Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

30 April 2008

Nothing Has Changed


One of Senator Obama’s most important and least appreciated virtues is his steadiness. As he said on his first Fox News interview Monday,
    “I have learned that I have what I believe is the right temperament for the presidency, which is I don’t get too high when I’m high, and I don’t get too low when I’m low.”
That, of course, was classic Obama understatement. He is one of the calmest and coolest public figures of any kind that I have ever seen, and I’m over 60. And when I say “cool,” I don’t mean “hip;” I mean serene, unflappable and collected.

Throughout this entire campaign, Obama has always known he is the underdog, and he’s always known why. He has never succumbed to the euphoria or despair that periodically grips his supporters, including this writer. We all would do well to emulate him now.

For in truth l’ affaire Wright has changed nothing. Obama is still the best candidate. He is still the only one of the three who understands basic economics. He is still the only one whose foreign policy derives from careful analysis, rather than an all-consuming desire to become president at any cost or testosterone left over from the Vietnam War. And when a man of Obama’s caution and understatement promises to go after bin Laden and Zawahiri wherever they may be, you can take it to the bank.

In responding to Reverend Wright, Obama did exactly what you would expect of a man of honesty, honor and integrity. He had no control over Wright or the vicious caricatures of Wright. When the issue first arose, Obama refused to disown his friend and religious mentor although rejecting his words. In the process, Obama taught us all something about moral courage and something about race. Then, when Wright’s antics because too extreme, Obama cut him loose, but not without the chagrin that any of us would feel on losing an old friend. Throughout the whole sorry episode, Obama acted like a mensch.

The more interesting case is Wright’s. I watched every minute of his hour-long interview with Bill Moyers and was entranced. In that interview Wright was erudite, urbane, thoughtful, kind, gentle and quintessentially good. As a teacher for decades, I know something about recognizing talent, and Wright’s talent knocked me off my seat.

So how did Moyers’ Wright become the snarling reincarnation of Huey Newton that we saw at the National Press Club? If you’re dumb, you can’t act smart. It takes superb education and intelligence to put together long quotes from the Bible and Shakespeare in complete sentences and well-formed paragraphs that make perfect sense, as Wright did with Moyers. But if you’re smart, you can act dumb. So if I had to guess, I’d say his performance at the National Press Club was the act.

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, whom I greatly respect, writes that it wasn’t an act. He suggests that Wright boorishly and selfishly exploited his fifteen minutes of fame or simply lost his cool. Maybe. A man of Wright’s great gifts but modest achievements could be insanely jealous knowing that, but for the difference of thirty or so years, he might stand precisely where Obama does now. But maybe Herbert is in on the game.

I was fortunate enough to be born before the current spate of political correctness banned the wonderful “Uncle Remus” cartoons. In them, an avuncular black man dressed as a sharecropper told amusing stories about a perpetual underdog named “Bre’r Rabbit.” The clever little hare always seemed to outwit his tormentors and oppressors in the most ingenious ways. The message was clear: people who have to fight the scourge of racism every day have ways of coping that the rest of us can’t even imagine.

Suppose Wright was acting the goon at the National Press Club. Why would he do that?

The answer is not hard to guess. As an honorable man and a true friend, Obama was standing by his old religious mentor. To voters sitting on the fence, it seemed as if he was standing by a caricature, and he was losing ground.

So Wright may have pushed Obama off the fence. By acting so outrageously that no reasonable person could countenance him, Wright forced Obama to disown him decisively. Furthermore, by setting himself up as a defender of the “black Church,” which racist propaganda conflates with a “radical, black racist church,” Wright allowed Obama to disown that, too. Wright may have handed Obama his own Sister Souljah moment on a silver platter.

If that’s what happened (and I have more than a sneaking suspicion it was) Wright and his fellow snarlers inoculated Obama against this particular bit of propaganda. The story will fester a while and die. Thereafter, Reverend Wright will be old news, and so will Obama’s stern and decisive denunciation of Wright and (by implication) Wright’s supposedly racist and extremist church. More important, any superdelegates whose loyalty now may be wavering will wake up and recall that Obama is the best candidate and the only one who promises real change.

Am I sure this is what happened? Of course not. I don’t know either Reverend Wright or Senator Obama personally. But I cannot square the Wright I saw in Bill Moyers’ interview with the one I saw later unless one of them was an act. And if one was indeed an act, I have no doubt whatsoever which one. Perhaps Wright and Moyers were giving history and those of us who think a hint of what was really going on.

If Wright was in fact play-acting the dangerous radical, he deserves far more than an Academy Award. He deserves the Medal of Freedom. For he has sacrificed his personal reputation to save the nation that he is supposed to have damned.

Reverend Wright once served in the U.S. Marines. I never did. But I hope he’ll forgive me if I say “Semper Fi.”

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25 April 2008

Why Hillary is Dangerous I: Foreign and Military Policy


Introduction
Iraq
Iran
Pakistan
Conclusions

Introduction

Several readers have posted comments asking whether I, a lifelong Democrat, would really vote for John McCain if Hillary is the Democratic nominee. The answer is yes, under most foreseeable circumstances. (I would sit out the election if McCain picked Romney as his running mate, but that’s unlikely.)

In my first post on the coming election, I was skeptical of both Hillary’s and McCain’s candidacies, but I had drawn no firm conclusions. Now I have. I believe that Hillary as president would be dangerous and unpredictable for the country, disastrous for the Democratic party, and catastrophic for women’s chances to keep the glass ceiling permanently broken.

Explaining why takes a lot of ink. So I’ve broken my analysis into three parts. In this essay I discuss Hillary’s errors of judgment and lack of political courage in foreign and military policy. Future posts will discuss her errors of judgment in domestic policy and her lack of consistency and poor sense of perspective and history.

As I’ve noted in several posts (1, 2, and 3), Hillary’s judgment on foreign policy has been consistently poor, especially when compared to Barack Obama’s. She was wrong in voting to invade Iraq without reading the NIE. She was wrong to vote to declare Iran’s Quds Force a terrorist organization and give Dubya an excuse for war against Iran. And she was wrong to blindly follow Dubya’s credulous support for President Musharraf at a critical time in Pakistani history.

Today almost everyone recognizes these decisions as errors of judgment. But not everyone understands their importance. So I want to spend a few paragraphs discussing just how vital these errors of Hillary’s judgment were and what they say about her claim to leadership of the free world.

Iraq

Let’s go back to fall 2002. Howard Dean and John Kerry were not yet Democratic party leaders. Al Gore was reclusive, licking his wounds from the Supreme Court’s theft of his presidency. Any serious criticism of Dubya on his part would have smacked of sour grapes and reopened all the wounds of the 2000 election. Bill couldn’t speak out; he was bound by the unwritten rule that past presidents don’t criticize current ones. And any criticism on his part would have looked like an attempt to relitigate his impeachment.

Hillary was the only Democratic leader free to speak out. Everyone knew she would run for president, and everyone was looking to her for leadership. She was, at that time, the de facto leader of the Democratic party.

Could she have stopped the rush to war? I don’t know. Maybe not. But she didn’t even try.

As a future national leader, she had nation’s respect and attention. She even had the benefit of novelty: she was the first woman in our nation’s history presumed to be a serious presidential candidate.

At the least, Hillary’s opposition to our rush to war would have gotten everyone’s attention. Her mere questioning might have emboldened our cowed intelligence services and given them more time to leak doubts and motivate a robust debate. Yet she didn’t even vote for the Levin Amendment, which would have required Dubya to exhaust diplomatic alternatives before going to war.

Instead, Hillary took the safe course for her political career and the dangerous course of our nation. In the absence of any support from the “loyal opposition” (us Democrats), even the cooler heads in our intelligence bureaucracy knuckled under to Cheney and buckled down for war.

Iran

The question of Iran turned out differently. The Quds Force was and is a regular part of Iran’s armed forces. In our entire national history, we had never before declared a sovereign nation’s regular armed forces to be a terrorist organization. Everyone in Washington understood that doing so was a first step toward war. Yet Hillary voted with the Republicans to take that step.

This time our own intelligence services showed the spine that Hillary lacked. Just over two months after the Senate’s Quds Force resolution, they began an extraordinary palace revolt. They published a National Intelligence Estimate revealing our secret conclusion that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003.

