Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Progress and the Pendulum

cross-posted at http://dagblog.com

I'm watching the snow through an airport window, thinking about the posts I've meant to get to in the last hectic week or so, and about the things I have to do and the places I have to fly over the next ten days. But for today, it'll have to be a short one, and mostly a metaphor.

We're at the end, more or less, of a decades-long rightward swing of America's political pendulum swing in this country. We'd gotten to the point where lots of sensible proposals seem like wild-eyed leftism, and where many of the conversations at the right end of the spectrum have come untethered from practical policy and basic reality. Essentially, the conservative movement has driven the country off the road, and now we're beginning a long, slow leftward hitchhike to the middle. The end of the swing was deeply frustrating for most progressives, including me, and the 2008 national election seemed to mark the beginning of that return to sanity. But it's been frustrating for lots of progressives (again, including me) that momentum of the last year hasn't been greater. Lots of people were hoping Obama would turn the country around and start to gain some enormous ground, very very fast. All I can say to my fellow liberals, progressives, and lefties, is this:

Look at a pendulum sometime. If you don't have one handy, and grandfather clocks aren't part of your decorating scheme, look at a kid on a swing. Notice that when the pendulum reaches the far end of its swing, it slows down. Then, for a very brief period, it actually stops. (This is easier to see if you're watching some 8-year-old girls who can really fly on the swings. Look at that moment where they're essentially stopped in midair.) After the stop, it picks up momentum again, this time in the opposite direction. It starts moving pack to the mid-point slowly, then faster, and as it passes through the middle of its arc it's going at its maximum speed. That's the momentum that carries it back the other way, until it reaches the other end of its swing, runs out of energy, and pauses before returning.

I would suggest that we've just has a thirty-year pendulum swing end. The motion back in the direction lefties prefer isn't terribly fast right now, and isn't as fast as it's going to get. Gradually, as with real pendulums, we will reach the middle of the political spectrum at blazing speed and keep moving, moving along further and further until, in a couple of decades perhaps, we've swung too far out past the concerns of the avergae voter and the pendulum will start falling back toward the center. I don't know when that will be. But the pendulum always starts the return with a little hesitation. That doesn't mean it's not going to pick up speed.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why Obama Won the Nobel, Part II

crossposted at http://dagblog.com

When Obama's Nobel Prize was first announced, I tried to explain why the Nobel Committee might have chosen him. Today, as he accepts the Prize, seems like a good time to finish that attempted explanation. But first, two quick things I need to say to frame the discussion.

First, I myself would not have given Obama the Prize, and certainly not yet. Given the decision, I would not have chosen him (although I don't have any particular other candidate in mind). My goal is to understand the Committee's decision and try to grasp its underlying logic, not to endorse it. (Indeed, the Committee themselves might be having second thoughts today, after Obama endorsed the Augustinian principle of “just war” during his acceptance speech.) If you prefer to believe that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee had no reasons, and are simply irrational people from Pluto, then this post is not so much for you.

Second, while many people seem genuinely angry at the decision to give the Prize to Obama, and couch that anger in moral terms, I neither endorse the anger nor the framework of moral reasoning behind it. The idea that the Peace Prize might go to someone who does not deserve it, or that it justly belongs to some other, more worthy candidate, does not upset me. More to the point, I believe a focus on the justice or injustice of the award itself is misplaced. If one thinks of the Prize as something primarily meant to recognize deserving moral figures for their labors and suffering, as an honor accorded to saints, then of course Obama’s prize seems like an outrage. But the question of individual desert is morally trivial compared to the Peace Prize’s goal, which is to help end war and violence. The Peace Prize is a tool toward a political and moral end. It needs to be bestowed in the way that has the best chance of ending or preventing bloodshed. I find that goal morally compelling in a way that a quest to honor the “most deserving” individual could never be.

If you feel committed to the idea that the Peace Prize should be about rewarding the saintly, because political sainthood needs to have an earthly reward, I would suggest that the Prize is a sorry substitute for the genuine rewards such people seek. The proper reward for the just is to do justice. The proper reward for the saint is good works. I do not see it as a terrible shame, for example, that Mahatma Gandhi never won the Prize. The goals of non-violent revolution and Indian independence were his prize, and he would not have traded them for money, or public honor, or a trip to Oslo. He would see those things as spiritual stumbling blocks, or as tools to be turned toward other goals.

The point of the Nobel Peace Prize is to end war: to lend its credibility and prestige and disburse its cash award to people who will use those things toward the ends of peace. The moral question is how to allocate the Prize most effectively. That question is both utilitarian, because it aims to achieve the maximum good for the maximum number, and necessarily speculative, because no one to whom it can be given can be assured of success. If the prize is given only for completed accomplishments, for battles already ended, much of its value is lost. It is more useful when given where it might turn a tide, or help someone achieve something that might not otherwise be achieved. That requires the Prize Committee to make their best guess about where the Prize will do the most good.

When giving the Prize to American Presidents, the Nobel Committee has traditionally erred by giving it too late in their political careers, rather than too early. Roosevelt and Wilson got the Prize near the ends of their second terms, when they were effectively lame ducks. Had they “earned” the Prize by that point? Sure. But they were also about to relinquish their political power and their role on the world stage. Those awards, as I argue in my earlier post, helped build the prestige of the Nobel Prize itself, but otherwise they achieved nothing. Giving Jimmy Carter the Nobel as a retired President makes a lot of sense as a recognition of secular sainthood, but it’s increased his effectiveness at doing good works only marginally, if at all. Giving it to him during his first term might (no one can say “would”) have led to more good being achieved. I too think Obama is getting the Prize too early, but too early is not nearly as big a problem as too late.

Obama’s Prize reflects a calculation on the Prize Committee’s part that Obama has a window for achieving peace on several fronts, and that it was important to back him during that window. In fact, they may see that window as very narrow, and quick to close. They wanted to make sure to back him while it mattered, because they’re afraid that if they waited another year the opportunity might be lost. And the Prize also reflects their calculation that Obama is, during that window, the most important potential vehicle for promoting peace, so much that even giving him marginal assistance is likely to be more effective than backing any other potential winner. Various obscure nominees might have had their effectiveness increased tenfold by winning the Prize, but the Committee seems to think that making Obama even a little bit more effective at this moment will do more practical good than making some other nominees exponentially more effective. If all they do is strengthen Obama’s hand a little bit, the apparent reasoning goes, and allow him to achieve a little bit more than he would otherwise, that could make a huge difference. They know he hasn’t achieved much yet. And they’re not at all confident that he will. That’s why they gave him the Prize: because they’re not sure he’ll make it, and because they think he could use the help.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Having an FDR Christmas

crossposted at http://dagblog.com

Exactly three weeks before Christmas, my bank failed.

Everything's fine, at least for humble depositors like me. The FDIC seized my bank and sold it to another, presumably more stable and reliable, bank. My deposits were very, very comfortably under the $250,000 insurance limit. My checks and ATM card still work, and I don't even need to change them for new ones with the new bank's name. The new, out-of-town bank is keeping the old bank's name and running it as a division of the new bank. I can still buy groceries. I had to find out about the bank failure reading Atrios.

Things aren't so good for my local economy of course, or for my city. That my bank failed is both a symptom of how hard times are for Cleveland, and a sign that they'll get better very slowly. The new bank is going to be prudent making loans on its new turf, I'm sure, and the local bank's failure doesn't make us look like the best place to bet. And there shouldn't be much doubt that the whole country is still in a very large recession, or to drop the euphemisms, a depression. I know, the 1930s were much worse. That's why the 1930s are called The Depression and this is just a depression. But believe me, this town is depressed. My local bank went down with five others last Friday, making that 130 bank failures in the U.S. so far this year. Even if no more banks fail for the rest of the year, that's two and a half bank failures a week. Forget what's going on with the too-big-to-fail leviathans; while we were watching them beach themselves and thrash, the rest of the fish that make up the ecosystem were dying.

Still, despite the grim news, I can pay my rent, bake cookies for my students, and do some Christmas shopping. I can fly for the holidays, and for the major annual conference in my field, which takes place at the end of December. When I get to town for that conference, I can pay for my hotel and my meals. And then I can celebrate the first of the year by paying my rent again. So I'm doing pretty well for a guy who had his savings in a bank that just went under. But there's no question that my Christmas comes benefit of the FDIC. If it weren't for the New Deal I'd be enjoying a really old-fashioned holiday, the kind Bob Cratchit and John Boy Walton used to have. And by "enjoy" here, I mean "not even remotely enjoy."

When you hear conservatives talking about the evils of liberalism, government regulation and imminent socialism, this is what they're talking about: the kind of basic common-sense protections and regulations that the New Deal instituted seventy-five years ago. Even during this economic crisis, when it should be clear to everyone that the financial sector long ago abdicated any sense of responsibility or reality, it's still fashionable to talk about the New Deal as old-fashioned excess, the kind of forgivable error that our silly old grandparents made because they had not yet learned better, as we have. Of course, such creaky old socialist programs don't really work, and they impede the magically efficient forces of the market.

The next time you hear someone talk like that, just remember: they're drunk.

If it weren't for the New Deal and its stifling, market-inhibiting FDIC insurance, this is the Christmas I would have. My savings (and my checking account) would have disappeared Friday evening, taking my most recent paycheck with it. (I get paid twice a month; my bank failed on the fourth of the month, only a couple of days after my last direct deposit.) I wouldn't be paid again until the fifteenth.

