Saturday, December 05, 2009

Top Ten Conspiracies for 2009: Did Vampire Squids Cause Swine Flu?

It's that time of year again - time to list the top conspiracy theories from the year that's past.

For those of you new to this annual feature, the full rules are here, but the gist is basically this: every December, I list the conspiracy theories that made the biggest headlines during the past year. To qualify, they need to have an air of the bizarre, and not be the kind of thing proven true (as in an actual criminal conspiracy - of which, this year, thanks to the financial crisis, we certainly have plenty). Rather, these are the fanciful stories that have captured acclaim and started rumors, with no real basis of fact in evidence.

Naturally, as one might expect, with a new party taking office this year, most of the top conspiracies for 2009 now come from the right (as opposed to from the left, as they have for the past several years).

And now, without further ado, let's have a drum roll....and get to our list.

10. The mob killed JFK. Perhaps one of the most enduring conspiracies of all time, this one breathed new life this year with new books and a TV show on Frontline resurrecting one of Oliver Stone's favorite memes.

9. Sarah Palin's "dollar coin" conspiracy was perhaps notable not as much for its wide attention as for it's laughably typical Palin foible: the grand conspiracy plot she refers to (moving "In God We Trust" to the side of the coin) was actually approved in 2005 by George Bush.

8. Did you know that the CIA is following you on Twitter? So that explains all those annoying DM's.

7. Call the fake Obama birth certificate the conspiracy that wouldn't die. Though we reported this one last year, this year even a District Judge was tempted to side with the conspiracy theorists.

6. ACORN this year became the organization that conservatives loved to hate...and so the nutty conspiracy theories flourished. We have the campaign finance law violation conspiracies, the growing "I lost my local election because of ACORN" conspiracies, the tax evasion conspiracy, the ACORN/Obama federal grants conspiracy, the ACORN hooker conspiracy, a lovely little ACORN gun conspiracy, the ACORN stole the Presidential election conspiracy (what else?), and perhaps my favorite, that ACORN caused the financial crisis. At least no one's blamed them yet for the weather.

5. Speaking of conspiracies no one would have expected, who would have expected a swine flu conspiracy this year? So many villains to go around that really, the whole list of them deserve to be condensed into one.

4. Naturally, one would not expect a review of 2009 conspiracies to end without some kind of communist plot making the top of the list. So I nominate Glenn Beck's Apollo Alliance Manchurian Candidate White Board Conspiracy to take the spot.

3. I love the writings and assorted ramblings of Matt Taibbi. And I think his Goldman Sachs vampire squid conspiracy really has to take the cake as the second runner-up for this year's top conspiracy. After all, who didn't want to take a swing at the fat cats at Goldman this year?

2. Coming in second for this year's top conspiracy: global warming has been faked by scientists. Even the UN is investigating this hot conspiracy. I tell you, when a conspiracy is breaking news at the UN, you'd better pay attention.

1. But even that didn't surpass this year's top conspiracy: The Obama Health Care Death Panel conspiracy. When the U.S. Congress gets into the business of spinning conspiracy theories, even the President has to respond.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Moral Hazard Rears Its Ugly Head: What To Do

With Goldman Sachs now left as a de-facto monopoly supported by the government, there's good reason for public anger - even from conservative financial institutions like the Financial Times - at what are now record breaking bonuses funded by taxpayer money: bonuses that are eye-popping even by the standards of Wall Street.

The Goldman bonuses are perhaps the biggest example of what people mean by "moral hazard." That is, the problems created when governments step in and rescue companies, even companies deemed critical to the economic health of the country.

The problem with Goldman is, there's no longer any downside for the bankers making these obscene bonuses. The company is now "too big to fail," so there's no real risk involved: the traders at Goldman know that taxpayers will step in to support the company if it gets in too much trouble. Thus, traders at Goldman are now able to take insane amounts of risk with what amounts to other people's money - our taxpayer money - but taxpayer's get none of the upside of that risk, only the Goldman traders do.

In essence, then, the bailout has created the biggest sucking sound the world has ever heard: the sound of about a hundred fortunate few sucking the remaining lifeblood out of the world economy.

We knew moral hazard would be an issue when we went into the bailout. And certainly, all the bank regulation in the world, and all the limits on executive pay, ain't going to do a thing to stop the sucking from Goldman, which has already given the TARP money back and thus has escaped any regulation or pay cap talk - and even if they hadn't are so entrenched in the government that they'd find another way to make off with our cash.

Certainly, no good capitalist wants to get into sweeping regulations about pay....and passing a law to tax Goldman Sachs specifically will just create the biggest loophole ever known, when Goldman - which has all the ins in the government it needs to avoid such a fate anyway - simply renames itself. So there seems like there's no good solution, right?

But there is. The solution - which is so obvious, I'm surprised I haven't seen anyone else suggesting it - is to raise the top tax rates. At least for people making obscene money in the heart of the recession - let's say, anyone making $1M a year or more. Call it a "windfall tax" and raise the rate to 55%. After all, isn't that the least that the rich bastards can do for our depleted country? That would recapture some of the oomph from Goldman, as well as anyone else making out in our depressed environment (no doubt due to the largess of the government in the first place).

The solution is so obvious, the fact that no one in the Obama administration has suggested it makes me wonder: just how different is this administration from Bush's anyway? On the issue of Goldman managing the economy, it seems: not much.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Barney Against the Rabble

Joe Klein says the Republican party has gone insane.

I watched a good hour and a half of Barney Frank holding his own against the wailing rabble. Captivating TV, like cage knuckle brawling. Give 'em Hell, Barney.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

20 Rules For the Twenty-First Century

As we really start to dig into this new century, I've been thinking lately about the lessons learned from the past 100 years, and how they so intimately apply to our lives now. Things that have changed our way of being in the world but have also become new insights into the nature of our existence and what it all means. I've been thinking that there seem to be roughly twenty insights for our new times that will underpin how we live in this new century.

1. That a well-functioning society is a complex thing that can easily be quickly unwoven (Katrina) or repaired (the West Bank) by a change in just a few key parameters.

2. That democracies unleash both powerful creative forces (crowdsourcing) and intractable political paralysis (global warming).

3. That all work is about being social, even if it's done at a computer at home alone in your underwear.

4. That compression of the human compound into smaller and more crowded spaces turns us into our basic elements: flesh, sound, and stink.

5. That every generation is a Moses to the next: they can lead us through the desert, but they will never enter the landscape we're destined to inherit.

6. That love is what provides meaning, but not fulfillment. Work is what provides fulfillment, but not meaning.

7. Companies are just big brands that contain and manage smaller brands (products) that are created by assembling contributions from even smaller brands (other products and people). All of these assemblages work best as flexible systems that can easily adjust to constantly changing markets.

8. Rather than right or left or conservative and liberal, a better way of describe competing political forces would be "defensive" and "offensive." And yes, offensive is the old "liberal."

9. That the new meritocracy now most values creative talent, rather than managerial politics.

10. That our educational system now requires rebellion, skepticism, and incredulousness as key personality traits for success.

11. That raising people from poverty requires lowering people from wealth - which can happen both gradually and all at once.

12. That there is nothing more poisonous than a bad idea that seems true.

13. That the more removed we become from physical labor, the more nostalgia we have for the raw dynamics of the earth: pets, gardens, parks, and extreme sports.

14. That sometimes inefficient, low-tech, unhealthy, and complex can have more value than fast, efficient and healthy, if it's emotionally meaningful.

15. That in addition to the four traditional types of labor - making things, destroying things, distracting people, and caring for them - we now have a major new type: managing information. That the United States is really good at three of these: destroying things, distracting people, and managing information - and not so good at the other two; probably due to the natural character of Americans.

16. That the source of celebrity is notoriety, and that celebrity is the source of political power. Ergo, political leadership is the art of being notorious.

