Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Donald Trump and the Assholes & Idiots Theory

Donald Trump's role in the GOP primary this election cycle is an example of what I call the "Assholes & Idiots Theory of Politics." The Assholes & Idiots Theory says, quite simply, that in any political organization of sufficient size - political party, legislature, campaign, etc., there will be a certain number of people who are assholes and a certain number of people who are idiots, and one job of the leader(s) of that organization is to contain the assholes and idiots. Different leaders have different approaches, but all have to use some kind of moral authority . Ronald Reagan was able to successfully contain the assholes and idiots because he had a great deal of credibility as a leader of the conservative movement. So Reagan is still revered by conservatives, despite occasionally compromising with Democrats or raising taxes. Bill Clinton was able to straddle the progressive and moderate wings of the Democrat party because he understood the appeal and perspectives of both, so he was able to promote a pro-business agenda (free trade) and enact fairly liberal legislation (raising taxes on the rich). Clinton's success at containing the assholes and idiots laid the groundwork for the successful presidency of Obama, who, again, straddles the progressive and moderate wings of the Democrat party. Obama's status as the first black president also gives him enormous moral authority, which he has used very adroitly.

George W. Bush, on the other hand, spectacularly failed to contain the assholes and idiots within his party, starting with his vice president. There's a simple and obvious reason why Bush failed to do so: he's both. Bush's failure in this respect had the opposite effect that Clinton's success did. Instead of laying the groundwork for another politician who could contain the assholes and idiots, Bush created an opportunity for the ultimate asshole and idiot, Donald Trump, to take the GOP by storm.

Containing assholes and idiots is never easy, particularly because they rarely think of themselves in those terms. They think of themselves as passionate and dedicated advocates for their cause. They don't think of themselves as deluded narcissistic whack jobs whose refusal to compromise or even acknowledge the validity of other voices is an expression of unbridled anger and pain. Ideally, the successful leader will acknowledge their pain, their anger, their experience, and their perspective, give them enough to alleviate the pain and make them feel like they are being heard and their problems are being addressed. Or, in a less-than-ideal situation, a leader will discredit them and their ideas and marginalize them, walling them off in some obscure corner of society where they spend their lives venting their frustrations in the company of people who agree with them.

Rather than co-opt or marginalize the assholes and idiots, Bush put them in positions of power, gave them almost everything they wanted, and let them wreak havoc. When they failed, as in Iraq and in the economy, he refused to even consider the possibility that the assholes and idiots he had unleashed had any responsibility for the disasters they had created. Bush didn't just fan the flames of anger; he threw gasoline on the fire. Trump then proceeded to build other fires, and then throw gasoline on them.

Now there isn't anyone strong enough to contain Trump, although some are trying. Paul Ryan, to his credit, is using his new authority as Speaker of the House to denounce Trump's bigotry in clear and concise terms.

It is not merely for the good of a particular organization or party that the assholes and idiots must be contained. To contain the assholes and idiots is the essence of the democracy and the democratic project. Regardless of the strength or moral clarity of certain politicians, the saving grace of the need to contain the assholes and idiots comes down to one thing: in the end, democracy always wins. The process may be ugly, it may be disheartening and leave many with scars, but no one ever said democracy would be easy. In the end, democracy ultimately rewards those who can not merely articulate their own ideas, but those who can also listen and respect those they disagree with. Which is one thing Donald Trump, the ultimate asshole and idiot, clearly does not understand.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Why I Am Not A Philosophy Professor

A long, long time ago, in a college far, far away, I majoredin philosophy. I did so for a variety of reasons; I can think deeply, I like grappling with big questions, and I like big intellectual challenges. But I also majored in philosophy partially because I didn’t think I had a lot of other options. I considered majoring in either English Literature or Sociology & Anthropology (which is one department at Swarthmore), but neither of them offered the depth of thinking that I found in philosophy. I did end up minoring in both.

