Archive for May, 2009

Conservatives vs. Sotomayor

A lot of conservatives are itching for a fight over the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor.   Pat Robertson says that the Republicans will lose all chance of regaining power if they don’t put up a strong battle, and talk radio hosts like Limbaugh and Hannity seem to see this as a defining issue.

Yet the problem is that there is really nothing to fight about.

The case against Sotomayor is weak.   Most people fixate on two cherry picked quotes — one where she says ‘policy’ is made from the bench, and another where she compares the abilities of a ‘wise Latina’ to a ‘white male.’   From this the opponents say she is racist, or wants intense activism.  The trouble is, if that’s the best they can do in looking for embarrassing quotes examining a public career that has spanned decades, it’s pretty meager.

That’s the old game of ‘gotcha’ politics — find some quote and then magnify it to the point that it drowns out all rational discussion.   Yet in this case the quotes are old, relatively benign and can easily be dismissed as ‘poor wording’ designed for a specific context (a speech about her background, judicial policy, etc.)   After all, how many of us would have every quote  of ours withstand the scrutiny of those who want to give it the worst interpretation possible.

At first the abortion foes were upset with her, but under more scrutiny, many pro-choice groups are suspicious of her belief in their cause.   If both sides distrust her, that’s an argument for her.   Conservatives end up with disagreements about particular decisions (she didn’t see reverse discrimination where the right wing does), but that’s hardly acceptable for a Senator to vote against a nominee.

Then, of course, the political suicide of a fight.  The GOP angrily beat back Democratic attempts to filibuster the nomination of  Justice Alito a few years ago, arguing correctly that Supreme Court appointments should be voted on a straight up or down vote.   It would take every Republican to ditch this principle for the sake of partisan politics to have a chance for a filibuster to work.   And, though some partisans on the Left might say that Republicans have no principles, they do — and most truly believe that she deserves a straight up-down vote.   Already Senator Snowe has signaled her general approval of the pick, and who knows — by the time the vote comes Senator Franken might be seated giving the Democrats a full 60 votes to defeat an attempted filibuster.

What politician would sacrifice the stated principle — something that would be thrown back in his or her face — knowing that the personally dangerous act is in vain?

Beyond that, this pick is popular with the fastest growing demographic in the US: hispanics and Latinos.   The Republicans are losing big time in this group, something that has caught them by surprise.  They had hoped that the fact most hispanics are Roman Catholic and morally conservative would give the GOP a claim to at least a large chunk of their vote — all they need is a decent split.   Instead, thanks to the anti-immigration crusade of folk like Tancredo (who threatened to bomb Mecca if the US were hit by al qaeda again, something that would put him on a moral par with Adolf Hitler), and the vocal anti-immigration rhetoric from the right, the Democrats are winning that group over by a large margin.

Most Republican strategists believe this can be turned around, but not if the GOP fights against the history making first Latina Supreme Court Justice!   In fact, hispanic GOP strategists are already appalled at the attacks on Sotomayor, believing this is only making it less likely that their attempt to win hispanic voters will succeed.    They fear a long term Democratic majority, based on demographics.   Whites are soon to be a minority in the US (though will remain a plurality), and the GOP cannot be seen as the party of whites or, increasingly, white males.

So why do conservatives want this fight so badly?   For some like Limbaugh, they make money on pushing emotional buttons of about 14 million people.  They don’t need to win elections to keep their ratings, they need to satisfy their core audience.  That’s fine, but for some freakish reason Limbaugh has become seen as the face of the GOP — in large part because he makes headlines, and the Republicans have no one else representing them.   McCain is damaged by defeat, Cheney is, well, unpopular and spends his time defending torture and war, and Romney is boring and uninspiring.  Limbaugh inspires the base, who are as vocal and angry as ever, and the rest of the party doesn’t want to anger the base.

And this base wants to fight.  To them, Obama is “the clown” the “usurper” who is threatening all that is American by bringing socialism, debt, and big government to the fore.  He represents everything they have been fighting against, and he’s winning.  This is happening as gay marriage spreads, abortion recedes as an issue, and the Christian right becomes as weak as any time since the pre-Falwell era.   They sense they are losing and feel a need to fight back.  So they are itching for battle — any battle.

But to fight over Sotomayor will dig their hole deeper, and though they are losing to Obama, he’s not the demon their propagandists paint him as.  Yes, he is doing some risky government spending, but it’s with the partnership of capitalist Wall Street (something the left doesn’t like) and in response to a  major crisis.   He’s not the force behind the growth of gay marriage, he’s not going to bring socialism to the US, but he does have different policy goals than the Republicans.  They are traditional democratic positions.  If the Republicans fight smart, they’ll have their day again, and they can play the role of any opposition party in a two party system — to moderate the other side.

