Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Not quite so deep anymore

Deep Throat has revealed himself. After 30+ years, those parking garage meetings, heavy with drama and cigarette smoke, have become part of the nation’s political/cultural/historical memory, so it will be interesting to see how this news plays out. Will the Sean Hannitys of the world pillory him? Will the mainstream media recall the romantic era when anonymous sources were reliable and actually led to earth-shaking stories?

With the media under siege for its sourcing methods (but principally for having the temerity to question the current regime), the Deep Throat saga is a reminder that our political system could not function without anonymous sources to provide a check on abuses of power. Sometimes, protecting anonymity is the only way to get to the truth.

Update:
The VF article contains a lot of information about Bob Woodward's ongoing friendship with Felt, which seems to buttress the claim. But then again, maybe we're back in the hall of mirrors (courtesy Romenesko letters):

W. Mark Felt's quote, "I'm the one they used to call Deep Throat" is certainly true. At least a dozen Watergate sleuths have called Felt by that name since 1974. That said, I hope Vanity Fair explains to the public in their article that Mr. Felt has not been lucid for many years, having experienced strokes and reportedly is now, at 91, suffering from multiple ailments that hamper his mental abilities. For example, when interviewed by Ron Kessler a few years ago, Felt had a hard time recalling who Bob Woodward was.

Felt's daughter says, "We could make at least enough money to pay some bills...let's do it for the family." There was indeed a time when Felt could have grabbed a small fortune by revealing himself as DT. Speeches at $40,000 a pop, a tell-all book, etc. were all possible for decades. Unfortunately that opportunity, considering his health, has probably passed. Felt's own memoir, written in 1979, contained his denial of being DT and suggested that anyone in the FBI who would reveal such information was just short of being a traitor. He has denied to reporter after reporter that he was DT. That he should change at the urging of his family when in such ill health is suspect.

Final update:
The Washington Post confirms it. Felt's the guy.

Will that be smoking or non?

Blake Gopnik had an interesting article in Sunday’s Washington Post talking about the utter kitschiness of today’s portraits of political figures. Over the past 100 years or so, portraiture has migrated from the center of the art world to its margins, and political portraiture has plunged headlong over the edge past LeRoy Nieman, ending up somewhere in the zone of dogs playing poker or Tony Soprano with cigar and horse.

It’s not on the web version of the article, but in the picture-worth-a-thousand-words category, the dead tree version juxtaposed images of a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington with a more recent effort, Thomas V. Nash’s portrait of Newt Gingrich. (I don't yet have the capacity to post images, unfortunately - the Gingrich portrait is about midway down the page.)

I am not a Gingrich fan. But even he deserves better than this, which makes him look like a passive-aggressive maitre d’.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

I'm lovin' it

The kids and I made our semi-monthly trek to Target and McDonald's today. In McDonald's, there was a sign touting their new "Fruit & Walnut Premium Salad," which looked like apples, grapes and walnuts. Members of Destiny's Child were admiring the outsized apple slices in the salad bowl (they were on the poster, that is, not in our McDonald's).

I'm all for healthier meals at fast food venues. But walnuts and Destiny's Child at McDonald's?

A Google search reveals that this is part of a "multidimensional global relationship" between two corporate entities. McDonald's is underwriting DC's tour, which is titled "Destiny Fulfilled -- and lovin' it!" In exchange, the members of DC are acting as "global ambassadors" for McDonald's:

“Just like McDonald's, the popularity of Destiny's Child knows no geographic boundaries, and this incredible tour brings that universal appeal to life in multiple cultures, continents and communities,” said Larry Light, McDonald's Executive Vice President and Global Chief Marketing Officer. “Music continues to be at the forefront of our leadership marketing strategy. Our sponsorship of the tour is a great example of how this partnership helps McDonald's reach consumers worldwide through the universal language of music.”

I'm sorry, but this is a downright weird attempt at synergy where none really exists. McDonald's has been struggling and they are trying to exploit - or create - a bunch of vague associations with the brand to try to leverage some buzz. The result is an odd stew indeed, a throw-anything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks strategy: McDonald's food is bad for you. So buy a salad. McDonald's food is predictable and mediocre. So have some walnuts. McDonald's is dull and kind of grimy, but Destiny's Child is popular and beautiful. McDonald's targets African-American customers, Destiny's Child is a pop-R&B group. Etc.

Lately, this campaign has morphed into an even stranger animal:

NEW YORK (May 4, 2005) – McDonald’s, in a fashion inspired press event, announced today the latest addition to our company’s salad portfolio as a part of our new spring line. The Fruit & Walnut Premium Salad includes premium fresh fruit: USDA #1 sliced apples and red seedless grapes, with a side of low-fat vanilla yogurt and candied Diamond® walnuts to sprinkle on top. The new Fruit & Walnut Premium Salad is part of McDonald’s on-going commitment to encourage food-energy balance.

McDonald’s Balanced, Active Lifestyles ambassadors, Destiny’s Child, Venus Williams, Bob Greene, Dr. Ro and Dayanara Torres were on hand to help McDonald’s executives walk the “green” carpet as they debuted our newest addition to the popular and great tasting Premium Salad line.

If, seeking to become a Balanced, Active Lifestyles ambassador, I take my salad portfolio to a fashion-inspired press event on a "green" carpet (do the quotation marks mean "not red" or that we are into some truly radical space on the color palette?) with Destiny's Child and meet Venus Williams and Bob Greene, Miss Universe and Dr. Ro - is s/he on Star Trek or the President of South Korea? - maybe I'll hit the sweet spot in the demographic. Or maybe I should sit down, have a stiff drink and figure out how to keep my bathrooms clean.

Mad at gascar

We saw "Madagascar" yesterday. Don't go. Or if you have to, the kids will enjoy it but adults should not have high expectations. As eye-candy it is typically impressive. The lion's mane, the shimmering water and Grand Central Station are all lovingly, cleverly rendered.

But that's exactly the problem - the Lucasization of movies, the notion that the "wow" factor of CGI can carry a film. In this case, it's like they stopped working on the script about midway through the drafting process - it has an unfinished, unpolished feel.

The storyline has the obligatory two-tier format - winking pop culture references for adults and a Disneyesque adventure for children. But the drama (will the lion go native and eat his friends?) is obvious and belabored - and never really resolved. I kept wondering how they were going to address the problem of a hungry lion in the wild with the only available lunch being cute anthropomorphic animals. Finally they whip him up some sushi. Here, spiders can talk but the fish are conveniently non-anthropomorphic. I guess this is a shot at "Finding Nemo."

Anyway, the jokes are flat, lame slapstick pervades and the ending is abrupt - I suppose in order to set up a sequel, but it just stops short with a couple of big plot points unresolved.

It's sad to see such great art direction dressing up such a lame story. Dreamworks has produced one great CGI film - "Shrek" - that managed to break the Disney mold. But Pixar is still whupping them something good. The problem is, nobody seems to notice. So much craft has been lavished on the eye candy and computer-animated films are still enough of a novelty that the mediocre efforts are still packing them in. But this won't last - right now, there are 2 or 3 of these movies coming out a year. In a few years, there will be more and the public will be more inclined to pick and choose. Or at least more movies will mean better odds at finding a worthy.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Thanks, Dick

Falling upward:
Two Army analysts whose work has been cited as part of a key intelligence failure on Iraq -- the claim that aluminum tubes sought by the Baghdad government were most likely meant for a nuclear weapons program rather than for rockets -- have received job performance awards in each of the past three years, officials said.

This is how bureaucracies function, of course. It’s what they do - reward incompetence and punish original or contrary thinking. Ordinarily there are some brakes on the more egregious examples of this behavior, including IG offices and news coverage such as this article. No more. As it does with everything it gets its mits on, the Bush administration has taken this natural bureaucratic tendency and fine-tuned it in the interests of self-protection.

The Bushies say they're trying to change the federal bureaucratic culture to make it more competitive, more like the private sector. But the White House inclinations toward secrecy, its demands for results based on politics rather than intelligent analysis or science, the stress on loyalty over common sense, and the lack of accountability are damaging the agencies in ways that will last long after Bush leaves office.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Battle for the center

Hillary Clinton vs. John McCain in 2008?

The latter post, by former McCain aide Marshall Wittman, speculates that there will be so many Republican candidates kissing up to the religious right that McCain could win the nomination by cornering the market on all the small-government, latter-day Goldwaterites. An interesting and appealing thought, though with the furious pace of the primary season, the field will probably get winnowed too fast for that. And McCain might have to split those leftovers with Giuliani.

