Sunday, June 26, 2005

Beinart's Bizarro Bush: "Me Sorry About Iraq!"

One of the problems with "liberal hawks" like Thomas Friedman and Peter Beinart is that, in an apparent effort to appear wisely statesmanlike and above the fray, they insist on seeing equivalence between the Bush administration and its critics. In their columns about Iraq, they strike a tone of "Both sides need to be more reasonable and join forces to work out a solution." (Other writers make similar assertions about Social Security.)

But when one of the "sides" controls all three branches of government, arrogantly claims a "mandate" and "political capital" even where it has none, prides itself on its unwillingness to compromise, uses bullying and mock outrage to intimidate the media, and alters legislative protocols to strip the minority of its traditional rights, it's absurd to treat the two sides as equivalent and call on both to make concessions.

The flawed premise Friedman and Beinart share pushes them into positions that are untenable and sometimes frankly laughable. Friedman, for example, has repeatedly taken the stance that invading Iraq was the right thing to do, so long as the Bush administration did it in a prudent, far-sighted way, with respect for global opinion, full involvement of our allies, careful planning for the occupation and rebuilding of Iraq, and simultaneous commitment to an aggressive program of energy independence--none of which the Bush administration has ever indicated the slightest interest in doing.

Friedman has ended up looking like someone who gave his car keys to a falling-down drunk and then, after the inevitable crackup, offered the excuse, "Well, I told him to drive responsibly."

Now in the Washington Post, Beinart begins a column with the usual assertion of equivalence, saying, "President Bush and Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California deserve each other." Woolsey favors immediate withdrawal from Iraq, a position Beinart calls "breathtakingly irresponsible."

It's probably true that getting out now and allowing Iraq (and perhaps the broader region) to degenerate into full-blown civil war would be a big mistake--which is why most mainstream Democrats haven't so far embraced Woolsey's position. And what does Beinart expect from Bush in return for this concession? That Bush withdraw the nomination of John Bolton, fire Donald Rumsfeld, appoint people like Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn to key policy positions, and begin addressing the situation in Iraq with "humility." (No kidding, Beinart actually suggests all these steps in his column.)

This is a genuine possibility only in the Bizarro world of the Superman comic books, where up is down, black is white, and the Bush administration is ready to sacrifice short-term political advantage for the long-term good of the nation. I can just see Bizarro Bush working on the announcement now: "Hmm, me can use some good advice on this speech about Iraq. Karl Rove, get Bizarro Jimmy Carter on phone!"

In the real world, my suggestion to Peter Beinart is: Get "the other side" to agree to the concessions you propose, and then call the Democrats to the table. Meantime, I'm not going to hold my breath.
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Saturday, June 25, 2005

Jersey Girl Slaps Back at Karl Rove

Via The Huffington Post, this blistering response to Karl Rove's slimy remarks on liberals and 9/11 from Kristen Breitweiser. You'll remember her as one of the "Jersey Girls" who helped force the creation of the 9/11 Commission. The whole thing is worth reading, but here is the climactic paragraph:

It was only after your invasion of Iraq, that Bin Laden's goals were met. Because of your war in Iraq two things happened that helped Bin Laden and the terrorists: al Qaeda recruitment soared and the United States is now alienated from and hated by the rest of the world. In effect, what Bin Laden could not achieve by murdering my husband and 3,000 others on 9/11, you handed to him on a silver platter with your invasion of Iraq - a country that had nothing to do with 9/11.

I'd love to see Kristen Breitweiser fill the U.S. Senate seat that Corzine is hoping to vacate.
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Saturday, June 18, 2005

Keep Pushing the Media on the Downing Street Memos

Our friend Arthur Maisel sent us this email yesterday (Friday):

Please call or e-mail the New York Times to complain about the placement of their article on page 13 today, with no mention of either Conyers or Congress (only "an anti-war group") in the headline. (212) 556-1234;

You might want to follow up on Arthur's suggestion. I decided to write to the paper's new Public Editor:

Dear Byron Calame,

I want to add my voice to the others I imagine you're hearing from to protest the very modest space and placement given by the Times to the ongoing story of the Downing Street memo, and in particular to the hearings being conducted by Representative Conyers.In my opinion, taking the nation to war on false pretenses and trumped-up intelligence is an impeachable offense, and the American media--including the Times--did a terrible job of covering this story while it was happening. Now, three years after the fact, efforts to expose the truth deserve better coverage than a story on the bottom of page A13 that also covered several other topics related to public opinion in Iraq.

