Spinning the next generation

Excellent article today on the AARP's momentous decision to throw their weight behind Bush's Medicare bill. Novelli's reasoning about why the organization was compelled to support the bill, in spite of many members' strong disapproval, was that the younger members the AARP has been courting in the last several years, i.e., those not actually receiving Medicare yet, were receptive to the bill.

This episode offers some insight into what is sure to be a growing debate in the ongoing fight over social entitlements. Privatization of the US' major entitlements has thus far been a fringe threat...in no small part due to the fact that seniors have consistently organized their reliable constituency to speak with a single voice. That unassailable fact of American politics has nurtured a durable bipartisan coalition to maintain and protect the entitlement programs. Serious contention has been relegated to program details, rather than core overhauls.

But as the current generation of beneficiaries fades, who is to say the massive baby boomer cohort will support entitlements with the same commitment? This group, after all, matured as employer backed pensions and health care were disappearing and direct investment in the stock market was a real option. The notion of introducing competition and private accounts may not seem the sacrilege it does to the boomers parents. Or at least, that will be the story.

The truth, of course, is that the 'investment class' is a myth, that ordinary citizens have no better idea how to play the stock market than any of the paid professionals who have been losing their shirts for the last three years, and that the effect of entitlement programs on poverty rates among the elderly continues to be dramatic and impossible to deny. These facts show no signs of going away anytime soon, and, in fact, with the way private health insurance and pensions are going, entitlement programs may be the only thing low and moderate income baby boomers have left at the end of the day.

The power of Dean

Check out this case study of the Dean campaign's revolution in organizing tactics from Ed Cone which is getting a lot of attention. Also, Noam Scheiber's excellent TNR article on Joe Trippi from the other week.


WTC Memorials

The consensus for the World Trade Center memorial competition finalists is not good. Too complicated, too difficult to maintain, too literal...these are some of the complaints that have been leveled against the designs unveiled by the LMDC last week. And I generally agree with them. Looking through the designs reminds one more of a really neat installation art piece or temporary exhibit than a memorial intended to stand the test of time.

Where do the designs go wrong? A starting point certainly seems to be Maya Lin's memorial for the Vietnam war, based on its ubiquitous mention in critiques of the designs. But most of those allusions fail to grasp exactly what the Vietnam War Memorial does that makes it so deeply affecting. Specifically, it is a deeply ambiguous, contentious and elusive memorial that offers no easy answers. Commentators praise its 'simplicity' and 'grace', but the memorial is beloved because it represents a history and a dialogue that we have only very painfully come to terms with, and in that, it imparts a feeling of comfort and understanding.

Just remember for a minute how radical and disputed the Vietnam memorial was. Here you have the need to respond to an event that, for many Americans of the period aroused feelings of uneasiness, revulsion or outright shame, to a war that had fundamentally changed the way they thought of the national mission, patriotic duty, and collective strength. Thus, many realized that a traditional statue of valiant soldiers could not be reconciled with the experience. Maya Lin's response was to create a massive, mute, black, gravestone. Because that was Vietnam--in the end, the horror for many Americans was that the whole thing turned out to simply be about death. Everyone had been told that there were higher purposes in play, but in the end, it was hard to shake the feeling that the whole thing wasn't just about death--plain, simple and unresolved.

That's what makes it a great memorial. It uncovers the ambiguous truth of the event and with stoicism and earnestness leaves it for future generations to ponder. And that's why an evocative memorial for the World Trade Center seems so hard to find. Because an honest national conversation hasn't really come out of the events of 9/11 yet. Not to sound blasphemous, but memorials are ultimately for the living. The best memorials understand that relieving personal guilt towards the dead is a different process, and instead focus on things that can be learned and explored together.

9/11, as awful as the day was, and as surely as it made those living near the attack sites and beyond contemplate their own mortality, was about much more than simple mourning, as the turmoil of the last two years has attested to.

