Thursday, June 28, 2012

What a day.

These are just a few random thoughts on a historic day. 

The decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act was taken by an institution that, as of the latest New York Times/CBS poll, only garners 44% of the public’s confidence.  It comes with yet another 5-4 vote, underscoring division rather than consensus.  In this case, to many people’s great surprise, it was Chief Justice Roberts who broke the tie.  Healthcare remains one of this wealthy country’s most perplexing problems and most volatile political issues.  It may be the latter, coupled with the Court’s low esteem, that prompted the generally conservative Chief to side with the more liberal Justices with whom he usually disagrees.  For the moment, Roberts may have saved any semblance of a Court seen as an honest broker.  Beginning with the controversial Gore v. Bush decision, it’s reputation has been in steady decline.  This one vote won’t change that. 

Perhaps a mark of how much things have changed can be seen by contrasting today with the Court’s 1954 landmark Brown desegregation decision taken in an even more charged political atmosphere.  The decision then was unanimous.  That was not so with the controversial Roe decision but it was still rendered by a clear majority: 7-2.  Justice Harry Blackman, a Republican appointee, wrote the opinion.  John Roberts has yet to show that he can build a consensus on controversial issues. 5-4 decisions do not enhance the Court’s reputation for impartiality, something that is desperately needed at a time when the nation is so divided.  Perhaps this vote suggests he may try harder in the future.  The circuitous legal path he took to uphold the mandate, suggests that he worked hard to find accommodation.  This time it was an accommodation of one, himself, but that proved enough now and he might build on it.

The Affordable Care Act is far from perfect legislation.  It’s appalling that this great nation still leaves so many of its citizens uninsured.  Ultimately, only single payer universal healthcare — Medicare for all — will accomplish that goal.  But it’s an important step forward.  One of the most ironic aspects of the current debate is that the mandate, the Act’s most controversial provision, was the 1989 brainchild of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.  It was incorporated into the bill as a way of overcoming the objections of the Right's beloved free enterprise insurance industry.  That conservatives so oppose it today is clearly more a demonstration of callous and opportunistic hypocrisy than of any ideological conviction. 

On the other hand, President Obama and the Democratic leadership did a shockingly lousy job of selling Affordable Care to the American public, including allowing it to be branded Obamacare.  Many are equally angered and mystified by this ineptness, especially given the President’s considerable oratorical talents.  Leaving aside that Republicans continue to be much more adept at selling, I think there are two principal reasons for this failure. 

First is that even before it was enacted, much of the President’s base found the bill wanting; indeed they considered Obama a sellout.  They refused to see what remains a giant step forward as anything more than what it didn’t include.  So the President found himself essentially alone when he should have had the wind at his back.   Liberals can be their own worst enemies.

Second, is something more important.  This has to do, of all things, with Obama’s extraordinary oratorical skills.  My own experience with the craft tells me there are essentially two kinds of public oration.  I’ll call the first stadium oratory and the second small screen oratory.  Excelling at one does not necessary translate into excelling at the other.  In fact, stadium orators often fall flat on their face in more intimate settings while masters of the small screen can’t inspire large crowds.  These require different skills.  For example, megachurch preachers who regularly speak before thousands might well fail badly in the intimate church around the corner.  There are of course exceptions.  Franklin Roosevelt was good at the stadium but also, perhaps even better, on the small screen of his day — the radio fireside.  That unique ability may be attributed to the fact that in his later public life FDR was wheelchair bound and thus forced to adapt to a communications intimacy that otherwise ran contrary to his larger-than-life stadium personality.

Obama is a great stadium orator.  It is what caught the nation’s attention in the first place and what carried him on to the presidency.  It isn’t an accident that he set up these huge events during the campaign culminating in his nomination speech in, yes, a stadium, his massive victory celebration in a Chicago park and the million-person Inauguration in DC.  With the exception of his historic Philadelphia address on race, his most persuasive and moving moments were before large crowds.  This isn’t to say that Obama can’t communicate in smaller settings, but that’s not his primary communicative skill, not where he seems most natural.  Selling healthcare suffered from this deficit.  Of course, Romney might have the opposite problem, which on the national campaign trail could put him at the disadvantage.

