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

31 January 2012

Why Mitt Will Win and Lose

It’s easier to see now, just a few hours before the Florida primary ends. But it was always predictable. Mitt Romney will win the Republican nomination and lose the presidency.

The reasons are different but related. Both arise from a dearth of talent in the GOP, or at least talent willing to stick its neck out and run. Chris Christie is not the only one holding back and waiting for a more auspicious moment for a presidential run.

Mitt and Newt both have one thing in common. Their egos are much bigger than their brains. They both drive on where rational analysis says no Republican can tread.

But Mitt has one decisive advantage over Newt. He is not a monumental sleaze bag. He doesn’t personify the term “Southern trailer trash” like Newt.

What can you say about a man who treated his first two wives as Hitler treated Poland? Who took more money from Freddie than the average American earns in six years and now swears to the GOP Big Lie Du Jour—namely, that Freddie and Fannie caused the Crash of 2008? Whose latest idea of intelligent public policy is going after fertility clinics as baby destroyers? Who was the only Speaker in history to be formally censured for ethical violations?

Wretched character does not begin to describe Newt. Perjoratives fail. All you can say is that, were he ever to get real power in his grimy paws, the result would be down in Robert Mugabe territory.

The American people are not the world’s brightest when it comes to politics. But they can feel sleaze. So, slowly but surely, they will turn from Newt, who personifies it. Outside the South, where bossism and sleaze are endemic, they will turn toward Mitt for shelter from the shit storm. And lest we forget, the South is still a minority of us, and the most backward of all our regions.

Mitt has two traits that now make him stand out. He doesn’t lie too much more than the average politician. And his personal and family life, insofar as we know, are impeccable.

Mitt does have a few points of hypocrisy. He insists on disowning his “Obamacare for Massachusetts,” which is actually working quite well, right now, healing the sick and preserving the healthy. As a businessman who’s good with numbers, Mitt has to know that.

Mitt’s also trying to appease the large populist wing of his party by downplaying his wealth and the fact that the deals he did with Bain made him much richer. And, like Hillary Clinton before him, he’s trying to conceal the utter lack of military service in his entire family with a jingoistic foreign policy that no one needs or can afford.

But Mitt won’t lose the presidency for these substantive hypocrisies. Nor will he lose because, with only four years of actual governance under his belt, he would be the least experienced president in US history. (Obama had twelve years in politics on assuming the presidency.)

Mitt will lose because he is what passes for a moderate in the party of extremists.

Mitt may be good at profit and loss. But apparently he hasn’t run the political balance sheets of his party. The assets are depleted: fiscal prudence (which Dubya cast to the winds), non-intervention in foreign policy (ditto), and intelligent investment in infrastructure and environmental preservation (remember Nixon?).

The liabilities are many. First are the anti-abortion nuts. If we could just save all those poor little babies from the abortion knife (they believe, without really knowing how many), God would smile on us and all our troubles and enemies would magically disappear. Next are the immigrant bashers. If we could just kick out all our illegals and force what used to be our middle class to take their dirty, low-paid and back-breaking jobs, happy times would come flying back.

Then there are the American Taliban. If we could just make this country a truly Christian nation, with mandatory church attendance and public financing, God would smite our enemies, foreign and domestic, and our greatness would return like the sun after a storm.

These views’ utter illogic and stupidity are not the point. The fact that large factions of the party of extremists hold them is. No one who is moderate enough to appeal to the general electorate, including Mitt, will excite those factions. They will stay home on election day, en masse, and Obama will win.

It’s sad that Obama will have to win that way. It would be nice if our electorate recognized his greater intelligence, better character, more elegant moderation, and vastly superior political skill and experience.

But let’s count our blessings. Winston Churchill once accurately described us Yanks as always doing the right thing, but only after exhausting all the alternatives.

After tonight, Mitt will be the last alternative standing. We will exhaust him, like all the others, in another campaign of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Then we will get back to the dreary but vital business of governing a declining and deeply divided society. Only if we can wrest the House from the likes of Boehner can we expect to begin the much-needed process of national renewal.

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22 January 2012

The Perfect Dupes

What does Newt Gingrich’s crushing forty-percent-plus win in South Carolina’s Republican primary mean?

In order to answer that question, you have to ask another, more pointed one. How did he win? According to the Washington Post’s informal exit polling, he won by being mean. Faced with serious questions about his character and morality, in both his marriages and his pubic life, he exploded at his questioners, including moderator John King and rival Mitt Romney.

This junkyard-dog approach appeared to work for Newt. But what does it mean for South Carolina and much of the rest of the South?

Anger in politics is a dangerous thing. It motivated the worst self-inflicted political wounds in human history, the French and Russian Revolutions. Skillful demagogues rode it to overwhelming power and then turned on the people they claimed to represent and protect. Bloodshed, terror, misery and horror followed.

The Tea Party movement is but a pale reflection of these disastrous outbursts of popular anger. But its motive force is the same. People make all the wrong choices for themselves and their future. A clever demagogue directs their anger—which rightly should target themselves—outward, against scapegoats. The result is power for the demagogue and yet more suffering for the clueless dupes.

States like South Carolina have been dupes since the Civil War. They have followed the easy path of bossism and racism down into a sewer of poverty, ignorance, joblessness, helplessness, and obesity. It’s easy to misdirect their anger against a half-black President and a gay congressional leader (Barney Frank) because they have always hated outsiders and the different, even (especially) well-meaning ones. They don’t need help from outsiders, thank you, and haven’t since the destruction and capture of Charleston.

Like much of working America, South Carolinians should be angry at themselves. They have far too little education. They don’t pay much attention to politics, except when it mimics a soap opera. They drink and eat too much. They get too little exercise. They hate too much.

And so they are dupes for a simplistic ideology that redounds of “freedom” but self-evidently hasn’t worked for forty years and never will. They are like the Russian peasants who still believe that Communism will restore their nation’s greatness and make them rich and happy. If only . . . . If only . . . .

Politicians like Newt demonstrate spectacularly the two types of human intelligence: emotional and analytical. Like Newt, tyrants usually have lots of the first and little of the second. Like the psychopaths who have destroyed the global economy and still threaten to do it again, they also lack empathy and a sense of responsibility—what most of us ordinary folk call “morality.” How anyone could vote for Newt knowing what he has done to two of his wives, his House and the nation is nearly beyond comprehension.

But with his extraordinary emotional intelligence, Newt well understands the downtrodden, backward common people of our racist, bossist South. He figuratively rubbed the faces of two of his three wives in excrement. He is the only Speaker of the House ever to be formally censured for ethical violations. In the runup to the Crash of 2008, he played both sides of the fence, receiving hundreds of thousands in “consulting” fees from Freddie. Then, when the shit hit the fan, he blamed the whole mess on that gay guy, Barney Frank. His policies and programs continue to entrench Wall Street’s selfishness, isolation and raw economic power, which have oppressed South Carolina and most of the South for 150 years.

Yet his dupes don’t have a clue. Newt manipulates their anger like a street musician playing an accordion, and the monkeys jump to his tune.

Fortunately, South Carolina is one of our least populated, least powerful, most backward and ignorant states. In the larger scheme of things, the delusion of its population doesn’t matter much. All its duping and anger will do is split the vote against the President and insure his re-election.

But the South remains both a danger and an opportunity—in Chinese terms a perpetual crisis. In the wrong hands, of someone even worse then Newt, it could fall into something like German or Italian fascism. In the right hands, with education and skill, it might join the twenty-first century and play a key part in America’s renewal. But it will take a better, smarter and far more moral person than Newt to dupe it in the right direction.

The only real things that Newt can hope to accomplish are to destroy his party’s chances to unseat a vulnerable president, cause an ignominious loss, and perhaps (inadvertently) begin his party’s long overdue reformation.

