Archive for ‘Politics’

On a Roll

By , 31 May, 2009, No Comment

I am feeling very smug about my predictive track record when it comes to the “revolution in culture” that is this blog’s subtitle.

Exhibit A: After recommending that news organizations negotiate an ad-share with Google, I was thrilled to discover that the New York Times was exploring it, and amused to find, yesterday, that Jeff Jarvis is now touting the idea as though he came up with it AND apparently without knowledge that the Times is already doing it. Since I have many bones to pick with Jarvis, this pleases me.

Exhibit B: After cautioning against the takeover of politics, media, etc by individualists over institutionalists, I am overjoyed to see the Fast Talker–a citizen-media enthusiast and individualist liberal-tarian at times–taking my side. What woke him up? A glimpse at the individualist Right in David Cameron, and the damage the Tory bashing of MP’s expenses has done to his party–Labour–in the lead-up to this week’s local elections. Here is the thing: To turn the tide for Labour, British lefties have to develop a defense of institutions, and that includes many institutions that the individualist Left likes to rail against. Liberal-tarians whining about corporate bonuses sets up a conservative critique of big government. Both kinds of whining need to be given up, but the cultural tide towards individualism in both left- and right- leaning circles makes that unlikely.

Another option, it seems to me, is for institutionalists of both left- and right- flavors to band together against both kinds of individualism. The question for the Fast Talker is whether he is willing to defend the corporation and the Church to protect the National Health System. If he’s not, I think he should prepare for bad news in Thursday’s polls.

China’s Strategy

By , 26 May, 2009, 1 Comment

Despite being a business writer, a sports fan and a devotee of Michael Lewis, I have yet to blend sports and business on this blog, until now. This article on Chinese investments in U.S. sports franchises got me thinking:

One of the patterns of history is that empires usually extend their culture and values along with their political/military/economic might. Rome, according to Vergil, spread “peace and war.” Spain spread Christianity. Britain spread the English language. America spread McDonald’s. But even as policy wonks and strategists come to terms with the reality of China’s impending dominance, there’s skepticism about a world in which we all speak Mandarin; Beijing doesn’t seem to care about that either.

That is because they are planning to achieve their might by profiting from the spread of American influence, by investing enough in both the dollar and Cleveland Cavaliers that the popularity of McDonald’s, basketball, or McDonalds-eaten-at-basketball-games is more their gain than ours. In other words, they’re trying to transition the world from America’s empire to China’s without anyone noticing.

Letting the growth of the opposing system lay the groundwork for yours? How perfectly Marxist.

David Cameron’s Cowboy Justice

By , 25 May, 2009, 1 Comment

Although today’s a U.S. holiday, I’m taking my time off to worry about the political winds across the pond in the U.K. Not only because I lived there a while and have friends with vested interests in how the next election pans out, but also because the core issue in that election is the same as the one I’ve been ranting about in our politics: the battle between institutionalists and individualists.

In Britain, however, it’s the individualist right, rather than the individualist left, that is ascendant over a Labour party that, so long as it’s led by Gordon Brown, will be all about big institutions tackling big social problems. The latest missive is Conservative leader David Cameron’s op-ed on the uproar over MPs’ expenses in the Guardian. Cameron begins with an assault on government abuse that reminds me of the individualist left’s assault on corporate bonuses a while back. His core argument: this is why institutions, all of them, are bad, and we should devolve more power to the people

“The anger, the suspicion, and the cynicism – yes, with politics and politicans, but with so much else – are the result of people’s slow but sure realisation that they have very little control over the world around them, and over much that determines whether of not they’ll live happy and fulfilling lives…So I believe the central objective of the new politics we need should be a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power: form the state to citizens; from the government to parliament; from Whitehall to communities; from the EU to Britain; from judges to the people; from bureaucracy to democracy. Through decentralisation, transparency and accountability we must take power from the elite and hand it to the man and woman in the street…We should start by pushing political power down as far as possible…With every decision government makes, it should ask a series of simple questions: does this give power to people or take it away? Could we let individuals, neighbourhoods and communities take control? How far can we push power down?”

