Football is Socialism, and other stuff

Clearing out some random links from last year, my lowest blog output year in history. Writing is a muscle, I'm committed to working it more this year (as well as my literal muscles, whose atrophy is more visible).


Football is Socialism [The Awl]

The vainglory of the alpha wide receivers—demanding the damn ball, willfully ignorant of how much has to go right for the ball to reach them—is so ridiculous precisely because it doesn't admit the obvious and incredible difficulty inherent in all this. Consider: a player misses a block and things get screwed up. The quarterback overthrows or underthrows and things get screwed up. The coach misreads the defensive scheme and sends in the wrong play, and things get screwed up. Everything has to go right for even the simplest play to work. Even on a play where the raw ingredients are individual genius—perfect throw, brilliant catch—there's a ton of prosaic, self-sacrificing stuff that has to happen before all the fun stuff. This is the socialistic part, the real grace in the game that makes the stupid, atomized dude-ism of those commercials look that much dumber. You can't watch a football game and not understand this—that nothing succeeds unless everything and everyone succeeds, that no one wins unless everyone wins.


Don't fret, liberals. A divided government is more productive. Jonathan Rauch has explained his theory on this before and summarizes it again in this NYTimes op-ed.

In Mode 2 — divided government — the dynamic is reversed. Both parties, responsible for governing, have a stake in success. Forced to negotiate and compromise, they drag policy toward the center, allowing moderates to feel represented instead of ignored. Most important, the country itself becomes more governable and meaningful laws stand a likelier chance of passage, because neither side can easily blame the other for whatever is wrong and because any major legislation needs support from both parties to pass.

Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker challenges Rauch's assertion.

The data cover from 1952 only through 2004. But there’s no reason for the pattern to have changed wildly since then. The percentage of voters opting for divided government ranges between 10 and 30 per cent.

Which is to say that between 70 and 90 per cent of voters do not prefer divided government. Some prefer united Republican Party government. Others prefer united Democratic Party government. All, presumably, would prefer having part of the government controlled by the party they support to having all of the government controlled by the party they oppose. But that hardly means they think that divided government is somehow desirable in and of itself.


The good news is that a young child who doesn't seem to be aging may hold the secret to immortality. The bad news is that it may involve being a mental infant for the rest of your life.


What is the best "hair of the dog"? One vote here for the Bloody Mary.

(Doctors in my family vouch for the science behind "hair of the dog." I thought it was just an excuse conjured by alcoholics.)


One of the most important but less-cited technologies that has fundamentally altered the game of tennis: copoly strings. It's one of the major reasons the net game is so rare today as copoly strings make previously impossible passing shots easier to pull off. I miss the higher variety in playing styles in modern tennis.

The game

Damned if you do, but maybe not so damned if you don't. That's why I could never be a politician, I couldn't put up with the randomness of so many outcomes. It feels like a game with badly constructed rules.

As badly as Democrats have done recently at constructing narratives (a very underrated skill for leaders, especially in bad times), the Republicans seemed to fumble an easy path to a sweeping midterm takeover in November. David Frum thinks so, and Nate Silver, while not going that far, certainly believes that electing O'Donnell in Delaware was a poor outcome for Republican chances to take over the Senate.

Editor in Chief (no really, he is the Chief)

I would apologize for my lack of posts recently, but I'm not entirely sure who expects my writing here to be higher on the stack than work and other personal obligations. Maybe I'm apologizing mostly to myself. I promise I have a pile of draft posts piled high, all half finished, so the good intentions are there.


My posting infrequency is related to this post in that I do tend to rewrite longer form posts that land here. That's in contrast to the less filtered copy that flows through to my Twitter account, though even there I am sensitive to flooding my followers with too much personal ephemera.

Rewriting is an underrated commodity in this new age of instant publishing. Most of us have been our own copy editors for years, but with the web disseminating writing further afield, any laziness on that front pollutes a wider mind mass.

That's one reason I find this photo so heartwarming. If you don't recognize it, this is Obama's speech on health care reform to a Joint Session of Congress. The photo is even more fascinating blown up large so you can read the individual edits that I presume Obama sent to speechwriter Jon Favreau. It's a fascinating insight into Obama's communications strategy when you see him replacing "compassion" with "concern and regard for the plight of others" or replacing "character of this country" with "American character." He has a knack for verbal pacing and poetic turns of phrase, as when he flips "This has always been our history" to "This has always been the history of our progress.

If there was any lingering doubt about Obama's writing skills despite the two polished books to his credit, this should serve as an adequate response, though still I hear silly teleprompter chatter from the peanut gallery. Any real writer will tell you how much of writing is actually rewriting, and how much of growing as a writer is a willingness to abandon, at times, entire days worth of work once you've been able to cut the emotional umbilical cord and regard the work with the sage objectivity of a copy editor.

In contrast, I offer you Sarah Palin's Twitter stream. Some of this is the medium and 140 character limit, to be sure, but the prose style is that of a teenage girl. It's not as if others aren't working under the same constraints.

