Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Three days after the big snowstorm, full subway service was finally restored today with the B/Q--the lines we use most often--up and running as of sometime late morning. Caton Avenue is clear, but not the side streets that feed into it like Marlborough Road, as noted by Times columnist Michael Powell in a scathing article. The Mayor, initially defensive to criticisms of the City's response to the storm, about-faced and took a mea culpa today.

I've lived here for most of the last 15 years and remember a couple winter storms that seemed more severe, but no response as slow and weak as this one has seemed. Then again, when those blizzards hit, I was living in Manhattan or Park Slope--wealthier areas with better services. Maybe it's always this bad in worse-off communities, and maybe the unpleasant commutes I've had the last two days (on the F, mostly) are run-of-the-mill bad transit luck having nothing to do with the storm, and simply ill-timed to coincide with yet another fare increase that goes into effect tomorrow.

But maybe not. There was a story in the Times earlier this year about what's happening in communities across the country where revenues in the prolonged economic downturn were inadequate to both pay for expected levels of public services and balance budgets, and how those communities made cuts:

Faced with the steepest and longest decline in tax collections on record, state, county and city governments have resorted to major life-changing cuts in core services like education, transportation and public safety that, not too long ago, would have been unthinkable. And services in many areas could get worse before they get better.

The length of the downturn means that many places have used up all their budget gimmicks, cut services, raised taxes, spent their stimulus money — and remained in the hole. Even with Congress set to approve extra stimulus aid, some analysts say states are still facing huge shortfalls.

Cities and states are notorious for crying wolf around budget time, and for issuing dire warnings about draconian cuts that never seem to materialize. But the Great Recession has been different. Around the country, there have already been drastic cuts in core services like education, transportation and public safety, and there are likely to be more before the downturn ends.

Having to wait an extra day or two for streets to get plowed or sidewalks shoveled doesn't approach in severity a shift to a four-day school week, or shutting off streetlights and furloughing cops. But it does seem to be part of the story of the City's sluggish response to the snowstorm of December 2010. The Sanitation Department is down about 400 employees from a few years ago, and the insufficiency of the regular public workforce to the crisis is illustrated by the fact that NYC has hired hundreds of day laborers to aid in the dig-out effort. Factoring in overtime for those workers who remain, the expense of hiring at-need labor presumably wipes out a big chunk of whatever was saved through the reduction to Sanitation's workforce.

As anti-government sentiment becomes consistently both more extreme and more detached from reality, New York has mostly proven immune. Nobody could accuse Mayor Bloomberg of dismissing the power of the public sector to make positive change in the lives of the citizenry; from banning smoking in bars to mandating calorie counts in chain restaurants to winning control of the public schools, he's been arguably the most activist public official in the country over his nine years in office. But cuts in state and federal aid over the last few decades hurt the City in countless ways every day, directly and indirectly; this is just one instance, and we're probably blaming the wrong people.

Public discourse also overlooks the role of government activity in the economy itself. Ezra Klein posted today that the erosion of public sector employment through 2010 is among the biggest causes of our ongoing labor market doldrums. While anyone who draws a public paycheck (a group I count myself among) will also draw scorn from certain corners, there are plenty of times when you really want them on the job. Like when it snows.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Livin' the Dream
If you’re at all attached to the media or popular culture, you can’t really escape the Palins. The half-term former governor, someone I personally regard as nothing more than an aging Mean Girl, a probable sociopath and possible sadist, inspires such ferocious devotion from a chunk of the electorate that she’s a plausible presidential nominee, with an outside shot she actually gets the job. Meanwhile, she has a highly popular “reality” television show and an upcoming book. One daughter evidently is about to win a dancing contest decided by voting that it’s difficult to argue is all that much more farcical than the elections we hold to determine political power. Another is either a hateful bigot, a typically immature teenager, or both. And so on.

I don’t think the ubiquity of the Palins is solely a function of the mother’s charisma or attractiveness (though admittedly she is the first presidential candidate to whom a heterosexual male could masturbate without deep misgivings, which obviously is a part of the story). In a moment when most sober observers note that the American Dream as classically understood seems to be slipping out of reach, the Palins are living the 21st century, bad-joke version of that Dream: they’ve gotten very wealthy and very, very famous despite the absence of any obvious talent or accomplishment.

Under any established or even coherent value system, this isn’t rational, much less admirable. From a narrative standpoint, it’s actually kind of offensive: you need to do something—overcome a challenge, show strength of character or intelligence, best a rival, deliver service, something—to earn the happy ending. Again, though, this seems entirely of a piece with where our politics and culture are going now.

The issue that just boggles my mind is the evident Republican rejection of the “New START” nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia--a decision which worsens that important international relationship, undermines European security and makes it much harder to contain Iran… all because these goals are far secondary to inflicting another political defeat on the president. Not quite as bad, but still pretty awful, is the unyielding rejection on the part of left Democrats, led by the incomparably tone-deaf Nancy Pelosi, of bipartisan deficit reduction plans that include adjustments to or reductions of benefits through social insurance programs.

(I could write a long separate piece about these proposals, to which I’m generally sympathetic on the merits even if I find some of the particulars--like the seemingly arbitrary call of Simpson-Bowles to cap spending and revenues at 21 percent of GDP--a little goofy. More than anything, they kind of make me sad: they represent a bygone conception of politics in which compromise wasn’t just inevitable but admirable, from a time before polarized media made that instinct a political death mark. Paul Ryan’s idealized notion of how to restore long-term fiscal balance is as unrealistic as Paul Krugman’s—but it’s possible both would rather see us default than accept that the other guy might have a point. The larger takeaway is that the policy is actually quite easy—see this New York Times application in which you can make a series of policy choices to close the deficit by 2030; I did it, generating a surplus of several hundred billion dollars, the majority coming from spending cuts rather than revenue gains, without core cuts to entitlements—there was a cap on Medicare increase and some Social Security benefit reduction to higher income seniors—or even going back to Clinton-era tax rates, which themselves were pretty low in historical terms—but the politics is fucking close to impossible.)

Outside of the mainstream, the culture seems more wistful than angry. As I type this, I’m listening to Bruce Springsteen’s “lost” album The Promise, recorded in the years between Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, when The Boss was embroiled in fiendishly complex legal troubles and at something of a creative crossroads. The songs are all about disappointment and compromise and yearning, similar to but a bit more gentle than those that wound up on “Darkness”; it feels perfectly of this time, not the mid/late ‘70s. And I’ve just started reading Rick Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death, a novel released this year set a few decades from now, in which the economic desperation of the Rust Belt seems to have expanded across the U.S. in conjunction with a slow-moving environmental disaster and the sense that our historical moment has passed is pervasive:

We were citizens of a post-industrial economy that no longer produced much. Our rate of emigration exceeded our rate of immigration. Our GDP was contracting for what? The twelfth quarter? Tourism was down. Manufacturing was all but non-existent… This once robust superpower may have been on its last legs, but we still loved it, the way you love a dog in the backyard, whose attempts to close its jaws around your leg are stymied only by the rope tethered to the dead paloverde.

One more dumb war, one default, and I think we're just about there.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

A Quick Take on the Election Results
I think it's a near-consensus view that the president's re-election chances really hinge on how the economy performs over the next two years. Of course, the Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, has said that his top priority is making sure that Obama is a one-term president. So does it follow that the now-empowered Republicans will try to thwart any action to boost the economy?

The obvious response (promptly offered when I wrote this on is that they've been doing just that the last two years, so why expect anything to change. There's something to this, I grant, but with the House of Representatives under their control, they probably will need to come up with something to say to the country beyond "No." With even a tiny majority--and it looks like they're going to have a pretty big one--you can push anything through the House, and so the Republicans surely will.

But, as others have written, this is a blessing not even all that well disguised for Obama in a political sense. He has a foil now. Put his ideas and ability to communicate against Speaker-presumptive John Boehner's, and as a progressive I'm feeling pretty good about who wins that argument.

Add in that Boehner is going to have a hell of a time with his caucus (see this very informative National Journal piece) and it should be at least pretty interesting. What Boehner wants to do, per my read of that article, is impose reforms that give the appearance of empowering new members, somewhat de-emphasizing seniority and strengthening committees, but that don't actually cede power. I guess the gamble is that the new Republican members, predominantly hard-right types, will focus their ire on the (probably still) Democratic Senate and/or President rather than Boehner and his leadership team; I have my doubts.

