Friday, December 11, 2009

"As a demonstration of governing ability"

Here's the full line, from BTD: "As a demonstration of governing ability, Democrats have pretty much failed when it comes to the health insurance issue, no matter the end result."

Yep. But there's no need for the dependent clause. It's not just with regard to health insurance. It turns out that 11-dimensional chess is antithetical to governing... that it's only about electoral tactics (pun on "electoral" intended). There's no important respect in which the Precious has demonstrated the capacity to govern. And absent that capacity at the top, the collective governing capability of the Party is modest, to be generous.

Having said that, I am not pessimistic about the Democratic Party's prospects for the next decade. They'll move past their current cult-like coup de craze, and become an actual political party again. Yes, they'll probably get a bit of a cold bucket in 2010, but that won't make a Republican electable as President in 2012. And I think the Democrats will gradually, in fits and starts, continue their generation-long crawl back toward a capacity to govern.

The most interesting thing to me, political-leader-wise, is Hillary's position. I think she's holding a remarkable hand. If/when it becomes obvious to a majority of Americans that Barack Obama is Jimmy Carter II -- i.e., a flop as president -- she's got two options: She can either resign from the Administration over some matter of principle -- and ipso facto become the presumptive nominee (doing to this one-term Carter what Teddy couldn't do to the first one) -- or she can choose to ensure his re-election by accepting his desperate plea to run with him as Veep in 2012... and then get elected President on her own in 2016.

The decision, I think, is hers. Her Q rating has done nothing but continue its upward trajectory since her transformational primary campaign, and I see no reason why that should stop. It's quite remarkable how little shit has landed on her shoes from the leadership failure of this Administration. During the 2008 campaign, she grew beyond her already impressive persona and meaning. She entered uncharted territory for a woman in American politics. And I think she has the option of mapping and settling that territory in a wide variety of ways.

Of course, she may not want to. She may actually have moved past all this... may have found an existential center of peace and strength in her life that frees her from the need to grab for the brass ring. She may have evolved past all of us, to a place where actual expertise, smarts and self-knowledge rule, and where the person who possesses them in superior quantities can have a significant (perhaps sufficient) impact on the world, independent of power relationships and institutions.

In other words, she may no longer need to run, to win, to get others' validation. But it's up to her. Hillary's choice.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Want healthcare coverage? - Updated 4X

Meet your doctor… name of Faustus.

What a remarkable bit of political jujitsu this has been. “Okay, you can have your godless socialism, but there’s a price. It can’t include the wemmins. To bring American healthcare into the 21th century, you’ll have to dial the murdering bitches’ rights back to the 19th.”

And our fearless liberal leaders? Our “fierce advocate” first-minority President? Our “far left” first-female Speaker?

“Oh, well, what can we do? We don’t have the votes... But isn’t it wonderful? No (penis-endowed) American will be denied coverage for pre-existing conditions!! Yes, you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren you were there on this new St. Crispins Day!!”

And, of course, that’s not even taking into the account the economic boost from the revived wire-hanger industry.

Update: Several pieces today -- e.g., here and here -- explain the jujitsu -- with women's rights being sold out in order to get the healthcare bill passed. Clever, eh? "You want universal? I'll give you something else universal -- universal unaffordable reproductive care." Who needs to attack Roe v. Wade through the front door? The back door is swinging in the breeze.

And who's protecting the women of the house? Well, here's our fearless leader, the hope of a generation, the embodiment of change. (In his defense, I guess "change" could include "moving backward...")

Update 2: Yup.

Update 3: The rewriting of personal history marches on. Just as Villagers have been airbrushing their performance during the Clinton and Bush presidencies -- as Somerby regularly reminds us -- so the putatively "progressive" columnists, commentators and A-listers are now publishing all manner of critiques of their Precious, to make sure the record shows that they weren't besotted or deluded. "We're shocked, shocked," they stomp, "that there is no emperor inside all those nice clothes!" So self-congratulates-and-whitewashes MSNBC. So Obotitude-ignores Jeffrey Toobin in this week's New Yorker.

"Yes, it's quite an outrage, isn't it, that we don't have a staunch defender of women's equality in the White House? Who could have known in 2008 that the candidate to become Democratic president had written in The Audacity of Hope about 'the middle-aged feminist who still mourns her abortion'? How was I to foresee that he would soft-pedal the importance of abortion rights as 'vexing'? And how sharp, terse and clear I am being now about this, yes, fundamental moral issue! Look at me -- I'm a reg'lar PUMA!!"

I'll ask it again: How long before we apply Somerby's signature trope to the 2008 primaries?

Update 4: And another thing... I remind you of the moment when the misogynistic Beast of the Left let loose one of its most ferocious, ecstatic roars. The party of President Stupak may talk all nerdy and quiet-like, but they're right spry in their slouch toward Bethlehem.

Friday, November 6, 2009

But on the other hand...

... on the economy, the learning curve remains in neutral. Read it and gnash.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

At long last, some Barackbone

This is very encouraging. Shades of FDR's "I welcome their hatred." Let's hope it extends to pushing for a strong public option.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Prize to End all Peace

Go read Anglachel.

Absolutely, we want him to succeed -- even those of us who deeply resent what he did to gain power, and the foolishness of those who abandoned mature judgment for a teenage crush. But claiming victory before the game has even begun doesn't help. It doesn't help him grow up, nor does it improve the prospects for his success in any of the actual threats to peace that the world faces.

This award was an embarrassment for all concerned. The best that can be said of it is that Obama exited the room with pitch-perfect grace. My initial wish was that he would decline the prize... but perhaps that would also have been a trap. Perhaps it, too, would have seemed steeped in narcissistic self-importance.

Putting aside the impact of this tin-ear faux pas on our President and our politics, what does this do to the brand of the Nobel Peace Prize? This shouldn't be a Best Picture or Best Actor Oscar -- any more than it should be a Best Non-W or Best Non-Amedinejad award. If it is analogous to anything movie-related, it's the Irving Thalberg Award. It should reflect a lifetime of doing "the hard work of peace." And one doesn't give the Irving Thalberg to Justin Timberlake, no matter how cute he is or how much you like his moves.

I mean, when it comes to it, why stop at Peace? Barack Obama hasn't done anything in Physics, Mathematics or Medicine, as far as I know. (He actually has written a couple of books, so that probably disqualifies him for the Literature prize.) For that matter, why stop at Obama? I know plenty of people who have done nothing for world peace -- and most of them don't get to live in such a nice house.

Maybe they were looking ahead, thinking about Afganistan. Maybe they decided, "We'd better do this now. No way we'll be able to give it to him after a year of that mess."

So... another entry in The Guinness Book of What Were They Thinking? Now, there's a room in which one would like to have been a fly on the wall. Sort of like the story planning session for Ishtar.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Tongue Tripping

From Ben Brantley's review of the Jude Law Hamlet, in tomorrow's Times:
"The much-quoted instructions that Hamlet delivers to a troupe of visiting players apparently do not apply to princes in mourning. This one mouths his words like a town crier and saws the air with his hands.

