Monday, January 30, 2012

Saul Alinsky

Saul Alinsky, the great Chicago community organizer who died in 1972, was required reading for people involved in or sympathetic to the student and anti-war protests of the 1960's and 1970's. I remember buying my copy of Rules for Radicals sometime when I was in college. The book store manager, who was also an Alinsky fan, suggested that I also buy Reveille for Radicals, and read that before tackling Rules. That's ok, I told him, I'll just take Rules for Radicals. That was the book that was written specifically as an instruction book from an old 1930's radical to the generation that came of age in the 1960's. The book contains a lot of stories about Alinsky's decades of agitating for the labor movement, poor people and other disaffected groups, and serves as a handbook for anyone planning any kind of protest. It's a counterpoint to Machiavelli's The Prince, which was a rulebook for rulers. Rules for Radicals is designed instead to help those out of power agitate for social justice. It contains much practical advice on such subjects as how to make protests fun and interesting enough to get people out to join them; or how to get the attention of the media.

How amazing that 40 years later, such an original American character as Saul Alinsky has become a central figure in the current political campaign. An article in this morning's LA Times talks about how the Republican candidates have been forced to find new scare tactics to replace their 2008 attempts to invoke the contradictory fears that Barack Obama was a secret Muslim, or that he was in thrall to a radical black Christian preacher, or that he was in league with the former Weather Underground. So they have turned to invoking fear of European-style socialism, or 1930's-style American radicalism, as represented by someone like Saul Alinsky. As the article points out, most of Newt Gingrich's audience has probably never heard of Saul Alinsky, but he serves as a useful bogeyman for the Republicans because he is described as a Chicago radical who trained Barack Obama as a community organizer. His name is also suspiciously Jewish and foreign-sounding.

Bill Maher also did a funny bit on this topic this week, mocking the Republicans for creating a character who bears no resemblance to the real Barack Obama, and acting as though he'd never heard of Saul Alinsky. But Maher should, and probably does, know a little bit better. It's too simple a response to point out that Saul Alinsky died when Barack Obama was ten years old, because Barack Obama did work for several years as a community organizer in Chicago, where he was unquestionably influenced by the legacy of Saul Alinsky, the South Side's community organizer extraordinaire, the guy who wrote the book, in fact several books, on how to be a community organizer. Obama was also trained by another Alinsky-influenced community organizer named Jerry Kellman. (And Hillary Clinton, by the way, was also greatly influenced by Saul Alinsky, and wrote a thesis paper on his life and work.) So it is not unfair to claim that Saul Alinsky has had a strong influence on the current administration. And there is no reason for Obama to deny Alinsky's influence, the way he walked away from Jeremiah Wright. The president should be proud of his (indirect) connection to this American icon. But the connection only goes so far. Barack Obama, unlike Alinsky, decided after a relatively short time as a community organizer, that he could accomplish more on the inside than on the outside, and decided to work within the system as a state legislator, where he employed much more conventional methods of consensus-building to achieve political goals. That makes Obama a much different kind of change agent than Alinsky.

Another irony about someone like Newt Gingrich running against Saul Alinsky in his presidential campaign is that Newt's audience should actually be fairly sympathetic to Alinsky's methods. This is not 1968, when Richard Nixon successfully wooed the "silent majority" by campaigning on a law and order theme, playing to the average person's fears of rowdy campus radicals, and race riots in major cities. In 2012, the people who are responding to Newt Gingrich's campaign include many of the disaffected and the downtrodden. They are distrustful of government as well as corporate power. They are natural Alinsky material.  If anybody were to  take the trouble to read Rules for Radicals or some of Alinsky's other works, they would see that they contain advice that could be useful to any protest movement regardless of ideology. Alinsky's rules are of as much benefit to the Tea Party as to the Occupy movement. And if the leaders of both of those movements are not already reading Alinsky, they should be.

It makes no sense to run an outsider's campaign, as most of the Republican candidates are, by playing to fears of another outsider. Holding up somebody like Saul Alinsky as a bogeyman is also at odds with Gingrich's advertisements playing to popular resentment of Wall Street money and power. Gingrich should be channeling Alinsky, not demonizing him. For Gingrich to be stirring up fears of a 1930's radical shows that Gingrich is living in the past, appealing to the wrong audience, and sending out an incoherent message.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Capital Gains

I was talking about capital gains taxes with a tax lawyer friend, who reminded me about the 1986 Tax Reform Act, promoted and signed into law by President Reagan. The law lowered the top income tax brackets, making the system somewhat less progressive, but it also closed many tax loopholes enjoyed by the wealthiest taxpayers, removed millions of the working poor from the rolls, and increased the tax rate on capital gains to the same as the rate on earned income.

