industry that seems more deeply entrenched and as unapologetic as ever for its past, present and future excesses. Add in near-total silence on the Employee Free Choice Act--a good call, I think, considering the state of the economy, but still something likely to de-motivate labor supporters--and a relative low profile until very recently on climate change, and that's two pretty well organized and deep-pocketed Democratic constituencies that might well sit on their hands, at least relative to what they did last year.

Yet his political enemies still see the same horror to which they reacted so viscerally during the campaign. It reminds me of a great line The Navigator offered probably ten or twelve years ago now: "Why is it that my most cherished liberal fantasies only come true in the minds of paranoid right-wingers?"

So Obama hasn't fed his base, and right now it seems unlikely that they'll be there for his Democrats next November. Was this entirely foolish? I'm not sure. Ultimately a "base mobilization" strategy helps with politics but not with governance: the few Republicans who are reachable on this or that issue would be much less so if the president was serving up partisan red meat on a regular basis. He also likely recalls that this was what Bush did for his first six years; at the end of that time, he'd more or less resurrected the Democrats--and, since the base is by nature insatiable and upset about what they didn't get (war with Iran, greater oppression of gays, overturn of Roe v. Wade, privatization of Social Security) rather than grateful for what was gained (two other wars, a heavily right-wing federal judiciary, enormous tax cuts), it didn’t even save Republican congressional majorities politically.

It’s also arguable—and it’s being argued--that Obama’s first year has been, or will turn out to be, remarkably successful; it's just that his successes aren’t things that translate to political mobilization. I find the contention that the stimulus has worked--in that if we hadn’t done it, things would be far worse--convincing, but that’s not a great way to excite voters. Same with the alleged repositioning of American foreign policy and our supposed gains in global esteem: it’s probably real, but it isn’t tangible and thus not meaningful for the overwhelming majority of Americans who vote.

Maybe these things will translate later on, as the foundation lain this year for future growth, less war and fundamental reform is built upon. Another point that a friend of mine made the other night is that Obama's first year has set him up to take congressional losses in 2010, but win big for reelection in 2012. Given both the likelihood of full economic recovery by then and the ongoing unattractiveness of the Republican Party to the leftmost 80 percent of the electorate, I think it pretty likely Obama will win reelection in three years. But that kind of brings us full circle: the real value of "winning" is pretty much dependent on what is done with the victory. And in our system, you need governing majorities to fulfill that promise. The Democrats have one right now, and the perception--fair or not, accurate or not--is that they haven't done much with it. Thus they're likely to lose part or all of it in 2010. You can't make the care and feeding of your base the sole or primary focus, as Bush did, but starving it isn't smart either.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sand in the Gears

E.J. Dionne makes an important point about the Senate and the politics of delay.

[I]t's ... time to start paying attention to how Republicans, with Machiavellian brilliance, have hit upon what might be called the Beltway-at-Rush-Hour Strategy, aimed at snarling legislative traffic to a standstill so Democrats have no hope of reaching the next exit.

We know what happens when drivers just sit there when they're supposed to be moving. They get grumpy, irascible and start turning on each other, which is exactly what Democrats are doing now.
Republicans are using the filibuster to stall action even on bills that most of them support. Remember: The rule is to keep Democrats from ever reaching the exit.

As of last Monday, the Senate majority had filed 58 cloture motions requiring 32 recorded votes. One of the more outrageous cases involved an extension in unemployment benefits, a no-brainer in light of the dismal economy. The bill ultimately cleared the Senate earlier this month by 98-0--yes, that is a zero.

The vote came only after the Republicans launched three filibusters against the bill and also tried to lard it with unrelated amendments, delaying passage by nearly a month. And you wonder why it's so hard to pass health care?

The change in usage of the filibuster is the tactical innovation, if that's the word. But the larger point might be that fundamentally we now have a system increasingly out of sync with the times: the Senate famously is supposed to take a long time to pass big legislation, and it’s not supposed to be easy. But as the standard for even routine stuff, like judicial nominations, gets ever-closer to that for major legislation, the effect is that nothing happens until opponents take their pound of flesh. Meanwhile, the mean attention span of Americans gets shorter and shorter: if it doesn’t happen quickly, goes the assumption, it probably doesn’t deserve to happen at all. Supporters lose enthusiasm, in frustration with both the slow pace and the myriad compromises necessary for any forward progress, while opponents come to smell blood. And everybody disengages somewhat, leaving the field to those with the most direct interests.

Dionne’s fear seems to be that the Republicans will gain politically from a strategy that essentially degrades the capacity of government. Again, it’s more understandable on something big like healthcare, where objections can be presumed to be at least somewhat in earnest, than extending UI benefits or filling judicial vacancies. But it constrains the possible: if health care bills had passed both Houses by the August break, as Obama originally called for, Congress likely now would be focused on the problem of jobs, which is the main thrust of Republican attacks right now. But dropping health care in the middle, or even further slowing down the pace, would constitute a serious political loss for the president, and for the Democrats. So dragging that out strengthens the criticism that the majority is neglecting the problem of jobs, while hiding the Republicans' role in clogging the legislative highway.

