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June 25, 2006
Respect Must Be Paid
By DAVID BROOKS
Karl Rove is back in command and the right wing is on the attack again. This piece of character assassination most likely presages a new round of venom aimed directly at those individuals and institutions most likely to institute change in the American government over the next couple of years. It's no accident that this piece comes only a couple of days after the Republican Congress has begun a new series of attacks on those remaining liberal institutions in America.
One other point: If you'll notice, there is no politics in this column, no mention or discussion of any political ideas. Administration/Republican propagandists go out of their way to charge the opposition with "Bush-hating," but those columns and blogs are really all about policy in the context of Bush himself. This is, pure and simple, a personal attack.
They say that the great leaders are gone and politics has become the realm of the small-minded. But in the land of the Lilliputians, the Keyboard Kingpin must be accorded full respect.
The Keyboard Kingpin, a k a Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, sits at his computer, fires up his Web site, Daily Kos, and commands his followers, who come across like squadrons of rabid lambs, to unleash their venom on those who stand in the way. And in this way the Kingpin has made himself a mighty force in his own mind, and every knee shall bow.
The Keyboard Kingpin, a k a David Brooks, sits at his computer, fires up his twice-weekly column on the Op Ed page of the New York Times, and pontificates to fellow right-wingers, who come across like squadrons of rabid dogs to unleash their venom on those who stand in their way. And in this way David Brooks has made himself a mighty force in his own mind, and every knee shall bow.
While we’re on the subject of venom, let’s talk Ann Coulter, who thinks liberals should be shot as traitors. Or Michael Savage, who has made similar comments. Nor is Zuniga, as Brooks says later on, Tom Delay, a crook who used religion and patriotism to sell out America to the highest bidder. The projections in Brooks' paragraph are frightening, but par for the course.
In response, there are hundreds, nay thousands of blogs out there, most of which have not achieved a readership of much size --- this one included. But the Daily Kos actually did it. Markos Moulitsas is far more than a force “in his own mind.” He’s actually made a difference. What makes this column particularly unnerving and disgusting is that there are hardly any outlets in the mainstream media for ANYBODY with a liberal perspective. Thus, the only way to be heard is by blogging.
The Kingpin's first enemy was the Democratic Party establishment, and it pleased him to see Howard Dean take it on. When the Dean campaign hired the Kingpin and his co-author and onetime business partner Jerome Armstrong as paid campaign consultants, this was an appropriate sign of respect, and the Kingpin did lay his hand of blog approval upon the Dean campaign (while disclosing the connection).
Brooks has it in for Howard Dean and his propaganda invention, “Deanism.” This is a framing device to marginalize anyone outside the DLC corporate establishment.
When Sherrod Brown, the Democratic Senate candidate in Ohio, hired Armstrong last year to help with his campaign, this was also a sign of respect. The Kingpin had instructed his Kossack cultists to support Brown's Democratic primary rival, Paul Hackett. But the Kingpin switched sides and backed Brown over his former anointee.
Note “Kossack cultists.” Brooks is talking out of his ass here. Markos Moulitsas is a respected pundit because so many people read his blog and take his words to heart. Moulitsas has tapped a nerve and has a following. What should Democrats looking toward their base do? Listen to the right-wing blatherers on talk radio or the “centrists” interviewed regularly on the networks? If David Brooks wants people like Markos Moulitsas to have less power in American politics, then he should lobby hard for a greater voice for the American left (or what passes for the American left) in the mainstream media. Fat chance. This is about silencing (or marginalizing) all populist voices in the Democratic Party.
The Kingpin often directs his wrath at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. But the centrist Democrat Mark Warner has also hired Armstrong as a consultant, and the Kingpin has graciously exempted Warner from the seventh circle of Kos hell. Warner is frequently celebrated on Daily Kos as something akin to the second coming of F.D.R.
And so it is in the realm of the Kingpin. Those who offer respect get respected.
As opposed to what? Fox News? No, that’s respected because…well, just because.
But lo, there are doubters. Chris Suellentrop, who writes the Opinionator column on TimesSelect, posted an item on June 16 noting the strange correlation between Armstrong contracts and Kos endorsements. He further reported that the S.E.C. has filed court documents alleging that in 2000 Armstrong touted a dubious software stock on a Web site in exchange for secret payments. Armstrong was accused of building Internet buzz to make money for himself.
The Keyboard Kingpin was displeased by this publicity.
But the Sachem of the Blogosphere restrained his mighty wrath and responded with the cleverness for which he is so justly self-adored. In a private letter to hundreds of his fellow progressive bloggers, the Kingpin declared he would "go on the offensive" in a "couple of months," but in the meantime, a code of omertà was in order. "It would make my life easier if we can confine the story," he wrote. "If any of us blog on this right now, we fuel the story. Let's starve it of oxygen."
But alas! There was a Judas on the listserve, who leaked the Kingpin's missive to Jason Zengerle, who promptly posted a report on The New Republic Web site.
The Kingpin waxed Cheneyesque on the evils of leaking, and this time the squeaking fury of the Kossacks could be heard (to those capable of discerning high frequencies) far and wide. The Kingpin excommunicated The New Republic from the community of the saved. "If you still hold a subscription to that magazine, it really is time to call it quits. If you see it in a magazine rack, you might as well move it behind the National Review," he wrote on Daily Kos.
"The New Republic betrayed, once again, that it seeks to destroy the new people-powered movement for the sake of its Lieberman-worshiping neocon owners," the Kingpin charged. And so the magazine of Walter Lippmann was expunged from the community of the righteous, and its writers cast into the shadow of oblivion.
Swift Boating is a common attack scheme of the American right wing. However, it should be noted that this column is really about nothing at akk. Brooks is merely accusing Markos Moulitsas of playing hardball (assuming any of these charges have a basis in reality). One can argue that if Moulitsas did not play hardball, Brooks could have written a column attacking him for being a wimp. Notice there's nothing here about taking millions under the table from lobbyists, as Ralph Reed did. Or pimping for a construction company, as Duke Cunningham did. Or pocketing secret handouts, as those right-wing commentators did from the Bush Administration. Or saying the New York Times building should be blown up, as Ann Coulter did. But hey, if you can only find a few lemons, you still make lemonade.
The Kingpin is not surprised by such betrayals. Sounding like Tom DeLay — who is his moral doppelgänger — Kos says that those who crash the gates and take on the establishment are bound to be attacked.
But the truth is that the new boss is little different from the old boss — only smaller. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi and many other Democrats bow and scrape. He has managed to spread the gospel of Kossism far and wide, which is not really about ideas and philosophy. "I'm just all about winning," he has said.
And so the Kingpin has his relationships and his understandings and his networks and his compromises. In just a few short years he has achieved a level of self-importance it took those in the pre-blog political class decades to acquire.
He has challenged his enemy and become it.
And thus one of the primary voices of the Democratic Party base has, as stated above, been marginalized. Once again: Democrats should NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER let the enemy define who they are. David Brooks is a right-wing corporate propagandist who will say anything to achieve his goals.
It behooves the reader to discover the truth about the daily kos. For new readers to the blog, here is an explanation of what the Daily Kos is (contriboturs include far more than Markos Moulitsas}.
June 22, 2006
Our World Cup Edge
By DAVID BROOKS
Going into today's World Cup match against Ghana, no American player has managed to put a ball into the back of the net, but the U.S. team does lead the world in one vital category: college degrees.
Most of the American players attended college. Eddie Pope went to the University of North Carolina, Kasey Keller attended the University of Portland and Marcus Hahnemann went to Seattle Pacific.
Many of the elite players from the rest of the world, on the other hand, were pulled from regular schools at early ages and sent to professional training academies. Among those sharp-elbowed, hypercompetitive Europeans, for example, Zinedine Zidane was playing for A.S. Cannes by age 16, Luis Figo was playing for Sporting Lisbon at 17, and David Beckham attended Tottenham Hotspur's academy and signed with Manchester United as a trainee at 16.
Soccer is not a popular spectator sport in America, and most attempts at professional soccer leagues in this country have spent their existences on life-support. There are no professional training academies for poor soccer players in America because there’s no money in it. “Sandlot” soccer barely exists in America. Thus, soccer players here learn their sport in high school and college, the only places with decent competition, and it is pretty much only college players who will have the experience to make an American World Cup team. Without a future high-income American venue, it’s not likely a college player would drop out and become professional. Ergo, these players get their degrees.
The difference in preparation is probably bad for America's World Cup prospects, but it's good for America's economic and political prospects.
The difference in preparation has absolutely nothing to do with America’s economic and political prospects. It has everything to do with this society’s view toward soccer.
That's because the difference in soccer training is part of a bigger phenomenon. American universities play a much broader social role than do universities elsewhere around the world. They not only serve as the training grounds for professional athletes, unthinkable in most other nations, they also contribute more to the cultures and economies around them.
The phenomenon Brooks describes may exist, but soccer has nothing to do with it.
The American university system was born with expansionist genes. As early Americans spread out across the frontier, they created not only new religious sects, but new colleges, too. The Dartmouth College case of 1819 restricted government's efforts to interfere in higher education. As the centuries rolled on, government did more to finance higher education, starting with the Morrill Land Grant College Act of 1862, but the basic autonomy of colleges and universities was preserved. They remained, and remain, spirited competitors in the marketplace of ideas, status, talent and donations.
The European system, by contrast, is state-dominated and uncompetitive. During the 19th century, governments in Spain, France and Germany abolished the universities' medieval privileges of independence. Governments took over funding and control, and imposed radical egalitarian agendas. Universities could not select students on merit, and faculty members became civil servants.
Brooks is painting the story in very broad strokes here. While it's certainly true that the American higher educational system has been an astouding success since its early days, the reasons may (or may not) be as Brooks suggests. A place to start examining Brooks' theses is at Wikipedia and its links.
The upshot is that the competitive American universities not only became the best in the world — 8 out of the top 10 universities are American — they also remained ambitious and dynamic. They are much more responsive to community needs.
Not only have they created ambitious sports programs to build character among students and a sense of solidarity across the community, they also offer a range of extracurricular activities and student counseling services unmatched anywhere else. While the arts and letters faculties are sometimes politically cloistered, the rest of the university programs are integrated into society, performing an array of social functions.
They serve as business incubation centers (go to Palo Alto). With their cultural and arts programs, they serve as retiree magnets (go to Charlottesville). With their football teams, they bind communities and break down social distinctions (people in Alabama are fiercely loyal to the Crimson Tide, even though most have not actually attended the university).
State-dominated European universities, by contrast, cast much smaller shadows. A Centre for European Reform report noted "a drab uniformity" across the systems. Talented professors leave. Funding lags. Antibusiness snobbery limits entrepreneurial activity. Research suffers. In the first half of the 20th century, 73 percent of Nobel laureates were based in Europe. Between 1995 and 2004, 19 percent were.
Comment from journalist Jeffrey Obser: What Brooks doesn't mention is how vastly superior European primary and secondary education is -- so much better, in fact, that your average EU citizen with no college experience is better read and more capable of critical thinking than many Americans currently grinding through the degree mill and assuming 80 grand in debt while they're at it.
The two systems offer a textbook lesson in how to and how not to use government. In one system, the state supports local autonomy and private creativity. In the other, the state tries to equalize, but merely ends up centralizing and stultifying. This contrast might be worth dwelling upon as we contemplate health care reform, K-12 education reform and anything else government might touch.
The American collegiate system is a mix of public and private funding, and its success has been dependent on affordable college education for nearly all college-worthy students. With the increased cost of a university education, coupled with the oppressive weight of student loans, that system is beginning to fail. More and more Americans can no longer afford a college education. The system still works, but for how long?
The profit motive has made America the greatest place on the planet for high-end health care and innovation. Of course, only the very rich can take advantage of that, and the middle and lower classes are screwed by a system that's just not working.
