Monday, November 27, 2006

Time To Rewrite Those American History Textbooks

The entire debate over whether or not Iraq is embroiled in a civil war is, of course, an ultimately insignificant semantic exercise. But surely there's no logic to the Pentagon position on the question:
In spite of escalating violence, the spokesman for coalition forces in Iraq says that nation is not engaged in a civil war.

Major General William Caldwell says Iraq had violence at an "unacceptable level" last week. However, he says "there's a functioning, viable government entity that's in charge" and giving directions to Iraqi forces.
By this definition, the United States has never experienced a civil war, then, since Lincoln headed "a functioning, viable government entity" throughout his presidency. This will be news to the publishers of American history textbooks.

It's a convenient rhetorical strategy: When reality doesn't match your statements, change the meanings of words until you can claim you were right all along.

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

But They Wage Class Warfare in the Nicest Possible Way

In the business section of today's New York Times, actor, game-show host, and economics columnist Ben Stein offers this startling scoop: GOP tax cuts favor the rich! The news was revealed to Stein during "a lengthy meeting with one of the smartest men on the planet, Warren E. Buffett, the chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway, in his unpretentious offices in Omaha." Here's how Buffett broke the news to Stein:

Mr. Buffett compiled a data sheet of the men and women who work in his office. He had each of them make a fraction; the numerator was how much they paid in federal income tax and in payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare, and the denominator was their taxable income. The people in his office were mostly secretaries and clerks, though not all.

It turned out that Mr. Buffett, with immense income from dividends and capital gains, paid far, far less as a fraction of his income than the secretaries or the clerks or anyone else in his office. Further, in conversation it came up that Mr. Buffett doesn't use any tax planning at all. He just pays as the Internal Revenue Code requires. "How can this be fair?" he asked of how little he pays relative to his employees. "How can this be right?'

Even though I agreed with him, I warned that whenever someone tried to raise the issue, he or she was accused of fomenting class warfare.

"There's class warfare, all right," Mr. Buffett said, "but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning."
Hmm. Might have been nice if Ben Stein had considered minor topics like tax policy, social equity, and class divisions before writing stuff like this:

Anyway, then another short nap, and then off to dinner with Karl Rove. At his home. With his wife Darby, and his sister-in-law cooking and his son Andrew setting the table. Naturally, the conversation was off the record, but I can say a few things:

First, Karl Rove has lost weight, although he was never fat to start with. He's amazingly fit and trim now. Rep. Murtha, who commented on Karl's posterior as large, has obviously never met Karl.

Second, Karl is probably as important as any human being on this planet except Mr. Bush. He is a world-class political figure. Yet he helps wash the dishes. He helps keep the house clean. He walks the dogs. I have never heard him say one mean word about anyone on the other side. Not once. He is probably the most humble human in a position of high authority I have ever met.

Third when dinner was over, I told Karl I knew he has a lot of work to do and we would call a cab. "Nonsense," he said, "I'll drive you home." And with that, he got into his modest car and drove Alex and me home. (We actually had him drop us at the Barnes & Noble on M Street.)

Now, this is a great man. A great and well-grounded man.

At this point, I question a great deal of Bush administration policy, especially on taxes. But Karl Rove is why I am a Republican. He is how Republicans are. Richard Nixon was not kidding fifty-four years ago when he talked about his wife, Pat, not having a fur coat, but instead happily owned ". . . a good Republican cloth coat . . ."

The real Republicans are the hardware store owners in Little Rock, the factory workers in Kentucky who believe in life, the retired aerospace workers in Palm Desert who are concerned about the moral decay of the culture. The wearers of cloth coats. Those are Republicans, to me. The Republican Party is not really about ending the inheritance tax for billionaires. The real Republicans don't even know billionaires. (Most billionaires are Democrats, anyway.) The real Republicans are not about Iraq or the ABM. They are about loving their neighbors and wanting to pass on the same great America they knew as children to their grandchildren.

Real Republicans are not haters. Not ever. It's just not in them to hate, just as it's not in any real American to hate any other American who lives within the law.

