Wednesday, January 30, 2008

When It's Carnival Day, The Liberals Play

Lent is approaching, and that can only mean one thing: It's carnival time. No, not that kind of carnival--I mean Carnival of the Liberals, which we are hosting here at World Wide Webers for the third time. Here are the blog selections for this fortnight, and a varied lot they are.

First up, for those who worry they may not have gotten their recommended allowance of primary election analysis, check out Charles H. Green's What New Hampshire Voters Really Said. Green may not earn as much as George Stephanopoulos or Wolf Blitzer, but for my money he makes more sense than either of them.

Next, tune in to Alvaro's Grand Rounds: Briefing the Next US President. It's a roundup of forty blog posts covering most of the key issues related to health care that every candidate ought to know about--kind of a carnival-within-a-carnival, if that's not getting too meta for you.

Over at The Agonist, Ian Welsh describes The Glorious Future That American Unions Walked Away From. The title may be a slight overstatement, but Ian's theme is a worthy one: the electoral strategy that the union movement should have followed to make the 2008 campaign a positive turning point in labor history.

Then visit Grrl Scientist at Living the Scientific Life, where she discusses the need for ScienceDebate2008.

At his blog Progression of Faith, Mike L offers a different twist on the Democratic race, describing The Libertarian Case for Barack Obama.

Now for something completely different: Rich Cochrane at Big Ideas explores a topic I frankly didn't know existed--The Ethics of the iPod.

What do the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments and the Zogby political polls have in common? Charles H. Green (with his second hit in one carnival) explains all in his post The Zombie of Trust Betrayed.

Then we have Buffy at The Gaytheist Agenda, feistily informing the presidential candidates, I don't need pandering. Just give me my rights.

Heading into the home stretch, deepali at Paradigm Shifted meditates on Credits Cards vs. Personal Responsibility--a topic that hits rather close to home during the month when Christmas bills show up in the mailbox.

And finally, this carnival's most blush-worthy selection: Greta Christina's All I Really Need To Know I Learned From Porn--Or Not. For every parent who has ever said, "Why do my kids need sex education? Let them learn about sex where I learned it--from Penthouse magazine!" Greta Christina explains why this may not be such a great idea.

So there you have it--ten blog posts guaranteed to recharge your liberal batteries during these long cold winter nights. Throw another log on the fire, enjoy a little left-wing surfing, and start thinking about which posts you want to submit to the February 13th (Valentine's Week) edition of COTL at Liberal England.


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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Bill Gates And Lee Scott Make It Official: Sustainable Business Is Now Mainstream

Over at The Triple Bottom Line, Andy Savitz's blog about sustainable business, I have a new post up about the remarkable recent speeches by Microsoft's Bill Gates and Wal-Mart's Lee Scott regarding the need for a new form of capitalism focused in part on human, social, and environmental needs. Check it out.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

"The Work Of The Devil"

Last night, Mary-Jo and I attended a reception at St. Barnabas Church here in Irvington, New York, to learn about The Carpenter's Kids. This is a partnership program between the Episcopal Diocese of New York and the Diocese of Central Tanganyika, which provides funding to enable some of the millions of AIDS orphans in that African country to attend school. Amazingly, a gift of fifty dollars per year is enough to pay all the expenses a child needs covered in order to enjoy an education--a uniform, shoes, school supplies, and so on.

As you can imagine, it was pretty inspiring to hear from Catherine S. Roskam, our Suffragan Bishop, about the history of The Carpenter's Kids and to see photos illustrating the results--children whose lives have been changed by this small gesture. But the most impressive moment of the evening came early on, when Bishop Roskam was describing her first conversation with Bishop Mdimi Mhogolo of Tanzania about the concept.

Bishop Mdimi told Bishop Roskam (I'm paraphrasing here), "Please understand, we don't want to be your 'project.' We want to be your partners, to be in community with you."

Bishop Roskam replied, "Well, that sounds good. But I'm surprised. Not that many people want to be in community with us right now."

She was referring, of course, to the controversy over gay rights, which is leading a handful of Episcopal churches where right-wing antigay members have taken power to break away from the national church. Some of these parishes have petitioned to be linked with African dioceses rather than American ones, since some Anglican churches in Africa share their rather harsh antigay position. And they are working with the most extreme of their African allies to try to marginalize the mainstream US church and even have it, in effect, expelled from the worldwide Anglican communion.

Under the circumstances, I suppose Bishop Roskam was a bit surprised to have Bishop Mdimi reach out in fellowship to a "left-wing" church--in New York, no less!--in the name of community.