In a separate post, I analyzed how extraordinary was this palace revolt. Our own intelligence services didn’t want to be blamed for starting—or even acquiescing in—a second premature and unnecessary war.

Yet Hillary didn’t seem to mind. Again, she did the safe thing for her own political ambitions and the dangerous thing for our country and for history. She voted to give Dubya and Cheney what they wanted. Only our intelligence bureaucrats’ courage saved us (and her) from the possible consequences of that error.

Pakistan

Hillary’s third major error of judgment involved Pakistan. In August 2007, Barack Obama questioned Dubya’s policy of credulous and uncritical support for Pakistani President Musharraf. He suggested that we support democracy in Pakistan and, if necessary, go after bin Laden and Zawahiri in the border areas.

Obama’s speech on terrorism was an important act of political judgment and courage. It highlighted our distraction in Iraq from our worst enemy—Al Qaeda Central. It also suggested the political, social and strategic dangers of failing to support Pakistan’s fragile democracy.

After Obama’s speech, Hillary had a decision to make. She could join with Obama and present a united Democratic front against Dubya’s failing and ultimately disastrous Pakistan policy. But endorsing Obama’s courage and insight wouldn’t give her any political advantage in the upcoming presidential contest. Manufacturing a dispute with Obama would.

In the end, Hillary based her decision entirely on domestic politics. The thrust of her campaign had been the proposition that her eight years as First Lady and her seven years as junior Senator from New York had given her massive “experience” in foreign policy and military affairs. So instead of joining Obama to nudge our failing Pakistan policy back on track, Hillary chose to belittle his political courage and aggrandize her “experience.” Later, in the Cleveland debate, she grossly distorted his suggestions, accusing him of “threatent[ing] to bomb Pakistan.”

Just a little less than five months after Obama’s courageous speech on terrorism and Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated.

Benazir Bhutto had far more courage than Hillary. Unlike Hillary, she didn’t have to make up stories of landing in Bosnia under sniper fire. When history called, Bhutto answered. She returned to her native Pakistan knowing full well that doing so might cause her death. She died with her head high and her country’s future foremost in her mind.

The tragedy of Bhutto’s loss is incalculable, not only for Pakistan, but for the world. Had she lived, she very likely would be Pakistan’s prime minister today. The bare symbolism of having a woman leading a populous Islamic democracy— the only Islamic nation with nuclear weapons—would have had incalculable exemplary value.

But Bhutto was far more than a symbol. She was a resilient, clever and highly articulate politician. With her fluent, idiomatic British English (better than our own president’s American English!), she would have made a powerful ambassador for democracy and women’s rights throughout the world. Now, after her death, we can only imagine the difference her leadership in Pakistan would have made.

In her life as in her death, Bhutto showed the world what a real female leader looks like and how far below that standard Hillary falls.

Am I hinting that Hillary’s poor judgment led to Butto’s death? No. But I am suggesting that Hillary’s poor decision contributed to a political climate that made Butto’s assassination more likely. More important, I’m suggesting that Hillary’s decision to ridicule Obama and tout her “experience” arose entirely out of domestic politics, in complete disregard of possible consequences in the real world. The consequences of failing to challenge Dubya’s lame Pakistan policy may have been disastrous.

Conclusions

All three of Hillary’s key errors of judgment in foreign policy share the same characteristics. In each case, she thought only of her own political future, i.e., her strategy for becoming president. She ignored her decisions’ consequences in the real world, apart from domestic presidential politics. While we cannot confidently attribute the disasters that followed to Hillary’s decisions, we can say that those consequences were consistent with her decisions and that she did nothing to prevent them. Only her Quds Force error failed to precede disaster, which the courage of nameless bureaucrats inside our intelligence services may have spared us.

That is why Hillary as president would be so dangerous. Not only have her errors in foreign and military policy sprung entirely from purely domestic political thinking. They also demonstrate her inability to predict the consequences of her actions in the real world. At a minimum, they show she hasn’t cared enough about those consequences to analyze and consider them.

International diplomacy and war are like gigantic chess games. Succeeding at them requires thorough understanding of the positions, views, histories, intentions and capabilities of all the players—foreign nations, foreign political leaders and parties and, yes, foreign terrorist groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and Al Qaeda. Then it requires minds capable of holding and analyzing all the multiple variables simultaneously and making accurate predictions of contingencies without error, bias or distortion. In short, it requires minds of the caliber of Henry Kissinger’s and Zbigniew Brzezinski’s in their primes.

It’s no answer to say that a president can hire such minds. A president must have the judgment and perseverance to find and appoint such people, the wisdom to listen to and learn from them, the brains to understand their conclusions, and the judgment to sense when they are right. Hillary has never given us the slightest indication that she possesses any of these qualities.

Nor are checks and balances an answer. Congress checks and balances a president’s power here at home. It has virtually no power to check a president’s acts in the fields of foreign and military policy. Especially in times of war (like the present), our president is a virtual dictator outside our borders. The War in Iraq, Guanánamo, our secret foreign prisons, and our rendering both civilians and foreign fighters for torture in foreign countries testify to these points.

So far we know four things about Hillary. First, her decisions on three vital matters of foreign policy have been wrong. Second, disasters followed two of them, which Hillary did nothing to prevent. Third, all three decisions derived from domestic political considerations. Fourth, none provides any indication that Hillary or any of her advisors is capable of predicting the consequences of American action in the real world. None even provides any indication of concern about those consequences.

In a separate post, I have analyzed how precisely the same circumstances led to our two greatest blunders in foreign policy: Vietnam and Iraq. Both Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush (in different ways) made horrible errors in war and international strategy by treating the big, wide world as a mere extension of domestic American politics. Electing another president who has given every indication of taking the same approach to foreign affairs would be the most dangerous thing “we the people” could do.



P.S. A few months ago, I published a post with the title “Is Hillary Dangerous?” Inspired by a column of Maureen Dowd’s, it tried to make a serious point about what was essentially a minor piece of campaign gossip.

I’m not very proud of that post, and I regret writing it. But I have a policy of not removing any post from this blog, although I correct typos and factual errors when I find them and sometimes improve previous posts’ language.

Readers have right to see my full written record and understand that I am human and make mistakes of judgment, too. Nonetheless, readers who wish to know why a Hillary presidency would pose extraordinary risk to them and their children should look to this series of posts, not to the one I now regret writing.

P.P.S. Mistakes seems to come in groups. I had meant to withhold this post for a few days, to give my essay on Prejudice and Pride time to air. But so be it; I don't retract posts. Yet I hope readers will not give short shrift to that essay, or to the postscript on Bill Moyers’ extraordinary interview with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright that follows it.

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Prejudice and Pride


About two decades ago, I had to participate in a collective decision whether to hire a woman to deal with the Japanese. Next to Muslims’, Japanese society is one of the most male-dominated on Earth. It was even more so back then.

While in a meeting, I observed that a woman dealing with the Japanese might meet rejection or disrespect. A female co-worker later excoriated me for accepting others’ gender prejudice and thereby fostering inequality of opportunity.

The vehemence of my co-worker’s attack took me aback. But upon reflection I saw she was right. By accommodating others’ cultural prejudice, I had undermined my own deeply held values.

I never made that same mistake again. I take pride in supporting the best person for the job, whatever the job, whatever the presumed obstacles, and whoever the best person might be.

Today people who ought to know better are making the same mistake with Barack Obama. They disclaim any prejudice on their own part. But they refuse to support Obama because, they say, others won’t support a candidate of his race.

The euphemism for this bit of vicarious prejudice is the “electability” argument. It’s been around since the beginning of the campaign. My own personal response to it has always been, “But he’s the best candidate.”

For a while, the “electability” argument was in remission. As more people got to know Senator Obama, his books, his brains, his judgment, his calm demeanor, and his prudence and self-restraint, his race faded into the background. Talent got the better of prejudice, including vicarious prejudice.

But now, as Obama nears a well-deserved nomination but has lost a few primaries, the beasts of vicarious bias are rearing their ugly heads again. They’ve gone so far as to romp on the front page of the New York Times, in a piece that properly belongs in the opinion pages. (Like much of the country, the Times has been a bit schizophrenic lately. Its editorial board recently issued a stern warning against sleaze-based campaigning.)

For me, the beasts’ resurgence holds great irony because the person holding their reins is now a woman.

