Monthly Archives: November 2010

Shining Images

Power tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is particularly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God’s favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations — to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them, that is, in its own shining image.

— Senator J. William Fulbright, The Arrogance of Power (1966)

In this week’s Sift:

The Sift Bookshelf: Washington Rules by Andrew Bacevich

Every political discussion these days seems to center on the long-term budget deficit and what we can do to narrow it. We talk about raising the retirement age or privatizing Medicare and all sorts of other benefit-restricting changes. But one idea never seems to come up, or when it does come up it quickly gets dismissed: We could stop policing the world.

The cost of policing the world shows up in two ways: First, year-in year-out we spend more on defense than any conceivable coalition of enemies. (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates our military spending, including ongoing wars, at 46.5% of the world total.) That’s because we have to be prepared to intervene anywhere that evil might raise its head. We have to have military bases everywhere, and weapons and soldiers we could send to those bases at a moment’s notice.

Second, we are fighting more-or-less constant wars, with no end in sight. Our combat mission in Iraq is supposedly over, but we still lose a few soldiers every month, and the country still isn’t safe enough for its two million refuges to come home. If things deteriorate we might wind up sending troops back.

In Afghanistan our coalition regularly loses 50-75 soldiers a month. And no corner has been turned yet. The number of coalition deaths has gone up every year since 2003. Now we’re talking about 2014 as a date for ending the war, but even that seems optimistic.

Put together, the USA Today estimated in May that the two wars were costing $12.2 billion a month. In addition, we are regularly blowing things up in Pakistan, where we are allegedly not at war. Sometimes we also blow things up in Yemen. Some people want us to attack Iran. Near term, it’s more likely that we’ll be fighting in one of those countries than that we’ll get out of Iraq or Afghanistan.

Unlike entitlement programs, we have no way of predicting future military expenses. So we can talk rationally about when Medicare will go bankrupt, but not when our military commitments will become unsustainable.

Andrew Bachevich’s recent book Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, examines how we got here and why it is so hard even to discuss backing away. It’s a history lesson that starts after World War II and goes to the present.

I found two things about this book striking: First, how consistent our military policy has been, no matter how our elections turn out. (I remember a joke from the 60s: “They told me that if I voted for Goldwater we’d soon have half a million troops in Vietnam. Well, I did, and we do.”) Administrations change, circumstances change, enemies change, but the need to police the world goes on.

Why? The answer is pretty simple: Corporations make money off of it and pundits, politicians, and bureaucrats make their careers. Seen any pacifist talk show hosts lately?

Second, permanent war is a post-911 thing. It’s easy to forget that. Every administration in my lifetime has fought somewhere, but the American people have never before accepted war as a way of life. We just had an election while two wars were ongoing, and frustration at the endlessness of them was not an issue. Hawks didn’t demand escalating to speed up victory; doves didn’t call for sudden withdrawal. It just wasn’t a big deal.

That’s new.

Bacevich calls for returning to a pre-1941 view of America’s role in the world. We should be an example of freedom and democracy, not the guarantor of it. He admiringly quotes John Quincy Adams from 1821:

[The United States] is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

Touch Somebody Else’s Junk

This week a great deal of ink was spilled in response to the new TSA full-body scanners and the opt-out pat-down that would be sexual assault if you hadn’t consented in order to get where you’re going. A lot of it was simple venting — like the guy who protested “Don’t touch my junk!” — and provided little insight to the issues involved. Let me see if I can assemble the worthwhile ideas.

First, this is all a response to the underwear bomber who failed to do anything more than burn his own genitalia last Christmas. But by smuggling PETN explosive onto a plane in his underwear, he did point out a hole in airline security: PETN is plastic rather than metallic, so the metal-detectors didn’t pick it up.

Ridiculous as that incident was, it pointed out a plausible avenue of attack if more competent suicide bombers could be found. (The problem with the whole suicide-bombing strategy is personnel. You’re always relying on somebody who’s never done this before.) To avert future PETN attacks, TSA decided it needed either a scanner that could find hidden bags of fluid, or it needed to check people for strange bulges in their underwear (as in the cucumber scene from This is Spinal Tap).

So the scans make sense from some narrow airline-security perspective: Somebody told TSA to defend against this threat, and the intrusive scans and searches are the most obvious way to fulfill that mission. It’s easy to imagine the outcry if a PETN explosion brought down a plane a year after it had been demonstrated that such an attack was possible.

Whether the scans make sense from a broader anti-terrorism perspective is more debatable. If you see an airliner bomb just as a way to kill 300 innocent people rather than an end in itself, you recognize that there are a lot of ways to kill innocent people in an open society like the United States. (You could blow yourself up in a mall food court on Black Friday, or even in the densely packed lines of people waiting to go through airport security.) There’s no point taking extreme measures to guard one door to mayhem if you leave the others wide open.

In short, from this point of view life in an open society is inherently risky. It’s not clear why airports should be a little chunk of police state in the middle of an otherwise free country.

There’s a legitimate debate to be had between those two views. But there’s a third POV out there that is just dangerous. Charles Krauthammer writes:

The only reason we continue to do this is that people are too cowed to even question the absurd taboo against profiling – when the profile of the airline attacker is narrow, concrete, uniquely definable and universally known.

It is undoubtedly silly to search 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds. But if word got out that we had a “narrow, concrete” profile of terrorists, Al Qaeda could start a worldwide search for out-of-profile sympathizers. Somewhere there is an 80-year-old with nothing to lose, or an 8-year-old that somebody thinks is expendable.

But an even more serious problem with the “universally known” profile is that it conveniently exempts people like me and Charles Krauthammer. (I can imagine Krauthammer’s reaction if he were pulled out of a line because someone thought Jews were suspect.) It’s way too easy to give away somebody else’s rights.

This is one of the many problems caused by the open-ended nature of the War on Terror. If a serial killer who looked like me had just escaped from a nearby prison, I could live with the indignity and inconvenience of constant suspicion for a week or two until they caught him. But that’s not what’s happening. We’re talking about permanently treating certain kinds of people differently. And once we’ve established that innocent people who fit a certain description permanently have fewer rights than the rest of us, where does that stop?

Where to draw the line between security and convenience is a question best decided by an informed public — a public that has to submit to the inconveniences it requires in the name of security. If I’m not willing to submit to a full-body scan or an invasive grope, what right do I have to demand it of someone else?

I wonder why Amtrak isn’t making hay out of this. They’ve poked at the inconvenience of plane travel in the past. Why not hit it harder now?

Hope and Denial

A new study by two Berkeley psychologists is apparently about people’s attitudes towards global warming, but I think it speaks to something much deeper that liberals need to bear in mind as they craft their messages. Feinberg and Willer are checking this hypothesis:

information about the potentially dire consequences of global warming threatens deeply held beliefs that the world is just, orderly, and stable. Individuals overcome this threat by denying or discounting the existence of global warming, ultimately resulting in decreased willingness to counteract climate change.

The researchers screened participants to identify people who have what they called “just world beliefs” — the idea that the world is fundamentally fair and predictable. Then they split the group in two and exposed each half to a different article about global warming. The two articles had the same first four paragraphs predicting the dire consequences to future (i.e. innocent) generations if we change nothing. But one group saw an article with an optimistic ending, emphasizing what we could do to avert these disasters, while the second saw a pessimistic ending, leaving little hope that change would be possible or effective.