Here lay the appeal of retaining the 'slurry wall', which Daniel Libeskind so passionately advocated before the Port Authority stepped in and used it for the new PATH station. The following is a quote from the book The Ghosts of Berlin, by Brian Ladd, a very poignant study of how Berlin has dealt with an urban fabric rife with the most despicable events of the 20th century. The quote refers to the debate which raged over how to memorialize the Holocaust in the very city in which it was planned:

"Proposals to combine preservation with documentation...encouraged thoughtful and creative forms of interatction with the relics of the past, forms thtat would acknowledge the complicated tangle of memories and the multiplicity of meanings attached to a place. Advocates of these displays had no grand plan for a new Berlin, but they clearly understood what they did not want: a traditional commemorative monument. Not only would such a monument tend to focus on victims rather than perpetrators, it would also reduce the complex understanding of an urban site to a single aesthetic gesture. A work of art, in the form of sculpture, architecture, or landscape design, would leave the impression of a final statement that resolved the dilemmas and uncertainties of the site."

Libeskind, who eventually designed the Holocaust museum in Berlin, was of course quite aware of these issues, and one can see why he would appreciate the slurry wall. The wall worked on a number of levels to uncover the uncertainties which 9/11 calls out, even if our national discourse has been unwilling to explore them: the massive exposed wall, the hidden bulwark for one of the largest skyscrapers in the world and a synonym for American capitalism spoke to the deeply felt vulnerability of the American way of life which 9/11 exposed, which is no doubt reflected in the more hysterical responses to the event; as an exposed portion of foundation in a city and indeed a country where no space is allowed to go unbuilt, it reminded us of the the past we too easily forget; and in its battered massiveness, it evoked the steadfastness of the American character, the notion that in a nation and indeed a world of abiding contradictions, there are principles which we hold dear and preserve. These are the tough questions which a 9/11 memorial must confront, more than facile metaphors of 'rebirth' played out in water and light features.

The Vietnam War memorial is powerful because for those who lived through Vietnam, mourning the dead was a hard, confusing process. With 9/11, mourning the dead is natural. History will judge us on how we confront the rest of it.


A nice suprise

David Brooks fledgling Times column has been pretty disappointing so far (good discussion here); the same sensibility that makes him enjoyable on the NewsHour and in his more thoughtful articles comes off somewhat irrelevant and grating in the column. But definitely read his Saturday piece in support of gay marriage. It is a powerful and honest exposition of a position that more forward looking conservatives ought to be embracing.


Bipartisanship where you least expect it...

A very telling predicament, not that it will last very long. The tortured trajectories of the Medicare and Energy bills now in Congress have made for some strange bedfellows. With regards to Medicare, Ted Kennedy and the Heritage Foundation both oppose it...on Energy, Tom Daschle is for it while liberals and the WSJ editorial page are opposed. What gives?

Both of these bills present deep and shocking validations of the 'crony capitalism' theory of the Bush administration, and that's not something liberals or ideological conservatives are comfortable with. Because there's no theory behind it except giving specific people cash, and that's no way to run a social program, or a conservative revolution for that matter. I haven't read too deeply into the conservative write-ups of this, beyond the 'that's not how the market works' headlines, because I can barely understand the technicalities when I'm inclined to agree with the writers. So I don't know if 'wingers are blaming their distaste for the bills on Democrats yet. But I don't think they are. And their rejection of these two extra fatty pieces of pork just goes to show how far beyond the pale the Administration has gone in putting out for connected industries.


Follow up

Very interesting post from Ruy Teixeira on moderate voters' opinion of Bush, which goes to the point made below about how, in 2004, moderates might demonstrate their shock that the 'compassionate conservative' they voted for in 2000 has turned out to be a flaming radical conservative. Ruy discusses a recent LAT poll that highlights the opinions of self-described 'moderates' on the economy, the war in Iraq, Bush's claim to regular voters, etc.

Obviously, this is potentially very worrisome for the Bush campaign. G2's support in 2000 was predicated, of course, on his campaign, which sounds almost nothing like his presidency. The middle of the road rhetoric which he spouted that election season, which was able to lure in moderate voters and provoke Nader's charge that he and Gore were essentially the same candidate, is a distant memory in the face of the policy assault he has engaged in over the last four years. And moderate voters may be very receptive when Democratic candidates remind them of those policies. It flies in the face of everything they voted for in the first place.


So, this 'flypaper' theory of Iraq thing really has really got to stop. What this reveals about how the Bush administration thinks the country understands exactly what the threat of global terrorist organizations entails is truly discouraging. Not that it doesn't have a ring to it. One envisions kind of an international 'hit the gopher' game, where the administration has rigged it so that more of the gophers pop out of a specific hole.

