Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Did Sonia Save Baseball?
As I noted a few weeks back, Annie and I have a very slight acquaintance with Judge Sonia Sotomayor, newly nominated for the Supreme Court. As our interactions with her were entirely pleasant, we were thrilled that Obama chose her for the opening.

My affection for Sotomayor began fourteen years ago, when she issued the injunction that ended the 1994-95 baseball strike after nearly nine months and a canceled World Series. The president alluded to this decision in his nomination announcement yesterday:
"During her tenure on the district court, she presided over roughly 450 cases," he said. "One case in particular involved a matter of enormous concern to many Americans, including me: the baseball strike of 1994 and '95."

To laughter, the president said, "in a decision that reportedly took her just 15 minutes to announce -- a swiftness much appreciated by baseball fans everywhere -- she issued an injunction that helped end the strike."

"Some say," the president said, "that Judge Sotomayor saved baseball."

I thought this was a bit much, but I do believe that by bringing the strike to an end when she did—and specifically forestalling the start of the 1995 season being played with replacement “scab” players—Sotomayor significantly reduced the damage done by the work stoppage. Had the season began with the non-union players, baseball’s history would have been scarred by the labor dispute--something I think would have been far more damaging than the retrospective understanding that subsequent years were marred by steroid use. For instance, Cal Ripken’s consecutive games-played streak--which did so much to remind people what they loved about the game--would have ended if those games had counted. That’s the sort of thing people simply don’t get over.

George Will, however, disagrees:
"The president is a gentleman and a scholar and a great ornament to our society, but he's not a great baseball historian," Will told us.

"He says that when she ended the baseball impasse that was interrupting play in 1994 and 1995, she saved baseball," Will says. "Far from it. What she did was overturn in a sense, the essence, the underlies, the essential theory of American labor relations, which is the parties should slug it out because they know best and whoever wins, wins."

Will says that "in fact, what she did was take sides, took union's side against the management, and in so-doing, wasted 262 days of negotiations. That, far from saving baseball, consigned baseball to seven more years of an unreformed economic system, which happened to be the seven worst years in terms of competitive balance."

Sotomayor, Will says, "delayed the restructuring of baseball. So I would say that far from her saving baseball, as the president says, that in fact, baseball thrives now because we got over the damage that her judicial activism did in that strike."

As much as I often want to punch Will in the nose for his superciliousness and generally douche-ish inclinations, I’ve mostly enjoyed his writings about baseball. “Men at Work” is an excellent book, offering strong insights into what drove Tony Gwynn and Orel Hershiser to the greatness they showed in the ‘80s and ‘90s while exhibiting Will’s genuine love for the game on both an intellectual and experiential level; I can relate.

Here, though, he’s just dead wrong, and I have to believe that the view is driven by his inner partisan rather than his inner seamhead. His opinion presumes much about the nature of that dispute—specifically, that it was rooted in differences so pronounced that their substantive resolution was of greater consequence than getting back to the game itself.

Anyone who’s examined the history of baseball’s labor conflicts understands that the real story as the collective bargaining agreement wound down in the early ‘90s was the determination of small- and mid-market owners to break the MLB Players Association—as much because these rich and powerful men were infuriated at their repeated losses to the union as for actual bottom-line considerations. Thus, Fay Vincent was pushed aside as Commissioner in 1992 and replaced with “interim” Commissioner Bud Selig, who retained his ownership of the Milwaukee Brewers (and as such made a joke of the Commissioner’s putative responsibility to act “in the best interests of baseball”). While MLBPA honcho Don Fehr seemed every bit as much of a dick as Czar Bud, the union essentially was playing defense. But a faction led by White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf wouldn’t compromise, and basically forced the strike. About five weeks later, the World Series was canceled. A few months afterward, spring training opened in Florida and Arizona with non-union players; despite the public outcry against this, the owners were fully ready to begin the season (and, to my memory, charge full ticket prices) using them. Sotomayor’s ruling forestalled all that, effectively compelling the owners to send the scab players home and ensuring that the 1995 season would be played with the big-leaguers.

But the real vapidity of Will’s argument is shown by the fact that it did take seven more years to resolve those underlying issues—and meanwhile the game thrived (albeit thanks in large part to steroid-fueled home run binging). The CBA was first revised in 1997 and began to address some of the owners’ concerns through the “luxury tax” provision and revenue sharing. Those measures were expanded upon in 2002, when Will evidently believes the “economic system” was reformed; the owners finally achieved a measure of success by threatening to contract two teams, but both sides blinked at the prospect of another long strike. Ultimately, the magnitude of the changes ultimately agreed upon that year didn't come close to the abolition of the reserve clause in the ‘70s that ushered in the age of free agency.

As for the “competitive balance” line, that’s a canard: during the period to which Will alludes (1995-2002), six NL teams won the pennant, and five different clubs won the World Series. It would have been more except for the fact that the Yankees put together a historically great team that won four titles between 1996 and 2000—and did so not primarily by buying free agents, as they did before and since, but by home-growing two future Hall of Famers (Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera) and other big stars like Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte, and surrounding them with talented grinders like Scott Brosius, Tino Martinez, Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton. There are many previous periods of baseball history in which you could take an eight-year stretch and find just two or three champions, and maybe four pennant winners in both leagues; during the '50s, a time I suspect Will would rhapsodize as a golden age for baseball, the Yankees won the AL pennant in all but two years, and the Dodgers, Braves and Giants ruled the NL.

