Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The nail in the coffin of conservatism?

It's worth bearing in mind the connections between the GOP's failed Wall Street policies and its failed foreign policies. Most people who remark on these connections talk about the procedural similarities: cronyism, lack of oversight, instinct-based decision-making, and so on. But there's a deeper truth about the way that conservatism has systematically set about destroying the country based on a strategic foreign-cum-domestic policy of bankrupting the country. Not only was bankrupting the country always the explicit conservative goal (that's what "starve the beast" always had to mean in practice), but it was the goal despite the fact that the declared strategy of the adversary was to bankrupt us.

In this context, I strongly recommend reading Bill Moyers' recent interview with Andrew Bacevich in its entirety. Money quotes:
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, we don't live within our means. I mean, the nation doesn't, and increasingly, individual Americans don't. Our saving - the individual savings rate in this country is below zero. The personal debt, national debt, however you want to measure it, as individuals and as a government, and as a nation we assume an endless line of credit.

As individuals, the line of credit is not endless, that's one of the reasons why we're having this current problem with the housing crisis, and so on. And my view would be that the nation's assumption, that its line of credit is endless, is also going to be shown to be false. And when that day occurs it's going to be a black day, indeed.


BILL MOYERS: Now you go on to say that there was another fateful period between July 1979 and March of 1983. You describe it, in fact, as a pivot of contemporary American history. That includes Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, right?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I would be one of the first to confess that - I think that we have misunderstood and underestimated President Carter. He was the one President of our time who recognized, I think, the challenges awaiting us if we refused to get our house in order.

BILL MOYERS: You're the only author I have read, since I read Jimmy Carter, who gives so much time to the President's speech on July 15th, 1979. Why does that speech speak to you so strongly?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, this is the so-called Malaise Speech, even though he never used the word "malaise" in the text to the address. It's a very powerful speech, I think, because President Carter says in that speech, oil, our dependence on oil, poses a looming threat to the country. If we act now, we may be able to fix this problem. If we don't act now, we're headed down a path in which not only will we become increasingly dependent upon foreign oil, but we will have opted for a false model of freedom. A freedom of materialism, a freedom of self-indulgence, a freedom of collective recklessness. And what the President was saying at the time was, we need to think about what we mean by freedom. We need to choose a definition of freedom which is anchored in truth, and the way to manifest that choice, is by addressing our energy problem.

He had a profound understanding of the dilemma facing the country in the post Vietnam period. And of course, he was completely hooted, derided, disregarded.

BILL MOYERS: And he lost the election. You in fact say this speech killed any chance he had of winning reelection. Why? Because the American people didn't want to settle for less?

ANDREW BACEVICH: They absolutely did not. And indeed, the election of 1980 was the great expression of that, because in 1980, we have a candidate, perhaps the most skillful politician of our time, Ronald Reagan, who says that, "Doom-sayers, gloom-sayers, don't listen to them. The country's best days are ahead of us."

BILL MOYERS: Morning in America.

ANDREW BACEVICH: It's Morning in America. And you don't have to sacrifice, you can have more, all we need to do is get government out of the way, and drill more holes for oil, because the President led us to believe the supply of oil was infinite.

BILL MOYERS: You describe Ronald Reagan as the "modern prophet of profligacy. The politician who gave moral sanction to the empire of consumption."

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, to understand the truth about President Reagan, is to understand why so much of what we imagined to be our politics is misleading and false. He was the guy who came in and said we need to shrink the size of government. Government didn't shrink during the Reagan era, it grew.

He came in and he said we need to reduce the level of federal spending. He didn't reduce it, it went through the roof, and the budget deficits for his time were the greatest they had been since World War Two.
Although the right has been largely successful in hanging the "if it feels good, it must be right" moral albatross around the necks of liberals and the counterculture, Bacevich is absolutely right that it is in fact Reagan who turned that same creed into the core of the conservative economic agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy and huge expenditures on nonproductive assets -- an economic strategy which lies at the heart of the ongoing collapse of our economy. The Bushist GOP merely completed the Reaganite quest to destroy the economy by appealing to America's desire to have its cake and eat it too. In so doing, conservatives have brought our country to defeat and ruin.

