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A detailed parsing of the frames, spins and lies perpetuated by the two right-wing columnists in The New York Times. Responses are often updated several times during the day each column runs.  Richard Wolinsky 


When I began this blog, my idea was to hold David Brooks and John Tierney to account for their mostly blind bedience to right-wing talking points. Following the election, Tierney quit his op-ed column, and today David Brooks announces himself as an independent, apparently more in tune with DLC Democrats than with the Republican Party as now constituted. This means that no longer will either be blindly following the Rovian way.

A few things I've learned. First, always watch out for the yes-set, a series of statements which have clear validity followed by one that is controversial but prompts one to agree without thinking. Second, examine expert witnesses to see how objective or impartial they might be. Any whiff of the Bradley Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, Richard Mellon Scaife, and so on is a clue to be wary. Third, do not accept statements of fact that have no way of verification. Fourth, be wary of conventional wisdom or attempts to divert your attention from what the administraiton is actually doing. Fifth, examine statements to see what unconscious frames are being presented. Finally, always go back to the original sources. Comments on previously published articles or books are often clear and conscious misrepresentations by the right-wing, the latest example being Kerry's badly told joke.

It's been an illuminating ride for me, particularly in doing web research. One final note: It is understandable though ridiculous that the New York Times denies general access to these op-ed columns. Not only does the policy impinge negatively on the national debate, but to a large degree it dampens the influence of such people as Frank Rich, Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd, Bob Herbert, David Brooks, Nicholas Kristof and Thomas Friedman. Even though the Times must find ways to finance itself, this is a very bad choice, and I think the Times should reconsider including op-ed columns in the TimesSelect service.

November 30, 2006
Waiting to Be Wooed

I’ve never been a swing voter before. For most of my adult life I’ve felt the Republicans tended to have the best approaches to expand economic opportunity, meet foreign threats and restore a culture of personal responsibility. But over the past few years I’ve grown estranged from many Republicans, especially the ones leading the House. I’m one of those suburbanites who thought the G.O.P. deserved to lose the last election, and now I find myself floating out there in independent-land, not a Democrat, just looking for something new.

It’s like being the belle of the ball, because the Republicans really need to woo back people like me. I hope they won’t mind if I offer a little advice on how to do it.

First, don’t listen to your consultants. Over the next few months, pollsters are going to pick out the key demographic groups (left-handed Catholic orthopedists) and offer advice on how to kiss up to those people. Majorities are never built that way. You end up proposing inconsequential micropolicies and selling your soul.

Don’t focus on groups, focus on problems. If you have persuasive proposals to address big problems, the majority coalition will build itself.

Second, be policy-centric, not philosophy-centric. American conservatism grew up out of power and has always placed great emphasis on doctrine. Today, in the wake of this month’s defeat, Republicans are firing up the old debate among social conservatives, free-market conservatives and others about the proper role of the state. This stale, abstract debate will never lead anywhere and only inhibits creative thinking.

The Republican weakness is not a lack of grand principles, it’s a lack of concrete policies commensurate with the size of 21st-century problems. If they would shelve the doctrinal debate for a second, Republicans — while not doing violence to their belief in the market, traditional values or anything else — could find plenty of policy ideas to deal with China and India, the entitlement crisis and so on.

Third, create a Republican Leadership Council. In the realm of ideas, Democrats own the center. Moderate Democrats have the Democratic Leadership Council, the Third Way and various cells within the Brookings Institution, such as the Hamilton Project. Republican moderates are intellectual weaklings. They have no independent identity, so it’s no wonder centrist voters prefer Democrats on one domestic issue after another.

Fourth, support stem cell research. This has become a symbolic issue denoting fundamental attitudes about science and progress. Moderates can understand why somebody is anti-abortion. But opposing stem cell work seems to close off research that could alleviate human suffering for the sake of a theoretical abstraction.

Fifth, support free trade, while responding to the downside of globalization. When the industrial age kicked in, many European nations built an elaborate welfare state, but didn’t aggressively expand educational opportunity. Americans didn’t build as big a welfare system, but, as the blogger Reihan Salam pointed out recently, we spent a lot on schools to foster social mobility.

The American way is to help people compete, not shield them from competition. Today that means nurturing stable families in which children can develop the social and cultural capital they need to thrive. (A significant expansion of the child tax credit would ease the burden on young parents.) It means publicly funded, though not necessarily publicly run, preschool programs in which children from disorganized homes can learn how to learn. It means radical school reform: performance pay for teachers, an end to the stupid certification rules, urban boarding schools where educators can set up local cultures of achievement, locally run neighborhood child centers to service an array of health and day-care needs.

Sixth, spread assets. Every citizen, from birth, should have an I.R.A.-type savings account. The tax code should encourage personal and employer contributions. These accounts would enhance savings and encourage an investor mentality, and once Americans became comfortable with them, they could be used as tools to reform Social Security and health care funding.

Seventh, raise taxes on carbon emissions and use the revenue to make the tax cuts on capital gains and dividends permanent. This would spur energy innovation and encourage investment more generally.

Over the past few years, the G.O.P. has become like a company with a great mission statement, but no domestic policy products to sell. Now’s the time to get granular. And the thing to remember is, we disaffected voters are easy. We want to go home with you if you’ll give us a reason.

Farewell, John Tierney
by Richard Wolinsky

I began the “Trashing Brooks and Tierney” blog because it struck me that right-wing columnists and/or propagandists were building cases based on spin, lies, sleight of hand, phony proofs, framing devices, and whatever other tricks of the oratorical trade exist, and were rarely called to account for their efforts. Eric Alterman told me in an 2003 interview for his book, “What Liberal Media”, that the first time he appeared on MSNBC was also the first time Ann Coulter showed herself on television, during the same program. When she made one of her what-would-become typical outrageous statements, Alterman questioned her facts on the air. When he did so, a little voice in his earplug said, “Eric, don’t be an asshole. Never question other pundits.” It strikes me that this rule of thumb is one of the reasons why right-wing lies make the rounds of the Washington press corps echo machine: nobody questions them directly, and certainly no one has ever questioned either Brooks or Tierney.

As I examined both columnists, I did notice that neither approached the outright dishonesty of lesser lights such as Charles Krauthammer or Victor Davis Hanson or even the San Francisco Chronicle’s Debra Saunders.  Nor did they stay as strictly on-message as the rest of the Republican noise machine, as David Brock once dubbed it. Tierney, in fact, while never actually breaking with the Noise Machine, frequently wrote from an intense personal perspective about the horrors of American drug laws.

John Tierney  had a difficult chore when he took on the job of Number Two Times conservative columnist. He had to follow in the footsteps of William Safire, a major force in the right-wing propaganda movement and one of the originators of the “liberal media” myth. He tried, at first, to establish himself as a Will Rogers type, writing in a folksy style about items that were only vaguely political, but soon became, at least semi-frequently, yet another member of the Talking Points echo chamber. 

Over time, a close look revealed that Tierney was growing less comfortable in this position. His writing on Iraq became stranger and stranger, his arguments more and more convoluted. Not long ago, he wrote a piece in which he suggested that the best way to keep that country from devolving into Civil War and chaos was to break it up into small autonomously controlled regions, a dead-ringer for Afghanistan before the Taliban. So, Tierney’s Best Case Scenario is one of the Worst-Case Scenarios of those originally opposed to invading Iraq. Go figure.

While it’s hard to feel bad for someone who has one of the best jobs in the known galaxy, writing a regular op-ed piece for the New York Times, I did feel a little sorry for Tierney, having to come up with topic after topic after topic on a regular basis, and no longer being able to follow a coherent conservative perspective, since there was no longer one emanating from the White House and Congress, just odder and odder topics for spin. While it’s likely Tierney had chosen to step down months before the election, the Rovian talking point about John Kerry must have been particularly odious. After all, here’s a guy not running for any office, being used as the butt of political rancor through deliberate misinterpretation of a joke that didn’t work. Tierney, to his credit, chose to stay away from that one. Well, why not? He didn’t have to put up with writing that garbage any more. As he said his his valedictory column, “after six years of libertarians reluctantly electing Republicans as the lesser of two evils, we’ve finally had enough.” Would that he'd been less willing to follow the Rovian line from the beginning.

Who will replace him? Well, I think what journalism does not need is yet another right-wing columnist, libertarian or otherwise. The airwaves are full of them, and they still dominate the printed media through not only syndicated columns but also op-ed pieces from think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. What I’d like to see is a guy like Thomas Edsall or Robert Samuelson, members of the Washington press corps who see everything through conventional eyes, are often wrong, frequently echo right wing talking points, and are convinced they have all the answers. Fun, fun, fun.

November 28, 2006
Speed Bump at the Border

After only a handful of columns, it’s clear that Edsall (what a great name, though slightly misspelled) will always spout the conventional wisdom as put forward by either right-wing talking points or the corporate world. Today is no exception.

Democrats preparing to take over Congress appear to have a perfect issue for the party of the left: the rich are getting richer, but sizable productivity gains and rising corporate profits are not paying off for the working and middle classes. All boats are not rising with the tide.

The picture is a paint-by-the-numbers portrait of the greedy picking the pockets of the needy. The villains are C.E.O.s, investment bankers and corporate managers who refuse to pass on profits in the form of higher wages. The victims are workers who struggle to deal with an increasingly unreliable and, for many, unrewarding marketplace — producing more while under the constant threat of job, health care and pension loss.