17. That all resources are limited, even seemingly unlimited resources like the sun, hope, desire, or lust.

18. That we pay too much attention to avoiding death and not enough to managing it well.

19. That the last unexplored country is the 1/3 of our lives we spend asleep.

and finally

20. That Wall-E is really a movie about how a nerd wins the heart of a sexy girl.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

POLL: Is Gay Marriage The New Swing Issue?

Since his election, Obama has been silent on gay issues - despite his campaign promises. And now, after first offending with the selection of Rick Warren at the inauguration, then his refusal to issue stop loss orders preventing the discharge of gay soldiers, and now most recently, with his DOJ legal team issuing an offensive report supporting DOMA (the law that discriminates against married gay couples with federal benefits), Obama seems to have finally struck out with the gay community.

Interestingly, however, some influential Republicans have started coming out IN FAVOR of gay marriage; even Dick Cheney has voiced his limited support.

So here's an interesting question. If a Republican presidential candidate in 2012 supported gay marriage, would gays support him or her? Could this be the swing constituency that can lead conservatives back to the White House? Take our poll and say your mind.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

What's the Matter with Obama?

or - why are gays becoming increasingly disillusioned with the President?

Quite obviously, Republicans have been quite successful over the past eight years turning gay rights issues into a wedge, and encouraging state-wide initiatives banning gay marriage to help drive conservative voters to the polls. Aside from some stalwart holdouts over at the Log Cabin club, few gays and lesbians are lauding Republicans for these efforts. Yet all evidence suggests that Republican leaders have used the issue as cynically merely to drive their base - few of them seem to really have the heart to push an inimical initiative like, say, a Constitutional Amendment to ban gay marriage.

The question then comes to, are the Democrats really that much better? Two of the most destructive laws over the past twenty years - Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT), which requires the expulsion of service members found to be gay, and the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denies federal benefits or recognition to gay couples - were proffered by a Democratic president. While Democrats see gays and lesbians as their base - and therefore pander to them as much as Republicans pander to the homophobes - when the rubber hits the road, the real question gays must ask politicians in both parties is: what have you done for (or to) me lately?

One might argue - and count me in this camp - that it is much better to under promise and over deliver, that to make promises you don't intend to keep (or worse, that set things back, as Clinton did). When Hillary Clinton, in her campaign against Obama, promised to repeal DADT but only to "promote marriage rights" rather than strive for a full repeal of DOMA (as Obama said he would do), she was criticized for "triangulating" - putting politics above principal. Obama, meanwhile, clearly promised action on both DADT and DOMA - to essentially undo the wrong done by the last Democratic president. Whatever his intentions, many took him at his word.

Starting with his inauguration, however, Obama's delivery has become more and more suspicious. While his invitation of Rick Warren angered many in the gay community (who felt that it undercut the optimism of his inauguration), others argued to put aside that emotion for the sake of the long-term benefits that Obama would bring when he fulfilled his campaign promises. While intellectually that argument made sense, however smart it was for Obama politically, emotionally it was difficult to see the new President promoting the same anti-gay speakers that the last President did. Gays and lesbians have become very used to being used as the first group to be "thrown over the bus" for political expediency. The question was raised: would Obama do the same? Would he really be able to deliver on his promises.

This is why gays are so carefully reading Obama's messages. Obviously, the President has learned from Clinton's mistakes, and doesn't want to create a political backlash. But times have changed - a clear majority of Americans now support partner benefits for gay partners, and more and more support full marriage equality. Obama needn't be as careful as Clinton needed to in 1992. Yet still Obama seems to be backtracking on his promises - changing campaign language on his website to "change" rather than "repeal" DODT, and pushing back the deadline for introducing legislation. Worse, while even Dick Cheney can make public pronouncements supporting marriage rights, the White House has remained silent while states enact full marriage rights and in the face of defeats such as the Prop 8 decision in California. Where is Obama's vocal support for full marriage rights? He still claims to only support civil unions: Obama is willing to let Dick Cheney outflank him on the left on this issue, which only gives political ammunition to anti-gay crusaders who use Obama's position against equal marriage an argument to sway voters in individual states. Surely Obama realizes that his lack of support is actively hurting gays as they fight these battles from state to state. Perhaps even more telling, Obama has continued Bush administration policies of dismissing gay service members - not even taking the least of actions to put a hold on dismissals, and not even starting the legislation process that would result in repeal.

Even some of Obama's staunches supporters have noticed that the backtracking on his campaign rhetoric: Andrew Sullivan writes compellingly that Obama is once again falling into the trap of "equal rights can wait," as he uses the economy as an excuse to put off action. Next year the excuse will be mid-term elections, and the year after that the excuse will be that he has to campaign for re-election. There is no convenient time for equal rights, yet every day that goes by without action is a disaster on a million different levels for individuals and their families all across the country. It takes very little courage to say you support doing something for gays ten years from now - or even two. Tell that to Dan Choi, or couples like Laurel Hester and Stacy Andree, for whom even tomorrow is too late. What disappoints gays and lesbians and their families most is that Obama's "fierce urgency of now" seems to exclude us. Gays can wait - and those who lose out in the meantime are expendable - says Obama through his silence.

No one expects Obama to tackle every issue at once. Yet clearly he is able to discuss legislation about every other campaign issue except this one. Obama raised expectations with his very clear promises, and gays supported Obama over Clinton because Obama promised more direct action with less political calculation. Given how things worked out with the last Democratic President, gays have real reason to be suspicious. Now we find an Obama who calculates politics, who hems and haws and delays, just as much as any other politician. It may not be surprising, but don't tell us not to be disappointed.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

California's Prop 8 Ruling Exemplifies California's Problems

Today's ruling by the California Supreme Court upholding Proposition 8 (which bans gay marriages) while also preserving the marriages that took place during the window in which it was legal, was certainly expected. The suit to begin with was a long shot, even though it was based on a solid argument about how the court found the right to begin with.

However, more than anything this ruling illustrates a few lessons we've learned today about that quirky state called California - for this ruling says more about the peculiarities of California than about anything else.

First, it illustrates just why California is in the financial mess its in. It's a state where any law - no matter how crazy - can be voted in by fifty percent of the population. The Supreme Court has just validated that there is nothing that the voters can't vote into law, even if it deprives groups of their "inalienable rights." Naturally, Californian's will vote in unfunded mandates - cake and ice cream and no bedtime. It is a mob-rule Democracy, completely unable to govern itself or rectify its financial problems, let alone protect minorities.

Secondly, just how will California enforce this new ruling, in which some gay people can be married and some cannot? Will everyone be required to carry around their marriage certificates now? How will gyms, health care companies, hospitals, etc. be able to distinguish between couples married during the California "window" and those married elsewhere in other states at other times? And what about couples who married in Massachusetts when marriage was legal in California? Are those couples "married"? The possibility for legal suits are mind boggling.

But finally, perhaps most interestingly, the ruling - in which six of seven judges who a year ago ENCOURAGED gay people to get married saying it was an "inalienable right," now agree the right is in fact alienable - indicates just how much the court makes its decisions based on comfortable politics, rather than readings of the law. While it was comfortable to grant the right before the Amendment passed, it wasn't quite so comfortable to uphold it afterwards, especially when voters could simply go right back to the ballot box until they got the outcome they wanted. While this ruling may seem like a sage compromise, in fact the one thing its not is courageous - it simply punts the issue back to the voters, and creates an even bigger legal mess in the process.

Welcome to California. Just don't make any legal plans while you're there.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Obama Economy: 100 Days of Hope

There are times, lately, I will stop whatever I'm doing for a moment - walking, reading, shopping - and think to myself, "thank God, Obama's President."

I'm not a religious man, and I'm certainly not given to random exclamations of spiritual thanks. And I may be a registered Democrat but I never felt similarly about, say Bill Clinton. And Obama wasn't even my first choice in the primaries. Still, there are times when I am just overwhelmed with a feeling of just how lucky we are this man is our President - and what kind of calamity might have been in store had he lost the election just a few short months ago.

I'm not talking about being an Obama-phile who thinks he's God's gift to the world, or even was ever particularly in love with his platform. And though it'd be nice if he solved our energy problem and addressed global warming and insured 50 million more Americans with health insurance and modified DOMA and restored America's standing the world, I don't even really care all that much about all of that. I thank God Obama is our President because of the state of our economy.