And all this is even before you consider the silliness of comparing baseball, with its monopoly protections, to other fields in which “the essential theory of American labor relations” might be more pertinent.

Thus: suck it, Poindexter.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Get Over Yourself, Kid
I'm not a big pr0n connoisseur, so it's probably not surprising that I'd never heard of Sasha Grey until very recently, when I read that she would be starring in a new Steven Soderbergh film called "The Girlfriend Experience." If you haven't either, the basic story as I understand it is this: Ms. Grey (not her real name) is 21, and has been working in what porn kingpin Al Goldstein, with refreshing directness, used to call "fuck films" since she was 18. According to this filmography, she has appeared in 167 productions since 2006, which I gather is about the normal pace.

But as she goes out to promote the Soderbergh flick, Grey is at pains to differentiate herself from other adult film performers (even as Soderbergh freely admits that he cast her to capitalize on her notoriety). And since it's a good story, and the hard up (heh heh) newspapers are particularly desperate for those right now, the feature writers are playing along:

Moreover, Grey is establishing herself as a burgeoning multimedia mogul. She calls herself a "performance artist," is filming a documentary, writing a graphic novel and a "sex philosophy" book and recently launched her own production company with the twin goals of changing the look of pornography and empowering women.

"Part of the reason I got into this business was to change it," Grey said. "I can take my fantasies and ideas and deliver those to an audience. It's all an extension of who I am."
The actress' literary agent, Marc Gerald, is working with Grey on a coffee-table book featuring photos she took on porn sets over the last few years; it will function as a kind of "manifesto" for her singular outlook. The as-yet-untitled book from Vice/MTV Books has a tentative publication date of early next year.He pointed out that the actress operates "to the extreme" in both her business and creative pursuits. "She has an intellectual curiosity you can't force or manufacture," Gerald said.

For her part, Grey -- a petite Sacramento native who speaks with a kind of flat affect and still possesses the physique of a teenage girl -- seemed more interested in talking about her new production company Grey Art than "The Girlfriend Experience." The plan going forward is for her to act as her own manager, work exclusively for herself (rather than one of the big agencies that represent most porn performers) and even direct her own movies.

"All women have the right to be feminist whether you're pro-porn or anti-porn," she said. "But I think it's definitely about continuing to put the control in women's hands. And sending a positive message to our society that every girl in porn is not abused and cracked out."

Her past films include "Face Invaders," "I Wanna Bang Your Sister," and "The King of Coochie 4," which presumably is difficult to follow if you haven't seen the first three; those are all from 2009. To be fair, though, the project Grey did before "Coochie 4" was "Throat: A Cautionary Tale," which presumably has some philosophical heft along with (I'm guessing) multiple penetration action.

(Actually... I did look up a review of this movie. Link definitely NSFW, but I have to admit that it does sound at least sort of interesting plot-wise. It sounds like a remake of "Deep Throat," which I've also never seen but supposedly represented the high point of "art" in the field.)

I don't mean to be (very) judgmental here, nor do I doubt that people in the porn trade can be thoughtful or creative like anyone else. If Sasha Grey wants to be an artist, best of luck. But let's keep it real: people aren't watching this stuff to have their minds expanded, and on the cognitive dissonance scale her behaving as if they are is kind of akin to a NASCAR driver trying to peddle a book of poetry.
Meet the New Boss
Obama's national security speech on Thursday morning at the National Archives was, if nothing else, characteristic: he traced the recent history of an issue as he understands it, sketched out (if slightly oversimplified) the two competing positions, saluted the sincerity of people who hold those views, then tried to stake out a thoughtful middle ground. It's a good trick, even if we've seen him do it a few times now--those who compared today's remarks to the speech Obama gave last spring after the Jeremiah Wright scandal blew up were onto something in structure, at the least. And it certainly beats the "I'm right, and you're not only wrong but morally cretinous" POV of the previous administration on substance and style, hissed out by the vileness that is Dick Cheney moments after Obama wrapped up.

In truth, though, there is far less of a gulf between the policies of this administration and the last one than Cheney seems to believe. Jack Goldsmith, the former Bush administration head of the Office of Legal Counsel, declares as much in this New Republic article--though he notes that a part of the explanation is that many of the worst Bush/Cheney excesses had been curtailed by the last couple years of their administration. For Goldsmith, a serious conservative whose apostasy involved not being quite as psychopathic as some of his bosses, this continuity comes as much happier news than it does to me, or to many on the progressive side of these questions. Here is how he characterizes the distinction:

The main difference between the Obama and Bush administrations concerns not the substance of terrorism policy, but rather its packaging. The Bush administration shot itself in the foot time and time again, to the detriment of the legitimacy and efficacy of its policies, by indifference to process and presentation. The Obama administration, by contrast, is intensely focused on these issues.

