Sunday, January 29, 2012

The trouble with moral certainty

You think the Inquisition has been relegated to history's ash bin? Think again. Author Cullen Murphy writes:
"The inquisitors shared an outlook of moral certainty. In a world of moral certainty, the unthinkable becomes permissible. The sanctity of private conscience is no longer deemed inviolate. ... It all sounds very medieval. But it’s not merely medieval. Scholars may debate whether there truly is such a thing as a “totalitarian” state, and what its characteristics are, but the desire to control the thoughts and behaviour of others – joined to a belief that God or history will render an approving judgement – underlies much of the sad narrative of the past hundred years: the police states, the dirty wars, the ethnic cleansing, the internments, the renditions, the Red Scares, the fatwas, the special prosecutors, the electronic surveillance, the encroachments accomplished in name of national security."
(Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan)

Live! Nude! Davos!

I'm of two minds about the topless Occupy protesters at Davos where the world's political and business elite are holding their annual, invitation-only World Economic Forum. On the one hand, it is healthy to have rebellious voices at the posh pow-wow. After all, it's not like the Davosians, one-percenters all, have corned the market on wisdom. (See the current economic mess worldwide.) On the other hand, it's a bit sad that the protesters -- in this case, Ukrainian women of the group Femen -- have to bare their breasts for attention. But that says more about us (and the male-dominated media) than the half naked demonstrators, doesn't it?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

SOTU ignores chattering class, again

It's not exactly breaking news that political pundits, liberal and conservative alike, live in a bubble (if not a vacuum) where reality bears little resemblance to, well, reality -- the one most of us live in. The contrast in perception is always starkest after the president delivers his annual State of the Union address.

The chattering class was universally underwhelmed. Republican pundits predictably blasted President Obama for his "efforts to divide [America]," as one LA Times headline summarized conservative reaction. Left-leaning pundits decried the small-bore policy proposals and paucity of "big ideas" and vision. Echoing MoJo's Kevin Drum's reaction, virtually everyone viewed Obama's SOTU as "a campaign speech on steroids."

With this kind of dressing down, you'd think Mr. Obama would be worried. Trust me, he isn't. Drum says it all when, sighing, he writes:
"I'm a Democrat and a fan of the president, but even I found this speech formulaic, devoid of interesting ideas, and built almost solely for applause lines. Presumably this means that it's going to poll through the roof. Joe and Jane Sixpack will love it."
No kidding. Politics and setting the stage for Obama's reelection was the whole point of the exercise last night. America gets that. Perhaps one day the chattering class will become a critical voting bloc with the power to swing presidential elections. Until then, Obama and his successors will keep their focus on the folks who can actually elect them: Joe and Jane Sixpack -- who, by the way, gave Obama's SOTU a whopping 91 percent approval rating.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Quote of the Day

John Heilemann (New York magazine): "If Gingrich wins Florida, the Republican Establishment is going to have a meltdown that makes Three Mile Island look like a marshmallow roast."

Underestimate Obama at your peril, Newt

Newt Gingrich's campaign rationale: "I can bloody Obama's nose in a debate. Therefore I am qualified to be president of the United States." The notion is truly stunning, but that's Gingrich's pitch in a nutshell. And its working among those Republicans simply spoiling for a fight. Not only is the former House Speaker vastly overestimating his debating skills, he (like many before him) is vastly underestimating Barack Obama. Just ask those who dismissed the president and ended up as political corpses on the road to the White House.

Fake but telling

No, this is not an actual Washington Post front page. It's a Photoshopped fake making the rounds on the Web. But it succinctly sums up the meaning of Newt Gingrich's Pyrrhic victory in South Carolina. (Hat tip: Jim Romenesko)

Friday, January 20, 2012

State of the Disunion?

Cue the "rockets' red glare" and the NFL's theme music: Are you READY for some State of the Union?! Yes, sports fans, President Obama is set to deliver his SOTU address to the Congress next Tuesday. MSNBC has been promoting the event like the Super Bowl. This, after all, is must-see TV. I mean, you remember the words from last year's SOTU, right? And who could possibly forget what Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush said during their star turns at the SOTU podium? If you are staring at these words as if I have lost my mind, rest assured that I am being facetious. In fact, anybody who does remember the said addresses is crazy, probably certifiably. And yet the typical SOTU is hyped as if it is a history altering event. It ain't. Like almost everything else on the American political landscape these days, the modern SOTU is a made-for-TV extravaganza (read 3-ring circus) designed to win ratings and little else. So strong has the media stranglehold on this "tradition" become that woe betide any president who refuses to give one. He or she would be run out of town on a rail. It wasn't always this way. As POLITICO'S Roger Simon noted today, the Constitution requires only that the president “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” In other words, a three-page letter sent via special courier (or Fedex) would do.