I know, there is certainly a very vocal and highly organized minority of Republicans who feel just the opposite - who worry that Obama is mortgaging our future, building a nanny state, growing a large and useless government bureaucracy - sending us, God forbid, into the hell fires of a European style socialism. I will get to this line of rhetoric in a minute. For the moment, I just want to stand back from all the details and just appreciate how lucky we are, and how, in his first 100 days, Obama has shown he is worthy of our faith in him.

First - and this, I think, is the point that the Obama naysayers never seem to address - we have to recognize just how close to the economic abyss we came (and yes, possibly still are). It seems that part of the problem is that there is no one left alive today who really lived through the Depression; who really experienced a true economic collapse. I certainly didn't, but my grandparents did, and before they died, I had discussed it in detail with them, and listened to their stories. They were - like myself today and most of us - middle class Americans, running a business and raising a family, when the banking crisis hit. Like many caught in the headwinds, they lost their savings, and their business went under. They had to give up the good life: no more evenings out, no more buying new clothes, no more meat on the table six days a week. But they weren't alone - every night, in every town in America, hundreds of formerly middle class Americans found themselves lining up for handouts of food and clothing. My grandparents made what ends meet they could by taking in washing, doing small chores, scraping together pennies here and nickels there. They re-mended old clothes and made a small fistful of meat last a weak. These are stories of survival that are, from our present day of consumer fulfilment, hard to truly understand. And this went on for years - years of raising a family on little, on denying every pleasure, of giving up pride in order to accept the charity of others, and of hoping only for a little bit more meat for dinner.

Now fast forward to 2008. Those who begrudge a stimulus that costs about 1/3 of the total projected costs of Bush's war jamboree, or who think this is just a normal turn of the "business cycle", need to understand just how close to collapse our entire economic system was (and still might be). And what a collapse might mean. First, we are not talking simply about a few banks going out of business (as happened this week, and has for every week since September), the depositors being made whole by the government and taking their money to deposit elsewhere. We're not even talking about depositors losing their savings. We're talking about an international banking system that is far more complicated - and far more interconnected - than anything our grandparents could have imagined in 1931. The failure of Lehman Brothers showed just how interconnected these banks are. Then came AIG. Had AID failed, we know now that a dozen other major banks - Citibank, Bank of America, Chase, and many more - would have also failed, suddenly finding their backing vaporized. And if a dozen major banks had suddenly failed, hundreds more would have immediately followed - and not just banks: car companies, other large employers, entire cities and even states would suddenly be bankrupt. A failure more massive than anything the government could insure...and perhaps leading to a run on U.S. Treasuries themselves and calling into question the financial solvency of the government: which could have led to the kind of complete nightmare scenario of collapse in which massive world-wide food shortages, power outages, starvation, and roving gangs of criminals lead to a real-world Mad-Max scenario.

But even if the Federal government had survived, we would have been seeing massive loss of value - homes plunging in value 75% overnight, retirement savings of millions wiped out, entire cities with no means to pay police and firefighters, a huge rise in crime and millions of workers on the streets immediately. We very well could have seen a financial crisis that would have made the Depression look like a Sunday picnic.

Now, I don't say this just to scare you, but I do lay out this scenario has a highly likely one, and one that our leaders were looking at on the day AIG was about to go under, so that you can understand the depth of the calamity we are talking about. They did what any sane person - Democrat or Republican, Libertarian or Rotarian - who had the means to do so would have done: they acted as quickly as they could to prevent it from happening.

Now, we can argue till the cows come home about whether the money to AIG should have been monitored more carefully or whether the stimulus should have had 5% more tax cuts or 10% more spending. What mattered is that something was done, and the disaster scenario was avoided. The question then was: was it avoided temporarily, did we merely buy ourselves some time? Or did we luck the hell out and possibly save our way of life that all of us - even those who claim otherwise - so dearly cherish?

This was the question the country had on its mind as Obama took the oath of office on January 20th. It was obvious that Bush and company - though they had done, as I said, what any sane person would have done in that situation - weren't up to the task of backing us up from the precipice they'd driven us to over eight disastrous years. They had no plan, and they knew they didn't need one. It was good bye and good luck. And the question on everyone's mind was: Is Obama up to it?

Now, 100 days into his Presidency, it feels like we can say, with all humility and some potential hedging: yes. Obama is up to it. And thank God. Because if he wasn't, I just don't know if I'd be up to a lifetime of living in a real-life Jericho; and personally, I think those apocalyptic right-wingers who are so eager to see everything wrecked for their game boy fantasies of pseudo-militaristic survival of the fittest, would be the first to perish in the long cold winter of our disaster.

But why do I think he is up to it? Let's look at what he and his team have been able to do, in just these few 100 days.

Within weeks, he was able to push through an economic stimulus package that all economists said would be necessary - a necessary MINIMUM - to cushion the coming economic blow. That was all settled and done in just WEEKS, when Clinton couldn't even get his stimulus package passed in his first 100 days.

Within a few more weeks, after yes, a rather fitful and uncertain start, his economic team was able to go to bat a second time with a plan that calmed the jitters of the banks, convinced some rather intrepid investors to pour money into those very "toxic" assets that were causing the failures, and that even the Wall Street Journal called "a good start." They came up with a series of tests for banks that will determine how we walk our way bank from the precipice. Though what happens next is still uncertain, the recent moves have earned the trust of the markets as well as banks and have been critical to abating the crisis mentality griping Wall Street.

But even more importantly, Obama has been able to reassure the public with his speeches and address to Congress (if not inspire members to cross the aisle for their votes.)

But he also wised up after he learned that if the Republican political strategy was going to be to stand in his way and try blame him for any failures, he was better off leaving them behind. So when it came time to pass his budget plan, he did just that: he played hardball in response and abandoned the pretense that Republicans were necessary to get his budget passed. And he learned he would need to do the same thing when it came to delivering the health care reforms that Americans had voted for.

Republicans, on the other hand, made a strategic decision when Obama took office to fight him on every angle in his attempts to address the economic crisis. It may be their only political play: hope that the economy, in four years, is suffering more than it is today, and make Obama own the problem. Yet it is a shame that Republicans have decided to double-down on Hoover economics and political posturing at the same time that former President Bush, who arguably presided over both the decimation of government (re: Katrina) and the borrowing-fueled bubble that led to the current crisis, was - and possibly still is - the one Republican who took some responsibility to address the crisis realistically, and has also been the one Republican leader who has shown both courtesy and respect of Obama's position leading the country (if this attitude leads to a rehabilitation of Bush's image in the history books, perhaps one can say, better late than never). Yet is was clear that after eight trying years, Bush was not the man to lead us out of a crisis of such proportions, when the Bush government didn't even the capacity to save a single American city from a well-predicted hurricane. But he seems to have not bought in to the raging anti-Obama mania that the rest of the party has convinced itself of, and has been the one figure on the right, ironically enough, who has reached with genuine sincerity across the aisle.

Now, I have respect for John McCain, and I believe he might have realized he needed to get creative to solve this crisis. But his campaign showed that he was clearly hostage to the bunker mentality that the far-right created at the worst moments of the Bush administration, and that his closest advisers - who were refusing the recognize the crisis even as it was happening - were not up to taking the steps necessarily to restore both public confidence and economic fundamentals.

It's odd that even when Obama takes a position seemingly further to the right than his Republican predecessor - figuring out a way for Chrysler to go through an orderly bankruptcy, say, rather than simply throwing more money at it as Bush did - he still gets labeled as "leftist" for it. They have to come up with something so in this case, arranging a bankruptcy is derided as enabling "government interference." If this is interference, then give me more! I'd much rather have that than the negligent, criminal incompetence the Right seems to be peddling.

