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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Dionne, give the Dems a break

No one in the reality-based community would object to E.J. Dionne's core point below. But I do have a problem with the final sentence (helpfully boldfaced..):

Can a nation remain a superpower if its internal politics are incorrigibly stupid? 
Start with taxes. In every other serious democracy, conservative political parties feel at least some obligation to match their tax policies with their spending plans. David Cameron, the new Conservative prime minister in Britain, is a leading example.

He recently offered a rather brutal budget that includes severe cutbacks. I have doubts about some of them, but at least Cameron cared enough about reducing his country's deficit that alongside the cuts, he also proposed an increase in the value-added tax from 17.5 percent to 20 percent. Imagine: a fiscal conservative who really is a fiscal conservative.

That could never happen here because the fairy tale of supply-side economics insists that taxes are always too high, especially on the rich.

This is why Democrats will be fools if they don’t try to turn the Republicans’ refusal to raise taxes on families earning more than $250,000 a year into an election issue. If Democrats go into a headlong retreat on this, they will have no standing to govern.
That last sentence triggers in me a feeling I have experienced more than once recently: a vicarious weariness on behalf of Democrats in Congress.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Impure thought of the day

This rather anodyne defense of pragmatism by P.M. Carpenter triggered a memory:
No doubt, chief among internal progressive battlegrounds is the symmetrical demarcation of idealists and pragmatists. To my mind, however, the estrangement is artificial. Idealism is essentially pointless if at least the thrust of its tenets cannot be enacted, and pragmatism would of course be non-existent as a political practice if no authentic ideals were being pursued.

In short, idealism requires a pragmatic approach, otherwise it's just pretty words and metaphysical daydreaming. And human needs need help, now, not daydreams, which are better left to lofty college seminars in political philosophy, where one perhaps acquires idealism but only later learns how to do something about it.

The other night I caught a few minutes of Rep. Barney Frank in an MSNBC interview and he succinctly put it quite well: "If you're idealistic, you have a moral obligation to be pragmatic." There is not, or, let's say, there should not be, any distinction here.
It recalled to me something I heard Salman Rushdie say in 2002 in response to an audience question, at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, if I may paraphrase: "I don't like purity. I like things messy [or mixed up? dirty?]."   That always stuck with me. Now, Googling Rushdie and purity, I found the idea elaborated in a Dec. 2005 essay:

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Beating the Bushes for START

Another flashback from The Clinton Tapes: when Clinton found himself 20 votes short for NAFTA passage in the House,

he shifted back to presidential chemistry at the kickoff event for NAFTA. Carter and Bush had stayed with him overnight...Gerald Ford joined them for dinner on the night of the Middle East ceremony, and then again for a private breakfast before the NAFTA presentation. Clinton's staff found no prior record of so many presidents eating meals together at the White House (pp 50-51)

Four presidents for NAFTA...could Obama -- or Gates -- not call on George H.W. Bush to counter the ignorant demagoguery of Mitt Romney and other Republican "leaders" posturing against ratification of the  START arms reduction treaty with Russia?  And, for that matter, on the Prodigal Son, not to say Bill Clinton himself? 

Incidentally, The Clinton Tapes has got to be the worst-indexed book I've ever encountered.

Sarah Milhous tills the midterms

As observers struggle to divine Sarah Palin's effect on various races for Congress and governor, it's worth looking back at the all-time master of collecting mid-term election chits, Richard Nixon. Here's Rick Perlstein on Nixon's campaigning strategy, 1966:
Geographically, the itinerary felt random. Politically, it was anything but. He received over a thousand speaking invitations a month. The ones he chose were triangulated with scientific precision. The New York Times's John Herbers reviewed the crazy-quilt itinerary and concluded Nixon was campaigning "in districts where races are close." The failure of discernment was profound. It was the opposite: he was campaigning in traditionally Republican districts where a Democratic congressman had won in 1964 on Lyndon Johnson's coattails, but was likely to be swept out in the conservative backlash...

