Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Power of Negative Thinking

There is an amazing story in the New York Times business section today (reported by David Segal) about an online eyewear merchant in Brooklyn who discovered, almost by accident, a business model that defies all of the conventional rules of retailing.  He has found that if he goes out of his way to antagonize any customers who make complaints, those customers will post all kinds of negative chatter about him on the internet, which has the effect of boosting his Google search ranking.  He can afford the bad feelings he creates in customers insulted by his rude and aggressive tactics, because those disgruntled customers actually drive more traffic to his site.  It seems that people who are searching for a place to buy particular brands of eyeglass frames, don't always take the trouble to find all the bad reviews.  They just find the guy's site.

I suppose this story could be seen as yet another example of the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity, but that saying is not usually applied to a customer service business.  What this story really illustrates is that negativity attracts a high degree of interest on the internet.  People like to read and write bad reviews, just as people are more likely to slow down on the highway to view a car wreck than to admire pretty scenery.

A lot of the political sites I like to read, both on the left and on the right, are infected with name-calling and nastiness.  People seem to enjoy attacking one another in print, and also enjoy reading such attacks.  I'm not immune to negative feelings myself, and there is nothing I like better than a good argument.  Sometimes I'll post a provocative comment on the Huffington Post or Daily Kos just for the pleasure of reading some idiot attacking my brilliant thought.  Most of the time, however, I just find it tiresome to read the negative, hateful remarks people make on such sites.  When I created this site, I made a deliberate decision to keep the tone as positive as I could (not necessarily optimistic, just positive).   And I'm happy to say that most of the comments I receive (even those who disagree with me) seem to reflect that same spirit.   It is discouraging, though, to think that if I had created a site called Hate and Fear, instead of Hope and Change, I might have a lot more readers.  

People also respond favorably to negative political advertising, even though they claim they don't like it.  And people respond to aggressive tactics by politicians, even when they do not accomplish anything with such tactics.  A lot of Republican supporters want to see an even more uncompromising opposition party.  A lot of Obama supporters want to see the president get mad and come out swinging against his political opponents.  I don't fall into that camp, as I've discussed previously, as I think that those tactics would backfire against a president who campaigned on a different philosophy.

Anyway, according to the New York Times, the Brooklyn eyewear merchant finally seems to be experiencing a net that is slowly tightening around him, as he finds it more difficult to maintain his accounts with MasterCard and eBay, and as even Google and perhaps even the police may eventually catch on to him.  We would all like to think that maintaining good customer relations is more beneficial to a business's reputation than mistreating one's customers, just as we would like to think that hope wins out over fear, and love conquers hate.

(David G. Klein illustration from the New York Times)

UPDATE (12/1/01):  Google claims it has already fixed the problem.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Be careful out there!

Today the president took an elbow in the lip in a basketball game and received 12 stitches.  A few months ago, I tripped and dropped a platter outside my house, in the process slicing my thumb, which required . . . 12 stitches!  For more weird coincidences between my life and Barack Obama's, go to the page on this site called Barack Obama and me

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Has Sarah Palin jumped the shark?

Has Sarah Palin finally gone too far, suggesting that the government has no business trying to educate families about healthy food choices and the benefits of exercise?    This week, Palin called into the Laura Ingraham radio show attacking Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campaign as unwarranted government interference into people's lives.  
Take her anti-obesity thing that she's on. She is on this kick, right. What she is telling us is she cannot trust parents to make decisions for their own children, for their own families in what we should eat.
And I know I'm going to be again criticized for bringing this up, but instead of a government thinking that they need to take over and make decisions for us according to some politician or politician's wife priorities, just leave us alone, get off our back, and allow us as individuals to exercise our own God-given rights to make our own decisions and then our country gets back on the right track.
Palin thus cleverly spins what is the most wholesome and traditional type of First Lady activity, one that is designed to promote public health, not at all unlike such past causes as Nancy Reagan's "just say no" anti-drug campaign, into some kind of evil government plot to interfere with families' "God-given rights" to make decisions.  In the process she attempts to tarnish the image of the president's family, despite her protestations during the 2008 campaign of any questions or perceived attacks on her own family.