Liberals said all along that the deficits and endless credit would come back to destroy us. Clinton at least managed to re-balance the budget after the excesses of the Reagan-Bush era, but the Bush-Cheney GOP declared the "deficits don't matter" and the conservative jockstrap-intellectuals mocked as timid those who claimed they did. The profligacy and greed of the country, both at a national-strategic level (pursuing needless wars we can't afford and running huge budget and trade deficits) and at a personal level (ranging from the fat cats on Wall Street to the reckless users of negative amortization and NINJA loans), is now the ultimate chicken coming home to roost.

Obama couldn't be more right when he says that the current crisis is an indictment of a generation of conservative, Republican policies. The truth is that the GOP was always about lining the pockets of the fat cats (what is properly called "looting") while using deficit spending, unpaid-for imports, and cheap credit to lull the commoners into thinking that something was actually trickling down to them. The game is up now, and let us hope that conservatives face a generation in the political wilderness.

The economic equivalent of chemotherapy

Congress is about to find out that since they are unwilling to hang together, they shall now all be hanged separately. At a purely political level, one can feel some sympathy for the Republicans. The Democrats are telling the public, and largely being believed, that a generation of GOP policies have resulted in the worst financial mess in three generations, and that the only solution is to use a huge amount of taxpayer money to bail out the financial services sector -- a solution which will almost certainly have very painful medium-term effects (higher taxes and lower growth, at minimum) and may not even work.

This "cure," however, is so morally distasteful that the American people (who largely don't understand the severity of the crisis) are in open revolt. The GOP members of Congress are particularly politically vulnerable this year (for reasons that include but go beyond the current financial mess), and thus don't want to vote for something which is so blatantly awful. The paradox, however, of voting against the bill is that it makes the crisis worse, further underscoring the disaster which the GOP has wrought on the country. Thus in refusing to take their medicine, they are making the disease worse.

The GOP is in the position of the parent of a child with cancer -- a cancer the parents themselves induced by years of feeding the toxic chemicals, in the spurious claim it would make her grow faster. The parents are now refusing to let the child get the necessary chemotherapy, because she is screaming bloody murder at the pain that the chemo will cause. However, the moral problem for the parents is that the child also knows that the cancer itself is the fault of the parents. (And by the way, there's also a dark suspicion that part of the reason why the parents fed the kid all those chemicals is that they were getting lavish gifts from the chemical company.) Needless to say, the kid is pissed. But still, she needs her chemo.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Major news from Israel

It may get lost from view amid the insanity on Wall Street today, but Israeli Prime Minister Olmert today made two immensely significant declarations, stating forthrightly that Israel must pull out of the West Bank and that it has no intention of unilaterally attacking Iran.

Someone needs to let AIPAC know.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Saturday, September 27, 2008

More on Palin-Couric

My friend MC dissented from my recent post claiming that Palin's patent ignorance is a feature, not a bug, claiming that the GOP base knows well that Palin looked bad in her interview with Katie Couric. And it's true that, even some of the most serious wingers do seem to agree that there is a problem.

But here's what I think is going on: I agree that the GOP base knows that the exchange with Couric made Palin look bad in the eyes of elitists and liberals. But my point is that this interview didn't make her look bad in their eyes. The general reaction of the base, rather, was "She's more country than I am."

Consider this account of Palin's encounter with a firefighter during her recent tour of Ground Zero:
After the tour, Palin observed a memorial wall with John Morabito, a firefighter with Ladder Company 10.

"She was actually a little emotional because of the firefighters memorial wall," Morabito said. "I think she was sincere with it. She was friendly. I think she actually is a decent person." 

"She seems to be up to date [with] current events and everything that happened on 9/11. She's been given enough information. I'm sure she knows as much as the common American."
While at first glance that statement might not seem like a ringing endorsement, the implication of that line, to my mind, is that knowing "as much as the common American" is all anyone really needs to know. That's the fundamental position of the base: Palin knows what "common Americans" know; and anyone who thinks that that's not enough is an elitist.

In fact, knowing anything more than the "common American" is in itself suspect. In the view of the base, so-called expertise doesn't actually make you any better at making decisions; rather, it's just a tool for lording it over "common Americans." 

