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Monday, January 31, 2011

Trajectory changes; President capitalizes

Brendan Nyhan* takes one of his many thwacks at the myth that Ronald Reagan regularly moved public opinion with his public pronouncements, citing colleague Jim Stimson's demonstration that public opinion in favor of  decreased public spending peaked shortly before Reagan's election. Then, sentiment in favor of increased government spending rose continuously through Reagan's two terms:
Stimson's data suggest that Reagan's election was a reflection, rather than a cause, of growing anti-government sentiment. Once Reagan took office and began to enact his agenda to reduce the size and scope of government, however, public demand for government actually grew, reflecting the thermostatic pattern Stimson documents. In other words, rather than decreasing demand for big government, Reagan's presidency actually increased it.
Nyhan's main lesson for Obama seems to be: stop suggesting that you plan to move public opinion from the bully pulpit, because Reagan was not able to do it once he was in office. I would add, without falling into an assumption that history will mechanically repeat itself, that the Reagan pattern suggests that Obama may have already not "changed the trajectory" of American politics, but ridden the change induced by George W. Bush's massive failures to effect about as much legislative change as the electorate will tolerate at one gulp.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Going "Fallow(s)" this week

A program note: in the upcoming week I will be guest-blogging, along with Xujun Eberlein, Bruce Holmes and Chuck Spinney, on James Fallows' blog, while Fallows goes to the writing mat to finish a book.  Quite an interesting crew (bios here) so please happen by to bone up on Chinese and American literature (Eberlein), aviation (Holmes), defense strategy (Spinney) and anything else these folks care to ruminate on, while I concentrate more or less on presidential rhetoric past and present.  I will link here to new posts of mine as they go up, and may post here on subjects other than presidential pronouncements as well.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

A tale of two disasters

Reading 's Ken Silverstein's 2007 in-depth examination of Islamist parties in Egypt and Lebanon (h/t Conor Friedersdorf), I came across this capsule account of Hezbollah's response to the 2006 Israeli attack (well financed by Iran) and couldn't help thinking of poor Haiti:
When I visited Lebanon last November, three months after the end of the war, bombs from Israeli warplanes had left the Dahiyeh pockmarked with ten-foot-deep craters; whole buildings had been reduced to tangles of concrete and cables. Damage was heaviest in the Haret Hreik, Hezbollah’s political zone, where entire blocks lay in ruins. The six-story building that housed the party’s TV station, Al-Manar, or The Beacon, had been completely obliterated. But the postwar cleanup began almost immediately: Hezbollah dispatched teams of engineers to evaluate damage and estimate the cost of repairs or rebuilding. Within days residents received cash payments of up to $12,000 for homes that had been destroyed or damaged. At the peak of the cleanup, hundreds of trucks a day were carrying rubble to dump sites along a seaside road leading out of the city. I drove by the area and saw three vast mountains of building ruins, a melancholy mix of concrete, furniture, appliances, and clothing. 
 Compare any one of many accounts of stasis in Haiti one year after the earthquake:
Reconstruction work has barely begun, profiteering by Haiti's tiny and notoriously corrupt elite has reached epic proportions, and a national cholera epidemic has added to the misery of the quake-crippled country.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The liberal Reagan was...

by the standards of today's GOP, Ronald.

It's often pointed out that in the wake of his signature tax cuts, Reagan raised taxes six or seven times, notably in the social security bargain that raised payroll taxes on everybody. I've been looking at Reagan's State of the Union address of 1983, which led off with a victory lap in celebration of that grand bipartisan bargain:
Just 10 days ago, after months of debate and deadlock, the bipartisan Commission on Social Security accomplished the seemingly impossible. Social security, as some of us had warned for so long, faced disaster...

When the Speaker of the House, the Senate majority leader, and I performed the bipartisan-- or formed the bipartisan Commission on Social Security, pundits and experts predicted that party divisions and conflicting interests would prevent the Commission from agreeing on a plan to save social security. Well, sometimes, even here in Washington, the cynics are wrong. Through compromise and cooperation, the members of the Commission overcame their differences and achieved a fair, workable plan. They proved that, when it comes to the national welfare, Americans can still pull together for the common good.
Tonight, I'm especially pleased to join with the Speaker and the Senate majority leader in urging the Congress to enact this plan by Easter.

There are elements in it, of course, that none of us prefers, but taken together it performs a package that all of us can support. It asks for some sacrifice by all-- the self-employed, beneficiaries, workers, government employees, and the better-off among the retired-- but it imposes an undue burden on none. And, in supporting it, we keep an important pledge to the American people: The integrity of the social security system will be preserved, and no one's payments will be reduced.

