Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Our Shallow & Vapid Corporate Media

As usual, President Obama was poised and coherent during his third prime time press conference (click here for a transcript) this evening. After eight years of George W. Bush the way Obama presents himself still makes me proud. For damn sure I would not have been reassured if Bush were on that podium asking questions about the Swine Flu pandemic.

But so what? The real story to me this evening was our pathetic corporate media.

Why didn't any reporter ask if President Obama is receiving too much council from Wall Street centric economic advisers? Jeff Zelny of the New York Times actually asked what "surprised," "enchanted," "troubled" and "humbled" President Obama during his first 100 days! Yet his newspaper recently published a profile of Treasury Timothy Geithner's close relationships with the very people he was supposed to be overseeing while leading New York's Federal Reserve Bank. The New York Times also recently reported about bonuses in the banking industry returning to 2007 levels. Alas, Zelny opted to waist his prime time moment with vapid nonsense instead of asking questions the very newspaper he works for recently provoked!

There was some worthy give and take as Obama spoke eloquently of Winston Churchill who rejected torture while Great Britain was bombed by Nazi Germany in World War Two. So why didn't any reporter engage President Obama about investigating Bush administration officials who designed the criminal "enhanced interrogation techniques" policies? How come there were no questions challenging President Obama why he won't appoint a 9/11 type commission to investigate this horrific chapter in our history?

There were interesting questions and answers with respect to immigration reform and why Obama supported the Bush administration's policies regarding state secrets in court cases. I thought the press let President Obama off the hook too easily with respect to our increasing involvement in a Pakistan civil war. The President delivered reassuring platitudes regarding Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and dodged further inquiry with the cliche about not answering "hypothetical questions."

Overall, I didn't learn much this evening because the corporate media seldom asks questions that illicit revealing answers. I admire President Obama. I'm glad he's president instead of John McCain. But I don't give a damn whether anything in the White House "enchants" him. Neither do the millions of people absorbing the brunt of our economic calamity or our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hence, tonight's press conference is a reminder of why we need the blogosphere.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

As The Specter Turns

When an office colleague told me this afternoon that Republican Senator Arlen Specter defected to the Democratic Party, I had a flashback. In the fall of 1987, I was a freshman at Sarah Lawrence College. One of my professors assigned us a paper regarding the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. A few days of research (research without the Internet!) were sufficient to turn me off to Bork’s strict constructionist perspective as well as his advocacy for excessive executive power.

One afternoon, I watched the televised Senate confirmation hearings inside our campus TV room near Charlie’s Place or “The Pub” as we called it with one of my classmates. I was especially interested to assess the performance of Senators Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy. Biden, the Chairmen of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time had just abandoned his presidential campaign following allegations of speech plagiarism. How would Biden conduct himself after this disappointment? Meanwhile, Kennedy was an especially assertive critic of Bork’s record and making headlines.

Yet it was Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter that captured my attention. I had never heard of Specter before. Bork and Specter engaged in a riveting intellectual repartee about the “original intent” of the Constitution, the right to privacy as well as executive power. Bork was a terrifying and brilliant advocate for the warped view of federalism that metastasized in the Reagan years and influenced future Supreme Court justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito.

Watching those hearings it seemed to me that Republican Arlen Specter was the Judiciary Committee’s most persuasive critic of Bork’s reactionary dogma. Later that evening I called my Dad, who to this day remains the wisest voice about politics I know. We discussed the hearings and I complained that Specter belonged in the Democratic Party. My Dad sagely responded that it’s good for the country if Republicans have “moderate” voices such as Specter and he noted it enhanced the opposition’s credibility against reactionary figures such as Bork. Well, that seemed reasonable enough to me at the time.

Four years later I was bitterly disappointed when Specter supported Clarence Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court and contributed to the Republican lies about his former colleague, Anita Hill. Hill had accused Thomas of sexual harassment. At the time, Senator Ted Kennedy’s nephew was a defendant in a rape trial. As a result, Kennedy wasn’t comfortable aggressively challenging Thomas’s refutations of Hill’s testimony. Many liberals at the time were hoping that Specter would once again rise to the occasion and take the fight to Thomas as he did with Bork. Instead, Specter turned his fire on Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas’s nomination was approved.

To the detriment of consumers and wage earners, Arlen Specter was an enabler for Clarence Thomas to become a guaranteed supporter of reactionary activism on the Supreme Court. Following the 1987 Bork hearings, Specter became a favorite target of Republican conservatives and he was desperate to appease them with the Clarence Thomas hearings. Hence, Clarence Thomas is just as much a part of Specter’s legacy as Robert Bork.

Since the 1991 Thomas hearings, a pitiful template for Specter’s performance as Senator was established: for the next eighteen years he simultaneously appeased and disappointed the radical right that demanded purity. Meanwhile, moderates and liberals were continuously let down when Specter talked the talk with respect to civil liberties under President George W. Bush but failed to walk the walk.

Twenty-two years ago I would have been thrilled if Arlen Specter had joined the Democratic Party. Today, my perspective is rather cold. Yes, I acknowledge that once Al Franken of Minnesota is seated the Democratic caucus will have a filibuster proof majority on paper. And to the extent activist progressive oriented legislation is enacted as result of Specter’s defection, i.e., health care reform, that’s all to the good. Also, I’m enjoying the Republican Party’s humiliation after years of watching southern Democrats defect. Perhaps, Specter’s defection will be the start of a trend.