Part of me is glad Cameron wrote this item, because it should finally kill the delusions of those who are trying to cast him in an institutionalist light. The scariest claim is the push for replacing “judges”–the rule of law–with “the people.”–as in cowboy justice. The most absurd claim is the argument that the purpose of government should be to determine how much power it can give away. This is the great paradox of the individualist right: why run for state office if, ultimately, you don’t believe in the writ of the state? One hopes that the “people” in whom Cameron places so much faith will see through this circular logic, but that would require Labour to offer something coherent in response.

What To Do In Pakistan

By , 2 May, 2009, 1 Comment

As the war in Pakistan rages, there have been many pundits offering ways forward. Each of them gets us halfway to a solution, but in the end, none of them has an adequate plan. In this rather long post (advance apologies), I’ll try to cobble together the best of each school.


To begin with, let me summarize the situation. In Afghanistan, groups with Iranian/Persian roots make up almost 80% of the population, with the others each having 2% or 5% shares. The ethnic power balance is clear. It’s governed, ineptly, by an unpopular U.S. puppet and being challenged/revolted against by a more popular insurgency of tribal leaders, i.e. the erstwhile Taliban government. Over the years, many of those leaders have moved over the border into western Pakistan. In Pakistan, the ethnic situation is more complex, with all the major provinces corresponding, roughly, to a different ethnic group and language. In the area bordering Afghanistan, the majority of the population belongs to the same ethnic group–the Pashtuns–who dominate Afghanistan. Indeed, many in the 1940s thought that region should have been part of Afghanistan anyway. Instead, Pakistan negotiated for the territory but agreed to give the Pashtuns there some semi-autonomy, continuing the borders laid out by the Brits in the 1890s. So over the years, as the Taliban and other Pashtun refugees have come over the border, they have some semi-autonomy when it came to organizing and recruiting: the result is a copycat movement, the Pakistan-Taliban, affiliated but not officially tied to the guys we are fighting in Kabul.

For many years, Pakistan hands and Pakistani political elites assumed that the unofficial alliance meant that any radicals trained in this lawless border region had their eye on Kabul anyway. So long as their enemies were Russians or Americans in Afghanistan, Islamabad did not care. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s military/intelligence units were quite happy to have these radicals training in their backyard in the hope of turning some of them east to fight India. It never occurred to authorities, or they chose to block out the possibility, that the Pakistan-Taliban was also a class movement of the disenfranchised and downtrodden who would turn on social elites in Islamabad directly. Instead, they insisted that if the US had not bungled the first and second Afghan wars (which we did), there would be no Pakistan-Taliban, and that if the US withdrew, the Pakistan-Taliban would just go back to being harmless country bumpkins that Islamabad could ignore. What Pakistani elites have learned, the hard way, these last few years is that the Pakistan-Taliban have it out for them too, that this is not just America’s war but Pakistan’s war too. So long as vast class inequities and social injustices exist, not only in the tribal regions but across the country, the Pakistan-Taliban will be able to expand eastwards.

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About Those Memos

By , 27 April, 2009, No Comment

I’ve waited on the sidelines a few days, but I now feel it’s time to dive into the torture memos debate. Here’s what stands out to me: as Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff reports, there was a divide within Obama-land about how much info to release and what to do with it. Ultimately, as Eric Holder explained to the President, there was no choice, since the ACLU Freedom of Info Act suit forced the release, but in the lead-up, CIA director Leon Panetta was arguing the other side, asking the President not to expose the agency to public censure and if he did, to promise not to investigate those who “followed” orders.

Why would Panetta be so worried about this? Because, as Isikoff argued on MSNBC’s Hardball, he is a newbie to the agency who does not have credibility with the career employees who were involved in, but not politically committed to, the Bush agenda. In other words, someone from WITHIN the CIA might have been more able to lead the agency through public scrutiny with grace, counterintuitive as that sounds. This is precisely the kind of problem I had in mind when I critiqued his appointment to the post.

President Obama listened to the law, but I have some qualms with his decision to “look forward,” not backward when it comes to investigating those involved in the torturous practices. Not only because I agree with Keith Olbermann that un-investigated practices could remain as precedent, but also because I don’t completely buy into the assumptions that drive Obama’s decision. Basically, the Obama administration reflects a rising tide in 21st century liberal thought that idealizes the power of transparency. So long as the government comes clean, this argument runs, these practices can’t ever happen again, because the public won’t let them. Implicit in this argument is the notion that somehow the public did not know, and therefore could not protest, what was happening before.