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10 January 2012

France and Germany versus the Psychopaths

[For hints on how bankers can avoid becoming psychopaths, click here .]

Two primary traits distinguish psychopaths from the rest of us. First, they have no empathy. Second, they are always right, even when they are wrong. They cannot admit fault or take responsibility. They make their own “morality.”

Recently William Cohan, a writer and columnist for Bloomberg.com, accused the leaders of our big banks of being psychopaths.

If the shoe fits, they should wear it. Have you ever seen a big-bank CEO show the slightest empathy or remorse for making tens of millions unemployed, underemployed, or homeless, or for trapping millions more in a daily hell of on-the-edge anxiety? And as for always being right, what about Jamie Dimon, who trots the globe telling everyone who will listen that the slightest taxation or regulation of banking will destroy that so-called “industry,” which has done so much for all of us the last five years?

Bankers don’t admit the slightest fault. They were just doing what comes naturally: building financial houses of cards that make themselves obscenely rich and periodically fall down, bringing an otherwise thriving economy to ruin.

For guilt, they point their fingers at Fannie and Freddie. But we all know the truth. The collapse of Lehman Brothers and AIG caused the Crash of 2008. Those firms were private. And AIG now is again, after we taxpayers bailed it out.

Not only that. When Hank Paulson sought to stem the initial damage by handing out over $120 billion of our tax money in that infamous meeting in October 2008, the recipients in the room were all CEOs of our biggest private banks: Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, State Street, and Wells Fargo. Fannie and Freddie weren’t even in the room.

So who, if anyone, is trying to save us from the psychopaths? The answer might surprise you. France and Germany (or at least their leaders) have buried ancient animosities and the hurt from two world wars and are joining hands. They want to make banks eat 50% of the losses from their mistakes in lending to Greece, relying on derivative “insurance” from the psychopaths.

The psychopaths don’t want that at all. No, no, no! If minor banks had to obey the normal rules of capitalism and pay for their mistakes, they would stop gambling at the big banks’ casinos and might actually make prudent loans. Eventually, they might unwind the $600 trillion overhang of derivatives that threaten another Crash of 2008 at any time. At least they wouldn’t add to it. The horror! The horror!

France and Germany also want to levy a tiny financial transactions tax. Its purpose is simple. When the finance psychopaths next ruin a perfectly functioning industrial economy again—as they have over a dozen times in the last 200 years, and will again—the bailout will come from a fund they financed, rather than from taxes paid by real businesses and ordinary working stiffs.

How big is the tax to be? A mere 0.1% (one one-thousandth) on stocks and bonds, and 0.01% (one ten-thousandth) on derivatives.

It’s hard to ken what those numbers mean, because it’s hard to fathom the astronomical sums that these psychopaths daily put at risk.

If you’re a millionaire, you might feel proud of yourself. But on that dark day in 2008, Hank Paulson handed out over $120 billion of our tax money. You might think of 120,000 of you, standing in a very long line, just to give up your entire net worth to save the bankers.

And as for the overhang of derivatives—that incomprehensible $600 trillion—you can think of it as the aggregate net worth of 600,000,000 millionaires. If every single person in the entire US and the EU, including infants and the elderly, were a millionaire, the collapse of that house of cards would bankrupt nearly every one of them.

And what about that vicious transactions tax? Well, suppose you’re an average upper-middle-class professional, making $100,000 per year. (That class is under attack right now and may become extinct. But it isn’t yet.) At 0.01%, a derivatives tax on your entire annual income would amount to ten dollars.

Not being a psychopath, you probably have some empathy and generosity. So you might drop that much into the hat of a beggar or the Salvation Army at Christmas time. You certainly would give that big a tip—probably more—to a good waiter who made a special dinner a happy one.

But faced with that minuscule level of taxation on their casinos, the bankers won’t hear of it. They pull the strings of their puppets in the US and UK. Then the puppets raise their wooden arms and vote against the tax.

The puppets say the tax has to be global to work at all. That would certainly be better: then the bankers couldn’t flee to Shanghai, the Cayman Islands or Manhattan to continue their psychopathy. But the puppets are making no moves to levy the tax in the English-speaking world, which is still in thrall to the psychopaths.

There is only one prominent voice in Anglo-America who stands against them: Jon Huntsman, Jr. He has proposed yet another solution, but one that also might work. He would simply break the big banks up. He would make them small enough to fail again, and he would force them to compete against each other for business. In other words, he would take them off the public tit, converting them from psychopathic sucklings back into capitalists.

So when you think of That Idiot Rumsfeld’s “Old Europe,” thank God it still exists. Thank France, where Nicolas Sarkozy led the charge to liberate Libya and is leading the charge to impose a financial transactions tax. And thank Germany, where CEOs earn ten times the pay of the average worker, and where hard bargainer Angela Merkel is trying to make the banks take responsibility for their mistakes. Don’t thank the “Grand Alliance” of the US and the UK, which still believes that we need these psychopathic parasites. For what?

Those states will change only when their people rise up. More likely, they will change when members of their real ruling class—industrialists and the few remaining honest bankers—wise up.

Have you ever heard of an economic collapse caused by real industry? Did Apple, Boeing or Caterpillar cause the Crash of 2008? Did steel, railroads, or emerging electric industries cause the Great Depression?

Not hardly. These and other real industries busy themselves creating wealth and making the world a better place every day. Then the finance psychopaths come along and blow the whole system up.

We will start to rein in the causes of all financial crashes in human history—finance psychopaths—only when the leaders of those and other industries come to understand a basic truth. You can have a vibrant and thriving global industrial economy. Or you can have a laissez faire financial sector where finance psychopaths can do what they want to enrich themselves. You can’t have both.

Your call, industry. We, the people are counting on you, because Jon Huntsman probably won’t make much headway until 2016. By then, unless France and Germany win, the next Great Depression may already have set in.

Are All Bankers Psychopaths?

As recently as three decades ago, that question would have been laughable. Bankers were pillars of the community, staid, proper, prudent and boring. They had two things increasingly rare in our go-go, me-first society: gravitas and a sense of responsibility. They got rich, but not that rich; they lived in the big house on the hill, but without in-your-face ostentation. In fact, their riches, which were quite modest by today’s standards, set them apart and embarrassed them a bit, and they tried to hide them.

Even some big bankers had the same spirit. A.P. Giannini, the founder of Bank of America, was like that. He was a people person first, a banker second. Back when his bank was the “Bank of Italy” in San Francisco, he succeeded by knowing his customers and taking sensible risks to help them when no one else would. After he expanded to Los Angeles, he got to know the leaders of Hollywood and helped many of them personally. Producers, actors and directors used to tell how his personal banking had made their careers.

Community bankers cared about their communities and the people they served. Many still do. Even some big bankers did. So how did the pillar of the community morph into the pitiless pillager?

I think three factors did it: size, remoteness, and an inhuman culture of over-the-top capitalism.

When a bank has thousands of branches and millions of customers, no single manager, let alone the CEO, can know their names, let alone their characters and needs. Community banking becomes impossible. So what takes its place?

That’s where the MBAs and green eyeshades come in. They reduce loan applicants and other customers to ciphers on a page. All an entrepreneur’s vision, initiative, hopes, dreams, fortitude and industry become abstractions on a standardized form. All the intangibles that community bankers and A.P. Giannini once used to assess real risk on a human scale vanish, replaced by sterilized ciphers.

As this process of sterilization was overtaking the nation, community banks merged into regional monsters located in distant cities and then behemoths headquartered on Wall Street. Bankers’ remoteness from their customers made it impossible to know even the important ones. And remoteness from legions of inferior employees made it even more necessary to reduce customers and risk judgments to ciphers on a page.

