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.