The Bush White House had a principled commitment to expanding presidential power that predated 9/11. This commitment led it early on to act unilaterally on military commissions, detention, and surveillance rather than seeking political and legal support from Congress, and to oppose judicial review of these and other wartime policies. The public concerns about presidential power induced by these actions were exacerbated by the administration's expansive rhetoric. Department of Justice opinions and presidential signing statements, for example, made broad claims for an untouchable Commander-in-Chief power that were unnecessary to the tasks at hand. Just as damaging was the administration's frequently expressed desire to expand executive power in order, as Vice President Cheney put it, "to leave the presidency stronger than we found it."
The Bush administration's opposite rhetorical strategy led many people to suspect that the president was acting to increase his own power rather than to keep the country safe. The strategy's main effect was to distort the legitimacy of many Bush wartime practices that had been uncontroversial in previous wars. The early Bush administration failed to grasp what Lincoln and Roosevelt understood well: the vital ongoing need to convince the citizenry that the president is using his extraordinary war powers for the public good and not for personal or institutional aggrandizement. By the time the Bush administration began to act on this principle in its second term, it was too late; its credibility on these issues--severely damaged not only by unilateralism and expansive rhetoric, but also by mistaken intelligence in the war with Iraq--was unrecoverable.

President Obama, by contrast, entered office with great stores of credibility in speaking about the dangers of terrorism and the difficulties of meeting the terror threat. The new president was a critic of Bush administration terrorism policies, a champion of civil liberties, and an opponent of the invasion of Iraq. His decision (after absorbing the classified intelligence and considering the various options) to continue core Bush terrorism policies is like Nixon going to China. Because the Obama policies play against type and (in some quarters of his party) against interest, they appear more likely to be a necessary response to a real terror threat and thus less worrisome from the perspective of presidential aggrandizement than when the Bush administration embraced essentially the same policies.

To be clear, I don't believe that the new boss is substantially the same as the old boss. Put this down to partisan or temperamental preference if you like, but I do trust Obama more: he's empathetic and thoughtful where Bush was dogmatic and unreflective, I believe he has far greater knowledge of and respect for the Constitution, and unlike Bush he's surrounded by advisers who will articulate viewpoints favoring restraint. Still, this isn't what I was hoping for--because the administration's position implicitly (and in some cases explicitly) reserves the Executive Superpowers for future presidents, some of whom will be more along the lines of Bush (or Cheney himself) in temperament and inclination.

Another, related problem is that in past instances of presidential powers expanded in wartime, the wars had ends. Indeed, Obama (echoing Bush) stated today that this "war" won't conclude with a signing ceremony in which the other side formally gives up the fight. So there might not ever be an endpoint to the powers Bush wielded and Obama claims--and for that matter, as Glenn Greenwald writes, we're never not at war:

Nothing excites our media stars more than saluting and fetishizing the President as a "War President" and "Commander-in-Chief" (David Broder today, in his column entitled "Obama in Command": Obama is "continuing, with minor modifications, the policies and practices of his Republican predecessor . . . . Obama's liberal critics are right. He is a different man now. He has learned what it means to be commander in chief"). But isn't the phrase "war president" a complete redundancy when it comes to the U.S.? Which American presidents were not "war presidents"?

Bill Clinton presided over his war in the Balkans and various bombing campaigns in Iraq ("Operation Desert Fox"), Afghanistan and the Sudan; Bush 41 had his war -- the glorious Desert Storm -- against Iraq, which followed his intrepid invasion of Panama; Reagan conducted his various secret wars in Central America and got his direct war glory by invading Grenada and by bombing Libya (heroically taking out the infant of that country's leader); Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were all "war presidents" in Southeast Asia; Truman and Eisenhower both presided over the Korean War and the Cold War. I suppose Jimmy Carter may be one of the very few Presidents to whom the label may not apply, since our military involvement during his four post-Vietnam years was of the indirect kind, though even Carter presided over the attempted military rescue of American hostages in Iran and the peak of the Cold War. And I've omitted far more American military actions from this list than I included.
In other words, there's no such thing as an American President who is not a "war President." We never go more than a few years without some kind of a direct war, and are always waging covert and indirect ones. American presidents are inherently "war presidents." We don't really have any other kind. To vest a specific power in a President on the ground that he's a "War President" is to vest that power in presidents generally and permanently.

That's why this media construct that things are different for "war presidents" -- we have to give "war presidents" greater power and leeway; demand less transparency and accept more secrecy; acquiesce to abridgments of civil liberties when "America is at war"; and, coming soon under the Change banner, allow them the right to imprison people indefinitely with no trials even beyond "war zones" -- is so manipulative and misleading.