Joe Wong

It's always a bit embarrassing when your dad is sending you links to things you don't know about yet, and more importantly, enjoy. Perhaps the only standup comedian both my dad and I are huge fans of: Joe Wong.

My friend and I had a debate about Wong. He was conflicted because Wong's speaking style perpetuates some caricatures of Asian-Americans. My argument in support of Wong is that his ability to produce such sharp satire despite his strong ethnic markers helps to undermine the myth that a sophisticated comprehension of government and its foibles has to come from a white who speaks perfect English.

I actually am not sure how Joe Wong speaks normally. Is this all an act? Regardless, I laughed, and it didn't feel as if I was laughing at him.

Interview with Tony Judt

Excerpt from the interview:

In the introduction to ‘Reappraisals’ you write that people prefer to describe unpleasant political situations in language that makes them somehow more tolerable. In Iran people used to say they lived in a ‘limited democracy’, before it became clear just how limited it was. What kinds of linguistic subterfuge do we practise in Europe and America?

In America the misuse of language is usually cultural rather than political. People will accuse Obama of being a socialist. Italians would say magari – if only. However, no one takes this very seriously. What we have instead in the US is cultural communities policing what can and can’t be said, and that shapes how we define difference. The idea is that you can’t have an elite, since elitism is undemocratic and unegalitarian. Therefore, you always make the point that people are in some important way the same. If they are badly disabled like me, they are ‘differently abled’, which I find very amusing. It is not a ‘different’ ability: it is no ability. But since it’s politically uncomfortable to distinguish between people who can do things and people who can’t, the latter are described as separate but equal. There are numerous things wrong with this: first, it is lousy language; second, it creates the illusion of sameness or achievement in its absence; third, it conceals the effects of real power and capacity, real wealth and influence. You describe everyone as having the same chances when actually some people have more chances than others. And with this cheating language of equality deep inequality is allowed to happen much more easily.

In Britain the most striking abuse of language is the redefinition of private, for-profit economic activities as services provided by the state. A concrete example is the way private entrepreneurs were given the right to run old people’s homes. However, no one wants to spell that out, which is why they are described as ‘delivering’ the service, as if they were the milkman bringing milk to old people. It prevents people from fully grasping that the state has handed over its mandate of responsibility to a private actor, whose motivation is to provide the cheapest possible service and make the most money.

That last paragraph is an argument for the HCR plan the Obama Administration is trying to pass. As Nicholas Kristof notes in a NYTimes Op-Ed today, recounting a tragic story about one neighbor who contracted stomach cancer, leaving some decisions in the hands of insurance companies, where the profit motive is supreme, is a recipe for tragedy.

Opponents of the reform proposals argue: If you like the Department of Motor Vehicles, you’ll love Obamacare. But as the drama of Zack and Jan shows, the only bureaucrats more obdurate than those at the D.M.V. are the ones working for insurance companies. The existing system is preposterous: we rely on insurance companies whose business model is based on accepting premiums from healthy people and devising ways to exclude from coverage those who most desperately need medical care.

As Krugman wrote on Friday, "In every other advanced nation, insurance coverage is available to everyone regardless of medical history. Our system is unique in its cruelty."

Another excerpt of note from the Judt interview:

If there seems to be one thing missing among today’s politicians, it is courage. It is considered idealistic, even naive.

Courage is always missing in politicians. It is like saying basketball players aren’t normally short. It isn’t a useful attribute. To be morally courageous is to say something different, which reduces your chances of winning an election. Courage is in a funny way more common in an old-fashioned sort of enlightened dictatorship than it is in a democracy. However, there is another factor. My generation has been catastrophic. I was born in 1948 so I am more or less the same age as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Gerhard Schröder, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – a pretty crappy generation, when you come to think of it, and many names could be added. It is a generation that grew up in the 1960s in Western Europe or in America, in a world of no hard choices, neither economic nor political. There were no wars they had to fight. They did not have to fight in the Vietnam War. They grew up believing that no matter what choice they made, there would be no disastrous consequences. The result is that whatever the differences of appearance, style and personality, these are people for whom making an unpopular choice is very hard.

Someone once said: ‘But Blair’s choice to go to war in Iraq was unpopular with the majority of the population.’ I agree. But what Blair was doing was going for a different kind of popularity – he wanted to show his strength. To do this he had to do something unpopular, yet something that cost him nothing. Doing something unpopular that may cost you your job is much harder. The last generation in America with such courage was probably the generation of Lyndon Johnson. In a funny kind of way Thatcher, whom I certainly do not like, had courage. However, she fits the description of naive and idealistic; I don’t like her ideals, her naivety was a disaster, but it’s still a fair description. Today it is a criticism to describe a politician as idealistic. This is in a way a new phenomenon and it too is born from the fact that Europe has not been involved in wars that would demand the mobilisation of the whole population for over 60 years now. The last time there was such a sustained period of peace was probably the early Middle Ages. Traditionally leaders rose to power through wars or conquest. We have had six, seven generations of leaders who came to power exclusively by political manoeuvring, which is historically very unusual. It’s like inbreeding: there are no external inputs, no new kinds of people, only the political class breeding itself. This isn’t an argument in favour of war, just a historical fact.