As you might expect, the people who saw the optimistic message came away with a more optimistic attitude towards combatting global warming than the people who saw the pessimistic message. But here’s what’s interesting: The optimistic-message group had its belief in global warming itself increase after reading the article, while the pessimistic-message group grew more skeptical about global warming.

In other words, confronted with a message that undermined their belief in the world’s underlying justice (that innocent future generations will suffer and there’s nothing to be done about it), participants discounted the whole issue. It’s just not happening.

The liberal message in general says that the economic system and global power structure is unjust and needs to change. But if we stop there, or worse, if we imply that the Powers That Be are too powerful to challenge, a lot of people will simply decide to believe another set of facts. They won’t believe that Americans are dying for lack of health insurance, or that people desperately looking for jobs aren’t finding them, or that innocent people got sucked into Guantanamo and now can’t get out.

That’s why Obama had to run on themes of hope and “Yes we can.” Because if nothing can be done, then why disturb yourself by learning about the world’s injustices?

Short Notes

An amazing one-minute video of a stunt pilot whose maneuver turned into a bigger stunt than he planned.

Cognitive dissonance watch: If you’re worried that you’re going to leave your grandchildren a trashed planet, you’re an alarmist. If you’re worried that you’re going to leave them a pile of federal debt, you’re a serious person. Grist’s David Roberts explains the actual difference:

deficit concern is being driven by the wealthy, to secure their privileges. Climate change will affect everyone, but its worst effects will fall on the marginalized, poor, and dispossessed, and as a result, it’s being ignored and minimalized.

Like so many pieces of right-wing mythology, the account Limbaugh, Beck, et al give of Thanksgiving is not true.

For years one common complaint about the Left was that we made everything political. You couldn’t tell a joke or use common English without somebody dragging politics into it. Well, Dancing With the Stars was political this year, and we had nothing to do with it.

An Italian lingerie company has started its own version of Cash for Clunkers.

Now that the Republicans have successfully blocked a cap-and-trade law, the battle shifts to the EPA and the extent to which it can act without further authorization from Congress. Which means: You can expect an across-the-board attack on the EPA as an evil corrupt Marxist agency.

Grist examines one opening salvo, and finds that the Wall Street Journal is lying through its teeth.

I seem to be on a Grist binge. Well, this is Grist’s response to the James Fallows piece on clean coal that I linked to a couple weeks ago. The Grist-gist is that the content of Fallows’ article is as well-thought-out as Fallows’ stuff usually is. But the existence of Fallows’ article gives aid and comfort to the wrong people:

If “clean coal” development isn’t happening in the U.S., it’s not because DFHs are against it, it’s because nothing is happening in the U.S. A piece focused on that corrupt, criminal inaction might rattle a few cages. A piece reassuring Big Coal and its many backers that they’ll always be in the driver’s seat won’t.

[DFH is a standard pejorative or ironic acronym for left-wing environmentalists.]

A 1999 study showed that medical mistakes in the US caused about 100K deaths and a million injuries a year. A new study of hospitals in North Carolina shows that nothing has changed:

About 18 percent of patients were harmed by medical care, some more than once, and 63.1 percent of the injuries were judged to be preventable. Most of the problems were temporary and treatable, but some were serious, and a few — 2.4 percent — caused or contributed to a patient’s death, the study found.

The findings were a disappointment but not a surprise, Dr. Landrigan said. Many of the problems were caused by the hospitals’ failure to use measures that had been proved to avert mistakes and to prevent infections from devices like urinary catheters, ventilators and lines inserted into veins and arteries.

This is part of our overall “amenable mortality” problem — the number of Americans who die because we take bad care of each other. The French do much better. (Actually just about everybody does much better, but the French are particularly good.) We could imitate them, but that would be socialism and we are a freedom-loving capitalist country. “Give me liberty or give me death” — you didn’t realize how literal that was, did you?

The New Yorker’s George Packer reads President Bush’s memoir so that I don’t have to. “Very few of its four hundred and ninety-three pages,” he reports, “are not self-serving.”

For Bush, making decisions is an identity question: Who am I? The answer turns Presidential decisions into foregone conclusions: I am someone who believes in the dignity of life, I am the protector of the American people, I am a loyal boss, I am a good man who cares about other people, I am the calcium in the backbone. This sense of conviction made Bush a better candidate than the two Democrats he was fortunate to have as opponents in his Presidential campaigns. But real decisions, which demand the weighing of compelling contrary arguments and often present a choice between bad options, were psychologically intolerable to the Decider. They confused the identity question.

This isn’t just Bush, it’s a whole segment of the electorate. An awful lot of the populist criticism of Obama is phrased in terms of what he is rather than anything he has done or is trying to do. (Here’s a clip of Rachel Maddow talking to Joe Miller supporters on the street in Alaska. The conversation turns to Attorney General Eric Holder, who they know is “anti-gun”. But they have no idea what anti-gun thing he is supposed to have done.) Obama is a socialist, a Marxist, a foreigner, a Muslim. He’s anti-American. What he does is almost an afterthought compared to what they think he is.

You don’t usually think of concrete as a high-tech material, but that could change. Cracks in concrete actually start at the molecular level. (The article says subatomic, but I doubt that.) Adding carbon nanotubes to the usual mixture fills invisible holes to make highways that could last 100 years instead of 20.

Another concrete innovation is a bacteria that colonizes tiny cracks and produces a glue that hardens. Presto! Self-healing buildings.

The world uses so much concrete that any improvement in it is a big deal. One source in the second article says that concrete production accounts for 5% of global carbon emissions.

Seneca Doane has the right phrases for talking about the Bush tax cuts: Democrats want to extend the cuts for the first $250,000 of a family’s income. Republicans want extra tax cuts for people who make more than that.

Extra — that’s the key word.

A jury of his peers found Tom DeLay guilty of money laundering. Predictably, DeLay used the familiar conservative line about “criminalization of politics” to describe the verdict.

“Criminalization of politics” goes back to the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan administration, and it means that liberals prosecute conservatives for doing things that are “just politics”. In truth, though, no American has ever been convicted of being a conservative. Every person convicted in such cases — like Scooter Libby in 2007 — is convicted of violating an actual law. The indictment cites a law, the prosecution assembles evidence that the law was broken, and the jury unanimously declares itself convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.

What “criminalization of politics” ought to mean, what it could more accurately refer to, is that politicians often pursue politics through criminal means like money laundering or obstructing justice. Occasionally they get caught, as DeLay was.

Just in time for Christmas shoppers, the NYT announces its 100 notable books of 2010.

In addition to those, let me plug a little-noted novel of 2008: The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway. I’ve had a hard time figuring out who to recommend it to, because (as one reviewer says) it “cuts across genre and expectation lines in the best possible way.” Ostensibly a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, it combines some authentically good SF ideas about matter and identity with social insight, an outrageous sense of humor, and a very non-SF writing style. (Think Neal Stephenson).

The pioneers of science fiction (Wells, Verne, Asimov, Heinlein, et al) had fascinating ideas, but generally pedestrian writing styles. Harkaway also has fascinating ideas, but (like Stephenson) he clearly relishes words and all the wonderful ways they can be put together into sentences and paragraphs and scenes.

Times are hard — unless you’re a corporation. Corporate profits set a record last quarter. I’m sure they’ll be using that money to create jobs any day now. (That was sarcasm.) Think how many jobs they’d create if Obama weren’t so anti-business, or if the corporate income tax were lower.

One of the most publicized of the global-warming deniers is Lord Christopher Monckton, who isn’t any kind of scientist, but is a viscount — which must mean something, I guess. In this audio-and-slide presentation, John Abraham of the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota goes through Monckton’s presentation slide-by-slide and debunks his claims.

