Thursday, February 25, 2010

Health Care: The Four Week Countdown

Democrats have a month, reconciliation is the only way

On CNN this evening, James Carville had nice things to say about the way Lamar Alexander and Tom Coburn opened today's health care summit between Democrats and Republicans. He also said that he thought Barack Obama was the "smartest guy in the room." It was painful to watch the six hour discussion, Carville said, because he was an ADD sort of guy, but it seemed a good setting for Obama to show what he had.

Never mind. Win the discussion or lose it, Obama knows time is running out on health care and the Democrats, They must act before the Congressional recess for Easter, which begins four weeks from Friday. If they don't, Democratic senators and representatives will return from their districts cowed by voter anger and anxious to do something, anything about the economy. But the thing is, without passing a health care bill, nothing Democrats do after April will sway an electorate ready to abandon them in sufficient numbers to cost virtually every single swing seat they hold now. And Harry Reid will go down, too.

So here's the deal: There is going to be a bill passed by reconciliation. Now is the time for every one who gives a damn about what's in the bill to lobby to make it as good as it can be--the 51 votes are there. And if the bill passes before April, it will do very little downstream harm. The republic will not collapse before November and the economy, with a little more government action, will stagger forward; not in a way that fixes much, but well enough to reduce some of anti-government anger that so frightens the Dems. And with health care off the agenda temporarily, expect Congressional Democrats to do a little better with economic and environmental issues.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Khalil Gibran and the poetry that Is prayer...

...reminds us that art is also life.

In Khalil Gibran's The Prophet, I like especially that the singers and the dancers and the flute players come to town and belong because they, too, produce with the effort of farmers and fishers:
And a merchant said, Speak to us of Buying and Selling.

And he answered and said:

To you the earth yields her fruit, and you shall not want if you but know how to fill your hands.

It is in exchanging the gifts of the earth that you will find abundance and be satisfied.

Yet unless the exchange be in love and in kindly justice, it will but lead some to greed and others to hunger.

When in the marketplace you toilers of the sea and fields and vineyards meet the weavers and the potters and the gatherers of spices,--

Invoke then the master spirit of the earth, to come into your midst and sanctify the scales and the reckoning that weighs value against value.

And suffer not the barren-handed to take part in your transactions, who would sell their words for your labor.

To such men say,

"Come with us to the field, or go with our brothers to the sea and cast your net;

For the land and the sea shall be bountiful to you even as to us."

And there shall come the singers and the dancers and the flute players,--buy of their gifts also.

For they too are gatherers of fruit and frankincense, and that which they bring, though fashioned of dreams, is raiment and food for your soul.

And before you leave the marketplace, see that no one has gone his way with empty hands.

For the master spirit of the earth shall not sleep peacefully upon the wind till the least of you are satisfied.

I read this at the right moment and every word rings like a bell tone in my ear. And, maybe a little bit, in the memory of my right hand, I can feel the weight of my favorite hammer.

My feelings at those times, I imagine, are like the openness and waiting that comes to people who believe more strongly and speak in rhythms and in chants to the fountainhead of their belief. Of course, prayerfulness and mindfulness do not automatically transform believers into justice activists; sometimes, and instead, into something that seems a good bit more diabolical.

But there is a lot to be gained in reminding oneself, privately or in community, of the gifts of the world and the joy in connection and the harmony in creative and productive effort. Gibran shares this with us over and over.

"And a woman spoke, saying, Tell us of Pain." This the Prophet proceeds to do, ending with this observation:

"And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned with the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears."

The potter is an artisan, of course, and a reminder of the time when there was hardly any distance between art and craft or art and prayer. Gibran does not describe the sacred, but the mundane, and sees no distance between producers of the tangible and artists weaving dreams into "raiment and food for your soul."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Against All Odds

America's futile campaign for military hegemony

Americans use almost five times as much energy per capita as does the average human inhabitant of the globe. Yes, the United States does produce much more per capita than the rest of the world, but not five times as much (US GDP per capita, about 32K; World GDP per capita, about 7K); and the country does not distribute its surpluses equitably, anyhow. The US also produces greenhouse gasses at a substantially higher rate per capita than the rest of the world, making it a principal culprit in climate change. (Readers can find the source for this data here.)