Understandably it’s tough for them to take having fallen so far so fast.  They felt on top of the world in 2002, perhaps near a permanent majority.   Now that talk has flipped around.  And therein is the lesson — it can flip around again.  That’s politics.   But to fight for the sake of fighting, especially in a battle they are sure to lose, is to engage in a self-defeating strategy.

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Strip North Korea of Statehood

Teaching about the Cold War in my American Foreign policy class has been interesting.  Students have a hard time grasping the fact that people feared nuclear annihilation, or that so much effort, money and time was spent in what seems to them an abstract ideological conflict.  Given that most students these days were born after the end of the Cold War, the dangers it entailed seem unreal and strange.

Yet the Cold War has one remnant, and that’s North Korea.   Back in 1950 North Korea tried to take over South Korea, believing the US would not intervene to hold it, and then the US tried to take over North Korea, believing China would not intervene to protect it.   Both beliefs were wrong, and in 1953 an uneasy truce was put in place along the 38th parallel, though no peace agreement was reached.   The two sides stared each other down for the rest of the Cold War, and even after the USSR collapsed and China embraced markets, North Korea remains defiant and dangerous.

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, is presiding over a country that cannot sustain itself economically, relying on help from China to continue to exist.   The dilemma of the ruling Communist party is clear: if they were to reform and embrace even a Chinese still of market capitalism, their existence would be at risk.  Like East Germany twenty years ago, North Korea exists only because it is the Communist Korean state.  Any retreat from a hard core totalitarian ideology would create a wave towards unification with the South that would grow stronger each day.  Yet if they do not reform, they remain weak, impoverished, and in danger of collapse.

Yet they have found their niche.  They can be an arms merchant, purveyor of weapons of mass destruction, and a thorn in the side of the world community.  Unlike Afghanistan’s Taliban, they have some protection.  First, China doesn’t want North Korea to collapse and either unify with the South or send streams of refugees into China.  Second and more importantly, they believe there is little the world can do to stop them.  They border South Korea, an important US ally.   Any effort to break up their game could lead to all out war on the Korean peninsula which easily could go nuclear and expand.  Besides the Koreas themselves, the one place most imperiled by the threat of nuclear war in Korea is Japan — the one country which has already suffered nuclear attacks.

North Korea’s recent bombast threatening war as they test nuclear devices and missiles is designed to assure that the rest of the world takes seriously the possibility that any action against North Korea could escalate out of control.  For Kim Jong Il it is helpful to be perceived as a meglomaniacal dictator — the crazier he is perceived to be, the less likely the world will act against him.   It probably is a bluff, but it’s not one that the US can afford to call.

The threat that North Korea could sell missiles or nuclear weapons to terrorist organizations or small, radical states is real.  That also means that the US can’t sit idly by as North Korea continues to play its racket.  Yet Presidents Clinton and Bush each have ultimately done just that — there seems to be no other options.   The same brinksmanship game gets played — crisis begets sanctions, which leads to negotiations; North Korea makes promises in exchange for assistance, and then the whole cycle starts over again.

I believe a fundamental error that gets made by those dealing with the North Koreans is to see North Korea as a Communist state, or a Cold War remnant.  Bull.  Kim Jong Il is a committed Communist as much as Pope Benedict XVI is a closet Muslim.    North Korea is no more a true state than was the territory controlled by Al Capone in the 1920s.  Kim is a leader of an organized criminal operation, and North Korea is his turf.   Just as the mafia doesn’t care about the crack addicts its drug trade creates, the North Korean thugs don’t care about their people — it’s all about power and money.

The only way to deal with North Korea is to treat it like a criminal operation it is.  Strip away its sovereignty.   Declare Kim Jong Il to be a wanted criminal, a leader of an organized crime syndicate.  Take away North Korean statehood.  The UN would get de jure sovereignty over North Korean territory until such time as the mafia “boss” is brought down.  The Korean Communist party is really just a mafia gang.

This won’t be enough to take Kim down, but without the veneer of sovereignty or the claim to be “head of State,” North Korea and its leaders would lack the protection international law gives sovereign entities.  Its territory, air space, and waters would not be inviolate.   Their diplomats would not get protection.  Their embassies could not operate above the laws of the countries in which they are present.  They would lose their voice and seat at the UN.