No wonder bankers became inhuman! They divorced themselves from human contact by reducing their customers to mathematical abstractions one to three time zones away.

The final ignominy was culture. As banks became bigger and bankers more remote from their customers—with the biggest banks relocating to Wall Street—bankers’ culture changed. They became an insular tribe without community and therefore without moral values. Their moral lodestars became their profits and stock prices, the higher the better.

Living so far from the people and places they served, bankers became completely oblivious to the damage they caused. The reductio ad absurdum was Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, who testified in Congress to “doing God’s work” after helping destroy the global economy.

So what turned bankers into psychopaths was not some hidden internal devil of banking. Nor was it an inherent character flaw in bankers themselves. It was the terrible logic of business, institutional and social changes that cut bankers off from the rest of humanity. It was also the culture of Wall Street, in which profits and stock price are the sole moral values, and they gain irresistible traction with fallible humans by determining their pay. Pillaging followed as night the day.

You can reduce systemic risk by better oversight and stronger regulation. And of course we should. You can tax financial transactions and build up a fund to help ameliorate the worst consequences of inevitable pillaging. And of course we should. But you can’t change the picture described above in an insular culture of conditioned vultures, all located in a single city (Manhattan) physically and culturally alienated from the rest of America.

That why Jon Huntsman’s solution—breaking up the big banks—deserves a sustained closer look. Of course we can’t go back to nineteenth-century America. But we can carefully design and shape institutions, in this case banks, so as not to leave behind the community spirit and individual customer relations that once made American business pre-eminent not only in profits, but in fairness and humanity as well.

There are ways to break up the big banks legally, without passing new antitrust laws or violating the constitutional prohibition against impairing the obligations of contracts. I have suggested one. Huntsman may have others. (And by the way, smaller banks can still do big deals, the same way they used to, by syndication. Syndication also has risk-reducing potential, for it forces several independent minds to assess the same risks.)

But one thing is certain. Humanity does not flow from inhuman institutions imposing inhuman values on real people. That way lies revolution.

After our revolutionary War of Independence, we Americans have always found ways to avoid violent revolution through peaceful social evolution. We did it with collective bargaining in the age of labor unrest. We did it with peaceful protest and legal reform in the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s. We even did it with peaceful protest in the Vietnam Era, although Iraq and Afghanistan suggests that the lessons of those years need reinforcement.

We can do it now with our finance sector, too. But we first have to recognize the problem. Can we do it without another Crash of 2008, which this time might presage a second Great Depression? I hope so. But the hour is late and time is wasting.

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08 January 2012

Why Romney Would Make a Bad President

[For eleven questions that moderators should try to ask at remaining presidential debates, click here.]

In at several places on this blog (1, 2 and 3), I have dinged Mitt Romney as a flip-flopper and a jerk. Now that he appears to have the presumptive nomination within his grasp, it’s appropriate to take a closer look.

He’s not running on his successful health-care program in Massachusetts, at least not in the GOP! That program is much too close to the so-called “Obamacare” that he continually bashes in his stump speeches.

And he’s certainly not running on his chameleon approach to social issues, which made him a social moderate in Massachusetts and an ersatz social conservative today. People like me might not care much because we don’t think those issues matter at a national level, and anyway we think Romney is lying now, not then.

So what makes Romney nearly the presumptive GOP nominee?

Two things, I think, help him stand out. First, he’s supposed to be a good debater. He’s had a lot of practice, so he comes on like the alpha-est of the alpha males competing in the penis-matching contests that pass for “debates” in our celebrity-obsessed and sick democracy. He’s got the good riposte and the glib line.

Second, he does have successful business experience. He started a successful business consulting firm called Bain Capital and made well over a hundred million dollars running it for about a decade.

So let’s analyze whether those qualities and that experience would make him a good president.

Romney’s glib ripostes can sound good to the average voter, especially when delivered with his trademark self-confidence. But do they actually makes sense when analyzed coldly? I think not.

One of his most famous one-liners came during the 2008 campaign. He accused then-candidate Barack Obama of being like Jane Fonda one day and Doctor Strangelove the next.

You had to be over fifty even to understand what he was talking about—a point that tells you something about Romney’s favored demographic. Jane Fonda is the American actress who went to North Vietnam several times during the Vietnam War, in order to protest it, and whom many Republicans consider a traitress. Dr. Strangelove was the fictional character in the movie of the same name, who sought nuclear Armageddon with the Soviets. What Romney was referring to was Obama’s willingness to talk to our enemies, including Iran and the Taliban, without preconditions, and his plan to pursue Al Qaeda leaders bin Laden and Zawahiri into Pakistan if necessary.

Romney’s jibe may have sounded good at a fraternity party—a frat boy one-liner. But in substance it was precisely and spectacularly wrong. Talking with our enemies led to mutual disarmament with the Soviets and eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union. Moreover, every president (except Dubya) since Jack Kennedy had pursued a policy of talking with our enemies without preconditions. As for bin Laden, pursuing him into Pakistan was precisely what eventually brought him justice, under President Obama’s command.

A similarly erroneous one-liner appeared in Saturday night’s New Hampshire debate. Huntsman criticized Romney for being willing to start a trade war with China—an outcome that would be catastrophic for both sides. Romney responded by saying that China sells far more to us them we to it, so it has more to lose in a trade war, giving us leverage. The clueless moderators gave Huntsman no chance for rebuttal.

That riposte may have sounded good to the thoughtless or uniformed. The Chinese do indeed sell far more to us than we to them. But that’s the point. Go into any Wal-Mart, Lowe’s or Home Depot in our land. Pick up any product at random. Chances are it will say “Made in China.” My wife and I recently put up an artificial Christmas tree she had bought a decade ago. “Product of China,” its packaging said.

What would happen if we put tariffs on all those products that we buy and use every day, or otherwise restricted their imports? Retail prices would go up, sparking inflation, and/or we would have the kinds of shortages that Soviet consumers suffered in their worst days.

Maybe American voters aren’t smart enough to understand this economic cause and effect. But the Chinese are. So the simple trade imbalance that Romney cited gives us no leverage with the Chinese, who are smart enough to know the consequences of a trade war for both sides. They know that, no matter how much we act like cowboys, at the end of the day we won’t shoot ourselves in the foot.

In order to deal with the Chinese, Romney needs to do more than be smarter than the average Republican voter. He needs to be as smart or smarter than the Chinese themselves. His frat-boy one liner gave no evidence that he is. It just showed that he’s as willing to dupe the American voter on matters of economics as he is about his positions on abortion and health care.

But Romney’s forte is his business success. Let’s give the devil his due. I have criticized his downsizing other people’s companies. But there’s nothing wrong with that if downsizing helps those companies survive when they otherwise wouldn’t. Downsizing can save jobs and businesses, if it’s a last resort. After all, I laud the President’s bailout of GM, and that’s precisely what it did: downsize and refinance GM in order to save it and the jobs it provided.

But let’s look at what Romney did more closely. In downsizing the companies he saved, Romney had the whip hand all the way. In many cases they were smallish companies with family or entrenched management unfamiliar with modern business methods. Romney came in with his Harvard M.B.A., modern quantitative methods of analysis and cost cutting, and investors ready to provide massive capital infusions on his recommendation. When he said jump, management and shareholders, who wanted to salvage whatever they could, asked “How high?” on the way up.

How does that experience translate into a presidency? Not very well.

In dealing with China, for example, Romney as president would not be dealing with a failing company whose leaders were looking for any way out. He would be dealing with a rising global power, likely to become the world’s leading economic power within the decade. With three trillion dollars of foreign reserves, China is far more solvent than we are. And Romney has nothing to tell the Chinese, who have been practicing quantitative business methods and beating us at our own game for two decades.