The typical sequence is: Monckton makes a claim and mentions some scientific paper as evidence. Abraham explains that Monckton is either misinterpreting or just making something up. Abraham writes to the authors of the Monckton-quoted paper, who agree with Abraham. It happens over and over and over.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at

Blessings and Privileges

The first principle of civilization ought to have been, and ought still to be, that the condition of a person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, ought not to be worse than if he had been born before that period.

— Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice (1796)

In this week’s Sift:

  • Scrooge in November. Thanksgiving was supposed to be farmers celebrating a bountiful harvest. But more and more it feels like pirates celebrating the distribution of booty.
  • My Reservations About the Market Economy. Open Table: A simple example illustrating how wealth flows to gatekeepers, not producers.
  • Short Notes. Thirty real-life Nights at the Museum. Celebrity infidelity. DIY federal budget-balancing. Cyberwar is happening. But-heads. And more.

Scrooge in November

I don’t know what the Thanksgiving equivalent of Scrooge is, but I find myself sliding in that direction. I’ve got nothing against gratitude, or a holiday in which an agrarian culture gives thanks for a bountiful harvest. But more and more of the standard Thanksgiving sentiments are leaving me with that bah-humbug feeling.

Thanksgiving is the holiday when we are supposed to count our blessings and be grateful for what we have. There are lots of ways to do that, and lots of excellent examples of people giving thanks in both religious and secular literature. But the Bible also contains an excellent example of how not to be thankful. In Luke 18, Jesus describes this character:

The Pharisee with head unbowed prayed in this fashion: “I give thanks, O God, that I am not like the rest of men — grasping, crooked, adulterous. … I fast twice a week. I pay tithes on all I possess.”

In other words: “What a great God you are, for making a great guy like me. Thanks for creating a world where I get to better than everybody else.”

Bertrand Russell satirized another kind of self-centered thankfulness in An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish:

Sometimes, if pious men are to be believed, God’s mercies are curiously selective. Toplady, the author of “Rock of Ages,” moved from one vicarage to another; a week after the move, the vicarage he had formerly occupied burnt down, with great loss to the new vicar. Thereupon Toplady thanked God; but what the new vicar did is not known.

If you listen closely, a lot of Thanksgiving prayers — particularly the patriotic ones — sound like these bad examples.

Thanks, God, for putting me in a country where I get to use up all the world’s oil. Thanks for making us so powerful that ordinary rules don’t apply to us: We can attack other countries with impunity, assassinate people we don’t like, and kidnap and torture anybody we think might pose a threat.

Thanks for a global economic system based on dollars — which we create at will, so our country can consume more than it produces year after year. Thanks for undocumented immigrants who will do our dirty jobs for less than minimum wage. Thanks for letting us ship so much of our dangerous or poisonous production to the other side of the world.

We’re grateful to You, O God, for creating a world in which it’s so great to be us.

I’m becoming suspicious of the whole count-your-blessings framing of the holiday. Because most of what we count are not “blessings” exactly. They’re privileges. They arrive on our doorstep not because we are God’s special loved ones, but because we are the beneficiaries of an unjust global system.

Suppose, for example, that you had been born in Guatemala. Your land has been blessed with a climate and soil perfect for growing bananas. But your portion of this blessing is that you get to compete with your fellow peasants for the opportunity to make subsistence wages working on plantations owned by foreign corporations. Somewhere back in the mists of history those corporations may have bought that land from your ancestors (or not), but whatever benefit they received was long gone by the time your life started. Your grandfather may have participated in a political movement to take some of those lands back, but that movement was put down by military force organized by the CIA. So your lands’ blessings belong largely to Americans now.

Or suppose you were born in Bolivia, a land blessed with rainfall that (depending on where you are) varies from adequate to abundant. But (until a near-revolution in 2002) none of it belonged you. All the water in Bolivia, even rain that fell decades ago and was sitting in underground aquifers, belonged to an international consortium led by Bechtel. Somewhere between God and you, the blessing of rainfall got intercepted and reassigned.

So yes, we Americans enjoy a large share of the world’s blessings. But it’s not at all clear that God intended us to have them. We took them. And I suppose we could thank God for making us strong enough to take what we want. But that’s a blessing on a different level than turkeys and pumpkin pies.

I know, most of us never consciously applied to be beneficiaries of an unjust system, or intentionally conspired to keep the booty coming. If we’re forced to think about it, we may not even approve. So how should we handle Thanksgiving?

I don’t have a complete answer, but I will make a few suggestions. First, after-the-fact guilt helps no one. The turkey’s in the oven, and you might as well enjoy it. If you don’t, nobody else will.

If you do remember the Bolivians, Guatemalans, and other dispossessed peoples in your Thanksgiving prayers, don’t think of them as “unfortunate”. That leads you back towards imagining yourself as “fortunate”– as God’s special friend. But God didn’t distribute the world’s wealth. People did — through force and guile and manipulation, often in perfectly legal and transparent ways. Many of these transactions have resembled another Bible story: Esau selling his birthright to Jacob for a meal. Some temporary need coupled with one generation’s lack of foresight — and ownership of the land and the forests and the rivers shifts forever.

Charity is fine, but that’s not the answer either. The world’s poor do need the jug of water you could buy them, but what they really need is access to the river. As far back as John Locke, the defenders of “liberty” have told just-so stories about the “state of Nature” that existed prior to government. But there’s one aspect of the state of Nature they always leave out: The state of Nature offered full employment. The means of production were the lakes and plains and jungles where anyone could go hunt and gather. But a system in which even the groundwater is private property, whose owners have the “liberty” to do what they want with it — not only free from government interference, but with government controlling anybody else who tries to interfere — that’s not a state of Nature. That’s a very unnatural state indeed.

So here’s what I recommend for Thanksgiving: Sure, count your blessings, but also count your privileges — and don’t confuse the two. And sure, resolve to give more to charity, but resolve even harder to use your privileges and powers and out-sized access to work for changing the system.

PeaceBang declares a pre-Thanksgiving Moment of Whining.

Vi Ransel writes: “You can’t ignore the class war (by claiming you’re not into politics).”

My Reservations About the Market Economy

How restaurants take reservations may not seem like typical topic for the Sift, but bear with me on this. A recent article about this particular niche of the economy says something interesting about how the economy as a whole works. is a service that allows you to make restaurant reservations online. It claims to handle 15,000 restaurants, and though it seems concentrated on upscale restaurants in the major cities, its reach extends all the way up here to Nashua, NH. It provides reservation-tracking software to restaurants. Its web site lets prospective diners check which of their favorite restaurants have tables open, and helps travelers find restaurants in unfamiliar neighborhoods.

Diners pay nothing, and in fact get loyalty points (exchangeable for free meals) for booking with Open Table. They also get to rate restaurants and see the ratings and comments of other diners. Restaurants pay installation costs, monthly membership fees, and a fee for each reservation. The business model seems to work. Open Table went public in 2009 and (at Friday’s closing price of $67.83) has a market capitalization of $1.6 billion. (That’s a little over $100,000 per restaurant. Hmmm.)

Services like this benefit from what is called a “network effect”. In other words, each user makes it more valuable for all the other users. (The standard example of a network effect is a phone system. If you’re the only person on a phone network, there’s nobody you can call. You want to be on the network that everybody else is on.) A small table-reservation service is quirky and has patchy coverage. But a big one has lots of restaurants, lots of ratings, lots of comments, and the resources to put all the latest bells and whistles on its web site. The more you use it, the better it gets at recommending restaurants you’ll like and tailoring promotions to your tastes.