The Commission's plan will do the job; indeed, it must do the job. We owe it to today's older Americans and today's younger workers. So, before we go any further, I ask you to join with me in saluting the members of the Commission who are here tonight and Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker and Speaker Tip O'Neill for a job well done. I hope and pray the bipartisan spirit that guided you in this endeavor will inspire all of us as we face the challenges of the year ahead.
That major tax hike and deal with the Dem devil was not Reagan's only departure in the 1983 SOTU from current GOP orthodoxy. He did, it's true, propose to hold Federal spending growth to the inflation rate,  freeze pay for Federal workers, find some defense "savings" in the wake of his previous buildup, and slow the growth of  so-called "automatic spending programs," for which his poster item was that easy path to ill-gotten riches, food stamps. But then, apparently not yet aware that he had proven that "deficits don't matter," he worked the other side of the equation:

And fourth, because we must ensure reduction and eventual elimination of deficits over the next several years, I will propose a standby tax, limited to no more than 1 percent of the gross national product, to start in fiscal 1986. It would last no more than 3 years, and it would start only if the Congress has first approved our spending freeze and budget control program. And there are several other conditions also that must be met, all of them in order for this program to be triggered.

Now, you could say that this is an insurance policy for the future, a remedy that will be at hand if needed but only resorted to if absolutely necessary.
Standby tax?  When did you ever read about that one?  It seems to have dropped out of the national consciousness as soon as uttered.  But the patron saint of supply-side economics uttered it.

Further, fond though he was of demonizing "welfare queens" and alleged food stamp cheats, with unemployment topping 10% Reagan had not quite reached the unemployed-are-like-stray-animals level of social Darwinism attained by his acolytes of today:

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Obama's Reaganite rag, revisited

The Obama team is floating the "liberal Reagan" theme again, and Time laps it up with an extended analogy that basically just harks back to Obama's floating the comparison himself in the '08 campaign with his notorious musing about how Reagan "changed the trajectory" of American politics. It would be fun to keep a running tab of memes like this that Obama has successfully planted about himself: they include "I have the right temperament to be President" (Fox, April '08) and that he plays a long game (Dec. '10, and in various forms much earlier).

The Reagan motif, for Obama, means channeling and articulating the zeitgeist, being the instrument of a major course correction in American politics.  Obama could not be so vocal about his belief that Reagan accomplished this without acknowledging that to some degree at least, Reagan's assault on big government was justified.  That's what sent Hillary and many Democrats around the bend in the wake of Obama's "change the trajectory" interview.

If I may indulge, I took a dive into this back in March '08. Here's the gist of that post (some of which looks pretty silly today):
------
How exactly has Obama channeled Reagan? Christopher Caldwell's excellent analysis of What Obama Owes to Reagan sent me back to The Audacity of Hope, in which Caldwell sees "an interest in Reagan that borders on fascination." He's right. Obama not only admires Reagan's political skills, his ability to "change the trajectory" of American politics as he put it in his notorious interview with The Reno Gazette-Journal in January. He also acknowledges the legitimacy of the course-change that Reagan drove and pays tribute to substantial accomplishments.

Obama's homage to some of Reagan's core principles bespeaks his faith in the American electorate. Implicitly, he acknowledges that Americans were right to give Reagan his mandate:
Reagan spoke to America's longing for order, our need to believe that we are not simply subject to blind, impersonal forces, but that we can shape our individual and collective destinies, so long as we rediscover the traditional virtues of hard work, patriotism, person responsibility, optimism, and faith.

That Reagan's message found such a receptive audience spoke not only to his skills as a communicator; it also spoke to the failures of liberal government, during a period of economic stagnation, to give middle-class voters any sense that it was fighting for them. For the fact was that government at every level had become too cavalier about spending taxpayer money. Too often, bureaucracies were oblivious to the cost of their mandates. A lot of liberal rhetoric did seem to value rights and entitlements over duties and responsibilities. Reagan may have exaggerated the sins of the welfare state, and certainly liberals were right to complain that his domestic policies tilted heavily toward economic elites, with corporate raiders making tidy profits throughout the eighties while unions were busted and the income for the average working stiff flatlined.

Nevertheless, by promising to side with those who worked hard, obeyed the law, cared for their families, and loved their country, Reagan offered Americans a sense of a common purpose that liberals seemed no longer able to muster. And the more his critics carped, the more those critics played into the role he'd written for them--a band of out-of-touch, tax-and-spend, blame-America-first, politically correct elites (Audacity of Hope, 31-32).