Are politicians who vote for HCR today being courageous given the risk of a midterm election revolt, or is it in their interest? We'll see later this year.

Another noteworthy excerpt (I love Judt interviews, he is such a great historian that so much of what he says about Europe resonates with the situation elsewhere, as in the U.S.):

In Greece, we saw mass protests, aimed in part at a neoliberal economic system that has generated increasing inequality and has left young people feeling they have no prospects. Yet there seemed to be an enormous disconnect between the protesters and their government, and an even greater one with Brussels. How have we reached the point where people on the streets don’t matter?

Part of the answer is that this is just as true in big countries. In London there were two million people protesting against the Iraq war, but the government took no notice, and it made no difference at all. So the disconnect is universal. Why? It would be hard to give a complete picture. However, what we might call a ‘connect’ only lasted for a very short time. It began in the late 19th century with mass newspapers, mass literacy, speed and ease of communication and, especially, trains. Governments were forced to be very responsive to popular feeling. They felt very vulnerable. Elections could remove them from power and if elections didn’t work, then the masses on the streets might achieve the same result. After World War Two governments retreated from politics. The French economic plan, for example, was not decided by the parliament, but by administrators and bureaucrats. The EU was institutionally invented by bureaucrats. The first elections were held only in 1979. Until then there were no elections, no polls, no votes, nothing. There was a feeling, partly a consequence of Fascism, that you couldn’t trust mass opinion any more. It was not reliable. Not only were the masses willing to throw you out, they might be willing to overthrow the whole system. Steadily from the 1950s onwards the influence of the street, of the media, newspapers, public opinion, of ideology, was pushed further and further away from the actual decision-making processes. In the end it wouldn’t matter very much anymore if you threw out the government since it wouldn’t change the fundamental policies, institutions, laws of the country or direction of the majority of the issues of public policy.

It’s only now that we are really seeing the results of a process that has been going on for a long time. Much of the 1960s, which I remember as a student, was about the argument that governments were losing touch with popular opinion and preferences, particularly with the young, and that the only way to reconnect was on the street. Now we are realising that even that doesn’t work anymore. The old ways of mass movements, communities organised around an ideology, even religious or political ideas, trade unions and political parties to leverage public opinion into political influence – they are no longer there. Yet you need those levers. Without them people jumping up and down on the street do nothing. They don’t matter even if they are in the capital and even if there are millions of them. We destroyed the levers of popular politics or allowed them to be destroyed. We are left with people as individuals, and when people come together as individuals they can only come together either to do one big demonstration or to communicate through the internet as verbal pressure groups at an election. The combination of the physical mass and political leverage has been lost.

I can't help but think of this when I see news footage of Tea Bagge...err, Party groups standing in D.C. now shouting epithets at House Representatives as they pass through to go vote on HCR. It applies to other issues as well. Despite the ease of coordination afforded activists by the Internet, it rarely feels as if our politicians are listening.

The health-care divide

I first wrote this two weeks ago, just after Obama's health-care summit. The passage of any HCR bill, at the time, seemed unlikely, but things have since turned more optimistic on that front. I give passage maybe a 55% chance now? Regardless, my thoughts on why I'd like to see the HCR bill pass still hold.

James Surowiecki isn't optimistic that yesterday's health-care summit will lead to any meaningful change. He traces this to an unbridgeable gap in philosophies.

...the lack of any real progress was the result of a simple fact: there’s an unbridgeable chasm between what Democrats and Republicans want health-insurance reform to do.

For Republicans, the current health-insurance system works reasonably well—in their minds, it’s a key part of what they kept referring to as “the best health-care system in the world

Could progressives have passed any stronger HCR bill?

Nate Silver crunches the numbers and says it's unlikely. Using a negotiation model built by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, an NYU political scientist, Silver models a complex negotiation with 12 parties, each with their own end goal, and even adjusting the variables in a variety of ways, the best he could come up with was a HCR bill with a weak public option.

Still, perhaps the most important finding of the model is that the outcome was relatively robust. Although there are a number of things that Democrats could have done a bit better, essentially all of the scenarios that I tested produced a score between a 50 -- a bill something like Senate Finance Committee's -- and a 60 -- a weak public option. It would probably not have been possible to get a strong public option (much less anything resembling single payer) even if a number of variables were changed within reasonable boundaries.

