Sunday, October 17, 2010


I have received an e-mail from offering me, with purchase of a subscription to Townhall Magazine, a free copy of the new Dinesh D'Souza book The Roots of Obama's Rage.  The e-mail tells us, "In this mind-blowing book D'Souza explains why Obama's economic policies are designed to intentionally make America poorer, why he welcomes a nuclear Iran, why he sees the United States as a rogue nation, and much more."  The e-mail features a blurb describing the book as "profound" from the morally decayed Newt Gingrich, whose personality appears to have been completely taken over by his Mr. Hyde side.

In short, the usual right-wing crackpot stuff. But what is most striking about this book is its title. Rage? True, it's an obvious ripoff from an article by Bernard Lewis in The Atlantic some years ago entitled "The Roots of Muslim Rage." But one can see angry Muslims on TV on a regular basis. Has anyone ever seen a really angry Obama? No-drama Obama? Can you imagine him burning a flag? Or throwing rocks? No, too weird.

So why rage? Here's a quotation from Wikipedia:

In Freudian psychology, Psychological projection or projection bias is a psychological defense mechanism where a person unconsciously denies their own attributes, thoughts, and emotions, which are then ascribed to the outside world, such as to the weather, or to other people. Thus, it involves imagining or projecting that others have those feelings.[1]
Projection reduces anxiety by allowing the expression of the unwanted unconscious impulses or desires without letting the conscious mind recognize them.

It's not Obama's rage against America that needs explaining; it's the right's rage against Obama. I don't know what the roots of right-wing rage are. But there's no doubt that it's there, and has been since before Inauguration Day. It's not anger, it's apoplectic rage, and it predates anything Obama did in office.

Perhaps D'Souza should have actually read Lewis's article, instead of name-dropping it, for it is relevant not to Obama's fictional rage against America but to the right's real rage against Obama. In Lewis's view, Islamic rage against America has less to do with America's actions than with America as the symbolic leader of a way of life that threatens to change everything, i.e.,  modernity. Just so, the rage against Obama probably has less to do with his actions than with Obama as symbol of a (relative) loss of power by groups that had gotten used to being in power.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Fact-Based Politics

     "What we need is a balanced tax program. Right now the ratio between income tax and total income for the state gives an index that--" 
     "Yeah," I said. "I heard the speech. But they don't give a damn about that. Hell, make 'em cry, make 'em laugh, make 'em think you're their weak erring pal, or make 'em think you're God-Almighty....Tell 'em anything. But for Sweet Jesus' sake don't try to improve their minds." 

         Robert Penn Warren
            "All the King's Men" 

That's what you might call the Jack Burden theory of politics, and a few pages later it becomes the Willy Stark theory of politics. Warren stacks the deck, of course; any speech that contains the words "ratio" and "index" is bound to be a stinker, let alone both in the same sentence. 

But a version of this theory, a sort of Jack Burden Lite, is commonly applied even to voters who are not uneducated, poor, or living in the 1930s. That theory says that speeches should appeal primarily to emotions and not bore voters with a lot of facts. Basically, you should emulate Reagan and have touching or heart-wrenching stories to drive home your points.

I don't know that this theory is wrong. But I keep noticing how the political debate in this country is shaped by voters' ignorance of simple facts. For example:

1. The U.S. does not have the longest life expectancy in the world, nor the second longest. It has the 41st longest. It does not have the lowest infant mortality rate in the world, nor the second-lowest. It has the 41st lowest. (The exact rankings vary a bit depending on the source, but in any case, we're behind Cuba.)

2. If the U.S. spent as much on health care as the second-most-expensive country in the world, we would spend around $8,000 per household less than we're spending now. That other country has universal health care and better statistics on life expectancy and infant mortality than we do.

3. Less than one-fifth of third-generation Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles are fluent in Spanish, and 96% prefer to speak English at home.

4. If your ancestors immigrated to the U.S. before the twentieth century, they came at a time when there were no restrictions on immigration by country of origin (only racial restrictions on Chinese). Even if they came in the twentieth century, they probably had refugee status if they came from a Communist country. If your ancestors faced the restrictions of immigrants today, you probably wouldn't be here.