All of this means that a good portion of the world has no reason to be okay with the United State's disproportionate share of energy consumption, or its disproportionate contribution to environmental damage, or its lack of commitment to global equity. Of course, because the United States is also the globe's only military superpower most other countries only politely object to American greed or, even, curry favor by pretending not to notice. Only a very few countries and a few non-governmental organizations like, say al Qaeda or the Taliban, are openly hostile.

But for several reasons, the status quo is not sustainable. The U.S. is currently spending more than $1 trillion every year to maintain its mighty military machine. The country's annual budgeted spending (excluding wars and several other significant expenditures) is currently over $600 billion per year, almost 40% of budgeted global military spending, but because many national economies are industrializing and growing rapidly, the United States will find it increasingly expensive to maintain its current military advantage. And because military deficit spending is a huge contributor to the US national debt, the country will spend between $1.5 to $2 trillion over the next decade on interest payments attributable to that spending.

In decades to come more countries will become hostile to American appropriation of energy resources that need to be shared, and to American consumption habits and greenhouse gas production that have damaging environmental consequences, but the country will not be able to afford the escalations in military power and spending necessary to maintain the status quo.

Wouldn't it make more sense to recognize the inevitable, to concede that 400 million people will not be able to force 7 billion people to accept an unfair distribution of wealth and resources? Wouldn't it make more sense to reorganize our own economy to address inequity and inequality here at home and to prepare ourselves to be an equal partner in a world that will have no choice but to begin sharing both benefits and burdens equally?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Social Security Spending Helps the Economy

Military spending drives the deficit

I could have sworn that my 28th letter to the Washington Post, which follows here, would be the second one that they would publish. Alas, I was wrong, again, but it is the content that matters, not the quarrel. The letter focuses, once more, on how unhelpful it is to talk about the national debt and federal budget deficit without even acknowledging military spending. Dean Baker, of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), also addressed the same opinion piece to which I'd responded. I've interspersed Baker's response, which ran in his weekly Beat the Press blog, in the text of my letter.


So Robert Samuelson is calling on the Obama administration to be more open about future debt and deficit difficulties (“America’s Candor Gap,” Feb. 8), but his version of fiscal reality lacks some important details, as well. The federal government is projected to spend almost $46 trillion between 2011 and 2020, Samuelson writes, and $20 trillion will go to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Such a “…budget is mainly a vehicle for transferring income to retirees from workers, who pay most taxes,” he continues.

But as income transfers go, Samuelson’s example is relatively benign. Most of the transfer in this instance is from younger workers to older ones and most of the money transferred is spent immediately on goods and services—a reliable exchange that helps to keep the economy going. And, as economist Dean Baker and others have pointed out (see a list of CEPR's many reports about Social Security here), if the cap on Social Security and Medicare taxes is raised, higher income professionals will bear more of the tax burden, making the income transfer even more positive for the economy.

But there is a less benign income transfer that Samuelson does not even mention: military spending of more than $1 trillion annually (the sum of Defense Department spending + national security spending + military spending in other departmental budgets + supplemental war spending + interest on that portion of the national debt attributable to deficit spending on the military in previous years). In fact, 25 percent of the six to eight trillion dollars that will be spent on interest on the national debt during 2011-2020 will be attributable to previous military spending.

Discussing the country’s fiscal hemorrhage without discussing the military budget falls far short of full disclosure.


Readers of this blog may find Dean Baker's report, "The Social Security Shortfall and the National Defense Shortfall" of particular interest.

Baker's response to the same column by Samuelson is here. More about the rise in Pentagon spending compared to the increase in spending for Social Security is here. Finally, it is worth noting that, in the last cited piece, Baker does not use the $1 trillion+ figure for military spending that I use because he includes only budgeted spending for the Department of Defense and does not include the additional spending itemized in my letter to the Post.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Force That Through the Green Fuse...