As I've written before, our system since the latter stages of the Vietnam conflict has made it far too easy for political leaders to send large numbers of organized, heavily armed Americans beyond our borders to work their will. That's what happens when there's no draft and no potent antiwar constituency of principle, and if that remains unchanged after the experience of the last seven years--when a shockingly small percentage of the citizenry bore all the terrible costs of the conflicts--I can't imagine what will alter the terms of the debate. As Greenwald also notes, if there's one aspect of our contemporary political culture that would shock and appall the Founders, the ease with which we go to war probably would be it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Mets and the Phillies
It's been interesting in the last couple years to watch the cognoscenti of the baseball world, most especially but not exclusively the folks at Baseball Prospectus, turn their affections from the Phillies to Mets just as the Phillies began to emerge as the divisional power. I do understand why: on balance, the Mets' core of David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Johan Santana is no worse and arguably better than the Phils' core of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and Cole Hamels, and the Mets have more money to spend (though the Phils have more than enough to compete these days). The Mets seem to "win" every off-season, having added Francisco Rodriguez (and J.J. Putz) last winter, Santana the one before that, Carlos Delgado and Billy Wagner before 2006 and Beltran and Pedro Martinez a year earlier; the Phillies didn't really measure up with winter acquisitions in any of those years.

Yet the Phils have won the division the last two seasons, and are tied for first through a month and a half this year despite an atrocious collective performance from the starting rotation and a series of meltdowns from closer Brad Lidge (who might be in the midst of another as I type here). The biggest reason the Phils edged out the Mets in each of the last two years is probably the jobs done by the two general managers, Pat Gillick for the Phils and Omar Minaya of the Mets, filling in around their superstars: Gillick found guys like J.C. Romero and Jayson Werth for nothing and made in-season trades for the likes of Joe Blanton, Scott Eyre and Matt Stairs, while Minaya tossed away the likes of Heath Bell and Jesus Flores a couple winters back and let his club's depth deteriorate to the point that he was relying upon journeyman reliever Luis Ayala to close games during the 2008 stretch drive after Wagner got injured. And right now, with Delgado on the shelf and Reyes nicked, he has Jeremy Reed playing first base and Ramon E. Martinez starting at short. As Rob Neyer notes, that's no good for a team with basically unlimited money:

You know what's worse, though? When Tim Redding is your fifth starter. Because you know what that means, don't you? It means that Livan Hernandez is your fourth starter. I happened to be at the ballpark in San Francisco last Friday night, and I just sat there in the first inning, dumbfounded, as Hernandez gave up hit after hit after hit. I can't say that I exactly felt sorry for Hernandez -- after all, nobody forced him to take the Mets' money this spring -- but I couldn't quite help myself.

More, though, I felt sorry for Mets fans who have to put up with a pitcher like Livan Hernandez every five days (particularly if he really is the club's fourth starter, and really will pitch every five days). Frankly, there's simply no excuse for a team with a new ballpark and a $150 million payroll to trot Hernandez out there regularly, and wind up with Jeremy Reed at first base in a close game, and Angel Pagan in left field at the same moment, and ... well, you get the idea. I can't feel sorry for the Mets, and I can't feel too sorry for their fans. Not with that payroll. As a guy who just likes to watch good baseball, though, I find this odd collection of talent just a little bit offensive.

The episode this is "worse" than was last night's Mets loss, for which I didn't quite stay awake. It featured Ryan Church, not tagging third base as he trotted home on what should have been the go-ahead run in the 11th inning, after which he was called out; and the last two of five errors in the bottom of the inning as the Mets fell to Los Angeles by a 3-2 score.

In addition to the Mets' depth problems on display, the gruesome defeat, or rather its aftermath, highlighted the other big difference between the Mets and the Phils. The first of the two errors in the 11th came after a leadoff walk, when Dodgers batter Xavier Paul hit a fly ball to center; Beltran called for it, but left fielder Angel Pagan--another backup pressed into duty--either didn't hear him or ignored him. The ball ticked off Beltran's glove and rolled away, putting men on second and third with no outs. Three batters later, the Mets lost the game when emergency first baseman Reed made a throwing error on a possible double play--but it was the fly ball that both did them in and revealed the club's other serious issue. From the game story:

Pagan and Beltran converged. Beltran said he called the ball, “like, six times,” but Pagan did not move.

“Pagan was still in the middle and I couldn’t see the ball,” Beltran said. “If Pagan would have called that ball, my job is to get out of the way. Basically he stood in the middle and I just couldn’t see the ball.”

This would never, ever happen on the Phillies. Beltran is a superstar, a guy whose contract is worth nearly $120 million; Pagan is a journeyman who's still probably thrilled to get the per diem. It's never good form for any player to toss a teammate under the bus, but for a star to do that to a backup is... well, it's awful. And for a manager, in this case Jerry Manuel, to allow that sort of dynamic to fester borders on gross negligence.

The Mets and Phillies are sufficiently close in talent that a big injury or two, or even simple luck, could determine which club wins and which loses--as arguably those factors did the last two seasons. But for as much as old-school baseball types probably overvalue non-quantifiable factors like "chemistry," I'd certainly rather have the Phils' non-quantifiables.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Three Peeks Into the Right-Leaning Mind
Richard Posner, a prolific author and highly regarded judge on the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, bemoans the marginalization of the conservative intellectual:

By the end of the Clinton administration, I was content to celebrate the triumph of conservatism as I understood it, and had no desire for other than incremental changes in the economic and social structure of the United States. I saw no need for the estate tax to be abolished, marginal personal-income tax rates further reduced, the government shrunk, pragmatism in constitutional law jettisoned in favor of "originalism," the rights of gun owners enlarged, our military posture strengthened, the rise of homosexual rights resisted, or the role of religion in the public sphere expanded. All these became causes embraced by the new conservatism that crested with the reelection of Bush in 2004.