Hillary doesn’t rely on vicarious prejudice directly. She uses innuendo and implication. Good lawyer that she is, she conceals her purpose by splitting hairs. She would have us believe that her repeated references to Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s intemperate remarks and Barack Obama’s bare acquaintance with a former member of the Weather Underground named Ayers have nothing to do with race.

But of course they have everything to do with race, and everyone knows it. They offer fodder for the beasts of prejudice.

Does anyone believe that a man who has spent his whole adult life trying—with considerable success—to make America a better place subscribes to a “God damn America” philosophy? Does anyone believe that Obama, who was president of the Harvard Law Review, taught constitutional law, and proposed the first and most aggressive plan to fight terrorism, is soft on terrorists or otherwise suspect because he once held a meeting at the home of a man who had been a member of an obscure and entirely unsuccessful domestic extremist organization forty years ago, when Obama was eight years old?

These flimsy charges rely on the most tenuous claims of guilt by association. Logically and substantively, they deserve howls of derision. But pundits and campaign consultants take them seriously because they know the charges will find fertile ground in minds infected with prejudice. They make sense as a campaign tactic only to the extent they provoke and magnify voters’ direct and vicarious bias.

So Hillary is not just arguing that others’ racism makes Obama unelectable. She is feeding their prejudice.

Every Democrat (of every race) ought to be outraged. We’ve struggled, fought, written and argued for racial equality and harmony since World War II. We just observed the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., our hero and martyr to those still unrealized national goals.

People who didn’t support those goals left our party, but we endured their loss and soldiered on. Our own effort, plus time, changing demographics and cultural progress softened old prejudices.

Now, after forty years in the wilderness of Nixon’s “southern strategy”, we’ve nearly got our hands on the prize. We’ve got a once-in-a-century candidate, whom people of all races enthusiastically support. He’s precisely half white and half black, so both sides of our great racial divide can claim him. Our youth of all races are leading the way: they don’t give a damn what color Obama is, as long as he’s the best, which he is. We’re not going to see his like again—of whatever race—for a long, long time. And conditions at home and abroad are more ripe for a Democratic victory than they have been since FDR’s time.

So we have the “perfect storm” of favorable political and economic conditions and the most talented candidate we’ve seen in forty years. If Barack and Hillary were both white males, Hillary wouldn’t have lasted to Super Tuesday. Yet we are now rewarding her for tarnishing our values and our party by feeding and exploiting prejudice to stay in the race. And we are doing so despite her negatives—the highest of any candidate since Richard Nixon—and her questionable commitment to popular democracy.

Our choice now is clear. We can succumb to sleaze and fear the beasts of others’ prejudice, whose strength no one has ever accurately measured. We can become complicit in yet another sordid exercise of collective racism, excusing ourselves with false expediency. With the prize so close, we can forsake our fundamental values as Democrats and forfeit the general election and a shot at making history. Or we can renew our pride in what Democrats believe, square our shoulders, and continue marching toward the truths that our Founders held to be self-evident in their Declaration of Independence during the reign of King George III.


Footnote: The only people whom the Weather Underground ever killed were their own members. Four of them died when a bomb they were making blew up prematurely.

Postcript: The Reverend Jeremiah Wright

It is 11:50 p.m. I have just finished watching Bill Moyers’ hour-long interview with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. My eyes are still wet with tears.

Everyone reading this post should set aside an hour over the weekend to watch the video or read the transcript. The interview is that good and that important.

I am a Jew; Wright is a Christian. If he were a Jew, I would be proud to call him my rabbi. If I were a Christian, I would be proud to call him my pastor.

He is one of the most brilliant, well-educated, articulate, urbane, spiritual, kind, patient, beautiful, wise and fundamentally good men I have ever had the privilege of seeing interviewed on TV. But you would never know it from the out-of-context snippets of his sermons that spin masters from our political campaigns and mass media have been playing in endless loops.

I had planned to write a post on the need to train our youth to recognize propaganda, just as my high school trained me in the early sixties. But seeing Moyers’ interview and comparing it with those snippets gives you all the education on the subject you will ever need. Anyone who makes the comparison will never forget the lessons that human beings and their lives cannot be captured in out-of-context sound bites, and that anyone who tries to do so is up to no good. No one who makes the comparison will ever see Hillary Clinton or Fox News in the same light again.

Most college classes are finished for the year. But secondary schools are still in session. Every high-school and junior-high-school class in civics, social studies, government, politics, ethics or religion should drop its curriculum tomorrow and show the interview in full. Bill Moyers should get a prize for airing it.

As for Wright, he is truly a man of God. He has renewed my faith in man, my pride in the self-evident truths that my essay addresses, and my hope that something good may yet come of the attempt to smear this extraordinary man and, through him, an extraordinary leader.

UPDATE: For more on Reverend Wright and his later appearance at the National Press Club, see this post.

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23 April 2008

Pennsylvania


For Obamanites like me, last night was a disappointment. We all hoped Pennsylvania would put Hillary away and stop the Democrats’ hemorrhaging.

But what happened yesterday says nothing about Obama’s ability to win the general election. It proved only that a hard core of tradition-bound, poorly educated white workers and white seniors—in a single state—preferred Hillary to Obama. If Obama is the Democratic nominee, that hard core will vote for him.

Pennsylvania’s Democrats said so. In the past several weeks, I have seen countless interviews of Pennsylvania voters. Nearly all who expressed a preference for Hillary and discussed the general election said they will vote for Obama if he is the nominee.

They have no other rational choice. The economy is overwhelmingly their top issue. The war in Iraq and health care are not even close seconds on their issues list.

As I’ve pointed out in an earlier post, McCain doesn’t understand economics. His economic prescriptions are warmed-over Republican nostrums—the very sort of nonsense that got us into our present state. When he strays from conservative orthodoxy, he does so only to pander, as with his ridiculous proposal to decrease gasoline taxes during the summer.

No Democrat who can read is going to prefer McCain on economic issues in the fall, and registered Democrats grossly outnumber Republicans in Pennsylvania. Three hundred thousand new Democrats registered there for yesterday’s primary.

So if Obama is the nominee, he will win Pennsylvania. You can take it to the bank. Hillary’s insinuations to the contrary are pure demagoguery and pure lies. Not even her most partisan, angry consultants actually believe Pennsylvania will go Republican in November, under any circumstances now foreseeable.

The second thing to realize about Pennsylvania is something that no member of Obama’s campaign team dares say out loud. That cradle of American democracy is now one of our most backward states. (I can say it because I am not even remotely a part of Obama’s campaign.)

On almost every economic and demographic measure, Pennsylvania reflects our nation’s past, not its future. It has our oldest population. It is in the “top” rank of states having the largest percentage of workers without a college education. Ditto for people who live and die within fifty miles of their place of birth, never leaving their state of birth. It has one of our lowest populations of immigrants and our lowest rates of in-migration.

Despite some effort to transform itself, Pennsylvania is still a “Rust Belt” state marked by the carcasses of dying industries like steel and heavy manufacturing. Its second largest industry is a hospital-medical complex serving its aging population in Philadelphia. The dirtiest fuel known to humanity, coal, is still a significant industry there.

So everything about Pennsylvania today bespeaks our history, not our aspirations for the future. It is understandable that Pennsylvania’s Democrats would vote for an establishment candidate married to the last person whose presidency enjoyed balanced budgets and balanced prosperity. The rest of the country is not like Pennsylvania.

More important, the salient points of general-election strategy have not changed one iota. The Democrats will win the so-called “blue” states (the states that Kerry won in 2004) no matter who is their nominee. The worse our economy gets, and the more the middle class suffers, the more reliable that prediction will be.

Contrary to Hillary’s campaign propaganda, her much-touted wins in big blue states like California, New York, and Pennsylvania mean nothing. Any Democrat with a pulse will win those states in the fall.

What matters is who can best win the “red” states. Even with Hillary’s victories in Ohio and Texas, the record on that point still overwhelmingly favors Obama.

So Pennsylvania changed nothing. Obama is still the most electable and best candidate. Hillary can use the old Republican code words and McCarthy-like (Joe, not Gene!) guilt-by-association tactics to suggest that Obama’s race and his youth disqualify him. But no one is listening. This election is too important, and we’ve all been burned by that sort of nonsense too many times before.

