Sunday, February 28, 2010

Krugman Keeps it Real
We made the mistake of watching "This Week" on ABC this morning, and were stunned that the last five minutes or so of the "Roundtable" was taken up with discussion about the resignation of the White House social secretary. Did she quit or was she fired? What does this say about failure and its consequences in the administration? Does the move signal the start of an exodus from the administration of the Obamas' Chicago friends? And so on.

As Annie and I looked at each other in disbelief, the Beltway lifers Cokie Roberts, Sam Donaldson and George Will went back and forth on these and other issues with considerably more energy and engagement than they'd spent on health care. Paul Krugman, the fourth panelist, sat there in silence until the end, when he finally said: "There are 20 million people unemployed in this country, and we're arguing about the White House social secretary?" While I might have wished for an editorial preface of "what the hell is wrong with you people?" it was still pretty satisfying.

One more quick note: John Smoltz as a Republican Congressman is one of those perfect convergences of evil, like J.D. Drew or Billy Wagner playing for the Braves or George W. Bush cheering for the Cowboys. It's actually kind of nice to know that my loathing for the guy won't have to end just because he's likely to hang up his spikes. I just hope he doesn't try to outlaw Citizens Bank Park, or go all Uganda on gay rights.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Great Adjustment
One way to frame the current national discontent is as a near-universal concern that our old ways of doing the public's business are at sharp and increasing odds with current and projected needs. There are parallel disconnects between our means (revenues) and ends (expenditures), and between our processes (broken) and outcomes (unsatisfactory and/or non-existent).

In today's Times, Tom Friedman refers to the current American moment as the dawn of "the lean years." This characterization is understandable but, I think, largely erroneous: for a plurality to majority of Americans (and probably a large majority of voting Americans), the present and future look as good as or better than the recent past.

To understand what I mean, check out this recent report from the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University: the very dry title ("Labor Underutilization Problems of U.S. Workers Across Household Incomes at the End of the Great Recession") buries the lede right before the subtitle ("A Truly Great Depression Among the Nation's Low Income Workers Amidst Full Employment Among the Most Affluent") digs it back up. The point of Andrew Sum and his colleagues is that we don't really have "one economy" any more, if we ever really did; those who are rich stay employed even in bad times, while those who'd earned lower incomes when they were working are now far, far less likely to remain on the job.

This may sound circular, but it's not. The last major report I worked on for the Center for an Urban Future, released last month, took on this same question from a very slightly different angle (and took a local rather than a national view, though I think the same dynamics are entirely at play; an unstated premise of the report is that New York City's economy is "like America's, only more so"): we published a table of unemployment rates in the throes of the downturn by educational attainment, a measure strongly correlated with earnings. Here it is:

Another table in the report shows the difference in average annual compensation between a high school graduate and a bachelors degree holder: almost $20,000 a year in New York City. So you're twice as likely to have a job in a down economy, and that much richer. See why those two individuals might not view themselves as sharing an economic experience?

Notwithstanding his failure to differentiate between what the economy looks like for the fortunate educated/comfortable/employed and for their opposites--a harrowing window into which is offered by this Times story also in today's paper--Friedman makes a couple very important points:

[T]o lead now is to trim, to fire or to downsize services, programs or personnel. We’ve gone from the age of government handouts to the age of citizen givebacks, from the age of companions fly free to the age of paying for each bag.
President Obama’s bad luck was that he showed up just as we moved from the fat years to the lean years. His calling is to lead The Regeneration. He clearly understands that in his head, but he has yet to give full voice to it. Actually, the thing that most baffles me about Mr. Obama is how a politician who speaks so well, and is trying to do so many worthy things, can’t come up with a clear, simple, repeatable narrative to explain his politics — when it is so obvious.
Alas, though, instead of making nation-building in America his overarching narrative and then fitting health care, energy, educational reform, infrastructure, competitiveness and deficit reduction under that rubric, the president has pursued each separately. This made each initiative appear to be just some stand-alone liberal obsession to pay off a Democratic constituency — not an essential ingredient of a nation-building strategy — and, therefore, they have proved to be easily obstructed, picked off or delegitimized by opponents and lobbyists.
To be sure, taking over the presidency at the dawn of the lean years is no easy task. The president needs to persuade the country to invest in the future and pay for the past — past profligacy — all at the same time. We have to pay for more new schools and infrastructure than ever, while accepting more entitlement cuts than ever, when public trust in government is lower than ever.