Three things (at least) are important to remember about this history. One is that Ronald Reagan, the great champion of lower taxes and reduced federal spending, also firmly believed in the fairness of making people who earn their money from investments pay the same rate of taxes as those who earn their money from actually working. Maybe because Reagan had the experience of working as an actor for a living most of his life, he had some understanding of the importance of rewarding work, and less sympathy for rewarding those who make their living by cashing dividend checks. It's funny that you never hear any homage to Reagan's cherished principle of maintaining parity between the value of work and the value of investment from any of the current crop of Republican candidates. They instead react with outrage at any suggestion of raising the capital gains rate from the current bargain rate of 15%. (the percentage Mitt Romney pays on nearly all of his income)

Second, the story of the 1986 Tax Reform Act gives the lie to the Republican's current claim that any increase in capital gains or corporate tax rates will adversely impact the "job creators" and harm economic growth. The history of the last fifty years of fluctuations in individual, capital gains, and corporate tax rates should provide plenty of data to test the proposition that lowering rates stimulates economic growth and/or employment. Lots of people have analyzed this data, and have not found any correlation between capital gains tax rates and either economic growth or employment.  (same with corporate tax rates and individual tax rates)

Finally, Reagan's example should shame the current Republican leaders into re-thinking their strategy of refusing to cooperate in any way with Democrats in Congress and the White House. In addition to being called the Great Communicator, Reagan should also be known as the Great Compromiser. The 1986 Tax Reform Act represented an historic bi-partisan compromise. On a whole range of issues, not limited to taxing and spending policies, Reagan was more than willing to strike a deal with his political opponents that gave each side something of what they wanted.

If current Republican candidates truly wanted to follow the example of the president they revere above all others, they would stop spouting nonsense about the importance of keeping taxes on capital gains much lower than taxes on earned income, and they might reconsider their strategy of complete intransigence toward working with the opposite party. Neither of these positions is particularly popular with the American people, and neither is faithful to the spirit of Ronald Reagan.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

SOTU Postscript

What did you do after President Obama's State of the Union address last night? I'm sure a lot of people continued to watch the pundits on the cable news channels dissect the speech. Probably even more people changed the channel to more conventional entertainment. Personally, I wrote a blog post about it.

And the president? He made a call to Jessica Buchanan's father, to tell him that his daughter had just been rescued by Navy commandos in Somalia, after being held hostage by pirates for three months. Now we know why the president told Defense Secretary Leon Panetta "good job" on his way to delivering his message to Congress. Not a word about this daring rescue in the speech.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Bi-partisanship is not dead.

Ryan Lizza's article in the new New Yorker contains some good inside information explaining how candidate Obama's promises to usher in a new style of politics, ran into the realities of a Congress that is more partisan than ever before. Commentators like Paul Krugman have jumped on the bandwagon, chiding President Obama for being so naive in thinking he could "transcend partisanship." Now conventional wisdom seems to suggest that President Obama has abandoned any efforts at bi-partisanship, and is going to come out swinging at Congress and the Republican opposition during this election year. The headline in the LA Times, for example, called tonight's State of the Union speech a "confrontational" address.

Not so fast. What I heard in the President's State of the Union message tonight--which started and ended with descriptions off how members of the military are able to transcend their differences, focus on the mission, and work as a team--was a renewed call for members of Congress to put aside partisan differences and work toward achieving consensus of a range of issues that need to be addressed. True, there was a stick behind these idealistic appeals to unity--the promise that if Congress does not act on some of these issues, the Executive Branch will do what it can to take action; as well as the implicit threat that the electorate will blame the Republicans if they continue their obstructionist ways. But I did not hear the president abandon his appeals to working across the aisle and trying to find consensus. I heard him continue to make the case for changing our broken political system.

Because, really, what is the alternative? The "realists" like Lizza and Krugman seem to argue that getting anything done in Washington always has been and always will be a numbers game. If the president's team has the votes, they can get their program through Congress. If they don't, they can't. They are foolish to think they can ever achieve anything by trying to persuade the opposition to work with them. If we accept that view, however, that means we must view Congress as either a brick wall or a steamroller. We must accept gridlock whenever we have divided government, which we seem to have most of the time. And when one party or the other has the votes, we must let them roll over the opposition and implement a program that is going to be unpalatable to a substantial minority.

I once heard Taylor Branch, who wrote a three volume history of the years of Martin Luther King, Jr., talk about how many veterans of the civil rights movement view the early, non-violent years of the struggle as a naive, child-like phase that the movement had to pass through before reaching its more mature, confrontational style in the late 1960's. The lesson we have failed to learn from King, said Branch, was that the methods of non-violent conflict resolution King espoused may be his more lasting, and more universally-applicable legacy, not merely the achievement of civil rights for black people. (I don't mean to diminish that achievement at all, of course.)  Just in terms of sheer effectiveness, compare what was accomplished by the years of non-violent protests--the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act--to the results of those later, more violent tactics, which led to a massive backlash, and decades of the politics of resentment and divisiveness?

I recognize that in politics, as in every other type of conflict, there are times when you must fight to win. Most of the time, however, that approach is not going to provide a better outcome. Those who counsel giving up on negotiations because that way is too "soft" or "naive" or requires too much compromise, are really saying that it is better to get nothing done at all, or to lose to the other side half the time, than to satisfy at least some of your objectives. They are saying it is better to maintain the purity of your ideological principles, even if you accomplish less by doing that. 