Come November, Richard Nixon could remind the New York Times that what these districts had in common was that Richard Nixon had campaigned there. He could reap credit for making water flow downhill ( Nixonland, p. 142).

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Buffalo backdrops

Having waxed lyrical about the wonders of the Buffalo Garden Walk and put up pictures more than once, I thought this year I'd do something a little different -- and concentrate on the backdrops that frame these intense urban spaces.  This year's shots here.






Sunday, July 25, 2010

The long view from China

One disturbing moment that resonates now in Taylor Branch's The Clinton Tapes is Clinton's short-range reminiscence about his first meeting in 1993 with Chinese president Jiang Zemin. The stage is set with an account of the lack of personal connection or real dialogue (quite unusual for Clinton):
What stuck with him from Seattle was a tough private talk with the Chinese president, Jiang Zemin. Clinton said he and Jiang had sat across from each other at a small table about the size of the card table between us now, with only a translator on each side, as Jiang read a speech to him about the glorious history of China and the folly of attempts to influence her internal affairs. It went on so long that Clinton said he finally felt obliged to interrupt. Speaking in direct sentences, with all the charm he could muster, he invited the Chinese leader to get down to business. He told Jiang he didn't want to change China's political institutions. Nor did he object to prisons. In fact, America had lots of people in prison, and Clinton wanted to put away even more. But he did care about basic human rights, and, even if he didn't, he had a Congress that did. To improve relations, Jiang needed only to do a few things already permissible within Chinese standards and law. Clinton named four, including an effective ban on export goods made by prison labor. When he finished, however, Jiang simply resumed his speech.
 
The president said he and Jiang talked persistently past one another in disconnected monologues, and stiff formality further inhibited conversation  (87-88).
Then, recalling a later session, Branch tacks back to the upshot of Jiang's long-range view and its sobering effect on Clinton.  The passage segues from discussion of Russia:

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Bill Clinton, Happy Warrior

Perhaps it's silly to record reactions to a book while you're still reading it, particularly early on. But what's a blog for? I want to flag an early snapshot of Bill Clinton from Taylor Branch's The Clinton Tapes that in one sense runs counter my general impression of the 42nd President -- though I suspect that it captures a complementary, not contradictory aspect of his personality and presidency.

My snapshot memory of the Clinton years is of a couple careening from crisis to crisis, with Clinton generally on the ropes and often red-faced with rage against his multifarious tormentors, from the media to the "vast right wing conspiracy" to the Gingrich Congress (the last is where my error may lie).  I sometimes think of him in concert with the Phillies' closer of the early nineties, Mitch Williams, a.k.a. "Wild Thing," who would generally struggle through his inning with lots of walks, hits and other fireworks but usually get the job done (until he didn't; his two blown saves cost the Phillies the '93 World Series).  On the other hand, there was the post-impeachment dictum, "If Bill Clinton were the Titanic, the iceberg would have sunk."  By the end of his tenure the loathesome Gingrich was down, and his scummy successor as Speaker Bob Livingston was down, and Dole was down, and the deficit was down, and crime was down, and income inequality was briefly down, and it really was, briefly, a kindler, gentler America than in the Reagan years. But still it was a wild ride.

No doubt Clinton can nurse a grudge with the best, and one generally doesn't think of him as a Zen master of detachment. But this, from Branch's earliest discussions with the new President in 1993, also rings true -- and explains much of Clinton's success:

Friday, July 23, 2010

Why the Obama Administration won't cut defense spending

Today's Times has front-page article reporting the first whispers in U.S. government that defense cuts may have to be part of any long-term deficit-reduction plan. The end note brings the assumptions precluding those cuts into into sharp relief.