I'm a Democrat at this point primarily because I believe they're more serious (though not nearly serious enough) about honestly addressing the major structural problems the country faces, and secondarily because they're more in line with my personal values (individual freedoms, equality of opportunity, equal rights, etc). While it might not have mattered given the economy, I do think the Dems failed utterly to point out how totally incoherent the Republicans are on those same challenges: foaming-at-the-mouth angry about deficits and debt but unwilling even to support common-sense measures to rein in health care costs, look hard at military expenditures or ever contemplate letting a tax cut lapse, let alone an increase. Mindlessly bleating American triumphalism but ignorant of the economic basis of our world-historical success--human capital plus smart public investments--and thus intent on killing the golden goose (or, more accurately, letting it continue to die). Eager to pick fights all over the world without acknowledging simple logic of cause and effect, or that wars ain't cheap. And so on.

My guess is that Obama will suddenly find it a lot easier to expose the hash of the Republican agenda and make the case that he's the grownup in the room. Ultimately, though, we need the Republicans to get serious too. The real bad news about this year's results might be that with so many clowns winning office, that's probably going to take longer than it would have if the nuts got clobbered again. And, worse, many of the less clownish Republicans--Mike Castle most obviously, but he's not the only one--didn't even win within their party.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Cablevision Agonistes
I got to watch Game Three of the World Series last night on my TV. This wouldn't be remarkable were it not for the fact that I wasn't able to watch the first two games of the Rangers-Giants series, nor the entirety of my beloved Phillies' six-game loss to the Giants in the National League Championship Series, owing to a dispute between the carrier, Cablevision, and News Corp, the parent company of Fox, that kept Fox's New York City affiliate off the air in the homes of Cablevision subscribers from October 16, when the NLCS began, until sometime yesterday, on the 30th, when the two parties reached an agreement in principle. (I watched the NLCS, drinking heavily and generally slipping into despair as the favored Phillies fell behind and ultimately were sent home in six games, on this computer, through a foreign stream of dubious legality in a window about the size of a new-school package of stamps. Partly because of lingering pain over the Phils getting bounced, partly because it didn't seem worth it anyway, I only listened to the radio for a bit of World Series Game Two while doing some work.)

The NewsCorp-Cablevision pissing contest was unusual in the annals of such disputes for its length--they usually don't last even a full day--and bitterness. And while details of the resolution aren't yet public, it sure sounds like Cablevision caved, meaning that I and everyone else will have to pay more on the ol' cable bill for stations available for free over the air! Check out their statement:

In the absence of any meaningful action from the FCC, Cablevision has agreed to pay Fox an unfair price for multiple channels of its programming including many in which our customers have little or no interest. Cablevision conceded because it does not think its customers should any longer be denied the Fox programs they wish to see.

Cablevision thanks its customers for understanding the reasons for the dispute and for staying with us. We are also grateful to the 175 government leaders who raised their voices to urge government intervention and binding arbitration to prevent this blackout. It is clear the retransmission consent system is badly broken and needs to be fixed.

In the end, our customers will pay more than they should for Fox programming, but less than they would have if we had accepted the unprecedented rates News Corp. was demanding when they pulled their channels off Cablevision.

From the outset of the dispute, Cablevision announced its willingness to accept binding third-party arbitration; News Corp did not. As the shot at the FCC suggests, the former company's repeated requests for federal intervention were rejected--perhaps because News Corp has given money early and often to officials in Washington, ">primarily but not exclusively to Republicans. Still, public outrage might have forced a quicker resolution had the Yankees' playoff series been on Fox rather than TBS (or if they'd won that round and advanced to the World Series), or were the Giants on Fox last weekend rather than ESPN's Monday Night Football. (They're on a bye this week, though the Jets are on Fox as they're hosting Green Bay; that probably impelled Fox to make whatever fig leaf of a concession they ultimately did.)

News Corp's profits in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2010 were $875 million. Poor Cablevision, a much smaller entity, made "only" $61 million in the same three-month period.

The greed of these two entities is shocking enough, but government's unwillingness or inability to intervene in what seems like a pretty clear case of market failure is what I can't get past. I have no real alternative to Cablevision; my understanding (this might be wrong) is that they have a local monopoly in this neighborhood, and a satellite dish isn't feasible in this building. I could have bought a $25 antenna to attach to my TV to get Fox over the air--but I didn't really feel like paying any additional money on top of what we already spend on cable every month. So I watched a shitty feed on my desktop during the NLCS and hoped they'd resolve in time for me to catch some of the Series.

I worry that this is symptomatic of a current trend that's about to accelerate, big-time: obscenely rich corporate entities battling over how to split up their ever-growing pie, while consumers suffer in helplessness and the government that ostensibly speaks for them sidelines itself because it's somehow convinced itself that it needs the companies more than vice-versa. (Remember that these are publicly owned airwaves, in theory at least.) In another one of those fiendishly brilliant moves they seem able to pull off every few years, Republicans evidently have convinced a majority of the likely-voting public that companies accountable to nobody but their shareholders somehow are more reliable caretakers of the public good than are the elected and appointed officials of democratic government. (How else could having insurance company bureaucrats exercise effective control over your health care decisions be preferable to "government bureaucrats" doing the same?)

I haven't seen any public polling on which entity is perceived to bear the bulk of blame in the Cablevision-News Corp kerfuffle. But based on this, the answer is probably "Barack Obama." Until the public grasps the facts rather than a dishonest story told by self-interested parties, the field will become ever more clear for the News Corps of the world to act in vile and irresponsible ways, and even be cheered for it.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The ACA and the USA
I've been thinking recently about how the future of the Affordable Care Act, the health care reform law passed last March, could be read as (not to be too dramatic) the future of American politics itself.

Here's a measure that, warts and all, provides for a massive expansion of coverage to people in need and cost savings that could range from minor to game-changing, depending on the course of implementation. (See here for an excellent examination of how the biggest battles in the health care reform war remain to be fought in the years to come.) Within the context of those goals, it's business-friendly to a fault. Each state has a great deal of leeway in setting up its exchanges and other provisions. It's the arguably more conservative version of what Mitt Romney did in Massachusetts.

And the Republicans, who never engaged in good faith in helping to shape the policy, want to cripple or kill it for reasons they can't even coherently articulate.

For starters, Republicans say they will try to withhold money that federal officials need to administer and enforce the law. They know that even if they managed to pass a wholesale repeal, Mr. Obama would veto it.

"They’ll get not one dime from us,” the House Republican leader, John A. Boehner of Ohio, told The Cincinnati Enquirer recently. “Not a dime. There is no fixing this.”

Republicans also intend to go after specific provisions. Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, a senior Republican on the Finance Committee, has introduced a bill that would eliminate a linchpin of the new law: a requirement for many employers to offer insurance to employees or pay a tax penalty. Many Republicans also want to repeal the law’s requirement for most Americans to obtain health insurance.

Alternatively, Republicans say, they will try to prevent aggressive enforcement of the requirements by limiting money available to the Internal Revenue Service, which would collect the tax penalties.

Republicans say they will also try to scale back the expansion of Medicaid if states continue to object to the costs of adding millions of people to the rolls of the program for low-income people.

In addition, Republican lawmakers may try to undo some cuts in Medicare, the program for older Americans. Many want to restore money to Medicare’s managed-care program and clip the wings of a new agency empowered to recommend cuts in Medicare. Recommendations from the agency, the Independent Payment Advisory Board, could go into effect automatically unless blocked by subsequent legislative action.

The political problem with the ACA is twofold: one, it came along in a moment when everyone is suspicious if not contemptuous of government to start with, and two, its painful components might be better known, and are generally easier to explain ("the government is going to force you to do something!") than its goodies ("states will set up and regulate a series of exchanges through which you can choose among a range of health coverage options"). Knowing this, the Republicans have made "repeal and replace" the centerpiece of the campaign manifesto they released this week.

That this makes absolutely no sense isn't deterring them. They claim to want to keep the candy provisions (for instance, no discrimination by insurers for pre-existing conditions) while cutting the veggies (the individual mandate) that pay for the candy. They boisterously oppose Medicare cost savings less draconian and intrusive than what they put forward a few years back. And they killed provisions that would have saved far more money--the public option, early Medicare buy-in--probably because they knew those components of the reform would be popular and effective, undermining the whole "gummit's no good, so let us run it" argument. Their favored replacement strategies--capping malpractice lawsuits, ramping up Health Savings Accounts, and killing state-based regulation of insurers--would do very little, do pretty much nothing, and make things worse, respectively. (They could have had at least the first two provisions within the ACA if they'd actually negotiated on that legislation rather than trying to kill it for purely political reasons.)