My checks would have bounced, including my rent check if the landlord hadn't cashed it yet (again, the bank failed just after the beginning of the month), or if it hadn't cleared. Since it usually takes a day or two to clear a check, let's say that my rent would certainly have bounced. My phone bill, student loan payment and credit card bill would almost certainly have resulted in more bounced checks. I would have only the money in my wallet, which I would be hoarding very carefully, until my next paycheck. And when the fifteenth rolled around, I'd have to find a new bank, deposit my money, wait for my deposit to clear, and wait for the new bank to issue me checks and an ATM card. That would pretty much keep me from having any money I could use until nearly the end of the month. (There is, ahem, a national holiday in there somewhere, when the banks are closed.) Otherwise, I could get my checks cashed at the usurious check-cashing rates, and pay the premiums for money orders to pay bills. In any case, I'd be starting in the hole. Credit cards would not be an option; I would certainly have missed payments, not only stalling the credit line but earning myself some fees and penalties. If they were an option, they'd be a horrible one, since I'd be faced with the task of building back some savings to replace my lost money. Christmas presents would be out of the question. So would airplanes, let alone professional travel with its hotel expenses.

That would all stink for me, but it wouldn't be a big help for the rest of the economy either. The thrift forced upon me by the loss of my savings would take money out of the rest of the economy: the Christmas shopping I didn't do, the groceries I didn't buy at my local supermarket, the gas I didn't buy and the hotel reservation I didn't keep and the airport sandwich I couldn't afford. My landlord would be out rent, at least until I managed to scrape the arrears together. How's that for market efficiency? Now multiply it by every depositor my bank had, and then consider the customers of the other five banks that failed last Friday. The New Year starts to look pretty grim for whole communities.

That is what a deregulated, laissez-faire economy looks like. An economy free to lay itself waste every so often, in irrational spasms. And if it doesn't remind you of the smooth rational graphs in Econ 101 textbooks, that's because it doesn't resemble them. Market efficiency is no more natural than a navel orange is. It results from grafting and gardening.

So let me say a few kind words for old-fashioned 1930s liberalism, the parts that have yet to be dismantled or "modernized" away. Those vestiges of our big-government past are what's keeping the wheels on the wagon today. Without them, we'd be much deeper in the mud, and further from the shovel. And I don't see how many of the modern, what's the phrase?, "innovations" of the past thirty years have helped much. So while our leaders in Washington debate timid half-measures in timid tones, afraid that half of half a loaf might be going too far, they would do well to remember who got us out of the last mess like this, and how. We need to face a basic reality: this Christmas has been brought to you by the Ghost of Liberalism Past, FDR.

God bless us, every one. We're going to need it.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Mister Hope Is Secretly Mister Reliable

crossposted at http://dagblog.com

The day before President Obama announced his Afghanistan strategy, Politico published John F. Harris's very important and newsy thumbsucker about the peril that "anti-Obama storylines" pose to Obama's Presidency. The first sentence of the article is, no kidding, "Presidential politics is about storytelling."

Storytelling. Huh. And here I thought it was about the economy and the two wars.

The Obama Presidency could easily founder. But failure is more likely to come from the Afghan highlands or the malarial swamps of Wall Street than from catchy Beltway meta-narratives. I know the media is always telling us how appearance is reality. But actually it only looks like it.

Narratives aren't primarily ways to understand a politician or a campaign. They are ways to misunderstand it. Indeed, that is what Harris is pushing: seven largely inaccurate perceptions that could lead to Obama failing even if he does the right things for the country. It's a strange thing to find such a topic cool or interesting, but Harris's admiring connoisseurship shines through the piece. He feels a bit like those kids who spend their free time crafting the nastiest computer viruses they can: all the pleasure lies in the craftmanship and destructive power of the meme.

For what it's worth, one of the narratives into which the press will inevitably conscript Obama is Icarus Falls to Earth, in which the shining idealist Obama is grounded by hard reality. In fact, they started writing this story the night he won the Iowa primaries. But it won't be true, because that pleasingly formed but misleading narrative is grounded upon the pleasingly formed but misleading narratives fostered by Obama's own campaign: the notion that he was Mr. Hope and Captain Change, the candidate of revolutionary optimism.

Barack Obama is, whatever else you make of him, an incredibly unlikely youth leader. And while he was clearly popular with the young and had a fabulous ground organization, he wasn't the leader of anything like a youth movement per se. He is not, like most youth movement leaders, a firebrand. He's more like your studious buddy that your parents liked, because he was a safe driver and might be a good influence on you. He's the motorcycle-less boyfriend your parents hoped you would marry: Mr. Reliable. Least of all is Obama anything approaching a revolutionary. And that was extremely evident during the election. He did campaign on Hope and Change, as campaign themes, but his promises were about sane, pragmatic policy adjustments, optimistic but very much grounded in reality. The real Barack Obama isn't going to fall to earth because he's always been standing on it. If he fails, it will be from an excess of caution.

Will this shock the voters? Not really. I suspect that the truth we haven't told, the story hiding behind the story of Mister Hope, is that Obama won in large part because he is so satisfyingly boring and calm, so capably reassuring. Even his soaring rhetoric isn't flashy or "exciting." It's resolutely reasonable and calm: a triumph of oratorical serenity. Voters know this, and feel this. The election was conducted at a time of national emergency, and Barack Obama is essentially the guy you trust to make medical decisions for your parents. He never seems rattled; he's able to take in complicated information under pressure, and then ask the necessary questions and make the necessary decisions. John McCain, who works very hard to project a youthful, devil-may-care attitude, is a great candidate for a bored and jaded electorate, but a bad match for an anxious one. Obama, on the other hand, can be downright soothing.

If the Republicans want to beat him, this is what they have to remember. They have to do more than beat Obama up. They have to provide an alternative, and that alternative has to feel safe. If the Obama Presidency fails, it almost certainly means that the country will sink deeper into crisis. And while voters would want to punish Obama for that, what they would want most of all is someone to fix things. That person needs to feel reliable, capable, and calm, to be someone voters trust instinctively. The Republicans will need their own Obama, but first they need to figure out who Obama is.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Patrick Kennedy's Orders from the Vatican and the Abuse Scandal

cross-posted at http://dagblog.com

The Bishop of Rhode Island has told Congressman Patrick Kennedy not to take Communion at Mass any more. They are now publicly feuding about whether or not the bishop ordered his priests not to give it to him. Forty-nine years after JFK promised not to take orders from the Church hierarchy, that hierarchy is sanctioning his nephew for not taking orders. The nominal issue is abortion. The underlying issue is the Church's sexual abuse scandal.

It's no accident that the vogue for Catholic bishops denying American Catholic politicians Communion, or announcing publicly that Catholic politicians should not take Communion, began in 2004, during the first national election after the abuse scandal came to light in the Archdiocese of Boston during 2002 and 2003. Nor is it any accident that the first major target of ecclesiastical ire, Senator and then-Presidential-candidate John Kerry, was from the Boston Archdiocese, where the . It might seem strange that the Catholic hierarchy would decide to strike the tone of moral condemnation shortly after epic revelations of child abuse and serial coverups, but at least some of the hierarchy reputedly came away from the national scandal furious that the Church had not been given more political cover by Catholic politicians. And the fall of Bernard Cardinal Law, who has since risen again in Rome, seems to be regarded by at least some bishops as a grievance.

To be fair, the Church has put some needed and belated reforms in place, as a safeguard against future child abuse. But those reforms do not extend to the mindset of the Catholic magisterium, which is very much a top-down, self-replicating hierarchy, and which has become far more traditionalist and far more centrally controlled during the Papcies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. (John Paul served so long that most Catholic bishops, and virtually all of the power players, were appointed or advanced by him, and reflect his own conservative and hierarchical mindset.) They certainly don't want anything like the scandal to happen again, and of course think child molestation is terrible. But the idea that their own autocratic approach to leadership, their lofty unaccountability, might be near the root of the problem is beyond them. The tacit principle that the bishops are to judge and not to be judged is deeply embedded in the institutional culture of the current Church. They mourn the suffering of the victims, but are still far from anything like insitutional humility or repentance.

This can be gleaned from the pattern of high-profile Church promotions since 2003, in which bishops who were fairly unresponsive to the abuse victims have been advanced, and many who were sympathetic to the victims have not. The most glaring example is Bernard Cardinal Law, leader of the conservatives among the American bishops, who presided over Boston's pervasive enabling of sexual predators and was forced to resign in 2002. In 2004, just before some American bishops decided John Kerry wasn't fit to take Communion, Law was appointed to a lucrative and prestigious sinecure in Rome (as cardinal archpriest of a basilica), and given even more administrative power in the Vatican than he had held before. In 2005, during the election of Benedict as Pope, someone apparently cast a vote for Law. As in, a vote for Law to be Pope. It came on the last ballot, when the winner was clear, and was therefore a strictly a symbolic vote. But since Cardinals may not vote for themselves, the symbolic gesture was not Law's own. (But could easily have been a gesture by Benedict XVI himself, who could only vote symbolically by the same rule.)

If Benedict and his Vatican have been warm and forgiving toward Bernard Law, they have been just the reverse to the Boston Catholic politicians who preferred the law rather than Law, and most of all to the Kennedys. Benedict was notably chilly after Ted Kennedy's death. And in 2005 the Vatican even took the spiteful step of overturning Joe Kennedy's annulment, granted in 1996. (This doesn't affect the legality of Kennedy's second marriage, which is governed by civil rather than canon law, and so late after his remarriage it's primarily a symbol of displeasure.) Time magazine even allowed one Vatican official to trash Ted K anonymously after the funeral:

One veteran official at the Vatican, of U.S. nationality, expressed the view of many conservatives about the Kennedy clan's rapport with the Catholic Church: "Why would he even write a letter to the Pope? The Kennedys have always been defiantly in opposition to the Roman Catholic magisterium." (Magisterium is the formal term for the authority of Church teaching.)