First, the terms of debate. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has long spoken, written and acted on the need to reform Pentagon priorities and procurement practices and eliminate nonessential weapons programs, has called for real growth of 1% per year in the Pentagon budget. Gates does not envision any force reduction, and personnel costs account for two thirds of the Pentagon budget. Some budget planners are beginning to talk about reductions in "end strength" (total personnel) once Obama begins reducing troops in Afghanistan.

Why not? The U.S. significantly reduced military spending during the Clinton years. Outgoing budget director Peter Orzag responds:
“During the end of the cold war, one could imagine a significant downsizing of the American military,” Mr. Orszag said. “That is a fundamentally different proposition than the situation we find ourselves in today.”
Why is our situation "fundamentally different" today?  Gates himself has stressed that we will not face any significant major-power competition in the foreseeable future. He wants the money for the kinds of war we are in -- without apparent end. Here's what he told the Heritage Foundation about major-power competition in May 2008:

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The anguish of the data collectors

Jim Manzi views the dispute between poll analyst Nate Silver and pollster John Zogby in economic terms:
Silver intelligently combines multiple polls to make more accurate predictions than are usually achieved by any one individual pollster. On one hand, the math of this is irresistible – in the real world, voting models often work. On the other hand, it would be pretty uncomfortable for a pollster to combine his own results with various competitive poll results to achieve equivalent accuracy (or at least to do so transparently). So, the pollsters do all the tedious work to collect and analyze the data, and then Nate Silver comes along and creates all this value with it in a way that is hard for the pollsters to duplicate. You can see why this situation might upset the pollsters.

In every industry that combines data collection with analysis, there is an endless battle between the data collectors and the analysts. The data collectors bear the hard costs – people, office space, telecommunications, travel budgets, etc. – that are required for interviewing people, visiting stores, and so forth. Their nightmare world is to become commodity data collectors paid for their costs plus a small margin set by competitive bidding. Their typical defenses are to attempt : (1) to build proprietary methods for collecting superior data, or equivalent data at much lower cost, and (2) to integrate the analysis and the data into a single product, and forbid by contract the paying client from using this for other purposes. The analysts, on the other hand, want to have an open market in commoditized data and compete on analytical capability.

The pattern Manzi outlines is at work in the investment world as well.  On one level, conventional equity research, like polling data, is now subject to aggregation and analysis; services like Investars and Reuters' Starmine offer average ratings for equities as well as ranking analysts by the performance of past ratings on given stocks and sectors. Traditional fundamental research has become commoditized to a degree, as the research itself, like the material company information of which it's composed, can no longer be provided selectively to favored clients.  More broadly, active fund management itself is giving way to indexing, in large part through ETFs. Suzanne Duncan of the IBM Institute for Business Value has forecast,on the basis of a study polling financial executives and their clients, that within twenty years, 85--90% of assets under management will be invested in passive instruments such as index funds. (Not coincidentally, the study also found that only 10% of hedge funds actually produce any alpha, i.e. earn their exorbitant fees. The same is doubtless true of managed mutual funds.)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The importance of being an earnest reader

Stray thought of the week: while walking to the train this evening, something made me think of a particularly stale truism in a student's paper of long ago, something like "keep a smile on your face and a song in your heart."   My thought, God knows why, was "would the kid who wrote that have wanted to read something like that?"  Maybe -- perhaps he found  earnest aphorisms reassuring. But maybe -- this was my thought while walking -- he just didn't like to read, and didn't expect to find anything that would move or instruct or engage him while reading, and essentially thought that all written text was just a bunch of pretention or bromides passed off as wisdom, bound to bore.

The basic thought is that early on we all probably develop one kind of relationship or another to the printed word that conditions our response forever after unless or until some reading experience fundamentally changes it.  For myself, while I have reasonably active bullshit radar, I think my default stance is a trusting one: at the outset I grant authors authority.  I expect to be informed and instructed. I'm a twelve year old, and the writer is the adult. That relationship can be ruptured at any point, and not necessarily in a bad way: I can be in awe of what the writer is accomplishing and still see the gears grinding, or the partial point of view, or the thematic obsession or tic (e.g., in Rick Perlstein's wonderful Nixonland, the repeated unsupported assertion that Nixon was suffering shame at the allegedly "soiling" experience of pandering to various groups).  Or, of course, an assumption that I regard as false or perhaps just threatening can have me fighting all the way, mentally composing a response as I read if I don't stop reading altogether.

