Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Specter and the Sinking Ship
Democrats are mostly exulting today at the news that longtime Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter will leave the Republican Party to caucus with them and run for his seventh term as a Dem next year. It's not hard to understand why they're pleased, nor why Specter made the switch. But I think the fact that he's leaving the Republicans suggests something about our politics that should trouble anyone with a stake in the system's success: it's now evidently impossible to be a Republican if you deviate from the party line in any significant way. Or as Glenn Greenwald (no fan of the move, by the way) put it:

The G.O.P. now resembles a religion more than a political party, where any deviance from established dogma is considered heresy that warrants excommunication. Its collapse into a Southern regional party has taken one large step forward. It is remarkable to watch an already marginalized party purposely shrink itself further.

The somewhat misleading math of "60 Senators to cut off debate" aside, I think it could easily be argued that the country, if not the Democrats themselves, is better off with someone like Specter remaining among the Republicans. The Senate runs on compromise, and as frustrating as they might be, the moderates in both caucuses usually drive those compromises. There are now perhaps five Republican Senators--Snowe, Collins, McCain, Voinovich, and Lugar--whom Democrats could even reasonably approach on this or that issue to cut a deal. But even those five will come under that much more pressure not to compromise in a smaller but more ideologically "pure" party.

For their part, the Democrats are likely to find that their caucus becomes exponentially less manageable as it expands. Whereas Specter before could extract concessions as a possible crossover vote to invoke cloture, as on the stimulus measure, he will now do so from inside the tent--and he'll be joined by as many as a dozen other Democratic Senators asking why the noob should get more deference than they. Given the difficulties that congressional party leaders already have endured (or as some might put it, caused) in advancing Obama's agenda, another unreliable vote could cause more harm than good.

The bigger problem, however, is with the Republicans. It's sad, but not surprising, that the most common reaction from the rightward side of the political spectrum to today's big news has been "good riddance." And it's not just from irate bloggers or grass-roots activists, either; Republican Sen. Jim DeMint stated that he would rather have 30 reliable-voting Republicans in the Senate than 60 "who don't have a set of beliefs." Among the Republicans, it's clear that ideological purity now runs far ahead of actual influence on the policymaking process.

But one of the ironies of Senate problem children like Specter and--it must be said--Joe Lieberman is that even as they frustrate colleagues and infuriate party loyalists, they see themselves as principled iconoclasts--public servants who consider each issue on its merits rather than merely deferring to the party leaders. As individuals, I find them both pretty loathsome; Lieberman's dishonesty and sanctimony are well established, and Specter looks today like an enormous hypocrite as well as a craven opportunist. (Which he is: he actually jumped in the other direction 43 years ago.) At the same time, though, their "unpredictability" might be more admirable, and is almost certainly closer to how the Founders imagined that the Senate should function, than the increasingly common party-line voting on both sides.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two parties today is that the Democrats now tolerate heterodoxy on a wide range of issues, while the Republicans do not. The concern now is that the Democrats will (further?) abandon their principles in favor of holding onto power, while the Republicans already have abandoned everything but a very parochial interpretation of their own.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Degrees of Difficulty
This past week in news was increasingly dominated by the debate over whether the government--not, importantly, "President Obama"--should investigate further into the decisions and actions taken to implement a torture regime during the Bush administration. Putting aside Republican apologists like the endlessly vapid Peggy Noonan who would prefer that we just "keep walking" past the unpleasantness, there are two arguable positions: the one evidently held by the president himself, that a deeper inquiry into what happened and who if anybody should be held accountable would take up too much political oxygen and impose an unacceptable opportunity cost on getting other public business done (as explained, if not necessarily championed, by Marc Ambinder), and that concepts of the rule of law and equal justice under it are so important that national honor demands an investigation. After some ambivalence, I'm now solidly in the second camp with Andrew Sullivan and others. I don't really care if anyone goes to jail--but a full airing of what happened, particularly how prevalent the practice of torture was (how far beyond "name" terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Muhammed it went), and whether it was used to try to produce "evidence" that would support the Iraq war, is necessary both to understanding our recent history and to do as much as possible to ensure that mistakes aren't repeated.