President Obama did not suggest that we should accept that reality. I heard him offer a vision  of putting aside partisan differences to work together on a common mission, just as the military does. But even as a practical matter, the president is smart to stick with this approach. He knows he still has a hostile Congress to work with this year. And even after the election, he is probably not going to regain the large Democratic majorities he enjoyed during the first two years. That means he must appeal to Congress's better nature, or threaten Congress, or shame Congress, or whatever he can do in an effort to persuade Congress to work with him this year and in his second term, if he is to get anything done.

When I heard the president talk near the end of his speech, about lowering the temperature in Washington, and trying to achieve consensus, that did not sound to me as if he were giving up on the idea of post-partisanship. Far from it. I see continuity from the candidate Obama's original message beginning back in 2004 that we must move beyond the traditional antagonistic red state/blue state, Republican vs. Democratic type of politics to a more constructive approach. We may never achieve that dream, but we should not give up on it either.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Another presidential accomplishment update

For those wondering, "what has the president has done for me lately?," here's a video to answer that question:

Republicans go negative.

Watching  the Republican primary campaign, it's no longer so much about the ups and downs of the race, or the scandals and gaffes that have plagued various candidates. What changed this week is that the two perceived front-runners, Gingrich and Romney, have abandoned their previous pledges to refrain from attacking other Republican candidates. Romney used to spend his entire stump speech attacking President Obama. Gingrich spent much of his time attacking the media, while decrying any efforts to get the candidates to attack one another. Now any pretense of Republican civility is gone.

I didn't watch much of tonight's Republican debate, but what I've read so far indicates that it turned into something of a mud-slinging contest. Since South Carolina, Romney has had to stop acting like the presumptive nominee who need not return fire from his Republican opponents, and he's trading accusations with Gingrich with abandon.

Gingrich is probably hoping this is 1980 all over again, and he is the new Ronald Reagan, taking the more mainstream candidates by surprise, and getting ready to hand the incumbent another surprise in the fall. But a lot of Republicans seem afraid that it just might be 1964 all over again, and Newt is the new Barry Goldwater, about to lead his party to a defeat of epic proportions. In some ways, I wouldn't mind seeing a repeat of that triumphant year for Democrats. On balance, however, I think I'd still rather watch a more positive campaign on the issues. Unfortunately it doesn't appear that any of the Republican candidates are capable of offering the country a positive vision. It's going to be up to Democrats to remain positive this year, to continue to offer a hopeful and forward-thinking message, while resisting the temptation to which Mitt Romney is currently succumbing to get down in the mud with their political opponents.

(Photo by Emmanuel Dunand, AFP/Getty Images from LA Times)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

"the true meaning of hope . . . "

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary

Statement by the President on Resignation of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords

Gabby Giffords embodies the very best of what public service should be.  She’s universally admired for qualities that transcend party or ideology – a dedication to fairness, a willingness to listen to different ideas, and a tireless commitment to the work of perfecting our union.  That’s why the people of Arizona chose Gabby – to speak and fight and stand up for them.  That’s what brought her to a supermarket in Tucson last year – so she could carry their hopes and concerns to Washington. And we know it is with the best interests of her constituents in mind that Gabby has made the tough decision to step down from Congress.

Over the last year, Gabby and her husband Mark have taught us the true meaning of hope in the face of despair, determination in the face of incredible odds, and now – even after she’s come so far – Gabby shows us what it means to be selfless as well.

Gabby’s cheerful presence will be missed in Washington.  But she will remain an inspiration to all whose lives she touched – myself included.  And I’m confident that we haven’t seen the last of this extraordinary American.

(link to Giffords video message)

Saturday, January 21, 2012


While the media rain attention on the results of the South Carolina primary, I want to record that the real action took place at the Nevada Democratic caucuses today, where the winning candidate captured more than 98% of the vote, and where more than 12,000 intrepid Democrats braved some pretty bad weather, to vote in a race whose results they already knew were a foregone conclusion.

It's a challenge to drum up excitement for that, as I can attest from having spent last night with a delightful group of Obama volunteers, making calls to supporters in North Las Vegas, to encourage them to attend today's caucuses. Most of the people we called didn't need much prodding, and were enthusiastic about coming out to show their support for the president.

Unlike all the people who are spending tons of money, time and effort to promote one questionable Republican candidate after another, at least I can say that my efforts have some chance of helping elect the next president.

One thing I would caution the president's supporters not to do, however, is to get too excited about the spectacle of a divisive Republican race and the possibility of a weak general election candidate. That may help President Obama get elected, which of course is a good thing, but ultimately, it would be even better if the Republicans get their act together, nominate the strongest ticket they can muster, put on a credible campaign, and still go down to crushing defeat. That would be the best way to stop the excuses we are already starting to hear from the right (blaming the media, blaming the Tea Party, blaming moderates, blaming vote fraud, etc.) for the Republicans' potential defeat, and get even those Republican voters in places like South Carolina to accept the fact that Barack Obama--fair and square--is going to be president for four more years.