Left to their own devices, markets with a strong network effect tend toward monopoly — one network to rule them all. As this happens, the power relationship changes: Rather than simply connecting diners to restaurants, Open Table is becoming a gatekeeper. It controls the relationship with the customer. It decides which restaurants succeed or fail.

Restauranteurs are starting to see the writing on the wall. In a post that gives a fascinating glimpse into the restaurants’ side of this relationship, San Francisco restauranteur Mark Pastore asks:

Have the ascent of OpenTable and its astronomical market value resulted from delivering $1.5 [now $1.6] billion in value to its paying clients, or by cunningly diverting that value from them? What does the hegemony of OpenTable mean both for restaurants and for the dining public in the long run?

He asked a dozen of his fellow restauranteurs in SF and New York about Open Table, and found only one who was happy. The others report feeling “trapped” and one says that his payments to Open Table amount to more than he makes from his 80 hours a week spent running the restaurant.

You see, once a service approaches monopoly, the dark side of the network effect appears: When only a few restaurants had Open Table, they might imagine that it was delivering new customers to them. But if all the restaurants have it, it’s just shuffling customers around. Checking Open Table might cause you to book with Amelio’s rather than Antonio’s, but you were going out to eat somewhere anyway, and you probably would have spent just as much money. At that point, Open Table’s fees are just siphoned out of the restaurant system without providing any systemic value.

Pastore concludes:

by permitting a third party to own and control access to the customer database, restaurants have unwittingly paid while giving away one of the crown jewels of their business, their customers.

And customers, by taking advantage of the short-term freebies Open Table provides, may ultimately wind up with fewer choices: If restaurants are less profitable, more will close. It’s already a tough business, and anything that makes it tougher is bound to push marginally profitable restaurants over the edge.

So I’m finally able to explain why this is a Sift topic: When people defend our skewed distribution of wealth or argue that the rich should pay lower taxes, their rhetoric usually implies that the free market rewards the “productive” members of society. But when you look into markets more deeply, that’s obviously false.

Think about the best restaurant meal you’ve ever eaten. Who should you thank for producing that experience? The master chef who perfected the recipe, the production chef who prepared your meal, the waiter/waitress who took care of you, the farmers who raised the ingredients, and even (though you probably never think about this) the cleaning staff. You might also thank the owner, who in a small restaurant was probably one or more of the people I’ve already listed.

But none of those people — probably not even the owner, the “small businessman” that conservative rhetoric idolizes — is making much money. None of them approach the wealth of Open Table’s founders, or even of the investment banker who managed Open Table’s IPO, or the speculators who have run up its stock price.

You see, our market economy doesn’t reward producers, it rewards gatekeepers. You don’t make money by building roads. You make money by finding (or creating) bottlenecks and setting up toll booths.

This weekend I happened to talk to someone with second-hand knowledge of a small publisher’s attempt to get into e-books. The number of hurdles to jump is enormous — unless they go through Amazon, which siphons off at least 30% of the list price — practically the entire profit margin. The producers — the authors, editors, and even publishers — won’t make nearly so much money on the books as Amazon will.

Short Notes

You didn’t hear about this contest in time either, did you? Kate McGroarty won a chance to live at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry for a month.

Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams’ reaction to celebrity infidelity is like mine: I have long understood that famous people shouldn’t be our moral role models, but do they have to be so stupid about it?

This is how voter suppression works. The non-existent voter fraud problem gets all the media attention, but in every election real people get intimidated out of voting, or just run through enough hassles that they give up.

The NYT has an online gadget that helps you build your own balance-the-budget plan. It’s not perfect, but it forces people to get real. Want to eliminate earmarks? Cut foreign aid in half? Reform malpractice suits? Good for you: You’re 3% of the way there.

Matt Yglesias brings some uncommon sense to the deficit discussion.

the key thing for any fiscal adjustment plan to say on the cut side isn’t really how much money you’re cutting, it’s what things do you want the government to stop doing. Once you name the things, you can total up the savings. Then you can either say you’ve cut enough, or else you can go back and name more things.

Hence his reaction to the idea that the Smithsonian should charge admission: It costs a lot to assemble and maintain the Smithsonian collection, but almost nothing to let one more person see it.

presumably “people might visit the museum” is high on the list of possible benefits of having a National Gallery of Art. What you would ideally do with these kind of public services—be it a museum or a subway or whatever—is take a good hard look at whether or not you really believe in providing the service. And if you do, you provide it for free so that as many people as possible can benefit. If you develop a problem of overcrowding, then you start charging admission to ration capacity.

Instead of this kind of thinking, we talk about budget caps, hiring freezes, across-the-board cuts and everything but asking questions like: “Do we want to keep fighting in Afghanistan?”

You don’t have to deny global warming to become a Republican Congressman. But you do need to deny global warming to stay a Republican Congressman.

Cyberwar isn’t just science fiction any more. It looks like the Israelis unleashed a viral worm that was supposed to find its way into Iranian centrifuge controllers and wreck the equipment. No sign that it worked, but it’s hard to be sure.

I’m not going to criticize the Israelis for this, because there’s already some kind of proxy war going on between them and the Iranians, via Hezbollah. But I hope the US is careful about dabbling in cyber attacks. We have a way of kidding ourselves, imagining that we can do some whiz-bang thing and no one could possibly retaliate. Then when someone does find a way to retaliate, we imagine that they’re madmen who hate us for no reason.

The Obama administration may have moved on, but the rest of the world still thinks we have a treaty obligation to investigate torture during the Bush years. The UN’s Juan Ernesto Mendez, himself a victim of torture in Argentina in the 1970s, says: “There has to be a more serious inquiry into what happened and by whose orders… .It doesn’t need to be seen to be partisan or vindictive, just an obligation to follow where the evidence leads.”

Excerpts of Sarah Palin’s new book are bouncing around. I particularly like this one:

The second reason the charge of racism is leveled at patriotic Americans so often is that the people making the charge actually believe it. They think America — at least America as it currently exists — is a fundamentally unjust and unequal country. Barack Obama seems to believe this too.

Because, unlike any other place where 1% of the people suck up 24% of the income and 1 out of 9 black men between ages 20 and 34 is in jail, America is a just and equal country. It’s weird that Obama wouldn’t know such an obvious thing about the nation he’s president of.

The previous note is an example of my new resolution: I will stop using the word earn when talking about people with very high incomes. Seven hedge fund managers received $1 billion in 2009. I don’t think anyone earned $1 billion in 2009.

I’m not sure how they could. Suppose you work 100 hours a week 50 weeks a year. Even with that kind of work ethic, a billion dollars is $200,000 an hour. Seriously, don’t you think somebody somewhere would be willing to do your job for $100,000 an hour?

A stunningly perfect bit of terminology: Those inauthentic “I don’t want to say X, but … ” intros are called but-heads.

Even if the jobs come back the wage cuts are permanent.

47 years ago today: JFK is killed. I think my first “public” memory is watching Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV two days later.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or follow the Sift’s Facebook page.