I worry, though, that the process of coming clean to ourselves and the world regarding our deplorable and illegal actions will go undone for the same reason that we might not get health care reform or effective environmental legislation or even common-sense regulation of the finance industry: it's too damn hard, and it would impose disadvantage on some powerful people and/or groups. As a culture, it sometimes seems we have come to believe that if a thing isn't easy, it isn't worth trying.

Have we really done anything "politically difficult" in the last forty-plus years? Lyndon Johnson passing Medicare and Medicaid and civil rights legislation in 1965 is the last example that comes to mind. I guess one could make a case for the 1986 tax reforms, which did represent positive change but, as I remember, spread the pain broadly enough and was carried out on enough of a bipartisan basis that nobody really stood out as bearing the brunt of it and no politician obviously lost his job as a result. Bill Clinton's first budget, which passed on a straight party-line vote, was effective as policy--it sent the signal to the financial markets that the administration would be responsible in addressing deficits, and thus helped kick off the boom of the '90s--but it was devastating from a political perspective. The Democrats seem to have learned from that experience that responsible governance was lousy politics, and the experience confirmed the Republicans in the divisive and ideological practices they've trafficked in ever since.

To me and, I think, many other progressives, Obama seemed preferable to Hillary Clinton because he seemed to have the clarity of vision to understand that some fundamental changes were needed to ensure America's continued prosperity, and because unlike the Clintons he wasn't so enmeshed in the status quo, or cowed by the experience of coming under vicious criticism, that he would hesitate to push for those big changes. In the best case scenario, he really will prove to be a "pragmatic visionary" (or visionary pragmatist, I guess) who can create the largest possible coalition for needed changes but then does not hesitate to take on a tough fight. The announcement last week that the Democrats would retain the reconciliation option to get health reform done was a good sign in this respect. But on many small points--the few fiscally responsible measures in the budget proposal, for one--I worry that he's backing off too much. The resolution of the proposed "defense cuts" (which actually amount to a four percent increase in a military budget that's already more than triple what Russia and China spend combined) will be revealing on this question, as will the probably much more consequential battle to appropriately price fossil fuels (about which Tom Friedman has some worthwhile thoughts in today's NYT).

Obama's calm manner and temperamental disinclination to throw sharp elbows has stood him in good stead through his first months in office and probably has had a lot to do with the encouraging movement in "right track/wrong track" polling numbers--a difficult-to-quantify but important measure of public support for a president's approach as well as his policies. But at some point he's going to run into fights, tough ones at that. The importance of his winning them goes beyond the specifics of the issue; we need to remember that Americans still can attempt difficult things, and accomplish them.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Lagging Indicators
New York magazine is an odd duck: its main obsessions seem to be the Hamptons scene and the trashy TV show "Gossip Girl" (seriously: go to nymag.com ten days in a row, and I guarantee you'll see those two words on the home page seven or eight of them at least), but they also frequently offer truly interesting features on politics, culture, and the economy. The current issue includes a story that touches upon all three: The Wail of the 1%.

In a witch hunt, the witches have feelings, too. As populist rage has erupted around the country, stoked by canny politicians, an opposite rage has built on Wall Street and other arenas where the wealthy hold sway. Its expression is more furtive and it’s often mixed with a kind of sublimated shame, but it can be every bit as vitriolic.
Their anger takes many forms: There is rage at Obama for pushing to raise taxes (“The government wants me to be a slave!” says one hedge-fund analyst); rage at the masses who don’t understand that Wall Street’s high salaries fund New York’s budget (“We’re fucked,” says a former Lehman equities analyst, referring to the city); rage at the people who don’t “get” that Wall Street enables much of the rest of the economy to function (“JPMorgan and all these guys should go on strike—see what happens to the country without Wall Street,” says another hedge-funder).