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

In SOTU, Obama pushes his "good faith" advantage

A few quick thoughts on the SOTU:

1) Obama began by building on his keynote political strength, which is that voters trust him far more than the Republicans to work in good faith with the opposition.  He came to national prominence by stressing national unity; he reaffirmed his ability to hit that note at highest pitch in the memorial service in Tucson; and he came into the SOTU riding his productive negotiation in the lame duck session. Rolling all that up with a gesture toward the Tucson imperative toward civility,  he in a sense bid to turn the Republicans' electoral success in November against them:
What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.
I believe we can. I believe we must. That's what the people who sent us here expect of us. With their votes, they've determined that governing will now be a shared responsibility between parties. New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans. We will move forward together, or not at all - for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics.
2.  In light of that initial call to unity and compromise, he cast commitments that have traditionally been regarded as bipartisan -- to education, research and development, and infrastructure -- as linchpins of the country's long-term economic health. In so doing, he reversed the emphasis that many may have expected in the speech: crucial investments first, deficit reduction and the tax reform that would enable it second.  Jobs were not put forward in a vacuum,  but as an outgrowth of the investments he called for. Indeed, he laid surprisingly little emphasis on short-term economic goals.

The advocacy for "investment" is at this point a rearguard defense, a marker laid down against defunding stimulus allocations to infrastructure and education and alternative energy. 

Monday, January 24, 2011

No crusade in the SOTU?

Matt Yglesias was onto something -- if only administration thinking -- when he wrote:
It sounds silly to call for less presidential leadership, but I think the evidence suggests that what’s needed here is actually a very vague and generic endorsement of the concept of tax reform plus some themeless pudding. Frances Lee’s important book Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles, and Partisanship in the U. S. Senate argues persuasively that what happens when a president tries to “lead” on an issue like this is that a dynamic of partisan polarization kicks in. What you really need to get tax reform is for some hard-working members of congress from both parties to take the initiative in hammering out a framework and building support on the Hill. If such a thing happens, the White House should of course try to play a constructive role. But jumping all over the issue and a creating a dynamic where tax reform becomes “a key priority for the Obama administration” that opportunists on the right want to kill for the sake of a political win would not be a constructive intervention.

Today, the WSJ's Jonathan Weisman relays (alleged) administration thinking in advance of the State of the Union address:
The president will try to keep the deficit conversation in broad terms, fearing that detailed proposals would put Republicans, Democrats and Washington interest groups into a defensive crouch before real negotiations can take place, according to those officials [familiar with the speech]. White House officials, for instance, have assured Democratic lawmakers that the president will not explicitly call for cuts in Social Security benefits, though he will say changes are needed to put the program on a solid fiscal footing.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A matter of tone in China

Twenty years ago, a graduate student friend from Taiwan told me something about the Chinese language that is by now I think pretty common knowledge:  the same syllable pronounced in a different tone can have a different meaning. Being tone deaf, I was astounded by this.  It seemed to me that you'd have to essentially sing in Chinese to make yourself understood.

In Dreaming in Chinese, Deborah Fallows chronicles her adventures (and misadventures) stemming from a full-bath immersion in Chinese during a three-year sojourn. Memorizing and reproducing tones is indeed central to her struggles -- and her account sheds some light on the mystery of how tones can function so centrally.

One very funny tale involves her attempt to ask attentive attendants in a Chinese Taco Bell whether they offer take-out.  To prepare us, Fallows explains that the each of the two syllables by which she tried to signify "take-out" could have at least four meanings, depending on tone. Possible meanings for one syllable include bag or parcel, eaten your fill, 'hail' as in rain pellets, newspaper and hug.. She cannot make herself understood. The restaurant greeter calls for reinforcements within, and she is surrounded by boys in sombreros struggling to decode her two syllables. The scene reminds me of Woody Allen attempting to rob a bank in Take the Money and Run, insisting to a crowd of helpful bank personnel that the last word of his scrawled note does indeed spell "gun".

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Will business lobbies save the PPACA?

I take some cheer from National Underwriter's report on the worries of insurance producers (agents and brokers):
Congressional affairs experts at some producer groups are wondering whether Republicans hate the Affordable Care Act so much that they will avoid making serious efforts to fix obvious problems. 
One problem that's very obvious to producers is that their fees are the first sacrifice to the PPACA's requirement that insurers spend a higher percentage of premium dollars on health care:
The issue getting the most attention from producer groups is PPACA medical loss ratio (MLR) provisions that will require health insurers and health plans to spend 85% of large group premium revenue and 80% of individual and small group premium revenue on health care or quality improvement efforts.