In downsizing his clients as a consultant, Romney was dealing from a position of absolute strength. He wasn’t operating from a position of equality or weakness, as we must with the Chinese and our other allies and rivals. In that circumstance, diplomacy is much more likely to succeed than frat-boy one-liners or a false (and offensive!) air of command. Dubya and Hank Paulson tried the commanding approach with China and got nowhere.

That same analysis applies here at home. Congressional gridlock will continue even if Romney wins this year’s presidential election. With the Senate’s filibuster rules and senators’ individual “holds” still supreme, Romney won’t be able to say “Jump!” as he did consulting for failing companies. He will have to persuade members of Congress and bargain with them as equals in order to make any progress at all.

Does anything in his history or personality suggest that he would be particularly good at that? He’s cocky, arrogant and glib. His frat-boy one-liners might amuse right wing average voters. They will not amuse Chinese ministers or ambassadors or Democratic members of Congress.

To make progress with China or Congress—or Russia or Europe, for that matter—you have to know how to bargain with equals and from a position of real or perceived weakness. Nothing in Romney’s history shows that he has any particular experience or skill in doing that. That sort of thing—which we call “diplomacy”—is Huntsman’s forte.

Under circumstances of international conflict, Romney’s approach would be even worse. Dubya proved as much by getting us into two unnecessary wars, among the longest in our history. Assuming your rivals’ or enemies’ stupidity and trying to “take command” in a system of serious international conflict is not the best way to avoid war.

In order to avoid war or win it, you must know your rival or enemy and its alien culture. Romney’s language experience is in French, hardly an alien culture like Iran’s, North Korea’s, or even Russia’s or China’s. His bluster and saber rattling with respect to Iran may serve him well with a right-wing electorate, but it won’t in dealing with the real world as president. Coupled with his total absence of military service and experience, it makes him a dangerous man.

I have written a whole essay about the military tragedies that failure to appreciate alien cultures can cause. I won’t repeat it here. But I will say that treating a foreign nation like a failing company in need of help from Wall Street would be just as dangerous as treating its leaders like American pols, as Lyndon Jonhson tried to do in Vietnam.

One of the many aspects of fuzzy thinking in current Republican dogma is the notion that “leadership” in American business translates easily into leadership in other fields. American business operates under known, stable and fair rules of conduct, which rely on a common culture and set of laws. The rest of the world does not. Nor does war.

The notion that Mitt Romney’s special brand of business experience makes him qualified to resolve conflicts and win wars with utterly alien cultures is a complete non-sequitur. It’s an error of logic that could cost us as dearly as our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Signs of a Sick Democracy: the First New Hampshire “Debate”

[For a list of questions that the moderators of last night’s debate should have asked—and that every moderator of a presidential debate should ask—click here.]

I watched my first GOP debate last night. I watched it from beginning to end. What I saw was evidence of a sick, sick democracy.

That impression took hold even before the actual debate began. There was Diane Sawyer, the central of three moderators, dressed to the nines, with inappropriately heavy and flashy earrings. She looked like the rich hostess at a grotesque dinner party.

And that’s exactly how she acted. Her grandiose and condescending manner put her somewhere between the MC at the Academy Awards and a rich heiress inviting not-too-welcome guests (us, the people) into her palatial estate—one far too elegant for the invited hoi palloi to appreciate.

Everything about her revealed what the debate itself made incontrovertible. This was a grand show for us, the rubes. Any relationship to governing our country was purely coincidental.

After the debate Diane grandiosely and obsequiously thanked the specially selected audience and the candidates’ families, as if they were all doing us, the people, a great favor just by showing up. I had to turn the TV off quickly in order not to vomit on our coffee table.

Maybe Diane was subconsciously telling us something we all ought to know by now: what a sham these debates and our so-called “democracy” have become.

But—believe it or not—the debate itself went downhill from there. I didn’t keep exact count. But I would bet no more than ten minutes of the discussion focused on what we, the people, care about, or ought to care about: jobs, our economy, and our future as nation. The rest was alpha bulls strutting their stuff and jousting with each other, and the moderators deliberately encouraging them like schoolchildren at a football match.

No doubt thinking himself sooooo clever, George Stephanopolous opened with an abstract, hypothetical question about state regulation of privacy and birth control. His question confused the roles of the President and the Supreme Court and no doubt went completely over the head of every viewer who is not a lawyer. Romney batted it away like the intellectual fly dropping that it was.

You couldn’t find better evidence than that question of grossly overpaid people not giving a damn about the rest of us. Iran is threatening to close the Straits of Hormuz and cut our oil addiction cold turkey. A teenage mutant tyrant is now in charge of North Korea. China has sucked up our jobs, intellectual property and wealth. Europe is about to explode the financial system for the second time in four years, if our own casino banks don’t do it first. And Stephanopoulos opens with an abstract, hypothetical legal question that belongs in a constitutional law exam at a third-rate law school.

My first thought was that I had never seen as incompetent moderation of a presidential debate. But that was assuming that the purpose was to edify the public and not just put on a good show.

If the purpose was—like all the later talk about gay marriage and the President’s alleged “war on religion” (Newt’s words)—to distract us from our troubles and let rich people continue stealing the substance of our nation while it declines irretrievably, then the question was brilliant! (Do you begin to see why I don’t spend a lot of time watching televised political debates?)

Apparently the media arranged the candidates according to their showing in Iowa. There was Romney, in the center, fielding the vast majority of questions. Jon Huntsman, Jr.—the only candidate willing to admit to being a moderate—was on the left, and Rick Perry on the right.

How cute! That placement was certainly appropriate for Perry. At the end of the debate, responding to Diane’s general question, he said he would have been at the shooting range on Saturday night if he hadn’t been there.

I never attribute motives or intent to people I don’t know well. But ABC, which staged this farce, could not have arranged a better coronation of Romney if it had planned every detail for that purpose.

Again, I didn’t count exactly. But I’d be surprised if Romney didn’t get at least half again the air time as any other candidate on the stage, and at least twice as much as Huntsman, the only one in my opinion qualified to be there.

Romney rose to the occasion, with a good debate performance, as such things go today. He gave no hint of detail but struck an optimistic and forceful tone. He made the music of an alpha male without any words at all. He even managed to show some emotion about our nation’s future—something his consultants no doubt have told him had been lacking so far.

The same pro-leader bias infected ABC’s little “teasers”—choice excerpts from the immediately preceding portion of the debate that ABC aired between ads during commercial breaks. Their relevance and even punchiness varied directly with the candidates’ distance from central Romney. For Huntsman, they picked an utterly meaningless clip of two abstract sentences—from a segment in which he had made at least two cogent and unique points.

And if you think ABC’s stage-managing wasn’t close enough, know this. ABC has “helpfully” culled what it thinks are the “highlights” of the debate and presented them for you, on a site that makes it hard or impossible (I tried, without success) to do your own browsing. (I’m not providing a link because I think it stinks.)

ABC’s clip headings even ridiculed Huntsman for using a phrase of Chinese. If you fall for that, you might as well give ABC your vote, too. But try to find a clean feed of the whole debate on the Web. I couldn’t. All I could find last night was independent edits, each touting its own candidate or point of view. Thus have our “mainsteam” media degenerated from reporting the news to telling you what and how to think.

By now you may have wondered why I, a substance freak, have spent so much ink on appearance and process. The reason: there was hardly any substance in the debate at all. If you want to see it, just watch the last eight minutes or so. (I couldn’t tell precisely how long because I couldn’t find a clean feed. That’s what we get for giving a private firm, ABC, an exclusive on a presidential debate. This is democracy?)