While I was majoring in philosophy, I acted the part, although it wasn’t really acting. I was strongly considering becoming a philosophy professor. I even had a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches. I was somewhat absent-minded. Most of the people who knew me thot of me as a natural philosophy professor. It became self-reinforcing: people thot of me as a philosophy professor because I acted like one, and I acted like a philosophy professor because that was sort of expected of me.
But there were a few problems with this career path. I didn’t realize this until some time after I graduated, but these aspects of my personality presented some issues with becoming a philosophy professor:

  • I don’t like sitting alone in a room reading books and papers for hours on end.
  • I particularly don’t like sitting alone in a room reading philosophy books and papers for hours on end.
  • I don’t like sitting alone in a room writing papers for hours on end.
  • I particularly don’t like sitting alone in a room writing philosophy papers for hours on end.
  • I much, MUCH prefer watching movies or videos to reading books.
  • I don’t like standing in front of a group of people and talking to them. Which means I would be very uncomfortable lecturing to a class.
  • The theory that I find most interesting is complexity theory, but, as far as I can tell, there are very few humanities academics in any field who have shown any interest in it.
  • I think of the ideas and theories that philosophers think about as necessary but boring – sort of like debates over arcane issues of accounting. Someone has to think about them, but I have no interest in them.
  • I like developing my own projects, with my own teams. I like finding the financing for them, developing them, and thinking strategically about how to promote and distribute them. In other words, I would probably hate the academic processes of applying for grants, doing research, and publishing in obscure academic journals, because, to me, that’s a very narrow range of options for getting projects done. It obviously works for a lot of people, but wouldn't work for me.
  • I like creating things that are visually stimulating, exciting, funny, and that can reach a wide audience.

So I don’t like reading, writing, or thinking about philosophy, and I do like watching and making movies, working with a wide variety of people, working with the latest technologies, and creating an environment for myself where I can not just think about theories like complexity theory, but use them to actually get things done.

The upshot is that I don’t like any of the things that would be required of me if I were to become a philosophy professor, and I could not do anything of the things that I like to do if I were to become a philosophy professor. Other than that, it’s a perfect fit.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

How to give a woman a compliment on her looks: Advice for Obama and other men

President Obama got in a spot of trouble this week when he gave a compliment to Kamala Harris, the Attorney General of California, calling her "the best looking attorney general." He later apologized to her. It seems odd that Obama, who has an excellent history of supporting women's rights, and is clearly very comfortable with powerful, highly accomplished women, would have made such a simple mistake.

My issue with the entire affair is that reactions seem to fall into two camps: "it's not that big of a deal, why can't men give women compliments?" and "he was a jerk who made a demeaning comment." I'm here to offer a more nuanced perspective.

Before I do so, however, I would like to point out that, if the worst thing that happens during Obama's presidency in terms of his personal relations with women is that he gets into 5 minutes of trouble for giving a good friend a compliment, he's doing really well. And so are we.

Obviously, there are times when it is appropriate to give a woman a compliment on her appearance. Most women at some point put a great deal of effort into how they look - they buy expensive clothes, they put on makeup, they might work out. Even women who spend most of their time in jeans and t-shirts occasionally like to dress up. But there are also times when giving a woman a compliment is rude and inappropriate. How to tell the difference? Here are three guidelines:

