Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cheers to Governor Brownback

High school senior Emma Sullivan got in trouble for sending a rude and disparaging tweet about the Governor of Kansas, after her student group had a chance to meet him. One of the governor's staffers complained about her behavior, and her school asked her to apologize. Emma refused. Evidently she did not feel sorry either for her sentiments, which of course she had every right to express, or for her language, which we are supposed to accept as normal teenage-speak these days. (I have teenagers, so I can attest that according to them, everything they disapprove of "sucks.") The school finally decided to back Emma Sullivan up.

In some earlier times, this story might have involved the student's suspension, general public condemnation, and perhaps a long, drawn-out battle between the forces of dissent and the forces of propriety. Instead--who would have thought?--it turned out yesterday that it was Governor Brownback who ended up being the one to apologize, for his staff's over-reaction to Emma's comment. In so doing, the governor recognized that "freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms." Perhaps not a proud day for the champions of polite language (although we have to recognize that the boundaries of acceptable language are always changing); but definitely a proud day for the First Amendment.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Still Occupied

Some photos I took this morning of the slightly diminished, but still standing encampment on the grounds of City Hall in downtown Los Angeles. The protesters' right to remain camped in this location expired at midnight last night, but the police are evidently taking their time to enforce the order.

Here's hoping for a peaceful resolution of this situation.

Truth and Settlement

Judge Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York today rejected a proposed consent judgment and  $285 million settlement of an SEC enforcement action against Citigroup. The SEC alleged that Citigroup had defrauded investors in a fund comprised of toxic assets, but was willing to accept a monetary settlement and injunction without requiring Citigroup to admit the truth of these allegations. In this case, the court disapproved this longstanding practice, in its words, "hallowed by history, but not by reason." The court's opinion determined that the settlement did not provide sufficient knowledge of the underlying facts, and thus would deprive the public "of ever knowing the truth in a matter of obvious public importance." The judge also seemed to think that the settlement amount was inadequate. No doubt a lot of people will applaud the judge's apparent efforts to stick it to Wall Street, but I always find it somewhat disconcerting when a judge takes it upon himself to impose a result on the parties that neither side sought or wants, in this case forcing both parties to assume the extraordinary costs and risks of trial in a case that both sides would prefer to settle. At the same time, I do understand that the court must consider the interests of the public as well as the parties.

I question the assumption, repeated several times in the court's opinion, that a public trial is going to allow the public to know "the truth," as well as the assumption that knowing "the truth," if indeed truth is ascertainable at trial, is a more important value to the public than peace. Many things can happen at a trial that can interfere with finding "the truth." What if, for example, a crucial witness for either side presents a poor appearance? Or an especially strong appearance? What if a crucial witness disappears? What about the contradictory comments that always show up in the voluminous documentation involved in a case like this one? And what about other factors that might militate against pressing forward with a full-blown trial? Think, for example, of potentially millions in costs and legal fees each side must now incur. Would it be more productive for Citigroup to avoid those costs? Does the government have other more pressing priorities to devote its scarce enforcement resources? Is finding out "the truth" worth the wait until next summer's trial? Not to mention potentially years of appeals after that. As a mediator, I generally assume the parties to a negotiated agreement are in the best position to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their case, and that such an agreement is generally going to represent a fair approximation of the costs and risks to both sides of going to trial. To assume otherwise, as Judge Rakoff does, amounts to second-guessing the careful calculations what are most likely, in such a high profile case, some very competent attorneys. 

On the other hand, public trials do serve a number of important purposes, even when we cannot be certain that a trial will produce a better end result for the public than a negotiated settlement. Judge Rakoff's decision can be justified on the ground that a trial will help educate the public about the complexities of these financial transactions, and may also satisfy the public's need for the cathartic experience of watching banking officials called publicly to account for their actions. A trial will also allow the public to make its own assessment of a mountain of possibly conflicting facts and competing versions of the truth.  But we have also seen plenty of very public trials result in a jury verdict directly contrary to what much of the public conceives as "the truth." Those trials prove to the public that they are exactly the opposite of a method for finding "the truth." When this particular trial is over, my guess is that the public will still be arguing over the meaning of "the truth" of this matter.

(excerpted from a post on my mediation blog)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

No Easy Off-Ramps

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Not non-violence

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," said Santayana. Seems that might be true of the chancellors of UC Berkeley and UC Davis, both of whom invited the cops on campus with horrendous results. Did they forget Kent State and Jackson State? Have they heard of the Strawberry Statement? Were they around for the campus protests of the 1960's and 1970's?