According to the AFL-CIO website, “the average CEO of a Standard & Poor's 500 company made $13.51 million in total compensation in 2005, according to an analysis by The Corporate Library.” The minimum wage in the United States is $5.15/hr, which comes to just over $10,000 a year with a 40-hour week and two week’s vacation. (Kaiser health care, no deductible, for a 55 year old in 2007 comes to $5124/yr.). An executive making $5 million a year, with the same number of hours, earns $2500/hr. 

The success of candidates attacking outsourcing and trade agreements like Nafta, combined with high Democratic margins among economically pessimistic voters, clearly point to middle-class wage stagnation and growing inequality as significant factors in the election this month.

Conventional wisdom: NAFTA good; anti-globalization bad.

Politically, the result has shifted the balance of power within the Democratic Party in favor of the protectionist wing, and especially in favor of such major unions as the Teamsters, the steelworkers and the autoworkers, all key party supporters with money and manpower.

The strengthening of the Democrats’ protectionist wing is virtually certain to force to the surface a second, and closely related, internal conflict between the party’s pro- and anti-immigration wings. This conflict among Democrats remained submerged while President Bush and the Republican House and Senate majorities fought without resolution over the same issue.

“Immigration is a difficult issue for the Democrats; it cuts in complicated ways,” says Stephen Ansolabehere, an M.I.T. political scientist who helped conduct an Internet survey of 37,000 voters. The Democratic Party made major gains in the Mountain West, he says, and many of these voters are “populist with a lot of nativism,” firmly opposed to the more liberal immigration policies of key party leaders.

A solid block of Democrats who won this month — Jon Tester, James Webb, Sherrod Brown and Heath Shuler included — is inclined to put the brakes on all cross-border activity (otherwise known as globalization): trade, outsourcing and the flow of human labor. Nolan McCarty of Princeton, writing with two colleagues, has provided some empirical data supporting the argument that immigration has led “to policies that increase economic inequality.” Significant numbers within the Democratic Party agree with this reasoning.

Globalization “needs to be controlled and slowed down because of the brutal destruction and vast imbalances of wealth it causes,” Jeff Faux, a stalwart of the protectionist wing on the Democratic left, writes in Dissent magazine. “The nihilistic vision of the world as an accelerating treadmill of constant insecurity, jobs with longer hours and shorter pay ... the triumph of dog-eat-dog competition ... is a vision of hell.”

The protectionist wing will likely hold sway at least in the first few months of the 110th Congress.

Over time, however, Faux and his allies are likely to fail. The forces of international competition have proved more powerful than any government, and advocates of aggressive policies to constrain them face a porous, borderless and now highly electronic international economy.

Conventional wisdom as espoused by America’s corporate wing, who stand to make gazillions through globalization. Jeff Faux is the founding president of the Economic Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank founded by, among others, Robert Reich and Lester Thurow, and a leading economist. His latest book is “The Global Class War,” a study of the impact of globalization abroad and on U.S. living standards and policies. It may be that conventional wisdom will be proved correct and Jeff Faux wrong --- well, we’ve already learned that conventional wisdom is usually wrong. Remember turning the corner in Iraq?

Legislation can require American companies to distribute profits to workers, but it will be virtually impossible to enforce as competition razes companies playing by those rules. For the moment, Democratic chances of restoring more equal patterns in the growth of wages are bleak.

Neat switch by Edsall, who stated earlier in this column: “The picture is a paint-by-the-numbers portrait of the greedy picking the pockets of the needy. The villains are C.E.O.s, investment bankers and corporate managers who refuse to pass on profits in the form of higher wages.” Now it sounds as if he’s saying those profits are poured back into the companies (instead of being pocketed by bankers, managers and CEOs), which would otherwise fall apart through competition.

Barney Frank, representing members of the House who would like to stake out middle ground, has proposed a “grand bargain.” If corporate America agrees to equitable wages, Democrats will back free trade and eased regulations. "What we want to do is to look at public policies that’ll get some bigger share of the increased wealth into wages, and in return you’ll see Democrats as internationalists,” he said.

Even if the deal were cut, the odds are strong that the global economy would prevent American business from keeping its promise. The sooner Democrats realize that they — and, more important, their constituents — are up against a wall, the sooner they will seriously focus their attention on how to climb it.

These poor corporations are being forced into competition with the rest of the world, and American workers will either have to starve or....well, how the hell do you climb a metaphoric wall anyway?.

November 25, 2006
The Struggle Within

Can the Democratic Party become fully competitive? Is American liberalism dead, the 2006 election a last twitch of life before rigor mortis sets in? The answer to both questions is yes. (More on this next week.)

It must be noted that Edsall's most recent book, “Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power” was published last August. Edsall said prior to the election in The New Republic that no matter what happened in November, the Democrats were still in big trouble. This column is clearly a continuation of that argument. The fact that he’s a fount of received wisdom is reflected in his use of the term “liberalism.” Because the right-wing Noise Machine has demonized this word, politicians of that stripe now call themselves “progressives.” Nowadays, “liberalism” is a term pretty much exclusively of the right-wing and the mainstream echo chamber

For the Democratic Party to revive, major tenets of American liberalism, economic and sociocultural, will have to be discarded. The party can join Studebaker and the Glass Bottle Blowers union, it can trudge along as No. 2, or it can undergo a painful transformation — without guarantee of success.

This is a basic argument from of Edsall’s book, and derives from specific assumptions concerning the nature of the Democratic victory, assumptions put forward by the Noise Machine and ratified by the Washington press corps. See below.

To stay in the fight, Democratic leaders will have to acknowledge political realities affirmed by the electorate in 1994 and 2006. Many Democratic constituencies — organized labor, minority advocacy organizations, reproductive- and sexual-rights proponents — are reliving battles of a decade or more ago, not the more subtle disputes of today. Public sector unions, for example, at a time of wide distrust of government, are consistently pressing to enlarge the state. For these players, adapting to a re-emergent center will be costly.

Public sector unions have been the backbone (and scourge) of the labor movement for the past thirty years because of their ability to wield actual power by striking. The Republican Party has been able to tap into public resentment by focusing on the “greed” of teachers, nurses, sanitation workers, police, firemen, and of course, air traffic controllers for over two decades. Edsall, as someone who buys into the conservative lexicon along with the rest of the mainstream press corps, does not understand how framing plays a role in this debate.

Democrats won on Nov. 7 by carrying a 59 percent majority of independent, moderate voters angered by the Iraq war and Republican corruption. These voters demonstrated 12 years ago that they can easily turn against Democrats.

Here we are, a little over two weeks past the election, and the received wisdom has determined that the reasons the Democrats won consist of the Iraq War and corruption. Katrina and Republican incompetence is forgotten; ideological purity in the face of reality is forgotten; Frank Rich’s idea of “the man behind the curtain” doesn’t exist; opposition to theocracy doesn’t exist; the idea that “America is on the wrong track” is eliminated, and fear of a one-party state is so much nonsense. It’s just Iraq and corruption, ideas put forward in the past two weeks by the Noise Machine and promulgated by the Washington press corps, without debate. The conventional wisdom is then reinforced by polls asking Americans why they think Democrats won. But public reasoning is based on mainstream media sources. It’s a closed loop.

An example of the reality that Democrats refused to face the last time they had a shot at consolidating power materialized during the fight to pass Clinton’s 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill, legislation that sought to burnish the party’s justice credentials by increasing the number of felonies subject to the death penalty. Instead, amendments added to win support from the left — most visibly, $40 million for midnight basketball leagues — caught fire on conservative talk radio, spread to the establishment media, and soon became a liability.

Either Edsall is living in a weird bubble or everyone I know is: I’ve never heard this talking point used in relation to the 1994 congressional election, and I have no recollection of these facts from my own newspaper, blog, or on-line reading of the time. Conventional wisdom (again, sown by Republican sources) tells us that the 1994
election was an ideological sea-change in the American electorate. Research, however, points out one governing factor: massive reapportionment (based on the 1990 census), for the first time involving pinpoint computerized resources, kicking in at a time when Republicans had, rather surreptitiously, taken over a large majority of state houses. At the same time, mass mobilization of the Christian Right was taking hold, adding more Republican votes in the process.

When Democrats bend to the will of liberal interest groups, even in pursuit of laudable goals, the damage to the party’s credibility can be devastating. President Clinton succumbed to such pressure, and Democrats in the House and Senate paid the price. Democrats now have a chance to regain public trust, but even a minor miscalculation can push the party off the tightrope. Its House majority is tenuous: 17 of the new Democrats represent districts that voted for Bush in 2004 by at least 54 percent, according to the political scientist Gary Jacobson.

Notice use of the word “liberal” again, and the reiteration of conventional wisdom regarding the 1994 election. Included in conventional wisdom is the idea that Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” played a major role in that election: all research points to the fact that it didn’t. As far as the vote for Bush in 2004, conventional wisdom still contends that vote fraud did not exist on a wide scale, and conventional wisdom also assumes that a vote for Bush at the time was ideological in nature, though whenever a Republican loses, that wisdom switches around and says the loss was due to personalily issues.

The public will desert Democrats placing a disputed cultural or spending agenda above the broader public interest. This is especially true at a time of extreme uncertainty: lethal struggle in the Mideast, nuclear proliferation, mounting skepticism toward free trade, and a rising non-marital birthrate — now at 37 percent — that concerns moderate voters.