The New York Times is as strong a Hillary partisan as exists among news media worthy of the name. Yet even it has given Hillary a stern warning: stop demagoguing and get back to issues!

If Hillary declines to take that advice, her campaign will self-destruct. If she takes it, voters will rediscover some other unchanging truths. Obama understands economics better. He has demonstrated far better judgment on foreign policy. Although less glib, he is more thoughtful, prudent, and self-restrained. And he lacks the baggage of an increasingly erratic and unattractive Bill. In other words, although less skilled at demagoguery, Obama is the better candidate on every measure related to governing.

We Americans are now wise to demagoguery, which got us in our current state. We are gravitating toward two honest candidates who are, by and large, too honorable and respectful of our nation and its current sorry state to resort to the type of demagoguery that Hillary used to retain her failing grip on Pennsylvania.

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Why McCain’s Gas-Tax Holiday is Ridiculous

John McCain has proposed a temporary reduction of gasoline taxes this summer, in order to reduce consumers’ gasoline bills during the peak driving season. Here’s why the proposal is a ridiculous bit of demagoguery unworthy of McCain’s reputation for straight talk.

Taxes are not part of the cost of producing gasoline. That cost depends primarily on the cost of crude oil. Crude oil prices are at an all-time high, primarily due to rising demand from emerging industrial economies in China, India, Brazil and Russia. Reducing gas taxes inside the United States would stimulate demand there, further upsetting the worldwide balance of supply and demand for crude oil and further increasing its price.

The resulting increase in the price of crude oil would have two effects. First, it would increase gasoline prices after the tax decrease ended, as compared to what they would be if the summer passed with no tax holiday. This effect is virtually certain.

Second, by raising the demand for and the price of crude oil, the tax holiday would increase the price of producing gasoline and therefore its pre-tax price. As a result, the temporary reduction in tax would forfeit revenue much needed by government for infrastructure rebuilding, but economic relief to consumers would be only a fraction of the forfeited revenue. The reason is that taxes would go down, but the wholesale price of gasoline, which reflects the price of crude oil, would go up.

McCain’s proposal is also ridiculous for a much simpler reason: he’s not our president. He has no power to affect what happens this summer. The general election won’t even occur until fall.

If McCain continues showcasing his ignorance of economics with such utterly ridiculous proposals, he will be even easier to beat in the fall than his advanced age and testosterone-laced Iraq war policy make him now.

Red State Tables

The table below shows the results of red-state primaries in descending order of the decisiveness of Obama’s wins. As before, the blue rows show Obama’s wins, the pink Clinton’s, and the darker shades of each color wins by a margin of 2-to-1 or greater.

Red StateObama/Clinton
Vote (percent)
Edwards
Vote
Obama/Clinton
Ratio
Electoral
Votes
Idaho80/17 - >4 to 1 4
Alaska74/25 - 3 to 1 3
Kansas74/26 - >2.5 to 1 9
Nebraska68/32 - >2 to 1 5
Colorado67/32 - >2 to 1 9
Georgia66/31 2 >2 to 1 15
South Carolina55/27 18 2 to 1 8
Virginia64/35 1 >1.8 to 1 13
North Dakota61/37 1 >1.5 to 1 3
Louisiana57/36 - >1.5 to 1 9
Utah57/39 3 1.5 to 1 5
Alabama 56/42 1 1.3 to 1 9
Iowa38/29 30 1.3 to 1 7
Missouri 49/48 2 1 to 1 11
New Mexico48/49 2 1 to 1 5
Texas47/51 1 1 to 1 34
Nevada45/51 4 1 to 1 5
Arizona42/51 5 1 to 1.2510
Ohio44/54 2 1 to 1.2520
Tennessee41/54 4 < 1 to 1.25 11
Oklahoma31/55 10 <1 to 1.7 7
Arkansas27/69 2 <1 to 2.5 6


The table below shows Hillary’s relative deficit in electoral votes, assuming she or Obama would lose in the general election red states each lost in the primaries. (It’s worth noting that Obama won the caucuses in Texas, but neither of these two tables reflects that win.)
 
Obama
Electoral
Votes
Clinton
Electoral
Votes
Clinton EV Deficit
All red states won1109812
Won by 2-to-1 or greater53647





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20 April 2008

Think, Pennsylvania!


You can end this. You can stop this unequal contest, which Hillary can win only by insuring a Democratic defeat in November. You can give the Democrats back their dignity and a shot at success. You can improve your chances for economic recovery.

Three things are clear now. First, Hillary lied repeatedly to inflate her résumé. She didn’t dodge sniper bullets in Bosnia, and she didn’t bring peace to Northern Ireland. If there’s a call at 3 a.m. that she really knows how to handle, it will be from her stock broker or one of her many lobbyist friends.

Her poor judgment on foreign policy is Hillary’s second clear disadvantage. She voted for war in Iraq without even reading the National Intelligence Estimate. She voted to give Dubya an excuse for war in Iran. She called Barack Obama “naïve” for wanting to quit coddling Musharraf and to go after bin Laden in Pakistan. Months later, Musharraf declared an “emergency,” Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan to be assassinated, and the Bush Administration’s actions revealed that targeting Al Qaeda in Pakistan is once-secret official policy.

When you think about Hillary’s terrible judgment on foreign policy, consider another thing. A president has limited power in domestic policy, because Congress calls the shots. A president’s power over foreign policy is almost absolute.

That’s why Dubya still rules our fiasco in Iraq although two-thirds of Americans have wanted out since 2006. After seven years of foreign failures, electing another president with poor judgment on foreign affairs is about the dumbest thing we could do. And if you think poor judgment on foreign policy won’t affect you personally, consider how the $1 trillion that we’ll end up spending in Iraq might have been invested here at home.

The third point is the clincher. Hillary can’t win. She is already losing to a rival so polite and understated that the worst he calls her is “inaccurate.” Her negatives are the highest of any presidential candidate’s since Nixon. What do you think will happen when she comes up against the Republican attack machine that ground up Al Gore and John Kerry?

Here’s what will happen. Republican ads will show Hillary describing her fictional flight from sniper fire in Bosnia. Then they’ll show film of her receiving flowers on the airport tarmac there. They’ll follow up with pictures of John McCain lying wounded in the “Hanoi Hilton.” Next, they’ll compare shots of McCain arguing against corruption and for campaign finance reform with shots of Hillary saying, “lobbyists represent real Americans.” When they get through with Hillary, the independents and unaligned voters now trending Democratic will flee, and John McCain will win in a landslide.

You may be tempted to vote for Hillary out of prejudice. You may want a female president at any price. Or, at any price, you may not want an African-American.

But the price you’ll pay for your prejudice is much higher than you think. If you vote for Hillary and she wins, you’ll get John McCain. If you don’t stop Hillary’s reckless attacks, you may get McCain even if (as appears likely) she loses. Either way, your prejudice will put another Republican in the White House.

That won’t bother those of us who are economically secure, even if we’d prefer Obama. We’ll appreciate having a president who doesn’t lie, who can recognize reality, who’s got real experience and heroism, and who (unlike Bush and Cheney) knows the cost of war and torture from personal experience. We can live with a Republican’s permissive and clueless economic policies, which a strong Democratic Congress will restrain. That’s why McCain will be such a formidable opponent.

You and the Rust Belt will hurt most if McCain wins. McCain doesn’t understand economics. Honest as he is, he’s admitted as much. Hillary thinks you fix economic problems by issuing commands. Barack Obama is the only one of the three candidates who understands economics. Only he knows how complex and intricate our economy is, and only he promises time-tested solutions that will work.

If you want to ease your economic pain, you’ll vote for Obama. If you vote your prejudice, you’ll cut your own throats.

Every solution that Obama has proposed is time-tested, reasonable and moderate. Every one will work. That’s why he’s the best candidate to solve our many problems, domestic and foreign, economic and social. If he loses—or if he wins so tarnished by Hillary’s negativity that McCain wins in the fall—you folks in dying towns will be the ones most hurt.

So don’t do it. Don’t vote your prejudice or your cynicism. Vote your heart. Vote for the one you can trust. Vote for the one who gives you hope and time-tested solutions, not the one whose numbers don’t add up and who gives you reason after reason to slash and burn everyone else. If you do the right and hopeful thing, you’ll preserve your party, your own chances for a decent economic recovery, and your country’s future.