My theme is the intellectual decline of conservatism, and it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising. The major blows to conservatism, culminating in the election and programs of Obama, have been fourfold: the failure of military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives; the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect, as in the denial of global warming, the use of religious criteria in the selection of public officials, the neglect of management and expertise in government; a continued preoccupation with abortion; and fiscal incontinence in the form of massive budget deficits, the Medicare drug plan, excessive foreign borrowing, and asset-price inflation.

By the fall of 2008, the face of the Republican Party had become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals had no party.

During the later Bush years, I thought that right-wingers were increasingly falling prey to the same temptation that did in the Left a generation ago: seeing the world not as it was, but as they wanted it to be. (Witness the Terri Schiavo intervention, the effort to privatize Social Security, the complete unwillingness to rein in market excesses, and the irrational belief that diplomatic isolation combined with kicking someone else's ass would somehow deter North Korea and Iran from their nuclear ambitions.) Usually when this happens, an electoral smack in the face or two is sufficient to prompt a return to reality-based politics, as was the case with Democrats after their landslide losses in 1972 and 1984. Today's Republicans, however, seem more eager to double down on what they see as purity and most of us regard as unhinged extremism than to seriously engage on the most important issues of the day with good faith and new ideas. It's less a philosophy than a dogma, and consequently the party is increasingly less a coalition than a cult.

So it's maybe not surprising that the foremost defender of the faith will pen her testimonial:

Sarah Palin is ready to tell her side, agreeing to publish a memoir with HarperCollins. The book comes out in Spring 2010 — the year she is up for re-election.
"There's been so much written about and spoken about in the mainstream media and in the anonymous blogosphere world, that this will be a wonderful, refreshing chance for me to get to tell my story, that a lot of people have asked about, unfiltered," the Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential candidate said during a brief telephone interview Tuesday with The Associated Press.
"Being a voracious reader, I read a lot today and have read a lot growing up. And having that journalism degree, all of that, will be a great assistance for me in writing this book, talking about the challenges and the joys, balancing the work and parenting, and, in my case, work means running the state," Palin said.

"I've read a variety of books, and that helps shape my opinions and my views."

Maybe the upside of Palin repeatedly insisting that she reads a lot is that it might inspire some of her admirers to do the same, and once somebody starts reading, the odds that they'll begin to think for themselves improve. Then again, based on this one example, reading Palin is likely to prove as headache-inducing for anyone who values coherence as was listening to her speak in interviews and campaign appearances.

She does not, however, represent the nadir of right-wing thought, at least so long as the RNC is around:

A conservative faction of the Republican National Committee is urging the GOP to take a harder line against both Democrats and wayward Republicans, drafting a resolution to rename the opposition the “Democrat Socialist Party” and moving to rebuke the three Republican senators who supported the stimulus package.

In an e-mail sent Wednesday to the 168 voting members of the committee, RNC member James Bopp, Jr. accused President Obama of wanting “to restructure American society along socialist ideals.”

“The proposed resolution acknowledges that and calls upon the Democrats to be truthful and honest with the American people by renaming themselves the Democrat Socialist Party,” wrote Bopp, the Republican committeeman from Indiana. “Just as President Reagan’s identification of the Soviet Union as the ‘evil empire’ galvanized opposition to communism, we hope that the accurate depiction of the Democrats as a Socialist Party will galvanize opposition to their march to socialism.”

The measure is likely to pass next week, over the objections of party chairman Michael Steele. Actually, Steele comes across as thoughtful on this question, writing in a memo that "while he believes Democrats 'are indeed marching America toward European-style socialism,' ... officially referring to them as the Democrat Socialist Party 'will accomplish little than to give the media and our opponents the opportunity to mischaracterize Republicans.'” Personally, I'm almost surprised that the members didn't go with something like the Stinkypoop Homoterror Party.

Other than providing some amusement, the descent of modern conservatism from Posner and Buckley to Palin and Bopp does nobody any good. Without an electorally competitive Republican Party (or some new alternative to it), we'll increasingly see the worst of the Democrats; indeed, it could be happening already. The next example of effective one-party rule that leads to good governance will be the first.
Overwhelming Force
I just received a phone call from Mayor Bloomberg's re-election campaign. Caller ID registered it as "UNKNOWN CALLER," which most often means it's Annie calling from her work number, but not this time. When I answered, a real live person began to read his script about the Five-Borough Economic Plan and its wonderful job creation and sustainability components. At the end of this maybe thirty-second spiel, the caller asked if the mayor could definitely count on my vote in November's election.

I responded, "We'll see."