A few weeks ago, I had drinks with a friend who used to work at Lehman Brothers. She had come to Wall Street in the mid-eighties, when the junk-bond boom spawned a new class of globe-trotting financiers. Over two decades, she had done stints at all the major banks—Chase, Goldman, Lehman—and had a thriving career directing giant streams of capital around the world and extracting a substantial percentage for herself. To her mind, extreme compensation is a fair trade for the compromises of such a career. “People just don’t get it,” she says. “I’m attached to my BlackBerry. I was at my doctor the other day, and my doctor said to me, ‘You know, I like that when I leave the office, I leave.’ I get calls at two in the morning, when the market moves. That costs money. If they keep compensation capped, I don’t know how the deals get done. They’re taking Wall Street and throwing it in the East River.”

Now, a lot of people in New York have BlackBerrys, and few of them expect to be paid $2 million to check their e-mail in the middle of the night. But embedded in her comment is the belief shared on Wall Street but which few have dared to articulate until now: Those who select careers in finance play an exceptional role in our society. They distribute capital to where it’s most effective, and by some Ayn Rand–ian logic, the virtue of efficient markets distributing capital to where it is most needed justifies extreme salaries—these are the wages of the meritocracy. They see themselves as the fighter pilots of capitalism.

"Fighter pilots of capitalism" is a great phrase for it, implying a taste for danger, an esprit de corps, and a frank realization that sometimes you get splattered all over the sky. It also captures the grandiosity of the traders' pretensions: after all, they aren't facing off with the fate of western civilization at stake--they're moving money around. And when they get shot down for making a mistake, others bleed for it.

I don't have tremendous sympathy for the complaints of the Wall Streeters. (Does anyone?) But one point any honest observer must acknowledge is that these people operated under a set of rules and assumptions that, while things were going well, relatively few people took issue with. (Take it from a New Yorker who does understand, painfully, how much our city budget has come to rely upon Wall Street bonuses.) It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that society at large mirrored and cheered on the bankers. We now despise them for doing pretty much the same things for which three years ago they were lionized.

As Washington denuded the regulations that had constrained finance, the banks themselves encouraged their employees to pursue maximum risk. Bonuses were paid based largely on short-term profits. “It was the culture of what some called IBG-YBG: I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone,” says Jonathan Knee, a senior managing director at Evercore Partners. Wall Street championed the ethos of “Eat what you kill.” The most aggressive employees, those who took the greatest risks, thought of themselves less as members of a firm and more as independent contractors entitled to their share of the profits. In this system, institutions tended to be hostage to their best employees. “The feeling is, if people don’t get compensated adequately, they’re going to go out and do this on their own,” says Alan Patricof, who founded the private-equity firm Apax Partners.
I asked [an industry veteran] what will happen if Congress succeeds in regulating compensation. “These guys will not work on Wall Street,” he says flatly. “People go to Wall Street out of greed. When I was interviewing for jobs, frequently some form of the question came up: How much do you want to make money? If my answer was something like—and it wasn’t—but if my answer was, ‘I’m here for intellectual betterment,’ their response might have been, ‘University is a great place for you.’ They want people who think ‘I’m greedy, I want to be a billionaire.’ That was viewed as a really good thing.”

I would like to think that the trauma of this recession will lead to some degree of cultural change in the financial sector. But this doesn't seem particularly likely, given the ongoing prominence of industry leaders and sympathizers among top policymakers, and maybe it's not even entirely desirable. Capitalism runs on, if not greed, then certainly self-interest; the whole idea of the invisible hand is that we collectively do better as each of us attempts to better ourselves individually. Perhaps the answer isn't to reform Wall Street, but to more effectively circumscribe its activities and the risks we allow it to run on the collective behalf.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The New York Times settles (maybe) a question we were discussing with some friends this past weekend: how the number "420" became associated with marijuana consumption, to the point where today's date became a "high holiday" of sorts.