There was also an earlier bit of substance about infrastructure. But if you’re in a hurry, you can skip it. The candidates who spoke about infrastructure all said they’re for it. Only Huntsman laid out a concrete plan to pay for it, complete with an amount. Two or three others said they had a plan but gave no details or figures.

And so it went.

The last session did serve up a tiny bit of substance. ABC saved it for the very end, when the children would be asleep.

As it turned out, there were actually some good ideas. Several candidates proposed cutting corporate taxes in order to make our manufactures more competitive abroad. Huntsman’s proposals, as usual, were more concrete and sensible.

But none of the candidates bothered to explain that their are four relevant tax rates: (1) the corporate tax rate for ordinary income, (2) the corporate tax rate for long-term capital gains, and (3) and (4) the same two rates for individuals. Lowering corporate ordinary-income rates makes it easier for corporations to offer products cheaper. Lowering long-term capital gains rates (whether on individuals or corporations) encourages long-term investment and long-term thinking—a point I have made myself. But lowering individual tax rates on high ordinary incomes just makes the rich richer, without corresponding economic or social benefit. You don’t have to be a genius to understand why no Republican explains these vital distinctions.

And so it went. The “adults,”—our plutocratic masters and their shills—don’t discuss anything important while we children are present. They drop a few key words so the more attentive among us won’t feel offended. They tend to do so at the end of the debate, when we children are tired and sleepy.

But mostly they talk about “hot button” issues that have absolutely no bearing on our jobs, our standard of living, our children’s future, our national security, or even whether we can keep our homes. And the media are completely complicit.

We think we have a democracy! Anyone who believes that so should spend a few hours watching the Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960. Now those were real debates about real issues. If you want to know how much we, the people, have been excluded from our governance, just compare them to the sham last night.

And so, children, how was your play today?

P.S. (1/9/12) I didn’t want to leave readers with the impression that I favor cutting corporate ordinary-income or capital gains taxes for the purpose of drowning government in a bathtub. Obviously any revenue lost from cutting those taxes would have to be made up by increasing taxes elsewhere.

That truth would force Republicans into an uncomfortable tradeoff. If they wanted to reduce corporate ordinary-income tax rates for the purpose of making American businesses more competitive, or to reduce long-term capital-gains rates for the purpose of encouraging longer-term investment and thinking, they would have to compensate by raising individual tax rates, at least for high earners.

I haven’t done the math to see how high the individual tax rates would have to go, and for how low incomes. But I would hope that Republicans who care about their businesses would be willing to make the individual sacrifices necessary to keep their businesses competitive and their workers employed.

Eleven Questions for All Presidential Candidates

The foregoing essay might seem a bit snotty to young people who’ve never seen a real presidential debate. So I thought it might be helpful to demonstrate more directly the abysmal incompetence of the moderators last night. Doing so is consistent with my general philosophy on this blog: I try not to identify a problem without providing some sort of solution.

Here are eleven questions that moderators of any presidential debate—Democratic or Republican—could pose to every candidate for president of the United States. They are really obvious questions when you think about them. They mostly track the list of our grave national problems, which have festered for an average of 17.5 years. They’re unlikely to change unless new and unforeseen crises add new substantive subject matter. The chances of the problems they implicate being solved by next November are infinitesimal.

Moderators should pose these questions in the order listed below. Why? Because people in our scatterbrained culture have the attention spans of gnats. So you want to pose the most important questions first, before the audience zones out. Putting fluff first and last is a form of sycophancy that candidates for president do not deserve. They are, after all, applying for the job of our supreme leader.

Here are the questions—actually groups of questions, including follow-ups:

1. Jobs. What specific steps would you take as president to put unemployed and underemployed people back to work? If your proposals would cost money, how would you pay for them? If they would require congressional action, what compromises and other inducements would you make to get the other political party to go along?

2. Foreclosures. Various estimates put the number of home foreclosures since the Crash of 2008, including those now in progress, at two to four million. How would you address this economic and social problem? Would you seek to keep people in their homes or expedite the foreclosure process and “clear the market”? How would you advance your goals, and what would you do about cases where the firm stuck with the loan has no or insufficient documentation? If your program costs money, how would you pay for it? And how would you get the other political party to go along?

3. Finance-caused economic crashes. In just the past century, we have suffered two major global crashes, the Great Depression and the so-called “Great Recession.” Finance, not industry, caused both. In 1929 it was the financial “innovation” of buying securities on margin. In 2008 it was unregulated derivatives, mostly mortgage-backed securities, which became “toxic assets.” What specific steps would you take to get derivatives and other financial “innovations” under control and insure that the “Great Recession” is the last global financial collapse caused by banks and other financial institutions? How would you fund those steps, and how would you get the private financial sector and the other political party to go along?

4. Energy. Some energy analysts expect oil prices to advance steadily as soon as the global economy recovers. In 2011, we imported about 9.5 million barrels of oil per day. At a cost of $100 per barrel (not too far from where we are today), that’s a balance-of-payments deficit—a sort of direct “tax” on our economy—of nearly a billion dollars a day. How would you reduce it? How much would your solutions reduce our foreign oil consumption, in oil barrels or barrel equivalents, or by a percentage? How would you pay for your proposals, and how would you get the other political party to go along?

5. Economic inequality. Right now, economic inequality in our country is the worst it has been since the Gilded Age a century ago. The ratio of CEOs’ pay to the average worker’s pay is over 400. In Germany it’s about ten. Would you as president try to reduce that ratio and restore economic equality? If not, why not? If so, how? How would you pay for your proposals, and how would you get the private sector and the other political party to go along?

6. Broken government. Gridlock in Congress is not likely to end next year, no matter what happens in November’s elections. A large part of the problem lies in our Senate, where filibusters have become routine and easy—without the actual speechifying portrayed in the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” And individual senators, without any collective action in the Senate, can put “holds” on legislation and presidential appointments, often anonymously. Should a president try to solve these problems and, if so, how? Would you support a constitutional amendment to change these practices, use your “bully pulpit” to expose, castigate and ridicule them, or something else?

7. Immigration. An estimated twelve million undocumented immigrants live in this country. Most do jobs that Americans sometimes say they would do but seldom actually do, at least for the wages the illegals accept. Businesses exploit these illegal immigrants economically, and politicians exploit them electorally. What would you do as president to stop this vicious cycle and get control of our borders? How would you pay for your proposal, and what would you do to get the other party and immigrant advocates, including our growing Hispanic community, to go along?

8. Military policy and expense. President Obama has proposed saving about a trillion dollars by reducing the Pentagon’s ability to fight two major wars simultaneously. He proposes being able to fight one major war and simultaneously deter another aggressor—a sort of “war and a half” strategy. Do you agree or disagree with his proposal? If you disagree, what specific two wars with what specific two foes do you think we should be ready to fight? Under what conditions are those wars likely, and what else, besides greater spending on our military-industrial complex, would you do to prevent them?

9. Specific threats. Insofar as reported in our press, our intelligence services believe that Iran is working on nuclear weapons. Do you also think so? If so, what steps would you take as president to prevent or delay Iran developing nuclear weapons? Would you limit your action to sanctions and diplomacy, or would you go so far as to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and infrastructure—acts of war? What guidance would you take and what help would you seek from the international community, and how? What would your goals be for North Korea? Would you seek to limits its nuclear arsenal to existing weapons, to get it to destroy its arsenal, or something else? How specifically would you accomplish your goals: by working with North Korea’s neighbors, by direct engagement with North Korea, by inducing China to apply pressure, or otherwise?