Specter himself however is likely to be a Joe Lieberman like presence in the caucus. He’s pro-corporatist/pro Wall Street and opposes the Employee Free Choice Act. Specter is also hawkish, pro-war and very much representative of the establishment's flawed national security mindset that created the mess we’re currently in. Had Specter remained in the Republican Party, we had an outstanding opportunity to elect a genuine liberal from Pennsylvania in 2010.

Only radical crazies remain in Pennsylvania’s Republican Party. Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party now boasts 200,000 additional voters and Democrats could easily defeat Specter’s conservative antagonist, Pat Toomey who is Exhibit A of the far right’s psychosis. Had Specter somehow prevailed in his Republican primary fight, a liberal Democrat would have likely defeated him in the general election.

Hopefully, a credible and organized liberal will challenge Specter in the 2010 primary. A credible challenger for example might force Specter to flip flop on the Employment Free Choice Act and support worker rights. Specter has already demonstrated malleability to ensure his political survival whenever he appeased the far right.

Like a lot of politicians, expediency matters more to Arlen Specter than principle. Now that Specter’s a member of the Democratic caucus, we liberals need to aggressively persuade him that’s in his best interests to support our issues. A credible primary challenge is the best way to do just that.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

That 100 Days Leadership Thing

A charismatic president assumes power in a time of unprecedented turmoil after his hapless predecessor becomes a hated symbol of inertia. Financial institutions previously trusted for their forbearance are exposed as reckless stewards while the global economy implodes and regular folks who did nothing wrong are ruined. As job losses mount, unscrupulous demagogues at home and abroad exploit the chaos for nefarious objectives.

Discredited conservatives accuse the new president of socialism while anarchists under the guise of populism are determined to expropriate and redistribute private capital’s wealth no matter what the consequences. Yet the nation rallies to the new president even as progress is slow, uneven and plagued with setbacks. Critics on the left, including his wife, believe the new president is overly cautious while conservatives view him as akin to the anti-Christ.

The public discourse is volatile as the new president confounds his critics and towers over the body politic. Sound familiar? Generation-Y liberals may assume I’m referring to President Barack Obama’s first 100 days that we’ll be reading about next week. I am of course referring to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who first established the 100 days benchmark in 1933. FDR’s first 100 days were the foundation of twenty-years of Democratic Roosevelt/Truman administrations that forever changed American society and its place in the world.

FDR himself was brilliant and flawed as he navigated the country through perilous waters domestically and internationally. His leadership enabled America and its allies to prevail in World War Two and establish an enduring middle class. Yet there was also a dark side to the FDR years as the “imperial presidency” was launched and Japanese civilians were “relocated.” The imperial presidency later metastasized during the cold war following the 1947 National Security Act under Harry Truman.

Ultimately, the FDR years, like any presidency was a product of its time. Skirmishes between labor and business were violent. The gap between rich and poor was grotesque. Much of rural America didn’t have electricity and whites routinely murdered their black neighbors. Anti-Semitic demagogues such as Father Charles Coughlin polluted the airwaves. Industrial leaders like Henry Ford as well as national hero, aviator Charles Limburg, openly expressed their admiration for Adolph Hitler.

Capitalism as well as the concept of democracy itself seemed to be retreating as Hitler in Germany, Josef Stalin in Soviet Russia and Italy’s Benito Mussolini maneuvered for global domination. The Japanese Empire brutally worked to establish their “Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere and carved up the Chinese mainland in the 1930s. Americans hoped to avoid foreign wars and FDR promised to keep us out as he plotted behind the scenes to save civilization.

In any era, leadership is not for the meek or faint of heart. FDR projected jaunty confidence and empathy for the downtrodden as he defined America’s center of political gravity on his terms. His leadership style was one of calculated confrontation and FDR skillfully utilized his political capital to take on conservative agents of the status quo at home while inspiring an international alliance against implacable enemies abroad. Seventy-five years after his first inauguration many historians regard him as America’s greatest president.


President Obama’s current challenges and leadership style is understandably compared to FDR – especially has we approach his 100 day benchmark. His support remains notably impressive in spite of the plutocratic dynamic duo of Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner or his waffling with respect to prosecuting crimes committed by the Bush Administration.

Every week we set new records for unemployment claims and the Wall Street bailouts continue. Yet the public continues to believe in his leadership. I do too even as I fret over Obama’s handling of the banking crisis and worry his presidency will be consumed by efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan.

My interpretation of President Obama’s political standing is that his support is partly attributed to a conservative minority that is bereft of ideas and maturity. There is the faux populist outrage of “tea parties” to the sniveling temper tantrums of conservatives when Obama shakes hands with Hugo Chavez. Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh look like fools as they critique Obama’s handling of the Somali Pirates hostage crisis while the administration initiates a successful rescue operation. Republicans in Texas and Georgia speak openly of secession while a more sophisticated majority wants to come together and solve problems.

The public face of conservatism is angry, xenophobic, homophobic, shrill and insipid and no longer taken seriously. It's not just that conservative ideology is thorougly discredited as it was in 1933. Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, John Boehner and Newt Gingrich are almost cartoonish in their political opposition. Hence, the real debate with respect to public policy about issues ranging from the potential fall of Pakistan, engaging Iran, addressing global warming, strengthening public education, rebuilding infrastucture, renewable energy and health care is between the center and the left. The center of political gravity is being redefined by Barack Obama because Republicans don't belong at the grownups table.