"He does follow his own advice in suiting “the action to the word, the word to the action.” If Hamlet talks about his mind, you can bet that Mr. Law will point to his forehead; when he mentions the heavens, his arm shoots straight up; and when the guy says his gorge rises, rest assured that he clutches at his stomach. If every actor were like Mr. Law, signed performances for the hard of hearing would be unnecessary."

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Are there any lines...?

... or is it all just sand? Sure glad we elected the Democrat.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Just sayin...

Crowds of well-organized zealots, actively recruited and trained in the quasi-messianic virtue of their cause and the evil of their hate-object, descend on scheduled meetings being held in towns, counties and states around the country, distorting the outcomes of the discussion, intimidating the far-less-organized regular citizens who have attended, and creating an impression of a grass-roots “movement” that seems to be turning into a majority phenomenon.

Handy-dandy, and who are the 2009 tea-baggers, who the 2008 caucusers?

Friday, September 18, 2009

I am woman...

... watch me fend for myself. (h/t Tennessee Guerilla Women) So nice to know that our Democratic president is protecting the delicate consciences of misogynists everywhere.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What it says about us

Put the president’s lack of leadership aside. What does the inability to change our healthcare system – indeed, the mass insanity on the subject – say about America? How can the dispositive facts about this issue not prevail? How can we know that our healthcare costs twice as much as the rest of the modern world's, but delivers among its worst results – the fact that we’re mortgaging our and our children’s and grandchildren’s future in order to ensure that we and they will suffer agonies and die prematurely – and still refuse to change? How can we do so when (a) the way to fix this has already been figured out (indeed, there are multiple models to choose from) and (b) we ourselves have already crossed this Rubicon (i.e., Medicare and Medicaid)?

I think it can only be properly accounted for as the death rattle of our run at the top. This is how empires die – per Jared Diamond, and our own common experience. Only it’s not just calcified elites that aren’t changing here. It’s the whole place.

The astonishing and dramatic fact that Bob Somerby has made into his “Cartago delinda est” – that we are getting fleeced and killed, compared to our next-door neighbors (indeed, everybody else in town... that we're the prize chumps) – ought to end the debate, decide the trial, clear the deck. But it isn’t even being heard.

Contra Bob, it’s not, imho, because we Dems/liberals can’t “message.” He's holding onto an archaic view of media control and impact. Perhaps one might have argued this pov persuasively in an era of limited communications channels, when memes were controlled by a media oligarchy. But that’s simply not the case today. This idea is out there, is often reported, and is being ignored (rejected) by the people. Despite the fact that it’s literally a matter of life and death.

No, the fact is that, on balance, America is a guy who won’t stop to ask for directions, because he doesn’t want to self-experience as needing them. We would literally rather die than admit we’re not No.1.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Have we been had? - Updated

David Brooks thinks so. (And, of course, he's glad.)

Update: One that Brooks left out, courtesy of TGW.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

How will the political landscape look tomorrow morning?

To paraphrase Barney Frank channelling his talmudic ancestors, let me answer my own question with a question:

How long is it going to be before someone uses Bob Somerby’s signature trope – “The supposedly liberal media trashed and lied about Clinton and Gore, indulged themselves in their own high-school stylistic preferences, told us that there wasn’t any important policy or leadership difference between Gore and Bush, and are thus complicit in the catastrophe that followed. The dead of Iraq look up at them from their graves” – and applies it to the 2008 elections, and to today?

It may come tomorrow morning -- but I'll provide a preview:

The supposedly liberal media trashed and lied about Hillary Clinton, and told us that there wasn’t any important policy or leadership difference between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, indulged themselves in their own high-school stylistic preferences, and thus are complicit in the (take your pick: (a) Third Bush Term, (b) massively missed opportunity, (c) vacuum) that has followed. The millions of foreclosed and jobless and sick-without-healthcare look up at them from the bottom of the American pyramid.

In fact, I wonder how long it is before Bob himself acknowledges this unavoidable parallel.

In the meantime, consider this a missive to Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, Keith Olbermann, Josh Marshall, Jon Avarosis, Markos, David Sirota, Chris Matthews, Chris Bowers and many others it's too dispiriting to list.

And as to the crocodile huff that Dowd and her ilk (Joe Klein and Ceci Connolly, for chrissakes) are clowning now -- that their poster child turns out not to be a tough guy, or even any guy in particular -- I can't say it better than BDBlue at Correntewire: "Dude, You Totally Voted for Neville Chamberlain."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

As a friend of mine used to say...

"If we had ham, we could have ham and eggs... if we had eggs."

The speech that Paul Krugman fantasizes as coming tomorrow from the Emperor's Clothesrack is correct, and out of the question. He doesn't have it in him -- and everyone knows that now. The ideological bait-and-switch since Inauguration isn't even the worst of it for Kool-Aid Nation. It's the realization that their passion was misplaced, and will be unrequited. Their hope was projected onto a passionless tabula rasa, someone who simply doesn't have it in him to love the things they love -- or, indeed, anything, very much. In saying that it is now time for President Obama to show real passion on this issue, Krugman is, er, hoping for a different person inside those clothes.

Paul, you might as well write a pre-performance review of my Lear. It doesn't matter how much I rehearse, or whether I've memorized my lines, or even how much I love the play. I am not Laurence Olivier, and was not meant to be. Unfortunately, the producers decided to cast me in the role anyway.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Begging the Question

This op-ed in today's Times is obviously correct about FDR and what actual leadership and action involve. But to argue that "it is time for the Obama administration to step up to the plate and make some hard choices" is like insisting that it's long past due for Harry the Hippopotamus to flap his wings and fly to the moon. Barack Obama is profoundly incapable of welcoming the hatred of others -- any others. Indeed, he is terrified of even knowing what might be looking back at him in the mirror, much less turning that face toward a battle.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Welcome back...

I'll join the chorus of John Sebastian greetings to the return of Anglachel.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

We have met the enemy... Updated

... and they are O. Walks lame, like a dead duck.

Update: It's all a game to him, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Poll numbers are all, policy zero.

Update 2: What Krugman said. Only, he's being decorous, dancing around the deeper truth. I don't think he's being foolish or naive -- he's too smart for that. He's adopting a moderate form of public discourse in order to preserve his cred long-term, and that's fine. But we know what he really means to say -- what is patently obvious to everyone but Kool-Aid addicts, and what PUMA types have been saying all along: We elected Calvin Coolidge when we needed FDR. And we can only hope that the bizarre kabuki masque into which our politics has descended winds up pushing this mound of jello into the right mold before dessert is served.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Looking forward to...

... Somerby's howl on this bit of richness.

Green shoots

It’s fortunate that reality has a liberal bias, because liberals certainly don’t have real leadership.

