Thursday, December 31, 2009

Quote of the Year

The Quote of the Year for 2009 comes from the same person as last year: my brother Ted. Two years in a row! Way to go, Ted! At some point during Thanksgiving, as we were talking about politics (a favorite topic in the Halbert household), Ted said:
"There are some people who are still in shock that Barack Obama is president."
Which sums up the whole year fairly well. We opened with Obama's inaugural, a momentous and historic occasion. We wrestled with the stimulus, cash for clunkers, winding down the war in Iraq, a nuclear Iran, amping up the war in Afghanistan, and, of course, health care. And bailing out GM and Chrysler. And dealing with climate change. I think Obama has handled all of these well. There have been some disappointments: I think he's been too secretive and hasn't loosened the grip of the executive branch on its own power as much as I would like.

My paternal grandparents would have been among the people in shock at Barack Obama as president. They were both smart people, but they would not have been able to understand it, let alone appreciate why my siblings and I were so enthusiastic about his candidacy and presidency.

History - particularly American history - is always partially about the differences between generations. This problem is ever more acute today, because as the pace of technological change continually speeds up, the younger generations are ever more capable of moving and thinking faster than older generations. My paternal grandfather was born in February 1905. That's only 14 months after the Wright brothers flew, and only 40 years after the end of the Civil War. Both of those events were always ancient history to me. Not to him.

For people under 30, the idea of a black president with an unusual name is not even remotely strange or bizarre. For many people over 80, who were in their 40's and 50's when Archie Bunker was on the air, it's too weird to understand. They're still in shock.

But they're also still Americans, and they understand that, as powerful as the president is, the system is far more powerful, and as much as they may disagree with the president, they still have a place in the country. They may call him a Muslim or somehow unAmerican, they may chant slogans about taking their country back.

But they can't. Obama is as American as any teabagger or Glenn Beck fan. Or me or my brother.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Quote of the Day

"Well, no one said it would be easy."

-Andrew Sullivan, in his excellent assessment of Obama's first year. He makes the very good point - which should be obvious - that one of Obama's great achievements this year was preventing a second Great Depression.

He also mentions that the right is furious at Obama because they sense that he is changing the dialogue to a degree similar to how Reagan changed it. Except, of course, that Obama is swinging the pendulum back towards government activism, rather than away from it.

It has been said of FDR that he saved capitalism from itself. I think Obama is doing the same thing - he is preserving capitalism despite the best efforts of capitalists to wreck things.

What is driving conservatives nuts is that Obama is turning out to be better at saving capitalism than Republicans. That's gotta hurt.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Quote of the Day

"Parts of the US electorate that agree on nothing else are united in their disappointment at Barack Obama's first year as president. He must be doing something right."

Editorial in today's Financial Times. The English seem to have a sense of the absurd grounded in reality that works really, really well.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Purging Books

The New York Times has a funky human-interest item about purging books from your personal library. They asked several prominent book people, i.e. some professors, novelists, and the owner of The Strand, about what to do when they have too many books. Most acknowledge an occasional weeding-out process.

I've done this a few times. In college, I went on a long book-buying binge. It lasted several years. It was something of an obsession. I bought all kinds of "classic" books very cheaply - at used book stores, garage sales, book fairs, you name it. A couple of years after college, I had about 4,000 books. At some point, I needed to get rid of them, and I needed money.

I loaded up my parents' van with several hundred books. I took them to John King Books, the largest used book store in Detroit, and one of the largest in the world. It's absolutely huge - 4 floors, and each floor is easily 5,000 feet. It dwarfs any Borders or Barnes & Noble. Some old guy with a thick white beard offered me $125 for the lot. I turned him down, because I was sure I could get more somewhere else.

I went to another used book store and sold a chunk for $100. Went to another and sold a chunk of the remainder for $20. Went to another and finally got rid of the last few for $3. Total: $123. It was a good lesson in negotiating and efficiency.

Over the years, I've occasionally gone through my remaining books and performed a purge. There are always a few moments of "No, I really don't need this." The last time was a few months ago. I still had several boxes of books in my parents' basement. This time, I took the load to John King, and they didn't want them. Wouldn't pay me for them. The best they could do was store credit. $70. I tried to give that away to my parents or a friend, but no one would take it. I've still got it. I went to another book store with the ones that John King wouldn't even exchange for store credit, and got $17 cash. For books that were worth probably $250-$300 new.

What we're seeing here is the blessing and curse of efficiency. Over the course of the 20th century, it became easier and easier to print and distribute books. As they became cheaper, it got easier to collect them. But as the cost decreased, so did the value. One reason I feel comfortable getting rid of books is that I know I can almost always find any particular book again.
In some respects, it's somehow sad to see books lose their value. But there are upsides. Given that they are now so cheap as to be almost worthless, it's easy to give them away. There are still many places on this planet that could use more books - small town libraries, prisons, even developing countries. There are programs that send books from our overstuffed personal libraries and bookstores to these places.
Of course, the downside of books being so easy to make is that it takes a certain amount of resources to make them. The Kindle and its ilk are rendering physical books less and less relevant. They're also letting us read books with far less use of resources.
Physical books have lost their value. But knowledge and writing have not.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

USC wins the Emerald Bowl!

Well, the football gods smiled on the University of Southern California yesterday, as the almighty Trojans beat Boston College, 24-13. In a nice touch, Patt Morrison interviewed Pete Carroll yesterday in the LA Times. Carroll is one of the best college football coaches ever, and one of the most important people in Los Angeles. He's also a great guy who does a lot for the community, and does a lot without getting any credit for it. Props to the LA Times for running this series of Patt Morrison interviews. One thing that the LA Times has done exceptionally well over the last few years is experiment with their Op-Ed page, and this is a great example.

Matt Barkley threw two interceptions, but he was also 27 for 37, for 350 yards. We'll take that. Here's a video highlight. Now I just have to figure out why it's called "the Emerald Bowl."

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Ross Douthat on Obama's First Year

I've been thinking about blogging about Obama's first year, but didn't have a hook. Ross Douthat provided one. He writes today about how Obama has confounded so many people during his first year. Douthat is a good writer, but elegant confusion is still confusion.

Obama baffles observers, I suspect, because he’s an ideologue and a pragmatist all at once. He’s a doctrinaire liberal who’s always willing to cut a deal and grab for half the loaf.
On DailyKos, DemFromCT has a great response:

Ross, your homework assignment is to write an essay starting with "Obama is a doctrinaire liberal because..."
On one of the most important social issues defining the liberal agenda today, gay marriage, Obama is to the right of just about every liberal: he's in favor of traditional marriage, and always has been. Part of that may be political calculation, part of that may be his honest belief. I don't know, and I don't care. Gay marriage is currently opposed by a majority of Americans, and vehemently opposed by a significant minority. That will change over time, but there is absolutely nothing that Obama can do about it now, or probably at any time during his presidency. The Defense of Marriage Act is not going to be overturned for at least 10 years, if not 20 or more. That's not being pragmatic or even realistic: that's not being stupid. But it also renders any definition of Obama as a "doctrinaire liberal" a little problematic. See also: willingness to use force as an instrument of foreign policy.

In this column we see one of the classic perils of punditry: generalizing from one's own experience to that of the population at large. Obama confounds Douthat because he is not conforming to the conservative stereotype of liberals. Part of that stereotype is that liberals hate capitalism. That used to be true, and it's still true for some. But Josh Marshall, Markos Moulitsas, Jon Stewart, and Arianna Huffington are all highly successful and influential liberal activists and highly successful and influential entrepreneurs and capitalists. Liberals have gotten over their antipathy to capitalism. The Cold War is over. Thanks, we realized that. Bt, dt: been there, done that.

Liberals are still highly critical of many large and exploitative capitalist organizations, like Chevron and Goldman Sachs, but there's a difference between ExxonMobil and capitalism. Liberals may not love capitalism the way conservatives do, but they've learned to live with it. So when Obama saves large banks from going under, most liberals understand that Obama is doing what is necessary to keep the system from going under. They may not be thrilled that Obama is doing it, but they direct most of their anger at the banks, not Obama.