I'm not sure that I have much of a point here, beyond the earnest, obvious early education goal of getting kids turned on to reading (by being read to) early. Maybe it's that the kind of writer each of us becomes is conditioned by the kind of reader we are -- which is not quite the same as the still more obvious fact that we write or try to write like the writers we admire most. 

Monday, July 19, 2010

Proud parent alert: Jonah & Brian on Matt & Kim

Today my son Jonah (age 20) and his friend Brian made their debut on Huffington Post's new NYC Beat channel, reviewing a Matt & Kim concert at the Siren Music Festival in Coney Island.  They're good! (Jonah and Brian, that is, and I gather Matt & Kim too).  The review is structured as a kind of Paradise-don't-get-lost quest:

It takes us Jerseyans about two hours to get to Coney Island, the site of the annual Siren Music Festival. Saturday's journey gave us ample time to think about our relationship with Matt & Kim, this year's headliner. We had first seen Matt & Kim four years ago in a warehouse in Bushwick, where their simple keyboard and drum pop took just moments to turn a crowd of expressionless head-bobbers into a dance mob so excited that they had to be calmed down for fear of the floor breaking. They played with a sense of unbridled joy that neither of us had ever encountered. After that night, we chased them all over the city in search of that same high.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

On debt-fueled consumption, rising inequality, education, and service sector pay

Raghuram Rajan, the former IMF economist who was one of the first to finger banks' pay structure as a key cause of the financial crisis,(in Jan. '08)  has an  interesting essay out: How Inequality Fueled theCrisis (h/t Chait).  In developed countries, only the educated can thrive in a global economy. Delivering effective, broad-based education reform is hard and slow; encouraging debt-fueled consumption is a readily available palliative. So politicians of both parties have turned to the latter:
In the US, though, there have been strong political forces arrayed against direct redistribution in recent years. Directed housing credit was a policy with broader support, because each side thought that it would benefit.

The left favored flows to their natural constituency, while the right welcomed new property owners who could, perhaps, be convinced to switch party allegiance. More low-income housing credit has been one of the few issues on which President Bill Clinton's administration, with its affordable-housing mandate, and that of President George W. Bush, with itspush for an "ownership" society, agreed.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Yes, Weigel, Palin really needs to learn something

Dave Weigel's cynicism about the media's engagement with politicians and the electorate's engagement with media is so extreme that it converts to an odd sort of credulity. Imagining "the media that's actually going to cover the 2012 elections," Weigel predicts:
This media is not going to care about her policies. If policies come up during debates, and she gives the same answers she gives on Fox now, and Mitt Romney pounces on her, the story will not be that the GOP's frontrunner gave a pallid answer. The story will be that Mitt Romney pounced. What does this do to his image? What does Mike Huckabee have to say about it?


And so on. It's hard to imagine Palin competing at the policy level the press claims she needs to get to, but easy to imagine her competing at the level they actually play on. Quick, cast your mind back to the countless 2007/2008 Democratic debates. Do you remember Hillary's mastery of policy? No. You remember her fumbling an answer on drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants, you remember Obama telling her she was "likable enough," and perhaps you remember Dennis Kucinich talking about aliens.
Okay: perhaps people's chief takeaways from the 50-odd Presidential debates of the 2008 campaign were not smart policy pronouncements -- such as Obama's assertion in his first debate with McCain, regarding the war in Iraq, "We have weakened our capacity to project power around the world because we have viewed everything through this single lens."  But that doesn't mean that viewers assess the candidates merely as celebrities. What do people remember about Palin's performance on policy questions in her national media appearances in 2008?  Incoherent babble about seeing Russia from Alaska and what happens when Putin rears his head and flies in American airspace.  Her obvious cluelessness when Charles Gibson asked for her thoughts about the Bush Doctrine. Her faux-Reagan, target-free "there you go again, Joe" in her debate with Biden.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Pelosi prophecies

Under the subject line "my prediction," here's the lede in Nancy Pelosi's fundraising email, sent this morning  (hat tip Marc Ambinder):

Here is what will happen in November. Democrats will keep control of the House. Period.


