Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Beliefs (Or, the Ghost of Christmas Present)

cross-posted at Dagblog

So, in my last post, I talked more specifically about my Christian beliefs than is my blogging habit. I doubt I'll do it more often; I don't think that you should believe something just because I do, and so I try to write from the assumption that you don't. But I did mention my own beliefs, and it's Christmas, so let me come clean a bit, because it's an important holiday for me, and because it's such a bitter season:

I believe in the basic dignity of human being. I believe that other people's suffering is real, and deserves our attention. I believe that everyone deserves protection from hunger, illness, and the killing December cold.

To make it more doctrinally specific, I was raised to believe that everyone is Jesus, and should be treated accordingly. Throw a homeless person off a steam grate, throw Jesus off that steam grate. Give a homeless man a blanket, give Jesus a blanket. The Gospels are very specific about this point; these are Jesus's explicit instructions to his followers.

This is a belief: it is not testable. It cannot be confirmed or debunked. It is a basic set of assumptions about the world. And it should not be vulgarized into a belief that all people are nice, or friendly and kind. That is obviously not true. But Christianity does not teach me that my fellow human beings deserve food, shelter, medicine and human comfort as a reward for good behavior. It teaches me that they deserve those things, period. The question isn't whether that homeless man is personally virtuous, any more than the question was whether the Prodigal Son was personally virtuous. The point is that he might starve or freeze in the streets. How could there be any other questions?

But I freely admit that this is simply my belief. "Everyone must be treated as if they were Jesus," is not the kind of thing you can prove. It is my starting place for every question of public policy, but I understand that not everyone else starts there, or even accepts my proposition. That's okay.

But while I'm willing to accept that my beliefs are just beliefs, I insist that other people's beliefs, whether religious or secular, be treated in the same way. There are many popular beliefs in our country that have nothing to do with reality, and obviously contradict it, but masquerade as "realism." They are not. I refuse to give them that undeserved credit, or to accept the human suffering inflicted because of them.

The belief that the free market always provides the best possible result is only a belief. It purports not to be a religious belief, because if it were actually a religion it would be mocked and reviled almost as widely as it deserves. But it does posit an implacable omnipotent god who demands sacrifices. Indeed, some its loudest proponents are publicly calling for "sacrifice," by which they mean increased human suffering by the poor. This is how the worst of religions operate. And the "free market knows best" belief has no grounding in reality.

My belief cannot be proved or disproved. The beliefs that excuse the abuse of America's poor not only cannot be proved; they persist in the face of contradictory evidence that should be obvious to every rational adult.

The idea that the poor in America are poor primarily (or, to certain narrow-minded fanatics, solely) because of their own behavior is merely a belief. It is a fairy tale that people tell themselves to reconcile themselves to the unnecessary ugliness of our world. Believing that the distribution of wealth in our scoiety is primarily correlated with merit, effort, or "hard work" requires more than an act of faith. It requires strenuous acts of self-delusion. The belief that the poor are poor because they don't work hard enough, or because they lack "character," demands that the believer work hard every day to avoid obvious facts about how the world operates. That is not realism. That is a bedtime story for mean-spirited children.

There is absolutely no reason to condone human misery out of deference to anyone's belief in the Free Market Fairy. Nor should the believers who demand such misery and sacrifice be accorded any respect. The notion that such believers somehow have the moral authority to declare someone else unworthy of food, shelter, or basic dignity is also just a belief, irrational and ugly. No one has such authority, and anyone who claims to do so should be taken seriously. Such beliefs are the rankest of superstitions: justifying real suffering in the name of imaginary entities, even when the evidence of our daily life demonstrates that those entities are not real.

If you start with a belief in Jesus, our world appears much as it is: manifestly flawed and full of flagrant injustice. From the viewpoint of the Wall Street Journal and the Federal Reserve and Goldman Sachs and CNBC, it looks like the best of the possible worlds. All I can say in response is: Pollyannas. Why not throw in Santa Claus, too?

My beliefs cannot be proved, but they could never be as silly as the primitive superstitions and delusions that govern the minds of the great and powerful. And my beliefs, whatever their source, attempt to move the world toward kindness and mercy. That's all I can say on my own account this December.

Merry Christmas, all. And let's try to keep it through the coming year.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The War on Christian Virtues

cross-posted at Dagblog

Apparently, the dreaded "War on Christmas" now extends to having to work between the Christmas and New Year's holidays, at least if the taxpayers pay your salary and your job title is "Senator." According to Senator Jon Kyl, having work the week after the Christmas holiday would be "disrespectful" to Christians. Senator Jim DeMint called working the week before Christmas "sacrilegious." That's right. Sacrilegious. Just like keeping stores open for shopping on December 23.

Kyl and DeMint will obviously say anything for momentary partisan advantage. And just about everything worth saying about the right wing's bogus "War on Christmas" cries has already been said better by my co-blogger Mike Wolraich (who uses the nom de blog Genghis) in his new book Blowing Smoke (a wonderful holiday present, if you're still shopping). I can't possibly add to Mike's explanation of how dishonest and hysterical the complaints about the "War on Christmas" are. So let me add one thing:

As someone who tries to be a good Christian myself, I find the complaints about the "War on Christmas" absolutely grotesque. I really have tried to see it from the perspective of the people who complain, but try as I might, I just can't make it square with any of the virtues Jesus taught.

There are Christians being persecuted for their faith today. None of them live in America. Right now, there are people worshiping secretly in China, and in other places, and living in genuine fear of the authorities. Anyone who wants to defend Christians from persecution should think about the best ways to help those faithfal and beleaguered people. But calling yourself a victim because not all of the signs in the mall say "Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings" is a terrible, terrible disrespect to all of the people who have actually suffered for their faith, and to those who continue suffering.

Christians have been stoned to death, thrown to vicious animals, tied to anchors and drowned. They have been burnt alive by other Christians. And yes, some of the earliest Christians have been crucified. St. Peter was allegedly crucified upside down, by Romans with an even nastier sense of humor than usual. And today around the globe, there are still a handful of priests who must hide their priesthoods from their governments. Being asked to put up your annual Nativity diorama in the churchyard instead of the public park does not make you one of those people. In fact, complaining about things like that is a sign of just how little you have ever been asked.

God asks everyone for different things. Some people are asked to stand up for their faith in the face of terrible danger and hardship, and become an example of persevering faith. And those people are justifiably honored by the rest of us. But if you are not called to be a martyr, you can not make yourself one. It is deeply wrong to try. Some people are asked to suffer; others are asked to be grateful. And making a display of how terribly you're "suffering" (in a country where being a Christian is as easy as any country has ever made it) is monstrous ingratitude. Last weekend I went to listen to Handel's Messiah (great concert, full house). The next morning I went up and went to church, a big unmistakably Christian building on a busy street. I did not have to hide my beliefs. I did not have to be quiet about them. Everywhere I go, I am publicly reminded of the upcoming religious holiday. And next week I, like every other American Christian, will get that holiday off work. There is no war on Christmas. There is only an attack on the Christian virtue of thankfulness.

Being a little grateful is not hard, and we have been given so much.

Other Christian virtues are under attack in the "War on Christmas": kindness, generosity, toleration. Is it so terribly wrong to occasionally vary a Christmas greeting, so that our fellow Americans who follow different religions are made to feel welcome? Is it wrong to be neighborly or kind? I can't believe that. It's such a small gesture, during a time when our religious voices are even louder and more dominant than usual. It can't be too much; it's hard really to call it enough. And I can't believe that it's right to be intemperate and angry with people who have the good manners (or who are moved by kindness) to use a holiday greeting meant to include all of their neighbors. To indulge in anger for its own sake, and worse still to indulge your anger on people who are actually practicing very basic virtues, seems to me very, very far from what is expected of us.

I know there are some Christians who feel their duty is to attempt to bring everyone they can to believe specifically in Jesus, and who feel that anything that limits their explicit religious testimony interferes with that mission. But I would suggest that no one is going to be converted to Christianity by the sight of Christians being hostile, self-pitying, and uncharitable. That's the surest way to drive people away from Christianity. The louder you are about your Christianity, and the more you urge it upon others, the more important it is to be a good example of Christian virtues. That's true this Christmas, and next, and all the year round.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Dear Barack

cross-posted at Dagblog

Dear Mr. President-

I'm a big fan of pragmatism. And I've been a big fan of yours, defending you in the intramural arguments of Left Blogistan. I'm not even especially angry about this particular compromise with the Republicans, which was better than I'd feared it would be. But apparently you're angry. Your press conference yesterday made that very clear. And instead of being angry at the conservatives who've hobbled you, you're angry at the liberals and progressives who've phone banked for you, knocked on doors for you, and written you campaign checks. And that's not okay. So let me break some hard news to you:

You are not a pragmatist.

Don't kid yourself. If you want to put results ahead of abstract principle, that's great. I'm all for it. And most of your critics on the left would be pleased with that. We're not angry because you don't quote Howard Zinn enough. We're angry because you do not get results.