Douthat's next mistake is completely misreading Obama's campaign:
It’s also puzzling because Obama promised exactly the opposite approach while running for the presidency. He campaigned as a postpartisan healer who would change the cynical ways of Washington — as a foe of both back-room deals and ideology-as-usual. But he’s governed as a conventional liberal who believes in the existing system, knows how to work it and accepts the limitations it imposes on him.
I find it bizarre that a columnist for the New York Times would take isolated bits of campaign rhetoric at face value, and then extrapolate from those snippets a governing philosophy. I find it equally bizarre that he thinks this is a clever contrast. Obama campaigned as someone who is willing to listen to his opponents, and engage them in dialogue - which is exactly what he has done. If his opponents refuse to return the favor, that's their fault, not his. Part of his "postpartisan healer" appeal is based on the fact that he does not govern from a position of anger, and he does not incite his followers to hate their opponents. Again, that's exactly what he has done. He can be critical of Republicans, but he refrains as much as possible from inflammatory rhetoric. You will never hear Barack Obama accuse his political opponents of being treasonous simply because they disagree with him. So we are getting what we expected, and what Obama sold - a politician who listens carefully to all sides of an argument, asks detailed, intelligent questions, and makes decisions based both on his personal beliefs and what reality is.

As for Obama's belief in the existing system. Of course Obama believes in the system as it exists. That's implicit in the fact that he ran for president, and held political office for many years before that. Again, this gets back to his ability to understand reality as it is. His campaign was a great example of this. He looked for the tactical and strategic weaknesses of his main opponents - Hillary and McCain - and developed strategies and tactics to beat them. Looking at his track record as a legislator, it should be clear that his ability to get things done is fused with his ability to compromise. Liberals should not be surprised by this: the same was true of Clinton. We also hated Bush because he took the exact opposite approach: he didn't ask questions, didn't listen to voices of dissent, made decisions based on ideology rather than reality, and wreaked havoc on the world. There are some liberals who are not thrilled that Obama is not a pure liberal. But there are also many liberals who are thrilled that, even when Obama does something they disagree with, they know that he has thought about it carefully.

I almost feel bad taking on Douthat, because it's like shooting fish in a barrel.
Conservatives have exaggerated his liberal instincts into radicalism, ignoring the fact that a president who takes advice from Lawrence Summers and Robert Gates probably isn’t a closet Marxist-Leninist.
This also ignores the fact that Marxist-Leninists are not elected to public office in the United States in the 21st century, with the possible exceptions of the occasional city councilmember in some very small town. About the only public figure I can think of who might be close to a Marxist-Leninist would be Noam Chomsky (and I'm not even sure about that), and I can't remember the last time I saw his name mentioned in a liberal blog.

Then there's this gem:
Absent political constraints, Obama would probably side with the liberal line on almost every issue. It’s just that he’s more acutely conscious of the limits of his powers and less willing to start fights that he might lose than many supporters would prefer.
This is called "one of the consequences of holding office, as opposed to being an activist." It's also sometimes referred to as "Poli Sci 101." It's categorically absurd to discuss how a president operates "[a]bsent political constraints." That's like talking about how Hollywood studios would make movies "absent the interests of the audience." Yes, Obama takes into account political considerations when making decisions. This is why he is called a "politician."

Douthat does make one point that is not utterly ridiculous, but still boneheaded.
Obama doesn’t enjoy the kind of deep credibility with his base that both Reagan and Kennedy spent decades building. When Kennedy told liberals that a given compromise was the best they could get, they believed him. Whether the issue is health care or Afghanistan, Obama’s word doesn’t carry the same weight.
Yes, Obama has frustrated many liberals. But talk about nostalgia warping history! I'm not a student of Kennedy, but my impression is that he didn't spend decades building credibility with liberals. He was a privileged member of the elite who didn't serve in the Senate much longer than Obama. I also seem to recall that Johnson - who had a much better life story and record of accomplishment as a liberal president than Kenndey - had a rather fractious relationship with young liberals, like, say, every person who went to Woodstock or bought a Beatles album.

Obama's word carries weight with liberals for three reasons: his life story, the fact that he is about to sign a major piece of health care reform, and the fact that he thinks things through. One more time: Obama makes decisions based on asking intelligent questions about reality. This is what confounds Douthat: it's liberals who are the realists, not the conservatives who swear fealty to capitalism and its alleged grounding in the real world. There are some liberals who are frustrated with Obama. There were a fair number of liberals who were frustrated with Clinton. Remember welfare reform? Not real popular with liberals. There were conservatives who were frustrated with Reagan. Activists, intellectuals, and theorists are empowered by their willingness to pass judgment. There will always be people who pass judgment on politicians, because there will always be people who figure out a way to get paid to do so.

But the latest example of someone even remotely radical who challenged the establishment while running for political office is Ralph Nader, and most Kossacks bristle at the very mention of his name. He is persona non grata among a large chunk of the Democratic base. Like about 95% of the Democratic base. We have seen the price of enforcing ideological purity, and we are not interested in paying that price again. Obama frustrates some liberals. But he also gets things done. Big things.

If anything, it is a sign of Obama's success that he leaves his opponents so utterly confused. I understand Douthat's confusion, because I was in the same position in the 80's as I opposed Reagan. I just could not wrap my mind around the fact that so many people in this country voted for a man who seemed both so stupid and wrong. Later I realized that he wasn't as stupid as I thought he was, and liberalism had spent a large chunk of its intellectual energy. But before I realized that, I spent many years in denial about the failures of liberalism. The fact that the Berlin Wall fell while I was in college was a big help.

Conservatives are in the same place that I was. They're in denial about the failures of conservatism and furstrated because they can't get any traction attacking Obama. Remember the line that Obama was taking on too many things at once? Yeah, that didn't go anywhere. Obama as socialist? Sure, because socialists are so willing to spend billions propping up banks and saving old-line industrial behemoths.

The defining sign of Douthat's confusion is this line:

[U]sing cynical means to progressive ends (think of the pork-laden stimulus bill or the frantic vote-buying that preceded this week’s Senate health care votes) tends to confirm independent voters’ worst fears about liberal government: that it’s a racket rigged to benefit privileged insiders and a corrupt marketplace floated by our tax dollars.
"A racket rigged to benefit privileged insiders?" Is the man completely unaware that Dick Cheney was the former chairman of Haliburton? Has he forgotten that Bush pushed through massive tax cuts that benefited the rich? The last two Democratic presidents have been men who had absolutely no help in life from their fathers. The two before that weren't exactly East Coast elites. Yes, Obama has helped out banks. But Republicans are trying to paint Obama as an unAmerican socialist who is also tight with the Establishment. There are three terms to describe this failure to resolve contradictory ideas: 1) "cognitive dissonance," 2) "lack of connection to reality," and 3) "electoral failure."

Emerald Bowl tonight!

Tonight is the Emerald Bowl! Big excitement! This year, the Emerald Bowl is hosting the almighty Trojans of the University of Southern California, and some team from the east. Oh, wait, that's right, it's the Eagles of Boston College. I have a fair degree of respect for Boston College, since my sister went there, and I have decided not to engage in any trash talking about USC's opponent this year, in the spirit of humility required of USC fans at the end of this dismal season.

For those unaware, USC finished the year 8-4, which is a complete disaster. We did not win the PAC-10 conference championship, so we are not going to the Rose Bowl, let alone the BCS national championship game. But this is, I suppose, to be expected - with great success comes occasional failure.

Personally, I think of it this way: The Lakers and the Yankees both won championships, so I think I maxed out on my personal sports karma for the year. The Red Wings didn't win a championship, and the Redskins are playing like pathetic wimps. But I'll take two championships in one year, even if it means I have to sacrifice USC playing in the Rose Bowl.

But I am going to feel sorry for Boston College tomorrow.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The View From My Window

I took this picture from my office window a few days ago. It's not the best view from where I sit, but it does have the cool effect of showing snow visible from an office in downtown Los Angeles. I was going to take another picture today, since it's Christmas, and we have another clear view today (we usually have some kind of smog), but the batteries in my camera died. So hopefully tomorrow. Meanwhile, enjoy.

And, of course, props to Andrew Sullivan for his long-running feature "The View From Your Window." I'm going to order the book any day now.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Raining in LA

We're having a citywide hydration event here in Los Angeles. This is great for us, because we always need rain. So everybody is happy that it's raining. Reminds me of an old country song. Doesn't this take you back?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Obama on Afghanistan

I caught the last half of President Obama's speech on Afghanistan. I'm glad the decision has been made and there will be no more discussion of "dithering." I'm not all that thrilled with sending another 30,000 troops, but I am reluctantly supportive. Part of my rationale is that I trust Obama has thought this through thoroughly, and has weighed all of the options carefully. The other part of my rationale is that I basically agree with him, much as I don't want to.

There have been many comparisons of Afghanistan with Vietnam. Newsweek looked at the question of whether or not Vietnam was winnable. I don't think that's the right question. I think there are two questions about Vietnam that I haven't seen discussed much: 1) how was it related to WWII, and 2) So we lost - so what?

First, on the WWII question. American armies have a reputation for "fighting the last war," and supposedly that's what we did in Vietnam. But thinking about WWII also sheds some light on why we were there in the first place.