It’s been apparent to many of us for more than a year – from the primaries up to the present day – that Our Cypher-in-Chief is constitutionally (certainly not Constitutionally) incapable of taking a stand. My hope – which began to take shape with the Fall of Lehman and the onset of the economic meltdown – has been that the right thing(s) could happen nonetheless… that the severity of the crisis and the general (or, at least, politically dispositive) consensus about its causes and nature would conspire to steer the car in the right direction, even without a driver. Or, to try another metaphor, that the force of political climate change would cut a deep canyon that pretty much determined where the river would flow. And if we know one thing about our infinitely fluid, protean President, it’s that he has a kind of genius for following the path of least resistance.

This is why, unlike most liberal commentators or lefty bloggers, I find the current state of play on the healthcare effort encouraging. Far from bumming me out, the paranoid outpourings of the GOP and their tea-bagging troops define the playing field in a very helpful way. The “debate,” such as it is, has come down to: “In this corner, Healthcare Reform. In this corner, The Loonies.”

Obama, that is, gets to be the embodiment of non-insanity. He isn’t anything in particular, and has no visible (much less visceral) convictions… but he isn’t jumping up and down screaming about the Trilateral Commission in the lobby of the Port Authority. And this devolution of the Republican Party – its incapacity to mount a politically coherent frame of reference, much less an organized plan of action – means that simply being not-crazy may be sufficient to prevail.

Indeed, it may even begin to infuse some backbone. (Well, let’s not call it that. Let’s just say that if the force of events is becoming irresistible, if the Colorado River of public policy is pouring into this newly cut Grand Canyon with increasing speed and power, President Obama is the very last person to fight that.)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Versailles in all its silliness

David Carr's item in tomorrow's Times is a tight little emblem of MSM at its most myopic. He describes the gala on Liberty Island in 1999 that launched Tina Brown's Talk magazine -- but the real silliness wasn't that event. It's his article.

Of course, A-list parties and such-like PR stunts are ripe fodder for hand-me-down Gatsby reflections on phony glamor and dying ages. And there's a rich archive of grandiose projections of media glory for ventures that later flopped.

The problem is, anybody who was paying attention -- that is, LOTS of people -- knew by 1999 that dead trees weren't the future. Indeed, plenty of people knew that ownership of intellectual property wasn't the future, either. The idea of claiming in 2009, as the title and the piece itself do, that "no one saw" the Internet coming ten years ago, is just d-doornail dumb. THESE narcissists may not have grokked it, but most of the rest of the world certainly did.

These people never learn. They just wax nostalgic about their own grand follies.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Add another log...

... to 'We Didn't Start the Fire.' CDS poster child "Rick" Hertzberg -- the misogynist bosom buddy of Chris Matthews, who spent the primaries energetically competing with Modo and Frank Rich in the parlor game of anti-Clinton snark and slander -- is now, like them, falling all over himself to pretend otherwise, to act like long-time Bill and Hillary admirers and to claim it was all those mean Republicans who said such nasty stuff. (And oh, the Dowdy Richness of the irony -- stop it, it Hertz -- to argue that when the Precious actually needs to accomplish anything, his only recourse is to call on the only people around who seem capable of actually acting and showing some spine -- the same people he trashed and slandered and from whom he and his minions at the RBC stole the nomination.)

Just give it up. You made your bed, and now we all have to lie in it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Push is coming to a shove near you

Some (including Our Paul) have been adopting a glass-is-perhaps-half-full perspective about our President's performance on healthcare -- while warning that that "perhaps" better stick. Now, it seems that the moment of truth is approaching. If he doesn't finally apply some muscle and show some conviction, I wonder how many self-deluding 'bots will remain. Some, of course. But that cup may start to look a bit less than overflowing, too.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

What BTD said

I'm resurfacing, sorta, to give props to Big Tent Democrat's takedown of Frank Rich. If anybody's reading this post, you ought to read his.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Today's Financial "Overhaul"

Is anyone surprised that we're getting more smoke and mirrors? I mean, this isn't Paul Krugman or Nouriel Roubini. It's Joe Nocera calling Obama a wimp.

Oh, wait. I forgot. He's standing strong and giving full-throated support where it really counts -- on the legal similarity between gay marriage, incest and pedofilia.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Another wackading county heard from

The NYC subway doesn't take tokens anymore, but the Times does, and its latest, Russ Douthat (fill in the puns yourselves... it's too easy), launches his argosy to nowhere in memorable fashion in tomorrow's edition. He whimsically fantasizes a Dick Cheney campaign for the presidency in '08, claiming that it would have teased out the issue of torture in a serious way in the public forum.

Let me get this straight. Put aside the likelihood that even the lukewarm puddle that is the present-day Republican Party would reward the most hated political figure in modern times with their nomination. Grant that they had that much of a death wish. But just imagine the campaign that ensues. Post-Sept. 15, the global economy is imploding. Barack Obama is addressing this, the only issue that matters (and however fecklessly, he is holding the only card that matters -- the "(D)" after his name). Meanwhile, Dick Cheney is out there... bringing up torture!? Plunking for it?? The American public would have listened for more than 30 seconds to that? Somebody would not have taken him away in a straightjacket?

I didn't think the GOP could get any deader. This "permanent governing majority" is beyond Monty Python. It's an ex-zombie.

Bipartisanship will work out just fine...

... if we can find any to shake hands with. (Maybe they've got some life-size paper cut-outs that can do the trick.)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Not Getting It

To me, the signal disappointment of the Obama presidency is its imperfect understanding of this moment. A proper understanding is widely available, but these guys don’t get it.

We’re at an identifiable moment in the pattern of technology revolutions, as laid out by Cambridge scholar Carlotta Perez. First, the world figures out that a new technology is going to be the real deal, that it will “change everything,” and there is a period of wild speculation in it. In our era, that has been information technology and telecommunications. This period lasts for a couple or three decades. During it, financial capital – that is, the capital controlled by banks and investment firms – funds it, in hopes for rapid, exponential gains.

Instant gazillionaires abound. We hear about the end of history. This force is very seductive on so many levels – including democratization of access to the means of production. In that environment, belief is, to all intents and purposes, irresistible. When half a billion people in India and China alone are entering the middle class in a wave that makes the Industrial Revolution look like a warm-up, who is going to try to stop it? Oligarchies and oligopolies that have heretofore been, in Simon Johnson’s word, “genteel,” now strap on a six-gun and look around for mines to claim. (Johnson’s Atlantic piece is a must-read.)

However, the laws of physics eventually prevail, the bubble bursts and a crash ensues. It’s happened after every major technology revolution since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Lots of people who took unwise risks lose their shirts – as well as millions more who barely had a shirt to their name.

But the thing is, the technology really was revolutionary, and now it’s been built out, just waiting to be exploited in genuinely profitable and socially beneficial ways. The canals don’t get unbuilt, nor do the railroads, nor does the electric grid – and now, the same applies to global broadband and Moore’s Law. These genies are out of the bottle – indeed, we now live on a profoundly different global commons.