NAHU says the MLR provision, which took effect, Jan. 1, is particularly unworkable.
Health insurance agents and brokers say their commissions have been cut 50% starting this year because the MLR formula classifies commissions as an administrative expense.

Producers argue that the formula should exclude commissions, because customers pay the commissions, and health insurers collect commission payments merely as a convenience to the customers.
I find this heartening not because I want to see agents lose their livings, but because I want to see Republicans start acting like Republicans and get to work bargaining to protect their oldest constituents, various business interests. That's what insurance producers want:

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Is the individual mandate in the PPACA enforced by a tax or a penalty on those who forgo insurance?

Jonathan Cohn's extended defense of the constitutionality of the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act makes me nervous.  

That's not because I don't agree 100% that the authority to impose such a mandate is essential to providing near-universal insurance and holding down costs. It's because, of the two chief legal arguments in favor of the mandate -- one relying on Congress's power to tax, the other on Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce -- Cohn seems to lean heavily on the power to tax.  The PPACA is
defensible on constitutional grounds—starting with the power to tax, the same authority that undergirds Social Security and its health insurance analogue, Medicare. With Medicare, the government demands that people help finance the cost of society’s medical treatment through payroll taxes. With the Affordable Care Act, the government demands that people help finance the cost of society’s medical treatment either by paying for a reasonably comprehensive insurance policy or writing a check to the government. The form of the payments is different but, argue the act’s defenders, the basic concept is the same.

The applicability of that power depends on convincing judges that the sum paid by those citizens who can afford health care insurance but choose not to buy it is in fact a tax, not a penalty. And one Federal judge who has strongly upheld the mandate on the basis of the Commerce clause in the Constitution also quite definitively rejected the argument that the cost imposed on those who choose not to buy insurance is a tax.

The judge, Norman K. Moon in the Western District of VA., in Liberty University v. Timothy Geithner, rejected the argument that the mandate is enforced by a tax rather than a penalty. He did so on dual grounds: because the bill itself dubs the required payment a "penalty" in most instances, and because substantively, "the assessments function as regulatory penalties -- they encourage compliance with the Act by imposing a punitive expense on conduct that offends the Act" (p. 20). That, to Moon's thinking, places the mandate under the rubric of "penalty" as defined by the Supreme Court in various cases, including Dep't of Revenue v. Kurth Ranch (1994): "Whereas fines, penalties, and forfeitures are readily characterized as sanctions, taxes are typically different because they are usually motivated by revenue-raising, rather than punitive, purposes" (p. 19).

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"Your train, The End of History, is operating 15-20 years late. We apologize for any inconvenience."

I've often pushed back against those who mock Francis Fukuyama for having suggested, in the wake of the destruction of the Berlin Wall, that the world was heading toward universal embrace of democracy and capitalism and that there was no serious ideological alternative.

I've long suspected that Fukuyama was not wrong, just early, and not even necessarily early, since he never suggested that The End of History was immediately at hand (not in the book version, anyway; perhaps he was less equivocal in the original article) -- just that we were on course for it.  I still like to think he's essentially right, with three caveats, two old, one new, or morphed out of the old.

First: who knows what malign new ideology may arise, command the allegiance of fanatics and proceed to enslave hundreds of millions or billions. I don't think Islamist theocracy qualifies; it's a rearguard action, without a prayer of building or catching hold of a world power -- though it could, through major terrorist attacks, destabilize current powers and perhaps, given our proven propensity to panic over the past ten years, end democracy in America. Which leads to a second caveat: never underestimate humanity's capacity to tear civilization down; chaos or destruction through war or environmental depredation is always possible.

The third caveat is prompted by China's sustained ability over 30+ years to manage rapid economic growth via top-down, autocratic rule. This leads to a revisionist thought: what if the Cold War, or at least the ideological competition underpinning it, never really ended?  As the Soviet Union collapsed and China progressively took the wraps off private enterprise, an assumption took hold in the west that "communism" was an empty ideological shell, that Chinese society, now that it allowed private enterprises to create and accumulate wealth, was essentially capitalist, and that capitalism ultimately entailed democracy.

But the Chinese Communist Party is no empty shell. Is its ideology? I imagine that party members consider "communism" a living ideal, in the sense that the Party, endowed with the the responsibility of ensuring the greatest good for the greatest number, continues to manage an enormous national economy to the overall benefit of the society as a whole (regardless of large groups that get dispossessed or disadvantaged when they're in development's path).  China's rulers have delivered the performance to give such a claim credibility.  The state, moreover, still controls the means of production to the extent necessary to build public infrastructure, dominate major industries, and to control banking in such a way as to prioritize development in particular sectors. Who is to say that this system is not "communist"?