From the perspective of 40 years, it seems ridiculous that we were even in Vietnam. It's a small country thousands of miles away from us - what was the threat? Even the domino theory seems strange and absurd. I understood Vietnam when someone once explained something about California politics in the 1950's. California was conservative in the 50's because people were worried about war with China. That sounds absurd today - China is a large country, but it's also technologically years behind us. It's also across the Pacific ocean.

But so was Japan. In the 1950's, the idea of waging war across the Pacific was very plausible and scary. China was allied with Russia, which had a large military presence in Europe. A sea war in the Pacific, a land war in Europe - in the 1950's, that scenario was strongly reminiscent of WWII, except that Russia and China are both much larger than Germany and Japan. In that context, going to war in Vietnam makes more sense.

Which leads to the second question. We lost, but so what? We now have diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Cambodia went Communist, but no other countries in southeast Asia did. We lost the war in Vietnam, but, in retrospect, we didn't have to fight it at all. We won the ideological war. Of course, we didn't know that in the 1960's, but it's useful, I think, to realize that we won even though we lost.

I am confident that we will win the war against Islamic extremism, just like we won the war against communism. But while fighting in Vietnam was a result of thinking about a WWII-like scenario, Afghanistan is the mirror image of Vietnam. We know that al Queda is, in fact, a direct threat to us. As Obama pointed out in his speech, we are not fighting a nationalist insurgency. Even the geography is radically different: arid mountains vs. jungles.

The key difference between Vietnam and Afghanistan is that, while Vietnam was mostly self-contained, the war in Afghanistan has potential repercussions for its neighbors. Al Queda is in Pakistan, which, unlike Iraq, does have nuclear weapons. Pakistan also has an ongoing, unresolved border conflict with India. India has its own history of sectarian violence and terrorist attacks. India also borders China, and has differences with that country. To the west, Afghanistan borders Iran, quite the hotbed these days. Iran, of course, is developing nuclear weapons, is threatening Israel, and borders Iraq.

The war in Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan, or even the "war on terror." It could very easily spill into another country. It is already spilling into Pakistan.

But there are also positive developments. We are getting along much better with Russia these days. Turkey is a stable country with increasing influence in key areas, particularly Kurdistan. There may be a change of regime in Iran in the near future. If that happens, many things could change quickly, hopefully for the better. Saudi Arabia is very worried about all of this, and might make a dramatic move. We might capture Osama bin Laden. Gitmo will hopefully be closed soon.

We won the Cold War despite making a lot of incredibly stupid mistakes, like fighting in Vietnam. We have, are, and will continue to make many mistakes fighting Islamic terrorism. I don't think Obama's decision to send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan is one of them. At least I hope not.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Oprah v. Sarah

So Sarah Palin, on her book tour, stopped by Oprah Winfrey's show the other day. I didn't watch it, partially because I was at work, but mostly because I really didn't think I could take watching Sarah Palin for an hour. But one of the loyal readers of this blog told me I should watch some of it on YouTube, so I did.

I only saw a few minutes, but I think that was enough. I like Oprah, I respect her, she's obviously very good at her job, but I can't say I'm a fan. That's mostly because I am not in the target demographic. Talk shows like hers have a purpose, but not for me.

Part of that purpose is to have the conversation that many people are having, but on a national scale, and with a great deal of preparation. What exactly is the purpose of this whole book tour by a failed vice-presidential candidate? Is she running for president? Does she just want to make some money?

Probably both. She's clearly making money, and she's quite probably running for president. Why go on Oprah? She endorsed Obama last year. She has a huge constituency, sure, but she is also very much a card-carrying member of the "media elite."

Watching Sarah Palin on Oprah's show, even for a couple of minutes, I realized something about the ex-governor of Alaska. At one point, Oprah looked highly skeptical, like she was looking at a dead slug. Oprah is, we can assume, not a big fan of Palin. But that's a key part of the appeal for Palin and her base. I could see the slightest hint of fear in Sarah Palin's eyes. She might never admit it, but she's very insecure. She's terrified of Oprah, for the same reason that she's terrified of those "media elites" - they're smarter than her, and much more well-informed than her. They are much more intellectually curious. That's why Charlie Gibson was able to sandbag her with what should have been a simple question - what do you think of the Bush Doctrine? It's why Katie Couric was able to expose her as an intellectual lightweight by asking the even simpler question, What newspapers do you read?

But the fact that Sarah Palin is afraid of someone like Oprah ironically gives her all the more motivation to be on her show. Sarah Palin is incredibly competitive, and the greater the challenge, the more she wants it. You have to respect that. You don't have to like it, but you have to respect someone who takes on that kind of challenge, who is willing to overcome her own personal insecurities and fears on a national stage. Constantly.

This is a big part of her appeal to her base: she's willing to confront people who look down on her. Just the fact that she is willing to do so gives her a certain degree of credibility. It's a self-reinforcing phenomenon. She writes a book because she and her publisher know there will be a market for it. It's already a "New York Times bestseller," which means that someone like Oprah has to take her seriously, at least to some extent. So her base gives her a certain respectability, which she uses to convince Oprah to invite her onto her talk show. Once she's on stage with Oprah, she doesn't have to do much. All she has to do is hold her own. She doesn't have to prove that she's got the solution to global warming or the Israeli-Palestinian problem. All she has to do is maintain her dignity. She has to be enthusiastic, charming, and fearless. She doesn't have to be the smartest person in the room; she has to not be an idiot. She just has to prove that she is worthy of Oprah's attention. Again, a self-reinforcing phenom: her base will show up in enough numbers to demonstrate what they already believe about her: that she deserves not just their attention, but the attention of the entire country.

I don't have a problem with Sarah Palin's lifestyle, although I'm not a fan of the idea of shooting wolves from airplanes. If she wants to eat caribou meat that Todd shot for her, more power to them. But I expect my leaders to be capable of asking difficult questions, not just of their advisors and their opponents, but of themselves. Sarah Palin is very sure of herself. So is Barack Obama; his calmness in the face of challenges and crises is a big part of his appeal for me. But Obama's confidence comes from asking questions, searching for answers, and finding them. In that respect, I think his confidence is earned. I have respect for Sarah Palin's ability to charge ahead, and I think she deserves some of her confidence. But not enough to be president.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Liberal Arts Colleges and Teaching Leadership

The Washington Post has a blog called "On Leadership" (I guess it's a blog, it feels like one). Today there is a guest column about "Why colleges should teach leadership." The author is a recent (2005) graduate of Harvard. While there, he established a leadership institute, to address what he saw as a gap in the education at Harvard.

He nails the problem:

Education is a college's reason for being, and leadership needs to be a part of the classroom experience. For that to happen successfully, the definition of the classroom must evolve. It should not simply be a place where students hear lectures, but rather an interactive environment that extends beyond the confines of the room itself. Experiential learning emphasizes discussions, projects and team work rather than problem-set solving or textbook-reading.
I completely agree. I went to Swarthmore, a classic liberal arts college, with a strong liberal/progressive tradition. Every administrator, every faculty member, every board member, will tell you that the College teaches leadership, and believes very strongly in doing so.

My experience was completely different. I was the "treasurer" of the Amnesty International chapter on campus. I was effectively president, but you couldn't call yourself president of a student political organization. There wasn't any official prohibition - the College does, after all, have a president - but it just wasn't done. There was an unwritten and unspoken rule that you did not impose a hierarchy on a student political group, because it was supposed to operate by consensus, according to the Quaker tradition (Swarthmore was founded by the Society of Friends, and still hews to some of the traditions of the Quakers, but is officially non-sectarian). It was basically taboo to call proclaim yourself a figure of authority. This was but one example of political correctness.

I was co-president of the campus science fiction club, the Swarthmore Warders of Imaginative Literature. My co-president and I called ourselves "The Presidents Who Go 'Ping!'" after the hopsital scene in Monty Python's the Meaning of Life . But it was, as should be obvious, not a terribly serious organization, so no one minded if we called ourselves president. Besides, one of our predecessors had referred to himself as "Lord God Emperor" or something like that. We were modest in comparison.

The lack of title was the least of my problems learning leadership at Swarthmore. There is one key to teaching leadership that was missing at Swarthmore. Someone has to actually do it. At a college, there has to be someone who makes a commitment to teaching students how to lead. Ideally, each student organization should have a faculty advisor, a mentor who provides guidance by virtue of setting an example, answering questions, and empowering students to make decisions.

I did not have a faculty advisor when I was treasurer of Swarthmore. It never occurred to me to try to find one. I don't know of any student organization that had a faculty advisor, although it's possible that I missed something. The faculty at Swarthmore, were, to their great credit, committed to teaching undergraduates. Many of them were also committed to teaching students about issues of social justice and social criticism - I minored in Sociology specifically so that I could study Critical Theory. They were great at talking the talk.