The core premise of Republican health care reform is the same it's always been: their focus is on lowering costs for the relatively affluent who already have coverage, rather than expanding coverage for those who lack it. That this does little to constrain overall system expenditures, because the uninsured will continue to get (much more expensive) emergency room care, continually seems to elude them. At a values level, they seem not to care at all that millions will remain uninsured because they can't afford coverage.

The worst of it? This bottomlessly cynical and real-world counterproductive strategy might work. I don't think they'll get outright repeal, but between their political skill, the Democrats' gutlessness and the nature of how policy debates are covered, they might manage to de-fund the ACA and render it dead on the books. What a triumph that would be: tens of millions still without health coverage, no regime for controlling costs, but at least we'd be saved from some ignoramus's misguided fear of rampant, icky "socialism."

And needless to say, if we can't even get this right, we're never, ever going to be able to grapple successfully with the larger problems of demographically driven busted budgets, declining global competitiveness and potential environmental disaster that are looming just over the horizon.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

So This is Concerning
With the benefit of hindsight, I think it's pretty clear that the 2006 elections represented a rejection of the ruling Republicans rather than an endorsement of the Democrats. This was probably also true, maybe to a slightly lesser extent, of 2008.

I also think it's clear that 2010 will be a (possibly really huge) rejection of the Democrats rather than an endorsement of the Republicans, who are still very poorly regarded per public opinion polls. (This will get worse, not better, when Speaker of the House John Boehner and/or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are on TV every day.) The biggest commonality of 2006 and 2010 seems to be that the opposition's voters are intensely fired up, while the majority's voters are severely demoralized; I could look this up and link it, but I'm not even going to bother because I'm so sure it's true.

So the Republicans are going to take majorities in or both houses of Congress. Yet it doesn't seem like anybody seriously thinks that they have an agenda that will get the country out of its economic rut, or do much else other than "investigate" the White House, block everything the president or minority Democrats propose, and maybe--y'know, for giggles--shut down the government again.

I guess there's an argument to be made that a Republican Congress and a Democratic president both up in 2012 have a shared interest in building a record of accomplishment, but I doubt anyone actually involved will see it that way; the Republican electorate views Obama as fundamentally illegitimate, and that will be reflected in a newly swelled Republican caucus filled with people who will make their 1994 class look like a bunch of squishes, while the Democrats will look to fire up their currently demobilized constituencies in advance of 2012 by highlighting the evils of the Republicans. At best, they'll all be hoping for an economic turnaround without great conviction one is on the way.

If I had to guess, I'd still bet that Obama wins re-election, and maybe the Democrats make some gains. But this is almost incidental to the larger problem: neither party, nor the executive or legislative branches, has anything like the support and confidence of the public. None of these entities or institutions is widely perceived as having any use other than as a vehicle for expressing unhappiness with the other side--like the Democrats four years ago and the Republicans this year.

How can this end well?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

No Self Control in the Age of the Self

About a week ago, I wrote a piece on The Good Phight examining the Phillies’ performance in the first half of the baseball season through the prism of a dozen chosen metrics, six for hitting and six for pitching—runs scored, on base percentage, innings pitched from starters, strikeout to walk ratio, and so on. I thought that collectively those twelve stats pretty well told the story of the team’s strengths and weaknesses through a bit more than three months of play, how they compared both to the rest of the National League this season and to their 2009 performance (both also included) and highlighted areas where improvement is needed.

A night later I was watching “The Colbert Report,” and saw a statistic that startled me much more than anything the Phils have done this season: in 1991, the U.S. state with the highest percentage of obese residents (Mississippi, at just over 15 percent) had a considerably smaller share of really overweight folks than the state with the lowest percentage of obese residents today (Colorado, at over 19 percent). As a country, we’ve gotten much fatter in not a very long piece of time. (I was 18 in ’91, and I’m 37 today; needless to say, I’ve probably contributed more than my share to this increase. But at least I have metabolism as a (somewhat lame) personal excuse.)

This seems at least as meaningful a metric as any number measuring the Phillies’ anemic offensive performance or bullpen inconsistency, and it got me thinking about what other data points I’d want to collect for a picture of America’s “performance”—our strengths, weaknesses and needs—in 2010, with comparisons both to our collective past performance and to the global “competition.” I think the proper metrics would include things like average educational attainment, personal savings rate and indebtedness, average hours worked, life span and wellness (including something like average days of illness in a year as well as the obesity rate), political participation and other forms of interconnectedness.

While a number of these might seem more immediately telling than the obesity stat, there’s something about that one that feels unusually revealing. I think it has to do with this very perceptive piece from a recent New York Times Sunday magazine, titled “Dysregulation Nation.” Taking as a starting point the disaster of the BP oil spill and the larger question of regulation in our polity, Judith Warner suggests that the real problem is a failure of self-regulation:

The signs that something is amiss in our inner mechanisms of control and restraint are everywhere. Eating disorders, “in general a disorder of self-regulation,” according to Darlene M. Atkins, director of the Eating Disorders Clinic at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, grew epidemic in the past few decades, and in recent years have spread to minority communities, younger girls, older women and boys and men too. Obesity is viewed in many cases by mental-health experts as another form of self-dysregulation…

Mental-health professionals report seeing increasing numbers of kids who are all out of sync: they can’t sustain attention, regulate their rage, moderate their pain, tolerate normal types of sensory input. Some of this is biological; a problem of faulty brain wiring. But many of the problems — in both children and adults — according to Peter C. Whybrow, director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California in Los Angeles, come from living in a culture of excess.

Under normal circumstances, the emotional, reward-seeking, selfish, “myopic” part of our brain is checked and balanced in its desirous cravings by our powers of cognition — our awareness of the consequences, say, of eating too much or spending too much. But after decades of never-before-seen levels of affluence and endless messages promoting instant gratification, Whybrow says, this self-regulatory system has been knocked out of whack. The “orgy of self-indulgence” that spread in our land of no-money-down mortgages, he wrote in his 2005 book, “American Mania: When More Is Not Enough,” has disturbed the “ancient mechanisms that sustain our physical and mental balance.”

If you put a person in an environment that worships wealth and favors conspicuous consumption, add gross income inequalities that breed envy and competition, mix in stagnant wages, a high cost of living and too-easy credit, you get overspending, high personal debt and a “treadmill-like existence,” as Whybrow calls it: compulsive getting and spending.

In Freudian terms, the id has kicked the superego’s ass. We’re now seeing the consequences play out in virtually every corner of public life, from the otherwise inexplicable decision of Lebron James to announce his free agency destination—a choice that almost inevitably would anger exponentially more people than it pleased—on a bloated one-hour TV special, to the unhinged voices at the political extremes… one wing of which, in terms of sheer numbers, can’t really be characterized as “fringe.” Thanks to a media culture that does the same thing writ large, the “Tea Party” has made blind, unreasoning, illogical rage the It Girl of American politics in 2010.

This is a particularly concerning problem because our society seems inexorably to be evolving toward a model in which the individual is more empowered than at any previous time in human history. This helps explain why we’re getting more “liberal” on issues like gay rights even as we’re becoming more “conservative” on a range of economic questions; the common thread is toward greater personal autonomy. Phillip Bobbitt, a longtime academic and former National Security Council member during the Clinton administration, calls this emerging societal/governance model the “market-state”:

The “market-state” is the latest constitutional order, one that is just emerging in a struggle for primacy with the dominant constitutional order of the 20th century, the nation-state. Whereas the nation-state based its legitimacy on a promise to better the material well-being of the nation, the market-state promises to maximize the opportunity of each individual citizen.

In his brilliant and massive work “The Shield of Achilles,” which traces the evolution of constitutional orders, Bobbitt mostly concerns himself with the interaction between warfare abroad and societal change at home. Leaving aside the military aspect—and its core assumption of collective action and conformity as necessary conditions for success, which is somewhat problematic for his larger hypothesis—I find his analysis of the emerging market-state enormously compelling. Everything from the decline of unionization rates and the increasing link between educational attainment and positive labor market outcomes to the decline in strong religious affiliation, the increasing vogue of libertarian ideas among better educated Americans and the endless proliferation of entertainment options and Internet-driven subcultures suggests that we’re both more “into ourselves,” and succeeding or failing based on our individual attributes and competencies, than has been the case in more than a hundred years.