I realize that advertising is advertising, and fundraising is fundraising, and politics is politics, and politics is fundraising, and fundraising is advertising. Also, per Ambinder, that Pelosi is directly countering Gibbs' admission that the Democrats could lose the House.

Still, as Karen Tumulty pointed out back on Feb. 28 when health care reform was still being pronounced dead by many, "After what she managed to get her caucus to do last year, I would never, ever bet against the Speaker on a vote. And she is looking pretty determined on this one."
Yes, whipping votes in the House is different from corralling a national electorate. But when Nancy Pelosi issues a future-tense declarative, my mood lifts a bit nonetheless. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"The conservative equivalent of the Che Guevara T-shirt"

Traditional conservatives and Republicans,  just coming to grips with what's hit them in the form of the Tea Party, are trying on various analogies to Democrats' past relations with the old-guard communist left and the new left of the sixties.

Thus David Frum, guest-blogging this week on the Dish, tells of a FrumForum blogger  who was savaged and sabotaged on the NewsRealBlog and cites an attempt by the FrumForum's pseudonymous "Eugene Debs" to explain this vicious internecine warfare:

You’re like some mainstream liberal, circa 1969, having dialogues with the Bill Ayers of that day–in which Ayers is telling you that if you don’t agree with him that “we” should all “off the pigs”, and lead an armed revolution, then it is you who is betraying the “true” left.  Except for one thing–Ayers, Dohrn, etc. were kids then, in their early 20s.  But, in this case, you have mature, middle aged people as the heart of the crazy movement–it’s kids like Alex Knepper who are your only hope.  This is both good and bad–good in that youth has time on its side, bad in that the middle aged Tea Party/love Palin/call-Obama-a-socialist-Nazi lunatics are already in positions of influence throughout the media and, to some extent, political office, too (the Pauls come to mind). ... I don’t know how you create a sane movement, but I guess it happens one day at a time.
And the Washington Post's Michael Gerson , grappling with cracked Teapot Sharron Angle's invocation of "Second Amendment remedies" to deal with the "tyrannical government" of Barack Obama, warns:

But mainstream conservatives have been strangely disoriented by Tea Party excess, unable to distinguish the injudicious from the outrageous. Some rose to Angle's defense or attacked her critics. Just to be clear: A Republican Senate candidate has identified the United States Congress with tyranny and contemplated the recourse to political violence. This is disqualifying for public office. It lacks, of course, the seriousness of genuine sedition. It is the conservative equivalent of the Che Guevara T-shirt -- a fashion, a gesture, a toying with ideas the wearer only dimly comprehends. The rhetoric of "Second Amendment remedies" is a light-weight Lexington, a cut-rate Concord. It is so far from the moral weightiness of the Founders that it mocks their memory.
"The conservative equivalent of the Che Guevara T-shirt" -- that nicely captures the faux rage of these office-seeking and office-holding mountebanks who take their cues from Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. 