America is fast becoming a two-tiered country: the wealthy and everybody else, the Middle Class being squeezed out of existence. The community that Brooks extols in columns like this is fast disappearing, thanks to pundits like David Brooks. The irony is that he has spent the last two decades trashing the liberal humanist society that produced this education system of which he so heartily approves, and in its place he argues for a new society that is even now destroying all that made America great.
The dynamic American university system is now undergoing yet another revolution — globalization. More foreign students are coming to the U.S., and more want to stay after they get their degrees.
This is bound to be great for American society. It will probably do almost nothing for our future World Cup.
Not necessarily. It might very well create an upsurge in interest in soccer in the United States because so many of these new students love soccer, which could help America’s future World Cup chances. Which again, has nothing to do with how American universities treat sport.
June 20, 2006
The SWAT Syndrome
By JOHN TIERNEY
Of all the excuses for weakening the Fourth Amendment, the weirdest was the one offered by Justice Antonin Scalia last week in a Michigan drug case.
He wrote the majority opinion allowing police officers to use evidence found in a home even if they entered without following the venerable rule to knock first and announce themselves. To reassure traditionalists, Scalia declared that unreasonable searches are less of a problem today because of "the increasing professionalism of police forces."
Well, it's true that when police show up at your home in the middle of the night, they're better armed and trained than ever. They now routinely arrive with assault rifles, flash grenades and battering rams.
So if your definition of a professional is a soldier in a war zone, then Scalia is right. The number of paramilitary raids has soared in the past two decades as cities, suburbs and small towns have rushed to assemble their very own SWAT teams.
Some police veterans complain about "militarizing Mayberry," and can't figure out why towns averaging one homicide a decade need paramilitary units. But younger cops like the glamour — our very own SWAT team, just like on TV! Who wants to patrol a beat when you could be playing commando?
And who can resist free gear from Washington? Congress encouraged the SWAT syndrome by directing the Pentagon to give local police departments old machine guns, armed personnel carriers and helicopters. The federal government has also helped subsidize drug raids and encouraged locals to be aggressive by letting them keep a cut of the drug dealers' assets.
The SWAT teams were originally supposed to deal with extraordinary threats, like hostage situations, snipers and heavily armed drug gangs. Since 9/11, of course, they've been justified for combating terrorists. But such situations are so rare that the teams have had to invent new missions to keep busy — and to pay for their operations by finding assets to seize.
Most of the time they're used simply to carry out searches for drugs, often on the basis of dubious tips from informants, often against small-time dealers and other people with no history of violence. The commandos have a proclivity for going to the wrong address, and they tend to be impatient with anything that gets in their way. In articles about SWAT raids, a motif is the shooting of family pets in front of children.
It's hard to know how many botched and unnecessary raids there have been, because police don't systematically track their errors, and the victims often have little recourse. But in a forthcoming report for the Cato Institute, Radley Balko concludes that mistakes have been made in more than 200 raids over the past decade.
He finds that overzealous raiders caused the deaths of a dozen nonviolent offenders, like recreational marijuana smokers and gamblers. In a Virginia suburb of Washington earlier this year, an optometrist being investigated for betting on sports was standing unarmed outside his town house, offering no resistance, when a SWAT officer's rifle discharged and killed him.
Balko also finds that two dozen people died in raids who were not guilty of any crime, like a Mexican immigrant killed by Denver police raiding the wrong home. Some died because they understandably assumed the masked invaders were criminals and picked up weapons to defend themselves. Some were innocent bystanders, like an 11-year-old boy shot in Modesto, Calif., and a 57-year-old woman in Harlem who had a heart attack when police set off a flash grenade during a raid based on a faulty tip.
"Prosecutors typically let police officers off the hook when they mistakenly shoot a civilian," Balko says, "on the theory that mistakes are understandable during the confusion of a raid. Fair enough. But civilians don't get the same deference. My research shows that when someone on the other end of a botched raid mistakes a police officer for an intruder and shoots in self-defense, his odds of facing jail time are about one in two."
The best way to avoid these mistakes would be to save SWAT teams for real crises and let police execute search warrants the old-fashioned way. They could find out, for instance, if they're at the wrong address before anyone pulls the trigger.
But thanks to the Supreme Court, they now have less reason to knock first and shoot later. They can be more professional than ever.
Even though it was obvious John Roberts and Samuel Alito were in favor of more government intrusion in personal lives, pundits like John Tierney pushed and supported their nominations because they were also in favor of less government regulation of corporations. Well, John, you reap what you sow.
June 18, 2006
Pessimism Without Panic
By DAVID BROOKS
Frank Rich in today's Times put this column in perspective (though he certainly hadn't read it when he did). With Karl Rove back in charge of administration propaganda, everyone is back on-message. And that message: the Iraq War. So it's not surprising that the Republican majority in the House won their "debate" over the war; nor that Bush himself snuck into Baghdad and looked the Iraqi Prime Minister "in the eye." Nor is it surprising that David Brooks, knee-jerk sycophant and flunky that he is, would follow suit.. (Nor that one would expect John Tierney to do the same in at least one of his columns this week). The problem is, how long will people believe this shit? To paraphrase Scotty in Star Trek (and not GW a few years back), "fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." Rove seems to think you can fool the American people an unlimited number of times.
It should be noted that despite Brooks' staying on message in this column, dig a little and it's pretty clear his message is at best a tepid one and at worst at cross purposes to Rove's playbook.
The war in Iraq is more than three years old and I'm still no military expert. Fortunately, I've found people who are.
I've formed my own personal War Council, composed of 20 or 30 people whose judgments have been vindicated by events, whose analysis is based on firsthand knowledge and not partisan desire. Some members of my War Council I've never spoken to, while others grow weary when they hear my voice yet again on the phone. But I clip their reports, study their pronouncements and my mood tracks the ebbs and flows of their wisdom.
All the members of my unwitting council have grown more pessimistic over the past year. Some believe the odds of eventual success are over 50 percent, others believe they are well under. But none have said it's time to admit defeat and withdraw.
Straw man time here. Very few people are saying we should immediately withdraw. As Frank Rich makes clear in his column, many leading Democrats are terrified of even calling for a phased withdrawal to take place over several months and to begin at some future yet-to-be-determined date.
Tepid alert: Brooks uses the words "some" and "others," which would make one think the division is split 50-50. It may or it may not be. Could be that five people think the odds are good, and the rest bad, or vice versa. In any event, less than 50% odds is not good under any circumstances, and everyone is more pessimistic now than they were a year ago.
Their faith that success is still plausible is based on a few key realities. First, the morale of American forces remains high. As Barry McCaffrey, a retired general, reported after his recent trip to Iraq, "In every sensing session and interaction (with U.S. forces), I probed for weakness and found courage, belief in the mission, enormous confidence in their sergeants and company grade officers."
From Wikipedia: McCaffrey is well-known for having been Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) under President Bill Clinton from 1996 to 2001. As Drug Czar, General McCaffrey (ret.) was instrumental in negotiating a deal to place anti-drug messages in prime time television shows without acknowledging that these messages were paid for by his Office. This created quite a scandal when it was revealed in Salon.com, and the practice was later declared illegal by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under President George W. Bush. For those looking at such things, McCaffrey was Bradley Professor of of International Security Studies at the U.S. Military Academy from 2001-2005. The Bradley Foundation is one of the leading funders of the "vast right-wing conspiracy."
Second, Iraqi forces are performing with increasing competence. While the first attempt to train an Iraqi military was a bust, there are now roughly 235,000 Iraqi troops. Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments notes that these Iraqi troops, though often underequipped, do not run from combat and have not betrayed American advisers. They have fought and led the fighting, courageously and effectively.
Of course, Krepinevich is far less sanguine about the future of America's own military forces.
Third, the U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, has helped pull off a political miracle. The December election results seemed to favor fundamentalists, but he and the Iraqis have put together a credible government that cuts across sectarian divides and has roots in different communities. The Times's übercorrespondent, John Burns, recently told Charlie Rose that he was originally skeptical that legitimate Sunni leaders would really be willing to play a productive role in this government, but he is beginning to think he was wrong. "The Sunni Arab component of this new government is serious," he said.
Fourth, the Iraqi people are not irreparably divided. Phebe Marr of the U.S. Institute of Peace returned from Iraq and reported that while the situation "certainly has deteriorated" and was "teetering on the brink," there was a sensible center. As she told the Council on Foreign Relations after time in Baghdad: "Almost everybody I know is appalled by this. First of all, they don't like the violence. Second of all, they really don't want the sectarian war."
Tepid alert: the situation "certainly has deteriorated" and is "teetering on the brink,"
Fifth, the new Iraqi government is at least trying to create competent administrative structures outside the Green Zone. "If I was a betting man, I'd have to say the odds are against success, but they are better now than they were three months ago, that's for sure," Burns told Charlie Rose.
Tepid alert: "If I was a betting man, I'd have to say the odds are against success."
Sixth, now that the Iraqis have a legitimate government and a functioning military, operations are beginning to execute the "clear, hold and build" strategy announced last fall.
My War Council is divided on what America's role in these operations should be. Some argue that U.S. forces are an irritant and should be kept in the background so as not to alienate Iraqis. A growing number feel that Iraqis hate anarchy more than U.S. troops, and that American forces have to move out of their bases and onto the streets if security is going to be restored.
But all agree the insurgency can be suppressed if there are enough boots on the ground, or as Marine Lt. Col. Norman Cooling told Stars and Stripes: "The insurgent activity is directly proportional to the force density in the area. But that force density doesn't have to be American."
Seventh, the White House is finally holding wide-open debates on how to proceed. Four War Council members — Frederick Kagan, Michael Vickers, Eliot Cohen and Robert Kaplan — were recently invited to Camp David for a forceful exchange with President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and the generals over how to use American forces. This is a promising sign of defense policy perestroika.
David Brooks seems to have forgotten that time so long ago --- three months perhaps --- when Bush invited several former Secretarys of State to the White House for a "summit." As Madeline Albright said, he didn't listen to any of them.
In Washington, some blog-pleasing politicians think we should quickly leave Iraq. Iraqi leaders disagree. And the analysts whose judgment has withstood the test of reality think withdrawal would be disastrous.
Once again, the straw man. Outside of Cindy Sheehan and a portion of the antiwar movement (and maybe not even Cindy Sheehan believes this), nobody says we should "quickly leave Iraq," not even Bob Herbert, Paul Krugman, Frank Rich or any other liberal commentators. They all talk about a timed withdrawal.
If this column is the best "on message" propaganda piece that David Brooks can write about Iraq, boy, is Bush in trouble. I mean, really: "The odds are against success," "The situation is teetering on the brink," "Others believe success is well under 50% possible."
There are no optimists among my gurus. But there is no hopelessness either. After three years, I've learned to trust the pessimists who refuse to panic.
Hey, maybe the Greenland Ice Shelf won't melt after all.
June 15, 2006
By DAVID BROOKS
If American politics could start with a clean slate today, the main argument wouldn't be between liberalism and conservatism, words that have become labels without coherent philosophies. The main fight would pit populist nationalism against progressive globalism.
Okay, this is simply crap. The question is: Is it crap because Brooks actually believes this? Is it crap because Brooks is attempting to reframe the national debate? Or is it crap because Brooks is trying to marginalize progressives?
The populist nationalist party would be liberal on economics, conservative on values and realist on foreign policy. It would bring together a wide array of people who are disenchanted with their respective parties' elites, and who would find they have a lot in common. It would bring Kevin Phillips together with Pat Buchanan, the Virginia senatorial candidate James Webb together with Lou Dobbs, Al Sharpton together with James Dobson.
Except that these people really have little in common, other than being lumped together by David Brooks. No way a liberal populist like Jim Hightower would be in the same party as James Dobson. But Brooks is trying to marginalize populism...so there we are.
Here's how a populist nationalist candidate would sound: "We are the ordinary, burden-bearing people of this country. We are the ones who work hard and build communities. It's time for us to come together and recognize that our loyalty to our fellow Americans comes first.