Not credible

Josh Marshall points out the cynicism of the Bushies’ attacks on Newsweek:

Remember, the McClellan/DiRita attacks on Newsweek weren't simply about getting a few facts wrong or weakly sourcing a story. Their claim was that the charges were outrageous, damaging and false, when in fact it turns out they were outrageous, damaging and quite likely true. And even more damaging for the US after McClellan and DiRita spent a couple weeks heaping attention on them.

The result of the White House and DiRita's jihad against Newsweek has only been to encourage a whole new round of international outrage and embarrassment about abuses we have to hope are now being addressed. And all, obviously, to score points in the media wars at home -- which the Bush administration so often seems to consider the true central front in the war on terror.

The sole aim of the White House/DOD smackdown of Newsweek was an attempt to maximize domestic political advantage for a few days, mau-mau their presumed enemies, fire up their friends – and continue the long-term project of delegitimizing the mainstream media.

Leaving aside the human rights issue, U.S. credibility was a secondary concern at best - which is why it’s going to continue to decline around the world. There is no one defending it in an even half-believable way. One reason for that is because there is so much that is indefensible. But they could at least give it a shot.

War with or without end

Gregg Easterbrook has a provocative piece in The New Republic speculating that war, already on the decline worldwide, may be headed for the dustbin of history:

The University of Maryland studies find the number of wars and armed conflicts worldwide peaked in 1991 at 51, which may represent the most wars happening simultaneously at any point in history. Since 1991, the number has fallen steadily. There were 26 armed conflicts in 2000 and 25 in 2002, even after the Al Qaeda attack on the United States and the U.S. counterattack against Afghanistan. By 2004, Marshall and Gurr's latest study shows, the number of armed conflicts in the world had declined to 20, even after the invasion of Iraq. All told, there were less than half as many wars in 2004 as there were in 1991.

Marshall and Gurr also have a second ranking, gauging the magnitude of fighting. This section of the report is more subjective. Everyone agrees that the worst moment for human conflict was World War II; but how to rank, say, the current separatist fighting in Indonesia versus, say, the Algerian war of independence is more speculative. Nevertheless, the Peace and Conflict studies name 1991 as the peak post-World War II year for totality of global fighting, giving that year a ranking of 179 on a scale that rates the extent and destructiveness of combat. By 2000, in spite of war in the Balkans and genocide in Rwanda, the number had fallen to 97; by 2002 to 81; and, at the end of 2004, it stood at 65. This suggests the extent and intensity of global combat is now less than half what it was 15 years ago.

Daniel Drezner notes that in Easterbrook's laundry list of reasons for this – including the march toward global enlightenment – he leaves out the role of the world’s one superpower. True enough.

A bigger flaw with the essay’s argument is that it employs the futurist’s fallacy: That the future will be like the present, only more so. Leaving aside the warnings and apprehensions of visionaries such as Kafka or Marx (and who are their counterparts today?) who was predicting the elaborate horrors of the 20th century in 1905? The stew of globalization, digitization, media interconnectedness, competition for resources, nukes, terrorism, religious fundamentalism, and China could keep on bubbling at a relatively low level – or it could explode in unexpected ways, especially if global politics is chaotic in the sense that butterfly wings flapping lead to hurricanes. By 20th century standards, for example, 9/11 was a relatively small-scale event. But look at the effects it’s still having on American politics and the projection of U.S. 0f force around the world.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Fricasseeing the media, part LXVIII

The SecDef’s denial that he authorized the possible shoot-down of the small plane that strayed into restricted DC airspace sounds straightforward. But the way that it cleverly plays into the Bush administration's war on the media – and the media’s predicament with unnamed sources – is a little too convenient:

Rumsfeld said: "It was two anonymous sources, and, of course, it wasn't true. I never even got on the phone to discuss the circumstances of the little plane."

This has some of the telltale signs of a non-denial denial – the vague statement that something is “not true” followed by a choice-but-extraneous detail to give the statement some factual heft. In fact, the disagreement over the "truth" of the story may hinge on semantic details such as what technically constitutes "authorization."

And whatever Rumsfeld did, he didn't have to do it by phone.

As the DOD spokesman in the story says, “I guess it depends on how you want to parse it.”

Meanwhile, it’s another opportunity to knock the media for an alleged misstep in trying to penetrate the veil of secrecy that Rumsfeld & Co. themselves have created. Damn, these guys are good.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Say it ain't so, Jo

The rumors and bets are flying on what major character will bite the big one in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” due out in July.

Not surprisingly, Dumbledore is the odds-on favorite to die. As Chris Lynch points out, this has even been (sort of) confirmed by a spike in Dumbledore wagers out of the town of Bungay, Suffolk, where the longtime printer of the Potter books is located. However, it’s not clear this printer is even involved with the current book, so who knows.

Dumbledore is really the only logical and suitably dramatic choice. If Harry has someone backstopping him when his final confrontation with evil comes, it might be easier to win, but it wouldn’t be very interesting or exciting.

Some see a heavy dose of Joseph Campbell in this, though if Rowling were just following a straight Jungian script the books wouldn't be very interesting either. Another, related way to look at it is the Potter books are about growing up and learning how to squarely face the various terrors of adulthood. And part of that involves disillusionment – seeing parents and mentors as human beings with flaws – and leaving them, or at least your old ideas of them – behind.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

You go, Hosni!

More on the Laura Bush trip from Abu Aardvark (via Drum).

All Laura Bush can do is say nice things while visiting various not-so-nice people. So this is a meaningless, and possibly damaging, exercise in public diplomacy.

Nuclear free for now

The nuclear option compromise is messy and disadvantageous to Democrats in various ways. But the main movers behind the nuclear option, Dobson et al, are going nuclear themselves over the “sellout” by Frist and Co.

So this looks like a good deal for Democrats. They fought a superior force to a standoff. They maneuvered the GOP into an awkward position at cross-purposes with its base. They gave up something to do it, but that’s politics.

And the Senate is still the Senate, as opposed to a wholly-owned subsidiary of the White House – for now.

But of course this will come up again. But as Mickey Kaus noted, right now nobody’s paying attention. If the next nuclear showdown occurs during a debate over a Supreme Court nominee, everybody will be watching and that will not help the Republicans, especially if Bush nominates a Bork or a Thomas II. So conceivably Bush will have to think twice before doing so. Not that he ever has in the past.

Civilization on the march

Via Ann Althouse, the BBC reports that China has banned the practice (found mostly in Japan) of using naked women as sushi dinnerware:

The Beijing Times newspaper said the new ban was introduced because serving food on women "insults people's moral quality".

Maybe there's something to be said for big government conservatism after all.

Monday, May 23, 2005

The prolix American

James Wolcott riffs amusingly on Richard Adams’s riffs on Tom Friedman:

Adams makes the irresistible point in the Guardian that if Graham Greene's The Quiet American were to be updated, Alden Pyle wouldn't be carrying The Role of the West and The Challenge to Democracy in his briefcase to fortify his mind and morale as he went meddling in other countries' affairs and doing incalculable harm with his good intentions--he'd be bearing the gospels of Thomas Friedman, "a contemporary quiet American." Like Pyle, Friedman is idealistic, tireless, and disastrously assured of himself and the America whose interests he serves.

Pyle, however, didn't turn out tracts. He only read them. Thomas Friedman writes them and then autointoxicates himself with his own amazing insights.

Friedman is an exasperating figure: As Adams writes, he's a typically self-absorbed American figure wandering the world squeezing his experiences into tight ideological cubbyholes that appear to be bigger than they really are. Then he turns around and sells this as something new.

I’m generally sanguine about globalization, and its social and economic leveling forces are important, if not well understood. But the really interesting questions have to do with globalization’s speed, rapaciousness and destructive power. They will sow many kinds of instability – including war – in the coming years. How will humanity respond? The nation-state may be on the way out. What kinds of institutions will take shape to address these problems?

Nicholas Kristof has a similar affection for the obvious. Sometimes it's sooo obvious he undermines himself. On Sunday, he wrote from Kaifeng, a Chinese city that was the center of world commerce 1,000 years ago and is now an airport-less backwater. The same could happen to New York, he warns. Okay. But why bother to do what he recommends - abandon our current hubris and pursue trade and technology, yadda yadda - if the forces of history are just going to grind onward no matter what we do?

And I don't know, Rome is still in pretty good shape 2,000 years after its apogee.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Now, if we could just convince Al Jazeera to carry Rush Limbaugh ...

Laura Bush’s Middle East trip has an air of ridiculousness about it.

The strategy appears to be literal-minded: She’s more likable than W – so she can help repair our image in the Middle East. The Arabs and Jews will love her, and their love for her will reduce their hatred of us. A little. Maybe.