And this in turn is why Warner’s hypothesis—that, collectively, we’ve lost our self-control, as borne out in part by rising obesity rates, indebtedness, etc—is so troubling. If we really are on our own, it becomes that much more important to make wise choices about everything from eating right to staying in (or going back to) school in order to boost employment prospects and earning power. Too many of us aren’t doing that, and, worse, we seem entirely resistant to the notion of taking responsibility for our own mistakes, or learning from them. As she notes, the various policy implications of “nudge theory”—behavioral economics—are intended as a better fit for a political climate inimical to mandates and centralization, informing better choices and shifting incentives. Like others, though, I worry that the problem goes deeper than something that calorie counts or credit card terms disclosure can ameliorate. And as always, the political incentives in a democracy align against telling hard truths and forcing hard choices as much on a societal level as we evidently are facing now at an individual level.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Decline and Fall of AIS
So I'm not writing much on this blog these days, and I figured I should at least note why that is.

One of the two big reasons is simply that I have much less time than I did from 2005-2009. Working full-time after a not-quite five-year stretch of consulting has had its benefits and drawbacks, but one consequence is that upwards of 50 hours per week (including transit) previously at least somewhat available for free-form cogitation is now accounted for in the service of New York City. And while I'm not exactly breaking rocks out there on a daily basis, I do find it much more physically and psychologically draining than I did working at home. Many nights I don't even turn on the computer after I come home... though the misery of the Phillies over the last month or so has contributed to that as well.

The other big reason is because, when I think about what I might want to write in terms of topicality and tone, it's all ground I've covered before: the matched-pair dysfunction of our governance and political systems; the difficulty in getting a profoundly flawed punditariat to engage with issues and shrug off historical amnesia; the vacillation between appreciating what the Obama administration and Democratic Congress have accomplished and profound disappointment in their moral (more than political) failures; and the underappreciated importance of human capital as an economic input. Then there's the linking-to-stuff-other-people-wrote mode of posting, in which I mostly quote and add perhaps a word or two of commentary. That's pretty boring to me at this point; the only thing more boring is the horse-race view of political races that one can find pretty much everywhere else on the internet. I could shift focus to writing about books and movies and music, all of which I've found myself more into--or maybe just getting more out of--since starting the job. But for the most part I doubt I have anything particularly of interest or importance to say about those subjects.

(A third, more minor reason is that, working for New York City, I feel much less free to opine here about politics and policy in the five boroughs. Probably it would be fine, but there seems no reason to risk it.)

So that's why it's been mostly radio silence here over the last few months, and why it's likely to remain that way, with perhaps the occasional exception, into the indefinite future.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

From the Back of the Bandwagon
I actually first came to sports fandom through ice hockey. A bit embarrassing to admit, it started with cards: one night, my dad went into the drugstore, meant to get me Battlestar Galactica trading cards (this was 1978, I'm pretty sure, so we're talking the original Lorne Greene iteration) but couldn't find them and got me National Hockey League cards instead. I was upset for a couple minutes--then decided that the sports cards were awesome. I began to follow hockey, then baseball, then football.

By the time I was six or seven, I was hooked; the Flyers tore off a 35 game undefeated streak during the 1979-80 season that I think is still a record, and lost in the Finals to the New York Islanders in six games, largely owing to an offsides call that wasn't, of which you can still hear Philadelphians of a certain vintage complain. Actually my parents claim my hockey fandom actually predates my memory: during the 1975 Finals, won by the Flyers, I pronounced players' names, including unusual ones like "Orest Kindrachuck."

I think this is the first time I've ever written about hockey on this blog, but it might have been my favorite sport through my early teen years. I probably went to at least three or four games a year. The Flyers made it back to the Finals in 1985 and 1987, losing both times to Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers. (One of the cards I got among those early packs my parents bought was Gretzky's rookie card. It's under plastic somewhere in my mom's house to this day; I don't know what the value is, in part because I don't know what its condition is.) Then the team went into a multi-year skid, really the first in a solid history dating back only six years before I was born, and I developed my deeper attachments to baseball and football. The Flyers stayed at the periphery of my attention through the '90s, making it back to the Finals in '97, but never quite recaptured the dynastic heights they'd once enjoyed as star player Eric Lindros became better known for injuries and familial drama than for his on-ice accomplishments. Worse, one of my dear friends, who was an absolute hockey fanatic to the extent that he started a 'zine in 1998 and acquired a press pass, dropped dead one night in December 1999. When the Flyers blew a three games to one lead in the conference finals the following spring against the hated New Jersey Devils, I pretty much gave up on hockey.

Now they're back in the Finals, currently tied at two wins apiece with the Chicago Blackhawks, and I'm finding myself a bit drawn in. I watched big chunks of Games Two and Three, after peeking in at different phases of the earlier rounds of the playoffs. I think I'm more drawn to the unlikely story of how they've gotten there than to the game itself; as I said to Annie the other night, I generally find watching hockey simultaneously boring and stressful. But the Flyers, a preseason favorite in their division and conference, suffered through a season so disappointing that it took a win in a shootout after overtime in their last game of the season just to get them into the playoffs. Then, as the seventh seed, they upset the second-seeded Devils in a satisfying five-game series.

At that point, things got really improbable: they lost the first three games in a best of seven series against the Boston Bruins, came back and won three straight to tie the series despite losing their starting goalie to injury in Game Five (in all, they've dressed seven goalies this season), fell behind 3-0 in the deciding Game Seven in Boston in the first period, then came back to win that game 4-3. They made the Finals by defeating the fabled Montreal Canadians--the eighth-seeded team in the conference, against whom the Flyers improbably enjoyed home ice advantage--in five games, to take on the heavily favored Blackhawks. After narrowly losing the first two games in Chicago, they won both at home to knot the series, which continues tonight.

I'd like to think that my generalized snobbery is rooted in, if not expertise, at least solid familiarity. But I'm not sure I could name more than nine or ten players on the Flyers, and no more than one or two if that on Chicago. I still won't watch the whole game tonight, and going forward if there's a choice between Game Six or (maybe) Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals or a rather less important June Phillies game, I'm probably going to watch baseball. But I would get a thrill seeing my childhood heroes, or rather their much-younger-than-me successors, skating around the rink holding aloft the coolest trophy in sports. For me, for my late friend Jeremy and his family, for the city of Philadelphia which, even after the Phillies' recent win, could use an injection of joy. With all that in mind, the bandwagon isn't so terrible.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Spot the Tell
With both houses of Congress having passed financial reform legislation, the measure now goes to conference so the bills can be reconciled before a final vote. Here are the Senators who will join that meeting:

In a tweet, the Senate Dems said the conferees will include Sens. Chris Dodd (D-CT), Tim Johnson (D-SD), Jack Reed (D-RI), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Richard Shelby (R-AL), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Bob Corker (R-TN), Judd Gregg (R-NH), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Tom Carper (D-DE) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA).

Schumer represents New York, home to all the big banks who did so much to fuck the economy (and remain staunchly unapologetic and ungrateful for the money we gave them in the process of unfucking it). He's the biggest recipient, by far, of Wall Street money; he's not going to be strong for reform. Johnson hails from South Dakota, which you'll recognize as the state from which much of your credit card-related correspondence originates; Carper comes from Delaware, among the most corporate-friendly states in the union. In which direction would you expect them to push the measure?

Not among the conference participants are Russ Feingold, Maria Cantwell and Bernie Sanders, all of whom were critical of the bill from the left (Sanders ultimately voted for the measure, where Feingold and Cantwell did not). Also not included is Senate Whip Dick Durbin, Schumer's likely rival for the Democratic leadership if Harry Reid loses in November; Durbin famously said of Congress last year, in the depths of the downturn, that banks "frankly own the place."

Again, these are the Democrats. Perhaps it's fear of all that Wall Street money, freed by the Citizens United decision of constraints or limitations on its use, supporting Republicans in the fall. Maybe it's that they really do share a perspective with the finance sector; perhaps it's that the Obama administration, ever solicitous of an industry that's come to despise them, insists on the kid glove treatment in fear that the market will plummet again. To be fair, it seems entirely plausible that the banks will tank the economy in the short term to get people more sympathetic to their interests--difficult as that is to imagine--in power; concerned above all with self-preservation, the Democrats surely are looking to avoid that fate while giving the appearance of having done something.

Who knows--but in any event, this is why so many of us who worked hard and dug deep to put this president and this Congress in power likely will be sitting on our hands this November.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Our Pop Turns 30
So it turns out that this weekend saw two anniversaries of tremendous significance: 30 years ago this past Friday, May 21, "The Empire Strikes Back" first hit movie theaters, and a day later, "Pac-Man" was released. This likely makes May 21-22, 1980, the most culturally consequential two-day stretch of my childhood, maybe that of my whole generation.