This squares, in any event, with my intuition. No matter how clever progressives and activist groups might have been, they were enmeshed in a complex negotiation that:

(i) necessarily required the approval of a certain number of Blue Dogs;

(ii) featured some parties -- Republicans and lobbyists -- who had limited but nonzero influence and who were actively trying to do undo any settlement;

(iii) was overseen by a series of party leaders (Pelosi, Reid, Obama) who have institutional incentives to broker a compromise, regardless of their (fairly liberal) personal preferences and,

(iv) was constrained by an ambivalent public.

The influence of any one group in what is essentially a 10- or 12-way negotiation is liable to be fairly limited, no matter how wisely they select their strategy -- and to suggest otherwise probably reflects a certain amount of self-importance.

The usual caveats apply -- this is just a model, it's not foolproof, Silver's assumptions might not be correct, and so on -- but the result squares with my intuition, also. Those who think progressives could have forced a stronger bill through by being tougher seem to be wishcasting.

And of course, no healthcare bill has passed yet, so even the predicted outcome might be optimistic.

The web version of Mesquita's model, if you want to predict the outcome of your next complex negotiation (will she make me see Bounty Hunter, or can I get her to see Hot Tub Time Machine with me instead?) is here.

White liberal guiltlessness (and some stuff about Avatar)

This is an old link but one I meant to share a while back because I enjoyed it. Giovanni Tiso notes that critical discussion of both Avatar and past injustices against Haiti are being decried as inappropriate, the former because hey, it's just a movie, and the latter because a tragedy is no time to try to hash out our complicity in Haiti's poverty.

Similar backlash occurred after 9/11 in the U.S., when any attempt to analyze whether U.S. policy had contributed to the rise of Al-Qaeda was treated as heartless political pandering. It's just another instance of the tyranny of the OR, where it's assumed one can't be both analytical and sympathetic. I would hope we're able to appreciate that real-life is more nuanced than that, even if we can't tolerate that level of complexity from our mass entertainment.

Besides, I’m a consumer of information just like everybody else, of serious, sometimes cataclysmic front page news that bleeds into entertainment news and back again, a phenomenon made even more pronounced by the design of Web pages and aggregators and by the nature of hypertext if, like me, you get most of your news online.

In that environment, it is quite natural that James Cameron should accept an award in the name of a people that is indigenous only to his head, and that it should be greeted at best with a collective smirk or shrug or guffaw, since after all it was done in the spirit and logic of the times, while actual political statements of demonstrable historical urgency, like Peter Hallward’s, attract offense and derision. And this same spirit and logic will dictate that an immense human tragedy that weighs on the shoulders of the international community should be consumed as an act of God, outside of history, in the same present tense as entertainment, asking of us only that we fill that void with as many random quick fire donations - think of the convenience of texting for relief - as we can fit in the course of our normal activities and in the time allotted for caring for such things.

There is only one thing worse than white liberal guilt, and it’s white liberal guiltlessness, demanding that history not be ‘brought into it’, that memory be erased. We must fight that. And, yes, give, and give discriminately.

The Curse of One-Party Government

Jonathan Rauch, one of my favorite political journalists, has a theory about why Obama and the Democratic Party are flailing right now. It's not a new theory, but the current political climate is another piece of real world evidence to support what might seem at first to be a counterintuitive supposition.

Rauch believes that the fact that the Democrats control both the White House and Congress is hurting them. He believes it would be more productive if the Democrats lost control of Congress and divided control of government.

The question is, how could things have gone south so fast? The economy is clearly a factor, but the economy was even worse a year ago, when Obama was popular and hopes were high. He made mistakes, but politicians always do. This column, while not dismissing situational explanations, asks you to consider a further possibility: Unified government makes the country virtually ungovernable.

Like a lot of people, I have believed for quite some time that power-sharing (one party controls the White House, the other at least one chamber of Congress) works better. The voters prefer it, having split control in 23 of the past 30 years. The two most politically successful and popular recent presidents, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, shared power for most or all of their terms; the most widely reviled of recent presidents, George W. Bush, saw his popularity collapse when Republicans won total control. Reforms win broader acceptance and are more durable when both parties' fingerprints are on them. The two great domestic reforms of their respective eras, tax reform in 1986 and welfare reform in 1996, were products of divided control.

All of that you have heard before from me and others. Recently, however, watching the neck-snapping speed with which a backlash has formed against Obama's all-Democratic government, I have become convinced of a stronger proposition: In practice, the difference between divided and unified control has become so stark that we should think of them as being, for practical purposes, two distinct systems of government -- if you will, binary government. Though the country has only one Constitution, it has two governability settings. Call them Mode 1 (one-party control) and Mode 2 (two-party control). Power-sharing is the switch that toggles between them.

Rauch goes on to explain that the fundamental problem is that we have two parties whose centers are both too far away from the country's center, its moderate independent segment which forms the critical swing votes in any election, and neither party has enough of a majority to pull off any legislation on their own. When one party controls both Congress and the White House, the other party withholds all its support, it has no incentive to work with the other side. This means the governing party has to govern from its center, but that's still too far off what moderate independents consider to be their center. If they revolt, a majority can't be foundThis is what has killed healthcare reform.