I looked up the biography of Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau, and found that he is a Canadian, who worked at Bell Labs in the United States during those earlier campus protests. Then he spent 25 years as a physics professor at MIT. Maybe that explains it. He could have been so immersed in the laboratory that he was only dimly aware of what was going on outside. Now Berkeley students and faculty cannot understand his recent actions. This man actually said that linking arms and forming a human chain is not non-violent. That grammatically inelegant and absurd statement seems destined to be remembered by those who, unlike Birgeneau, make a practice of remembering history. Birgeneau's remark dishonors the history of non-violent protest. It is a slap in the face of history.

Then I looked up the biography of Linda Katehi, Chancellor of UC Davis, and found out she is Greek, and graduated from the National Technical University of Athens in 1977, with degrees in electrical engineering. So maybe she also missed some lessons from US campus protests of earlier decades. After looking at the footage in the video below, Katehi herself seems appalled by the forces she set in motion. She should be. Now the Davis faculty is calling for her head. 

Is the moral of the story that scientists and technocrats might not make the best university chancellors in these troubled times? Perhaps. But we really ought to concern ourselves more with how to handle these kinds of confrontations in a smarter and more positive way. These students were engaged in a peaceful, if somewhat messy demonstrations. Their causes--protesting tuition hikes and solidarity with the occupy movement--are not threatening to the university community; those causes are supportive of that community. Why was there such urgency to remove them? Why did their removal have to be so violent? That kind of response can only cause the sense of confrontation to escalate, and public opinion to polarize. None of that should have been necessary.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Grown-Up Foreign Policy

Indications from the President's trip to the Far East this week suggest a new approach to US relations with China, and the whole Pacific region.  In Hawaii last week, President Obama told the Chinese they needed to start acting like a "grown-up" economy, stop "gaming" the system, and play by the same rules of trade as everyone else. During the rest of his Asian trip, the President strengthened ties with other Asian countries, committed to an increased military presence in Australia, and reached out to Burma in rather dramatic fashion by sending Secretary of State Clinton for a visit. All these moves must send a signal to China that the US will not cede its status as a dominant power in the Pacific region, and that we expect changes in their behavior.

President Obama probably won't get many points back home for these moves, as the public seems preoccupied with football coach scandals, Congressional stand-offs, Wall Street protests, and a continuing sluggish economy. To the extent people are even paying attention to trade policy, they probably won't be all that impressed.  That may be because the American public has been taught to expect a more child-like foreign policy on our own part, in which we are allowed to bully our neighbors, play by our own rules, and beat up on anybody who doesn't go along with us. 

During the Cold War era, US foreign policy reflected an us vs. them mentality. We characterized other nations as good guys or bad guys depending on whether they were aligned with us, or with the Communists. We overlooked bad behavior by friendly governments, and we ignored hopeful developments in the enemy camp. After the Cold War ended, we carried that mentality over into a new struggle against terrorism. We probably needed a more sophisticated approach for the last few decades. We certainly need one now.

If we followed that traditional mentality, we would probably tell China they had better shape up, or else. Or else, what? The list could include treating China as an enemy, imposing retaliatory tariffs, imposing sanctions, and ultimately, military force. The problem with an adversarial approach, however, is that such moves can hurt our side as well. And when we cast another country wholly into the enemy camp, we eventually lose any leverage at all over their actions.  So the president took pains to remind China that they are still our friend and partner. But at the same time to suggest that if they want to sit at the grown up table, they have to abide by the community's standards.  We have seen this tone elsewhere in the Obama foreign policy. In messages to dictators around the world, for example, that they had better recognize the basic rights of their people, if they want the respect of the international community. That message has led to reforms in a number of countries, and has empowered the people of some other nations to get rid of dictators who don't change their ways.

The implicit threats of the old adversarial system are still present. How else to interpret the initiative to place a new Marine base in Australia, for example? The difference is that instead of telling other nations to bend to our will or we will do them harm, we are trying to appeal in a more positive manner to the desire of any international player to be accepted and respected. That is an approach designed to produce better results, and a whole lot less resentment of American power.

(AP photo, updated Saturday, from USA Today)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Downtown LA Protests

This is what I encountered on my way to work this morning: A large crowd of protesters chanting and watching a small group camped in the middle of the street, who were planning to get arrested. Organizers with bullhorns warned members of the crowd to keep to the sidewalks if they did not want to be part of the planned civil disobedience. The vast majority stayed where they were supposed to. The police waited patiently for the decision to proceed with the arrests. 