Nate muscles up a metaphor

I left our family home when Nate was 14 and Julie was nine. My separation from their mother ended in divorce about three years later, about the time that I moved down to Dayton to live with Marrianne. But working for the American Friends Service Committee I travelled a lot and being the noncustodial parent, I wasn't as present in Nate and Julie's life as I wanted to be. A frequently absent father is not a good thing, but kids do a lot of adapting and find ways to compensate. Nate certainly did, finding a number of different adult males to guide and mentor him.

One such man, Jack, the father of Nate's high school girlfriend, worked as a therapist. He took a real interest in Nate and they developed a friendship that outlasted Nate's relationship with his girlfriend. A couple of days ago, in a long phone call, Nate talked about Jack for a bit. In trying to describe aspects of Jack's outlook on life, Nate grasped for a line, the first line, from a Dylan Thomas poem. "I can't remember it exactly," he said, "but it's something about 'the power rushing through a green fuse.'"

Nate's comment excited me; I've been a Dylan Thomas fan since high school when I actually decoded, if only briefly, some of Thomas' complex metaphors. That experience of sudden comprehension thrilled me, and seeking to recreate the rush, I've frequently returned to Thomas' poems over the years. And then there's Thomas' voice (you can hear a recording of him here), for me the most sonorous and elegant and compelling (and Welsh) of all voices, with the possible exception of James Earl Jones (except for the Welsh part) in his prime.

So, forgetting for the moment that Nate was trying to make a point about Jack, I dug out my copy of Thomas' Collected Poems, while Nate lingered on the line. Though it is a digression of fairly significant dimensions, I cannot resist observing that my hardcover copy, published by New Directions and in its 23rd printing when I bought it, sold for $3.80, discounted by the now defunct University Cellar Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Mich. from its cover price of $4.25. The Cellar, a nonprofit bookstore established by the University of Michigan regents in response to student demands for cheaper text books, is a whole other story, but not for now. This digression must conclude.

At any rate, after the second scan through the table of contents, the poem, "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower," turned up. And as it did, I remembered that Nate was making a point about Jack and quickly understood that he was saying that Jack believed in a pervasive spiritual presence, a "god force," which inhabited all things. Though I had to look up the line to understand what Nate was trying to say, it turned out that he could hardly have been more economical or more vivid in characterizing Jack.

But here's the point: In paraphrasing Thomas, Nate connected two separate ideas that ended up illuminating each other and providing me with the rush of an "aha!" moment; one in which I suddenly understood a good bit of the poem and a whole lot more of it than I had been able to grasp previously.

I haven't been writing poetry much lately, confining myself most often to blogging about politics and the need for social change, And, when I do write poetry, I'm not in the same league as even ordinary Welsh poets, let alone Dylan Thomas. But sometimes reading poetry satisfies some of the same urges that motivate writing poetry. Either way, one frequently wrestles metaphors uphill and gets flattened by runaway tropes, if one's stores of energy run out before reaching a safe place to rest.

But here is the Thomas poem. Read it and see if a decent understanding of the first line doesn't help to unlock the meaning of much of the rest of the poem. And thanks to Nate, also, for somehow always finding a way to teach me something new.

The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman’s lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Most Dangerous Man in America

How do we go from individual acts of courage to a mass movement for peace and justice?

In 1971, when the first of the Johnson administration's major escalations of the war in Vietnam was already a decade old, the New York Times began publishing portions of the Pentagon Papers, a Rand Corporation study of the history of U.S. military and political involvement in Southeast Asia. Daniel Ellsberg, a high-ranking strategist at Rand, working under a contract with the Pentagon, copied and leaked the top secret report to the Times, the Washington Post, 17 other newspapers and several members of Congress.

The story of Ellsberg's evolution from elite war strategist to anti-war activist is told in The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, a documentary that premiered Friday night in D.C. and several other cities. Former Alaska senator Mike Gravel, who moderated a question and answer session after the showing, was also featured in the film for his role in inserting the whole of the Pentagon Papers into the official records of a Senate sub-committee he chaired. The Q and A, featuring Ellsberg, himself, and filmmaker Rick Goldsmith, highlighted a few key issues connected to the absence of a contemporary anti-war movement and apparent obstacles to movement-building; but passing through a sustained challenge to one's courage and integrity, as Ellsberg did on his journey to leaking the documents (and Gravel did, as well, in reading portions during a formal session of his sub-committee) does not automatically qualify one to speculate about how to build a movement.