But they had no idea how to walk the walk. Some of them were personally active in politics. But a professor providing guidance to students on how to be a leader of a political organization just was not part of the social fabric of the college. The College had other means of encouraging students to be politically active - one of the most prestigious scholarships was the Lang scholarship, provided by Eugene Lang, chairman of the board of managers. It required the recipient to take on an off-campus social change project. The college also provided grants to some students who engaged in social change projects - I got $400 to support my internship when I went to Washington to intern for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. That was great. The College also provided Amnesty International with some money out of the student activities budget, which was good. But I also had an internship with Amnesty's Mid-Atlantic regional office in Washington, and didn't get any financial support for that.

Over the course of a couple of years running Amnesty International on campus, and two internships in Washington fighting the death penalty, I had a grand total of two conversations with faculty/staff about my political activities: once, when someone told me that they were sending me a check for $400 for the grant, and once about a parking ticket (I drove a college van to an Amnesty event).

I never had a single conversation with any Swarthmore faculty about my personal political activism. Never got any guidance about how to make decisions as a leader. Never got any advice about what to do when someone in the organization is doing something wrong.

I had lots of conversations, and wrote many papers, about what is wrong with capitalism. This, of course, was a time when my real-world economic experience consisted of summer jobs as a dishwasher. But no conversations about what I personally could actually do to make a difference.
I went to Washington for my internships because I was so sick of theory that I just had to find some way of getting some hands-on practical experience. I arranged my own internships, again with no help whatsoever from anyone at the college. I had two great mentors in Washington: a guy named Jim O'Dea at Amnesty, and a woman named Leigh Dingerson at the NCADP. They both gave me good projects to work on. They were both excellent managers, with real passion for their causes. I am, all these years later, still grateful to both of them. But both of those experiences were completely removed from my college education.

Do I sound a bitter? Maybe just a little. This is one reason that I do not donate money as an alumni to Swarthmore (there are several reasons for that). After I left, the College started paying more attention to this issue: they created a position for someone to provide this guidance. I applied for that job, but didn't get it (the person who was hired was a friend, and an excellent choice). I understand that the College has spent money on building facilities to support student activism. That's all well and good, but too late for me.

I was thrilled to read this column in the WaPo, because the need is urgent.

Just like cars from Detroit, our existing educational models works, but significant advances have taken place in the field, and these models haven't always kept up.
Liberal arts advocates argue that the purpose of a liberal arts education is to teach students "how to think." That's great. For me, however, it was not necessary. I had a fantastic high school education (in suburban Detroit) that taught me how to think. Swarthmore did not teach me how to think - I already knew that. I got some good practice on how to argue, but Swarthmore did not teach me how to think.

What Swarthmore also did not teach me, and what I desperately needed, was how to make decisions. That is an essential duty of leadership - it's what leaders do. The problem wasn't just the lack of mentors, but my particular curriculum. I majored in philosophy, and minored in English and Sociology & Anthropology (S&A is one department at Swat). Philosophers make decisions about theory, but they do not make decisions that affect other people. There weren't a lot of role models for leadership among contemporary women poets or in Joyce's Ulysses. Sociologists may argue about what leadership is, but there aren't many opportunities to practice it in the classroom.

The problem with lack of mentors was particular to Swarthmore in the late 1980's, but there is a general porblem teaching leadership on American campuses. One thing leaders have to do is evaluate risk. But professors with tenure are insulated from risk. Leaders take risks in the hopes of reaping rewards. Any good leader is going to have their share of failures, just by virtue of being human. But any good leader is also going to be someone who learns from their failures.

Professors, however, being insulated from failure by tenure, do not have the same opportunity to learn from risks taken that do not work out. So professors, at least those with tenure, will probably be poor teachers of leadership. Tenure grants them permission to create impregnable, and very intellectually sophisticated, defense mechanisms justifying why their ideas don't match reality. My favorite joke about economists is that an economist is someone who sees something working in practice, and wonders if it will work in theory.

I would love to see more efforts at teaching leadership on American college campuses. What any effort to do so, however, must take into account one thing: there are already many high-profile people at colleges who teach students how to lead, how to make difficult decisions, and how to motivate others to achieve a common goal. These people take risks, and are held accountable when they fail.

These people are called "coaches."

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Health Care Passes In The House

The House of Representatives passed its version of health care reform today. TPMDC has a great analysis of the issues here.

The bill passed the House 220-215, just a couple of votes more than needed. Abortion, a long-simmering issue, exploded in the debate in the last couple of days, as some conservative Democrats decided that they couldn't vote for Federal funding for abortions. They got their way. I'm not thrilled with that, and lots of feminists and liberals are going to be disappointed, but I'm not surprised this happened. Abortion is one of the last battles of the culture wars that is still open, and conservative Democrats need to feel like they won something in this debate. As a percentage of the actual money involved, I'm sure funding for abortion is miniscule. But it's a very high-profile issue, and Democrats from culturally conservative districts can use this vote to demonstrate their independence from "Washington elites."

Obama, as I expected, used some of his political capital at the end, showing up on Capitol Hill to bang some heads and twist some arms. Just a few days after the votes in Virginia and New Jersey that were allegedly so bad for him, he achieves a major victory.

Momentum breeds momentum. As Democrats have come together, they have, collectively, ever more reason to vote together, to make something happen. They must all hang together. They don't all have to vote for the bill to get it to pass, and I'm sure Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and James Clyburn have a very good sense of who they can bring on board under what conditions. As they get closer to passing the final bill, they get closer to defining the political reality. And conservatives and Republicans get closer and closer to losing a major battle. That's one reason that they are fighting so hard, and using such absurd rhetoric - if they lose this one, they don't just lose on the issue - they lose their ability to be obstructionist. Some members of the base will be ever-more frustrated and vitriolic. But a fair number of Republicans are going to be deflated and demoralized. And a fair number are going to be disgusted at the tactics of this highly vocal minority. There are still many, many moderate, tolerant, decent, open-minded conservatives and Republicans who still believe that respecting your opponent is a key quality for being successful in a democracy. Those Republicans, by definition, are not rabble rousers. They are not the ones raising signs on the steps of the Capitol. Which means that they aren't the ones being noticed in this debate. But there are millions of them, and they are paying attention.

Reading the article in TPMDC, I finally started to pick up a good understanding of what is at the core of the debate. I finally get the basic issue. We have lots of uninsured people in this country. Taking care of them costs the rest of us a lot of money. We have to get those people insured. There are a couple of ways to do that: abolish all private insurance, and enroll everyone in the same government program, or encourage/force everyone to buy insurance on their own, or encourage/force all employers to offer insurance. The problem with encouraging/forcing all people to buy insurance on their own is that many of them will not be able to afford it, and many will resent having to buy insurance when they haven't had to before. So, to make it possible, and to ease the pain, the government will do two things: 1) offer subsidies so people can afford to buy insurance, and 2) set up a government-run insurance program for people to buy into. To level the playing field, and to make insurance work better, the government will also be imposing new restrictions on insurance companies.

I finally get it. It's great not to have to worry about the constant battle over fine details of political gossip - which Senator said what about what obscure part of the bill, and how did the White House react, and how did the Senate leadership react, etc. I found the news coverage - particularly on the liberal blogs, TPM, DailyKos, and HuffPost - getting bogged down in that kind of detail. That's a subject for a post-mortem.

But the bill passed the House. On to the Senate.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

All Hail Hideki!

The almighty New York Yankees won the World Series last night! Hideki Matsui was named MVP. He had 6 RBI's in this game, which the Yankees won, 7-3. Woo hoo!

In 2009, Barack Obama was inaugurated, the Lakers won the NBA championship, and now the Yankees have won the World Series. All is right with the world. Well, almost. USC has lost two games this year, and probably won't win the Pac-10 title. Other than that, tho, it's been a great year.

I watched the game at a bar in Sherman Oaks with a friend who is about the biggest Yankees fan I have ever met, which is saying something. It was her 27th birthday, and the Yankees won their 27th World Series. It was, she said, the best birthday ever.

I bought her dinner. It was the least I could do.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Election Day!

It's Election Day, but a rather boring one. There are two governor's races, in Virginia and New Jersey. Gay marriage is on the ballot on opposite corners of the country, in Maine and Washington. Given the paucity of actual data, but given the ravenous appetite of the media - and us deeply obsessed political junkies - there will be much analysis, much of it wasted. Is this good or bad for Obama? Kos is firmly of the opinion that it says next to nothing about Obama, and I agree. Like Tip O'Neill said, "All politics is local." These candidates and ballot initiatives are being judged on their own merits. As will Obama in three years.