I would almost describe the mood as festive, and that is not to denigrate the serious purpose of many of these protesters. Still, there was little menace or threat in the air, only a raucous crowd and an expectant feeling. I didn't stick around to watch the forces of law and order make their move.

I later learned that the police made a couple of dozen arrests, presumably of the people who were essentially asking to be arrested. Maybe it's LA; maybe it's our finally-more-enlightened police department; or maybe it's this particular group of protesters associated with Occupy LA, but my city has somehow managed so far to avoid the ugliness that has shown itself in some other cities' responses to the occupy movement.

(top two photos from my cellphone; bottom photo from LA Times)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Welfare for the Rich

Cheers to Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn for releasing a report entitled "Subsidies of the Rich and Famous," detailing the many billions in government aid that goes to the most well-off among us. While some Republicans seem to prefer to talk about how poor and lower middle class people need to pay more taxes, while refusing even to consider closing loopholes and eliminating subsidies that benefit the rich, Coburn does not shy away from pointing out how much the government subsidizes those who seem to need subsidies the least.

We are never going to do anything about reducing deficits and making our tax system more fair until we start acknowledging that all of us benefit from government social programs and tax breaks, and that the rich might benefit from them most of all. A few Republican politicians like Coburn are also smart enough to understand that their party is going to suffer if it continues to be perceived as the party of the rich and against the poor. If we're going to talk about cutting spending and reducing deficits, we have to put some of the subsidies for the rich and famous on the table, or we are not going to make any progress.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Who are the occupiers?

I find the Occupy movement fascinating, because its strategy and tactics seem different from any protest movement I remember seeing before. While these encampments have attracted lots of people who don't have a clue, they have also drawn some pretty impressive participants. There seems to be an intelligence behind this seemingly leaderless, directionless movement that gives one hope that it is still heading in a positive direction. But where did they come from? How did they get here? And where are they going?

Some of my questions were answered in an interesting article in last week's New York Review about the origins and goals of the occupiers. Far from being a spontaneous mass uprising, the idea for the Wall Street protest was apparently formed by some members of a group called Adbusters, which started in Canada more than 10 years ago. Somebody sent an email to subscribers suggesting that a group of people camp out on Wall Street, and a bunch of people seized this idea and began meeting over the summer in Tompkins Square Park to plan the protest, developing the idea for the General Assembly, and training hundreds of activists in the democratic methods that these encampments later spread all over the country and the world. There are some savvy and intelligent people behind this movement, but they deliberately stay behind the scenes, eschewing the very idea of charismatic leaders, and lending more credence, and more reality, to the democratic and popular image of the group.

The occupiers have released manifestos. They meet and talk endlessly. They plan activities. They have some general ideas in common, most notably the idea that they represent "the 99%," and that our economic and political systems should serve the 99% and not just the top 1%. But they have released no demands, have not attempted to make specific changes, have tried to avoid being co-opted by any other organized groups, and have not made clear what their end game is. While unusual, all these decisions seem smart to me. Where they go from here is unclear, however. Perhaps a severe winter will make them pack up their tents in places like New York City. Perhaps they will wear out their welcome in other cities. Perhaps there will be more confrontations. Or perhaps they can just declare victory, and morph into a new strategy in the spring.

(photo by me)

Fed Up?

John McCain thinks it is likely that unless both major parties start doing something for the people, a third party is going to emerge. In fact he thinks it would be an "inevitability." When asked whether the new party would be a right wing, left wing, or centrist party, McCain suggested that we just call it the "Fed Up" Party.  McCain could be right that there is enough of a critical mass of people disaffected from the mainstream political parties, that something new could emerge, although our system of government is structured in such a way that historically, it has not been kind to third parties. The last time a third party succeeded at the presidential level was when the new Republican Party managed to elect Abraham Lincoln. But even then, the Republican Party was more of a replacement for the Whigs than a true third party. 