What will now ensue is a period of two or three decades in which businesses, communities, governments, nations and individuals leverage that new planetary infrastructure to transform work and life. This is the period when the excesses of the Wild West reign of financial capital are replaced by the more sustainable investments of production capital – coming not from financial services firms, but from companies that actually make something, actually deliver services, actually create value.

Finally, this is also when a new sheriff rides into town. This is when society reasserts its authority, when rules are put in place to ameliorate the gross discrepancies in wealth and power and the carelessness that exploded during the first phase. This is when trusts are busted, when the New Deal is dealt.

The main problem, in other words, isn’t business generally. It’s finance. Not that all other businesses were kosher – but they weren’t the center of the systemic problem.

Now, it must be admitted that even during the Wild West era, financial capital could be said to have performed a salutary function. It dissolved the castle walls of many oligopolies, many ancien regimes. This is the heyday of Gordon Gecko, when “greed is good.” But it’s only good provisionally, not permanently, and not in consistent doses. After the crash, it’s the job of government to come in and rein in those cowboys. This is when investment shifts from regime-dissolution to institution-building. This is when "innovation" stops being used to describe financial instruments, and starts being used to describe useful goods and services – including social goods and community services. This is when we imagine and establish new rules of the road, new ways to ensure sustainability and fairness. This is when the middle class gets expanded. Until the next revolutionary technology comes along, and the cycle begins again.

President Obama and his economic team, for all their impressive brain cells, clearly don’t understand this moment. They’re stuck inside the wrong paradigm, on the wrong side of history (or, at least, of its current cycle). This is paradigmatically clear in the president’s answer to critics of his financial policies (emphasis mine):

[T]here have been some who don’t dispute that we need to shore up the banking system, but suggest that we have been too timid in how we go about it. They say that the federal government should have already preemptively stepped in and taken over major financial institutions the way that the FDIC currently intervenes in smaller banks, and that our failure to do so is yet another example of Washington coddling Wall Street. So let me be clear – the reason we have not taken this step has nothing to do with any ideological or political judgment we’ve made about government involvement in banks, and it’s certainly not because of any concern we have for the management and shareholders whose actions have helped cause this mess.

Rather, it is because we believe that preemptive government takeovers are likely to end up costing taxpayers even more in the end, and because it is more likely to undermine than to create confidence. Governments should practice the same principle as doctors: first do no harm. So rest assured – we will do whatever is necessary to get credit flowing again, but we will do so in ways that minimize risks to taxpayers and to the broader economy. To that end, in addition to the program to provide capital to the banks, we have launched a plan that will pair government resources with private investment in order to clear away the old loans and securities – the so-called toxic assets – that are also preventing our banks from lending money.

As Big Tent Democrat put it, “that is one of the worst answers I have ever heard. It makes me question if Obama even understands what the problem is.”

Indeed, I'd say it's beyond question. I'd say it's dispositive. It would be hard to be more wrong than this. Taking a Hippocratic approach when a paradigm shift is underway is 180 degrees off. As everybody with an ounce of sense understands, if you are going to err in a moment like this, you should err on the side of doing too much, not too little. We’re at a moment of tectonic shift, not of rearranging deck chairs -- much less surveying those chairs and deciding that they're in a rather nice arrangement already. The economy needs massive stimulus, the infrastructure needs to be used for profit and for progress, and the rules of the road need to be rewritten to favor those who build things, and rein in those who ride waves.

To put it very simply: The financial services industry needs to and will become a regulated utility. It’ll be like Con-Ed, a ward of the state. Salaries will be regulated, stability will be the primary value, transparency will be mandated and “innovation” will be frowned upon. Innovation, in the next couple of decades, will shift to other sectors – primarily IT, biotech, nanotech and services – where actual value is being created. It will also be found in the so-called “public sector,” though that will be far more diverse than simply government agencies. (The world of what have been called NGOs is about to get a whole lot larger and more interesting.)

Now, a proper understanding of these basic realities would not make the job at hand a cinch – but it would make it a hell of a lot clearer and easier. In trying to hold onto the fantasy that the financial services industry of the 1980s and ‘90s can continue in approximately its present form, Geithner, Summers and Obama himself are like adherents of Ptolemaic cosmologies after Copernicus. They’re furiously adding epicycles to their heavenly map, making things more complicated, not less… and adding huge, unnecessary costs and pain for millions. As Matt Taibi put it in his J’accuse, “The Big Takeover,” which appeared in Rolling Stone, Geithner seems bent on creating a “so-called ‘bad bank’ that would systemically relieve private lenders of bad assets — the kind of massive, opaque, quasi-private bureaucratic nightmare that Paulson specialized in.”

Massive… opaque… bureaucratic. Sounds like those medieval epicycles Thomas Kuhn described in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, doesn’t it? This is what all dying paradigms look like. They degenerate through Baroque to Rococo until they die under the weight of their own complication and inelegance.

We needed a president who understands this paradigm shift, and who could lead it. That’s not what we’ve got. We were told that his own lack of decisiveness or expertise wouldn’t matter, because he would surround himself with great advisors. Well, we’ve seen how that’s worked out. Joseph Stiglitz gets it. Nouriel Roubini gets it. Jeffrey Sachs gets it. Simon Johnson gets it. Bill Black gets it. William Greider gets it. Martin Wolf gets it. Robert Reich (belatedly) gets it. Kevin Phillips gets it. And of course Paul Krugman gets it (too many columns and blog posts to pick one). The list goes on and on. But it does not, quel dommage, include our actual leaders.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

On being a liberal

I am a liberal. I don’t mean that I am a leftist. That’s a separate question. The “left-right” frame was an artifact of industrial capitalism, which is dying. Neither am I using the “classic” sense of an economic liberal – i.e., libertarian. This isn't a matter of whether or to what degree one favors state involvement in the economy.

I’m talking about basic disposition. Saying that one is a liberal or a conservative is, most fundamentally, I think, a statement about which end of the glass-half-full or glass-half-empty spectrum one finds oneself.

If you’re a liberal, you tend toward glass-half-full. You’re inclined to take risks, because you have an underlying, unconscious expectation that things will work out, will get better. You’re more excited about than fearful of the future. You think our species is evolving toward something better, and you’re willing to take the chance that that’ll work out even in your own and your children’s lifetimes.

If you’re a conservative, you tend toward glass-half-empty. Being a conservative is an entirely respectable thing to be. It, too, is not at all identical with being a right-winger. Being a conservative means that you are deeply grateful for the discoveries, sacrifices and progress of our predecessors – so grateful that you’re hyper-aware of their vulnerability. You believe that we have always hung on by the skin of our teeth. You know that “human nature” is a mix of the beautiful and the horrific. You look around you, and at history, and all over the face of it you see the evidence of humans’ reptilian brains at work. You see the Holocaust, you see Stalin, and Pol Pot, and Mao. You know that power corrupts, that absolute power corrupts absolutely – and you want to architect things to reduce the possibility of anything “absolute” taking shape. Sacrificing rapid progress seems an acceptable price to pay for avoiding catastrophe. (By the way, one of the ways you attempt to architect things is to disperse power as widely as possible – precisely to avert the concentration of political power that Lord Acton feared. And your supreme achievement in that respect – so far, pre-Internet – is the Constitution of the United States.)

