Tuesday, January 26, 2010


cross-posted at http://dagblog.com

Before the State of the Union address, I'd like to talk about the central issue of the Obama Presidency, which of course none of the talking heads will really get to. Obama's Presidency will hinge on how he handles the economy. More even than the wars, more than health care, more than the political sclerosis of the Senate, it's the economy. The bad news about that?

Barack Obama hasn't thought about the economy.

I don't mean it hasn't been on his mind. Barack Obama thinks about specific details of economic policy every day. What Obama hasn't done, from all external signs, is step back and begin to think about the whole economy, or about how to understand the massive changes it's going through. He hasn't had time. And no one around him, no one in elected federal office, has really thought about it either.

The chapter on economics in The Audacity of Hope is far and away the weakest. Obama had nothing much to say on the topic, even as he approached the campaign trail. The most he can say is, "Well, on the one hand Google is wonderful but on the other we have to protect the have-nots." He has no policy ideas per se, except a policy of balancing competing constituencies and an implicit acknowledgment that he, and the rest of the Democrats, don't actually have a long-term way to do that.

Then the financial system blew up, or blew up in ways that could no longer be denied, in the heat of the national election. And no candidate for President of the United States has time to think, to really genuinely think, about policy after Labor Day. There's just no time, and the risks are too high. The natural impulse is to go with the safest moves, or the smartest strategic moves, and try to get your head around the big stuff later. And once you take power, the natural impulse is to keep things from falling apart.

Lots of people lament that the financial crisis and the recession were badly timed, because the Democrats have to take the blame for a hole that the Republicans spent years digging. But it's actually worse than that. The real misfortune of the crisis's timing is that it happened too late for any Democratic candidate to actually think about the implications of the crisis, or about any wide-ranging policy for dealing with it. During the Depression, Hoover spent three years pursuing a grab-bag of policies designed to fix things without doing any big ugly structural digging; a few good, most counter-productive, all conventionally wise. The Democrats had three years to see those efforts fail, and for FDR, who was nobody's radical, to grasp that he would have to take a much bigger and riskier approach.

The wilderness time, the time out of power, help political parties think through new policy ideas in rational ways, insulated from the daily pressures of governance. (It also allows parties to come up with crazy policy ideas that are entirely unworkable, but those are the breaks.) Obama doesn't have any policy advisers who've been able to observe the meltdown and the Not-So-Great-Recession from a contemplative distance. He hasn't been able to watch someone else try the small-bore fixes and fail. He hasn't had the opportunity to evaluate the conventional wisdom and realize that it isn't wise.

In terms of economic policy, I suspect we're on the verge of a Kuhnian paradigm shift. (What it will be I have no idea, but the old paradigm isn't looking so viable.) Those happen slowly, as Kuhn has demonstrated, often in terms of generations. And the President of the United States doesn't have the luxury to rethink the entire basis of economics. He will only do it when he has no choice at all.

Obama's policies so far have been about keeping the wheels on the wagon. That's laudable, from a limited perspective. No good leader wants chaos. And nobody wants to junk everything and go back to the drawing board before, you know, someone's drawn something persuasive on that board. But the problem with our economic wagon isn't loose wheels. It's the axles, and the struts, and the whole damned thing. What we need is a new wagon. That will only happen if, as is all too likely, Wall Street has another high-profile meltdown that demands government intervention. AN obvious example would be for one of the megabanks that took TARP money, and then repaid it, to find itself on the verge of bankruptcy again, and to need another bailout. That is when Obama will find that he needs to start thinking about the whole question from a new perspective.

There are really only two questions about Obama and the economy. The first is whether or not he gets a second chance. The second is whether or not he takes it.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

What the Left Should Do About Obama

2009 was a frustrating year for liberals and progressives, and 2010 is off to a bad start. After electing the first unapologetically liberal President of the United States in forty years, with large majorities in both the House and Senate, liberals have seen our agenda diluted, stalled, and now seriously set back. It shouldn't have happened. And now, of course, there is rage and confusion and we are circling into our old firing squad. But as I see it, there are only three questions, and they all have simple answers.