Pragmatism is about facing reality and dealing with it. Ten percent unemployment is a reality, and it needs to be dealt with. (I know, it's "only" 9.8%, up from "only" 9.6%, and next it will officially be 9.92% and then 9.9871% and then 9.999661%. Save it. Everyone who buys groceries understands what $2.98 on a price tag means.) Your economic strategy, trusting the big-money players to fix the economy from the top down, has been a colossal bust. The massive corporations you counted on to get things moving are enjoying record profits while letting the rest of the economy go to hell. This is reality. You have to deal with it.

I know, I know, you have to deal with the reality of what's practical in Washington, given the Senate rules and the Republican opposition and Ben Nelson's mood swings. You think of yourself as a pragmatist because you're dealing with the way the game is played. You're wrong. Dealing with the "realities" inside a Beltway that refuses to cope with what's actually happening to our country doesn't make you a realist, or even a political realist. Didn't that midterm election get through to you? You can't win by the old Beltway rules. You shouldn't play by them. You had a tax proposal that the voters like, and the Republicans had one the voters don't like. But they could defeat your plan in the Senate with only 36 votes. The game in Washington no longer reflects what the voters want or what our national economic crisis requires. If you play the game by the existing rules, you will not be able to fix the real problems. If you are not able to fix the real problems, you will be punished, no matter how principled your efforts were. You need to change the game.

I know this is not the presidency you wanted. Radical change was never on your agenda. But the Presidency of the United States has never been the job that the President wanted it to be. It has always been the job that history demands at that moment. John F. Kennedy had no intention of taking on civil rights, let alone becoming a civil rights president. Abraham Lincoln did not want to be a war president, let alone a civil-war president. Thomas Jefferson wanted to be a limited-government constitutionalist, until Napoleon offered him a very large piece of real estate. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was talking like a traditional laissez-faire capitalist in 1928; it took the Depression to turn him into someone else, and World War II to transform his presidency yet again. You will not be measured by the success of the agenda that you originally planned. That agenda is already out of date. You will be measured by your response to a changing world.

For you, that means taking on a major structural overhaul of our economy and a structural transformation of our politics. If that sounds like idealistic hype, it usually would be. The things that you need to do now would be folly in ordinary times, but these are not ordinary times. A surgeon who operates on patients who could be treated with aspirin commits malpractice. But so does the surgeon who prescribes aspirin to a patient who needs a triple bypass. Necessity is the heart of pragmatism, and you can not call yourself a pragmatist if you do less than is necessary.

I know you don't view yourself as the messianic figure that some voters wanted and needed you to be. I know that image strikes you as a fantasy. But the voters really wanted and needed that savior figure. They had reasons for voting for him. Those reasons aren't fantasies, but responses to the hard realities around us. We're not talking about the voters' psychological needs. We're talking about their everyday practical material needs. I know you are not that guy. I know you don't really want to be that guy, or feel equipped to be him. But the country voted for that guy because the country needs him. If it hadn't been you, it would have been somebody else. But our country really does need that guy, and you're all we've got.

Wake up, Barack. Reality is calling.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Understanding Obama via WikiLeaks

cross-posted at Dagblog

The latest Wikileaks document dump, filled mostly with low-grade diplomatic communications, does lay bare one thing that should have been painfully obvious all along: President Obama's Iran strategy.

Here's part of the New York Times write-up:

... the cables ... show how President George W. Bush, hamstrung by the complexities of Iraq and suspicions that he might attack Iran, struggled to put together even modest sanctions.

They also offer new insights into how President Obama, determined to merge his promise of “engagement” with his vow to raise the pressure on the Iranians, assembled a coalition that agreed to impose an array of sanctions considerably harsher than any before attempted.

When Mr. Obama took office, many allies feared that his offers of engagement would make him appear weak to the Iranians. But the cables show how Mr. Obama’s aides quickly countered those worries by rolling out a plan to encircle Iran .... the administration expected its outreach to fail, but believed that it had to make a bona fide attempt in order to build support for tougher measures.

In other words, the Obama Administration has been approaching the Iran problem the way a sane person applying common sense would do: using every available tool, offering friendship for cooperation and punishments for backsliding, and trying to manage the public relations so that Iranian intransigence looks like what it is. In the old days, Republicans called this "speaking softly and carrying a big stick." It's a pretty good approach.

By contrast, the old George W. Bush approach to diplomacy was "shout a lot and break your stick in half to show them how tough you are." This is an optimal strategy for getting beaten up and thrown out of bars. It puts bluster ahead of getting things done, so much so that it undermines the blusterer's power. Note that Bush the Younger couldn't get much happening in the way of sanctions, but Obama could.

If you don't trust the Times reporters, here's an excerpt from a raw document, as a US Treasury official briefs the EU on the new Administration's Iran strategy (April 8, 2009):

To be sure, "engagement" would be an important aspect
of a comprehensive strategy to dissuade Iran from acquiring
nuclear weapons. However, "engagement" alone is unlikely to
succeed. Diplomacy's best chance of success requires all
elements combining pressure and incentives to work
simultaneously, not sequentially.

If that doesn't spell it out for you, here it is: Obama makes gestures of friendship and engagement toward Iran because that is part of the game. Meanwhile, he puts pressure on them from every direction he can in order to force them into accepting his "friendship" on his terms. If you still do not understand how this works, please rent The Godfather. Don Corleone knows how to make friends.

Why does Obama not say, "I am reaching out my hand to Iran as part of a larger strategy to wrestle them into a half nelson?" Because if he admits that the gesture is a pretense, the pretense doesn't work. This, too, should be obvious.

While we're on the topic of the obvious, the document dump reveals Defense Secretary Gates's common sense prediction about how a unilateral attack on Iran's weapons facilities would work:

any strike “would only delay Iranian plans by one to three years, while unifying the Iranian people to be forever embittered against the attacker.”

See how that goes? Short-term win, long-term and permanent fail, with Iran ending up nuclear and hostile for at least a generation. As strategies go ... well, actually that isn't even a strategy. Obama has a plan to squeeze the Iranians to delay and derail their nuclear ambitions, while trying to build bridges to the Iranian people for the future. The American right wants to just attack Iran instead, which won't actually stop their nuclear program but will turn them into implacable nuclear-armed enemies by 2016 or so, in time for a possible Republican President to discover there's nothing left to do about Iran. It's genius.

Now, all of the above should have been obvious to everyone capable of reading a newspaper. But the American right has been dead-set on misunderstanding Obama. Here's a representative selection from September, 2009. The blogger is Scott Johnson of Powerline:

If any sentient person had serious doubt, last week's news that Iran has a covert uranium enrichment facility under construction at a military base outside Qom should serve to clarify Iran's intent to obtain nuclear weapons. News that Obama had been briefed on the existence of this facility during the transition makes it difficult to understand what Obama has said and done about Iran since then. [Emphasis mine] His statements and actions need to be reconsidered in light of the state of his knowledge. In the spirit of inquiry I offer the following premises and tentative theses:

1. In statements going back to the primary campaign, Obama repeatedly referred to Iran's prospective acquisition of nuclear weapons as unacceptable and stated that no option to prevent it should be taken off the table. Yet Obama accepts the legitimacy of Iran's nuclear program and will do nothing to retard it.

2. Obama has known about the second Iranian enrichment facility since the transition.

3. Obama has repeatedly demonstrated an eagerness to avoid confrontation with the Iranian regime -- to the point of fawning over the regime. He prides himself on accepting the legitimacy of the Iranian regime. [Emphasis mine]

4. Obama made nuclear disarmament the theme of his speech before the UN Security Council last week and secured the passage of a related resolution. Although Obama called for "full compliance with Security Council resolutions on Iran and North Korea," he emphasized that the resolution (which named no country) was "not about singling out individual nations."

It goes on for another eight theses, by which point Johnson has persuaded himself that Obama's goal is to pressure Israel into disarming. That's ludicrous, but it is also one of the tamer responses to Obama's Iran policy from the right blogosphere. When Obama claims that a UN resolution manifestly aimed at Iran and North Korea isn't aimed at them, Johnson is dumb enough to take that denial literally. (Luckily, the Iranian and North Korean regimes are not. Those bastards know perfectly well that the President of the United States is not their friend.) Johnson can't even recognize an indirect and understated threat as a threat, let alone understand why such threats might be more effective than loud obvious ones. When Obama speaks softly, Johnson decides that he isn't carrying a stick.