10. International democratic movements. The last year saw an explosion of popular movements for democracy throughout Greater Arabia and in places as unlikely as Syria and Moscow. Movements in Tunisia and Egypt seemed to succeed without violence. But Egypt’s movement may be turning violent, and Libya required international military intervention. In Syria, a tyrant is busy murdering his people. Some analysts fear that these movements in Arabia, which often involve Islamist parties, will ultimately threaten international stability. Do you see these movements as generally positive or generally destabilizing? Would you seek to advance or suppress them, and how?

11. Science in America. From our Manhattan Project (which first developed atomic weapons secretly, in the midst of war), to lasers, transistors, integrated circuits and the Internet, our nation has been supreme in science and technology. Now we are coasting at best, losing ground at worst. Europe has taken over high-energy physics with Geneva’s Large Hadron Collider. Russia and China both have manned space missions; we no longer do. And the Hubble Telescope—which advanced mankind’s knowledge of our Universe more in twenty years than in all of previous human history—is going dark. What would you do as president to restore our nation’s pre-eminence in basic science, including space science? How would you pay for it, and how would you get the other party to go along?

* * *

There! That wasn’t so hard, was it?

You would think that someone like George Stephanopoulos, who reportedly gets paid $ 6 million per year, would be able to come up with at least some of these simple questions. But, as the report of his grossly excessive pay headlines, he’s a “celebrity,” not a journalist. Maybe that’s part of our problem: we take “debates” for entertainment and let “celebrities,” not professional journalists, run them.

When celebrity replaces education and professionalism, a society inevitably declines. You need look no further than Rush, Glenn, Sarah and now George for evidence. That’s not something we are going to solve in this election season. But at least we can get our debate moderators to ask some decent questions, and follow up.

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06 January 2012

Huntsman v. Romney

There is only one serious candidate for president on the Republican side. The overwhelming majority of Americans don’t even know who he is yet.

But they will. His name is Jon Huntsman, Jr. In an interview last night, Gwen Ifill introduced him to the small sliver of still-thinking Americans that follow PBS.

All Americans—Republicans and Democrats—should watch the interview, which is only eight minutes long. What they’ll see is a thoughtful, low-key, articulate, honest and supremely intelligent man.

Ifill didn’t explore Huntsman’s policy positions. She tossed him mostly softball questions on the horse race and his prospects. But she did get him to admit, after some reluctance, that he is a moderate.

Republicans haven’t yet embraced him for precisely that reason. Goaded by Fox and the worst elements of their party, they’ve scattered to the four winds, looking under every stone for a radical conservative alternative to Romney.

They don’t like Romney because, in addition to being a flip-flopper and a jerk, he’s not radical enough for them, either on social or fiscal issues. They want a sincere and honest bomb thrower, not a president.

But here’s the thing. Gridlock in Congress is not going to change next year. Some pundits think Democrats may take the House and Republicans the Senate. Even if Republicans end up with majorities in both Houses, they won’t have a filibuster-proof edge in the Senate. Not even the idlest GOP dreamer thinks they will.

So, even if a Republican takes the White House, congressional gridlock will continue. Senate Democrats will maintain the same obstructionism that Republicans have taught them so well during the last three years.

Consequently, nothing will get done, let alone anything as radical as the program of the Tea Party or Ron Paul. Nothing, that is, in domestic policy.

Foreign policy is another matter. As Dubya showed by getting us into two unnecessary wars, the President has virtually plenary power in foreign and military policy. In those fields, it’s one-man rule.

So if you happen to be a Republican, and if you want someone who can accomplish something in the single field in which a president can act while Congress is in gridlock, Huntsman is your man.

Here’s the score so far:

State Administrative Experience:

International Administrative Experience:
      Deputy Assistant Secretary for Trade Development, Department of Commerce, 1989
      Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asia and the Pacific, Department of Commerce, 1990-1991
      Ambassador (youngest in a century) to Singapore, 1992
      Ambassador to China, 2009-2010
    Romney: None

Foreign Language Skills:
    Huntsman: Fluent in Mandarin Chinese

Business experience:

If Republicans want an alternative to Romney with the best chance to beat President Obama—and the best prospects of doing something in the White House once there—Huntsman is their man.

Will they recognize that fact and exploit this historic opportunity? Probably not. That’s why, in my view, Huntsman is treating this campaign season as practice for a serious run in 2016. Then the President will have retired (with no viable successor now in sight), and the GOP will have kept its suicide pact with extremism and perhaps begun to resurrect itself.

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04 January 2012

Thank You, Iowa, and Hello Huntsman

[For a very brief comment on the President’s recess appointments, click here.]

I love Iowa, although I’ve never lived there. Its unique caucus system gave Barack Obama his first real break in his uphill battle against our first serious female candidate for president.

Iowa’s Democrats had a chance to meet the President, up close in and in person. They did so with an open mind and liked what they saw. They voted their hearts, and the rest is history.

Even this week, Iowa’s Republicans made some sense. They’re not responsible for the ridiculous field that the fiends of fate handed them. Their task was to choose the lesser of evils among a passel of (mostly) utterly unqualified buffoons.

Given that awful task, they didn’t do a bad job. They preferred the button-down business downsizer with brains over the idiots. But they did so by the slimmest of possible margins: eight votes. They didn’t seem to like his flip-flopping and his apparently complete lack of any moral core.

In second place they put a man who definitely has a moral core, which he wears on both sleeves and both lapels. He’s honest, doesn’t flip-flop, and has a stable home life.

But Rick Santorum isn’t very bright, or at least his political persona isn’t. Anyone who thinks abortion and gay marriage are leading issues—at a time when eleven gravely real issues have festered for an average of at least 17.5 years, and any could undo us at any time—simply doesn’t have the basic intelligence to serve as president.

We just suffered eight years of a presidency with that sort of low intellectual wattage. It nearly destroyed us. We don’t need another.

Apparently Iowa’s Republicans split the difference: put Romney’s brains and cunning together with Santorum’s honesty and “cleanliness,” and you might actually have something. That’s what one prominent Iowa pol’s wife said; you could create a decent candidate from this abysmal field by making a chimera.

Then there’s Ron Paul. Some of his “solutions”—including no new optional wars and downsizing our military—are absolutely right and long overdue. Others—like repealing or ignoring the civil rights laws that make our ideal of equality real—are absolutely wrong and dangerous.

But by putting Paul in third place, Iowa’s Republicans recognized a basic truth: we as a nation are in deep guano. Re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic just won’t cut it. We need some bold, new, even radical ideas. In voting for Paul, a quarter of Iowa’s caucus-goers (mostly the young and disaffected) recognized this basic truth, as unpalatable as it may be in a peaceful, prosperous state where farming is the primary occupation and unemployment is 5.7%.

Iowa’s Republicans also did something else—no small thing, when you think about it. They disqualified candidates who had no business running for President in the first place. They relegated to the dustbin of history a world-class scoundrel, flake and troublemaker (Newt), a man so stupid he couldn’t even remember his own propaganda (Rick), and a woman who apparently thought the presidency is a place for a high-school cheerleader (Michele).

Two of these buffoons don’t yet know it, but they are all toast, thanks in part to Iowa. It’s a testament to the dysfunction and decline of our society that we had to be subjected to their random musings for several months, under the guise of “debates.” But Iowans weren’t responsible for that, any more than they will be responsible for the same sort of moronic debates continuing until lack of funds and prospects make the remaining two tire of hearing their own voices. Despite it all, Iowans did their job in helping winnow the sorry field.

Which brings me to Jon Huntsman. Being a smart man of limited political resources, he didn’t even compete in Iowa. He bided his time. And now he is going to make a credible showing, with a decent campaign, in New Hampshire, where reason and pragmatism precede the Bible as selection criteria.

A life-long Democrat, I can’t recall being as excited about a Republican presidential candidate in my 66 years.

