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.