Anyway, I left the evening just in a state of amazement about Karl. This is the assassin? This is the thug? Wow, do his critics not know him. But you know what? They wouldn't stop hating him even if they did know him, because that's who they are, no matter who he is.

I don't agree with the President about fiscal policy. I don't agree with him about a happy ending in Iraq. But I sure like being in the same party as Karl Rove, and Julie Eisenhower, and Andy Card, and Senator McCain and Justice Scalia. The party that does not hate.
Let's trace the logic here. Karl Rove helps wash the dishes and walks the dog and even drives Ben Stein home after dinner. This demonstrates what a decent guy he is--someone who, like all true Republicans, is incapable of hate. But oops--he is a driver of the "fiscal policy" that Stein disagrees with and that, very late in the day, Stein has discovered is so grossly unfair as to amount to "class warfare" by the wealthy against the poor. Furthermore, Rove and the politicians for whom he strategizes have done their best to demonize anyone who publicly disagrees with that fiscal policy, accusing them--yes--of "class warfare" in an effort to silence them.

So Karl Rove has devoted much of his life to creating a tax system that victimizes the less fortunate purely for political benefit. What exactly is so decent and loveable about that?

You might think that even someone as lacking in self-awareness as Ben Stein would register the disconnect here. If he has, there's no sign of it--and I for one am not holding my breath.

Stein represents an extreme form of a sickness that permeates the mainstream media--the shaping of journalists' policy judgments by their personal connections with the powerful. I have no doubt that, when they are surrounded by people they perceive as friends, Karl Rove and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and even George W. Bush themselves are perfectly "nice," in the sense that they serve drinks and banter and loosen their ties and ask about people's wives and kids. But it's pathetic that someone like Ben Stein, who has been given a significant platform with which to influence the world's opinions, should be capable of thinking that this "niceness" of people like Rove and his friends reveals anything about the actual tendency of their public behavior--much less that it is a basis for deciding which political party to support.

Today's column by Stein about the Republicans' class warfare on the working class and the poor is, of course, completely accurate (if five years late). So I guess we should be grateful that Stein happened to meet Warren Buffett. It's obvious that mere facts aren't enough to impact Stein's judgments. For Stein to become truly exercised about any issue, he needs to hear about it over cocktails from a successful, powerful man who wears a suit and tie and is personally nice to Ben Stein.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

I'm With Izzy

In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann offers his contribution to what he describes as the "hot-blooded new debate" about I.F. Stone. (No link because the article isn't available online.) This debate was sparked, of course, by the Myra McPherson biography as well as by the collection, The Best of I.F. Stone, which I edited for Peter Osnos at Public Affairs.

Lemann joins Paul Berman (in the Times Book Review) and Geoffrey Wheatcroft (in the New York Observer)--to say nothing of avowedly rightwing critics at places like The Weekly Standard--in faulting Stone for being soft on Soviet Communism. And like those other writers, he devotes many paragraphs and much energy to parsing the question of just how soft Stone was--nearly as much space as he devotes to everything else Stone ever said or did.

Focus narrowly on the critics' accusation and you might be inclined to agree with them. Immerse yourself in Stone's lifetime of journalism, as I did when editing the collection, and you'll probably come away wishing that he'd condemned Stalin earlier and in stronger terms. But it's hard to see why this issue should dominate the conversation about Stone fifty years after Stalin's death. It's not as though Stone's work was centered on Russian politics, European affairs, or the Communist and Socialist movements. He actually wrote rather little about these topics, except insofar as they affected American politics. To judge Stone's journalistic legacy primarily on the retrospective correctness of his attitude toward Stalin strikes me as perverse.

Lemann actually touches on this argument (as articulated, in McPherson's book, by Stone's son Christopher), and he dismisses it:

Stone was not only one of the leading journalists of the last century; he was specifically a moralist with a grand global scope. It seems more than a small oversight that he mainly missed the story of the greatest mass murderer in history.
But this subtly mischaracterizes Stone's work. Stone worked as a journalist throughout World War Two, and his writings during those years focused mainly on the management of the war effort in Washington. Does that mean he "missed the story" of the Holocaust? During the sixties and seventies, he wrote very little about South Africa or China. Did he "miss the story" of apartheid or the Cultural Revolution? In all three cases, the answer is No--because those stories weren't the ones Stone was after. No single reporter can cover everything in the world, and none really try. Stone was unequalled at getting the stories he went after--and they were big ones.