It’s impossible to prove which of these dispositions is “right.” I, of course, would be inclined to argue that evolution – even “thinking” itself – is fundamentally grounded in what I’m calling the liberal, glass-half-full, forward-leaning disposition. After all, where is natural selection among genes (and memes, and all replicators) projecting its efforts, if not into the future? But I suppose a conservative, glass-half-empty, momentum-slowing type would argue that nature is providing all the trajectory of that sort that we need, thank you very much. He or she might say that the Big Bang is doing just fine propelling the universe into the “future,” and that humanity’s part in that future is, after all, tiny – i.e., that we shouldn’t get big-headed about our own role. No, this wise conservative would say, we appeared, we will disappear, we will not turn out to have mattered much in the scheme of things… but while we’re here, we can seek to make the best of it – and that requires being grown-ups, not teenagers.

Both liberal and conservative dispositions are very different from radical dispositions. Radicals are far less modest, far more certain, far more willing to go “all the way,” far more self-indulgent. Sometimes they perceive crucial truths – things that liberal and conservative dispositions are ill-equipped to understand. But it’s usually dangerous for radicals to come to power.

So making good political judgments is not about simply "We're right and you're wrong" -- though surely that is often the case, in both directions. And it's not a matter, obviously, of "choosing" the right disposition. We do not choose them, they choose us. What we can do is to do our best to understand the times we live in, within the limits of our impulses and intelligence (of all kinds, emotional as well as intellectual) -- and then take actions that are based on those present realities.

In some respects, the Obama Administration is oozing toward actions that I think are grounded in the present and the era that's now taking shape. But in one very important respect -- tackling the financial mess -- they're not. And it's not because they're too far left or too far right. It's because, I believe, our president is not liberal enough, in the dispositional sense I am using here. More on this in a later post.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The First Judgment Day of Spring

Spring has sprung a leak, and now the verdict is in. The defense, it turns out, had no case. Its soon-to-be-published closing statement turns out to be a repeat of its failed opening statement. And now that judgment has been rendered, we're left to wonder just how bad the broader Judgment Day -- a.k.a. Great Depression 2.0 -- will turn out to be. Can we hope for just half as bad?

As the man said, "Everybody knows the boat is leaking. Everybody knows that the captain lied. Everybody got this broken feeling, like their father or their dog just died. Everybody talking to their pockets. Everybody wants the box of chocolates, and the long-stem rose. Everybody knows. "

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Day 56

It didn’t take 100 days to reveal that we didn’t get Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or William Jefferson Clinton, or Harry S. Truman, or even Dwight David Eisenhower. Yesterday, Day 56, when the outrage at the A.I.G. mess boiled over, may well go down as the turning point for the Obama Administration – and not in a good way.

This probably won’t show up in his individual poll numbers for awhile. But below that surface, my gut is that the public has crossed a mental line: Many still like him as a person, but collectively the public no longer trusts him to do this job or to protect our interests. In the asphalt jungle of the political playground, we’ve seen that he has neither the skills nor the courage to stand up to the big bad guys. We’ve seen that he blinks.

Starting last September 15, there have always, and obviously, been two dominant political realities to which the next administration would have to be adequate: the public’s fear, and the public’s anger. Fear was dominant at first. And the intended answer to that was the stimulus package. But anger – serious anger, legitimate anger… and also scary anger – was just waiting to coalesce. And the response to that needed to be to address the perception of a widespread failure of leadership.

On the question of fear – that is, with regard to the stimulus package – the right political move was to take the most extravagant proposal and double it. President Obama needed to reassure Americans – and, given how encumbered the rest of the world is in our economy, to reassure people and governments everywhere – that this ship was not going to sink on his watch, no matter what… that while we all might have to tighten our belts, we as individuals and as families would not be ruined while he was president.

He certainly didn’t get an A on that test. At best he got a B-, arguably lower. But he hasn’t used up all his options there. He can still come back for a second package. He’s been dancing around this, but that dance isn’t done yet.

On the question of anger, though, he has simply flunked. He flunked when he named Tim Geithner and Larry Summers – not because of their intellect, knowledge and skills, which are considerable, but because of their biographies.

When it comes to dealing with Wall St., the new administration needed to convey, in no uncertain terms, that it was going to throw the bums out, that a new sheriff was in town and he was one hard-ass sombitch. Obama needed to appoint a Rudy Giuliani type – somebody who everyone perceived as possessing (a) the expertise to understand the deals and the macroeconomics and the whole global system and (b) a long-held itch to ride herd on these types of people. (In Rudy’s case, of course, it was street criminals. In this case, it was Street criminals.)

This isn’t an issue of the immediate economic crisis. In that, as Tom Friedman (correctly, I believe) argues today (h/t Big Tent Democrat), we will need to accept some unfairness in the pursuit of survival. But politically, those two emotions are both important, and both had to be addressed. At the level of sowing basic trust, there needed to be zero ambiguity about whose side the administration’s economic team was on. That doesn’t mean being anti-business… but it does mean being anti-high-finance. It means supporting the needs of production capital and reining in the Wild West of financial capital. It means installing leaders who would go to bed at night and wake up the next morning thinking about how to make the system fair and sustainable, and who wouldn’t lose a minute of sleep in the intervening hours worrying about whether investment bankers lose their shirts.

It means putting in power people who would do for real what Jon Stewart did symbolically in his takedown of Jim Cramer. Did Cramer deserve to be a symbol of the failure of financial journalism – and journalism in general? No. In fact, there is, to me, an appealing self-mocking irony and honesty about Cramer – and more than a soupcon of hypocrisy and smugness about Stewart. But Stewart’s larger point was correct and important, and if Cramer served as a vehicle to etch that point into the general consciousness, then so be it. (By the way, MSNBC and NBC News – a sink of misogyny, journalistic amateurishness, primetime predator prurience and hypocrisy – most certainly did deserve it.)

Anyway, back to my point, about the public's anger at the broad failure of leadership. I feel that our new president has already failed that test, perhaps irrevocably. And the irony of all this is that we're all now going to have to bail him out. People everywhere – in their neighborhoods, in their businesses, in their volunteer work, in their social networking, in how they run their homes and live their lives – are going to have to become active in making sure the ship doesn’t sink. This next couple of years is going to call on the public to rise to the occasion, since our leaders – all of them – seem incapable of doing so. We’ve got to have Barack Obama’s back, because he doesn’t effectively have ours.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Mr. Congeniality - Updated

We need leadership. We're getting a popularity contest. Now, I'm officially scared.