Bishop Mdimi understood exactly what she was referring to (as this link makes abundantly clear). And I love his response to Bishop Roskam. "We disagree with you about some issues. But we think the division is the work of the devil, to prevent the church from ministering to a world in need."

We rarely speak so pungently here in the US about the nature of the conflicts that some of our self-proclaimed "culture warriors" delight in fomenting. But Bishop Mdimi has it exactly right.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Do We Really Have To Choose?

Over at Columbia Journalism Review's website, Gail Beckerman offers this succinct, vivid account of two South Carolina campaign events--an Obama rally and a Clinton rally--which crystallized for her the differences between the two candidates. Obama comes across as passionate, charismatic, inspiring; Clinton as matter-of-fact, wonkish, and detail-oriented. Beckerman suspects that these differences go a long way toward accounting for the differing ways the candidates have been treated by the press:
It occurred to me that Obama's message was easy to encapsulate, could be boiled down to a very distinct nut graph. And his success, at least in the press, seemed to me very much the result of this convergence of time-pressed journalists' need to tell a succinct story and Obama's ability to deliver it. It seemed a perfect marriage. And even if many of the reporters look bored, pale, and poorly fed, he was making their job easy. . . .

[By contrast,] Where I would have known exactly how to translate Obama's message, Clinton's was much more difficult to distill. If I had to, I might use the same words as the Times used in its endorsement:

"Hearing her talk about the presidency, her policies and answers for America's big problems, we are hugely impressed by the depth of her knowledge, by the force of her intellect and by the breadth of, yes, her experience."

These qualities are not so easy to write about.
This distinction seems right; it certainly encapsulates the impressions of the two leading Democrats that we've built up over the last six months. And maybe for some people Beckerman's formulation makes it easy to choose between them.

I can easily imagine someone saying, "We've lost one election after another with smart, wonkish candidates who can recite laundry lists of policies. It's time we finally nominated someone who can inspire people!" I can just as easily imagine someone else saying, "The country is facing serious problems. We can't afford to nominate someone who is long on charm but short on ideas!" Both arguments make a certain amount of sense to me.

And that's my problem. It seems clear to me we need both: charisma and policy smarts, inspirational rhetoric and mastery of the details. The next president must be able to understand the problems we face (economic, social, military, diplomatic, etc.) and craft or at least recognize intelligent, far-sighted solutions to them; he or she must also be capable of moving a large swath of the electorate towards new attitudes (hope, trust, optimism, and mutual support) and out of the defensive crouch in which seven years of post-9/11 fear-mongering have left us. Without those new attitudes, big progressive initiatives on health care, global warming, international relations, and the economy will be awfully hard to pass.

And so, as this primary season winds on, I find that it's getting harder, not easier, for me to decide where I want to invest my vote. I don't want either Obama's charm or Hillary's smarts. I desperately want both.

And maybe the Democratic electorate, taken as a whole, feels the same way--which is why the pendulum keeps swinging back and forth, from one week to the next, between Obama and Hillary. Collectively, the party is saying: Do we really have to chose?

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Yunus Spreads The Word

A promising message on Huffington Post from blogger Vivian Norris de Montaigu at Davos. She writes about how Bill Gates and Muhammad Yunus have connected there and are drawing Gates's rich and powerful friends into the concept of social business:
With two such influential people as Gates and Yunus focusing on innovation, capital-driven change-making and the world economy, there is nothing to stop the social business model from snowballing into a worldwide movement, which can indeed eliminate poverty. That Davos, the meeting place of the truly wealthy and powerful, should now come to include themes that were often spoken of at Porto Alegre and conferences, populated more by NGOs than executives means that the war has indeed been won. The words being used by Yunus are being spoken by someone who has seen both what great wealth can do, and what it could potentially do if harnessed in a more evolved way to help all the people of the planet.
Of course, she is going too far when she says "the war has indeed been won." Perhaps the most we can say is that a declaration of war is at least being drawn up. But it's a huge step in the right direction.

Meanwhile, I've just gotten word that Yunus's new book Creating a World Without Poverty will debut on the New York Times bestseller list at #18 on February third. This is the "extended" list, which appears online, though not in the printed newspaper. A good start!

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Guilt Trip On The Acela Express

So there I am earlier today in Union Station in Washington, D.C., sitting on the three p.m. Acela Express train and watching the car fill up with passengers, when who of all people--but wait, I'm not telling the story correctly.