"That means we can't waste our precious blood and treasure on poorly planned, pie-in-the-sky wars to bring democracy to the Middle East. We need to get out of Iraq now. That means we can't sell our ports to our enemies. That means we must secure our borders against terrorists and illegal immigrants who break the law, take our jobs and drive down wages.
"We need to stand up to the big money interests who value their own profits more than their own countrymen, who outsource jobs to China and India, who destroy unions and control Washington. We need to fight off their efforts to take away our Social Security and Medicare. Instead of widening inequality and a race to the bottom, we need universal health care and decent wages. We need a government that will stand up to Internet porn and for decent family values.
"We're tired of both the corporate elites and the cultural elites. We want leaders who understand our anxieties and are, like us, tired of a world where nothing is safe, where everything can be swept away by a serious illness, a divorce or a terrorist's bomb."
Actually, nobody I know even remotely fits this category, neither progressives and moderates in New York and California, nor conservatives in Idaho.
Populist nationalism of this sort would be politically potent. It would be against the war without seeming naïve and dovish. It would be against corporate power without seeming socialist. It would tap the passions aroused by immigration and outsourcing and cohere with the populist uprisings taking place in different forms around the world.
It would be fascist and anti-fascist at the same time, theocrat and anti-theocrat, gay and anti-gay, black and anti-black, good and bad, right and wrong, up and down. Thus is born another David Brooks straw man.
The progressive globalists, on the other hand, would be market-oriented on economics, liberal on values and multilateral interventionists in foreign affairs. The leading spokesman for this movement would be Tony Blair. Domestically, it would be led by the major presidential aspirants, who don't differ much: John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, Mark Warner and Rudy Giuliani.
Spokespeople for the corporate ruling class all. So we have our choice: the wonderful oligarchy or .....well, there's only one choice, right?
Here's how a globalist might sound: "We're inspired by the opportunities a globalizing and flattening world open up before us. We embrace technological dynamism and cultural diversity and reject beggar-thy-neighbor policies. But we understand that globalization means interdependence, and we have to build institutions to ensure everybody shares the new prosperity.
"We have to reform education and improve skills so that more people succeed. We need to reform entitlements so the economy can remain flexible and not buried by debt. We have to work together to address global warming, oil dependence and protectionist barriers. We have to understand that this open, diverse world has enemies. We have to confront Islamic extremism ideologically and militarily, and battle it at its roots with democracy and freedom. We need to manage the movement of peoples without shutting off the flow, open up trade, not shut it down."
This modernizing progressivism would also be politically potent. It would thrive among the educated, among aspiring suburbanites, among hawks and among immigrants who look to the future more than the past.
Of course these alignments won't come about instantaneously. Our political institutions and habits have staying power, and the politics of globalization is lagging far behind the reality of it. But the issues that realigned politics in the 1960's are fading, and issues like immigration, trade and interdependence are rising to the fore. Politics is becoming less about left versus right and more about open versus closed. Or, to put it in starker terms, the populists are getting more populist while the elitists are getting more elitist.
Or, to put it another way, this is the division that David Brooks would like to see, because then all humanists would be forced to join the oligarchy or go down the path of death and destruction.
June 11, 2006
The Gender Gap at School
By DAVID BROOKS
Straw Man time. One of the great contradictions in right-wing propaganda circles comes to roost here: that liberals are both an over-educated elite and, at the same time, a group of censorious bigots who believe in political correctness over education. The straw man in Brooks’ column is the idea that liberals/feminists believe there are no gender differences. All of this is apparently based on Brook's reading of a book titled "Why Gender Matters" by Dr. Leonard Sax, a child psychologist and current poster boy for the Conservative Book Club, the Conservative Books Service, and the National Review Book Service. Sax is the director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education and director of the Montgomery Centre for Research in Child Development in Maryland (which does not appear to have its own website). I have not yet found a connection between this work and right-wing funding sources --- nor any connection between the right-wing hydra and Sax himself.
There are three gender-segregated sections in any airport: the restrooms, the security pat-down area and the bookstore. In the men's sections of the bookstore, there are books describing masterly men conquering evil. In the women's sections there are novels about ... well, I guess feelings and stuff.
Brooks hasn't done his homework. The reason a "women's section" exists is because of the proliferation of a genre called "chick lit," combined with the increased number of books of literary fiction by women (mysteries by women would presumably be housed either in the best-seller section or the mystery-thriller section). There are more books written by and about women today than men because more women read than men. That separate section is NOT about "feelings and stuff" per se, unless you consider "Sex and The City" solely about "feelings and stuff."
The same separation occurs in the home. Researchers in Britain asked 400 accomplished women and 500 accomplished men to name their favorite novels. The men preferred novels written by men, often revolving around loneliness and alienation. Camus's "The Stranger," Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" and Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" topped the male list.
Any reviewer or reader will tell you there are “boy books” and “girl books.” This cuts across all political lines. Hey, Brooks, no one denies this --- though certainly there are plenty of women who like “men’s books” and men who like “women’s books,” and certainly men who write “women’s books” and women who write “men’s books.” At this point, David Brooks would be well advised to stay out of the way of Gayle Lynds or Carol O’Connell, or for that matter Wally Lamb or Thomas Perry.
The women leaned toward books written by women. The women's books described relationships and are a lot better than the books the men chose. The top six women's books were "Jane Eyre," "Wuthering Heights," "The Handmaid's Tale," "Middlemarch," "Pride and Prejudice" and "Beloved."
Well, okay. All this proves is that: men wanted to read books by and about men; women wanted to read books by and about women. Doh. But in fact, this survey doesn't even prove that.
Conducted by British cultural historians Lisa Jardine and Annie Walker, the survey asked which novels were considered those that changed readers' lives most, not books these people deemed their favorites. In addition to naming the perennial favorites (which Brooks lists above), the women also listed Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Catch-22, Gone with the Wind, Lord of the Rings and Heart of Darkness. What the researchers found was that men balked at the question: "Many men we approached really did not seem to associate reading fiction with life choices," they noted. Also, while women chose some 200 books, men stuck with four: the three mentioned by Brooks, along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez's masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude. From the Reason Online analysis: "The men's list was all angst and Orwell. Sort of puberty reading," Jardine cheekily told the Sydney Morning Herald. "We found that men do not regard books as a constant companion to their life's journey, as consolers or guides, as women do... They read novels a bit like they read photography manuals." The actual purpose of the survey: "to focus attention on the way they believe Britain's publishing world systematically devalues female authors."
Not to mention the obvious, but this has absolutely nothing to do with Brooks' thesis in this column.
There are a couple of reasons why the two lists might diverge so starkly. It could be men are insensitive dolts who don't appreciate subtle human connections and good literature. Or, it could be that the part of the brain where men experience negative emotion, the amygdala, is not well connected to the part of the brain where verbal processing happens, whereas the part of the brain where women experience negative emotion, the cerebral cortex, is well connected. It could be that women are better at processing emotion through words.
Over the past two decades, there has been a steady accumulation of evidence that male and female brains work differently. Women use both sides of their brain more symmetrically than men. Men and women hear and smell differently (women are much more sensitive). Boys and girls process colors differently (young girls enjoy an array of red, green and orange crayons whereas young boys generally stick to black, gray and blue). Men and women experience risk differently (men enjoy it more).
It could be, in short, that biological factors influence reading tastes, even after accounting for culture.
Or not, given how Brooks misrepresented the survey in the first place. In addition, since Brooks hasn't even bothered to examine the "women's section" at the bookstore --- contrary to his claim, a "men's section" doesn't exist in the same way in airport bookstores --- he's talking through his ass.
Women who have congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which leads to high male hormone secretions, are more likely to choose violent stories than other women. This wouldn't be a problem if we all understood these biological factors and if teachers devised different curriculums to instill an equal love of reading in both boys and girls.
Now we're getting to the substance of the Sax book, though Brooks is trying to create a simplistic argument before actually bringing in Sax per se.
The problem is that even after the recent flurry of attention about why boys are falling behind, there is still intense social pressure not to talk about biological differences between boys and girls (ask Larry Summers).
Apples and oranges. It's one thing to talk about biological differences between boys and girls, and another to use that argument to track their respective futures. Brooks is conflating two separate ideas.
There is still resistance, especially in the educational world, to the findings of brain researchers. Despite some innovations here and there, in most classrooms boys and girls are taught the same books in the same ways.
Now we're getting to the cruz of Sax' arguments: that boys and girls should be taught separately. Brooks loves this one because of the one thing he doesn't talk about: the sexual morality issue. Boys and girls should be separated because then they'd be less likely to have SEX with each other. No wonder conservatives love Sax: it's the old religious separation of the sexes idea. Let's not just go back to the 1950s here, let's go back to the Middle Ages. I suspect right-wingers actually do believe getting a blowjob from an intern in the Oval Office is a worse offense than bieng a president lying America into a war or a vice president involved in overt war profiteering.
Young boys are compelled to sit still in schools that have sacrificed recess for test prep. Many are told in a thousand subtle ways they are not really good students. They are sent home with these new-wave young adult problem novels, which all seem to be about introspectively morose young women whose parents are either suicidal drug addicts or fatally ill manic depressives.
The mistake then --- if this paragraph is true, and don't count on the fact that it is --- is that educators are choosing the wrong "relevant" books. Way back when, kids were forced to read girl books like "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights" and boy books like "Moby Dick" and "A Tale of Two Cities," and found all of them boring --- as opposed to comic books, which the education establishment despised. I can't imagine a boy enjoying a succession of books featuring women as protagonists nor girls enjoying a successioon of books featuring men as protagonists. That educators don't have a clue what boys OR girls really like doesn't have to do with political correctness: it's a problem that stretches back well into the past couple of centuries.
It shouldn't be any surprise that according to a National Endowment for the Arts study, the percentage of young men who read has plummeted over the past 14 years. Reading rates are falling three times as fast among young men as among young women. Nor should it be a surprise that men are drifting away from occupations that involve reading and school. Men now make up a smaller share of teachers than at any time in the past 40 years.
There’s no question that more women read than men and more women buy books than men. This has been going on for some time now. Also there seems to be little question that reading books isn’t considered as “masculine” as playing video games or watching sports. There are several theories about it, but one of the weakest is that teachers are assigning “Middlemarch” instead of “The Sun Also Rises.”
Dr. Leonard Sax, whose book "Why Gender Matters" is a lucid guide to male and female brain differences, emphasizes that men and women can excel at any subject. They just have to be taught in different ways. Sax is a big believer in single-sex schools, which he says allow kids to open up and break free from gender stereotypes. But for most kids it would be a start if they were assigned books they might actually care about. For boys, that probably means more Hemingway, Tolstoy, Homer and Twain.
Having attended a single-gender high school, and having a nephew who currently attends a mostly single-gender boarding school, having minimal or no opposite-gender energy around is utterly stultifying (whether one is gay or straight). In addition, any conversation with a woman in her seventies or eighties who went to all girl high schools or colleges will tell you a completely different story than that of David Brooks or Leonard Sax (both of whom are men of course). Separating the genders may be good for the boys these days, but it's always been bad for the girls.
During the 1970's, it was believed that gender is a social construct and that gender differences could be eliminated via consciousness-raising. But it turns out gender is not a social construct. Consciousness-raising doesn't turn boys into sensitively poetic pacifists. It just turns many of them into high school and college dropouts who hate reading.
A spear in the heart of the Straw Man! You go, girl…. I mean, man.
June 10, 2006
Mourning in America
By JOHN TIERNEY
Michael Berg, a Green Party candidate for Congress in Delaware, announced on national television that he regretted the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He didn't blame Zarqawi for beheading an American contractor. The man responsible was President Bush — "the real terrorist."
Michael Berg's quote is taken out of context. Berg meant that President Bush, by lying and conniving America into a war of conquest, is the real bad guy --- and without Bush's deceit, Zarqawi would never have been in a position to commit his atrocities. Tierney isn't interested in explaining Berg: he's simply setting him up as a traitor even though he appears to be just using Berg as an "example" of a trend in American politics.