Whoa, what have we here? A yes-set. A rising non-marital birthrate playing a major role in electoral politics in terms of “extreme uncertainty,” and taking precedence over issues such as health care, global warming, and job security? Sounds like he’s channeling David Brooks.

The potential for an incendiary controversy to engulf the Democratic left has sharply escalated with Web access to each committee and floor vote under new Congressional transparency rules, and the development of aggressively partisan outlets in the blogosphere. An army of conservative media is determined to recreate the political climate so advantageous to the G.O.P. in 1994. At the same time, very liberal senior House Democrats now have vastly enhanced power to add inflammatory provisions to bills moving through their committees (think Rangel and the draft).

Edsall nails the reality of why the Democrats will have a rough time in the next couple of years, but he ignores how the mainstream media echoes the conservative army.

Nancy Pelosi and her closest advisers in the House are more likely to support such radioactive amendments than to serve as guard dogs protecting a slender Democratic majority.

He’s pulling this one out of his ass. Pelosi supported Murtha for Majority Leader. His lifetime ADA rating is 56%. Hoyer's is 83%.

The first test of Pelosi’s ability to distinguish between broad-based and special interests will be when she decides whether to appoint Alcee Hastings, the once-impeached federal judge, to head the House Intelligence Committee.

Because conventional wisdom regards Democratic losses as ideological defects and Democratic victories as Republican errors, Edsall must see the Hastings controversy as ideological, rather than as an outgrowth of a feud between Pelosi and Harmon.

Only two members of the House leadership are intuitively attuned to such problems: Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic caucus, and Steny Hoyer, the majority leader. But Emanuel has limited influence, and relations between Pelosi and Hoyer are distant at best.

Still, the vigilance of Hoyer and Emanuel will be crucial to a party whose renewal could easily be stillborn. Congressional leaders are not all-powerful, but they can set the stage for a successful presidential candidate, or lay waste to the center-left, dooming the nominee.

The Democratic Party can secure its 2006 gains, but to do so will require abandoning a decades-long willingness to indulge pressure groups on the left that no longer command broad popular allegiance.

Thus Edsall confirms the conventional wisdom that the American populace is primarily in tune with Republican ideology, and therefore Democrats must act like Republicans in order to secure their majority.

November 21, 2006
Guest Columnist
Same Old Party

From promulgater of received wisdom to actual reporter, but the journalism teacher is still missing the bigger picture. See below.

Last Friday, the Republicans gave the Democrats a gift that will keep on giving: Roy Blunt of Missouri.

After an election repudiating the politics of Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay, Republicans elevated Blunt from the number three spot in the leadership to number two.

Roy Blunt embodies the insidious, half-legal corruption that has permeated the G.O.P. majority since 1995. Blunt’s election as minority whip, by a 137-to-57 margin, was a defiant Republican rejection of calls to clean up their act. Warnings by Blunt’s challenger, John Shadegg of Arizona — “We ceded our reform-minded principles in exchange for a ...tighter grip on power” — went unheeded.

In 1998, DeLay put Blunt on the leadership ladder, making him chief deputy whip. Blunt modeled himself on DeLay, creating an identical network of state and federal political committees that raised money from the same lobbyists, corporations and trade associations that financed what became known as DeLay Inc.

If one political operation captured the essence of DeLay’s leadership, it was the Republican takeover of Washington’s influence-peddling industry. This industry, grossing $2.36 billion last year alone, eagerly accommodated DeLay’s demands to replace Democratic lobbyists and association executives with Republicans. In a mutually rewarding relationship, lobbyists who financed DeLay Inc. wrote amendments and bills, while DeLay received a flood of cash to build a multimillion-dollar network of PACs. These committees lavished contributions, corporate jets and year-round entertainment on Republican House members, ensuring their loyalty, and channeled cash into local political parties, helping to win control of state legislatures that, in turn, gerrymandered districts to implement a long-term strategy of larger G.O.P. Congressional majorities.

In 2003, after DeLay moved up to majority leader and turned the so-called K Street Project over to him, Blunt promptly converted a legion of Republican lobbyists into an arm of the House whip operation. Lobbyists have always been close to Congress, under rule by either party. What DeLay and Blunt did was to sacralize this relationship. In doing so, they transferred a chunk of power from Capitol Hill to business interests.

This unholy alliance was a crucial factor in transforming the G.O.P. into an army of spenders whose earmarks, appropriations and tax cuts rivaled the government largess of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

In 2004, Blunt turned his lobbyist team loose to win passage of a bill eliminating a $50 billion corporate tax break that the World Trade Organization had ruled in violation of international agreements. These lobbyists inserted $143 billion worth of new corporate tax breaks, turning the bill into a Fortune 500 Christmas tree.

Blunt is not the easy target DeLay was. DeLay, a born-again Southern Baptist, by his own account had battled demon rum and the playboy life. Once he started down the path of righteousness, moralizing and sermonizing, he made enemies, painting a bull’s-eye on his back.

Blunt, by contrast, is bland, unctuous and adept at keeping a low profile. But there is plenty to see. After divorcing his wife of 35 years to marry a tobacco lobbyist, Abigail Perlman, he cleared his second marriage with the House Ethics Committee to get “a waiver of the limitations of the gift rule to allow me to accept gifts in connection with my wedding.”

Blunt unblushingly told the Heritage Foundation this month that Republicans “have allowed our efforts to defend traditional values to be defined as little more than a politically driven effort to appease ‘family groups.’ ”

For Blunt, the blurring of boundaries is a family tradition. His son Matt is the governor of Missouri. Another son, Andrew, is one of the state’s top lobbyists. Almost all Altria subsidiaries — Kraft, Miller Brewing, Philip Morris (remember Abigail Perlman) — hired Andy Blunt, along with other financial backers of Roy Blunt.

In Blunt, House Republicans have kept on display a top official reminding voters why they cast ballots for Democrats on Nov. 7. After winning the post of minority whip last week, Blunt declared that the Republicans had “come together ... frankly, to get rid of the bad habits that we may have developed in 12 years in the majority.” This is precisely the opposite of what they actually did, which was to affirm their bad habits. The burden on the Democrats will be to make the elusive Blunt a nationally recognized figure.

No, it is not the burden of Democrats to make the elusive Blunt a nationally recognized figure. Edsall just spent an entire column ripping this guy to shreds, not because of partisanship, but because Blunt's a reprobate and a crook. Instead of wasting airtime and column space on poorly told jokes by John Kerry or a single misstep by Nancy Pelosi, reporters should be concentrating on the likes of Roy Blunt or the machinations of Dick Cheney, or even the ethical misconduct of John Murtha. That's what the Fourth Estate is all about.

The Unraveling Begins?
Published: November 18, 2006

Toward the end of Thomas D’Alesandro Jr.’s third term as mayor of Baltimore in the late 1950’s, when his daughter Nancy (to become Nancy Pelosi) was a teenager, The Baltimore Sun got a tip. The mayor was spending $25,000 in taxpayer money, enough to buy three row houses, to renovate his office. The Sun editor ordered a reporter, Frank Somerville, to City Hall to demand an explanation.

“Mr. Mayor,” Somerville said, “my desk wants me to ask you why you are spending so much money on your office.” D’Alesandro leaned over and put his ear to his desk. “My desk,” the mayor responded, “tells your desk to [expletive]!” The story became part of the D’Alesandro legend. The mayor had once again thumbed his nose at the Baltimore establishment, much to the delight of the city’s voters.

Since D’Alesandro’s day, the Democratic Party has become increasingly fractious. In the North, the center-left coalition is no longer an alliance of the ascendant — of unions reaching membership peaks, of white ethnic voters pushing into the middle class, of Catholic, Jewish and black entrepreneurs wresting control of construction companies, banks and brokerages from an Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite.

In 2006, Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi’s Democratic Party is bifurcated, dominated by an educated, secular, socially liberal elite. This wing, between 35 and 40 percent of the Democratic electorate, has placed its top priority on cultural issues, especially abortion rights and sexual privacy.

This is a lie that augments the Republican frame of “latte-drinking upscale liberals” that we’ve seen promulgated in New York Times columns by David Brooks and John Tierney and the folks at FoxNews. Edsall, who spent many years as a political reporter for the Washington Post, is a chief promulgator of the myth of the “liberal media.,” a myth debunked not only by Eric Alterman and Kevin Phillips, but by six years of the mainstream media Talking Points echo chamber.

These upscale voters are joined in a fragile alliance with the majority (60 to 65 percent) of Democratic voters who are disproportionately poor, African-American or Hispanic, and in grave need of material assistance.

This alliance is not fragile, nor is it uneasy. Another lie. The fragile alliance is actually between this coalition, which remains strong, and the corporate wing of the party, dominated by the Democratic Leadership Council.

This uneasy alliance — of those who have made it and those who have not — must compete with Republicans for such overlapping constituencies as exurbanites; newly affluent Asian-Americans and Hispanics; and patriotic, socially centrist, mostly white voters.

No mention here of the fragile Republican coalition of Christian theocrats, Neocons, Libertarians, and Corporate honchos, which has fallen apart in the past year.

As speaker, Pelosi, 66, has the obligation to produce results from a caucus that embodies the Democratic Party’s racial, regional and ideological conflicts — conflicts that for three decades have brought the party to a legislative standstill. Strikingly liberal African-Americans have used seniority to win control of at least four committee chairs and one top leadership post, after an election in which Democratic victory was crucially dependent on a surge of moderate voters, particularly white men, defecting from the G.O.P. Having pledged both fiscal austerity and new spending on middle-class benefits, including broadened access to health care, Democrats face irreconcilable demands in a zero-sum game.