Perhaps, it is uncharitable of me to carp about Ellsberg and Gravel, who deserve virtually any applause they get for their individual acts of moral courage and for their lifetime commitment to peace and justice, as well. But I have a churlish streak, so I will plunge ahead with the point that both Ellsberg and Gravel (and "The Most Dangerous Man...) seem essentially unaware that they were standing on the shoulders of a movement when they shared the secret papers with an apparently astounded public. Yes, the movie does acknowledge a certain measure of movement activity, of clashes between demonstrators and police, and of leadership from a select few politicians, but the nod is only cursory; the film goes so far as to claim that with his actions Ellsberg set in motion a series of events that ultimately led to President Nixon's resignation and the end of the Vietnam War.

This strikes me as very bad and unhelpful history. By 1969, the year when Ellsberg made the decision to begin copying the Pentagon Papers, the anti-war movement had already made the war a political hot potato. By that time, the first of thousands of campus teach-ins against the war (at the University of Michigan) was already five years past. Also earlier, on April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a sermon at the Riverside Church in New York City ("A Time to Break Silence") first linked the civil rights struggle to the war in Vietnam.
Soon, if not already, King said, our troops "must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated must surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create a hell for the poor."

From that point forward King moved beyond his brief as a leader of the civil rights movement to become a leader of the opposition to the war in Vietnam. A year later, in a tragic moment that injected a fresh moral energy to both movements, but also added to a growing cultural and social division in the country, King was assassinated.

It was also the movement (and therefore a collective expression of a myriad of moments of individual courage) that forced President Johnson to give up the presidency at the end of his first full term in 1968. And on May 4, 1970, the National Guard fired on a crowd of demonstrators at Kent State University, killing four students and wounding thirteen. Ten days after Kent State, the police in Jackson, Miss. fired on a crowd of students at Jackson State University. Two students were killed, another 15 were wounded. Though the series of demonstrations at Jackson State began as a civil rights protest incited by an incident in which a white motorist injured a black pedestrian, there was also a strong anti-war message infused in the demonstrations organized by students at the historically black university.

All of this and much more was part of the zeitgeist that inspired, shaped and affirmed Ellsberg and Gravel and others in their individual acts of conscience. And all this matters because in this history lie the lessons we must learn if a movement for peace and economic and environmental justice is to develop early in the 21st Century. The first person to speak during the Q&A following the film on Friday night was an older guy who spoke about his own despair over the absence of a viable popular movement in the U.S. Neither Ellsberg nor Gravel could speak to the question of how a movement develops though they both asserted that there is always hope; hope that is kindled in individual acts of resistance. This is reasonable and true, but we cannot mistake the moment in time when an otherwise collaborationist media publishes something like the Pentagon Papers as a pivotal moment in the development of a movement.

That moment comes when a mature movement has already forced people in positions of influence who have remained studiously neutral or have been complicit, as Ellsberg himself was, to confront their own consciences. In such a moment, some, like the editors at the New York Times and Washington Post, may finally make the decision to do the right thing and publish the truth, or a reasonable facsimile. The crowd at the premiere seemed to believe that the publication of the Pentagon Papers was an act of journalistic courage, but the comments of the Washington editor of the Times suggest something else. Once we had the documents in our possession, he said, we had to publish. If we had not, and the public had ever found out what we knew, it would have ruined the newspaper.

It is worth noting here, in the autumn of the newspaper publishing business, that journalists need not rue the fate of our great newspapers who have failed to relentlessly investigate and publish the truth about our war frauds in Iraq and Afghanistan. The end of the major urban dailies is at hand, in any case. By and large, the public has lost interest in their fate. So it should also be obvious that no strategy for building a movement can depend, in any part, on newspaper or, even, television news coverage. Audiences are too fragmented and have too many media choices for any message from any source to fall on millions at once with the same impact.