Any other politician would have been vilified for saying that. But Berg, as the father of the American who was beheaded, belongs to a new politically invulnerable class. Arguing with someone in mourning just isn't done — unless, of course, you are Ann Coulter and you have a new book to sell.
She managed to offend everyone from Hillary Clinton to Bill O'Reilly by suggesting that some of the activist widows of the Sept. 11 victims were enjoying their husbands' deaths. That's over the top even for Coulter. But she has identified a real problem: how do you conduct a political argument with grieving relatives?
Why is no one (even on the Left) asking why Coulter is getting any kind of hearing on places like "The Today Show."? She's either a rabid neo-Nazi well out of the mainstream, or a crazy person, and has no place as a serious member of the National discussion. She knows nothing and spews hatred. Her political views are as meaningful as those of the AFLAC duck.
Coulter faults liberals for exploiting victims and their relatives as human shields for their arguments against the war and in favor of gun control. But conservatives use these tactics too. President Bush had the parents of a slain Iraqi soldier stand up during the State of the Union address as a tacit endorsement of his policy. Republican widows of Sept. 11 victims have been exploiting their status to oppose the Democratic widows.
America is supposed to be a government of laws, not men, but the surest way to pass a law is to name it after someone, ideally a girl or woman. Dozens of states have passed Megan's Law. There's another measure against sex offenders in Ohio called Nicole's Law, not to be confused with the Nicole's Law in Massachusetts, which requires carbon-monoxide detectors in homes.
There is a federal Katie's Law (giving money to rural police agencies), a New Mexico Katie's Law (requiring DNA samples to be collected from suspects), and a Minnesota Katie's Law (providing money to track sex offenders).
The ultimate in custom legislation was Terri's Law, designed solely to prolong Terri Schiavo's life. There's also Kristen's Act, Jennifer's Law, Aimee's Law, Brian's Bill, and the Hillory J. Farias and Samantha Reid Date-Rape Drug Prohibition Act.
Some of these laws undoubtedly make sense, but the names appended to them cut short the sort of debate required. It's emotional blackmail as well as a ghoulish form of the celebrity endorsement — without the celebrity's permission.
Grieving relatives certainly have a right to be heard, and their stories need to be considered by legislators and judges. But having tragedy strike your family does not make you an expert on public policy. Instead, it warps your perspective. You become the most narrow special-interest group, obsessed with redressing a personal loss no matter what the cost to society.
Read Cindy Sheehan (who is mentioned below). However, the 9/11 widows and Sheehan were acting in a vacuum. When these folks began speaking out, very few in the mainstream were coming forward exposing Bush and his lies. Sheehan rose to prominence because both the Democratic Party and the mainstream press had abrogated their responsibility. Very few were crying that the emperor had no clothes, and those that did (such as Michael Moore) had been marginalized by Conventional Wisdom (or, as it should really be called, the Republican Noise Machine) as crazies. It was precisely because of Sheehan's personal stake that she was taken seriously by the media. Anyone else would have been dismissed outright. The same could be said for the 9/11 widows who watched their loved ones be appropriated by the president and the Republican Party to justify war against an uninvolved country.
When Michael Dukakis was asked during a presidential debate if he'd want to execute a man who raped and murdered his wife, he blundered by calmly explaining his opposition to capital punishment. The audience wanted to hear an angry, vengeful husband, but Dukakis tried to be a dispassionate arbiter of justice — a completely different role.
When those roles are conflated by victims-turned-activists, the result tends to be good television and bad policy. The parents of abducted children couldn't anticipate all the wasted police resources and harassment of innocent adults that resulted from their laws. Putting photogenic patients in front of Congressional committees is not the best way to divvy up budgets for medical research.
Tierney is comparing apples to oranges here. The role of parents of abducted children is not comparable to the role of Cindy Sheehan, 9/11 widows, or even pro-Bush service personnel.
The widows and widowers of the victims of Sept. 11 are not urban planners who should get veto power over the rebuilding at Ground Zero. The parents of Americans killed in Iraq do not have special expertise in foreign policy.
Neither do most of the right-wing pundits flooding television and talk radio. Is Tierney arguing that he --- or Ann Coulter --- actually has more right to vent their spleen than Cindy Sheehan or Michael Berg? At least Berg is running for office, and Sheehan is willing to get arrested for her beliefs. Tierney and Coulter just want to make a buck. The point of the pundit is not to be informed, but to sound as if he or she is informed. There's a big difference. According to David Brock, Laura Ingraham has no books in her home, and Ann Coulter never talks politics in private.
Whether they support the war or not, they are expressing their personal views, and not necessarily even their slain children's. Cindy Sheehan camped outside President Bush's ranch in Texas to protest the war, but her son voluntarily re-enlisted before his death.
Sheehan has never said her son supported the war effort or President Bush. He re-enlisted because he felt it was the right thing to do. Tierney is talking out of his ass.
I can't imagine how I would feel if my child were killed. Nor could I imagine how my family would feel if I met a violent death, but I'm pretty sure I would rather not become a symbol for anyone else's cause. I'm leaving instructions in my will: Whatever happens, please, no John's Law.
June 8, 2006
By DAVID BROOKS
This is a tough one to parse. On the surface it appears to be musings about the horrors of Iraq, with some tough words thrown in against Administration policies there. But maybe that’s not it…
We have all been raised on stories in which good triumphs over evil, and in these stories good does not triumph by chance. It triumphs because honesty, virtue and decency pay off in the long run. Evil, meanwhile, contains the seeds of its own destruction. Those who lie, torture and kill eventually become entrapped by their own sins.
In Iraq at the moment, however, savagery seems to be triumphing over decency. The insurgents and the militias — who kill and maim with abandon — appear to be wearing away the morale of those who seek a decent, democratic nation.
Moreover, they are winning precisely because they are savage, and are proud to do things their enemies are ashamed to do. In Iraq right now, virtue seems to be a handicap and barbarism an empowering force.
The insurgents' first advantage is that not only are they cruel, they are absolutely cruel. The defining feature of their violence is not merely that they murder, but that they torture those they are about to kill. Shiite militias use drills to bore holes into their victims' heads. Sunni insurgents saw off fingers and toes. Jihadists partially behead their victims and then stomp on their torsos to create gushes of blood before finishing the job. Videos of such acts are posted on the Internet or sold in the markets of towns like Haditha.
Brooks seems to deliberately bring in Haditha here in order to contrast the barbarism of Shiite militias and Sunni insturgents versus the relatively benign bloodbath caused by American soldiers, and the ensuing guilt.. But it really doesn’t work that way. They all feed off each other.
Atrocities on this scale look less like war than like blood madness. Iraq becomes less like a battle zone than a formless pit of horror. Far from motivating most Americans to fight harder, cruelty on this scale is unnerving. Most Americans simply want to get away. The lesson is that if you are willing to defy all norms and codes of morality, you can undermine your enemy's willingness to fight.
Pretty easy to demonize an enemy that saws off fingers, toes and heads, to be sure. However, when one considers the barbarism of Pol Pot and his gang, or the massacres in Rwanda, or even Darfur today, Iraq is still relatively small stuff. The question Brooks must ask himself is why he supported American involvement in a country that produces this kind of madness.
The insurgents' second great advantage is that they seem able to create an environment in which it is difficult to survive if you are decent.
All wars are savage. And guerrilla wars are particularly savage. (See the successful American counterinsurgency campaign in the Philippines just over a century ago.) But the Iraqi insurgents have been able to create a climate of special treachery, in which every approaching civilian is a possible suicide bomber and every bedroom a potential terrorist haven.
This last sentence perfectly describes the Vietnam War. Brooks is trying to build a “special case” here, but it’s not.
"When you have to deal with barbarians, you must behave like a barbarian yourself," a Greek officer in the Balkan wars of 1912-13 declared. But Americans, to their credit, have been unwilling to rationalize barbaric action so easily. Because American troops come from the culture they do, they have not become the sort of people they would have to be to defeat the insurgents at their own game.
What about the role of Abu Ghraib in the increased savagery in Iraq, as well as the stories coming out of Guantanamo --- which over the past couple of years have fanned the flames of barbarism in Iraq. While it’s easy to blame Iraqis for being immoral, and laud Americans for trying to remain moral, we have to look at the role of the Bush Administration in giving fuel to the insurgency.
Indeed, the people who are most furious about what happened at Haditha are those marines who have been in similarly awful circumstances but who have not snapped, and who fear that their heroic restraint will be tainted or overshadowed by comrades who behave despicably.
Similarly, in our debates at home we are searching for ways to exercise enough power to defeat the insurgents while still behaving in accordance with our national conscience. We are seeking a sweet spot that satisfies both the demands of power and of principle. But it could be that given the circumstances we have allowed the insurgents to create, that sweet spot no longer exists.
“Given the circumstances we have allowed the insurgents to create” is Brooks’ most damning attack on the Administration to date. However, once again, the seeds of the current insurgency were nurtured by Administration policies supported and promulgated by David Brooks. If Brooks and others like him had been less kneejerk in their blind support of Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney et al, perhaps things wouldn’t have come to this pass.
The insurgents' third malicious advantage is that they have no agenda. This has always been regarded as a big disadvantage. But it turns out to be an advantage because they are not confronted with the difficult task of building anything. All they have to do is destroy, and every day that they spread mayhem is a victory.
Brooks is pulling this one out of his ass. The purpose of the mayhem is to force the country into anarchy where a single group could rise out of the wreckage. There’s a method to this madness, but Brooks is more interested in making them all seem like rabid mad dogs. Thought-out rationalizations and justifications make the enemy seem more human. This way, the enemy isn't human at all.
One of the paradoxes of this war is that when U.S. forces commit atrocities, we regard it as a defeat for us because we have betrayed our ideals. When insurgents commit atrocities, it is also a defeat for us because of our ineffectiveness in the face of the enemy. Either way, morale suffers and the fighting spirit withers away.
And so the hunger to leave Iraq grows. A dissenting minority is furious that so many Americans are willing to betray the decent Iraqi majority in order to preserve some parlor purity. And the terrorists no doubt look at our qualms not as a sign of virtue but of weakness, and as evidence that savagery will lead to victory again and again.
Stay the course, stay the course.
This column is kind of funny. I pretty much agree with Brooks, but he still feels like he's lying through his teeth. I think it's because he seems to be musing about an unwinnable situation, but in the end, he's just spewing "stay the course" propaganda.
June 4, 2006
Good Intentions, Bad Policy
By DAVID BROOKS
If you want to relive the tragedy of American liberalism, take a gander toward California, where voters will decide Tuesday on Proposition 82, which would create a universal preschool program for the state's 4-year-olds.
Wow. Talk about hyperbole. Some Californians want to extend free education to four year olds, and it’s a “tragedy of American liberalism.” Actually, what it does is increase California taxes by 1.7% on individuals income over $400,000 a year, and couples over $800,000 --- thus cutting into Bush’s tax cut for the very wealthy, and put that money toward free education for pre-schoolers. That’s one of two reasons so many Republicans and their propagandists are against Proposition 82. The other is that this is the pet project of noted liberal Rob Reiner.
Prop 82 starts with a true and noble premise: that the world would be better off if more children had access to preschool. If there is one thing we know from research and common sense, it is that if you take a kid from a disorganized home in a stressful neighborhood, where nobody is reading bedtime stories and where the vocabulary in daily use is small, and you put that kid in a quality preschool with books, stability and conversation, the results can be impressive.
That kid is more likely to be able to recognize numbers and letters, more likely to be able to predict events in a storybook, more likely to do better on vocabulary tests. Moreover, because the kid will be in a structured environment, he or she is more likely to develop social skills and self-control.
Experts disagree over how long these preschool effects last, but the bulk of the evidence suggests that disadvantaged kids enrolled in quality preschools have a better shot at graduating from high school and avoiding prison. As a result, many scholars have concluded that money spent on preschool more than pays for itself over time.
If Brooks stopped here, he’d have an excellent argument for supporting Proposition 82. Actually, you can easily stop here. His arguments against Proposition 82 are based on a lie.