5. The ten years from 2000 to 2009 had the slowest economic growth of any decade since the Great Depression.

6. The top marginal tax rate in the 1950s was over 90%.

Obviously, any of these bald facts needs a little elaboration to help the audience see the policy implications. But any competent speechwriter can do that, and even tug at the heartstrings a little once the basic facts are established.

It is a mystery to me why people who have the facts on their side are so reticent about using them. The biggest offender is of course President Obama, and from the outside it's hard to figure out why.

One factor may be the apparent allergy in American politics to talking about other countries, except as adoring supporters. But why not get that old competitive spirit going? If we care about being number one at the Olympics, why not in health? Education? Infrastructure? Or if not number one, how about number five or six? If pride won't work, how about shame?

Another factor may be the strange reluctance of this Administration to talk to the public at all. Who dreamed that a president famous for being articulate would hold so few press conferences or Oval Office addresses? I don't have my finger on the pulse of the American electorate. But it certainly appears that part of the anger we are seeing today ("elites," "taking back our country," etc.) is about feeling cut out of the loop. You can't listen to each of hundreds of millions of people individually, but you can reduce their alienation a lot by talking to them.

For democracy to work, people need to know the facts. Those who don't have the facts on their side may have to resort to peddling myths. Those who do have the facts on their side, however, have a patriotic obligation to put them before the public. The country needs more than comforting or infuriating fantasies.

We're All Doomed

Three youngish Republican congressmen, Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan, have published a book with the strikingly self-important title Young Guns, explaining how they're going to fix America's problems. Is this what we've been waiting for, intelligent and thoughtful Republican policy proposals?

Sadly, no. In fact, it's worse than I feared. Ray Suarez interviewed Cantor and McCarthy for PBS. Here are some highlights: 

REP. ERIC CANTOR: First of all, as far as the tax rates are concerned, you know, so many people are talking about tax cuts, when the reality is, one of two things is going to happen January 1, 2011. Either your tax rates are going to go up or they're going to stay the same.

Nobody's talking about any tax cuts. And small businesses out there right now are looking to see, oh, my goodness, are my taxes going to go up? Can I really afford to keep the lights on and employ people right now?So, that's when Kevin says first order of business has got to be to settle the uncertainty, so we can get folks back into a mind-set that they can begin to grow again and create wealth, not just depend on the government to take it from them and redistribute it.

Well, hang on a second, Congressman. One of two things is going to happen on January 1: the Bush-era tax cuts that Republicans passed as temporary are going to expire, or they're not. True, everyone knew Republicans were lying so that they wouldn't have to admit what a hole they were blowing in the budget, but the fact is that's the law you passed. If you're so worried about uncertainty, why did you make the tax cuts temporary?

RAY SUAREZ: Members of your own caucus have said, don't worry. Social Security's not on the table, military spending's not on the table, and Medicare's not on the table.
Well, if you take those three and you say, we're walling them off, it's hard to imagine what you could cut to get us to balance at some point in the future.
REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY: Not really. Not really.

Yes, really, Congressman. Take total federal discretionary spending, exclude defense spending, and we're left with about $700 billion. That includes the State Department, Homeland Security, Justice, Treasury, Agriculture, Commerce, the Small Business Administration, Veterans' Affairs, and everything else. Cut everything by twenty percent and you reduce the deficit by $140 billion.  So now, how are you going to get us to balance? 

RAY SUAREZ: Well, give me some examples.
REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY: I will give you an example. Anybody that rides a first-class ticket on Amtrak, that's only 16 percent. But you know, when you buy that sleeper car, the taxpayer spends $364 subsidizing your ticket, so you could have your bed drawn down.

To start with, Congressman, I don't believe that anything but a really bad cost-accounting system is going to tell you that the taxpayer is spending $364 subsidizing a first-class sleeper ticket. According to a website I found (it's hard to figure this out from Amtrak's website) the accommodation charge for a deluxe bedroom is $332, not including rail fare. Are you saying a first-class sleeper ticket costs Amtrak $700 a night? Sorry, I don't believe it. But apart from that, what do all the first-class subsidies on Amtrak total up to? Chump change. 