But if the parties share control, compromise is the only way to pass legislation. This acts as a natural pull towards the country's true center, thus pleasing centrist independents. The math works out now.

Rauch admits he has no proof that this theory is true, but he pulls many examples from the last 30 years that support it. A fascinating read, and one that should hearten those who are despairing at repeats of the Massachusetts election leading to a Republican Congress.

Why Politics Is Stuck in the Middle

More on politics, I apologize for those looking for a report on my trip to Miami to watch the Super Bowl (in brief: in person, J. Lo looks good).

Tyler Cowen (of Marginal Revolution fame) covers the current political quagmire from an economist's point of view. It's a great quick read, and I hope Cowen will forgive me for excerpting more than I normally would here, but the economist's viewpoint is a different one and quite valuable. It begins with "median voter theorem".

Economists approach political competition with a simple but potent hypothesis called the “median voter theorem.

More on government failure

I could post one link a day on the structural failings of Congress, it seems. Here's Paul Krugman on how the Senate has hijacked government operation by leveraging arcane rules that permit gross obstructionism. Exhibit A is Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama. He's put a hold on all outstanding nominations by the Obama administration, around 70 senior posts, simply to get Alabama a tanker contract and a counterterrorism center. If it were a Democrat doing the same thing, it would be just as egregious, but it so happens that the GOP is turning into a joke before our very eyes. It's tragic, really, because our government benefits from a sensible opposition party to spur a competition of ideas. Instead, they're like a petulant child who, in a funk, answers no to everything just to be difficult. On the scale they're doing it, though, it's not annoying, it's dangerous.

How bad is it? It’s so bad that I miss Newt Gingrich.

Readers may recall that in 1995 Mr. Gingrich, then speaker of the House, cut off the federal government’s funding and forced a temporary government shutdown. It was ugly and extreme, but at least Mr. Gingrich had specific demands: he wanted Bill Clinton to agree to sharp cuts in Medicare.

Today, by contrast, the Republican leaders refuse to offer any specific proposals. They inveigh against the deficit — and last month their senators voted in lockstep against any increase in the federal debt limit, a move that would have precipitated another government shutdown if Democrats hadn’t had 60 votes. But they also denounce anything that might actually reduce the deficit, including, ironically, any effort to spend Medicare funds more wisely.

And with the national G.O.P. having abdicated any responsibility for making things work, it’s only natural that individual senators should feel free to take the nation hostage until they get their pet projects funded.

The truth is that given the state of American politics, the way the Senate works is no longer consistent with a functioning government. Senators themselves should recognize this fact and push through changes in those rules, including eliminating or at least limiting the filibuster. This is something they could and should do, by majority vote, on the first day of the next Senate session.

How to Get Our Democracy Back

That is the title of an essay by the always interesting Lawrence Lessig in The Nation. In my last post, I was pessimistic about the state of our government in its current form, drunk on funds from special interests. Jonathan Rauch, James Fallows, Paul Krugman, and a whole host of other commentators have been beating this drum hard recently. It's by no means a fresh source of discontent, the symptoms of this disease have been clear for years now, but even if it's just that my antenna are on heightened alert about this topic, the frustration among many seems to have reached a crescendo.

Whereas I may have sounded bowed by cynicism in my last post, I'm heartened by Lessig's essay. His expertise in law and government allow him to go further than others in proposing very specific possible treatments.

First, a restatement of the problem:

We may want peace and prosperity, but most would settle for simple integrity. Yet the single attribute least attributed to Congress, at least in the minds of the vast majority of Americans, is just that: integrity. And this is because most believe our Congress is a simple pretense. That rather than being, as our framers promised, an institution "dependent on the People," the institution has developed a pathological dependence on campaign cash. The US Congress has become the Fundraising Congress. And it answers--as Republican and Democratic presidents alike have discovered--not to the People, and not even to the president, but increasingly to the relatively small mix of interests that fund the key races that determine which party will be in power.

This is corruption. Not the corruption of bribes, or of any other crime known to Title 18 of the US Code. Instead, it is a corruption of the faith Americans have in this core institution of our democracy. The vast majority of Americans believe money buys results in Congress (88 percent in a recent California poll). And whether that belief is true or not, the damage is the same. The democracy is feigned. A feigned democracy breeds cynicism. Cynicism leads to disengagement. Disengagement leaves the fox guarding the henhouse.

Lessig deviates from some others in his diagnosis of the root problem. Some blame Senate rules, like the filibuster, but he notes that even if a filibuster-proof majority went from 60 to 51, lobbyists would just readjust their efforts to reach the higher bar. The filibuster loophole does seem to me an arbitrary violation of the general "majority rules" ethos of democracy, but Lessig's point is fair.

He also doesn't pin the blame on lobbyists, and as others like Rauch have noted, there's not a ton that can be done to rid the world of lobbyists. In fact, many lobbyists fight for useful causes. The key is to limit their sphere of influence so they can remain backseat drivers rather than the ones holding the steering wheel of Congress.