"Here in Rome, Ted Kennedy is nobody. He's a legend with his own constituency," says the Vatican official. "If he had influence in the past, it was only with the Archdiocese of Boston, and that eventually disappeared too."

That blind quote is absolutely delusional as an assessment of Kennedy's political influence, except his influence with the Catholic hierarchy itself. And the blindness of the quote is an enormous problem, since the American official at the Vatican is either Bernard Law's close colleague and compatriot or else Bernard Law himself. But the talk about lack of influence makes sense if the Mystery Cardinal is thinking of Kennedy's inability to shield the Boston Archdiocese from the consequences of its misdeeds.

Of course, the idea that Catholic politicians could protect the hierarchy from the abuse scandal is deeply unrealistic. Any elected official who seemed to sympathize with the coverup, even remotely, would be political toast. But it's only slightly more realistic to insist that pro-choice politicians, elected by pro-choice voters, abandon their supporters because a bishop told them to. But abortion isn't the whole story here. The point is for Patrick Kennedy, and other politicians like him, to be taught obedience.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Palin Mania and the Triumph of Narrowcasting

Sarah Palin may be very unpopular by any traditional polling standard. However, pundits are eager to explain that the important thing isn't how many people like her, but rather the intensity of her followers' enthusiasm for her. Sure, she may poll like Herbert Hoover in 1932, but the thirty-to-forty percent of the country that approves of her includes a hard core of fanatical support. That intensity, we are repeatedly assured, will give her political power, no matter how many people oppose her. Sarah Palin is officially popular, whether the rest of us like it or not.

Palin is popular in the way Star Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are popular. Not many people watched them, or ever did, but their tiny audiences are loyal and enthusiastic enough to make those shows into profitable franchises. Not profitable enough to keep Star Trek on NBC's prime time, of course, but profitable enough for a cable-TV environment with dozens and dozens of channels. Palin, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is a phenomenon in a fragmented media world where broad audience appeal is no longer necessary.

If the current media is fascinated with her, that's because they are themselves the creatures of the new and more fragmented national media, where the goal is not broadcasting but narrowcasting: getting a minuscule slice of the audience pie. CNN, Fox, and MSNBC have small audiences. Several of their, ahem, "major stars" draw audiences in the hundreds of thousands; the most successful get a few million viewers. The talk may be about, say, Katie Couric's ratings being low, and Bill O'Reilly's being high, but bad Katie Couric ratings are still easily higher than good O'Reilly ratings. Of course, it's relative. Cable news is only expected to pull in half a million to three-and-a-half million, and network news is still expected to pull in between six and ten million. Of course, the exact demographic slice of viewers CNN or FOX or MSNBC pulls in may be more lucrative for advertisers. Of course, the small cable audience may be growing by double digits and the big network audience is declining from its old eight-figure ratings. It is very natural for media figures, like the media executives to whom they answer, to view popularity in this sophisticated, relative framework. But relative popularity is only relative. Ignoring order-of-magnitude differences in popularity numbers is a mistake. The top news program in America is still 60 Minutes, which rates on a scale that dwarfs MSNBC, CNN, and Fox combined.

The news media, taking its cues from the entertainment media of which it is a component rather from the world it ostensibly covers, has grown to overvalue the same secondary numbers and measures of "intangibles" that determine news products' values to the corporations that own them: momentum, enthusiasm, brand loyalty, growth. And those measures have their importance, but older, less sexy forms of measurement shouldn't be ignored. Obama's poll numbers may have slipped, relatively speaking, but the difference between fifty-something job approval for Obama and around fifty percent disapproval for Palin is, ah, not trivial.

On the other hand, one can make enormous piles of money in the current media environment by getting the attention of only part of one percent of the national audience. Narrowcasting is how big media conglomerates make their profits. Sure, there may not be that many Star Trek fans as a percentage of the population, but by current standards you can have very successful Star Trek films and excellent DVD sales. You can make excellent money with prime-time soap operas for teens on, say, the CW network, because a small slice of faithful female teenaged viewers is enough to sell advertising. Palin evidently sold 700,000 copies of her book last week, which is an enormous and lucrative number in absolute terms but still represents than 0.25% of the population buying her book. (Okay, let's say everyone lends it to three friends who read it diligently. We're up to a whole percent.)

Narrowcasting expalins why the newer media covering politics tend toward hyper-partisanship. It's not that there's a broad appetite for talk-radio ranting. In fact, those ranters turn most of the audience off. The point is that the radio host, cable news head, angry columnist or partisan blogger is only shooting to reach a minority in the first place; getting a small segment of the population to pay faithful attention is all you need. Cable news has precisely the same business model as the Science Fiction Channel: the people who want to watch this are a tiny minority, but they have an enormous appetite for it, and so that tiny slice is profitable.

To a narrowcaster, Palin Mania looks stupendous. The fans are so hard core! She's so fresh! And twenty percent of the country looks enormous when reaching only six-tenths of a percent suffices to print money. But American politics is still first-past-the-post, and that means national politics demands keeping support wide as well as deep. Presidential politics is inevitably broadcast politics: old school, like the MGM Lion, Cary Grant, and NBC Blue.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Palin's Window of Opportunity

So, the rollout of Sarah Palin's book has led to a flurry of speculation about whether she will someday run for President. That conversation, in itself, is evidence of how little the American political media listens to what it's saying.

Palin is an unpopular politician who badly botched her Vice-Presidential run. But on the other hand, she badly botched her Vice-Presidential run and is unpopular. She will never make a serious run for the White House, because she can't.

Is she running? Or just cashing in on the media ride? The answer, of course is both and neither. Palin's job is now Potential Presidential Candidate. Her media value depends on the perception that she may be running. It is in the media's direct interest to keep her valuable, so that Sarah-related stories and interviews get lots of lucrative attention. Naturally, they encourage the speculation that she's a candidate. And that's in Palin's interest, too, because she profits directly from that media value.

Palin is going to make a lot of money for as long as the press treats her like a serious political player. But her ability to command top prices ends the moment it becomes clear that she isn't running for President. It also ends if she actually runs.

If Palin runs, she will cease to be a potential contender and become just another defeated candidate. Her national stature will vanish. And after she gets drubbed at the polls, her standard speaking fee will plummet. She'll still be highly paid, but not at anything like the rates she currently demands; you don't get a $5 million book deal after you've been humiliated in New Hampshire.

Maybe Palin understands this consciously, and maybe she does not. (For the record, I believe that Sarah Palin is crazy like a fox. A delirious, rabies-maddened fox.) But she has a window of opportunity in which to build a large personal fortune. The amount of money she makes while that window is open will probably determine her lifetime wealth. When she runs for President, or refuses to run, the window will close. So it's time for her to make her money now.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Joe Lieberman as Fredo Corleone

Joe Lieberman has spent a lot of time over the past few weeks making a spectacle of his disloyalty to the Democratic Party. He's gone out of his way to announce that he'll filibuster against the public option, preventing the majority that gives him his committee chairmanship from bringing their most important legislation to a vote. Then, as if it weren't already clear, Lieberman wanted make sure everyone knew he'd be stumping for some Republicans in 2010. Just in case, you know, anyone mistakenly thought he was loyal to the caucus that gives him his power in the Senate.

My usual approach is to look for the logic (whether sound or not) behind seemingly irrational or quirky decisions. But plenty of other people have already taken their best shot at finding some clever stratagem buried inside Lieberman's operatic disloyalty, and come up empty. This isn't a smart play at all. Lieberman's constituents are solidly behind the measure he's threatening to torpedo, and behind the President he's defying. He can't get anything close to the deal the Democrats are already giving him from the Republicans, and while the Democratic leadership has been too easy on him there's no percentage in reminding them of that. This isn't business. This is personal.

Lieberman's frustrating and possibly self-destructive behavior is an example of the management riddle I call The Fredo Problem, after the incompetent brother in The Godfather. For those of you who aren't familiar with the movies or the novel, Fredo Corleone is not at all cut out to be a gangster like his father and brothers, but is kept around their organization in progressively-more-marginal roles while his terrifyingly competent little brother runs the business. Predictably, no good comes of this. The Fredo Problem comes from employees who, like Fredo, can't be fired but who also can't advance, because their expectations outstrip their capabilities. Keeping such employees happy is basically impossible. Keeping them loyal to the organization is nearly so.

The Fredo problem isn't simply about incompetence or about ambition, each of which can be managed. It’s about the horrible, unsustainable conjunction of the two. The only thing that a Fredo believes will make him happy is a job that he isn't qualified to get. In fact, Fredos are often mediocre at the jobs they already have, and can't go anywhere else without accepting a big demotion. So they're stuck where they are, and their supervisors and co-workers are stuck with them.

How does this apply to a man who’s a United States Senator, the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, and seemingly on the Sunday chat shows twice a week? The secret to understanding Lieberman’s behavior is that he expected to be the candidate for President in 2008.