This tactic of all-purpose delay is a better fit for the Republicans, whose current political identity is largely based on hind-brain fear and loathing of government, than it would be for the Democrats if and when power shifts back. Still, pressure from their activist base probably would impel the Democrats to ape the tactic and dig in on small stuff as well as large. The result would be that less and less public business will get done. One eventual outcome from this could be ever-larger swings of power: imagine as the next president somebody further on the right than Obama is to the left, followed by someone still further back to the left, and so forth.

As the problems get bigger and consensus in dealing with them becomes more and more vital, the risk is that "the middle"--by which I don't really mean mushy centrists or preening egomaniacs of the type now at center stage in the healthcare debate, but anybody willing to bargain in good faith on issues of the public business--could collapse entirely. That eventuality, coupled with a governance structure that intentionally thwarts small majorities, would mark a point of no return: Any system that proves structurally unable to grapple with a society's fundamental problems is living on borrowed time.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Year, and Change
I'm a couple weeks late to get in on all the navel-gazing around the fact that the country elected Barack Obama president last November. But the last post I made, about deficit reduction, probably gave away that it's been on my mind: [T]hough it pains me to admit it as someone who was such a big fan of the guy only a year ago, I haven't seen many signs that Obama himself has the political courage to really take on these tough fights in his own party. Is he going to push for changes in entitlements to save them, even though seniors will vigorously resist? Can he withstand the political heat that any Democrat draws when s/he utters the mildest peep of protest against our absurdly bloated military spending and global posture of empire?

I was emailing with a friend this weekend and trying to articulate what it was about Obama's first ten months in office that has disappointed me so. The seeming timidity I alluded to in that post has something to do with it, as does some of the substance: that he's essentially kissed Wall Street's ass, proven much more reactionary on gay rights issues than could be expected from his campaign, and perpetuated most (not all) of the Bush-era policies around the SuperDuper Executive and the Permanent War State. There's a moral center that I and many others perceived in the man during the campaign which feels like it's gone missing through his first year.

A style that verges on the overly deliberative can rankle, too--not so much on Afghanistan, where I want him to take the time and get it right (and where I was pleased that he essentially rejected the first set of options with which he was presented, telling his advisors to go back and figure out something better--that's the mark of a guy with a highly sophisticated BS detector), but on things like the recently-announced "jobs summit." Maybe it's because I actually know something about this issue, but my first reaction was that we don't need more talk--we need policy initiatives that put federal resources behind wage subsidy programs, transitional jobs, and shared work models as well as immediate help for community colleges, some of which around these parts are now literally turning students away. (During a contracting labor market, you want more people going to school: it takes them out of the jobseeker pool for now and positions them to ride the wave when employment rebounds later.)

But then I remember that coming up with the policy is only half the answer; the other half is getting political buy-in for it. Governing is, as Obama's predecessor memorably put it, "hard work": it's easier, and in some ways more fun, to be outside the gates brandishing your torches and pitchforks, which is why all the energy in American politics seems to be with the Tea Party/Palinoid Right at the moment. Obama's Jobs Summit, pointless stunt though it might initially seem, is probably a necessary prerequisite to getting buy-in from Congress, labor, big business and perhaps even Republicans, who would find it awkward to blast the administration and Congressional Democrats next year for not focusing on job creation right after opposing whatever job creation proposals emerge from the summit.

What drew me to support Obama in the first place--aside from his merits as a man of letters, the subject of a very interesting GQ feature I read this evening--was that he seemed to have an idealistic sense of where he believed the country should go, coupled with a core pragmatic streak that would ensure we didn't get there so quickly that people would freak out--the same match of visionary ends and incrementalist means that was the key to the presidential mastery of Lincoln and FDR. Big change not supported by a durable, popular majority isn't likely to be very successful or long-lasting. It could be argued that on health care, on national security and foreign policy, on fiscal responsibility, on the proper role of government in the economy, he's engaged in a long game toward building those big, durable changes. And there's some reason to believe he's made progress in that direction.

Yet it's frustrating to see him give ground on core issues: silent on gay marriage even when it's the status quo, as in Maine before the referendum a couple weeks back, and on Don't Ask, Don't Tell when he could end it with the stroke of a pen. I understand the political calculations in favor of taking it slow--more for the internal/institutional audience than the electorate, which I don't think much cares anymore--and as I think about it I realize that I actually do have faith that he'll ultimately end it. But if "the time is always right to do what is right," then isn't delay a moral defeat?

It's also important to remember--and I haven't always managed to do so--that the presidency is a job one grows into. I think I wrote on here earlier this year that it's like being in an auto race in which you have the best car, but don't really know how to drive at the start. Probably it takes a year or two to understand the power and limitations of the office; it certainly did for Clinton and Reagan. In the meantime, the number of ways in which you can screw up is almost unlimited. In Obama's case, I think he waited too long to make a real effort to impose some structure and responsibility on Wall Street--and for that matter, he brought too many "captured" guys inside his administration. I don't doubt the brilliance of Larry Summers or Tim Geithner, but both had their fingerprints all over the crash. Maybe Obama had to hire them for the same reason Joe Biden says they had to go through with the bailout: to do otherwise would have been to court disaster. But I think they rolled him.