To be honest, if asked when Pac-Man first appeared a week ago, I probably would have answered 1981. But it was the previous year when the original came out in Japan, then called Puck-Man. You can probably guess why they changed it for American release. I was probably a bit too young to really obsess over Pac-Man, though I was sufficiently into it that somebody did give me a little paperback book of tips for winning the game. Reading this piece on the game's "meaning," though, I'm struck by what a technical accomplishment Pac-Man was, and is.

Ultimately, it is Pac-Man's simplicity that brought it such a huge audience. Yet to designers like Meretzky, trying to replicate that was no easy task. Meretzky recalled designing a title called Hodj 'n Podj, which featured several reworked classic games, including a remake of Pac-Man. "It made me much more appreciative of the game," he said. "It was really, really hard to get the game balance right, and get the [artificial intelligence] of the ghosts right. You look at Pac-Man and you think it's such a simple game and an easy game to clone. But it's hard to get the balance right."

...[C]lassic games like chess, checkers, and Go are all conceptually easy to understand, but take a lifetime to master. "I think Pac-Man does very well on that metric," Garriott said. "It's easy to understand and sit down and try to play. But then [you see its] wide variety of foundational strategies that unfold only after you have played many, many times."

It still holds up pretty damn well, as anybody who wasted time Friday or Saturday playing the version coded into Google's homepage can attest.

Still, at least for my personal development, Pac-Man's significance pales next to that of "Empire." I'd been bearing the unbearable waiting for the "Star Wars" sequel to come out, reading fan newsletters that I couldn't really understand (being 5 or 6), obsessively playing with my toys, daydreaming myself into the story. When the day came, I skipped school--a parentally sanctified transgression that had an aura of holiness to it--with my uncle, his girlfriend and my brother, age four. (Somehow, almost every great parental or family act of my childhood was Star Wars-related. I still think my mom's parenting pinnacle was the month or so in 1977 when she took me to see "Star Wars" every Wednesday.)

The movie was a fucking mind-blower. I don't think it quite traumatized me, as it evidently did for this guy, but it certainly opened up new dramatic horizons and moral vistas within the world of make-believe. It probably helped that I wasn't totally blind-sided by the setbacks the heroes endure: after all, the title "The Empire Strikes Back" is a fairly transparent giveaway that some heavy shit is in the offing. Still, the wrenching shock of "No, Luke: *I* am your father!" sets an unreachable standard for psychological awfulness, the new piece of information that explodes every preconceived notion you hold.

What Luke does in the face of that knowledge, as well as his own defeat at the hands of evil, made a lasting impression too: he steps off the walkway into the emptiness of the air shaft. I remember feeling shock as it became clear what he was about to do--and then, when he did it, seven years old and accustomed to audience participation, I started to applaud. The theatre was otherwise utterly silent; after two claps, I stopped. So in addition to everything else, "Empire" gave me my first experience of social awkwardness stemming from incongruous behavior. Of many.

There's one more aspect of "Empire" worth noting, something it brought to the table that's almost unimaginable now: it was pretty much spoiler-free and, at least to my young eyes, self-contained as a story. Without the internet, and probably owing to the extreme secrecy fetish of George Lucas and all those he ruled, no secrets were leaked. (The only way one could have had the surprise exposed was some loudmouth talking about it as the previous screening let out--a scenario "The Simpsons" played out in one of the many flashback episodes to the courtship of Homer and Marge.) And while there were commercial tie-ins aplenty--the Burger King "Empire" glasses probably lasted most of the decade in our home--they didn't seem to be the point, as sadly felt like the case three years later when "Return of the Jedi" finished the trilogy. I remember watching the movie, again on the first day while out of school, and thinking that the Ewoks were primarily there to sell toys and swag.

I wrote a novel (not published, not even shopped, but "finished") in which one of the characters muses that everything bad about growing up in the '80s was made up for, and then some, by being kids when "Star Wars" played out. It's even still paying off for us, most recently in the form of "Robot Chicken" episodes that were much more loving homage than parody. It's probably not too much to say that Star Wars saved our childhoods, and that "Empire" gave those movies the bulk of their lasting power.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Unbusting the Budget
Here's a cool (policy nerd division) web offering from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget where you can try to stabilize the U.S. Debt by 2018. The task is to get the debt to 60 percent of projected GDP by that year, the point at which things are likely sustainable "without huge costs to [the] standard of living at a minimum and most likely a severe crisis." That target would be down considerably from the 85 percent it's now projected to be by that time (under the same set of projections, debt will fully equal GDP by 2022 and be double the GDP by 2038... the year I'd be eligible to retire under current law, as it happens). The app takes you through various pages that represent parts of the federal budget, including military and foreign aid expenses; current entitlements; the newly passed health care law (which is a debt reducer); and a range of discretionary categories of expenditure.

I'm happy to say that I managed to get the debt down to 59 percent of GDP by 2018--while lowering the corporate tax rate from 35 to 30 percent, passing an additional $210 billion Jobs Bill, making several tax credits (child tax, research and development) permanent, and significantly increasing funding for public transit. And I didn't go out of my way to soak the rich; no surcharge on millionaires, for example, or shifting of the home mortgage deduction to a capped credit, both of which were options. That said, every ox was gored at least a little: significant drawdown of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, cancellation of various weapons systems, closing tax loopholes, passing of a carbon tax or cap and trade regime, limiting how much high earners can itemize deductions and deduction state/local taxes; but also passing of medical malpractice reform, higher Medicare premiums and switch to a voucher system, selling certain government assets, raising the eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare (as well as the cap on income calculated for SS and broadening the universe of workers required to pay in, plus other changes to Medicare shifting cost burden to beneficiaries), reductions of Food Stamp spending to pre-stimulus levels, passing a 5 percent Value-Added Tax with partial rebate, cutting earmarks by half.

I did give my personal preferences some rein--otherwise, what's the point? (Don't answer that.) No cuts to federal education spending or TANF, etc. Anything that seemed likely to bolster the country's human capital, I left alone or actually spent more on, figuring that some of those things are revenue-positive in a longer time horizon than this exercise considered. But in an actual governance/bargaining situation, of course, I'd compromise on much of that; take for instance how Ross Douthat got to 60 percent. He and I had about half overlap; we probably could figured out a set of changes we both could live with in twenty minutes, if need be.

The obvious lesson: our politics, not our policies, are at the core of the long-term budget problem. The seniors lobby--which isn't even rational, since proposed changes wouldn't affect current beneficiaries--defense contractors, trial lawyers, Big Ag, fossil fuel companies and others stand in the way of putting our budget on a sustainable path. I wonder if the answer for well-intentioned groups like the Peterson-Pew Commission, which sponsored the budget app, isn't really political process reform, curtailing the power of lobbies to put their private interests ahead of the public interest. Easier said than done, of course, but taking on that fight before trying to fix the budget makes a lot more sense than attempting to impose the needed course corrections on a political field that's now tilted impossibly toward groups with so much invested in the status quo.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Why Americans Hate Government
When I was in college, very long ago now, I read a great book which I still have around here somewhere titled "Why Americans Hate Politics." Revisiting the subject almost a decade after its publication, author E.J. Dionne described his book thusly:

In Why Americans Hate Politics, published on the eve of the 1992 election and which the editors have asked me to revisit here, I argued that voters were tired of the false choices presented by an ideologically driven "either/or" politics, and impatient with a political debate that emphasized "issues" over "problems." Issues were used at election time to divide voters. Problems demand solutions after the election is over. Following Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., I argued that most Americans preferred to see politics as involving "the search for remedy."

The book saw conservatives as suffering from a deep tension between their free-market, antigovernment libertarian wing and a traditionalist wing more interested in defending values that had come under attack in the 1960s than in market economics. Liberals were also in trouble. While their core programs (Medicare, Social Security, help for the needy, equal rights) were broadly popular, the left had stopped justifying its efforts in the name of values to which most Americans subscribed?work, family stability, consequences for criminal behavior, and a respect for the old-fashioned bonds of locality and neighborhood.

With both parties to the debate in difficulty, politics worked itself out as a series of wars. Conservatives might not unite around a program, but they could agree to roll back liberalism. To do so, they used tensions in American life over race, gender equality, and cultural change (or "race, rights and taxes," as Thomas and Mary Edsall put it plainly) to divide the liberal camp and hive off working class voters suspicious of liberalism?s core values. Liberals often played into conservative hands by seeming to deny that a virtuous community depended on virtuous individuals and by opposing changes in the welfare state aimed at reinforcing certain values (work and family stability among them).