When Lieberman was nominated as Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, he had to indulge himself in some fairly vivid and specific fantasies of running for the big prize, presumably as incumbent Vice-President, in 2008. That dream can be very difficult to let go of. And in each of the national elections since then, Lieberman has made efforts to get on a national ticket. He ran in the Democratic primaries in 2004, losing badly, and clearly negotiated with McCain about joining the Republican ticket in 2008. (Since McCain was considering Lieberman until very late in the process, and only dissuaded from choosing him at the last moment, McCain had to know that his friend from Connecticut would say yes.) That Lieberman would consider defecting to McCain’s losing cause suggests how unrealistically he evaluates his own chances, and how hard it is for him to give up his West Wing dreams. Even Lieberman’s refusal to use his Homeland Security Committee to rein in Bush and Cheney is connected to his own imaginative identification with executive power and his own fantasies of wielding it.

The hard truth is, since Gore made him a national figure, Lieberman hasn’t succeeded much at anything. He was a mediocre running mate in a campaign that did not succeed in gaining the White House. Lieberman certainly isn’t to be blamed for how the Gore campaign went, but neither did he do much good or make any case for himself as a potential nominee. His 2004 campaign quickly became a footnote. (If you don’t remember that he ran: Yes. That’s the problem. And the fact that everyone but Joe himself has forgotten has to rankle.) And then Lieberman had the humiliation of losing his Senate primary and having to run as an independent while begging for campaign help from his Democratic peers (including wunderkind Obama). The last nine years of Lieberman’s political life have been very strange. He’s been brought to the brink of national power, only to have it slip further and further from him with every election cycle. He’s been given the royal treatment by the national press even as his actual political career brings him increasing frustrations and embarrassments. In fact, the more poorly he does, the more the TV pundits revere him. The cognitive dissonance must be dizzying, and the cycle of flattery and rejection in ever-increasing doses would be enough to erode most people’s judgment.

Worst of all, from Lieberman’s perspective, is that he’s been leapfrogged by an upstart, Barack Obama, who was entirely unknown when Lieberman got his first addictive taste of national glory. (As Fredo Corleone puts it, “You’re my kid brother! I was passed over!”) To Lieberman, who on some level believes he should have become president, the ascent of a youngster who in Lieberman’s mind wasn’t even supposed to be running is a particular affront. And being defeated by a politician from a younger generation makes it painfully apparent that Lieberman’s presidential hopes will never, ever bear fruit. If it seems to you unrealistic that Lieberman could ever imagine himself beating Obama, or think of himself as the rightful heir apparent, well, yes. Unrealistic ambition is the heart of Fredo-hood. Honest self-evaluation, which is the only path out of the Fredo Syndrome, is simply too painful, and the Fredo fights harder and harder to protect his fragile ego.

(Interestingly, defeated Vice-Presidential nominees have seemed more likely to turn into Fredos recently than defeated Presidential nominees have. John Kerry has become a good soldier for Obama, and seems to find chairing the Foreign Relations Committee honorable and engrossing, even if he had hoped for more. Al Gore has turned aside from presidential ambition and found enormous rewards along his new path. Meanwhile, the never-ready-for-prime time John Edwards has devolved into a petty schemer who can’t even count the cards in his own hand, making Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton offers they can refuse with laughable ease. Sarah Palin, a running mate so bad that her damage to the ticket can be measured by polls, has become the most spectacular Fredo of our time: Il Fredo di tutti Fredi, or if one prefers La Freda del Freddo. Maybe it’s that vice-presidential candidates can blame their principals and fantasize about another chance, while defeated presidential nominees know they’ve had their last shot, and that they’ve made their own decisions.)

Obama’s challenge in wrangling Lieberman is comparable to taking a job managing an employee who’s applied unsuccessfully for your job twice, and then barely held onto his own job after your predecessor tried to fire him. Harry Reid’s job is even less palatable, like trying to manage someone who’s applied for your boss’s job twice, survived one attempt to fire him for insubordination, and believes in his heart that you should be reporting to him and not the other way around. If it sounds insoluble, it is. The Godfather films offer no solution to this problem. (The end of The Godfather, Part II does not actually represent a plan. The Fredo problem is simply allowed to fester until it become completely insupportable and ends with the worst possible result for everyone.)

Fredos are almost inevitably disloyal, even when the people they betray their organization to offer them much less than the organization itself does. The Fredo can be bought with attention and flattery, by making him feel important. The home team, no matter how generously they treat the Fredo, will always be a source of wounded pride. That Barack Obama helped Lieberman when he was down in Connecticut gets him less than nothing; reminding Lieberman of that only reminds Lieberman of being down. John McCain’s expressed desire to put Lieberman on a doomed ticket earned McCain attack-dog loyalty even though McCain didn’t follow through. Lieberman was willing to do the surrogate dirty work for McCain, who had given him nothing, that Lieberman had been unwilling to do for Al Gore when it counted. The key is that McCain treated Lieberman as a serious contender, White House material, while the Democrats had long since stopped thinking of Lieberman that way.

There is no way to fix this as long as Lieberman remains in both denial and the Senate. And, as Puzo’s Godfather suggests, disloyalty can become an identity that is nearly impossible to abandon. Disloyalty only makes the Fredo more unhappy with himself, and more resentful, because it makes it even harder for the Fredo to examine himself honestly. You might forgive a traitor, as Tom Hagen puts it near the end of Puzo’s novel, “but people never forgive themselves, and so they [will] always be dangerous.”

cross-posted at http://dagblog.com

Friday, October 16, 2009

Sports Are Serious

So last Sunday I was thinking: could Chris Berman be a political talking head in this country? And would he be any worse than the natterers on cable news, or the morning shows? I mean, Berman is clearly a silly and shallow blowhard, but that never stopped Tim Russert.

My suspicion, fully borne out this week by l'affaire Limbaugh, is that sports are treated far more seriously in this country than politics are, especially by our media. That a comment on the state of our political press and on our national priorities.

Rush Limbaugh is not serious or stable enough to buy into an NFL team. This is true. (And, to get the NFL's back, they're an association of private businesses, in a business based on publicity, and they have every right to choose partners who will reflect well on them and not create problems or damage their brand. You can't make somebody take a business partner.) However Limabaugh's fundamental lack of stability, seriousness, or basic politeness does not disbar him from discussing public affairs in this country.

Should this be a shock? Please. ESPN has already fired the man, for making divisive and intemperate comments. There's no place for a toxic clown like Limbaugh in the business of big-time sports. So he had to go back to discussing politics. (Where transparent race-baiting is not only permitted, it seems, but entitles the race-baiter to self-righteous counter-attacks on his critics.)

Dennis Miller, similarly, was not knowledgeable or lucid enough for Monday Night Football. So instead he has to talk about politics.

On the other hand, an ESPN personality like Keith Olbermann can make the transition from snarking about box scores in the morning to cable news punditry without seeming in any way less smart, serious or prepared than his rivals. In fact, by comparison he's the smart one. And while he too is a pompous, self-righteous and inflammatory geek (in the original sense, as someone who would bite of a chicken's head to get a moment's attention), he is only nearly as bad in this regard as his competition.

We don't take politics nearly as seriously as we take sports. We do not demand the integrity, the manners or the garden-variety sanity from our political commenters that we insist on from the color guy on the game of the week. And that, eventually, will show up in the box score.

cross-posted at http://dagblog.com

Friday, October 09, 2009

Prize Logic, Part One

So, have you heard about President Obama winning the Nobel Prize? If you'd suggested this to me yesterday, I wouldn't have believed it, let alone been able to put forth an argument for it, so I won't pretend it made intuitive sense when I woke up this morning.

I do think this prize makes more sense when you think about the nature of the Nobels for Peace, and for Literature, and understand how they work. If you think of the Nobels, or similar prizes, as straightforward and objective rewards for merit, then it seems obvious that Obama should continue paying his dues, and maybe the Middle East's dues, before it's his turn.

Of course, the Peace Prize, unlike the other Nobels, has never been about completed labors. It's not a gold watch for a retiree. They didn't wait for global warming to end to give the Prize to Gore. They didn't wait for Poland to free itself from Communism to give the Prize to Lech Walesa, who won in 1983. This is the twentieth anniversary of the 14th Dalai Lama winning the Prize; his homeland remains under Chinese rule. And the 1991 winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, is still under house arrest. The prize has always been for the struggles the recipient undertakes rather than the struggles they win. A prize that's about ending war forever has never been solely about results.

But the larger problem is that no award like the Nobel Peace Prize is or ever could be an objective recognition of merit. There is no way to assess the question objectively. (The Prize for Literature, like all arts prizes, faces the same question.) The Nobel Prize is not a box score. It is an action, taken by the committee.

That action does two things: it attempts to build up the prestige of the Prize itself, and it lends the Prize's accumulated prestige to the winners, as additional leverage in their struggles.

The first is less obvious, so I'll deal with it first, and save the second for another post. The Prize always seems to be a straightforward consecration of the winner by the Prize committee. But the Nobel, like any other prize, is only as prestigious as the list of previous winners make it. Sure, the Prize comes with 1.4 million dollars, and that's not hay. But if a bunch of rich donors started giving out a 3 million dollar prize ever year, and always ended up giving it to obscure state legislators with crank theories, the prize would never matter to anyone. The Nobel Peace Prize matters because Albert Schweitzer and Martin Luther King and Theodore Roosevelt and George C. Marshall won it. Has it gone to the occasional dud? Sure. It's impossible to get it right every time. But part of the Prize Committee's business is choosing recipients who will sustain and increase the prize's luster. In the long run, it's Dr. King and President Roosevelt and the Dalai Lama who make the prize big, more than it's the other way around.