Ultimately, a lot has gotten done in Obama's not-quite-completed first year in office. (If you don't think he's desperate to get that health care bill signed before Jan. 20--and the CBO score of the Senate bill released tonight will help--you're nuts.) The stimulus did help in the short term, and set down markers for long-term investment that many of us who work in public policy found very heartening. The bailout, while politically toxic, seems likely to work out well for the taxpayers. Our international reputation has improved considerably. And all this has happened in the face of a political opposition little short of insane.

But the story really is yet to be told. When Biden was on the Daily Show last night, Jon Stewart said, "I don't know if you guys are Jedi masters that are making ten chess moves ahead or if this whole thing is kicking your ass." I'm not sure they know themselves.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Prove It
The White House announced yesterday that its focus for 2010 would turn to deficit reduction. Even beyond the political atmospherics--the hardening conventional wisdom that the Democrats are at grave risk of getting pounded next year because of the public perception that they've revived mindless liberal big-spenderism--there are good substantive reasons for this: it would be nice to approach China from a position other than cravenness informed by the ardent wish not to offend one's banker, and the long-term budgetary situation is legitimately scary. At the same time, as Andrew Sullivan points out, the imbecility of Politico's coverage (see the first link) itself contributes to the lameness of the debate around spending.

But Sullivan seems much more sanguine than I about the prospects of Obama actually establishing some fiscal discipline bona fides--and, much as I hate to credit the Politico given its painfully dumb framing, they've got some valid points on the substance:

[T]here is no evidence Democrats are willing to aggressively cut the biggest parts of the budget, such as entitlement programs and defense. Former President Bill Clinton told Senate Democrats at their policy lunch this week that one of the biggest reasons to finish health care is to allow Obama to focus on economic concerns next year – in part with more spending. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said afterward that Clinton had advised getting health care out of the way to “clear the tables and allow the focus to be on jobs and education and infrastructure.” None of that is free.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday the White House is considering applying some money from the $700 billion financial bailout bill to deficit reduction, and that Cabinet agencies have been asked to submit two budget plans for next year, one that freezes spending at existing levels and one that trims spending by 5 percent. Congress has long history of taking those requests and piling on money for programs it favors. The only way Obama can prevent Congress from imposing its will – a tactic he has been reluctant to do during his presidency – would be to threaten vetoes. And if Obama’s political goal is to minimize tough votes, gutting domestic spending bills could mean fewer projects lawmakers can brag about back home. History shows that that’s often an impossible sale on the Hill.

I remember that once for a college class--this was 1993 or 1994--we were asked to look at the federal budget and make cuts to bring it into balance. Reading the items of expenditure on a computer screen, I was shocked at how easy this actually was... in the abstract, without real-world political considerations. We're all aware that the defense budget includes billions of dollars on items that the military actively doesn't want, that billions more are poured into agricultural subsidies proven to have little to no value, that pork (some of which is defensible on its merits, and much of which is not) persists whichever party is in power, and so on. Medicare, some argue, spends billions more than is necessary (though who argues this seems to depend on the current power dynamic; when it's helpful in thwarting Obama, Republicans become passionately pro-waste in Medicare). All this spending is deeply institutionalized and very well defended politically--and as Politico notes, attacking any of it means incurring difficult and painful political conflict.

Everybody agrees that getting the budget under control is a long-term necessity. But nobody wants to see their pet expenditure sacrificed on the altar of fiscal responsibility, and in the context of one vote or one campaign the tangible thing lost--spending on a pointless weapons system that nonetheless employs hundreds of voters in a key congressional district, or on a subsidy to agribusiness interests that are major campaign contributors to midwestern Democrats--always will outweigh the theoretical gain.

To solve a problem this important and deeply rooted requires a systemic approach that transcends political norms--which in this case impel officials and candidates to pursue victory by blaming the other party rather than proposing inevitably painful solutions. Ideally, Obama will propose in his State of the Union speech (when this will be presented to the country) some kind of bipartisan, bicameral commission to make sweeping recommendations for cuts in the military budget, entitlements--the biggest long-term driver of our budget nightmare--and discretionary spending, which is the "easiest" area to cut (to the dismay of liberal-leaning domestic policy wonks like, um, me) but also the least impactful. The idea, which I guess is the reason Sullivan has some optimism, is that either the Republicans agree and participate in good faith, or they refuse and are rightly blamed for mindless obstructionism.

But I don't think it works that way. Our political culture is set up to emphasize conflict; the result is a style of coverage that effectively rewards mindless obstructionism. Add in that voters frustrated with what they perceive as excessive spending are likely operating in a closed or semi-closed information system anyway, to the point where their biased information sources (whether explicitly like Fox News, or implicitly like Politico) will reinforce their sense that since the Democrats have the power, they should do this unilaterally. That Republicans would rip them, and be effective in doing so, for "short-changing America's defense," "hurting seniors," or "crippling our global competitiveness" won't register.