Preventing international terrorism is not a question of ticking off names on the big list of evildoers. It is a question of systematically targeting the structures that support international terrorism--international black markets in diamonds, drugs, coltan, etc.; regimes that fund or channel funds to terrorist networks; the spoils of civil war that back terrorist operations, etc. These are massive international problems that require massive interventions of money and cooperation between nations. We shouldn't let the administration fool us into thinking the problem of international terrorism is so easy as 'luring them into the open.'

Things to come, Part 2

Read Matthew Yglesias' piece in the Prospect online on why gay marriage isn't a 'problem' politically just for Democrats.

I think this speaks to what is essentially an unknown factor in the 2004 campaign. G2's 2000 campaign was so successful (although not decisive, let us remember) because he skillfully coopted the language and issues of liberals through his compassionate conservatism gimmick. And I think a lot of liberals became quickly resigned to the Florida debacle since based on his campaign they thought his presidency would be pretty middle of the road--maybe a few more pills to swallow, and definitely kind of embarrassing, but basically the conservative side of the terrain we got used to under Clinton.

Now of course this was all revealed to be a sham in rather spectacular fashion, as Bush's presidency has turned the country into a political bizzaro-world that many people are still hoping they will wake up from. But that's just the thing: whatever one thinks about Bush, its common knowledge that his administration is synonymous with a new conservative vanguard. And that opens up the possibility of alienating the moderate voters, just as surely as liberal extremism might.

The Republicans in 2000 very effectively kept their extremist side out of sight, just long enough for people to forget that today's party is dangerously beholden to a faction of well-organized zealots. But the Bush administration has been working hard for their interests for four years now, and they may not feel like staying in the back of the tent this time around, especially with a cardinal issue on the table.


Things to come

Everyone should become very familiar with the writings of Hoover Institution fellow Stanley Kurtz on the subject of gay marriage. Kurtz' work, more than anything else, represents the terms of the coming gay marriage debate. The next skirmish in the gay marriage battle, whether it comes from challenging a different state to recognize a Massachusetts-legalized marriage, or from a Federal Marriage Amendment movement picking up steam, will look a lot less like the culture war model of the early 90s and a lot more like Bush's 'compassionate conservatism'. Conservatives know that the country's attitudes towards homosexuality have changed too much in the last five years. The broader public's opposition to gay marriage doesn't come from a fire and brimstone place anymore, but rather from an "I like Will and Grace but this makes me kind of uncomfortable" place. If Republicans play to the fundamentalists on this one, they know they are going to lose the regular supporter's sympathy very quickly, and so, like the Democrats, they have their own share of equivocating to do. And if you want a sneak preview, here's where to find it.

Kurtz has developed a position that very carefully discounts homophobia or religio-family nuttiness as valid reasons for opposing gay marriage. He doesn't rail against gays with armchair deviant psychology or crude stereotypes, but instead engages in subtle claims of deviance by proxy, focusing on the horrors of what await us if gay marriage is legalized--not from gays themselves, but from an army of polygamists, adulterers, incest enthusiasts, etc., who will use gay marriage as carte blanche to advance their own, indisputably undesirable agendas (here). This point also has a softer side, whereby he argues that gay unions undermine the already fragile institution of marriage by potentially decoupling it from parenthood and monogamy. And while dignity and equal rights are all fine, society must make a conscious effort to preserve marriage because it is a public good. Again, the problem isn't with gays per se...Kurtz thinks people should have broad allowances to do what they like, and indeed, argues that the system already works, since gay sex and gay relationships exist everywhere. But he says the law serves a different purpose--that of enshrining social mores whose function we value, such as family structures capable of procreation and nurturing children. Thus, Kurtz makes peace with libertarian tendencies, if not libertarians themselves, while arguing the social conservative line in its most straightforward utilitarian form (see here).

More to come...


DoMA's days now numbered...

Well, I don't really see how gay marriage isn't set up for a Supreme Court test somewhere down the road now. Once the Massachusetts legislature legalizes gay marriage in six months, which it appears they pretty much have no choice about, the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act will be seriously threatened. Congress in all likelihood will try to strengthen the law as a compromise to avoid the mess of a constitutional marriage amendment, much less repeal it in order to respond to the situation in the states. DoMA is key in lots of other ways too. Besides preventing same-sex marriages filed in one state from being recognized in others and withholding federal benefits like Social Security from same-sex couples, much of the law governing private retirement and pensions is federal, which could make for extra tricky situations. We really need more research into analgous cases...googling assignment for today.