Update: Another log on the fire.

Update 2: It's now a bonfire.

How seriously can we take an Administration that didn't even know about the AIG bonuses -- and that then makes lame excuses about how its hands are tied, until being shamed into action by public outrage? How seriously can we take an Administration that trails behind ordinary citizens in its understanding of the basic political realities of the moment?

Leadership means being out in front of major problems, not scrambling to assume the right stance after the fact. Leadership means taking those problems seriously enough to be fielding a complete team, with a really strong game plan. (Many major positions at Treasury are unfilled? Say what? Would it be tolerated to send our troops into battle without a fully-staffed command operation??) Leadership means having the political skill to understand and address the public's fear and its outrage -- including a recognition of the kind of political dynamite that all these bailouts represent.

Not ready on Day One, not ready at 3 a.m., not ready, period.

Monday, March 2, 2009


As I've been saying, the Republican Party doesn't exist as a functioning institution. And as a friend of mine puts it, with enemies like this, who needs friends?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Okay, now it's official

The Obama Administration is not ready for primetime. Individual members (cough cough State Dept. cough cough) are fully up to their jobs. And the whole Administration, along with its captain, may find its sea legs -- who knows? maybe even by Day 100. But the first leg of its maiden voyage has by now matched the rockiness of Bill Clinton's start, at least.

Friday, February 6, 2009

What Krugman Said - Updated

Our Nobel Prize-winning Cassandra keeps up the drumbeat of truth. Please please please, Mr. President, listen to him.

Update: The "center" holds, and still the blood-dimmed tide is loosed.

As an aside, I am increasingly impressed with the historically extraordinary role Paul Krugman is playing. In a media and blogospheric landscape covered by pygmies, he towers. He has a lifetime's expertise and the authority of his Nobel Prize -- and, in making such powerful use of his bully pulpit, he is bringing both to bear in the most thoughtful, deeply serious way imaginable.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

What FDR Means

I want to add one more meta-item to my prior post's list of what’s substantive – and, by extension, the failure of our new president, so far, to rise to his moment in history.

I’m talking about the meta-historical meaning of FDR, what he most fundamentally signified – not just for economics or American politics, but for the human spirit. Yes, he coalesced the idea and the form of the modern welfare state. Yes, he created the model for leadership in the age of mass communications. Yes, he defined the normative political consensus for a generation. And yes, he was correct, in the judgment of history, on the two vast challenges with which the country was confronted in his time.

But deeper than that, FDR represented the capacity of human beings to tackle problems on a societal scale, in an age when “societal” meant huge, diverse, complex (in the complex-adaptive-systems sense), global. He was the modern world’s chief historical embodiment of hope – not just rhetorical hope, but functional hope. Whether you agreed with his place on the left-right spectrum or not, whether you saw him defending your interests or goring your ox, there was no gainsaying that he showed America and the world how to act. Not for action’s sake, but for posterity’s. He was an institution-builder. He acted at a scale that was adequate to the realities of life on Planet Earth in the 20th Century – not in the superficial, stage-set, literally fascistic way of Mussolini in “making the trains run on time,” but in a way that had legs in a democratizing, emergent reality.

A basic understanding of and reaction to that is what made people elect him four times. That’s what made my grandfather and my parents adore him. That’s what cemented his place in history. That’s what makes his accomplishment continue to resonate today – why it is still the model to emulate for any President of the United States.

FDR made it clear that the world had not become too vast and complex for human beings to handle. He understood that this engine the Founding Fathers had built had extra gears in it, that it could run safely at highway speeds. He saw an America and a world that others didn’t yet see – one that was just coming into its prime. And he actually built it – not only through his clear, tight and inspiring words and conceptual frames, but in actual forms and institutions that operationalized it for everyone. He saved capitalism and world-power-level democracy by imagining into existence a fuller, more grown-up America.

That’s what conservatives distrust, at a deep level – this remarkable confidence in the capacity of oneself and one’s fellow humans to get their arms around great big problems and make things better. It’s also what many on the Left distrust – and why they therefore hang onto archaic Marxist frames, with their teleological absolutism. FDR was the real exemplar of the audacity of hope. And that’s what Barack Obama is failing to live up to, so far.

The roadblocks have been cleared away. He’s got a mandate – a consensus (not just in the U.S., but truly global) on the need for massive change. His political opposition is a shadow of its former self, the disembodied spirit of the dying Saruman, hovering above the ground and about to be borne away by a passing breeze. The sheer size and direness of the present emergency clarifies the direction we must go, the nature of the actions we must take.

All that remains is the self-knowledge and the boldness to act. And yet, our new president quails before the prospect of such action. Instead, he dithers around with this silly post-partisan kabuki, instead of stepping up to the plate.

It's the substance, stupid.

Monday, February 2, 2009


Although I sporadically find myself humming “Who’s Sorry Now?” when thinking of Obamabots going through Kool-Aid withdrawal, I have, by and large, lost interest in recriminations, richly deserved though they may be. Schadenfreud has been replaced by worry. I worry that our new president is going to fuck it up. And my worry resides in his persistent preoccupation with style -- and style of a particular type -- over substance.

As Big Tent Democrat says today – and as Paul Krugman has been arguing all along – that really needs to stop now. To cite President Obama’s own Biblical citation (which, I guess, makes this a recitation), it’s time to put away childish things.

Let me offer a few principles for what is substantive, circa February 2009:

The Republican Party isn’t just irrelevant; it’s dead – for a generation, anyway. The Southern Strategy worked. It’s now a Southern party, period. Look at all the vital signs – the ability to raise money, to field candidates (rather than host retirement parties for ex-officeholders), to frame an agenda and publicize same, to marshal an army of workers, etc. Zippo. The GOP can’t do any of those. And yet, our Post-Partisan President insists on propping up this corpse in hopes of shaking hands with it in a photo op. It’s like Weekend at Bernie's or The Trouble With Harry. Forget it. Zombies don’t exist, and there’s no need to pretend they’re real by continuing to push living humans out the door (i.e., under the bus) as unburnt offerings to them. This is not a trade-off of politics, the art of the possible, for principle. It’s dumb – really, incomprehensible – politically, too.

Tax cuts are bad now. They have flunked. Laffer Curves were always laughable curveballs. Supply side economics was always voodoo. That isn’t to say, of course, that tax hikes per se are the answer, either. It’s to say that a religious reliance on tax policy, one way or the other, is just one of the blind men feeling around the elephant. The Grover Norquist cult that took over the Republican Party (before the other cults moved in – the faith-based cult, the neocon cult, the anti-Constitutional cult – to form the Perfect Storm of Cults that was the W Administration) was always science fiction. (That is, it wasn’t even serious fiction.) And if it never made sense when we were in a boom, it makes even less sense when we’re in a bust.