Mr. Hager said the significance of April 20 dates to a ritual begun in the early 1970s in which a group of Northern California teenagers smoked marijuana every day at 4:20 p.m. Word of the ritual spread and expanded to a yearly event in various places. Soon, marijuana aficionados were using “420” as a code for smoking and using it as a sign-off on fliers for concerts where the drug would be plentiful.

Other explanations offered had to do with the molecular composition of THC and police radio shorthand for pot-related lawbreaking. Since this guy is also just offering a hearsay explanation, it's perhaps appropriate that the answer remain a bit hazy.

The Times article also notes the growing optimism of drug legalization advocates that marijuana will gain some legal recognition in the relatively near future. For his part, Andrew Sullivan has been trying to move the ball down the field by running a series on his blog he's branded "The Cannibis Closet," featuring letters from established, successful people who regularly indulge in the forbidden flora. Here are a few representative examples.

I'm for decriminalization and interested in the revenue-raising possibilities of full legalization with a government monopoly, though I wonder if the policing costs of enforcing that monopoly would absorb too much of the savings from enforcing the criminal statutes to make such a move worthwhile. And I'm basically on board with the first argument of Sullivan and other pro-legalization voices: that heavy use of marijuana is less harmful than alcoholism. (For one quick illustration why this is a defensible point, see here.) But the breezy implication, bordering on outright assertion, that pot is totally harmless, troubles me. Obviously there are things it's just not a great idea to do while high, including many of the same things (driving, operating power tools, etc) one shouldn't do while drunk. The effects of long-term use, though, can be damaging as well, and as is the case with alcohol, an individual's body type and chemistry has a big impact on tolerance as well as how one holds up over a span of years with it.

Beyond that, it's said that "marijuana addiction" is almost a contradiction in terms: there's no physical dependency that develops, as is not the case with heroin or alcohol. But the line between addiction and habit--something one does regularly, almost as a matter of routine--is not always entirely clear, and I can say with some confidence that a pot habit carries some unhealthy consequences. You might eat too much, and not well; you might circumscribe your social circle. Mental acuity suffers, as does ambition; recall goes a bit fuzzy in spots. On the other hand, it can be a hell of a lot of fun, and a spur to creativity and relaxation. Essentially it rearranges one's senses and abilities: some things get better, some things get worse.

I guess the takeaway from all of this is that simplistic answers--total prohibition or total celebration--add no value. But the rational answer from a policy perspective (it should be allowed, but with as full public information as possible and responsible controls, similar to how we treat alcohol but probably without the celebratory advertising) and a personal perspective (nothing necessarily wrong with trying it, but understand what it is you're doing) might remain beyond the grasp of a society that still tends to embrace the simplistic.

Update: Mark Bowden has a worthwhile column in today's Philadelphia Inquirer that tracks my feelings on the legalization/celebration question fairly closely.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Shining a Light on the Dark Side
At some point I stopped following the legal questions around our national embrace of torture during the Bush years. Maybe it's that I can handle pure evil on its own, or lawyerese on its own, but the combination is just too much for me. So it was with some surprise that I read earlier this week that today marked a deadline for the release of Office of Legal Counsel memos from the Bush administration detailing what was and was not allowable in terms of techniques for "enhanced interrogations"--as Orwell reminds us, it always starts with language--under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. Bloggers like Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald presented the question of whether the Obama administration would release the memos without enormous redaction as a threshold test for how sincere the former Constitutional law professor was in his professed embrace of transparency and determination to move the country beyond the shameful practices embraced by his predecessor.

He passed.

The Department of Justice will today release certain memos issued by the Office of Legal Counsel between 2002 and 2005 as part of an ongoing court case. These memos speak to techniques that were used in the interrogation of terrorism suspects during that period, and their release is required by the rule of law.

My judgment on the content of these memos is a matter of record. In one of my very first acts as President, I prohibited the use of these interrogation techniques by the United States because they undermine our moral authority and do not make us safer. Enlisting our values in the protection of our people makes us stronger and more secure. A democracy as resilient as ours must reject the false choice between our security and our ideals, and that is why these methods of interrogation are already a thing of the past.