He then asked what was the number one issue I was concerned with in the city, at which point I said that I didn't really have time to talk (not true) and he wished me a great day and got off the phone. In retrospect, I should have answered "overturning term limits," which is by far my biggest potential reason for not voting to re-elect the mayor; as I think about it now, I'm dying to know what the script's response is to that complaint. (Given the extensive market research we know Bloomberg conducted in 2005 and presumably is utilizing again this year, I'm guessing that it goes something like this: anyone who complains about term limits is probably a reform-minded liberal, so the best counter-argument is that Bloomberg's independence and freedom from partisan constraints has been of great benefit to the city over the past eight years and will continue to stand us in good stead through the current difficult economy.)

But more to the point, I'm just blown away by the fact that, six months before the election and at a time when Bloomberg's approval ratings remain high and he doesn't even have a clear opponent, the campaign has phone bankers on the payroll calling registered voters. Then again, he's already spent millions on TV advertising that emphasizes the same Five-Borough Economic Plan--that phrase must have tested through the roof--so paying some schlubs $12 an hour to make phone calls doesn't represent an additional major expense.

For the record, I still consider myself undecided. The question remains whether a Bloomberg in his third term (historically a bad idea for New York incumbents), ever more convinced of his own infallibility but still independent by virtue of his unfathomable wealth, is preferable to a Democrat who probably lacks the mayor's managerial acumen and comes pre-corrupted by all the institutional forces that warp the miserable breed known as New York City Democratic politicians. At the moment, my answer is "probably," but I'm open to being convinced otherwise.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Elections Have Consequences
The unemployment figures released on Friday--while still quite horrible--suggest that we might at least have hit bottom in the current recession. But I find much more encouraging the remarks of the President yesterday:

[I]f we want to come out of this recession stronger than before, we need to make sure that our workforce is better prepared than ever before. Right now, someone who doesn't have a college degree is more than twice as likely to be unemployed as someone who does. And so many of the Americans who have lost their jobs can't find new ones because they simply don't have the skills and the training they need for the jobs they want.

In a 21st century economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, education is the single best bet we can make -- not just for our individual success, but for the success of the nation as a whole. The average college graduate earns 80 percent more than those who stopped after high school. So if we want to help people not only get back on their feet today but prosper tomorrow, we need to take a rigorous new approach to higher education and technical training. And that starts by changing senseless rules that discourage displaced workers from getting the education and training they need to find and fill the jobs of the future.
So today I'm announcing new steps we are taking to do exactly that -- to give people across America who have lost their jobs the chance to go back to school today to get retrained for the jobs and industries of tomorrow.

The idea here is to fundamentally change our approach to unemployment in this country, so that it's no longer just a time to look for a new job, but is also a time to prepare yourself for a better job. That's what our unemployment system should be -- not just a safety net, but a stepping stone to a new future. It should offer folks educational opportunities they wouldn't otherwise have, giving them the measurable and differentiated skills they need just -- not just to get through hard times, but to get ahead when the economy comes back.
Say an unemployed factory worker wants to upgrade his skills to become a mechanic or a technician. In many states, that worker might lose temporary financial support if he enrolls in a training program. And to make matters worse, unemployment might mean he can't afford higher education, and he likely won't qualify for federal help simply because he may have made a decent salary a year ago, before he was laid off.

Well, that doesn't make much sense for our economy or our country. So we're going to change it. First, we'll open new doors to higher education and job training programs to recently laid-off workers who are receiving unemployment benefits. And if those displaced workers need help paying for their education, they should get it -- and that's why the next step is to make it easier for them to receive Pell Grants of the sort that Maureen used.

I've asked my Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and my Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, to work closely with states and our institutions of higher learning and encourage them not only to allow these changes, but to inform all workers receiving unemployment benefits of the training programs and financial support open to them.
These steps are just a short-term down payment on our larger goal of ensuring that all Americans get the skills and education they need to succeed in today's economy. And to that end, I have asked once again every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. It can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship; but whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And we will be backing up that effort with the support necessary. And we will ensure that by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

In the weeks to come, I will also lay out a fundamental rethinking of our job training, vocational education, and community college programs. It's time to move beyond the idea that we need several different programs to address several different problems -- we need one comprehensive policy that addresses our comprehensive challenges.

Not to overdramatize it, but this is the speech that many of us in workforce development have been waiting to hear from a president for the bulk of our professional lives.

It's not LBJ on civil rights or Reagan in Berlin--hell, I might not even have known about it if it weren't for emails circulated by advocacy groups; job training and education have never been sexy content for the press, and as far as I can see, there was no prominent coverage of this speech other than a line or two of reference in stories about the job loss figures. But it sends the message both that Obama gets that knowledge now drives our economy (and that, going forward, this is a much more solid foundation for growth than a return to insanely over-leveraged financial shenanigans), and that his policymaking will reflect this understanding. Three years ago, we had a president who annually proposed to gut funding for human capital formation activities and a Congress that half-heartedly pushed back to moderate the worst of the cuts but still enabled a year-over-year reduction in support, even as an increasingly dynamic/unstable labor market (of which more below) necessitated a stronger safety net. Now we've got a president who understands the problem and a Congress that, if anything, might push him farther on ensuring adequate resources. (Here is the administration's fact sheet on Department of Labor funding in the FY2010 budget.)