P.S. Responding to the comment below provoked one more thought. At some time in our lives, all of us shun people who build themselves up by tearing others down. We don’t tolerate that sort of behavior in friends, acquaintances, co-workers or family members. Why should we tolerate it in someone seeking the highest office in the world?

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18 April 2008

Carter and Hamas


Let me begin by establishing my credentials. I’m a Jew. I’m not particularly religious, but I’m proud of my heritage and wouldn’t be here if the Nazis had won World War II. Insofar as ethnic identity is concerned, that’s all that really matters.

It’s sad to have to tout my ethnic background to make a point, but that’s the way it is. On subjects that touch religion or Israel, many Jews won’t listen to someone who is not a “member of the Tribe.” I cannot judge them, for many have families that suffered far more than mine. But I can try to speak reason and hope that my ethnic identity will give my ideas a fair hearing.

Jimmy Carter can’t do that. As a Christian Southerner with a soft accent, he can never overcome the subconscious suspicion that bigotry lies beneath the placid surface of his almost ethereal spirituality. His problem with Northeast Jews is even greater: a chasm in culture, values and upbringing as deep as any inside our diverse nation. Many American Jews simply can’t believe he has their best interests at heart.

But Carter is right. The only way for the State of Israel to survive—let alone as a Jewish state—is for it to cut a deal with its enemies, the sooner the better. The longer it waits the worse the deal will be. The path Israel is on today is the path to catastrophe.

Here’s why:

1. There are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world. There are 5 million Jews in Israel. There are maybe four times that many Jews in the entire world. How long will the numberless host stay patient?

2. Half a millennium ago, in Islam’s golden age, art, science, commerce and, yes, religious freedom, flourished in Islamic lands. One of humanity’s great unfinished tasks is bringing Muslims back into the community of nations and restoring their confidence, prosperity and freedom of thought. As that process unfolds—which it must do, if humanity is to survive in the nuclear age—Muslims will get stronger politically, economically and, yes, militarily. Some Islamic nations, Iran included, may get stronger militarily before they get wiser.

3. The State of Israel will not always enjoy the same strong support from non-Jews in the United States that it does today. For college-age Americans, the War in Vietnam is a thing of textbooks. The Holocaust is ancient history. More important, if the United States is to survive, it must succeed as a multi-ethnic nation. At it develops and grows, the claims of new ethnic immigrant groups—Latinos, Asians, non-Jewish Eastern Europeans and, yes, Muslims—will take precedence. As the war in Iraq winds down, Muslim immigration to the United States will increase, altering the balance of internal lobbying power. If things go badly in Iraq, Americans’ sense of guilt, responsibility and mercy will overwhelm any attempt to stop the flow.

4. Non-Jews in America support Israel primarily for three reasons: (1) guilt over the Holocaust; (2) admiration for Israelis’ pluck, democracy and determination; and (3) the need for a strong, stable, reliable ally in the part of the world that holds over half of all oil reserves. Which of these reasons do you think most sways policy makers?

But the times they are a-changin.’ We Americans are beginning to get serious about shaking our oil addiction. We have to; we have no alternative. As the importance of oil wanes, what will happen to the strategic importance of Israel, a tiny country in a big world?

5. Regrettably, keeping Iran and other Islamic nations from getting the Bomb is not a sure thing. Pakistan already has it. Iran may soon. Perhaps diplomacy and massive, unmanned air power can keep Iran from developing a Bomb. I hope so. But does anyone really think the United States will mount a ground invasion or nuclear attack on Iran just to keep it from enriching uranium? If Iran wants to pay the price and take the risk of going nuclear, it can have the Bomb and join the club of mutually assured destruction.

Thus every trend of history points to the need for a peace deal soon, whatever concessions Israel must make.

But is all hopeless? I don’t think so. People don’t engage in suicidal battle unless they think they have nothing to live for. The Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto understood that. If modern Jews could apply that terrible lesson to Gaza, there might be a way out.

Imagine a prosperous Gaza, with thriving businesses, free commerce with the outside world, and a robust, modern standard of living. Imagine its political leaders and intellectuals engaged in business and cultural exchange with the rest of the world. Imagine its youth getting trained for rewarding, lucrative careers in the United States, Europe, India, Japan, Russia and China. How many of them would blow themselves up then?

Even today, polls show that about two-thirds of Gazans want peace. But they have a hard time convincing their hotheads when Gaza has no electricity, no gas, no jobs (that don’t require carrying a weapon), no imports or exports, no ability to travel, no raw materials for business, and no control over its economic destiny.

Gaza is a big prison. The recent breach of the wall into Egypt was just the latest prison break. There will be more breaks, more prison riots and more fallout over Israel unless the inmates get some relief.

Ariel Sharon understood that. So did Yitzhak Rabin. Unfortunately, both of these strong leaders died before their understanding could work some good. The current Israeli leadership is too weak and too lacking in imagination and moral courage to do what must be done. Meanwhile, the United States continues to suffer under a lame duck with a mallard’s sense of history and an avian brain.

Into this vacuum of leadership steps Jimmy Carter, where angels fear to tread. Jews everywhere should bless him and wish him well. You don’t have to wear a yarmulke to have a sense of history or to be a good man.

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17 April 2008

The Philadelphia “Debate”


The word “debate” is in quotation marks because last night’s spectacle was nothing of the kind. It was an exercise in bias and triviality so appalling as to leave little doubt that we are a society in precipitous decline. It was the modern equivalent of ancient Rome’s “bread and circuses,” by which Caesar and other early demagogues manipulated the Roman electorate and transformed Roman democracy into empire.

Let’s start with unfairness. One of two moderators of the debate was George Stephanopoulos. For several years, he was a senior advisor for policy and strategy to Bill Clinton as president. He also served as a leading member of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, right alongside James Carville. In other words, he owes everything he is to Bill Clinton, and he got his start in adult life as a Clinton partisan.

If Stephanopoulos were a judge, he would have to recuse himself from handling any matter involving the Clintons. Apparently journalists’ sense of fairness is less acute than judges’. ABC, which ran this sham of a debate, thought there was nothing wrong with having such a man moderate what may be Hillary Clinton’s last stand as a presidential candidate.

The results were predictable. The first segment of the debate—nearly one-third in length—was an exercise in “gotcha” aimed almost entirely at Senator Obama. It started with his alleged “gaffe” regarding the “bitter” feelings of rural and small-town voters. It continued with minute examination of his relationship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. It ended with a new charge of guilt by association: Obama’s acquaintance with a former member of the Weather Underground who had engaged in violent political activity 40 years ago, during the Vietnam Era, when Obama was eight years old.

The moderators even found time to question Obama about not wearing American flag pins. No doubt to give the barest appearance of impartiality, they put a question to Hillary on her lying about her braving sniper fire in Bosnia, for which she fulsomely excused herself.

The expressed reason for this journalistic lynching was the notion that, if ABC or Hillary didn’t do it, then the Republicans would. So we saw an unusual spectacle: supposedly neutral journalists and a fellow Democrat adopting the worst of Republican distraction-and-scare tactics on the pretext that Obama still needs more seasoning.

The end of the debate focused on guns. A question posed to both candidates sought to expose their solid record of support for gun control to a state whose rural residents are supposed to be passionate about their guns.

This time the questioning at least had the appearance of impartiality, for both candidates had precisely the same position. Both reaffirmed their record of support for gun control in crowded, crime-ridden cities but avowed support for local variations in rural areas.

Yet viewers attuned to subtle bias might have noticed an interesting point. The debate began with a question on Obama’s “bitterness” remark, which related voters’ anger at their economic mistreatment to their obsession with wedge issues like guns. The debate ended with a discussion of guns evocative of that remark. Viewers who tuned out early in disgust would be left thinking about that remark. So would those who tuned in late. A Karl Rove bent on exploiting this wedge issue in rural Pennsylvania to damage Obama’s campaign could not have planned the timing better.

In between the focus on Obama’s statements, his associations, the absence of flag pins on his lapels, and guns there was, inexplicably, some discussion of serious issues actually facing the nation. Both candidates committed to withdrawing troops from Iraq without much regard for potential future misgivings of commanders on the ground. Both reaffirmed their intention not to let Iran to acquire nuclear weapons and to retaliate against Iran for any nuclear attack on Israel.