Lessig had hoped Obama would capitalize on his unique magnetism to deliver on true political reform of Congress, but after the first year, Lessig sees no signs that Obama and his team are willing to tackle such a historically ambitious agenda (to do so, Lessig notes, "would have made Obama the most important president in a hundred years"). Nothing I've heard from Obama thus far gives me much hope that he'll try to change the game. He seems to be trying to play by the rules of the game and reform from within, and that's what's frustrating those who voted for him on his reform rhetoric.

Lessig proposes two changes to restore integrity to Congress. The first is citizen-funded elections which could take any of a number of forms. One might be a bill that's currently on the table and that's titled Fair Elections Now Act. Essentially, candidates could opt in to fundraising system that would give them significant funds to run their campaign while also being free to raise money from individual Americans at a max of $100 per citizen. The idea would be to allow candidates the financial viability to campaign without having to turn to special interests.

The second change would be to ban any member of Congress from working in any lobbying capacity for seven years after the end of their term. By the time seven years were up, few firms on K Street would still find the Congressmen relevant enough, and candidates would stop thinking of their term in Congress as a stepping stone to being paid 6 to 7 figures on K Street.

Given the Roberts Court's recent ruling on Citizens United, the hurdle to reform is even higher. In so many Japanese science fiction stories, the most powerful entities in the future are corporations and not governments or states, and that recent ruling at least points to a possible path towards that type of future.

The Lessig article is well worth a read, and those in agreement can sign a Change Congress petition online. I don't know what effect that has, but perhaps as one more signal it has utility. As the saying goes, we all get the government we deserve.

Junot Diaz wants to hear a story, but is that enough?

In The New Yorker's look back at Obama's first year, Junot Diaz urges Obama to be more of a storyteller.

All year I’ve been waiting for Obama to flex his narrative muscles, to tell the story of his presidency, of his Administration, to tell the story of where our country is going and why we should help deliver it there. A coherent, accessible, compelling story—one that is narrow enough to be held in our minds and hearts and that nevertheless is roomy enough for us, the audience, to weave our own predilections, dreams, fears, experiences into its fabric. It should necessarily be a story eight years in duration, a story that no matter what our personal politics are will excite us enough to go out and reëlect the teller just so we can be there for the story’s end. But from where I sit our President has not even told a bad story; he, in my opinion, has told no story at all. I heard him talk healthcare to death but while he was elaborating ideas his opponents were telling stories. Sure they were bad ones, full of distortions and outright lies, but at least they were talking to the American people in the correct idiom: that of narrative. The President gave us a raft of information about why healthcare would be a swell idea; the Republicans gave us death panels. Ideas are wonderful things, but unless they’re couched in a good story they can do nothing.

On the one hand, I empathize with Diaz. One way Obama can exert the full power of the White House is by employing his rhetorical skills to sway public opinion towards his causes, whether it's healthcare reform or his stimulus plans. No doubt, that's hugely difficult when most of the public has healthcare and might not see any immediate benefit or change in their coverage. I'd love to think the public would find the lack of universal healthcare to be a moral travesty for a nation of our means, but I know that's a pipe dream. Obama's wonkish approach to selling healthcare reform has failed to stir the hearts of much of the public.

On the other hand, Diaz's essay, while an elegant narrative, seems naive when one considers the structural blockade that the Senate Republicans have formed with Scot Brown's election. If bipartisanship is dead, and the Senate Republicans seemed to have effectively throttled any hope of that, then all the speeches and stories by Obama won't push anything through unless he can regain a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

I had long since given up hope in the government of enacting sweeping, meaningful reform. It has less to do with my faith in who occupies the Oval Office and everything to do with the irreversible ascent of special interests to becoming the fourth branch of our government, more powerful than any of the other three. That in and of itself need not be a bad thing, but this loose coalition of lobbies does a poor job of representing the needs of the country as a whole and instead excels simply at entrenching the payouts to the narrow interest groups they represent. Subsidies whose conditions for creation have long since disappeared are able to stay alive like leeches on the walls of the U.S. Capitol because of the monetary pressure directed towards members of the House and Senate. If this health care bill ever passes, it will be akin to a modern miracle.

Last last year I finished Jonathan Rauch's Government's End: Why Washington Stopped Working, and anyone with a passion for understanding the problems with our current government's structure and how we might combat them should read it (if you've fallen on hard times, it's available at Google Books). It's the most important book I read last year.

Rauch writes of a phenomenon he calls demosclerosis, or postwar democratic government's progressive loss of the ability to adapt. He argues, convincingly, that it's nothing less than the most critical government issue of our time. Essentially our government has become mired in special interest gridlock, and what's most frightening is that Rauch believes it may be inevitable and irreversible, the natural evolution of our government and its structure. Like a ship whose hull has become crusted over with barnacles, our government has slowed to a crawl.