Not necessarily. It depends upon how Democrats deal with the most egregious of Bush’s tax cuts, and on spending for the occupation of Iraq.

House Democrats won with the backing of wary constituencies opposed to the war and disgusted with Republican corruption and hypocrisy on sex (e.g. Mark Foley). These voters have not developed a newfound faith in the Democratic Party.

Operating in a hotly contested environment, Pelosi forgot a cardinal rule of politics, true now as in her father’s day: If you are going to challenge a competitor, whether it is the local newspaper or a major player in the House hierarchy, you’d better win. Pelosi tried to shove aside her second in command, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, and elevate Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania, a high-profile critic of the Iraq war, to majority leader. Murtha, who dismissed the pending Democratic ethics package as “total crap,” is a politician far more in the mold of Pelosi’s father than the prissy Hoyer. In an environment shaped by the Republican ethics quagmire, Pelosi got rolled, 149 to 86. The broader danger for Democrats who have barely emerged from the abyss: defeat breeds enemies and weakens alliances.

What Edsall fails to point out is that these kinds of battles occur all the time. Over in the Republican Party, Trent Lott was thrown out of the leadership of Senate GOP in a very unseemly manner a few years back, and this week there was a nasty fight over control of the House minority leadership. Despite this, the Republican Talking Points folks will drag the Pelosi story out as long as they can, and as long as the mainstream media gives them traction to do so and ignores fights on the other side. What we're seeing here in this column is an example of the Karl Rove method at work: dominate the news cycle with a minor story (remember Kerry and his bad joke?) in order to keep th real news off the front pages.

Pelosi’s first failure comes at a critical juncture. To line up votes for Murtha, she made promises, many of which will not be kept because Hoyer will demand his share of the spoils.

Edsall is pulling this one out of his ass. We have no idea whether Pelosi promised much in the battle. Hoyer had a winning count before Pelosi endorsed Murtha, and those numbers did not change in the final ballot. The real question is why Pelosi bothered at all, and why she's willing to hurt the Democratic Party with moves that fly in the face of ideological agreement as well as ethical sense. That she was slapped down is probably a good thing: but why is she doing this? That's the real question here, and nobody seems to know the answer (other than a guess that it's all personal).

Pelosi revealed that she is not in control of her own caucus, much less the full House. She knows this, as her agonizingly forced smile demonstrated when she went before television cameras on Thursday. Republicans also know this. After his election yesterday as Republican whip, Roy Blunt of Missouri declared: “One hundred forty-nine Democrats demonstrated yesterday that they are willing to buck Nancy Pelosi. We’ll work each day to give those Democrats a viable alternative.”

What a great distraction this has turned out to be! While the pundits have been blathering about Nancy Pelosi, President Bush has been showing that bipartisanship means, as Charles Schumer says, giving the President everything he wants. Renominating John Bolton? Renominating previously rejected judges? Pushing through an illegal wiretap law? That's the real story of the past two weeks.

Pelosi is resilient. She quotes her father: “Throw a punch, take a punch.” But back in 1993, after President Bill Clinton suffered the first of many defeats at the hands of Republicans, Representative George Miller of California — who would later act as Pelosi’s top lieutenant in her bid to make Murtha majority leader — was prophetic about the consequences of an early loss. “Historically, once things start to unravel around this place, it’s very difficult,” he said. “There’s very real potential for damage here.”

The people pushing this talking point are the same ones that echoed Karl Rove when he said the Republicans would maintain control of both houses of Congress this November, the same ones who took the WMD story at face value, the same ones who spent weeks shoving the Terry Schaivo story into our faces, the same ones who think that the only reason the Republicans lost was Iraq (notice how nobody in the mainstream meantions Katrina any more).  The Washington press corps has been dangerously ineffectual for quite some time, and Mr. Thomas Edsall leads the pack.

November 14, 2006
Bring On the Seinfeld Congress

John Tierney's swan song on the op-ed page, reprinted in full and without comment.

I’m afraid the election results still haven’t registered in Washington. Democrats and Republicans keep making noises about working together to accomplish great things. But that’s not what Americans voted for. They voted for gridlock.

They gave Congress a Seinfeld mandate to do nothing. The Democrats offered no bold new ideas, and they were rewarded with victory. Voters would like them to mop up the messes made by Republicans, but that’s it. Find a way out of Iraq, and then avoid any more excellent adventures dreamed up by neoconservatives.

Besides Iraq, the big issue bothering voters was corruption, and the best way to appease them is by working less. The fewer favors you hand out, the fewer chances to sell your vote. The smartest political move for either party would be to take a vow of abstinence by outlawing earmarks.

It’s traditional in Washington to measure a Congress’s success by the number of bills it passes, but that’s only because of all the lobbyists, lawyers and journalists whose livelihoods depend on quantity, not quality. A do-nothing Congress is bad for the local economy.

But it’s fine for the rest of the country. The prospect of gridlock has been welcomed, as usual, on Wall Street. The brief era of fiscal responsibility in Washington in the 1990s occurred only because a Democratic president and a Republican Congress couldn’t agree on how to spend the surplus.

The most successful legislation of the past decade was welfare reform, which essentially repealed the damage of the do-something Congresses of the 1960s and 1970s. Most of the legislative “victories” of President Bush’s first term — like the No Child Left Behind Act and the prescription drug benefit — have turned out to be expensive mistakes.

Some Democrats say they’d like to expand these programs, but they’ve been vague about how to pay for them — and loath to talk about raising taxes. In fact, they’ve said one of their first priorities is cutting taxes. They want to reduce the impact of the alternative minimum tax, which hurts people making between $100,000 and $500,000 per year, especially ones living in areas with high local taxes.

But these victims are concentrated in blue states, the very places that keep electing senators who denounce “tax cuts for the rich.” Why should Republicans agree to give affluent Democratic voters a tax break? Grant them their wish for social justice. If Republicans do nothing, the alternative minimum tax will gradually hit more and more people, bringing America closer to the flat-tax system favored by Republican economists.

If House Republicans heed the election results — and polls showing that most Americans want the federal government to do less — they’ll elect Mike Pence of Indiana as their new leader. He’s got the fiscal do-nothing credentials, having voted against Bush’s expensive Medicare and education reforms.

He has also avoided the Republicans’ losing strategy of bashing immigrants. Instead of just trying to seal the border, he has proposed letting immigrants enter legally if there are jobs waiting for them. With him in charge, Republicans could work out a deal with Democrats to undo Congress’s past mistakes and let market forces, not rigid quotas, determine who enters America.

It’s always possible, of course, that Democrats and Republicans could agree on some radical new venture. I still like to fantasize about a grand bargain on global warming: the Republicans support a carbon tax, and the Democrats agree to refund all the revenue into new personal retirement accounts for Social Security recipients. But I’m not expecting to see them make that deal any time soon.

Whatever they do the next two years, I won’t be here to kick them around. This is my last column on the Op-Ed page. I’ve enjoyed the past couple of years in Washington, but one election cycle is enough. I’m returning full time to the subject and the city closest to my heart: science and New York. I’ll be writing a column and a blog for the Science Times section.

I hate to abandon my libertarian comrades here fighting in the belly of the beast, but this is the right moment to leave. After six years of libertarians reluctantly electing Republicans as the lesser of two evils, we’ve finally had enough. We’ve voted out big-government conservatism, and the result is the happy state of gridlock. For now, our work is done. See you in January in a new column on a new page.

November 7. 2006
A Tide, Not a Tsunami

Shallow people look at election returns to see who won. Profound people look for world historical trends. I’ve got my shallow side, and what I see so far is a Democratic tide but not a tsunami. The exit polls suggested a complete blowout, but the results, as they stand at 9:45 suggest many swing races that are surprisingly close. Republicans are losing, but only by a little. Defeat with honor.

As the many comments about this blog pointed out, most Republican victories over the past 12 years have been suprisingly close, but Brooks and other Republicans bloviated a landslide. Here we have, in the House, a shift in some 25-30 seats from Republican to Democrat, in a House computer-gerrymandered to give the GOP a permanent majority, and over in the Senate, the loss of no Democratic seats (with comfortable victories in all cases) and four to six Republican seats changing hands. If that's not a tsunami, what is?

In Kentucky, Ann Northup is losing to Jon Yarmouth by a bit. In Indiana, Chris Chocola is losing only by a bit. In Virginia, the Webb-Allen Senate race is surprisingly close. Even “Mark Foley” in Florida is losing only by a bit. Moral victories all around!

Northrop lost by 3%, not that close; Chocola lost by a more comfortable 8% margin. While the Webb-Allen race is surprisingly close, it is so because Allen was supposed to win this one in a walk. The "Mark Foley" race was close, but then again, that was historically a Republican seat. Yet what is one to make of New York's 19th district in Orange County, a seat barely in play yet taken by Democrat John Hall from the rock group Orleans, or Florida's 22nd district, considered leaning Republican but taken by Democrat Ron Klein? And what about Richard Pombo, from Tracy, California?

That takes us to the profound reflections of the early evening, and the lessons these results are teaching us:
1) This election is a referendum on the Bush administration’s competence, not an ideological tide. The Democrats who are doing best — Casey in Pennsylvania, Ellsworth in Indiana, Heath Shuler in North Carolina — are moderate or even quite conservative.