If you follow the implications of what Palin is saying to their logical conclusion, she is really attacking the whole idea of public education, indeed the whole idea of government attempting to do anything to make people's lives better.  Because if it is an unwarranted interference with family decision-making to promote exercise and healthy eating, how much more of an interference is any kind of public education system?   Not to mention any other public health or safety regulations, from the Environmental Protection Agency to vehicle and traffic regulations, to meat inspection, or to the FDA's regulation of pharmaceutical products.  All of these activities interfere with families' "God-given rights" to decide how to live or raise their children.  In fact, they all interfere with our activities a lot more than Michelle Obama trying to get kids to exercise and eat more nutritional meals. 

Or maybe Sarah Palin is just standing up for the right of Americans to be fat and ignorant if they choose.  Maybe her criticisms are designed to feed into the resentment of many Americans at being told they should try to improve their health and work on their education, into our anxieties at falling behind in the global competition.   Maybe people need to be reassured that if we would only follow the advice of Sarah Palin and others attempting to attack the legitimacy of government, and take matters of educating and protecting our families completely into our own hands, we can be proud of belonging to a nation of fat, lazy, ignorant, selfish and armed-to-the-teeth free Americans.

Happy Thanksgiving!

(In addition to the Huffington Post piece linked above, check out more coverage of this incident at Obama Foodorama, a really terrific blog on all things connected with the Obamas and food.)

UPDATE (11/26/10):  On the other hand, I must rise in defense of Sarah Palin on this whole "North Korea" flap.  (saying our North Korean allies when she meant to say our South Korean allies)  I'm not defending her childish counter-attack on  Obama's slips of the tongue, but I do think it was dumb to make anything out of hers.  Sometimes a mis-statement can reveal a politician's ignorance or true thoughts.  This one did not.  We don't need to dwell on Sarah Palin's petty mis-steps.  There is plenty to talk about if we just stick to the things she means to say.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

START

Those of us who followed the great arms control debates of the 1970's and 1980's are getting a sense of deja vu as the latest arms control treaty faces strong opposition to ratification in the Senate.  Some of the arguments are the same, but the debate still seems to attract only a shadow of the passion that arms control treaties used to provoke.  One difference, of course, is that Russia is no longer seen as the enemy.  Another difference is that right wing opposition to arms control agreements has died down, after Ronald Reagan became a convert to the cause of nuclear arms reduction, and an eager partner of the Soviet Union in attempting to achieve drastic reductions in nuclear arsenals.  Yet there are still opponents of the latest treaty, who raise the same tired arguments about whether it would unduly hamper our defense plans, or whether we can trust our treaty partners.  These opponents sound like they still live in a bygone world.

I've been reading The Dead Hand, which tells the story of the end of the US/Soviet nuclear arms race in the 1980's, yet makes clear that the dangers of these weapons have not disappeared.  It turns out that the Soviet Union was actually building, in the 1980's, a version of the Doomsday device that was featured in the movie Dr. Strangelove from the 1960's.  Technology marches on, but we adjust too slowly.  As a result, the systems we designed decades ago still have the power to destroy us, even after we think the danger has passed.

Failure to ratify the new START treaty would allow the Dead Hand to continue to rule us.  If we don't move forward on arms control, favored by an overwhelming majority of the public, we would allow tired old debates that no longer have any real meaning, to dictate reality in a much different world.  We would allow partisan politics to prevent action favored by a strong consensus of defense and foreign policy experts.  We would allow one stubborn Senator, aided by a willing bloc of obstructionist colleagues, to hold up progress on a range of issues considered important to international relations, and to our own defense.  Are we smart enough to move beyond partisan politics and outdated debates to achieve progress on reducing unnecessary and dangerous nuclear arms?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Journalism and Cable News

Ted Koppel waded into the controversy this week over the suspension of Keith Olbermann for making unauthorized political contributions to Congressional candidates; writing a piece in the Washington Post decrying the trend in cable news toward entertainment and partisanship.  Senator Jay Rockefeller also jumped on the bandwagon yesterday, expressing the wish that Fox and MSNBC would both just go away, for the benefit of more civilized political discourse.