Shell Game

As mass production has to be accompanied by mass consumption, mass consumption, in turn, implies a distribution of wealth … to provide men with buying power equal to the amount of goods and services offered by the nation’s economic machinery. Instead of achieving that kind of distribution, a giant suction pump had by 1929-1930 drawn into a few hands an increasing portion of the currently produced wealth. … In consequence, as in a poker game where the chips were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the other fellows could stay in the game only by borrowing. When their credit ran out, the game stopped. Marriner Eccles, chairman of the Federal Reserve 1934-1948

In this week’s Sift:

  • The Deficit Shell Game. For years we’ve been borrowing money to give tax cuts to the rich. Now the chairs of the  Deficit Reduction Panel are delivering the bill to the middle class.
  • The Sift Bookshelf: Aftershock by Robert Reich. A skewed distribution of wealth isn’t just unfair, it’s bad for the economy.
  • Political Notes. I don’t have a Big Theory about the meaning of the midterm elections. But I do know a few lesser things.
  • Short Notes. Maddow interviews Stewart. Don’t get leukemia in Texas. Scientists discover new reptiles in restaurants. The Chinese are serious about clean coal. Why Glenn Beck is not (quite) an anti-Semite. What comic books can tell us about religion. And more.

The Deficit Shell Game

Suppose a major political party went to voters with this message: “We’re going shrink every program that the middle class and the poor depend on: Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation, Medicaid, and so on. And with the money saved from those cuts, we’ll give big tax cuts to the rich.”

It would never fly. Rich people would support it, of course, and the party might get as much as 30-40% of the vote if they successfully demonized their opponents. But the bald message that the rich should have more and everyone else less has never been popular.

But here’s a funny thing: If you split the proposal by putting the word deficit in the middle, and if you’re careful not to discuss the two halves of your program in the same conversation, people go for it.

In Step 1, you promote tax cuts that throw a few pennies to everyone, but are focused on the rich. At this point in the process you argue that taxes are bad, because the people who earn money should get to keep it. You paint the Government as a huge black hole that eats up money without anything ever coming out. If pressed, you pledge to cut “spending” — that amorphous mass of “waste” that could go away without hurting anybody.

Then, after you get your tax cuts passed, you come back a few months later with Step 2: “Oh my God! There’s a deficit!” Because of course no one could have predicted that cutting taxes would lead to less revenue and more borrowing.

Suddenly the deficit — which you carefully kept out of the conversation when you were talking about tax cuts — is the Worst Problem Ever. And now that we’re distributing pain instead of bushels of money, everybody is in this together. Suddenly there is no “waste” to cut effortlessly. We all have to “tighten our belts”. The government has “made promises it can’t keep” (at least not at this tax level), so programs will have to be cut across the board — especially the entitlements that go mostly to the middle class.

The latest version of this shell game — the proposal from the “bipartisan” chairs of the Deficit Reduction Panel — is the most blatant I’ve ever seen. If you look at their slide show, you’ll find proposals to cut everything under the Sun — including rich people’s taxes. The slides say that “It is cruelly wrong to make promises we can’t keep” and “A sensible, real plan requires shared sacrifice – and Washington should lead the way and tighten its belt.”

Washington here is a euphemism for people who were counting on government programs — old people, sick people, veterans, the unemployed, and so on. They — and not the rich — need to tighten their belts. While the middle class has to figure out how to retire later, co-pay more of their Medicare expenses, and do without a bunch of other benefits, the tax rate paid by the richest Americans falls from 35% (currently) or 39.6% (if the Bush tax cuts aren’t extended) to 23%. And the corporate tax rate falls from 35% to 26%. Paul Krugman sums up:

this proposal clearly represents a major transfer of income upward, from the middle class to a small minority of wealthy Americans. And what does any of this have to do with deficit reduction?

Amusingly, on the same day I started writing this article, La Feminista made the same point, even using the same term “shell game” to describe it.

A more intellectual critique of the government-has-to-tighten-its-belt approach is Daniel Greenwood’s Prosperity Comes From Justice, Not Austerity in Dissent.

The Sift Bookshelf: Aftershock by Robert Reich

The books I’ve reviewed lately all share a theme: the distribution of wealth. Winner-Take-All Politics described just how skewed the distribution has gotten, and how government policies have helped the ultra-rich pull away from everyone else. Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?demonstrated that it doesn’t have to be that way by using the example of Europe: A 21st-century economy can provide a decent life for everyone. Health care can be a right. Workers can have a say in how their workplaces are organized. Consumption can focus more on public goods like parks and less on private goods like estates. It works.

Now Robert Reich has come out with Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future. Reich is coming at the same message from the opposite direction: The winner-take-all economy doesn’t work, even on its own terms. He makes this point by comparing three eras in American history:

  • 1975-to-now, when wealth has been concentrating;
  • a similar period in the 1920s, leading up to the Great Depression;
  • what he calls the Great Prosperity, the 1948-1975 period when wealth was spreading out

The singular virtue of the Great Prosperity was that supply and demand matched, and each pushed the other higher. In a healthy industrial economy, mass production and mass consumption go together. The people who make things earn enough money to buy the things they make. Carpenters can afford houses. Auto workers can afford new cars.

But when the distribution of income gets too skewed towards the rich, you get the bubble economy of the 20s and the last two decades. The financial economy separates from the real economy and goes through a series of speculative booms and busts.

The best account of the boom-bust cycles of the 20s is Fred Lewis Allen’s classic Only Yesterday, which looks back on the 20s from the sadder-but-wiser perspective of the Depression.

After the Florida hurricane, real-estate speculation lost most of its interest for the ordinary man and woman. Few of them were much concerned, except as householders or as spectators, with the building of suburban developments or of forty-story experiments in modernist architecture. Yet the national speculative fever which had turned their eyes and their cash to the Florida Gold Coast in 1925 was not chilled; it was merely checked. Florida house-lots were a bad bet? Very well, then, said a public still enthralled by the radiant possibilities of Coolidge Prosperity: what else was there to bet on?

That’s not just a coincidence; Bubbles are a predictable feature of an economy skewed towards the rich. Reich does an excellent job of explaining why.

Stop me if you’ve heard this. I’ve used this example before to explain the illusion of saving money, and how that makes the financial economy different from the real economy. If it’s obvious to you, skip to the next section.

Before money came into the picture, “saving” meant putting aside real goods. You spent the harvest season stockpiling and canning and preserving so that you could eat through the winter.

Compare that to what might happen today: All summer a college student makes pizzas and saves money. All winter he spends his saved-up money buying pizzas. On the surface this pattern resembles the canning-and-preserving practice, but all those summer pizzas got eaten or thrown away during the summer. No pizzas were put aside, only money.

That’s typical. When you save money, your “savings” is an illusion of the financial economy; the real economy isn’t saving anything. What makes this trick work is the banking system: It circulates your saved money by loaning it to people who will spend it, either to consume something they hope to pay for later, or to invest in something they hope will be productive someday.

Excess saving leads to depression. But everything falls apart if everyone tries to save money at the same time. Because then the only way to work things out is to stop production. (No matter how many people want to make pizzas, if no one is willing to buy them, even on credit, the pizza shop closes.) This can turn into a vicious cycle: Falling production means falling profits and people getting laid off. That scares the people who still have jobs, who save more; and it intimidates the people who might invest in new production, because they don’t see who they’re going to sell their new products to.

Concentrated wealth and bubbles. Now think about what happens when too much of an economy’s income goes to the ultra-rich. The kind of money the ultra-rich make isn’t consumable. (In 2009, the top seven hedge fund managers each made over $1 billion. You just can’t spend that kind of money.) So it gets saved.