1) Who should we blame?

A. The Republicans, dummy.

You can blame Rahm or Obama or Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi if that makes you feel better. You can despise the weaselly Blue Dogs and Senatorial drama queens; I know I do. But being angry at those people won't do anything. We're just kicking them because they're ours to kick. The people who did this are the Republicans, every one of them. They are the ones who voted in lockstep against even the most reasonable laws, they are the ones who insisted on compromise and voted against it, they are the ones who put party in front of decent or just policy. And turning anger against Rahm, Reid, Pelosi, Obama, or Evan Bayh only empowers those Republicans further.

In fact, the Blue Dogs and Ben Nelsons and Joe Liebermans behaved more or less normally, just as they have always behaved. What was exceptional was not their usual unlovely behavior, but the fact that none of the Republicans would compromise or cross the aisle. You can lose Lieberman and Bayh if you pick up Snowe and Collins. But for the last year Snowe and Collins wouldn't consent to an up-or-down vote on
whether or not the sky is blue. Why did Snowe and Collins do this? Simply to bring the Democrats down. And it worked.

If that's not satisfying to you, here's a harder and colder answer. Whom should we blame? Ourselves. The teabagging lunatics out-organized us all year. We got complacent at the end of 2008, and they got organized. They've been calling their Senators and Reps, demanding a stop to health care reform, for a solid year and a day. What have you been doing? If we want to beat the other side, we have to beat them at the grassroots too, not just at election time but every day. Progress is an every day job.

2) What should we do about Obama?

A. Help him, dummy.

Disappointed in him? Frustrated with him? Wishing Dennis Kucinich were President instead? That's all fine. allow yourself to experience your feelings. But when you come back from your angry chair, let's deal with the basic fact:

He's all we've got.

But, you may say, Hillary would have been better, and you always said Obama was blahdedeblahdede dah. Fine. Your improbable and unprovable counter-factual claim is absolutely right. But this isn't about being right. This is about getting results. Obama is what we have. If that's not enough for you, you can have less.

Obama has basically been saying, all year long, that he's been getting the best results he can based on the practical politics of Washington, the Constitutional separation of powers, and the entrenched resistance from the right. What, in the last two weeks, has proved any of that wrong? And what have any of us done about it?

Seriously: it is very clear that the Right is united in unreasonable, unprecedented, and highly disciplined resistance. What have any of us done to break up that resistance? When Obama claims that he's moving as far to the left as he can, jeers go up from various quadrants of the blogosphere, but what have any of us done to open up more room to his left? His liberal detractors like to claim Obama wouldn't take that extra space if it were there. But you know what? It's not there.

And sure, plenty of people (including a few who are concerned with vindicating their primary votes) are so frustrated that they want to start over and try for a "real" liberal. But we can't turn him in for someone more progressive. Our choice are the guy we've got now, or someone to the right of him. Here is the crucial lesson of American politics for liberals:

You can bring down LBJ. But you will replace him with Nixon.

LBJ not liberal enough for you? Great. You are a pure and ardently burning soul. Enjoy President Nixon.

But, but, but, didn't defeating LBJ eventually strengthen liberalism in the long run? Sure. By electing a more moderate Democrat for one term, and then Ronald Reagan for two, and twenty-four years after LBJ electing a triangulating Democrat who cut back social services and signed DOMA. So, in other words: no.

If you think attacking Obama from the left will get you a more liberal President, terrific. By I, personally, need a political plan that goes into effect before 2048. Everyone I love is going to need some health care between now and then. I can't wait forty more years to elect a more "genuine" liberal. It's got to be now.

3) What about that awful health care bill?

A. Take what we can get today. Start campaigning for more tomorrow.

Yes, it's a flawed bill. But we don't get a better one by turning it down. We take what we can get, and we work to get more next time. Step by step into the future: that's what progress is.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Call Your Representative

I'm going to shamelessly repost this from Tim F. at Balloon Juice, because it's good and timely advice. Call your member of the House and tell them to vote for health care reform. Tell them loud, and tell them proud. Here's how:

(1) Use a phone. Email has nigh on zero impact. Trust me on this. Letter mail gets read, but you don’t have time. Reach the House switchboard at (202) 224-3121 .