Olbermann responded with his usual sense of self-importance and self-righteousness here.  This kind of counter-attack, in which he mocked what he called the "false god of utter objectivity," and criticized the traditional media for missing the Iraq story (a classic way of distracting attention from Koppel's point), seems to me only to feed into criticisms of his style.  Instead, it might have been more appropriate to have taken the opportunity to try to consider and absorb some of Koppel's points, and calmly reflect on legitimate questions about the values of objectivity and truth in news. It might have also been a good idea actually to address the ethical dilemmas posed by journalists' campaign contributions, which are forbidden at many news organizations.

I don't question the right of cable stations to run opinion shows, but when Mr. Olbermann also appears as the anchor of an election night broadcast, he is assuming a reporting role that we traditionally associate with "objective" journalism, to the extent that can be attempted.  When he interviews congressional candidates, he ought to at least disclose that he has contributed to their campaigns, or to their opponents' campaigns, and should make no pretense of objectivity.  We should understand when an interview is being conducted by a supporter or opponent of the interviewee.

Maybe I'm in no position to criticize, being a practitioner of what could be viewed as yet a further debasement of journalism, but like most bloggers, I don't make any pretense of engaging in real journalism.  I try to be truthful, but I have to rely on the shrinking pool of real journalists for information, and all I'm stating here is what I think.  Cable news networks might be doing the same, but the difference is that they have adopted the trappings of television journalism.  If they do that, it seems fair to ask that their practitioners be held to at least some of the ethical standards of journalists.

A lot of fans of Keith Olbermann leapt to his defense last week, viewing his suspension as an unfair silencing of a powerful liberal voice by the new more conservative owners of the network.  And maybe that's what it was.  And maybe the rules he was suspended for breaking were unclear and were not applied fairly.  Still, it seems a legitimate question whether news show hosts like Olbermann should be required to adhere to some ethical rules.  And it also seems right to raise questions, as Jay Rockefeller is doing, and as Jon Stewart has also done, about whether the open partisanship of two competing cable networks is really serving the cause of informed debate.  Fox and MSNBC instead seem to serve more as a vehicle for reinforcing the views of their fans, rather than giving them something to think about.

Isn't it a bit of a stretch for Keith Olbermann to compare himself to such icons as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, and the younger Koppel, that he invoked as models?  Yes, those journalists did veer from objectivity at times, and perhaps those were some of their finest moments.  But those moments were powerful because those journalists started from a position of authority and at least attempted objectivity.  Walter Cronkite did not smirk and snarl his way through his newscast every night the way Olbermann does.  Keith seems to think that what he does is more honest than the false veneer of objectivity which can conceal a lot of biases.  But because Walter Cronkite generally used a more neutral, authoritative tone of voice, the moments when he felt compelled to express his own point of view were much more powerful.

UPDATE (11/19/10): Contrast Joe Scarborough's reaction to being suspended for the same violation.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Meaning of Change

Arguing with a couple of different people about the dismal election aftermath for the Democrats and their strategy going forward, I am starting to understand the source of many people's disillusionment with the pace of progress under the Obama administration.  It seems they had a different definition of the kind of change they were expecting than I did.  Some people viewed "change" as a set of policy proposals: universal health care, financial and regulatory reform, gay rights, withdrawal from foreign wars, more favorable labor laws, etc.  I never had such a laundry list.  Sure, I was in favor of moving the country in a different direction, toward a more sensible foreign policy, a more egalitarian domestic policy, and away from a belief that government is the enemy, but I never had specific policy requirements that I expected the new administration to meet.  Actually I do have a list of policy proposals I would put into effect if I were tsar, but they probably wouldn't be very popular, so I never had any expectation that any administration would ever advance my peculiar agenda.

Instead, the main reason I was attracted to the Obama campaign was its promise of a different kind of change: a new kind of politics based on trying to find common ground with people of different views, instead of dividing people into red and blue, black and white, liberal and conservative.  I was attracted by the idea of people sitting around a table trying to solve problems together, instead of fighting one another.  If anything, I should be more disappointed by what has happened since the 2008 election than those who are disgusted that health care reform still gives insurance companies so much power, or that we sent more troops to Afghanistan, or that "don't ask, don't tell" is still the military's policy.  At least they got some partial results, while I see only a worsening in the tone of our political debate.   So I am disappointed that politics is as partisan a battle as ever, and fear, distrust, and divisiveness are still its common tools.  But I don't blame the administration for that, just as I try not to second guess their legislative strategies that have disappointed many Obama supporters.  I'm just disappointed that more people did not have the same goals as I did. 