Also, though it pains me to admit it as someone who was such a big fan of the guy only a year ago, I haven't seen many signs that Obama himself has the political courage to really take on these tough fights in his own party. Is he going to push for changes in entitlements to save them, even though seniors will vigorously resist? Can he withstand the political heat that any Democrat draws when s/he utters the mildest peep of protest against our absurdly bloated military spending and global posture of empire? Right after either barely winning or painfully losing a debilitating year-long fight to pass health care reform--and, if he does win, having to live with a piece of legislation that conservatives loathe and liberals are deeply disappointed with--I don't see him pushing as hard here as is needed. And why not? Deficits and debt represent a problem that always can be kicked down the road. Until it can't.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Jobs and Votes
So we now have a resumption of positive economic growth coupled with, by many measures, the worst labor market in a generation, in which more than one in six American workers are unemployed or underemployed. The share of those not working who have been unemployed for six months or more is also at an all-time high of 35.6 percent.

What to make of this? I don't claim to have more than a decent layman's understanding of the economy, but it seems to me that there are two ways to look at it, with very different political implications. One, employers are narrowcasting the pain onto those would-be workers who add the least value to the bottom line, and who are also (we know from data) by and large less educated and less civically engaged--in terms of things like voting--than their still-employed counterparts, with the effect that for those outside that circle of pain, things are actually okay now and, with growth having resumed, likely to get better. As David Leonhardt writes, in the second link above:

One of the more striking aspects of the Great Recession is that most of its impact has fallen on a relatively narrow group of workers. This is evident primarily in two ways.

First, the number of people who have experienced any unemployment is surprisingly low, given the severity of the recession. The pace of layoffs has increased, but the peak layoff rate this year was the same as it was during the 2001 recession, which was a fairly mild downturn. The main reason that the unemployment rate has soared is the hiring rate has plummeted.

So fewer workers than might be expected have lost their jobs. But those without work are paying a steep price, because finding a new job is extremely difficult.

Second, wages have continued to rise for most people who still have jobs. The average hourly wage for rank-and-file workers, who make up about four-fifths of the work force, actually accelerated in October, according to the new report.

If this is true, it's possible that the emerging meme in political pundit circles, echoed by voices as disparate as cranky liberal economist Paul Krugman and oft-obnoxious libertarian cheerleader Megan McArdle--that the Democrats are D-E-D dead in next year's midterms unless they find a way to create jobs--is almost exactly wrong. So long as those now employed stay employed, and in fact are seeing their wages increase while inflation stays low, "their" economy is in good shape.

(Of course, this implies that they'll recognize the situation for what it is and vote accordingly. I read recently that New Jersey was one of the few states to add jobs over the last year; while the economy wasn't the only issue, its relative good health evidently didn't do much to help Jon Corzine in his failed bid for re-election. It's also difficult for the Democrats, given who they are and who they claim to represent, to defend their majorities on a message of "screw the folks who aren't working; y'all are doing great!")

But the second interpretation is that the recovery is fragile and conditional to an extent that the undertow could yet drown it. My big concern is that states and localities, which have seen tax revenues plunge by record margins this year, will have to pass budgets that inflict a ton of new pain--wiping out jobs, degrading service quality, and generally doing damage beyond what's anticipated or projected. This is where the limitations of my own understanding cloud the analysis: I'm not sure exactly how bad trauma in the public sector has to be before it swamps the private sector.

Then again, this is also where it feeds back into politics. The Democrats are defending a lot of governorships next year, and if those governors have to preside over budgetary bloodbaths, their re-election efforts are going to suffer badly. That plus the more important consequences--the jobs lost among teachers, healthcare workers and other high-value individuals whose salaries are paid through public monies--should be enough to prompt a second federal intervention. It won't be called a "stimulus," as national politics have somehow made that a bad word, but that's what it'll be.

Unfortunately, the cowardly Democrats in Washington probably won't have the stones to push something like that through on their own. So they might have to buy Republican support by including a tax cut--either something targeted toward businesses for hiring (the problem with which is that a lot of firms that would have hired anyway will take the credit, reducing federal revenues), or a payroll tax holiday--which is better, but problematic in that when the holiday ends, consumer spending might go back down. And even with those measures, the Republicans are so crazily nihilistic right now, and becoming more so seemingly by the day, that they either might not get behind it no matter what, or demand such absurd concessions--nine dollars in a wasteful tax cut for every dollar of assistance to states and localities--that there isn't much point.

I'm not sure I get why any sane person would choose to go into public life these days.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Seven Before Six
As you might have heard, the Philadelphia Phillies are in the World Series again, facing the New York Yankees. As a deeply invested Phillies fan who lives in New York City, I've been following this battle with interest. By "interest," I mean that over the last week-plus I've found it difficult to impossible to think about anything else for more than a few minutes.

The Phillies won the first game in the Bronx, lost the next three in various agonizing ways, and then barely hung on to win the fifth game and send the Series back up the Jersey Turnpike/Amtrak Northeast Corridor route. Game Six is tonight at Yankee Stadium II/III. My (usually faulty) psychic sense tells me that the Yankees are going to win 5-4 in walkoff fashion, either in the 9th or 10th inning; obviously I'm hoping the result goes the other way and we get to the baseball Valhalla of a World Series Game Seven. But before it wraps up, as it will sometime in the next 72 hours (GameSevenifnecessary is scheduled for Thursday, but rain is in the forecast; more on that below), I figured I should get some thoughts down here:
  • Tonight's pitching matchup, in which future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez goes for the Phillies against all-time postseason wins leader Andy Pettitte for the Yankees, almost certainly will be the last time two pitchers older than I am oppose each other in a World Series game. It's kind of amazing that this can still happen at all: the last time pitchers older than me faced off in the Series was Game One of the 2005 Series between the Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox, when (ex-Yankees) Roger Clemens and Jose Contreras went at it.