Like all neocons, Johnson prefers what I like to call the Gangster Rap School of Diplomacy: shouting a lot about how tough you are in the most public forum possible, and making threats without worrying about how to back them up. This is what the American right now understands as "toughness." They couldn't be more wrong.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Intellectual Property Blues, Beatles Edition

cross-posted at Dagblog

So, the Beatles are finally available on iTunes, goo goo goo joob. And the news has been greeted with a resounding yawn; many people claim that the move is much, much too late to be hip, and too late to be hip, in the music business, means too late to make a sale. [UPDATE: Since the Beatles sold 2 million songs and 450,000 albums n iTunes this week, I was obviously completely wrong about this.] Anyway, as every music columnist has already pointed out, Beatles fans all ripped all of their CDs to iPods years ago. (Disclaimer: Dr. Cleveland is a Beatles fan with an iPod. He did in fact rip all his Beatles CDs years ago.) But this John-Paul-George-and-Ringo-come-lately move isn't an isolated case: it's part of an ongoing intellectual-property management strategy by the Beatles' people, a strategy that tries to preserve their value by preserving scarcity and keeping prices high. And while that sounds like a reasonable strategy, it's probably going to hurt them in the long run.

For example, The Beatles have never allowed songs in movie soundtracks until this year. Their manager/loyalist/gatekeeper Neil Aspinall, who recently passed away, forbade it. You could pay for cover versions, but the actual tracks were the holy of holies and you couldn't have them. This is why you have never seen a movie set in the 1960s, unless it was Help! or A Hard Day's Night!, in which anyone was listening to the Beatles. Think about it. Think of a movie set between 1964 and, say, 1971 or 1973. What's on the soundtrack? If the characters put on a record or turn on their radio, what do they hear?

Hendrix. Janis. Puff the Magic Dragon. If the movie's budget is too low, Canned Heat. Now, all of that stuff was playing back then. It's "realistic," in the movie sense that those records were actually being played in the time period. And there's plenty of great music from the 1960s that can be licensed cheaply for films. (The Jefferson Airplane's people aren't holding out for top dollar.) So, naturally, film makers put the inexpensive songs on the sound track.

Here's the funny part: if you grew up with films about the 1960s, rather than personal memories of that decade, it probably seems to you as if those less expensive songs, the K-Tel Greatest Hits, were more popular than they were. And it will seem to you as if the Beatles never got played at all. In fact, the Beatles had a kind of carpet-bombing dominance of the airwaves and the record charts for years on end, a kind of dominance that we don't see anymore (and therefore don't intuitively find plausible). In the actual 1960s, the Beatles were ubiquitous. In the film version of the 1960s they're nowhere (man). Our mass media prompts us to imagine a 1960s in which "White Rabbit" was playing constantly and the "Strawberry Fields" never got air time. In fact, it's just the reverse. You hear "White Rabbit" so much now because it was only pretty successful back then.

(Ask a college kid who was more popular in 1968, Hendrix or the Beatles. They will take it as a serious question, and it isn't. Hendrix was a star, but the Beatles were crazy monster supernovas. Jimi's biggest single peaked at #20, which is roughly comparable to how the B-Side to "Paperback Writer" did. Even major figures like Dylan and the Stones, who are in the conversation with the Beatles, didn't have the same kind of success or market power.)

Now, the Apple Records "no soundtrack" policy makes obvious sense as a way to preserve the value of the Beatles brand, by enforcing scarcity. And the new policy will just be a kinder, gentler version of the old one, since the prices to license a Beatles tune for a film will still be sky-high. (One of the three songs licensed this year cost the studio $1.5 million dollars.) But in practice, this strategy has the unexpected effect of undermining younger listeners' sense of the Beatles' importance. The band seems less central, and less important, which means they eventually become less influential and important. This may be hard for some Baby Boomers to understand, because the Beatles' magnitude seems so inescapably obvious to them. But younger listeners weren't there for the Sixties, and the Beatles got left out of the movies.

(The Stones have a different strategy: they license songs for movie soundtracks, but not for soundtrack albums. The songs in the movies keep the band in the public mind, but if you want to buy the record you've got to buy The Stones. It's a smart business strategy; Mick went to the London School of Economics, after all.)

Anyway, here's some free promotion for the Fab Four, because they were pretty good on their off days:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Obama's Veto and Mortgage Fraud

cross-posted at Dagblog

If you've been looking for a fight in the lame-duck session, we may be about to see one: this Wednesday, November 17th, the House is going to have a veto override vote on the so-called "Interstate Recognition of Notaries Act," H.R. 3808. (h/t John Cole) What is the Interstate Recognition of Notaries Act, you say?

A law that would basically make mortgage fraud by interstate banks legal. Let me rephrase that: a law that would make documents notarized out of state immune to challenge no matter how they were notarized, meaning the criminal shenanigans that mortgage servicers have gotten up to, such as swearing under oath to the accuracy of documents they've never seen, would become both legal and practically unassailable. [UPDATE: I was blogging in anger when I wrote this, and became a weaker blogger because of it. The bad documents would not become legally unassailable, but they would become harder to assail. The point of the law is to legalize the banks' slipshod electronic records service, MERS, and the general effect would be "solve" the problem of illegal record keeping by changing the law to the banks' benefit. And that is both immoral and foolish.]

If that's still too complicated, let me put it this way: this law would allow the banks to just make up documents and use them to take your house, even if they couldn't actually find the title to your house (because they'd sold your mortgage, say, or because you don't have a mortgage). And there won't be a damned thing you can do about it. The banks will no longer be accountable to the law. [UPDATE again: This was hyperbole on my part. There are other ways to challenge perjured affidavits, and notarizing perjury doesn't make it immune to challenge. But the general thrust of the law is to make that systematic perjury easier, and raise the bar to challenging it. That's a terrible, terrible idea.]

Now, President Obama vetoed this abomination in October. The shocking part is that it got to his desk at all. It got there on a voice vote in the House and unanimous consent in the Senate, meaning that they didn't actually count the votes.

This bill got through both Houses of Congress without the Democrats having any real idea how it would affect the financial crisis, or what its ramifications were. (To be fair, many of the horror stories about mortgage fraud and routine perjury by mortgage companies had not yet come to light when the bills passed.) Basically, it was the Administration that caught this one in time and killed the bill. That should give you an idea of how carefully our representatives generally think about the oversight of big finance, and of how thorough and terrible the influence of banking lobbyists on the Hill is.

The veto-override vote might only be symbolic; Obama tried to straddle some legal ambiguities on this one, and make his veto immune to challenge, by doing a kind of double veto strategy. He pocket-vetoed it, because pocket vetoes cannot be overridden, but also sent the usual veto memo to Congress, to protect against any claim that Congress was technically in session when he chose not to sign it (if the President doesn't sign a bill while Congress is in session, it automatically becomes law; Obama wanted to guard against that). And now that the Democrats have realized what the law would actually do, I don't think there's going to be a two-thirds majority in favor of it.

Tell your representative to vote against this monstrosity, even so. And keep count of who's willing to be counted as favoring it. If this vote ends up being only symbolic, let's remember what's being symbolized.

FINAL UPDATE: According to D-Day at FDL, this vote is actually an expression of procedural displeasure with Obama over the double-veto-failsafe trick. Sigh. I understand that. But it's hard to cheer for Congress after they originally passed this bill without paying any attention to what it said. Obama's procedural caution happened because he was forced to play backstop for a Congress that hadn't done its job.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

International Jewish Conspiracy REVEALED!

cross-posted at Dagblog

This week Glenn Beck dedicated three of his daily TV shows to attacking the philanthropist George Soros. Beck accused Soros, a Holocaust survivor, of collaborating with the Nazis, and further accused Soros (a Jewish international financier) of being a "puppetmaster" who has formed a "shadow government" and is plotting to undermine America, destroy its economy, and subvert its electoral politics. Fox News is fine with this, apparently.

My blogging colleague Michael Wolraich, who is both the author of the newly-released book Blowing Smoke and the blogger known as Genghis, has an excellent piece on explaining the history of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that Beck draws on to libel Soros.

Mike's article has brought Dagblog a bunch of brand new commenters, who are very angry on Mr. Beck's behalf and are generously warning us of the dangers of conspiratorial Jews such as Mr. Soros. We thank them for sharing their views. One new internet buddy speculates that Mike must be part of the Jewish conspiracy himself:

Wolraich must be Jewish also and he is trying to defend someone of his own faith right or wrong. When a writer takes one side of a story and never shows even a slightly darker side of the subject you can take his work as biased hersay

That's the best thing about international Jewish conspiracies: they're very very secret, but also clearly visible. This must be convenient.

But I think our new internet friends, and even Glenn Beck himself, are taking their eyes off the real international Jewish conspiracy, started by someone who called himself "Jesus Christ." Or is that his real name?

Joshua of Nazareth, whose agents call him by his Greek alias "Jesus Christos," was a Palestinian Jew with a very serious criminal record, someone routinely denounced by responsible religious leaders. He is on public record threatening the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, which (coincidence?) was subsequently destroyed. "Christos" began with a small conspiracy of 12 followers, each of whom was instructed to go out and make further converts who would go out and make further converts, until today the conspiracy is literally over a billion people. And what were those people pledged to do?