So I wonder why, now, so much intransigence from the new Republican party leaders. Yes, partly, it may be intransigence due to not wanting to admit that their policies were the problem, not the solution. But I don't think that's really it. After some reflection it occurs to me that it has most to do with the dynamics of being out of power: it is much easier for Republicans to sit back and lobby irresponsible accusations and bromides about the economy when they aren't responsible for leading the country out of this mess. I just don't know how great a play this is for them politically, given that the American public largely supports Obama's efforts, and that inevitably, chances are the economy WILL turn around. But for the moment, it seems to be working against them, as their economic policies enjoy their lowest popularity in years and their party suffers in the polls.

Now, it's true, I wish that Obama's budget was more serious about starting to tackle the entitlement crisis that we will most surely be facing in five years, was a little more ahead of the most liberal members of Congress. But these are quibbles - and though certainly they indicate a temperament farther left than we had from the past eight years, not the moves of a rabid socialist. Let's not let ourselves get distracted by the vaporous anxieties and accusations of the tea parties: the one and ONLY thing that Obama has done so far regarding taxes is lower them (Bush's cuts from Clinton's top rates were always temporary, intended only as a RECESSION BUSTING move, remember? - and already set to expire long ago, and well should have; Obama's letting them finaly expire as they should have in 2003 returns rates to a point lower than they were under Clinton.) And yes, ballooning budgets and the potential for rising interest rates are a worry. But with the economy actually in the midst of the first signs of deflation in over fifty years, spending more right now is precisely the right move...and we can worry about inflation when we actually have an economy to inflate.

And in fact, there are signs that with Obama's management, the crisis has reached a bottom and the economy is already stabilizing. The stock market has also stopped its slide - in fact, it's up around 3% since Obama's inauguration, a trend that to many economists indicates that we have reached the bottom far earlier than many expected in Bush's last days in office. Yes, we're not out of the woods. Foreclosures are up, banks are still stressed, local governments are cutting back, many are out of work, and there are still tent cities all over America. And clearly Obama doesn't want expectations of a recovery to build to quickly; Summers said on Monday that the economy will continue to decline for the foreseeable future (i.e., this year). And though the job outlook remains dire for the rest of 2008, we may yet get out of this recession with an unemployment figures no higher than 10 or 12% - far better than the 30% unemployment of the Great Depression, or the nearly universal catastrophe that awaited us in the deepest days of this economic crisis.

But even more than turning around the markets, Obama has turned around America's sense of hope. After 100 days in office, this weekend's ABC poll shows that Obama enjoys a 69% popularity - the same level as Ronald Reagan after his first 100 days, and a remarkable 86% say he is meeting or exceeding their expectations. And even more importantly, the percent of people who think the country is on the right track has risen from 19% during Bush's last days in office to a remarkable 50% today (the highest rating in six years), and Americans rate Obama's handling of the economy as his top achievement since taking office.

What the Great Depression - and what this crisis - had robbed us of more than anything, was the great hope of America: hope that hard work can bring prosperity, that our future is in our hands, not in the hands of princes or barons of industry, that if we dream big enough and are bright enough, each of us has the possibility to not only survive, but to truly be rewarded with the "American Dream." That dream died last fall as we all watched our worst nightmares about to come true, as we watched our savings evaporate, our businesses falter, our homes plunge in value - as we understood the same fears our grandparents once felt - and we all hunkered down for the great winter, as we all prepared for mere survival.

Now, more than anything, Americans have hope again - not just hope, but faith. Faith that this economy will recover, faith that our government is competent, that they are able to do something to restore the American Dream. Americans once again have faith that their plans, their lives, their hopes and aspirations could happen after all, after we just get through this rough patch. It's Obama's faith - not just his economic policies but his youthfulness, his wonkishness, his energy, his belief in government as a force of good, as an expression of the will of the people. And it's not just faith for faith sake. Our economy RUNS on this faith: we give loans, we borrow money, we spend on investments, we build businesses all because we have FAITH, faith that America will be here tomorrow, and making these investments will pay off. Obama's given that faith back to us. He's not perfect, and maybe he'll spend too much money, and maybe he won't, and maybe he'll make enemies, and maybe he won't get to do all his lofty plans, and he'll certainly make mistakes. But an America without faith in itself is a sad place, indeed.

After a mere 100 days, America is on the road to having that faith in the American Dream again. That's pretty remarkable. And we have Obama to thank.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Right Throws a Tea Party: Everyone Else Sees Mad Hatters

What a difference forty years makes. In 1969, it was the summer of love, and left-wing radicals were taking the street to protest corporate government, the military-industrial complex, and the stultifying effects of stolid capitalism. Behind them was a philosophy of radical deconstruction: that truth was an ideology propped up by the powerful, a collusion of government and business designed to exploit racial disparities, the middle-class and the working man. They were taking to the streets to get the middle class to wake up to the tragedies of war, capitalism run amok, and the moral hazards of materialism.

Fast-forward to 2009. Now, a black man runs America, Democrats control all facets of government, and it’s the conservatives who have taken to the street in protest. Our President pursues progressive policies with the carefulness and “conservativeness” of an establishment CEO, working with the existing system to salvage the economy, create reform, and build business-friendly yet socially and economically aware infrastructure. Meanwhile, it’s the right-wing thinkers who have embraced the radicalism of the Sixties, including its disbelief in truth, its use of street theater, and its sense of moral outrage and demand for urgent change. Their goal: to stop the government from trampling on the greed that in their mind, makes this country great.

Hence today’s “tea parties,” with their echo of America’s revolution and sense of organized demonstration and protest.

What do these right-wing protestors want? These tea parties are not so much about taxation without representation as they are about protesting the swing away from the policies of George W. Bush. Newt Gingrich has put forward an agenda that is broad, diffuse, and unclear, but the gist of it seems to be that they want a right-wing government that would take President Bush’s economics (and foreign policy) as but a starting point for an even more extreme version of trickle-up economics (based on what possibly surviving economy is anyone’s guess – the rich and well connected have already pretty much drained America of most of its resources). Never mind that they didn’t achieve that goal at the ballot box.

In discussing the concept of the tea parties with Michael Leahy, the editor of the tcotreport, Leahy suggests that this sort of street theater and protest is inspired by Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” – a post-Sixties handbook in which Alinksy lays out the principals followed by the left for a generation: make fun of the “oppressor,” reposition the truth, undercut the prevailing corporate PR. Such methods, presumably, are what the tcoters have in mind in regards to their version of the reigning elite (you know, the East Coast liberal media and all those other nabobs) when they make reference of Alinsky. But Alinsky subtitles his book “A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals.” The tcoters have the radicalism down pat, but what they seem to be missing is Alinksy’s pragmatism and realism. It’s perhaps because of this post-election explicit embrace of the radical strategy that the recent DHS report on right-wing radical groups has struck such a nerve.

Sure, peaceful protest, a long time strategy of the left, shouldn’t be mistaken for radical violence. But as Alinsky says, radicalism, if it’s to have an actually political effect, needs to be embedded in pragmatic realism. So let’s talk realism. What Obama’s budget has proposed is in fact a tax cut for a great majority of Americans. The “rollback” of top tax rates to 1990’s levels – once the economy recovers – would indeed amount to a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans. But they would still be rates well below what the rich paid for decades before, and considering that we’ve never financed a war before without some kind of tax increase, this piper has to be paid at some point. Yet at the same time the Republicans would let the financial system implode and march in the street for further tax cuts, they demand Obama balance the budget. Such logic is what brought us to the precipice to begin with: the Bush economics of borrow, lower taxes on the rich, and spend on favored businesses has already done its destruction to our economic health; its doubtful many Americans believe that lowering the tax rate does much good when our debt is skyrocketing and even trickle down economists admit that no economic growth, when no one can find a job, will hardly reduce the deficit – and that the government is the only buyer large enough to stimulate our economy back out of this mess.