I'd like to see the Times begin to play the kind of courageous role it played, along with the Washington Post, in the era of Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate.

Karl Weber

The coverage in the Times could be worse. According to this diary on Daily Kos by John Conyers himself, the story in the Washington Post was positively derisive, mocking the Democrats who conducted the hearings, cherry-picking quotations to make the participants sound extremist and unserious, and even making fun of the small, out-of-the-way meeting room, which was of course the only venue made available by the Republicans who run Congress.

By the way, those of us who were always skeptical about Bush's rush to war may be inclined to lend some credence to the excuse being made by many in the MSM for neglecting the Downing Street story--that it's old news because "everybody" knew that the administration was hell-bent on war.

For some of us, it is old news; distrusting Bush, we suspected all along that he'd made up his mind to invade long before publicly announcing the decision. But it's simply false to assert that "everybody" or even a significant portion of the American public shared our perception. If you doubt that, check out Joe Conason's column in Salon citing numerous editorials and op-eds from WaPo and the Times which credulously repeated Bush's false assertions about diligently seeking an alternative to war.

If "everybody" knew that Bush was lying, "everybody" didn't include the editors of our two leading national papers--or else they knew but didn't see fit to share the information with their readers. Either way, it was a dismal episode in the history of American journalism.
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Thursday, June 16, 2005

Jews, Women, and Faulty Parallelism

In this Wa Po column, Richard Cohen describes a University of Utah study that supposedly found that the genetic makeup of Jews reflected their "natural selection for enhanced intellectual ability." Cohen then wonders about why the public has reacted differently to this study than it did to Larry Summers's speculations about the supposed genetic basis for women's under-representation in the fields of math and science:

The reason the Utah study of Jews produced no outcry is that it suggested Jews were, like the children of Lake Wobegon, above average. The reason Summers got into trouble is that he wondered if, so to speak, women were below average. But if one is possible, why not the other? The answer escapes me -- and it cannot be, as we all know from the Utah study, because I'm dumb.

Ho ho. If I were inclined to take a cheap shot at Mr. Cohen (whose columns I generally like), I might note that Mr. Cohen is comfortable with both theories because he's both Jewish and male and therefore a two-time winner per both Utah and Summers. Of course I would never sink so low. However, I will point out the actual difference between the two ideas, which is their potential impact in the real world.

If the president of Harvard really believes that women can't cut it in engineering, his belief could impact the school's admission policies. (Think that's unlikely? Why? Women have been subject to such discrimination in various fields for decades.) And given Harvard's influence and prestige, the same attitude could well spread to other institutions.

By contrast, no one would seriously propose preferential treatment for Jews. In fact, many of those who believe that Jews are genetically different from other ethnic groups would decry excessive Jewish influence in the professions and the media. They want to limit Jewish power, not enhance it.

So theories of Jewish "superiority," while probably silly, are mostly harmless. Theories of female "inferiority," while equally silly, do measurable harm. When put into a societal context, the difference between the two isn't so very mystifying.
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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Don't Let Tort "Reformers" Shut the Courthouse Door

The awful death of a four-year-old on the Mission: Space ride at Epcot in Disney World hit home with Mary-Jo and me. We'd taken our (then) five-year-old grandson Jakob on the same ride just four months ago. (He's fine.) When Mary-Jo and I discussed the tragedy over dinner tonight, she astutely pointed out that this is a perfect illustration of the dangers in Republican-style tort "reform"--which really means, of course, limiting the ability of ordinary citizens to sue corporations.

As this story explains, the Disney corporation is so powerful in Florida that they've been able to pressure state lawmakers into exempting them from all safety regulations. (There's no federal regulation of theme parks.) In effect, Disney in Florida is accountable to no one. Which is why the Mission: Space ride reopened within hours of the accident, precluding any independent investigation of its causes and any possible dangers posed to other riders.