On the left, people like me critique the administration so he will seize the moment and push the envelope further. We want accountability for the Bush Administration’s crimes, a swift reversal of the Wall Street centric economy that has placed millions of Americans on the abyss of destitution and a public option for health care. The end result of impatient liberal/left critics and America’s puerile conservatives is that President Obama owns the political center just as FDR did.

Whether Obama takes full advantage of his unique stature will take far longer than 100 days to know. This is only the end of the beginning.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Calamity Jane

Remember how Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not want California Democrat Jane Harman to become head of the House Intelligence Committee after the 2006 mid-term elections? Well, Jeff Stein of Congressional Quarterly reported yesterday that Harman,
“was overheard on an NSA wiretap telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would lobby the Justice Department reduce espionage-related charges against two officials of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel organization in Washington.

Harman was recorded saying she would ‘waddle into’ the AIPAC case ‘if you think it'll make a difference,’ according to two former senior national security officials familiar with the NSA transcript.

In exchange for Harman's help, the sources said, the suspected Israeli agent pledged to help lobby Nancy Pelosi , D-Calif., then-House minority leader, to appoint Harman chair of the Intelligence Committee after the 2006 elections, which the Democrats were heavily favored to win.

Seemingly wary of what she had just agreed to, according to an official who read the NSA transcript, Harman hung up after saying, 'This conversation doesn't exist.’"
These allegations with respect to AIPAC’s lobbying efforts and Harman are not new. Stein’s reporting of the NSA wiretap however adds an entirely new wrinkle. Even more damning is Stein’s report that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales dropped the Justice Department’s investigation of Harman so the Democrat would help defend the Bush Administration’s warrantless wiretapping program just prior to the New York Times breaking the story.

Harman’s office has denied the allegations. Obviously, the Justice Department must thoroughly investigate the Harman/AIPAC connection as well as Alberto Gonzales’s conduct in this matter. Once again we learn why Alberto Gonzales is arguably the worst public servant in the history of America’s executive branch.

With respect to Israeli espionage, I’ve never been judgmental of any country, including ours, for spying on either friends or foes. That is the real world. In the game of nations, governments frequently conduct intelligence operations to influence the politics of “friends” and rival states in accordance with their interests. Israel is a practitioner of this as is the United States, China, Russia, Iran, India and so forth.

However, this matter once again illustrates the need for a strong political counterweight to AIPAC’s disproportionate influence on American politics and policies. Liberal Jewish Americans like myself who are critical of Israel’s immoral and dangerous policies must be at the forefront of that political counterweight to provide the necessary cover. Delusional zealots in America and Israel have engaged in immoral and self-destructive policies. As someone who cares about Israel’s future as well as their national character, I hope this espionage case serves as a wakeup call.

In the meantime, Attorney General Eric Holder needs to demonstrate respect for the law and convene a grand jury forthwith for both Jane Harman and Alberto Gonzales. Given AIPAC’s disproportionate influence in Washington it seems likely neither Harman nor Gonzales are alone with their disregard for the law when it comes to Israel. I don’t blame Israel or AIPAC for exploiting their influence. Any nation would do the same with that sort of leverage.

I blame our political system that allows it to flourish. Prosecuting offenders such as Harman will hopefully have a “chilling effect” on politicians from betraying American interests to AIPAC in the future. As for Gonzales, he should have been frog marched years ago.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Truth & No Consquences

Unless hermetically sealed in a dungeon, I assume readers are aware of the “torture memos” authored by Bush administration lawyers in 2002-2003 and released to the public this past week by the Justice Department. Their release followed intense debate between Attorney General Eric Holder who advocated transparency and CIA Director Leon Pannetta who argued on behalf of secrecy.

Each time I started to read one I stopped out of disgust. I finally read them all yesterday after initially avoiding it. Ultimately, as citizens we all have a duty to familiarize ourselves with this dark chapter in our history yet it took me a couple days to overcome my reluctance and read these documents. Having done so I urge everyone to do the same and not simply rely upon the punditocracy and blogosphere for interpretation.

President Obama courageously and in my view rightly, authorized their release because we must not shield shameful truths under the false pre-text of national security. The criticism of former Bush officials notwithstanding, releasing these memos is an important step in the Obama administration’s efforts to rehabilitate America’s image.

The cost to our national security in releasing memos with respect to banned torture techniques is outweighed by the higher consideration of restoring America’s respectability with the civilized world. We can’t ignore our immoral transgressions because the world hasn’t and the national security argument is a false construct. Indeed, these now banned policies were ineffective at best and harmed our national security by further radicalizing the world against us.

Many on the left are understandably outraged at the administration’s decision not to prosecute intelligence operatives who implemented these policies and have invoked the “Nuremberg defense” in venting their criticism. I sympathize with their argument even as I feel conflicted about it. Yes, I acknowledge feeling conflicted about what to do with CIA employees who were promised legal cover. Not all “truths” are absolute.

It doesn’t seem right to prosecute these people after the Justice Department promised they would not be prosecuted in the first place. To do sends a message that we expect these people to do our dirty work with the understanding they will be abandoned once the going gets tough.

I’d like to think I would have the moral courage to say no after receiving orders to engage in torture and resist the criminal rationalizations of White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and Justice Department lawyer John Yoo. It’s easy for any of us on the outside to say these people should be prosecuted. We might feel differently if we had to walk in their shoes.

It also doesn’t seem right to simply ignore what they did. The CIA required cover from the Justice Department because they knew the Bush administration torture guidelines were illegal as well as immoral. Suppose this administration or succeeding presidents order their operatives to conduct immoral and illegal activities with respect to future detainees?