It’s OK, I suppose. Can’t hurt. But it’s the same thinking with regard to W and the media that gave us close encounters of the equine kind a couple of weeks ago at the White House Correspondents Dinner – a fun but politically inconsequential event.

Appointing Karen Hughes to buff our image abroad (she has not started yet, so is apparently not behind this trip, but who knows) sparked a lot of commentary that the White House was finally taking the issue seriously. But the opposite is true, as Laura’s trip illustrates. The Bushies view our deteriorating image not as something demanding concrete action, but as a political message problem.

So they will handle it in their customary fashion – by doing whatever they damn well please, then putting a friendly face on it with sunny rhetoric and message discipline. Hughes is a peerless practitioner of this political art, and the First Lady an ideal front person. But while it may work on 51 percent of the American public, the Middle East and the rest of the world are not going to buy it.

Objectivity and fairness are so five minutes ago

Kevin Drum is right about the Newsweek business and his conclusion – get off the mat and kick some butt, Newsweek and other cowed mainstream media! – has a visceral appeal.

But I’m still wondering, what realistically can Newsweek do right now? And what about the next time this happens? Because it will.

If you're operating on the old, pseudo-objective mainstream media model, you have to play by those rules. That means elaborate, public self-flagellation if you make a mistake and it mushrooms like this one did.

It doesn't matter if the mushrooming is unfair, exploited by enemies. You still have to stick to the “correction” script or your credibility – the whole basis for your relationship with your readers – will decline.

The Bush people know this makes Newsweek and other big media a soft target, easy to tie in knots over the tiniest misstep. After all, the current kerfuffle about anonymous sources is driven by their obsessive secrecy. They also know that every time this happens, it's another cut on the way to 1,000.

In the short run, the best thing for Newsweek is to get this over with fast and then get back on the story, which isn’t going away. The revelations of U.S. atrocities and official indifference keep on coming.

But in the long run, maybe it makes sense to just chuck the pseudo-objective model used by the newsweeklies, networks, and daily papers – the whole pretense of absolute fairness that nobody believes in anymore.

They don’t have to be cravenly partisan, just more explicit in articulating a point of view, like British newspapers. This would be a big change, and potentially not for the better – the ultimate victory of the Rupert Murdoch ethos. But it would make it much easier to be feisty and fight back when the politicos come after you with their shivs out.

Up in the air

Took the kids on a trip requiring air travel, which went surprisingly smoothly.

We were among the last to leave the plane, and the pilot invited the kids into the cockpit. They got to sit in the pilot's and copilot's seats and examine the controls and displays. It was one of those experiences that seems very 1960s, something out of a children’s book from that era or “Catch Me if You Can,” when commercial airline pilots were like rock stars – or at least occupied a position just below astronaut and somewhat above firefighter in the pantheon of “what I want to be when I grow up.” They were like priests in a temple, holding the key to a wondrous and still somewhat mysterious technology. But today we're jaded about technology, and pilots have weathered deregulation, consolidation, strikes, layoffs and 9/11. In other words, they're ordinary human beings, probably with a few more problems than the rest of us.

But cockpits have regained their mystery. They are now fortified, impenetrable places. I didn’t think you could get anywhere near the controls of an airplane anymore. So after enduring all the pointless security redundancies put in place the last few years, it was strangely moving to be back inside the temple.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Religion vs. democracy smackdown

This Mark Lilla essay in last Sunday's NYT Book Review limns the no-longer-so provocative idea that Christianity and liberal democracy are in some sense fundamentally at odds. He bats down various canards about the founding fathers - that they wanted a "Christian nation" in the modern sense of the term, or that they were indifferent to religion:

The British and Americans made two wagers. The first was that religious sects, if they were guaranteed liberty, would grow attached to liberal democracy and obey its norms. The second was that entering the public square would liberalize them doctrinally, that they would become less credulous and dogmatic, more sober and rational.

So much for that one.

He goes on to say that when Christian churches have tilted this direction - become aligned with the broad political consensus, more focused on the inward spiritual journey, etc. - it hasn't lasted. The world gets more complex and threatening, and the churches rebel. Hence our current predicament. Not sure I agree, but it's a worthy read.

Off we go

I'll be traveling for the next several days, so posting will be intermittent at best.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Folly at the CPB

Let’s start out by saying it up front – Bill Moyers is a liberal, and proud of it, and there is some question about the government underwriting a particular point of view to the exclusion of others. I don’t have a problem with hearing more thoughtful conservative voices on public TV.

But I have a hard time with the idea put forth by new CPB chairman and Bush man Kenneth Tomlinson that the solution is (apparently) to turn public broadcasting into just another arena for tedious red vs. blue sniping:

"All I'm trying to do is advocate that both sides be fairly represented" in news programs, he said. "There is a perception among a lot of politically sophisticated people that that balance is not always there."

The problem with this “fair and balanced” idea is that it views liberalism and conservatism as polar opposites perpetually at war, and that the best way to handle this is to “balance” both sides – like that Vietnam-themed episode of “Star Trek” where Kirk starts an arms race by equipping one set of primitive alien villagers with guns while the Klingons are doing the same with their neighbors.

Not coincidentally, such a state of permanent political warfare tends to benefit those who have already spent the past 40 years at war - i.e., conservatives.

Obviously in today’s political climate, conservatism and liberalism are at war. But public TV should not be drawn onto that battlefield. It should be insulated from the crass idiocy that passes for political debate these days, among other reasons so it can examine politics and issues critically and intelligently – which is what it does best.

"Working out" is just one explanation for suddenly losing 1/3 of your body weight

Re: Lohan. Inadvertantly left out a stint in rehab and/or a mental health institution and/or South Africa.

Where have you gone, Edmund Burke, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you

Marshall Wittman analyzes the post-apocalyptic landscape:

W's social security proposal is already dead in the water. Besides a pork laden energy bill, the cupboard is bare on the domestic front. If Senate Republicans kill the filibuster, Democrats will put the final nail in the coffin for any hopes that the President can move any favored legislation through the upper chamber.

The net result is that the President could officially become a lame duck with the implementation of the nuclear option. While he will get his appellate nominees and clear the path for appointees to the Supreme Court, W. will have to say good-bye to any hopes to pass legacy type legislation.

Of course, it's not exactly small potatoes to transform the judiciary and reverse the last sixty years of progressive reforms.

Even if the centrist senators achieve a compromise, this week’s debate has already stirred up enough interest group passions, demagoguery and acrimony – with the White House simply standing aside and applauding the Frist maneuverings – that important people will be out for vengeance any way it goes. It's going to reverberate for a while, to detriment of the Senate as an institution, such as it is.

Why have Republicans have abandoned their traditional, conservative, Burkean - and sensible - respect for institutional integrity? Their actions have the methodical but desperate air of an addict who must get his next fix, damn the consequences. This is the functional reality of the Rovian 51 percent solution. Your interest groups must be fed, and power must be exercised and consolidated by any means to build an enduring edifice - that, in the absence of a genuine political consensus, could easily crumble in the next election.

And what is the deal with Priscilla Owen’s hairdo? Robin Givhan, get on this please.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

They grow up and spiral out of control so fast

Lindsay Lohan is migrating through the stages of Hollywood starletdom so fast that she will be in Norma Desmond territory by the time she’s 25: Early success, cat fight with teen rival, excessive partying, breast enhancement rumors, breast reduction rumors, breakup with Fez, crazed alcoholic show-biz dad, mediocre pop recording– and now the “startlingly thin” phase.

If this follows form, we will soon see: Marriage lasting days or hours; love triangle involving Angelina Jolie and/or Kevin Federline; “Will & Grace” guest slot; total flameout.

Bia$

Virginia Postrel has the economist’s take on media bias: It sells.

In a recent paper, "The Market for News," two Harvard economists look at that question.

"There's plenty of competition" among news sources, Sendhil Mullainathan, one of the authors, said in an interview. But "the more competition there has been in the last 20 years, the more discussion there has been of bias."

The reason, he and his colleague, Andrei Shleifer, argue, is that consumers care about more than accuracy. "We assume that readers prefer to hear or read news that are more consistent with their beliefs," they write. Bias is not a bug but a feature.

In a competitive news market, they argue, producers can use bias to differentiate their products and stave off price competition. Bias increases consumer loyalty.

Given the smashing success of Fox News – which melds right-wing bias and a Red America “look” in everything from graphics to wardrobe, hair and makeup – this is such an obvious point it hardly deserves further comment. But it has a lot of implications.