I haven't commented on these races much, but I have been following them. Chris Christie, the Republican and former US Attorney, won in New Jersey. This is not surprising. The current governor, Jon Corzine, is not terribly popular. I'm not plugged into New Jersey politics enough to really know why. Corzine, however, has the baggage of being a former chairman of Goldman Sachs, at a time when investment bankers are not making friends among the populace. One good thing about Obama's background as a community organizer: he didn't go the investment banking route, which he easily could have done. Christie suffered from some minor scandals, but they were minor - an inappropriate loan to a staffer, some traffic violations. If Corzine had been more popular, those might have done some damage. But my impression is that Christie came across as the lesser of two evils.

Bob McDonell, the Republican, won in Virginia. Again, not surprising - Virginia has been a Republican stronghold for a long time. It's somewhat surprising that Virginia has two Democratic senators. The one noteworthy development in this race happened when McDonell's old graduate thesis surfaced. He took some very conservative positions, and Democrats were hoping that would alienate moderates and women. But he immediately, and apparently effectively, distanced himself from those positions.

The one fascinating oddball race is in New York's 23rd CD, where a Conservative Party candidate is competing against a Democrat. The Republican bowed out after teabaggers and their ilk made it clear they wanted an ideologically hardcore candidate. Someone at The Albany Project is calling it for the Democrat, with 70% of the vote. Wow, that would be quite interesting. That would be a rather spectacular setback for the Republican party - the district has been GOP for 100 years. If the Democrat takes that, it will spark lots of good old-fashioned internecine warfare. Gotta love the prospect of that!

Saturday, October 31, 2009


Two people just dropped out of political races: Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco, withdrew from the race for the Democratic nomination for governor of California. DeDe Scozzafava, the official Republican candidate in NY's 23rd Congressional district, withdrew because of an ideological battle raging in the Republican party between moderates and conservatives. She was losing that battle to the Conservative Party candidate.

Other than the timing, the races are pretty much mirror opposites: one's a Democrat, one's a Republican; they are on different coasts; one dropped out days before the election, the other dropped more than a year before the election. One's a Federal election, but for a single district; the other is a statewide election, but it's California.

Easily the most important difference, tho, is what it says about the politics within each party. Scozzafava was already nominated to be the Republican party nominee in the election; she was ousted by someone who is not technically a Republican. The party of the Establishment was the site of an insurgency. Newsom, on the other hand, withdrew in favor of someone who has not even announced his candidacy yet: Jerry Brown, aka "Governor Moonbeam," a man who could have been described as having an "alternative" approach to governing, had the term been around when he was running California in the late 70's and early 80's. Among Democrats, a man who was at once both a scion of the party (his father was also governor) and a symbol of its flakier elements, is now an elder statesman. As I've always said, irony is 9/10th of the law.

I'm not really going to miss Newsom, although I will miss the competition within the Democratic party. I hadn't spent any time paying attention to his policies yet, but he strikes me, at least from this distance, as smart and competent, but not the most responsible guy around, and not one for reaching out to members of the opposition. The great challenge for the next governor of California is going to be fixing the broken politics of California, which will require rather extraordinary dealmaking skills. Brown has so much history that is so far in the past that even the ghosts of his scandals and strange media interludes have disappeared. He and Linda Ronstadt appeared together on the cover of Newsweek in 1979. There are many voters in California who don't remember this because they weren't born yet. Heck, there are voters in California who don't know who Linda Ronstadt is. A governor dated a mainstream pop star? And the controversy would be . . . ?

There's no word yet on whether or not anyone will rise to challenge Brown. Antonio Villaraigosa, mayor of LA, bowed out of the race a while ago, and I don't think he will be tempted to get back in. He seems intent on actually getting the things done that he said he would get done. Dianne Feinstein has wanted the office for literally decades, but she'll also be about 96 when the race starts, and what Democratic Senator would want to leave DC while Obama is in office? Fabian Nunez, former Speaker of the Assembly, is young and ambitious, but he had a bad habit of spending campaign donations on things like "office expenses" at Louis Vuitton in Paris. Not really a great idea.

I know even less about the various personalities involved in the fracas in upstate New York, but boy am I having fun watching it. Doug Hoffman is the nominee of the Conservative party and, now, the Republican one, sort of. So Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty, neither of whom, I am willing to bet, has ever set foot in the district, made announcements about who the representative in Congress should be. This had the rather bizarre effect of pissing off the Republican county leaders in the district, but energizing people on talk radio. That's a neat trick. How welcome do you think Ms. Palin and Mr. Pawlenty are going to be in those Republican county offices in 2012? If Mr. Hoffman loses, they will be persona non grata.

The big winner in all of this so far, even before the election, is President Obama. First, he scored points for bringing a Republican into his cabinet: the former Representative, John McHugh, accepted Obama's invitation to be Secretary of the Army. Now Obama gets to watch Republicans engage in a little fratricide. The icing on the cake, of course, will come if the Democrat wins the election.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Obama Takes On Executive Pay

The Obama administration's "pay czar," Ken Feinberg, has cut executive pay at some companies that received financial help from the government. The Federal Reserve has taken a similar action with some of the banks that it regulates.

Conservatives will argue that the government should not intervene in the free market to this extent. They're absolutely right - the government should not be setting the pay rates of top executives of American companies.

But top executives of American companies should not be asking the government for billions of dollars to save them.

One detail that seems to have been missed in the discussion of these decisions is that of the seven companies on which the Obama administration brought down the hammer, only 3 - Citigroup, Bank of America, and AIG - are straight financial companies. The other four are General Motors, Chrysler, and their respective financial companies.

The fact that four of these seven companies are really automotive, rather than financial companies, changes the picture somewhat. First, I would have no problem with many of the current top management of GM and Chrysler leaving. I think those companies could use some fresh blood. Second, Most of the best people have already left - they now work for Toyota, Honda, Nissan, BMW, and the one American car company that didn't get bailout money, Ford.

The Fe's move is target at banks, not just bankrupt icons of America's industrial history. There are technical questions about how the Fed's regulations will (hopefully) rein in excessive risk-taking. I don't quite get how that will work - that starts to get rather technical.

In political terms, with which I am more comfortable, I think this was a very good move by both the administration and the Fed. Cutting paychecks is something everyone can understand, even if there are arguments about the legitimacy or efficacy thereof. It's also a great use of political capital. No one will feel sorry for people forced to live on $200,000 a year. At least no one who votes in a Democratic primary. Democrats can now point to something Obama has done in connection with the bailout and recovery that no Republican - particularly not George W. Bush - would ever even contemplate. It puts the financial industry on notice that Obama is willing to make tough decisions that are in the best interests of the American public, rather than Wall Street.

What Wall Street apparently fails to realize is that while the massive difference between the pay of CEOs and other fat cats and the regular folks on Main Street may be the result of legitimate business activity, it is inefficient for society as a whole. Someone making $100 million a year is going to spend a fair chunk of that money inefficiently. Some of it they will donate to charitable organizations, some of it they will use to buy normal things, like cars and clothes. But a fair amount of it they will spend on luxury items that do nothing to promote economic growth. A $500,000 boat is a nice thing to have that a family can use for fishing and traveling. That's a perfectly legitimate use of wealth, and it generates other jobs. But a $50 million yacht is ridiculous. Even if it generates millions of dollars in jobs and economic activity, it still represents a great deal of waste.

This is something that conservatives have never understood: capitalism generates efficiencies for individual companies, but it creates inefficiencies for society at large. That is what we have seen with this horrible recession. Absurd pay for executives at bankrupt companies, or companies that required massive infusions of capital from the government, are a great example of capitalism generating inefficiencies in society at large. The Obama administration is just redressing these inefficiencies.

FDR, it is said, saved capitalism from itself. Obama is doing the same thing.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Newspapers and Vice

Maureen Dowd has some intriguing ideas for how to revive the newspaper business in yesterday's column. Taking a look back at the history of print journalism in this country, she notes that newspapers were not exactly holy places - they reeked of alcohol and gambling, and sex in the office was not exactly unknown. Today, in our more enlightened times, we do not tolerate such things. But, Ms. Dowd opines, what if we allowed newspapers to take bets on sporting events? Lots of papers are flirting with money-making enterprises that were traditionally associated with the lesser emotions. The NY Times, our NY Times columnist points out, has a wine club, and Conde Nast has a dating site. Just about every newspaper in the country covers sports. And every one of those newspapers - from the smallest hometown rag in Montana, to the Times itself - has readers who bet on sports.