This strikes me as the less apocalyptic version of what James Howard Kunstler has been saying for awhile now (though JHK likely would sooner submit to unmedicated colonoscopy than accept a comparison to Thomas L. Friedman): we need to start reversing our habits of sprawl, wasteful expenditure and pointless consumption and figure out how to revise communities at much more intimate scale. I much prefer Friedman's version, which strongly implies that the drift is reversible; Kunstler basically (and somewhat gleefully) believes we're fucked, as he sets out in well-written detail in The Long Emergency.

I'm not at all convinced of that, but I think the fix--getting a firm grasp on our collective means and ends, reforming our broken processes to better solve our seemingly intractable problems (the worst of which haven't remotely begun to hit yet), and making the simultaneous investments and cuts Friedman rightly suggests we need--might represent a political challenge about equal in magnitude to the material challenges of World War II or the Cold War. If Obama can meet it, he'll have fulfilled the promise so many of us saw in him during the campaign and accomplished something comparable to what Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt did. But there's a reason those leaders stand so tall in our history; very, very few can measure up.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

In Defense of Sports
One failing to which I think everyone is prone, but self-styled intellectuals especially, is to extrapolate from one's personal likes or dislikes some larger conclusion or principle. So it is with Christopher Hitchens, who's evidently not a sports fan:

I can't count the number of times that I have picked up the newspaper at a time of crisis and found whole swaths of the front page given over either to the already known result of some other dull game or to the moral or criminal depredations of some overpaid steroid swallower. Listen: the paper has a whole separate section devoted to people who want to degrade the act of reading by staring enthusiastically at the outcomes of sporting events that occurred the previous day. These avid consumers also have tons of dedicated channels and publications that are lovingly contoured to their special needs. All I ask is that they keep out of the grown-up parts of the paper.

Or picture this: I take a seat in a bar or restaurant and suddenly leap to my feet, face contorted with delight or woe, yelling and gesticulating and looking as if I am fighting bees. I would expect the maitre d' to say a quietening word at the least, mentioning the presence of other people. But then all I need do is utter some dumb incantation—"Steelers," say, or even "Cubs," for crumb's sake—and everybody decides I am a special case who deserves to be treated in a soothing manner. Or else given a wide berth: ever been caught up in a fight over a match that you didn't even know was being played? Or seen the pathetic faces of men, and even some women, trying to keep up with the pack by professing devoted loyalty to some other pack on the screen? If you want a decent sports metaphor that applies as well to the herd of fans as it does to the players, try picking one from the most recent scandal. All those concerned look—and talk—as if they were suffering from a concussion.

I'm not actually sure what the point of this column was; it seems mostly to do with the current Winter Olympics, about which I'll admit to personally not caring at all, and he makes a half-hearted case that sports competition , rather than helping to facilitate greater comity as is sometimes alleged, can actually worsen relationships between different countries or communities.

But mostly it seems to me that Hitchens has taken his personal dislike for big-time sports and spent some Newsweek column inches trying to justify it in a broader sense, to make a virtue out of his preference. I sort of get where this is coming from. I've never watched a minute of "American Idol" or "Survivor" or any of the various imitators of those two TV franchises. At times I've been tempted to draw some larger, self-justifying conclusion from that personal choice. During the 2008 Democratic nominating contest, I might have found the news that while Hillary Clinton's favorite show was "Idol," Barack Obama's was "The Wire" (which I hadn't even seen to that point, but knew was probably pretty great; now I consider it among humanity's greatest achievements) somewhat comforting in that it reinforced a conclusion I'd already drawn.

Really, though, who fucking cares? Cultural preferences are just that.

The more interesting question to me is whether we can make a positive argument for sports in the culture, one that perhaps even justifies its intrusion into that part of the newspaper Hitchens feels should be reserved for reportage on "crises." Given the Phillies links on the side of the page and the fairly frequent posts about the Eagles and other NFL/MLB subjects here, it's probably not surprising that my answer is yes. I can think of at least two arguments for this view.