A zealous crusader for freedom, Stone focused his crusade on the country and the people he knew and loved best--America and Americans. His mandate in the Weekly was to write what most Americans weren't reading in their daily papers. In the 1950s, there was no shortage of editorial-page denunciations of Soviet tyranny. But there was a shortage of reporting about the growing power of the military-industrial complex, the abuses of Hoover's FBI, the insanity of mutually assured destruction, and the repression of American Negroes. Stone aimed to fill that void.

The result was a body of journalism much of which remains as insightful and relevant in the era of Iraq and the Patriot Act as it was in the age of Vietnam or the period of McCarthyism and the Blacklist.

Lemann (like the other critics) can't help acknowledging Stone's journalistic achievements:

Stone was a courageous independent voice in the conformist Cold War years, who shunned organizational life, stood up for civil liberties, and aggressively questioned the government at a time when the best-known journalists were cheerleaders. He was an impassioned advocate of civil rights long before the great events of the civil-rights movement. He opposed the Vietnam War well before the Gulf of Tonkin incident, in 1964, and was one of the first journalists to question it. . . [He also had] a dazzling mind . . . even as an old man he had a young man's moral passion . . . [and] he was an excellent, if unconventional, reporter, who . . . had a great journalist's instinct for going where the stories were unfolding and for making a place come to life on the page.
This list of talents and accomplishments would be enough, one might think, to earn Stone an unqualified place on the list of great journalists of the century. But I guess not. As Lemann regretfully observes:

almost all of Stone's serious political disputes involved his being more sympathetic to Communism than to whomever he was feuding with.
And evidently these feuds and that misplaced "sympathy" weigh as heavily in Lemann's scales as the vast bulk of Stone's investigative journalism and commentary.

All I can say is: Read Stone for yourself, either in the new collection or in one of the older volumes, organized by decades, that Little, Brown and Random House published and that can still be found on the shelves of many libraries. Then decide how well Stone's political judgments and instincts, even judged with the benefit of hindsight, stand up to comparison with those of his present-day critics.

As for me, I'm with Izzy.

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"Let's Kill All the Lawyers" . . . and the Judges and Reporters, Too

According to a new UN report, October was the deadliest month yet for civilians in Iraq, with 3,709 reported killings by insurgents, militias, and sectarian groups.

One interesting detail: The report mentions that among those especially targeted for attacks are "journalists, judges, and lawyers." It makes sense. These are three professions that represent independent sources of power and influence in any society, which totalitarians and would-be totalitarians naturally abhor. At their best, journalists, judges, and lawyers stand up for the little people against government, business, military, and sectarian interests, and provide a space where truth and freedom have a chance to take root.

Remember this the next time you see America's so-called conservatives attacking the same three groups--journalists, judges, and lawyers. In the US, the attacks are usually political and psychological (though they have sometimes become physical and violent). But the conservatives' objective is similar to the objective of the terrorists in Iraq: To weaken and ultimately eliminate alternatives to the single repository of power and truth which the totalitarians control.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Maintaining The Bipartisan Fantasy

It's so charming to read representatives of the Sensible Middle like the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne earnestly proposing common-ground initiatives designed to bridge the divide between Republicans and Democrats--those two equally extreme, equally misguided, equally partisan despoilers of good old-fashioned American centrism. Today Dionne writes about a bill, currently before the House, whose purpose is to lower the number of abortions through programs that health care experts agree will help achieve that goal:
[The Ryan Bill] includes a remarkably broad set of programs aimed at reducing teen pregnancy, promoting contraception and encouraging parental responsibility. But it also includes strong measures to offer new mothers full access to health coverage, child care and nutrition assistance.
Dionne's belief--expressed, as I say, in all earnestness--is that
There are moral and practical reasons for members of both parties, and combatants on both sides of the abortion question, to embrace this approach.
And indeed it is true that anyone seriously interested in reducing the number of abortions--and of improving the lives of women and children in the process--could scarcely oppose the provisions of the Ryan bill.