What she doesn't mention is that there is a whole category of newspapers who advertise much worse things than gambling. "Alternative" weeklies have ads for massage parlors and escorts. That's basically legalized prostitution. Here in LA, they also have ads for marijuana "clinics," where you can go to buy pot if your doctor prescribes it. Of course, it's absurdly easy to find a "doctor" who can prescribe that for you. And some of those newspapers do real investigative journalism. The LA Weekly recently won a Pulitzer. OK, it was for their restaurant columnist, but still, it's a good paper. All we are doing by prohibiting gambling on sports is driving it underground. It happens all the time. Every day. We also drive it offshore, to Websites based in Caribbean islands, where it cannot be taxed by US governments. I'm not advocating for massage parlors and drug clinics. But as long as they are there, and some papers are making money off of them, why don't we let more respectable newspapers engage in businesses in which no one gets hurt?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Health Care Reform Passes Senate Finance

The Senate Finance Committee passed its version of health care reform today. Woo hoo! That's a big one, the last committee vote. One Republican voted for it: Olympia Snowe, of Maine. Personally, I'm glad I can finally rest easy and not worry about whether or not she is going to vote for this committee bill.

Except that, of course, I now have to worry about whether or not she is going to vote for the final bill, and whether or not that will include a public option. Brian Beutler at TPM provides a good analysis of Snowe's role in the end game. If she supports the final bill, does that give moderate Democrats political cover? The problem with this analysis is that ignores the fact that the Democrats have a 60-vote majority. At some point, Obama is going to start twisting arms, and make supporting this legislation a key test of party loyalty. "Supporting the President" has a lot of pull in DC. At the end of the day, they are Democrats.

There is no question that some bill will pass. The only question is what will be in it. Republicans want to water down the public option. Snowe will score points with Republicans if she can claim that she used her leverage to make it a better bill, as Republicans define it. Of course, there's also the issue that she will look the odd woman out if she is the only Republican to vote for it. Critics on the right will be able to make her a convenient target, and they can easily accuse her of selling out.

But there is one thing that has to be keeping Republican leaders up at night: it is entirely possible that the Democrats know what they are doing. What if this bill really does bring a lot of resolution to the health care crisis? What is a public option turns out to be a good thing?

What if Barack Obama is right?

That possibility has to have people like Mitch McConnell just terrified. That is one of the basic rules of politics: you have to keep in mind that sometimes (hopefully rarely), your opponent will be right, and you will be wrong. The tricky part is knowing when to admit that. The trickier part is knowing when to recognize it.

The fact that one Republican might vote for this bill means that Republicans are hedging their bets. Democrats, to their great credit, have been very open to Republican suggestions during this debate. It was extremely frustrating for the Kossacks to watch Max Baucus negotiating with the Republicans on his committee for what seemed like forever, but there is no way that Republicans can say that Democrats rammed this down their throats.

So Republicans have to keep in mind that the Democrats might be right. If they are right, the fact that one Republican voted for it, and several Republicans on this committee negotiated with Baucus in good faith, would mean that the Republicans could claim that they had some influence on the bill, and it was their contributions that made it a better bill. Of course, the fact that almost all of them voted against it would be a rather effective counter argument.

The Republicans beat Clinton on health care. Newt Gingrich took that victory and ran with it, winning the House in 1994, much to the Democrats' surprise. But Clinton won reelection in 1996, and Gingrich was eventually forced out of office.

Obama's bill will probably be much better than Clinton's would have been. So Republicans won the battle back in 1993, but with this bill, they will have lost the war.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Oh Sweet Automotive Irony: Porsche Sponsors Andrew Sullivan

I read Andrew Sullivan's blog, The Daily Dish, several times a day. The Atlantic currently has a feature with him being interviewed by one of his co-bloggers, Ta-Nehisi Coates. I watched one and enjoyed it. It's nice to see some experimentation on a blog, even if it's not particularly creative. Sullivan has done this before, with Marc Ambinder. Sullivan has a good screen presence.

There's one slightly ironic detail. The series of video interviews is sponsored by Porsche. Nothing wrong with that. I like Porsches, and actually learned how to drive a stick on a 944. Except that, in a poll of bloggers, asking them what kind of car they drive, Andrew Sullivan replied thusly:

I don’t drive and cannot drive. I have no license and never learned. It’s saved me a fortune and the planet some grief.
Yes, that's right, Porsche, maker of high-end sports cars, the kind of automobiles driven by people who buy cars strictly because they love to drive these kinds of cars, is sponsoring probably the only high-profile blogger in the United States who not only does not own a car, but doesn't know how to drive.

So we know that there is no possible way that Sullivan is biased in favor of Porsches. Which is good. I'm sure the vast majority of his readers appreciate Porsches (although I am sure that there are a few who have issues with them). It's a very classy advertiser for an intellectually sophisticated blog.

But I just can't help but appreciate the irony.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Obama Wins Nobel Peace Prize

I was at my parents' house in suburban Detroit yesterday, taking care of some personal stuff, and then flew home to LA, so I didn't get a chance to blog about Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

I was in the kitchen when my brother yelled out from the family room that Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize. At first I thot he was kidding, but this is not the kind of thing that he would joke about. Not that my brother doesn't have an good sense of humor (he does), but this is not the kind of thing he would joke about. So as soon as I realized that this was for real, I started wondering, along with just about everyone else on the planet, just why he had won?

I am with most liberals that, while it's nice for Obama to win, it's a little early in his career. How can you top winning the Nobel Peace Prize? What does he do for an encore? I think Obama has done some things that will eventually bring peace, like opening up to Cuba and talking to Iran, but none of his initiatives have really borne fruit. There was a solid piece of news on the peacemaking front today; Hillary Clinton helped broker an agreement between Turkey and Armenia to normalize relations. It still has to be approved by their respective legislatures, but this is a major achievement. This was high on the list of famous historical grievances carrying weight in the modern world. So the Obama administration can claim one foreign policy breakthrough, even if it came after Obama won the Nobel.

I do have one bit of intellectual sleight-of-hand that I am using to frame why the Norwegians gave this to Obama so early in his career. Some people have criticized this as a political move. But that misses the point. Of course it's a political move: the awarding of a "peace" prize is by definition a political move, because it is recognizing a participant in some kind of conflict, usually armed, and those participants are usually associated with one side. There are exceptions that the Nobel committee has recognized: the Red Cross, Amnesty International, etc. But the very idea that those who advocate for the non-violent resolution of conflict should be recognized is an ideological one; most of us just happen to agree with that ideology, or with the recipients.

In many instances, by the time the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded, it's clear which side should be recognized; the ones who have achieved peace. But not always; if the Nobel Peace Prize were only awarded to the victors after they had achieved victory, it would lose some of its efficacy. In politics, after all, timing is very, very important. It would also be boring if the only people who won were people in retirement homes. It is, at this point in history, utterly noncontroversial that Martin Luther King, Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize, but I'm sure there were people in this country who disagreed with that at the time. And I'm sure Dr. King found the awarding of the prize very useful.

So we should not be surprised that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee made a political statement with the awarding of this year's Nobel Peace Prize. They make a statement every year. The timing is unusual, and, honestly, not that great. I will freely admit that, even as a hardcore Obama supporter, his list of accomplishments is a little thin. I am hopeful that Obama can prove decisively that diplomacy is not merely an alternative to the use of force in international relations, but actually a more effective one. The best thing that Obama can do for the world is to prove that conservatives are wrong on that score. But he hasn't done it yet, and so five Norwegians look like they are making statement about their preferences in American politics, rather than recognizing specific achievements.

But who are we, as Americans, to complain about people in other countries meddling in our internal affairs? Conservatives are particularly hypocritical in this regard, considering they advocate for the use of force in meddling in the internal affairs of other countries.

There is one upside for Obama: it completely wiped the Chicago and the Olympics from the news.

The Norwegians have made a bet that giving Obama the Nobel Peace Prize at this point in his career will pay off. It is an unusual and risky move. But it is also a gutsy one, and it took a certain amount of courage to make this political move. Which, I believe, is what the Nobel Peace Prize is all about.

Monday, October 5, 2009

First Monday in October

This is the first Monday in October, which is the official start of term of the United States Supreme Court. "First Monday in October" is also the name of a movie about a woman who is the first female justice on the Supreme Court. I have no idea if it's any good; I've never seen it, I just remember the title. It stars Walter Matthau and Jill Clayburgh, so it might be good. I'm pretty sure it's a comedy.

This term is notable, of course, for the presence of Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic member of the Court. She was officially sworn in September, but I wanted to note that today is the first day that she is sitting on the bench. Viva Sonia!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

No more cupcakes for you!

New York City has decided that there shall be no more bake sales, or at least a lot fewer, because selling junk food to kids makes them fat.

But it also makes them rich. Or at least rich enough to be able to go on field trips and buy sports equipment, which is what they do with bake sale money.