While a radical right (faux or no) that's more than fringe may be worrisome, Peter Beinert argues that a mainstream party needs to be pushed from a far-out fringe:

No one believes that today. There are vibrant progressive organizations, from Moveon.org to SEIU, but they are part of the Democratic Party; there is no powerful grassroots movement that stands outside the two-party system calling for revolutionary change. No one believes, as many did in the mid-1930s and mid-1960s, that if presidential reform fails, blood will spill in the streets. From Theodore Roosevelt to Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, American progressivism has historically occupied what Arthur Schlesinger famously called “the vital center,” a bulwark against the anti-democratic ideologies of both left and right. Except that today, powerful left-wing ideologies barely exist, and so large numbers of Americans can genuinely believe that Barack Obama is a socialist, if not a totalitarian. Luckily for them, and unluckily for progressives who want dramatic change, America no longer features the real thing.
Obama's whole two-year campaign was a bid to move the center to the left.  With unemployment stuck in the high single digits for the foreseeable future, it's going to take a very long game indeed for that bid to succeed.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Social Security benefits are skewed to low earners

There's been much bloggiating lately on means-testing social security, raising the retirement age, or listing the cap on earnings subject to the social security tax (FICA), currently set at $106,800. The FICA tax is 6.2% each for employer and employed -- or 12.4% for the substantial percentage of high earners who are self employed.

While raising the retirement age disproportionately affects lower earners, who have lower life expectancies,  lifting the FICA cap combined with making benefits contingent on need would mean truly socking it to the wealthy and affluent.  Proponents -- including, oddly, traditionally zealous enemies of "confiscatory" taxes on wealth -- seem to suggest that high earners are getting some kind of free ride from social security. Here's John Boehner, for example, in favor of means-testing:
If you have substantial non-Social Security income while you're retired, why are we paying you at a time when we're broke?
What seems lost in this conversation is the fact that at present social security benefits are allocated disproportionately to low earners. It's true that the tax is not progressive -- those earning $100k pay the same percentage as those earning $20k, while and those earning, say, $213,600 (twice the cap) pay half the rate on their total income.   But the benefits reaped constitute strongly diminishing returns as one's income increases.  Benefits are based on a taxpayer's  average indexed monthly earnings (AIME) up to the taxable cap. Of those earnings, averaged over 35 years, those who retire at age 66 currently get the following in SS benefits:
  • 90% of the first $761 of AIME
  • 32% of the AIME between $761 and $4,586
  • 15% for the AIME above $4,586 (up to $8900, beyond which there's no tax or benefits).

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Our future is not in manufacturing

As U.S. unemployment remains stubbornly, dangerously, high, calls mount for a manufacturing revival.  Hence James Fallows, blogging today from Aspen, puts forward a critique of the U.S. economy by Bharat Balasubramanian an engineering executive from Daimler AG in Germany, linking income inequality in the U.S. with a dearth of good manufacturing jobs:
"I will state that there will be a polarization of society here in the United States. People who are using their brains are moving up. Then you have another part of society that is doing services. These services will not be paid well. But you would need services. You would need restaurants, you would need cooks, you would need drivers et cetera. You will be losing your middle class.

"This I would not see in the same fashion in Europe, because the manufacturing base there today can compete anywhere, anytime with China or India. Because their productivity and skill sets more than offset their higher costs. You don't see this everywhere, but it's Germany, it's France, it's Sweden, it's Austria, it's Switzerland.... So I feel Europe still will have a middle level of people. They also have people who are very rich, they also have people doing services. But there is a balance. I don't see the balance here in the US."

Also today, Joe Klein, grudgingly admitting that increased hiring on Wall Street is good news of sorts, indulges in a prescriptive wish:
I guess I'm an economic curmudgeon, but I'd be a lot happier if the headline was: Green Energy Hiring Boom or Auto Industry Rebounds Strongly. But what we may be looking at is a continuation of the disease that forced the bailout in the first place: a distorted economy, where too many of the profits come from making deals and too few come from making things.
Making deals, bad; making things, good: that reminds me of the late-80s complaints that while Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry focused Japanese resources on vital industries, U.S. government planners didn't distinguish between production of microchips and potato chips when distributing government largesse.