But here we run across a curious fact. As Dionne notes, the Ryan bill has 23 sponsors in the House, some pro-choice, some pro-life. Yet every single one is a Democrat! Not a single Republican is willing to commit himself or herself to supporting this humane, common-sense approach. How very odd.

For anyone not an unwavering advocate of the Sensible Middle and an equal-opportunity denouncer of the demagogues "on both sides of the aisle," this fact might almost make one wonder about the sincerity of Republican foes of abortion. The refusal of Republican politicians to back a program that could actually reduce abortions might almost make one suspect that minimizing human suffering is less important to them than being able to score points with Christian fundamentalist voters . . . and that their stance on the issue is influenced less by moral conviction than by their fear of alienating the tiny fringe of Americans who not only oppose abortion rights but also free access to contraceptives, and who therefore push for the appointment of extremist kooks like Dr. Eric Keroack to be in charge of our nation's reproductive health programs. (And if, after reading about him, you think that Dr. Keroack is going to willingly administer a contraception program like the one envisioned by the Ryan bill, I have a single-payer-health-care plan I'd like to sell you.)

In fact, examining the Republicans' actual behavior, one might almost believe that they like having the issue of abortion available to fling around at election time . . . especially when every other tried-and-true theme is imploding on them. But that can't be right, can it? And even to assert it would be cynical and (worst of all) not even-handed of me.

Gosh darn it, why can't we all just get along?!

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Monday, November 20, 2006

No O.J. Book in America's Christmas Stocking

I've written before about Judith Regan, America's tackiest book publisher, as well as about the ethics of publishing books by notorious killers. For the latter post, I did a little research and found that the vague impression held by some people (including people like Jeff Greenfield and Wolf Blitzer, who should know better--especially when they offer opinions about it on TV) that the book business eagerly publishes books by serial killers and the like is completely false. If anyone is driving the tabloidization of American culture, it's not book publishers--it's the tabloids (duh), the Internet (hey there, Matt Drudge), and most especially cable TV.

Yes, there's a freedom of the press issue here. I'm close to being a first amendment absolutist. I'm not a fan of "Son of Sam" laws, which make it illegal for a writer to profit from a book that describes crimes he or she committed. As first amendment attorneys have pointed out--and as the Supreme Court observed in finding the New York State Son of Sam law unconstitutional--such laws, interpreted as written, could well have prevented the publication of works like Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail and Thoreau's Civil Disobedience. The way to fight crime is by fighting crime, not by banning books.

Having said all that, I must say I'm pleased to learn that Regan's planned book by O.J. Simpson, If I Did It, has been cancelled. (It was to have been published by the Regan Books imprint of Harper Collins, which, like Fox News, is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. I like to take every opportunity to remind people that our sleaziest book publisher and our sleaziest TV network are both owned by the same proudly conservative defender of the values of Western civilization.)

I don't want the government squelching freedom of the press, but a publisher exercising good taste in response to a public outcry is another matter. I think that when the very idea of seeing a particular book on sale in Barnes & Noble makes you feel a little more ashamed of being an American, it's a fairly good indication that that book would not make a major contribution to our national culture.

As for Regan's supposedly high-minded justification for the book project--puh-leeze. In an essay she wrote for the Times (but which the paper--exercising its good taste--chose not to print), she said
she believed it was her responsibility as a publisher to bring Mr. Simpson's words to the public, and she likened her role to "the mainstream publishers who keep Adolf Hitler's 'Mein Kampf' in print to this day."
Uh, Judith--Adolf Hitler was a major political, military, and cultural figure with a vast impact on the history of the world. He was also a powerful demagogue who used his warped ideology to seduce and manipulate hundreds of millions of seemingly intelligent, well-educated Europeans and others. For these reasons, there is an obvious educational value in publishing Mein Kampf.

The titillating did-I-or-didn't-I teasings of a pathetic publicity hound . . . not so much.

P. S.: Check out the list of names in the Tags section below. Which one would get your vote for Keith Olbermann's next installment of Worst Person in the World? It's a close call . . .