I'm sitting there, you see, in the window seat I usually favor, and because this is a full train all the empty seats are getting taken one by one. And after a minute or two, a tall, slender youngish man with short hair and a nice dark suit and overcoat pauses in the aisle and points to the empty seat next to me and asks, "Is this taken?"

No, no, I reply, and I scooch over a trifle to indicate my willingness to accept him as my neighbor, and the young man opens up the luggage bin overhead and sticks his overcoat there along with a blue canvas bag that I notice has a big official-looking seal printed on it along with the name of some government agency, I can't catch the name but I think I see the words MISSILE and DEFENSE and so I conclude that this fellow is some sort of Pentagon employee or maybe someone who does business with the Pentagon, like an arms contractor. But he seems perfectly nice otherwise and I certainly can't object to sharing a seat with him for the two-hour-forty-five-minute trip to New York.

So Mr. Missile Defense takes the seat next to me, and the car is continuing to fill up, when a very frail old man with a familiar face comes shambling up the aisle and stops near us.

"Daniel Schorr!" I say out loud, for it is none other than he, the tart-tongued, tough old political commentator who is one of the very few actual liberals ever encountered in the so-called liberal news media. "One of my heroes!"

Of course, he turns and gives me a little smile and willingly shakes my proferred hand, and then he goes back to peering down the aisle. "Are you looking for a seat?" I ask.

"I'm looking for two seats," he replied, "My wife Lisbeth is with me." And he keeps peering and looking around, and I realize that the car is so full there is scarcely even one seat available for Dan Schorr let alone two seats in which he and his wife can sit together.

But I am so impressed to be next to Daniel Schorr that I have so say something else, and now that I see how frail he looks, all I can think of to say is, "I hope you'll be able to keep on reporting for a bunch more years, because we need you." And he replies, genially, "I hope so, too."

And in a moment Mrs. Schorr appears, looking younger and spryer than her husband, and they debate what they should do--try to find two separate seats? Try the next car? Wait for the next train? And Mrs. Schorr looks a little concerned about how her 91-year-old hubby will negotiate the wobbly connection between cars.

In fact, I am thinking about offering him my seat--partly because he is Daniel Schorr, but mainly because he is an old man who really looks as though he needs to be sitting down. But of course I only have one seat to offer, and then what will his wife do?

So I am pondering this small dilemma, and the Schorrs have begun to wander vaguely down the aisle, trying to decide what their options are, when Mr. Missile Agency turns to me, a mildly puzzled look on his face, and asks me, "Is that fellow in the media?"

"Yes," I reply, "He's Daniel Schorr. He used to be on CBS, now I hear him mainly on PBS. He's one of the grand old men of the news business." I want to go on and talk about how Daniel Schorr was a colleague of Walter Cronkite and Harry Reasoner and so on, but Mr. Agency says, "If you want, we can give them our seats. I'm sure we can find a couple of others."

And this idea excites and pleases me. "Mr. Schorr!" I call out. "Here are two seats for you and your wife." And Mr. Agency and I get up and start clearing our things from the overhead bin.

Well, the faces of Dan Schorr and his wife light up and they are effusive in their gratitude. He asks me my name and shakes my hand again, and Lisbeth Schorr keeps saying things like, "Aren't you nice!" and even "We'll remember you in our will!" which is a sweet thing to say although I don't think I will count on it. And I am all smiles and so pleased to be able to help, and in a moment the Schorrs are settled in their seats and I am on my way up the aisle with my bag and coat, heading to the next car where I will of course find a single seat to occupy on the trip to New York.

But then as I am crossing from one car to the next I suddenly remember that offering our seats to the Schorrs was really the idea of Mr. Missile Agency (who meanwhile has quietly vanished with his things) and that we wouldn't have done it if he hadn't suggested it. And that when the Schorrs were effusively thanking me, I should have said, "Actually it was his idea," and introduced Mr. Agency. But that didn't even occur to me until too late--with the train already under way and Mr. Agency in his new seat in a car somewhere at the opposite end of the train (since I never did see him or his blue bag again).

And of course the fact that Mr. Agency wanted to do the nice thing for the old couple despite never having heard of Daniel Schorr and despite the strong possibility that he (Mr. Agency) vehemently disagrees with all the liberal beliefs Daniel Schorr avows makes my self-centered readiness to accept the undeserved praise even more egregious.

And so the whole episode leaves me feeling a little ashamed of myself, which unfortunately is how a lot of the more interesting episodes in my life have ended up making me feel.