The problem with Prop 82 is that it seems to have been devised under the supposition that it takes a bureaucratic megalopolis to raise a child. Instead of focusing on those in need, the initiative would create a vast, universal program, displacing much of what now exists. Currently, 65 percent of the state's 4-year-olds are in preschool. Under the plan, the state would assume the costs of those kids, and try to increase total preschool enrollment to just over 70 percent.
In other words, roughly three-quarters of the program's funds would go toward kids who are already in preschool. Only 8.4 percent of the budget would be spent on high-risk kids who wouldn't already be attending preschool. This is public sector empire-building at its worst.
As the proponents point out in the California Primary Election booklet, these statistics are misleading. The 65% includes children in daycare and babysitting. “According to California’s teachers, only 20$ of four year olds are in quality preschools, with credentialed teachers prepared to meet the unique challenges of teaching young children.” This “bureaucratic megalopolis” in fact creates standards, provides for strict accountability, and “severely limits” administrative costs --- according to “business leaders, including the Los Angeles and San Francisco Chambers of Commerce, 94% of funds go directly to support pre-school education.”
Furthermore, the initiative would hand control of this centralized program to the same bureaucracy that is already doing a mediocre job with the state's K-12 programs. It would create the same stultifying certification process that keeps good people out of schools. It would create the same special-interest rigidities that make the current education system so difficult to reform.
Better then to only allow the wealthy and the very poor the pre-school opportunity. Instead of “let ‘em eat cake,” the cry is “let ‘em have babysitters.” Instead of universal pre-schooling, Brooks is apparently suggesting a new bureaucracy for means-testing that would allow poor kids to attend preschools. Accountability structures for such “poor folks preschools” would create another bureaucracy. But of course he's arguing for a straw man over a real man. The anti-82 coalition will never sponsor such a proposition as a replacement.
The good news is the experiences of the past 40 years have not been in vain. Over that time, a generous public has, nationally, increased real per-pupil spending by 240 percent, slashed class sizes and raised teacher salaries. Yet the results have been disappointing, to say the least.
Given that only 20% of California’s pre-schoolers are actually in school (as opposed to day care and babysitting), perhaps the results would be less disappointing if that 20% figure rose to 70%. Brooks, in his earlier paragraphs, suggests it would be.
This harsh experience has made many of us more skeptical of education bureaucracies, and opposition to Prop 82 is building, including among Democratic politicians and among editorialists like those at The Los Angeles Times. Public support, once stratospheric, is down to 50 percent.
Brooks fails to mention that support for the Proposition began dropping when a series of scandals concerning Reiner's campaign came to light. Also, a lot of big money is now going into the anti-82 campaign, and we can see the effects of heavy advertising.
In the arguments of the opposition you can see a 21st-century consensus emerging, built around the following principles. First, we should spend more to get disadvantaged kids into preschool and we should raise salaries to keep the best teachers. Second, we should target funds to those in need, because middle-class families can take care of themselves and the long-term benefits of preschool for middle-class kids are, at best, uncertain. Third, we should nurture local, flexible preschools that include parental skill training and other programs that change the total environment in which disadvantaged kids are raised. Fourth, we should keep in mind some impolitic realities: families raise kids better than institutions; preschool is so valuable today only because it serves as a partial substitute where family structures have broken down.
But the bottom line is that the anti-tax folks and the wealthy have turned out in full force to stop the initiative. Again, all of the “better” ideas, such as spending more to get disadvantaged kids into preschool, raising salaries, targeting funds to those in need, et al, sound nice but THEY’RE NOT GOING TO HAPPEN. The opponents won’t be putting together any kind of alternative proposition, and creating limited pre-school only for those in poverty (and funded by the state rather than special taxes) is an idea not supported by anybody, certainly not by such people as (for example), the President of the California Taxpayers Association, whose name comes first leading the Rebuttal to Argument in Favor.
If there is a domestic policy task before the political class this decade, it is to help people acquire the mental skills they need to run their own lives, without running up ruinous welfare costs or building sclerotic bureaucratic empires. Proposition 82, sadly, fails on both counts.
Proposition 82 does NOT run up ruinous welfare costs because it will be funded by tax dollars. Nor would it build up a sclerotic bureaucratic empire because the Department of Education already exists. What it would do is put an additional 50% of California's four year old pre-schoolers into a certified education program, and save middle class Californians (most of whom are presumably under thirty or forty, already saving for their kids' college bills) the year's cost of babysitting, child care, and private pre-school -- at no expense to the state, using funds that a couple of years ago went to the Federal Income Tax.
I've written two columns on the Duke lacrosse scandal, one highly critical of the team, one, after more facts came in, more positive. I don't think either of those columns were affected by the fact that I had earlier agreed to teach a course at Duke this fall. Nonetheless, readers should have the right to make this call, not me, and I should have mentioned the connection. Apologies.
June 3, 2006
Delusions of the Rich and Rent-Controlled
By JOHN TIERNEY
It has now been a solid couple of months since Tierney wrote an article about the current political scene. It's hard to spin that which is unspinnable.
Who knows what evil lurks in the soul of a New York tenant? Nora Ephron knows — sort of. She has broken the code of silence of Manhattan's most exclusive aristocracy. She became the crème de la crème of the city's rent-regulated tenants by bribing her way into an eight-room apartment for $1,500 a month at the Apthorp, the palatial building at Broadway and West 79th Street.
So what is Tierney doing here? Once you get to the bottom, you realize this entire piece is an attack on rent control. But not just any attack: he's using the same method as the anti-welfare folks who focused on welfare cadillacs, rather than on those who actually benefited from the Dole. But just as there are wealthy types who could afford to live in Manhattan and are taking advantage of current laws, so there are far more middle class people who would be forced to leave if landlords had free rein to increase rents to top levels. The only reason all Manhattanites aren't a bunch of millionaires and billionaires is rent control.
Nora Ephron is also....a Hollywood liberal, so Tierney can kick her around without actually uttering the phrase. Fact is: the politics of the renter are irrelevant here. How many people on the planet would turn down an affordable $10,000 apartment in New York? (The Ephron article is not yet on-line).
Her expulsion from rent-control paradise, told in the current New Yorker, isn't exactly a heartbreaking story. But it gives a rare inside look at the rentocracy, the system allowing affluent New Yorkers to pay below-market rents and pass along the apartments to their children.
Ephron is a smart, funny writer who now acknowledges the injustice of the system. But during her days in the Apthorp she was indignant when a new law stripped away her rent protection because her household income was more than $250,000 per year. She couldn't imagine anyone would dare charge her what the apartment became worth: $10,000 per month.
"I was a character in a story about mass delusion and the madness of crowds," she writes. "I was, in short, completely nuts."
She was also, in short, utterly typical of her class. I can't claim to have reached her social heights, but I did live in regulated apartments for 17 years, and I'm still amazed at the self-delusion that prevailed.
Her class? Tierney is in her class, even if he doesn't make her kind of money. He writes in The New York Times and has connections throughout the American right wing. This is subterfuge on his part.
I spent long dinners hearing rentocrats earnestly explain that while the free market may work for the rest of apartments in America, rents must be regulated in Manhattan because it is an island with a limited supply of housing. (If an out-of-towner suggested to these Manhattan theorists that the rent they charged for their vacation homes in Nantucket should also be regulated, they would explain that Nantucket is a different kind of island.)
In her article, Ephron complains that the law deregulating her apartment allowed landlords to be "utterly capricious" in charging her "fair-market value" for her eight rooms.
This sounds odd coming from a Hollywood director — was Ephron any less capricious in charging whatever she could get for "Sleepless in Seattle"? — but it's the rentocrat, not the director, talking here.
By coining the term "rentocrat," Tierney is attempting to create a propaganda shorthand which can then be used to "expose" rent control. Again, the vast majority of people who live in rent controlled and rent stabilized apartments cannot afford to live where they are if rents were unregulated. See below for links to articles about rent control.
Like European nobles in crumbling castles, rentocrats are above money grubbing. They deserve their homes because of their longevity and their virtues. They compare rent control to Fulbright scholarships — a stipend wisely provided to worthy intellectuals and artists. They will announce, with a straight face, that they're entitled to keep their apartments because of the extensive "emotional investment" they have made in the buildings.
They scorn tacky landlords obsessed with getting higher rents so they can pay for nonemotional investments like furnaces. Ephron writes witheringly about the beehive hairdo and pink silk suits of the building manager, a "frightening" woman — and a resident of New Jersey. The Apthorp tenants were appalled at the landlords' efforts to renovate the property — how bourgeois! — so they could get permission to charge higher rents.
The Apthorp tenants did consent to some profiteering of their own by charging illicit "key money," like the $24,000 that Ephron paid to the previous tenant in order to get her apartment. But what was acceptable for tenants became a "crime," as Ephron tells it, when one of the landlords started taking a cut of the action. Why should he get anything? It's only his building.
Now that she's left the Apthorp and become the happy owner of her own apartment, Ephron ascribes her former madness to being so deliriously in love with her old home that she couldn't imagine leaving it. But I can't buy the love diagnosis. As a recovering rentocrat, I think our madness has more to do with guilt.
No matter how much you love your rent-stabilized apartment, no matter how smug you feel bragging to your friends about your deal, in your heart you know it's not fair you're paying so little. It's like buying stolen goods: you can revel in the low price, but you know it comes at someone else's expense.
And you know exactly who that someone is. You're living on his property. You're a squatter, but you don't want to admit it. So you tell yourself it's not really his property anyway, and you're more worthy of it than he is, and you couldn't survive anywhere else, and anyway this is all about something far more profound than money. But it's not.
Rent control is also about tenant rights, For more information on rent control, pros and cons, see this article (and attendant links) in Wikipedia.
May 18, 2006
Sir Galahad of the G.O.P.
By DAVID BROOKS
The great distraction continues. As long as Brooks and Tierney (If you didn't read it, Tierney's last column was also about immigration) can talk the immigration issue, they can avoid all the rest, from Dusty Foggo and Michael Hayden to Global Warming to high gas prices to the latest atrocity in Iraq to illegal spying programs to an imminent Karl Rove indictment. The funny thing about the distraction is how it backfired. Started last December as a way to rally the right-wing troops, it set off a schism between the paleolithic right and the corporate right that is threatening to tear the Republican Party apart. It's no accident that at the same time Bush and company take the more "liberal" line on immigration, the Religious Right is now making noise about how the Republicans have only paid lip service to their issues (gay marriage, abortion, et al) and not made any moves in two years.
The elevator guy is cheerful and the subway operators are polite, but there is something about the subterranean trip from the Capitol back to your Senate office building that gets you down. The dinginess. The barren walls. And you don't need that right now. You're a Republican senator supporting the immigration compromise.
For weeks now — months, actually! — you've been besieged by the close-the-border restrictionists, who shut down your phone lines and scream at you in town meetings. You've been hit with slopping barrages of manure by Limbaugh, Savage, Levin and every other talk-radio jock in the Northern Hemisphere. People who don't run for office don't understand how disorienting it is to have your base, your own people, suddenly turn carnivorous and out for your flesh.
You've had to make compromises before. You've held your nose and talked about poor Terry Schiavo's consciousness when you didn't know squat about neurology; you've gone to Baptist Church after Baptist Church after Baptist Church and railed about gay marriage and other moral evils even as you take money under the table from Washington lobbyists who in return have supplied you with food, drink and whores. But this immigration thing, why it's just over the top.
They say you and your fellow immigration compromisers are performing the biggest act of political suicide in modern history, and you wonder whether they are right.
You've sold your soul so many times in the past that you wonder why you're holding out now. And then you remember: it's about the money.
What bothers you about the restrictionists is not that they are primitives or racists. They're not. It's their imperviousness, their unwillingness to compromise. They don't have the numbers to govern, but they think they have the numbers to destroy.