Destroy capitalism. Redistribute wealth. Look down on the hard-working rich, and the rightful Roman authorities, while doing just about everything for criminals, sex workers, and the poor. Does that sound American to you?

Listen to this hate speech: "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter heaven." Why the persecution of the rich? Why the Jewish liberal class warfare? How long are we going to stand for this?

It's always about giving to the poor, and giving to the poor, and taking from the rich. In Jesus's world, a poor widow who gives two tiny coins to charity is somehow better than a rich person who makes a large, generous donation! And why? Just because he's rich and she's poor! Do the research for yourself; some of his followers (who use assumed names themselves) actually brag about him saying these things, and he's said all kinds of things like it. They leave this kind of propaganda in motel rooms around the nation, hoping to brainwash unsuspecting Americans!

And do you know who Jesus wants to give your hard earned money to? Lepers. That's right. And minorities, like the Samaritans, because for Jesus it's "racist" to love your own group more than the other. He tells all of these little "teaching" stories about Samaritans who are better and kinder and more religious than Jews! That's the kind of hatred we're dealing with.

Maybe it's too late to completely root out this international Jewish conspiracy to foster peace, charity and love. But don't worry. There are plenty of hard-working, true believing Americans all over this country right now, doing their damnedest to stop it. And they've still got a fighting chance.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Short Lesson of the 2010 Elections

cross-posted at Dagblog

So almost every op-ed page agrees that the lessons of the 2010 midterms are as follows:

1) The Democrats should compromise more with the Republicans, because the Republicans now have about a 50-vote majority in the House.

2) The Republicans should get to decide what counts as "compromise," because the voters are on their side.

3) Obama should apologize to everyone, all the time, for everything he did in his first two years as President. He has been Rebuked by the People and should atone for his Sin of Pride.

That's certainly one way to look at it. Here's another:

The Republicans just made serious gains by not compromising. They turned Not Compromising into 60+ House seats. If last Tuesday night was a shellacking for Democrats, the last election (and truth be told, the one before) can only be described as a shellackety-ackety-acking for the GOP. Even their big angry red wave in 2010 couldn't put the Democrats in a hole as deep as Boehner and Cantor were standing in two years ago, with their sorry 180 seats to Pelosi's 255. Never mind the big Presidential loss they'd taken, and their lopsided weakness in the Senate. But they decided that they had not been Rebuked by the People, no matter what the vote count looked like. They decided they were the True Voice of the People and acted accordingly.

I freely admit that being in opposition and being in the White House require different strategies. But even so, the post-election consensus among opinion journalists flunks the Listening to Themselves Test, badly. The Republicans just followed a political stragegy to major Election-Night gains, and the conventional wisdom is that the Democrats should not follow that strategy.

This advice is either counter-intuitive or just plain stupid. If it comes with a reasonable explanation and an alternative strategy, it's counter-intuitive. If it's just announced as plain common sense, it's plainly stupid.

Democrats should never pay attention to what the Republicans say (or vice versa). The Republicans have absolutely no interest in giving their opponents useful advice. Democrats should pay attention to what their opponents do. That's the lesson. If the other side beats you by playing aggressively and working the refs as hard as they can, you don't counter that by playing less aggressively yourself. Either you figure out a way to make their strategy work against them, or you hit 'em hard and cry foul as loudly as you can. That's what they would do.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

There Is No Center

cross-posted at

Since the election, and in fact for some time before, pundits have been demanding that President Obama move to "the center." They don't have a lot of details, usually, about where that center is, and if they do suggest a detail it usually comes from one side of current debates, but they're all convinced that Obama needs to go there. But there's a reason that pundits can't describe this magical "center" better. It doesn't exist.

Obama can't move to the center, at least on the question of the economy, because there is no center. It's been his attempts to stand on that non-existent middle ground that have left him with nowhere firm to stand.

Usually I am all for discussing the middle ground. And I despise the "false dilemma" scam, which pretends that there are only two extreme choices when actually there are dozens of better ones between them. In most debates there is plenty of middle ground and only charlatans or fanatics deny that. But there are questions that actually do come down to only two choices, because the debate isn't just about practical details but about an underlying theory of how things work in the first place. Debates about strategy and tactics have many possible answers; debates about fundamental models often have only two. Our economic arguments are arguments about basic models of the economy.

Here are some questions that have no middle ground:

Does the Earth orbit the Sun or the Sun orbit the Earth?

Is disease caused by germs?

Do childhood measles vaccinations cause autism?

Can witches cause illness and harm livestock?

Does my car have anti-lock brakes or not?

These questions (and there are many like them) don't entertain compromise, and people who tried to offer "reasonable compromises" on the question the Earth orbiting the Sun and the Sun orbiting the Earth really came up with gobbledygook. It's one basic model or it's the other. And the theory we have about the basic way things work locks us into some pretty high-stakes decisions. Most of the time it doesn't matter whether I have anti-lock brakes or not, because I'm keeping a safe distance from the car in front of me and braking gradually. But if I suddenly need to stop in fifteen yards, because of the car in front of me on the highway crashes, it matters a lot: either I need to step on the brakes as hard as I can, without fear of locking them, or I need to keep them from locking, even if it slows my braking speed. I really have to choose.

If vaccines really did cause autism, I would need to protect my (hypothetical) infant children from autism; since they don't, I need to protect them from measles, mumps, and rubella. If I believed in witches with magical powers, Rebecca Nurse would be a menace to everyone in Salem; since I don't, I think the real danger is Reverend Parris and his murderous witch hunts. There is no middle ground on the Salem question: either Rebecca Nurse or Rev. Parris is a serious public danger. There's no room for saying "both sides" are to blame. They can't be. And, as in the Salem case, attempts to stake out middle ground only help the wrong the side; if you say, "Witches are a serious public danger, but we should pay more attention to procedure when we try them," then you are supporting the witch trials. (And forget about the more cautious legal procedure. That's off the table.)

You can and should concede practical points to people on the other side of policy debates, when both sides agree on the basic underlying realities. But if you try to
"compromise" by conceding that your opponent's basic model of reality is true, you have lost. If you concede that there are witches, people are going to get hanged. If you concede that vaccination "apparently plays some role which deserves further study" in childhood autism, then some kids are going to go unvaccinated and get the mumps, and some of those kids will die. Don't pump and pump your anti-lock brakes just to keep a backseat driver happy, if you're a couple yards from crashing into a pile-up. Just stop the damned car.

Our current political debates are full of basic arguments about underlying models, debates in which there is no middle ground for compromise. Either carbon emissions are causing global warming or they are not; what we should do next depends on the answer. Once one accepts that global warming is real, and caused by carbon emissions, there are all kinds of practical questions about what to do about that, and reasonable compromises, but there's no compromising with the belief that global warming isn't happening. There's no point in trying to find "middle ground" with the birthers, or more seriously with Republicans who want to eliminate the FDA. Either the FDA is necessary to protect public health or it isn't. But the most important either/or question at the moment is this one:

Does cutting government spending help or hurt an economy that's stuck in a bad recession?

It is very clear that the Republicans, especially the ones who were most triumphant the other night, believe that cutting government spending will improve the economy. John Boehner promised to focus on "cutting spending and creating jobs." It sounds like he believes that the first helps accomplish the second. Rand Paul, who is nothing if not firm in his beliefs, wants to balance the budget, right now. This of course, is what Herbert Hoover did the last time we had such a grievous economic setback. Of course, from the other point of view, frequently explained by Paul Krugman, this is the worst possible thing to do. Since recessions are caused by a massive overall cutback in spending (in fact, since everybody cutting back on spending at once is what a recession is), having the federal government suddenly enact massive spending cuts only deepens the problem. There is no middle ground between these theories.

There is no arguing this policy on the details. It is a choice between basic underlying models of how the economy works. John Maynard Keynes was basically right, or basically wrong. Milton Friedman either understood how recessions work, or he profoundly misunderstood them. We should hit the gas or we should hit the brakes. Hitting the gas and hitting the brakes at the same time is not one of the choices.

The economic middle ground that Obama is supposed to move to, the brakes-and-gas-pedal strategy so beloved by dignified, respectable, and fundamentally innumerate opinion columnists, is where he started out. The early 2009 stimulus package, which Krugman rightly decried as too small for the shortfall in national demand, was put together by people who couldn't decide if government spending was good or bad. The result managed to be the worst of both worlds: not enough to turn the economy around, but more than enough to worry people about the expense. And worse, as Krugman points out, Obama has a bad habit of conceding the "spending is bad" model:
I felt a sense of despair during Mr. Obama’s first State of the Union address, in which he declared that “families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same.” Not only was this bad economics — right now the government must spend, because the private sector can’t or won’t — it was almost a verbatim repeat of what John Boehner, the soon-to-be House speaker, said when attacking the original stimulus. If the president won’t speak up for his own economic philosophy, who will?