It will take some time and distance to assess where we are and what impact today might have both on the Court and on November’s election.  More certainly will follow.  At the moment, I join others in savoring the moment and in realizing that some progress is still possible, just when some had given up. 


Monday, June 25, 2012

The money that is really killing us.

We may remain in the economic doldrums with federal, state and local governments cutting vital programs, but money is flowing into political races like never before.   2012 is well on the road to being a record-spending year.  There is something grotesque about that — about this disconnect between service cutbacks and expanded political spending.  Money has consumed our politics.  The unending and relentless fund raising has crippled our government, even more so than has divisiveness.   Today, we are just as likely to encounter a lead story about fund raising as about the many issues that confront us as a nation or as a community.  It’s become just another game.  Score is being kept.  The ability to raise mega-bucks and to outspend opponents has become a key barometer of success.   The emails and letters we get from elected officials or from our political parties are more likely to be about contributions than about issues and they fill our mailboxes day in and out.  The old contention that money makes the world go round seems like a gross and laughable understatement.  No wonder that political office is increasingly the domain of the rich and super rich, the only of our citizens who can afford to play or stay in the game.

In November 2001, barely two months after the destruction of the Twin Towers, we New Yorkers went to the polls.  While still shell shocked, some of us felt a degree of relief in knowing that the often-polarizing man billed America’s Mayor by others would soon be history.  Fueled by a super ego and believing his own hyped press, Giuliani couldn’t quite accept that his time was over.  In fact, he went so far as to promote the notion of an extra-legal three-month term-extension so that he could personally get the city back on track.  It was more than presumptuous, but the man was, and remains, imbued by an exaggerated sense of self-importance.  We can all delude ourselves into thiking his humiliating run for the Presidency in 2008 served as a wakeup call.  Right!

The Billionaire media and information mogul Michael Bloomberg was elected that November.  Many people in New York and around the country think he’s been an excellent mayor.  Given two chances (I had moved by 2009), I could never bring myself to vote for him.  That had nothing to do with his lack of qualifications — he is an unquestionably able man.  My problem with Bloomberg was his self-financed campaign, pouring an unprecedented $73 Million into what seemed to me a bid to purchase the office.   That spending climbed to $85 Million four years later and a whopping $102 Million in 2009 for his third term bid, the one in which he engineered a suspension of term limits — ego is contagious.  It was said to be the most costly per vote expenditure of any election in American history.

Bloomberg is the first and still only billionaire public office holder.  Mitt Romney is among the super rich and officeholders like Congressman Darrell Issa (vehicle ant-theft devices) and retiring Senator Herb Kohl (department stores) are multi-millionaires many times over.  None, however, come even close to Bloomberg’s reputed $22 Billion net worth (number 12 on the Forbes 400).  While other billionaires are not seeking public office, they are increasingly injecting themselves into the electoral process.  The liberal George Soros has been doing so for many years much as in an earlier time did the ulta-conservative H. L. Hunt family of Texas.  These days, we have the Koch brothers who have a long history of supporting right wing causes and of course the infamous Sheldon Adelson, a self made billionaire whose casino and convention center holdings have also brought him to the top rung of the Forbes list.  Adelson (long a huge backer of Israel’s rightist PM Bibi Netanyahu) single handedly financed Newt Gingrich’s unsuccessful presidential bid.  He is among those who are setting a new standard for campaign spending in this election year.  Adelson and the Kochs are major funders of PACs but they are hardly alone.  The Huffington Post recently published a gallery of the largest donors, which makes for an interesting and disturbing read.   The list includes some labor organizations of course, but super rich individuals far outmatch them.