Is it not better to establish a precedent that punishes “following orders” that are illegal and reward those who stand up for the rule of law? Even if these employees are not criminally prosecuted they should pay a professional price and be fired. The culture needs to be changed and won’t be without some kind of accountability.

Without hesitation I firmly believe those who helped design these policies such as White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and John Yoo merit prosecution to the fullest extent of the law. Prosecution should also include Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush and anyone else identified either through a truth and reconciliation commission or congressional investigation as designing and ordering criminal policies in our country’s name. It is to our everlasting shame that foreign courts are willing to prosecute Americans for war crimes, while we allow our own to go on as if nothing ever happened.

President Obama apparently believes absolving the prior administration for war crimes is analogous to President Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon: the only way to allow the country to move ahead. At least President Ford though “pardoned” Richard Nixon. The act of pardoning Nixon, although condemned at the time, at least acknowledged the man committed acts subject to prosecution. And Nixon had already paid a price.

There has been no reckoning for the figures that shamed our country or any sort of official acknowledgment that they engaged in criminal behavior. Congressional Democrats should have insisted upon accountability while the Bush administration was in power. It is to the everlasting shame of the Democratic Party that they did not impeach Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Gonzales after he later became Attorney General, when they had the chance.

I believe a mature democracy should be able to conduct the people's business and simultaneously pursue the truth no matter where or how high up it leads. If President Obama however truly believes prosecuting former members of the Bush administration, including Bush and Cheney to be a distraction the nation can’t afford, then he should pardon them. Let's assume for the sake of argument that President Obama is correct. That criminal prosecution of Bush, Cheney and their minions would paralyze the body politic at a time when action is needed on multiple fronts.

At least the act of pardoning sends a message that the United States of America acknowledges their wrongdoing for posterity. It would also forever mark those pardoned long after bloggers like me are dead. Pardoning them would further stain those who enabled their heinous policies. Those enablers not only include the Republican Party but Democratic leaders such as Nancy Pelosi and Jay Rockefeller of the Senate Intelligence Committee who were briefed on these policies. Even if the entire Bush cabal never serves a second in prison, pardoning them is far preferable than simply “not prosecuting” the most feculent administration in American history.

Otherwise, releasing these memos amounts to truth without any consequences. And that's not acceptable.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Democracy Should Begin At Home

On Sunday I interviewed Yale Law School professor and electoral legal expert, Heather Gerken, about her idea for a Democracy Index. Gerken argues in her new book, The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System Is Failing and How To Fix It, that we need a metric to facilitate accountability and reform in our voting system. For more details about her book and our podcast interview, click here.

I thought about Professor Gerken today with respect to the recent Norm Coleman/Al Franken election controversy in Minnesota as well as the unresolved Scott Murphy/Joe Tedisco congressional race in upstate New York. Eight plus years after Bush vs. Gore, our system remains pathetically dysfunctional. Today, Gerken communicated to me in an email that,
"These races reveal precisely the problem I'm trying to address. We only see problems in the election system when it is close, as with the Coleman/Franken race. Minnesota is widely thought to be a well-run election system, and I have every reason to think that it is. The problems the Coleman/Franken debacle revealed were the problems that exist everywhere. One reason to have a Democracy Index is that it would let us see those problems even in the absence of a close race. That would help us do a better job of diagnosing what ails the system. It would allow us to prevent problems before they throw the results of a close race into question. And it would widen the window from reform, which typically closes the moment the election is resolved and the media turn off their cameras and microphones."
Gerken's efforts on behalf of a "Democracy Index" to assess the electoral performance of our states and localities illustrates a bitter irony: America continues to shed blood and treasure in the name of democracy and freedom abroad while its voting system decays at home. Indeed, progress in Afghanistan and Iraq, will partly be measured by our monitoring of upcoming elections in both countries while too many Americans are prevented from registering or disenfranchised at the voting booth.

It’s especially remarkable to consider that we likely have more data collected with respect to the electoral process Iraq and Afghanistan than our own country. As Gerken revealed in our Sunday interview, we don’t even know how many Americans attempted to vote in the 2008 presidential election.

How can we ever hope to help other countries develop their own democracies when ours is in such disrepair? Gerken’s “Democracy Index” suggests a way forward to assess where the problems areas are and effect repairs. Yesterday, President Obama spoke eloquently about a “New Foundation” for our economy and society. A cornerstone of that foundation should include finally addressing the soft underbelly of America’s wobbly election infrastructure.