Doubtless, it's good policy for the U.S. government to stimulate/incent development of "industries of the future" such as alternative energy and biotech.  Doubtless, the growth of such industries would stimulate some good, high-skilled manufacturing jobs -- for a while at least, though technological development tends over time to destroy manufacturing jobs rather than create them.  And yes, the U.S. financial sector has grabbed a bloated share of profits and has been a brain drain from other occupations demanding intense mental labor.

Still, I doubt that rising income inequality in the U.S. can be traced to a failure to generate good  manufacturing jobs. And I doubt that increasing the proportion of the U.S. labor force engaged in manufacturing is either a likely or desirable means restoring income growth, reducing income inequality, or raising job and life satisfaction levels in the U.S. In his 2010 book Rebound: Why America Will Emerge Stronger from the Financial Crisis, Stephen J. Rose shows that the steady shrinkage of the manufacturing sector over the past half century has on balance benefited U.S. workers.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Rick Perlstein on the dark side of democracy

As a child of the 1960s, I found Rick Perstein's wonderful Nixonland a compulsive read. On one level it's a moment-by-moment replay of the era's seismic events as they appeared on the street, in newspapers and on TV, in the national party convention centers, in the counsels of the Johnson and Nixon administrations, and to a significant extent, in Richard Nixon's head.  But it is not a shapeless panorama; rather, it's relentlessly focused on the question Perlstein poses in the preface: what motivated ""the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else, at least that particular Tuesday in November, seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason" (p. xiii).  While that voter is his "main character,"Perlstein asserts,  Nixon's "story is the engine of this narrative. Nixon's character--his own overwhelming angers, anxieties and resentments in the face of the 1960s chaos--sparks the combustion" (p. ix).


Perlstein succeeds, page after page, in drawing the connections between riot and rebellion, the spectacles as they played out on TV and in the news, and Nixon's masterful manipulation: his securing of Southern support by slow-walking enforcement of Johnson's civil rights legislation; his training of the cameras on uncouth anti-war protesters as backdrop to his staged counter-spectacles of clean-cut loyal youth;  his combination of phased U.S. troop withdrawal and savage bombing in southeast Asia; and finally, his dirty tricks manipulation of the Democratic nomination process in 1972.


Reading Nixonland recalled me to my earliest political perceptions --rooted in the conviction that the Vietnam War was wrong and couldn't be won -- and led me to meditate on the limitations of my own blogging credo that the electorate is smarter than all of us.  It is true I think only in the broadest sweep of history, in that democracy provides the means of self-correction, so that manifest policy failure is eventually punished at the polls. The blunt instrument of the popular vote (and public debate) keeps societies from going all the way on the road to ruin.  But that doesn't mean that most of us are not fooled much of the time, often for a very long time. Or worse, that we don't collectively will evil -- as Nixonland suggests we did in Vietnam. 

Friday, July 09, 2010

Netanyahu: I will go to Ramallah....

No one knows Benjamin Netanyahu's heart and ultimate intentions regarding peace negotiations with he Palestinians at this point. In the wake of his meeting with Obama, however, Netanyahu, while intimating that he will not extend the West Bank settlement freeze when it expires in late September, has ramped up his verbal commitment to a comprehensive two-state peace agreement.  Speaking yesterday to Larry King, he at least faintly echoed of Anwar Sadat's "I will go to Jerusalem":
"I use this forum today to say, President Abbas, meet me, and let's talk peace. We all have our grievances. We all have our, you know, our questions and things that we want answered. But the most important thing is to get together, sit down in a room and begin to negotiate peace. You cannot resolve a conflict, you cannot successfully complete a peace negotiation if you don't start it. And I say let's start it right now, today, tomorrow, in Jerusalem, in Ramallah or anywhere else. I'm prepared to go to a warm city like New York or a cool city anywhere. Let's get on with the business of talking peace and concluding the peace agreement."