Much has been written about this year’s extraordinary campaign spending, most recently an excellent column by Frank Bruni.  Much of this accelerated spending can be attributed to the Supreme Court’s striking down much of McCain-Feingold and to its astounding Citizens United decision according corporations the same First Amendment rights as individuals.  Mitt Romney now famously put his own spin on it in declaring, corporations are people.  The issue of equating companies and individuals is an important one, but what interests me here, and why this post begins with Michael Bloomberg, is the unfettered and unchecked ability of billionaires to effectually purchase public office if not for themselves then for those who will represent their interests, translation: do their bidding.  Individual campaign contributors have always had special access to politicians (think Bill Clinton’s Lincoln bedroom guests), but that access has reached new proportions.  Remember, we are not talking about a corporation governed by managers and a board of directors, businesses with employees and often public shareholders, but of individuals responsible solely to themselves.  From that perspective, the Citizens decision is in some ways just as, or more, disturbing with regard to individuals — super rich individuals — as it is with corporations.

That one man can effectively purchase public office — though I’m sure Bloomberg doesn’t see it that way — presents a challenge to our very idea of we the people.  It is just another case, and profound one, of the gulf between idealized and real democracy.  Powerful interests have always played a significant role in both elections and governance.  But the kind of wealth that exists today, or more accurately the number of individuals who occupy that I can buy anything tier of the 1%, is probably rivaled only by the robber baron era.  All this big money spending has fueled the frightening and escalating high cost of campaigns.  

Barack Obama lifted the money bar to new heights in 2008 when he decided to forgo public financing.  The fact that so many of his contributions came in small denominations from a broad spectrum of supporters was heartening, but the total amount raised constituted an unmistakable red flag.  It may not be an exaggeration to call it a political Frankenstein.  That campaign turned out to be the most costly in US history — The Center for Responsive Politics pegs it at $2.4 Billion all in.  Obama’s decision was considered defensive and perhaps it was.  But when history is written, he and his heirs — all of us — are likely to regret it.  I doubt exploding campaign costs will stand as one of the President’s proudest and most positive legacies.  Just weeks ago an extraordinary amount of money went into little Wisconsin’s recall vote, the kind of spending that would have been unthinkable there just a year ago.  That experience alone should remind us how difficult, if not impossible, it is for ordinary people to run for any office these days and at virtually any level.

Among the members of the Supreme Court who are expected to announce some more significant decisions this week are a number of so-called originalists.  They, at least in theory, hold sacrosanct the Constitution, as written.  The Constitution is a great work, as much for its literal components as for the very fact that such a governing document exists.  Amazingly it remains largely relevant and precious.  At the same time, the Framers were just human beings — men to be precise.  They were acting and writing in the context of their time albeit heroically seeking to fashion a document that could endure.  And it largely has.  But they also, being products of their time, made some judgments that made sense then, but in retrospect were probably mistaken, even if well meant.   Among those was life-tenure for the Supreme Court and also the setting of two-year terms for the House.  The first is something to be left to another post; the second is relevant to this discussion of money.

The idea behind the short tenure for House members was to keep the legislators in touch with, and always accountable to, those whom they represented.  It is a noble idea, but one that has contributed heavily to our current legislative stalemate.  From the very early days Representatives, with painfully short terms, were forced to remain in constant campaign mode.  Rather than making them super responsive to constituent needs, it essentially forced them to be seeking support for the next vote almost from the moment they were sworn in for the current term.  That was distraction enough.   Now they have to add to that handshaking burden raising the huge amounts of money it takes to win that next election.  The cash required in large media markets can be and is astronomic.   The combination of non-stop pressing the flesh and filling the coffers is deadening.  Beyond all else, it has become a disincentive to do anything but tow the safe party line whatever that may be at a given time.  It most assuredly doesn’t lead to a profile in courage, something that has virtually disappeared from our political scene.