This kind of action would open up a new level of potential ways to pressure the regime, and to make its criminal operations harder to protect and engage in.   It could in fact be a precedent for dealing with other rogue regimes whose leaders worry less about their people and state than their bank accounts and personal supporters.   Statehood should not be a given, but something that requires certain minimum conditions be met.   Anything else would revert to UN control, perhaps through regional agencies (e.g., the African Union in Africa) to avoid appearances of colonialism.

Sovereignty and statehood has always been given to any leader of a territory, with a host of international rights and privileges handed to whomever controls that land.    The leaders in turn create political parties and other structures that can be made to appear ‘governmental’ to the West or other international agencies.    In North Korea this involves maintaining a claim to Communist ideology and Cold War traditions.

To be sure, statehood and sovereignty are always just a step away from being an organized protection racket.   The difference between organized criminal operations and governments is less practical than legal — governments are allowed to get away with what individuals cannot.   Yet by the 21st century the system has evolved to a point where enough states should be able to create a distinction between legitimate government and clear criminal activity — gangs of leaders with no goal but personal enrichment at the expense of anyone, including their own citizens.   North Korea clearly fits that category.

We don’t know what the full impact stripping North Korea of statehood and sovereignty would be.   I suspect that lack of sovereignty would so hinder their operations as to undermine Kim’s rule and bring the regime down.   However, even if we can’t be sure of that, isn’t it time to stop just allowing any thug or criminal capture the benefits, protections and rights of sovereignty just because he or she and a gang of co-conspirators happen to have taken control of a chunk of land?   Maybe if we start calling criminals what they are, rather than getting lost in the rhetoric of sovereignty and state hood, we’d find new means for handling rogue regimes.   Sanctions don’t work, and war seems to do more harm than good.  Perhaps we need to change the rules of the game.

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Captured by the Dream

Time for a post veering away from politics and economics.  Last night I had my first lucid dream in a long time and it got me thinking.  Is life akin to a dream?

Sometimes when I dream I become aware I’m dreaming.  I realize that the landscape around me is my own mental sleep-creation, and by exploring it I can explore my mind, or even the nature of this “reality” I experience in the dream world.  At one point I kept journals on all my dream experiences.  I called it being “dream aware” for a long time, and then learned that the proper term was lucid dreaming.   I taught myself how to manipulate the dream world, experimented in that reality, and applied lessons learned there to life.

One thing that would irk me is that in the deepest lucid dreams (i.e., not those dreams just upon waking or drifting off to sleep, but those from the prime dream time) the complexity and excitement of the dream would overwhelm me and I’d lose lucidity.   Sometimes I’d regain it, sometimes it would fade in and out.  Often upon waking I’d recall that at one point I was lucid, but then got captured by the dream, and caught up in the plot, action and emotions.

In times when I get pre-occupied by the news, the economic conditions, the political theater, or even the human drama around me I recall that sense — am I being ‘captured by the dream’ in waking reality?   Am I getting so caught up in the dramas of the day that I lose sight of my true self, and what I deep down know about reality?

The danger of that view, of course, is that it might lead one not to take the suffering of others seriously.  But most people already abstract away the pain of others and disengage. I throw myself into such experiences, try to understand the actors on all sides, teach about the human side of world events in my classes, and feel the meaning of these things with a strong sense of empathy.  I am shocked at how people can dismiss Iraqi casualties by abstracting that ‘they are Muslims’ or ‘different’ or ‘that’s war.’  Yet people do.   As I noted awhile back, abstraction can be the root of all evil.

I believe all world events are symbolic of the human condition, both socially and individually.   Does the anger I might feel in a moment of weakness — an anger that might cause me to fantasize about strangling someone, something I would never really do — differ fundamentally from that of the psychotic killer who can’t prevent himself from turning those momentary emotional bursts into real world action?   As I explore jealousies, loves, angers, weaknesses and strengths in my own self, I see the entire pathos and divinity of humanity reflected.  Under the right conditions or experiences I could be a Gandhi or a Nazi, perhaps even a Hitler.    Shut out a stream of empathy, unleash a river of anger, build a dam of indifference and abstraction, and any human is capable of the worst of human behavior; reverse those, and any human is capable of the best.  The distance from Hitler to Mother Theresa may not be as vast as people imagine.

I have a strong sense of faith.   The faith is not in a religion or a God, but in the belief that the universe reflects a deeper spiritual reality, that our material condition is a manifestation of our beliefs, ideals, and history.   I do not mean this in the sense that Voltaire mocked with Pangloss, the character in Candide who supposedly reflected Rousseau’s Deist faith that nature always gave the proper and best result.   Indeed, being in a material world it seems that this world is, in a sense, our work book.  The problems we perceive are here for us to solve, both personal and global.