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Being Universally Beloved Isn't All It's Cracked Up To Be

A bit of advice for anyone who values his or her sanity: Try to avoid winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I spent Sunday afternoon watching Muhammad Yunus receiving the well-deserved accolades of the world--and especially of his colleagues in the global microcredit movement--at the summit meeting in Halifax, and frankly I have no idea how he manages to retain his sweet smile and friendly disposition. He is being treated like a rock star. Everywhere he goes a crowd of people trails him ("like flies on flypaper," as one of his assistants remarked), and he can't turn around without being importuned for a photo, an autograph, a handshake, a favor.

I attended a presentation by Christopher Dunford, president of Freedom from Hunger, about a meta-research study into the current evidence concerning the impact on poverty of microcredit programs in countries around the world. It was a scholarly analysis that deserved, and received, a thoughtful response from the panelists who attended the session, including Jonathan Morduch, a professor of public policy at NYU; Carmen Velasco, executive director of ProMujer, a well-known microcredit organization in Bolivia; and Professor Yunus. But when the floor was opened to questions from the audience, many people lined up at the microphone not to discuss Dunford's paper but to address Yunus--with questions, compliments, suggestions, and, in one case, a ten-minute harangue about global poverty policy that the program chair was unable to cut off until the rest of audience began clapping. It seems that, in his new role as the global face of microcredit, Yunus is now expected to personally solve every problem, resolve every dispute, and endorse every worthwhile initiative in the world of anti-poverty efforts.

Once the program ended, it was more photos, handshakes, questions, and autographs for Yunus. And when he was finally finished greeting every well-wisher and was heading for dinner--exhausted, I'm sure, though still smiling--he was waylaid by a young woman. She had in tow a small mustachioed man with a microphone whom she introduced as "a reporter for the most important newspaper in Ecuador. Can he just ask a question or two?" Of course, Yunus smiled and complied, patiently answering the same banal questions ("Is microcredit becoming an important movement in the world?") he must have answered two hundred times since waking up that morning.

People sometimes refer to Nobel Peace Prize winners as "living saints." Now I see why. It's not because of their good works but because they manage to put up with the rest of us without resorting to violence.

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Halifax Dispatch

I'm attending the Microcredit Summit here in Halifax, Nova Scotia--a gathering of some 2,000 professionals from around the world who are involved in the microlending movement to alleviate poverty. At this morning's opening session, after speeches by dignitaries including the president of Honduras, the prime minister of Pakistan, and Queen Sofia of Spain, we heard from Mohammad Yunus, founder of the microcredit movement, managing director of the Grameen Bank, and this year's Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Compared with the other speeches--which were admirable but somewhat vague statements of renewed commitment to the goals and methods of the microcredit movement--Yunus's speech was notable for its down-to-earth, practical quality. He focused on some of the very specific steps that need to be taken to enable the expansion of microcredit beyond the current total of some 113 million recipients worldwide, such as the creation of financial regulatory regimes that recognize and accommodate the unique purposes and challenges of microcredit. I think this is typical of Yunus: Like Gandhi, he is an idealist firmly rooted in realities on the ground.

I'll share more news from the summit as it unfolds. Meanwhile, this quick observation about Halifax. It's a modest-sized city, with a population of around 300,000; for a New York comparison, it reminds me a little of White Plains. But when I walked this morning from my hotel to the convention hall along Barrington Street, which is one of the main business streets downtown. I saw the usual mix of restaurants, clothing stores, retail shops, opticians, travel agents, etc. etc., except that in a ten-minute, five-block walk, I passed no fewer than six bookstores. So this is where all the literate people have gone--!

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Waking Up

One thing I didn't anticipate was how much the aftermath of the Democratic electoral victory would feel like a return to normality--a waking-up from six years of nightmare.

A small example: the many photos in newspapers and on TV of President Bush holding (at least superficially) cordial conversations in the White House with Democratic leaders. I can't stop experiencing two powerful simultaneous reactions to these pictures: first, awareness of how very strange it is to see Bush smiling and shaking hands with someone like Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid (those friends of terrorists); and second, the realization that, not so long ago (yet seemingly very, very long ago), photo-ops like this were absolutely the norm in Washington.