Almost twenty years after its publication, though, I'm wondering if now maybe it's government, not politics, that we hate. After all, voter participation has gone back up from its '90s-era lows. Fox News and MSNBC offer 24 hour intensive politics-based entertainment, and they're doing great. The 2008 Obama campaign drew in millions of energized young Americans whose feelings toward politics, at least politics that year, were closer to love. The Tea Party movement of the current moment similarly has thousands, maybe millions, fired up and ready to go. Government, however, is all but universally reviled: the Zombie Army took out Bob Bennett last weekend in Utah, evidently for the crime of being a three-term incumbent who showed occasional interest in legislating rather than devoting every moment to mindless partisanship, while the Democratic primary electorate might be poised to do the same to Arlen Specter this coming Tuesday in my native state of Pennsylvania. Anyone associated with Washington, or incumbency in any form, is tarred; all alleged bums must be thrown out, regardless of whether they're even actually bums.

What's intensely troubling is that this detestation for government comes at a moment when there's reason to conclude that it's performing better than has been the case in years and years. We've avoided the second Great Depression many had feared was imminent in late 2008, to the point where the economy might create more jobs this year than was the case through eight years of the Bush administration (a factoid that's rife with caveats, but still). Health care is done, after more than sixty years of trying. Financial reform looks likely to pass, and to be meaningful. Even before those two significant legislative landmarks, Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute was calling this Congress one of the most productive in nearly fifty years.

So what's the rage about? Unlike some on the left, I don't think it's primarily much having to do with race. The right-leaning Tea Party crowd is almost all white, and no doubt racist sentiment is more prevalent within its ranks than outside, but the real issue is an emotional (and irrational, and painfully uninformed) reaction to profound socioeconomic and cultural change. People who've come up to see themselves as the built-in societal winners perceive a loss of status, and they're mad as hell about it. On the left, the Obama administration's perpetuation, and indeed intensification, of some of the worst Bush/Cheney anti-terror/civil liberties practices is demoralizing disillusioning at best and infuriating at worst. And his nomination of a footprints-free careerist of no discernible conviction like Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court certainly demotivates me from wanting to give time or money to ensure Obama continues to enjoy a Democratic Congress.

I know this is irrational, yet I defer to it. And maybe that's the crux of the problem: nobody, not even this president with his unique gifts as a communicator, is consistently out making the case for the nature of government as something of which we shouldn't expect emotional satisfaction, just considered attention to the nation's needs and appropriate, efficient, effective action in response to its problems. If the country doesn't need a full-blown civics lesson and high-level debate over what size of and role for governance is best, at least it could benefit from seeing a brighter spotlight shone upon the frankly mad practices of the legislature that both gum up the works and perpetuate the agita.

To go back to Dionne and "Why Americans Hate Politics," toward the end of the book he called for "a new political center" to merge the public's "liberal instincts" and "conservative values." What I think would be more helpful now is a new, reality-based assessment of government: judging it on results rather than the bug-eyed fear and loathing on the right or the unrealistic expectations on the left, and a commitment to making it work better for whoever is in charge--meaning the elimination of nonsense like secret Senate holds, possible reconsideration of the filibuster rule, and imposition of the presidential line-item veto. On the outside, the key might be simply remembering that ultimately government is our creature and a reflection of our collective will. I've thought that since Obama took office, explaining this--restoring government's good name--was his historical mission; earlier this month, at a commencement speech at the University of Michigan, he gave it a good first shot. Perhaps with an improving economy and effective repetition, the message will take; if it doesn't, I fear we're condemned to keep riding the roller coaster of uninformed public sentiment, with crashes and injury the near inevitable result.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

In Which We Waste a Crisis
I don't think that teachers' unions are ruining America. But when you read stories like this, it's hard to summon up much enthusiasm for their value:

Peter Borock, 23, is in his second year teaching history at Health Opportunities High School in the South Bronx. It could be his last.

With New York City schools planning for up to 8,500 layoffs, new teachers like Mr. Borock, and half a dozen others at his school, could be some of the ones most likely to be let go. That has led the schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, into a high-stakes battle with the teachers’ union to overturn seniority rules that have been in place for decades.

Facing the likelihood of the largest number of layoffs in more than a generation, Mr. Klein and his counterparts around the country say that the rules, which require that the most recently hired teachers be the first to lose their jobs, are an anachronism in the era of accountability that will upend their efforts of the last few years to recruit new teachers, improve teacher performance and reward those who do best.
Unions argue that administrators want to do away with seniority protections so they can get rid of older teachers, who are more expensive.

They say that without seniority safeguards, principals could act on personal grudges, and that while keeping the best teachers is a laudable goal, no one has figured out an accurate way to determine who those teachers are.

“There is no good way to lay people off,” said Randi Weingarten, the former leader of the city’s teachers’ union, who is now the president of the American Federation of Teachers. “But to be opportunistic and try to rush something through without knowing if there’s some degree of objectivity and a comprehensive and valid evaluation system is appalling.”

Full disclosure compels me to admit that I've never found Randi Weingarten to be much more than an apologist for mediocrity in education and an impediment to most of the more interesting and aggressive education reform efforts in NYC or anywhere else. But what she's saying here is especially repulsive, because it elides her years of staunch resistance to any evaluative steps that might rise to the level of "objective, comprehensive and valid." You can't use test scores; you can't use student or peer or parent evaluations; heaven forbid you use administrator assessments. Somehow, a malicious actor will always be able to use the standard to carry out a grudge against a poor defenseless teacher whose classroom outcomes just happen to stink.

The last-in, first-out policy is especially infuriating given the high rates of attrition among new teachers in the city anyway--based on a study done by the New York City Council a few years back, a quarter of them leave within two years, and half within five, both rates far in excess of national averages. It's probably not too much to say that it's more demanding and difficult to be an inexperienced educator in New York City than anywhere else in the U.S. It doesn't help that another advantage of seniority is much more freedom in choosing where to teach--meaning that the newbies routinely get the toughest assignments in the system, a great way to drive out all but the most dedicated.

Adding to the irrationality is the fact that, unless things have changed in the last few years since I looked closely at the demographics of the New York City teaching workforce (and given the attrition trends and seniority rules, I'm not sure how they could have), the bulk of our educators are within a relatively few years of retirement. Meaning that as cohorts leave the workforce, the city will have to scramble to replace them. I don't know if contractual or budgetary considerations render this impossible, but early buyouts of some of the older teachers seems to be a smarter way to absorb the cuts than indiscriminately cutting loose young teachers great and lousy.

The real point is that we need to find better ways of determining teacher quality--because the one thing we know in the befogged world of education reform is that high-quality teachers make an enormous, lasting difference. There's a lot of work going on right now to do just this--but it doesn't sound like clear answers will emerge soon enough to inform the city's teacher workforce reductions, even if the United Federation of Teachers accepted that the conclusions were valid and not the nefarious product of some teacher-hating education bureaucrat.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Strange Death (?) of the American Graduation Initiative
A few days ago, The New Republic performed an unpleasant but important bit of public service, telling the story of how President Obama's proposed American Graduation Initiative, a plan to assist five million more individuals toward a community college degree by 2020, was a collateral casualty of last month's successful fight for health care reform. As the consequence of some fairly involved budget calculations that resulted from the reconciliation of the health care bill with (very positive) higher education lending reforms, the $12 billion proposed for AGI was cut to $2 billion in U.S. Department of Labor funding for community colleges.

The whole piece is worthwhile reading just as a reminder of how ugly and illogical the sausage-making of public policy can get, but its real value lies in the message that we court no greater risk to shared long-term prosperity than neglecting our stock of human capital. The stunningly divergent outcomes of more and less educated Americans in the now-concluding Great Recession illustrates the individual economic consequences for educational attainment; in the longer term, the question is how we can stay at the forefront of economic innovation with a national workforce comparatively less well educated than that of competitors.

There's also a great deal of time and money wasted in post-secondary educational endeavor. As the TNR article notes, upwards of 30 million adult Americans report educational attainment of "some college, no degree"--meaning that they started, but didn't finish. Leaving college without a credential but with a shitload of debt is a singularly lousy way to start adult life, but far too many Americans find themselves on that hard road.

I would guess that the administration finds its way back to this issue, perhaps in the context of Obama's 2012 reelection campaign. But with stronger Republican caucuses in Congress, perhaps an outright majority in the House, it won't be easy. Crucial as it was for the president and the Democrats to win the health care fight, it came a price both very high and not much appreciated, even among those who should know.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Love Small Government? You'll Miss Stevens
Whoever President Obama nominates to succeed retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, you can predict what issues will dominate the debate: abortion, gay rights, racial/gender preferences, probably the constitutionality of health care, maybe a bit on the role of money in politics. Past rulings and paper trails will be scoured, and there will be no shortage of hyperbole. Weepy, malicious idiots will beat their chests for imperiled liberties; belabored analyses of election year judicial politics will abound.