But if we could imagine our system evolving in such a way as to permit more than two parties to obtain some real power, maybe we should think even beyond what McCain was suggesting. We probably have room for a fourth or fifth party, if we really wanted to capture all of the disaffected elements of the population. On the right, we already have the Tea Party, which is more of a movement than a true political party. But they already have a sizable caucus in Congress, and a coherent set of principles advocating dismantling of all of the functions of the federal government it has picked up in modern times. If it were a real party, it might gain the support of 20% or more of the population. Then we could add a centrist party, consisting of all those who find the Republicans too conservative and the Democrats too liberal. John McCain himself might join such a party, even though he disavowed any such intent, and it might also pick up some Blue Dog Democrats in Congress like Senators Nelson, Lieberman, Webb, Manchin, etc., and the few remaining moderate Republicans. People like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg seem to be itching to join such a movement. Maybe 20 or 30% of the electorate, those who describe themselves as independents now, would flock to such a party. Finally, on the left, there could be room for a truly socialist/environmentalist/unionist party, led by people like Bernie Sanders and Dennis Kucinich, and followed by those Democrats who already think that President Obama has sold out to the moneyed interests. There might be another 20% of the population who would fall into that camp.

If three new parties like that were to emerge, my guess is that the Republican Party would likely shrivel to almost nothing. There is not much space between the Tea Partiers, who already comprise the most energetic portion of the Republican base, and the moderate Murkowski-Snowe-McCain type Republicans who might join a more centrist party. The Democrats, who have always been more of a disorganized, quarrelsome mass of competing voices, might not fare much better under such a scenario. Which means that any such reorganization would likely lead to two even more ideologically-based right wing and left wing parties, and a less ideologically-coherent centrist party. Governing would require some sort of center-right or center-left coalition. Another possibility is that people would decide that the whole concept of political parties has outlived its usefulness, and our system would become even more personality-driven, and less ideologically understandable, than it is today.

All these are interesting scenarios to contemplate. Would any of them reduce the level of fed-up-edness? Somehow I doubt it. When you look around the world at countries that already have three or more viable parties shifting or sharing power among themselves--like the United Kingdom, like France, like Israel--their people seem just as fed up as Americans. That means we might need more fundamental changes in the way our democratic systems operate than just increasing the number of political parties.

(AP Photo from Politico)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Soap Opera Politics

Why is it that the public and the media are more than happy to spend endless hours discussing the details of Herman Cain's encounters with women a number of years ago? For some reason we think these questions are highly relevant to a candidate's qualifications for president. Or maybe we are drawn to the drama of accusation and denial. Or maybe we just enjoy it when the presidential contest descends to the level of celebrity gossip. Since we are more than happy to dissect the doings of public figures like the Kardashians, whose actions are absolutely inconsequential to our lives, we apply that same level of fascination to political figures. Does this kind of soap opera politics reflects a certain immaturity on the part of the American electorate?

In Italy, for a timely example, voters and politicians act in almost the opposite way. Italians re-elected a Prime Minister they knew to be a champion female groper, a serial sexual harasser. Mr. Berlusconi puts any American politician you can think of to shame in that department. But his sexual antics did not bring him down. No, his government is collapsing over important policy and financial issues. In the United States, by contrast, it doesn't seem to matter as much whether a politician's ideas have failed; instead we use their sexual indiscretions to bring them down. It is as if we can't bear to have a serious conversation about important political issues, or we don't really even know or care about the issues. All we care about is politician's personal lives.

In America today, it is not taboo to talk about the sordid details of exactly where on a woman's anatomy a politician may or may not have placed his hands. (And I am not, by the way, trying to trivialize the issue of sexual harassment, or suggest that these accusations are irrelevant. I am just raising a question about why questions of personal misconduct get so much more attention than questions of policy.) It seems that the real taboo subject in American politics is the issues. Particularly some of the ideas Herman Cain has been talking about. The refreshing thing about the Cain candidacy is that he was openly addressing a number of important subjects that have been taboo for many years, subjects that it is well past time we debated in a serious way. One such taboo subject is the role of government in the economy. Cain carries to a new extreme the conventional wisdom that everything the government does is bad for the economy. Leave the private sector alone, and it will flourish. Get government regulation out of business, and they will produce. Stop providing people with so many social services and they will go out and make themselves more productive. In the course of making this argument, Cain may have gone a bit too far, however, such as by denigrating the contributions of public employees like fire fighters, nurses, and teachers to the extent that a lot of people are going to question Cain's whole premise. By raising the issue of the place of government in our society in such an extreme and antagonistic way, he may risk losing the argument for his side. For that reason, the powers that be in the Republican Party may not mind seeing him fall to a more moderate candidate like Romney. But they can't attack Cain for being too anti-government. That would risk confusing and alienating the base. Better to have Cain fall to a sex scandal, and they might be about to continue to avoid having a serious debate about the role of government.