I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s sheer relief from seeing a real candidate among a passel of morons and scoundrels. Perhaps it’s the mystery. I don’t know much about Huntsman, and I want to know more.

Perhaps it’s hope. I have a firm conviction that China is our most important bilateral relationship. I expect it to be the world’s leading economic power before I exit this world. And here’s a Republican candidate who learned to speak fluent Mandarin and spent two years as our Ambassador to China under a Democratic president. He probably has deeper and more recent knowledge of China and the Chinese than all but a handful of so-called “China experts” in our leading universities.

And that’s not all. Alone among the presidential candidates, Huntsman has proposed cutting our big banks down to size, so they are no longer “too big to fail.” That simple structural solution would be the best way to make sure our casinos don’t blow up the world economy again, just as we are getting back on our feet.

And that’s still not all. Huntsman didn’t become our ambassador to China as an ingenue. He had five years of trade-related diplomatic experience under the two Bushes, including stints as US Trade Representative and Ambassador to Singapore. What experience could possibly be more important now, when trade in general, and trade with China and Asia in particular, will likely determine our economic future?

When you add his five years of trade-related diplomacy to two years as Ambassador to China and four years as Governor of Utah, that’s a total of eleven years of intensely relevant political and international experience. On that score Huntsman outclasses Romney’s four years as Massachusetts governor by nearly a factor of three in years alone, and infinitely in international trade expertise.

A man with that kind of résumé has got to be smart. That thought helps me answer my own question as to why he’s running now, in 2012, when his party is utterly dysfunctional and in disarray.

It’s practice. Huntsman knows he hasn’t the ghost of a chance to be the Republican nominee. He also knows that no Republican has much of a chance of winning this year. So he’s learning the ropes for a real run in 2016.

By then the economy will have had four more years to heal (if the casinos don’t blow it up again first). By then his losing party will have self-destructed in recrimination and (God willing) will have begun to reform and rebuild. From a man who spent five years learning the ropes of international trade diplomacy, we should expect no less. Unlike most Americans, he thinks long term.

So this campaign, starting in New Hampshire, is Huntsman’s opportunity to introduce himself to the nation. Against the background of buffoons, his résumé and low-key pragmatism will shine like the morning star.

Even I, a Democrat, am excited about him. If my new state allows, I might switch parties temporarily to vote for him in the Republican primary.

If worse comes to worst and the President loses, I want to be able to say that I did my best to assure us a qualified candidate on both sides. I have no fear of a challenge to the President from within his own party, or from the left. And the President doesn’t need my vote in the primary, where he will have no or token opposition, to know I support him strongly.

But I’m starting to wonder what the President and the Democrats are doing to nurture a successor on the Democratic side for 2016. Next summer’s Democratic convention, whose outcome is foreordained, would be the perfect place to introduce future Democratic presidents, just as the 2004 convention introduced the President himself. Whoever runs in 2016 will have formidable competition, in the form of a practiced and ready Huntsman, perhaps aided by a reformed and renewing opposition party.

The President’s Recess Appointments

I have one word of comment on the President’s recess appointments of Richard Cordray (to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) and three members of the National Labor Relations Board: Yes !!!!

At last the President has taken action against the obstructionism and extortion that has characterized the GOP’s approach to so-called “loyal opposition” since before his inauguration.

Why did he wait so long? Because of his superb political sensitivity. He had to wait long enough for the stupidest, laziest and most ill-informed voter to see what the GOP are up to. Now he has. The GOP have made crystal clear that they will stoop to whatever ruse they can devise—down to holding sham “sessions” of the Senate that do absolutely nothing—in order to hamstring and discredit our President and get their way.

The GOP will try to make this seem like a power play by the President. But it’s not. The power play was by bought cretins like Senator Shelby of Alabama (our first or second most backward state), who singlehandedly placed 70 “holds” on judicial and administrative appointments, including a Nobel Prize winner and Elizabeth Warren.

The President is doing what he must to restore constitutional government by the duly elected representative of all the people, namely him. If our Founders had wanted to let a single senator eviscerate the executive branch by blocking appointments of the people it needs to run, they would have said so. They didn’t. Instead, they gave the President explicit power to make appointments when the Senate is not in session. Sending senators who happen to live in or near Washington into the chamber every three days to turn on the lights and do none of the nation’s business is a sham, not a “session.”

Might the Supreme Court disagree and declare the President’s action unlawful? Possibly. This particular Court has become a political body, as much governed by precedent as was Stalin. But if it follows age-old precedent, it should duck the question as a political one for political resolution, and let the “political branches”—executive and legislative—continue to duke it out.

If the Senate as a whole—as distinguished from an individual senator or a small group—wants to block an appointment, it can do so simply, in a single hour, by convening and voting the appointment down. But the Senate cannot continually block numerous appointments, in secret and without a vote or any public accounting, at the behest of small groups of its members. The Senate must take the political heat of public, collective action if it wants to stop the executive from appointing the administrators and judges it and the judiciary need to function. What about “personal responsibility” do some senators not understand?

Under current circumstances, the President’s action is absolutely necessary for the executive branch to function. If the Supreme Court dares to overturn it, its fingerprints, not the President’s, will be all over the unrest and destruction of our democracy that follow.

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01 January 2012

Bye, Bye American Media, or Why I’m Dropping the New York Times

    “Bye, bye, miss American pie. Drove the Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry . . .” Don McClean

A constant, low-level theme on this blog has been the decline of our American news media. I have described the demise of the old Wall Street Journal, our absurd preference for gossip over news, and the specter of Murdoch the Antichrist behind the general decay.

But far more is going on than just Rupert. Financial and business pressures are driving good reporters and writers out of “print” journalism (which is now also on line), into tawdry tabloids, superficial video, and other less worthy pursuits. Decent news reporting, let alone thoughtful, historically accurate and well-written analysis, is a dying art. Perhaps its best practitioner today is Joe Klein of Time Magazine.

Decay is most apparent at the old Manhattan rags, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. They are about as impressive today as Manhattan’s cratered city streets. The Journal has morphed from a leading business newspaper into a tawdry and transparent house organ of mindless and extreme capitalism—a bizarre mirror image of the Soviets’ Pravda in its heyday. And in just the last year, the Times has begun to resemble a terminal patient on life support.

Bias and propaganda are not the only problems. Journalism is. The general level of English grammar and sentence structure is abysmal. And as for organizing a whole story in coherent and logically flowing paragraphs, fuhgeddaboutit!

In order to comment intelligently on current news, you’ve got to actually know something. But reporters’ general knowledge, too, is uniformly appalling. I still recall the young WSJ ingenue who named two nationally known law firms and an economic/antitrust consultant as lobbying firms, apparently because some of their members had been doing what seemed to her to be lobbying at the time. And then there’s the New York Times reporter who didn’t even question a fringe pol’s claim that long-time Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren was a “carpetbagger” in Massachusetts. Apparently, this naïf didn’t even know that Harvard is in Massachusetts, or how long Warren had been there (nineteen years).

To the extent I didn’t already know it, I found the information to refute these anti-facts through Google in literally less than sixty seconds.

In an era when computers provide accurate, convenient and instantaneous memory, there is no excuse for failing to get basic facts right. If our news media spent as much time figuring out whether what they have is right, and in organizing and presenting it well, as they do in feverishly filling a supposed 24/7/365 news “void,” they might actually give us something worth reading or viewing.

And as for editors—even simple copy editors who avoid typos, mistakes and ambiguities—forget about them, too. They are either long gone, replaced by spell checkers [scroll to bottom of page and read poem]. Or apparently they are watching video games on some kind of dope.