I should have known better.  Nearly half the country never signed on to the Obama campaign at all.  They voted for McCain.  And nearly half of Obama's voters were originally Hillary Clinton supporters, who were attracted to a more traditional kind of adversarial politics.  Of those who started and stayed with Obama during the campaign, it now appears that a good chunk of those people were more attracted to the promise of a liberal policy agenda than they were to the promise of a new kind of politics.  That leaves a pretty small minority who actually believed in Obama's vision that we would try to move toward a more inclusive, less divisive kind of politics.

So it is no surprise that we are now seeing people offer the president such advice as that he has to learn to play more hardball, as William Greider suggested in the Nation, or that he should be more confrontational with Congress, as Joe Conason suggested in Salon.  And yet . . . Even though I'm not sure that a majority ever fully bought into the hopey-changey-"Kumbaya" vision that is easy to make fun of today, I'm also not sure that a majority wants to see a return to bare-knuckle, knock-down, drag-out, old school politics of the kind that Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon or even Bill Clinton sometimes practiced.  As summarized in an article by William Galston in the New Republic
A just-released Pew survey finds that 55 percent of respondents want Republican leaders in Washington to “try as best they can to work with Barack Obama to accomplish things, even if it means disappointing some groups of Republican supporters.” Only 38 percent disagreed. Conversely, 62 percent want Obama to work hard to cooperate with Republicans, even if it means disappointing some of his supporters.
A recent bipartisan survey—a collaboration between Democracy Corps and Resurgent Republic—mirrors this finding and offers additional insights. By a margin of 67 to 26, the people want president Obama to work harder to find common ground with Republicans rather than simply holding fast to his own agenda. By a margin of 60 to 36, they endorsed the proposition that “Congressional Republicans should be more willing to work with President Obama to find solutions” over the contrary proposition that “Congressional Republicans should do even more to stop President Obama’s agenda because his proposals would irrevocably harm America.”
I take a lot of comfort from these numbers. They suggest that there is a solid majority of Americans who would still applaud Obama's seminal 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention where he asked us to get beyond red states and blue states and consider ourselves part of the United States.  They also suggest that the midterm elections should in no way be viewed as an endorsement of the idea that the progressive agenda should be stopped in its tracks or reversed.  These numbers further suggest that it would be a big mistake for the Obama administration to abandon the message that got it elected.  And as far as a strategy of dealing with a more Republican Congress, I am not in any way suggesting that the Democrats should roll over for the Republicans.  But they should still be willing to try to find consensus if possible.  At the very least, that strategy will make clear which side is being intransigent.   There is still a lot of power in the vision of getting people of different views to work together to solve common problems.  That vision still seems to be preferred by the majority of Americans, perhaps especially by the moderates and independents who generally decide presidential elections.

(still of townspeople singing Kumbaya, from South Park Archives)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Caving In?

A big battle is shaping up in Congress in the next few weeks over extending the Bush tax cuts. If Congress does not act before the end of the year, all of these tax cuts will expire automatically, an outcome that is favored by hardly anyone. Instead, Republicans would prefer that all of the tax cuts be made permanent, while Democrats favor making the tax cuts for those making under $250,00 a year permanent, while allowing rates to rise for those making above that amount. There are also a number of intermediate possibilities: the most prominent one being floated would allow the middle class tax cuts to become permanent but extend tax cuts for the wealthy for a couple of years. But if the deadline is allowed to pass, neither side will obtain its preferred resolution, or any intermediate resolution. Instead, all of the tax cuts will simply expire by operation of law, and the American people will probably be mad at both parties for allowing everyone's taxes to rise.

Both sides know that if they let the deadline pass, both sides will certainly lose. You might think that would make this tax debate easier to resolve, but it doesn't appear that it will be easy at all. Why?