(Jude Joffe-Block photo from Twitter)

SOTU preview


The New York Times has an interesting discussion on this video and the contrast between Clinton's and Obama's approaches to the State of the Union message in the year of their respective re-election campaigns. While Clinton conceded substantial ground to the Republicans, announcing that the "era of big government is over," Obama is going to double down on his message that the government has an important role to play in boosting the economy, and helping to create fairness and opportunity.

Friday, January 20, 2012

People Power

We saw a remarkable change in Congress this week, when coordinated action by a number of internet services like Wikipedia and Craigslist brought the proposed SOPA and PIPA bills to a halt. The graphic below illustrates the magnitude in the shifts in Congressional voting positions. This chart could be seen as a measurement of the power of millions of citizens' voices drowning out the power of traditional lobbyists. Or perhaps the power of the new internet moguls overtaking the power of the moguls of traditional media. Or maybe a victory for the forces of freedom over the forces of control. Or this action could be seen as a victory for those who want all their information for free vs. the creative community, which is entitled to be fairly compensated for original content.

I'm not taking sides in this debate. I like the idea of a free Internet, but I live in Hollywood, and I also support (and sometimes represent) people who do not like to see their work ripped off. A website like this one represents a combination of re-publishing the work of others (not for profit and generally with attribution), along with a good deal of my original work. I'm in favor of protecting that freedom, while also respecting the rights of, and finding ways to compensate, those who create content. I believe there are ways of protecting both kinds of legitimate interests, and we ought to work on that.

The point that is germane to the theme of hope and change is to remember that Congress can be responsive to the demands of large numbers of people acting in a coordinated fashion. The anti-SOPA action this week shows how effectively this can be accomplished.

(Chart from

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Bye, bye Rick

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

More Birth Certificate Questions Raised . . .

about Betty White. The President asks to see a copy of her long form birth certificate, because he doesn't believe she can really be 90 years old.

And speaking of birthdays, happy 48th to First Lady Michelle Obama!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Preserving the record

In the interests of historical accuracy, it would be a shame to lose the remarkable series of political advertisements produced by the Huntsman campaign. Huntsman's campaign was responsible for some of the highest quality work generated by any of the Republican candidates, work that for the most part elevated the debate and contributed to its honesty. Yet now we learn that as the Huntsman campaign folds its tents, they are in the process of attempting to remove their efforts from easy public access. Say it ain't so, Jon! It is disappointing to learn that you have so little concern for preserving the historical record. Someone with more technologically savvy than I should create a permanent archive for this priceless material.

In the meantime, I can at least re-post a few items. Let's not forget, for example, the flip-flopping monkey ad:

And even if Huntsman's and Romney's people can scrub the web of such campaign commercials, they will still have a hard time burying public interviews, such as the "Waffle House" statement:

And of course his remarkable debate retort when Romney had the nerve to attack Huntsman for serving his country as ambassador to China.

Last but not least, we must never forget the Huntsman daughters:


I should have known we can count on the Democratic rapid response machine to get out a compilation of Huntsman quotes:

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Mitt Romney, serial killer?

I do not approve of all this unregulated political advertising that the Supreme Court has let loose, as readers of this blog should know. It is scandalous and unfair that we allow such unregulated content to be disseminated. We should not allow all kinds of irresponsible things to be said without any way to determine for sure who paid for the ads. Super PACS should be banned, or at least their donors should be identified.

No one should say anything like the title of this post, and I would never endorse such a view. Irresponsible and scandalous videos like the one below should not be copied or disseminated on the web. No one should pay any attention to them. I would never endorse such a video, and I urge everyone not to watch it, no matter how funny they might think it is, or how much it might serve people right.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Hope and Change in Burma

First of all, a "momentous day" for the people of Burma, marked by the release of hundreds of political prisoners, and the recognition of the right of opposition political parties to participate in the process. And the hope of more political reforms to come, and a gradual end to the political and economic isolation of this nation.

Second, another foreign policy success for the Obama administration's policy of engagement with outlaw nations, as well as the policy of strengthening ties in Asia to balance the growing influence of China. The administration has carefully prepared the ground for these developments since it came into office, and has worked closely with opposition leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi to assist in restoring democracy to Burma. Even Republican leaders have acknowledged how positive these developments are, as Senators McConnell and McCain are reportedly on their way to Burma right now.

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Statement by the President on the Release of Burmese Political Prisoners

President Thein Sein’s decision to release hundreds of prisoners of conscience is a substantial step forward for democratic reform.  Two months ago, I spoke with Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein about how America’s engagement can help empower democratic reform, and improve relations between our countries.  Shortly afterwards, Hillary Clinton became the first Secretary of State to travel to Burma in over half a century.  In her meetings in Nay Pyi Taw and Rangoon, she discussed with President Thein Sein and other leaders the steps that would advance a new beginning between our countries.  A key part of that discussion was the need to unconditionally release  prisoners of conscience and allow them to participate fully in public and political life.