In an op-ed in today's Financial Times, Fukuyama himself acknowledges that China has found itself to a so-far stable (though "sui generis") political-economic system that is unlikely to transition to democracy any time soon. He credits Chinese leaders not only with being able "to make large, complex decisions quickly, and to make them relatively well," but to be quite sensitive, in their way, to "popular discontents." He sees a durable social contract between the ruling party and current and rising elites:

Monday, January 17, 2011

Cheney's still spinning..

No wonder Dick Cheney considers Rush Limbaugh a friend. Cheney twists political reality as relentlessly as he once twisted intelligence, relentlessly as Limbaugh.  If he gets a new heart, he should get his own show. 

Via Slate, here's his latest spin on Obama's counterterror policy, from an interview to be aired tomorrow on NBC:

He obviously has been through the fires of becoming President and having to make decisions and live with the consequences. And it's different than being a candidate. When he was candidate he was all for closing Gitmo. He was very critical of what we'd done on the counterterrorism area to protect America from further attack and so forth.

I think he's learned that he's not going to be able to close Guantanamo. That it's-- if you didn't have it you'd have to create one like that. You've got to have some place to put terrorists who are combatants who are bound and determined to try to kill Americans.

I think he's-- in terms of a lot of the terrorism policies-- the early talk, for example, about prosecuting people in the CIA who've been carrying out our policies-- all of that's fallen by the wayside. I think he's learned that what we did was far more appropriate than he ever gave us credit for while he was a candidate. So I think he's learned from experience. And part of that experience was the Democrats having a terrible showing last election.
And here he is on counterterrorism and drones:
As I say, I think he's found it necessary to be more sympathetic to the kinds of things we did. They've gotten active, for example, with the drone program, using Predator and the Reaper to launch strikes against identified terrorist targets in the various places in the world.
Okay, one point at a time:

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Mulling Sam Rocha's "spectacle"

I'm not sure why Andrew Sullivan calls his blog The Daily Dish -- "dish" makes me think of the unsavory Lucianne Goldberg, who when she helped retail Linda Tripp and her salacious wiretap to the world, explained, "I love dish, I live for dish."  But it might be because he serves up a cornucopia of nourishing minds whom one might never otherwise encounter.  Today, for example, he introduced me (via Dish, that is) to a certain assistant professor of philosophy in a snippet I found arresting -- below, reproduced as introduced:
Sam Rocha wonders whether politics, and the occasional spectacle it creates, "is a palliative cure for boredom":
I suspect the reason people read these things—including the commentary here at [Vox-Nova]—is because they are bored. Now, you may object saying that you choose to read or write here for principled reasons. You may in fact have a busy life, full of things to do, and come here for reasons that seem unrelated to boredom.

But, I ask (myself first and foremost): What is boredom but loneliness, alienation, lovelessness, and the desire for something to occupy the time in a way that puts those stark realities at a distance? What is boredom but not quite feeling at home in the place you are? ...

When something wicked this way comes

In the Times' long investigative report on the Stuxnet virus that has apparently severely disrupted Iran's nuclear program -- generally believed to be a joint Israeli-American project -- here's what jumped out at me:
“It’s like a playbook,” said Ralph Langner, an independent computer security expert in Hamburg, Germany, who was among the first to decode Stuxnet. “Anyone who looks at it carefully can build something like it.” Mr. Langner is among the experts who expressed fear that the attack had legitimized a new form of industrial warfare, one to which the United States is also highly vulnerable.

Color me fearful -- I don't like this rough beast being unleashed on the world.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

McCain hearts Palin as victim-in-chief

John McCain's purported graciousness is disingenuous.

In an op-ed in today's Washington Post, McCain praises Obama's speech in Tucson -- then twists it to second Sarah Palin's depraved implication that she is the nation's chief victim of overheated political rhetoric.

According to McCain, "The president appropriately disputed the injurious suggestion that some participants in our political debates were responsible for a depraved man's inhumanity."  That's true, insofar as Obama suggested that we don't know "what thoughts lurked in the dark recesses of a violent mind." It's also true that  Obama upheld the value of "debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future" and recommended that we "challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future," but McCain's pullout is accurate as far as it goes.

McCain moves on to inveigh against character assassination and affirm his own belief in the President's patriotism and fitness to govern. He admits that he has been part of the problem in the past (remember: "he'd rather lose a war than a campaign"?). Then comes the sleight of hand:

An undeveloped thought

Has anyone noted the structural similarity between Israel's announcement last March, while Biden was dining with Netanyahu, that 1600 new settlements had been approved for East Jerusalem, and China's test flight of its new J-20 stealth fighter during Robert Gates' visit this week?  In both cases, the presidents of the countries visited claimed to be surprised by the embarrassing event, blindsided by decisions taken by the defense ministry (Israel) or the People's Liberation Army (China) .