But the Republican party, as it’s been conflated with the radical right, hasn’t been too keen on realism, these days. In fact, if an expert says it – whether the expert belongs to one party or another – they pretty much believe the opposite must be true. Whether it’s evolution, global warming, or economic theory, right-wing Republicans have bought into the same kind of postmodernism that their Sixties leftist counterparts once embraced: that there is no “objective” shared truth, no such thing as science (only “ideology” or as they would call it, “belief”), and so any posited principal can be easily disproved by simply believing it isn’t so. While the leftists used this postmodern approach to undercut the prevailing culture with an alternative “counterculture” that claimed equal validity, the right use the same techniques against the progressives now in power, in the hopes, it seems, of bullying the truth into a kind of numbing defeat, defeat brought to bear through control of the media and the sheer volume and stubbornness of their angry believers. Meanwhile, the rest of us have no option but to learn how to tune them out.

Then there’s pragmatism, which the Republican party seems to have left in a ditch as they’ve gone on their vision quest. The Right may be in love with Alinsky but they certainly haven’t read him carefully (if at all). For Alinsky’s primary point is that radicalism isn’t about creating destruction for the sake of protest, it’s about persuading the dissatisfied great middle. To have any effect, the radical must understand that the silent middle is ready to embrace their ideas, if only they are giving the proper push to demonstrate how the system is skewed against them. Simply whining about principals without understanding the real concerns of the vast populous only alienates the majority further.

The problem is, the middle is clearly not with the Republicans on the idea of a further redistribution of wealth to the wealthy. The number of people who think the country is going “in the right direction” has doubled since Obama took office; sixty-six percent of the country approves of Obama generally and 64% specifically approve of his economic plan. There is no general fear that increasing the top tax rate by three percent is going to ruin the country, generally, or a middle-class tax payer, particularly. However, confront a tcoter with these facts and their most likely reply will be that “they don’t trust polls,” which is another way of saying, “people will believe anything and aren’t to be trusted.” But Alinsky’s radicalism depends upon the trust of the people – that the people may be silent, but that they are with you; lose that, and you lose the war. And unlike, say, the gay marriage issue, there is no generational demographic shift that might suggest the public is warming to this conservative message over time; to the contrary, younger voters are if anything MORE supportive of Obama and his economic policies than older voters. So instead of offering arguments – against all expert evidence to the contrary, by the way – that their policies would have a better effect on the economy, they create a publicity stunt in the street and confuse the issue with scare words like “socialism.” But their radical politics seems to have abandoned not only reason and science, but the art of persuasion as well.

So not only are the Republican radicals tilting at windmills, they are doing so against a headwind blowing steadily against them.

As to what Republicans can do about this problem, I have little to suggest, other than this: no political party has succeeded without addressing the legitimate concerns of the majority. Right now, those concerns are what got Obama elected, and the majority seems pretty happy with him. The more radical the conservatives look, the smaller a party they will become.

As for the rest of us, there are several reactions that Independents and Democrats can have to this. The first is an equally strong reactive anger. After all, the strategy of blaming Obama for the mess the country is in is like the brother who breaks the TV and blames his sibling who goes to turn it on. It’s easy to get mad a people who are attempting to deflect blame from themselves, especially when they do so with what can appear to be a manufactured sense of outrage. This reaction, however, leads to little more than name-calling and in a way, falls into the trap that right-wing strategist would like to set.

The second is a kind of self-satisfied bemusement. I think of Krugman’s comment, “it’s not nice to make fun of crazy people.” The smart Democrat looks at the radical right targeting moderates like Arlen Specter for primary defeats and thinks, “hey, let’s just get out of the way and let them self destruct further.” In this case, it’s a little like watching a Risk player double-down on a losing strategy of attacking everyone in sight in order to go out in a blaze of glory. Fun and entertaining as you sit back and let them take themselves out of the game.

I think we want to take the third reaction. Which is hope that by educating the Right on the foibles of their strategy, we can help them become saner, more challenging players. When the only ideas radicals have is to blow things up, good luck trying to have any sort of conversation. Sure, Obama has demonstrated he’s perfectly up to tackling and solving these problems on his own. But it’d sure be nice to also take advantage of some pragmatic, realistic ideas based on conservative principals – if only the Right would have some.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Obama Announces Twitter Bailout

Macon Phillips, Director of New Media for the White House, announced today that Obama's administration will be supplying a 250 million investment to the founders of Twitter to "promote a beneficial online experience and increased access to Twitter's API stream."

Noting that there has been concern that Twitter may be limiting access to its API as preparation for introduction of a business model, Phillips said that it was essential to the improvement of the economy and well being of Americans that Twitter API be unlimited and available for all. "With so many people unemployed, we see Twitter as an essential resource to use up the free time of Americans."

Philips was asked if the additional money provided to Twitter at this time would delay the development of a valid business model for Twitter. "We see Twitter as an essential lubricant to the American economy, like banks," said Phillips. "Right now Twitter gets clogged. We need to flush out all the toxic tweets."

When asked if it was appropriate for the government to be spending taxpayer money on an internet startup, Phillips replied "we understand from the Twitter founders that the #tcoter's on Twitter are using most of the API. So this bailout will benefit conservatives more than anyone."

Phillips said the new money for Twitter would be available immediately. "Yes - today's April 1st. So we'll have that sucker blowing like Old Faithful today!"

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Useful Anger: AIG Illustrates the Importance of Pitchforks

A lot has been argued against the public's anger over AIG. But intuitively, I've been feeling that the over-the-top anger, the extreme Congressional reactions, the actual public intimidation of bankers, while vague, undirected, and perhaps counterproductive to immediate goals, has actually been important. I might not go as far as Bill Mahr and suggest that a banker or two be strung up from a tree. But I've been feeling that the kind of public intimidation and scapegoating has had a valuable aspect, and today, it occurs to me why.

But first, let's examine the reasons the anger has been counter productive. All are good arguments, and here they are:

1. From the left: That the anger makes it tougher for Geithner and company to get banks to go along with governmental plans to fix the economy.

2. From the right: That vilifying bankers makes it more difficult for capitalism to do its job in turning around the economy.

3. From the middle: That now that AIG is run by the government, hurting AIG only hurts the taxpayers.

4. From bank employees: That most of the people receiving bonuses from AIG aren't responsible for the bad bets that caused this mess, and are essential to helping successfully unwind AIG responsibly.

5. From government watchdogs: That it's a bad idea for Congress to create laws that overreact and attempt to hammer a nail with a bulldozer.

6. From debt watchdogs: That it's short-sighted to focus on 1/500th of the money involved in AIG at the risk of putting much more of that money at risk in a failed recovery.

All perfectly good arguments. But as I watch busloads of angry protesters touring rich towns in Connecticut, as I read AIG executives talk with pique in NYTimes editorials about donating some of their bonuses to charity, and I watch Congress pontificate and the mobs roil on late-night TV, I think that there is one very GOOD thing that this anger is doing. The one good thing: It helps to return the idea of moral hazard to its proper place.

What is moral hazard? As this crisis has evolved, we've seemed to have forgotten this essential concept. But moral hazard is essentially why the Fed let Lehman Brothers fail (and precipitate this mess) in the first place. Moral hazard is the idea that if there is no downside to making bad bets, because the government will step in and help you, then this only encourages even more risky behavior in the future. It seems that in order to save the economy, the government has decided it has to ignore moral hazard.

What's heartening about the AIG anger is that it seems that moral hazard can't simply be wished away. Like the concept of "momentum" in physics, perhaps moral hazard can't be destroyed but has to simply show up someplace else: like anger at AIG. If AIG employees find themselves intimidated, targets of vilification, then moral hazard has done its job: it's shown that there WILL be a price to pay, in some way, for making extremely risky bets.

My feeling is that letting this moral hazard play out is more important, in the long run, than the damage caused by points 1 - 5. And so I cheer on the AIG anger...and hope that the government sees how it can use the anger to maintain a sense of moral hazard, while also taking the short-term business-friendly steps to get our economy going again.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Instant Revisionism: Is Obama's First 60 Days Really That Bad?