In the same statement, in a move that probably frustrated many on the left, Obama also declared that there would be no prosecutions of CIA personnel who conducted the torture. On balance--and viscerally distasteful though it is--this is the right decision: his point that intelligence operatives must be able to carry out orders without concern for their own legal jeopardy is correct.

If anyone should stand in the dock, it's the OLC lawyers who drew up the memos, as well as their political masters in the Office of the Vice-President. That seems unlikely, though, considering Obama's language that "this is a time for reflection, not retribution." I still want to see the moral monsters who drew up these policies called to account, but simply having the truth out there represents an important first step to reclaiming something of our good reputation in the world.

And the memos themselves? I haven't read them closely--in fact I just skimmed through, before reading any of the other coverage, to get a sense of how much blacked-out blocks of text there was. But one thing that did catch my eye in passing was the extensive language regarding what interrogators could and could not do in one psychological torment planned for suspected terrorist Abu Zubaydah: putting an insect into a "confinement box" with the suspect:

In addition to using the confinement boxes alone, you also would like to introduce an insect into one of the boxes with Zubaydah. As we understand it, you plan to inform Zubaydah that you are going to place a stinging insect into the box, but you will actually place a harmless insect in the box, such as a caterpillar. If you do so, to ensure that you are outside the predicate act requirement, you must inform him that the insects will not have a sting that would produce
death or severe pain. If, however, you were to place the insect in the box without informing him that you are doing so, then, in order to not commit a predicate act, you should not affirmatively lead him to believe that any insect is present which has a sting that could produce severe pain or suffering or even cause his death. [REDACTED] so long as you take either of the approaches we have described, the insect's placement in the box would not constitute a threat of severe physical pain or suffering to a reasonable person in his position. An individual placed in a box, even an individual with a fear of insects, would not reasonably feel threatened with severe physical pain or suffering if a caterpillar was placed in the box. Further, you have informed us that you are not aware that Zubaydah has any allergies to insects, and you have not informed us of any other factors that would cause a reasonable person in that same situation to believe that an unknown insect would cause him severe physical pain or death. Thus, we conclude that the placement of the insect in the confInement box with Zubaydah would not constitute a predicate act.

Consider the baseline absurdity of that phrase: "a reasonable person in his position."

It should be mentioned that Abu Zubaydah is a clearly evil guy, whose least offenses included running a terrorist training camp and recruiting for al Qaeda; he's no innocent by any stretch. But he's also fucking nuts, a truth that was known before they started torturing him:

As part of his look into the capture and interrogation of Zubaydah, Suskind quotes Dan Coleman, the FBI agent who was the bureau’s first case agent on Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, and who had been working the terror beat since the 1980s. Soon after his capture, Coleman described Zubaydah as “insane, certifiable, a split personality” — an opinion, according to Suskind, that was shared by the CIA’s top brass, and conveyed to the president and vice president. Despite this, Suskind reports that when the president learned that Zubaydah was mentally ill, he told then-CIA director George Tenet, “I said he was important …You’re not going to let me lose face on this, are you?” Tenet, ever the company man, replied, “No sir, Mr. President.”

But more to the point is the case of Zubaydah’s diaries, seized during his capture in March 2002. In making the case that Zubaydah was mentally ill, Suskind explains that his diaries were written in the voices of three people, Hani 1, Hani 2 and Hani 3. Hani 1 was a boy, ten years younger than Zubaydah, Hani 2 was the same age as Zubaydah, and Hani 3 was a decade older. “What was being observed,” Suskind writes about the diaries, “by three pairs of eyes, meanwhile, was often less than compelling — what people ate, or wore, or trifling things they said … in page after page. Zubaydah was a logistics man, a fixer, mostly for a niggling array of personal items, like the guy you call who handles the company health plan, or benefits, or the people in human resources. There was almost nothing ‘operational’ in his portfolio. That was handled by the management team. He wasn’t one of them.”