Since that visit, there have been a number of positive developments, including the announcement of elections to be held on April 1, and the decision to allow Aung San Suu Kyi and her party to participate.  There has also been an important ceasefire agreement reached with the Karen National Union, which the United States welcomes.  Today, I applaud President Thein Seins’s decision to release hundreds of prisoners of conscience, which is a crucial step in Burma’s democratic transformation and national reconciliation process. I’m pleased that Aung San Suu  Kyi has welcomed this step as she continues to pursue a dialogue with the government.  I urge the government to ensure that these and all other former political prisoners are allowed to participate fully and freely in the political process, particularly the upcoming by-elections, and to free all remaining prisoners of conscience.

In Indonesia, I spoke about the flickers of progress that were emerging in Burma. Today, that light burns a bit brighter, as prisoners are reunited with their families and people can see a democratic path forward. Much more remains to be done to meet the aspirations of the Burmese people, but the United States is committed to continuing our engagement with the government in Nay Pyi Taw. I have directed Secretary Clinton and my Administration to take additional steps to build confidence with the government and people of Burma so that we seize this historic and hopeful opportunity. We will continue to support universal rights, and engage the government as it takes the additional steps necessary to advance freedom for prisoners of conscience, democratic governance, and national reconciliation.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Born This Way

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Protests marked the 10th anniversary this week of the prison set up for terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Many fault President Obama for failing to fulfill his campaign promise to shut down this stain on America's reputation in the world. Yet the president remains committed to closing this prison, as his press secretary reiterated again this week. The president has been expressly forbidden from doing so, however, by Congress, a fact that those protesters who blame Obama conveniently forget.

The question that should be asked is what is so politically important to most members of Congress--from both parties--about keeping the prison open. Guantanamo was set up deliberately by the Bush administration for the purpose of keeping these inmates beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. federal courts, but the Supreme Court eventually ruled that even on Guantanamo these foreign nationals retain the right of habeas corpus. Therefore legally speaking, there seems to be no need for these prisoners to remain on Cuban soil. The prison used to hold hundreds of terror suspects, but most have been released, and it only holds 171 inmates today. Even granting that some of these detainees are still dangerous people who may wish to do our country harm, it is hard to see why they could not be safely held in some federal SuperMax facility on US soil, or returned to some other countries for detention. These alleged criminals do not have super powers.

So why is it such a sensitive issue for Congressmen to keep this prison alive, even though it harms our reputation abroad, even though its continued existence is probably one of the most effective recruiting tools for terrorist groups abroad? One reason might be to embarrass the president, but that would not explain the opposition to closure of many Democratic Congressmen. Besides the continued use of Guantanamo only hurts the president politically with a relatively small group of supporters. For political moderates and independents, the voters the president needs to court this year to win the 2012 election, the failure to close Guantanamo is probably a political plus.

I would look for deeper needs that are served by this prison. One is the need for a fearsome enemy. Let's face it, a lot of people miss the Cold War, when we had a truly fearsome enemy with the capacity to wipe out our major cities in minutes. We used that Cold War enemy to justify continued large military expenditures and foreign wars, and to crack down on dissenters at home. Now all we have are ragtag groups of belligerents who hide in caves and engage in small scale suicide attacks. Until September 11, when we learned that these people had the capability of using our own technology against us to cause serious harm, it was hard to build that enemy up to the fearsomeness of the former Soviet Union. Now the supporters of huge military might need to remind people of how dangerous these terror suspects remain. What better way to accomplish that than to keep them in a special prison off our shores, demonstrating that they are too special to be allowed into ordinary prisons in our midst?

Second, the existence of such a prison, as well as Congress's insistence on the government's continued power to engage in indefinite detention (which the president resisted), serves as a reminder that the government retains the power to act with impunity against anyone. I don't hear members of Congress openly advocating the need to use the powers of indefinite detention to keep Americans in line, but I still have to wonder if they are partly motivated by the desire to preserve the power of the state against anyone and everyone. Just having the awesome power to detain anyone indefinitely without charges, even if that power is rarely used, serves the purpose.

I am reminded of a trip to Singapore I took years ago with a bar association group investigating human rights issues. Singapore's government asserted, and I believe still asserts, the right to detain individuals without charges, indefinitely. Every once in a while they will use this power to round up a group of dissidents, and hold them for a while. And there was one prisoner, Chia Thye Poh, who was detained without trial for more than thirty years, from 1966 to 1998. His last years of confinement were spent in a hut in a theme park on Sentosa Island. You had to take a Disney-esque monorail or tram-like contraption to visit him. I would find this hard to believe if I had not met him that way myself. Officials in the government of Singapore might have been thinking that all it takes to keep the country's entire population in line, is to hold one guy in detention forever, without trial, just to remind people that the government can do that to anybody if it wants to.