This week, The Economist - one of the international financial papers that backed Obama - produced an editorial essentially claiming buyer's remorse: that Obama's first 60 days had been a disappointment and had made them reconsider the reasons they endorsed him. While Obama has been harpooned constantly by the far right, the editorial needs to be taken seriously, as the change of heart shown by The Economist suggests that Obama's support amongst his middle-right champions may be seriously eroding - and thus eroding Obama's promise of forging a new style bipartisan politics.

There are certainly some things that team O can be doing better, but I want to look at the claims The Economist have made and ask if they are really as serious as they make them out to be, and if after only a mere 60 days, center-right supporters should start fleeing the Obama ship.

Perhaps most serious charge The Economist makes is lack of experience - that Obama has shown to be inept and is learning on the job, contributing to his slide in approval. In essence, they are criticizing Obama's leadership ability (he's been "messed around" by his own party and they exhort him to "lead, damnit.") They support their claims of lack of leadership by citing these supposed failures:

1. He subcontracted the stimulus to Congress and did a "mediocre" job on it, as most of it won't kick in for several years.
2. There are still 23 open slots at Treasuring showing a "lack of focus" on the economy and "administrative drift"
3. His stimulus "broke down" in Congress because it only got the support of three Republican senators.

But have other Presidents done better in their first 60 days? In his first 100 days, Clinton created an uproar over allowing gays to serve in the military, failed to get his stimulus bill passed, butted heads with Congressional Democrats who seemed to want to paint him as inexperienced, and put his wife in charge of his big initiative - health care reform - which eventually was killed without a single bill enacted. He also created a huge scandal with the White House travel office that dominated the airwaves for weeks.

Just one month after Gerald Ford took office, he pardoned Nixon, created a rift with Congressional Democrats, and never recovered to enact any significant legislation.

W. Bush had to grapple with continued protests and suspicions about the election, had no mandate, and the press was more focused on Clinton than anything Bush might have wanted to do in his first term. On average, Bush's appointments weren't confirmed until EIGHT MONTHS after his election (compared with two and a half for Kennedy).

George HW Bush was criticized for having "no agenda," received complaints about his capitol gains tax cuts, and was compared unfavorably to Ronald Reagan by his own party.

What about Ronald Reagan? His tax cuts received heated opposition and a huge uproar in Congress. Then two months into his term there was an attempt on his life: that created a surge in popularity, and his tax cut legalisation went through.

Obama's approval rating now stands at 62%. The only President since Kennedy with a significantly higher approval rating after 100 days was Reagan, who had an approval of 68% after a hundred days and the attempt on his life.

And yet, let's look at what Obama has done in a mere sixty days. He's drafted and passed the largest stimulus package ever created, and he was able to put together a package filled with more tax cuts than Democrats wanted, and attracted enough Republicans for them to pass it easily while still claiming deniability. He filled his cabinet faster than any President in recent history. He's dealt with an unprecedented financial catastrophe that no President has faced since FDR. The actions taken by Treasury and the Fed in a mere two and a half-months have stabilized the stock market (the market has risen by 20% since it's bottom in February) and have produced the first positive economic indicators after more than a year of continual and steep economic deterioration.

That's not to say that there aren't some things that Obama could do better. His experience in Congress has obviously taught him that deference and favors are the way that legislation gets passed - and he's put expediency of legislation ahead of political perception - but now that the stimulus is in gear, he does need to be more politically savvy about signaling to the public that he's the one leading Congress, and not the other way around. Letting Congress strip his cap-and-trade and middle-class tax provisions without any push back was a mistake that - even if he is looking for a way out of these promises - signals exactly the wrong message to the public (his press conference gave him ample opportunity to play this differently). He was successful in his initial baiting of recalcitrant Republicans, which help to shore up his early popularity, but now he's let the worries about the deficit get ahead of perceptions of his budget plans, and old suspicions about his far-left economics have resurfaced. And perhaps most damaging, the policy wonks in his cabinet have failed to put forth truly bold agendas - nationalizing banks in order to quickly disassemble them without the need for huge risky bailouts, touting a healthcare plan that cuts back on entitlements at the same time that it attempts to extend care, fighting for a comprehensive energy plan as part of his budget. In other words, while his early popularity was achieved by convincing people he was a left-leaning moderate who would bring establishment players into his team, his problem now seems to be that his team is coming up with policy that is TOO much a part of the left establishment and doesn't break out of mold radically or dramatically enough to deliver the change Obama's supporters are hoping for.

But it hasn't even been 100 days yet, and Obama has had his hands full just keeping the economy from tanking. Perhaps much of the credit for stabilizing the economy needs to go to the idea that Obama has been able to reassure vested interests and economic players that not too much is going to change. In terms of calculating between long-term perception and immediate need, Obama, a smart political player, has clearly identified that first things must be done first, and there will be plenty of time for radical change later.

In other words, I think that all of us who would like to now claim aha! Obama has been rocky, successful, hesitant, or whatever, just need to step back and realize how little time has gone by. Sixty days into Bush's Presidency, we would have thought it would have been completely uneventful. Sixty days into Clinton's, we would have thought it would have been completely incompetent. And if Reagan hadn't been shot, he might have ended up being considered nothing more than a retired actor with a radical idea of redistributing wealth to the wealthy.

Obama perhaps needs to step back and re-tune his message. And he needs to re-look at the effect of his budget on the long-term health of the country, particularly regarding entitlements and energy reform. But in a mere sixty days, in terms of the most pressing issue at hand - the economy - he's already achieved a great deal. If this downturn starts to turn around before 2010, which would be much earlier than anyone could have reasonably expected a few weeks ago, we may be hailing him as a hero.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Message to Tcotters On Twitter: Get Over It Already

Not that I don't say that with love. But I really think it's time you guys worked through the five stages of grief you've been going through over the election. You know: Shock, Anger, Blame, and Denial - and finally accept that Barack Obama is our President.

(For those of you not hip to Twitter lingo, tcot is a "hashtag" or group follow symbol, short for Top Conservatives on Twitter - who have recently launched a website called tcotreport. This article, written from the contrarian view, is for them.)

That doesn't mean you have to love our new Pres. God knows, there was no love lost from Democrats for President Bush (or President Reagan, for that matter). But there's going to be no sudden scandal proving that Obama’s not a US citizen (that issue's been, shall we say, Supremely settled), no flare-up of William Ayers being invited over to torch the White House curtains, no central command order for the federal government to go around knocking on doors to confiscate your guns, resulting in a popular revolt and governmental overthrow. No, Obama is here to stay for at least the next three plus some odd years, presiding over a rather middle-of-the-road/left-of-center Administration. Wouldn’t it be better to learn to live – and dare I suggest – work with him?

I know from experience this is hard to do. After President Bush was re-elected in 2004, Democrats went through the same period of disbelief, anger, and depression. Sites and movements popped up everywhere saying "it's not my fault." And Democrats even today are loath to credit President Bush with some of his clear successes - for instance, his fight against AIDS in Africa, and especially having the fortitude to correct early mistakes in Iraq and not give up on the surge, even in the face of the war's supreme unpopularity. You are right to point out that these are clear Bush triumphs and that catcalling from the other side of the aisle has distorted the view of both the successes and mistakes of the past eight years.

Obama is a different sort of President and so his successes, and his mistakes, will be different than were Bush's. But I think, as President, he needs to be given some benefit of the doubt - some ability to set policy and show success before the catcalling about failure begins. Certainly Republicans called for such benefit to be given to President Bush. And surely the argument that conservatives made about how supporting the President during time of war is critical for the sake of America, also applies to supporting the President during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. And yes, of course, the far left slung some nasty invective against the last President. But surely, as principled conservatives, shouldn’t engaging in tit-for-tat (they hate Bush so we hate Obama) be above you? If you can't show that you are made of sterner stuff and can be bigger than the far left, then where are your vaunted principles?