Thankfully, rules governing theme park operations do exist in other states, including California and New Jersey. But as Mary-Jo put it, when a corporation amasses the kind of power Disney has in Florida, the only regulation to which it's subject comes in the form of lawsuits. We need to fight to make sure that protection isn't "reformed" away.
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Monday, June 13, 2005

Dick Cheney Is Only Trying To Help

So Dick Cheney is accusing Howard Dean of being "over the top," and he's worried that Dean is doing more to help the Republicans than the Democrats? Somehow I think that the Democrats ought to be cautious about taking this no doubt well-meaning advice at face value, don't you? . . . .
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Sunday, June 12, 2005

Bush's Ruthlessness and the Lessons of Deep Throat

Most of the "controversy" over Deep Throat is, of course, phony, fueled by the posturing of convicted felons and liars trying to rewrite history to exonerate Nixon and win one retroactively for a secretive, power-hungry, imperial presidency.

It's clear that Mark Felt was not a "hero" in any meaningful sense of the word. As much reporting (summarized in this column in today's WaPo) has made clear, Felt himself participated in a number of efforts to use illegal tactics when investigating left-wing organizations and then helped cover up the misdeeds--abuses not unlike those for which Nixon was impeached.

But criticizing Felt on these grounds is the opposite of the attacks launched in recent days by the likes of Pat Buchahan, Chuck Colson, and G. Gordon Liddy. Any serious defender of constitutional rights would take the position that Felt should have been consistent about his whistle-blowing, refusing to abet government break-ins and illegal searches no matter which agencies participated in them and exposing the wrong-doing by any means available. By contrast, Nixon's Repug defenders say Felt should have gone along with Nixon's crimes, just as he went along with J. Edgar Hoover's, and shut his mouth about it--which of course is what they mean by words like "honor" and "loyalty."

No, Mark Felt's role as Deep Throat didn't make him a hero. But then, history isn't made only by heroes. People with mixed records and mixed motives sometimes do the right thing, even if it's for the wrong reasons. This is not, in the end, a terribly complex or difficult judgment to render.

The disturbing aspect of the story is the ongoing effort to whitewash Nixon and, in effect, hand George W. Bush a license to shred the Constitution in pursuit of his political goals.

When President Ford pardoned Nixon back in 1974, I was among the millions who were appalled and outraged. The reason wasn't that I wanted to see Nixon suffer personally for his crimes. If Ford had commuted a Nixon jail sentence after he'd been tried and convicted, I wouldn't have objected. But pardoning Nixon before he faced indictment and trial precluded a public forum in which the truth about Nixon's actions could be openly debated with protections for the accused, traditional rules of evidence, and other hallowed legal guarantees of due process. If Nixon had been convicted under those circumstances, it would have made it harder (though not impossible) for today's right-wing to pretend that he was the innocent victim of a politically-motivated conspiracy.

The trial of Nixon could have played a healing role similar to that of the "truth commission" in South Africa after apartheid by forcing the nation to confront and accept unpalatable truths about its history. Ford prevented that and opened the way for "stab-in-the-back" theories which blame not only Watergate but the collapse of Vietnam on treacherous liberals. In fact, some of the ruthlessness of the Bush administration and its supporters can be traced back to the conflicts of the 1970s: Embittered by Nixon's downfall, later generations of Repugs like Karl Rove have clearly decided they will stop at (almost) nothing to prevent a similar fate from befalling them.

If that means out-Nixoning Nixon, so be it. And that's what we see unfolding on the American stage today.
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Saturday, June 11, 2005

Character, Fortitude, and the Won-Lost Record

I went to two Mets games this week, and it was like watching two completely different teams.

On Tuesday, Karen and I watched Pedro Martinez pitch a brilliant two-hitter against the Astros, striking out twelve, including the last four in a row (the last three looking). The Mets got just enough timely offense and won 3-1. The team seemed energized, playing crisp defense, and the crowd of almost forty thousand was raucously enthusiastic, giving Pedro a standing ovation anytime he poked his head out of the dugout. Shea felt like the place to be, much as it did during the heydays of Dwight Gooden (1984-1985) or Tom Seaver (1969-1973).

Friday night, Mary-Jo and I watched Kaz Ishii pitch almost as well as Pedro for the first five innings, during which he allowed the Angels one hit and struck out eight. The Mets offense again was flaccid, but they managed to take a 2-0 lead into the sixth. Then Ishii lost it all, almost instantly. He walked the leadoff hitter in the sixth; gave up a two-run homer to the next batter to tie the game; and a few batters later gave up a three-run homer to effectively lose the game. By the time Manny Aybar walked and gopher-balled his way into a five-run inning in the ninth, the extra runs were merely academic; the Angels won 12-2.