I will refrain from facile and uninformed speculation as to what this coincidence may suggest about U.S. stature or Chinese stagecraft. 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A theological speech? Yes. A Christian one? Not exactly

Conor Williams argues that in Tucson last night the President made a case for "a deeply theological understanding of human beings." I would agree with that -- but Obama's public theology is not Christianized in quite the way Williams would have us believe.

In characterizing Obama's metaphysics, Williams substitutes one term for another:
Taking the podium in front of thousands (but really, millions) of scared, confused citizens, the President made a case for a deeply theological understanding of human beings. Start with sin. Obama repeatedly stressed that crises like the Arizona shooting are inexorable proof of the presence of evil in the world.

It's true that Obama does point to the persistence of evil in the world -- here and elsewhere,  notably in his Nobel Prize speech. But while he did exhort us all to be better last night, he never mentioned sin.

To do so might violate his own ground rules for bringing religious values into the public sphere: they must be universalized:

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

With malice toward none...

To perhaps the greatest extent to date, the extraordinary subtlety and yes, moral clarity of Obama's mind was on full display tonight, as he spoke at the memorial service for the victims of last Saturday's shooting at the University of Arizona tonight.

The President employed two shifts of perspective to address the rancor of the post-shooting debate  - and the question of whether our politics are poisoned by vitriol -- without getting mired in the rancor.

The first, and perhaps more obvious, was to ask us all to face the question looking forward, not backward.
But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do – it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.
The second, more profound, was a version of "let he who is without blame cast the first stone" -- an exhortation to each of us to look inward -- as humans naturally do when they lose a loved one:

 But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.

After all, that's what most of us do when we lose someone in our family – especially if the loss is unexpected. We're shaken from our routines, and forced to look inward. We reflect on the past. Did we spend enough time with an aging parent, we wonder. Did we express our gratitude for all the sacrifices they made for us? Did we tell a spouse just how desperately we loved them, not just once in awhile but every single day? 
And then again, in the context of that reflection, the plea to focus forward:

Proprietary trading and banker's pay updates

After the post-mortems to the passage of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, I was under the impression that the Volcker Rule, which purports to ban deposit-taking institutions from engaging in proprietary trading, had been weakened to the point where its prohibition was merely notional for the foreseeable future. For one thing, Scott Brown managed to get the ban on FDIC-insured banks investing in hedge and PE funds scratched at the last minute. I thought that implementation of the surviving provisions had been placed on a long slow track. And indeed, regulations regarding how proprietary trading will be defined and how the ban will be enforced are not due for nine more months and remain very much a matter of contention.

So I was surprised by this in yesterday's WSJ:
Morgan Stanley reached an agreement with proprietary-trading chief Peter Muller that will allow his team of traders to form a new firm at the end of 2012, people familiar with the matter said.

The widely anticipated deal is the latest exit by high-profile traders from traditional Wall Street firms because of the Volcker rule, approved as part of last year's Dodd-Frank financial-overhaul law...[snip]

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Re: Gabrielle Giffords and Political Courage

If I may put one-plus-one together here: Seth Masket pays tribute to the political courage of Gabrielle Giffords:

She represents a district that McCain won in 2008 and surely was aware that Republicans would be devoting considerable funds to defeating her. Nonetheless, she voted for TARP, cap and trade, the stimulus, and health care reform, and she still managed to retain her seat last year. That certainly merits some sort of mention.

Whoa. It sure does. More than those of us who don't study political science for a living (as Masket does) might recognize.  In the aftermath of the last election, political scientists Brendan Nyhan, Eric McGhee and John Sides took a dive into the data and found that what hurt individual House Democrats most was votes on precisely those four bills:

We counted the number of these measures supported by each Democratic incumbent and then estimated the effect of this support on their election conditional on the partisanship of the member’s district (controlling for other factors). The simple answer: these roll call votes mattered. A lot. A Democratic incumbent in the average district represented by Democratic incumbents actually lost about two-thirds of a percentage point for every yes vote. Democrats in the least Democratic districts, such as Chet Edwards of Texas or Gene Taylor of Mississippi, lost about 4 percent for every yes vote.