(This, very clearly, is how the Prize for Literature works. Even if it's been given to a few second-raters over the years, the fact that it's gone to Yeats and Faulkner and Garcia Marquez makes it virtually impossible to refuse. And understanding the prize decisions are based on the attempt to promote the Prize's own future prestige makes those decisions easier to understand.)

The Prize Committee didn't just give Obama something. They also attempted to attach themselves to him, to make his stature and charisma part of the Prize going forward. (Ask not what the Nobel can do for you ....) It's an investment decision, although the investment is in symbolic capital. The committee invested the Prize's authority in President Obama, speculating that over time his historical profile would make that authority grow.

Giving the sixth Peace Prize to Theodore Roosevelt was probably one of the smartest investments the Peace Prize Committee ever made, associating the prize with a charismatic international statesman and a rising world power. The previous winners had been pacifists and international activists: worthy people, but with nothing like Roosevelt's clout or stature. Giving Roosevelt the Prize changed its nature, and increased its influence.

The Prize Committee's decision can be understood as a sign that it wants to grab onto Obama's coattails, and more importantly to associate itself with the United States and its international power, just as the 1906 Prize Committee did. Clearly, the committee does not imagine the United States as a power in decline. Rather, they seem excited about America returning to a position of world leadership. Obama gets the prize, I suspect, for coming back to the world table as Chairman of the Board, a position that Bush abdicated.

American leadership, American international diplomacy, American power is in again, and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee wants to buy in early. I think that's the best news I, as an American, can have.

More thoughts in the next post.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

"Especially for the Women": The Scarlet Letterman

Near the end of his televised confession Thursday night, David Letterman admitted that the details of his affairs with staffers might be embarrassing, "especially for the women."

That line was a lot of things: a self-deprecating joke, an appeal for privacy, an attempt to position himself as the defender of his former employees and girlfriends. Perhaps it was a disingenuous piece of rhetoric; perhaps it was a sincere moment of protectiveness; it could very easily be both. But whatever else it was, it was the truth.

The most vulnerable people in this scandal are the people who are not rich or famous. That means, as it so often means in sexual scandals, the women.

That truth is being roundly ignored in our media. The hunt is on to name and number every co-worker Dave's slept with, the consequences for those women be damned.

Blogs, alas, led the way to the bottom. One of Letterman's assistants had been widely identified as a figure in the case before noon on Friday. Blogs were providing pictures and video of her. (Gawker, TMZ, Radar: I am looking, but not linking, your way.) By Saturday morning, even the Gray Lady was giving up a name, although this person has not been accused of any crime, appears to have no involvement in the blackmail plot, and (as the subordinate in a workplace affair) can't possibly have harassed her multimillionaire celebrity boss. The New York Times actually reveals her name in an article that explicitly admits she's not a suspect.

I understand no one's very interested in what happens to these people after they're publicly dragged through the mud. That's exactly what's wrong with it. Even if the press isn't interested in people themselves, because they don't happen to be bright shiny celebrities, the media should concern itself with the consequences of its own actions. And it's precisely the private figures, the women, who get hurt.

Consider the one person to be punished most heavily for Bill Clinton's sexual escapades: Monica Lewinsky.

Now, many people might think that Clinton was punished most. Wasn't he publicly humiliated? Wasn't he impeached by the House? Didn't he see his presidency at risk. It's easy to focus on Clinton, because he's more interesting and dramatic and because he had so much more to lose. And that's the point.

Lewinsky didn't have nearly as much to lose. So she lost all of it.

Clinton had vastly more to lose, which made him vastly easier for him to sustain losses, to defend against them, and to recoup them. He lost some dignity and some respect and some influence, but was left more than enough to rebuild his position. I think you'll notice that he's doing just fine today. Mrs. Clinton, dragged through the humiliating scandal, has also done rather well for herself. It's just Lewinsky, who was not famous or talented or powerful or special, who has to wear the virtual scarlet letter until she dies. After that, she'll be trashed one last time, in the obit for the Times.

Do you think Lewinsky will ever have a normal job interview again in her life? Do you think she'll ever go on normal first date? What do you think happens to her when she checks into a hotel, when she hands a cashier or a waiter her credit card, when she's recognized in the street? Civilians don't get to live things down the way stars do. She doesn't get a second act, where the talents that originally made her famous "redeem" her from ignominy; the ignominy is what made her famous.

And Lewinsky, unlike a politician or media star, doesn't have the kind of money it takes to insulate her from public shame. Bill Clinton doesn't check into a hotel at the front desk, and he doesn't get served by a waiter who wasn't specifically prepared to serve him, and he doesn't go to the supermarket. Wealthy people involved in a scandal have their personal shoppers, and their housekeepers, and their security staff between themselves and the thousand petty humiliations Lewinsky gets. Nor can Lewinsky make even part of the money it would take for that, except by participating in the same media freakshow that ruined her. Any hope Lewinsky had of a normal career was pretty much scorched by her mid-20s. (Imagine telling your legal department that you had hired America's most famous workplace fraternizer.) That's why the poor underqualified kid had to go on freaking book tour, because the only money she could make came from her humiliating place in the public eye. But Lewinsky doesn't have the rarefied talents that would allow her to navigate a successful public career. Really, almost none of us do.

Neither, alas, do the women Letterman has slept with at work. We're not talking about Merrill Markoe here, who was once his head writer and who helped him invent the Letterman show we're familiar with today. We're talking about women, now in or around their thirties, who originally had unglamorous production-side jobs with Letterman and who have now moved into decent professional gigs in TV or in other careers. There's no value to hurting these people's modest careers or their private lives, unless ruining and humiliating a bystander is imagined as a good in itself. They won't be harmed as widely or as profoundly as Lewinsky was. The scandal won't be as big, and they've had more time to build resumes and reputations in fields outside "public laughingstock." But they will be certainly harmed, and their ability to protect themselves in limited.

And what have these people done? They've made an error of judgment while young and in possession of a vagina. That's why they'll get no protection, and why some people will justify trashing them in public: because women's sexual decisions are stigmatized in a way men's never are.

That's why the general public is okay with trashing Lewinsky: she's a scarlet woman, who committed adultery with another woman's husband. She was also an immature twenty-something who lacked the sense or worldly experience to turn a charismatic older man who was leader of the free world. In any just or merciful world, she would be allowed to live that mistake down. It's not a moment of shining virtue, but Clinton shouldn't need to rely on Lewinsky's judgment to head off bad behavior.

Some of Letterman's employees slept with him: maybe because he had more power, maybe because they were starstruck, maybe because he seemed so much more accomplished and interesting than suitors closer to their age could be. Stupid? Maybe. Immature? Yes; in every case, we're probably talking about people under thirty, very early in their careers. And it wasn't for them to bring the maturity to the table when they dealt with Letterman. God knows, they made a human enough mistake, and it shouldn't be open to google and the wide world for the rest of their lives.

If we're going to be Victorians, we should be consistent at least. If we still, after all this time, punish women's sexual misdemeanors harder than we punish men's, we should at least have the corresponding Victorian reticence about exposing vulnerable young women to scandal. It's still especially embarrassing for the women, even if it shouldn't be. So it would be nice to keep their names out of it.

crossposted at http://dagblog.com

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Not About Polanski

In 1977, a publicly-admired man committed a violent crime against a woman, and the actual events are not in dispute. Between his arrest and his sentencing, the man fled the United States and settled in France. Decades later, the French strenuously resisted extraditing him to the States.

I'm talking, of course, about Ira Einhorn. Einhorn was a well-known Philadelphia activist who murdered his girlfriend, Holly Maddux, and stuffed her body in a trunk. He turned up living in France, happily married and using another name, in 1997. (h/t to Atrios for the reminder)The French didn't want to extradite.

Of course, Einhorn's case is nothing like Polanski's, because every time a famous or important or brilliant man commits a crime against a woman (or in Polanski's case a girl) our public discourse treats it as an unique and exceptional case, which the usual laws don't adequately address. Then a public debate commences on whether the rules should apply to such a man at all.

And the next time a famous man commits a crime against a woman or a girl, that case will be entirely unique and special, too, in exactly the same way. Just like the unique and special man who committed it.

Others have written about this better than I can. Kate Harding has a compelling post at Salon dismantling Polanski's apologists, and Flavia at Ferule & Fescue has a great think piece about the larger women's issues. And I find myself thinking about a passage from Maureen Corrigan's book Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading, in which she recounts the kickoff party for her first year of graduate school, in 1977, at UPenn, at which a senior member of the faculty
knocks back another glass (what is this, his fourth?), stares over our heads at a spot on the wall, and mutters an oracular verdict: "None of you will ever come close to Ira Einhorn. He was the most brilliant student the department ever had."

The double lesson that Corrigan gleaned from this spontaneous tribute was that only brilliance mattered, and that only men qualified as brilliant. Anyone else just had to watch out for herself:
a woman could even be murdered and stuffed in a trunk, but if her boyfriend was "brilliant," he would the one who would be mourned for having his promising career ruined....

And that's what the Polanski case comes down to: what a man does to a defenseless child is turned into a debate about his personal wonderfulness. When we talk about Polanski, the victim is already at a disadvantage, cast in the shadow by the spotlight of his celebrity. Everything is about him.

But this is not about him. It never was. It is about what was done to her.