What seems to happen in politics is that political preferences become positions, and positions take on symbolic importance. The relative ability of each party to achieve its positions also demonstrates its political power.  Because these positions have become so entrenched, we are incapable of having a rational debate over whether it makes sense to tax millionaires at a rate of 35% versus a rate of 39%, or some other rate. I would argue that it is absurd to be attaching enormous significance to whether the top tax rate should be 35% or 39% considering that as recently as the 1960's, the highest marginal income tax rate was over 90%.  We can't have a rational debate about that because one side has staked out a position that taxes are already too high, and any increase in rates would violate its cherished principles, while the other side has taken the position that allowing the highest marginal rate to increase is an important demonstration of the need to undo what the previous administration did, and restore more progressivity to the tax system. Furthermore, both sides are now using language that will make it harder to achieve any sort of resolution. Emboldened by their electoral victories, Republicans are marching back to the lame duck session asserting that they will refuse to compromise on this matter of principle. Meanwhile, supporters of the Democrats' position are already expressing their disgust at any sign that the Democrats may "cave in" to any of the Republicans' demands. Again, remember that both sides lose if they can't make a deal, so all this posturing could amount to a game of chicken, in which one side might have to give in to avoid disaster. As in all games of chicken, the "winner" is the one who is most willing to risk mutual destruction. Alternatively, both must try to find a face-saving result that will allow both sides to claim that they won, or else they will be attacked by their own constituents for displaying weakness or betraying their principles.

Could this sort of posturing have been avoided? Only if the parties had been able to frame the debate in a way that recognized each sides' true interests, instead of as a contest of wills. What should have allowed a more rational debate to occur is the recognition that both sides share some interests, and also that each side has interests that internally conflict. Republicans say they are interested in stimulating the economy and reducing the size of government, but they also say they are interested in reducing the deficit. Tax cuts might serve one purpose but make it harder to achieve another. Democrats are also interested in the conflicting goals of stimulating the economy and reducing the deficit, but they would prefer to stimulate the economy by increasing public works spending, rather than reducing rich people's taxes. The parties' common interests should suggest numerous ways of resolving the issue of an appropriate tax rate for millionaires in a way that satisfies their shared goals of long term deficit reduction and short term economic stimulus. Wouldn't it be a tremendous sign of maturity in our political debates if both sides could announce that they have agreed on a result that satisfies a large measure of their political goals? Instead both sides have fallen into the trap of trying to achieve a result that they can portray as a victory over the other side. Both sides have also tried to taint any other result as an illegitimate compromise, or as one side "caving in" to the other's demands. This kind of language makes it harder to solve what should be a solvable problem.

So what I would suggest to critics on both the left and the right is that instead of getting mad at our leaders for considering the possibility of compromise, what we ought to be mad about is their inability to work together to get a bill passed that the majority of Americans would probably support.  Having our elected leaders work together constructively to solve problems was the change I thought we voted for in 2008.  But we need to pressure them to do that, instead of attacking them for any signs that they might be willing to recognize the legitimacy of any opposing points of view.  

I don't want to get into a big debate about the merits of these tax proposals.  Actually, I don't mind.  I could debate tax policy all day, but that is not the point of this post.  (If it were up to me, we'd be phasing in an increase in the top rate back up to 50%, where it was during Reagan's presidency, and we'd also be talking about a VAT and a big tax on gasoline, and then we'd be discussing what to do with the budget surplus, like we did in the 90's.)  But the point of this post is that we ought to recognize that people have a range of legitimate views on how to make our tax system more fair, that in a democracy all views have some weight, and that our elected leaders ought to be able to sit down and work this issue out like grown-ups, instead of fighting it out like children. 

(A slightly different version of this post appears on my mediation blog.)

Monday, November 8, 2010

More Election Post-Mortem

I heard George Lakoff on the radio this morning talking about how the Republicans are much better at framing their messages than the Democrats.  I agree with that, but I also think that the Democrats engage in too much hand-wringing about their poor communication skills.  The problem is not simply, as Lakoff said, that Democrats are too focused on substantive policy issues, while the Republicans are stealing the show with sound bites about big government or the deficit or personal freedom.  I would give voters a bit more credit than that.  The real reason that the Democrats lost so many seats in Congress and the state legislatures has more to do with the unpopularity of the Democrats' policies--especially the bail-outs (rightly or wrongly now owned by the Democrats), the stimulus, and the health care reform act--among moderates and independents.  (And nobody understands the financial regulatory reform act.)  The unpopularity of what the Democrats actually did, plus the fact that the economy still stinks, led to electoral disaster.  Sure Democrats might have done better without all the lies and distortions thrown at them during the campaign.  Even with clearer explanations and less distortion, however, their policies were not overwhelmingly popular.