Guantanamo appears to serve as a similar cruel and absurd theme park, where we hold a tiny number of people, just to show the world that we can. It exists in a corner of a hostile nation, a piece of land that it seems hard to believe remains American soil. There our government asserts the right to detain so-called enemy combatants beyond the reach of normal processes. Guantanamo reminds us of our government's power, but also of our own fears and insecurities. The sooner we can conquer those fears, the better.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

South Carolina

This month's Atlantic has an article entitled "Making it in America" that brings home the plight facing American manufacturing workers. The problem is not, as conventional wisdom would have it, that we don't make anything in this country anymore.  We still make a great many things. The problem is that we need fewer and fewer people to make them.

The author visited a factory in South Carolina, where he found a few highly skilled operators running the machines that precision-cut fuel injectors for automobile engines, and a diminishing pool of less-skilled assemblers of these parts, whose jobs may eventually be performed by robots. The few machine operators, who earned their place by extensive training and education, seem likely to retain good jobs. However, the unskilled assembly line worker profiled in the article will keep her job only so long as her wages remain below the cost of replacing her with an automated machine. If the machines get cheaper, as they probably will, she is out of luck. This process seems especially cruel in a place like South Carolina, which saw a boom in textile production years ago, after the closing of textile mills in New England in preference to cheaper labor in the South. That advantage couldn't last long, as in the global economy it was inevitable that the mills in places like South Carolina eventually closed in response to competition from Mexico and China and other lower wage countries. Fortunately, the void was filled to some extent by a boom in auto manufacturing in the south, and other high tech manufacturing like the auto parts factory described in the Atlantic article.

The problem now is not so much that these factories are closing, but that they are automating. The inexorable process of using fewer and fewer workers sharply accelerated over the past 10 or 15 years. This country lost about a third of our manufacturing jobs in the decade from 1999 to 2009, due to sharply increased productivity, and global competition. This change is so recent that we might just be beginning to understand what has been happening.

The Atlantic piece put a human face on the trends described in another article in Vanity Fair by the famed economist Joseph Stiglitz, called "The Book of Jobs." Stiglitz has been working on an alternative theory explaining the causes of the Great Depression of the 1930's. Traditionally, that economic failure has been blamed on excessively tight monetary policy. Stiglitz thinks the bank failures and other problems of the Great Depression might instead merely have been symptoms of a collapse in the "real" economy, mainly due to increasing productivity in agriculture, that caused the displacement of millions of farmers. We did not solve the problems of the real economy or end the Great Depression until we mobilized for World War II, when we built the factories and trained all those extra workers to make thousands of trucks, boats, tanks and planes. All that "investment" nicely translated into the post-war boom when those same workers started making automobiles and refrigerators and everything else that fueled the next economy. But it took us a long time to figure out how to cure the problems that caused the Great Depression, and we did it quite by accident, by responding to a world war.

We might be making a similar mistake by thinking that the Great Recession of 2007 and onward was caused by a housing bubble and unwarranted speculation in the financial markets. Those might merely have been symptoms of deeper problems, or perhaps ways of masking those problems. (The illusory wealth we created in the last decade hid our real decline.) Nevertheless, we responded to the collapse by bailing out the financial industry, and loosening the money supply. But if the current economic slowdown was caused instead by the amazing productivity increases in the manufacturing economy, as well as the massive losses of jobs to low wage countries, which occurred starting at the end of the 1990's, we might have barely begun to solve our real problems. Stiglitz suggests that we need another massive investment on the order of  the one we made to prepare for World War II in the kinds of infrastructure and education that we will need in the next economy, whatever it might look like.

So as the Republican presidential candidates troop down to South Carolina to try to persuade the voters that they have answers to the problems of people like the assembly line workers in auto parts factories there, it might be fair to ask them to move away from the politics of blame, and also away from the tired solutions to our economic problems that politicians have traditionally proposed. We're not going to fix the economy just by talking about tax policy, or the size of the federal deficit, or the number of government regulations. Rather, we need to be talking about a vision that will build the kind of future that will enable more people to succeed.

(Dean Kaufman photo from The Atlantic)

Monday, January 9, 2012

New Hampshire

The opening rounds of the 2012 campaign are making me nostalgic for 2008. For one reason, because the Republicans are getting all the attention this year, and these Republican candidates are not particularly inspiring or uplifting. For another reason, because there is no rising candidate like the one below to watch. For the Republican candidates about to get defeated in the New Hampshire primary, which is all but one of them, you could learn something from the video below. THIS is how you use adversity to your advantage; this is how you invoke the tides of history; this is how you turn a concession speech into a rallying cry for eventual victory:

Tone Deaf

This is the supposed front-runner for the Republican nomination? A guy who says he likes firing people? That is what he wants to tell voters on the campaign trail who are worried about high unemployment, and looking for help in creating more jobs?