When I internalize this view, I feel balanced and centered.  The world is as it should be, so that we can learn what we need to learn.  Our actions have consequences, but the consequences are also there as learning opportunities.  We can’t truly comprehend why or how, but there is a deeper meaning to all that we experience.  In that sense, waking reality is like a dream.  We get caught up in the dramas and dilemmas, they often overwhelm us or drag us down, but it’s not real.  The emotions, connections, pain, joy and ideas are real, the material world is a stage upon which such things are worked out, much like a dream.

To be sure, this waking reality has some attributes in common with dream reality, but some are very different.  This reality “feels” real, as does the dream reality.  So many times I’d wake from a lucid dream not sure which reality truly seemed more genuine.  On the other hand, this reality is not as easily shaped by my own thoughts — I can’t teach myself to fly, swim in dirt, create landscapes and do all the things I can in my dream realities.   Still, in my dream world I do not have complete conscious control over the dream — things happen I don’t expect, including those things which cause me to be captured by the dream.

In one dream I was diseased and disfigured.  I was walking around trying to make sense of that condition, and feeling depressed.   Why me?   I was captured by the dream, and when I woke realized that by the end of my dream I was truly despondent — my life had been good, but I’d lost everything.  Of course, that wasn’t the case.  The dream disappeared with waking.  Could that be the same with our ‘waking’ reality?   Genocides, mass murder, the horror of human behavior all simply vanishing upon waking (in this case death) to a reality that sees such things as not truly real — even if at times disturbing?

When I think in those terms, my focus shifts.  What matters to me in my life becomes focused on family, friends, and dealing with every day life in a way that accepts what cannot be changed, and works with what can.  It brings contentment.  In dealing with the “big issues” that perspective helps me not get weighed down by the enormous amount of pain in the world.   I also have a sense that just as every possible pathos and joy of human experience can be found in each person, each person is a part of a humanity linked in ways we can’t comprehend.   Every bit of suffering affects everyone of us; as does every bit of joy.  We’re linked, when we spread love and joy, we make a difference in the whole.   This gives me a drive to learn about the world and do my part to try to help others.

Being ‘captured by the dream’ can be overwhelming, depressing, and breed cynicism.    Most of humanity seems to live caught up in the daily material existence, not seeing beyond it.  Becoming lucid in life is difficult, but rewarding.  To be sure, maybe material reality is all that there is, with no spirit, soul or transcendental meaning.  But that would make for a really absurd situation — if that’s true, why is there even a world.  How could there be a world?   So I’ll endeavor to live as if what I claim above is real, following the ethics that come from a belief that we are at some level linked and connected; that may be the best moral guide one can have.

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Stagflation and the Dollar

I’ve been surprised — in a way pleasantly surprised — by the resilience of the dollar in the face of record deficits and debt.   Still, these policies combine the federal reserve’s decision to pump money into the system to threaten to undercut the value of the greenback.   Ill advised over-extension of American military forces in the Mideast have already caused people to doubt US military capacity; these budgetary moves could do the same with economic policies.  The result could be a worsening of the economic crisis, with no clear path out.

I noted last year that the dollar was defying expectations and staying strong, something I considered a short term phenomenon.   At that time (late November) the dollar was  at $1.28 per Euro, now it’s at $1.40.  That’s not a major change, but it could be the start of a slipping of the dollar’s value.   The dollar remained stable through March, when its value was about $1.25 per Euro at the beginning of the month.   By the end of April the dollar was slipping to $1.33 per Euro, with a sharper decline last week.   The dollar is still better than it’s historic low, around $1.60 per Euro hit last summer as oil prices skyrocketed.   Moreover, while the dollar has been losing value, it has been a stable, slow decline – there is no panic selling.

There are a lot of reasons to consider the dollar overvalued.  Last summer the driving force was fears about a possible recession due to high oil prices, and ongoing concern over the large current accounts deficit the US had been running for years.  It grew steadily until it hit a peak of 6% of GDP in 2006.   This almost always leads to pressure on a country’s currency, something the US had avoided by becoming a haven for international investors, most of whom felt that investments in the US were likely to yield good returns.

The dollar’s weakness really started to show in late 2007, as the subprime crisis and the bursting of the housing bubble caused speculators to start to bet against the dollar.   High oil prices, recession fears, and reaction to the collapse of Bear Stearns (and fears that other such financial firms, such as Lehmann Brothers, could be next) kept up the pressure.  On September 15, the day that the current economic crisis became public knowledge as the economic tsunami hit, the dollar stood at $1.43 — off it’s lows, but at a value lower than it stands today.