And he can sing, too?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A taxing narrative

Quick! Stop the presses! Mitt Romney only pays a 15 percent federal tax rate! And who really cares about this breaking news besides the political media (and the Desperate Housewives in Mitt's country club)? NOBODY. Like Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and every other American gazillionaire, Romney earns income the old fashioned way: big capital gains from investments (which is taxed lower than money we serfs earn from regular wages). Romney, who has a net worth north of $200 million, does not need to work for a living. But here's the thing: Most Americans do not begrudge him his affluence. In fact, most folks would gladly swap places with him. In a heartbeat. So why the hubbub over Romney's taxes? Because this manufactured narrative is easier than covering the real issues. And I find that taxing (pun intended).

A story I'd love to read

Most people are peed off at the state of affairs in DC. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll indicates that 84 percent of Americans say they disapprove of the job Congress is doing. Two-thirds say they "strongly disapprove." The Post reports that this level of public disgust is "unprecedented." In fact, the disapproval number is the highest in polling history (i.e., 30 years) And yet ... in the same poll, 13 percent of Americans inexplicably approve of the way Congress legislates. But wait, there's more: 3 percent of these contented souls strongly approve of Congress. Um, who are these people (and what are they smoking)? That's a story I'd love to read.

Quote of the Day

David Brooks: "I sometimes wonder if the Republican Party has become the receding roar of white America as it pines for a way of life that will never return." Andrew Sullivan: "Me too." Me three.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Tebow Time? Let's hope not

America is standing at the precipice of yet another feeding frenzy. The face of this cultural paroxysm-in-waiting is Tim Tebow. His "specialness" is already being rationalized by the religious. ("Is the 'hand of God' directing his passes -- or at least his fourth-quarter attempts?" a Christian theology professor asks with a straight-face. His answer? "Yes and no.") Now, as long as today's game between the Patriots and the Broncos is governed by the known laws of NFL physics, Brady & Co. will likely crush Tebow & Co., probably by a couple of touchdowns. Tebow will have been proven a false idol like the golden calf of the Israelites. Ergo, game over. But if divine intervention (i.e., dumb luck) makes an appearance on the gridiron and Denver manages to defeat New England -- esp. via a game-winning run into the endzone by Tebow himself -- there will no escaping the hype surrounding God's Quarterback. And should the Broncs miraculously make it all the way to the Super Bowl (and win it), America will insist that Tebow be chiseled into Mount Rushmore. Can you imagine? Think Paris Hilton, OJ, Sarah Palin, Snooky, Michael Jackson, and the Kardashians all rolled into one mega-celebrity. The mere thought of it sends shivers down my spine. Pardon the forthcoming pun, but: God help us.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Romney-Gingrich Smackdown

William Tecumseh Sherman once said, "The carping and bickering of political factions in the nation's capital reminds me of two pelicans quarreling over a dead fish." Sherman's words seem equally applicable to the current Romney-Gingrich squabble in South Carolina.

¡Three Amigos!

I dunno. Is it just me, or does this mosaic of Donald Trump, Michael Bloomberg, and Ron Paul creep you out too?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The true faces of poverty

"The African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps," said Newt Gingrich before a crowd in New Hampshire last week. The Root rolled its eyes (as we all should) and asked why the conservative political class insists upon "framing African Americans as the predominant poor and welfare-dependent."

Here are the facts:
Of the 46 million people living in poverty in America in 2010, the U.S. census revealed that 31 million were white. Ten million were black. Of the 49 million people without health insurance coverage, 37 million were white; 8 million were African American.

White Americans, poor and middle-class alike, receive the vast majority of tax-funded government assistance programs, from monthly assistance to Social Security to food stamps. (source: Social Security Administration)

Per the New York Times, 36 million Americans relied on food stamps. More than 24 million of them were white, 8 million were African American and 6 million were Hispanic of any race.