In fact, having expertise is worse than useless: because if you have expertise, it means that instead of doing "common American" stuff (like praisin' Jesus, huntin' moose and drivin' snowmachines) you've elected to spend your time doing elitist stuff (like reading books) whose only purpose is to help you put on airs.

In other words, not only is expertise a net zero for decision-making, it's a net negative in terms of your character. After all, since if you've acquired expertise, it means you not only think "common American" know-how isn't good enough, but also that you spend your time doing stuff that doesn't have any point except to put "common Americans" down.

In all honesty, I don't think I'm caricaturing the position of the a sizable swatch of Outer Wingnuttia.

Debate reaction

Parsing the blogs, it looks like Dems thought Mac won, Republicans thought Obama won, as did independents.

What seems certain is that, in a debate on foreign policy, which is allegedly McCain's strong suit against Obama, a tie clearly goes to Obama, politically speaking. In sum: advantage Obama.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Palin on her foreign policy experience

It beggars belief.

Couric: Explain to me why [living in Alaska] enhances your foreign policy credentials.

Palin: Well it certainly does, because our next door neighbors are foreign countries, they're in the state that I am the executive of.
I get it. You can trust Palin on foreign policy because she lives near Russia and Canada, in the same way you can trust me to fly planes, since I leave near the airport, just like you can also trust me to perform surgery, since I also live near a hospital.

Expertise? That's just a scare word to cover up intellectual elitism.

Indeed, it is undeniable that expertise is the elitism of knowledge. Thus, rejecting the very concept of expertise is the ultimate anti-elitist position. That's why it's so important to grasp that Palin's total lack of credentials are a feature, not a bug. And it's why every attack on her credentials only affirms to her supporters why they love her. Indeed, the more it is proven that she is incompetent, the more this burnishes her anti-elitist credentials. As the living incarnation of anti-intellectualism, the Palin candidacy is the logical conclusion of the GOP's war on expertise, and indeed on knowledge and fact as the basis for decision-making.

Extramarital octopus sex

Life in business isn't one of Small Precautions' usual topics, but this is too good not to link to. My friend Glenn Kelman has a post up on his corporate blog today suggesting that, if working like Microsoft is like being in a happy marriage, then working at a startup (or at least his startup) is like "extramarital... octopus sex."

If you want to know what octopus sex is really like, click here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The essential seriousness

The National Review's Mark Steyn does a nice job of capturing radically anti-civic unseriousness of the GOP's approach to politics:
As a general rule, when economic matters are in the news, I would recommend Senator McCain go to Bermuda for a few days and play canasta on the veranda until everything quietens down. Obama and Biden are just as witless on the subject but at least their platitudes and class warfare don't actively depress their base - unlike McCain's nutty improvisations re Andrew Cuomo. If only we could get back to the heady days when the Democrat-media axis was demanding Sarah Palin's obstetrician produce the birth video.
Beyond parody.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Global Scale 419 Scam?

Apparently Hank Paulson may be a secret Nigerian. Here's his latest epistle:
Dear American:

I need to ask you to support an urgent secret business relationship with a transfer of funds of great magnitude.

I am Ministry of the Treasury of the Republic of America. My country has had crisis that has caused the need for large transfer of funds of 800 billion dollars US. If you would assist me in this transfer, it would be most profitable to you.

I am working with Mr. Phil Gram, lobbyist for UBS, who will be my replacement as Ministry of the Treasury in January. As a Senator, you may know him as the leader of the American banking deregulation movement in the 1990s. This transactin is 100% safe.

This is a matter of great urgency. We need a blank check. We need the funds as quickly as possible. We cannot directly transfer these funds in the names of our close friends because we are constantly under surveillance. My family lawyer advised me that I should look for a reliable and trustworthy person who will act as a next of kin so the funds can be transferred.

Please reply with all of your bank account, IRA and college fund account numbers and those of your children and grandchildren to
wallstreetbailout@treasury.gov so that we may transfer your commission for this transaction. After I receive that information, I will respond with detailed information about safeguards that will be used to protect the funds.