It's like those crazy Fundamentalist Christians who made you come out for the ten commandments on every lawn, a flag-burning amendment, and an end to legalized contraception --- and the corporate money still rolled in. Only this time, the agriculture lobby won't let you go to the dark side because this will interfere with their business.
They trumpet the studies indicating that immigration decreases wages, but ignore the ones that show it stimulates wages and growth. They mention the strains first-generation immigrants put on social services, but ignore the evidence that immigrants' children are so productive they more than compensate for the cost. They talk about the criminal immigrants, but look past the vast majority who are religious and family-centered.
You haven't been able to get your restrictionist friends to think pragmatically. Do they really think they'll get a better immigration bill in the next Congress, when there are more Democrats, or under President Hillary Clinton or John McCain? Do they really want to preserve the status quo for another decade? Do they think the G.O.P. can have a future if it insults even the Hispanics who are already here?
You've already sold out to the highest bidder and these poor schmucks think they have the power to change your vote.
It's almost as if they are not going to engage in any back-and-forth as a matter of principle. On Monday night, many of them approached President Bush's speech looking for things to hate. They didn't want to hear his plan for serious enforcement measures. When Bush — the man they revered until the day before yesterday — said something tough about securing the border, they assumed he was dissembling, and they lashed out in ways identical to the Bushophobic left.
Your attack dogs are now attacking you. Quick! Where's the net?
It's as if there's some displaced rage here, some anger that couldn't be expressed about other issues. Or perhaps they are punishing Bush for the sin of being unpopular, and thus robbing them of the sense of triumph they felt when the left was on the ropes.
This is no fun. Yet the worst thing would be to stop now, having angered everybody and not resolved the issue. So you and your fellow compromisers trudge on, hunched over like people walking into a hailstorm.
That phone call from Wal-Mart didn't help things last week. There's a primary coming up and if you switch your vote they'll send money to the Democrats in the November election.
You are convinced of certain fundamental things. The current immigration system is completely unsuited to a global market economy. We need to move out of the era of failed prohibition into the era of flexible control.
You're convinced that earned citizenship will foster assimilation, that ID cards and employer penalties will toughen enforcement, that the only way to control the border is to both acknowledge the guest workers we need and deport recent arrivals who broke the law. And you're convinced none of these proposals can work alone; they have to be complementary.
You've been treading that fine line with irrational idiots for your entire career now, and it's gotten you a couple of vacation homes, lots of free meals, a cushy job for your wife's useless brother Herman, and the promise of a secure and wealthy future when you decide to retire. You always liked the fact that you could emotionally manipulate these neanderthals to further your own career because you knew they'd never listen to reason. Now, surprise, they won't listen to reason, and your own ass is on the line.
As you vote on amendment after amendment, you begin to feel there is a constituency forming for comprehensive reform. This constituency is not made up of 3 a.m. e-mailers. It's made up of busy people who can get beyond their 20 minutes of anger over the system and start talking practically about complicated solutions.
Maybe you'll be able to get through this with appeals to moderates. At least you'll get your campaign coffers full.
Now that you are focusing on answers, you see this new constituency emerging in the polls, in the overwhelmingly positive response to the president's speech. And you feel the support in your politician's bones.
You know the Hagel-Martinez compromise is just a step. But there's something important in the way the Senate majority has been able to hold together amid the cacophony this week. Maybe the restrictionists are ferocious because they understand their growing weakness. Maybe Rove was right when he insisted that something can be done, even in a conference with the House.
So, braced against the storm, you trudge on.
Tonight the agribusiness lobbyists are having a huge bash over at the Hilton. Might as well trudge over there. If you're gonna get executed, might as well go out with a big meal..
May 14, 2006
From Freedom to Authority
By David Brooks
Psychologists joke that two sorts of people need therapy: those who need to be loosened up and those who need to be tightened up. Now, in the political world, we're moving from what you might call loose conservatism to tight conservatism. We're seeing a conservatism that emphasizes freedom give way to a conservatism that emphasizes authority. Many of George Bush's problems come from the fact that he's awkwardly straddling the transition point between the two.
David Brooks is still looking for a way to salvage his philosophy of governance against the onslaught of the latest poll numbers. However, doing it by rewriting history is probably not the best path. Right wings traditionally have emphasized authority. This is the way of Fascism, Nazism, the Japanese system prior to World War II, and virtually all non-Communist American-based dictatorships since the Second World War. The libertarian mantra is “freedom,” but when it comes down to it, right wing governance has generally meant more control of people’s private lives (It’s America’s right wing judges, after all, who state there is no “Right to Privacy” in the U.S. Constitution) and less control (or oversight) of corporations. Brooks knows this, just as he knows that the Republican Party has been a melding of the authoritarian Christian Fundamentalist movement and the Big Money corporate world since Ronald Reagan was elected back in 1980.
From that perspective, George W. Bush has never straddled any lines. He’s always been in favor of more government domination of private lives, from intrastate movement (remember national ID cards?) to phone conversations (the NSA) to free speech (attacks on the press), coupled with turning government regulation over to lobbyists.
In the 1970's and 80's, conservatives felt the primary threat was the overweening nanny state. Ronald Reagan tried to loosen the structures that restricted individual initiative and led to national sclerosis. He and Margaret Thatcher deregulated, privatized, cut tax rates in order to liberate entrepreneurs. The dominant formula was simple: less government equals more freedom. "Government is the problem," Reagan declared, expressing the organizing conservative principle of the day.
Pure propaganda. Reagan was beholden to the power of the fundamentalist Christian movement from the beginning of his presidential campaign. These people are interested in making the United States a theocracy and make no bones about it. Along with a loosening of business regulations during the ‘80s, the United States saw an increase in attempts to legislate morality. It became necessary for all conservative politicians to become anti-abortion, anti-gay, and to regularly talk up “Christian values”. The propaganda was, and is, that deregulation, privatization, and lower tax rates liberated entrepreneurs. In fact, deregulation, privatization and lower tax rates mostly benefited the wealthy, and supply-side economics turned out to be a dud. And how does libertarianism play into George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ads, which used a racist appeal to glean votes?
Times change. Now the chief problem is not sclerosis but disorder. The biggest threats come not from nanny states but from failed states and rogue states.
It’s a “clever” apples and oranges sentence. But nowhere does Brooks discuss how the Bush Administration used 9/11 to exacerbate the angst.
There is less popular fear of bureaucrats possessing too much control than of ungoverned forces surging out of control: immigration, the federal debt, Iraqi sectarianism, Islamic radicalism, Chinese mercantilism, domestic rage and polarization.
Brooks is willfully ignoring how Republicans have created these fears. The entire immigration ballyhoo was generated last December to appeal to the GOP base; the federal debt is out of control due to malfeasance by this Administration and Republicans in Congress; Iraqi sectarianism is a direct outgrowth of Bush’ Iraq adventure; and domestic rage and polarization come from two places: at one end, the paid demagogues of the Republican Noise Machine, and at the other from Democrats angry at how the Republicans have taken America down the tubes.
American society doesn't feel stagnant, but rather segmented. The authoritative central institutions that are supposed to organize hurricane relief, gather intelligence or pass bills into laws don't seem to be functioning.
Hurricane relief worked under Clinton; Bush turned FEMA and Homeland Security into hives of cronyism. Bush’s NSA has been spying on all Americans without any oversight for years. If Congress isn’t functioning, it’s more a result of lockstep and lobbyists than anything else. This is a Republican road, paved by conservatives and now falling into vast disrepair.
The chief challenge these days is to restore legitimate centers of authority.
Yes, by getting rid of those in power now, i.e. Republicans. You wonder if Brooks himself is aware of that subtext.
Middle-class suburbanites understood this shift far more quickly than the professional conservatives in Washington. What people wanted post-9/11 was Giuliani-ism on a global scale — someone who was assertive and decisive enough to assume authority and take situations that seemed ungovernable and make them governable.
More propaganda. Giuliani was terrific in a crisis. However, prior to 9/11, the guy was considered a loose cannon. Bloomberg won by being both the anti-Giuliani and the anti-Dinkins: a Democrat not beholden to the Democratic Party's interest groups.
Bush’s failures are all the more startling given not only his high approval rating post 9/11, but the support from around the world in the wake of the tragedy. David Brooks knew all this, but he (and so many other propagandists) pushed for Bush’s re-election in 2004, even understanding that (in their terms) the dull and wishy-washy Kerry would have made a much better president.
In many ways, President Bush was sensitive to the changing nature of the times. Bush had never believed that his job as president was to cut government to enhance freedom. He never promised to reduce the size of government. His education reforms didn't enhance personal choice; they turned the federal government into an accountability cop.
Ergo, he was never a conservative. Then how does one explain David Brooks’ continued support of this man and his regime? Brooks' own willingness to lie and manipulate to convince people that black was white and up was down?
Since 9/11 he has sweepingly sought to assert authority. He has exerted executive power, created a new Homeland Security Department, tried to transform the State Department and C.I.A., tried to intervene aggressively in the Middle East to reverse the downward spiral into radicalism. In Commentary, Daniel Casse called this approach strong government conservatism.
Much of this could be called proto-fascism, the rest neo-con adventurism.
But even while he has done this, he — in a hangover from the old conservatism — has never felt comfortable with government and its institutions. As Fred Barnes wrote in his book "Rebel-in-Chief," Bush and his team operate in Washington like an occupying army of insurgents, an "alien in the realm of the governing class." Ever the visionary, Bush told Barnes that his interest "is not the means, it is the results."
“Ever the visionary.” Scary thought.
But statesmanship consists precisely of understanding the relationship between the means at your disposal and the ends you seek to pursue. Bush has had trouble exerting authority because he and some of his advisers have been aloof from or hostile to the inescapable and legitimate institutions of authority in this country.
Doh. How long did it take Brooks to figure this one out?
The first job of any Republican administration is to figure out how to use government agencies, which are staffed by people who may be liberals, but who are also professionals. The tightly controlled Bush White House has not successfully done that. Can anyone imagine a more thankless job than being a Bush cabinet secretary (unless you happen to be Donald Rumsfeld)?
Furthermore, Bush and his team have generally not shared information with the people with whom they share power. They've been slow to open reciprocal communication with people on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in Washington who could do them some good.
Any intelligent individual not seduced by the voices of the Republican Noise Machine suspected this was what was going on as early as February 2001, and knew it for sure after January 2002 when the Bush Administration said, “We have the power and we can do whatever the hell we want, when we want, and nobody can stop us.” Where was David Brooks?
Finally, members of the Bush administration did not respect government enough to understand that a strong one had to be established in postwar Iraq. They had too much faith in spontaneous social order, a libertarian myth from the 1980's that has been sadly refuted by events.
Brooks is a classicist. The word is “hubris.”
A political age built around authority rather than freedom will elevate different sorts of disputes, of which the N.S.A. flap is only a precursor. Elections will revolve around the question: Who can best maintain order — in the home, neighborhood, culture and around the globe?
This is an ugly question, the same question used by fascists all over the world to gain and maintain power. The question also sits at the center of conventional Washington wisdom, which is why Democrats are afraid to speak up. Bottom line: this is more propaganda.
For a hundred years we debated the economic reach of the state, but that debate's basically done. The next one will be over where the state should erect guardrails in a mobile and fragmented world.
Or at least that’s the question that best benefits the fortunes of the Republican Party. It’s all about who devises these questions. As long as Republicans like David Brooks are able to define the national debate, they will remain in power --- polls or no polls.
May 11, 2006
Don't Worry, Be Happy
By DAVID BROOKS
Can you spare a moment for the nation's sole remaining optimist?
The Times/CBS News Poll reported yesterday revealed that Americans are more pessimistic about the country's direction than at almost any time in the past 23 years. George Bush's approval numbers are so low that he's now only five points more popular than John Kerry and three points more popular than Al Gore.
But from where I sit as president of the Prozac Would Be Redundant Society, all the negativity is a few months out of date.
First, look at some fundamentals. The International Monetary Fund predicts that the world economy will grow at 4.9 percent, which would be the second-fastest annual rate in three decades.