It’s not hard to see why.  For about a week after the concerns about American financial markets became public, the dollar dropped — by September 23rd it was at $1.48.   Then suddenly it turned around, and by mid-October was around $1.35 per Euro, then in November got down to $1.25 per Euro and until recently stayed around a pretty narrow range.   The first week of the September 2008 crisis saw the Europeans and others believe they were relatively immune.  In fact my blog entry on September 23rd was “Schadenfreude in Europe,” commenting on that sense that this was an American financial problem.   Quickly it was clear that was not the case — the next week the news from Europe turned sour, and by October the crisis was recognized as truly global.   Only then did people flock to the dollar — not because America’s economy was seen as strong, only because the US was the dominant world power, both militarily and economically, and there was no place else to turn, at least in currency markets.   The value of gold, of course, rose even faster.

Since then the Obama administration has tackled the recession aggressively.  Recognizing that the collapse of credit markets could easily spiral into a depression as deep and broad as that of the early 30s, they felt quick action injecting money into the economy, the financial system and credit markets (to keep interest rates low so that home sales would hopefully become lucrative) the White House and the Federal Reserve Board each worked to prevent economic collapse.

This was criticized by many on the Left and Right as being too cozy with big money — bailing out the people who caused the problem.   Many on the right believe we should just let the banks fail and trust the market to adjust.  But there is no guarantee the markets will adjust — it’s more likely the collapse would have continued as it had in the early thirties.   People on the left tended to believe that the focus should be more on aid to the poor and help to people losing jobs and homes.  To them the model should be FDR, and his programs to get people to work.  The compare Obama’s plan helping big money to FDR’s public works program, and conclude that Obama is helping the wrong people.

To Obama, Geithner and Barnacke, the difference between Obama and FDR is three years.   FDR got started in early 1933, as the depression had already gripped the US with the Hoover Administration having done little but hope that the markets would simply correct and adjust.   Acting earlier to try to fix root of the problem — credit and financial markets  — the hope is that this will avoid a fall into depression and allow the world economy to avoid another Great Depression.   In theory it could work — fire up the economy, avoid total collapse, and then manage the recession.

The two big problems with this theory are: a) the risk of inflation due to large deficits and injections into the money supply; and b) the fact that the economy needs restructuring — the practices before last year were unsustainable.  While a depression can overshoot the adjustment and spiral in on itself, efforts to prevent necessary corrections are doomed to fail.   The Obama administration is trying a balancing act to restructure adequately while preventing collapse.

So eyes on the dollar — if the decline continues, or if panic selling starts, then we may be in for a very rough ride.  Stagflation would bring a second and more brutal round to the current crisis, with no clear path except to ride the storm out.   If the dollar can stay relatively strong and the economy turn around, then maybe Obama will pull this off.   But even if he does, the heady days of the bubble economy are gone — like the roaring 20s, they were built on sand.  That doesn’t mean a restructured economy can’t boom again, like we did after WWII.   But for that we’ll need a new international economic order (a “Bretton Woods II”), environmental sustainability, fiscal responsibility (cut debt and deficits), and a better balance of production and consumption.

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Real People

So far the economic recession has only affected me and my family indirectly.  Budget cuts at work caused an overload course to be canceled, losing that income, and out of concern for the future we’re trying to change our economic habits.   But our income has remained steady, so far our jobs are not in peril, and everyday life is pretty normal.

However, I have seen the impact of the recession, and it’s not been fun.  Being President of the local chapter of AFUM, the faculty union (associated with the NEA), I experienced the first major faculty job cuts since the 80s.  Five people were cut, including a 30 year ground breaking and beloved Dance Professor.  Of those cut, some have found new opportunities, and in one case our university was hurt more by the cut than the person cut.  But still I got the phone calls on the day the cuts were announced, I met with most of those involved, and felt the emotion of the job loses.  Even though it was indirect, I noticed how everyone, even those who ultimately ended up arguably better off, was put through the emotional ringer by these cuts.  Moreover, faculty across campus feared they were on the block before the cuts were announced, and are worried moving forward.  We face a $1 – $2 million deficit for FY11, so next year might see even deeper cuts.