One blogger pointed out how selective Brooks is being. Liberal Sherrod Brown replaced conservative Mike DeWine in Ohio, winning by a substantial margin, and liberals Debbie Stabenow and Maria Cantwell both won re-election handily.  The election of Casey, Ellsworth, Shuler, and others is ideological: these folks all replace people clearly to their right, and a party clearly to their right..

2) This election is not just about Iraq. The exit polls indicated a strong concern about corruption and the range of G.O.P. decadence issues.

No, it's not about Iraq, but as many have pointed out, it became a referendum on the Bush Administration, which includes Iraq, perpetual lying and showboating, corruption and hypocrisy. But still, there's Iraq.

3) Immigration has been a complete bust as an issue for the G.O.P. restrictionists.

This one gets a chuckle. Several TV pundits were talking about how GOP losers were unable to escape Bush's pro-immigration stance and that's why they went down to defeat.

4) Late deciders went 3 to 2 for the Dems. So much for the late Republican tide.

Frank Rich and others have said there was no Republican tide, that it was another Rove invention.

5) Donald Rumsfeld is gone. Yes, I know what Bush said in his defense, but the climate is going to be different tomorrow.

Brooks called this one.

6) This is Joe Lieberman’s country. No the country is not with him on the war, but he’s being re-elected and he will find plenty of company in the moderate Democratic camp when the new Congress convenes.

It's silly to generalize about Lieberman's victory. Without a strong GOP presence in the election, the combination of moderate Democrats and most Republicans was enough to give Lieberman the edge. There's an old adage in American politics that goes back to the 1964 Johnson victory, if not before, that the best way to win is to move your opponent into a corner, either right or left, and then take over the middle. That's why Lieberman was able to win, and that's one reason (not the only one) why Democrats were able to win the House (though in the latter case it was more a question of Republicans consciously ceding the middle ground).

November 7, 2006
Must We Talk?

Have you been trying to ignore this election? Do you avoid talking politics with friends? Do you tune out right-wing talk shows and stay away from left-wing blogs? Do you change channels as soon as you hear the words “Pelosi,” “Foley,” “cut and run” or “macaca”?

Then you owe it to your country to vote today. It’s the rest of us who should stay home.

We’ve lost our bearings because we’ve followed the old advice to discuss this amongst ourselves. Democracy, we’ve been told, is best served when informed citizens deliberate the issues of the day, pooling their wisdom to reach a judicious consensus.

But what really happens when people discuss politics? Consider an experiment last year, when groups of Coloradans convened separately in Boulder and Colorado Springs to discuss global warming, affirmative action and civil unions for same-sex couples. Before the discussions, the people in Boulder were on average more liberal than the ones in Colorado Springs, but there were also moderates in both places whose opinions overlapped.

After the group discussions, the people in Boulder moved to the left, and those in Colorado Springs moved to the right. The researchers — David Schkade, Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie — concluded that “the major effect of deliberation was to make group members more extreme than they were before they started to talk.”

This effect hasn’t been studied much in politics, but it’s well documented in other arenas. When jurors deliberate how much to award in damages, they often end up giving more than the average juror originally thought was fair — and sometimes more than anyone in the group originally favored. The more they talk, the more they reinforce one another’s indignation.

Group polarization is less of a problem if the people start with a wide range of opinions — even if they tend to shift in whatever direction the majority favors, they’ll at least be exposed to other views and become more tolerant. There’s some evidence that if you purposely assemble a diverse group of discussants and systematically educate them about an issue, some of the people will moderate their opinions.

But when people informally discuss politics, they often don’t hear a range of views. As in Boulder and Colorado Springs, they may be surrounded by like-minded people in their neighborhoods, churches and offices. During local elections, they’re much more likely now than in the past to hear one-sided rhetoric because gerrymandering has produced so many one-sided districts, making it impossible for moderate candidates to survive.

Thanks to cable television, talk radio and the Internet, it’s easier than ever for people to have their opinions validated around the clock. As the media audiences segregate themselves ideologically, they become more extreme in their views — and more convinced than ever that they represent the sensible middle.

This is classic yes-set arguing. Thus far, Tierney is remaining unbiased, explaining based on a seemingly unbiased study (which I’ve been unable to find on-line) concerning group dynamics. But wait….

When conservatives have their views reinforced daily on talk radio and Sundays at their churches, they start to believe the “mainstream media” is a bunch of wacko traitors. When liberals spend their days reading lefty blogs, or working on campuses surrounded by ideological soulmates, they start convincing themselves that most “corporate media” are right wing, and that Fox News is pure propaganda.

In a yes-set, arguments begin that are based on well-established facts, and then a second or third argument of similar sort is added, and then suddenly, thrown into the mix, is an argument that does not have the same veracity. We’re getting to that here. Conservatives, their views reinforced daily on talk radio and at churchs, may well believe the mainstream media consists of whacko traitors. Liberals, on the other hand, even after reading lefty blogs, will not make the assumption that most “corporate media” is right-wing. It is, in a word, corporate. Big difference. Fox News is pure propaganda, and Tierney knows it.

In fact, most journalists do try to be objective, but as a group they, too, can become polarized by spending most of their time talking to fellow journalists and experts with similar views. One of the cleverest demonstrations of this effect was a study published last year in Harvard’s Quarterly Journal of Economics. The researchers, Tim Groseclose and Jeffrey Milyo, devised a scale for measuring the slant of news reports by keeping track of which think tanks — liberal or conservative — were quoted most often.

The researchers found that The Washington Times and Brit Hume’s evening newscast on Fox fell on the conservative side of the scale, while all the other news media outlets they studied fell on the liberal side. The surprising result — to liberals, at least — was that Fox was closer to the ideological center than the Big Three evening newscasts as well as all the major newspapers and newsweeklies.

Here we go. Brendan Nyhan, a blogger in the Duke University Political Science Department, takes apart this study piece by piece:

1. “Conservative think tanks have consciously aped the tropes of the center-left establishment (such as fellows and closed memberships) while discarding their commitment to technocratic scholarship. Thus, the fact that the American Enterprise Institute and the Family Research Council are included in these categories means that the variables do not adequately address the criticism. Similarly, the Heritage Foundation, the prototypical faux-technocratic think has fellows as well."

2. Nyhan also cites the fact that the Wall Street Journal news pages are defined as “liberal,” based on four months’ research, whereas CBS News and NPR were both examined for more than a decade.  “Time magazine is “studied” for about two years, while U.S. News and World Report is examined for eight years. Indeed, the periods of time covered for the Journal, the Washington Post and the Washington Times are so brief that as to suggest that they were simply thrown into the mix as an afterthought. Yet the researchers provide those findings the same weight as all the others, without bothering to explain that in any meaningful way to the study’s readers." Apparently Groseclose and Milyo have forgotten the effects of sample size on a study.

3. “It is not hard to imagine perfectly balanced news stories that Groseclose and Milyo would score as biased in one direction or the other, given the study's methodology. For instance, an article that quoted a member of Congress taking one side of an issue, and then quoted a think tank scholar taking the other side, would be coded as "biased" in the direction of whichever side was represented by the think tank scholar. Since Groseclose and Milyo's measure of "bias" is restricted to citations of think tank and advocacy groups, this kind of miscategorization is inevitable.”

4. “Groseclose and Milyo's discussion of the idea of bias assumes that if a reporter quotes a source, then the opinion expressed by that source is an accurate measure of the reporter's beliefs -- an assumption that most, if not all, reporters across the ideological spectrum would find utterly ridiculous. A Pentagon reporter must often quote Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; however, the reporter's inclusion of a Rumsfeld quotation does not indicate that Rumsfeld's opinion mirrors the personal opinion of the reporter.”

More from Nyhan: “(Groseclose and Milyo) seem to be unaware that an academic discipline of media studies even exists. Their bibliography includes works by right-wing media critics such as Media Research Center founder and president L. Brent Bozell III and Accuracy in Media founder Reed Irvine (now deceased), as well as an article from the right-wing website WorldNetDaily. But Groseclose and Milyo failed to cite a single entry from any of the dozens of respected scholarly journals of communication and media studies in which media bias is a relatively frequent topic of inquiry -- nothing from Journal of Communication, Communication Research, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Political Communication, or any other media studies journal.”

Of course, these ideological divides are small compared with the ones in the blogosphere, which is one giant version of the Colorado experiment. You can always find a group online to affirm your brilliant opinions. It’s immensely satisfying, but it can also make Election Day a miserable experience. Tonight, you can’t help noticing how many ignorant people out there disagree with you.

October 17, 2006
Shopping for a Nobel

There are times when satire is impossible. I know this reads more like an Onion parody of a John Tierney column, but I swear it's the real thing. Sometimes you just can't make this stuff up.

I don’t want to begrudge the Nobel Peace Prize won last week by the Grameen Bank and its founder, Muhammad Yunus. They deserve it. The Grameen Bank has done more than the World Bank to help the poor, and Yunus has done more than Jimmy Carter or Bono or any philanthropist.

But has he done more good than someone who never got the prize: Sam Walton? Has any organization in the world lifted more people out of poverty than Wal-Mart?

The Grameen Bank is both an inspiration and a lesson in limits. Compared with other development programs, it’s remarkable for its large scale. Since it was started three decades ago in Bangladesh, it has expanded to more than 2,000 branches. Its micro-loans, typically less than $150, have helped millions of villagers start small businesses, like peddling incense or handicrafts at the local market, or selling milk and eggs.