In a fragmented media environment, no one commands absolute trust anymore. The mainstream media? Vaguely liberal and won’t admit it. Starts riots. The right-wing media? Good at blowing holes in the MSM and supporting the president, lousy at self-examination.

So many people aren’t looking for the truth - after all, it might make them angry or uncomfortable. They want an interpretation of it that reassures them and confirms what they already think.

Like any business, the media go where the money is, and it's now found in small cultural and political niches that can be targeted by TV, Internet and radio with ideologically flavored content that fills this need. This has a certain appeal - let a thousand flowers bloom! Is it necessarily worse than Walter Cronkite or the New York Times delivering Gergen-esque consensus-speak from on high?

But the danger is that people get trapped in their spoon-fed niches and stop thinking altogether.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Trust, but don't verify

Anne Applebaum gets to the heart of the Newsweek mess.

One basic problem with this situation is bureaucratic. The Defense Department says it has found "no credible" allegations of holy book flushing. Of course, we know there have been allegations of this -- but the Pentagon finds these, and apparently all others, "not credible."

But like its prisoners, the Pentagon has the relevant information locked up. It cannot be independently evaluated. Anybody who might be able to cast light on this works for the Pentagon and, if they had anything to say that deviated a whisker from the Bush line, they have been silenced. For now, anyway.

So the Pentagon is basically saying "trust us" and "fuck off" at the same time. Sound familiar?

Huffing and puffing

Here's the latest variation on the electronic ankle bracelet - microchip-enhanced kids' shoes that track exercise/energy output. Earn enough energy-points and you can watch TV.

Why stop there? Take this one step further and hook the kids up directly to a treadmill-powered TV.

Nice blog design, too.

What's the matter with Kansas, contd.

Why evolution does not equal atheism - a good take on the politics of Intelligent Design.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Weakly slinking where no man has slunk before

At one time I was a Star Trek fan. No, I never put on a pair of ears or a uniform. But I did once go to a Star Trek convention. With some colleagues. As a kind of, you know, anthropological thing.

Anyway, emphasis on the “was.” Star Trek has not been good for almost a decade, and last week it slipped quietly into pop culture history – or at least an overdue hibernation – when the final episode of “Enterprise,” the last, and worst, Star Trek series aired. We had not watched the show for a couple of years but tuned in, and it was like the series as a whole – some intriguing elements, great production design, but a lame, lame plot.

Yes, people running around in pajamas firing ray guns is always going to be cheesy. William Shatner’s shirt came off an awful lot. Dozens of nameless crewmembers died meaningless deaths to set up weak storylines. But Star Trek was often great TV. The interplay between the three main characters in the original series has been endlessly parodied, but it was one of the better portrayals of the tensions of adult friendship – in, uh, interesting situations that looked at political issues, history, the human condition. The Next Generation had lamer characters and a duller edge, but greater reach and sophistication.

One memorable line from Deep Space Nine was actually about the nature of soft power -- Quark, the alien bartender, bemoans the fact that he’ll be serving root beer again in his interplanetary establishment. Root beer, he and a friend agree, is just like the Federation – i.e., the United States – "bubbly, cloying and happy," somehow irresistible to all who encounter it – and they better get used to it, because it’s the only thing left between them and the howling void.

But by the time Enterprise launched, Trek had become an indigestible hash of its own cliches. The latex foreheads and technobabble, never believable, were ridiculous. At one point, Nazi lizards figured heavily in the story. The Paramount suits were sending down diktats that every episode have a dose of gratuitous sex and skin and at least one pointless action sequence. The captain was a constantly agonizing, befuddled drip with a pet beagle. The opening song sucked.

But hey, that Vulcan chick wasn’t bad.

We hoped for more in the last episode, but no. A major character died mainly in order to have something dramatic happen. Except it was pointless and arbitrary. That is, not dramatic. And there wasn’t even any skin, just a chubbed-out Jonathan Frakes.

Oh! Oh! Ohhhhh! Yes!

Via Kaus, the latest argument for Intelligent Design.

Patriotism as denial

The main, and mostly unexamined, subtext of the Newsweek flap is patriotism.

On the right, and I suspect across much of the middle swath of the American electorate, there is a strong sensitivity about our war effort. Men and women are overseas, doing hard work and often giving up their lives. People want to believe it’s for a good cause, even if they don’t really have a clear idea of why we’re over there. The rationale has changed several times already, and day-to-day the mission is frustratingly difficult and fuzzy.

A few months back I was driving and listening to talk radio in a southern state. The airwaves were then filled with confusion and anger over the mission and especially the limits placed on American troops – why couldn’t we attack mosques if our own people were in imminent danger, why couldn’t we just drop a nuke over there, that sort of thing.

When media outlets investigate mistreatment of inmates, they touch these sore spots. For many trying to process the conflicting signals out of Iraq, patriotism – and maybe staying sane – means not examining the contradictions too closely. This strain of patriotism is more of a vague feeling than something thought through: We should be able to drop a nuke if we want, dammit - even if that would blow up the whole mission as well.

News outlets that expose mistreatment of prisoners – whether in Iraq or Guantanamo – are doing necessary work policing a largely unaccountable military. The Newsweek blowup should not deter them. But they are treading on politically treacherous ground. Exposing wrongdoing of this kind is viewed as unpatriotic ostensibly because people think it undermines the war effort. What it actually undermines are the various rationalizations surrounding the war in Iraq, the broader war on terrorists. For some, that’s an intolerable burden. America. Can’t. Be. That. Way. So Newsweek must be sacrificed!

Here is a case study: Andrew Sullivan spends a lot of column space analyzing Instapundit’s reactions to the Newsweek story. Basically, Glenn Reynolds works himself into a huge lather about Newsweek’s errors and liberal media perfidy, while going into a defensive crouch about actual U.S. human rights abuses.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Die, Newsweek, die!

The horde – led by the White House, no less – is circling Newsweek, relishing the smell of blood.

It’s legitimate and necessary to question Newsweek’s decisions on the Koran story, including the role that liberal or anti-Bush bias may have played (though, unlike the Rather incident, it doesn’t seem to be much of a factor). If that kind of reasoned criticism is being made out there somewhere, it’s been eclipsed by the right wing’s fervent wish for a Dan Rather II, another chance to pummel the MSM into submission. Andrew Sullivan and Kevin Drum point out the sheer perversity of such attacks coming from an administration that has tacitly condoned much worse than holy book-flushing.

If we want to have decent journalism institutions that are not shills for one party or the other (and it’s not clear that we do anymore, but that’s another question), how can they maintain their standards and credibility in the face of sustained, ideologically-motivated attacks?

The MSM has always made mistakes. Before, they just went away faster. Now they mushroom into nuclear fiascos. Avoiding such errors – especially ones that spark riots – is a good start. But it’s only a partial answer. It’s impossible to be error-free, or to predict all possible fallout from a story – especially in the difficult job of reporting on national security.

It’s an asymmetrical warfare problem. Newsweek is playing by one set of rules, the White House and its right-wing allies by another - and they have the advantage.

The Newsweek rules (if your source goes south, suck it up and admit it) are a distinct improvement on the Dan Rather stall-and-obfuscate defense. But they are almost quaint and utterly inadequate to the task. They assume a measure of goodwill on the part of the audience and political system that no longer exists.

The Bush rules (affix blame for your own sins to your political adversaries and crush them) are baroquely cynical – and effective. But Newsweek can’t fight on that playing field without surrendering its claim to fairness -- and with it, its ability to tell stories.

So besides soldiering onward, what should Newsweek do? Focus groups? Reality show? I wish I knew.

You say it's your birthday

Our daughter’s birthday party went surprisingly well. My intimations of doom – or getting knocked down several notches on the register of bourgeois parental competence – were averted.

Beforehand, I had visions of David Brooks standing in the corner in a three-piece suit, jotting notes on the socio-political semiotics of our goody bag contents and choice of camcorder technology, while devising a column on how the popularity of Dora the Explorer helps the Republican Party. After all, throwing a kid’s birthday party is kind of like picking a vice presidential running mate – it’s something that can only marginally help you, but if you screw it up it could mean big trouble. Either way it goes, you make at least one person very happy.

But with the supervisory responsibilities outsourced to the staff at the gymnastics gym, everything rumbled along smoothly.

Venue is everything. Turn a bunch of 4-year-olds loose in a big room with ladders, rings, a trampoline and lots of cushioned surfaces and suddenly there is nothing for the adults to do anymore, except occasionally rescue someone from a high place. I stood dumbfounded for a while, then began to relax. My daughter, who is shy and covers her ears when people sing happy birthday, listened with grace this time – except when they were doing it all bunched together under a parachute, sweat-lodge style. There are limits.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Newsweek flushes itself

D'oh!
It's going to be another bad week for the MSM.