But there was not a single question on al Qaeda, the war on terror, global warming, infrastructure, energy independence, our schools, our funding crisis in science, our imperial presidency, torture, Guantánamo, warantless wiretapping, civil liberties, the mortgage crisis, the credit crisis, or health care.

With his usual precision and restraint, Obama described the debate as follows:
    “[T]his is a defining moment in our history. We are going to be tackling some of the biggest issues that any president has dealt with in the last 40 years. Our economy is teetering not just on the edge of recession, but potentially worse. Our foreign policy is in a shambles. We are involved in two wars. People’s incomes have not gone up, and their costs have. And we’re seeing greater income inequality now than any time since the 1920s.”

    “In those circumstances, for us to be obsessed with this—these kinds of [gaffes and associations] I think is a mistake.”

This travesty occurred a stone’s throw from Constitution Hall—the very place where our Founders debated and ratified our Constitution. The contrast between what took place before the television cameras last night and what happened in the same venue 217 years ago could not have been starker.

Our Founders debated the form and structure of our government with a deep knowledge of history, a brilliance that few in politics can match today, and “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” They had staked their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” on our Revolution, in part to abolish the injustice of guilt by association that occupied the first third of the last night’s spectacle. Apparently having no sense of irony, ABC had the temerity to place excerpts from the Constitution on screen after commercial breaks.

Could our Founders be resurrected and subjected to last night’s proceedings, there is little doubt how they would react. They would think about how much they staked on their new enterprise in liberty. The would reflect on how hard they worked and fought for it, and how deeply they thought about it. They would recall how much they debated history and government—going back to ancient Rome—and how squarely they faced the grave issues of their time.

Then they would do what anyone does upon seeing his life’s work and deepest aspirations debased beyond measure. They would vomit.


Correction and Apology: For several hours this post erroneously attributed last night’s journalistic malpractice to MSNBC, rather than ABC. I regret the error and apologize to MSNBC.

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16 April 2008

Trade, Economics, and Ancient Rome


New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a piece yesterday that left me deeply troubled. Here’s my open reply:

Dear Mr. Brooks,

I regard you as the dean of mainstream pundits, but your column yesterday missed an important point.

You chided Senator Obama for using free trade as an economic whipping boy. Although you barely mentioned Hillary doing the same thing, you were right to chide him. In the long run, free trade is a good thing. Damning it to score political points is demagogic and silly.

But the point you missed is just as important. Our generation’s college-and-laptop folk haven’t done nearly as good a job taking care of those less fortunate as their parents and grandparents did. John Edwards is right: we do have two Americas—those with college degrees and laptops, and the rest. But the economic dividing line is not free trade. Nor is it education. It is broken promises.

How many rural and small-town people born in the last century went to work in a plant or mill, rather than go to college? How many went because the pay and benefits from skilled labor were as good or better than those in white-collar jobs? They believed an implicit promise: that the skilled worker’s lifestyle would continue, at least for their generation. We broke that promise—perhaps through no fault of our own, but we broke it nevertheless.

We broke explicit promises, too. The miracle of bankruptcy allowed American industry to strip promised pensions and health care from millions of workers. Many more lost their jobs a few days, months or years before qualifying for benefits. We took their best years; then we broke our social compact.

Two big mistakes destroyed the Soviet Union. First, it got economics badly wrong. Marx and Engels were not scientists. They were creative writers who made their economics up. But the Soviets’ second mistake was just as important. They saw human society as a big machine governed by big theory, not a collection of people. They neglected the human factor.

It seems to me that your approach shares that second mistake. It’s unrealistic to urge education on people who have to work two jobs to feed their kids. Likewise, it’s unrealistic to ask people in their fifties and sixties, whose last experience with education was in high school decades ago, to learn entirely new skills and undertake new careers.

We have millions of these aging workers. They helped build today’s prosperity for all of us, including the college-and-laptop set. We owe them at least keeping promises.

Treating them shabbily is not only unjust. It’s bad economics. The pressure they now feel impairs their children’s and grandchildren’s advancement. It propagates poor education and poor social preparedness forward for another generation or two. In an increasingly competitive world, we can’t afford that setback.

The last world-spanning, democratic, multi-ethnic empire like ours was Rome’s. Its real secret was a simple social principle: anyone could become a Roman citizen, even a conquered enemy soldier or freed slave. By providing social mobility that the rest of the world could only envy, Rome remained an economic and military dynamo for several hundred years.

That social mobility ended when Rome used the Huns, Goths and Visigoths as cannon fodder and denied them true citizenship. Their mistreatment led them to sack Rome, and its fate was sealed. We’re dangerously close to repeating that mistake, with our all-volunteer forces taking tour after tour in Iraq, while the rest of us shop at home.

How we treat “the least among us” is a good test of any human society. We are failing that test. Not only do we abuse our troops and treat our poor and incapable worse than does any other advanced nation. In their old age we are stiffing the very people who built our modern prosperity after World War II.

Like the Soviets in their time, we use grand economic theory to justify our neglect. The lobbyists whom your piece exonerates are the means by which our fatal obsession with abstract economic theory becomes law, at the price of human misery, social discontent and ultimately national weakness. It’s no excuse that our theory is better than the Soviets’. We lose social cohesion all the same.

We beat the Great Depression and won World War II because we found a pragmatic middle course. We forsook the laissez faire capitalism of our Gilded Age and the muscular socialism of the thirties to forge the strongest society in human history. In just one generation, we rose from a largely agrarian, isolationist nation to the world’s greatest superpower.

We did so by giving everyone a fair shake, or at least the credible promise of one. We made the least among us strong, so we had the strength of all.

No society in human history ever had the strength of ours when World War II ended. Its real source was not the Bomb, but our unique social cohesion. Our credible promise of a fair shake got even our Japanese-Americans, whose parents were in internment camps, and our African-Americans, who lived under Jim Crow at home, to fight like tigers in foreign wars.

If we want to maintain that cohesion, we must renew the credibility of that promise. We are going to have to find a middle way again. Paraphrasing Marie Antoinette and crying “Let them eat education!” is no answer. Nor is the tepid socialism of Europe.

I don’t know what our new middle way will look like. But I do know how to tell when we’ve found it. When our poor are no longer destitute and workers in our lower middle class again feel pride in their roles and confidence in their lot, then we’ll know we’re on the right path.

We’re a long way from that path today. We’re beginning to look like Latin America, where the rich live surrounded by walls with broken glass on top and most of the rest live in shanties. We are not so crass as to use broken glass, but many from our college-and-laptop set live in gated communities.

If we continue along the path we’re on, some day that set will look over its collective shoulder and see no one following. Then the fate of ancient Rome will not be far away. Free trade won’t stop our social dissolution; it will just provide reason to envy or scapegoat foreigners and the immigrants among us.

Sincerely,

Jay

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13 April 2008

Bitter


In recent years the art of “public relations” has produced some breathtaking distortions of reality. One of the most amazing is going on right now. The public-relations gurus who control the Clinton campaign are trying to convince abused working people that they don’t and shouldn’t feel bitter. These gurus want white workers to think Barack Obama is “elitist” and “out of touch” because he sees and understands their justifiable bitterness.

As I’ve explained in two previous posts (1 and 2), the art of modern “public relations” is the most powerful tool of political manipulation in human history. It achieves success by—among other things—exploiting a deep-seated human urge: to believe what you want to be true.

Here’s how it works. Suppose you are a 57-year old white ex-steelworker. You lost your good job when the mill closed ten years ago, after twenty-three years of work. You’ve been in low-paid service jobs ever since, flipping burgers, pumping gas, taking few vacations and enjoying no “extras.”

As a result of bankruptcy and obscure laws, your pension is less than one-quarter what you were promised during your prime working years. You have a bad back and prostate trouble, and your wife has painful arthritis. Neither of you has been to a doctor in five years. You’ve had no health insurance since the steel mill closed, and the promise of insurance to accompany your pension has been “reconsidered.” A single major illness or injury would cost you your home.

After you lost your steel job, you had to sell your life’s sole luxury—your fishing boat. Still, you couldn’t help your son finish college. He has a rap sheet, and you think he’s now on drugs. You daughter is divorced with two kids, and you can’t help her, either. You know in your heart that your kids will never live as well as you and your wife did when American steel was king. And you worry nightly about your grandkids’ future.