We have a choice. We can cut government spending, and throw cops and teachers and firefighters out of work, and see how that picks up the economy. Or we can take advantage of the ridiculously low current interest rates on government debt in order to spend on things which we actually need and can use: fixing our roads and bridges, improving our transportation system, funding crucial technological research before competitors like China get ahead of us. We can choose between a model in which government spends in the lean years and pays down debt in the fat years, or a model in which it cuts harder when times are tough. And President Obama can choose between championing one theory about how the world works or another. It can't be both. The Earth orbits the Sun, or it doesn't.

There is no middle ground. It has already collapsed under our feet.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Circular Firing Squad Next Time

cross-posted at Dagblog

I guess I wasn't the only person who woke up this morning focusing on the next election cycle. Erick Erickson of Red State opened discussion of which Republican Senators to challenge in the 2012 primaries at 8 am this morning. (h/t DougJ) Erickson's post is titled "Potential Tea Party Targets for 2012."

Which Republican Senators make his initial list? All of them.

Here is a list of potential targets for primaries — these are all of the Senate Republicans up for re-election in 2012:

John Barasso (WY)
Scott Brown (MA)
Bob Corker (TN)
John Ensign (NV)
Orrin Hatch (UT)
Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX)
Jon Kyl (AZ)
Richard Lugar (IN)
Olympia Snowe (ME)
Roger Wicker (MS)

Note that this is just the list of Senate Republicans running. Not all will be targets, but it will be from these men and women that the tea party movement starts looking for targets.

Now, before you all get giddy about Olympia Snowe, I would respectfully suggest that Corker, Hatch, Hutchison, Lugar, and Wicker make better targets as we have a much greater certainty of both beating them in primaries and also winning the general election.

Wicker and Corker in particular make exciting prospects for the tea party movement.

That's just amazing strategery there. The list itself doesn't look terribly appetizing from the Democratic viewpoint: the Republicans only have to defend 10 of their 47 seats next cycle, and most of the seats they'll be defending are in what is currently deep red territory, forcing the Democrats to expand their map in a big way if they're going to play offense. Brown is certainly someone the Democrats will want to challenge, and if he looks vulnerable I'd expect a strong challenger.

That part of the Republican base, or at least the right-wing-pundit base, is so deeply committed to intramural bloodletting is startling. It certainly suggests that Republican incumbents will feel a genuine pressure not to compromise with the Democrats. That's not good if you're looking for the country to actually be, you know, governed. It also suggests that the national Republicans may still be in for a bumpy ride. I've never seen the circular firing squad forming up the day after a victory before.

Erickson might try to keep the Tea Party faithful from going after Snowe or Brown, but it's not as if they take marching orders from anyone. If the "practical" Tea Party types are going after Bob Corker and Roger Wicker, and simply hoping that their fellows in the movement will have the tactical sense to leave Snowe and Brown alone ... that doesn't seem likely.

Of course, both Erickson and I are blogging as if the political environment in early 2012 will be unchanged from the political environment today, which is never a safe bet. But I certainly expect the Tea Party elements of the GOP to be angered and disappointed by the conduct of the House and Senate, no matter what happens. (They will be angry if Boehner and McConnell eventually come around to some kind of deal with Obama and Reid. But they will also be angry if the GOP adopts the most extremist tactics possible, because short of a two-thirds supermajority in both houses, those tactics will fail, and the Tea Party crowd will look for RINO scapegoats when they do.) And part of me wonders what happens in states where senatorial, gubernatorial, and House primaries happen on the same day that presidential primaries do ... that's a lot of political passion to stir into the mix.

My Election Night

cross-posted at Dagblog

Tuesday morning was a beautiful day in Cleveland: crisp, clear and golden. I dressed up a bit, as I always do on Election Day. I heard a radio story a few years back about some college students who had put on ties because they were voting for the first time and it felt special, and I thought, Yes. It should always be celebrated. So now I do the same, even on days when my party is predicted to take some hard losses.

I got to my polling place after the morning rush had ended. Voting was quick, and quiet. My local poll workers, as always, were friendly and good at their jobs. Then I spent the rest of the day at work: a union meeting, the library, various necessary conversations with various colleagues, an oral defense by a student completing his master's thesis. I spent the afternoon away from national politics and immersed in everyday workplace politics: how can we best frame X's achievements to help the tenure committee understand them? How will we handle a big upcoming batch of extra service work? Could I get colleague Y's advice, just for a couple minutes, on one of my pet projects? My M.A. student did splendidly, walking into the exam room convinced that he was no good at oral presentations and walking out with high honors (although not really convinced by them, either). Of course, half an hour later that student was back at his work-study job in the library, and I was standing across from his desk with a stack of books to check out; no glory, really. The best I could do was boast about him to every one of his supervisors and co-workers who came in range, and repeat the phrase "High Honors" as often as possible. Then I went home to pack my bags: like many academics, I don't live in the same place as the person I live with, and so I spent last night driving to my partner's town. But even as I was packing the election news stayed off, because I was on the phone with a colleague who had just mailed his first book to a publisher and needed to talk through the last few exhausting weeks of revision.

I didn't get into the car until the polls had closed. NPR was running down the early results, which weren't surprising. The losses were losses I expected. When the Cleveland radio signal broke up, I scanned up and down the radio dial, stopping wherever it felt right. There's a lot of classic rock waiting out there between the big cities, and a lot of other things, too. I listened to county returns coming in in rural Ohio, a long list of local spending measures: 68 to 31 for the firehouse levy, 61 to 39 for the school levy, 52 to 47 for a local restaurant's liquor license. I found it oddly soothing. I hit an old jazz program and then drove out of its signal range. I heard Rand Paul's victory speech, and early returns from the Pennsylvania Senate race. I listened to old AM hits from the seventies, and to the Stones. At a rest stop I saw CNN broadcasting Boehner's victory speech. I stumbled on an early Beethoven symphony that seemed to fit the late hour and the clear, wintry night. And I found, to my great surprise, that I was not depressed. The election was as bad as predicted, or almost, but not worse. I knew I would be upset over the next two years about specific legislation; I would be upset the next day, when I thought about the governorships and state legislatures across the Rust Belt, now held by sworn budget-cutters in a deep recession. But I'd dreaded my election-night drive, picturing myself listening miserably to election results for mile after mile, and that misery didn't come.

I wasn't pleased. The results will not be good for the country. But I discovered that I had stopped focusing on what Democrats and progressives might lose and start focusing on how to move forward again. Last night was not the last election I expect my side to lose. I'm going to see them win again, and lose again, many more times, and progress will stutter or step back and then keep gaining ground. It doesn't matter how many lumps we take on the way. Nothing in politics is ever over. The question isn't whether you got what you want this time, or even if you'll get what you want next time. I'm a progressive; it's always been about the future, and I never expected to get there all at once. There are two years until the next election. Those are going to be two tough years for the Democrats in Washington, and it's going to take all of their sweat and tears to keep the Republicans from doing further economic harm to our country. But my job isn't to fight the Republicans in Congress; my job is to fight for more Democrats and progressives next time around. And now there's nothing for me to think about but next time.

I got home, where the person I love is, in the early hours of the morning on a cold, clear night. I could see the stars; I could see my own breath in front of me. It was the first night of winter, and it came a little sooner than I'd hoped, but I always expected winter to come. And I felt ready.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Election Day

Today's Election Day. No day makes me prouder to be American.

Go out and vote!

Monday, November 01, 2010

Republicans Against the Right to Vote

cross-posted at Dagblog

The first time I went to the polls on Election Day I was probably five, tagging along beside my mother. It was a brilliant November day in New Hampshire, and the polls were in a spare room of the town hall, the same room where I would go in later years for Cub Scout meetings and later still walk through on the way to help stock our town's tiny food assistance pantry. There was a larger room upstairs, where the annual Town Meeting was held and where I would someday go for Halloween parties and the soap box derby. The thing I remember most clearly was walking out of Town Hall after Mom was through voting. About ten feet in front of us, an exit poller asked an older man, a genuinely flinty-looking old Yankee, who he'd voted for. He declined to say, with a curt-and-not-unfriendly "no," and kept walking. I asked my mother why the man hadn't answered the question.

"You don't have to tell anyone how you voted," she said. As a five-year-old, I was awestruck by the idea of not having to do anything; that no one could make you was basically the most impressive thing I ever heard. I didn't know the words "inalienable" or "citizen," but the lesson got across and it stuck with me. I can still see the set of that old man's shoulders and his proud, confident stride in the autumn sunlight. It's my picture of American citizenship.

I pretty much fell in love with voting, right then. Haven't gotten over it. Never will.

Six years ago I moved to Ohio, four months before a national election: clearly long enough to establish residency to vote, but more importantly clearly too long to vote in my previous state of residence. The law was very clear about where I should be voting. But there was a problem: the Ohio Secretary of State was actively trying to discourage voter registration.