That’s naïve: we didn’t have confirmation before, but you’d have to have been living under a rock not to have seen or heard discussion of these practices over the last 7 years. Moreover, full awareness of government misconduct never worked as a powerful enough check before. The law (an institution) exists to achieve the kind of justice that public opinion, even at its moral best, cannot enforce. Once again, the faith in public opinion (the morality of individuals) is just insufficient.

The institutionalist triumph

By , 23 April, 2009, 1 Comment

The last few weeks have seen an explosion of positive activity on the issue of gay marriage. To sum up, after a really nasty set back in the form of Proposition 8 last fall, we’ve seen gay marriage legalized in Iowa, Vermont and Connecticut, and a powerful move from Governor David Paterson to do the same in New York.

Here is what stands out about these decisions: Iowa is a longtime “red” state, Vermont was too until the 1990s, and NY and Connecticut, though they vote “blue” in national elections have rather conservative rural populations who play meaningful roles in state policy. Therefore, some changing of minds on the right is at play in the tidal wave of decisions this month.

Now, there are two ways to make the case for gay marriage and they reflect the ideological dichotomy I have been describing on this site, between institutionalism and individualism. The individualist case, the one that dominated the gay marriage movement until this year, is about railing against the oppressive social norms of a heterocentric definition of marriage, defending the rights of all of us to love as we please, and including marriage as one form of love we should all have access to. This is a mostly left-wing argument that is related in its tone and its values to 1960s feminism and “free love.” It made it very easy for the right-wing to counter that same-sex marriage would undermine heterosexual families, in much the same way they critiqued the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

The institutionalist argument for same-sex marriages is different: it claims that all marriages are better than all non-marriages, that society should actively privilege people (of all orientations) who make monogamous commitments over those (of all orientations) who don’t. So, by this line of argument, all marriages are and should be equal, but married love is morally superior to unmarried love and should be a. legalized and b. socially encouraged.

By arguing against free love, the institutionalists take away the right-wing’s main argument against marriage equality: their fear that it dilutes heterosexual marriage. I have a hunch that what made the tide turn in Iowa, Vermont, Connecticut and New York is that conservatives are beginning to think of gay marriage in these institutionalist terms. David Brooks has been saying it for ages, but no one has listened. Steve Schmidt (McCain’s campaign aide) said it this week and his comments were repeated all over the news.

As Schmidt pointed out in his speech, what has changed since Brooks first voiced this idea is the opinions of young people and the increased interaction between young people of different political ideologies and sexual identities permitted by social media. People who may never interact in the physical world are increasingly finding each other online. Young social conservatives, who may spend their physical lives in communities where homosexuality is  derided and policed, are interacting online with young gay Americans–liberal and conservative–and finding out that the interaction doesn’t dilute their value system after all. Schmidt urged his partisans to accept and embrace this fact if they want to be electorally viable in the future.

This blog is subtitled “Reflections on the Revolution in Culture.” This shift on the right, the change in ideals and, slowly, in policy, driven by the coffeehouse-like minglings of the digital age, is precisely the revolution I had in mind.

The Press Does Matter

By , 6 April, 2009, 1 Comment

To all those who scoff at the notion of the press as a social institution that is something more than the sum of its participants, witness the controversy over the recent move by the Pakistani government to free the judges shackled by President Musharraf two years ago. I’ve blogged about the civil rights issues in Pakistan before and written about them elsewhere, but today, I spoke with Ayesha Tammy Haq, host of a business show there, about the media’s promotion of and even active involvement in the lawyers’ movement.


On one level, the Pakistani experience gives credence to claims that citizen-media can adequately discharge the civil-society-strengthening duties of a Fourth Estate. On another level, as Haq pointed out in our conversation, journo-activism has yet to function over any long period of time–it’s quite effective when marshaled to some political cause, speaking truth to power on behalf of the public, but what becomes of the activist bloggers once their chosen candidate is in office? How effective and/or credible can they be as outside critics or interpreters who decipher power for the public if they helped bring that power into being?