The second taboo subject that Cain's candidacy has brought to the fore is the subject of income inequality. Even without Cain in the race, politicians may no longer be able to sweep that one under the rug any longer. People are coming to be aware that the rich in this country have gotten so off-the-charts rich in the last two or three decades, and that the middle class is not keeping up, that politicians may no longer be able to avoid talking about this issue. Oh, they will still try. Republicans in particular still scream about class warfare the minute anybody suggests making the wealthy pay a larger share of taxes. But Cain's radical 9-9-9 tax plan has been threatening to make tax fairness and income inequality one of the central issues of next year's campaign. Once people start figuring out that a 9% sales tax would hit the poor and middle class the hardest, while a 9% flat income tax rate would let the wealthiest pay far less in taxes than they are currently paying, they will start to understand the real implications of the Tea Party platform. And most people will not support such an extreme position.

Herman Cain has crossed the line. Herman Cain has brought some taboo subjects out into the open. But they are not the taboo subjects that everybody thinks they are. And contrary to Cain's own ridiculous counter-attacks, it is not the Democratic machine that is bringing him down. It is not some women of troubled circumstances who are making him the victim of some kind of feminist crusade. It is not that people will do anything to keep a businessman out of the White House (although the last time we had a businessman in the White House, which was only three years ago, that didn't work out too well). No, the reason Herman Cain is going down is because he is upsetting the apple cart by taking some pretty radical ideas a little too far outside of the electorate's comfort zone. And it would be a shame if Cain were forced out by scandal so early in the campaign, because Cain has been making an important contribution to the public debate by giving voice to ideas that a lot of people find very powerful, and that deserve to be held up to scrutiny. The public, no matter what their position on these issues, ultimately gets cheated when an important player like that is taken out of the game for a personal foul, instead of being tested on the merits of his arguments.

(Spencer Platt/Getty photo: Cain accuser Sharon Bialek)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Not toast

Has Nate Silver jumped the shark? I hesitate to criticize, because Silver has such a great track record when it comes to analyzing polls, but today's New York Times Magazine cover article seems to take Nate into dangerous and uncharted territory.

But before I even get to that, I have a beef with the headline. For an article that concludes with the overall assessment that President Obama has a 50/50 chance of being re-elected, it seems a bit misleading to title it "Is Obama Toast?" It also seems a bit misleading to take the most unfavorable possible scenario (zero economic growth next year, and the strongest possible Republican candidate) and blast those figures on the magazine's cover. This is the New York Times, after all, not the New York Post. So you wouldn't think that giant letters trumpeting a "17% chance of an Obama victory," which turns out to be only one possible scenario (and a pretty unlikely one at that, unless Europe's economy sinks into the toilet), would be appropriate for the cover of the usually-respectable New York Times Magazine. I guess this is par for the course for the media, however, which continually likes to feed into the narrative of portraying Obama as struggling or unpopular, regardless of what the facts might support.

As to the analysis, it seems a bit more dangerous than Nate Silver's usually astute compilations and weighing of poll results. Maybe because this forecast seems to mix in some apples and oranges. It somehow combines two variables--the ideological position of the Republican nominee, and the growth rate of next year's economy--then throws in President Obama's current approval rating (43%), and through some complicated unspecified formula, comes up with a probability rating for Obama winning the popular vote next year under all possible scenarios. The weight given to all these variables seems to be based on an historical analysis, but even Silver admits that there are exceptions to all of his assumptions about the weight each factor should be given. For example, the elder George Bush failed to win re-election even though he had a high approval rating the prior year; Carter lost re-election even though his opponent (Reagan) was the furthest to the right of all possible Republican candidates; Eisenhower and Reagan both won re-election despite weak economic performance in their re-election years. And so on. But if all Silver is saying is that Obama is more likely to be re-elected if the economy keeps growing at a decent rate, and if his opponent is perceived as too far to the right of the mainstream, whereas he is less likely to be re-elected against a moderate opponent during another economic downturn, that seems obvious enough.  How he can put these kinds of percentage figures on the various scenarios, or why the chosen variables are the most relevant ones, is never very well explained, however.

If the only conclusion to be fairly drawn from this article is that President Obama should be viewed as a slight underdog next year, I'm fine with that. I'm still annoyed with the false media narrative that Obama is struggling or unpopular, but I'm ok with portraying the 2012 election as an uphill battle. That will generate interest in the president's re-election. And Obama performs well as an underdog. And Americans like comeback stories.

(photo from Cracked)