Wednesday Musings

I’m home sick today with a brutal cough/cold combination sapping my energy. Even so, I must get my blogging fix and muse about current events:
  • Tax day has me thinking of my grandfather. As I’ve shared previously on this blog, my grandfather came to the United States just prior to Nazi Germany’s occupation of Poland along with his six brothers. Years ago my Mom told me the story of when she teased my grandfather as he did the annoying grownup chore of completing his tax returns. My grandfather rebuked her and said, “I’m proud to pay my taxes in this country.” He genuinely believed it was his patriotic duty to contribute and he was not wealthy. I wonder what he would think of these “tea bagging” conservatives, especially the wealthy ones, who are so contemptuous of their civic obligations even as they claim superior patriotism to everyone else.
  • I too am opposed to the continued bailouts of fraudulent financial institutions. Indeed, outrage over the bailouts is something both liberals and conservatives share these days. Nonetheless, it is the conservatives who are promoting tax rebellions that engineered the very “starve the beast” deregulating crusade that facilitated our current economic calamity. With the private sector on life support after Wall Street’s transgressions it makes little sense to starve the only entity capable of stimulating the economy on a wide scale: our federal government.
  • Understandably, we Americans are fixated on our new young president. Yet, there is something rather egocentric about our obsession and I am as guilty of that as anyone. It is especially easy for Americans to forget that not everything in this world is about our politics, policies, priorities or perceptions. For example, Thailand has been rocked by anti-government protests in recent days. Today, Thailand’s government announced it has revoked the passport of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra after accusing him of encouraging the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship. Shinawatra was recently convicted of corruption and has been abroad since his 2006 deposition. Shinawatra has recently asked the United Front to practice nonviolence. Hopefully, a just resolution can be achieved in that troubled country with no more loss of life.
  • Regrettably, the daring rescue of Captain Richard Phillips by Navy Seals has not served as a deterrent as Somali pirates attacked another American cargo ship today. This particular ship was delivering needed food aid and far more than American ships are being targeted in this vast territory of maritime commerce. The Obama administration’s posture with respect to piracy has been firm yet measured. That will frustrate some but it's far better than exploiting the situation to irrationally escalate the “war on terror.”
  • The Obama administration is putting considerable diplomatic and military muscle to reinforce Pakistan against militant Islam. The conventional wisdom within America’s foreign policy establishment is that Pakistan is too important to fail. Yet it's the Pakistani government that appeased the Taliban and al Quaeda by allowing Sharia law to be imposed in the Swat Valley. American and NATO can only do so much to shape events there. If Pakistan’s government does fall to Islamic radicals what then? Would India occupy Pakistan with Washington’s blessing? How would China or India respond to that development?
  • Much of the diplomatic chatter with respect to an American-Iranian rapprochement is really about addressing common strategic interests along the Afghanistan-Pakistani corridor. The Bush administration failed to exploit Iranian misgivings about the Taliban and al Quaeda. President Obama is hoping to make up for lost time but time is running out. Ultimately, success is not contingent upon a military surge but the current diplomatic activity taking place. When factoring in the nuclear arsenals of Pakistan and India as well as the Chinese, Iranian and Russian interests at work, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict seems almost trivial.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Democracy Index: An Interview With Law Professor Heather Gerken

On January 1, 2007, Yale Law School professor Heather Gerken published a widely read article in the LegalTimes entitled, “How Does Your State Rank on The Democracy Index.” Gerken argued that just as the Environmental Performance Index (“EPI”) shamed countries such as Belgium to upgrade their environmental practices, a “Democracy Index” would embarrass state and localities into reforming their electoral administration through competition.

Since Bush vs. Gore in 2000, the debate about electoral reform has been dominated by anecdotes and overheated abstractions. Liberals like me have long suspected that states such as Ohio and Florida were deliberately disenfranchising minority voters sympathetic to Democratic candidates. Conservatives complained that voter fraud and urban political machines were allowing ineligible voters to cast ballots at the expense of Republican candidates. With her article, Gerken contended that a Democracy Index would replace a debate dominated by shouting with data driven arguments instead:
“This index should take what Ohio State University law professor Daniel Tokaji calls a ‘moneyball approach.’ The word ‘moneyball,’ of course, refers to Michael Lewis’ book of the same name about the success of the Oakland A’s after management substituted hard numbers and empirical research for the gut-level judgments of baseball scouts in making hiring decisions.

Similarly, the Democracy Index could change the terms of the debate by giving voters something new: moneyball politics. It would offer cold, hard numbers and comparative data in place of atmospherics and anecdotes. It would provide bottom-line results in place of subjective judgments. It would let reformers talk like corporate executives, not starry-eyed idealists. And, most important, it would enable the voters to hold election officials accountable for their missteps.

In the end, a ranking system would work for a simple reason: No one wants to be at the bottom of the list.”
Gerken further described her Democracy Index proposal and identified the major obstacles to good election practices with her new book, The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System Is Failing and How To Fix It (Princeton University Press). Her book is an accessible 181 pages and postulates that we need more facts about our election practices and that a ranking metric is our best hope to facilitate accountability and reform. Gerken also contends that our broken electoral system has less to do with intended malice than “deferred maintenance,” a term typically applied to failed infrastructure such as broken bridges.

Shortly after Gerken’s LegalTimes article was published, Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, put her concept into proposed legislation and within a year, Congress set aside $10 million to fund model data collection programs in five states and the Pew Center. Other foundations also sponsored conferences and initial research. On March 1, 2007, Obama referred to these initiatives on the Senate floor as,
“an important first step toward improving the health of our democracy. We are all familiar with the problems that have recently plagued our elections: Long lines, lost ballots, voters improperly turned away from the polls. These are basic failures of process. Until we fix them, we run the risk in every election that we will once again experience the kind of chaos and uncertainty that paralyzed the nation in 2000. We can do better. We must do better. But to do better, we need more than anecdotal information. We need better, nonpartisan, objective information.”
Hence, Gerken's efforts illustrated at least the potential for action from the body politic to facilitate electoral reform but obviously, more needs to be done.

With respect to electoral law, Gerken is among the most authoritative voices in the country. In 2006, Gerken joined the Yale Law School faculty where she teaches election and constitutional law. Previously, Gerken clerked for Supreme Court Justice David Souter and was an assistant professor at Harvard Law School, where she was granted tenure and won the Sachs-Freund teaching award. She has also written for the New Republic, Roll Call, and Legal Affairs and has been a frequent media commentator.