If production isn’t going to drop, that saving has to get borrowed and spent by someone else. But who? There’s a limit to how much debt the middle class can carry, so ultimately the savings of the ultra-rich has to be borrowed by other ultra-rich people. We’ve already seen that they can’t consume their income, so they will have to invest it. But in what? If they invest it in increasing production — new factories, new shops, new services — that just kicks the can down the road. Who do they imagine is going to buy their increased production when it comes on line?

Consequently, the money has to go into bubbles: Speculators borrow to bid up the prices of non-productive assets. That’s not some strange accident; it’s what has to happen when the distribution of income gets too far out of whack.

So in the 20s you had a series of land bubbles — Florida, the suburbs — followed by the stock market bubble that popped in 1929. (Stock market bubbles look like productive investments, but they’re really not. Only money invested in new stock goes into the real economy in the form of new factories, shops, and services. Otherwise you’re just bidding up the price of existing assets and not increasing production.) Or, more recently, you get bubbles in internet stocks or houses or gold or oil.

The basic bargain. World War II was the biggest unintentional redistribution of wealth in American history. That’s what ended the Depression. By taxing and borrowing, the government collected massive amounts of money from the rich and paid it out to soldiers and factory workers and farmers and miners.

After the war, veterans benefits together with the legal and social mechanisms established during the New Deal kept the money from flowing back to the rich: not just high taxes on high incomes (tax rates topped out over 90% and stayed that way until the 60s), but educational benefits, Social Security, unemployment insurance, and laws that made it easy to form unions.

The result was what Reich calls the Basic Bargain: If you participate in mass production, you should make enough money to participate in mass consumption. That bargain was the basis for the most widely-shared prosperity in American history.

Since Ronald Reagan we’ve been undoing that bargain, with the result that wages have stagnated even while productivity grows. The pie is bigger, but workers get an ever-smaller slice. At first, middle class households kept spending by sending more women into the workforce. Then they kept spending by borrowing against the bubble-inflated value of their homes. In 2008 their credit ran out and the game stopped: Middle class demand can’t drive the growth of the economy any more.

Restoring the basic bargain. Reich closes with a number of proposals, some of which (like a carbon tax) are more generically liberal than related to the case he has been making.  But his largest proposals are a reverse income tax (sharply higher rates for the rich combined with wage subsidies for the working poor), extending Medicare to everybody, and increasing spending on public goods like parks, libraries, and public transportation.

Unions are a key part of the case Reich is making, but he says little about changing the labor laws. I think labor-law reform is an important part of solving the income-concentration problem.

Think about what a “good job” is. In the collective discussion about the working class, we’ve tended to use the terms good job and manufacturing job interchangeably, as if there were something magical about factories that can’t be duplicated in service industries.

But the magic of the factory jobs of the 50s, 60s, and 70s was this: They were in unionized industries where wage increases could be absorbed by the owner or passed on to the customer. Many service jobs could fit this description, if its workers were organized.

For example, consider baristas at Starbucks. estimates that they average $8.63 an hour. (A Starbucks store manager gets only $13.) But the price of a cinnamon dolce latte has nothing to do with the cost of making it, and there’s no reason that an organized workforce couldn’t force a better deal out of the company. (Some workers are trying.) A cashier at Whole Foods — another place where prices have little to do with cost — starts around $8 an hour and averages about $10.

No law of economics says that retail and other service jobs can’t be good jobs. Workers just need to organize across entire industries, so that non-union stores can’t gain an advantage over union stores. (That’s hard, but government help would make it easier, if government got back to representing people instead of money.) Prices at Wal-Mart would go up, but we might have a stable middle class again, and a growing economy.

Political Notes

For the last two weeks the airwaves have been full of speculation about what the mid-term elections meant and what will happen now that the Republicans control the House. I don’t have a Big Theory that explains it all and tells us what to do next, but I do know a few things:

The voters rejected a straw man. I’m reminded of 2002 and 2004, when voters were still blaming Saddam for 9-11. Voters this year believed all kinds of false things: that Obama had raised taxes when he had in fact cut them; that health care reform raises the deficit when it actually lowers it; that government is growing like a tumor, when both federal spending and the number of government employees dropped in fiscal 2010. And let’s not even get into the numbers of voters who believe that Obama is Marxist Kenyan Muslim imposter.

It’s hard to know what to do with that. People who argue that Obama should “move to the center” seem to imagine that more conservative policies won’t or can’t be painted as the beginning of the Communist revolution. But you would have thought that about using Mitt Romney’s health-care ideas, too. Whatever you do, people can lie about it if they want to.

It’s not 1995. The Gingrich Revolt of 1994 foundered when the Republican Congress shut down the government in 1995. People don’t like the idea that their Social Security checks will be late, and they mostly blamed the Republicans.

But Fox News didn’t launch until 1996. Today a powerful conservative media machine will justify whatever the Republicans do. If they shut down the government (in February, when Congress will need to raise the ceiling on the national debt), no one knows who the public will blame.

If there is a government shut-down, watch the stock market. The Republicans will not bat an eye if grandmothers are begging on the streets, but if the stock market plunges they’ll have to do something.

Or maybe it is 1995. I expect a series of pointless investigations as the Republicans search for some excuse to impeach Obama. If they follow the Clinton-era pattern, they’ll raise a lot of Fantasy-gate issues hoping to stop Obama’s re-election, then move towards impeachment if that doesn’t work.

The Republicans ran on nothing, and have no agenda now. The closest thing they had to a policy proposal was “cut spending”. They never specified what spending, and there aren’t several thousand bridges-to-nowhere they can cancel. Any major spending cut means changing policies that the American people support, like raising the retirement age.

You can’t compromise with “there’s no problem”. Democrats want to do something about people without health insurance and Republicans don’t. Democrats want to do something about global warming and Republicans don’t. Where can they compromise?

Short Notes

Thursday night my two favorite TV hosts were on the same screen: Rachel Maddow interviewed Jon Stewart.

Stephen Colbert interviews the head of the last American manufacturer of marbles, and finds out that Obamacare is actually good for small business.

If you’re a biologist hoping to catalog a previously unknown species of lizard, where should you look? Try a menu.

American Prospect’s Gabriel Arana explains why the bullying gay teens face is different:

It’s not just the schoolyard jerk who picks on you. It’s the pastor who rails against the “gay agenda” on Sunday, the parent who stands up at a city council meeting and says he moved to your city because it’s “the kind of place that would never accept the GLBT community with open arms,” and politicians like New York’s would-be governor Carl Paladino, who on the campaign trail said things like “there is nothing to be proud of in being a dysfunctional homosexual.” Even once you get past high school, you still can’t get married or serve in the military, and in most states, your employer can fire you just for being gay. This is the kind of “bullying” gay kids face, and it’s the kind no one’s standing up to.

I had two preconceptions when I started reading this article: James Fallows is a serious guy, and clean coal is not a serious idea. Something had to give.

The gist: The Chinese have done the math, and no credible quantity of alternative energy will allow their billion-plus people to join the 21st century. Oil is eventually going to run out, so either they’re going to figure out how to burn coal cleanly, or they’re going to wreck the planet. That vision gives their research an urgency that American research lacks.

Glenn Beck isn’t an anti-Semite. He just uses anti-Semitic stereotypes to demonize Jews he doesn’t like. See the difference?

The Daily Show explains why Missouri’s new ban on “puppy mills” (huge warehouses raising dogs for sale) is a step on the road to Communism. (Includes a guest appearance by the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan.)

The next time someone tells you that our health-care system is the best in the world, have them read “Too bad we can’t afford to treat your leukemia” by an anonymous Texas doctor.