(2) Remember, this person works for you. You pay his or her salary and you voted for them. You’re the boss here, or at least one of them, and it’s they who should worry about what you think of them.

(3) Identify your name and the town or neighborhood where you live. If you are not a constituent, save your phone bill and yell at the TV.


This is urgent. Call your Rep today.

More tips here.

And hearing that the Speaker thinks she doesn't have the votes makes calling your rep, and telling them how you want them to vote, more urgent, not less.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Robert B. Parker Is Dead, Alas

Robert B. Parker died today, in Cambridge, at his writing desk. I turned on my cell after an afternoon class and found that every male member of my family had left a message with the news.

Parker wrote 65 novels in his career, and for the last fifteen years or so I've bought every new book he published as gifts for my father. Parker was even more prolific in his seventies than he was in his middle years, picking the pace up to three and even four novels a year. (Christmas, Father's Day, Dad's birthday, check.) And I read it all myself, usually on family visits. I'd pick up whichever novel I'd given Dad most recently and polish it off within a day or so. Nearly everything Parker wrote could be read within perhaps six or eight total hours of reading time, which testifies both to their lightness and to Parker's craft. I never left one unfinished.

Now the obituaries have the delicate task of praising a talented and prolific genre writer, a good writer who was and wished to be merely good, without any faint whiff of damnation. Parker will be praised out loud, I'm afraid, but his limits left audibly unspoken. To hell with that: the man had his limits, and kept cannily within them, and since he chose those limitations there is no shame in them. No one writing three novels a year is attempting to do Finnegan's Wake. Yes, Parker was more derivative than original, working inside a genre rather than inventing one, and he was too prolific to maintain the same quality over the dozens of novels. But if he chose to imitate Raymond Chandler instead of making something new, Parker was close to the best imitator that Chandler ever had, and the early Spenser books (even Spenser's name) are open homages to Philip Marlowe. Lots of writers have been ripping off Chandler for years, but none of them saw Chandler with the kind of detail and nuance that Parker did.

And if the Spenser books fell off in quality after a decade or two, there was something deeply cheering about Parker's resurgence over the last ten years, as new characters (especially Jesse Stone) brought back his enthusiasm for the work. That new life showed in everything he did. To see him obviously invigorated in his late sixties, working harder and more vibrantly than he had for ten years, was good for my heart. Parker, above all else, played within himself, doing the things he did superbly and not stretching beyond his natural range. He was the Dominic DiMaggio of mystery writers, an All-Star who was never destined for the Hall of Fame, but who was enormously valuable day after day.

But the truth is that I feel sad today for reasons that aren't literary at all, or reasons that aren't "literary" in the way I typically use that word in my writing and teaching. Parker's books were part of my family life. Reading those novels, on overcast summer days, was part of the experience of growing up in New England, as much as baseball on radio, clam chowder, Dunkin' Donuts, or road trips to Maine. When I was seventeen I ran five miles a day, in part because Spenser did. (I didn't start running in order to emulate the character, but once I had built up to the same daily mileage that a fictional tough guy clocked, that struck me as a reasonable guideline.) And reading Parker, picking up the Spenser or Stone or Randall novel that had come out since my last visit, eventually became part of my experience of return. There are better novelists who will never mean as much to me. And Parker's fictions became threaded through Boston's experience of itself, part of the same imaginative civic tapestry that greater writers than Parker shared in making and thatvbetter writers than Parker have never been able to touch. He became part of what Boston is in its own eyes, and that's an achievement few have managed.

cross-posted at http://dagblog.com

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Conan, Leno, and the Recession

cross-posted at http://dagblog.com

The dustup between Conan O'Brien, Jay Leno, and their corporate masters is mainly an entertaining sideshow, and nothing could make the triviality of these millionaires' personal grievances clearer than the simultaneous disaster in Haiti. O'Brien might have hurt feelings but he also has tens of millions of dollars, all the clean drinking water he needs, and his children safe in his home. Still, the behavior of the NBC executives reveals a lot about how big business thinks in modern America, and it's not pretty. Because it's not just corporations' management blunders that damage the overall economy; the conventional business wisdom of the last two or three decades has become, in itself, pro-recessionary.