What demosclerosis means for conservatives is that there is no significant hope of scraping away outmoded or unneeded or counterproductive liberal policies, because nothing old can be jettisoned. What it means for liberals is that there is no significant hope of using government as a progressive tool, because the method of trial and error has broken down.

For Washington and for the broad public, demosclerosis quite possibly means that the federal government is rusting solid and, in the medium and long term, nothing can be done about it. The disease of democratic government is not heart failure but hardening of the arteries.

This doesn't mean the U.S. doesn't have institutions that can't make meaningful progress. Take the business world, and consider what corporations like Google and Amazon and others have been able to do in our free and competitive markets. When people in the U.S. look to government for help, more often than not, they should look to capitalism and free markets for a business solution first (take education as one example).

In many ways the Obama backlash was predictable along many dimensions. Working on his campaign, I encountered more than my fair share of Obamania, starry-eyed supporters with a naive faith that one man could, on the sheer basis of force of personality, rise above the limitations of our government structure and enact reform and legislation with a wave of his hands. I wouldn't give that back, it helped to put my man in the race into the White House (oh McCain, what happened to you?). But this group, especially its numerous young supporters catching political fever for the first time, seemed attached, in many ways, to a man, not an issue, and was bound to have unrealistic expectations.

There's also the natural regression to the mean after the election victory, and the reality of governing in a recession and having to enact unpopular legislation like the Wall Street and automotive bailouts. It seems likely the Democrats will lose seats in the mid-term election, and the press will find a way to spin that, again, as a rebuke of Obama, even though the party holding the Oval Office always loses some seats in their President's first mid-term election (the lone exception being in 2002 when Bush and his Rove-led team rode the crest of the wave of 9/11 anti-terrorism sentiment).

As Maria Kalman notes in And the Pursuit of Happiness at the NYTimes, our bicameral legislature is stacked against the passing of legislation. What if the structure of government is most effective at crushing the dreams of the well-meaning and idealistic people who work all their lives to get into office?

This might all be read as being the rants of an Obama apologist, but though I campaigned for him, I'm not going to give him a free pass. As canny a politician as he is, he has room to improve. First and foremost, I've been dismayed at how buttoned up his Administration has been on many issues, with many a press conference seeming to come a week or a month late. For all the talk of transparency during the campaign, the current Administration has seemed much too cryptic at times, and it's hurt them.

Just a few weeks back I read another article by James Fallows in The Atlantic on just this issue with our government's structure. His article notes that America isn't nearly as bad off as so many articles would have you believe, but that the single greatest obstacle to its future success is the same issue his Atlantic colleague Jonathan Rauch identified: an ineffectual government.

Every system strives toward durability, but as with human aging, longevity has a cost. The late economist Mancur Olson laid out the consequences of institutional aging in his 1982 book, The Rise and Decline of Nations. Year by year, he said, special-interest groups inevitably take bite after tiny bite out of the total national wealth. They do so through tax breaks, special appropriations, what we now call legislative “earmarks,


Last night's opening segment of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart cracked me up and puts the revelations from Game Change in perspective, though I'm still going to read the crap out of it. It's difficult to tell how readers are receiving it as the reviews for the book on Amazon are skewed by dozens of 1-star reviews from users who haven't read the book but are angry that a Kindle version wasn't issued. Amazon does show when a user was a verified purchaser of a book; it would be useful someday if they could allow you to see only the average rating and reviews from that subset of readers.

Also, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are up in widescreen on Hulu now. We had to work through that workflow with the Comedy Central folks, but we were able to retain captions in the widescreen files which was important for us.

Tony Judt

From a profile of the historian and political essayist Tony Judt, who suffers from ALS.

Judt called attention to America's and Europe's worship of efficiency, wealth, free markets, and privatization. We live, he said, in a world shaped by a generation of Austrian thinkers—the business theorist Peter Drucker, the economists Friedrich A. von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Joseph Schumpeter, and the philosopher Karl Popper—who witnessed liberalism's collapse in the face of fascism and concluded that the best way to defend liberalism was to keep government out of economic life. "If the state was held at a safe distance," Judt said, "then extremists of right and left alike would be kept at bay." Public responsibilities have been drastically shifted to the private sector. Americans and, to a lesser extent, Europeans have forgotten how to think politically and morally about economic choices, Judt warned, his fragile, British-accented voice growing louder. To abandon the gains made by social democrats—the New Deal, the Great Society, the European welfare state—"is to betray those who came before us as well as generations yet to come."

From an interview with Judt:

What, then, should people in Eastern Europe know about the United States' position toward them and their region?

Judt: This is not an area of great interest to the United States, whereas Russia is a great power, which could be useful to the United States, or a great nuisance to the United State. Either way, we will deal with Moscow. And listening to Warsaw is something we shall only do for the purpose of politeness. I do feel that it's important to say this, which is so obvious to me when I go to Washington, and it's a reason why the East Europeans will do much better to invest in a stronger EU, because only a strong EU -- because it's on Russia's borders -- will be forced to think about what it means to deal with Russia, territorially.