The good news here is not that I have any better idea how to build a movement than do Dan Ellsberg or Mike Gravel. The good news is that elements of that movement already exist. They exist in affinity groups and collectives focused on individual issues. Elements of the next movement exist in neighborhood collaborations aimed at improving local schools or reclaiming abandoned housing. Elements exist even here, in Washington, where some electeds, like Bernie Sanders and Dennis Kucinich keep fighting the good fight. There are also organizations fighting for economic and environmental justice on a global scale. Though labor unions are only a pale shadow of what they once were, some unions continue to organize low-wage workers and strategize ways to connect to a larger movement.

None of this is enough. What is missing here is a critical mass of young people who have not yet fully compromised with prevailing attitudes or who are not yet resigned to a comfortable cynicism. I do not know how to persuade people 30 or 40 years younger than me that their future, that the future of the world they will grow into is at risk; that to be 50- or 60-something in 2040 will be a lot more unpleasant than being that age now. I cannot even say persuasively how I know this to be true (though I will keep working on my argument that it is so). Nor can I say what exactly is required of me now. But I will say that I won't stop thinking or writing about these questions until I have better answers. And when I get to that happy point, I'll keep working on the same questions, anyway, because nothing less is required of each of us.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Media News That Fails Us

Collaborators in the news room

In 1967, I informed my draft board that I considered both the draft, in general, and student deferments from the draft, in particular, to be immoral and that I wished to be reclassified from 2S to 1A. Ignoring my larger moral argument, the board sent me a new card with a new classification making me immediately eligible to be drafted. I then notified them that I intended to burn my card in public at an appointed time and place. Though they did not show up for the event, they did draft me shortly thereafter, whereupon I departed for Canada, the location of further adventures only tangentially related to the focus of this post.

Since those halcyon days of antiwar protest, I have fervently believed that reducing military spending and ending militarism ought to be critically important to activists regardless of their issue focus. Since the news media, historically, has been the handmaiden of American military interventions, it follows that journalism, journalistic practice and media ought to be another point of strategic concern for all issues activists. A case in point is the major media's abject failure to investigate the full story of the Bush administration's duplicity in making the case for the invasion of Iraq and to tell that story early and often, with the result that the Iraq War has gone on for a tortuously long time at a cost of nearly $1 trillion.

Writer Sebastian Jones has produced a well-researched piece, "The Lobbying-Media Complex" that adds to the indictment of cable and network news media. The story, running in The Nation, gets right to the point in its first three paragraphs, detailing how ex-Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge and retired general Barry McCaffrey appeared recently on news shows as experts on energy and the Afghanistan war, respectively, without the relevant disclosures that the two men have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments from energy companies and military contractors.

To end his piece, Jones quotes Arizona State University journalism professor Aaron Brown's observations following 2008 election coverage, which featured endless line-ups and roundtables of analysts sharing little of real value: "We live in a time when there are no shortages of opinions and an incredible deficit of facts."

The point needs augmenting, I think. Having and sharing opinions, after all, seems part of human DNA, but the constitutionally protected function of news media is to uncover and share relevant information that good citizenship requires. Otherwise media is nothing but a toady for the rich and powerful, collaborating with their policy goals.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What Can You Do With Three Feet of Snow?

Argue climate change, keep shovel ready

As landlords go, ours is a good one. She did raise our rent last year, which raised my level of ungenerous thoughts about her. But she called the other day to ask how we were making out during the series of snowstorms that have blasted D.C. and the rest of the mid-Atlantic. I told her we were fine and our conversation moved on to the statistical odds against having two Top Ten snowstorms hit the area in the same year (a subsequent 10" snow hit the area yesterday--not Top Ten, but big enough to be the largest storm in most Washington winters).

Good weather records for the area (at least regarding depth of snow deposited by storms) go back 100 years or so. So the likelihood of having a Top Ten storm happen in any given year is about 1 in 10. The likelihood of two Top Ten storms in any given year is 1 in 100. Add in a third 10" storm and consider that area weather data goes back more than 100 years, the likelihood of all three storms happening in the same year is probably somewhere around once every 150 to 200 years. Long odds, I think, but nowhere near rare enough to prove anything, least of all climate change, which will abound in very difficult to predict consequences (for the Daily Show's perspective on the difference between weather and climate, go here).