Consider also that if the Republicans' better communication skills explained the outcome of this election, what would explain the Democrats' spectacular successes in 2006 and 2008?  It wasn't as though Republicans were such bad communicators back then and suddenly learned how to get better.  Instead, the Democrats captured Congress in 2006 because people were sick of how Iraq was going, and because Hurricane Katrina had exposed the corruption and incompetence of the Bush administration.  And people voted Democratic in 2008 because they were ready for a change and the economy was going into the tank.  So it shouldn't be that hard to accept that Republicans scored this year because people don't like what the Democrats are doing, not just because Republicans explain themselves better.  

I am not saying that any of the Democrats' actions were wrong.  In fact, I think Democrats should be proud of their accomplishments during the last two years, and have a right to be angry at Republicans for failing to be part of the solution.  I'm just saying that Democrats have to accept the fact that a lot of people have yet to see much benefit from this latest session of Congress, despite its historic achievements. It's hard to accept the fact that what you are doing is unpopular, or that it is going to take more time for people to appreciate what you have done.  That may be why we are seeing all the whining about how the Democrats just don't know how to communicate very well.  But it's better to face the facts, Democrats.  People understand pretty well that you passed an $800 billion stimulus bill.  They understand that you bailed out GM and AIG.  They get it that you want everyone to be covered by health insurance.  A lot of them just don't like it.  I wish they liked it better, but they don't.  Eventually (hopefully by 2012) people might appreciate the facts that the bailouts saved our economy from collapse; that the stimulus cushioned the effects of the recession; and that the health care bill will help millions of people, but right now they don't.

In a democracy, just like back in high school, you are judged by how popular you are, not by how well you did on your last history test.  Right now the Democrats might still be getting an A in history, but the Republicans won a few more popularity contests.

To me, what seems most admirable about President Obama's and Speaker Pelosi's response to the mid-term election results, is that they have accepted responsibility, and they have gone out of their way to salute those Democratic candidates who stood up for what they believed was right, knowing they would be punished for their stands at the polls.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Democracy

I enjoyed watching the argument in the video below, between Glenn Greenwald and Lawrence O'Donnell on Joe Scarborough's show on Friday.  In response to Greenwald's argument that Democrats should have run more to the left, because progressive Democrats retained their seats for the most part, while half the Blue Dogs in the House lost; O'Donnell asked the simple question: "Where do the liberals live?  They live in safe districts."   As happens in every election in which power shifts in the House, it was the representatives who live in swing districts who lost their seats.  And it seems pretty hard to argue that more liberal candidates in those swing districts would have retained their seats.  Therefore O'Donnell's point that the Democrats should have been thanking the Blue Dogs for allowing leaders like Nancy Pelosi the chance to obtain power in the first place, instead of blaming the Blue Dogs for their loss, seems irrefutable.

I also found it refreshing to hear O'Donnell's admission that his own political leanings are far to the left of the mainstream.  He recognizes that his own positions--such as banning all guns in America--have no chance of being enacted.  I feel the same way about some of my own crackpot ideas.  For example, I think we ought to tax gasoline at about the same rate that we tax cigarettes, or at the rate they tax gasoline in Europe, but I understand that such a proposal has no chance of being enacted in this country right now.  So I don't feel terribly let down if nobody is pushing for a $4 a gallon gas tax.  And I get tired of hearing way too many liberals whining about feeling betrayed because their particular policy preferences--whether gay marriage, or tougher financial regulations, or withdrawal from Afghanistan, or a more progressive health care bill--were not pursued strongly enough.  In all cases, it seems to me that the Obama administration pursued the policies it did either because of a good faith belief that they did not have the votes to do more, or because of a good faith belief that their policies were sound.  I don't understand how anyone could expect more than that.  I especially don't understand how people can expect that any administration would follow exactly their own personal policy preferences.  To expect that seems to reflect a willful failure to recognize that not everyone in America shares any particular person's personal preferences. We live in a democracy with a wide spectrum of views, and no matter the size of either party's majority at any particular time, they cannot expect to enact their agenda in toto, or even in substantial part, without provoking a backlash.  The new Republican firebrands in Congress will learn this same lesson soon enough.