On Thursday, there was another jolt.  Our day care center is closing.  For us personally, it’s a mere inconvenience.  Our son Dana, age 3, will have to get used to a new place, but he’s a happy adaptable young guy, he’ll do fine.  Ryan, age 6, is already in Kindergarten and has after school and summer activities galore to explore.  But when I picked up the boys today, just hours after Donna, the director of the center found out, I felt the same sense of pain.  She has been with this child care center since it opened, and has seen children ‘grow up’ here, from infancy to first grade.  She gave herself to building this facility, it was her joy and mission in life, and so many children benefited from what she built.  Options for people thrown out of jobs at this point are limited — for them, it’s a life changer.

When we moved here from Augusta in 2007, Ryan was having problems.  With a new brother, he felt jealous and was acting up.  The YMCA day care in Augusta couldn’t really handle him.   The “Y” was the premiere Augusta day care center, with brand new top notch facilities.  Franklin Child Care in Farmington was small and the facilities were unimpressive.   Yet Ryan showed quick improvement — Donna’s teachers and system helped guide him to better behavior.  The teachers (and the Director) matter more than the building or the facilities.    (He’s lucky to have found a similarly engaged and caring Kindergarten teacher here in Farmington with Ms. Kenney.)

Donna worked hard on maintaining the day care center, even adding to her work load as budget cuts in the past caused positions to be lost.  Then suddenly on a day in May she found out it was ending.  Besides her own personal situation (and that of the staff), the facility she built with her love and hard work was going away — cut from the budget as the hospital, which subsidized the center, had to cut non-clinical budget items due to increasing financial pressures.

You can’t blame the hospital or its administration — cuts are hard, but budgets need to be balanced.  It’s simply another affect of the recession, another story of pain and loss as money grows tight.

In October Michael Moore will release his documentary about the financial meltdown, making the argument that this was a result of a swindle of the American people by the very wealthy.   When you think about it, that’s what it was.   Massive fortunes were made in the last ten years, increasingly centralized to those who are the most wealthy.    Companies cheated on mortgages, created wild new financial products, and the goal of CEOs and the Wall Street elite was to make money fast.   It seems they were so caught up in the game that they didn’t realize the devastation they were about to unleash.

The “schemers who cheat all the rules” ran the show.  Vast profits were made simply through trades and speculation.  Little was produced, and as long as the wealth was entered into a book and existed in virtual form, the imbalances could grow.    Inevitably something was going to cause the house of cards to fall apart; the winds that did so were the collapse of the housing market alongside a spike in oil prices.

And so across America real people suffer the consequences, losing jobs, losing benefits, and watching these effects ripple through the economy.  I’d like to say that Obama’s administration is bringing real change, but that’s not yet clear.   The programs initiated are major, but they tend to help the very people who got us into this mess.   It’s tough — they believe we have to revitalize the financial sector and credit markets, and the only way to do that inevitably helps those who created the problem.

Still, the economy we had was unsustainable — a rebalancing like this was inevitable.  Yet it’s not an abstract bit of economic adjustment, it’s a blow to the lives of real people now coping with situations they wouldn’t have imagined possible a couple short years ago.

Yet, as I try to figure out how to end this post, nothing comes to mind.  Only that for all the words, arguments and theories out there, the pain and distress caused by this recession is intense and growing.   I guess all we can do is help each other out, build community, and remember that family and friendship are ultimately far more powerful than anything the economic storms can produce.

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Republican Time Warp

After their loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980 the Democrats were stuck.  Even Clinton’s 1992 victory was less about the Democrats than anger at the economy.  He was only re-elected in 1996 after shifting right and relying on his political popularity.  Utnil 2006, the Democrats remained on the defensive.

To many, it looked like they were still protesting the Vietnam war.  They were caught by surprise when the Berlin Wall came down, and their pro-labor rhetoric seemed out of place in an era where unions were seen as overly large and corrupt.  The building of coalitions across interest groups was less effective as America became less defined by coalitional politics, and it appeared to many that the Democrats simply wanted to promise more government goodies to special interests, almost as if they were buying votes.   Americans started to rebel against increasing regulations on every day life, and the Republicans appealled to the desire for freedom.

Moreover, the Republicans were able to bring together the economic libertarians, foreign policy hawks, and Christian conservatives with a multifaceted message that allowed these groups to feel a part of the new Republican vision.  They had intense internal differences, but each thought their perspective benefited from Republicans being in power.   The Democrats were dismissed as tax and spend socialists, their policies connected to an ideology that was failing.

The Democrats in the 80s and 90s, despite some successes, were all too often caught in a time warp.  They were fighting the battles of Vietnam and the Great Society in an era where those things no longer inspired voters, and were not part of the consciousness of younger voters.    The Democrats started to look like a party of special interests, could be accused by the Republicans of lacking ideas and having no core principles.    They were caught up in an obsolete discourse.