If a generation of kids expected something different from superheroes twenty years ago, maybe they’ll expect something different from religion now that they’re adults. At least that’s what I claim in the current issue of UU World.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep up with the Sift on Facebook.

Down to the Wire

We live now in hard times, not end times.

— Jon Stewart, at the Rally to Restore Sanity, October 30, 2010

In this week’s Sift:

  • An Election-Watcher’s Guide. What should you know before sitting down to watch the returns come in tomorrow?
  • The 2012 Kick-Off. The post-election spin will be the opening salvo of the 2012 presidential campaign.
  • The Private Campaign. Political campaigns used to happen in public. The whole point was to draw undecided voters to your events and convince them, and to get major-media attention for your candidate. Not any more.
  • Short Notes. Matching states with movies. Where the Court is going on church and state. An Arkansas school board member is denied his First-Amendment right to promote student suicides. Al Jazeera is watching our election. And Jon Stewart massively outdraws Glenn Beck.

An Election-Watcher’s Guide

Along with the Super Bowl and the Olympics, Election Night is one of the outstanding glue-yourself-to-the-TV spectacles of American culture. If you’re planning to watch this year, I recommend doing it with friends and away from sharp objects or high windows.

Going in, there are always two things I want to know:

  • What are the polls predicting?
  • What races should I be watching at various points in the evening?

Fortunately Steve Singiser on Daily Kos has done all the hard work for us. His  “Polling and Political Wrap-Up” series (Halloween edition here) collects the latest polls, and his Bellwethers 2010 is an hour-by-hour guide to which states are closing their polls and what races to watch to figure out how the night is going.

As in 2008, the poll-watcher I trust most is Nate Silver. In 2008 his predictions were uncanny. I’ll sum them up by quoting my pre-election Sift from two years ago:

As for Senate races, Nate Silver thinks the only real cliff-hanger is Franken-Coleman in Minnesota, which he thinks tilts in Franken’s direction.

If you remember, that race hung on the cliff until the next summer, when a Minnesota court decided Franken had won. All the others went the way Nate predicted.

As of this morning, Nate was projecting that the Democrats would hold the Senate 52-48 and lose the House 232-203.

That said, don’t expect anybody’s predictions to be all that good this year, because the polls have gone crazy. For example, in general polls are predicting that Republicans win the House, as reflected in Nate’s projections. However, Gallup’s generic-congressional-ballot poll gives the Republicans a 15% edge. Newsweek’s tips towards the Democrats by 3%. You can find a poll with just about any number in between.

That craziness shows up in Nate’s confidence interval. His House projection has the Republicans gaining 53 seats, but all he can say with 95% confidence is that they’ll gain somewhere between 23 and 81 seats.

The uncertainty boils down to two things: (1) Polls are done over the phone, and nobody knows how to get a random sample of cell-phone-only households. (2) Nobody knows who is going to show up to vote. In 2008, Obama got unprecedented numbers of young people, blacks, and Hispanics to vote. Was that a one-time thing, or are they voters now? The polls are especially slippery in states like Wisconsin, where you can register to vote on election day.

Turnout. The projected Republican margin is almost entirely due to the so-called “enthusiasm gap”. When you break the electorate into segments, there’s been only a little bit of slippage in the Democrats’ group-by-group support since 2008. But pollsters expect Republican voters to show up and Democratic voters to stay home. For example, if you look at polls of all registered voters, the generic-ballot polls are almost even, falling in a range of plus-or-minus 6% for either party.

Given the number of close races, that makes a huge difference. Currently, most polls pick Sharron Angle to beat Harry Reid in Nevada. But they arrive at that conclusion by applying a Republican-tilting likely-voter model to raw data in which Reid is ahead. If all registered voters decide to show up, Reid wins.

So that’s the big thing to watch before the polls close. The networks won’t announce what their exit polls are showing in a state until that state’s voting is over. But all through the day they’ll be reporting turnout. If it’s higher than expected, Democrats will be more competitive. They’ll also probably tell you the make-up of the electorate. If voters are overwhelming white and older, it’s a Republican sweep. If not, it will be close.

The Bellwether. Back in 2008, Nate Silver came up with the concept of a “tipping point state” — the states that were likely to make the difference one way or the other. This year, his tipping-point states for control of the Senate are Washington, West Virginia, and California. And that makes West Virginia the bellwether state: a tipping-point state where the polls close early. So your first solid information on control of the Senate will come shortly after the polls close in West Virginia at 7:30 EDT. (California and Washington don’t close their polls until 11 EDT.)

The 2012 Kick-Off

In 1998, the Wednesday-morning narrative was that the Clinton impeachment was backfiring on the GOP, and that come 2000 voters would want an outsider who was no part of that cat-fight. Meanwhile, Bush had been re-elected Governor of Texas with 69% of the vote, and the presidential dynamic was set: Bush had the name, money, and insider support to make sure that the Bush-is-the-answer spin on the election stuck.

I’m not expecting that kind of clear question-and-answer this year, but you never know. The big story of 2010 has been the Tea Party, and it’s looking likely that Wednesday morning Republicans will be saying “We’d have won the Senate if not for those bozos.” Christine O’Donnell is going to lose big in Delaware, and Joe Miller is collapsing in Alaska (though write-in candidate Murkowski is likely to retain the seat for the Republicans). If any of the other Tea Party candidates — Sharron Angle in Nevada, Rand Paul in Kentucky, or Ken Buck in Colorado —  lose what should have been easy Republican races, then that will be the story: Voters don’t like extremists.

On the other hand, if Angle, Paul, and Buck all win comfortably and the Republicans do control the Senate, then the opposite message takes hold: Republicans won because they really stood for something, so their voters were enthusiastic enough to come to the polls while Democrats stayed home.

If the Tea Party story is positive, then 2012 is going to be wild. The momentum is with the people who were Out There, taking the wiggiest positions and being totally unequivocal: Newt Gingrich and Michelle Bachman come to mind. (Palin is a special case; I’ll get to her.) But a negative Tea Party story favors the duller candidates: Mitt Romney most of all, but also relative unknowns like Tim Pawlenty and Mitch Daniels.

I can’t pick a 2012 Republican nominee yet, but I can describe him/her: The winning Republican position in 2012 is to be a stealth tea-partier — somebody the Tenthers and Birthers and water-the-tree-of-liberty types will accept as one of their own, but who won’t be seen that way by the general public. The Republicans will nominate whichever establishment candidate sounds most convincing using vague tea-party rhetoric that doesn’t commit him/her to anything specific. Expect to hear a lot about “the Constitution” and “the Founding Fathers” and “common-sense solutions”.

Palin. Unlike New York Magazine, I don’t expect Palin to run. I expect her to keep people guessing for as long as she can, but to find an excuse to back out.

Here’s why: You can make a career in politics either as a politician or as a pundit/entertainer. If you’re a politician, you need a majority, so you care about your favorable/unfavorable rating. But you can do well as an entertainer with a small-but-enthusiastic following, even if most people don’t like you. So Harry Reid and John Boehner care who they alienate, but Michael Moore and Rush Limbaugh don’t.

Palin is taking the entertainer road. She came out of 2008 with lots of strengths and weaknesses. If she wanted to be a politician, she’d have been shoring up her weaknesses, trying to put together a majority. (Picture McCain courting Jerry Falwell to make himself less toxic to evangelicals.) She’d have served out her term as governor, met with foreign leaders, maybe served on a bipartisan commission, and staked out some signature issue. Imagine if Palin had an energy-independence plan that everyone else had to comment on, or if Paul Ryan’s balance-the-budget plan had come from her. People who thought she was a lightweight would have to take another look.