  • Phils second baseman Chase Utley has tied Reggie Jackson's World Series record with five home runs in the five games thus far. As several pundits have noted, there's a real chance that Utley could be the Most Valuable Player of the Series even if the Yankees win: no one player has stood out for New York other than perhaps Johnny Damon, who's batting .381 and has scored five runs, and closer Mariano Rivera, who has finished off all three Yankee wins to this point. (Hideki Matsui is batting .556 with two homers, but he was reduced to pinch-hitting for the three games in Philadelphia; he has just nine at-bats.) Meanwhile, Utley hit two homers in each of the Phils' wins, has scored six times, and leads all batters with eight RBIs. If Pettitte pitches a great game tonight and gets the win, he'll be MVP with two victories in the Series--but if, say, the Yankees win a high-scoring game in which someone like Mark Teixiera (2 for 19 thus far) or Robinson Cano (3 for 18) is the big hitting hero for the home team, while Utley goes 4 for 5 with another homer and a bunch of RBI, he'll probably by the MVP. This would be, frankly, awful: for Chase Utley, the one downside of greatness is having to talk about and generally be recognized for his greatness. Imagine Fox's Ken Rosenthal saying, "Congratulations Chase, but your team lost--how do you feel?" You'll get either nothing or a response they'd better have on at least a five-second delay.

  • Neither manager has covered himself in glory this Series. I love Charlie Manuel, an evolved soul who's easily the greatest manager in Phillies history--but his in-game decisions hurt the team in each of the last four games. He left Martinez in too long in Game Two, made an inexplicable decision to pinch-hit the horrendous Eric Bruntlett in a big spot in Game Three and then left reliever Chad Durbin in too long when he obviously had no command, did the same with Brad Lidge in the nightmarish Game Four, and then futzed around with the outfield defensive alignment late in Game Five to near-disastrous effect. Maybe worse, he has a dead spot on his roster in the person of rookie lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo, who hasn't yet pitched in the Series and almost certainly won't unless the Phils are getting blown out; meanwhile, with Shane Victorino hurt after getting hit on the hand early in Game Five, there's a chance he'll have to use Bruntlett, among the worst hitters in baseball, as his DH or left fielder in a win-or-die game tonight. Meanwhlle, Yankee manager Joe Girardi failed to leverage the advantage he earned by his team winning three of the first four games, starting talented but erratic righty A.J. Burnett on short rest for Game Five and watching him get pummeled and now having to sweat out the 37 year-old Pettitte doing the same tonight. If he falls short, Game Seven would go to ace CC Sabathia, on double-short rest (he pitched to a no-decision in Game Four on three days' rest)--a situation in which the Phillies knocked him around in the 2008 National League Division Series when Sabathia pitched for the Milwaukee Brewers. Girardi's bullpen management has been questionable as well: heading toward the end of the Series, he really only can trust Rivera and perhaps veteran lefty Damaso Marte.

  • Characteristically--and this goes to both his great virtue as a manager and his possibly fatal (at least in terms of this week) flaw--Manuel has trusted his two biggest pitching stars from the 2008 title run, Cole Hamels and Brad Lidge, in big spots in this Series, and they've let him down. If the Yankees go on to win, the big turning point in the Series will have been the role reversals of Hamels and Pettite in Game Three (which I attended with my blog compadres from The Good Phight). Hamels took a 3-0 lead into the fourth inning, got a tough call on a full-count pitch to Teixiera that went for a walk, and then fell to pieces, allowing a controversial home run to Rodriguez that made it 3-2 and surrendering three more runs before getting pulled the next inning. It was Hamels' whole season writ small: bad luck or bad karma followed by bad pitching and a downward spiral he couldn't escape. (I'll gloss over his unfortunate postgame comments and the apparently overstated "fight" he got into with teammate Brett Myers after Game Five. Hamels was the single biggest reason we won it all last year; for that, from me, he has a lifetime pass.) Pettitte, by contrast, escaped near-disaster early on: he'd thrown 51 pitches and allowed three runs through two innings, but held the Phillies to one run over the next four on a night when, as he reportedly later told teammates, he had "nothing." I kind of hate the guy, as I do most ostentatiously religious athletes, but he pitched like a champion Saturday night.