Finally, it’s worth noting that professional journalists, citizen-activists and the lawyers themselves argued that a restored judiciary would protect the free press. That’s the paradox that always rankles me when it comes to citizen-journalism. While their methods threaten the idea of “the Press” as a semi-independent profession, the citizen-journalists almost always claim there is.

The Generation Gap

By , 24 March, 2009, No Comment

Now that it all appears to have blown over, I want to say a few more words about the AIG bonuses, and the media role in stirring the pot of fury. We had a long discussion about this in my core business journalism seminar last night.

Here’s where I come down: it was and is good journalism to comb through the government’s agreements with AIG and the company’s SEC filings, to try to find out who was getting paid for what and to probe the possibility of backscratching when it came to Goldman Sachs. [Though, as we determined in my seminar, there isn’t actually any backscratching involved. GS, it seems, really was smarter than the others.] Anyway, it was good journalism to ask these questions. Once. And report the answers. Once.

It was and is bad journalism to report, on the top right hand column of the A1 page of every major newspaper over two weeks, what various regulatory and elected officials had to say about these bonuses as though it were ACTUALLY the most important event of each day’s news cycle, when any number of other items needed that space. This is info-tainment at work.

Such poor editorial judgment is pernicious. The bonus rage not only derailed politicians from doing the important work of sorting out a real bank plan and a budget; it squandered the political will to have a real bank plan. Now that everyone in the country is out with their pitchforks for the bankers, how is the administration going to sell spending more money on this industry?

If the press had been doing its job, the last two weeks might have produced stories explaining that Wall Street funds Main Street, that even venal AIG insurers are worth your tax dollar right now. Or we might have read on page A1 about the strange phenomenon of Americans ranting against the pursuit of profit and how absurd that is. Such circumspect and constructive items appeared, but only on the inside pages of our newspapers, and in elite pockets of the wonkosphere.

I have a hunch as to why it wound up this way: it’s generational. (Note: Dan Drezner is talking the generations meme today too) The bulk of voters are over 50, close enough to retirement that even a superhero’s bank plan won’t bring back their 401K’s. The bulk of editors are the same age. Most of the time, such people are capable of putting enormous national emergencies above their own interests when the national emergency is framed as securing the future for their children.

This weekend, my mother, generally the type to lie down before moving buses for my sister and myself, said leaving her children to careers in a depressed, deflated, Japan’s-Lost-Decade economy might be worth it to get a pound of flesh from those who destroyed her retirement. I post this not as an indictment of her per se but as an example of the level the rage has reached and an explanation for why young people I know, even soak-the-rich liberals, are far less incensed by the whole bonus question than their parents. Unfortunately, elected officials won’t take any real steps on the banks until such policy polls well among our parents’ generation.

The Only Cure for Populism is Prosperity

By , 18 March, 2009, 2 Comments

I know you’re all fed up with my approving quotes of right-wing critics but this one is too spot-on. David Frum said the above in a conversation with Daniel Drezner on Monday and I was listening to the dialogue while trying to formulate my thoughts on AIG’s bonuses, Cramer vs. Stewart and the administration’s financial plan; his quip tied it all together. Joe Scarborough (another rightwinger whom I generally deplore) pointed out the other day that the anger over each of these issues is grounded in a knee-jerk populism.

I am a populist. Not in the sense the word is often (mis)used, as a synonym for political pandering, but in its actual sense of being concerned with the needs of the masses. And I believe the only way to fulfill those needs is to increase growth for all. I’m not a supply-sider: I think government should use Keynesian spending models to spur that growth, and I think we need to heavily tax-adjust growth on the way up to make sure it’s broadly shared. But there’s just no way to have economic growth without benefitting some people at the top. Get over it.

Nobody will get out of their present economic rutt unless we bail out the banks and as the TARP legislation was written, the Treasury doesn’t have strong powers over how banks spend that money. For the record, I think that’s too bad, and that we probably should have included some clause on compensation when we passed this bill in the fall. But we didn’t. Those who are really riled up about this are whining over bonuses as a focal point for their general angst over bailing out banks.