1. Professional vs. social environment. It's generally not a good idea to give a woman a compliment on her looks in a professional environment; it's far more acceptable to do so in a social environment. The exception to the professional rule is if the woman has a job in which her looks are important professionally; model, singer, or actress, for example. Why is this? 2 reasons. First, if you comment on her looks, it means that you think her looks are more important, at least at that moment, than her intelligence or her abilities. Which means that you aren't paying attention to those. Which means that, at least for that moment, you aren't taking her seriously. If there are other men with you, you probably aren't paying attention to their looks. So you are taking her male colleagues seriously in terms of their abilities, but not her. The second reason is that most professional relationships have at least some adversarial aspect to them. Even if you have the nicest boss in the world, you still have some interests in conflict with her. But giving a woman a compliment on her appearance is an act of intimacy, even if it's a very mild intimacy, and you are asking her to be emotionally vulnerable as she accepts your compliment. That may interfere with the adversarial nature of your relationship.
In a social setting, it's much more acceptable to make an emotionally intimate connection with a woman, because those situations are generally not adversarial, and there's probably a much higher level of trust. Obama's mistake was confusing the social and the professional. Apparently he and Kamala Harris are good friends personally, and have known each other for a long time. So he felt free to give her a compliment as a friend. If he had done so in a private setting, like at a fundraising dinner with only other Democrats present, he might have gotten away with it. But Kamala Harris, as Attorney General of California, has LOTS of adversarial professional relationships, more so than almost anyone else in the country. The issue is not that she doesn't want to be emotionally intimate with people; she's also a politician. But she wants to be the one in control of when she is. See #3 below.
There are some situations where people who know each other professionally interact in a social setting, for example at a conference. Err on the side of being professional, but, again, see #3 below.

2. It's generally OK to give a woman a compliment if she is getting - and wants - lots of attention. At a wedding, the bride will be getting lots of attention, particularly for her appearance. She wants that attention in that setting. So give it to her. The bridesmaids, and even most of the other women, will feel the same. If a woman or girl is at a formal dance (like a prom), she probably wants attention paid to her appearance. If she is receiving some kind of award or special recognition, and has dressed up for the occasion, it may be appropriate to compliment her appearance, as long as you also recognize her accomplishments. This may be one of those situations where the professional and the personal mix.

3. The most important factor in deciding whether or not to give a woman a compliment is: take your cues from her.  Repeat: take your cues from her. If there is any question in your mind about whether or not she wants the compliment, first, stop and think. Try to put yourself in her shoes. Is there anything unusual about this situation that would indicate that it's either appropriate or not? Did she clearly make an effort to look particularly good on this occasion? How well do you know her? Are you equals, or are you her superior, or her inferior, professionally? Are you giving more attention to her than to other women in the room? Are you giving attention to her that you would not give to men around you? Maybe not OK. Or are you at a bar late on a Saturday night, and she's been checking you out for the last 10 minutes? Are you at a party and she's wearing a tight skirt and a low-cut blouse? Probably OK.

Taking your cues from her means that you are listening to her, maybe even before she has said anything. And the best way to get a woman to listen to you is to show her, first, that you are listening to her.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Oscar Predictions - 2013

Oscars are tomorrow! So it's time once again for Oscar predictions. This year is exciting, because there are a couple of races that look like sure things, but some that are wide open.

I take what I call a "Resource Allocation" approach to the Oscars. I start with the idea that there are some movies for which the nomination itself is the award; those probably won't win anything. Some of these are nominated in the technical/craft categories, like sound effects or music. Some are nominated for the "big" categories. The director of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin, was nominated for Best Director. He's a very long shot to win, but the fact that he was nominated at all is a huge deal for him. These movies are generally very good, but not great.

But there are some movies that, at least in my opinion, SHOULD win something. These are the movies that either are great movies in and of themselves, or some aspect of them is great. For this year, these are the movies that I think should win at least one Oscar:

Les Miserables
Life of Pi

There are a couple of movies that are on the fence: they probably should win something, but it's as clear as the others:

Django Unchained
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

I would like to put Zero Dark Thirty in the first category, because I think it was a fantastic movie, but the torture controversy has weakened its chances. My feelings about the torture scenes in ZD30 are that if you were opposed to torture before, a movie will probably not change your mind. If you were in favor of torture before, this movie might confirm your opinion. But I don't think it's the responsibility of the filmmakers to take a position, and I think they handled it well.