Also: what have you got to prove, Daschle? I understand the equivocation of the primary candidates, and they all seem to be playing the script pretty well, but Daschle sounded actually offended. Get over it.

I am my own wife

Just saw a preview of the Broadway transfer of Doug Wright's very exciting new play "I am my own wife". If you're around New York, don't miss this. It's bound to be the most substantive thing on Broadway this season. The one man show starring Jefferson Mays follows the history of a transvestite and antique collector who managed to survive through the Nazi and Communist regimes in Germany, although contention over her complicity with the GDR is one of the play's central questions.

It's an eloquent reminder of how many stories revealed to us through the lifting of the iron curtain have yet to be told, even if it may seem like old news these days. The questions of conscience and survival are only slightly more than a decade old, but we fear missing their vital lessons in a media afflicted with dangerous levels of ADD. These stories teach us about the fine political gradations possible in societies that appear one-note, and the awful choices which everyday people must make to live with themselves and their worlds. If we applied a little more of this thinking to the Middle East, rather than pretending like we just discovered it, the debate over terrorism, democracy and Islam would be infinitely better informed.


You gotta have Feith

Thank god the DoD jumped in and trounced Stephen Hayes much-hyped "Case Closed" article in the Weekly Standard, lending legitimacy to a complicated debunking job. Josh Marshall has details on why Hayes' story isn't all its cracked up to be.

I think this episode presages something that Democrats have to get ready for, the way they weren't ready recently when a single quarter of good growth was widely hailed as vindicating all of Bush's economic plan. Liberal voices have been having a good run as of late (relatively, of course)--the deterioration of Iraq has been keeping voices critical of the administration in the news. But the media is still fickle, the disinformation machine of the right is relentless, and I think we are going to see an increasing number of losing exchanges as the right regroups.

This Hayes story is a perfect example. The truth: an appendix of classified, unsubstantiated intelligence nuggets in a report from the very guy who has been a poster-child for intelligence gone bad is republished with no context and no verification from the people who are paid to be the voice of discerning judgement about these things. What actually happens: It's technically intelligence, it technically paints a compromising picture, its packaged as a window on the truth that lies beyond the liberal fog, and it gets repeated, instantaneously, in about a zillion right wing outlets with a trimphant air of undeniable certainty. Liberal pundits can earnestly dissect the article and prove its fraudulence, but the resounding impression is "Whoa, turns out there was no doubt whatsoever that Saddam was deep in bed with bin Laden, and if we hadn't fought the war, Saddam would be buying them all more plane tickets right now."

By flooding the market with enough disinformation, all credibility is distorted, all stories have equal sides, and it becomes impossible for the good arguments to ever really do away with the bad.

Another reason why this campaign is going to be all about information and who controls it. The 'wingers are going to come on with endless stunts like this, and it will be all the Democratic challenger can do to keep the right story in the public eye.

Must Read...

Frank Rich's column yesterday on the HBO film of Angels in America is a right on tour de force. You'd think this work would have been praised to death by now, but the fact that "Angels" simply hasn't been matched in the years since it appeared is one reason why it continues to astound. The deeply felt intersection of humanity and politics from which Angels speaks feels quite out of reach these days, as the notion of honest political soul searching has been pretty much back-burnered while we exhaust ourselves nailing people on politics built on infantile deceptions.


Now that that's over...

A preliminary post-mortem on "Jessica Lynch Media Carnival Week*"
*Inspired by the real life institution, "The News Media"

First of all, let me admit, I didn't actually witness a lot of JLMCW first hand. I chose the "Elizabeth Smart Story" over the "Saving Private Lynch" movie and I only saw parts of the Diane Sawyer interview (and half of that on a television in a bar with no sound and no captions, although there was much speculation on what the images meant). Most of my analysis is therefore based on daytime TV reports viewed during the Veterans Day holiday mentioned below, and print accounts.

So, if you did follow every minute of JLMCW and take issue with my generalizations, you are probably right, and should probably be ashamed.