Nobody needs to explain Romney's point to me. I get it. He is talking about health insurance companies, and believes people should be able to get rid of those that provide poor service.  But what a poor choice of words to make his point! So Mitt, let me help you out here, because I want you to try to put your best foot forward: What you need to do, Mitt, is tell people that you want to empower them; that you want them to have choices. Don't tell them you enjoy firing people. That just plays into every image your opponents want to use to portray you as the rich, powerful, callous, Wall Street tycoon who puts profits above people. That is not the way to inspire confidence. That is not the way to make people worried about their own economic viability feel that you are on their side.

You might think, Mitt, that what people want is to be like you, to be able to order other people around, and fire those who are not providing you with good service. And at some level people might enjoy fantasizing about playing that part. But first and foremost, Mitt, people are worried about their own personal security. They identify with the person being fired, more than they aspire to be the one doing the firing. And one reason your campaign raises so many doubts, Mitt, is that you identify with the people doing the firing much more than with those who are afraid of being fired.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Politics and the Defense Budget

Memo to Republican candidates: You cannot complain about proposed cuts in the Defense budget, as many of you did at last night's debate, and at the same time complain that the president or the Democrats in Congress are not doing enough to cut government spending. You have to be for cutting spending or against it. If you're for more spending cuts, then the biggest item of spending that is available for cutting happens to be the defense budget. By far. If you add up all the other items of discretionary spending in the federal budget, you are not going to find anywhere near the opportunities for cutting that you can find in the defense budget. Also please keep in mind that President Bush nearly doubled military spending, which means that there should be plenty of room to make cuts without doing harm to our preparedness. With the Iraq War ending and the Afghanistan War winding down, we ought to be able to reduce our military expenditures by quite a bit just by putting ourselves in a more "normal" state of readiness.

Also please remember that we made a gigantic military build-up during the Bush administration without asking taxpayers to fund that increase, and that this is a major and ongoing cause of current budget deficits that Republicans like to blame on President Obama. So it is only appropriate that he take some steps to reduce that spending, and it is unseemly for Republican candidates to complain when President Obama tries to rein in some of the spending increases approved during the Bush administration, while out of the other side of their mouths they have been claiming that Obama is responsible for all of the debt incurred since he has taken office. Maybe it's asking to much to expect that you would applaud these efforts to reduce spending, but you could at least try not to attack Obama for too much cutting, while you are at the same time attacking him for too much spending.

If we're going to have a rational debate about defense spending, let's talk about our real military needs, and how best to achieve them. Let's not just mindlessly scare people by assuming that every dime cut from the Defense budget is going to harm national security. Also, candidates, if you are against any defense spending cuts, but you still want to portray yourself as being in favor of reducing the size of the federal government, which all of the Republican candidates claim they are, then you must specify what it is you plan to cut instead of Defense that is going to achieve significant savings. It's only fair to let people know if you plan to cut food stamps, or Medicare, or unemployment insurance, or whatever programs you expect to cut.

I propose a new rule to make political debates more honest. Let's not talk about cutting federal spending anymore, at all, without specifying what it is you want to cut. No politician should be allowed to say that we need to reduce the federal budget by $100 billion or whatever number you want to use, without also specifying what programs we are going to cut and by how much. Especially if you are going to alarm people about threats to the nation's security represented by the president's and the Defense Department's proposal to trim a few hundred billion from the Pentagon's budget over the next ten years. If you don't like that, just admit you are not really serious about cutting spending, or tell people exactly what you would cut instead.

(Reuters chart)

Friday, January 6, 2012

Job Growth

How do the Republican candidates deal with numbers such as the very positive jobs report that came out this morning? If you're Mitt Romney, you just keep repeating the misleading figures about the number of jobs lost during the Obama administration, and hope your audience is unaware that nearly all of those losses occurred during the first six months, when the new administration's policies could hardly have taken hold. Even so, the trend during that period was of decreasing job losses.

If you're Rick Santorum, you make the patently ridiculous statement that companies are hiring because they are hoping for a change to a Republican administration a year from now. (He might have been joking.) Does anyone doubt that if employment was still declining, Santorum and any other political opponents of the president would have been blaming continued high unemployment on the current administration, just as they are blaming Obama for sluggish growth? But if employment is rising, the president can get no credit. I guess that's par for the course in politics.

But still, how do you argue with the chart? I suppose you could say that job growth should have been even greater in the past couple of years, but then you have to contend with the reality that a lot of the sluggish job growth has been caused by massive layoffs of public sector employees, primarily at the state and local level. And you can't prove that anything the opposition is suggesting would have made employment grow any faster. So maybe we should all just appreciate the fact that slowly but surely, more and more Americans are going back to work.

Pro forma session

Is Congress in session or not? Review the video and decide for yourself.

For those hard-working folks who don't believe that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance constitutes a day's work, here is another video describing how Congress functions:

No wonder Republican members of Congress are outraged at President Obama for making recess appointments while they are busy holding these kinds of sessions! He is embarrassing them by working.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Taking the Low Road

What was interesting about the dead heat in the Republican caucuses in Iowa last night was the opportunity it presented for both candidates Santorum and Romney to make back-to-back victory speeches. The contrast between the two was stark. However much I might disagree with Santorum's ideas, I had to admire the mostly positive tone of Santorum's speech, and the way he was able to forge an emotional connection with the audience. And his ideas (wrong-headed as Democrats might think they are) nevertheless sounded well thought-out and sincere.