Yours Faithfully Minister of Treasury Paulson
Hat tip: TO.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The bailout -- policy continuities

Dan Froomkin notes some continuities:
The plan concocted by two Bush appointees features some distinctive characteristics of major Bush initiatives past: It would be spectacularly expensive, primarily benefit the very rich, and grant the executive branch unlimited power with no transparency or accountability.

Palin video

Via Sullivan, this is an amazing video of Sarah Palin in her natural element.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Palin voters

I'm guessing these guys are down-the-line Palin fans.


I hate to say it, but Newt Gingrich has the most sane thing yet to say about the proposed bailout.

As with Ron Paul on Iraq, you know you've reach a dire situation when it's only the total crazies who are speaking the plain truth,

THAT's not a GWOT we can believe in

This is two weeks late, but don't miss Dexter Filkin's long NY Times Magazine piece on the current state of play of the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda along the Durand Line

Filkins's analysis, at bottom, is simple: the Pakistani military wants the war against the Taliban to go on forever, because if it ever ends, the billions ($12B since 2001) flowing from Washington will cease. That means they need to keep fighting the war, but it also means they need to not win it.

As they say over at TPM, that's not a GWOT we can believe in!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Welcome to the Third World?

Rosa Brooks suggests that the U.S. is going the way or Argentina in the early decades of the 20th century -- voluntarily choosing to turn ourselves into a Third World country out of some misbegotten sense of cultural pride. Money:
We thus want to acknowledge the progress you have made in your evolution from economic superpower to economic basket case. Normally, such a process might take 100 years or more. With your oscillation between free-market extremism and nationalization of private companies, however, you have successfully achieved, in a few short years, many of the key hallmarks of Third World economies.

Your policies of irresponsible government deregulation in critical sectors allowed you to rapidly develop an energy crisis, a housing crisis, a credit crisis and a financial market crisis, all at once, and accompanied (and partly caused) by impressive levels of corruption and speculation. Meanwhile, those of your political leaders charged with oversight were either napping or in bed with corporate lobbyists.

Now you are facing the consequences. Income inequality has increased, as the rich have gotten windfalls while the middle class has seen incomes stagnate. Fewer and fewer of your citizens have access to affordable housing, healthcare or security in retirement. Even life expectancy has dropped. And when your economic woes went from chronic to acute, you responded -- like so many Third World states have -- with an extensive program of nationalizing private companies and assets. Your mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are now state owned and controlled, and this week your reinsurance giant AIG was effectively nationalized, with the Federal Reserve Board seizing an 80% equity stake in the flailing company.

Some might deride this as socialism. But desperate times call for desperate measures.

Admittedly, your transition to Third World status is far from over, and it won't be painless. At first, for instance, you may find it hard to get used to the shantytowns that will replace the exurban sprawl of McMansions that helped fuel the real estate speculation bubble. But in time, such shantytowns will simply become part of the landscape. Similarly, as unemployment rates continue to rise, you will initially struggle to find a use for the expanding pool of angry, jobless young men. But you will gradually realize that you can recruit them to fight in a ceaseless round of armed conflicts, a solution that has been utilized by many other Third World states before you. Indeed, with your wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you are off to an excellent start.
George Bush and the GOP have brought our country to defeat and ruin. Liberals predicted that this would happen when Reagan took office, and now it finally has. It took 25 years for these guys do destroy the country, but destroy it they have.

Policy-making under crisis conditions

Legalities aside, it certainly seems as if Paulson and Bernanke are doing a bang-up job of dealing with the roiling financial crisis. It's adhocracy, to be sure, but at least they're insisting on extraordinary measures for extraordinary times. And if they're making mistakes, they're at least insisting on making new ones, rather than repeating historical follies.

I just hope that at some point, in a calm moment after the acute phase of this crisis subsides, some reasonable legislation will get passed to address the underlying causes of this crisis. I worry that if we get through it, we'll either go back to policymaking inertia, or that one group or another will use the crisis as an excuse the ram through a bunch of legislation that they already had in the hopper before all this began that in fact does little to address the fundamental issues (e.g. Sarbanes-Oxley after Enron).