I want to go on record as saying that I think this is a terrible idea. Yes, I understand the imperative to stop feeding kids lots of bad food, and I could lose a few pounds myself. But this is also a great example of why conservatives criticize liberals: because liberals believe in the nanny state, i.e. the idea that those in power know what is good for you, and have the right to dictate how you should live your life.

Liberals are forgetting a key lesson of history, and that would be the political correctness of the 1980's. I survived that era, but barely; I still have bad memories of the PC police. There is an element of puritanism in both liberal and conservative viewpoints; conservatives have their versions of enforcing morality. Someone (H.L. Mencken?) once said that puritanism is the idea that someone, somewhere, is having fun, and that they must be stopped. Telling students that they cannot have bake sales is a version of that.

How about this: if a group has a bake sale, they also have to have a fundraiser that somehow promotes healthy living, like a walkathon. Or maybe the football team (although I suspect there aren't a lot of high school football teams in NYC) asks people to pledge a certain amount of money for each point they score. Or bake sales have to incorporate some educational element, like coming up with new recipes, or working with professional chefs. What about forming some kind of organization, and encouraging the students to treat it as a real corporation? There could be a group that hosts bake sales, and the other school groups outsource it to them. Or maybe limit the amount of sugar and/or fat that can be used, which would force students to be really creative with their ingredients. It's entirely possible to make really good snacks and desserts without lots of calories, but you have to focused on doing just that. That might require more work on the part of the school administration. But it would also be much more rewarding than a straight ban. And there wouldn't be risk of a backlash. Remember, these students are all future voters.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Obama and the Olympics

Chicago is not going to host the 2016 summer Olympics. I wasn't terribly surprised; I think I would have been more surprised if Chicago had been chosen. Since 1980, the US has had the Olympics four times: Lake Placid, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Salt Lake City. We are not exactly suffering from a shortage of Olympics in this country, and Brazil made what was to me the very strong argument that it had never been held in South America. Tokyo was another contestant, but it was just held in Beijing, another Asian capital, and the Olympics were held in Tokyo in 1964. Madrid was the European representative, but Barcelona hosted the Olympics in 1992. Rio had to be the prohibitive favorite.

President Obama had campaigned for Chicago, but to no avail. Of course, now people are wondering about the political implications. Conservatives were thrilled that Obama suffered a defeat on the international stage.

But Obama was damned if he did, and damned if he didn't. If he hadn't gone to Copenhagen and Chicago had lost, conservatives would have been critical of him for not making the effort, and they would have blamed him for the loss. They would have said that he doesn't really care about America, that he only wants glory for himself, that the Olympics wouldn't matter to him because he'll be, at best, a lame duck in 2016, etc. If he hadn't gone, and Chicago had won, conservatives would have said that America didn't need his sales pitch, that we can do fine without him. If he had gone and Chicago had won, they would have said he was wasting his time, that Chicago would have won whether or not he was there. Conservatives would have done everything possible to either blame him for the loss, or deny him praise for the victory.

I think most fair-minded people will say that at least Obama gave it a shot. "Fair-minded people" being people who don't automatically hate Barack Obama. Which, in my opinion, is actually the vast majority of the American people.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

David Brooks, Fiscal Restraint, Culture Wars, and Hollywood

David Brooks has a good column today about a fundamental American value: fiscal restraint. He points out that over the course of our history, our materialism has been balanced by a countervailing thrift. He points to the old WASPs, immigrant families who sacrificed for their kids, etc. Then he throws out some numbers about how in debt we are as a country, and how we are going to have to experience a major cultural shift if we are to get our fiscal house in order. He ascribes equal blame to both sides of the ideological spectrum, conveniently forgetting that it was Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and supply-side economics that have gotten in to this mess, while Bill Clinton managed to balance the budget. Other than willful blindness, I think he's basically right.

I am an eternal optimist, so it's not hard for me to find some encouraging signs; the decline and fall of the insane demand for luxury that has besotted us and driven developers to erect ever-more fabulous monuments to consumption. But I find the most encouraging sign in what may be the most unlikely, and yet the most likely, of places: Hollywood.

I say "most unlikely" because Hollywood is about the farthest from anyone's mind when looking for examples of monetary sanity; this is a community rather well known for spending lavishly.

But I saw "most likely" because Hollywood is also where many great trends get started. One trend in the box office this year has been the decline and fall of a fair number of movie stars and their potential for opening movies and making millions. So far this year, Duplicity, starring Julia Roberts, State of Play, starring Russell Crowe, and, just this past weekend, Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis, have all done much worse than expected. These people are not earning their $15-20 million paychecks.

Which raises the question: were they really worth $20 million? Presumably, yes; movie studio executives aren't that stupid, and, in fact, they tend to be fairly intellectually disciplined when calculating their bottom lines. Which is one reason Sandra Bullock starred in The Proposal, rather than Julia Roberts: Julia wouldn't cut her $20 million fee, Sandra Bullock was perfectly willing to do it for less, and wound up with the biggest hit of her career.

Movie stars are no more or less greedy than regular people; if I had the chance to make $20 million for 3-6 months of work, you damn well better believe I would take it. They are also no more or less greedy today than they were in previous generations; the nature of human greed has not changed in the last few years. Technology has, and with it certain aspects of the Hollywood business model. It's physically possible to distribute movies today in a way that wasn't possible even 30 years ago. A major studio release generally hits 3,000 screens on opening weekend; Star Wars, by contrast, opened on May 25th ,1977, on a grand total of 43 screens.

Movie stars have been making millions of dollars a movie because they could. Audiences, however, are also ever-more discriminating. The fact that Bruce Willis is in Surrogates is not a guarantee that it will be a good movie. Moviegoers are shade more conscious of what kind of value they are getting for their entertainment dollar. Studio executives are also, I hope, more conscious of the value of their budgets. There is some reason to be optimistic in the recent firing of Dick Cook from Disney. Bob Iger has made it clear that he isn't all that happy with Disney's slate of movies these days. Surrogates is a Disney movie. Bob Iger was worried that Disney is not making good movies, so he fired the head of the studio, Cook. Looks like Iger made the right call.

Money does strange things to peoples' brains: it takes a certain a certain amount of intelligence to make money, but too much money can give people the impression that they are smarter than they are, which leads them to making stupid decisions. We're in the post-stupid decisions phase in this country now. Too much money led way too many people to think that they were smarter than they are, which led them to make stupid decisions. This recession is a wake-up call. The generation that survived the Great Depression was a frugal one.

Money also has a strange way of convincing people that they are worth more than they really are. Certain movie stars seem to think that. They think of themselves as being worth vast sums of money, when their worth is really determined by that insanely fickle entity known as the audience.

What the market giveth, the market taketh away. We are seeing a certain rebalancing of the equation of inequality, at least in Hollywood. Personally, however, I think the best solution to rebalancing inequality is the old-fashioned one: tax the rich.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ultrafast Apple Pie

OMG does this look fun:

Regime change in Iran?

Now that we know that Iran has a weapons site dedicated to creating nuclear weapons, Republicans are upset and demanding "regime change." As Josh Marshall points out, that does not necessarily translate into military action. But don't these people ever learn? Didn't our last attempt at "regime change" in that part of the world, and, in fact, next door to Iran, not really work out so well?

Naturally, these Republicans are disdainful of diplomacy. One reason for conservative opposition to diplomacy is increasingly obvious to me: they're not very good at it.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Kyl v. Stabenow

Jon Kyl, Republican senator from Arizona made a bit of a mistake today. Michael Kinsley famously said that a gaffe is what happens when a politician tells the truth. Kyl, in this case, said something that is undeniably true. Speaking of health care and requiring insurance companies to cover certain conditions, he mentioned that he does not need maternity care. So forcing him to pay for it will make his policy more expensive. Good thing he has health insurance - I think he's going to need surgery to extract his foot from his mouth. I'd love to be a fly on the wall when he has to meet with his female staffers. To say nothing of his wife or daughters.

Debbie Stabenow, Democrat senator from Michigan, came right back with the perfect response: "I think your Mom probably did." Wow. She's going to be a feminist hero for the next election cycle. At least. I'd love to be a fly on the wall in the next conversation she has with her campaign treasurer. I think she probably got a few clicks of the PayPal button for that line.

But other than a moment of good political theater, this illustrates a couple of things. First, it illustrates that Jon Kyl does not understand the basic principle of insurance: the point is to spread the risk. Of course he can't get pregnant. Of course, he can GET someone pregnant, and if he doesn't believe in paying for maternity care, I think we need to ask him some questions about how he feels about men being responsible fathers. But there's also almost no chance that he will get breast cancer, and there are other diseases that he can't get. There are, however, diseases that he can get that women can't - does that mean that women shouldn't pay for prostate cancer coverage? We do make adjustments for insurance coverage based on things like smoking, but that is a personal choice, not a result of genetics.