Government has a vital role to play. Again, this isn’t an assertion of government as the only or dominant player in the game. We know how that works out (see, “The 20th Century: 100 Years of Mishagas” in the Encyclopedia Wackadingia). A serious understanding of the complex adaptive system that is life on Planet Earth requires that one acknowledge the many different forces and perspectives that make up that natural-cum-societal ecosystem, this product of the co-evolution of genes and memes. Its complexity and innovation are integral with its diversity. But obviously, to anyone who isn’t lost in one of the archaic cults described above (i.e., to anyone who isn’t one of the 276 remaining Republicans), it’s evident that serious government action is required now. We may not have an FDR, but we need someone who at least recognizes that basic reality.

Infrastructure investment is good now. And it should be forward-looking rather than backward-looking: fewer potholes and more broadband; more healthcare IT than re-pointing walls. In other words, it should be based on where technology and a globally integrating economy (not to mention a globally warming planet) are headed, rather than simply propping up the dying hulk of industrial capitalism (seeing as how we no longer live in industrial capitalism – sorry, Karl). And all of that argues that both providing lots and lots and lots and lots of jobs immediately and building an infrastructure capable of sustaining the planet and the global economy of the 21st century dictate doubling down on intelligent infrastructure in stimulus packages – in America and around the world.

History matters. Heading toward the future with a decent compass from the past means we sensibly understand (a) the nature and severity of the current crisis, and (b) the right lessons from the past 100 years of American and world economics, science and history. Those include: John Maynard Keynes, good; Milton Friedman, bad… FDR, good; Ronald Reagan, bad… saving capitalism from itself, good; letting power imbalances take us all down, bad. And obscure as it may seem: complexity physics and emergence, good; Newtonian physics, bad. Because a complex-systems understanding of reality is ultimately crucial to making sensible judgments in the here-and-now.

In light of all that substance – and there’s obviously plenty more… libraries full of it… but just to stick with these few principles for the nonce – and of the present emergency… it’s scary that our mandate-stuffed president is post-partisaning around while Rome burns. People keep saying, “Just wait, it’s early.” They say, “Look at those executive orders – see, he signed Lily Ledbetter. He’s gonna be great. He just has to do this political dance now. His political instincts are unmatched. Give him credit for playing chess brilliantly.” Stuff like that.

Well, we’ll see. To me, it looks – so far, yes, just so far – bad on politics and unformed on substance. And to me, the reality doesn’t seem to allow for delay, either for self-education or chess moves.

But that’s just, to paraphrase BTD, me.

Monday, January 26, 2009

It Can Be Done

If they can get rid of this, they can get rid of this. It is actually permissable for this institution not to be the Paper of Broken Record. I'm sure it says so somewhere in the Geneva Conventions.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Good for You, Gov. Paterson - Updated

I think it's apparent that this was not Caroline's decision, but the governor's. She was allowed to withdraw with the standard pretext -- to spend more time with her family. Only, in her case, it was probably what she really wanted all along.

This show of decorous strength and independence helps Paterson's electoral chances in 2010, not weakens them, imo.

Update: Uh... okay. Thing is, one way or the other, it seems her "candidacy" is toast. If the report of her withdrawal came from Paterson, then she (or somebody near her) is playing a game of chicken with him -- not smart. And if the withdrawal report did come from her, and she's now changed her mind, she's just added an exclamation point to a "campaign" of remarkable ineptness. I mean, uh, you can't, you know, do this kind of thing in, like, public.

Update 2:
“The fiasco of the last 24 hours reinforced why the governor never intended to choose her." We dodged a bullet here. Talk about unreadiness for primetime.

Update 3: A good outcome to this Rashomon tale.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Big Pictures

The Matt Bai passage from today’s Times Magazine, which I parsed in yesterday’s post, was far less visible than the magazine’s cover story – announced in what looks like 500-point type on the cover: “OBAMA’S PEOPLE.” Must’ve been an exciting moment in the editorial planning session when that epiphany hit!

“I’ve got it! Remember that Avedon issue of Rolling Stone in 1976? How about we do it now? We devote all of the main editorial well of the pre-Inauguration issue to full-page portraits of ‘Obama’s People.' Say, 52 of them, for each week of the year. Don't let Vanity Fair beat us to this!

"After all, like many of our readers — like most Americans, it seems fair to say — we sense something eventful and potentially far-reaching about this election, and the challenges the new president and his team will immediately face. Why not take account of this with portraits of those whose character and temperament and bearing may well prove consequential in the coming months and years? (Note to self: Reference Roland Barthes in the intro.)

"Who are these new Powers-that-Be? Well, I think we do a mixed bag of his cabinet picks, his staff, a few Senators and members of Congress… a few miscellaneous hangers-on in Washington – just to, you know, loosen it up. Hip, surprising, but Important. It’s our own unique NY Times Magazine perspective on the new power elite. Not Diane Arbus or Annie Liebowitz. More, say, Madame Tussaud.”


One note: This gargantuan attempt at collector’s edition-creation conveys no discernible idea or point… but it does achieve one interesting result: full-page portraits of both Hillary Clinton and Jon Favreau, on a level playing field. Which is nice for him. After all, we know how much he enjoys being next to a full-size photograph of Hillary Clinton.

P.S. Six weeks, and counting.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Boom Boom Boom

It’s useless to protest, because the meme isn’t disappearing anytime soon. But it would be so salutary if we could figure out some way to put a stake in the heart of a particular piece of pervasive foolishness that infects commentary and gets schlepped around in political discourse generally.

I’m speaking about the idea of Boomer partisanship, fractiousness and culture wars.

It’s not just the strawman du jour for those seeking to defend Barack Obama against legitimate criticism – indeed, any criticism – on everything from FISA to tax cuts to Rick Warren to universal healthcare to Social Security. It goes deeper than that. It’s helping to dumb down our thinking more generally.

The idea is so silly and lazy that one would think it would be dismissed on its face. The notion that the Baby Boom generation was uniquely fractious or partisan reveals a narcissistic ignorance of history. Even high school Social Studies ought to have instilled awareness of the humans’ long narrative of conflict, tribalism, misogyny, racism, partisan struggle and general lack of evolution as a species. But if that was too much to pay attention to, what is one to make of people who have watched the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, or the rise of Islamic fundamentalism – all of them carried out not by Boomers but primarily by Xers and Yers – and who nonetheless attribute to my generation a puzzling clinging to our bitterness and battles? (In case it needs saying: Obviously, I’m not saying Gen X or Y is uniquely violent or crazy. In fact, the silliness of such characterizations in general is my point.)

This lamebrained idea isn’t just a crutch, a way to opine without actually learning or thinking. It’s also a vehicle for an age-old neural path that’s strongly etched into humans’ brains: generational conflict. The claim about Boomers isn’t empirical, but it’s not a “lie.” It expresses a genuine feeling – one of the mix of complex feelings children have had about their parents since time immemorial: You're not giving me room to breathe. Go away and let me live my life.