It's important to bear in mind how much various self-interested actors often regard crises as opportunities to achieve goals that they've long held in mind that in fact do little to nothing to deal with the actual causes of the crisis. Detroit's success in getting $25B handout yesterday is a case and point, as is the oil companies efforts to get drilling permits in response to high oil prices.

The paradigm of policy-making opportunism is a point Small Precautions has emphasized before, but it's worth repeating. It remains, for example, the single best explanation for Bush's foreign policy in his first term. Neocons had long harbored an ambition to roll back Saddam and the ayatollahs, and the various other oil-producing enemies of Israel -- a plank they promoted vocally they throughout the 1990s. The crisis atmosphere produced by 9/11, despite having nothing whatsoever to do with Saddam and the ayatollahs, simply gave the neocons the excuse to push the policy through. Likewise, progressives used the Depression and World War II in much the same way -- to push through legislation that had long been their dream (e.g. union recognition, social security), but which they hadn't had the political capacity to do. The lack of union recognition and social security had little to nothing to do with the onset or continuation of the Depression, of course, but the crisis atmosphere (or, more precisely, FDR's consummate ability to harness his political-policy agenda to the crisis atmosphere) provided the cover for the realization of these long-cherished policy objectives.

You can argue about the merits of war in Iraq, union recognition, or social security, but the point here is that none of those policies dealt with the causes of the crisis that created the political conditions that allowed them to get passed. Such legislative opportunism is already taking place in today's crisis, and is perhaps inevitable. Let's just hope that this opportunism doesn't end up displacing later efforts to deal with the fundamentals that led to this crisis.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Epic-scale hypocrisies

I have to say that, while I regard myself as quite a connoisseur of breathless hypocrisies, I have never in all my days seen anything as breathtaking as what has gone on over the last three weeks for the GOP.

It began beautifully as former trial lawyer and NYC mayor Rudy Guiliani's gave a wildly cheered speech at the Republican National Convention condemning the "East Coast Establishment" and "trial lawyers"; it moved to the sublime when Bush appointees at the Fed and Treasury orchestrated the nationalization Fannie and Freddie the day after McCain declared the GOP to be "the party of small government"; and it culminated in the ridiculous when Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild announced yesterday that she was endorsing McCain because Obama was too much of an elitist for her (admittedly acquired by marriage) Rothschild tastes. As they say, you can't make it up.

What's important for Democrats to understand about this festival of hypocrisy is that, as ridiculous as it is, trying to attack these assertions with counterpoints of fact is utterly misguided. For the facticity (or lack thereof) of these contentions and claims is beside the point. What these claims are really about is about making an appeal to certain critical mythologies. Which is why countering them with facts is wrongheaded: mythologies have nothing to do with reality -- the have to with faith and aspiration.

To beat the mythologizing efforts of the Republicans, what Democrats need to do is articulate why Obama embodies a preferable (and hopefully more reality-based) set of mythological characteristics. Mark Penn's strategy for Hillary to label Obama as un-American may have been politically toxic and morally despicable, but there's no point in denying that Penn was onto something profound and (politically) troubling about Obama -- which is that he is struggling to connect his narrative, both about himself and about the country, to the country's abiding mythologies.

I would venture that whether or not Obama becomes President will largely be determined by whether he can create this connection over the next six weeks.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Our own home grown Third World debt crisis

When you boil away all the febrile rhetoric, the financial crisis the U.S. is experiencing right now is, simply put, a classic Third World debt crisis. The pattern is all too familiar: for years national elites engorge themselves, feasting on the public purse and corrupting politicians; these elites cover up the rot by allowing the masses also to themselves go on a spending and import binge, financed by cheap credit and foreign capital; these factors result in a huge current account and a massive asset-price bubble; finally, the markets wise up as to unsustainability of the situation and the house of cards comes crashing down.

Only two things are novel about the current situation in the U.S. First, it's happening not in some Third World country, but rather in the center of global capitalism. Second, the mechanisms by which the rich engineered all of this entailed somewhat byzantine mathemetical algorithms (albeit utterly banal moral and political algorithms).