It could be argued that leaving governance to the rich, those who don’t have to grovel for contributions could reinvigorate political independence.  Michael Bloomberg is beholden to no one and has been able to do some things that others might not have chanced.  His effort to reduce smoking and now the consumption of high sugar beverages are clear examples.  But all that money has a cost.  His kind of independence in a democracy is a mixed blessing.  It affords power that can be abused and it promotes, like it or not, a ruling class mentality that is destined to diminish not enhance the nation.  The disparity that we have these days between those who have much more than they will ever need and those who need much more than they will ever have is growing.  The social implications of this imbalance are hard to ignore.  The money game of politics may be the chicken and it may be the egg.  It doesn’t really matter.  Another record spending election is very bad news for all of us.  That runs across whatever economic barriers may exist and across whatever ideology we may embrace.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Preserving back in the day.

Confession: I’ve been a lapsed blogger.  Forgive me; it’s been months since my last posting — March 20th to be precise.  It isn’t that there has been nothing to write about, but that I’ve taken some time off to bring a more substantive piece of writing to conclusion.  More about that in the near future.  Some years back, I took an annual summer holiday in St. Barths, the small and exquisite island in the Caribbean that was only affordable (and then marginally so) off-season.   My rule for a stay that could be a month long was no newspapers, no news broadcasts.  Initially Internet connections in St. Barths were non-existent and then only spotty.  You should try vacationing from the news sometime; it’s more than pleasant.  In any event, what struck me each time that I reentered the world from that self-imposed hiatus was how very little had really changed, if at all.   It was a lesson in taking the long view, the kind that seems to elude us in this 24/7 world, particularly us Americans.  More to the point, I haven’t been blogging and you surely haven’t missed a thing.

Of course, in the immediate sense, much has happened  since my last post, most of it probably predictable.   Mitt Romney has sewn up the GOP nomination and still hasn’t generated much enthusiasm.  The money pouring in is more a tribute to the 1%’s yearning to get back in full control than any commitment to either the man or his ideology, whatever that may be.  The Arab Spring is going through its summer doldrums as long vested interests try to hold on to their past and prevent the future from taking hold.  Societal change takes time and is messy.  To expect anything other than backsliding is to get caught up in fantasy.  Even in America we’ve seen that change, as the President reminds us, is very hard.  Undoing what took decades to put into place is both painful and frustrating.   So what we see is an abundance of frustrated kicking and screaming on all sides of the political and social spectrum, but minimal progress.

Facebook, after a disappointing Wall Street debut, is being prematurely written off by some people.  Let’s remember that Amazon was launched with high hopes and subsequently dismissed as a loser with no earnings and a sagging stock price.  My guess is that Mark Zuckerberg, like Jeff Bezos, is not someone who will be sidetracked by the skeptics or current share prices.  Tom Friedman, looking at the dismal political situation in Egypt, rightly points out that politics takes boring groundwork not merely social interaction, but I don’t think the people running Facebook ever questioned that.  They facilitated the connection, not the doing.  Friedman’s main point is that the people on the Street have not yet gotten their act together, and together is the operative word.

The world’s economy, despite small pockets of growth, remains challenged — an under statement of course.  The old saw about when America sneezes still seems to pertain, but is probably much too glib and simplistic an explanation.  We’ve been blamed for the debt crisis and housing bubble, but obviously we weren’t alone.  The idea that all the countries in the world, including China (now having its own housing bubble), aren’t adult enough to make their own decisions and resulting mess just isn’t credible.  Europe is foundering in part because they never did the Euro right something everyone knew from the start.  Our fundamental problems continue to be more systemic than caused by any momentary excess, no matter how extensive. 

Little discussed is that the huge wealth disparity between the 1%ers and the rest of us, a disparity about which we are rightly wringing our hands, is nothing new.  In fact, it is just a modern echo of what has always been throughout most of human history.  Perhaps that’s why we’re witnessing the same wealth disparity across the globe — Western Europe, Russia, Israel, India and China as examples.  Yes many of us grew up in the post WWII period where a still newly created middle class produced some modicum of income/wealth equality.  But taking the long view of history, even that very modest income equality is the exception, not the rule.  Level playing fields are as much a myth as is the idea that change can come easily, much less be instant.  This is not to accept the status quo — the current wealth disparity especially in such a connected time might eventually do us in — but to put it in perspective.