Instead, she’s been doubling down on her strengths, building the small-but-rabid following an entertainer needs, and going out of her way to annoy everybody else. So she doesn’t have policies and issues — she has tweets. She’s been going for notoriety, not popularity.

And it’s working. She’s in the headlines constantly, and she’s very unpopular. A long and profitable entertainment career awaits.

The Private Campaign

Other than all the anonymously-contributed attack-ad money, the most disturbing trend of 2010 is the growth of what you might call private campaigning. (lawsyl on Daily Kos calls it the Bubble Strategy.)

Traditionally, public attention was the whole point of campaigning. The Depression-era campaigns portrayed in All the King’s Men featured free barbecues with a band — spectacles that would draw folks in off the streets and down from the mountains for miles around so that they would listen to the candidate. There was a risk, of course, that the crowd might eat the free meal, listen to the band, and then heckle the candidate — but that was the chance you had to take.

Ditto for the press. You wanted them to write about you, so you made yourself available. You charmed them, flattered them. John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” was a throw-back to the days of whistle-stop tours, when the candidate’s train would pull into town, the candidate would speak off the back platform, and reporters-to-be-charmed would get a ride to the next town and a chat with the Great Man Himself. Again, you had to take the chance that reporters would drink your scotch, take up your time, and then write something bad about you.

No more. Already in the 60s, campaigns were becoming more about TV than personal appearances, and more about commercials than interviews. But the Bush 2000 campaign pushed things to a new level, and it’s just gotten worse since then.

Here in New Hampshire, the old-fashioned way you to campaign is to meet people 50-100 at a time in backyards and school gyms. You give a speech, and then you show off your command of the issues and your mental agility by answering whatever questions come up. Unfortunately, Bush didn’t have those virtues, so he campaigned in photo-ops and commercials — and lost the NH primary bigtime. We never got to ask him any questions, so how could we vote for him? But the rest of the country was more modern and didn’t have those qualms, so he became president.

When 2004 rolled around, the real people at Bush’s events were just props for TV. Campaign rallies were all private — you needed a ticket, which only the local Republican Party could give you. If you heckled, you were carried out, because you were crashing a private event. Even the route Bush would take to events would be cleared of anti-Bush signs, though pro-Bush signs could stay.

So while Bush would occasionally answer questions, they were always questions from pre-selected supporters. An undecided voter sizing up a candidate face-to-face was ancient history.

The private campaign took another step in 2008, when the McCain people realized they could not allow Sarah Palin to be interviewed by neutral journalists. The initial Gibson and Couric interviews had been disasters — not because the journalists posed have-you-stopped-beating-your-husband questions, but because Palin couldn’t handle softballs like what newspapers she reads. Fortunately, by 2008 there was an entire parallel world of conservative media filled with people like Sean Hannity, who would only ask her the questions she wanted to answer.

But at least she was only the VP. McCain himself would still answer real questions.

In 2010, some of the Tea Party (i.e. Republican) Senate candidates have run entirely private campaigns. Only friendly audiences see them. Only friendly media has access. And so the candidates don’t even have to spin or obfuscate — they can simply not talk about anything they don’t want to talk about.

Up until now, even the most controlled campaigns have had detailed position-papers on their web sites. Those papers might be full of false facts and fancy phrases that boil down to not much, but at least they were there. Now take a look at the “Issues” page of Sharron Angle’s web site.  It’s 900 words long, with no links to anything more detailed. You want to know her position on national security? Here it is, the whole thing:

Sharron Angle is a staunch supporter of the U.S. military, and will work tirelessly to secure the peace and security of our country. She supports strong sanctions against rogue nations that export, support or harbor terrorism and believes that we must do whatever necessary to protect America from terrorism.

Las Vegas CBS affiliate KLAS has been trying to get Angle to say anything at all about the two wars we’re in — unsuccessfully. And for their trouble they and the NBC affiliate have been banned from election night coverage of Angle. Even the local Fox affiliate can’t get questions answered.

To a lesser extent, Tea Party candidates Joe Miller in Alaska, Rand Paul in Kentucky, and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware have run inside similar bubbles. Angle and Paul may get seats in the Senate this way. And that raises the question: Might we see a totally private presidential campaign in 2012, in which the candidate ignores all but friendly media and takes positions only on the issues s/he wants to take positions on? Can that possibly work?

Short Notes

Here’s a fun party game: Come up with a movie for each state in the union. Some are obvious: Kansas gets “The Wizard of Oz”, Indiana is “Hoosiers”, and the Dakotas get “Fargo” and “Dances With Wolves”. The map Subtonix put together has a few mistakes (it’s got “Fargo” in Minnesota) and a recent-movie bias (“White Christmas” is a better Vermont choice, and how do you miss “The Grapes of Wrath” for Oklahoma or “Nashville” for Tennessee?) — but that makes it an even better conversation-starter.

Dahlia Lithwick examines where the Supreme is going with church-and-state issues. Years ago in one of the Pledge of Allegiance cases (my analysis here), Justice O’Connor wrote about how public mention of God can be “ceremonial deism” — language intended for the secular purpose of solemnizing an event rather than endorsing a specific theological viewpoint. (While I wouldn’t have gone that way, O’Connor’s reasoning is not completely off the wall. It’s similar to when a character in a TV show says, “Thank God.” You assume the character is relieved about something, not that s/he is pushing a religious message.)

Well, in last year’s Salazar v. Buono, Justice Kennedy took this notion a step further and opined that a cross erected on public land may have a similarly secular purpose. LIthwick wonders where that kind of reasoning is headed in the current term’s cases. (Lithwick mentions Justice Scalia’s amazement at the notion that Jewish soldiers might not feel properly memorialized by a cross over their graveyard. A fuller account of that exchange is worth reading.)

She links to a more elaborate analysis on FindLaw. Vikram Amar and Alan Brownstein speculate that the Court is likely to back off of prohibiting any government endorsement of religion, and instead focus on whether anyone is being coerced into participating in a religious exercise. That’s a looser standard, and would allow things (like prayers at non-mandatory public-school events) that an endorsement test would rule out.

It looks like we won’t have Clint McCance to kick around any more. McCance was a school board member in Arkansas when he commented on Facebook about a campaign for people to wear purple to school on Spirit Day (October 20) in sympathy with bullied gay and lesbian students, five of whom had recently committed suicide. His comment:

Seriously they want me to wear purple because five queers killed themselves. The only way im wearin it for them is if they all commit suicide. I cant believe the people of this world have gotten this stupid. We are honoring the fact that they sinned and killed thereselves because of their sin.

It turns out that view is considered extreme even in Arkansas. (Who knew?) So McCance is resigning from the school board, though he doesn’t rule out running again at some point — presumably after the whole gay-kids-shouldn’t-be-hounded-to-death fad has run its course.

Some surprisingly good American political coverage is coming out of Al Jazeera’s English channel. Check out this episode of their show Fault Lines, which covers the Tea Party in Nevada and the grass-roots effort to end racial gerrymandering in Florida. (If you follow that last link, you should probably also look at this one; it explains why the propositions to end gerrymandering in Florida are part of the plot to “usher in a Socialist tyranny.”)

Around 215,000 people came to Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity Saturday, compared to about 87,000 for Glenn Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor in August. Both numbers come from AirPhotosLive, which CBS commissioned to estimate the crowds. Watch chunks of the rally on Comedy Central’s website.

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