That was then.  This is now. 

One sees the change with the RNC effort to brand the Democrats as “Democratic Socialists,” and the way the “socialist” label gets thrown around.  Just as Reagan’s foreign policy seemed self-evidently aggressive and misguided to the generation that opposed the war in Vietnam, Obama’s approach to the economy appears self-evidently wrong to the Reagan generation.  He is expanding governmental control, with the government and big labor actually running part of the auto industryy.   The government is micromanaging some big banks, putting restrictions on the credit card industry, tightening environmental rules and automobile mileage requirements, and pushing for a major overhaul of the health care system.

To the eyes of Republicans aged forty and upward, this is clearly socialism, and that attack should stick and be damning.  But like the Democrats of the 80s, the Republicans of today are caught in a time warp, making arguments that would have been devastating twenty years ago, but are meant with a shrug today. 

Rush Limbaugh is for older folk.   Talk radio is passe, even blogs are starting to fade as people turn to social networking sites and twitter.  Blogs that are relevant are short and pithy (meaning, of course, this blog with its 1100 word posts is out of touch).    People, especially younger folk, tend to be more pragmatic, concerned with problem solving, and focused on the real fact that there are severe problems facing not only the country, but their own future.  What jobs will be out there?   Will they be able to afford health care?   What careers are viable?

In answering those questions, ideology isn’t relevant.  Ideology is the stuff of the Cold War, that weird and dangerous nuclear arms race that frightened people back in the 20th century.  That ended a full two decades ago.   Getting upset about government control of the car companies is legitimate in that it may not be a smart thing to do — but it’s clear it’s being done because the companies are in collapse, not as part of some grand socialist conspiracy.

So the GOP continues to hurl 20th century insults at the Democrats.   But since the demographic for which such language is relevant is older, and probably already set in their political ways, the opportunity to gain support with these tactics is limited.   Without a true Republican alternative people are left with a Democratic set of ideas that the GOP says will fail vs. the GOP whose ideas are widely seen to have already failed.

The only hope for the GOP is to leave this time warp and actually confront the issues a new.  Focus not on “ism” labels or wild claims that ‘tyranny is coming.’   Even if they believe that to be the case, it’s a loser in terms of political persuasion.   Instead they need a vision of the future, combined with practical (not ideological) critiques of Obama’s policies.

Time warps are hard to break out of.   Republicans are loathe to give up the identity they’ve gotten used to for a generation, and they can recall all too clearly how well it worked in the past.  They’ll have to, to regain traction.  That doesn’t mean they need to give up theiir principles though.  The right is quick to point out that while the rhetoric of Obama is centrist and pragmatic, many of his principles and actions are very liberal.  The right is frustrated that even though they point this out, the public doesn’t have the same reaction to “liberalism” that it used to.  Obama has used the current crisis and his own political charisma to shift the discourse.   The economic failures and the difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan have undermined the ‘politics of fear’ still promulgated by people like former Vice President Cheney.  GOP rhetoric is anachronistic.

The Republicans need to first disconnect their principles from their rhetoric.  Rhetoric is not the principles themselves.  Rhetoric is simply a device used to persuade.   Then Republicans have to think long and hard about whether or not the rhetoric they use has at times undermined their core principles  and they need to make sure that rhetorical habit isn’t creating extra baggage.     And finally, they have to make their principles relevant to the 21st century — not just regurgitate old rhetorical devices but retool their message to take into account the economic crisis, the real failures of recent years, and the changes in American culture, and the issues we face.   They need to update their application of principles to fit new realities, and then describe and promote them in a way that fits the times.

So far, they are off to a bad start.  But that’s to be expected — discursive and rhetorical habits are hard to break, especially when they worked in the past.   But until the Republicans break out of their time warp, the playing field will be dominated by the Democrats and President Obama.

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Good Night and Good Luck

Monday was the first day of “May term,” and I’m teaching American Foreign Policy.  Since each day of class is three hours long, on the first day we watched the film Good Night and Good Luck, starring David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow and George Clooney as Fred Friendly.    It details the way in which Murrow helped start the downfall of Joe McCarthy and his witch hunts by using the power of the media to make clear to the public what was going on.  It’s fascinating both how many of the issues concerning the media and foreign policy still exist, and how much has changed.