For the last twenty five years, when other (poor) countries have gone through this sort of thing, the U.S. has insisted they go through a structural adjustment program -- a euphemism for a radical slashing of government spending, the bankrupting of champion local companies (and subsequent seizure of control by foreign capital), and a radical reduction in spending and income for the middle class. It happened in Mexico in '83, in Argentina repeatedly, in Asia in '98.

But now, when the shoe's on the our foot, we are (so far) refusing to take the medicine we've for a generation insisted that others who behave this way take. The inevitable result of this, you've got to expect, is that the U.S.'s credibility as an avatar of the free market is shot for a generation at least. Here's how the Koreans put it:
In parts of Asia, the bailouts stirred bitter memories of the different approach the United States and the International Monetary Fund adopted during the economic crises there a decade ago.

When the I.M.F. pledged $20 billion to help South Korea survive the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, one of the conditions it imposed was that the Korean government allow ailing banks and other companies to collapse rather than bail them out, recalled Yung Chul Park, a professor of economics at Korea University in Seoul, who was deeply involved in the negotiations with the I.M.F.

While Mr. Park says the current crisis is different — it is global rather than limited to one region — "Washington is following a different script this time."

"I understand why they do it," he added. "But they've lost credibility to some extent in pushing for opening up overseas markets to foreign competition and liberalizing economies."
Even if Bernanke and Paulson's interventions manage to save our economic and financial bacon (no sure thing yet), the impact of these events will reverberate for years in terms of U.S. financial authority.

Update: Predicting that the "U.S. political system" will force the taxpayers to pick up the tab for Wall Street's f-up, to the tune of $1-2 trillion (yes, with a T), Kenneth Rogoff adds the following:
A large expansion in debt will impose enormous fiscal costs on the US, ultimately hitting growth through a combination of higher taxes and lower spending. It will certainly make it harder for the US to maintain its military dominance, which has been one of the linchpins of the dollar.

The shrinking financial system will also undermine another central foundation of the strength of the US economy. And it is hard to see how the central bank will be able to resist a period of allowing elevated levels of inflation, as this offers a convenient way for the US to deflate the mounting cost of its private and public debts.

It is a very good thing that the rest of the world retains such confidence in America's ability to manage its problems, otherwise the financial crisis would be far worse.

Let us hope the US political and regulatory response continues to inspire this optimism. Otherwise, sharply rising interest rates and a rapidly declining dollar could put the US in a bind that many emerging markets are all too familiar with.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Quote of the day

Oh how the mighty fall:
Merrill, whose brokerage force is known as the "thundering herd," quietly entered into discussions with Bank of America...

Update: Paul Krugman suggests that the approach in Washington ought to be, "When life hands you Lehman, make Lehman aid."

Friday, September 12, 2008

Anita Hill

Anyone remember when David Brock in 1992 described Anita Hill as "a little bit slutty and a little bit nutty"?

Does that phrase call to mind anyone in todays political landscape?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Obama on "The Bell Curve," in 1994


The idea that inferior genes account for the problems of the poor in general, and blacks in particular, isn't new, of course. Racial supremacists have been using IQ tests to support their theories since the turn of the century. The arguments against such dubious science aren't new either. Scientists have repeatedly told us that genes don't vary much from one race to another, and psychologists have pointed out the role that language and other cultural barriers can play in depressing minority test scores, and no one disputes that children whose mothers smoke crack when they're pregnant are going to have developmental problems.

Now, it shouldn't take a genius to figure out that with early intervention such problems can be prevented. But Mr. Murray isn't interested in prevention. He's interested in pushing a very particular policy agenda, specifically, the elimination of affirmative action and welfare programs aimed at the poor. With one finger out to the political wind, Mr. Murray has apparently decided that white America is ready for a return to good old-fashioned racism so long as it's artfully packaged and can admit for exceptions like Colin Powell. It's easy to see the basis for Mr. Murray's calculations. After watching their income stagnate or decline over the past decade, the majority of Americans are in an ugly mood and deeply resent any advantages, realor perceived, that minorities may enjoy.