Although I must say it was still very nice to see Daniel Schorr on the Acela Express--nicer than seeing of all people Karl Rove, who it turns out was also on the same train . . .


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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

What's Wrong With Microfinance? It Doesn't Create Billionaires

A little reporting on Muhammad Yunus's current book tour from The Houston Chronicle:
The model of loaning small sums to the working poor has been duplicated across the globe by for-profit and nonprofit organizations. That global contagion of microloans helped lead to Yunus and the Grameen Bank winning the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.

But the microcredit movement has its critics.

"The biggest myth about this is that it goes to start a business," said Thomas Dichter, the co-editor of What's Wrong With Microfinance?

Borrowers use the money to survive, by earning a few pennies a day, selling bags of rice or cups of tea, he said.

"Let's not make the mistake that these are mini-entrepreneurs or future Bill Gateses. They are not," said Dichter, an international development consultant. "They are just trying to get by."
I wrote about Dichter's attacks on microcredit recently, and here he goes again. But this attack is pretty transparent, isn't it? Poor people in Bangladesh who borrow money from Grameen Bank may indeed "get by" by "selling bags of rice or cups of tea." That is the kind of stuff you sell if you own a store in a village in Bangladesh. It happens to be a pretty good way to feed and clothe your family, which I consider definitely preferable to letting them go hungry or naked.

But apparently in the view of Thomas Dichter, an oh-so-serious serious development expert, this is unsatisfactory. Instead, the often illiterate women who are clients of Grameen Bank ought to be striving to become "future Bill Gateses." Someone should tell them to get cracking on developing new computer operating systems. They can sell the software out of their tin-roofed roadside shops.

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Obama, The Jews, And The Mirage Of "Electability"

Richard Cohen's column in today's Washington Post is a forerunner of the kind of chip-away-and-destroy tactics the right wing will be using against Obama should he win the Democratic nomination. After writing about how the minister of Obama's church has publicly praised Louis Farrakhan, Cohen says:
I don't for a moment think that Obama shares Wright's views on Farrakhan. But the rap on Obama is that he is a fog of a man. We know little about him, and, for all my admiration of him, I wonder about his mettle. The New York Times recently reported on Obama's penchant while serving in the Illinois legislature for merely voting "present" when faced with some tough issues. Farrakhan, in a strictly political sense, may be a tough issue for him. This time, though, "present" will not do.
As so often, Black leaders are expected to "denounce" anyone even indirectly associated with them whom the mainstream media dislikes. And, as Greg Sargent points out, Cohen quotes but then ignores a statement by an Obama spokesman in which he quite clearly disagrees with his minister about Farrakhan--which evidently is not enough of a denunciation for Cohen.

Then, too, like Andrew Sullivan, I wonder about Cohen's choice of words: "Mettle? Is this code for 'sound on the Jews'? Too soft on the Muslims? Or what?"

I have a friend who is a conservative Jew, quite hawkish on Israel, who has voted for both Democrats and Republicans over the years. When we got to chatting about politics recently, he told me that the buzz among his connections was over the question of whether "Obama can be trusted." The issue, he made it clear, was not whether Obama is a liar, but whether or not he might betray Israel, kowtow to Iran, or otherwise let down the side in the Middle East. The anti-Obama foundation is there for the right wing to build upon.

Despite Republican inroads in recent decades, Jews still vote mostly Democratic. Their numbers are fairly small, but they have real clout as fund raisers and opinion leaders. It's very likely that the Republicans will be doing all they can to spread rumors, via the Internet and elsewhere, that Obama is an anti-Semite, in hopes of peeling away this significant bloc of Democratic support in 2008.

This illustrates a factor that needs to be considered by those who insist on basing their candidate preferences on "electability." Hillary certainly has her points of vulnerability. But I think we'll all be amazed as to how many points of vulnerability Obama has once the G.O.P. focuses its attention on discovering--or inventing--them.

As for me, the older I get, the less I believe in that arcane combination of calculus and clairvoyance known as "gauging electability." Nobody knows what "electability" actually means, and, in practice, choosing a candidate on that basis amounts to ignoring one's own preferences (which at least are real) and instead trying to guess the preferences of some hypothetical set of "average" voters. It's a mug's game.