Gerken was among several commentators who appeared on Charlie Rose’s program the very evening the Supreme Court rendered its fateful decision in Bush vs. Gore. During the 2008 presidential election, Gerken served on Barack Obama’s election protection team.

Gerken agreed to a podcast interview with me over the telephone about her book and proposal for a Democracy index. Our conversation was just over seventeen minutes and can be accessed via the flash media player below.

This interview can also be accessed at no cost via the Itunes Store by searching for either “Intrepid Liberal Journal” or “Robert Ellman.”

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Slow Pivot

I am preparing for a podcast interview tomorrow afternoon and family obligations during Passover prevented me from posting more frequently this week.

In the meantime though, President Obama's weekly address is an opportunity to note that at least rhetorically, he's attempting to condition the American people for today’s new world order. Yet at the same time, Obama is also trying to be reassuring with religious references to Passover and Easter as well as reiterating that American "leadership" is the key to meeting today's global challenges.

It's a tough balancing act as most Americans grew up in a world in which we were respected and feared and enjoyed enduring prosperity. After World War Two, the global financial system that emerged known as Bretton Woods, was exceptionally favorable to the United States. Furthermore, America was the number one super power in a bipolar world. For damn sure nobody used the term "existential threat" with respect to nation states such as Iran.

Today however, both China and India are emerging superpowers, Russia has become a petro state on steroids, globalization is depressing American wages, Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal is on the verge of becoming a failed state, addressing global warming requires difficult consensus and stateless terrorist actors are consumers in the nuclear proliferation market. Even worse, greed and insipid American leadership ruined the same financial system we created and we find ourselves at the mercy of other countries forbearance as a result.

Hence, while America remains powerful, we must pivot from an empire culture to a more cooperative posture. Yet simultaneously, America must remain vigilant in a dangerous world in which conflict and brutality remain humanity's default state in too many places. So, President Obama preaches cooperation and diplomacy while requesting congress appropriate $83 billion for war.

People like me are pushing Obama to pivot from empire to cooperation more aggressively. Personally, while I acknowledge the world is certainly dangerous, I believe Obama's foreign policy is still too unilateral. Politically however, I suspect Obama is straddling the same fence most Americans are sitting on: many feel isolated after George W. Bush, ashamed at the immorality of our foreign policy transgressions, but also don’t want to relinquish our status as a superpower and leader.

Today’s weekly address illustrates the challenge confronting Obama as he gently nudges Americans to leave the perks of an empire behind while retaining his political viability. I wish him well in that endeavor but believe he will eventually have to cook up a new omelet by breaking a few eggs. A slow pivot may not be fast enough.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

A Statesman ... I Hope

One of my favorite movies is “A Very British Coup” which adapted Chris Mullin’s 1982 novel for television. The story takes place during the Cold War, as left wing working class politician Harry Perkins becomes Prime Minister. Perkins does well for a while but the entrenched forces of the status quo conspire against him. One scene to me that summed up the entire movie is when Perkins asks one of his conservative antagonists why he’s so feared. And the rather dry response Perkins received was and I am quoting from memory here, “You’re showing an alarming trend of becoming a statesman.” Hence, Mr. Perkins had to be taken down.

President Obama’s support remains high and his performance on the international stage is cementing his image as a statesman. I was enormously proud of my President yesterday when he spoke before the Turkish parliament and said,
“America’s relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim World, cannot and will not just be based upon opposition to terrorism. We seek broader engagement based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.”
After eight years of George W. Bush’s insipid indecency combined with the sophomoric Republican opposition, Obama’s stature is on steroids. I disagree strongly with his endorsement of the Larry Summers/Timothy Geithner approach to the banking crisis and also believe his foreign policy is overly hawkish. Yet I remain an enthusiastic supporter of Obama’s otherwise liberal initiatives as outlined in his budget proposal that the Blue Dog status quo forces are carving up. Obama is also the first President in my lifetime that I genuinely like from either party. The country and the world need Obama’s presidency to be successful.

Alas, I can’t help but worry. First and foremost is that pesky thing called reality If America has learned anything from the George W. Bush era is that we ignore reality at our peril. Eventually, it catches up and closes in. Obama’s fraudulent handling of the banking crisis (see my “Placebo Economics” post) is a ticking time bomb. I hope the plutocratic dynamic duo of Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner knows what they’re doing. I suspect however, that their criminal complicity with the A.I.G. bailouts and fetish like devotion to hyper-sized financial institutions will doom Obama’s otherwise good intentions.

My other concern is that predatory conservatives and Blue Dog Democrats like Evan Bayh regard Obama’s support the same way British Tories perceived Harry Perkins popularity. They never believed Perkins to be legitimate and determined he should not be allowed to become a statesman. Perkins lost his day of reckoning. Obama’s day of reckoning with those forces opposed to his good intentions is fast approaching. I hope to hell he wins.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

American Entropy

Americans are taught that we’re guaranteed the right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Since World War Two, most Americans benefited from an enduring ethos that the only limitations on success were our abilities. As long as one was willing to work hard the basic essentials of life would never be in doubt and for those with unique ambition, foresight and special gifts, anything was possible. And for those unable to provide for themselves, America was a compassionate country that didn’t turn its back on our most vulnerable.