And not a moment too soon. Over the last thirty years, we've seen a handful of related fundamental changes in the labor market: manufacturing jobs have all but disappeared, unions have shrunk in power and influence, and income returns to education have spiked, as this 2008 chart shows:

The trend is, if anything, probably accelerating and intensifying. According to a presentation by an economist with the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, between 1979 and 2005-2007, the percent change for expected lifetime earnings in constant dollars for New York City residents was -8.8 percent for those who didn't complete high school; -3.6 percent for high school graduates; -2.5 percent for those with one to three years of college; +28.5 percent for bachelors degree completers, and +45.5 percent for those with a masters or higher. Further, as Obama remarked, education also provides a strong measure of protection against unemployment, through good times and bad.

The upshot of all this, as was noted in the same presentation, is that the public has a huge stake in the educational attainment of its citizens. Over the course of a working lifetime, a New Yorker who didn't complete high school could be expected to cost the public treasury $134,037 more, in cash and in-kind assistance and "institutional costs"--incarceration, the shelter system, and so forth--than he or she will pay in taxes. By contract, a high school graduate or GED completer will contribute a net $192,715, and someone with a Master's or higher can be expected to contribute a net of more than $1.5 million. (Presumably, this isn't me; this is me, plus some corporate macher who makes in a day and a half what I make in a year, divided by two.)

Of course, all this is good reason to invest much more than $50 million in dropout reduction--but that's probably another subject for another day. And more needs to be done to help low-income people balance responsibilities of employment, family, and education, including policies around flex-time and income insurance (one of the notions Obama seems to hint at in the speech). But this is a very promising start.

Embedded in our societal ethic of rugged individualism and deference to free markets is the notion that education is primarily a private good, especially after high school when it's no longer publicly provided or mandated, where the rewards of attainment accrue more or less solely to the educated individual. But in a global economy where we compete on grounds of skill, innovation and creativity, this is less true with every passing day; aggregate educational outcomes in any community you care to discuss exert an enormous impact on equality, prosperity, and public safety, to name just three factors. It's profoundly encouraging to me that our current leaders seem to appreciate this reality.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

I remember well when William Brennan retired from the Supreme Court in the summer of 1990, eventually to be replaced by a New Hampshirite named David Souter about whom very little was known. As a sensitive and desperately undersexed 17 year-old, I wrote a long non-rhyming poem that, among other things, lamented Brennan's retirement; a year later, Fugazi put out a song that carried the same message, but rocked a lot harder.

Souter, however, turned out to be a pretty fair justice--an enormous disappointment to the militant Republicans who championed his nomination, and an unlikely hero to the liberals who initially viewed his appointment with dismay. When he announced his plans to retire last week, the right took one last opportunity to boo and hiss a man they regarded as a betrayer before starting the pre-emptive demonization of whoever will replace him. I thought this recent article made an important point, though: Souter could credibly argue to be a "judicial conservative," in that he showed a consistent deference to legal precedent and a sympathy to the notion that overturning established legal norms would create chaos within American jurisprudence as well as in the affected domains of policy.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this is the kind of conservatism I can get behind: a reluctance to change too much too fast, or to impose an unambiguous, ideologically driven preference upon a public far more divided in its views. In the realm of policy, this likely constrains liberals more than conservatives: it furnishes the most compelling argument against blowing up the current patchwork of health coverage in favor of a single-payer system, for instance. In matters of law, however, this is exactly the sensibility that the likes of John Roberts and Sam Alito seem most determined to sweep aside--hence their decisions gutting school desegregation and aggressively reinterpreting the Second Amendment, among other matters previously thought to be settled. There are few more bitter ironies in public life today than self-described conservatives bemoaning "judicial activists," when the judges most determined to discard precedents and impose their own views from the bench are all now found on the far right.

I think one would have to go back to Lyndon Johnson's presidency to find the last "activist liberal" appointed to the Court. One question now facing President Obama is whether he will seek to replace Souter with a Roberts or Alito of the left, or a Souter-type champion of judicial restraint. Another way to frame this choice is whether Obama's ideal justice would more regularly do battle with conservative ideologue Antonin Scalia, or seek to bring the consistently inconsistent Anthony Kennedy over to the liberal side.

Among the rumored candidates for the nomination is Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who would be the first Hispanic justice and third woman ever appointed. Sotomayor first got public attention--and won a permanent spot in my heart--in March 1995, when she issued the injunction that ended the baseball strike. The evolving debate over her possible nomination offers an interesting window into the state of our national discourse: coincidentally or not, the right's emerging critique of Judge Sotomayor--that she's possessed of a second-rate intellect and an obnoxious temperament--aligns almost perfectly with the stereotypical denigration of Puerto Ricans from the Bronx; she happens to be a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. Glenn Greenwald offered a devastating takedown of this smear against Sotomayor earlier this week that's well worth a read.

I've always found the Supreme Court pretty compelling anyway (did I mention I wrote a poem about William Brennan's resignation when I was 17?...), but Sotomayor's prospects for elevation especially so because I know her--very slightly--socially.