Second, the standard disclaimer in media carnival situations: let none of this reflect on the actual person 'Jessica Lynch', who by all accounts appears to be very sensible and nice.

That said...the large theme missing from the whole 'how egregious was the Pentagon's propaganda' debate has got to be what this all means for the role of women in the military. That's really the larger thing at stake here.

This war has been a significant departure from all previous U.S. conflicts in terms of the visibility and participation of female soldiers. (see "War Dames" in the Washington Monthly from the December 2002 issue for a pre-war discussion) When historians write about the full integration of women into the armed forces, as they are now about the integration of African American men, this war will no doubt be a turning point. What will historians find when they look the culture this change took place in? Provided Lexis-Nexis is still being used, they probably won't be able to ignore the Jessica Lynch phenomenon.

And what does that say? While the Pentagon's propaganda package was very much couched in gender-neutral 'fallen hero' rhetoric, the narrative pretty unabashedly played on an 'our women are in danger' subtext. This of course, is part and parcel of nationalist stories mobilized in times of war, only the U.S. cannot claim it so easily, as we aren't really in danger of getting invaded that often. You certainly see it during the Civil War, especially in Confederate propaganda (the dual threat of Yankees and slaves against virtuous southern women), and it of course is an element in the xenophobic campaigns which have accompanied foreign conflicts. But not in the way Israel can foment fear of Arabs by playing on gender, with the enemy a very real and tangible presence.

So the Pentagon knew it had a winner when it capitalized on Lynch's capture, painting a gruesome picture that played on our most repressed fears of what could happen to a 19 year old American girl in the heat of war in a barbaric foreign country. It is a testament to how far cultural mores have come that no one is crying to scale back female involvement in the armed forces, but at the same time, the Army's top-flight production and the incredible life of the story only speak to how sore a point this is with the public.

The question, then, is how long will this define our thinking about women in the military? This explosive intersection of gender and violence cannot be ignored if this process is to be successful, whether at the rhetorical level of the Jessica Lynch phenomenon, or the all too real tragedy of serial rape in the Air Force Academy. A real public debate needs to occur--don't ask, don't tell is not an option.

What Unemployment?

The vindication Bush partisans have been reveling in since growth for the third quarter came in at a whopping 7.2 percent has been somewhat marred by the ‘yes, but’ chorus of commentators asking where the jobs are now that the big picture looks rosy again. A fantastic growth rate in his corner doesn’t make the president look quite so invulnerable when the Democrats can still back up the charge they’ve been making all along: no one ever said the Bush economic plan wouldn’t make the rich richer, but it still leaves average Americans in the lurch.

But all this may in fact already be settled, if a new talking point now in development in right-wing magazines, blogs, and now the Heritage Foundation, gains widespread currency. It goes like this: you see, it turns out all those jobs, the ubiquitous ‘nearly 3 million lost since Bush took office,’ have actually been fully regained and then some. All that Democratic hand-wringing has been for naught, for in fact, a conspiracy of ignorance among economists in the federal government and around the country has been directing us to the wrong page.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which measures joblessness, actually uses two ways of measuring how many Americans are out of a job from month to month. The first, the Household survey, samples 60,000 households each month and records the employment status of individuals. The second, the Establishment survey, surveys 400,000 businesses each month and records information directly from a firm’s payroll. A funny thing has been happening for the past year, since around when the recession officially ended. The two measurements have been diverging drastically. While the establishment survey shows the well-known 2.79 million jobs lost figure, the household survey now shows steadily increasing gains, to where net loss since Bush took office is virtually zero.

How can this be? Beyond where each survey gets its information from and the size of the respective samples, there are some notable differences in what exactly each is measuring. The Establishment survey, for instance, only counts nonfarm jobs, thus not reflecting jobs lost or gained in the agricultural sector. Furthermore, it counts each job listed on a payroll as one ‘job’. Therefore, if you work at Wal Mart during the day and then hit the McDonalds graveyard shift, and then McDonalds lays you off, the Establishment survey counts that as a job loss, even though you still have a ‘job.’ Finally, the Establishment survey of course doesn’t reflect changes in all sorts of unreported labor, since it relies on payroll records.