Then I move on to which movies are most likely to win SOMETHING. This year, there are two virtual locks: Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, and Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables. I haven't followed the technical awards shows very closely, but there's a fairly good chance that Life of Pi will win at least one technical award, probably visual effects. I completely bought the idea that Richard Parker, the tiger, was real. So let's assume Life of Pi wins for visual effects.

That leaves Argo as the one movie among the "should" list that we aren't sure about. It's possible that Alan Arkin will win for Best Supporting Actor, but not a sure thing by any means. His performance was good, but his performance is not the reason it's a great movie. There are two other possibilities: Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay. The screenplay awards are sometimes a "second place" award for Best Picture or Best Director, particularly if the director is also one of the screenwriters. See Tarantino, Quentin, for Pulp Fiction. But Ben Affleck didn't write the screenplay. And Argo has been sweeping up all kinds of awards that suggest it will win Best Picture. So Argo looks like it's got an excellent chance of winning Best Picture.

In the "might" category, Amour might, and probably will, win Best Foreign Language. The categories that we don't know are:
Best Director
Best Actress
Best Supporting Actor
Best Original Screenplay

Best Adapted Screenplay is also somewhat up in the air. Best Director comes down to Spielberg vs. Ang Lee. While I liked Life of Pi, and I think the technical aspects are amazing, the end of the story didn't grab me. I haven't read the book, but I've heard many times that it was considered unfilmable, because of the depth of the spiritual/religious concerns addressed. For me, the technical achievement overshadowed the story; I was blown away by the CGI, but the spiritual aspects of the story, while nicely done, didn't impress me as all that substantive. In terms of story, I think Spielberg did a more interesting job in Lincoln. Just taking on telling the story of one of the most famous men in history is an impressive feat. I felt like I learned something about how Lincoln actually got things done and how the American political process worked, which was wonderful. So Best Director to Spielberg.

Best Actress is a tough one, because there are two strong contenders, Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain. Lawrence's performance was much more showy, and she showed a lot of maturity for an actress of her age (she's 22). Chastain's performance was much more restrained, but it's one hell of a role. My gut tells me that a lot of the women in the Academy would like to see more roles for women that are highly accomplished, very gutsy professionals. Also, I personally feel that, although Silver Linings Playbook is a very good movie, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, Zero Dark Thirty is close to a masterpiece, and a better movie that Silver Linings. Using my logic of a great movie deserving at least one Oscar, this could be the only one that ZD30 wins. So my pick is Jessica Chastain for Best Actress, because ZD30 should win something, and the fact that a female CIA agent is at the core is one of the things that makes it unusual.

We're left with Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor. Screenplay comes down to Zero Dark Thirty or Django Unchained, although Amour has a shot as well. The writer of ZD30, Mark Boal, is also a producer, so this would be a good way of awarding that movie second place for Best Picture. Quentin Tarantino is the writer and director of Django Unchained. He wasn't nominated for Best Director, and he doesn't have a producer credit, so Best Original Screenplay would be the only way to recognize him directly for this movie. It's a very good script, but it's also very much a Quentin Tarantino script. Mark Boal told a story for which the audience not only knew the ending, but were very familiar with it. But it's still fascinating. Tarantino came up with a clever idea and executed it well, but I think Boal had the harder job, particularly given the level of secrecy surrounding the specifics. So I think Boal and Zero Dark Thirty win Best Original screenplay.

Which leaves us with two movies - Django Unchained and Silver Linings Playbook, and one category, Best Supporting Actor. I thot De Niro did a good job, but it didn't feel like a particularly meaty role for an actor of his caliber. He hasn't been nominated in a long time, but that's partially because he hasn't chosen a great role in a while. Tommy Lee Jones was very good in Lincoln, but he was playing a crusty old man, and we've seen him in that role before. Christoph Waltz has already won an Oscar for being in a Tarantino movie, and this isn't really a supporting role - he's in basically every scene until he's no longer in the movie, and he has far more dialogue than anyone else (at least it feels that way). But he carries the movie brilliantly. It's a very demanding role, and he pulls it off beautifully. Christoph Waltz for Best Supporting Actor.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Why Republicans Are Opposing Chuck Hagel

GOP Senators are opposing Obama's presumptive nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel. Their rationale is that he is weak on support for Israel and on sanctions against Iran.