Despite this, every bit of information extracted from Zubaydah through torture (Suskind recounts the particulars of his treatment in gruesome detail) sent teams of FBI agents and local law enforcement officials scrambling across the country, trying to put out fires that didn’t really exist.

Orwell wrote in 1984 that "the purpose of torture is torture." In this case, if Suskind is to be believed, the purpose of torture was to save face for the president, and its consequence was an enormous amount of man-hours and money expended on false leads from a madman who probably was just trying to blurt out anything to get the caterpillar out of the box. That at least we're starting to come clean about this deep stain is the only redeeming element; we'll take it.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Harry Kalas, 1936-2009
Legendary Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas passed away today, a couple hours before the Phils took the field in Washington. He was 73 years old.

I'm having trouble putting into words what Harry meant to me, or probably to most anyone who grew up a baseball fan in the Philadelphia area over the last forty years. He was, very simply, the voice of the game, someone who shaped my enjoyment of the game probably to a greater extent than anyone else--players, writers, other broadcasters, whoever. One common sentiment on Back She Goes and The Good Phight today was that Harry's joy, his love of baseball win, lose, or rainout, helped make the team and the game fun even when the Phils were dreadful, as they were through the late '80s and most of the '90s. It was a treat to enjoy the game with him, every game; his voice and style were perfect for the day-in, day-out nature of baseball.

(And as I'm typing this while listening to the Nationals announcers butchering Harry's craft with a barrage of homerism, forced camaraderie and useless information--finally muting the computer for some blessed relief--I'm just thinking of how fucking great a broadcaster he was. Harry let silence tell the story as much as speech: he seemed to recognize, as so few young announcers do, that the background hum of a ballpark filled with fans is itself thrilling, and far superior to words that hold no value. There was something almost sacred about being in the car, usually by myself, listening to that background hum before Harry's midwestern tones broke through the silence with the next pitch: "fastball down low, the count is two and one.")

My childhood at its best was Harry calling a Mike Schmidt home run. Earlier today, Schmitty returned the favor.

He went fast, doing what he loved--he'd called a thrilling comeback win in Denver yesterday and was getting ready for today's game when his time came. He got to enjoy the 2008 championship, and best of all, we got to enjoy it with him.

Rest in peace, Harry. You'll be deeply missed.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

A Test
Regular readers here (all four of you) know that I supported Barack Obama in large part because I thought he had the nearly unique ability among contemporary American politicians to not just respond to and/or try to manipulate public opinion in support of policies that he (and I) might favor, but to actually shift public opinion over time through education and persuasion. This means both directly engaging the public through speeches, interactions, electoral and issue campaigning, and so forth, and resetting the terms of debate by mobilizing favorable segments of the public to push intermediaries in the news press and the culture at large toward more favorable terrain. As Lincoln and Roosevelt showed, it's neither a quick process nor something that necessarily can happen absent traumatic circumstances like Civil War or Depression, but it is possible.

I mention this again because Matt Miller puts his finger on a concern that could turn out to be Obama's biggest short-term political challenge as well as the greatest test of his ability to move the needle on fundamental questions of American political culture: the "best" size and role of government, rates of taxation and level of engagement with citizens' lives. I share Miller's diagnosis but dissent from his prescription:

Obama never answered the question of how his epic debt can be squared with his call for generational responsibility. He can’t, because it can’t.

Behind this fudge is a secret: Obama and his advisers expect to limit such debt via broader tax increases, presumably in a second term. As every honest observer knows (and as I show in this chapter of my book The Tyranny of Dead Ideas), once this recession is past, taxes will go up in the years ahead no matter who is in power. John McCain’s top economic advisers from the campaign say so themselves. That’s because we’re retiring the baby boom, which means we’ll be doubling the number of people on Social Security and Medicare. We already have trillions of dollars in unfunded promises in these programs. The math simply doesn’t work at current levels of taxation.

...[T]he one hard truth Barack Obama won’t utter is that all Americans will have to pay higher taxes before long.