An issue I doubt will get the attention it deserves is the proper extent of executive power, where Stevens did his greatest work in defense of American rights over the last, fraught decade. As the Times recounted in an appreciative editorial today, the 89 year-old Illinois native was our strongest judicial defender against the repeated power grabs of the Bush years:

He may be best remembered for his firm resistance to the post-Sept. 11, 2001, drive to roll back civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism. He wrote the majority opinion in Rasul v. Bush in 2004, rejecting the Bush administration’s assertions of executive authority and made clear that federal courts had the authority to determine whether detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, were properly held. In 2006, he wrote for the majority in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which held that the military commissions established to try detainees held in Guantánamo violated the Geneva Conventions.

Yet Stevens' central role in recent American jurisprudence seems oddly underappreciated. He's been recognized more for his searing dissents in cases like Bush v. Gore in 2000, the 2007 school desegregation case, and the campaign finance ruling handed down this past January, than for leading the often successful resistance to executive overreach. (He also doesn't seem to be quite as reviled on the right as was David Souter, another appointee of a Republican president who retired last year--maybe because so few on the right today remember when Stevens was appointed by Gerald Ford, himself a not especially partisan president, in 1975.)

Sadly, it seems unlikely that Obama will appoint anyone with remotely the same fidelity to restraints on executive power. The reasons for this are twofold: one, the only rumored possibilities who hold such views are those who, because of their more leftward positions on hot-button social and economic issues, would spark the toughest political battles in an election year when Democrats are already anticipating heavy losses, and two, the administration itself, starting with the president, seems increasingly inclined toward a distinctly Bush-like view on executive power. The result is that a post-Stevens Supreme Court likely will rule in ways much more sympathetic to the expansive view. As Glenn Greenwald, writing about current Solicitor General and rumored front-runner Elena Kagan, puts it:

Over the past decade, the Court has issued numerous 5-4 decisions which placed at least some minimal constraints on executive power. Stevens was not merely in the majority in those cases, but was the intellectual leader justifying those limits. And he often went further in demanding due process and accountability for the Executive than even the "liberal" wing in general was willing to go -- as exemplified by his joining Justice Scalia's dissent in Hamdi, where the two unlikely allies both argued that the President could never detain U.S. citizens as "enemy combatants," but instead must charge them with a crime (e.g., treason) and obtain a conviction in order to imprison them.
Given Stevens' status as the leader of the Liberal wing, The Nation's Ari Melber said today: "With Justice Stevens retiring, it will take a nominee like Harold Koh just to maintain the Court's status quo."

The danger that we won't have such a status-quo-maintaining selection is [that]... for both political and substantive reasons, the Obama White House tends to avoid (with a few exceptions) any appointees to vital posts who are viewed as "liberal" or friendly to the Left; the temptation to avoid that kind of nominee heading into the 2010 midterm elections will be substantial ... [and] Kagan has already proven herself to be a steadfast Obama loyalist with her work as his Solicitor General, and the desire to have on the Court someone who has demonstrated fealty to Obama's broad claims of executive authority is likely to be great.

A number of retrospective pieces about Stevens published in recent months that anticipated his announcement Friday featured an elegiac, almost wistful tone owing to his status as the last World War II veteran on the high bench and the now-unimaginable unanimity (98-0) with which he was confirmed to the High Court by the Senate in 1975. While these are understandable and appropriate sentiments, what I worry about is that Stevens' departure from the Court removes the last strong voice in favoring of limiting government power on perhaps the most important questions of all, concerning how broadly the state can use force to pursue strategic goals. Admittedly, he wasn't the only vote in favor of restraint--but he was the instigator, the thinker, the persuader of his colleagues toward that view. It is very much in doubt that this president, or indeed anyone on the national stage these days, appreciates how much might be lost if he is not suitably replaced.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Bye Five
They finally did it. In the division, to a bitter rival, for not even a first-round pick. A fairly ignominious ending to Donovan McNabb's superb Eagles career, one that spanned eleven seasons and saw the team reach five conference title games and a Super Bowl.

A few hours after the announcement, the shock is still pretty strong, but a few quick thoughts:
  • The deal kills whatever slim hopes the Eagles had for 2010. They're probably the worst team in the very tough NFC East now--remember, the Redskins had as bad or worse injury problems as the Eagles last year, and the Giants had an idiot coaching their defense--and newly installed QB Kevin Kolb will take his lumps as a starter. I'd put the over/under at 6 wins, and if I had to bet either way, I think I'd take the under.

  • But maybe low expectations are partly the point, at least as far as Kolb is concerned. He can learn in a low-pressure environment, and the coaches can leave young players out there on defense to suffer and learn as well--no more in-season patch jobs with veterans who might have heart and desire but no tread left on the tires. So long as the offensive line is good enough to keep Kolb in one piece, this really isn't the worst thing. Kolb gets to grow with DJax, Maclin, Shady and Celek, the group of early to mid-20s skill players that gave McNabb his best set of weapons as a Bird last year; if Kolb is even decent, they'll make him look pretty good. Now they just have to build as good a young core on defense, which is where the draft picks come in.

  • I'll be rooting for Donovan McNabb wherever he plays, as long as he plays. Still.... I wish it wasn't the Redskins. Between the racist name, the unbearable owner and super-arrogant coach, and especially the obnoxious non-city in which they don't even really play, they might be my second most hated NFL team.

I hope McNabb gets his due from the Philly public, if not from the media imbeciles. I hope he's one day called to the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, and that he graces it in Eagle green.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Imaginary Radicals, Then and Now
Doing some reading at the gym last night, I came across these two articles in succession: an American Prospect piece on the right's continuing obsession with the (now semi-defunct) antipoverty organization ACORN and the welfare rights champion Francis Fox Piven whose research more than forty years ago helped bring it into being, and this lengthy assessment of financial reform by the always excellent David Leonhardt in last Sunday's Times magazine.

Reading them in order told a story of assertion and repudiation--the utter certainty of the modern Right that the Obama administration and "liberals" are out to wreck the country, and the pretty much definitive proof that what they're actually up to is an all-out effort to save American capitalism and perpetuate the economic order of the late 20th century.

The assertion, which is pretty much a perfect example of the Paranoid Style, goes something like this: in 1966, Piven and her co-author Richard Cloward wrote a piece in The Nation titled "A Strategy to End Poverty," which proposed activism on behalf of poor Americans to stretch the welfare system beyond its capacity, with the goal of getting the federal government to establish a guaranteed minimal income. In the telling of Glenn Beck and other professional paranoids, this is the ur-strategy for every left-of-center politician and non-elected public figure: "create a crisis" to set the stage for profound, radical change. Obama, as a former community activist with all the unsavory leftist associations thus implied, is purportedly doing this with health care and of course the economy as the cover for creating a new socialist order. That this health care plan is far less "liberal" than anything previously proposed by Democrats in more than a half-century of debate is entirely irrelevant; remember, this is faith-based paranoia.

(I should note here that I read about this Piven/Cloward strategy many years ago, either as an undergrad or graduate student, and I always thought it wasn't just stupid but at least a little immoral. Rather than guaranteeing a handout--essentially, expanding the conditional entitlement that was Aid to Families With Dependent Children--our purpose always should have been expanding opportunity. This is why I wasn't as upset about welfare reform as just about any other liberal I knew, and why I support the anti-poverty approaches of the NYC Center for Economic Opportunity, pretty much all of which are focused on human capital development and asset-building rather than handouts. At any rate, while the "welfare rights movement" did lead to a much bigger AFDC and it briefly looked like Nixon might accept an income floor in the early '70s, the Piven/Cloward plan ultimately didn't lead to much and certainly is a dead letter for the modern center-left.)

The charge is invalidated, at least to anyone willing to look at reality, on the grounds of financial reform. If ever there was opportunity to "create a crisis," it was in late 2008 and early 2009, when the world's capital markets were on the brink of meltdown and we seemed at the precipice of a second Great Depression. Here's how Leonhardt sets the stage in his piece:

A weak system of regulation allowed Wall Street firms to take on enormous debt. Those debts let the firms make more and riskier investments than they otherwise could have, lifting their profits. But when the value of the investments began falling, the firms had little margin for error. They were like home buyers who made a tiny down payment and soon found themselves underwater.