One is that sports really does provide common ground for people who might otherwise not have an easy time communicating, or even find it possible. It's a class leveler: the CEO and the guy who sells her coffee every morning might have nothing else in common, but if he wears a Yankees cap and a series of player jerseys and she never misses a home game, they've got that. New York, with its abundance of teams, actually isn't a great example for this; a city like New Orleans, even discounting its traumas in recent years, probably comes together far more completely when they have a cause for joy like the Saints. And this isn't necessarily about home-team affinity either; as a displaced Phillies and Eagles fan, I have a direct rooting interest against most of the people I talk to here. But at least I can talk to them knowledgeably about baseball and football (and to a lesser extent, about the lesser sports). That's already helping at my new job, as it has in probably every one I've held since I was 21.

The other point is one Hitchens likely would dismiss with a sneer upon hearing, but maybe would grant had something to it two years later, after thinking about it: that sports simply provides another context for the same narratives we find compelling in other formats. Whether it's the "hero's quest," the temptations of new fortune, redemption, addiction, coping, adaptation, material want, sacrifice, blind luck or twenty other things, it's all there, funneled through a high-stakes ringer set up to produce drama. To dismiss sports is in some sense to dismiss story itself.

Whether or not one is a follower of sports has largely to do with family, culture and context. My parents were big football and hockey fans when I was a little kid; the Phillies of Schmidt, Carlton and Rose were great at the time, and my grandparents were baseball fans, so I got that too, and found that baseball was the one I personally liked the best--maybe because the cards were the most interesting. It seems to me that suburban kids, boys especially, are the most likely to develop strong sports loyalties; that's probably the biggest way in which they identify with "their" cities, which at least when I was a kid 25 years ago were otherwise commonly presented as dirty, dangerous places. In any event, intense sports fans with other things in common (family connections, work, outside interests) form communities of affinity that seem to me stronger than most: they gather to watch big games, or form fantasy leagues for low stakes and bragging rights, or--as I'm doing in three and a half weeks, counting down not just the days but the hours--taking trips to spring training or other sports destinations.

I started my new job this past week the day pitchers and catchers reported to Florida. It was a pretty good first day anyway, but that annual mid-February day, to my recollection, has never, ever not been a good one.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Screw You, Evan Bayh
I try not to do too many posts like this anymore--their absence is probably the biggest reason why there's been such a decline in quantity between the first couple years I kept this blog and the last year or so; my hope, and belief, is that what does go up here is generally a little better--but I can't help myself on this one. Evan Bayh's announcement yesterday that he won't seek re-election this year might hurt the Democrats politically, but he'll be enriching the party, if not the Senate, by his departure from public life. columnist Steve Kornacki sums up my feelings about this lizardly pseudo-Democrat more ably than I could:

Evan Bayh inherited all of his father's drive for national office but none of his progressive backbone. From his father's defeat, he seemed to draw a lesson: You can dream big dreams if you're a Democrat from Indiana -- you just can't be proud to be a Democrat. And that has been the defining principle (to the extent there's been one) in Evan Bayh's quarter-century political career, which began with a successful 1986 campaign for secretary of state in Indiana and which now may be ending, with his stunning decision to exit the Senate after two terms.

To his home state's largest newspaper, Bayh painted himself as an innocent bystander in a Capitol overrun by partisan bickering -- a "centrist" surrounded by the extremists of the left and the right. (In Bayh's telling, the left is always equally, if not more, culpable for the country's problem's as the right.)

“Just last week, a major piece of legislation to create jobs -- the public’s top priority -- fell apart amid complaints from both the left and right," he told the Indianapolis Star. "All of this and much more has led me to believe that there are better ways to serve my fellow citizens, my beloved state and our nation than continued service in Congress.”

Funny that he mentioned jobs. After all, it was Bayh and fellow moderate Senate Democrats who insisted last year that President Obama's first major initiative as president -- the stimulus bill -- be pared by about $100 billion, depriving the economy of hundreds of thousands of new jobs. Not that it mattered much to Bayh, who showed far more concern last year in the GOP's new pet issue: government spending and the federal deficit.
Birch Bayh's Senate career was a remarkable one. He knocked out the loathsome Homer Capehart in 1962 and beat back two strong GOP challengers, William Ruckelshaus in 1968 and Richard Lugar in 1974 -- all well pursuing a defiantly progressive agenda. In perhaps his proudest moment, he turned on the Vietnam war early -- at great political risk -- and helped push through the 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age to 18, so that those fighting in Vietnam could vote on the leaders who'd decided to send them there.