This time, the Mets looked listless and lost. It seemed as though Angels pitcher Bartolo Colon got ahead of every batter 0-2 before inducing a pop-up or a meek grounder to short. Once the Angels grabbed the lead, the crowd quickly grew depressed and sullen. Mary-Jo and I left early, something we rarely do.

Weird, isn't it, how the personality of a baseball team can appear so changeable from one day to the next? Clearly it's not the case that the Mets players went from being engaged, focused, and disciplined on Tuesday to being bored, distracted, and lazy on Friday. Human personality simply doesn't change that dramatically in so short a period of time. Yet that's exactly the impression one gets when watching from the stands.

It's a cliche to observe that baseball is a game where fractions of an inch make all the difference. Hit the ball just so and you drive it over the left-field fence; hit it a sixteenth of an inch higher on the bat and you pop it up to the third baseman. And in the eyes of the fans (and maybe the players, too), the guy who hits the homer is a hero, a man of guts and character who comes through in the clutch, while the guy who pops up is a bum who's stealing rather than earning his million-dollar salary. Pop up a few more times at the wrong moments in a game and the fans peg you forever as a loser, as the Met fans now seem to have done with Kaz Matsui. And if Carlos Beltran grounds out with runners in scoring position too many more times in the next month, they'll be booing him just as mercilessly as they now boo Kaz.

As fans, we care a lot about the difference between winning and losing on the baseball field. Consequently, we'd like the won-lost record to reflect the players' character and integrity, not tiny, almost accidental quirks of fate. So as fans we shape what we see to make it fit a coherent narrative with a clear moral. On Friday night, the Met hitters failed because they just didn't have the heart and the gumption to get the big hits with men on base, and Kaz Ishii blew the lead in the sixth because he lacks the fortitude and tenacity of a Pedro Martinez.

That at least is the conventional story line as presented on the TV news, in the sports pages, and on radio call-in shows. But I don't buy it. I think winning and losing is driven much more by those tiny sixteenth-of-an-inch adjustments that players make on a largely unconscious level than by character traits like "courage" or "dedication" or "will." Which is why no one will really be shocked if last night's listless, sloppy Mets bounce back tonight with a crisp, well-played 8-2 win behind Kris Benson.
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Friday, June 10, 2005

It's Not About Kerry

Once in a while, E. J. Dionne at WaPo just gets it exactly right, as he does in today's column about the tendency of some Democrats to blame our electoral troubles on specific candidates--in particular, on the personal qualities and campaigning mistakes of John Kerry.

Not only is this approach backward-focused and therefore less than helpful in formulating a winning strategy for 2006 and 2008, but it's also misguided. Kerry was obviously not the perfect candidate. But who is? Make no mistake, no matter who the Democrats nominated in 2004--Kerry, Edwards, Dean, Lieberman, Jesus of Nazareth--the Republican slime machine would have managed, via selective distortions of history (and, where necessary, lies) disseminated by their right-wing propaganda apparatus and abetted by a cowed MSM, to depict him (or her) as weak, corrupt, elitist, hateful, anti-Christian, and un-American. And they will do the same next time around, and the time after that, and the time after that--until we find a way to make their strategy fail.

As any good pitching coach will tell you, if the batter can't hit a particular pitch, keep throwing it until he proves he can. Our problems are not about Kerry but about proving that, as Democrats, we can start hitting the Republican pitches out of the park. (And when they throw beanballs at our sluggers, we need to start aiming a few pitches at their guys, too.)
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Thursday, June 09, 2005

Once It Was Farce, Today It's History

Doing a little channel-surfing, I caught five minutes from the final reel of the best Marx Brothers comedy, Duck Soup. As war rages between Fredonia and neighboring Sylvania, a bomb flies through the headquarters of Fredonian President Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho). In a rage he grabs a machine gun and starts firing out the window. He's delighted to see the soldiers in the street below falling like flies until his aide, played by brother Zeppo, runs in with bad news:

Zeppo: Your Excellency, you're shooting your own men!

Groucho: (pauses, non-plussed; then) Here's five dollars, keep it under your hat.