Yes I know too many Americans were victims of racism, predatory capitalism and a whole range of injustices. I also realize that wages have been on the decline since the 1970s as the middle class was increasingly squeezed. At various times numerous cities, such as my home city here in New York, crime was rampant. All that is true enough. Nonetheless, most post-war Americans enjoyed an inner confidence stemming from a feeling of basic security. There was always a paycheck, shelter, affordable healthcare whenever you needed it and America had the power to project its will and prerogatives upon the globe.

My grandfather to me epitomized the American dream. At the age of 16 he managed to escape Poland just before Hitler invaded with his six brothers. Family legend has it that my great grandfather, a Polish judge, realized long before his neighbors the threat Nazi Germany meant for European Jewry and did what he had to do to get his sons to America. My great grandmother protested all her children leaving but my great grandfather’s wisdom was proven correct in September 1939.

My grandfather proceeded to earn a modest living in the garment industry. He never became an entrepreneur, couldn’t hit a curveball and lived his entire life as a hard working wage earner. Yet that was enough to raise two twin daughters, own a home and even a tiny summer cottage with my grandmother. Those things were possible for people like my grandfather who fit snugly in America’s post World War Two middle class.

Alas, life is now spinning out of control for Americans accustomed to the power of shaping their own destiny. You may have terrific drive, ambition and ability but still be unable to provide for your family. Essentially, our destiny as human beings was ceded to reckless traders, credit default swaps, HMO accountants that have more autonomy than doctors and war mongering imbeciles with delusions of empire. Ironically, much of this was done during a forty-year conservative era that promised more prosperity and freedom but instead resulted in a crumbling empire.

Twenty years ago when the Soviet Union began its descent it produced a young vigorous leader named Michael Gorbachev who presided over the decline of a nuclear empire with tolerance and sense. Alas, Gorbachev was unable to reform Soviet communism and unwilling to completely reject its deficiencies.

Similarly, America has now produced a leader in President Barack Obama that seems uniquely qualified for the moment. On the world stage he presents himself as a figure able to adroitly function in this multi-polar world that doesn’t bend to America’s will. Sadly, Obama seems determined to reform Wall Street capitalism just as Gorbachev tried to fix Soviet communism even as both were and are irredeemable.

After Gorbachev, Russia’s lean years became even leaner. If Obama and his plutocrat Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner maintain their current course, that same fate appears to await America as well. Obama is a decent man and most Americans support him yet the country as a whole can feel the unraveling taking place in its guts.

You learn much about yourself, your friends, your neighbors and family in this environment. Most people are inclined to pull together, sacrifice for the greater good, and extend a helping hand to those in need. Many on the abyss of despair and destitution manage to avoid losing themselves and dig deep for reservoirs of strength, ingenuity to survive and preserve their integrity. We’ve all read about or personally know inspirational people making the best of horrific circumstances and even helping to uplift others.

Yet an unraveling in American society is taking place as the cascade of ruin accelerates. This to me is somewhat illustrated by the three consecutive days of shooting incidents. The motivations for each incident were different and not specifically the result of current events. Even so, when people feel control over their own destinies slipping from their grasp, some will respond with irrational violence.

That doesn’t excuse the crimes. Plenty of citizens have not and will not give in or lose themselves to homicidal behavior regardless of the adversities confronting them whether it’s losing a job to cheap immigrant labor or their wife to another man. Tragically though, these incidents will likely increase in the months and years ahead as they reflect withdrawal symptoms of Americans coming down from the high of our empire drug.

We are living in an era of entropy now. Eventually, American society will adjust and establish a new economic-social paradigm for our times and the sooner the better. In the meantime though, there will be more incidents of desperate people trying to reclaim control of their fate by purchasing a gun and killing their designated scapegoats. Suicides will likely increase too. Such incidents will reinforce the sense of disorder in our daily lives as we cope with the future.

Private enterprise, government and iconic institutions, can no longer be relied upon to facilitate the stability and prosperity we Americans have come to regard as our birthright. It is therefore imperative during these times that we strengthen our ties to family, community and friends. Hyper-individualism is no longer sustainable and a new cultural ethos of the sum of the parts being greater than the whole is the best antidote to this disorienting entropy.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Placebo Economics

How many of you read the financial investor’s blog Seeking Alpha? Well, their March 30th post entitled “Exclusive: Big Banks' Recent Profitability Due to AIG Scam?,” is a must read that ought to embarrass the hell out Senate banking chairman Chris Dodd and his House counterpart, Barney Frank.

Here is how Seeking Alpha summarized what they learned from an anonymous inside trader they call "Lou" in laymen terms:
“AIG, knowing it would need to ask for much more capital from the Treasury imminently, decided to throw in the towel, and gifted major bank counter-parties with trades which were egregiously profitable to the banks, and even more egregiously money losing to the U.S. taxpayers, who had to dump more and more cash into AIG, without having the U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner disclose the real extent of this - for lack of a better word - fraudulent scam.

In simple terms, think of it as an auto dealer which knows that U.S. taxpayers will provide an infinite amount of money to fund its ongoing sales of horrendous vehicles (think Pontiac Azteks): the company decides to sell all the cars currently in contract, to lessors at far below the amortized market value, thereby generating huge profits for these lessors, as these turn around and sell the cars at a major profit, funded exclusively by U.S. taxpayers (readers should feel free to provide more gripping allegories).