The argument that great artists or thinkers deserve forbearance for their crimes is always made in bad faith; those making it would never be willing to accept its consequences personally. No one goes around saying, "Martin Scorsese should be permitted to rape me, beat me, or kill me if he feels like it, because Raging Bull was such a cinematic landmark." When people say that different rules apply for artists, what they really mean is that their favorite artists should have permission to hurt and mistreat other people. They are saying, "There are lots of people I don't give a damn about, and Martin Scorsese's work has given me great pleasure, so he should be entitled to beat them, rape them, or kill them if he happens to be in that mood. And he should have gotten his Oscar much sooner." Of course, that principle is never phrased directly. How could it be?

The debate isn't about Polanski. It's about whether or not that thirteen-year-old girl matters. To Polanski's supporters, she clearly doesn't. They're okay with whatever happens to her. My question to them is: who is special enough not to get raped? If thirteen-year-olds without significant film credits are not allowed to refuse sex, or have even minimal control over what others do with their bodies, who is high enough on the A-list that Polanski can't violate her? Obviously, people would be upset if he sexually assaulted Julia Roberts or Meryl Streep, because they're so special themselves. If raping a child is okay and raping an Oscar-winner is not, where's the line? Is Whoopi Goldberg big enough that Polanski can't commit a felony against her? Is Debra Winger? What about development executives, or agents? Come on, Polanski fans, lay it out clearly. Girls need to be able to plan ahead.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Libertarians and Immigration

A question that's been eating at me for a while:

Why do libertarians object to illegal immigrants?

Perhaps there are libertarians who do not, who extend their principles to encompass newcomers and their liberty to live and work where they please, without government interference. But my experience of libertarian pundits and of my own libertarian friends is that generally, they do not. The most anti-big-government libertarian of my friends also takes it as a given that illegal immigrants are a social ill.

Now, maybe some of these folks (my personal friend excepted, naturally) are merely using "libertarianism" as cover for another set of policy objectives. In that case, the explanation is that they're not sincerely libertarians. But what am I not grasping about the sincere ones?

If governments have no right to interfere in private economic activity and the pursuit of happiness, why can a government restrict the flow of labor from one place to another by erecting a border or, more intrusively still, by regulating how many immigrants are allowed to find jobs here. Immigration quotas don't seem to make any libertarian sense at all. And if not for the quotas, no one would be illegal. The "law" being broken is the law that government bureaucrats get to decided who can come in and who can't, while the government gets to set arbitrary numbers of immigrants from each group. ("Sorry, we've had all the Norwegians we can take for the year. Try us again in January.") The immigrants are only "illegal" because the very government authority that libertarians purport to despise labels those people as illegal.

Why shouldn't someone be able to get a job where there are jobs to be had? Why should someone be prevented from taking a job because too many other people from country X or Y have entered the country? (Talk about your identity politics....) Why shouldn't farmers be allowed to hire the people who want the harvest jobs? And why shouldn't an internet startup be free to hire a bunch of hotshots from IIT?

Seriously, I'd love any thoughts on this.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Wooden Cities

A quick (and true) parable from history: in 1189, Richard the Lion-Hearted decided that no Jews would be allowed at his coronation ceremony. When some leading London Jews showed up at the door, they were turned away, and when the gathered crowd saw this they concluded that the new King was solidly anti-Semitic and that the best way to celebrate would be to murder as many Jews as possible. Mobs killed almost sixty people and set the city's Jewish ghetto, the Jewry, on fire.

Of course, 12th-century London was mostly made of wood. It is impossible to burn only one neighborhood in a wooden city, and before morning a decent sized chunk of the city was on fire, too.

I think about that story from time to time, and more often lately, because it's a story about how uncontrollable civil violence becomes. You cannot burn one neighborhood and not the adjoining neighborhoods. You cannot start a fire and give it a list of people it should burn or not burn. Once it starts it is outside of your control. Political violence works the same way, through a political version of the same physics: once it starts it is difficult to stop. It spreads rapidly and unpredictably. It is in no one's control. It claims victims on every side, and innocent bystanders too. Everybody lives in a wooden city.

There has never been left-wing violence without right-wing violence in this country, never right-wing violence without left-wing violence. There was abolitionist violence as well as pro-slavery violence, anarchist violence and authoritarian violence, anti-civil-rights and pro-civil-rights violence. You can't read the history of Bleeding Kansas honestly and divide the killers from the martyrs along ideological lines. They go together. And once the violence begins, the violent make common cause against the rest of us, prolonging and intensifying the bloodletting as much as they can.

Am I saying that the violence was equal on both sides? No, and I am not the least bit interested in going through the box scores of old massacres. Am I positing moral equivalence for people on either side of these historical debates? No, because it's irrelevant. The fire doesn't care who's right. Am I ignoring who started the bloodshed in which case? Yes, I am, and so should you, because once the fire starts it's going to burn the just and unjust alike. The question is not who started it, but how to keep it from starting.

There is one civil peace, a single domestic tranquility, which protects us all. It is easy to disrupt and hard to restore. When it is disrupted, no one is safe. Every act of left-wing violence endangers people of the left. Every act of right-wing violence endangers people of the right. There is no safety but public safety.

The air in this country has been thick with inflammatory words since before the last election. It leaves an odor in the air, like gasoline soaking into rags. And when public figures speak of caution, some take that as partisan, or even as a provocation. That response strikes me as eerily disconnected from reality. The civil peace protects all equally, and if your political opponents want to preserve it, you should help them.

Still worse is keeping a selective list of partisan grievances, reciting a litany of all the horrible things the other side has done to your side lately while discounting the behavior of your own lunatic fringe. This accusatory stance can only hasten conflict, and never help to avoid it. And why does it matter if the "other side" has left more oily rags on the floor than your side? The question is how many oily rags pile up, not who does the piling, and you can only reduce the pile by reducing your own share of it. Throwing down more rags because "they" left even more is just self-destructive.

And discounting crimes against one's ideological opponents because the criminal was a lunatic or a loose cannon or not a "real" member of your movement is simply weak. The violent always come from the deranged and fanatical and weak-minded, especially during the build-up to a conflict. The fact that Abraham Lincoln didn't personally murder anybody in Kansas didn't calm anything down. Your side doesn't get to use the "just a nutjob" excuse because the other side's nutjobs won't honor it.

Progressive bloggers can discount the freak who bit off that tea-bagger's finger (!) and the freak who killed the poor demonstrator with the pro-life sign, claiming they "don't count," but there are people who are carrying around real or virtual press clippings of those events, building up their rage and justifying future acts of violence. They are counting those people. Conservative bloggers can claim that neo-Nazis like the one who shot up the Holocaust Museum "don't count" as conservatives, but the leftists most likely to commit atrocities count him. Every one of these people leaves another oily rag on our collective floor. Saying that we didn't put it there, and aren't responsible for removing it, is no help.

Civil violence is a lowest-common-denominator thing. The addled and hopeless are disproportionately attracted to it, and they are the primary audience for provocations. When a politician speaks in a way that reasonable people would only take as hyperbole or gamesmanship, that's not enough. What matters is how your speech is misunderstood.

Does it matter whether or not public figures intend to provoke violence? Well, to go back to my original story, Richard the Lion-Hearted never intended to start a pogrom. Of course not. He was an anti-Semite, but certainly didn't want any anti-Semitic bloodshed inside his kingdom. He was actually furious (he needed England's Jews to help finance his crusade), and did his best to stop the violence. But he could not. It spread to other towns and cities: to Norwich, to Lynn, to York. What Richard intended was not the point.

Dozens died in some towns. Hundreds died in York. It went on for months, well into the spring of 1190, like fire carried on a dry wind.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

McArdle's Crusade

Megan McArdle finds it funny that Nancy Pelosi is worried about political violence. I'm not sure which element tickles McArdle's funny bone. Maybe it's Pelosi's request that public officials speak responsibly. Maybe it's Pelosi's embarrassing and uncool emotional sincerity. Perhaps it's that Pelosi is soooo amazingly old that she actually remembers the Mayor of San Francisco's thigh-slappingly funny murder. (Can you imagine being that old? Silly grandma!)

McArdle has titled her comic response "There Will Be Blood," thereby establishing her credentials for highly literate snark. It follows in its entirety:

I'm not sure what Nancy Pelosi is trying to say in this video. Is she furthering the largely unsubstantiated claim that the American right is planning a reign of terror? Or is she trying to tell us that Owosso was just the beginning? Either way, this doesn't seem like it's adding much to the national conversation.

McArdle does have a remarkable talent for crowding slippery debating tactics into a limited space, a kind of spin doctor's haiku. In four sentences she's got at least two straw men, some misleading rhetorical questions, an appeal to moral equivalence: a post like this requires one an elaborate and unwholesome genius. There isn't time enough in the world to deal with every one of McArdle's pithy distortions, but I'd note the two biggest ones. First she treats Pelosi's worry about unbalanced people taking political rhetoric too seriously as a conspiracy theory about an organized "reign of terror" by "the right" as a whole. Easy to refute that one, isn't it, Megan? (That McArdle considers her own fantastic straw man only "largely unsubstantiated" is rather chilling.)

McArdle's second big move is the your-side-does-it-too riposte, familiar from school yards, street corners and protracted civil wars the world over. By bringing up the murder of a pro-life activist in Owosso, McArdle implies that it is really the liberals who are killing the conservatives, or that both sides are equally violent, or some other idea which McArdle seems to think wins her a debating point.

Of course, Pelosi did not denounce violence by the right. She denounced violence, full stop:

I wish we would all curb our enthusiasm in some of the statements and understand that some of the ears that it is falling on are not as balanced as the person making the statements might assume.