Now we know where Donald Rumsfeld learned his strategy for handling cases of "friendly fire."
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Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Why Apple Switched

In addition to baseball and politics I also have a passion for technology and, specifically, Apple Computer. The big news out of Cupertino this week is that Apple has decided to move their hardware off of the PowerPC line of processors to the x86 processors found in just about all other consumer PCs. This is a huge symbolic shift, as Apple has long been viewed as an outsider in the PC market due in part to their choice of the PowerPC. Apple claims the change was neccesitated by a desire to continue to bring their customers the best possible computers. Analysts and observers point out that Intel should be able to provide Apple with a more steady supply of chips, at lower cost, than IBM could. There is also speculation that Apple is motivated by a desire to compete head-on with Windows or to sell movies (as they do music) by using the new Pentium D chip (which has built in copy protection and Hollywood's blessing).

Chances are all of these reasons influenced the decision, but I believe something else, something much bigger, is the real impetus: convergence.

The convergence of various forms of home entertainment and computing technology is happening - I regularly stream music purchased off of the internet to my stereo, watch movies, edit pictures, etc. all from my computer. However there are different views about what form convergence will ultimately take. Apple has now officially cast their lot with those who believe that convergence will occur around the home computer acting as digital hub.

This isn't really anything new - Apple has been saying this for a long time, as has Microsoft. However, I think most Apple fans and followers believed that Apple had something fundamentally different in mind than Microsoft's vision of a home entertainment PC: that Apple's digital hub ultimately wouldn't be a PC as we think of it today, but rather some sort of home entertainment component or appliance, and that Apple would morph into a consumer electronics company over the long term. With Steve Jobs appearing on stage at MacWorld alongside Kunitake Ando, president of Sony, a few months ago, it was reasonable to assume that there might be some grand collaboration in the works that would integrate Apple's hardware or software with Sony's TVs or Playstation. But the decision to move to Intel - whose chips are far more suited to personal computing, not multimedia applications - while Sony embraces the Cell processor (more on that in a moment) is a clear indication that this isn't going to happen.

By contrast IBM has clearly decided to go in the other direction with the new Cell chip. Here's what IBM is saying on their own webpage about the Cell chip:

- "Cell" architecture will allow all kinds of electronic devices (from consumer products to supercomputers) to work together, signaling a new era in Internet entertainment, communications and collaboration.

- Chips based on the Cell architecture will be able to use ultra high-speed broadband connectivity to interoperate with one another as one complete system, similar to the way neural cells interoperate over the brain's network.

- IBM expects Cell to define an entirely new way of operating...

- IBM...believes the one-size-fits-all model of the PC does not apply in the embedded space; embedded applications will require a flexible architecture, like Cell.

This is not a digital hub strategy. In fact, this is the opposite of the digital hub strategy. Apple either had to adjust their own strategy or leave IBM, and they chose the latter.

Meanwhile IBM has aligned with Sony and Toshiba and IBM processors will be in all of the next generation game consoles. These will be their big customers moving forward and they will dictate future chip designs as a result; if Apple didn't like it, there probably wasn't anything they could do about it other than go along for the ride.

Now we have the Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and Nintendo Revolution all using PowerPC and, in the case of Playstation 3, the Cell. They are all being released over the course of the next year, as is Toshiba's Cell-equipped TV. And so it begins - the alternative to the digital hub is about to hit the real world and if Apple is wrong, they lose.

And Microsoft watchers take note: Redmond has hedged their bet. They continue to push the digital hub strategy with products like Windows Media Center and Windows Media Player, but they also have the Xbox. No matter which vision prevails, Microsoft is positioned to come out a winner. Again.
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Sunday, June 05, 2005

Crazy Joe's Strikes Out

Baseball traditionalists love to wax poetic about the joys of listening to games on the radio. I like it, too. For various reasons--including the game's leisurely pace, its division into discrete parcels of activity triggered by the delivery of a pitch, and the clarity of action effected by scattering just ten to thirteen participants (on a given play) over 100,000 square feet of playing area--baseball lends itself to purely verbal narration far more than other sports.

Over the summers, the familiar voices and catch phrases of favorite announcers become inextricably bound up in the hearts of fans with the identities of the teams they follow. Just thinking about Bob Murphy's "Back with the happy recap" makes old-time Mets fans smile, and I imagine many Yankees fans feel the same way about John Sterling's affected and deeply irritating vibrato delivery of his signature line, "Yankees win! The-e-e-e-e Yankees win!" (Thankfully, Sterling has been able to use this line a lot less so far this season.)

However, there is a price to be paid for enjoying baseball games on radio. That price is the ads.