That the world economy will grow at a 4.9% rate this time period (year? decade? century? week?) is a fact of little comfort to anyone who doesn't actually participate in the world economy, in particular the standard working stiff --- who may still lose his or her job to outsourcing, thus benefiting the world but not American citizens.
Free institutions spread more quickly last year than in any year since 1972, when Freedom House began measuring these things.
According to the Freedom House website, more countries are designated “fully free” than in previous years, to be sure. However, freedom of the press is on the decline, rather significantly, and we learn today that our own freedoms, particularly the freedom to phone whoever we want without being watched, are in jeopardy.
According to the Human Security Report, the number of wars with at least 1,000 deaths in battle has dropped by 80 percent since 1992.
That's not really helpful when one considers the Iraq War today, or an impending War with Iran. Nor does that say anything about the current genocide in Darfur. We can look at this another way: from 1939 through 1945, the number of wars with at least 1,000 deaths in battle dropped to a mere one. Those must have been really good years, eh?
Air pollution levels are plummeting; over the last three years we've had the lowest level of ozone smog violations on record.
Yes, much has been done to help close the Ozone Hole. However, we’re now seeing the effects of greenhouse gas-induced global warming with a rise in violent storm activity and massive shrinking of the polar ice caps. Carbon dioxide pollution is still on the rise, with more coal power plants in operation today than in any time in history..Anyone under the age of thirty should be scared shitless at this point for their own future survival, let alone that of their children or children's children.
The reason people are down is not because their own lives are awful — it's because they're suffering a crisis of authority. They no longer have confidence in the institutions that are supposed to maintain order in their lives, whether the topic's terrorism, gas prices or federal spending.
This is a load of horseshit. There's an economic boom, to be sure, but real spending money is going down. The American government has become obscenely corrupt, and all attempts to reform it have fallen by the wayside. The Iraq War has made everyone less safe, and no one has come up with anything close to a solution. High gas prices? That's just the tip of yet another iceberg. It's not just a crisis of authority, though there is that. It's mostly a crisis of policy, which David Brooks will never admit -- because these are his pet policies, and they don't work.
But even here, the latest news is good. Look around at all the green shoots of political renewal.
Not long ago, the temper-tantrum left seemed to be on the verge of capturing the Democratic Party, but now the Clintonite centrists are reasserting their intellectual, financial and political supremacy.
Nothing like negating and dismissing people with whom one disagrees. The "temper tantrum left" is another bit of right-wing propaganda, akin to "Deanism," which marginalizes all traditional liberal Democrats. They don't exist. They're just people throwing a hissy fit. (And Dean, for what it's worth, is politically close to the center).
David Brooks is a fan of DLC Democrats, mostly because at heart they're Rockefeller Republicans. Again, never let your enemies describe you or define you.
Last month, Hillary Clinton gave a proto-campaign speech in Chicago, laying out an economic agenda that Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute called remarkably centrist. Clinton called for a return to "pay as you go" budget rules. Congress couldn't raise spending or cut taxes unless it filled the hole in the budget right away, the only effective way to restore fiscal balance.
Last week, Hillary Clinton was feted by Rupert Murdoch, which brings up that old Gore Vidal comment: America has one political party, with two right wings. Any time the right-wing American Enterprise Institute says good things about a Democrat, it’s reason to worry about that Democrat.
From today’s column by Bob Herbert: We've been listening to this armchair chatter for years: The Democrats need new ideas. They need big ideas. They need to move to the center. They need to wave the flag. They need to go to church. They need the soccer moms and the Nascar dads. They need to run from the blacks. They need to run from the gays. I have no more patience with this perennially pathetic patient, this terminally timid Democrat who continues to lie cowering and trembling on the analyst's couch, wondering why the Demolition Derby Republicans control virtually all of the levers of power in the United States.
Robert Rubin and others have begun the Hamilton Project, which is churning out policy ideas that defy easy categorization and serve as a blueprint for an innovative, moderate administration. The Democratic agenda will be fleshed out by the free-trade progressive Gene Sperling, and by Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Reed, whose coming book will push ideas on how to increase savings and such.
The good news here is that Brooks is pumping Democrats, albeit Democrats who've mostly sold their souls to the devil.
On the Republican side, meanwhile, most of the news in the next 18 months will be made by John McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani. This is a party in the midst of fundamental change.
This is a columnist in the midst of fundamental delusion. Despite a pre-fascist Administration with minimal national support, only a handful of Republicans, Arlen Specter chief amongst them, are willing to speak out. People are running scared from Bush, to be sure, but they don't seem to be changing much, at least not from this vantage point. If this change were so fundamental, then why is John McCain imitating Monica Lewinsky as he snuggles up to Bush?
Some of the professional conservative groups that claim they have veto power over who runs the party are about to be exposed.
Exposed? The fundamentalists have already been exposed. The lobbyists have already been exposed. The "professonal conservative groups" were exposed years ago, if anyone bothered to read about them. Brooks is on crack. Now more than ever the Republicans need their base.
The intra-Republican debate is less well developed than the Democratic debate because until a few months ago, conservatives passively awaited leadership from the White House. But that has changed, too, and the signs of rethinking are everywhere.
Of course, given the shaky nature of American democracy, the Republicans may not have much to worry about. Mike DeWine in Ohio, for instance, is a lock, and that’s not because he’d gather more votes in an honest election.
Yesterday in the House, Mark Kirk and other Republicans unveiled a "suburban agenda" to help suburban families, not K Street lobbyists.
The Republican-controlled Congress still can't pass lobbying reform. What does that tell you?
On the Cato Institute's Web site, there is a roiling debate about fundamentals led by David Frum and Bruce Bartlett. These free marketeers acknowledge that in an aging society it's going to be hard to cut the size of government, so they ask, What do we do now? In The Weekly Standard, Irwin Stelzer wonders if it may be time to cut the payroll tax and raise the top rates, to shift the burden away from those who bear the brunt of trade and immigration.
Interesting point by Brooks. But is this just window dressing, or the real thing? Pathological liars may try to say they've reformed, but they're still pathological liars..
In short, the smartest people in both parties have shifted attention from the past to the future, and a sense of flexibility and promise is in the air.
A sense of flexibility is in the air – but that’s because things suck so badly today. It doesn't say much for American political culture that the only time anyone thinks outside of the box --- and there's still not much going on fitting that description --- is when that box is reeking like an outhouse. Funny thing is, there's an easy way to get on the right track, and it doesn't require a whole lot of "rethinking" from anyone in any party. It's called ending legalized bribery in all forms.
There's been an even bigger shift in attitudes about how politics should be done. The Stalinist on-message style is passé. The rising young politicians like Barack Obama and Lindsey Graham never talk in that predictable party-hack way. Mark Warner and Romney are building their campaigns around their ability to find common ground with political opponents.
Not really. Mitt Romney (like the Governator) has been forced to find common ground with political opponents because both California and Massachusetts are solidly Democratic. The problem is that most Republicans aren't bothering to find that common ground, and DLC Democrats are all trying to find common ground. This is the substance of a David Brooks wet dream, not a real turnaround.
The pseudopopulist renegades who rail against the establishment are being eclipsed by the canny establishmentarians. They're the ones who know how to use the levers of government to get things done.
Like lobbyist reform? While the “professional conservative groups” have run roughshod over the entire country for five years, these people did nothing ---- except go along with it and pretend everything's business as usual. We have to go with these folks because right now that's all we have, and they're better than the Bushies. But...well, Bob Herbert again: There are no Trumans in sight in this Democratic Party. Democratic candidates and potential candidates are still agonizing with their analysts over exactly what to say about this issue or that. (They're trying to figure out ways to talk about the war, for example, that will offend neither hawks nor doves.) What's almost funny is that the patient has been doing this for years, and keeps losing election after election. Why not try something new and liberating, like the truth?
Remember, my downcast fellow citizens, nothing stays the same. Spring brings rebirth and the dewy green faeries of sanity are flittering down the think tank corridors and o'er the politicians' up-turned brows.
Until this fall’s hurricane season.
May 7, 2006
Marshmallows and Public Policy
By DAVID BROOKS
Last week (when this blog was taking a rest), David Brooks wrote his most peculiar column yet, in which he speculated that people's political views are set in high school by virtue of where they sat in the cafeteria. This insight was based, Brooks said, on comments made by Tom Wolfe some forty years ago. While such statements coming from the pen of the playfully eccentric Mr. Wolfe in the '60s had the ring of truth about them then, those same comments coming from the keyboard of a right-wing propagandist like David Brooks during a very different cultural era sound silly and shallow, as some Times readers pointed out in the days after the column appeared. Similar themes appear today.
Around 1970, Walter Mischel launched a classic experiment. He left a succession of 4-year-olds in a room with a bell and a marshmallow. If they rang the bell, he would come back and they could eat the marshmallow. If, however, they didn't ring the bell and waited for him to come back on his own, they could then have two marshmallows.
In videos of the experiment, you can see the children squirming, kicking, hiding their eyes — desperately trying to exercise self-control so they can wait and get two marshmallows. Their performance varied widely. Some broke down and rang the bell within a minute. Others lasted 15 minutes.
The children who waited longer went on to get higher SAT scores. They got into better colleges and had, on average, better adult outcomes. The children who rang the bell quickest were more likely to become bullies. They received worse teacher and parental evaluations 10 years on and were more likely to have drug problems at age 32.
The Mischel experiments are worth noting because people in the policy world spend a lot of time thinking about how to improve education, how to reduce poverty, how to make the most of the nation's human capital. But when policy makers address these problems, they come up with structural remedies: reduce class sizes, create more charter schools, increase teacher pay, mandate universal day care, try vouchers.
Cut to the chase: Brooks is implying that none of this works because behavior is set by the family structure at an early age. Once again he's using a variant of the Hindu idea of caste to explain why social programs and social justice are useless propositions, and that society is stratified because...well...it should be. It's all in the genes...er...upbringing. Underneath it all, of course, is that old subtext, racism.
It's also pure neocon dogma. Francis Fukuyama, interviewed in today's San Francisco Chronicle: "(James Q.) Wilson used to write about the fact that it was fruitless to think that you're going to deal with crime by attacking the deep social roots of crime -- poverty and racism and this sort of thing -- but that you really had to deal with the symptoms. And so I think that that line of thought applied to domestic policy."
The results of these structural reforms are almost always disappointingly modest. And yet policy makers rarely ever probe deeper into problems and ask the core questions, such as how do we get people to master the sort of self-control that leads to success? To ask that question is to leave the policy makers' comfort zone — which is the world of inputs and outputs, appropriations and bureaucratic reform — and to enter the murky world of psychology and human nature.
Of course, if those policy makers decide (like the ones in power now) that government can do nothing to change human nature, then why bother doing anything? Why find ways to level the playing field? This argument lies at the heart of David Brooks' view of people, and it's really ugly, and almost certainly not true.
And yet the Mischel experiments, along with everyday experience, tell us that self-control is essential. Young people who can delay gratification can sit through sometimes boring classes to get a degree. They can perform rote tasks in order to, say, master a language. They can avoid drugs and alcohol.
Actually, they don't tell us that self-control is essential. Look again at Brooks' own words. The children who rang the bell quickest were MORE LIKELY to become bullies. The children who waited longer had ON AVERAGE better adult outcomes. The children who rang the bell quickest were MORE LIKELY to have drug problems. In other words, self-control is a good thing, a real good thing. But this doesn't show that it's essential.
For people without self-control skills, however, school is a series of failed ordeals. No wonder they drop out. Life is a parade of foolish decisions: teen pregnancy, drugs, gambling, truancy and crime.
Of course, if you're Jack Abramoff, you can live a very good life until you're caught. Brooks is also conflating career discipline and self control, but there are any number of professional people who had great career success but terrible self-control in their private lives. How does that figure?
If you're a policy maker and you are not talking about core psychological traits like delayed gratification skills, then you're just dancing around with proxy issues. You're not getting to the crux of the problem.