Now, with that, of course I will be accused of wanting to sing "kumbaya" or some sad refrain of "can't we all get along." Listen, I know there are deep philosophical disagreements between left and right on issues of size of government, science versus belief, the role of the courts vis-à-vis civil rights, interpretation of the Constitution. Those disagreements aren't going away. And they shouldn't. But testing those beliefs in the sphere of public opinion is what our Democracy is all about. And I think the Founding Fathers set up a pretty well working, self-correcting system, that lets the country steer more right, left, or center as the shifting winds of history carry us to different crises. Clearly, this is a time that has the country steering back to the left. But as it does so, what I'm saying is, the Democrats still need you. They need you to engage your ideas, not your invective and resentment. For invective and resentment will only hurt the Republican Party - and in the long run, a disabled Republican party will hurt the Democrats, too.

So this is what I mean when I talk of bipartisanship. Not that we give up our principles. Not that every solution necessitate a watering down of ideas to some ineffective compromise. No, what I mean is that we get over it - we get past the name calling and invective, we accept the leadership we have, we recognize that people out of power tend not to remain so forever, and we agree to participate in a dialogue with each other with an American spirit of cooperation. We recognize that our ideas need to not only be put forth but be made convincing to the larger public, that sometimes our principles will lose out, that we can accept that, that we can argue and still retain respect for each other's positions. It's about putting what's best for the country ahead of what's best for our political position and special interests, about knowing that sometimes we may be wrong and our opinions may need to change, while sometimes we should hold out when being right also fits into the reality of the moment, and knowing how to judge the difference between the two. As President Obama himself said on Tuesday, “what we need in Washington are not more political tactics – we need more good ideas. We don't need more point-scoring – we need more problem-solving.” It’s about taking the best ideas wherever they may come from, right or left, to address pressing needs identified by the public in this election: the economy, health care, education, and energy. It's about changing the nature of the conversation, not the nature of our philosophies.

And if President Obama isn’t your spokesman, then listen to President Bush, who said recently, "I’m not going to spend my time criticizing him [Obama.]…. I love my country a lot more than I love politics. I think it is essential that he be helped in office."

Naturally, you may not agree with this approach, and you possibly won't agree that any of these issues are pressing needs at all. Bipartisanship is a matter of perspective. All I can say is that the election and opinion polls support the idea that addressing these issues effectively is top of mind of most Americans. Ignore them at your own peril. And I'm not asking for everyone to become bipartisan, either. We need a right as much as we need a left. All I'm saying is that we need a right that doesn't just talk to itself, but also addresses those in the middle and on the left. Otherwise, you hurt no one’s prospects but your own. And the only place to start a conversation is to first have some respect for the people you're talking to.

My sense is that most of the people on tcot are willing to do that; those of us here at are willing to do the same. So let's get past the Obama boogie-man refrain, accept that he’s our leader – faults and all – for at least a while longer, dealing with the issues identified in this election. And let’s start moving the conversation forward.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bristol Palin Drops the Other Baby Shoe

Apparently the Bristol Palin / Levi Johnston shotgun wedding is now off.

Did anyone seriously expect them to go through with this once the campaign had called off their spin enforcement operators? Apparently Bristol "hates" Levi now and doesn't let him see the baby.

I guess Mrs. Palin didn't have enough clout, muscle, or whatever it was the RNC had on him to keep Levi interested until 2012.

Not that the lives of little Palins and their boyfriends really should be anyone's concern anymore. It's just nice to see them not having to concoct a life together just so they could be used as political pawns. I guess if anyone's glad Obama won it must be Bristol and Levi; maybe now they'll actually have a chance to live their lives.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

How to Have Conversations Correctly on Twitter

Or actually, this post is a response to Robert Scoble's ( list of five reasons Twitter *isn't* for conversation - when I really do think conversations of a key aspect of what makes Twitter social. However, I agree that people abuse conversation on Twitter, but that's just because they don't know how to do it well.

The way to have a conversation is to make sure that every reply you post is recontextualized. Put in the proper subject nouns, avoid pronouns, and make sure that you re-reference the topic of conversation with each post. That way, others who see your post aren't lost and can jump in and take the conversation in new productive directions.

Now, specifically to respond to Scoble's complaints:

1. If you get into something with one other person all your other followers will start complaining.

Not if you apply the rule above. Your replies will seem like brilliant original thoughts. They'll have a way to jump in instead of being mystified.

2. You can't "thread" and "capture" a conversation.

No, you can't, at least not in Twitter itself. But why do you want to capture a conversation on Twitter anyway? Twitter is ephemeral, and I already have too many stored bits of data in email and elsewhere. I actually like that the conversations go away after a time, making new mental space for more thoughts.

3. Most people on Twitter that are joining lately are not people who participate.

Well, I haven't found that to be true. And even if it were, why should that negate the potential of having your own conversations? Maybe people aren't participating with Scoble because Scoble isn't replying?

4.Twitter's expected usage is "what are you doing?" Not "what would you like to chat with your friends?"

Even Evan Williams (, CEO of Twitter, says that the "what are you doing" headline is no longer appropriate for the posts on Twitter. In fact, I find the "what are you doing" posts the most boring: chats and resources the most interesting.

5. You can't bundle up a conversation and save it for later.

Maybe true. And I agree that Friendfeed and blogs offer a great way to archive conversations. If you want to do that. But Twitter is about the Twitterstream, dipping in and dipping out. It's valuable precisely because, like IM, it ISN'T archived. And as far as being able to archive some conversational threads, or follow those threads, this may be an enhancement of Twitter that will surely eventually come. It doesn't mean we should stop having conversations now.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Modest Twitter Proposal: A #bipart Hashtag

In case you don't yet know about hashtags (or about Twitter, which is another matter all together), these are the cues that people posting on Twitter add to their post, searchable words preceded by the # symbol. These #words help provide a kind of subject matter organization to the rough and tumble conversation on Twitter, as they create a lexicon of popular subjects that people regularly search for.

As Twitter has grown, it's also become a platform adopted by both liberals and conservatives, and just as in the offline world, these two groups have brought their vastly different cultures and concerns to the Twitter environment. As a way of seeking out each other, both have evolved their own hashtags: #tcot (for "Top Conservatives on Twitter) for the gun-totting, god-fearing right-leaning camp, and #topprog (for "Top Progressives") for the Obama loving crowd.

Now, add into the mix the latest Tweetdeck update (Tweetdeck is one of the many tools that help you organize your responses - or tweets - on Twitter), which automatically copies any hashtags in a post anytime you reply, and one can easily find oneself astray in the "enemy" camp. Post a complement about Obama with a #tcot hashtag or a gay put-down to #topprog and you could soon find yourself flooded with angry replies and in a world of hurt.

Yet one of the promises of a social network like Twitter is the opportunity to allow an exchange of thoughts and ideas between people of all views. And just because someone posts 140 characters supporting Israel doesn't mean they are a tcot (or just because they voted for Obama they may not be a topprog). Politics is sometimes more complex than 140 characters makes it seem. Yet hashtags like #tcot and #topprog seem to be reinforcing a kind of strict orthodoxy of thought on both sides, with no room for discussion let along subtly of view.

Don't get me wrong. I think the #tcot and #topprog hashtags have been a great service. They've helped to organize communities amongst the chaos of Twitter. They've helped people find followers they can commiserate with. And they are useful for speading the word, sharing information, and rallying the troops. There are just times, however, when you want a broader philosophical discussion. And as I've found out, posting to both #tcot and #topprog at the same time is NOT the way to make new friends.

Therefore, a fellow Twitterer - - and I have come up with a proposal to create a new hashtag: #bipart. To be used by #tcots, #topprogs, and completely unpolitical people of all kinds who want to discuss political issues not with true believers only, and not with the intention of offending others, but with idea of challenging people of all opinions to participate in the exchange of ideas and challenges to orthodoxies or party platforms.

For if we are only going to use Twitter to force each other into politically correct corners, what good is it? I want a Twitter culture that is curious about debate, able to take criticism, and not going to run away at the first voice of a dissenting opinion.

I know, I know - as Obama has found, bi-partisanship is easier said than done. And each of us ultimately has their own point of view, and we aren't giving that up easily. Still - if you have the stomach and the nerve, I challenge you to use the #bipart tag, and speak to people on the other "side."