Netanyahu also told the Council on Foreign Relations, according to Haaretz, that "if direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority begin, it would be possible to reach a peace deal within a year" and that "he did not return to the post of prime minister in order to do nothing" and that he was willing to make unprecedented concessions.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Two rivals on the weakness of Netanyahu

Back in March, when Benjamin Netanyahu's Interior Minister Eli Yishai ruptured Israeli-U.S. relations by announcing plans to build 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem while U.S. Veep Joseph Biden was meeting with Netanyahu, Netanyahu's election rival (and possible prospective coalition partner) cast the tiff as a sign not of of the Prime Minister's arrogance but of his weakness:
Opposition leader and Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni on Sunday cast her own criticism of Netanyahu regarding the recent row, saying his weakness to his coalition partners was costing the government its stability.

"The coalition agreement is not a substitute for a set path and a vision," Livni said, adding that "we have a prime minister who does not know what he wants and this weakness is leading to a political landslide."

"Israel is paying the price for the fact that her government is not making decisions and it will continue to pay for it," Livni added.

That might be dismissed as a rival's sniping. But now, Netanyahu's Foreign Minister, the thuggish Avigdor Lieberman, is making the same charge. Lieberman is reportedly furious and prepared to take "calculated revenge" on his own Prime Minister because Netanyahu sent Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer to a secret meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, instead of Lieberman, and didn't tell Lieberman. In the wake of the meeting,  the Turkish paper Hurriyet reported (as relayed in the Jerusalem Post) that "Israel is prepared to apologize to Turkey for the flotilla incident and to compensate the families of the injured parties,"  which Ben-Eliezer's office denied.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Jews, Gays, and History

Defending Andrew Sullivan's use of the term "final solution" to describe experiments aiming to prevent homosexuality by tampering with hormones in utero, Goldblog free-associates a further link between that  pair of strange, pardon the expression, bedfellows, both victims of Nazi hate:

I've come to the conclusion that some people are gay because God specifically wanted them be to gay. Don't ask me how I came to this; don't ask me to explain my thinking (yet) and don't ask me to explain what I think to be God's purpose is in this case. I can't quite figure out God's reason for creating Jews, much less gays.

Maybe Richard Florida can help; he's suggested that gays are an essential element in "the creative class: a fast-growing, highly educated, and well-paid segment of the workforce on whose efforts corporate profits and economic growth increasingly depend."  Sound familiar?  Jews are another reviled out-group that have catalyzed economic and cultural development in the city.  As medieval kings and dukes periodically courted Jews, Florida has suggested various means by which ambitious city fathers and employers should -- and perhaps semi-consciously, in some cases, have --  provided amenities that attract "creative class" types, who are disproportionately gay.

For the theologically minded, is it such a leap to suggest that God created Jews and gays to prick forward human progress?  And for those more inclined toward amorphous rationalist mystery, that cracker-barrel philosopher Kurt Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse Five, gropes in a congruent vein toward the unseen dynamics of human sexual-social life:

One of the biggest moral bombshells handed to Billy by the Tralfamadorians, incidentally, had to do with sex on Earth. They said their flying-saucer crews had identified no fewer than seven sexes on Earth, each essential to reproduction. Again: Billy couldn't possible imagine what five of those seven sexes had to do with the making of a baby, since they were sexually active only in the fourth dimension.

The Tralfamadorians tried to give Billy clues that would help him imagine sex in the invisible dimension. They told him that there could be no Earthling babies without male homosexuals. There could be babies without female homosexuals. There couldn't be babies without women over sixty-five years old. There could be babies without men over sixty-five. There couldn't be babies without other babies who had lived an hour or less after birth. And so on.

It was gibberish to Billy (p. 114, Dell edition).
 Perhaps we can credit Florida with some 4-dimensional thinking:

There is no one-size-fits-all model for a successful people climate. The members of the creative class are diverse across the dimensions of age, ethnicity and race, marital status, and sexual preference. An effective people climate needs to emphasize openness and diversity, and to help reinforce low barriers to entry. Thus, it cannot be restrictive or monolithic. 
 Go for it, Goldblog. Gay and straight created he them....