The examples of this nonsense are too numerous to mention here. Hardly a piece of punditry gets published these days without some trace of it. In tomorrow’s NY Times Magazine, for instance, there’s a representative ditty from Matt Bai. The article in which it occurs isn’t my focus here – it’s a typical mishmash of half-thoughts and Obama-cult musings. Some of the points are valid – such as the possibly dispositive nature of the current crisis for policy formation, and Obama’s “elusiveness” – and some are not. My point here is simply to use the following passage – annotated for your convenience – to demonstrate the self-contradiction, muddled thinking and prejudices of this generational meme:

“Already, in the weeks since the election, Obama has endured the moans of disgruntled constituencies in his own party whose idea of the outsider is difficult for any breathing politician to fulfill. Progressive activists online and inside the party have complained bitterly about Obama’s turning to so many pragmatic insiders – that is, public servants who ran Washington in the Clinton years – to populate his cabinet, rather than reaching out to more academics or state-level politicians whose political instincts have not yet been corroded by Washington’s penchant for incrementalism. [So… he didn’t reject the moaning, disgruntled Boomers, then? He hired them? And these old-timers are examples of… pragmatism, not identity politics or bitter partisanship? And yet, aren’t we told that partisanship was the defining characteristic of Washington and politics in general… until now? I’m confused…] Then, too, have come the inevitable protests from identity-based interest groups: Latinos and African-Americans in Congress who weren’t satisfied with the number of senior appointments, as well as gay activists lamenting the omission of a gay cabinet nominee. [I don’t know about you, but the chief complaint I’ve heard from gay activists wasn’t about a cabinet nominee, but about Rick Warren. And isn’t it interesting that the “interest group” he leaves out is the one most damaged by the Obama movement – women?] That sound you hear is the last wheezing gasp [It’s true. Old people are short of breath.] of boomer-age politics, the cataloging of individuals according to their areas of oppression [OMG, when will they get over it?], the endless process of tallying cultural differences rather than aggregating common objectives. [Okay, so ‘boomer-age politics’ was about cataloging oppressions and endlessly tallying cultural differences? As in the civil rights movement? As in the women’s movement? As in the anti-war movement? As in the environmental movement? As in the music and the culture that produced Woodstock? Those phenomena were not about, er, aggregating common objectives? And their legacy was an endless laundry list of complaints, and not a body of legislation, programs, laws -- and at least partially changed consciousness?] It is a political philosophy that probably made sense 30 years ago [“probably”? “made sense”? He can’t be bothered to learn about it? Or maybe he just doesn’t think it’s worth seriously characterizing.] but that seems sort of baffling [How puzzling we are to these new, rational beings, as we do our tribal Dance to Identity and Bitterness around the bonfire.] at the dawn of the Obama era, when such interest groups are among the most powerful in the Washington establishment [Right. Gays are running the place. Latinos are running the place. Women are running the place. And African-Americans have progressed so far that they really have nothing to complain about any more. Life’s good. Oh, and the presence of some representation in D.C. is sufficient demonstration of progress all around.] – and when the Man himself is black.”

See what I mean?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

And on the Other Hand...

... we have the continuing embarrassment of the Beltway's own pet schizophrenic. How long will the Times require us to endure this humiliating obsessive?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Dramatic Criticism

The “No Drama Obama” meme is unintentionally revealing. It’s meant to suggest steadiness, but what it more truly reflects is disengagement, impersonality, lack of decision, lack of action – the lack, in other words, of all those qualities of which drama is the chief imaginative form. The literary genre this guy embodies isn’t drama, but lyric poetry – and of a prosaic, intransitive and convention-based, rather than personal, sort. There are a lot more adjectives and abstract nouns than verbs here. Not much speech-action goin’ down.

I am thinking of this because I just finished reading Dreams from My Father, and I’m not one whit closer to an understanding of who this person actually is than I was before I opened the book. As advertised, it is elegantly written, but detached, opaque, impersonal – despite being an autobiography. Its literary elegance disguises rather than reveals.

At first, we think we’re going to get some insight into his head and heart – and I went into it genuinely open to that. I want to love the one I’m (perforce) with. But what we get, instead of self-expression, is a series of reflections on race, mostly in the form of emblematic scenes from his life, each of which illustrates some political point, each of which has the same hedged, muted, multi-perspective aura. In what is by far the most engaging part of the book – its final section, describing his first trip to Kenya – Barack himself is largely absent. He steps aside to let the stage (or, rather, page) be filled by his relatives. The highlight of the section is an extended quote – a narrative putatively delivered by his aunt, covering the last couple of generations of the family’s history.

This is, I think, every bit as much of a campaign document as The Audacity of Hope – even if it was written ten years earlier. Barack Obama, it seems clear, set his mind on becoming President of the United States at an early age, and has been single-mindedly pursuing that goal for his entire adult life. It’s an impressive pursuit, and a successful one. Nothing wrong with that. Ambition comes with the territory. But there’s nothing very persuasive or reassuring about it, either, for anybody who wanted to elect an actual factual Democrat, a new FDR.

This is a man whose true genius is hiding in plain sight. (For anybody who is familiar with Sigurd Burckhardt’s famous essay on King Lear, “The Quality of Nothing,” Obama is the perfect anti-Lear, the antithesis of a figure constitutionally incapable of mediacy. He may vote “present,” but he can’t be present. He’s almost too post-modern, too Derridean, too palpably the presence of an absence.)

It doesn’t matter what he does. He can talk for hours, joke around, expose himself to the world’s media, be the focus object for millions of hungry souls… he can even write entire books on himself… and yet he recedes ever farther from actual view. Is this a skill, or a psychiatric condition? I don’t think it can be a sham. Nobody could pull that off. He really must be so terrified of what lies inside, must have sealed it up so tight, that he himself hasn’t the first idea who’s in there.

Thing is, he’s now in a place where there’s a better-than-even chance that it’ll be smoked out. He has walked out onto the stage, one of the biggest and barest of them all. It’s not easy to hide there, maybe impossible. And there's a fellow whispering in the cellarage -- only this ghost isn't saying, "Remember me." This one is saying, “Nothing will come of nothing.”

One can only wonder what play is going to be spawned by whoever this protagonist turns out to be.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Maybe this is bad reporting. Maybe it's accurate reporting, but his comments were just kabuki. Maybe it's accurate reporting, and the comments do prefigure his speech tomorrow, but the speech will be the kabuki. Maybe the reporting is good, the comments are intended, the speech will be serious, but the "plans" will be so long-term they'll wither on the vine.

Or maybe he actually intends to grab the Third Rail -- the one that killed W's second term before it began. Along with the "new New Deal," maybe our Vote-Present-Elect, the post-partisan Chauncey Gardner of the 21st century, feels compelled to balance it with an anti-New Deal. Maybe, instead of Medicare For All (i.e., single-payer healthcare), he's going to give us Medicare For Fewer. Maybe he really is Herbert Hoover in Wendell Wilkie clothing. Maybe this really will be the third Bush term.