57 percent of rural poor children were white and 44 percent of all urban poor children were white. (source: 2009 study "The Forgotten Fifth: Child Poverty in Rural America")

The End Is Nigh

How to turn a newspaper page

Somebody has way too much time on their hands:

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The 'Bain' of Romney's existence

More than one Republican voter in New Hampshire told reporters that he or she voted for Mitt Romney because of his "business experience." Willard himself touts his private sector credentials ad nauseum as his key qualification for the presidency. As Newt would say, it's all “pious baloney.”

Dan Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts, explains why:
The thing is -- and this is kind of important -- governments are not corporations. I cannot stress this enough. There's the obvious point that in democracies, legislatures tend to impose a more powerful constraint than shareholders, making it that much harder for leaders to execute the policies they think will be the most efficient.

There's also the deeper point that it's a lot harder for governments to be "unsentimental" when it comes to the provision of public services. It's a lot harder for states to eliminate the functions that are less efficient. Frequently, demand for government services emerges because of the perception that the private sector has fallen down on the job in that area. This means that the government has been tasked with doing the things that are difficult and unprofitable to do.


There's been a lot of bragging in the 2012 primary about candidates that have "real world" business experience, and how that translates into an effective ability to govern. That logic is horses**t. Being president is a fundamentally different job than being a CEO -- because countries are not corporations.
Romney was a top exec at Bain Capital, a venture capital firm with $66 billion in assets. Not sure what that means? Think Gordon Gecko, corporate raider. Keep that in mind the next time Romney says that only he can save the American economy and create jobs. "Blue horseshoe loves Anacott Steel," indeed.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Passion of Jon Huntsman

In my past criticisms of the GOP presidential field, the caveat "with the exception of Jon Huntsman" appeared routinely. In fact, it was obligatory. For Huntsman remains the sole Republican candidate who cannot be described as unintelligent, irrational, inauthentic, mendacious or outright scary. He was (and is) the moderate, sane one.

Though the ex-ambassador to China is not my cup of tea politically, I suspect few would worry about handing him the nuclear launch codes if he miraculously won the presidency. As a serious man grounded in the reality-based world, Huntsman would at least govern responsibly. Moreover, if there was ever a Republican who could contest Obama on something like equal terms in 2012, it is Huntsman. And yet, he has zero chance of winning his party's nomination. That honor will likely go to the inanimate object named Willard "Mitt" Romney. Hell, there's even an outside chance that Rick Perry or Rick Santorum -- the GOP's Tweedledum and Tweedledee -- could win it. In effect, the party is fielding kamikaze pilots who are finishing their last round of ceronmonial Sake before heading to their planes and certain political death. Meanwhile, it is a virtual certainty that Huntsman, their best flyer against Obama, will be blown out of the sky next Tuesday in the NH primary, thus ending his quixotic but honorable bid.

Time's Joe Klein seems to agree. He thinks Huntsman's deeper "sin" has always been his "vitriol-free candidacy." Klein writes:
"There is no gratuitous sliming of Barack Obama or his fellow Republican candidates. There is no spurious talk of 'socialism.' He pays not the slightest heed to the various licks and chops that Rush Limbaugh has made into stations of the cross for Republican candidates. He is out-of-step with the anger that has overwhelmed his party and puts it at odds with the vast, sensible mainstream of this country. Because he has refused to engage in such carnival tactics–because he hasn’t had any oops! moments, extramarital affairs, lobbying deals with Freddie Mac or flip-flops–the media have largely ignored him. That makes us complicit in a national political calamity. But Republican voters have been complicit, too: a conservative party that doesn’t take Huntsman seriously as a candidate has truly lost its way."

In Tebow We Trust?

Chauncey DeVega: "I am a Patriots fan. I loved watching Tebow get owned by Tom Brady. I also believe that Tebow is grossly overrated, and his popularity is a function of Christian Dominionist born again shtick and the 'novelty' of a white quarterback with a 'black' style of play. In many ways, Tebow is the Eminem of the NFL, with the latter being imminently more talented."

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

We just got here

If the history of Earth were a 24-hour clock, then we humans arrived about 2 minutes ago:

The real meaning of Iowa

The smart money is betting that Mitt Romney will win tonight's Iowa caucuses. Without a doubt, Romney is the least frightening candidate of the Republican field (just image Gingrich, Paul, Santorum, Perry or Bachmann with access to the nuclear launch codes). Then again, that's nearly akin to saying Moe is the most stable of the Three Stooges. The thought is not exactly comforting. So, even if Willard does come out on top tonight, I think the real winner will be Barack Obama.