I happen to think Mr. Murray's wrong, not just in his estimation of black people, but in his estimation of the broader American public. But I do think Mr. Murray's right about the growing distance between the races. The violence and despair of the inner city are real. So's the problem of street crime. The longer we allow these problems to fester, the easier it becomes for white America to see all blacks as menacing and for black America to see all whites as racist. To close that gap, we're going to have to do more than denounce Mr. Murray's book. We're going to have to take concrete and deliberate action. For blacks, that means taking greater responsibility for the state of our own communities. Too many of us use white racism as an excuse for self-defeating behavior. Too many of our young people think education is a white thing and that the values of hard work and discipline andself-respect are somehow outdated.

That being said, it's time for all of us, and now I'm talking about the larger American community, to acknowledge that we've never even come close to providing equal opportunity to the majority of black children. Real opportunity would mean quality prenatal care for all women and well-funded and innovative public schools for all children. Real opportunity would mean a job at a living wage for everyone who was willing to work, jobs that can return some structure and dignity to people's lives and give inner-city children something more than a basketball rim to shoot for. In the short run, such ladders of opportunity are going to cost more, not less, than either welfare or affirmative action. But, in the long run, our investment should payoff handsomely. That we fail to make this investment is just plain stupid. It's not the result of an intellectual deficit. It's theresult of a moral deficit.
Seeing a reaction that is both this sensitive and this forceful on race brings me back to the moment when I really went over to Obama, namely after his Philadelphia race speech in April. But it also raises what remains a fundamental red flag for me, namely my instinct that people this sensitive to the subtleties of racial issues just don't get elected President of the United States. That's just not the America I think I know. I hope I'm wrong.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Kevin Drum has a great post up about how the manner in which McCain has chosen to conduct this campaign is likely to unleash forces which will make it very difficult for whoever wins to actually govern this country effectively.

One of the things that doesn't get emphasized enough about the nature of democracy as a practice (and something the Bushies clearly totally don't get, or they would never have believed that democracy would emerge from the detritus of Saddam's Iraq) is that in order to function, democracies must have as part of the normative political order certain core political civilities. These civilities cannot be legislated, but rather must simply be part of the shared expectations about the way politics works.

What is so destructive about what the Right has done to the country during the Gingrich-Rove era is that they have set out to systematically destroy these core political civilities. Basic fundamentals like
  • An expectation that political and policy decisions should be made on the basis of rational discourse and careful consideration
  • The concept of a loyal opposition
  • The idea of orderly successions between rulers from different parties (e.g. if you lose an election, you don't intentionally make a mess right before you leave office)
  • The notion of ongoing, continuous accountability on the part of leaders (versus a single "accountability moment" on re-election day)
  • The ideal of openness and transparency in policy-making
  • Etc.
Countries that don't have these things, these fundamental political decencies, don't produce functioning democracies. None of these are things that can be mandated by law; rather, they either are or are not part of the culture of a given political community.

What's profoundly pernicious about what the movement conservatives have done is that, in the name of holding onto power, they have set about systematically tossing over board these values, which form the moral ballast of democracy.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The GOP's 1968

Andrew Sullivan points out quite acutely that the GOP seems to be having a collective nervous breakdown this week, in a way that is eeriely similar to what happened to the Democrats in 1968.

Not a surprise that this should be so, since Bush is the LBJ of the right -- that is, the man who realized his party's greatest ideological fantasies, and in doing so, demonstrated irrefutably that this ideology is disastrously bad for the country, and deeply immoral to boot.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Life imitating art: "Idiocracy" edition

One of the wonders of the last few days has been watching various people on the movement right rejoice at McCain's choice of Palin, and especially to hear their explanation that what they like most about Palin is precisely that she is so obviously one of them, particularly in her familial conundra. See for example, the claim that the Palin choice shows that the GOP is the "regular people party"; or that her "averageness that makes her such a politically promising running mate"; or that she "appeals to the average, working-class woman."

All of it calls to mind H.L. Mencken's famous observation about what the American people want, above all else, for the office of the Presidency: "As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." The logical conclusion of strict egalitarianism, of course, is to remove all discrimination, including discrimination on the basis of qualification or talent. Palin's appeal lies precisely in this radical egalitarian impulse.

Unfortunately, as the rubes ought to know by now, we don't live in such a world, and the rubes don't usually get to run much of anything larger than a corrupt state. If they did, it might resemble this.