You read that right. The Secretary of State, the person in charge of state elections, wanted to keep new voters from registering, and actively tried to lay the groundwork to have voter registrations challenged and thrown out. Why? Because he was a Republican, and he thought that the Democrats' voter-registration drive would hurt his party. My favorite moment was when he declared that new voters' registration cards would be summarily thrown out unless they were on 80-pound paper stock. (For comparison, bond paper for legal documents is typically 20 or 24 pounds.) This gambit ultimately failed when it turned out that the Ohio Secretary of State's office did not actually have any paper that heavy itself. Then the Republican Party won the right to put challengers, not observers but challengers, inside polling places on Election Day, trying to get votes thrown out.

As a newly registered voter, I took that to heart. For the first time in my life, I went to my legal polling place feeling nervous about my rights as an American citizen. It was the Ohio Republican Party that made me worry about the exercise of my rights.

That was the first election that I worked as a Democratic volunteer.

The national Republican Party and the Tea Party movement both remain deeply committed to preventing other Americans from voting. They routinely use bogus accusations of voter fraud, dirty tricks, and even illegal polling-place electioneering in order to deprive fellow Americans of their most basic rights as Americans. I have met a voter who had a Republican challenger try to throw out his vote because he signed a "Junior" at the end of his name and the printed list had left out the "junior." That's the spirit of democracy right there. Two years ago, someone went through an African-American neighborhood in Cleveland and put misleading stickers on door hangers: the door hangers reminded people to vote; the stickers were added to deliberately give those voters the wrong address for the polls, hoping that those Americans would be disenfranchised. I saw those stickers myself.

There is no excuse for this. And this is not conservatism. This not American. It's an admission that the Republicans know their policies are bad, and want to prevent people from having their say. But even if the Republicans had the soundest policy ideas in the world, it would be wrong. They have no right to take away anyone else's vote.

Don't tell me about their traditional values. I grew up in a little New England town that still had a town meeting: everyone in town showed up at the town hall and voted on the budget, line by line. I know what old-fashioned American democracy looks like. This is not it. I disagree with the Republicans on policy because I'm a progressive. But it's the conservative part of me, the part that loves what is old and best in America, that actually hates them.

If the Tea Party lends itself to voter suppression and intimidation, it has no right even to speak about the Founders or the Sons of Liberty. Voter suppression is an attack on the Constitution. It is an affront to the Declaration of Independence. And anyone who obstructs another American's rights as a citizen has broken faith with America. This is not an expression of "small town values." It not traditional. It is not conservative. It is an expression of something new, and vicious. It is an expression of hatred for individual rights and personal liberty.

There are issues that require compromise, when compromise is reasonable. The right to vote is not one of them. It never will be.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

You Can't Sell Your Soul If the Devil Ain't Buying

cross-posted at Dagblog

The election is the day after tomorrow, and I'm basically done looking at predictions of the results. Foreknowledge is the beginning of folly, and no matter how the day goes I'm going to do the same thing on Tuesday and after Tuesday. Win or lose, you keep your eyes on the prize.

But there's one thing just about every prognosticator agrees on: Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark) is toast.

Lincoln, of course, is a "moderate" Blue Dog. She has clearly felt that the Obama Administration's agenda would hurt her back home in Arkansas, so she's gone out of her way to water down key bills, especially financial reform, and essentially run against her own party:

She takes strenuous pains to distance herself from the White House, trumpet her centrist credentials and assert her independence from her Democratic colleagues.

Her reward for watering down those votes that she was afraid would cost her re-election? She's an incumbent who can't even get to 40 percent in the most recent polls.

And that brings me to the political lesson of the day, this October 31: You can't sell your soul if the Devil ain't buying. Every voter that Blanche Lincoln was trying to appease is voting against her anyway. Why shouldn't they? She signaled over and over again that their political philosophy was right, and that she herself was uncomfortable with Democatic policies. Maybe the votes that Lincoln would pick up by making a strong case for Democratic principles and the good that Democratic policies did for the average Arkansas voter wouldn't have been enough to re-elect her. But clearly she couldn't win without those votes.

Sometimes the Devil won't pay for your soul. He'll just take it for free. You might as well do the right thing instead.

The post-election pressure to be more compromising and more moderate and more "Clintonian" already started ramping up last week. The next six hundred times you hear that talking point, remember Blanche Lincoln: a classic Clinton Democrat, with Bill Clinton himself stumping for her personally, getting stomped 2-1 in Arkansas. If that's what winning looks like, let's look at some losing strategies, please.

And before you say it's impossible for a Democrat to win in a state like Arkansas, let me point out that Lincoln's seat has been Democratic since Reconstruction and that the state's other Democratic Senator, Mark Pryor, was re-elected two years ago by an 80-20 margin. Lincoln hasn't lost a tough hold. She's given away a stronghold.

Moving to the "middle" by meeting the hardest right-wing candidates in living memory halfway isn't going to help Democrats survive. Conceding the basic principles of the "conservative" argument simply means conceding to them. You can't say, "Big government is a problem, but we need to do some practical things out of necessity," anymore. And you can't make so many concessions to your policies that the policies don't work, because the opposition will just hang the failed policies around your neck. If the Republicans decide next week to oppose all childhood vaccinations and claim that they cause autism, you don't try to appease them by weakening the MMR vaccine until it stops protecting kids against measles, mumps and rubella. Doing that would destroy the case for vaccinating kids in the first place, and look like an admission that the crazy fact-free case against vaccinations was true.

Plenty of Democrats are going to take that "centrist" advice. Lots of them already believe it in their souls. And most of those centrists, frankly, are going to end their own careers. Do you seriously think that Ben Nelson is going to be re-elected in 2012 for being the least Democratic of the Democrats? He's going to be run out of Omaha on a red-state rail, and a real Republican will replace him. If your political purpose is to pull Obama to the right, a Republican is always, always going to do it better. The question is whether more progressive Democrats are going to follow Ben Nelson on the same cliff.

I'm all for pragmatism. But pragmatism isn't pragmatism if it doesn't get results. And I understand why any working politician is going to think about his or her own political safety. That's the nature of the beast. But at a certain point, cowardice won't keep you safe. If you want to survive, you have to push forward and fight for every step. There's no guarantee of winning that way. But you're guaranteed to lose doing anything else.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Harassing the Professor

cross-posted at Dagblog

The University of Venus blog at Inside Higher Ed recently posted a personal reflection by a non-white female professor who has felt sexually harassed by one of her male undergraduates. This is at once shocking and entirely unsurprising. Even a white straight guy like me can't work in higher education and not notice the inappropriate behaviors that many female colleagues have to put up with from male students: students sexually propositioning them, giving them flowers, attempting to contact them off-campus, writing graphic sexual comments in teaching evaluations. It may not have happened to every single woman who professes, but it happens to plenty, and to far, far more than it should. In this case, the student turned a writing assignment into something graphically sexual that had nothing to do with course content. (And yes, of course sex is not off limits for academic discussion. But it has to be academic discussion. "That Georgia O'Keefe painting looks pretty symbolic to me," is a normal part of art history class. "Let me tell you more about my penis," is not.)

The original post had led to a intense online discussions both at the University of Venus and at Historiann. Some insights have been great, and others derailed by the question of parity: does this happen to male faculty too? Shouldn't we treat men and women faculty equally? I find this line of argument unsettling for three reasons: 1) this is very obviously not a case of parity, 2) that the situations are radically unequal does not mean that men are never, ever, ever harassed, or that we need not consider how such a situation should be treated, and 3) the focus on student harassment as an exchange between only two people leaves out all the other people in the classroom, and those people's education is very definitely affected by such misbehavior.

Here's a key quote from the original poster:

Right after my confrontation with this student about his first paper, I shot my usual line to my husband, who is also an academic: “this would never happen to you!” And then I realized there were other things that were happening that I doubt happen to him or other male faculty. Based on the content of the student’s paper, and his behavior towards me, it was very clear that he saw me not as a professor but as a sexualized, “exotic” woman. I became acutely aware of my body language and my clothes. I found myself often quickly checking the buttons on my shirt during class to make sure they were all buttoned. I felt awkward turning around to write something at length on the board. I found myself limiting my physicality in other ways, like not sitting on top of the desk as I often do during discussion sessions. I started scheduling students back to back during office hours, if he wanted to meet with me, just so there would be a crowd of students outside my door when he was inside my office. And I made sure that I wasn’t the last person to leave the classroom. I understand that male professors are sometimes viewed sexually by their students. But I think the consequences of that are very different. I wonder if male professors have to worry about being the last person to leave the classroom, if they wonder what kind of predicament the next bad grade they give out is going to land them in.

The focus, again, has been on "This would never happen to you!" Of course it does happen to men, occasionally. But the real point isn't whether anything like this happens to male teachers or not. The point is that this situation is much easier for men to defend themselves against than it is for women.

If you're a straight male teacher, a straight female student is much less likely to cross the boundaries that you set in your teacher-student interactions, and in the rare cases when one does, a male teacher is going to protect himself, and count on his institution to protect him, pretty easily.