  • In part because I'm fascinated by this stuff anyway and in part because it's going to be a prominent theme in the novel I'm trying to write, I've been thinking a lot about fan psychology and neurochemistry in the context of team victory or defeat. There's a book called Your Brain on Cubs that I'm eager to check out in this regard. It's not news that superstition and ritual is an enormous part of baseball, among both players and fans; we've got endless examples on, and there's a tradition within my family that, somehow, we're all causal factors. My brother is convinced that when he watches the whole game, the Phils lose; when he just checks in, they're more likely to win. His latest bit of data half-"confirms" and half-confounds the theory: he says that he turned it on Saturday night just in time to see Hamels walk Teixeira, after which the game quickly went to crap. For myself, in a moment of drunken exaltation after the Phillies finished off the Dodgers to win the National League pennant, I went online and bought a Jayson Werth jersey--the first sports jersey I've purchased in thirty years of fandom. I wore it for the Game One win and the losses in Games Two and Three; Sunday night, sick from sitting out in the rain in Game Three, I sat in an undershirt and watched them lose Game Four. The next night, recovering, I wore my Ryan Howard t-shirt and they won. I also drank to the point of intoxication during the victorious Series opener, had a few beers at a friend's house during the Game Two loss, one at the ballpark for Game Three, and nothing (thanks to feeling sick) during Games Four and Five. For tonight, I'm thinking I should go with the Howard t-shirt, Werth jersey, and heavy drinking. It has to work, right? This is the sort of madness you fall into seven months on in a baseball season. As always, I blame my parents.

  • It will be very tough to be here in New York if the Yankees win. Should they finish the Series tonight, the parade through the "Canyon of Heroes" could come Friday, when I usually go into the CUF office; I'd be much closer to the celebrating players and million-odd fans than I would prefer. Maybe worse, I'd have to spend the rest of however long I live in NYC occasionally running across "Yankees 2009 World Champions" swag--on the street, in the gym, shopping, wherever. But what really turns my stomach about this Yankee push for a 27th world championship is the notion that they need to "win it for the Boss," ailing owner/tyrant George Steinbrenner. Big Stein is baseball's answer to Kim Jong Il, but he's probably less fun to hang out with; he's a true motherfucker who's both a convicted felon (for illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon, a kindred spirit in that regard) and a confirmed sexist. He should have less sympathetic appeal than Monty Burns (whom even Yankee great Don Mattingly preferred to Steinbrenner). The Yankees, and their fans, should have enough reasons to crave victory beyond wanting to provide still more ego validation to a world-class asshole like Steinbrenner, who's probably too unwell to enjoy it anyway.

  • As I said, my guess is that it won't go to Game Seven: the Yankees just match up too well with Pedro, who's long on guts and guile but a bit short on stuff, and Rivera is probably good for two innings tonight after not pitching since Sunday and throwing only thirteen pitches over the weekend. But if the Phillies do win to force a winner-take-all seventh game, it'll get really interesting. Sabathia now has thrown more than 265 innings this year, after working more than 260 in each of the previous two seasons. The Phillies have seen him a lot, and he hasn't been at his near-unhittable best since the AL Championship Series in which New York dispatched the Angels of Los Angeles of Anaheim. On the other hand, the Phillies' pitching options start with the psychologically battered Hamels, then proceed on to rookie J.A. Happ, who hasn't been really sharp in more than two months, and then go on to a figurative cast of thousands. If the forecast nor'easter washed away a game Thursday night, the Phils probably could turn to their ace, Cliff Lee, who's earned victories in both Phillies wins, on three days' rest. But Lee has thrown even more innings in 2009 than Sabathia--over 270--and he has about 100 pounds less of body mass to sustain him. Plus Sabathia would be going on full normal rest were the game delayed to Friday. But it would be a contest for the ages, and potentially the sort of glorious Fall Classic finale that baseball hasn't seen since 2002.

Here's hoping.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Psst--Election in November
I've been wanting to write about next week's New York City municipal elections (or, indeed, anything) for awhile now, but have found it almost as difficult to work up enthusiasm for doing so as for the contests themselves. For one thing, "contests" is too strong a word: of the three citywide offices to be determined, the Democratic candidates for two are running virtually unopposed--as someone who follows these things fairly closely, if I can't name their opponents, I think that counts as "virtually unopposed"--and the third features a two-term incumbent billionaire mayor against a guy who's held one of those other citywide offices for eight years but, I'd wager, even today could probably walk through plenty of New York City neighborhoods and go unrecognized.

Almost any time a public official is seeking another term, the election serves as a referendum on the incumbent. (The 2004 presidential election--a feat of evil political wizardry possibly unmatched in American history in which Bush advisor Karl Rove somehow made the contest about challenger John Kerry--is the only exception I can think of offhand.) But Mayor Bloomberg, by virtue of his ubiquity, is the only issue in this contest: even his opponent, Bill Thompson, has based his campaign almost entirely on the mayor's about-face regarding term limits. Bloomberg himself has implicitly acknowledged his hypocrisy on this, all but saying, "If that's your issue, then go ahead and vote against me." His bet is that in the minds of most voters, the quality of governance he's provided outweighs the procedural shenanigans he unleashed to perpetuate his tenure. (The Gotham Gazette has been running a series of interesting and informative assessments of different aspects of Bloomberg's mayoralty, with this one particularly recommended.)