Still, whether or not the recent snows reinforce arguments for or against climate change, they are most certainly weather, which is, once again,something everyone likes to talk about. The thing about heavy snowfall is you don't just get to talk about it, you actually have to shovel it. And, let me note here that I'm going through my 62nd winter on this planet and spent 59 of those winters in Chicago, Ann Arbor, Boulder and Dayton, residing here in D.C., south of the Mason-Dixon line for the last three.

But it is only here in Washington that I have had to shovel snow every day for a week; that's what people do in North Dakota and Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and, I guess, in Buffalo. So, though isolated weather events do not prove climate change , rigorous scientific models that support the argument for global warming also predict increases in severe weather events (see a discussion of climate change and severe weather here). Personally, after moving around an estimated ton of snow in the past week, I'm going to invest in a back up snow shovel; my unsolicited advice to those living in the Deep South, the current bastion of Republicanism and center of the fundamentalist argument with science: Keep a snow shovel handy. The one you use for manure just won't do.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The $1 Trillion War Fraud

Feb. 10, 2003: Iraq agrees to U.S. surveillance overflights

Seven years ago today, when the U.S. invasion of Iraq was already thoroughly planned (and less than 40 days from actual launch), some 60 weapons inspectors from two international agencies were already in place there and, in a further gesture of surrender, Saddam Hussein agreed to regular U-2 spy plane missions throughout Iraqi air space (you could look it up at This Week in Peace History).

To be forced to agree to the presence of international weapons inspectors and reconnaisance overflights is an act of capitulation, but the U.S. (with cover from 40 other countries) invaded anyway. Though examples of corporate media failure to perform the basic function of investigating and exposing the activities and pretensions of government abound, the persistent and enduring journalistic failure to report the truth about the Iraq War is an act of collusion similar to the "yellow journalism" tactics of William Randolph Hearst's New York Morning Journal, which diligently promoted the Spanish-American War.

In the upshot, the Iraq War, the third longest U.S. war ever (the Afghanistan War is longer, the Vietnam War longest), a product of the de facto alliance of duplicitous government, collaborating media and a rapacious military-industrial complex, has cost the country over $700 billion to date; that cost continues to rise at a rate exceeding $100,000 per minute (about the same rate as the Afghanistan War--to watch the cost of both wars rise, check out this web page of the National Priorities Project). Together, the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan exceeds $1 trillion; about the amount an effective and urgently needed stimulus package would cost. It ought to be obvious that peace and economic justice are two sides of an ideal coin, but harder to arrive at when the media itself is not interested.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Manufacturing the News

Polls paid for by media become news stories

This is my 27th letter to the Washington Post. I generally do believe that the letters I write have a chance of being published, but I knew this one was a bigger stretch than usual. The letter accuses the Post of paying for polls on topical issues, then managing the way the results are released in their paper. That's actually not where the stretch lies; it's what they do. But it is also easy for editors and reporters to argue that the poll results they report actually examine public feeling to a depth that readers cannot. Still, polls generally report who is hot and who is not. Much of the additional detail organized in reports of polls as if it were factual is actually subject to both interpretation and statistical error.

My guess is that newspapers started polling as a defensive move; an attempt to protect their stories from the spin that owners of private poll results might introduce. After all, politicians were polling before newspapers, and leaking the results of polls to targeted journalists in an effort to influence coverage of elections. That doesn't happen so much now that everybody, politicians and journalists come armed with poll results. Campaigns don't try as hard to use their polls to spin stories, primarily because they more often use their polls to identify target audiences and develop messages aimed at groups of voters. Nor would spinning work as well in an environment where a newspaper can report their own, perhaps different, poll results. But the original defensive purpose for polling has changed--survey results are now news, and journalists no longer have to hit the streets to get the story.


A quick look at the last two issues of the Post provides a clear example of how print media manages the news, rather than simply reporting it. The front-page over-the-fold story on Sunday, Jan. 31 (“Fenty’s approval ratings plummet”) says that a “new Washington Post poll” shows that DC Mayor Adrian Fenty’s popularity among residents has dropped dramatically since a 2008 poll.