The male teacher's advantage begins with our culture's standard heteronormative scripts for courtship and dating. Should a female student express interest in a male professor, that expression will in almost every case involve the student signaling availability, rather than making any overt gesture. The script is that the woman signals interest and the man pursues. That's by no means a feminist script but face it: a female undergraduate interested in having an actual romantic relationship (as opposed to a crush or occasional daydream) involving a major power differential with an older man is typically also invested in old-fashioned gender roles and in the man as pursuer.

Basically, all a male college professor has to do to repel such invitations is ignore them. A student has a fantasy, no matter how durable or ephemeral, of being pursued by an older man; if the older man doesn't pursue, that's pretty much the ballgame. If a male professor doesn't know how to ignore or deflect comments professionally, he can just fall back on playing dumb. Actually being dumb also works quite nicely. Does the student just have a garden-variety crush, or is she actually hoping to act out her fantasies? Doesn't matter; there's not much she can do without the male faculty member's cooperation. Male privilege is not only powerful, but it's convenient.

A woman professor, unfortunately, doesn't have to distinguish the male students with harmless crushes from the ones who are prone to act out, either, because the young men who want to act out do. If the script is "man pursues," a young man with a sexual interest in his professor is apt to make unequivocal gestures. A dozen roses; an e-mail describing erotic dreams; a surprise phone call at home. Bad times. And then the onus is put on the faculty member to actively refuse the student, and of course to manage his hurt feelings. (She not only gets to be inappropriately sexualized; she gets to be inappropriately sexualized and then become a focus of anger.) And while a female student hitting on a male professor often experiences his authority as "sexy," many male students who proposition female professors experience a woman's authority as an anomaly that needs to be reversed or resolved. There are plenty of horror stories, although none are mine to tell. This situation is much, much harder than it is for the male teacher, right from the start. And when a male student refuses to hear the refusal, and responds with larger and less appropriate gestures in order to make sure that he has communicated his desires to their object, it gets ugly.

Are there occasionally students who refuse to accept that a male professor has refused them? Sure. It's much rarer than it is for female professors, but it happens. Harassers, of whatever gender, can be defined by their inability to hear the word no or to recognize boundaries, and when one inappropriate gesture doesn't get what they want they follow with an even less appropriate one. When inappropriate e-mail doesn't work, make an inappropriate phone call. If that doesn't work, just show up. To take one of the original poster's implicit questions, "I wonder if male professors have to worry about being the last person to leave the classroom," literally, the answer is "Once in a great while, yes." It's happened to me only once in nineteen combined years as a high school teacher, grad school teaching fellow, and professor, and it lasted rather less than a semester, and it was a hell of a lot easier on me than it is on almost any woman in the same position. That experience in no way makes me less privileged, or "equally a victim." In fact, my experience illustrates how much easier men have it.

On semester, I got some alarming e-mail sent to my personal account; it was anonymous, but various details indicated a student in a night course I was teaching. (Even though the student didn't respect my boundaries or my privacy, I was still supposed to come looking for her; she had apparently created an e-mail profile just for the purpose of sending me her amorous spam, and her profile picture was a jpeg of Lady Godiva. Even the unsettling inappropriate behavior was a variant on come-and-get-me.) I reported it to my department chair immediately, gave the students no indication that anything had happened, and spent a few weeks working out which of my students had done it. Did I give thought to how and when I left that classroom at nine PM? You bet. I took great care not to make any move that might encourage the initially-unidentified culprit, who might construe almost anything as encouragement. For several weeks I made sure not to leave the building with any female students.

But was I afraid of physical danger, as the original poster was? Decidedly not; my experience was much, much less alarming than hers. When the (eventually identified) culprit chose to glower at me in the classroom, I felt the opposite of fear. Her displeasure was an admission of her powerlessness, and I was confident that she would not resort to any physical intimidation. Neither did I worry about my appearance, or become uncomfortable about my body; I did not believe that the incident had much to do with my body or my looks. Neither did I worry about my work clothing, since I had already availed myself of perfectly "safe" and "professional" male clothing which could not be second-guessed. It wasn't just that what I was wearing could not be construed as sexy by the student; I was also safe from any charge from administrators that I had "brought it on myself" with what I wore. Professional women, alas, don't get such easy and uncontroversial dress standards.

But the most important difference was that I knew the school authorities would back me. And that would have been true for me virtually anywhere. I trust that my particular chair and my particular dean would do the same for any of my female colleagues in the same situation, but that is not true of every chair or every dean. Again, there are horror stories which aren't mine to tell, but I can think of instances where a male student made wildly inappropriate overtures toward female faculty, where there was no dispute either of the inappropriateness of the student behavior or the identity of the student, and the student was allowed to remain in the professor's classroom. That is the difference between being a man and a woman in this profession. If a man asks to be protected in his workplace, he always gets protected. Some women do, and some women don't. That's an abuse of the faculty member who's forced to be in a classroom where she doesn't feel safe, and it's an abuse of every one of her students, whose education is compromised by keeping the harassing student in the classroom.

A teacher who's having students trespass her (or his) boundaries will almost certainly begin to second-guess those boundaries and feel tempted to make them much more rigid. There's an instinctive response to make oneself as distant and unapproachable as possible. That doesn't help anybody's learning. Nor does feeling wary and defensive help you run a classroom better. A teacher's professionalism may compensate for her or his discomfort in that situation, and the students may never see it overtly expressed, but it will still be a compensation and it will take that teacher's energy and attention away from other things.

Read that original post again. The professor in question was feeling so cautious about her boundaries that she gave up her habit of sitting on the desk. Now, sitting on the desk is not itself the key to teaching effectiveness, but it was clearly something she used to signal a relaxed and open atmosphere for discussion. It seems overwhelmingly likely that discussion in that classroom stopped feeling quite so relaxed and welcoming, because the teacher couldn't afford it to be. That's hard on the teacher and bad for the students. She also writes about scheduling student conferences very tightly in order to avoid being alone with the culprit, which means that everybody's individual conference got kept short and hurried. The faculty member was put in a situation where the goal of her safety and comfort was put in conflict with the goals of effective teaching, all for the dubious benefit of keeping the problem student in the classroom.

And before anyone takes up a Gender Wars 1.0 position, siding with the male student against the prudish female authority figure, remember this: when a professor who's feeling the instinct to pull back from students because she's been (or being) harassed by a male student is going to pull back furthest from other male students. Allowing one boy the inalienable male privilege of handing in porn for course credit has a cost. It gets paid by other male students who get a teacher who is less available, less generous, less likely to become a mentor. How could it not? (It also, of course, exacts a toll on the professor's well-being and her soul.)

When put in a less-intense parallel situation, even knowing that I would be supported by my superiors, I went through a few months when I was instinctively much more distant from female students and had to work, consciously and hard, to remain equally accessible to all my students. During the night course with the problem student, I was very careful to leave the building every night with at least one male student. That felt like a very reasonable step. But it did mean that the male student, often the same one, got an extra five or six minutes of conversation about the writers and books we were studying, a little extra attention from the professor. Is that gender inequality? You bet. And there was an enormous temptation to shut myself off from female students for the next few months, becoming less likely to stop for a brief chat if I passed them on campus, more reluctant to take on independent study projects, quicker to end conversations in my office. That would obviously be unjust, and that is not the teacher I have ever wanted to be. But absolutely no one would have called me on it. I could also have been "fair" by pulling back from all my students, but that is not teaching either. And it took a hard, conscious effort not to become that person. That's doing it the easy way, cushioned by institutional support and male privilege and a sense of physical safety. It's a lot harder for women. That penalizes women and their students as well.

Female faculty need to be allowed to solve classroom problems as they see fit, but they also need to know that they have all the tools that their solutions require, including backing from administrators. A faculty member who's feeling harassed by a student might decide that the student does not need to be removed from her classroom, but she does need the confidence of knowing that she could have the student removed if that were necessary. The real scandal isn't that students treat male and female faculty differently; that is just an ugly reflection of our wider society's values. But when the people overseeing a university and upholding its values allow female faculty to be treated in a way that male faculty would never be asked to tolerate, it's a scandal and a shame.

Monday, October 25, 2010

History Never Repeats Itself

cross-posted at Dagblog

Election day is next Tuesday. Papers like the New York Times and Washington Post began publishing their post-mortem analyses of the election results last week. What should Obama do now that next Tuesday's results are in? Highly paid opinion writers have opinions.

The current conventional wisdom has two basic pillars:

1) It is currently 1994.

2) Since it's 1994, Bill Clinton should be President.

I'm going to leave the actual electoral predictions to my colleague Articleman and to folks like Nate Silver. But even if Tuesday night were to turn into an exact replay of 1994, district by district, the political situation on Wednesday morning would still be something completely new. History echoes itself, but it never repeats exactly. If this really were 1994, of course, being more like Bill Clinton would be a stupid idea, like telling someone fighting Muhammad Ali to be more like Sonny Liston. As Ezra Klein and Josh Marshall both remind us, the Big Dog was soundly beaten in 1994. And his post-1994 playbook, no matter how successful it was fifteen years ago, is just not going to work in 2011. Things have changed.