Double meanings

What does the Intelligent Design movement have to do with Bush’s Social Security proposal(s)? Both operate on two levels simultaneously. Each has a stated agenda – to reform Social Security along “ownership society” lines and shore up its finances; to advance the idea that only a Creator could be responsible for the complexity of life.

But each also has an unstated agenda. In the case of Social Security it's to get rid of Social Security as we know it. Or more generally, to undermine the social compact and political consensus that made Social Security popular in the first place – and that remain intact today. In the case of ID, it’s to undermine the scientific method and replace it with – well, I don’t think they’ve gotten that far.

This is the problem – and the genius – of modern conservatism. Unless it’s cutting taxes, conservatives can’t come right out and say what they want to do because it would be unpopular. U.S.-style political liberalism may be in hibernation right now, but the liberal edifice endures, and in general, people like it.

So conservatives adopt devious, pseudo-liberal rhetoric – and in some cases, entire pseudo-liberal systems of thought – that mean different things to different people. For the broad audience – sometimes the media too – it may sound reasonable to talk about Social Security reform or to question something that is only a “theory.” But a conservative audience hears something completely different - and closer to the truth.

The result is a political discourse ever more layered with code words and consumed by fierce disputes over minor rhetorical points like "private" vs. "personal" accounts and the “nuclear option" vs. whatever they are calling it today.

Fake ID

Intelligent design” gives me headaches. Of course, ID is a cleverly-conceived stalking horse for dismantling science-based school curricula. But the deeper threat is the confusion it sows about what science is. The further we move into the technological age, the more bewildered and addled people are getting about how things work. Not good.

Anyone can look at a scientific theory and find problems with it, then come up with explanations, fanciful or not, that purport to explain/resolve those problems. This is what ID does, on the grandest possible scale. But such explanations are untestable - they can never be proven or disproven via evidence or experiment. (If the End Times kick off tomorrow, I’ll retract this statement.) They are a matter of faith, and their strength in the public sphere depends on their political support or cultural resonance.

If something is not science, it’s not a valid critique of science. Accepting it as such undermines the whole scientific edifice. Which of course is what many of the ID folks have in mind.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Cheesy, they are

Was running through the supermarket today and saw row upon row of Darth Vader cheese crackers on the shelf – the menacing, nearly life-sized black helmet juxtaposed with bright orange cheddar squares.

While not unexpected, this is a little unsettling. Darth Vader is, after all, a bad guy. Not just any bad guy – a really, really bad guy. One of the archetypal movie/pop culture villains of the past half-century. There is no other comparable movie character. The “Alien” alien? Come on. Michael Corleone? Well … the genres are not really comparable, though there are some similaries - both are tragic, high operatic figures. There’s a Ph.D. thesis in that one for somebody.

In the “Star Wars” cycle Vader is on a journey to perdition, followed by eventual redemption. But the perdition part is the heart of the story. The redemption takes about five seconds, in between Ewok scenes.

This is what gave the original “Star Wars” movies (and let’s hope the new one) their power – the dark mythic undercurrent, not just the mushy Joseph Campbell stuff but the truly scary sense that anything and anyone, even the best of us, can go spiralling down to hell, possibly never to return. That’s why Darth Vader is a lousy pitchman for cheese crackers. Now Yoda, maybe.

The enforcers

Via Andrew Sullivan, this is a distressing report from John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter on how the forced resignation of Jesuit Thomas Reese from the magazine America - apparently for doctrinal incorrectness -- was engineered at the highest levels:

What has confused some observers, however, is whether or not the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith actually sent a letter demanding that Reese resign, and to what extent then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was personally involved in these discussions.

Based on conversations with senior Jesuit sources in Rome May 11, I can confirm that a letter was indeed sent by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the early months of 2005, before Ratzinger's election as pope, to Kolvenbach. I have not seen the letter, and therefore I do not know if it contained a direct order to remove Reese, or if it was a more vague expression of a desire to see a change in direction at America. The Jesuit sources said, however, that the thrust of the letter was clear -- that Reese's position was no longer tenable.

I also do not know if that letter was signed by Ratzinger. What I can report with certainty is that over the past five years, Ratzinger personally raised the concerns about America in his conversations with Kolvenbach. Like other religious superiors, Kolvenbach meets with the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to discuss cases involving members of his order, and it was in the context of those routine conversations that America arose.

I can also confirm that one other Jesuit publication, the German journal Stimmen der Zeit, has also generated concerns from the doctrinal office to the Jesuits, though that case is described as "on-going" and no conclusions have been reached.

Of course, people will reach different conclusions about all of this. Some will see it as an overdue assertion of discipline with regard to publications officially sponsored by religious orders, while others fear an attempt to choke off reasonable, adult discussion of difficult issues. However, one should make no mistake that while Pope Benedict will strive to be a man of forbearance and dialogue, his will also be an uncompromising pontificate on what he perceives as matters of faith -- and Fr. Reese will probably not be the last Catholic to find that out the hard way.

The Pope made a show of humility and expansiveness when he took over. There is something refreshing about having a new face and name in the position. But the honeymoon is quickly ending. Benedict was and remains an enforcer, and the apparatus of doctrinal enforcement is only going to expand now. John Paul managed to overcome many of the contradictory feelings Catholics in the West had about him through the force of his personality and by advancing universal ideas that transcended the doctrinal details of Roman Catholicism. Not this guy.

This gets into an interesting issue – the nature of faith and belief and the distinction between the two. Consider the broad definition of faith as the servant of clarity and grace, an encompassing way of orienting oneself in the world - in Christianity, via a relationship with God. Faith cuts across domains of culture, individual psychology, history. Define belief as something more limited – trust in an idea, a guidepost on the path of faith. It’s a mistake to conflate the two. (Are you listening, Bill Frist?) Beliefs are useful - sometimes benevolent, sometimes dangerous. They can change the world. But an inflexible attachment to beliefs is always going to get you in trouble at some point. Churches are dynamic organisms. Individuals grow and gain – or lose – perspective. If a church places all its energy into enforcing a set of beliefs, building an inflexible structure for thinking and behavior, stripped of debate and dialogue – faith will suffer.

Countdown

Today is our daughter's birthday party. Panic has not yet set in, but let's see where we are in a few hours.

A friend sees it this way:

A father approached Joe Shu and said, "I have just entered the birthday party. Please teach me." Joe asked, "Have you bought the birthday cake? The father replied, "I have been to the bakery." "Then you had better prepare the goody bags, so the children can empty them," Joe said. At that moment the father was enlightened. -The Bagless Bag

Friday, May 13, 2005

Ew!

Recently we participated in “Turn Off Your TV Week” (or whatever it was called). It went surprisingly well. But since then TV has come back with a vengeance. And the cartoons are bothering me more.

Cartoons are much better than they were when I was a kid, just past the Flintstones and Jetsons era, when the medium went into a steep decline whose only enduring achievements are Scrappy-doo and the Superfriends. Today, the writing is often clever and the animation styles are interesting. “Samurai Jack” on Cartoon Network is downright beautiful, with astounding imagery and a lush color palette. But many efforts are loud and annoyingly fast-paced, with two levels of jokes – one for kids, one for parents making 15-second transits through the living room.

But cartoons are also getting more gross. Gross-outs are of course now ubiquitous in pop culture, the lamest way to an easy, lazy laugh, dating to around the time the Farrelly brothers turned semen into hair gel. “South Park” makes a point of taking gross-outs to absurd levels. But now gross-outs have migrated into kids’ cartoons. This morning my son was watching “Ed, Edd, ‘n Eddy,” sort of a preteen “Three Stooges.” One of the Eds was allergic to rabbits, and when he encountered one he swelled up to 10 times his normal size and grew giant pustules all over his body, which the other Eds tried to treat with various home remedies, hoses and brushes. On “Fairly Oddparents” the day before, a bully got stung by a scorpion and then a swarm of bees – then swelled up to 10 times his normal size and grew giant pustules all over his body. (Maybe Nickelodeon should sue Cartoon Network, or vice versa.)

Yuck. Curly’s nose got twisted a lot, but he never needed Benadryl.