Political climate change

Damn, Henry Farrell beat me to it.  Some time today, I was going to expand on a note I posted on the Facebook page of a friend intent on denying any link between overheated political rhetoric and the Tucson shooting:
While Loughner seems to be a psychotic of no recognizable political persuasion, too crazy to have a coherent political grievance against Giffords, inflammatory rhetoric that demonizes the opposition , which has become endemic on the right, probably does increase the likelihood of political violence. Threats against politicians generally are up, and threats against Obama are off the charts. The relationship between the political climate and a given act of violence reminds me a little of the relationship between global warming and a given hurricane: you can't say that the warming caused the particular hurricane or made it worse, but you can infer that due to the warmer climate there will be more violent storms. For evidence of the effect of violent rhetoric, see http://bit.ly/hgCFSi.
That link is to a John Sides post at The Monkey Cage: 

Monday, January 10, 2011

Purveying a message

Passing one of about a dozen delis and convenience stores lining my 1/3-mile walk from Penn Station in New York to the office, I found myself mulling the signage of one of them:
"Purveyor of fine foods and coffee"
What came to mind was Ben Franklin's tale of a young hatmaker designing a sign for his shop, and seeking marketing advise from friends:

He composed it in these words, 'John Thompson, hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money,' with a figure of a hat subjoined. But he thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments. The first he showed it to thought the word 'Hatter' tautologous, because followed by the words 'makes hats,' which showed he was a hatter. It was struck out. The next observed that the word 'makes' might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats...He struck it out. A third said he thought the words 'for ready money' were useless, as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Everyone who purchased expected to pay. They were parted with; and the inscription now stood, 'John Thompson sells hats.' 'Sells hats!' says his next friend; 'why, nobody will expect you to give them away. What then is the use of that word? It was stricken out, and 'hats' followed,...rather [uselessly] as there was painted on the board. So his inscription was reduced ultimately to 'John Thompson," with the figure of a hat subjoined."

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Loughner, cont.

In my previous post, I took a close look at alleged assassin and mass murderer Jared Lee Loughner's YouTube screeds and suggested that Loughner seems to be an idiosyncratic psychotic, not directly invested in any recognizable political movement, but rather devising a personal formula for evading mind control and establishing his own freedom of action.

There does seem to be something distinctly American in Loughner's paranoid conviction that "government officials" exert a matrix-like control over Americans by controlling "currency" and "grammar" and "law and land." But that paranoia seems to seek grounding not in a fetishization of the Constitution but in an antifederalism that predates the Constitution -- though that last point remains unclear.

The extent to which current political discourse penetrated this loner's disturbed consciousness also remains unclear. Below, a few further thoughts regarding some historical and apparently political references in the manifestos:

1) Several commenters on the prior post, reacting to Loughner's assertion that "reading the second United States Constitution, I can't trust the current government because of the ratifications," wondered whether he was referring to the Articles of Confederation -- cf. his earlier statement, "you don't have to accept the federalist laws." I had the same thought -- but on a second and third reading, I think it remains unclear what shreds of historical knowledge contribute to Loughner's magical reality. It's unclear whether he is casting the Constitution itself as an illegitimate "federalist" power grab, or alluding to some later corruption that is manifest to a "literate" reader.

2) References to "currency" and "gold and silver"do not seem to me to suggest sympathy with any coherent (if crazy) advocacy of a gold standard. "Currency" in Loughner's personal lexicon is a means of mental control or liberation.  Note below how it's conflated with "grammar," another tool of mental mastery, in the last line of the sequence below:

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Jared Lee Loughner, "fallenasleep"

While new data will surely come in about Jared Lee Loughner, the alleged shooter of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, his YouTube text-videos indicate that he is not a right-wing politico, not a tea party type.  He seems to be a sui generis make-your-own reality psychotic.

Loughner seems to have developed his own formula for taking control of his world and rejecting the world controlled by government officials.  His key terms are currency, grammar/language, sleep/conscience [i.e., consciousness?]and land and law.  The government controls the dominant currency, language, (false) law and land; most people are brainwashed into accepting this reality.

Loughner, like Lewis Carroll's Humpty-Dumpty, asserts that he can create his own language and hence reality -- that is, currency, consciousness (through sleepwalking), and law; he can teach his "listeners" (as he calls readers of his text videos) to do likewise. To create that reality, he uses a syllogism-like structure: 1) an "if-then" statement; 2) an assertion that one part of that statement is true; 3) a conclusion that the second part of the if-then is true. For example:
Every human who is mentally capable is always able to be treasurer of their new currency.

If you create one new currency then you're able to create a second new currency.

If you're able to create a second new currency then you're able to create a third new currency.

You create one new currency.

Thus, you're able to create a third new currency.