The point of all the "1994 all over again" spin is that it allows reporters and "expert" sources to come off like experts and make confident pronouncements about how things are going to go. "It's tough to make predictions," as Yogi Berra said, "especially about the future." That's why most pundits and sources try to predict the past instead. The point is not to be useful or even to be right, but to sound knowledgeable, and if pundits just predict a replay of what happened last time they can stick to repeating what they know instead of thinking about the unknowns. And if things play out differently, well, the pundits bet with the smart money and that's what really matters, if you're a pundit.

Planning a strategy on the assumption that things will go exactly the way they went last time is inviting one's own defeat, especially in adversarial contests. If something worked on your adversary last time, and they're coming back, do you really think they're going to make precisely the same mistakes this time? France in 1940 is not France in 1918, and you can't expect the Germans to cooperate by sticking to the strategies that lost them World War I. It's still very important not to repeat major strategic mistakes, like allowing unemployment to hit 10% in an election year, trying to march an army from Western Europe all the way to Moscow, or attempting to reduce the deficit during a massive recession. Those will always lose. But you can't count on winning the way you did last time, because the circumstances change and the opposition adapts. When Very Serious People talk about how Obama can win by using Clinton's playbook, they might as well be talking about defending France with the Maginot Line. Marshal Joffre was a Very Serious Person, too.

There are a bunch of reasons why the political situation in Washington, even if Tuesday night looks like deja vu, will actually be terra incognita, requiring a brand new map.

1) We're in much worse shape. In 1994, we were going through a moderate cyclical recession. We were also at peace, with a secure feeling of military near-omnipotence. We are now mired in a much deeper and longer recession, with troops in two ongoing wars. The economy has been seriously, structurally damaged, and there's the potential for plenty more bad news around the corner. The moderate and centrist small-bore fixes that worked well enough in the 1990s will not fix the problems we have now. Neither will just waiting for things to get better. And inaction, let alone wrong-headed action, could make things even worse.

The Republicans have been campaigning for two solid years on a hot-potato strategy, trying to keep the Democrats from fixing things, on the principle that if things were still a mess in 2010 they would get power back. They have no lucid proposals for fixing the economy; they want a mix of useless but expensive tax breaks for folks who are already hoarding their capital and foolishly pro-cyclical spending cuts that will make the depression even worse. If, as they and the media establishment expect, they get the hot potato back next week, they have to figure out what to do about it. And they have no plans that will work. The only predictable result is a lot of trouble.

2. The Republicans are counting on winning this time.
1994 was a big surprise. People weren't predicting it. The Republicans themselves weren't seriously predicting it. They've been predicting big wins in 2010 for well over a year. They have promised their base a victory, and more to the point they have promised that base the spoils of victory. Anything but a major rightward policy shift is going to disappoint and antagonize that base. Indeed, as Daniel Larison points out, disappointment and anger from the right wing is almost certain. There's going to be rage if (as Larison believes), the GOP comes up a few House seats short of a majority, but there's also going to be rage if the majority is smaller than the months of what Larison calls "overhyping" have led conservatives to expect and, most of all there will be rage when the GOP can't give their base everything their base has been counting on. Any new Republicans elected next week will have been elected to run Obama out of town, not to compromise with him. The voters who will carry any such Republicans to victory are hellbent against compromise.

3. Obama has passed more legislation in his first two years than Clinton did.
For all the disappointment and anger among the left-wing base, Obama has gotten more done than Clinton did in the first two years. He didn't pass the health care bill I would have designed, but he passed a health care bill. He didn't make financial reform as strict or thorough as I think we need, but he passed a financial reform bill. And if he blew the size of the stimulus, he passed a much larger stimulus than the other side of the aisle wanted. In the same period, Clinton passed the Family Medical Leave Act and the Brady Bill (which requires background checks for gun purchases except when it doesn't), created Don't Ask Don't Tell (which was treated as progressive at the time), and got stuffed on health care. I don't mean any disrespect to the Big Dog; those are just the facts. And while the Family Medical Leave Act is a great thing, it isn't a thing that the Republicans were hell-bent against or wanted to repeal. Obama, on the other hand, has passed major legislation that the Republicans hate, have campaigned against, and will claim they have a mandate to repeal. Compromising with the other party is much easier when you're talking about what to do next. "Compromising," for Obama, would mean giving some of his major legislative accomplishments back. And that is neither a recipe for success nor compromise.

It isn't so much Barack Obama isn't Bill Clinton as that he can't be Bill Clinton. And he'll pay badly if he tries.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Mortgage Crisis in the Tranches

cross-posted at Dagblog

I've posted about the housing and mortgage crisis, and the impending dangers, here and here, but there's one additional problem that I hadn't got my head around when I wrote those posts. That's the tranche problem, which is likely to lead to all kinds of perverse incentives and unforeseen difficulties.

Most of the bad mortgages, by which I mean both the loans which should never have been made and the mortgages that have that have become part of the banks' routine fraud, were bundled into so-called pools that supported the infamous mortgage backed securities. Those securities then split up the revenues from each mortgage pool a bunch of different ways. So instead of your mortgage having one owner, it's part of a big lot of mortgages with let's say ten different owners, the holders of the various bonds issued on the pool of mortgages your home loan is in. So far, so good.

Here's where it gets tricky: not all of those owners are equal, even if they own equally large percentages of your house, because the bonds are organized into "senior" and "junior" tranches, which get paid off in order of seniority. So, to oversimplify a little, let's say the pool of mortgages your house is in got securitized and divided up ten ways, with each bondholder getting ten percent. Those ten bondholders get paid off in order: one bought the first and safest ten percent, then another bought the second ten percent, all the way down to bondholder number ten, who gets the last ten percent of the money from you paying your loan (or rather, from all of the loans in your pool). All of this was done, in part, by clever financial engineers who figured that this would remove the risk from financing mortgages. (Cue hollow laughter here.)

In the old days, if you ran into trouble paying your mortgage and had to renegotiate, the mortgage had one owner, the bank holding the note, and if you only ended up paying two-thirds of what you owed, that bank took the whole hit. If the mortgage-backed securities were divided equally and you only paid two-thirds of what you owed, then all then bond-holders would get 66.6% of what they'd planned. But under the current system, if you only pay two-thirds of your mortgage, six of your bondholders get paid in full, one gets a two-thirds return, and three get nothing at all. (It's more complicated, actually, because the bonds are actually tied to all of the mortgages in a pool, but the concept remains: if half of the mortgages pay in full, and the other half get written down either through negotiations or through foreclosure and resale a a lower price, at least half of the bondholders are fine but others lose the whole investment.)

Why does this matter to people who are neither Goldman nor Sachs? Because it changes the incentives for dealing with troubled mortgages. In the old days, if your mortgage went south and the bank holding it was going to take a haircut, you could rely on them, at least, to do the economically rational thing. They had an interest in getting back as much of the loan value as they could. That might lead them to refinance. In a housing market that had collapsed since the original home purchase, it might make the bank less eager to seize and resell the home (at a big loss), when they could potentially work something out. Their interests were clearly aligned to maximizing the value of the home.

Under the mortgage-backed-securities system, the incentives get scrambled. Some of the bondholders are getting paid, no matter how much the mortgage declines in value. As long as 20% or 30% of the expected return comes in, they're sitting pretty. At least one or two of the bondholders are holding worthless paper no matter what, because they were only getting paid if the loans returned the full amount of interest on top of the principal, and they are basically out of the decision making loop. A few in the middle could either gain or lose, depending on how specific mortgages are resolved. But there's not a single party with decision-making power whose profit and loss are tied to maximizing the actual value of the asset. Maybe it makes more sense to keep a homeowner in the house rather than sell the house at a fifty percent markdown, but it makes more short-term sense for the "senior" bondholders to take what they can get up front ... sure, the house lost half its value, but their investment was in the "top" half of its value anyway.

The same thing goes for the problem of mortgage backed securities that turn out to be based on fraudulent paperwork. As I've blogged before, there are legal remedies that allow bond-holders to make the issuing banks eat that bad paper, buying back the bonds at the original price. But here, again, the holders of different tranches have different interests. If you bought tranche #8 of 10 in a mortgage backed by a pool that's cratered in value, you want to stick that bad investment back to the bank who put it together, and if it turns out that they didn't perform due diligence, you'd be negligent not to sue them. However, even the crappiest mortgage pool in the world has at least one or two traches of bondholders who are actually turning a profit, and they clearly don't want the deal undone. Why would they? They get the first ten percent, even if only ten percent of the expected returns come in. So we can expect a litigation bloodbath over this.

I have no idea how all this plays out. But I'm afraid that no one else does, either.