And his son? Well, when George W. Bush launched his "war on terror" and turned his focus to Iraq, no Democrat cheered louder than Evan Bayh. And even when the tragic folly of that war and of the broader neoconservative agenda became apparent, he learned nothing. A confrontation with Iran? Sign Senator Bayh up.

24 years ago, Evan Bayh set out to prove voters that he wasn't like his father. As his Senate career ends, we can safely say: Mission accomplished.

Evan Bayh tried to position himself in Washington as a deficit hawk, a breed of which we need more in these fiscally frightening times. But as Kornacki's Salon colleague Glenn Greenwald noted last year, there was one category of public expenditure where Bayh was always onboard: wars.

I don't think there's much more demoralizing for a political party than to have one of its nationally prominent members constantly running it down, as Bayh did with the Democrats. (I loved Ezra Klein's take on his retirement: "He said he wants to spend more time scolding his family for moving too far to the left.") Nor is there much worse for the credibility of a legislative body than to have a member with a national profile as brazenly self-contradictory, if not outright hypocritical, as Evan Bayh.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Theory of Presidential Success
In deference to the reason we're all off work today--well, those of you who have jobs where you're allowed to go to work; I'd be home anyway, thanks to the hidden/palsied hand of city bureaucracy--some musings on presidential success and failure.

I started thinking about this in the context of Ronald Reagan, cited recently by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as a "great president"--an assessment with which few if any Republicans would disagree, but many Democrats likely still dispute. Given the myopic tendency toward thinking about public affairs, there's a strong correlation between "great" and "does/did things I support." Add how Reagan has been encrusted in myth over the 21 years since he left office, and it's not so easy to parse out the man from the legend.

I grew up detesting Reagan, first for what seemed like his obvious falsity (I remember watching his Iran-Contra mea culpa speech at my grandparents' house when I was 13 or so, and just being amazed at how obviously full of shit he was) and what seemed (and still seems) like his somewhat cruel sense of humor. Then when I was a little older and I couldn't totally argue away his accomplishments, I found other grounds to dismiss them, e.g. "sure, the Cold War ended without nuclear war or the succumbing of the West to communism, but we spent ourselves into what will turn out to be oblivion anyway, so, yeah!" Rosalynn Carter's line about Reagan's politics making people comfortable with their prejudices stayed with me too. Some of that still holds: the dirty wars in Central America Reagan supported were horrific, and his various panderings to racists--from starting his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi without reference to the atrocity that happened there two decades earlier to the frequent references to "welfare queens" and "strapping young bucks"--were deplorable. Likewise his indifference to AIDS until it started killing people he knew and was fond of, like Rock Hudson.

But whatever one thinks of Reagan the person, and for that matter whether or not one thinks Reagan was a "great" president, there's no doubt in my mind he was a successful president, probably the most successful president since FDR. He accomplished the vast majority of what he set out to do, and the country unquestionably was in better shape when he left office than when he took the oath. Those have to be the two primary criteria for presidential success: roughly speaking, how the president did, and how the country did. The first speaks to the president's political effectiveness, the second to how his policies impacted the country and how well he did at avoiding terrible mistakes. (One could add a third criterion, having to do with lasting political or policy impact, and make a strong argument that it's the most important--but again, that's the most subjective area of analysis. Was Reagan's legacy the end of the Cold War, "restoring America's confidence," or massive deficits? The arguments can and do go on forever, defying resolution.)

Stepping back from it a bit, it's not hard to see why Republicans so quickly turn to Reagan. Consider what else they have to lean on since Eisenhower (whose decided moderation makes him a problematic hero for today's arch-conservatives anyway). Nixon's record of political and policy accomplishment was mixed, but some of his "wins" don't do much for the modern right (the EPA), and of course the circumstances of his departure from office obscured everything else. Ford was a non-entity whose accomplishments were negative--he managed the transfer of power without disaster--and failed to win re-election (a big deal in this analysis). Bush I is looking better all the time to non-ideologues, but between the tax hike and his 1992 loss he gets no love from today's Republicans. Bush II was a political success, and his inheritors seem to want the exact same set of policies he favored... but nobody is willing to admit their abiding belief in those policies. He left office widely despised, and there's no question the country was in far worse shape in 2009 than it had been eight years earlier.