I mean, I know I'm not crazy, and by God I remember when Republican presidents routinely met with, worked with, and even befriended Democrats in Congress--and vice versa. Now, after six years of Bush and Rove, the bare possibility of bipartisanship feels like some sort of miracle.

This must be what the first few moments of fresh air and sunlight and open horizons must seem like to someone who has just been released after months in jail. "Oh, right . . . I remember this! Gee, it feels good!"
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Evangelicals, Threatening? It's Not So Mysterious

In tomorrow's New York Times Book Review, John Wilson, editor of the evangelical Christian magazine Books & Culture, addresses the issue of how worried non-evangelicals should be about the cultural threat posed by extreme right-wing Christians. His answer: "Not very." And he goes on to make some worthwhile points, pointing out that the evangelical community is divided on some issues and that many people spend part of their lives in the evangelical camp only to drift or move away at some point. In other words, evangelicals are not a monolithic power center, and even their hold over individual Christians is often exaggerated.

Fair enough. But the rhetorical question that some editor affixed to Wilson's article in the print edition of the article actually answers itself, and in the process undermines much of Wilson's argument. The question reads:
In today's freewheeling marketplace of ideas, why are evangelicals seen as a dangerous threat?
The obvious answer: Because committed evangelical Christians hate the fact that America is a freewheeling marketplace of ideas. They believe in one truth (over which Christians of their ilk have a monopoly), one source of knowledge (the Bible, interpreted as only they interpret it), and one way of life (which their religious leaders define as essential for all). If leaders drawn from the right wing of the evangelical movement ever came to power in this country--and in recent years they've gotten uncomfortably close--they would certainly try to shut down the freewheeling marketplace of ideas that the rest of us revel in.

I'm almost an absolutist when it comes to the first amendment. By all means, let the Christians of the right proselytize freely. They are (and should be) free to argue on behalf of their rigid, our-way-or-the-highway approaches to faith, morality, politics, culture, even science. But people like John Wilson shouldn't be puzzled over why the rest of us find their teachings threatening. Like the communists and fascists of old--and many other totalitarian groups--they want to use the freedoms created and protected by liberal democracy to destroy both liberalism and democracy. A threat? Yes, I'd say so.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

President Snippy

Two quick comments on Bush's post-election press conference:

Contra the usual sycophantic commentators (like Chris Matthews) who have been talking about how gracious, humble, generous, funny, and relaxed Bush appeared, I thought he seemed even more snippy than usual--saying all the right things (which of course had been carefully scripted for him) but doing so in a style that clearly conveyed his underlying disdain for the bipartisan message. His demeanor reminded me of a teenage boy who doesn't want to attend a family gathering but who has been sternly warned by his mother that he not only has to attend but that he'd damned well better behave himself for once--and who therefore shows up at the event and acts superficially cordial but makes very clear through his facial expressions and sarcastic tone of voice that he regards the whole thing as a huge imposition and that he is only there to satisfy his idiot parents.

Speaking of which: What is going on with the Bush Oedipal thing? For the first five years of his presidency, Bush seemed to revel in thumbing his nose at his father, deliberately reversing the moderate policy choices Bush 41 made and publicly disdaining his dad's advice. Now, with Iraq blowing up in his face, he has called upon first James Baker and now Robert Gates--two of his father's closest advisors--to bail him out. I can't imagine this is sitting well with Bush 43. I suspect it's going to be Tension City around the family table this coming Thanksgiving . . .

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Wall Street Editors Refuse To Be Confused By Facts

Updated below

One of the big problems with financial reporting--apart from the shaky understanding most journalists have of how business and markets actually work--is the fact that the economy is so complex that it's always easy for reporters and editors to concoct "explanations" for anything that happens by finding specific events or trends that reinforce their prejudices.

As Kevin Drum notes today, one of the most deeply ingrained of those prejudices--despite abundant evidence that it is factually wrong--is the assumption that Democratic rule is bad for Wall Street. So how did the journalists respond to yesterday's post-election rally? Kevin caught this headline on CNN:
Techs lead turnaround as investors move beyond possible Democratic control of Congress
Kevin comments:
Yes, you read that right. Not "Dow Moves Randomly for No Special Reason." Not "Dow Welcomes Democratic Victory." Not "Dow Higher on Hopes of Iraq Withdrawal."

