Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Our Divided Political Heart by E.J. Dionne

My summer reading list contains a lot of current events and sociopolitical analysis. I've read Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World, and Michael Lewis' Boomerang. Next in the queue is Mann and Ornstein's It's Worse than You Think. Before long, I'll have to read Robert Draper's Ask Not What Good We Do, about the 2010 Freshmen in Congress. These books are all collections of anecdotes, talking points, detailed analysis, and prognostications about one group or another. Granted, they're all more carefully written than the average "Obama is going to destroy the world" books published by Crown or Regnery that fill the shelf at the local Barnes and Noble. But they take a position -- you can agree with it or challenge it, but you know where they stand and what they'd do.

The end of last month, my morning read of higher ed and politics led me to E.J. Dionne's column in the Washington Post. This one caught my attention immediately. While I always enjoy Dionne's writing, this was reaching chords that run long and deep. Two days later, I ran across a review for Our Divided Political Heart written by Jeff Greenfield, former ABC political commentator who I've always trusted. I ordered my copy from Amazon that day.

From the very beginning, I knew this was a different book from what I've been reading. Dionne has made an argument that draws deeply on our national identity not as we imagine it today but as it has actually been throughout our history. As such, it has more in common with Habits of the Heart or Democracy in America that with the standard "isn't politics awful" writing (including some of Dionne's early works). It is a work of political philosophy, sociological analysis, and deep moral vision. While he critiques those on the right for mis-stating pieces of American tradition, he also challenges those on the left for not appropriately drawing from those traditions to inform their positions.

Here's his essential argument from the introduction.
At the heart of this book is a view that American history is defined by an irrepressible and ongoing tension between two core values: our love of individualism and our reverence for community. These values do not simply face off against each other. There is not a party of "individualism" competing at election time against a party of "community". Rather, both of these values animate the consciousness and consciences of nearly all Americans. Both are essential to the American story and America's strength. Both interact, usually fruitfully, sometimes uncomfortably, with that other bedrock American-value, equality, whose meaning we debate in every generation. (4)

While he begins his analysis with an examination of today's Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street Movements, he uses these as jumping off points. It is possible to find similar arguments from much earlier in our country's history that sound exactly like the claims of today. Because when we get to a point of imbalance in this tenuous relationship between individualism and community (which he also rightly refers to as liberal -- in the enlightenment sense of rational individuals -- and republican -- which refers to our belief in the greater good of the republic and not the political party), our political house falls into disrepair.

He does still examine hot button political issues. He uses the Supreme Court decisions of Bush v. Gore and Citizens United which bookended the first decade of this century as an illustration of what happens when we lose the community side of the equation. But he draws fascinating parallels with the Reconstruction period, the Populist Movements of the early 20th century, the New Deal and its aftermath, the Reagan years, and George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism." By using the work of political historians and civic philosophers, he's able to demonstrate the repetition of the same themes again and again.

It's something of a national Groundhog Day. We trot out the old arguments as if we're having them for the first time. In doing so, we remain ignorant of the important civic threads the other side is building arguments from. He calls for a fully informed understanding of issues of the Founders (who argued among themselves on the issue of balance and equality) and the carefully articulated positions of leaders like Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt (there's a fabulous section summarizing a book by former New York senator Jacob Javits that uses these four as a central theme in a moderate Republican's leadership philosophy). He reminds us that from the earliest days of our nation, we struggled for the right balance between a comprehensive government (after the Articles of Confederation fell apart) and individual freedoms.

In a compelling illustration he recounts Bill Clinton's use of the penny to tell our national story:
"Take a penny from your pocket," Clinton said. "On one side, next to Lincoln's portrait is a single word: 'Liberty'. On the other side is our national motto. It says, 'E Pluribus Unum' -- 'Out of Many, One'. It does not say, 'Every man for himself'. That humble penny," he would continue, is an explicit declaration -- one you can carry around in your pocket -- that America is about both individual liberty and community obligation. These two commitments -- to protect personal freedom and to seek common ground -- are the coin of our realm, the measure of our worth." (70-71)

What we have today, Dionne argues, is a partially formed understanding of that great American tradition. When the essential balance is lost and then distorted by media, internet, and personal isolation from those we disagree with, we feel as if we've lost our way. But he suggests that the way back is not overthrow of the government, dismantling of the New Deal, or mandated rights on behalf of the disenfranchised. The way back is to acknowledge the complexity of the American idea referred to in the subtitle. It's a call not for winner take all but for us to find our common language.