Not that the Democrats have much to brag on either. More than forty years later, we're still not sure how we feel about LBJ: the way in which the history has been written--by the Republicans who mostly held power thereafter, and the liberals who opposed the Johnson administration at the time--decidedly emphasizes the negatives of his tenure. The similarities between LBJ and Bush 43, two Texans who took office under unusual (albeit very different) circumstances and saw their clear domestic agendas overtaken by poorly thought out foreign wars that drained treasury and political capital--might be more apparent to future historians than they are to us today. Jimmy Carter has very few overall defenders. Bill Clinton is the most interesting case, as usual: his first-term agenda was largely foiled and much of his second term was spent fending off scandal, but the country thrived during his administration. Even most sane Republicans will now admit that the guy they loathed during the '90s did a decent job.

Which brings us to Obama. He took office amid hopes that he might emerge as "the liberal Reagan," a compelling leader with superb communication talents who could begin to reorient the country. For many reasons, this hasn't happened so far. It's not so much that his popularity has fallen; Reagan's did as well, in 1982, and his party took big losses that year. But by then he'd passed a lot of legislation, and had lain a foundation for a mammoth re-election win two years later and further accomplishments in his second term. If anything, it seems Obama will face a more difficult set of challenges going forward in terms of making policy.

I remain optimistic about Obama's 2012 prospects, as well as the eventual vindication of the stimulus. But the reverses he's taken, or seems to be taking, on health care and other issues confound the Reagan comparisons. There are all sorts of explanations and justifications for this; the one I find most compelling is that while Reagan had a cohort of southern Democrats in Congress who mostly supported his agenda, Obama faces an unprecedentedly united political opposition. But ultimately history doesn't factor in excuses. I suspect that on the second criterion, the state of the country at the end of a presidential term compared to the beginning, Obama will look good; how could he not? But his own political effectiveness seems very much in doubt right now.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Don't Fear the Quitter
It usually doesn't work, but once in a while I can stop myself from getting overanxious about amplified right-wing bile by mentally taking myself back to the magical summer of 1992. I'd been watching the Republican National Convention at home before going to visit some friends, and I'd gotten very upset at the sound and fury of Patrick Buchanan basically shouting that I and everyone and everything I loved was evil and hateful and un-American. I went to see my friends with storm clouds over my head, and when they asked what was wrong I told them about Buchanan's spew and the rapturous response his speech had drawn. And my friend Abby, bless her, looked at me like I had two moron heads--she did that a lot when we were teenagers--and asked why I would let the blatherings of marginalized imbeciles ruin my mood.

I was thinking of this a couple days ago when I heard about Sarah Palin's speech to the Tea Party. Yeah, it was hateful, ahistorical and nonsensical--but again (thought my 19 year-old self) the fact that so many people ecstatically lapped it up had to be a little troubling. And it is, it is, but on the big question, whether Palin will ever win the presidency, I'm still certain that the answer is no.

Why? Four words: SHE QUIT HER JOB. Enough remains of the traditional American character that she'll never draw over 40 percent or so in a general election campaign--and I'd guess half that is a more realistic forecast, particularly given the likelihood of a third candidate--for that one simple reason.

We as Americans don't especially care if someone half-asses a job, or barely shows up. (Witness Obama's two-thirds of a Senate term.) The rule is that you can leave the job for a better one--again, as Obama did. But you can't just walk away from your responsibilities for no good reason, and "making lots of dough stoking the fears of the invincibly ignorant" doesn't count.

There's no tolerance in our culture for quitters. I'm still not sure Ross Perot wouldn't have won in that same year of 1992 had he not dropped out of the race for awhile later that same summer. My guess is that if Palin does even run--and I'm still not convinced she will; why chance damaging her future ratings or book sales with an undertaking likely to end in failure that carries all kinds of risks?--Romney or Huckabee or some governor who actually finished his/her term and achieved something, anything, will knock her off in the primaries. A plurality of Republicans will conclude that it really would be better to have someone in there with proven aptitude for and interest in showing up to work.