Now if that were you, wouldn’t you feel just a little bit “bitter”? Wouldn’t you feel used?

If it were me, I wouldn’t just feel “bitter.” I’d be enraged. I’d feel the same way Russian peasants felt in October 1917.

But the Romanovs didn’t have Hillary Clinton’s and John McCain’s PR teams. Here’s what they want our abused worker to think:
    “You’re an American, aren’t you? You live in the strongest, richest, greatest country on Earth. You helped build it. You’re proud and self-reliant. You’ve got guns and don’t have to suffer gays. You’ve had some tough breaks, but you’re tough enough to suck them up. You’re not like those whining liberals or minorities. You can take it. You can work harder and better than any of those foreign weaklings, and you’ll have your chance again when we get those manufacturing jobs back.”

That’s a powerful message. It plays directly on workers’ pride, self-esteem and sense of self-worth. It plays on the Calvinist streak of self-reliance, discipline and self-sacrifice that built this nation, from the Pilgrims onward.

Yet it’s more powerful even than that. Our abused worker has nothing left but his pride. Take that away, and he’s a jellyfish. “Mouth one gripe,” the message implies, “and you’ll lose your pride—your last earthly possession. You’ve got nothing else left, so you might as well die.”

Thus does PR use emotional ju-jitsu to force our abused workers to swallow their bitterness. As long as they do so, they won’t start asking the hard questions that need to be asked.

It’s not surprising that John McCain is taking this tack. He’s a Republican. The ruling class and monied elite have used this sort of misdirection since Caesar. And, to his credit, McCain honestly let workers know those jobs are not really coming back.

But Hillary? When was the last time you saw a Democrat urging workers to bury their justifiable bitterness?

As we know, Hillary will do anything to win. She’ll borrow the aristocrats’ oldest trick in the book. Then she’ll use the second oldest trick—implying that Obama can’t feel white workers’ pain because he went to Harvard (while she went to Yale) and he’s not the same color. She’ll play on workers’ pride to get them to ignore their mistreatment, and she’ll play on their racism to divide them. And she’s not just selling out the men. She’s selling out the single moms and long-suffering wives who have every right to feel bitter about this country’s abysmal leadership and what it’s done to them.

I don’t know how Hillary’s tactics make you feel, but I know just how they make me feel. They make me feel bitter.

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11 April 2008

Inaccurate


“Inaccurate” is an interesting word. It’s understated and lifeless. It doesn’t catch the eye or ear like “lying” or “dishonest.” It’s not an insult. It’s a word used by careful, thoughtful, understated people—accountants and scientists. It’s the kind of word you might have expected to hear from a gentleman, before that word left our everyday lexicon as obsolete.

But “inaccurate” is an important word for two reasons. First, it’s about the strongest negative thing Barack Obama ever says. Despite enormous provocation, he never accused Hillary Clinton of being or saying anything more, even during the height of the recent so-called “mudslinging.” In refuting claims of her or her campaign, no matter how absurd, he restricts himself to calling them “inaccurate.”

The second reason why “inaccurate” is an important word today is that it describes accurately what brought us low. So many of the claims, assertions, predictions and promises of recent years have been “inaccurate.”

It was “inaccurate” to predict that we could successfully occupy Iraq and build a new nation there with less than half the troops prescribed by our best generals. The idea that Iraqis would greet us with flowers and song was “inaccurate.” So were the claims that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and was conspiring with Al Qaeda.

Our troops abroad have suffered keenly from inaccuracies. It was dangerously “inaccurate” to believe that they had all the body armor and vehicle armor they needed. It was “inaccurate” to boast that troops returning home have the best possible care, with the least possible bureaucracy and delay. It is “inaccurate” to predict that we can win two wars without the least sacrifice on the part of nonmilitary families.

The evils of inaccuracy are not limited to war. They’ve gutted our economy as well. It was “inaccurate” to believe that housing prices would rise forever. It was “inaccurate” to think that financial markets could thrive on loans made without any evidence of ability to repay them. The predictions that crises in housing and construction wouldn’t spread to the larger economy were “inaccurate.” It was “inaccurate” to believe we could meet our energy needs and insure our national security just by pumping more oil and gas. The repeated claims that global warming isn’t real and that we can reverse it by relying on individuals’ voluntary effort are “inaccurate.” Millions of aging workers now know that promises of generous pensions were “inaccurate.”

Even our best and most prestigious companies got into the act of inaccuracy. The balance sheets of Citigroup, Bear, Stearns and other erstwhile financial giants were “inaccurate.” Dates on Apple Computer’s stock options were “inaccurate.” Boeing’s estimates and promises for delivery of its new “Dreamliner” aircraft were “inaccurate.”

When Dubya gave his last State of the Union speech in January, he concluded with the usual formula, assuring us that the state of our Union is strong. That was “inaccurate.” The state of our Union is self-evidently the weakest it has been in my lifetime, and I’m over 60. Relative to our history and the rest of the world, it is probably the weakest it has been since our Civil War. Our trendline is down, not up, and the slope of our decline is getting steeper by the week.

Why is this so? Once reason is that we’ve built our public policy, public life, commerce and economy on so many inaccuracies. We have let ourselves be led and misled by marketers, advertisers, public-relations experts, and propagandists like Karl Rove. We have drunk our own cool aid and are governed by hucksters.

It’s therefore not surprising that many of us don’t know what to do with a man like Barack Obama. In our pervasive culture of inaccuracy, he’s a fish out of water. He doesn’t lie. He doesn’t spin. He doesn’t exaggerate—about his record or anything else. He’s a self-restrained gentleman in a culture of braggarts, self-promoters and con artists. His race is the least unusual thing about him.

Reality is a tough taskmaster. It’s tough to discern, tougher to understand, and tougher still to accept. Modern science has undertaken those tasks for the last 400 years, ever since Galileo. Only now is it beginning to make headway on the questions that really matter: who we are, where we came from, and how we can make our lives longer and sweeter.

Outside of science, our contact with reality is tenuous. We believe what we want to believe, even if it is “inaccurate.” Twenty percent of us still think the Sun revolves around the Earth, four centuries after Galileo. Substantial minorities disbelieve evolution. Many more still believe Saddam had WMD and a close working relationship with Al Qaeda. Lots of women still think Hillary landed in Bosnia under a hail of sniper fire.

Our media encourage factual relativism. They relegate “fact checking” to unknown authors laboring in obscurity on the back pages and in the wee hours. Real reporters just parrot what leaders and celebrities say, however “inaccurate.”

In our better moments, we all know the price of inaccuracy. We call people who lose contact with reality “insane.” We know they are rarely successful and suffer unenviable fates. Yet as a nation and a culture we are drifting perceptibly in that direction.

Perhaps the most important change we can make is to reverse that drift. We could start by electing a leader who is not a huckster, who can recognize, chide and perhaps correct our growing collective insanity with dignity, humor and understatement.

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04 April 2008

The Dilbert Effect, or Don’t Knock Hope


Classical economists like to talk about labor as a “factor of production.” But labor isn’t a thing, a bare abstraction. Workers are people. As our nation falls into what looks like the worst depression since 1929, we are about to discover precisely what that means.

As any coach, military leader or sales person will tell you, motivation is the key to good work. People work best when they respect their leaders, when they can make a difference, when they can see the difference that their work makes, and when they think they are getting a fair shake. All of those factors—once an indelible part of the American dream—are now failing. The result may be the biggest unconscious labor slowdown in human history.

You might call it the “Dilbert effect.” One reason the cartoon strip “Dilbert” is so funny is that we all recognize ourselves in it. We all have had stupid, selfish and clueless bosses at some time in our lives. Even the best and most diligent of us has slacked off, played practical jokes and sometimes even sabotaged real work in counterproductive—but very human—acts of disobedience and revenge. When we lose all respect for and confidence in our leaders, we become slackers and practical jokesters, even saboteurs.

Isn’t that precisely where we are as a nation today? Our society has become “Dilbert” writ large. Our president and co-president have proved themselves stupid and clueless, repeatedly denying reality that everyone else can see. The leaders of our financial system were so stupid they could not see that loaning money to people with no evidence of ability to repay might produce financial obligations of uncertain value. Apart from Steve Jobs’ iPhone, we have not had a major commercial product innovation in several years. We rely on Japan for our consumer electronics and cars, India for the folks who (badly) man our telephone queues and back offices, and China for just about everything else except industrial machinery and large airplanes, which we still make. Even Boeing is now months behind on its new “Dreamliner.”