My final analysis is that this is a remarkably important book. But it's not just political philosophy or civic history. On finishing, I realized that it provides the context for political debate. I could imagine a candidate for office articulating not simple talking points, but the deep traditions of individualism and community that have run throughout our nation's history. I'm an optimist, but I find myself thinking that "the American people" would actually respond to such a commitment to balance. It's not simple compromise but rather a deeper willingness to wade into the stream of American tradition and find our place afresh.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Killing the Lie about 8% Unemployment

My overall goal in this blog is to encourage people to expect their leaders to tell them the truth. If they lie, they should be held accountable at the polls. But when they repeat the lie over and over, it takes real effort to provide the rebuttal. The lie is quick and catchy. The reality is nuanced and has to be explained. But it's worth the effort.

Yesterday in Cincinnati, Mitt Romney said the following: “The president said that if we let him borrow $787 billion for a stimulus, he'd keep unemployment below 8 percent nationally. We've now gone 40 straight months with unemployment above 8 percent.” This talking point has been called out by fact-checking sites so many times, it's simply amazing that it's still there. Glenn Kessler of the Post has given it multiple pinochios, Politifact has rated it "mostly false" every time it's been reported. 

The general explanation goes like this: In January of 2009, Christina Romer (chair-designate of the council of economic advisors) wrote a report outlining why a stimulus was needed. In the report is a now infamous graph showing what would happen if there was no stimulus and what would happen if there was one. 

Critics have repeatedly jumped on the fact that the curve peaks in March 2009 (end of the first quarter) at 7.9% This, they say, is the president's promise. It sometimes gets characterized as a campaign promise, which is wrong on two levels -- first, he didn't say it and second, this report came in two months after the election.

The fact-checking folks have observed that while Romer did put this in the report, she also had the appropriate "best guess" disclaimers. As Kessler observes, the first page of text in the report (which is page 2) closes with the following paragraph:

"It should be understood that all of the estimates presented in this memo are subject to significant 
margins of error.  There is the obvious uncertainty that comes from modeling a hypothetical 
package rather than the final legislation passed by the Congress.  But, there is the more fundamental 
uncertainty that comes with any estimate of the effects of a program.  Our estimates of economic 
relationships and rules of thumb are derived from historical experience and so will not apply exactly 
in any given episode.  Furthermore, the uncertainty is surely higher than normal now because the 
current recession is unusual both in its fundamental causes and its severity."

Clearly, even with the disclaimers, Romer's report was overly glowing. And from a purely political standpoint, it's awful to have something so easily quoted lying around. 

But I'm struck with an even more intriguing critique of the Romer argument that further underscores the deception of the Romney campaign and his surrogates. Romer's projection is not simply rosy with regard to the impact of a stimulus -- its rosy in terms of No Stimulus. The very chart that critiques delight in quoting misses the top end of unemployment by 1.2% (10.2 vs. 9.0). As others have explained, the data she was using was from the middle of 2008. By early 2009, things were worse than those previous projections would suggest.

I charted the data above against the actual unemployment rate for the same period. Here's what that shows:

What's striking is that the slope on the actual unemployment rate between 2008 and 2009 was far more aggressive that previous data would suggest. How do we add that reality to Romer's disclaimers? One quick way to do this is to imagine adjusting the bottom two curves upward so that the green line follows the blue one. To do that, I just added 1% to both curves. Here's how that comes out.

Even with this adjustment, Romer's prediction is still too rosy. There are two other pieces to understanding why the unemployment rate didn't fall as fast as she expected. First, there was much of the stimulus bill that got structured as tax cuts which helped it get passed by Congress. But in that very first page of the report critics like to quote, Romer says the following:

"Tax cuts, especially temporary ones, and fiscal relief to the states are likely to create 
fewer jobs than direct increases in government purchases.  However, because there is a 
limit on how much government investment can be carried out efficiently in a short time 
frame, and because tax cuts and state relief can be implemented quickly, they are crucial 
elements of any package aimed at easing economic distress quickly."

So the stimulus wasn't as stimulative as it might have been. Here's the second piece, two bullet points down:

"More than 90 percent of the jobs created are likely to be in the private sector.  Many of 
the government jobs are likely to be professionals whose jobs are saved from state and 
local budget cuts by state fiscal relief."

As I pointed out in my post from last week, government jobs have not been held safe. We have shed them at an unprecedented pace. What happens if you put those back in? Estimates are that it lowers the unemployment rate by about 1%. Here's how Talking Points Memo summarized it.