Why not? The answer, at one level, is obvious, but it’s instructive to dissect. Having sat in such meetings in the early Clinton years, I suspect the conversation at the White House ran something like this. Yes, the president’s advisers told him, at some point taxes will need to rise broadly for the reasons described above. If we didn’t inherit this economic mess, we might be discussing it now as part of a plan to put Medicare and Social Security on a sounder footing. But tax cuts are needed for most Americans to combat the recession—and, by the way, that’s what you promised in the campaign. Saying the truth publicly—that taxes will need to rise once the recession is past—will let the GOP brand you as a tax-and-spend socialist. They’ll try to do that anyway based on the modest taxes for the top you’re proposing, but if you go this further step, their charge may well stick. Given how tough times are for most Americans today, floating the prospect of future tax increases would cost you too much support, and your ambitious agenda—hard to enact under any circumstances—would be imperiled. Better to finesse this tax thing for now.

Emphasis mine. As the article continues, Miller argues that it really isn't "better to finesse" this long-term question--but I would counter (unhappily) that while he's probably right in a perfect world, in the one we all live in it's irrational to sacrifice the entire progressive agenda on the altar of immediate intellectual honesty.

Crazy as it seems, I think the problem is that for those not paying fairly close attention, which is most people, the connection between taxes and government services doesn't immediately come to mind--certainly not for government services of value to the individual who's thinking about it. After forty years of right-wing framing and advancement of a critique that, to be fair, had some basis in reality, the notion that comes to mind when one hears "higher taxes" is of Big Gummit reaching into one's pockets to throw pizza parties, treat special interest buddies to hookers 'n' blow, provide full body massages to welfare dependents, or something similarly silly and/or offensive. As Miller points out, Obama or any president at this point would face the choice between raising taxes and cutting entitlement spending. But until a measure of rationality is reintroduced into the discourse, the only reasonable political move is to BS and delay the painful moment when the subject is raised. Even if public confidence in government is rising some (as Obama's approval ratings suggest), I can't imagine it's close to where it would need to be to ease congressional Democrats who recall 1994--when a small tax increase, which eventually succeeded beyond anybody's hopes, demolished big Democratic majorities in the midterms.

Maybe the real question is what flavor of irresponsibility one prefers. Mark Schmitt writes that after years of the Bush administration and congressional Republicans pushing tax cuts first, then bringing up the spending side afterward, progressives have flipped the script:

The economic crisis makes deficits not just acceptable but essential as economic stimulus. We can advocate new investment in neglected priorities such as education, clean energy, and health reform, while avoiding the annoying question: How are you going to pay for all that? Just as the Republicans were able to treat taxes in isolation, we have the privileged position -- granted by unhappy accident rather than Ponzi tactics -- of being able to spend without consequence.

But the separation of spending from taxation cannot last, either. Stimulus is, by definition, temporary. As President Barack Obama's first budget proposes, when the economic cycle turns, we will need to bring the deficit down to a historically manageable level. While economists have different views about what that level is, it is unquestionably below the level projected under current tax and spending policies.

As Schmitt notes, the Bush-era Comptroller General, David Walker, believes that our political system is simply unable to embrace the hard decisions and has called for a "fiscal responsibility commission," which could somewhat take elected officials off the hook for having to raise taxes AND cut services--which I remember hearing a bipartisan panel of three experts, including Walker, saying a few years back would be the only way we could eventually dig out. (I think this was that.)

Schmitt wants to take issue with Walker's prescription and let the debate play out through normal channels, writing: "Progressives have nothing to gain from evading the long-term fiscal crisis. Genuinely transformative economic policy requires connecting the investment we favor with the taxes that will eventually finance it and being willing to restructure the tax system entirely." If this is to happen, though, the country's most prominent progressive will have to lead the way.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Limitations of Jocknalysis
When commercials began airing in December for the New Year's Day launch of MLB Network, the 24-hour-a-day all-baseball cable channel, Annie worried that our marriage as well as my livelihood might be at risk. While this hasn't turned out to be the case--basically I now just watch the channel for the few minutes per day I might previously have spent with "SportsCenter"--I am obviously happy to know with total certainty that anytime, day or night, I can turn on the TV and enjoy baseball-related programming. Turns out that MLB Network's content is a lot like pizza: even when it's relatively bad, it's still pretty good.