A day later, in a metro story (“D.C. Schools Chancellor Rhee’s approval rating in deep slide”), we read that the same “new” poll reveals that the public perception of Chancellor Rhee is also much more negative now than it was two years ago. But the serial nature of the stories raises the question of exactly what journalistic criteria might have dictated reporting the two stories separately. Personally, I know of none. But I can imagine the business considerations that went into deciding that the stories would have more impact, if they ran separately on Sunday and Monday rather then running together on, say, a low-circulation Saturday.

Speculating in this manner raises further questions, I think. For example, if poll results are news, at all, then why wouldn’t the Post report the results when they first become available? But, perhaps more to the point, why would the Post bother to write about poll results, at all? Editors and reporters routinely assert that journalists investigate and report stories; they do not manufacture them. But news stories based on polls that newspapers pay for seem perilously close to product manufacturing.

Perhaps editors assume that none of us actually talk to each other. It is therefore a great service of the Fourth Estate to share the news with me that my neighbor to the east likes Fenty, while my neighbor to the west does not. If that is the assumption that editors are making, it may be helpful for me to share this fact: by and large, we do know what our neighbors are thinking.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

How the Right, and the Rest of Us, Can Shrink Big Government

Musings of a Snow Shoveler

It was so quiet on DC streets yesterday, you could hear yourself thinking. The streets weren't completely impassable, but only a tiny number of vehicles drove by; the great majority of cars were stuck in snowdrifts and garages. High mounds of snow narrowed the roadways, absorbing much of the noise made by the mainly emergency vehicles and snowplows that did pass by. There were no trains running on the four lines of railroad track about a block away, and the blowers and fans that heat and cool the air for the hospital buildings nearby were, for once, inaudible. Humans were out and about, shoveling and talking and, somehow, the otherwise sound-deadening qualities of the snow facilitated the easy travel of conversational voices.

A neighbor two doors away shoveled vigorously east, so I shoveled vigorously west. We met halfway, a proud moment in the ongoing process of reclaiming the public right-of-way. Like the meeting of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railways, it was a moment deserving of celebration, so, though we've lived on the same block for three years, Scott and I introduced ourselves to each other for the first time in history. Sadly, the neighbor to our east has failed to shovel his sidewalk, so the full corner-to-corner pathway remains incomplete.

But before the historic meet up with Scott, I couldn't help reflecting that the economic output in the very big East Coast neighborhood, ranging from as far south as, say, North Carolina, north to New York state and west to Pittsburgh had dropped dramatically. In fact, probably the single most productive activity in the whole megalopolis was moving snow around, a lot of it volunteer activity. My own snow moving output for the weekend, about six hours worth at a conservative $25/hour (snowplow drivers contribute much more) ought to add about $150 to the Gross National Product.

This thought got me to the further notion that if people who are most particularly incensed by big government really wanted to advance their cause, they could go out and do an hour's worth of volunteer activity every week on behalf of someone less well off, sicker or older than they are. Cutting grass, building a wheelchair ramp, making dinner, picking up medicine on behalf of someone who would not be able to do those things themselves, might, in fact, leave them undone would add huge sums to the GNP. Moreover, doing them would be preventative. They would improve quality of life for the beneficiaries, increasing health and well-being, and reduce the cost of future government intervention.

Say, for argument's sake, that 10 million people, otherwise consumed by political frustration about Big Brother, did engage in this sort of volunteerism for an hour a week and 50 weeks a year. At a conservative labor value of $20/hr., these activities would add about $10 billion to GNP. If 10 million more progressives, wishing to encourage such volunteerism and desiring to share directly in the community-building process were to match the effort, we could add another $10 billion to GNP and dial down ambient political heat in favor of light. If the same 20 million were to also give away their spare change to the homeless twice a week, we could inject another $2 billion annually into local economies. If all of this were to happen on a yearly basis, the total would equal a modest stimulus package, and it wouldn't take 60 votes in the Senate to make it happen.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Military Spending Tsunami Threatens Social Programs

Let's discuss this, says the Left

In "No Defense for This Budget" Nation editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel criticizes President Obama's proposal to impose a freeze on all federal discretionary spending except for core defense spending, which will be allowed to increase by two-plus percent. Specific spending for war in Afghanistan and Iraq will increase even more.