Palin represents a perspective in our national conversation that's been present at least since the Know-Nothings in the mid-19th century, through the darker strains of Populism, the rise of the Klan, Father Coughlin, Joe McCarthy and the John Birch Society, the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition. It's ugly and frightening, and the new aspects of it--Palin's status as the first demagogue who can plausibly haunt the sex fantasies of the older white men who form the core Fox News audience, and the protective shield of an unambiguously partisan media--add an additional layer of concern.

But the same media dynamic that props her up now will bring her low later, if she even does run. The total absence of "there" there will burn off the novelty, particularly in contrast to a substantive guy like Obama. She can only say the very limited number of things she can say in so many different ways, if you get my meaning. That kind of rhetorical red meat is crack for the Rage Right, and their tolerance for it will build up quickly.

(If you want to really worry about something, try this one on: a more skilled and intelligent public figure with the same basic message, without Palin's baggage and abundance of "odd lies," who knows how to maximize the financial backing of corporations unleashed by the Citizens United ruling as well as how to play the mainstream media. If Marco Rubio wins the Florida Senate race, he might be the one we need to keep an eye on.)

Saturday, February 06, 2010

This Stupid Country
Here's some good timing: the same day that the scared-of-their-own-shadow Democrats met for their aptly named winter retreat and the Tea Party people ("The other White Party!"?) convened for a weekend of rage, Slate details the national dumbassery:

Anybody who says you can't have it both ways clearly hasn't been spending much time reading opinion polls lately. One year ago, 59 percent of the American public liked the stimulus plan, according to Gallup. A few months later, with the economy still deeply mired in recession, a majority of the same size said Obama was spending too much money on it. There's nothing wrong with changing your mind, of course, but opinion polls over the last year reflect something altogether more troubling: a country that simultaneously demands and rejects action on unemployment, deficits, health care, climate change, and a whole host of other major problems. Sixty percent of Americans want stricter regulations of financial institutions. But nearly the same proportion says we're suffering from too much regulation on business. That kind of illogic—or, if you prefer, susceptibility to rhetorical manipulation—is what locks the status quo in place.

At the root of this kind of self-contradiction is our historical, nationally characterological ambivalence about government. We want Washington and the states to fix all of our problems now. At the same time, we want government to shrink, spend less, and reduce our taxes. We dislike government in the abstract: According to CNN, 67 percent of people favor balancing the budget even when the country is in a recession or a war, which is madness. But we love government in the particular: Even larger majorities oppose the kind of spending cuts that would reduce projected deficits, let alone eliminate them. Nearly half the public wants to cancel the Obama stimulus, and a strong majority doesn't want another round of it. But 80-plus percent of people want to extend unemployment benefits and to spend more money on roads and bridges. There's another term for that stuff: more stimulus spending.

This is why I don't think much of polls: for the answers to have any guiding relevance to elected officials, it seems the answering public should have some idea about the facts on the question on which they're opining. But all we know is what we want: "We despise the government, but want it to solve all our problems. We pay too much in taxes but will see services cut, even demonstrably wasteful ones, over our dead bodies. We're always for forceful response and bold action, until reality confounds us again by not immediately conforming to what we want it to be or, above all, moving as quickly as we wish it to."

Human nature being what it is, it's actually neither surprising nor, in the larger sense, particularly distressing that so much of public opinion seems indistinguishable from a teething two year-old. Most people don't have the time or inclination to follow the news closely, and given the imperatives of for-profit media, what they mostly do see when they're paying attention is process-guided conflict freighted with despicably parochial considerations, not a clash of principles or ideals. The Founders intuitively understood this, which is why we have a representative democracy with a wealth of checks and balances (probably more than is good for us in a moment when partisan forces act in bad faith) rather than a plebiscitary system or something more directly responsive to popular will at any given moment. Ugly as it was when George W. Bush spoke in early 2005 about the "accountability moment" he'd faced and survived in the 2004 election, he wasn't wrong: that was the electorate's chance to express a judgment on his record. On an everyday basis, public opinion simply shouldn't matter very much.