Bathroom-and-booger humor is standard fare for the kindergarten set. Cartoon violence has been around for decades. But does the preschool crowd, or those a few years beyond it, really need this? With its theme of the body going grotesquely awry, it cuts a little too close to reality, skirting cruelty in the process. You'd think the real-life details of potty training and pinkeye are enough for a kid.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Nuclitutional option

The conventional wisdom is probably correct this time – Bill Frist has backed himself into an extremely uncomfortable corner with the constituclear option. Never mind the Democrats, there are just too many constituencies within the GOP pulling in too many directions – institutionalists within the Senate, the Lincoln Chafee finger-in-the-wind types, the religious right. Mark Schmitt analyzes it:

It seems pretty likely that Frist does not have the votes for the Nuclear Option. If he did, he would have called for the vote this week. (And I'm guessing that he's down one more vote now, because Senator Chafee will claim that by voting with Voinovich to let the Bolton nomination go to the floor without a recommendation, he gets credit for voting for Bolton and therefore should be free to vote his own mind on the Nuke option. That kind of calculus is what's going on when you see a Republican senator "deliberating.")

If Frist calls the vote and loses, at the very least he cannot continue to function as Republican leader of the Senate. He will have forced a number of Senators to vote against their own instincts and institutional values. Some of those Senators might be willing to vote for the option if it moves their judges forward and strengthens their president, but they're not willing to vote for it and lose. They'll be angry. And then there will be the Republicans who vote against it: they will certainly face calls, stirred up by Frist himself, for retribution -- primary challenges, removal from committees, etc. To function as leader, Frist will have to reassure them that he will discourage retribution. But if he does so, he will lose the support of the religious right that he stirred up. He's stuck.

That image of Frist talking via videotape to the divine justice crowd seemed to sum up his discomfiture – expressions of forced sincerity and fake reasonableness were playing across his face in really odd ways. When and if he runs for president, who is going to believe this guy?

The fear and trembling part

Those of us who live in New York and DC have to contend more immediately than most with the prospect of planes falling out of the sky. (Or innocent events that for a brief period make it look like a plane might be about to fall out of the sky, then cause 24 hours of round-the-clock cable coverage about something that didn’t happen.)

These worries subtly imprint themselves on the contours of our lives. I have thought through various practical scenarios about what to do in the event of a terror attack, most of which would probably be useless in an actual emergency. We have some cash and canned food in the basement, but we did not participate in Ridge’s run on duct tape a couple of years back.

But the mind still has to do its churning thing, sampling different flavors of anxiety, crunching imaginary odds. It’s macabre, but everybody does it. It’s a subtle bond that levels all other differences. We fantasize to get some control, and take some consolation in our own irrelevance. The weapons of terrorists are big. America is big. But we are small. Individually that should work in our favor.

Plane crashes generate different worries than a subway chemical/biological attack, the other principal concern. With the latter one envisions a localized and hopefully containable event – this subway station, at this time of day, this end of the platform. (Though anthrax can travel far.) A plane crash – depending on the size of the plane - would cause more damage and be more likely to spark panic because you can see it coming. But, as Tim Noah speculates in Slate, it may be that such a crash poses little risk to the average citizen not occupying a high-profile target because, despite official policy, the U.S. military has an unwritten rule against shooting planes down over populated areas. Should this be a reason for relief or fear?

So we husband our secret worst-case scenarios and thank God they a) appear to be generally unlikely and b) if they become likely, we probably won’t be a victim. Except for nukes. But nukes occupy a different mental plane, that of complete helplessness in the face of events where control is impossible – e.g., getting hit by a bus or shucked from your clothes in the Rapture.

Is this useful? Probably not. As long as nothing happens, it’s a waste of energy. If/when something does happen, it won’t help. And it causes odd mental pressures, driving some to adopt a messianic fervor and invade, occupy and democratize nations that have nothing to do with terrorist plane crashes. But it's what we do.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Where is Maureen Dowd when you need her?

There’s a brewing disturbance in the Force.

Thursday night at 7 p.m., the American Conservative Union is honoring Tom DeLay with a “gala dinner” at the Capital Hilton. Among those in attendance – Grover Norquist, David Keene, Gary Bauer and Brent Bozell.

Across town, “Star Wars Episode III – Revenge of the Sith” is having its Washington premiere at exactly the same time. The attendees there include Carrie Fisher and Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund.

Though the “Sith” premiere guest list seems to have a typical Hollywood/liberal tilt, no doubt the simultaneity of these two events will cause conflicted feelings in the uppermost reaches of conservative Washington. If you (i.e., Dick Cheney) want to indulge your predeliction for the Dark Side, which event is better?

Power bases
Tom DeLay: House of Representatives; political money
Darth Vader: Galactic Empire; Dark Side of Force

Allies/Troops
DeLay: Grover Norquist, Jack Abramoff, K Street, House PAC recipients
Vader: Emperor, Boba Fett, Imperial Storm Troopers, droids

Enemies
DeLay: Activist judges
Vader: Rebel scum

Methods
DeLay: Redistricting; squeezing donors
Vader: Dismemberment; squeezing windpipes with mind

Weapons
DeLay: Closed rule, conference committee
Vader: Light saber, death star

Where it started to go wrong
DeLay: Lobbyist golf in Scotland
Vader: Han Solo in carbonite

Weaknesses
Both: Life support technology

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Don't you write her off like that

Marshall Wittman says that it's too early to write off Hillary Clinton - that it makes no difference if she's a magnet for wingers' vitriol:

The ugly truth is that if Jesus of Nazareth himself returned and dared to run on the Democratic line the righteous right would tar him as a bleeding heart vagabond who couldn't hold a job and that he needed a shave. No doubt a Galilee Fishingboat Veterans for Truth outfit would call into question Jesus' miracle claims - financed with lavish funding from Rove's buddies in Texas and maximum exposure on Fox News. Just imagine the book - "Unfit to Save".

Good point. It will be a mudfest whatever Democrat is the nominee. The question is, will the MSM wise up, or will they abet the VRWC - as they did for a long interval with the Swift Boat Vets story, Christmas in Cambodia, etc.? Hillary Clinton's bio is already strewn with small scandals - many imaginary, some semi-real (not that the distinction matters). Remember the White House travel office? The missing Rose Law Firm documents? Vince Foster? Whitewater? There's probably a special counsel still out there somewhere with her name tatooed on his knuckles. These will all take on new life, tailored to question Clinton's character and ability to lead.

After this, her wedding should be a breeze

The birthday party runup continues. I discovered today that the gymnastics gym hosting our 4-year-old’s party provides the goody bags – yes! Outsourcing these things does have advantages, though I fear that given the nature of the work and current trends, by sometime next year the bags will be assembled in Bangladesh.

But party stresses continue to play out. Over the weekend, the gym called and said they needed a head count. Have you ever tried wrangling more than a dozen sets of preschool parents, getting them to make a commitment on what they and their children will be doing on a Saturday afternoon more than a week in advance in May? Even with the empathy factor of birthday party, it can’t be done. By definition, it’s a down-to-the-wire thing.

Twenty guests were invited, most from her preschool. Approximately seven had responded in the affirmative, maybe three in the negative. With ten unaccounted for, my wife began to get antsy. She was going out of town for a day, and asked me to go to the preschool and buttonhole parents Monday morning. Well, I’ll admit it - I am woefully disengaged. I don’t pick up/drop off there much and don’t know many of the kids or more than a few parents. And most by sight, not by name. So my wife wrote up some notes to leave in the kids’ mailboxes saying “need RSVP by noon Tues!”

This struck me as a little pushy – especially the exclamation point. In these times of multiple obligations, I don’t like getting notes from people I barely know with demanding punctuation. But I didn’t argue the point. Efficiency ruled the day. The count now stands at 12.

Social Welfare

Mickey Kaus makes some provocative points in his Slate takeout on Social Security. One of the more interesting:

"Even a radical means test wouldn't turn Social Security into welfare: Why? Traditional "welfare" programs--most obviously the old Aid to Families withDependent Children (AFDC)--help the poor whether or not they work or try to findwork. But Social Security is "work-tested." You can't get Social Security checks unless you've worked and paid in contributions. That means Social Security will never be stigmatized the way AFDC was stigmatized. NYT columnist Paul Krugman, criticizing Pozen, repeats the old saw that "programs for the poor always turn into poor programs." But even if Pozen did make Social Security a program for the poor, which it doesn't, the old saw isn't true. The disproof: the Earned Income Tax Credit. It's a program for the poor--it goes only to people making less than $35,000. But it's a good program! It works. It's popular. Congress after Congress has supported and indeed expanded it. It's popular because, like Social Security, it's work tested. As its name implies, it only goes to people who've earned some income. If means testing makes Social Security as unpopular as the EITC, Democrats have nothing to fear. "

This cleverly undercuts the core Democratic argument against some forms of means-testing, including Bush’s progressive benefit cuts (or the related Pozen plan): That they would turn Social Security into a form of welfare via a major transfer of wealth down the income scale, and torpedo its political support. Bush’s private accounts could have a similar effect. Is Kaus onto something? He’s right that the essential, work-based nature of the system is different from that of welfare programs, and this will make its support more durable.