That's plausible, but I'm not buying it. Republican senators are opposing Hagel's nomination for the same reason that they opposed Susan Rice's nomination for Secretary of State: they think they can take out the nominee, and thereby win a minor skirmish with Obama, and make him look weak. Susan Rice was a decent candidate for Secretary of State, but not great. There are generally 3 kinds of nominees for that job: career diplomats, prominent figures within the president's party, and people close to the president. Susan Rice is a career diplomat who is close to the president, but she's not a prominent figure within the party. As Republicans were opposing her, there were some other rumblings that she wasn't eminently qualified. So the GOP smelled blood in the water, and wanted a scalp. Fortunately for Obama, Rice figured out what was going on, and saved herself and the president a lot of grief.

They're doing the same thing with Hagel. This time there is some opposition to the nomination from the left, which isn't thrilled about the idea of another Democrat president choosing a Republican Secretary of Defense just to look tough on national security. So the GOP is betting that, if they gang up on Hagel, their opposition, combined with the qualms on the left, will sink the nomination, making Obama look weak on national security. They don't really care about whether or not Hagel is qualified or not to be Secretary of Defense; they just want to beat Obama somehow.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Suggestions for Jury Duty Reform

I was called in for jury duty in December. I went in to the courthouse, but wasn't called. Not much of a surprise, because apparently the courts aren't all that busy in December.

I received the notice that I had to serve a couple of months before I was called. I had the option to postpone or decline, but only for very good reason. I am currently working for a large law firm, and they give you 10 days off if you are called to serve on a jury. It wasn't a hardship for me or my coworkers. But for many people, I'm sure it is.

So my idea is this: let citizens who are called for jury duty request or suggest particular times of the year when they will be called to serve. Many people have seasonal jobs. Wedding planners, for example, are busy in the spring and summer, but not the fall and winter. Accountants and tax preparers are busy until April 15. Athletes and coaches on sports team are busy during the season, but not the offseason. Politicians and their campaign staff are busy during campaign season, but not afterwards.

Many people also have specific commitments that they know about well in advance. Weddings, for example, are generally planned months in advance. Students and professors who plan to spend a semester or more off-campus - for example, studying abroad, or teaching at another college - usually know about that well ahead of time. People who work in the entertainment industry travel constantly - musicians go on tour, films and TV shows shoot on location.

It would work like this: the local court administrator sends out mail in the fall to prospective jurors for the next year. Those jurors can specify which months of the year they would prefer to serve, and which months they would prefer not to serve. They might select three months that they would like to serve, three months that they would not, or cannot serve, and six months that they are neutral about. Or they might list the months in order of their preference, from 1 to 12. The sooner they get their response in, the more likely they will be to receive their preference, so people with tight schedules have a strong incentive to get their requests in early. Notifications would then be sent out in December, letting people know when they will be called to serve on jury duty. This would greatly reduce stress on all parties involved.

Then, if something comes up over the course of the year, and someone will not be able to serve jury duty, they will, hopefully, be able to give advance notice. If someone suddenly has to move, or go out of town for an extended basis, they can inform the court as soon as they know, and reschedule appropriately.

I served on a jury once, and I enjoyed it (the judge declared a mistrial, so we didn't reach a verdict), but I've heard stories from friends for whom serving on a jury was a significant hassle. This proposal would, hopefully, go a long way towards making jury duty much more manageable for many more Americans.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Privatizing Disaster Relief

In the wake of Hurricane/Frankenstorm/Superstorm Sandy, there's been some debate about privatizing disaster relief, mostly because Mitt Romney seems to be in favor of that.