But even the core leap of faith--that the electorate generally gets it right when called upon to do so--comes into question when polling so strongly suggests a foundational ignorance of the issues. That's doubly true when politicians gleefully fuel and exploit that ignorance:

The politicians thriving at the moment are the ones who embody this live-for-the-today mentality, those best able to call for the impossible with a straight face. Take Scott Brown, the newly elected Senator from Massachusetts. Brown wants government to take in less revenue: He has signed a no-new-taxes pledge and called for an across-the-board tax cut on families and businesses. But Brown doesn't want government to spend any less money: He opposes reductions in Medicare payments and all other spending cuts of any significance. He says we can lower deficits above 10 percent of GDP—the largest deficits since World War II, deficits so large that they threaten our future as the world's leading military and economic power—simply by cutting government waste. No sensible person who has spent five minutes looking at the budget thinks that's remotely possible. The charitable interpretation is that Brown embodies naive optimism, an approach to politics that Ronald Reagan left as one of his more dubious legacies to Republican Party. A better explanation is that Brown is consciously pandering to the public's ignorance and illusions the same way the rest of his Republican colleagues are.

I don't mean to suggest that honesty is what separates the two parties. Increasingly, the crucial distinction is between the minority of serious politicians in either party who are prepared to speak directly about our choices, on the one hand, and the majority who indulge the public's delusions, on the other. I would put President Obama and his economic team in the first group, along with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Republicans are more indulgent of the public's unrealism in general, but Democrats have spent years fostering their own forms of denial. Where Republicans encourage popular myths about taxes, spending, and climate change, Democrats tend to stoke our fantasies about the sustainability of entitlement spending as well as about the cost of new programs.

I really like this typology of public figures. Unfortunately--and this gets back to the severe structural problems that I and others see bedeviling us right now--the incentives are all lined up against those who try to be honest and constructive. This past week, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin did something I think unique for his party since it's been in opposition: he proposed a serious long-term budget that would eliminate the federal deficit. I don't think it's a great proposal on the merits: Ryan wants to privatize Medicare, and do so in a way that would render the program far less effective, and revive the private accounts model for Social Security that Bush tried to push forward five years ago. But it's an actual attempt to grapple with problems. And Democrats are attacking it to score political points in a manner roughly as shameless as the Republican barrage against the proposed health care reforms.

Thus it becomes that much more difficult for Ryan or any other Republican who might be inclined to propose something necessary but politically painful. And we continue to want ever more from government while putting in ever less.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Slow and Steady
While I entirely buy the premise that the time is always right to do what's right, I'll admit thinking that the complaints of liberals over President Obama's evident unwillingness to issue an executive order ending the ban on gay Americans serving openly in the armed forces are both naive and a bit hypocritical. The hypocrisy has to do with the fact that we didn't much like it when President Bush did most anything by diktat; the naivete is an unwillingness to face the reality that when you're pushing a cultural (I guess in this case, subcultural) change of some significance, there will be tension and potential or actual conflict. On a human or political level, I can't imagine a worse outcome than Obama or any perceived liberal Democrat ordering an end to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and then some Army unit beating the hell out of or, God forbid, killing a known or suspected gay soldier. A conversation I had last summer with a former Marine of unquestionable liberal views suggested that this was all too real a possibility if the change came too quickly.

So the news earlier this week that the administration and top military brass are moving forward on repealing that odious policy was welcome indeed--arguably it was the first good news we've heard in public life in 2010--and I wasn't troubled by the caveat that it might take a year or so. The key element will be to manage the change, preparing servicemen and servicewomen for the possibility of a gay comrade. The hierarchical nature of the military probably makes this slightly easier than it might be in other walks of life. That the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs characterized repeal as "the right thing to do," joining the civilian president and secretary of defense, is very encouraging in this regard.

As it happens, I think that allowing gay soldiers to serve openly not only will prove much ado about nothing in terms of peoples' fears on the question, but could represent a huge step forward in finishing the job of normalizing homosexual orientation in our society. Certainly it doesn't seem to be a major issue for some of our most culturally similar allies. But perhaps more to the point, there's nothing like direct experience and proximity, particularly under stressful conditions, to break down walls of misunderstanding and dispel myths. Support for same-sex marriage is sharply higher among people who actually know gay folks (or rather, I should say, know they know gay folks). Once the utter sameness of newly out gay soldiers is evident to all, a lot of straights mustering out are likely go home and spread the word that the fear and animosity toward gays they might have grown up in is groundless. At that point, it'll be much more difficult to maintain the other vestiges of legal bias on grounds of sexual orientation.