Do you realize that we give economic aid -- not humanitarian aid -- to countries that have $50 billion or more in debt they own for us, meaning that we're borrowing 40 cents out of a dollar from China to give them the millions of dollars?

Huh? Sorry, Congressman, now you're just gibbering. "And to the republic for Richard Stans, one nation, invisible..."

What is most depressing about this is not that intellectually the Republicans are once again firing blanks. It is that they seem anxious to return to the golden Reagan years of meaningless but inflammatory anecdotes. In place of welfare queens we have sleeper cars. And no one will call them on this. How far can Ray Suarez go before Republicans start trying to cut the budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting? Who is going to say it's not so if you claim that a first-class ticket is costing taxpayers $364? Or $463? Or $643?

I won't say political debate in America is going to get more dishonest, trivial and irresponsible than it is now. But there's no sign of its getting any better.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Issues for Incumbents in an Angry Year

It looks like it's going to be a bad year for incumbents. We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore, whatever "it" is. Politicians have responded as politicians usually do, like a bunch of frightened bunnies heading for cover. They're shocked, shocked at the goings-on in Washington, and they're going to do their outsider best to change things. What things? Oh, things in general. Do candidates think voters actually buy this?

Instead of assuming, "Voters are idiots and I'm doomed if they find out the truth," why not talk about issues they might care about? For example: 

Political reform. Periodically voters decide it's time to throw the bums out. Then they discover they've elected new bums, and they decide that politicians as a class are no good. This is not good for democracy. Incumbents should suggest that just maybe, the problem is with the system.

This is easiest if you're running for the Senate. A lot of things that many voters assume are in the Constitution, like the filibuster, are actually part of the once-clubby, insider System. If you want to start small, why not go after the hold, which allows a single person to hold up bills and nominations indefinitely? And what about the fact that C-Span reveals that nowadays those speaking to world's greatest deliberative body have no audience most of the time?

If you're running for the House, why not go after the three-day workweek? This custom really goes back, if I'm not mistaken, to Newt Gingrich (who told Republicans not to move their families to Washington), and was something the Democrats had said they would change. Gingrich's idea was that they would show they were not part of evil Washington by going home every weekend, but nothing says "privilege" and "out of touch" like a public servant with a three-day week.

Anonymous money. The Citizens United decision has, as expected, resulted in a huge flood of money from corporations and billionaires into political advertising. Rather than whimper, incumbents should make that the issue. Who are these people? Who's behind Citizens for a [whatever] America? Do they live in-state? Whom do we hold to account if they're lying? Are they motivated by the public interest, or their own interest? Do they think they can buy the election? Get people sensitized, so every anonymous attack ad makes your opponent look like a tool of special interests. Make fun of those voice-of-doom voiceovers.

Unfairness in the tax system. No one, ever, thinks the tax system is fair. This year, it's a real policy issue. Use it. "In 1981, one-tenth of all the income in America went to the richest one percent. Today, it's almost a quarter. Now, I've got nothing against rich people. God bless 'em. I don't want to take away all their money. I'm just saying that when the country is facing kind of the fiscal problems it is, they ought to pay their fair share. They've done really well for themselves recently, when everyone else has been struggling. Now it's time for them to pitch in."

The Future. How about some optimistic, future-oriented (yet values-oriented) ads? "In the 1950s and 1960s we built the interstate highway system, which knit the country together and laid a foundation for strong economic growth. Over that period, the real income of the average family almost doubled. But since that time, we've been consuming our children's future-- letting our roads crumble and our bridges collapse. And family income growth has slowed to a crawl. Our education system used to be the best in the world. Now we're struggling to catch up. It's time to stop coasting, and get serious again about this country's future."

Civility. Polls and focus groups have been showing for a long time that people are unhappy about a lack of civility in public life, from politics to driving. This seems like a winning issue for incumbents, since they are the ones most likely to be targeted by those voice-of-doom attack ads.

If people are mad, they've got plenty of reason to be. Give them a reason to vote for you.