Friday, November 5, 2010

Partisanship

One of the reasons the message of the Obama campaign resonated with me from the beginning in 2007 was that it coincided with my professional interests, which have been pushing me toward expanding my mediation practice, as an adjunct to my trial practice.  There has been a substantial movement in the courts and the legal community giving mediation a more prominent place in the resolution of private legal disputes.  Cases are now routinely sent to formalized mediation sessions, in which participants and attorneys attempt to reach a negotiated resolution of the dispute, as a means of avoiding an unpredictable and costly court battle.  Because I am a believer in this process, as well as a trained mediator, I was also interested in the extent to which candidate and now President Obama, who often seems to operate with a mediator's instincts and techniques, would be able to transform our political culture in a similar direction.

All of that just serves as an introduction to a post on my mediation blog, which I am reprinting here, which analyzes the midterm election from a mediator's perspective:

Regardless of their own political leanings, advocates of mediation should be concerned by the bruising midterm campaign season that has just ended, and by the prospect of gridlock and increased partisanship in the next session of Congress.  In mediator's terms, we are facing the likelihood of impasse.  Conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans have been drummed out of both parties, leaving the more doctrinaire members dominant.  Newly energized Republicans have already announced that they have no appetite for compromise.  And Democrats have already started attributing the diminished enthusiasm of their base to the administration's willingness to make concessions to the opposition.  It will take all of the president's mediator-like skills to make progress in this situation.  Alternatively, he may abandon those instincts and take a more "Give 'em hell, Harry" approach to governing, which would probably please sizable elements of his supporters.

The public in general, and mediators in particular, responded positively in 2008 to candidate Obama's promises of a new kind of politics in which people of different views would work together constructively and respectfully to solve the country's pressing problems, instead of acting in our usual divisive and destructive manner.  That hasn't exactly happened, has it?  And it wasn't for lack of trying on the president's part.  But critics on the left have relentlessly attacked the administration for being too conciliatory, while critics on the right have adopted a deliberate strategy of opposing anything the administration has proposed.  It seems as though hardly anyone is still attracted to the vision articulated in Barack Obama's electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention in which he implored us to get beyond red states and blue states and start identifying ourselves as part of the United States.  Yet that vision, which many would probably now dismiss as hopelessly naive, was what propelled Obama to the forefront of the presidential race, and attracted millions to support his candidacy.  

What has happened in our politics the last couple of years shows how hard it is to get past our propensity to view the world in adversarial terms.  If the president has been unable to sell the public on the idea of peacefully resolving our political conflicts, how are mediators going to be able to sell the public on the idea of peacefully resolving private disputes?


I would add that this is obviously not just a problem for mediators.  We now face an increasingly polarized political climate, with all of the highly partisan new members of Congress from the Republican side facing an even more liberal Democratic side, purged of many Blue Dogs.  And Congress is now split right down the middle.  The irony is that among the general public, there is actually a fairly high degree of consensus on how to approach a number of the problems that still need to be addressed, for example immigration, energy, the environment, international terrorism, economic recovery, and taxes.   Bi-partisan responses to many of these problems have already been worked out.  The outlines of comprehensive immigration reform were already proposed by President Bush.  The outlines of a comprehensive approach to climate change were exhaustively worked out by a committee consisting of Senators Kerry, Lieberman and Graham.  Yet our polarized political structure will likely make it impossible to enact reforms that the majority of the public supports, because all of these problems have become political footballs in an adversarial contest.   Are we going to prefer to see a series of showdowns between incoming Speaker Boehner and President Obama over the next couple of years, or do we want to encourage some real negotiation to solve these problems?


(KAL cartoon from The Economist)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Can we handle the truth?