There's one problem: we already privatize disaster relief. We already have private, for-profit organizations that respond to events like hurricanes.

They're called insurance companies.

Right now Allstate, Progressive, and State Farm are getting lots and lots of calls about flooded homes, missing cars, ruined furniture. They will reimburse lots of people for the damages they suffered. Some of their customers will be happy, some will be unhappy. But for many people, if not most, their private insurance company is going to be their primary means of dealing with this catastrophe.

We also have private, non-profit organizations that deal with this, like the Red Cross. Many people will turn to churches and schools for help.

But there are some things that neither insurance companies nor the Red Cross can deal with. And for those issues, we have government. State Farm repair the New York City subway system or restore power to Manhattan. The Roman Catholic Church cannot evacuate entire cities. That's what governments do. And governments at different levels handle different aspects of this. Local fire departments put out fires and rescue people. State governments make decisions about what roads should be closed, where to send the National Guard. And the Federal government declares various areas disaster areas, and sends in lots of money and people with various highly specialized skills. The Federal government also, of course, runs the weather prediction agencies that kept us all informed about what was going to be happening and when.

We have a disaster-response system that incorporates private for-profit, private non-profit, and governmental agencies. Each group handles the things that it is best equipped for.

It isn't a perfect system, because responding to disasters is one of those things that, by definition, cannot be done perfectly. It's also not a perfect system because democracy is not a perfect system, and democracy is not a perfect system because human beings are not perfect.

But the system works about as well as it can. It's odd that people like Mitt Romney, who claim to be so patriotic, sometimes fail to appreciate the genius of the American system.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Idiocy of the Chicago Teachers' Strike

I'm a big supporter of teachers and unions. Normally, at least, I am. I am the son and brother of public school teachers. I was skeptical of the decision by the Chicago Teachers Union to go on strike, primarily because I was very concerned that, because it is so disruptive of parents' lives, it would erode the natural goodwill that teachers enjoy from the public.

My opinion on the decision to extend the strike, however, does not have any ambiguity: I think the decision to extend the strike is sheer stupidity, a spectacular failure of leadership on the part of the union, and political malpractice.

The decision on whether or not to ratify the agreement reached with the city will be made on Tuesday. There are 2 possible outcomes. 1) The decision is ratified, the strike is over, and kids go back to school on Wednesday. 2) The decision is not ratified, and negotiations resume, presumably on Wednesday.

Let's look at the most optimistic scenario under option 2. Let's say the talks resume quickly, and an agreement is reached quickly as well, say by this Friday. It's ratified by teachers over the weekend, and kids go back to school the following Monday.

This raises some immediate questions: if an agreement was reached so quickly, then why was the strike extended? Presumably the sides weren't that far apart. Did the teachers get a dramatically better deal than the first agreement? If not, then why did they extend the strike?

Public support for the strike is eroding quickly. The teachers' union is paying a high price in political support literally every day that the strike goes on. I've been following it closely, and although I don't know the very fine details, I highly doubt that the teachers will get a much better deal if they reject this agreement and negotiate for another one.

I also highly doubt that they will get a deal that is worth whatever they lose in public support. The union leadership has to be aware of this. So there is almost no chance that, come Tuesday, the union will reject the current offer, because the price of extending the strike is too great.

So there is a very high likelihood that the agreement will be ratified on Tuesday. Assuming that it is, what has the union gained from an extra 2 days of the strike? They will have pissed off more parents, but they won't be getting anything, because they could have ratified it over the weekend.

I've heard various explanations for why the agreement was not ratified, but none of them hold water for me. I find it bizarre that the union members needed more time to study the proposal. In this day and age, the details of the agreement should have been communicated to all of the members of the union within an hour of said agreement being reached. The union leadership should have known by the next morning whether or not their members would agree to it. Heck, they should have known that within a couple of hours.

There's almost no chance that the agreement will not be ratified on Tuesday. There's no reason why it should not have been ratified over the weekend. The union seems to be making Chicago parents wait for this ratification for no reason other than the failure of the union leadership.