But the comparison to the EITC leaves something to be desired. The EITC releases low wage earners from an obligation to pay taxes. It's popular because people higher on the income scale (with the exception of those working for the WSJ editorial page) don’t see it as robbing them – just the government. (Ironic, isn't it?) But if you are paying in excess of 12 percent of your income into a system and a growing portion of it is being redistributed to the poor, you might conclude that you’re getting screwed – and your instinct may be to cut those bastards off.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Whither Hillary

Besides the Geena Davis factor, is there anything interesting to say on Hillary Clinton’s looming candidacy? Some people are trying. Like a lot of people, I like and respect Sen. Clinton but think a presidential candidacy would bring back the worst of the 1990s political wars, only at Internet-era speed. So this Joe Klein column urging her to stay in the Senate sounds about right. I’m not sure I buy Peter Beinart's “Hillary has always been a centrist” thesis. But I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt - that her centrist inclinations are not mere political positioning. And he’s right that her Republican opponents (and possibly some of her Democratic ones) will try to portray them as exactly that.

Democrats have significant obstacles to overcome in a generic presidential race - the culture war and security, for instance. It helps any candidate – but particularly a Democrat – if s/he starts out on the political equivalent of third base. In other words, name recognition aside, said candidate should have some mojo with the political center as well as the party base (as Hillary does); s/he should be insulated from and able to deflect or discredit Republican attacks (no, probably no); and s/he should have some raw political talent and charisma (talent yes, charisma no).

Bill Clinton had all these qualities and basically started on third base, and even the constant scandalettes plaguing his candidacy did not push him off it. Bush started on – or even a bit beyond – the Republican version of it. Kerry, by contrast, never got off home plate. And Gore, don’t get me started. Right now, Hillary starts out somewhere between first and second base. She’s got a long way to go. Is that journey going to be worth its great difficulties?

Sex, lies, and RSS feeds

A couple of media notes:

Frank, sometimes a horse masturbation joke is just a horse masturbation joke.

But somebody needs to decode this Drudge post as an indicator of the sour state of media/public tastes. It’s a brew of PR, rage and sex:

1. Fake hype about a show that will probably suck and be cancelled after four episodes.
2. Fake hype about the Hillary candidacy. Not the actual Hillary candidacy, but the apocalyptic Hillary candidacy the right dreams about.
3. Cleavage.

This has been up for almost 24 hours. This is why he gets 11 million hits a day.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Deadwood rules

This season “Deadwood” has hit its stride. It’s gotten as good as “The Sopranos.” The first season was entertaining, but had a kind of leaden earnestness that didn’t wear well. It was structured around a brewing clash between good and evil – the latter represented by Al Swearengen, the Machiavellian saloon owner (brilliantly played by Ian McShane), and the former by upright, uptight sheriff Seth Bullock. Both of them real historical personages, interestingly.

But for some reason the clash never came off dramatically – except if you count them beating the crap out of each other in this season’s first episode. Maybe the writers realized the Manichean approach was a dead end, especially if you want to go on for several seasons. This season the two are reluctant allies, and with “outside interests” intent on buying out and annexing Deadwood, Swearengen has become a kind of benevolent town elder with a vision for the future, defending the camp’s interests from those more powerful and even sleazier than himself. He doesn’t mind slitting throats if it that advances those interests, I assume, but he hasn’t even had anyone killed yet and there are only two episodes to go. Bullock, meanwhile, has spent the entire season dealing with an awkward, and lately tragic, series of personal problems. He remains pretty one-dimensional, and his role in the whole frontier drama is still undefined. They ought to find something for him to do - the real Bullock was a very interesting figure who helped create Yellowstone National Park and was a close friend to Teddy Roosevelt.

All this is leading to one observation – creator David Milch has let his sense of humor temper the drama and the show is better for it. Black and macabre it may be, but it lets him and his writers mine the characters and the desperate setting in interesting ways. The show's arc recalls some of his early “NYPD Blue” episodes where Sipowicz – at that time, an unpredictable and troubling character somewhat like Swearengen (though more conflicted) – clashes with Fancy, his black boss, over race. Like Bullock, Fancy was upright, progressive, and kind of dull. The tension between the two built for a while, and we wondered what would happen when it bubbled over. But when it finally did, it was played for laughs – the essential absurdity/comedy of two middle-aged men going for each other’s throats won out. And that’s exactly what happened with Swearengen and Bullock – they beat the crap out of each other, and it was amusing, and then the conflict was over and the show got down to business.

Goo-goos get nuked

This Washington Post editorial says a lot of sensible things about the GOP’s impending exercise of the nuclear option and Democratic plans to disrupt Senate business. As in, both sides are behaving in a cravenly political manner, abandoning basic principles for short-term advantage, and damaging not only Senate comity but its institutional DNA, the charming quirks that make it what it is. OK so far. But what is the Post’s solution? To address the filibuster issue – but have any changes take effect in 2009. But such a solution is obviously impossible – the proposal ignores the trends that got us into this fix in the first place. The writer must be aware of these, having spent the previous seven paragraphs succinctly outlining them.

This reflects the plight of the editorial writer in these days of unremitting partisan warfare: If you yourself are not buying the party-line hackery (not a given by any means) what do you say when there is no realistic, boring good-government solution? Harumphing and urging both sides to suddenly stop being partisan is ridiculous. The GOP has so hopelessly tilted the playing field that there is no middle ground. Democrats have no alternative ideas, but opposition seems to be working for them. The recriminations are going to play out one way or the other.

This is yet another reason for the decline/growing irrelevancy of newspapers – the editorial pages’ borderline-nutty high-mindedness. So what should editorial writers do? I’ll have to think about that one.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Curse you, goody bags!

Birthday party season has arrived, with its heady mixture of anticipation, drudgery and angst. I am a birthday party curmudgeon – I cannot stand the things. Organizing a 1.5 hour window in your child’s life takes weeks of strategizing. Once it arrives, you stand around with people you barely know, but who look eerily like you, talking about potty incentives. My general party philosophy is to do as little as possible – turn the responsibilities over to someone else and let them get the pizza, bake the cake, provide entertainment. We had our son’s 6th birthday party at a duckpin bowling alley. Daughter’s 4th will be at the gymnastics gym. This costs more, but saves you from having to make your house presentable before or cleaning up the mess afterward. Since the interior of our house is in an advanced and possible irreversible state of entropic decay, going out is really the only option.

But the worst thing is the goody bags. This requires spending $100 on junk, then making an assembly line to place it in bags displaying a familiar cartoon character/corporate marketing avatar, and dispensing them all at the end of the party. Who invented this custom? In my day there were no goody bags. We made due with cake and ice cream and we turned out all right! But somewhere around the time the two-income household began to predominate and the self-esteem movement emerged, goody bags became the opiate of the 5-year-old set, a consolation prize for all the kids who couldn’t bear the fact that they didn’t get presents. Kind of like everybody on the soccer team getting a trophy.

On a practical level, goody bags are just a bad idea. They hold a child’s interest for about 10 minutes, then the junk is forgotten and piles up in odd niches around the house. Worse, goody bags are a vehicle for all manner of bourgeois social signals, an anxiety generator par excellence. Are you providing high quality, educational junk or more downmarket junk – flash cards or creepy crawlers? Some parents, damn them, put a lot of thought into the goody bags. In recent months I’ve seen actual cloth, drawstring bags, and tiny cardboard boxes with each kids’ name printed on them. I’ve seen pretzel bags and fruit instead of the de rigeur Starbursts and M&Ms. Who has time to put a personal stamp on goody bags? Am I a bad parent because I opted for Yu-Gi-Oh! bags and products made of high fructose corn syrup and flavorings brewed in a chemical plant? Yes. But at least the kids won’t care.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Plutocrats unite!

Here is another take, by TNR's Jon Chait, on that clanking, lumbering monster, the Republican Party-lobbyist-Congress-agency complex. The DeLay-Abramoff scandals appear to be to kicking off a period of plutocratic shenanigans the likes of which we’ve never seen. If you believe in limited government, “big government conservatism” in its current form should be intolerable, worse even than Democratic big government, because it subverts bedrock GOP principles. There is an air of hypocrisy and ridiculousness to it that can’t help the Republicans in the long run.

I have a libertarian streak, so watching special interests capture so much – particularly special interests I don’t like – has been doubly unpleasant. Once, it looked like there was an impulse to retool the role of government by creating market-driven, public-private programs. It gained some currency under Clinton and appeared to continue under Bush, at least for a while. But such approaches have become quaint, corrupted or both.