Can you name any segment of our society that has not suffered from overconfidence, hucksterish marketing, poor management, lack of self-restraint and failure to maintain good contact with reality?

Most of us have not slacked off yet. We are still in shock. We all drunk the cool aid. We believed that we could win any war—no matter how poor our planning and strategy, no matter how few resources and how little sacrifice we were willing to devote to it. We believed that we can compete with anyone, no matter how badly our system of education has failed, how much our infrastructure has decayed, and how poor, hungry and well educated our competitors may be.

We began to believe our own myths, so embedded in our cinematic psyches. We are slowly coming to understand that we are not actually Rocky, Rambo, Superman, Spiderman, the scientific genius in Back to the Future, or any of our many other cartoon heroes. We are only men and women, and we’ve believed our myths of intrinsic superiority far too long.

Some of us still believe that hard work can overcome anything, even abysmal leadership, nonsensical strategy and belief in cartoons. Like the horse in Animal Farm, we meet adversity by gritting our teeth and working harder.

But too many have done that for too long. The best of us are becoming exhausted. Some hold down two or three jobs just to maintain the same standard of living their parents once enjoyed with one. Over the last several decades, workers have increased their productivity mightily, only to see no real increase in their income.

Highly educated professionals work harder than ever before. Doctors see twenty patients an hour and no longer do their own office interviews, let alone make house calls. Lawyers, health-care providers and executives all endure the tyranny of cell phones, pagers and Blackberries, staying “on call” 24/7/365, even while supposedly on vacation. With work occupying all our “free” time and commuting times increasing as affordable homes get farther and farther from town, we no longer have time for our children and parents, let alone for friends or quiet contemplation.

Even members of Congress are not immune. Several recently opined that the real reason for gridlock is not divergent ideology. Instead, it’s that members no longer live in D.C. but commute to their home states once or twice a week. Like the rest of us, they are so busy traveling and juggling their over-stressed personal lives that they no longer see each other socially. They no longer have time for the informal meetings, dinners, drinks, poker games and “down times” that once lubricated business in Washington and allowed members to appreciate each others’ merits and human qualities, despite differences in policy. Like the rest of us, members of Congress have become automatons on a treadmill run by hucksters and occasionally by morons.

We have all sold our human souls for a simple premise: by putting our heads down, minding our own business, working harder, enduring ever more frenetic and stressful lives, and (at the high end, at least) earning more, we will all be better off. Our Calvinist conservatives, including John McCain, think salvation lies in more of the same.

But there are limits. What happens when we are all working at or beyond our personal limits? What happens when it becomes evident even to the willfully blind among us that working harder is not getting us farther, and that the premises we once believed in are lies? What happens when our ship of state drifts into shoals because too few are minding the rudder and the compass?

You don’t need polls to understand that we have a massive crisis of confidence. It’s not just Dubya and Dick, or Bear, Stearns. In the last several years, Congress, the Supreme Court, our intelligence services, the Catholic Church, the energy industry, the automobile industry, financial institutions, our system of primary and secondary education, our Department of Justice and our emergency services (in Katrina) all failed us. The last major institution in our society that still works—our military—is under unbearable stress, with impossible missions, insufficient resources, abysmal civilian leadership (until recently), and the realistic fear of insufficient care and support when exhausted and battered troops come home.

As for making a difference and being able to see it, how many workers today can say that? Few of us make anything tangible anymore. Most of us who do have become automatons, part of the assembly line. Many of us work in fields like advertising, public relations and political consulting, where a significant part of the work product is lies. The health-care professions are so over-stressed and bureaucratized that few in them have time or leisure to appreciate the real differences they do make in human welfare. About the only workers who can really take personal, direct pride in their work these days are writers, artists, construction workers and makers of customized furniture and clothes.

And do we feel we are getting a fair shake for all our storm and stress? The “leaders” get richer and more powerful while the rank and file stagnate. The ratio of CEOs’ salaries to those of the average worker is higher than at any time in our history, and the highest it has ever been in any time or place in human history, except perhaps the most gilded eras of the Mongol Empire and ancient Rome. Real wages have stagnated for as long as most workers can remember. Even the “elite,” with lots of higher education, feel a sense of futility as highly skilled jobs begin to migrate overseas. As the “recession” deepens, computer programmers, educators, webmasters and scientists will find themselves in unemployment lines and begin to doubt the mantra that education cures all.

The likely outcome is predictable. Human beings are not machines. They don’t break; they rebel.

It is too early to speak of revolution. Over 70% of those polled think their own personal financial situation tolerable. But a national slowdown seems inevitable. When people are killing themselves to get ahead and don’t, eventually they will stop hitting their heads against the wall. The will spend more time with their friends and families and begin to act like the underlings in “Dilbert.”

So, in the midst of this mortgage crisis, collapsing housing bubble, credit crunch, and moral crisis in national leadership at every level, we can expect a pervasive retrenchment in commercial and industrial productivity. People simply won’t continue to knock themselves out once they see they have nothing to gain. Some may work harder out of fear—fear of losing their jobs and becoming destitute. But fear is hardly the best or most creative motivator.

How bad will it get? I don’t know. In a separate post, I’ve estimated that the mortgage crisis and housing bubble alone are about a $120 billion problem. On the numbers, that’s not a hard problem to solve.

What scares me more is the human reaction. We are all getting fed up, each in his or her own way. Today 81% of us think we are on the wrong track.

We live today in a sea of euphemisms. We like to speak of “recession,” rather than “depression.” But the term “depression” is apt for what is coming precisely because it describes our collective psychological state. It mirrors the same term used in medicine and clinical psychology. You are “depressed” when you feel abused and worthless and think that nothing will ever change. That’s precisely what many workers feel and think today. Their number will only grow as the economic crisis deepens. After repeated abuse—whether perceived, real, or self-generated—people give up and play, or they play tricks.

You can already see the trends. Many of our commercial, financial and industrial leaders no longer think about making things better, even if only in their industry. They think only “how can I get mine?” That’s the clear message from Enron, Bear, Stearns, and Countrywide, and there seems to be no end in sight.

Even a great corporation like Boeing gets in the game. In fierce competition with Airbus, it makes promises it can’t keep. One of the most well-run, productive and innovative organizations in human history can no longer meet its schedule. Whether it’s bad management, overconfidence, or just bad luck, the whole world can see. And I won’t even mention the tanker-plane scandal.

Our youth, so-called “Generation Y,” want great responsibility, high pay, and interesting work with short hours and low stress. In job interviews, they are quite open about these goals. The subjects of discipline and self-restraint apparently never come up. As we frenetic Boomers retire and our Calvinist “Greatest Generation” dies, these trends will only accelerate. Workers led by the new moral paragons will slack off.

Will a change in national leadership make a difference? I don’t know. We may already be too far gone. Too many lies have been told, too many myths believed, too many stupid mistakes made, too much greed and thoughtlessness revealed, and too many promises broken, including some in our Bill of Rights.

Moreover, our amoral zeitgeist reinforces itself. The more workers perceive leaders acting solely in their own interest, the less they believe in common values like hard work, discipline and self-sacrifice. The more lesser leaders see the greater (including our top executives) acting like hucksters and working only for themselves, their cronies, or their social class, the more they do likewise. We may already be in a vicious cycle of societal decay that has no end short of national calamity.

And yet, and yet. People are not entirely rational. Hope can be a powerful motivator. A dose of hope and inspiration might jar us out of our funk and lethargy. Perhaps someone used to telling the truth, who personifies hope and the American dream, can inspire us to believe in the dream again, no matter how much our current leadership has tarnished it.

There is only one candidate who might be capable of doing so. There is only one candidate who has the clear vision, good judgment, self-restraint and moral character to restore our national values. We all know who he is. It certainly isn’t Hillary, whose judgment has been wrong on every major issue, and who has lied repeatedly to inflate her résumé. Another huckster and self-promoter like her would just about do us in.

P.S.

As luck or fate would have it, today’s Dilbert strip expresses precisely the theme of this essay, with Scott Adams’ usual brilliant wit. Every manager should read it to understand what is yet to come.

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