The economist William Easterly, who was afraid Bono was going to get this year’s Nobel, calls the bank’s prize “a victory for the one-step-at-a-time homegrown bottom-up approach” to development. That approach is a welcome contrast to the grandiose foreign-aid schemes that do more harm than good, as Easterly documents in his book, “The White Man’s Burden.”

But there’s a limit to how much money villagers can make selling eggs to one another — a thatched ceiling, as Michael Strong calls it. Strong, the head of Flow, a nonprofit group promoting entrepreneurship abroad, is a fan of the Grameen Bank, but he figures that villagers can lift themselves out of poverty much faster by getting a job in a factory.

The best way for third world villagers to tap “the vast pipeline of wealth from the developed world,” he argued in a recent article, is to sell their products to the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart. Strong challenged anyone to name an organization that is doing more to alleviate third world poverty than Wal-Mart.

So far he’s gotten a lot of angry responses from Wal-Mart’s critics, but nobody has come up with a convincing nomination for a more effective antipoverty organization. And certainly none that saves money for Americans at the same time it’s helping foreigners.

Making toys or shoes for Wal-Mart in a Chinese or Latin American factory may sound like hell to American college students — and some factories should treat their workers much better, as Strong readily concedes. But there are good reasons that villagers will move hundreds of miles for a job.

Most “sweatshop” jobs — even ones paying just $2 per day — provide enough to lift a worker above the poverty level, and often far above it, according to a study of 10 Asian and Latin American countries by Benjamin Powell and David Skarbek. In Honduras, the economists note, the average apparel worker makes $13 a day, while nearly half the population makes less than $2 a day.

In America, the economic debate on Wal-Mart mostly concerns its effect on American workers. The best evidence is that, while Wal-Mart’s competition might (or might not) depress the wages of some workers, on balance Americans come out well ahead because they save so much money by shopping there.

Some critics, particularly ones allied with American labor unions, argue that the consumer savings don’t justify the social dislocations caused by Wal-Mart’s relentless cost-cutting. They’d rather see Wal-Mart and other retailers paying higher wages to their employees, and selling more products made by Americans instead of foreigners.

But this argument makes moral sense only if your overriding concern is saving the jobs and protecting the salaries of American workers who are already far better off than most of the planet’s population. If you’re committed to Bono’s vision of “making poverty history,” shouldn’t you take a less parochial view? Shouldn’t you be more worried about villagers overseas subsisting on a dollar a day?

Some of them prefer to keep farming or to run small local businesses, and they’re lucky to get loans from the Grameen Bank and its many emulators. But other villagers would prefer to make more money by working in a factory. If you want to help them, remember the new social justice slogan proposed by Strong: “Act locally, think globally: Shop Wal-Mart.”

October 14, 2006
The Kids Are All Right

In 1968, the year after the U.S. population reached 200 million, Linus Pauling, Jonas Salk and other scientific luminaries signed their names to a full-page advertisement. It pictured a beatific baby in diapers who was labeled, in large letters, “Threat to Peace.”

“It is only being realistic,” the scientists warned, “to say that skyrocketing population growth may doom the world we live in.” They shared the concerns of Paul Ehrlich, who was on the best-seller lists warning of unprecedented famines overseas in the 1970’s and food riots on the streets of America in the 1980’s.

From 1958-1961, over thirty million people died of famine in China. Since that time, famines have been prevalent in Africa on a regular basis. There is currently famine in Ethiopia and Eritrea; drought and genocidal policies have contributed to famine in the Sudan; Zimbabwe faces acute food shortages; erratic weather in Zambia and Malawi has led to food shortages; there’s drought and food shortages in Madagascar; starvation due to war is commonplace in the Congo; North Korea went through a severe famine during the 1990s; and war has led to food shortages in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

It's true, though, that Ehrlich, Pauling, Salk and others didn't forsee the Green Revolution, which created high-yielding hybrids sustainable through draught conditions. On the other hand, such crops require more environmentally disastrous chemicals and pesticides. The question is, is there a point of no return? How crowded is crowded? Tierney doesn't examine these questions in his arguments. Also, we still don't know what effect global warming will have on crops and food production over the next few decades. Weather and population-related famines could recur, big time.

On Tuesday morning, when the 300 millionth American is born, the parents will not be worrying about a national shortage of food. If anything, they’ll worry about their child becoming obese. There is more food available per person — in America and the rest of the world — than ever imagined by the 1960’s doomsayers, Malthus or the ancient Greek philosophers who discussed the need for population control.

Obesity is not necessarily due to an abundance of food. It's due to nutrient-deficient fast food. There's a reason so many poop people are fat, and it's got to do with a lousy diet. Does Tierney want to talk about how, in the coming years, all that obesity will strain the American health system even further? And this doesn't even bring into account the destruction of rain forests to make way for grazing areas in South America.

“Overpopulation” is history’s oldest environmental crisis, and it’s the most instructive for making sense of today’s debates about energy and climate change. It’s a case study of intellectual arrogance, and of the perils of putting too much faith in a “scientific consensus” of experts infatuated with their own forecasts.

The Green Revolution was not foreseen at the time. If there had been no such revolution, which occurred mostly a decade or more after the predictions, the planet would have been overpopulated. According to Tierney's reasoning, we should ignore increases in carbon dioxide because at some point we'll find a way to remove it from the atmosphere.

Four decades ago, scientists were so determined to prevent famines that they analyzed the feasibility of putting “fertility control agents” in public drinking water. The physicist William Shockley suggested using sterilization to impose a national limit on the number of births.

Shockley is a pet scientist of the right-wing. Using him as an example of poor science is pretty funny.

Planned Parenthood’s policy of relying on voluntary birth control was called a “tragic ideal” by the ecologist Garrett Hardin. Writing in the journal Science, Hardin argued that “freedom to breed will bring ruin to all.” He and others urged America to adopt a “lifeboat ethic” by denying food aid, even during crises, to countries with rapidly growing populations.

Those intellectuals didn’t persuade Americans to adopt their policies, but they had more impact overseas. Under prodding from Westerners like Robert McNamara, the head of the World Bank, countries adopted “fertility targets” to achieve “optimal” population size. When an Indian government official proposed mandatory sterilization for men with three or more children, Paul Ehrlich criticized the United States for not rushing to help.

“We should have volunteered logistic support in the form of helicopters, vehicles, and surgical instruments,” he wrote, and added: “Coercion? Perhaps, but coercion in a good cause.”

India’s enraged voters stopped the government from pursuing coercive policies, but the Chinese couldn’t prevent their rulers from imposing a one-child-per-family rule. It was ostensibly voluntary, but the penalties were so severe that there were reported cases of forced abortions and infanticide.

Now China is facing a new problem: a severe shortage of young workers to support an aging population.

The population of India in 1979 was 649 million. The population in 2003 was 1,065 million, an increase of 64%. The population of China in 1980 was 970 million. Twenty-three years later, it had grown to 1,308 million, an increase of 34%. Using those statistics and comparing the two countries, had there been no birth control, there would now be an additional 300 million people in China, half the population of today’s United States. Think they wouldn’t have had a problem with that? Think India isn't crowded today?

The one-child rule turned out to be both an assault on personal liberty and a public-policy mistake. The parents made short-term sacrifices that left them worse off in the long run — the same risk we run with policies designed to curb global warming many decades from now.

Rectal Journalism Alert: What policies will hurt in the long run? Containing carbon dioxide? Increasing automobile mileage? Finding sustainable sources of energy? Cutting back on home and business energy usage? Maybe he means eliminating coal-burning electric plants.

Of course, the graphs projecting future temperatures could turn out to be more accurate than the old graphs forecasting food production and population growth.

Okay, so he's not talking about coal-burning plants. What is he talking about then?

Global warming is a real danger, and in some ways controlling carbon dioxide is a more daunting problem than growing more food. It’s worth paying for some insurance against drastic climate change.

But we need to balance uncertain future benefits against certain costs today. Most steps to combat global warming will be expensive and will slow economic growth, inevitably affecting poor people around the world. More of them will be sick, and more of their children will die. They’ll be less educated and live in less technologically advanced societies.

As folks like Tim Flannery have pointed out, most steps to combat global warming will create new technologies and new changes to increase economic growth, particularly economic growth that benefits all, instead of a coterie of wealthy Arab rulers. This is another example of rectal journalism.

If the past is any guide, the chief plagues and disasters afflicting future generations will be different from the ones forecast by Al Gore or any other popular prophet. The best insurance policy is to build free, prosperous societies of smart, adaptable people.

Like what the U.S. is doing in Iraq?

In the long debate about overpopulation and famine, none of the gloomy projections by intellectuals proved to be as prescient as an old proverb in farming societies: “Each extra mouth comes attached to two extra hands.” No matter what problems lie ahead, the good news on Tuesday will be that America has 600 million hands to solve them.

The bad news is that many of these hands will wind up fat and sick and old before their time, in a crappy climate in a crappy world, ruined by people with philosophies like that of John Tierney.

October 12, 2006
2008: The Prequel

Republican propaganda from David Brooks. Understanding that right-wing Republicans are in trouble coast to coast, we see a new talking point: these aren’t right wingers at all; they’re "independent conservatives". So most of the Senators up for re-election are absent from the national propaganda push. Instead we’re seeing an overdose of moderate Lincoln Chafee and talking points about the independence of the others.