Interestingly, much of what we’re experiencing today can be attributed to a desperate attempt by a range of players and interests to hold on to a real, or imagined, past.  The hard right turn in the party that Lincoln would likely disown represents much more of an attempt to turn back the clock than of any new ideological direction.   If you want to understand the heat of Tea Party rhetoric, remember that desperate people do desperate things.  Objectively speaking, many of those raising that flag high seem to be supporting ideas and interests that actually go contrary to their own.   I’m talking, for example, about the Medicare recipients who deplore universal healthcare or the very people being held down by Koch types who supply the ground force that turns their money into votes.    Of course, rationality has nothing to do with it.  Rather it bespeaks a generation of people frustrated by the undeniable fact that the brave new world seems to have made them obsolete.  In my view, technology, far more than globalization, has robbed them of their jobs and their future.  Back in the day is where they want to be and so, it would seem, they will do whatever is required to reverse progress.  The fact that so much of our electorate is profoundly uninformed, and our citizenry is increasingly undereducated, only compounds the problem.  But that’s another conversation.

No institution is more emblematic of this desperate hanging on to yesterday and fear of tomorrow than the Roman Catholic Church.   How else to explain the Vatican’s recent, systematic and relentless attack on its nuns?   Forget that the sisters are generally held in higher esteem than any other group of professionals in church.  Adding to the insult and intended humiliation, the Pope appointed male bishops to take control of these wayward women folk and steer them back on a track that obviously only a man can understand.  There can be no women priests, the pontiff reiterated early in his reign, because all of the Apostles were men.  Speak of back in the day!   It’s clear that from Rome’s point of view, one shared enthusiastically by its newly minted star Cardinal in New York, women are not capable of thinking for themselves, much less questioning male domination and decision making.  The US bishops, led by Dolan, campaign vigorously to undermine healthcare coverage in the United States so as to make sure contraception (practiced by the vast majority of Catholic women of child-bearing age) is robbed of enabling funds.

One would think that, rather than going after the professional and lay women in its organization, Rome would expend more energy in figuring out why so many of its male professionals went so criminally wrong, routinely aided and abetted by their supervising superiors.  How did the moral lessons of the Catholic faith lead to that and also to the financial misconduct within the Vatican itself?  Aside from some lip service paid, an incredible amount of obfuscation and only the bare minimum of action, Rome still wants to sweep this under the luxurious rugs that abound in the rooms where its leaders work or sleep.

What’s most interesting is that, at a time when religion and the church itself is losing ground in Western counties especially, this turn inward and backward only adds fuel to the fire of discontent.   Rather than delaying decline, it is speeding up and broadening the process of alienation.  The writer Anna Quindlen, a lifetime loyal Catholic, just left the Church over its treatment of women.  But that’s not my point here.  What I see is another example of unquestioned desperation — desperate people, including aged popes, do desperate things.  Benedict, much as does the Central Committee in Beijing, has been stacking the College of Cardinals (who will elect his successor) with the ultra conservative like-minded.  He seems to think that doing so can turn the clock back, or at least bring it to a standstill.  So it isn’t so much about ideology as about preserving what is comfortably known and that includes vast power for the chosen few.  Facebook is a threat to hierarchal institutions because unsupervised contrary ideas can go viral.   Educated women with their own minds to make up, represent a clear and present danger to the system, including continued male reign and domination.  The thing to focus on is not the Church’s pronouncements against contraception but on that 90+% of the faithful who essentially ignore yesterday’s dictates.  Authority is being challenged for sure, but equally is the misguided notion that back in the day was a good time.  Putin, the KGB warrior, may have left the Communist Party behind, but will be damned if the Russian populous doesn’t tow back in the day disciplined lines.

Can these desperate people win?  In the short term, it’s clear they can — in the long term, perhaps not.  At the moment that they may not in the future is academic because, while many of us may be looking there, we do have to live in the present.  In a time when those yelling loudest, having the biggest checkbooks or carrying the biggest sticks are fighting to retain the past, that’s unnerving.  Their desperation is our problem, perhaps our most urgent problem.