As I wrote above, I'm a big fan of teachers. I had a fantastic public school education, particularly in high school. Which is why it pains me to see the Chicago teachers union basically shooting itself in the foot.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Mitt's Biggest Problem: He Doesn't Like Politics

Mitt Romney suffers from one disadvantage in this presidential campaign: he just doesn't like politics.There are, obviously, lots of reasons not to like politics or politicians. But if you're going to be a politician, you will probably be a better one if you actually like politics.

Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had very little in common ideologically, but both of them loved the pomp and circumstance of the political game. Reagan particularly enjoyed the performance aspect of it, and Clinton was never more at home than when he was pressing the flesh in the middle of a crowd. 

Romney, however, doesn't like either the show or the personal interaction with voters. He likes the challenge of being in charge, and it doesn't take much Freudian analysis to figure out that he's following in his Dad's footsteps. But his troubles at the Olympics highlighted his lack of interest in basic showmanship. He didn't just commit several gaffes in a couple of days, he didn't just "blow what was seemingly an un-blowable opportunity." He was totally unprepared for some simple gladhanding because he hadn't prepared any opportunities for self-promotion. He held a fundraiser in London, which is his kind of environment - close, personal interaction with other rich people. But if Reagan had made this trip, he and his team would have had the entire thing very carefully stage-managed. The candidate would have had several photo-ops with American athletes, he would have made vague and probably inaccurate references to his experience as a lifeguard and a radio sportscaster, he would have waved and smiled a lot, and he would have spouted platitudes and cliches about how sports transcends the nasty business of politics. It would have been totally cheesy and sentimental, as well as a blatantly hypocritical attempt to appear above politics while scoring political points. And it would have worked brilliantly. As a liberal Democrat, I would have gnashed my teeth about the superficiality of it all, but there would have been nothing I could have done about it. Particularly because none of the three candidates that I supported during the '80's had the foggiest clue how to do anything like it.

Romney, on the other hand, made no effort to participate in the showmanship of the Games. He didn't even show any interest in watching his wife's horse. He didn't meet the athletes. He could have talked about how the technological innovations showcase American ingenuity and creativity - nope. He made very little mention of his own experience running an Olympics. He didn't show people he was having a good time at the biggest party on the planet. He's like the guy who goes to the library when everyone else is at the homecoming game. The ultimate goal of politics is not to pass legislation; it's to give people the opportunity to enjoy their lives. 

Obama understands all of this. He likes the intense policy debates and the games he has to play with Republicans, but he also genuinely enjoys standing in front of thousands of people and inspiring them. Most fortunately for Obama, Michelle clearly enjoys the attention of the public as well. 

One of the great ironies of politics is that the really important stuff - the intricacies and details of policy and legislation - is really boring, and generally impenetrable to the public at large. Symbols matter because they translate the boring stuff into something that the average citizen can understand. Great politicians don't just get the importance of symbols and the show - they like translating the language of the boring stuff into the language of the public. 

Mitt Romney doesn't just not like this process, he doesn't appreciate how important it is, or why he should do it. Which means that he has surrounded himself with people who think the same way. Most of them stayed home and didn't even join him on this trip.

People who enjoy the games they play are almost always better at them than people who don't derive the same satisfaction. Just ask anyone in London this week.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Memo to Mitt: Politics is tougher than business

Mitt Romney is making two mistakes in this presidential race. His first mistake is that he thinks that he's tougher than Barack Obama because he's a businessman, and Barack Obama is a politician, and business people are tougher than politicians. His second mistake is that he expects the American people to automatically give him greater respect and deference because of that. He expects that when he says that something is true, or he gives his perspective on how events unfolded in his life, his explanation will be accepted at face value. 