It's all but assured that he'll win that bet, as polls continue to show about a 15-point margin in favor of the mayor. For myself, after vehemently opposing Bloomberg in 2001, even more fervently supporting him four years later, and loudly and repeatedly voicing a wish that he'd run for president in 2008 for awhile after that re-election win, I'm now almost indifferent. I had planned to vote for him, unenthusiastically. The way he manipulated the term limits question, enlisting fellow billionaire media moguls to get the law revised without turning to the voters, was pretty vile, as is the unlimited spending and general arrogance of the man; there's also the historical truth that third terms in New York City or State never go well. On the other hand, his vaunted political independence is real and admirable, he's not for sale, his priorities--with some glaring exceptions--are ones I agree with, and his data-driven approach to governance is well suited to the municipal setting. Then he campaigned with the vile-as-ever Rudy Giuliani, and didn't disavow a characteristically toxic Il Douche statement; now it might be a coin flip whether I vote for Bloomberg or some third-party type whose name I don't yet know. (I have no interest in Thompson. He's been an okay Comptroller, but like almost every NYC Democrat who gets nominated for citywide office, he comes pre-corrupted. It's nice that he has such admiration for CUF policy research that he essentially devoted an entire campaign speech to our recent work, but I have absolutely no faith that he could successfully implement any of it.)

Mostly I'm just depressed by it all. Our local democracy is a joke unworthy of the name. Turnout for September's Democratic runoff elections for Comptroller and Public Advocate was below 8 percent, a record low; the initial vote, two weeks earlier, saw 11 percent turnout. If we show no respect for our democratic institutions, why should the likes of Michael Bloomberg?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Big Distraction
The Times this past Tuesday included a house editorial on a report I co-authored for the Community Service Society of New York, where I'm a Senior Fellow. (I'm not sure what this means exactly, but I do think it sounds cool.) The study looks at the importance of the GED in New York City, as well as the myriad and severe problems pertaining to test preparation classes and the administration of the exam itself that contribute to New York State's worst-in-the-nation pass rate. As we detail in the report, it's New York City's abysmal rate--perennially under 50 percent, compared to a national average around 71 percent--that explains why the state ranks last.

The editorial accurately characterized our findings and made what I thought was a powerful case for taking up the measures we suggested, but what I found interesting and disturbing were the comments that readers made in response. Here's a sampling, all just from the first page of comments:

Is it reasonable to spend more resources on those who failed to take advantage of free education until the age of 18? At what point do we shift the burden of responsibility to the individual?
Undoubtedly, big improvements are needed in the New York K-12 school system and other systems serving low-income people of color. However, I think it is legitimate to ask whether the K-12 school system failed the students or whether the students failed the school. If we don't expect students to be somewhat responsible for their own learning, I don't think the situation will ever improve. I think the authors of the report might read President Obama's recent speech to school children. That talk contained the sensible message that when it comes to one's education there is no substitute for personal responsibility and hard work.
[It is offensive to continually blame K-12 education for "failing" those students. I thought we were encouraging personal responsibility? Did these students not fail themselves largely by dropping out or not taking school seriously?
[A]s a public school teacher, I can't help but be irritated by the statement by the ETS that these GED seekers "were failed by our public school system." In some cases, that may be true. In others, the students themselves may have been responsible for their OWN failure. There is only so much schools and teachers can do, and at some point our students make their own choices and decisions that we are later blamed for.

The implication is that the people in pursuit of a GED have forfeited their claim on further assistance because they're lazy, stupid, and/or immoral: they had their chance, and they blew it, so screw 'em.

A few years ago, one of the big vogues in public policy philanthropy was for foundations to bring in message consultants and PR gurus to train people like me in how to frame the issues we worked on and the studies we produced. Perhaps the big takeaway from these sessions, which I generally found about 10 percent useful and 90 percent schlock, was to characterize the struggles of people on the economic margins as mostly a result of systemic and impersonal forces rather than their own poor choices and deficiencies of character. This was necessary, the message-shapers explained, because cultural notions of rugged individualism stretch so deep that they color how Americans process information. Unless you put it all on the system, most readers and listeners will instinctively arrive at the conclusion that the problems of the poor and marginalized stem from their own personal faults.

Of course, anyone with eyes to see understands that's it's both/and, not either/or. There were plenty of kids in the public schools I attended growing up who finished high school and went on to college despite academic inclinations and aptitudes no stronger than many of the 70,000 or so New Yorkers who sit for adult education classes every year. (That number, by the way, is a tiny fraction of those who could gain from such services, but that's another point for another time.) In a real sense, if the non-grads in New York City "were failed" by their schools, the equally able grads of Cheltenham Township "were successed" (not a word, I know) by theirs. Probably an even more powerful factor into the outcomes was the presence and values and attentiveness of the two groups of parents. The individuals in both groups bear some responsibility for their outcomes--one can always "choose" to take actions toward overcoming adversity, or alternatively just screw up again and again until one's life is a ruin--but not all. One outside consultancy I sometimes work with, 2Revolutions, eloquently characterizes this conflation of factors as "choice plus chance."

The way we in this report, and I would say me in almost all the work I do these days, try to get around the "who's at fault?" discussion is to focus on the reader's, which is to say the community's, self-interest. We included, on p. 9, a great number that my co-author got from a briefing he attended in March: over the course of their working lifetimes (ages 18-64), New York City residents who never completed high school or earned a GED represent an average net cost to the city's treasury of almost $135,000 for things like locking them up, sheltering them, and feeding them; those with just a high school degree or equivalency represent an average net contribution of more than $190,000. In other words, helping a 24 year-old earn her GED--something that costs maybe $7,000 if you go the gold-plated route--can represent a swing of $300,000 for the city treasury over the next forty years.