In this case, Brooks is pushing for Ohio Senator Mike DeWine. Only problem is: HE”S NOT. He voted against investigating contracts in Iraq; he voted against habeas corpus during the Senate debates on Bush’s detainee bill; he voted against an independent commission to oversee policies and practices in Guantanamo. From 2003-2004, he voted with the ACLU on civil liberties positions only 22% of the time. In 2006, he support Planned Parenthood positions only 6% of the time, and has supported positions of the National Right to Life Committee 100% of the time. In 2003 and 2004, he supported the interests of the Christian Coalition 100% of the time. In 2004, he supported the interested of the Disabled Veterans organization 0% of the time. In 2003 and 2004, he supported the positions of the Alliance for Retired Americans 0% of the time. His support for NAACP positions generally ranges around 25% per year (all these statistics courtesy Project Vote Smart).

There are always a lot of retirees at campaign events in places like Mansfield, Ohio, and the most telling question you can ask them is: Where are your kids living?

Most of the factories have shut down in Mansfield. The old Westinghouse plant sits silent and archaic like a medieval castle near the center of town. And the retirees have seen their kids go off somewhere else. If they’ve gone to college, they’re in New York, California, Georgia or Arizona. They’re Christmas Ohioans. At holiday time they visit home.

This is the economic backdrop to the most important political race in the country, the Senate campaign between Sherrod Brown, a Democrat now in the House, and Mike DeWine, the Republican incumbent. It’s important because each candidate comes from the most vibrant strain in his own party. Brown is a full-bore economic populist. DeWine is an independent McCainiac conservative. In two years, the national parties will be talking in just these ways, and we’re seeing a preview of that battle today.

John McCain presents himself as an independent. However, when push comes to shove, as with most of the so-called “independent’ and “moderate Republicans,” he caves, as he did most recently on the detainee bill. The so-called “independent” Republicans in the Senate have been anything but independent. As we can see above, Mike DeWine does the bidding of the fundamentalist Christian movement 100% of the time and his inability to veer from Administration pressure is minimal.

Sherrod Brown is a natural political animal, with the ability to dominate the space around him. At a campaign rally in Mansfield, he pulls a chair into the center of the room while others are speaking, so everyone can see him listening and reacting. He wears a wrinkled, cheap suit, and his raspy voice and plain manners evoke the local diner or union hall more than his alma mater, Yale University.

Terrorism and national security issues don’t come up spontaneously around Brown. He focuses on the problem that is at the core of his career and mission: the hollowing out of Ohio’s manufacturing base and the slow destruction of a way of life.

“They’ve sold out our country and betrayed the middle class,” he says of the Republicans and the big corporations who worked together to write the tax laws, the energy bill and the prescription drug bill.

He vociferously opposes free trade. In his defining TV ad, he stands in front of a closed factory and blasts DeWine for supporting trade agreements that cost America jobs. His lapel pin shows a canary in a cage, a symbol of his solidarity with coal miners and workers everywhere. At a time when many Democrats are merely against things, Brown has a coherent approach to globalization and stagnant wages.

David Brooks is a HUGE free trade supporter, which is why he's been touting DLC positions and candidates in or4der to hold the line. Had Brown supported free trade, Brooks would probably have chosen a different race and different right-wing Senator to call "independent."

DeWine is Brown’s opposite. He’s short and unassuming, the least senatorial-looking man in the U.S. Senate. When he ambles modestly into a rally at Rocky River, almost nobody notices. As Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor, sings his praises, DeWine slips offstage to the back of the room. He grabs some chicken, finds a table and tucks meditatively into his dinner. Only one person at the table even looks up.

And yet he’s one of the toughest and most widely respected senators. Anti-abortion and pro-tax cut, he angered his evangelical base by supporting the Gang of 14 compromise on judicial filibusters. He voted against the president’s last budget because he thought it had the wrong priorities on children’s health (he lost a daughter in a car accident). On the stump he touts law after law he has co-sponsored with liberal Democrats.

The Gang of 14 is a joke. Any time someone tries to invoke them (as in the Alito nomination), the nuclear option is threatened, and the Gang caves. The Gang of 14 does not have a  vote to their name --- if they did have one, it would almost certainly be touted at this point in the election game.

He wasn’t in Congress when Nafta passed, but he rattles off statistics on how many Ohio jobs derive from exports and global trade. If Ohio’s going to rebound, he says, its going to come from skills and entrepreneurialism not trade protectionism.

In a normal year, DeWine could probably hold off Brown’s formidable challenge. DeWine, who is incapable of grandstanding, embodies the trans-partisan, conversational politics the country longs for.

Mike DeWine's votes have been partisan. He may not be a frothing at the mouth right-winger, but he's an Administration flunky nonetheless. A search through all of Project Vote Smart's position indicators tells us that much.

But this year he faces an uphill fight. Voter frustration with Republican rule blots out the distaste many may have for liberal Democrats. DeWine has tried to portray Brown as an out-of-step liberal, to little effect.

More important, President Bush’s polarizing political strategy has made it hard for independent Republicans to distinguish themselves from their party’s national brand. As the Catholic University political scientist John K. White points out, we seem to be amid a parliamentary election this year, with voters making decisions about national parties, not local candidates. There is a yawning 19-point gap between those who say they like DeWine personally and those who say they plan to vote for him.

The "polarizing political strategy" created a rubber-stamp House and a mostly rubber-stamp Senate. Not only did conservatives like Mike DeWine and John McCain go along with it, but because of intense political pressure from the leadership, so did Chafee, Collins, and Snowe. The united front was very effective because only Senator Jeffords had the sense to fight back. Had any of these others taken a real stand, maybe the country wouldn't be in the mess it now is. It is very important to remember that John McCain, John Warner and Lindsay Graham all caved on the detainee issue, and once again, that the "Gang of 14" has been remarkably ineffective..

Ohio is crucial to winning the presidency. If Brown wins this year, he’ll be the model for Democrats nationally. If DeWine pulls this out, Republican will copy him. This is what politics looks like as conservatism wanes: feisty economic liberals against independent, party-bucking Republicans.


Propaganda for War
An elective war just doesn’t happen. There needs to be a build-up through the use of propaganda. The Bush Administratio  is gearing up for war with Iran. These two pieces go along with several from other pundits in other venues, all saying the same thing: Islamic extremists are nuts; the Iranian government is nuts; They have no sense of self and will kill themselves just to kill you. Therefore we must stop them first. Notice, once again, how Brooks has no problem conflating Shiites with Sunnis.

Older people will remember the following: The godless Russian communists want to take over the United States and destroy all our institutions and they don’t care what happens to them. The godless Chinese communists are even crazier; they’re breeding so quickly that if a few million die there’s plenty more to replace them. They want to come over here and destroy us and take over. All communists want to kill us and don’t care if they die trying: just look at the Viet Cong. Muammar Khadafy is nuts; he’s a crazy person who would love nothing else than to come over here and bomb us and kill us. Saddam Hussein is really nuts; he’s creating nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction and as shown in the Iraq-Iran War, he doesn’t care if all his people die in the process.

Now this.

September 28, 2006
The Grand Delusion

You probably know Daniel Defoe as the author of “Robinson Crusoe,” but he was also a journalist, and in 1705, he noticed a gigantic change occurring around him. “The Power of Nations,” he wrote, “is not now measur’d, as it has been, by Prowess, Gallantry, and Conduct. ’Tis the Wealth of Nations that makes them Great.”

In other words, nations had begun measuring themselves not by whom they conquered, but by how they fared in the competition for economic success. This was a major shift in consciousness, and as the great historian of nationalism, Liah Greenfeld, observes, today you can see a wide variety of societies — the U.S., Japan, China, India, Europe — that define their national greatness in this way.

The Arab world, though famous for its bazaars, has not defined national glory economically, Greenfeld adds. Instead, the rising radical groups today define greatness negatively through acts of anti-Western defiance.

Superseding market entrepreneurs, there are terror entrepreneurs competing to see who can issue the most militant call and perform the most galvanizing act of violence. They are driven by resentment toward the West, but also by the internal competition for prestige and standing.

To his eternal credit, after 9/11 George Bush quickly understood that the terror threat was fundamentally an ideological threat, a product of deep historical consciousness. To his eternal discredit, he didn’t commit enough resources to successfully defeat and discredit that ideology. The chance to deliver the sort of blow that the Six Day War delivered to an earlier version of Arab nationalism may now be lost.

As a result, as the National Intelligence Estimate makes clear, the West now faces a diverse and metastasizing set of foes. The report also makes clear that while the Iraq war has so far enhanced the prestige of the terrorists, Iraq remains the crucial battleground where they will either gain glory or face humiliation.

If we lived in a serious political culture, we’d be discussing what we’ve learned from Iraq and how to proceed. Instead, all of Washington is involved in a juvenile game of gotcha. Bill Clinton is fighting about what did or didn’t happen 10 years ago. The White House is still exaggerating the positive. Democratic senators purr like happy kittens as retired generals slam Donald Rumsfeld, and then stop up their ears when those same generals call for more troops and a longer war.

Voters now confront a Republican Party that understands the breadth of the threat but has bungled the central campaign, and a Democratic Party that is quick to criticize but lacks an understanding of the jihadists and a strategy for confronting them.

Worse, more and more people are falling for the Grand Delusion — the notion that if we just leave the extremists alone, they will leave us alone. On the right, some believe that if we just stop this Wilsonian madness of trying to introduce democracy into the Arab world, we can return to an age of stability and balance. On the left, many people can’t seem to fathom an enemy the U.S. isn’t somehow responsible for. Others think the entire threat has been exaggerated by Karl Rove for the sake of political scaremongering.