What this all means is that the statements by major banks, i.e. JP Morgan Chase (JPM), Citi (C), and BofA (BAC), regarding abnormal profitability in January and February were true, however these profits were a) one-time in nature due to wholesale unwinds of AIG portfolios, b) entirely at the expense of AIG, and thus taxpayers, c) executed with Tim Geithner's (and thus the administration's) full knowledge and intent, d) were basically a transfer of money from taxpayers to banks (in yet another form) using AIG as an intermediary.”
Is any of this true? If so, the implications are frightening and suggest economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is correct in warning that banks are insolvent and the administration’s plan to stabilize financial institutions nothing but smoke and mirrors. For damn sure I find this report far more believable than the recent stock market bump reflecting the profit statements of these fraudulent institutions.

Congress has a duty to provide vigorous oversight on the public’s behalf. Specifically, Senator Chris Dodd and Representative Barney Frank need to utilize their subpoena power as well as demand that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner come clean with what he knew and when he knew it. If their investigation proves that Geithner knowingly endorsed the scheme then at minimum he needs to be replaced immediately. If President Obama refuses to fire him than Eric Holder’s Justice Department should read Geithner his rights.

Click here to contact Senator Dodd’s office and here for Representative Barney Frank’s and demand that they do their jobs. Lax oversight of the executive branch was supposed to end in 2006.

Placebo economics will not rescue either America or the world from this depression. Accounting gimmicks will not sugarcoat the dislocation, pain and yes poverty people worldwide are experiencing because of the reckless conduct of financial institutions allowed to run amok. It is incumbent upon our leaders that today’s pain results in a better socio-economic paradigm tomorrow. Enabling banks to inflate their quarterly statements for a good day on the stock exchange is precisely how we got into this mess in the first place.

Yet again I insist that hyper-sized financial institutions be nationalized or as William Black suggests, put into a receivership as the law mandated following the 1980s Savings & Loans crisis. That should be followed by comprehensive anti-trust legislation that permanently ends the chokehold these large institutions have on our economy. And we as citizens need to think globally by banking locally.

I support the administration’s bold initiatives with respect to their budget and am more than willing to help them as an activist take on Blue Dog Democrats such as Senator Evan Bayh, who double cross their constituents for campaign contributions under the false guise of “fiscal responsibility.” Also, I believe, Obama has the makings of a magnificent international statesman.

But the administration’s approach to the banking crisis is inadequate at best and perhaps criminal at worst. Unless Obama takes charge and gets realistic about the banking crisis, none of the good intentions outlined in his budget proposal will come to fruition.

Secretary Geithner's approach is a metastasizing cancer on the administration. And certainly not change I can believe in.

Obama Abroad

My own view of President Obama's diplomatic performance this week is that he excelled as a statesman and represented America with a humble and honorable face. That is no small thing following President Bush who effectively alienated human civilization. Obama continues to dwarf political adversaries at home while slowly restoring America's reputation abroad. Most Europeans I believe prefer a cooperative relationship with America absent the rancor of recent years. President Obama's presence on the global scene is making it less fashionable for Europeans and hopefully other nations to scapegoat America for all that plagues the world. Realistically, Obama did as well as possible.

Unfortunately, that is not good enough. Although not entirely Obama's fault, as well as possible but not good enough is the reality of the moment. Hopefully, that will not prove to be the epitaph of his presidency.

The Europeans with their established social safety net are less inclined to add more stimulus spending. Both the administration and Europeans agree robust regulation is necessary but neither side of the Atlantic is ready to diminish the power of hyper-sized financial institutions and empower local banks instead. Unless both sides of the Atlantic eventually agree to completely restructure the global financial system, this week's "progress" with respect to the International Monetary Fund and agreeing in principle to increase banking regulation will be insufficient.

Also, there is that bleeding sore called Afghanistan and the increasing possibility Pakistan may become a failed nuclear state unable to control its borders or prevent any collusion among their military and intelligence services with terrorists. Click here to review a gruesome video of the Taliban recently beating a teenage girl in public in Pakistan's Swat Valley. As President Obama himself noted, his merely succeeding George W. Bush has not made this sort of barbarism disappear.

Neither the Obama administration nor the Europeans are joined at the hip with a common strategy to address the al Quaida/Taliban threat in Afghanistan or Pakistan. All the diplomatic symbolism aside, Obama owns the Afghanistan quagmire and is treating Pakistan like a corporation that is too big to fail.

One can understand the Europeans reluctance to add more of their own blood and treasure to Afghanistan. Trying to disable and destroy al Quaida and the Taliban has been a treadmill resulting in massive civilian casualties without progress. It's curious that the American political left isn't as mobolized against the Afghanistan conflict as it is with Iraq.

Personally, I believe our surge in Afghanistan is strategically misguided. Even so I hope it succeeds for young women like the one shown in the video. But unless the administration's diplomatic initiatives with Iran bear fruit and the Europeans are persuaded to do more, this week's pomp and circumstance will merely be another chapter in America's senseless global war on terror.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Dick Cheney's Fifth Column

Towards the end of his recent interview with NPR, veteran journalist Seymour Hersch accused former Vice President Cheney of leaving loyalists behind in the national security bureaucracy to "sabotage" the Obama administration. Hersch is a determined reporter who has cultivated informed sources for decades. One suspects these moles are reporting back to Cheney so he can protect himself from legal jeopardy for his crimes. I would also not put it past Cheney and his minions to attempt to produce an intelligence debacle or terrorist attack just to embarrass the Obama administration and later say "at least we kept the people safe after 9/11." If Hersch's allegations are proven correct then Cheney and his loyalists within the government should be prosecuted as traitors. As it is, Cheney should have been prosecuted for war crimes years ago.