Bush beyond Thunderdome

I’ve been thinking some more about Bush’s quixotic Social Security push, which just goes on and on, like a show trying to get to Broadway, but bombing in Chicago. And Boston. And New Haven. And Peoria. And Keokuk. And then on the dinner theater circuit. One reason for it must be that he has his eye on history. He’ll be the man who brought democracy to the Middle East, and like Moses he’ll lead us up to the promised land of the ownership society/private accounts, but won’t be with us when we finally take up residence there.

So even if the battle is lost for now, when (and if) Social Security goes bust, or some kind of political reckoning arrives, Bush could end up looking like someone who was ahead of his time, a visionary we should have listened to way back when. Of course, when the history books are written, Central Park will be a swimming pool, the South will be a Sahara, gila monsters will be ensconced inside the Arctic Circle and Bush will look like a fool for doing nothing on global warming. Or after repeated oil shocks the global economy will collapse, people will be living in isolated communities herding pigs for methane and Tina Turner will be running things, and history as we know it now will no longer be written. Or the Chinese will be writing the history books – but hey, by then they too will love private accounts. And Jesus. So it may yet work out for him.

This is an obvious point, but it fits here. The basic flaw in Bush’s vision, such as it is, is that it’s determined to an unusual degree by the demands of raw politics. Bush’s bold strikes, made in the guise of reform, must always advance the GOP’s short and medium-term interests (and, it goes without saying, crush the Democrats). It’s the curse of Rove’s 51 percent strategy. If genuine problems come along that are not closely aligned with Republican Party/interest group strategies or Bush’s own odd preconceptions of reality, they are simply ignored and get worse (e.g., fiscal policy, environment, energy, homeland security, intelligence reform, a host of second- and third-tier issues). Now, Bush is capable of change – he’s a democracy promoter and nation-builder now, and wasn’t before. But in many respects, he is not a true leader but a highly skilled politician who lacks the ability or the inclination to transcend politics.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Congrats to Tony

I have a soft spot in my heart for Tony Blair. Oh Tony, whither goest thou? Blair is a tragic figure of modern liberal politics, seduced, corrupted and discarded by George W. Bush. Now his edge in Parliament has been cut in half and he is a wounded leader. But all this has helped to give him an odd kind of nobility. He has been far more eloquent on the Iraq war and the imperatives to confront terrorism than Bush ever was – never mind if his premises were false, I sure wanted to believe him, and still do on some level. And he seems like something that Bush and many other leaders are not – a genuine grownup, someone who understands the responsibilites of power and the fleeting, inherently frustrating nature of political leadership and bears both well.

Dems and democracy

As Democrats try to get a grip on the difficult terrain of national security in advance of 2008, Wes Clark is going to be very influential. But while I appreciate what he’s saying here, I think he’s protesting too much in trying to deny the Bush administration credit for any of the surprising, democracy-related developments in the Middle East. He makes a decent argument that the costs of the Iraq invasion (geopolitical, economic, image, etc.) outweigh the very limited benefits so far, and that stirrings of democracy in neighboring countries are not directly traceable to developments in Iraq. But the argument has so many moving parts that it’s hard to grasp – and it cuts against the intuitive sense that the U.S. effort in Iraq is having some positive spillover. And that kind of commonsensical, intuitive argument is what wins elections, not well-reasoned naysaying. I think Democrats should tip their hats to Bush on Middle East democracy – making that small concesssion can only help their credibility – while looking beyond the current mess and coming up with their own approach. If Iraq doesn’t implode, and Democrats expend a lot of energy just tearing down the Bush Iraq effort – as Kerry did – it’s not going to get them anywhere, no matter how many stars they wear.

This is our due

Jacob Weisberg has it about right in Slate. The Bush administration has become a spoils system for right-wing interest groups, just as the Democratic Party was for its groups – and to a large extent still is, even in the absence of spoils. Weisberg is pessimistic about anything changing on this front anytime soon, given that incumbents are more entrenched than ever. But I’m not so sure. As I noted below, there are some basic contradictions in being the party of small government and common sense while doling out pork, running up the national debt and kowtowing to James Dobson and the National Association of Manufacturers. These contradictions are causing some intraparty rifts and leading the public to doubt Bush. If the economy is shaky, the GOP may be vulnerable to centrist/reformist attacks on a variety of fronts – particularly the deficit. The critique may come from Democrats, or from an as-yet-unknown heir to Ross Perot. But if the constituency and issues are there, someone will rush to represent them, and the media will eat it up – especially if, post-Bush, Republican leaders are as clumsy as Frist or despicable as DeLay.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Strap on those water skis

Has American conservatism - at least as a practical governing philosophy - already jumped the shark? Since Goldwater, the conservative movement has developed a powerful (and often on-target) critique of liberalism and ridden it to electoral success. The core of the conservative argument is that liberalism’s special-interest-driven statism too often defies basic common sense. This basic idea cuts across both the cultural and religious right and business wings of the party. It’s a key underpinning of all those tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks, as well as the crusade against “activist” judges out to undermine family values. Add a willingness to kick butt abroad and tar liberals as weak, and you have a potent combination. "Liberals run amok" is a basic pose, a “frame” of the conservative movement. Think of the “anti-idiotarians,” Dick Cheney’s dismissive sneer, or Reagan’s “there you go again.”

But now that conservatives are in power and putting their own stamp on government with minimal opposition, they are losing the common-sense argument. For the past 4.5 years, Bush has dressed up conservative governance in the rhetoric of liberalism. But how long can that work? Conservatives are much better tearing down the edifices of their enemies than actually making something work – just look at Iraq. We’ve seen major overreaching in the past few months on Social Security and judges. One reason Bush has lost the public on Social Security is that people just don’t understand his ideas. They were sold as a hash - both conservative and liberal, public and private – er, personal. To borrow South Park’s Chewbacca Defense, that does not make sense! Social Security in its current form is pretty easy to understand. Conservative governance may have some merits, but it has all the complexity of liberal governance, and more contraditions. And that makes it harder to defend – and harder to dismiss the arguments of your opponents with a “there they go again.”

Those quotation marks around "reform"

Suddenly, a new liberal meme on the Social Security debate -- at least new for the MSM -- really gets to the heart of the issue: The Bush/Republican effort to “save” Social Security is in reality an effort to destroy its political support, in much the same way that political support for welfare-type programs has withered in recent years, undermining the Democratic Party in the process. Private accounts do this by letting the well-off invest their money and leaving the poor to flounder – invest or not invest, they’re not going to do as well as people with a lot of money at their fingertips and more discretion on where to put it. The benefit cuts Bush proposed last week have a similar effect, making Social Security relatively more important for the poor while screwing the middle class.

As time grinds forward, these changes would create a growing division between the lower classes and the middle and upper, cleaving the class-transcending social compact at the heart of the Social Security system. Once cleaved, those at the lower end of the pay-scale will be seen as enjoying a form of welfare, and they will be the first targeted for cuts once our debts come home to roost. Social Security as we once knew it will be over, and the long-term economic security of the average person will be significantly weaker. A core principle of the Democratic Party would be betrayed and a central rationale for its existence undermined. But we'll still be salivating for more tax cuts. It’s all alarmingly simple and straightforward, and yet the suggestion that current “reform” attempts are in fact inimical to the very nature of the Social Security project are greeted with incredulity by the media poobahs in Washington.

The only problem with this as a Republican strategy, however, is that while it reflects some deep thinking about the alignments and coalitions that make for long-term partisan advantage, it makes the most sense in today’s political environment – i.e., an environment where it’s OK to slash Medicaid while facilitating massive tax cuts. This particular moment in history, one hopes, will not endure.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Run away!

The media have reentered an odd, pre-9/11 zone. It started sometime around the Scott Peterson trial and now has reached new heights with the runaway bride story. Oh, and Drudge is hyping some ABC expose of Paula’s shenanigans at American Idol. The media’s obsession with such inane trivia recalls the summer of 2001, when the case of missing intern Chandra Levy and Gary Condit became a 24/7 media obsession. Except the Levy case was more interesting, or had some fleeting hard news value. At least someone actually was missing. And dead.

After four years of color-coded panic, is this a sign that we’re in the clear – or that something’s about to blow? I don't know if the undistilled idiocy of 24/7 coverage of cold feet is as provocative to our enemies as some other things, like pierced navels and the Crusades. But you never know. There are signs that we're letting down our guard. Ivo Daalder speculates that Bush believes we’ve won – at least for now – and can move on to other things, like Social Security.