The commercials played during baseball games include some of the most boring and ineffective in any medium. And the length and dailiness of baseball games guarantees that any devoted fan will hear a given ad scores if not hundreds of times during the season. The bad ones, believe me, are not enhanced by repetition.

The worst of all are the low-budget ads produced by local sponsors that use baseball terminology in an attempt to link the advertising message to the programming context. These ads are so corny, amateurish, and silly that I find myself, through sheer perversity, savoring them. You know the kind . . .

(Background noise of baseball game: Crowd hubbub, shouts of peanut vendors, organ flourishes. Tom and Bob are the announcers in the home team's booth.)

Tom: Strike three! He's retired ten in a row!

Bob: Pretty good, Tom. But that's nothing compared to Crazy Joe's Discount Tire! They re-tire thousands of cars every year--at rock bottom prices!

Tom: Here's the next batter. He can really hit the ball a long way.

Bob: You never have to go a long way to find Crazy Joe's Discount Tire. They've got outlets in all five boroughs!

Tom: Here's the pitch. (Crack of bat on ball.) Look at that drive! It's going, going, gone! (Wild cheers from the crowd.)

Bob: Every drive is a great one when you ride on tires from Crazy Joe's! And their low prices are always a hit! Look at this incredible line-up of brand names . . . etc. etc. etc.

Who the heck writes this drivel? (I like to think it must be Crazy Joe's son-in-law or nine-year-old niece; surely no self-respecting ad agency copywriter would perpetrate it.) Do the people who approve this kind of copy consider it clever and innovative? ("Say, here's an idea. The ad's gonna run during the ball game, right? Let's make it sound like part of the ball game!" "Hey, that's brilliant!") Do they believe such ads will actually move product? Above all, do they think that baseball fans are so witless that their hearts be won by any reference to their favorite sport, no matter how irrelevant or inane?

The fact that we're sports fans doesn't automatically mean we're stupid.
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Friday, June 03, 2005

From the Party That Gave Us Bush, Rove, and DeLay

Thanks to John Richards for guiding us to this post, which in turn reprints a disturbing post from Kevin Drum of The Washington Monthly. What's so disturbing? Nothing but a series of verbatim quotations from the 2000 platform of the Texas Republican Party. Read it for a preview of how much further right these people intend to move the political spectrum. (I can't imagine how they failed to call for the re-establishment of slavery. Saving that for their next convention, I guess.)
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Libertarianism Versus Reality

As a business writer, I've found that an increasing number of people who run businesses are self-proclaimed libertarians. Actually, what most of them espouse might be better described as Libertarianism Lite. It's not so much a thoroughly-worked-out philosophy as a set of half-articulated beliefs like these:

1. Capitalism, competition, and open markets are natural phenomena that spring up automatically wherever people are free to pursue their self-interest.

2. Growth, innovation, and prosperity are spontaneous products of individual human energies that government can only inhibit.

3. Since the "invisible hand" of the marketplace automatically encourages the positive effects of competition and discourages the negative effects, any social or economic outcome produced by unfettered competition is ipso facto good.

4. Regulation of business only suppresses the natural benefits of free enterprise, creating perverse incentives that promote inefficiency and discourage growth.

5. Businesses and business people are morally obligated to pursue profit alone. When businesses try to blend profit-making with a "do-good" agenda, they fail as businesses and (ironically) harm rather than help the intended beneficiaries ("the law of unintended consequences").

Of course, most of the business people who subscribe to this point of view haven't studied philosophy or read their way through any single book of Adam Smith or F. A. Hayek. They get their ideas from a mish-mash of Wall Street Journal editorials, Ayn Rand novels, magazine columns by people like George Gilder and Steve Forbes, and the opinions they hear spouted around the gym or the golf course.

As a practical philosophy, Libertarianism Lite involves reflexive opposition to things like Social Security, environmentalism, consumer protection laws, affirmative action, and Eliot Spitzer. It's expressed through proud, pugnacious (if inaccurate) remarks like Dick Cheney's boast during the 2000 vice presidential debate about the billions earned by Halliburton during his tenure as CEO: "Government had nothing to do with it." (Inaccurate since, of course, lucrative government contracts had everything to do with Halliburton's profitability, then as now.)