Remember, when Americans think about Russia -- just as when Americans think about the Middle East -- they think about "over there." It's a long way away; it's a foreign policy problem.

When Europeans think about Russia, or the Middle East, it's right next door. It's not a foreign policy problem, it's a domestic problem. Islam, immigrants, gas, memories of empire, it's all right next door.

This matters to Europe in a quite different way. Dreaming about Washington is one of East Europe's great mistakes. And they would be advised not to indulge it. Washington is not about to run to their rescue against Russia.

The Death of Neoliberalism

John Gray writes in the New Statesman about the intellectual wreckage of the past decade (a time period everyone seems to be trying to find a name for).

The reality, which is that western power is in retreat nearly everywhere, is insistently denied. Yet the rise of China means more than the emergence of a new great power. Its deeper import is that the ideologies of the past century - neoliberalism just as much as communism - are obsolete. Belief systems in which the categories of western religion are reproduced in the guise of pseudo-science, they are redundant in a world where the most rapidly advancing nation state has never been monotheist. Western societies are well worth defending, but they are not a model for all of humankind. In future they will be only one of several versions of tolerable modernity.

For secular western intellectuals to accept this fact would rob their life of meaning. Huddled in the tattered blanket of historical teleology, which tells them they are the leading lights of humanity, they screen out any development that demonstrates their increasing irrelevance.

El Bulli, Dan Brown, et al

Man hits the culinary lottery and gets a reservation at El Bulli, then recounts his meal in comic book form. 30 courses! I felt engorged and exhausted just reading about all the dishes.


Bill Maher rants at Huffington Post about the idiocy of Americans in an article titled "New Rule: Smart President ≠ Smart Country." Bryan Caplan would be proud.

At times like this, trying to pass some form of healthcare reform, even a watered-down version because of the difficulty of getting any big change through the conservative institutional roadblock that we call the Senate, one wonders how the government has ever achieved anything on behalf of anyone other than a special interest.

Obama took his argument directly to the people in an Op-Ed in the NYTimes. I'm curious who was the last President of the U.S. to write an Op-Ed in a major American newspaper. I'm going to go out on a limb and say it wasn't the previous occupant of the office.

An interesting sidenote to the whole debate on healthcare reform is the uproar over Whole Foods CEO John Mackey's editorial in the Wall Street Journal arguing against the health care bill on the table. The Opinionator over the the NYTimes tracks the timeline of the whole brouhaha. If you disagree with Mackey, I don't think boycotting Whole Foods is the solution, but I do think CEO's of companies need to be careful of what they say because it's too convenient to read their comments as representative of the views of Whole Foods as a company, and it's dangerous to ascribe too many coherent policy decisions to a capitalist institution, even one like Whole Foods which many people associate with a progressive lifestyle.


Andrew Collins examines the global phenomenon that is Dan Brown, universally reviled by literary critics and other writers but whose next novel The Lost Symbol will command the largest first print run in Random House history at 6.5 million.

I'm not sure it's such a paradox that someone can be a bad writer yet spin a real page-turner. What grabbed me about The Da Vinci Code was the fabricated secret that tied together so many known quantities in history in a clever way, from The Last Supper to Mary Magdalene and everything in between.

The plots of his stories themselves never strike me as plausible or gripping, his characters are two-dimensional (and that may be generous, though perhaps I'm being sexist in finding gorgeous and leggy nuclear physicist Vittoria Vetra of Angels and Demons a bit implausible), nor is his command of the English language that noteworthy. After all, one chapter of The Da Vinci Code concludes with this sentence, one that would have failed me out of my first year fiction writing class in college:

Almost inconceivably, the gun into which she was now staring was clutched in the pale hand of an enormous albino.


A physicist writes that The Time Traveler's Wife may be the most scientifically accurate movie treatment of time travel ever. No comment on whether the cheesy slow dissolve of Eric Bana each time he travels through time is also consistent with the laws of physics, or whether his expressionless acting is a consequence of too many leaps through time and space.

The article's a good read, though, as I didn't realize that physicists had come to such consensus around these constraints of time travel. I still say The Terminator remains the most brilliant time travel movie because of its stunning revelation that by going back in time to change the future you just create it, illustrated in the movie by the Moebius strip of a plot in which John Connor sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mom, only to have Kyle Reese become his father.

In that twist, the movie adheres to one of the principles stated in this article, the so-called "self-consistency problem," that is, "You can't kill your own grandfather."


Justice Antonin Scalia and Thomas, the Twiddle Dee and Dum of the Supreme Court, argued in the minority against allowing a prisoner to challenge his murder conviction after many witnesses recanted their testimony and implicated another person as the actual murderer. Scalia, in his dissent (PDF), claims the following:

This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is “actually