The household survey on the other hand, since it focuses on an individual and not a payroll stub, reflects the fact that you are still gainfully employed at Wal Mart during the day, and that you are not struggling to make ends meet with the ranks of the unemployed, as the Establishment survey would have you believe. It also allows you to report if you are ‘self-employed’, thereby capturing the unreported, contract, and part time jobs that might not turn up on the Establishment survey. A further advantage of taking information directly from the individual is that the Household survey is able to reflect jobs gained by new business creation—the Establishment survey is slow to reflect new businesses.

Now, there is always a good argument to be made for discussing what the numbers we relentlessly quote actually mean, and especially in campaign season. But the conservatives can’t just leave it at that, admitting that this is a significant trend which we should use to qualify claims about job loss. The mendacious tick is far too deeply ingrained at this point to make a nuanced case for anything. Instead, the story is that job loss is a lie, a fallacy created by those liberal know it alls who lord over and distort both the information and the media that distributes it. Here lies the essence of ideology—the narrative, not the fact, is the thing.

Not that they can or will agree on the explanation for the instantaneous job recovery. Allan Meltzer at AEI had a column in the Journal where he chalked it all up to the new business loophole—lots of companies went under or laid off large numbers of workers in the recession, but these were all picked up by the roaring tide of new business creation, which as mentioned before, is slow to show up in the Establishment survey.

Looking at the big picture, we might ask whether 'wingers leave something to be desired by praising the kinds of jobs whose growth is attested to by the household survey’s rise. Those jobs being created in the ‘jobless’ recovery are decidedly temporary, contract, off the books jobs. This is the disturbing trend dominating the current labor picture. Jobs which expand the ranks of the working poor, do nothing to expand health insurance or other protections, and trap so many Americans in wage subsistence.

I have no doubt the fellas at the Heritage Foundation would accuse one of being 'picky' for 'harping' on that, just as being horrified at the mounting death toll in Iraq is so...negative.

Support this!

Check this out: http://www.georgewbush.com/news/support.aspx, courtesy of Roger Ailes' always surprising blog.

Try not to yarf on your keyboard.

Methinks a good use of everyone's time would be to flood this site with 'testimonials' and copy me or someone so they can be collected. Perhaps something along the lines of:

"I support President Bush because he understands what working people go through. Growing up poor in Midland Texas he learned that they are no free hand outs in life, and he's carried that through to his presidency by ensuring no one in his administration could ever have the slightest conflict of interest with White House policymaking. What's more, he took a strong stand against Saddam Hussein after Saddam bankrolled all those terrorists involved in 9/11. Oh, and he sure does look good in a pair of jeans."


email: solomon_isaacs@yahoo.com
The WSJ editorial page continues to perform its vital public information function with a piece the other day on how taxpayers ought not be deceived into thinking their dollars don't fund public radio. Turns out, there is a nefarious backchannel through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds member stations, who then kick back payments to the unholy NPR mother beast in DC! Did you know? Unconscionable!

I had Veterans Day off the other week and had my first look at daytime TV in some time, and I became very, very, scared. I know these Wall Street Journal people don't actually go in for all the public broadcasting is elitist accusations on a personal level. They 'indulge' in culture just as bad as some of those worthless liberals. I know they are paid to be jerks and they are just doing their jobs. But come on people, its civilization we're talking about here! Public Broadcasting is literally about the last place in the universe you can actually hear about, say, other countries, or unemployment, without having to endure interviews with Britney Spears second cousin in the same segment. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that is an objective standard for a healthy society. I don't mean to be rash, but I'm going to do it. Done.

Solomon Isaacs

If you were wondering...from Noel Coward's Private Lives, Act I:

AMANDA: I won't move from here unless we have a compact, a sacred, sacred compact never to quarrel again.

ELYOT: Easy to make but difficult to keep.

AMANDA: No, no, it's the bickering that always starts it. The moment we notice we're bickering, either of us, we must promise on our honor to stop dead. We'll invent some phrase or catchword, which when either of us says it, automatically cuts off all conversation for at least five minutes.

ELYOT: Two minutes dear, with an option of renewal.

AMANDA: Very well, what shall it be?

ELYOT [hurriedly]: Solomon Isaacs.

AMANDA: All right, that'll do.

ELYOT: Come on, come on.

AMANDA: What shall we do if we meet either of them on the way downstairs?

ELYOT: Run like stags.