The entire ill-fated move of Leno to 10 pm, the element that was most "daring" and showed an executive thinking outside the proverbial box (the element that would have made Jeff Zucker a tin god in the cult of business management, if it had worked), was also an extremely conventional and reflexive move, a response to the same management training that everyone else running a large American business has received. It was an attempt to achieve "growth" for NBC, in the strictly limited sense of quarterly profit growth, by contracting the business itself. Instead of expanding NBC's business or its market share, Zucker focused simply on cutting costs. And his approach to cutting costs was to fire employees and produce less.

The logic of Leno at Ten, the logic with which no business journalists argue, is that producing Leno five times a week is vastly cheaper than producing five hours of prime-time scripted programming a week. Of course, it is. NBC could, essentially, replace five screenwriting teams with one team, and five sets of highly paid, highly specialized actors, directors, technical and production staff with one comedian and his house band. That's a lot cheaper. It's also less productive. Replacing five hours of prime time with five hours of talk show means, in a real sense, producing less content, less product. The value of those five hours with Jay is markedly lower, both in likely advertising revenue and in later resale value, than five hours of almost any network comedy or drama. (Would you ever buy a set of DVDs that contained three weeks of Leno, O'Brien or Letterman's show? If one of your local stations started showing reruns of Johhny Carson at 7 pm, would you tune in?)

Zucker's logic, which is entirely orthodox in America's current management culture, can be summed up as make less and fire people. It is fundamentally contractionary logic, aimed at putting less money and fewer, less well-made products into the economy. This makes perfect business sense, if you imagine your own business as making all of its decisions in isolation from the economy as a whole. However, when every manager in nearly every large company in the nation has been trained, from the first semester of business school to make less and to fire people, then you have a perfect recipe for the proverbial "jobless recovery," meaning a recovery that exists on corporate earnings statements but actually represents at least a mild recession for workers, followed inevitably by a bust, when all the consumers who've lost their jobs stop buying so much of the stuff that the companies are making less of. And if a whole generation of managers have been taught the make-less-and-fire-people rule so thoroughly that they think of it as an immutable, self-evident rule of nature, then you have a long depression with no easy end in sight.

Zucker's play failed, because the business model of NBC is complicated, and depends on a number of partner and franchisee companies. Zucker's decision to stop making high-end goods for the 10 pm slot and start selling a much cheaper product instead would have looked like a success except that that loss of product value directly harmed NBC's affiliates, who suddenly couldn't get viewers for the 11 pm newscasts that are their own biggest source of revenue. So the make-less-and-fire-people got vetoed by partners who were directly and immediately harmed. But most American businesses are actually insulated from the general loss of value and prosperity that their narrow "growth" strategies wreak, and by the time it cycles around to hurt their own bottom line they don't see where the the vicious cycle started.

The other entirely routine and conventional part of Zucker's Folly is the instinct toward monopoly which large corporations routinely exhibit. For all the language of free-market competition, Zucker, like most CEOs, was in fact intent on preventing competition by any means necessary. In this case, that originally meant bending over backwards to keep either Leno or O'Brien from leaving NBC and joining another network; although that has worked out horribly, with someone leaving the network and lots of hard feelings, keeping everyone inside the tent was the original goal. Because heaven forfend that someone else be able to put out a competitive product. Again, the instinctive and orthodox response is not to make more or better things, but to insure that fewer and lower-quality things get made. The franchise of The Tonight Show must be protected, not by improving The Tonight Show, but by keeping talented comedians from putting on another show. That logic is good for one company in the short-term, and bad for the entire economy in the short, middle, and long terms.

But that's how America's business leaders think. And nothing's changing their minds.