"Exempting all security-related expenditures from common sense cuts will have serious consequences for almost everything the government does--from job creation, poverty reduction and alternative energy development, to aid for cash-strapped state and local governments," Vanden Heuvel wrote. Since the freeze in all other discretionary spending means actual cuts in social programs, Obama's proposal means less funding will be available to address the social needs exacerbated by The Great Recession.

In January, Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.) wrote a piece that the rising federal deficit means that the U.S. cannot consistently fund social services without cutting the defense budget by 25 percent. That piece also ran in the Nation and can be found here.

Given the name-calling, general dissing and overall disrespect that characterizes a third to a half of the comments responding to Vanden Heuvel's piece, it is probably a very good thing that there is no comment chain following Frank's article; that chain would have been longer and much more vituperative. Frank, after all, is not only a New England liberal, he is also openly gay. The virtual venom coming from the libertarians. conservatives and troglodytes who police the Nation's website would probably have turned the magazine's server into a quivering shadow of its former self. But the thing is, Frank is calling for a large cut that would be phased in over time. Enough time to create good new jobs for workers who lose there's when weapons plants get shuttered.

Nor is Vanden Heuvel a raving left-winger. "Right now, for those who understand what's at stake with these budget priorities, it's high time to tell your legislators and the White House that if there is indeed going to be any freeze on spending, the exorbitant defense budget should be included in that," she concludes. That's pretty mild stuff in a country driving tanks toward bankruptcy.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

One Day, A Non-militaristic Military

Adm. Mullen says let openly gay soldiers serve

No one wants to be regarded as a complete loon. Accordingly, despite my sweeping anti-militarist condemnations of U.S. militarism and our bloated military budget (and weapons industry), I wish to stipulate that, yes, we do need a military. Though the one we have is probably too large by half, it should also be stipulated that the one we need ought to be competitive--larger, for instance, than the Vatican's Swiss Guard, but smaller, say, than the combined military of all Europe.

Further, if we are going to have one, the more it looks like America, the more appropriate (and less militaristic) it will be. It's also worth noting that we may very well be moving toward that ideal. Yesterday, Armed Forces chief Mike Mullen told Congress that it's time to do away with "don't ask, don't tell" and allow gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military. Though Mullen's statement will certainly heat up one front in the culture wars, it is good news; progressives should hear it as a call to action. Though it may be premature, someone ought to begin taking nominations for the first female chair of the joint chiefs.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

D-E-F-E-N-S-E Spells Predictable Assault on Better Budget Priorities

No progressive budget without cutting military spending

Winding up to blog about federal spending, in general, and military spending in particular. Two weeks ago, I was on Michael James' Saturday morning radio show, broadcasting from the Heartland Cafe, for about twenty minutes. It was fun, but not nearly long enough for big fun. Michael and I connected briefly on a couple of things. Most important, as the show wrapped up, I laid out my best "old man" advice for progressives working on specific causes. Paraphrased, it went something like this: "Whether activists are focused on health care, affordable housing, public education or anything else, everyone ought to include military spending on their priority list. It is difficult to make substantial progress on those other issues as long as militarism and military spending shape the budget to the tune of $1 trillion plus annually."

Here are some websites and posts I'm reading and will use as a source for a longer post on military spending:

The Security Spending Primer from the National Priorities Project. The primer was developed based on the 2009/2010 federal budget, so some of it is about a year old. But the principles and perspective are absolutely current and appropriate to any discussion of the US military budget.

A liberal, broad-brush perspective on the need for Congress and the President to exercise greater control over the relentless growth of tax expenditures, written by Len Burman, a former assistant Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration. The article ran in today's Washington Post and is available here.

An article in today's Post (about the recent firing of the general in charge of "the Pentagon's most expensive weapons system."The story, "Defense secretary Gates fires general in charge of Joint Strike Fighter program," is here.

A good piece by Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation, is here.