The judge presided at the 2005 wedding of one of Annie's friends, a lawyer who had met her professionally and struck up a friendship, at a private residence in Connecticut. At the reception afterwards we talked about baseball a bit; she's a huge Yankees fan, as you might expect from a Bronx native. She's not, however, very fond of Alex Rodriguez, whom she claimed couldn't hit in the clutch. (I disagreed then, both on the grounds that clutch hitting doesn't exist and that the guy had delivered in enough big spots to discredit the argument; four years later, I'm not as sure about either point.) She was also at a party in Brooklyn thrown by the same friends a few months later, and wound up giving Annie and me a ride into Manhattan at the end of it--during which she solemnly pronounced that she could tell we were "a good couple."

Obviously this doesn't have much to do with whether she would be an effective Supreme Court justice. But I'll admit it has me rooting for her appointment.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Boob vs. Lech
Amusing/sad poll finding of the day:

The latest Marist Poll is a mixed bag for Gov. David Paterson (D-NY). It's partly bad news -- and partly really bad news.

This number must really hurt: When New York's registered voters are asked whether they would rather have Eliot Spitzer or David Paterson as governor, it's Spitzer 51%, Paterson 38%.

Back to Spitzer in a bit, but let's briefly consider the desperate straits of the incumbent. Overall, Paterson's approval rating is at 19 percent, and almost every story involving the governor's popularity now includes the words "record low." He's evidently committed to running next year regardless, despite widespread speculation that Attorney General Andrew Cuomo will take the top spot on the Democratic ticket. (That Cuomo leads Paterson by about 50 points in polling certainly strengthens this theory.)

But Paterson's evident plan to revive political fortunes seems as confused and boneheaded as everything else in his accidental tenure--even if some aspects of it are surprisingly admirable. The obvious strategy for him would be to emphasize his African-American heritage, a gambit that makes particular sense against Cuomo; the current attorney general and son of the three-term governor saw his 2002 bid for the statehouse founder when he went up against state Comptroller Carl McCall, an African-American behind whom Democratic leaders had coalesced early in the campaign cycle. Cuomo ultimately withdrew from the race before the primary and has spent much of his time since trying to rebuild his bridges with black voters and party insiders.

Even if Paterson doesn't generally present himself as a "black politician"--to his credit, as far as I'm concerned--he does hail from the Harlem Democratic machine, and rallying the New York City establishment behind him probably would suffice to hold off Cuomo. His highest-profile campaign-like move to date, however, has been to come out in favor of same-sex marriage... a position supported by majorities of whites and Hispanics, but opposed by a plurality of African-Americans. Add in that Paterson's timing, if not his underlying position (he was a champion of same-sex unions in the state Senate for years before joining Spitzer's ticket as lieutenant governor in 2006), is pretty explicitly political, and it's not hard to see how the position could sap enthusiasm in the black community for his re-election, if not actual support.

(Of course, this is more than a little tricky for Cuomo as well. Our Democratic electorate is pretty liberal, after all, and if he tries to run to Paterson's right on marriage equality--by favoring civil unions, say--he'll risk turning contributors and volunteers back toward the governor. Personally, as an absolutist on marriage equality who's not fond of either Paterson or Cuomo, it could be a threshold issue for my primary vote... though the thought of voting for Paterson makes me almost physically ill. Considering both this issue and his past tangle with McCall, Cuomo is surely hoping that Paterson withdraws from the race before he has to jump in and take him on directly.)

Meanwhile, Paterson continues trying to govern while struggling with public contempt on a level far more intense than even George W. Bush saw. I think the guy's done a fairly awful job, failing to manage his legislative majorities and looking ever more ineffectual on the subject of the MTA bailout--something I keep meaning to write about here, but that makes me angry well beyond the point of coherence. Still... 19 percent? If I had to, I could make an argument for the guy: he finally got reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws through, he passed a budget that has more spending than I or many New Yorkers would have preferred but managed not to gut education or social services, as right-wingers were calling, and recently he issued an executive order that will please many union members. (Another naked political gambit, but probably good policy nonetheless: there's no reason why public subsidies should support employers who bully and deprive their workers as a matter of course.) So the low rating likely has as much or more to do with a by now well established public perception of Paterson's ineptitude than a reasoned consideration of his actions in office--though, again, I think that perception is grounded in reality. (Conservatives can and have argued that Bush was the victim of a similar dynamic in his last two years, and to be fair, the bulk of his substantive disasters probably did come while he enjoyed far more public support than he did in 2007-2008.)

The evident public preference for Paterson's unfortunate predecessor also makes more sense than it might at first seem. In 2006, Spitzer won an overwhelming victory; the race was really more a coronation than a contest. By the time his sexcapades drove him from office, his ratings were way down from the early public adoration he'd enjoyed... but still around twice Paterson's current approval. Spitzer never seemed overwhelmed or unequal to the office; he just came across as a bullying asshole in a job where some diplomacy was called for. Ironically, that unpleasant type-A nature probably would be playing well today as "the sheriff of Wall Street" likely would be a media fixture in debates over post-crash regulation of financial markets. Sadly, the job I think Spitzer would be absolutely perfect for--leader of a new "Pecora Commission" to investigate the facts behind the pre-recession machinations and recommend corrective measures--is probably beyond his reach thanks to his legacy as Client Number Nine.