(Follow me on Twitter at

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Why Obama's Inaugural Addess Was Better Than the Pundits Credit

I've heard many pundits calling Obama's speech today lackluster. But many writers are praising it, and here's why.

I'm learning that Obama is smarter at speech making than most pundits give him credit for. He doesn't always have to deliver a "knock out" speech with easy soundbites. Instead, he carefully determines the occasion and delivers the type of speech needed for the political moment. When he's in trouble over race, he delivers an inspiring call to move beyond race. When he's accepting the nomination for a tough partisan fight with a divided party, he gives a workmanlike speech that's designed to carefully move voters having trouble warming up to him.

Obama doesn't redeliver his last speech, or the speech you might expect. Instead, he thinks two moves down the road and delivers the speech that's necessary.

In that regard, today's speech - as a launch to four tough years of ambitious policy - may have seemed a bit more proletarian than one might expect, but its overall effect was excellent. He crafted together a call back to history to invoke the spirit of America to begin to elicit broad support for a difficult and all-encompassing agenda, and at the same time, laid the groundwork for the specific policy areas he will be striving to change. Of all the Presidential examples, his speech was closest to Kennedy's - asking us to turn a page and to contribute new efforts towards citizenship.

Being in the thick of history, I think it's hard to see immediately what lines will be remembered by future generations. But let me hazard a guess about some of the more overlooked lines that may gain resonance over Obama's administration.

"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works" - of all the things that embody the promise of Obama, it's the idea of moving past the entrenched political ideologies of the past forty years. This sentence simply summarizes both a new governing philosophy as well as the idea of a new generation's approach.

"To all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more." Obama embodies not only the hope of Americans, but the hope of the world. As a President that has the potential to restore the world's romance with America, this sentence may be long remembered as one of Obama's enduring legacies. "America is a friend" is not a phrase that has been heard much lately, but may well be a staple of the next four years.

"In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come." Yes, this is the peroration, the summation of Obama's speech. But throughout, he touches on the theme of hope and virtue: hope that we can overcome our current problems; virtue that is the source of our better angels and the promise of America. These words sum up aptly what Obama calls for in our cultural zeitgeist as we enter this new era.

Yes, it is hard to pick out the sentences that will stand the test of time. But read the whole speech: it is remarkable for how it sets out a mood and a moment, how it weaves its themes of importance and humility while addressing the pressing issues of the day. As a speech that places the everyday concerns our immediate time into the resonance of history, it would be hard to do much better.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Bush versus Obama Approvals: A study in Contrasts

Bush leaves office with a 22% approval rating, the lowest rating on record.

Meanwhile, Obama's transition gets an 83% approval rating and a near mirror-image of Bush's approval.

You know, one of the reasons why I didn't watch the Bush farewell address is because I just couldn't take the arrogance's like listening to a nasty ex that you long ago divorced and no longer have to put up with trying to justify his drunken behavior to you yet again.

Or here's what it is. It's one thing to be robbed blind at gunpoint by a thief and a liar. It's another to have to listen to a lecture on your moral character about why you should be more cautious with your money while the thief is holding you up. Just rob us and go away, already.

Sigh. Just three more days. I can feel the weight lifting already. If you want to read my swan song for Bush, here it is.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Did Obama Once Support Gay Marriage?

A new memo surfaces that Obama supported gay marriage in Illinois as a state senator and has since backtracked on that position.

Conservatives see this as a liberal hiding his stripes for national stage.

Gays see this as yet one more way Obama is throwing them under the bus.

Liberals see this as a big yawn since anything Obama said twelve years ago in Illinois would have little relevance to what he does now as President.

As with most of this stuff, what you think it says about Obama probably says more about who you you are than who he is....

Palin Slams Bloggers Once Again

Palin goes after "bored, anonymous bloggers who lie." Since she was referring to the "who's Trig's mom" question, could she possibly mean this guy?

But Andrew isn't anonymous. So maybe she means this?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Does Your Dog Twitter?

Twitter is starting to explode with growth. Maybe one reason is because everyone and their dogs are getting online.

That's literally. After going to a Twitter presentation where someone presented a gadget that lets your plants Twitter (the plant will twitter you a message when it's getting dry, or if you over water it. You can customize the little green missives so you plant might say, "I'm thirsty" or "Get me some water pronto, Jack," or whatever personality you give it), it occured to me that there's no limit to the number of personalities you might create to Twitter for you.

And after viewing characters like God, Athena, The Joker, and the cast of MadMen twittering online, as well as Sockington the cat, who has over 4700 followers, I figured, why not my dog?

So I got her her own Twitter page. Of course, I'm not the first to think of this, as I immediately found dozens of dogs Twittering on the web. So I had my dog friend some of them.

What does this mean when your pets start Twittering and making friends online? I don't really know. Maybe it means we're all slowly going slightly insane. Who knows.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Responding to the Press Yentas

The war in Gaza has gone on now to the point where the press Yentas are starting to do their usual worried shtick about disproportionate response and missed opportunities. Here are few pointers in response:

1. It seems to me that a country that has killed 655,000 citizens of another country that didn't even attack it shouldn't be complaining about the "disproportionate response" of Israel.

2. It seems to me that it's obvious that if you stick a pin in someone's arm often enough, eventually that person is going to swat you. Anyone who thinks Hamas didn't WANT Israel to respond this way is deluding themselves.

3. It seems to me obvious that there is little Israel can do with this invasion other than to a) show its population it's doing something and b) try to subdue rocket fire for a while. Anyone who ascribes loftier or more zealous goals to this is overreaching out of some sense that there MUST be a more long-term solution, when there really isn't.

4. Anyone who expected Israel to stop with aerial bombardment only has to wonder what the point of a response is if you are only going to try to blow up things and not at least try to stop the flow of rockets (and how else would that be done, given that the current status hasn't worked)?

5. It seems to me that comparisons between Gaza and the Holocaust come out of either a gross misunderstanding of history or a true feeling of anti-semitism. Such comparisons would be equivalent to saying that Kuwait defending itself from Iraqi attack was a holocaust or England's presence in Ireland was a holocaust and on and on in every situation. So why do we have to rely on only conservative networks like Fox to address this obvious canard?

6. When Hamas refers to "occupation" they mean not Gaza or the West Bank, but all of Israel. Asking Israel to negotiate with this position is like asking someone to negotiate about how you should kill yourself. So let's recognize how words are being thrown out here precisely to distort what's at stake. So far, Hamas has signaled no intention of backing away from that position, as any "truce" they put forward is only meant to be temporary.

7. If people are so concerned about peace they should be working to convince Hamas to accept the terms for international monitoring of peace that Israel already has on the table. Such terms have worked in Lebanon. Israel and Hamas have already agreed to a daily three-hour cease fire to allow a flow of supplies. But understand that the real reason Hamas won't accept a long-term monitored ceasefire has to do with their internal struggle with Fatah, not with Israel. Such a ceasefire would lessen the need for their existance and threaten to unify Palestinians under a single Palestinian Authority that could actually negotiate a long-term peace with Israel. That's the LAST thing Hamas wants. So to stop fighting on Hamas' terms of no recognition and no long-term truce is to give them a victory - as well as to destroy any hope for Palestinian statehood - for all Hamas needs for a victory is to have the world opinion side to allow Israel to withdrawal so it can continue uncriticized its bombardment of Israeli towns by rockets, which will continue to forestall peace and Palestinian unity. So where are the monitors who would make peace possible? So far, the world has seemed more eager to wag their tongues than to do anything would actually force back Hamas's positions and allow for a real peace to start to emerge.

8. In this war, the press is Hamas's greatest ally. Israel may have made a strategic mistake not inviting reporters into Gaza. But still, the press needs to examine how they're being played by terrorists as part of their gambit to create sympathy. It's a shame that rather than either only uncritically defending Israel (Fox) or hand-wringing about the casualties of war (everyone else), the press doesn't do more to examine the real strategic motives of what's going on. That seems to me to be part of the intractable problem in this situation.