Pelosi's appeal to responsible speech, explicitly aimed at a universalized "we" than any specific or partisan "they," warning that overheated rhetoric can be misunderstood by the unbalanced, has immediately been taken by the conservative media as an unjust accusation against conservatives. That response speaks like a thunderclap. When saying things that excitable lunatics might misunderstand feels like a core value of your movement, your movement should disband.

In McArdle's world, of course, there is no such thing as a non-partisan statement. Pelosi says "we" and McArdle hears "you." McArdle's snark about Owosso presumes that Pelosi would not be bothered by the senseless murder of a protester on the right. But Pelosi said no such thing; it is McArdle who cannot imagine anyone mourning violence against an ideological opposite.

The question of violence has been on McArdle's mind intermittently over the last few months, including her repeated defense of people bringing guns to Obama speeches, and her thought experiment about the moral coherence of murdering abortion providers:

Now I can move onto the observation that if you actually think late-term abortion is murder, then the murder of Dr. Tiller makes total sense.

Of course, McArdle never explicitly advocates murder. She identifies herself as pro-choice. She calls bringing guns to public events "counterproductive." McArdle merely urges us to accept murder as reasonable. Not that she would ever do such a thing, of course. She simply demands that people who would, and people who have, be treated as serious contributors to the public debate. In McArdle's world brandishing a weapon, or even using that weapon to kill another human being, should not discredit one's beliefs.

This strange fixation on McArdle's part, her crusade make sure the armed and even the violent are not penalized in the public debate, helps explain her hostility to Pelosi. An appeal for responsible speech, for considering the consequences of one's words, is anathema to McArdle; she seems to believe that ideas must always be judged upon their abstract and intrinsic merits, rather than on their material consequences, and still less on the behavior of their adherents. It would offend McArdle heartily if an idea that seemed to her logical and consistent were discredited simply because its advocates were violent or anti-social. She demands that ideas be judged only as ideas, and for McArdle an idea doesn't become any less true, beautiful or good just because someone who believes in it kills someone who didn't.

Thus Pelosi's obvious emotion, the tears that unexpectedly started welling when she recalled the bloody deaths of people she had known and worked with, evidently struck McArdle as tasteless or ridiculous. That sort of thing, as Jay Gastby put it, is "only personal." And that Pelosi appealed to her own lived experience must have struck McArdle, for whom politics is a long series of seminar-room hypotheticals, as uncouth. McArdle values being "contrarian," by which she means offering logically valid arguments with surprising conclusions; these conclusions are often surprising because they are at odds with the experience of living in the world. McArdle doesn't view guns at public assemblies as dangerous, because for her guns are primarily ideas. And whether or not guns are dangerous is a question to resolve with a syllogism, before moving on to another observation.

Movement conservatives have been working hard since 1980 to build their presence on college campuses, and groom a new generation of conservative thinkers and pundits. McArdle is one of the fruits of their success: focused on winning adversarial debates, favoring abstract logic over experience and snark over sobriety, not only thriving on a polarized atmosphere but insisting on one. McArdle still argues in the ad hoc style of dorm rooms and dining halls: facile, punchy, never overly burdened by research. She is bright. But her intelligence is focused on winning games. When someone gestures to something bigger than the partisan game, she can only hear a play for partisan advantage. When Nancy Pelosi talks about avoiding violence, McArdle can only understand that as a ploy. McArdle is so blinkered cannot imagine that avoiding civil bloodshed might be valuable to people on both sides of the aisle. She cannot see what is in it for her. Megan McArdle is still a sophomore, in the most literal meaning of the word: a bright and highly-educated fool.

crossposted at http://dagblog.com

Monday, September 14, 2009

Falling Behind the "Socialists"

Yesterday Meet the Press ended with an attempt to discuss the economy; calling it an actual discussion of the economy might be going a bit too far. The participants did manage to conclude that ten percent unemployment is A Big Deal (although they were preoccupied with using it to handicap political horse races), and they stumbled around the notion that we are in the middle of huge economic changes. But how far the chattering classes are from any real grasp of the world economy is illustrated by one quote from Joshua Cooper Ramo, who has a story about unemployment in Time:

Last week we had the dubious honor of passing Europe in terms of unemployment, which has, you know, long been sort of the pride of the United States; well, at least we're not Europe.

The jingoism of that sentence originally distracted me from the truly shocking phrase, "at least." Ramo evidently believes, and assumes everyone else believes, that the United States economy has been eclipsed by economic rivals, but at least we have stodgy old socialist Europe to look down on.

The assumption here is that America is losing out to the more dynamic developing economies of the Pacific Rim, especially China's. It's become an article of faith among the financial press that America cannot compete with the less-regulated Asian economies and their lower labor costs. But the European Union, with its highly-paid workers, elaborate government regulation, and generous national entitlement programs, is imagined as far too handicapped to compete with the United States. China is imagined as the United States' prime economic rival and also as a model for imitation; Europe is imagined as an ineffective rival, and as a model to be avoided.

Like many long-standing assumptions, this one has gone unexamined well after reality began to contradict it. When the German automaker Daimler buys Chrysler, and later sells it off again as a bad deal, the words "at least we're not Europe" don't strike me as overwhelmingly persuasive. When the Euro climbs relative to the dollar, and the contrast between the exchange rate at the beginning and the end of the Bush Administration is dismaying, the presumption of American superiority seems quite shaky. I don't suggest either of those facts represents the whole economic picture, and I'm sure the American economy still outperforms the European in a number of ways, but the treating Europe as destined to be second-best forever is an enormous mistake. If the Big Three automakers can't compete because Western workers cost too much, how do you explain Daimler? If higher taxes and social programs handicap the EU's economy, are they weathering the recession as well as we are, or better?

While China is a very real economic rival, with whom the States will have to both compete and cooperate, Europe is also an economic superpower which, over the long term, represents a more direct competitive threat to the United States. Its economy is more analogous to ours and it competes to fulfill the same economic roles that the United States does. Moreover, it represents a far more useful potential model for the United States than China does. China's economic situation is so radically unlike our own that it's hard to draw any broadly-applicable lessons from it, while the European Union represents a different approach to managing an economy broadly like our own.

China is not simply America without a Food and Drug Administration. It is a huge country building a serious industrial base for the first time, as we did in the 19th century, and its rapid growth is the result of that structural change. We cannot follow that model because we've followed it already. We are not going to transform our economy by taking millions of farm laborers from the countryside and turning them into factory workers. There are actually not that many American farmers left. We are not going to build a transportation infrastructure in a country that doesn't have one; we can only upgrade the one we started building in the 19th century. We are not going to build an industrial base from scratch; we did that already, too. We have opportunities for economic growth, but not the kind of growth that took us from horses and sails to trucks and planes. That kind of transformation only happens once.

Americans who propose China as a model for development are essentially nostalgic; it is a proposal to repeat our own industrial past. But industrial development cannot be repeated in that way; the circumstances and opportunities are different now. We can be a better economy, but we cannot go back and become a newer economy, as China is.

The European Union represents a mature developed economy like our own, already industrialized, with modern transportation, modern financing, and a modern workforce. Indeed, Europe has, if anything, an older economy than ours, and represents a possible future (albeit not the only one) rather than a glorified past. In the European model, obviously, there is far more social spending than in the United States, and a far greater socialization of worker benefits. In the current American version of classical economics, this should hamper Europe's economic growth. But in some ways it also removes the burden of labor costs, and especially the burdens of medical and retirement spending, from individual employers, and allows more mobility in the workforce and more flexibility for employers.

Because European governments provide a greater share of workers' expensive benefits, individual businesses shoulder less of those costs. Every business pays steeper taxes, but large firms do not face massive legacy costs associated the workers of a previous generation, and startups or small businesses do not face prohibitive costs because they must provide health insurance for each new employee. Meanwhile, European workers, complacent and secure as they may be, are free to move to the highest-paying job they can find, and thereby to the sector of the economy where they create the most economic value. American autoworkers have to hold on to their automaking jobs as long as they can, even if the economy has too many autoworkers, because if they change jobs they lose their health insurance. A factory worker who wants to quit and start a small business will either find the capital she's saved devoured by the price of her own insurance, or go uninsured and face financial catastrophe if she falls ill. A European factory worker who thinks she could do better starting a cafe will get more of a shot to do it, and if the cafe fails she can rejoin the workforce without worrying about going uninsured for the rest of her life.

Does the European model have drawbacks? Yes. But we can no longer afford not to weigh those drawbacks against its advantages. And if we pretend to ourselves that their system cannot possibly compete with ours, even though that system is already competing with us and having real success, one day we may find one that we're no longer worried about falling behind Europe. We'll be worried about catching up.

Cross-posted at http://dagblog.com/, where I'm going to be guest-blogging starting today.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Preston Brooks Award

Representative Joe Wilson, of South Carolina, called the President of the United a liar tonight, while the President was in the House Chamber addressing a joint session of Congress. This isn't news to any of you; it was quite startling.

Shocking as this was, this wasn't the worst breach of civility a Congressman from South Carolina has ever committed. That dubious honor goes to his predecessor Preston Brooks.
I hereby nominate Congressman Wilson for the Preston Brooks Award, an irregular honor to be given to Members of Congress whose incivility undermines our civil institutions and the integrity of our public debate. May Wilson hold the award unchallenged for many years to come.