And if you're only looking at unwed mothers in the ghetto, you're completely ignoring people like Rush Limbaugh, Patrick Kennedy, Michael Jackson, Judy Garland, John Belushi, Tom DeLay, et al. What of Bill Clinton, who reached the pinnacle of success and still had insufficient self-control? Where does he fit on the Brooks scale?
The research we do have on delayed gratification tells us that differences in self-control skills are deeply rooted but also malleable. Differences in the ability to focus attention and exercise control emerge very early, perhaps as soon as nine months. The prefrontal cortex does the self-control work in the brain, but there is no consensus on how much of the ability to exercise self-control is hereditary and how much is environmental.
What the hell is he talking about here? Walter Mischel is talking about instant gratification vs withholding gratification for greater rewards. He's talking about the learning process. From Stanford Magazine:
"By showing how thinking can change the manifestation of personality (in this case impulsivity), Mischel’s experiments supported his “social-cognitive” approach to personality. This challenged Freud’s classic psychoanalytical approach, which saw personality as rooted in instinctual drives and wishes. In follow-up studies, Mischel found that children better able to develop strategies for delaying gratification spontaneously at ages 4 and 5 became more educationally successful and emotionally intelligent. “These delay abilities seem to be a protective buffer against the development of all kinds of vulnerabilities later in life,” he concluded." But mere self-control? Anyone who's done a study or read a lot of biographies of famous and challenging individuals finds a remarkable mix of indulgement and abnegation. Was Leonard Bernstein, for example, a man of great self-control, or a man without self-control skills? His biography reveals both, in stunning detail.
The ability to delay gratification, like most skills, correlates with socioeconomic status and parenting styles. Children from poorer homes do much worse on delayed gratification tests than children from middle-class homes. That's probably because children from poorer homes are more likely to have their lives disrupted by marital breakdown, violence, moving, etc. They think in the short term because there is no predictable long term.
Or maybe not. Many children from middle-class homes come from broken families, move around a lot, etc. Brooks is indulging in stereotypes here, thinking about that poor pregnant fourteen year old black girl. It could also have something to do with the sense of hopelessness in poor families: There is no future so why not live for today? But if Brooks picked up on that idea, he'd have to concede that maybe those polciy wonks had the right idea after all: give poor people real hope, and maybe they'll learn to delay gratification.
The good news is that while differences in the ability to delay gratification emerge early and persist, that ability can be improved with conscious effort. Moral lectures don't work. Sheer willpower doesn't seem to work either. The children who resisted eating the marshmallow didn't stare directly at it and exercise iron discipline. On the contrary, they were able to resist their appetites because they were able to distract themselves, and think about other things.
Which they did because they knew they could wait. If you wait and wait and wait and get nothing, why wait now? Notice, by the way, how Brooks suddenly throws in the word "moral" as if somehow there's a morality involved here. There's no morality here. This is a behavioral experiment, and Walter Mischel is a benaviorist.
From Spark Notes: "Walter Mischel, like Bandura, is a social-cognitive theorist. Mischel’s research showed that situations have a strong effect on people’s behavior and that people’s responses to situations depend on their thoughts about the likely consequences of their behavior. Mischel’s research caused considerable debate because it cast doubt on the idea of stable personality traits. Mischel himself did not want to abandon the idea of stable personality traits. He believed that researchers should pay attention to both situational and personal characteristics that influence behavior."
What works, says Jonathan Haidt, the author of "The Happiness Hypothesis," is creating stable, predictable environments for children, in which good behavior pays off — and practice. Young people who are given a series of tests that demand self-control get better at it over time.
This pattern would be too obvious to mention if it weren't so largely ignored by educators and policy makers. Somehow we've entered a world in which we obsess over structural reforms and standardized tests, but skirt around the moral and psychological traits that are at the heart of actual success.
Once again, Brooks is throwing that word "moral" around. This isn't about "moral." it's about psychological traits and how they're instilled. Lesser gratification now vs.greater gratification later has nothing to do with morality.
Walter Mischel tried to interest New York schools in programs based on his research. Needless to say, he found almost no takers.
Which could be for dozens of reasons which have nothing to do with this particular piece of research.
May 4, 2006
The Paranoid Style
By DAVID BROOKS
There's always been a strain of paranoia running through American politics. Back in the mid-1960's, when the right felt powerless, the John Birch Society thrived. Today, when the left feels disinherited, liberals seize upon the conspiracy fantasies of Kevin Phillips, whose book "American Theocracy" is in its fifth week on The Times's best-seller list.
Here we have an attack on Kevin Phillips and his book, which will lead us to the idea that people believe this kind of material because they hate Bush -- which is a typical Republican talking point that discredits those against this administration as being irrational with hatred, rather than against Bush for his policies.
Phillips's method is pretty conventional for conspiracists — he takes a single issue or set of data points and constructs an all-explaining story line to show how hidden cabals are controlling America.
Except that Philips isn't talking about a hidden cabal. He's talking about the unholy alliance between business interests and the evangelical/fundamentalist Christian movement in the Republican Party, an alliance that currently --- and quite openly --- controls the three branches of government in America today.
In the first part of "American Theocracy," he describes the rise of the "fossil-fuels political alliance." Dwight Eisenhower was "born in oil country" and in 1952 became the first Republican to sweep the Southern oil centers. Nixon too "had an oil-state childhood" and deepened oil's influence.
Back in the '70s, several books were written about the hidden "Cowboy-Yankee" war that had taken over American politics. On the one hand were the "Yankees," representatives of the banking industry and old money. On the other were the "Cowboys," the oil tycoons and nouveau riche of the American Southwest and West. The more outrageous conspiracy theorists of the time postulated that the Kennedy assasssination was a coup by the Cowboys, and that the Nixon resignation was a countercoup by the Yankees. While this may be nonsense on a literal level, it does serve as a metaphor for the changing nature of American political and economic life, and the role of big oil cannot be denied. If you notice though, Brooks doesn't deny this assertion. He also doesn't mention that the biggest clue that hidden cabals may be running America came from Eisenhower when he warned of the "military industrial complex."
Pretty soon, Republicans could count not only on energy and automobile producers but also on "secondary cadres" including "racing fans, hobbyists, collectors, and dedicated readers of automotive magazines, as well as the tens of millions of automobile commuters from suburbs and distant exurbs."
By 1997, reasons were mounting to take over Iraq's oil, Phillips asserts. "A near-final decision to invade seems to have been made in early 2001," he adds, months before 9/11. The Iraq war was born.
Brooks does something interesting here. He takes broad generalizations about the role of oil in the postwar American power structure, switches to a tenuous generalization that may or may not actually appear in Phillips' book, and then rushes ahead a half century to the decision to invade Iraq. However, that third paragraph --- from 1997 to 2001 --- is extremely well-documented. Former Treasury Secretary O'Neill notes in Ron Suskind's book about him that the Administration was discussing invading Iraq as early as late January, 2001. We know that Wolfowitz, Cheney and the neocons were arguing for an invasion of Iraq in the mid-1990s. Would it surprise anyone to learn that the oil industry was also interested in invading Iraq as early as 1997?
The oil alliance melded with another hidden army, the "end-times electorate," Phillips continues.
The alliance of big business (including big oil) and evangelicals in the Republican Party is very well documented to the degree that most Republicans would be hard pressed to deny it. This alliance is the major political story in America since 1980.
Relying on the fact that millions of people read the "Left Behind" apocalyptic fantasy novels, Phillips asserts that 50 to 60 percent of Republicans believe in Armageddon and are influenced by the argument that the "destruction of the new Babylon" in Iraq will hasten the coming of the messiah.
Polls have indicated fundamentalists/evangelicals comprise between 20-25% of the total electorate, which comes to around 50-60% of registered Republicans. The apocalyptic wing of the movement is pretty strong, and one would have to wonder how many people would bother reading the "Left Behind" series if they thought it was hogwash, Phillips isn't going out on a limb here, though a quick reading of Brooks would make you think he is.
Phillips says that the Bush White House sends messages to these Americans through "double-coding" in his speeches — phrases that mean one thing to secular America but contain hidden meanings to people with the "biblical worldview." Phillips cites research showing President Bush used the phrase "I believe" 12 times in his 2004 G.O.P. convention speech — code for religious zealots.
The phrase "compassionate conservative" is also code. Brooks knows about the code. He's lying through his teeth if he says it doesn't exist.
Needless to say, Phillips's book is rife with bizarre assertions. He writes that "many Orthodox Jewish females cannot even study the Torah," that the Rev. Sun Myung Moon "has been close to the Bush family," that the American Revolution was "in many ways a religious war."
There is a connection between the Rev. Moon and the Bush Administration, as exemplified by the political slants of Moon's Washington Times newspaper. It's best, though, to come at this one by examining articles concerning the Rev. Moon himself. This sourcewatch page gives links to several articles about Moon. The assertion that the American Revolution was "in many ways a religious war" is a comment best left up to historians, but depending on one's stance, it could have resonance. Brooks knows more about Judaism than Phillips, who most likely misinterpreted information he'd received --- or Brooks misinterprets Phillips.This last is such a small point: Phillips' book was most likely vetted by several people before it hit the presses. If a small inaccuracy slipped through, it's because no one caught it. Not a good thing, but no crime either.
But his method is pretty standard. First, he takes advantage of the record of his liberal readers' ignorance of evangelical communities to make ludicrous assertions.
It's surprising that a Jewish person would get so defensive about a movement which believes that Jews will be unable to get into heaven unless they acknowledge Jesus.
Second, as Jacob Weisberg noted in Slate, Phillips will begin a chapter making some grand accusation. Then he will depart on what Weisberg accurately calls "a pompous, pedantic history tour" of medieval mineralogy or 16th-century politics. Then, without presenting any evidence or answering any objections, he will repeat his accusation in stronger language.
None of this precludes those areas where Phillips is dead-on correct. Phillips may not draw the right conclusions, and he may be paranoid, but he does present a lot of information which the American media has not revealed, which is why people are reading his book.
Third, Phillips is a master of slicing reality so that it conforms to predetermined conclusions. To take one example among many, in 2002 the evangelist Franklin Graham organized a meeting to address the AIDS crisis. Graham said evangelicals should be ashamed of how slowly they've responded to the crisis, "I have to point the finger at myself and say, 'I'm late.' " AIDS is not about homosexuality, he continued, "the danger is to all of us." He praised Colin Powell's efforts, even though Powell is a strong advocate of condoms. He accelerated what has become a strong evangelical mobilization against AIDS.
Philips writes about that meeting, but ignores all of this. Instead Phillips lumps the conference in with gay-bashing and writes, "Only Jesus Christ can bring about the societal change needed to stop AIDS, preacher Franklin Graham told a 2002 Washington conference."
This is intellectual dishonesty on stilts. Nonetheless, Phillips's books fly off bookstore shelves, and he's given respectable platforms in the major media and at universities.
By 2002, AIDS had spread far beyond gays. It's not surprising Graham would make the comments he did but it does not argue against Phillips' assertion that the conference involved gay bashing. This isn't dishonesty on stilts. What's dishonesty on stilts is choosing a half-dozen questionable statements in an enormous tome to discredit the one thing Brooks cannot discredit: that a full-fledged fundamentalist cabal exists within American government. Is Brooks also going to contend that fundamentalists HAVE NOT used stealth candidates to take over school boards, for instance?
We're at a moment when crude conspiracy mongering — whether it is academic papers on the Israel lobby or George Clooney's "Syriana" — is emerging from the belly of the American establishment.
"Syriana" is a movie, a fiction. As far as the Israel lobby goes, the American press has been notoriously deficient in discussing the role of Israel and its lobby in American politics.
And while many informed critics have picked apart Phillips's fantasies, other Americans, at once cynical and naïve, are willing to believe any whacked-out theory, so long as it focuses hatred on Bush.
Now we come to it: It's not Bush's policies nor the way the Bush government works. It's Bush-hating. Which means this entire column is an exercise in Talking Points propaganda.
It's a funny way to run a theocracy.