Can you see where the bottom right side of the TPM chart ends? Right where my adjusted Romer chart would come in.

So let's review: 1) the president never promised 8% unemployment; 2) the estimate was based on incomplete data that underestimated the size of the problem (which was acknowledged at the time); 3) tax cuts aren't as stimulative as other projects; 4) loss of government workers masks other improvements.

This claim is not just technically false as the fact-checkers point out. It is demonstrably false. It should not be repeated by anyone who has a commitment to truth-telling.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

An Open Letter to Turner Broadcasting President Phil Kent

Dear Mr. Kent:

I was interested to read in yesterday's Huffington Post that "CNN is considering leadership changes in wake of ratings woes".  The story reports how the current president's contract is up for renewal and implies that some major changes are called for. Allow me to make some suggestions about the direction you might consider in looking for a replacement.

1. It is essential that CNN return to its place as "the most trusted name in news". The contrast between the caliber of your news coverage during the first Gulf War and more recent years is very disappointing. What made the Gulf coverage so amazing was that you had people on the ground sharing information that couldn't be found anywhere else. Today too much of your coverage is about what people think about what might be happening and what that might mean. You really need to return to value-added reporting.

2. This is an opportunity for CNN to foreswear "gotcha" journalism. Too much of modern broadcast journalism is designed to catch someone off guard or to spark a conflict between candidates. Bernard Shaw questioning Michael Dukakis about someone raping his wife was a forerunner of what is now commonplace. Instead, it would be great to have your anchors asking candidates about their policy positions. When Senators and Congresspeople are on, they could be asked about the specifics of legislation and how they hope to see their views represented in legislation that could pass both chambers and be signed by the president (whichever parties are represented).

3. Stop using pundits all the time. Too much of the broadcast news day is spent with people filling time. The positions that are shared appear to be predictably shaped by ideology and not any data. Too many opinions are shared with more confidence that the situation calls for. And lose the retired military spokespeople. They have personal interests and too often speak without any current information. In the long run they confuse more than they help.

4. The rise of fact-checking provides an opportunity for CNN to incorporate an educational role into its work. Let Fox News and MSNBC reflect ideological views. CNN should instead take the role of clarifying claims made on the other networks. If you focus on what actual data reflects in terms of employment patterns, economic growth, issues in Europe, or struggles in states and cities, you could show that your journalistic commitments rise above talking points.

5. Scale back your reliance on technological gimmicks. Much of what you've done in terms of real-time data during elections is great. On the other hand, holographic images of the Tampa convention just look silly. Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should. If it doesn't have added informational value, just let your anchors talk. And for goodness sake, stop with the tweet and e-mail reports. Isolated comments from random citizens does not add to the information flow. If you are to be "the most trusted name in news" it won't be because we heard form Joe Smith in Topeka. If I want to know what my neighbors think, I can ask them. But I never think they're giving me news.

6. Dedicate times of your day to human interest or entertainment news and keep those separate from the hard news reporting. The Today Show can enjoy jumping from the debt ceiling to Kim Kardashian, but a news network shouldn't do that. If there's real breaking news of national or international scope (which doesn't mean simply good helicopter footage of a local issue) you can come on at the relevant point in your reporting when you have solid information to share. Don't come on live television and speculate incessantly during a developing story.

6. Stop trying to fight the media bias fight. It has become commonplace for those who criticize the news to argue that the media is biased. Some very good press reporting recently has examined the claim and shown that bias is claimed when people don't get their personal views endorsed. What that suggests is that you will always be accused of bias. So quit worrying about it and focus on quality information. The Crossfire days were the forerunners of today's 24 hour ideology television. It's good that you moved away from that. The necessary information for an informed democracy doesn't divide by political party. Your role is to hold to reporting.

7. I recognize that you operate in a highly competitive environment and that ratings drive your economic success. So the solution for you is to go where the hole is in the marketplace. Between Fox News and MSNBC, the Huffington Post and the Daily Caller, the New York Times and the National Review, the Daily Kos and the Drudge Report, people have lots of opportunity for hearing only what they want to hear. So why watch CNN? Because it's "the most trusted name in News". It's the place where you get to see how the ideas you hear on your preferred sites test out against reality.

8. Recognize that it's hard to fill 24 hours a day. That big hold that demands attention is what feeds the fluff stories and the incessant pontificating. Do your best to develop careful stories, factually based, providing personal impact illustrations. Tell the truth and demand the same of those you interview. If your guest spins a talking point, ask the follow up question. Your anchors (especially Soledad O'Brian, Wolf Blitzer, and Anderson Cooper) have tried to do this but it too often gets played as if they have personal opinions that simply disagree with the speaker. Avoid the personal. Make use of existing fact-checking sources and let your guests know that they should expect to be challenged with they trot out their favorite previously-disputed talking point.