Preston Brooks, Congressman of South Carolina, walked into the Senate Chamber in 1856 and beat Senator Charles Sumner over the head with a cane. Sumner had to be carried from the chamber, unable to walk; he could not see because of the blood in his eyes; his desk was torn from its place on the floor when he took shelter under it. Brooks felt that Sumner had been discourteous in a floor speech, and beat Sumner because he felt the Senator had not been civil enough. Sumner was not well enough to resume his duties until 1859; the Massachusetts legislature actually returned Sumner to the Senate that time, because they felt that his empty chair in the Senate Chamber spoke more eloquently than any successor could do.

Brooks refused to apologize, survived an expulsion vote, resigned anyway (because he was affronted that anyone would impugn his character by voting for his expulsion) and was re-elected as a triumphant hero by his constituents. In the sectionalism leading up to the Civil War, Sumner was treated as a martyr in the north, and Brooks was lionized throughout the South. (There are towns named after him in Georgia and Florida.) And the Civil War came all the closer for it.

The beating was a sign of terrible sectarian division, and aggravated that division. But the partisan whooping and cheering that followed was a far worse sign, and in the long run even more corrosive. If the spirit of Preston Brooks moved another South Carolina Congressman tonight, in a small way, the question the rest of us have to ask is how we deal with it tomorrow. If all parties can agree that his behavior was out of place, then we're still having a healthy public debate. If, on the other hand, we see a backlash against criticism of Wilson, if the radio charlatans and cable shouting heads decide to defend him tomorrow, then it's a sign that out national discourse is fraying, and reasonable solutions are drifting further out of reach.

Charles Sumner's seat in the Senate Chamber stands empty again tonight. It is, of course, Senator Kennedy's seat. And tonight a sitting President ended his speech to both Houses and our nation by appealing to the eloquence of that empty chair, and of its sorely-missed occupant. There's poetry in that, but chance and history wrote the poem.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Firing Van Jones Is a Win ... For Liberals

As galling as it is to discover flaws in anyone Glenn Beck attacks, I'm not sorry that Van Jones resigned. Signing a petition that calls for "investigating" the truther conspiracy theories is actually a superb reason to not work in the White House. Van Jones shouldn't work in the White House. Neither should anyone who endorses the birther lunacy, even if it's just signing a petition they later deny believing in, should be allowed in any future Republican West Wing.

There's a feeling, I understand, that Glenn Beck shouldn't be allowed to "win." But what has Beck won? Advertising endorsements? No. Beck got someone who founded the group that's promoting his boycott. Maybe he feels some personal satisfaction. But the canning of Van Jones doesn't mean advertisers are signing back on to Beck's show. He's gotten some petty revenge. But he hasn't gained anything for himself.

Has the Jones resignation made Obama look bad, or weak? Only to people, whether on the left or right, who already thought Obama was bad and weak. Only the hardest-core political junkies noticed the Van Jones story at all, because the lunatic right stepped on the story. The opportunity to make Obama's White House looks like a truther loon sanctuary was cast aside in the giddy assault on Obama's dangerous socialist speech about studying hard.

Liberals are actually in luck. The lunatic right overlooked the first nugget of genuine leftist irrationalism they'd happened across for months and months, because they were so eager to run out and prove themselves irrational and irresponsible. I rejoice at their timing.

We have to meet the crazies with sanity, not with more crazy, and it's important not to confuse political passion with political credulity. Being willing to believe any crazy silly thing doesn't make you a more passionate or more committed leftist. It makes you an undisciplined and ineffective leftist. In the long run, and too often in the short run, it makes you a liability.

Being the mirror image of the Rump Republican Party is not a strategy for victory. There is no advantage in adopting the opposition's folly and weakness. "If the enemy," as a character in Shakespeare puts it, "is an ass, and a fool, and a prating coxcomb, is it meet, think you, that we should also ... be an ass and a fool and a prating coxcomb?" Being a truther is an attempt to match the right wing craziness with more craziness, like fighting kamikaze pilots by crashing your own plane.

Liberals and progressives need to defeat the crazy right on the ground of cold hard, sanity. Keeping around truthers and other conspriacy theorists only muddies that crucial division between the party that wants to move the country forward in real ways that help real people and the party that is mired in its own fetid paranoias. We need to represent the reality-based community, all day every day. That's the only way to win and the only way to deserve to win.

And the plain unpleasant fact is, the left has no route to victory except virtue. Playing down and dirty in the swamps of paranoia and conspiracy will always be a losing strategy for progressives. Conservative fantasies and fear-mongering will always have a wider and deeper pull in the public imagination than progressive fantasies will; the conservative fantasies are deeply familiar and grounded in long cultural traditions; they come easily. Being progressive is precisely about doing the good that we have to imagine into being, the things we have to work to imagine. Imagining a better world is hard work. It's always easier to fall back into old, comfortable fears. We will never win by talking about the monsters under the voters' beds; the right wing fringe midwived those monsters, long before we were born.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Beginning a List

I've heard so much about socialism these days, and the word clearly doesn't mean what I think it means, or really what any of the dictionaries say it means. So what is this socialism that people keep accusing Obama of? What do the people who call him "socialist" mean by that?

Formal theoretical definitions aren't so much the way to go. So I'm going to start a purely descriptive list, cataloging the Obama policies that are labeled "socialist."

Let's start with
Florida GOP chairman Jim Greer, who this week called President Obama’s planned speech to school children an attempt to “indoctrinate America’s children to his socialist agenda,”

OK, so:

1) Socialists tell children to work hard and stay in school.

Got it.

I think there are a lot of socialists around these days. George H. W. Bush, you Andover pinko, I'm looking at you.

(h/t http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2009/9/3/776437/-Late-afternoon-early-evening-open-thread)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Police Discretion

There's already been a lot of virtual ink spilled about the Gates arrest, and now about the President calling the arrest stupid. Ta-Nehisi Coates has terrific posts, and terrific threads, about both, and I'm using my blog to put together some of the thoughts those threads brought up for me. As someone from a police family, I think that arrest was stupid. It was a glaring piece of bad judgment.

Even according to the arresting officer's report, this is very much a discretionary arrest. There are such things. If every law on the books was constantly enforced with arrest, we'd live in a bizarre and palpably unjust world. Every loiterer should not be fined. Everyone drunk in public should not spend a night in the drunk tank. Every piece of disorderly conduct should not lead to an arrest. Any time a police officer makes one of those arrests, he or she is using her discretion. It's a judgment call.

Should these laws be taken off the books? No. Do they give the police too much leeway? Not necessarily. Police need some tools to manage difficult situations in real time in the interest of public safety. The ability to arrest people, to remove certain parties from a situation that's looking volatile, is an absolutely necessary tool. If you've got some truculent drunks in a crowd after a sporting event, who are on the verge of starting a fight, public drunkenness is a great arrest to make. If you want to keep two large groups of teenagers from brawling, the no-loitering law is perfect. If someone is legitimately creating a public danger, disorderly conduct arrests can defuse the situation.

But here's the thing. Exactly because these arrests are discretionary, they put the burden on the police officer to use discretion and good judgment. These are laws that are basically designed not to be enforced most of the time. The point is that the officer is supposed to apply these laws judiciously, in the interest of public safety. A drunk twenty-something leaning on a designated driver's arm? Not an arrest. A drunk twenty-something screaming threats at a guy in a Yankees cap? Arrest-a-mundo.

Most of all, discretionary arrests should not be used by a police officer to vent spleen or avenge insults. They often are, but that is not policing. That is public bullying. Disorderly conduct should not be charged simply because someone displeased a police officer.

The arresting officer's report, which is by its nature a one-sided and adversarial document, can't really make the case that Gates had to be arrested. It only makes the case that Gates could be arrested. And for a disorderly conduct charge, that isn't enough. Any talk about how Gates comported himself is beside the point. Being a jackass, and we only have the arresting officer's word for that, is still not an arrestable offense. And as for the defense that Sgt. Crowley was "just doing his job," I would point out that his job is to use his discretion. He certainly wasn't protecting anyone when he arrested Gates. And he wasn't using his judgment. He was just being, to put it as charitably as possible, stupid.

I believe that Crowley knew from almost the beginning of the interview that Professor Gates was not a threat to him. The fact that Crowley entered Gates's home (as all parties agree) by himself and without backup, gives that away. If he went into that house without backup (especially when the initial report mentioned two suspects) before knowing that there was not a crime in progress, then he would be an enormous fool. That he walked into Gates's home alone suggests that he knew he was dealing with a safe situation.

After Gates had identified himself as the homeowner, and shown ID (which all parties agree, although they differ on details), and after, as Sgt. Crowley himself reports, Crowley believed that he was dealing with the legitimate resident, there was no further police work to do. (Certainly, he should not have continued to ask the resident questions after that. What reason could there be?) Crowley should have been on his way. Ideally, a few conciliatory words along the line of "Sorry to disturb, just doing our jobs," would have helped, but Crowley was also free to scowl and depart.

What happened next, with Gates being arrested and cuffed on his porch, has nothing to do with public safety. Even if Gates behaved every bit as badly as Crowley claims, Gates's vocal and arguably "disorderly" displeasure was not going to be a threat to anyone else's safety. There wasn't going to be any mayhem on Ware Street. I'm not entirely sure that the laws of physics permit mayhem on Ware Street in Cambridge. If Gates had genuinely lost his temper, then Crowley should have allowed him to sputter on his porch and embarrass himself. Instead Crowley reached for his cuffs and made everything into a bigger deal. Was that stupid? There's no way on Earth to call it smart.