According to early reports of George W. Bush's memoirs due out next week, when the CIA asked for Bush's approval for waterboarding Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Bush supposedly responded:   "Damn right."  I don't want to make light of this admission, but it sure sounds a lot like this exchange: 



Bush's acknowledgment that he approved the waterboarding of prisoners, will undoubtedly re-open old wounds.  It seems unlikely we will be able to debate this issue dispassionately, given the increase in partisanship evidenced by this week's midterm election results.  Critics on the left will be quick to condemn the former president, to complain about the continued mistreatment of prisoners, and to express anger at President Obama and Attorney General Holder for failing to pursue criminal prosecutions of CIA interrogators, and possibly the former president and vice-president themselves.  Critics on the right will wax nostalgic for the toughness of the last administration, and take the opportunity to decry the supposed softness of the current one  (despite the fact that the Obama administration has a pretty strong record so far of taking out terrorists).

What I would remind critics on the left is that Bush was operating under the protection of opinions from the Office of Legal Counsel that waterboarding was not torture.  Even though these opinions were later revoked by the Bush administration itself, they would probably cover the administration in any attempted prosecution under US law.  Even if that were not the case, it would be nearly impossible to obtain a conviction of these officials in most US jurisdictions.  If they could recite Jack Nicholson's speech with even half his swagger, most juries would probably start applauding.  But I would also caution the critics on the right to remember that under international law, it is about as clear as it could be that waterboarding is in fact torture, and that the Bush administration's use of torture violates important treaty obligations of the United States.  And it is far from clear that torturing Guantanamo detainees was either necessary or even helpful, and it has made some of those detainees impossible to prosecute.  In addition, Bush and Cheney might have to be careful what countries they travel to in the future, because they could face real dangers of prosecution themselves.  What has changed is that the government no longer tries to defend the practice of waterboarding or other methods of torture.  Everyone should be thankful that this shameful episode in US history, in which we resorted to those methods, is over.

John F. Kennedy, Tax Cutter

(guest post by Vulcan's Hammer)


He was the preeminent figure in the Democratic Party. And he was a resolute supply-side tax-cutter. 

“It is a paradoxical truth,’’ he once told the Economic Club of New York, “that tax rates are too high today and tax revenues are too low and the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the rates now.’’ What he had in mind, he said, was “an across-the-board, top-to-bottom cut in personal and corporate income taxes.’’

Those words were spoken in December 1962 by President John F. Kennedy: His ringing call for tax cuts was what spurred our country into a great economic expansion for many years. Here’s hoping that both parties in this post-election season, for the remainder of 2010 and for 2011, somehow take his cue from the past and work to bring back strong economic growth.



NOTE by blog administrator:

This guest post appears because I lost a bet with Vulcan's Hammer (who writes a very good conservative blog that I follow), over whether Democrats would retain control of the House after the election.  VH had complete discretion as to what he wanted to post here, so I am thrilled that he chose to post something about my childhood hero JFK.  I can't argue with the point that Kennedy cut taxes in an effort to stimulate the economy, and there is some evidence that those cuts did have that effect.  I also don't disagree at all with VH's call that both parties work together to bring back strong economic growth.  I would only point out in response first, that the 2009 stimulus act also cut taxes to stimulate the economy, by about twice as much as Kennedy's tax cuts, so it would be nice to see conservatives acknowledge that Barack Obama is even more of a tax cutter than Kennedy; and second, that the top marginal tax rate in the early 1960's was 91%, whereas today it is 35%.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Wild About Harry

To try to escape the expected devastation to the Democratic Party in the midterm elections, I decided last week that the best place I could go (other than just staying home, of course, as California pretty much escaped also) was to Las Vegas, where I spent election day poll watching for the Nevada Democratic Party.  Therefore I can now take some of the credit for Senator Reid's remarkable victory, and I can also attest that the election was completely on the up and up.  So I don't want to hear any conspiracy theories from Sharron Angle supporters.  You have enough to celebrate elsewhere.

The more I watch Harry Reid, the more I admire his quiet capacity to get things done.  And getting re-elected in this environment may be one of his more amazing accomplishments.  We are lucky his leadership role in the fractious Senate will continue.  But because the House is now solidly Republican, we can look forward to at least two years of gridlock in Congress.  What will the President do in response to his party's losses in Congress and in state houses, I already hear the TV pundits wondering.  The answer, of course, is that he will concentrate on foreign policy, as all presidents have done in this situation.  His big Asian trip is already scheduled.