At that time (early 50s) there were three big television networks, and they relied completely on corporate sponsors.   There were also a plethora of newspapers, as the print media thrived.    Newspapers and especially TV news self-censored, and as Murrow’s 1958 speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association (reproduced in part in the film) made clear, concern about the media focusing only on entertainment at the neglect of serious issues was as real then as it is today.

It is hard to imagine the government having the power to terrorize now at a McCarthy level.   Sure, there was a lot of self-censorship and various forms of pressure — the Dixie Chicks not getting played by some stations after they criticized President Bush, Attorney General Ashcroft saying people should ‘watch what they say,’ Chris Hedges being heckled at a 2003 commencement address, and the weird and brief renaming of French fries as ‘freedom fries.

Yet if you didn’t care about public pressure, you could blog to your heart’s content, read news from around the world, and join protests against US policy.   Although the paranoia level post 9-11 was similar to the red scare days of McCarthy, there was more freedom, and abundant media outlets.  While CNN may be overly sensationalized, FOX leans to the right and MSNBC apparently a bit to the left, they still provide more variety than the half hour nightly news shows of the “big 3” in an earlier era.

I admit I have a strong pro-journalism bias.  I am convinced that the freedom of a country, as well as its ability to avoid corruption, relies on a free and open media.    Those who join the legions of reporters to bring us the news play just as important of a role, if not more important, than soldiers who defend the country or government officials who run the bureaucracies.   It is up to them to keep us informed, to take seriously the importance of public discourse on the issues of the day, and to recognize multiple perspectives and the fact that it is impossible to completely avoid bias.

However, by its nature the news media is independent of government and thus has to support itself and pay for the resources it uses.   Even public radio and television increasingly rely on grants and donations.   This also means they are beholden to the market — a market that exists on the basis of what sells, not what is important to know.

Emotion sells.   Glenn Beck scaring people about ‘coming tyranny’ sells, or Rush Limbaugh ranting about the ‘evil liberals,’ cherry picking outlandish statements to make it seem like all on the left are kookie extremists gets noticed.   Sean Hannity takes quotes and statements out of context to weave an utterly dishonest storyline designed to get his listeners mad, or to mock the left.  On the left, Keith Olbermann lists the “world’s worst person,” choosing a ill chosen statement or action to focus upon — riling up his viewers.   Jon Stewart uses humor, and left-wing talk radio demonizes Bush and the Republicans.   We’ve had yellow journalism for over a century, so this is nothing new (remember the Hurst legacy), and slanted humor is no big deal (Stewart admits his is ‘fake news.’)

But the Becks, Olbermanns, and Hannitys blur the line between pundit and journalist, and the general growth of emotion-laden media sources bleeds over into ‘serious’ news, which feels an increasing need to entertain in order to maintain ratings.   Moreover, following the lead of the ‘left vs. right’ politics from the gut, the media starts to paint it as simply ‘two different perspectives,’ with the idea you need to show ‘both sides’ to be fair.  In this kind of bipolar relativism the result is to silence views that don’t easy fit into ‘left vs. right,’ and magnify the importance of the extremes.    Instead of trying to dig for truth, explore multiple perspectives, or work things out through discussion, you’re given two sides, and it’s hinted that you have to choose which to believe.   Truth is pre-packaged into different interpretive vessels, you don’t have to do any work, it’s either A or B.

Of course, the choice of “left” or “right” as defined by political junkies is a false choice  requiring citizens to sacrifice logic and go with whatever side sells its product more effectively.

Great journalists like Murrow or Walter Cronkite were not without bias — but they also had a sense of wanting to tell things as they are, and cut through the BS.  That’s what we need from journalists — to decipher the political rhetoric and explain what is really being said, rather than just giving us the words of the different participants.   We need them to dig out the facts of the story, explain reasonable interpretations of those facts, and fairly assess the meaning.   They will have bias; total objectivity is impossible.  But if they put their duty to our democratic republic ahead of any political bias or personal whim, they can play a positive role.   Murrow was accused of bias in going after McCarthy — but it was a bias that reflected his honest assessment that McCarthy was acting against all that this country stands for, and that being silent on that would be to be complicate in the crime.

Ultimately, the media will do this for us if we reward it with higher ratings and more support than we reward the ‘discourse from the gut’ – the emotion talk radio and partisan rhetoric.   At this point we as a culture aren’t yet able to do this as well as we should.  But yet our media is free, we are able to access sources we never could before, and somehow I find myself optimistic.  Compared to the ideal we have a long way to go, and the prominence of manipulative emotional appeals in the media creates real dangers.  Compared to where we’ve been, however, there has been progress.   And that’s what democracy is all about — improvements over time.

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