The executives who have made Libertarianism Lite the quasi-official philosophy of US business pride themselves on being hard-headed realists. Which is odd, since the mythology behind Libertarianism Lite--especially the assumption that free markets represent an idyllic state of nature with which governments unfortunately interfere--is utterly divorced from reality.

Those who've studied how the real world works acknowledge what should be obvious: the absolutely crucial role of government in making free markets possible. Here's an example. The current (June 2005) issue of the Harvard Business Review includes a section on "Risk and Reward in World Markets," describing opportunities and strategies for companies interested in international expansion. It features a pull-out chart listing 60 questions managers should ask about countries in which they might invest. Some sample questions:

Are the roles of the legislative, executive, and judiciary clearly defined?

Do the laws articulate and protect private property rights?

How strong is the country's education infrastructure, especially for technical and management training? Does it have a good elementary and secondary education system as well?

How reliable are sources of infomation on company performance? Do the accounting standards and disclosure regulations permit investors and creditors to monitor company management?

Are regulators effective at monitoring the banking industry and stock markets?

Is there an orderly bankruptcy process that balances the interests of owners, creditors, and other stakeholders?

These are certainly the kinds of questions I would want answered before investing in any overseas market. And the right answers all depend on the existence of active, strong, well-managed government.

If our self-proclaimed libertarian entrepreneurs are really sincere about getting out from under the heavy hand of government and pursuing wealth with no help from anybody, they are welcome to ignore the advice of the Harvard Business Review and invest in countries that are blessedly free from rules, red tape, and bureaucracy. They are known as "failed states," and they currently include such havens of prosperity and freedom as Nepal, Congo, Liberia, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Sierra Leone. Any takers?
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Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Wal-Martization of America's Book Industry

Two disturbing statistics in the current (May 30) issue of Publishers Weekly magazine (available by subscription only):

(1) Since 1995, membership in the American Booksellers Association, the organization comprising the nation's independent (i.e. non-chain) bookstores, has shrunk from 4,496 to 1,703--a shocking 62 percent decline.

Why does this matter? Because the increasing concentration of book retailing in a few corporate hands (chiefly Barnes & Noble, Borders, and leads to a troubling imbalance in the industry analogous to the dominance of Wal-Mart in general retailing. The middleman has such a powerful chokehold on distribution that he can dictate business terms to suppliers, who have no choice but to comply. That's bad enough when the merchandise in question is jeans, detergent, and groceries, but when it's books, we're talking about a potential long-term impact on the level of national discourse.

(Wal-Mart itself, by the way, plays a growing role in the book business, accounting for sales of up to 20 percent of the most popular commercial titles.)

(2) Since 1999, the number of new books published in the US has increased from about 119,000 to about 195,000 (64 percent)--while book sales have increased only from $23.9 billion to $26.4 billion (just 10 percent). In other words, more and more books are competing for a virtually unchanging pot of book-buying money . . . which means fewer and fewer copies sold of most books.

And why does this matter? Partly because it means that books--including the handful of truly important books published every year--are finding it increasingly difficult to attract readers and affect the broader culture. And partly because it reinforces the other trend described above, in which a highly fragmented and relatively powerless collection of "producers" (publishers and ultimately authors) must struggle to force their products through a constricted distribution bottleneck.

There are some hopeful counter-trends, including the growing effectiveness of book distribution and publicity via the Internet. But on the whole, the evolution of the publishing industry doesn't bode well for the promotion of vigorous cultural, political, and social debate through books--at a time when such debate is more essential than ever.
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Alterman: "Nixon Would Get Away With It Today."

On Eric Alterman's blog, a fine post with a series of reflections on the unmasking of "Deep Throat." The key insight:

Nixon would get away with it today. In today’s media atmosphere, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and the entire right-wing media would create a propaganda firestorm designed to destroy the character of whomever came forward to tell the truth about Nixon or whomever chose to report on it. Had Felt been suspected of acting patriotically, today, people like Bob Novak, a man who feels free to reveal the identity of CIA agents when it suits his political purposes, would be leading the way in destroying his character, in order to obfuscate the truth. What the Bush administration has already done with regard to not just Iraq but across the board, is arguably worse than Watergate, and in many ways, even more cynical. Yet the creation of a right-wing media designed to pummel anyone who honestly reports on its actions—or questions its motives—prevents us from focusing our attention on its myriad misdeeds.

I'm sorry to say that this strikes me as unarguable--and terribly frightening.
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