My favorite example of people in business making this mistake of thinking that they are tougher than people in government is a tech company (I think it was Microsoft) that was being sued by the US Department of Justice. The Microsoft folks assumed that they were much tougher than the dweeby government lawyers, because they operate in the hypercompetitive environment of the computer industry, whereas government lawyers are bureaucrats who spend their hours trying to figure out how to interfere with businesses making money. What the Microsofties forgot was that prosecutors at the DoJ deal with foreign intelligence agencies (remember the KGB?), Mafia kingpins, drug lords, and other people who will lie, cheat, steal, and kill to achieve their goals. On a toughness scale, Microsoft's competitors - geeks with fast calculators who drink too much coffee - do not compare well to spies, assassins, and gangsters. Steve Jobs was a tough competitor. Unless you compare him to, say, Saddam Hussein, John Gotti, or the Soviet Union.

What people in business fail to appreciate is that they spend most of their time with people who agree with them, whereas politicians spend a lot of their time with people disagree with them. Most people in business do not have daily, direct contact with their competitors. They spend most of their time with people in their own company, with whom they have common goals. Or they spend time with their customers or vendors, people with whom they are trying to reach a mutually satisfactory accommodation. It's not necessarily easy negotiating with your co-workers, customers, or vendors. But those people generally are not doing everything in their power to stop you from achieving your goals. They may disagree with you, or even dislike you. But they're not out to destroy you. Your competitors may be trying to do that. But you don't have to deal with them literally face-to-face every day. And they rarely make it personal. In business, it's perfectly legitimate to question a competitor's product or strategy, but it's off-limits to attack their character.

The Democrats are going to attack every facet of Mitt Romney's experience, in the public and private sectors, in a way that none of his competitors in the private sector ever did. They're going to raise as many questions about his character as they possibly can. It's a nasty, unpleasant business, but anyone who thinks that the practice of democracy is all about the grandiose articulation of principles has done a very selective reading of history.

This is where Romney's second mistake is potentially fatal. The Democrats are going to raise questions in the minds of voters, and a fair number of voters are going to consider those questions legitimate. Mitt Romney is having trouble answering questions like when did he actually, officially, really, truly, honest-to-God-cross-my-heart leave Bain Capital, because he has never had to face those questions before. He has lived his life according to these precepts: the explanations of him and his lawyers will always be sufficient to answer questions about whether or not his actions were proper. If he signs a piece of paper, he and his associates have cleared it with the lawyers, so it's OK. Period, end of story. He simply has no experience with people who do not automatically accept his ability to explain fine legalistic details of his professional life. He assumes his own credibility, so he has no idea how to establish that credibility. His lawyers have both assumed that credibility as well, and worked hard to prevent anyone from even raising any questions about it. Mitt Romney has always had people around him who ran interference for him on questions of legality. It's been a closed loop; he hired people who assumed that what he was doing was legal and proper, and they then kept him in a bubble of legality and propriety. He's never had to question his own assumptions. So the Democrats are doing that for him.

Professional politicians, however, operate on the assumption that they will be questioned on those details, and they will have to explain them. They know they will be expected to release their tax returns. They know that their personal credibility is something that they have to establish very carefully, and then work very hard to maintain. They deal on a day-to-day basis with people who questions their assumptions and their legitimacy. 

Mitt Romney thinks that he, the son of a wealthy father, who had every possible advantage in life and who has spent most of his life surrounded by people who are very much like him, and who think like him, is tougher than the son of a single mother who had to use his own personal discipline and focus to rise to the highest levels of a society that, not so long ago, erected substantial barriers to success for people like him. Mitt Romney's formative experiences were in offices and boardrooms. Barack Obama's formative experiences were on the streets of Chicago. Mitt Romney may never realize that he has substantially underestimated how tough Barack Obama can be. But even if he realizes it tomorrow, it will probably be too late.

One of the toughest jobs in the world is selling yourself to someone who doesn't necessarily trust you, particularly when they can choose an alternative with one simple push of a button. Welcome to American politics on the national stage, Mr. Romney.