Romney's speech, on the other hand, mainly offered cheap shots at the president. In contrast to Santorum, he sounded phony and glib, and his policy proposals came off as exactly the kind of simplistic and superficial solutions that Santorum had just suggested we need to get beyond.

When we analyze Romney's case against the president, we find that almost every accusation was false or misleading. Romney claimed the gap between Obama's promises four years ago and his performance was the widest he had ever seen. But then he could not give a single example, and most objective assessments of the president's performance have actually found a remarkable consistency between candidate Obama's promises and President Obama's efforts to fulfill them. Romney attacked Obama's Iran policy, falsely asserting that the president was silent when dissidents took to the streets in that country. Romney repeated the false claim that the Obama administration promised to hold unemployment below a certain level (as if the president had the power to do that), which Romney must have known was just an overly-optimistic forecast by one of Obama's economic advisers. Finally, Romney claimed that Obama's deficits would exceed those of every president before him, ignoring the facts that nearly all of those deficits have been caused by the deep recession Obama inherited, as well as by the tax cuts, war spending, and other initiatives that Romney and other Republicans have consistently supported.

Negative campaigning can work, but a candidate can also pay a high price for it, as Romney is learning from the way he has made an enemy of Newt Gingrich, for example. And Romney may pay a high price himself for his gutter-style campaign if he should be lucky enough to get the chance to face off against President Obama. The American people deserve a more high-minded campaign. There are substantial differences between the two parties' platforms on issues as important as reducing inequality, tax policy, and the proper role for government in our society. Why not have an honest and respectful philosophical debate about those differences?  Mitt Romney is intelligent enough to do that. He doesn't need to take the low road.

(CNN photos)


Message to Senate Republicans: You want to complain about recess appointments? Then explain where you get off refusing to allow an up or down vote on the appointment of Richard Cordray, just because you don't like the agency that Congress created by statute. If you don't like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, what you need to do is gather the votes to abolish it. But until you can do that, we need a qualified person to run it.


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Iowa, part 2

You would expect heavy voter turnout for a closely contested race, with non-stop media attention, in the first state in the nation to weigh in on the presidential nomination process. Inspired by all of that hoopla, and no doubt eager to play a decisive role in choosing the next president, more than 120,000 participants (out of more than 2 million registered voters) attended the Republican caucuses. At this writing, the race is heading for an exciting photo finish, so the attention continues.

But how do you attract attention to another race whose result is a foregone conclusion, one that is receiving no media attention whatsoever? Why would anyone at all, aside from a few party stalwarts, even show up for that? Yet somehow, the Iowa Democratic caucuses tonight managed to attract remarkable SRO crowds, just to watch the president give a video shout-out to his supporters, and sign up thousands of volunteers for the fall campaign:

Keep counting on me to bring you the news the mainstream media is ignoring.  And don't worry about counting all the votes on the Republican side. The winner of the Iowa caucuses, as I predicted yesterday, is Barack Obama.

UPDATE (1/5):  According to the Iowa Democratic Party, President Obama won 98.4% of the delegates elected, despite some efforts in Democratic caucuses to gather votes for "uncommitted." In the Republican caucuses, no candidate won more than 25% of the vote.

Monday, January 2, 2012


With all eyes focused on the caucuses in Iowa tomorrow, many political prognosticators are afraid to make any predictions about the outcome, calling it too close to call in advance. Never fear; I will leap into the breach.

In order to predict the outcome of the Iowa caucuses accurately, you must understand the factors that are decisive in assessing the strengths of the various campaigns. Which candidate is most popular according to the polls? Which candidate has the strongest organization in the state? Who has the most enthusiastic volunteers? Who is making the most phone calls? Who has raised the most money?

Going beyond the "inside baseball" questions of tactics and organization, it is also helpful to try to answer questions such as, which candidate has the most impressive record of accomplishments? Which candidate has the most charisma? Who has the personal qualities to inspire large numbers of supporters and project a confident ability to lead?

Once you have figured out all of the relevant questions, the answer is easy. There is only one candidate who is leading on every single one of the above criteria, and that is Barack Obama. The Obama campaign has eight offices in Iowa; no other candidate comes close. And when all those other candidates pack up and turn their attention to New Hampshire and South Carolina and elsewhere, Obama's Iowa staff and volunteers will still be busy canvassing. Obama is running virtually unopposed, and is therefore certain to rack up an overwhelming victory, while none of the other candidates the media is so focused on, is likely to obtain even a majority of votes. The Obama campaign is staying relentlessly positive, and even though the media is quick to pick up on any signs of dissension and disenchantment, Democratic caucus-goers will in fact be more united than they have been in recent memory.

As far as that other party's caucuses, I see no reason to pay much attention. You can hear more than enough about those people elsewhere.