I end this where i started. There is today a golden opportunity for CNN to return to an earlier period of glory. It has the potential to do what no one else is doing. If it can do that, it might even reshape some of the other networks and websites. And I'd return as a viewer and gladly listen for James Earl Jones to tell me "This is CNN".



Friday, June 8, 2012

"I'm altering the deal. Pray I don't alter it any further."

The quote in the title, of course, comes from The Empire Strikes Back. Lando Calrissian had made a deal with Darth Vader -- he'd allow Han Solo to be taken in exchange for protecting Princess Leia and Chewbacca. But when the event actually came, Vader ordered everyone taken into captivity. When Lando argued that they had a deal, Vader said this line. Here's a quick clip to refresh your memory.

This line has been ringing in my head since the election on Tuesday. Not only did Scott Walker survive his recall vote, but in California, San Diego and San Jose both passed citizen initiatives to reduce pensions for city workers. The Wisconsin legislature stripped public workers of collective bargaining rights last year. The citizens of San Diego and San Jose say that public workers will not have to pay up to 16% of their own salaries to support their pension plans. Comments on the Wall Street Journal's page Tuesday night were ripe with anti-union sentiment, gleeful in their victory.

There is no denying that the costs of those pension plans have risen dramatically in recent decades. This is a function of early retirement ages in demanding jobs followed by increased longevity. The first attempts to control this were done by reducing pension plans for new hires but grandfathering the other employees. But that was not sufficient to support the plans put together by previous administrations.

Michael Lewis' Boomerang examines the bursting of financial bubbles in Iceland, Ireland, Greece, and California. His last chapter includes details on the pension problems of San Jose and nearby Vallejo, both of whom have seen their police and fire departments decimated, their libraries cut back, and their roads in disrepair.

Critics will suggest that these pensions were the result of the ties between public sector unions and Democratic mayors. There is little evidence that this is a complete explanation. The more realistic explanation is that cities struggled to pay workers what they thought was a fair wage in light of their service. So they offered improved payout over the long haul to avoid layoffs and service cuts without increasing tax revenue.

Today, public sentiment has turned against those workers. They are readily vilified for being greedy. Why, people ask, should they receive more money that those working in the private sector? The first answer is that they don't. No one is arguing that we should have some kind of maximum salary allocation (ask Jamie Dimon, who seems sure of his salary in spite of a loss of over $2 BILLION at J.P. Morgan). How did we turn on police, fire, city, and education workers? (As Colbert said the other night, "suck it, people who teach our kids!") The second answer is that we did this because we recognized that the work could be dangerous (for fire and police workers, just as it was for coal miners and meatpackers) and that we needed to provide more pay due to the risk of disability (which is why NFL players make so much).

Michael Lewis quotes the San Jose mayor, who argues that cities thought that money would continue to flow -- that the internet boom in Northern California would run forever. But money dried up. People moved away. Property values dropped. And new revenue was politically unwelcome.

Those in power then did what those in power do, which is where Vader comes in. The negotiation that took place was what we call an asymmetric negotiation. Power was not evenly distributed. It's true that an agreement existed between the parties, but it was not balanced. There is nothing holding the powerful figure (Vader or the citizens of San Diego) from changing the deal. When challenged, the response is "pray we don't alter it further".

An April report from the Economic Policy Institute summarizes the impact. Since June of 2009, private sector jobs are up by a net 2.8 million jobs. In contrast, public sector jobs are DOWN by 584,000. My conservative friends worry about our government "picking winners and losers". But we have clearly done so. And this is a new trend. The EPI piece includes the following chart showing how previous recessions dealt with the public sector.

I'm not suggesting that we don't have financial issues that need attention. I'm just saying that people entered into agreements in good faith and now they're being rescinded. And the workers are left in exactly the same place as Lando Calrissian. Which wasn't quite as bad as Han Solo's predicament. But what kind of heroic move will restore the relationship that we have so badly damaged?

Lewis reports that the city of Vallejo now has 67 firefighters for a city of 120,000 people. The mayor of San Jose estimated that by 2014 the city of a million people will be served by 1,600 people. The thing that troubles me is that these remaining folks will still be blamed as greedy and self-interested.

I just pray we don't alter the deal further.