Nope. The mind readers at CNN decided that in the space of just a few hours investors had both panicked and recovered over the dire threat to the economy posed by Nancy Pelosi. Crikey.
It so happens that I wrote a little something about this in a forthcoming book, The Upside, a collaboration with the brilliant business consultant Adrian Slywotzky:

One of the problems we have with understanding transition risk is that, when we look at the past, we see one history. And because we know what happened and have assimilated those events into our view of the world, that real-life history appears inevitable: "How could it have happened any other way?"

This is why it's so easy and so tempting to produce after-the-fact rationalizations for events that startled us when they happened. Listen to the political pundits the day after a close election. Every one has a clear, logical, iron-clad explanation of why Candidate A edged out Candidate B--including all the pundits who were absolutely certain, twenty-four hours earlier, that Candidate B was sure to win. In the same fashion, when the Dow Jones falls, the analysts and TV talkers have no trouble explaining the factors that made the drop inevitable--"weakened earnings expectations," "uncertainty overseas," "a sluggish housing market." Given the exact same data and a rising Dow, the same experts will offer an equally plausible set of explanations for that result--"rising productivity," "consumer confidence," "lower interest rates."

We look backward, see one historical path, and quickly learn to view it as obvious and inevitable.

As a result, the pundits find their prejudices confirmed by everything that happens, no matter what it is. Another good reason to take what you read in the papers--especially so-called "expert analysis"--with a huge helping (not just a grain) of salt.


Today (Thursday), the markets went down. But since CNN announced yesterday that traders had already absorbed and gotten past the election results, I guess they can't possibly blame today's decline on those results, right? Guess again:

A three-session advance hit a roadblock Thursday, with investors bailing out of drug, telecom and financial stocks, following confirmation that the Democratic Party will control all of Congress for the first time since 1994.
Yet another demonstration of the role that logic plays--or doesn't play--in most news "analysis."

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Singing a New Tune

Ken Mehlman, commenting on The Today Show about the undecided U.S. Senate races in Virginia and Montana, currently led by Democrats:
We have to make sure that every vote is counted!
Funny, I remember when Democrats were derided for saying that. How does it feel to wear the "Sore Loserman" shoe on your foot, Ken?
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So Much for Rove's "Permanent Majority"

Comeuppance watch--Fred Barnes, November 22, 2004:
KARL ROVE SAID LAST YEAR that the question of realignment--whether Republicans have at last become the majority party--would be decided by the election of 2004. And it has. Even by the cautious reckoning of Rove, President Bush's chief political adviser, Republicans now have both an operational majority in Washington (control of the White House, Senate, and the House of Representatives) and an ideological majority in the country (51 percent popular vote for a center-right president). They also control a majority of governorships, a plurality of state legislatures, and are at rough parity with Democrats in the number of state legislators. Rove says that under Bush a "rolling realignment" favoring Republicans continues, and he's right. So Republican hegemony in America is now expected to last for years, maybe decades.
What a difference two years of fuck-ups make.
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What A Night

So much to be said about the historic victory. I'll save it until I've had a chance to think and catch up on my sleep.

Meantime, one very small observation: It's amusing, the morning after, to see The New Republic uphold its recent tradition of stunningly myopic punditry with this headline (posted just a day ago):
Why the Democratic Wave Will Be a Ripple
Some ripple!

ADDENDUM: Two hours later, I find that the headline on the New Republic website has now mysteriously been changed to:
Will the Democratic Tidal Wave Amount to a Ripple?
Oh, I see--they were merely raising a question! Isn't the endless revisability of web pages a beautiful thing . . . !?
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Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Virtues of Peace