Here’s the problem: neither Obama nor Geithner, nor Bush nor Paulson before them, has been able to explain how the financial system works or why it matters. Obama’s town hall today is a good example; he was spot on for the first 45 minutes or so, speaking about schools and health care (even I was sold), but when he tried to address the banks, he stopped making sense, even to the biz journos I was watching with, who spend all their time on this stuff. The people on the audience all had glazed expressions–it was clear he wasn’t communicating; it even seemed to me he didn’t understand the math himself–he kept confusing securities with derivatives. Before you crow that such matters are too complicated for the attention spans of ordinary political audiences, listen to the speech FDR gave before bailing out the banks of his day. The only contemporary policymaker who I think has spoken with such clarity is Ben Bernanke, both in his October speech and his 60 Minutes interview this past Sunday. Unfortunately, explaining policy is NOT Bernanke’s job; it’s the job of elected officials and the press. The only person in media I’ll credit with getting this one right is my friend Vikas Bajaj at the NYT.

It’s because elected officials and the mainstream media are doing such a lousy job that Americans are turning to info-tainment outlets like Jim Cramer for investment advice and Jon Stewart for political analysis. Jim Cramer has been wrong-wrong-wrong on many stock calls, but it was never the proposition of his show to be right all the time; it always depicted itself as bullish market propoganda for enthusiasts. By the same token, business journalists defending Cramer should watch their words: the only reason Jon Stewart had to take him on is because professional reporters beyond the elite/expert outlets, like the government, did not do a proper job explaining the financial markets to Cramer’s middle America audience.

The result is that firms like AIG have us in their palms. I’m reminded of the moment in Richard III, when Richard, self-described as “deformed, unfin ish’d” woos Anne, a woman whose first husband he actually killed. First, he tells her he wants her, so bad that’s why he killed her hubby and no one else will love her as he does. She’s flattered, but she hates his guts. So he hands her a spear and dares her to kill him in revenge; the moment she fails to do so, she admits she’s his. We have already failed to kill these banks, but it means all our whining about bonuses is wasted breath and they know it. Like Richard, they take the opportunity to adorn themselves with fineries and enjoy the license we have given.

The reality is that we do need the banks, but that we’ll have to regualte them more aggressively as we give them more aid. I for one would much rather our elected officials devoted their attentions to devising a plan for such aid, and explaining it, in real detail, than to righteous indignation. I am hoping that my peers in the media and I will then focus on dissecting and analyzing such a plan, rather than taking pot shots at one another. Until that happens, I suppose I’ll just curl up with Lawrence Olivier.

Partisanship Changes, but it doesn’t go away

By , 18 February, 2009, 3 Comments

I’ve been blogging that I think post-partisanship is a sham. To the extent that the stimulus process was meant to be the test of Obama’s “post-partisan” vision, I’m relieved to report that it didn’t quite work out his way. Partisanship does not, cannot and should not go away. But the nature of the debate reminds us that partisanship is not static, because the parties themselves shift and redefine over time. And THAT kind of change has surely arrived.

Start with the stimulus: what’s the divide between the three Republicans who voted for the bill and all the rest who didn’t? The simple answer is that the three—Collins, Snowe and Specter—are “moderates,” that they fall in the center of the current partisan spectrum. But the Republican party has fiscal, social and defense types, and you can be moderate on one axis and conservative on the other. The divide in this case was on fiscal issues, between fiscal conservatives who think government is more problem than solution and should be shrunk by spending cuts, and fiscal moderates who think government is one kind of solution and should be strengthened by (responsibly financed) expansion.

At its highest minded, this disagreement is a conflict between those who believe in the power of the individual and the decentralized and those who believe in the power of the central institution or community. But being anti-institution is not at all part of the current, about-to-be-old conservatism. On the social axis, for example, it’s the far right that believes in the institution (the nuclear heterosexual family, the Church) and the libertarian-right that leaves such things to individual choice. Meanwhile, it’s the far right (the neocons) that advocates for U.S. military interests and the moderate realists who say no often on grounds of national sovereignty and opposition to global governance. That the institution vs. individual fault line has suddenly become the chief fault line on the right is a new development.

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