Here's a variation of the formula, with an added, open-ended -- and chilling -- conclusion:
If I define sleepwalking then sleepwalking is the act or state of walking, eating or performing other motor acts while asleep, of which one is unaware upon awakening.

I define sleepwalking.

Thus, sleeping is the act or state of walking, eating or performing other motor acts while asleep, of which one is unaware upon awakening

I'm a sleepwalker -- who turns off the alarm clock.

Loughner's screen name in an online community from which he was barred -- I couldn't tell which -- was fallenasleep. It seems that sleepwalking is his personal talisman enabling him to act as a free, unbrainwashed revolutionary (see below).

Friday, January 07, 2011

Election 2010: How marginal was the messaging?

Today Brendan Nyhan hammers home his signature theme: presidents don't move public opinion by speechifying.  He has been relentless about this for years. Reagan couldn't move the public to support the Contras; Bush couldn't do it for social security privatization; and Obama didn't do it with his Sept. '09 speech promoting health care reform.

A natural corollary is that elections are determined mainly by structural factors: the state of the economy, the number of seats the in-party has to defend, the proportion of those seats that are in the opposing party's traditional territory, etc.. On the eve of the last election, Nyhan had a memorable post cataloging every oft-recited narrative about Obama's imagined failures of messaging or strategy, with links to past posts debunking most of them.

As it turned out, the Republicans out-performed the structural models, the most commonly cited of which, by Douglas Hibbs, forecast a gain of about 45 seats. Why?  Aspects of the current economic woe that the model could not capture?  Extraordinary GOP messaging that maximized the structural advantage? 

On November 11, Nyhan and colleagues Eric McGhee and John Sides published an Election Postmortem reporting some preliminary numbers crunching. No dominant explanation emerged.The Tea Party's impact seems to have been marginal. Money was not decisive. Structural factors explained much, but not the size of the victory margin.

The authors did find one factor, though, that raises more questions than it answers, and that I found astonishing on its face: that most House Democrats paid dearly for every 'yes' vote they cast on major legislation.  The writeup of this finding should be digested in full:

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Gideon Rachman cries wolf, and bids us listen

As a presumable preview of his forthcoming book, Zero-Sum Future: American Power in an Age of Anxiety the FT's Gideon Rachman has a cover story in Foreign Policy that seeks to strip away a cocoon of denial regarding American decline:

In the end, of course, the Soviet and Japanese threats to American supremacy proved chimerical. So Americans can be forgiven if they greet talk of a new challenge from China as just another case of the boy who cried wolf. But a frequently overlooked fact about that fable is that the boy was eventually proved right. The wolf did arrive -- and China is the wolf.
While the Soviet and Japanese challenges to U.S. economic hegemony faded, China's 30 year track record make its accession as the world's largest economy all but inevitable.  In raveling out the implications, Rachman takes on what he sees as a series of comforting myths: that "America still leads across the board" and will continue to do so for decades; that "globalization is bending the world the way of the west" and that China will inevitably become a democracy; that in a world in which all consequential countries are democracies, cooperation will trump conflict and mutual enrichment will result.

In response, Rachman gives us to understand that the U.S. lead is evaporating more quickly than anticipated; that China has managed 30 years of near-double digit growth without liberalizing as predicted; that as U.S. hegemony fades, so does mutual cooperation among democracies; and that protection is building momentum as the western consensus frays post-crisis.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Politics and principle, cont.

Seth Masket, parsing my critique of Jonathan Bernstein's approach to political ethics, seems to have missed (or discounted) a couple of key modifiers (emphasis added):
Sprung...questioned why we should accept crass political calculation by our elected officials:
Where Bernstein (judging from his blog's Comments section) does disturb many readers -- me included -- is in his suggestion that it is politicians' right, indeed their duty, to be guided entirely by such calculations [of political advantage]. He argues, in effect, that the law of political survival is a necessary, natural, sufficient and therefore desirable prime mover of politicians' words and actions.
I don't want to speak for Jon here (I'm sure he'll have a good post along these lines up shortly), but my response to this is as follows: I don't celebrate this system. But to complain that politicians will be guided by political calculation is like complaining that businesspeople will be guided by profit maximization or that athletes are too obsessed with winning. It's not a character flaw; it's their line of work. Indeed, hoping for politicians who are untethered from political calculations is not only naïve, but sometimes quite dangerous
The bone I picked with Bernstein was not that he illuminates the how and why of political combat. I'm delighted that he does; that's why I read him.  My question was simply whether we should assume, as I think Bernstein at least sometimes does, that the struggle for political advantage has no bottom -- and that it never conflicts with the struggle to craft good policy.