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

Waking Up To The Obama Victory

I have to say, my reaction to the Obama victory in Iowa is a lot like Kevin Drum's:
It's funny how sometimes you have to wait and see how you actually react to something to know how you're going to react to something. I've been sort of fitfully supporting Hillary Clinton for the past few months, but I have to say that I don't feel any disappointment tonight over her loss. Just the opposite, in fact. My arguments against Obama have mostly been fairly abstract ones, but emotionally I'm as susceptible to the famous Obama charm as anyone. And the idea of a young, charismatic, black guy as our next president is pretty damn inspiring. Just sayin'.
My regular readers know how much time and energy I've spent defending Hillary from the viciously sexist attacks being mounted by everybody from Chris Matthews to Andrew Sullivan, so you know I have nothing against her and (God knows) would gladly vote for her over any conceivable Republican in November. But I also must say that I don't find the prospect of voting for Hillary particularly exciting. She comes across as someone with a good resume, a good checklist of positions, a lot of intelligence and toughness--and a personality and style that may well be liabilities in a presidential candidate.

By contrast, Obama would earn slightly lower points from me for his resume and his policy positions (with the big exception of Iraq, where he is stronger than Clinton). But he has a big advantage on the personality front. He is a charismatic speaker and an energizing presence. And the events in Iowa suggest he may really be able to generate enough excitement among young people to make a meaningful difference in a general election.

And what about his (to me small) deficits on the resume and policy fronts? I'm not terribly worried about those things, for two reasons. One, I think resumes are usually overrated as measures of presidential potential. Looking back, I don't see much correlation between pre-presidential experience and presidential greatness. George H. W. Bush had a gold-plated resume in 1988, and was a mediocre president--a lot worse than Bill Clinton, whose resume was much more modest. Today, the most impressive resume (in terms of sheer "experience" and "credentials") is that of John McCain, who I think would be a crummy president.

Second, I don't find the policy differences among the three leading Democrats tremendously compelling. It's really pretty rare for newly-elected presidents to actually carry out the policies on which they ran in anything like their original form. Pressures from Congress, public opinion, and intervening events almost always play a major role in reshaping what presidents actually do. So I don't think the current differences among Obama, Clinton, and Edwards on (say) health care reform are terribly meaningful, nor do I expect those differences to correlate very closely with the kind of health care system we will actually end up with five years from today.

I've voted many times for Democratic candidates who made me feel the way I feel about Hillary--competent, smart people with good resumes and respectable policy positions who were unfortunately not very charismatic or effective as politicians. Every time, I said to myself, "Well, he's not the most exciting person, but he'll do a good job, and he'll certainly be better than the Republican." And all of that was true--but it didn't help Mondale or Dukakis or Kerry to get elected.

Which is why I have to admit I won't be heart-broken if Hillary ends up losing the nomination. I don't think this makes me sexist--does it?

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"He Just Shrugged"

This was a good post by Paul Krugman, playing off a Glenn Greewald post, which in turn quoted a Peggy Noonan column from 2004 about George Bush (getting multiple regression vertigo yet?). Here is the Noonan quote:
Mr. Bush is the triumph of the seemingly average American man. He's normal. He thinks in a sort of common-sense way. He speaks the language of business and sports and politics. You know him. He's not exotic. But if there's a fire on the block, he'll run out and help. He'll help direct the rig to the right house and count the kids coming out and say, "Where's Sally?"
Krugman comments:
What Greenwald doesn't point out is that a year later there really was a fire on the block--or, literally, a flood in New Orleans. And Bush didn't run out and help--in fact, his aides had to make a special DVD of horrifying clips from TV news to get his attention. And what he said when he finally made an appearance wasn't "Where's Sally?"--it was "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."
Too true. It reminded me that I just stumbled across a classic illustration of the Bush personality, as accurately captured by Krugman, in, of all things, the airline magazine Hemispheres. It appeared in this interview with a Scottish-born celebrity photographer named Harry Benson. The story is brief:
Q: Right after you became a U.S. citizen, you photographed George W. Bush for the first time, when he was running for president. What was that like?

A: I went to the governor's office in Texas, and he was there with a golf club, practicing his swing. I told him that I had just become an American citizen, and he just shrugged. But a moment later, it must have occurred to him because he turned and pointed his golf club at me and said, "That means you can vote, and I am asking for your vote." I said, "Well, let's just see how it goes today, Gov. Bush."
Says it all, doesn't it? Bush couldn't even be bothered to congratulate somone on becoming an American--until Bush realized it meant the guy could do something to benefit him. That's how Bush measures people: purely in terms of their usefulness to George W. Bush. Thank God 2008 will be our last full year of having to see this man leading our country and representing it to the world.

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