Considering that spectacular return on investment, the argument against taking action sounds a lot weaker. If you can present a compelling case for why the investment will achieve the desired result, it's essentially unanswerable... at least in a rational world where the urge to punish people for their alleged faults of character is weaker than the desire not to cut off one's (fiscal) nose to spite one's (moral) face.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Mixed Messages, Unintended Consequences
As the Great Recession of 2007-20?? moves into hopefully its final stage of slow recovery and lingering pain, it’s becoming clear that the labor market, specifically the difficulties of workers and jobseekers in its lower rungs, will take center stage. The problem is that the collision of an irresistible force, the “work-first” orientation of public policy over the last 20 years that kicked into overdrive with the federal welfare reform of 1996, has slammed into the immovable object of a labor market in which employers simply aren’t hiring. The result is a muddled mess of contradictory policies that might not be making things worse, but assuredly aren’t doing as much to help as circumstances call for.

Today’s newspaper details the difficulties of unemployed New Yorkers whose unemployment insurance is nearing its end. This recession has stood out for how long those who’ve lost jobs have remained out of work: with some exceptions, most of these are older workers in declining industries whose educations and skill sets are sufficiently limited that finding something that pays as well is unlikely in the extreme. The problem is that they aren’t finding anything:

Ruby Sievers, 47, a construction laborer who lives in Binghamton, said she had not been able to find work for two years. She collected the last of her extended benefits of $430 a week on Wednesday and feared that she might again have to resort to temporary assistance from the state to pay her rent and feed herself and her 11-year-old son, she said.

Ms. Sievers said she received welfare benefits this year during a lapse in unemployment benefits in New York. She has been impatiently awaiting word that Congress will pass the extension to limit the gap in her income.

“If it doesn’t, I’m not going to be in real good shape,” Ms. Sievers said. “I couldn’t even get $7 an hour if I wanted to. It’s just not there.”

This woman might be an exception, but for the most part if you work in construction over a period of years, you’re a pretty damn good worker: you might have to be at a job site by 6 AM, for weeks or months at a stretch, and as a laborer you have to take direction and prove yourself competent. (I won’t even get into the sexist garbage she probably had to contend with.) If that person can’t find even a menial job, it’s not there to be had. Which is the real tragedy of this economic moment.

On the other hand, that total absence of jobs might render a “disturbing” switch in California’s welfare policies more understandable. The country’s most populous state is suddenly not requiring its aid recipients to work:

Anna Zendejas, a welfare recipient […] was more than a little surprised to get a letter recently saying that she did not need to work to collect her check — in effect, a return to the much-derided welfare approach that existed before a national overhaul in the 1990s.

It was no fluke. This fall, tens of thousands of Californians will be given a similar choice as the state embraces a startling reversal in some of its welfare policies for the next two years. It is a route that few are happy with, but that reflects the intersection of a recession, the worst fiscal crisis in the state’s modern history, a governor determined to slash social services and the unplanned effects of federal stimulus money.

Though state officials emphasize that the change is temporary, some people inside and outside of state government worry that the abrupt reversal may encourage a return to habits that could be difficult to undo.
“We spent 10 years changing the culture, from just getting a check,” said Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California “We think this will send a confusing message and do lasting damage.”

I’m sympathetic on a human level—assuming he’s been at this awhile, this guy probably spent a lot of time and effort reorienting first his staff, then his clients toward the new order of welfare reform. Now he has to throw it in reverse, knowing that in two years’ time the work-first regime will return. But it does make sense: these are the lowest-skilled jobseekers, with the most significant barriers to steady work. They’re extremely unlikely to find jobs, and it’s extremely likely that any work they do find will be low-paying and, whether because their barriers (everything from trouble with childcare arrangements to a health problem or a fight with a co-worker or manager) get in the way or because conditions worsen again and they get laid off, of short duration. Forcing them onto the treadmill is really just process fetishism on the public dime.

And yet: the basic concept of work first, that an individual conforms to societal values as a condition of receiving public assistance, is valid in good times as well as bad. I’d rather see jurisdictions use this time of slack labor demand to help skill up their aid recipients—get them a GED, or a vocational credential, or even help speakers of other languages learn English better—so that when hiring does resume, their odds improve. But that isn’t free either, of course, and the politics of more support for the worst off in bad times are difficult, to put it mildly.

There’s another option, the one Bob Herbert keeps going on about: large-scale public job creation, of the kind FDR used in the ‘30s. But this isn’t easy either: back then, you could give a thousand guys shovels and they’d dig you a hole. Now you use a machine, requiring maybe three or four guys to operate and service, to do the same job, only faster and better. Massive public works employment isn’t really possible in a time of advanced technology, and unskilled work is disappearing altogether: as I’ve had occasion to note in various work publications, more than half the jobs created in the federal stimulus require education beyond high school despite the explicit intention of the legislation drafters to extend as much opportunity as they could to the lower-skilled.

This doesn't mean that large-scale job creation is impossible--just that we'd have to do it differently. And that inevitably means experimentation, some trial and error, and in this climate a big heaping of scorn and vitriol from those out of power. At this point, the politics still probably weigh against the administration and Democrats in Congress taking that step.