Second, it also illustrates a fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives. The classic liberal criticism of conservatives is that conservatives are not compassionate. I'm not sure that's the case; I've known some conservatives - notably my grandparents - who cared very deeply for their loved ones. The difference seems to me to be a matter not of compassion, but of imagination. Conservatives do not seem very good at empathizing with someone with a different point of view. This explains why conservatives are very compassionate towards people who are like them, but not so much towards people who are not like them. This is why conservatives are willing to use torture. They feel the pain of people who died on 9/11 - mostly Americans, like themselves - but they do not feel the pain of the people being tortured.

This is also why Jon Kyl doesn't want to pay for maternity care - he doesn't empathize with women who might have to go through childbirth. I have a feeling, however, that he is going to be empathizing with women on this score in short order. There are many, many women who are not going to let him forget this comment. It has to be one of the most sexist things I have heard in a long time.

It feels almost trivial to be pointing this out, but it does seem to highlight a basic difference: liberal brains are wired to empathize with people who different than they are, and conservative brains are wired to empathize with people are similar to them. This applies to "liberal" and "conservative" as we currently understand them in American political discourse; there are philosophical definitions of each that do not necessarily mesh with this distinction.

There are strengths and weaknesses of each; conservatives are more self-reliant, and forge tight bonds with each other, while liberals appreciate differences and are better at forming political allegiances across all kinds of differences. Conservatives don't deal well with people unlike themselves, but liberals can overcompensate and become hypersensitive to differences.

Fortunately for liberals, the ability to understand and empathize with people with different perspectives confers a substantial advantage in politics. Particularly when there are more and more people like that, both in this country and around the world, who are demanding to be treated as equals.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Quote of the Month

"First of all, I think it's important to realize that I was actually black before the election."

President Obama, responding to David Letterman's question about whether or not opposition to his policies is rooted in racism.

The audience went crazy, and Letterman - to his credit - had a good follow-up: "How long have you been a black man?" Of course, the fact that he can come up with a good line is why he has this show.

One thing that continues to impress me about Obama is how comfortable he is in his own skin. He can go on Letterman, look completely relaxed, crack a great joke, and then explain how other presidents have dealt with the same kind of bitter, angry opposition, and how that is simply part of politics. This kind of equanimity, of course, is one reason he is president, and it stands in stark contrast to the rantings and ravings of the teabaggers and their demagogues.

It's also a stark contrast to George W. Bush, who, in retrospect in particular, was very uncomfortable with being president. Obama knows that he is up to the job. You have a feeling about Bush that initially he thot he was up to the job, but at some point he realized he was in over his head.

One thing that I am very much looking forward to is a video comparison of Bush at a press conference, in an interview, giving a speech, compared to Obama in the same positions. Can't wait for that.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Obama on Missile Defense

President Obama is scrapping the Bush Administration plans for missile defense in central Europe, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Great move. Good for him. I remember reading about Obama's plan for missile defense during the campaign; I actually read his position paper on his Website. If I remember correctly, he was supportive of it. I was a little surprised, but that I realized that Obama was probably thinking of missile defense as a bargaining chip with the Russians. He was pretending to be in favor of it, so that he would have something to give away when negotiating with them.

But this particular missile defense program was a terrible bargaining chip with the Russians, because it pissed them off so much. Bush argued that this was designed to protect Europe against Iran. Russia didn't buy that, neither did I, and neither did almost anyone else in the world. The geography is just ludicrous; Poland is a long way from Iran. And why would the Iranians want to send missiles into any European country? Why would the Iranians want war with, say, Germany or England? Those are NATO countries, so all other NATO countries would be obligated to respond. Any attack by Iran on any European country would be completely insane. First, Iran would be toast, and second, what would Iran possibly gain from such an attack? They certainly aren't going to take any territory from Denmark.

The Russians saw this missile defense as a thinly - and poorly - disguised defense against them, and, in effect, a revival of the Cold War. This was incredibly insulting to them, and for good reason. Of course, Bush didn't care about making the Russians mad. If they yelled, it just proved that he was doing something right.

What I'm sure Obama realized is that the Russians did not want to negotiate over missile defense because to do so would have meant that they would have recognized it as legitimate. Which they absolutely did not want to do. For the Russians, putting in this missile defense was essentially an act of bullying by the US. For them to include it in any kind of bargain would have meant acknowledging that the US could threaten them with impunity, walk away, and then do it again. That's intolerable to them, because it makes them look weak.

So Obama by withdrawing this missile defense plan, Obama gave the Russians something they crave above all else in international relations: respect.

Of course, the Russians are not alone in that. Every country wants respect. It's particularly important for the Russians because Russia is still by far the largest country in the world, with vast resources. The Russians feel that they deserve respect in large part because they do.

Obama is treating the Russians like adults. He is sending the signal that he is not afraid of them, he will deal with them from a standpoint of equals, rather than out of fear, and he will not let his insecurities - or the insecurities of a few chickenhawk conservatives - determine American foreign policy.

Some will argue that Obama gave something away without getting anything in return. I disagree. Obama was never going to get anything from Russia in return for missile defense. What Obama gets - what the entire world gets out of this decision - is a world with a little less fear.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Back on the grid

Well that was a great vacation. I spent a few days ignoring politics as much as I could; I didn't read a newspaper item about politics, despite subscribing to the LA Times and the Financial Times; didn't check a blog or news Website of any kind.

It lasted about three days. Maybe four. Then I started feeling the urge again.

But it was a wonderful three or four days. Really cleared my head. It was particularly useful to take a step back from the partisanship on both sides. Much as I agree with the progressive/liberal side, I also very clearly remember the political correctness of the 1980's, and sort of still have some scars from that. So I am very sensitive to liberals enforcing ideological purity, particularly with invective and sarcasm aimed at people on their side with different approaches or ideas for reaching a similar goal. Not a big fan of that.

So what did I miss? Some guy named Joe Wilson embarrassed himself and his party by heckling Obama during his speech to Congress. I still haven't watched that, but plan to. I think the House did the right thing by voting formal disapproval. I am a big fan of respecting your ideological opponents, but self-respect also demands that you stand up for yourself occasionally, and I think that's what the Democrats did. I would like to think that I would have the same position if the situation were reversed. I would like to go on record as advocating the same penalty for a Democrat if he/she heckles a Republican president.

The healthcare debate is crystallizing. Is Max Baucus a fool or a hero? Right now, it depends on the time of day, and where you stand on the public option. At the very least, Republicans cannot say that they were not given an opportunity to have their voices heard - Baucus gave them every chance to contribute. If they don't like the final product, that's fine, but they can't claim that Democrats shoved it down their throats.

But if the bill passes without some kind of public option, liberals, particularly the Kossacks, are going to crucify Baucus for giving away the store and not getting anything back. That does look like a questionable strategy.

Obama imposed tariffs on Chinese tires. My question is: was this justified by treaty and/or international law? I haven't been able to find out. I'm assuming it's a bump in the road - I have seen many other trade disputes flare up and then dissipate. My guess is that that will happen here.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Off the grid

I am pulling an Andrew Sullivan and going off the grid for a few days. I'm not just not blogging; I'm trying to ignore news as much as I can. Haven't looked at TPM, Andrew Sullivan, or Daily Kos for a couple of days. I haven't even watched or read Obama's speech on health care.

I think it's been at least two years, since the summer of 2007, when I got involved in the Obama campaign, since I have really given myself a sustained break from worrying about the rest of the world. It feels really good.

It's a little late to be taking a break, since the rest of the world did so in August, but better late than never.

In other news, I was at Starbucks today and bought an album you may have heard of, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It's amazing to realize that I actually know every single song on the album. There are damn few albums that I do not own that I can say that about. And I know every single song really well. And probably just about every person I know knows every song really well. It's a digitally remastered edition, with a mini-documentary. I haven't watched that yet.

Unfortunately, unlike Andrew Sullivan, I don't have an under-blogger to cover for me, so commentary on health care and the latest Republican idiocy will be forthcoming in a few days.

Also, tomorrow USC continues its march towards its next national title by taking on Ohio State, and that, of course, is much more important than something like health care reform. I bought a new USC t-shirt today. I also learned that the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, oldest and greatest film school in the world, got its own star today from the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. When you walk around Hollywood, there are stars in the pavement with the names of famous celebrities. Now USC has one, but it is actually on the USC film school campus. Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. would be proud - he founded the school and taught the first course. He had some pull within the industry at the time - he was the president of a new group called the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Go Trojans!