It was tempting to let the banks fail. They certainly deserved it. But big bank failures often cause terrible damage. Credit dries up, and the economy can enter a vicious cycle of falling asset prices and job losses. That is what began to happen in 2008. To get credit flowing again, the federal government came to the rescue with billions of taxpayer dollars. It was a maddening story line: the government helped the banks get rich by looking the other way during good times and saved them from collapse during bad times.

While the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) was passed during the Bush Administration, it's likely that then-Senator Obama could have killed it in late 2008 by signaling his opposition, which would have carried weight with Democrats in Congress--and, given how unpopular the bailout was with the public, might have yielded him an even bigger win in the November election. Instead, he and John McCain (as well as VP candidate Joe Biden) voted in support of the measure.

Without the bailout, a number of major banks would have collapsed (don't take my word for it; even liberal economist Dean Baker said as much in testimony last year), and in all probability the economy would have cratered. Imagine if Obama had come into office on January 20, 2009, with an even bigger political wind at his back and a much deeper crisis facing the public. What powers could he not have asked for and received? What transformational changes would have been beyond his grasp? Nationalization of banks, single-payer health care, public job creation on a scale beyond the New Deal era programs, vast new regulatory regimes... all the fever dreams of the most committed lefties could have been his. Whether it ended in disaster or glory, his would have been the most transformational presidency since Lincoln's.

Obama just isn't that guy--and thank goodness. What I try to impart to those to my left who call for some or all of these things is that transformational change isn't ever frictionless. Individuals, families, communities are mangled when the wheels of history turn too fast. I don't deny that there would have been satisfaction in letting the banks suffer their full comeuppance--but we all would have suffered with them, and probably worse than they.

After reading the Leonhardt piece as well as other recent writing on the substance and prospects of financial reform, I feel better about the proposal--but the point is that even leaders who, like Obama, have an affirmative believe in the power of government to intervene for the public good, are most effective and successful when they look to intervene in as limited a manner as possible. That this doesn't align with the disaster-porn fantasies of the fringe thinkers on the right is primarily their problem. Hopefully it'll stay that way.
Dragged Forward
We don't go to the movies very often, but we've seen two in the last week: "Hot Tub Time Machine" last Saturday night, and "Greenberg" last evening. From the marketing campaigns, you wouldn't think these are very similar films: "HTTM" is going for a two-toned audience of folks who appreciate gross-out teen sex comedies on their own merits, and those who liked such entertainments a couple decades ago and now appreciate them ironically, while "Greenberg" is aiming for the sort of chin-scratching indie crowd that likes more pathos and thought in their comedy.

But when the credits were rolling at the end of "Greenberg," I turned to Annie and said that it was the same movie as "Hot Tub Time Machine," and she agreed. Both revolve around men in early middle age who ponder the second half of life with deep ambivalence, considerable regret and not a little self-loathing. Maybe that resonates with us as soon to be 37 and 45 year-olds respectively. But I suspect it applies much more broadly, and I think I understand why: this notion all of us born after 1950 or so grew up with, that we're somehow entitled to perfect happiness in every sphere of our lives. Every relationship can offer perfect emotional and sexual gratification; every job should be remunerative and stimulating and satisfying; every home should be safe and functional and forever appreciating in value. When problems do arise, they're never so complicated or intractable that they can't be solved in 22 or 48 minutes.

This is, of course, total crap. Perfection isn't just impossible, but harmful as an ideal to strive for in any but the most abstract sense. Every aspect of life will bring aggravation, disappointment and pain at some point or another. "Pretty good" is as good as it gets.

In addition to the movies, I'm thinking about this in the context of my grandfather, who passed away last weekend two months short of his 94th birthday. I think he would have agreed that his life was a pretty good one: married for almost sixty years (until my Nan passed in 2003), two kids, four grandkids, lived in the same place for the last sixty years or so, comfortable enough that he retired at 62, spending the last third of his life in relative ease reading books by the gross, swimming just about every day and shooting the bull at the Abington Club a few blocks from his house. He served his country with distinction for two and a half years during WWII. He spent decades helping to promote and support Scouting. He and Nan took great vacations to the Caribbean.

But there was disappointment and unpleasantness in the story as well. Pop was accepted to Antioch College after high school, and planned to go there to write. His ambition was to go into journalism and ultimately be a newspaper publisher in a small town somewhere. But his father got sick, he had to stay close to home and work, and he went to Temple. Then he joined the Army a few months before the war broke out, met my grandmother while training, married her when he came home in '44, and reluctantly entered a textile sales career that he didn't enjoy for a company he didn't respect. He told me years later that he'd made extensive notes for a book about that experience, titled something like "Don't Let the Door Hit Your Ass on the Way Out." He never wrote it.

Nor would I say that he handled this disappointment perfectly. Even in his relatively mellow retirement, he flashed temper, and I understand it was much worse when my mom and uncle were young. And I remember him and my Nan, probably the single best person I've ever met, bickering a lot when I was a kid. On balance, though, he dealt with it. He was absolutely dependable and virtuous; his integrity and honesty were beyond anyone else I've known. He wasn't emotive or expressive, but you never doubted his heart. And he never, ever, lost his sense of humor--probably the defining trait of the man to those who didn't know him closely enough to see the deeper virtues.

As I mourn and celebrate my grandfather and move ever deeper into my 30s, I'm trying to keep this in mind--that while disappointment is inevitable (and some reflection upon the past is appropriate and human), it should never define you or obscure the good which I feel I have in abundance.

Oh, and I'd mildly recommend both movies.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Crack-Up
I always thought that we wouldn't see the true extent of right-wing craziness until the Democrats were back in power. To some extent, I've been surprised that there hadn't been more seething vitriol from the farther reaches of the right through the first fourteen months of the Obama presidency; in fact, I was thinking about this recently and concluded that this president likely inspired less visceral loathing than Bill Clinton had--perhaps because Clinton, as a white southerner, was perceived as somehow treacherous, or perhaps because his personal flaws seemed, from a certain perspective, to embody hippie self-indulgence and Baby Boomer excess.

But those conclusions were obviously premature. In the three days since the House of Representatives passed health care reform, the full dimension of the rage on the right has revealed itself. Democratic members of Congress have seen their offices vandalized and received death threats, this days after the civil rights hero and Georgia congressman John Lewis was called the n-word and Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank endured anti-gay slurs.

Hopefully this is a short-term reaction, fueled by the recency of the outcome and perhaps the surprise that a measure which many in the press had left for dead in fact became the law of the land. But I'm not sure about that--any more that I'm now sure the opposition to Obama is more restrained and substantive than it was to Clinton:

A new Harris poll that reveals some shocking things about how Republican voters view President Obama.

Key findings:

67% believe Obama is a socialist.
57% believe Obama is a Muslim.
38% believe Obama is "doing many of the things that Hitler did."
24% believe Obama "may be the Antichrist."

Probably anyone with strong partisan feelings is at least occasionally prone to excessively demonizing public figures of divergent views. But I'm honestly trying to think what the parallels would be for someone of my views considering the right-wing figures I most deplore: Tom DeLay, Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin. I can't. I think they're all deeply wrong on just about everything, I find them vicious and hypocritical, and at least in the cases of DeLay and Palin I can see how their basic views of Christianist identity politics, the unlimited national security/militaristic state, and the effective fusion of big business with government-- taken (I'm glad to say) to far more of an extreme than anything they've directly expressed--could inform a fascist structure. But I wouldn't call them overt fascists, much less someone like George W. Bush who seemed less personally driven by pure hate for his opponents. (Disdain? Certainly. But not hate. Maybe it's a class thing; I think it's more of a stretch for anyone born wealthy to hate in the manner that a Palin does or a Nixon did.)

I don't know how we de-hyperbolize our politics, especially given that the most active partisans are also now the ones least likely to leave the echo chambers--and I doubt Fox News, or other outposts on the right are going to send the message to cool it down and act like grownups. Sadly, the Republican leadership probably won't either, in the belief that the Tea Party folks who feed on raw rage might write them off altogether. But it's absolutely a necessity if we're ever going to move on the big items left on the national agenda in this period: tax and entitlement reform, getting a handle on our finances, mitigating the effects of climate change. We need to get back to what I remember American Conservative Union leader David Keane said a few years when interviewed by Bill Moyers and asked if he agreed that liberals were traitors: "Bill, you're not a traitor. You're just wrong." It has to be possible to regard opponents as "just wrong," rather than irreconcilable enemies who pose an existential threat to America, freedom, puppies and life itself.