I really appreciated this post by Ezra Klein over at The American Prospect, because it articulated some of what had been bothering me about the Kerry flap. Key graf:
I loathe the tendency--by politicians and pundits, liberals and conservatives--to dreamily speak of the great sacrifice, magnificent courage, inspiring intellect, and extraordinary characters of our troops. It's bullshit. And it's bullshit designed to make us feel better, so we don't have to face what we've done to these young people, and don't have to imagine the toll a warzone takes on real humans, rather than imagined supermen.
It's an unhealthy thing for a society to have shibboleths--stock ideas to which everyone is publicly required to pay homage, thereby stifling any attempt at actual thought about the realities underlying the ideas. It seems to me that, in politics at least, we Americans have more of these shibboleths today than at any time in recent history. Every politician of both parties is forced to pretend that he or she subscribes to a whole list of beliefs that, far from being self-evident, range from at least questionable to extremely unlikely. They include:

  • The choices made by the American electorate are never wrong
  • Not only does God exist, but he has a special place in his heart and an historic mission in mind for the United States of America
  • Family values (whatever they are) are the foundation of social order
  • The beliefs and attitudes of the American middle class are unquestionably correct in every detail
  • America is the freest, richest, bravest, kindest, and most generous nation in the history of the world

As Klein dares to point out, another of these shibboleths--the belief that the American military is a repository of every virtue known to humankind and therefore beyond criticism--is, to put it kindly, highly dubious.

One of the problems that results from elevating this particular belief to a shibboleth is that it encourages the infiltration of military values into every aspect of American society, especially into politics. We see it in the constant references to the president as "commander in chief," as if we are ruled by some sort of warlord. We see it in the excessive lionizing of soldiers like John McCain and Colin Powell, whose past military heroics serve to obscure recognition of their massive failures as political leaders. We see it in the imposition of the military code of unquestioning loyalty and group discipline throughout the Republican Party, including in Congress, which has abdicated its duty of oversight in favor of blind support for any policy promulgated by our "wartime president."

Military values have their place. When the nation is threatened, we want soldiers who embody those values on the front lines. But the virtues of peace (or of civil society), including the use of reason to question and challenge our leaders; the diffusion of power and responsibility throughout the citizenry rather than its concentration in a few hands; and (above all) a recognition of peace as the single greatest goal of statesmanship, and of war as the ultimate failure--these virtues are even more important for the health of our society than the military ones.

The founders didn't envision the United States as a new Sparta--tyannical, muscle-bound, imperialistic. What a needless tragedy if we convert it into one.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Kerry Recriminations Are a Waste of Time

Hey, fellow Democrats. I know you're frustrated and upset about watching the last three news cycles being dominated John Kerry's botched joke about Bush and Iraq. But the point of this episode--contrary to what I've seen on so many liberal blogs and heard from some liberal friends--is not that Kerry is an idiot. It's that the Republicans are prepared to seize and twist anything and everything into a phony "issue"--such is their utter disrespect for the intelligence of the American people--and that the media are, sadly, all too willing to assist them in the process.

Those Democrats who are squandering their energies in denouncing Kerry's stupidity should ask themselves: Do you really believe that, if Kerry hadn't made his lame joke, the Republicans wouldn't have found some other "shocking" factoid to generate horror and outrage on the part of their base, and to distract and titillate the media? If it weren't a Kerry joke, it would be a vote by Pelosi . . . an interview with Charlie Rangel . . . a speech by Hillary . . . a soundbite by Howard Dean . . . or an obscure, out-of-context sentence from Obama's new book.

We know this is true because it happens like clockwork every election. Remember Kerry's "I voted for it before I voted against it"? Remember the "Dean scream"? Remember Gore's "Internet invention" and "Love Story" claims? Remember Clinton's "I didn't inhale"? The list goes on and on, back at least to the phony attacks on Ed Muskie's manhood because he supposedly wept on stage during the 1972 New Hampshire primary. If you're looking for a pretext to gin up fabricated attacks on someone's character, you can always find one.

Of course Kerry is flawed. So what? The assumption that we can find somewhere a perfect candidate who will never botch a line, use a questionable metaphor, or utter a statement that can be wrenched from context and distorted to appear mean, disrespectful, or even treasonous, is absurd. And if we ever did find such a candidate--Hillary comes close--the Republicans and the media would simply shift to Plan B: They would denounce her as "too perfect," "robotic," "packaged," and "phony."

We have to stop obediently forming a circular firing squad whenever the right-wing blowhards start taunting some Democrat. Instead, we have to treat them like the schoolyard bullies they are. Hit back--fast and hard.

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