At this early point, however, MLBN is held back by the same problem that besets almost all sports TV programming: too much deference to the wisdom of ex-palyers. Joe Sheehan at Baseball Prospectus highlighted this issue a few weeks back, pointing to a short discussion on the channel's flagship show "MLB Tonight" about the longstanding "stats versus scouts" debate:

Sean Casey and Barry Larkin paid lip service to the value of performance analysis, and then insisted on evaluating players by anything but their performance. Harold Reynolds was all over the place, dismissing the use of stats entirely because of things that happened in his own career, calling stats "ridiculous," then calling out some of the projections presented without presenting reasons why he disagreed with them. Larkin used the term, "a quality .215 [batting average]," which if nothing else gives me a great name for a fantasy team.

Host Matt Vasgersian—a BP reader who frequently would name-check BP on Padres' telecasts—drove the discussion off course by asking the panel to choose between "the guy with the calculator" and "the guy with the straw hat." That is, of course, a false choice. No team ever has to choose, as Dayn Perry so eloquently explained years ago. All three players chose the scout, after which Vasgersian made the key point that a scout sees a guy three times, while his stats see everything the guy has done. The players nonetheless cited the scout's opinion as being more valuable than what the analysis could provide.

My problem isn't with these opinions, which are to be expected. My problem is with the lack of another viewpoint. Setting Vasgersian up as the opposition is inadequate to the task, not because he's not talented, but because it's not really his role and he's not invested in the argument. Asking three former players about the value of performance analysis isn't going to produce an interesting discussion, because players' opinions on this stuff, with rare exception, fall into a narrow range. A real discussion on this issue would involve other voices, and even if those voices were to be shouted down or marginalized for lack of a baseball-reference page, well, they needed to be heard.

I was thinking about this earlier today when watching the rebroadcast of MLB Tonight as the panel, this time comprised of host Vasgersian and analysts Sean Casey, Billy Ripken and Al Leiter--all ex-players--discussed the Braves' signing of signature player Larry Jones Jr. to a three-year contract extension for $42 million. They all loved the deal without a word of criticism.

Now, Jones (whom, like any good Phillies fan and/or New Yorker, I loathe) had a great year in 2008, hitting .364 with 22 home runs. He's the face of that (accursed) franchise, a likely future Hall of Famer who has been one of the game's best hitters for the better part of 15 years. But he's turning 37 in three weeks, and misses at least a month every season: in the last five years, his at-bat totals have been 472, 358, 411, 513, and 439. Given everything we know about how baseball players age, and the Braves' competitive positioning in a division with two deeper-pocketed teams (the Mets and Phillies) and two other young, cheap and improving clubs (the Marlins and Nationals), was it really wise to buy Jones's age-38, 39 and 40 seasons and an option for his age-41 at $14 million per year?

Well, maybe. But there are two sides to the story. This post on Talking Chop, a Braves blog affiliated with The Good Phight under the SportsBlog Nation umbrella, effectively lays them both out--and gives the pro-deal spin from an honest fan perspective which I at least find more compelling than the likes of Ripken, Casey and Leiter applauding a former colleague getting paid.

What I really would like to see, though, is someone on the MLB Tonight panel, presumably a non-player (maybe an executive between jobs, maybe a writer/analyst type), who could make that case to their faces: yes, it's a PR coup for the organization in that it pleases the fans and sends a positive message in the clubhouse that loyalty and performance will be valued, but there's also a real risk that the 2011 and 2012 Braves will be hamstrung by directing an ever-larger share of that $14 million into the trainer's office. If nothing else, it would make for better television.