The last straw has been the New York Times. For some reason, it gave me a temporary free pass earlier this year as it switched to a subscription model. But now it wants me to pay, at the same time as it ends a year in which it has suffered a catastrophic decline in basic quality, most probably due to lack of money and clear-eyed management.

The Times’ best columnists, Bob Herbert and Frank Rich, are gone. Gail Collins is wasting her humor on the various morons who provide increasingly dark self-parody in the Party of Extremists. Tom Friedman’s “gee whiz!” approach to the most pedestrian engineering achievements has now reached an apex of bipolar mania, as if Facebook alone could bring back our jobs and repair our broken government.

Paul Krugman is brilliant less often recently. He seems to be stuck in an intellectual “Groundhog Day,” repeatedly writing the same column—about stimulus and Keynesian economics—over and over in different words. You’d think someone with his Nobel Prize and intellectual curiosity might run some numbers on our rampant casinos and the threat they pose of another financial catastrophe. Maybe he just can’t get the data, which Geithner and the banks are mostly keeping secret. But then isn’t that a job for some enterprising investigative reporter?

As for the Times’ so-called “journalism,” decay is too weak a word. There are still a few good investigative pieces, from time to time, although running closer to three web pages each than the previous six or seven. But they’re less and less frequent and about less and less important subjects. Then, when we get a really vital report on the EU bailouts, the key sentence on banks—signifying continuing corporate welfare—is buried in the middle of a long story, disguised with a double negative to make it sound positive.

One other annoying thing about the Times: its apparent philosophy that liberal-arts majors know everything worth knowing. Not only is Tom Friedman’s utter ignorance of engineering, science and math increasingly embarrassing. Except for Paul Krugman and an occasional cameo appearance by David Leonhardt, the Times’ staff is bereft of reporters and analysts who know anything about finance, economics, or simple arithmetic, let alone how to present these subjects clearly, succinctly, with balance and without hysteria. And as for science and engineering, forget them! For readers not afraid of numbers and math, Bloomberg.com is an increasingly attractive alternative.

So there’s not much left in the New York Times to draw my loyalty as a reader. The healthy skepticism of everyone in power is gone. The sycophancy toward Wall Street is palpable. The excellence is gone. The traditional gap between the arts on the one hand and the sciences (including economics), finance and math grows larger and more important every day. Even the readers’ comments have been dumbed down in length and format; they are beginning to repeat themselves endlessly, just like the ones in the WSJ. Only mediocrity remains.

I’ve found I read the NYT less and less often now, even for free on line. So I’m going to let the paid subscription go. It’s not as if I can’t afford it; I just won’t miss it much.

And, if the truth be told, I’m sick of getting all my news from decrepit Manhattan. Not only has its near-absolute control of our politics made a mess of our nation. It’s near-absolute control of the nation’s media has dumbed us down to the point of catatonia. Manhattan’s self-evident intellectual decay and moral laxity have become our nation’s own.

So how will I get my news now? I’m making a New Year’s Resolution to be more eclectic and more international.

I’m going to get current news from various on-line sources and PBS. I’m going to continue to read the two New York-based “print” news sources that still seem able to maintain reasonable quality: Bloomberg.com, because it’s not afraid of numbers and writes stories (mostly) straight down the middle, organizing them they way a normal writer who wants readers to understand the subject quickly would, and Time Magazine, because it does the same and covers things that need covering but that the Times’ obsessive focus on the cretinous GOP horse race doesn’t leave space or energy for.

I’ve already written in praise of Bloomberg.com and Time Magazine in other contexts. I won’t repeat those points here. I would, however, note three good stories from Bloomberg.com: (1) this one on the increasingly wild volatility of our financial markets, which (mirabile dictu) has some math beyond arithmetic and reporters who actually seem to understand it, and (2) this one, which gives a balanced, unbaised and well-organized summary of the President’s foreign-policy achievements and risks, and (3) a year-end story about Treasury bond yields and returns, which provides more useful information in fewer words than almost anything in the financial press today. (Hint: it uses numbers and manages to figure out which ones are most important.)

It’s a sad day when a simple, well-organized and well-balanced story on an important subject draws particular praise. But that’s the unenviable fate of American journalism today, at least as practiced in Manhattan.

Maybe it will dawn on some enterprising journalistic hero that the Internet makes journalism possible outside the Manhattan echo chamber. Maybe some day soon our ignorant nation, which now ranks 25th among OECD countries in math education, will begin to understand the importance of math not just to science and engineering, but to economics, finance and budgeting as well. Maybe then our media will begin to hire people who can at least do arithmetic and present its results coherently. I wait with hope.

In the meantime, I’m going abroad. Years ago, I had a paper subscription to the British magazine The Economist. I’m going to resurrect it on line. I’m going to watch, listen and read the BBC much more. It enjoys the wide support of a government and people who, unlike our own, still widely credit facts and respect intelligence. For Mideast news, I’m going to start following the English-language version of Al Jazeera, a high-quality local product with an imported British journalistic tradition. And I’m going to look more at foreign news generally. For news on Russia I’m going to start reading Russian again. I hope I’ll be able to find Kommersant on line with reasonable Internet speed and a reasonable price.

So, as my title says, “Bye, Bye American Media.” It’s a big, multipolar world out there. Unlike ours, some cultures still seem to respect facts, accuracy, cogent analysis and good writing, and to take the time to get them right. Almost every other culture values math more.

I’m sure I can find those cultures. I just wish the rest of my compatriots could, too.

And wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone with brains and a conscience would start up a real American news medium outside Manhattan? Maybe closer to Asia, where all the real action now is! Maybe someone could buy the New York Times’ grand old brand, not to pillage and destroy it as Rupert did the Journal, but to turn it back into a real newspaper again.

Footnote 1: I used to love Rich’s hyperlinking every fact in his pieces to some sort of external authority. That’s what we jurists have to do every time we write a brief or a law-review article. Checking facts compulsively is not a bad discipline; it keeps you honest.

Update: 1/2/12: There is Intelligent Life on Bloomberg.com

Evidence is mounting that Bloomberg.com, alone among our daily national news media (Time Magazine is a weekly), harbors intelligent life. The latest evidence is worth special mention: a new “Sustainability” section, with contents on the home page and its own subsidiary page. The new section is separate and apart from the “Energy” section, which remains as before.

By that simple act of classification, Bloomberg.com has made a giant leap forward in American media. It has acknowledged that energy is only part of the problem of human sustainability, and that there are other aspects to energy discovery and production as well.

Why is that important? Well, a society is just like a gigantic organism. The head must turn before the body does. The head contains not only the brains, but nearly all the sensory organs, too.

When a whole society’s sensory organs—its media—insist on looking in the wrong direction, and on failing to really see what is there, the organism suffers. If the sensory misdirection goes on too long, the organism dies. Our American polity is somewhere between the first and second stages of sensory deprivation.

I can still remember standing, as a prepubertal kid, in front of the huge wall-sized map of Europe that my father used to plot troop movements during World War II and later gave me. I asked how many people lived on Earth, and he, who happened to know such things, answered “2.5 billion.”

I’m not sure what year that was, but it must have been no later than 1957. Historical estimates of global population roughly bear out that memory. In just 54 more years, our global population has nearly tripled, to 7 billion.

If nothing changes, and if we continue to find ways to drain the Earth’s resources and other species without destroying both, that number will be around twenty billion by mid-century. Nothing is more important to human survival and quality of life than preventing or reducing that further population explosion and making industrial society sustainable for those of us who remain.

So I salute Bloomberg.com, once again, for recognizing what’s important—nay, essential—and keeping to a minimum reportage of the antics of idiots, who would distract us from what really matters until it physically overwhelms us. It is now becoming clear that, just as tawdriness drives out quality, Bloomberg.com is collecting editors and journalists who still know what’s important and what quality means.

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