Perhaps it’s understandable that many Americans would fall for this Grand Delusion. The Israelis, who have more experience with Islamic extremism, recently did. They imagined that they could build a security barrier and unilaterally withdraw from their historical reality. It took the war in south Lebanon to make them see there is no way to unilaterally withdraw. There is no way to become a normal society. Even if they pulled out of Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank, they would still have to confront an existential foe, so long as the forces of political Islam continued to wage their competition for anti-Semitic glory all around.

The blunt fact is that groups of Islamic extremists will continue to compete and grow until mainstream Islamic moderates can establish a more civilized set of criteria for prestige and greatness. Today’s extremists are not the product of short-term historical circumstances, but of consciousness and culture. They are not the fault of the United States, but have roots stretching back centuries. They will not suddenly ignore their foe — us — when their hatred of us is the core of their identity.

The National Intelligence Estimate predicts terror violence will get worse in the years ahead. The scarier estimate was made by a veteran of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, in conversation with his grandson who now lives in Boston: “This is forever.”

September 21, 2006
Lessons From U.N. Week

One of the lessons of this past week is that the international system is broken. The world community might make declarations -- on preventing Iranian and North Korean nukes, disarming Hezbollah, or preventing genocide in Darfur -- but when it comes to actually uniting to take action, words and resolutions lead nowhere. Thanks to a combination of American errors, European escapism, and Russian and Chinese greed, the worst people in the world now drive events while the best people do nothing.

The second big lesson of the past week is that five years after 9/11 we are farther from reaching a consensus on the nature of the threat than ever before. Instead of clarity, there is a cacophony of theories that attempt to explain the extremists -- emphasizing religion or ideology or feelings of historic humiliation or some combination of all three.

The core of the dispute is: Do the extremists play by the normal rules of geostrategy, or are their minds off in some mystical sphere that is utterly alien to our categories?

Do they respond to incentives and follow the dictates of what we call self-interest? Can they be deterred by normal threats to their security? Or, alternatively, are they playing an entirely different game? Are the men who occupy the black hole that is the Iranian power elite engaged in a religious enterprise based on an eschatological time frame and driven by supernatural longings we can't begin to fathom?

The definition of the threat determines the remedies we select to combat it, and yet what we have now is a clash of incongruous definitions and an enemy that is chaos theory in human form -- an ever-shifting array of state and nonstate actors who cooperate, coagulate, divide, feud and feed on one another without end.

The third lesson is that a huge gap is emerging between the way ordinary Americans see the Arab world and the way members of the political, media and intellectual elites see it.

Elite debate is restrained by a series of enlightened attitudes that amount to a code of political correctness: be tolerant of cultural differences, seek to understand the responses of people who feel oppressed, don't judge groups, never criticize somebody else's religion.

As anybody who has traveled around the country or listened to talk radio of left, right and center knows, these genteel manners do not inhibit the masses. Millions of Americans think the pope asked exactly the right questions: Does the Muslim God accord with the categories of reason? Are Muslims trying to spread their religion with the sword?

These millions of Americans believe the pope has nothing to apologize for. They regard the vicious overreaction to his speech, like the vicious overreaction to the Danish cartoons, as another sign that some sort of intellectual disease is sweeping through the Arab world.

What these Americans see is fanatical violence, a rampant culture of victimology and grievance, a tendency by many Arabs to blame anyone other than themselves for the problems they create. These Americans don't believe they should lower their standards of tolerable behavior merely for the sake of multicultural politeness, and they are growing ever more disgusted with commentators and leaders who are totally divorced from the reality they see on TV every night.

The fourth lesson is that we are drifting toward a policy that does not match the threat we face. Extremism is not an isolated cult in the Muslim world. It is a diverse and vibrant movement, which inspires the smartest of the young and treats the psychological wounds of those who are trapped between tradition and modernity.

The Muslim millenarians possess a habit of mind that causes them to escalate conflicts. They seem confident they can prevail, owing to their willingness to die for their truth. They don't seem to feel marginalized, but look down on us as weak, and doubt our ability to strike back.

With America exhausted by Iraq, with the threat of Iranian sanctions dissolving before our eyes, Western policy is drifting toward the option that most resembles passivity. That is containment -- accepting Iranian nukes and trying to deter their use with our arsenal.

In other words, a policy that was designed to confront a secular, bureaucratic foe -- the Soviets -- will now be used to confront a surging, jihadist one. The survival of Tel Aviv, and maybe New York and Washington, will depend on the Clausewitzian rationalism of the Iranian mullahs, or the angry younger brothers who will replace them.

September 26, 2006
Academy of P.C. Sciences

I’ve slogged through enough reports from the National Academy of Sciences to know they’re often not shining examples of the scientific method. But — call me naïve — I never thought the academy was cynical enough to publish a political tract like “Beyond Bias and Barriers,” the new report on discrimination against female scientists and engineers.

This is the kind of science you expect to find in The Onion: “Academy Forms Committee to Study Gender Discrimination, Bars Men from Participating.” Actually, it did allow a total of one man, Robert Birgeneau of Berkeley, on the 18-member committee, but that was presumably because he was already on record agreeing with the report’s pre-ordained conclusion: academia must stop favoring male scientists and engineers.

How this favoritism occurs is difficult to discern, particularly if you make it through all 291 pages. Donna Shalala, the Clinton administration veteran who led the committee, begins the report with a story of male chauvinists refusing to give tenure to a promising young scholar (herself) just because she was a woman, but that happened three decades ago. Buried deep in the report is a more recent datum: when a woman is up for tenure today in science or engineering, her odds of being approved are the same as a man’s.

The report says that women are discouraged from going into science because of social pressure and “unintentional” and “unconscious” biases — which may well exist. But Shalala’s committee is so determined to blame everything on discrimination that it dismisses other factors without giving them a fair hearing.

You can get a sense of its spirit of inquiry from “findings” like this one: “The academic success of girls now equals or exceeds that of boys at the high school and college levels, rendering moot all discussions of the biological and social factors that once produced sex differences in achievement at these levels.”

It may seem moot to the Shalala committee, composed mainly of university administrators and scientists who don’t study sex differences (or are hostile to the idea that they exist). But it’s not moot to the scientists who’ve documented persistent differences.

These scientists, listed below are all part of the right-wing eugenics crowd that has included such people as Arthur Jansen and William Shockley.

I consulted half a dozen of these experts about the report, and they all dismissed it as a triumph of politics over science. It’s classic rent-seeking by a special-interest group that stands to get more money and jobs if the recommendations are adopted.

“I am embarrassed,” said Linda Gottfredson of the University of Delaware, “that this female-dominated panel of scientists would ignore decades of scientific evidence to justify an already disproved conclusion, namely, that the sexes do not differ in career-relevant interests and abilities.”

In this case, it's the pot calling the kettle black. Gottfredson's claim to fame is an editorial in the Wall Street Journal with 52 signees supporting the research on the mostly discredited book, The Bell Curve. According to Wikipedia, the University of Delaware's promotion and tenure committee denied Gottfredson promotion to full professor in 1989, citing "flawed" and "unscholarly" research. She was promoted to full professor the next year. She is a frequent grantee of The Pioneer Fund, most likely another arm of the right-wing funding hydra (Many of Pioneer's grantees contributed to "The Bell Curve" research, though it was the monster-funder Bradley Foundation that actually support  --- i.e. paid for --- the book.

One well-documented difference is the disproportionately large number of boys scoring in the top percentile of the SAT math test. And when you compare boy math whizzes with girl math whizzes, more differences appear. The boys score much higher on the math portion of the SAT than on the verbal, whereas the girls are more balanced — high on the verbal as well as the math.

The girls have more career options, and they have different priorities than the boys, as the psychologists David Lubinski and Camilla Persson Benbow have demonstrated by tracking students with the exceptional mathematical ability to become top-flight researchers in science and engineering.

David Lubinski and Camilla Persson Benbow both teach at Vanderbilt University. Lubinski is one of the 52 signers of Gottfredson's editorial. Benbow was just nominated to the National Science Board, and has been on many of President Bush's science boards over the past six years. Given the Bush Administration's general disdain for real science, her close connection makes her extremely suspect.

As adolescents, the boys are especially interested in abstract theoretical pursuits and “inorganic” disciplines involving things, whereas the girls are more interested in “social values,” “people contact” and “organic” disciplines. Plenty of these girls end up going to graduate school, and some become superb physicists and engineers, but many choose law, medicine, education and so-called soft sciences like biology or psychology.

After decades of schools pushing girls into science and universities desperately looking for gender diversity on their faculties, it’s insulting to pretend that most female students are too intimidated to know their best interests. As Science magazine reported in 2000, the social scientist Patti Hausman offered a simple explanation for why women don’t go into engineering: they don’t want to.

Patti Hausman is a contrarian who argues that the reason girls don't like the sciences and mathematics is because it's biological. The same couple of quotes from 2000 seem to permeate the internet, mostly on male-created blogs.

“Wherever you go, you will find females far less likely than males to see what is so fascinating about ohms, carburetors or quarks,” Hausman said. “Reinventing the curriculum will not make me more interested in learning how my dishwasher works.”

Which, when you think about it, is an incredibly stupid comment that bears no relationship to whether girls like mathematics..

September 14, 2006
Ends Without Means

A leader’s first job is to project authority, and George Bush certainly does that. In a 90-minute interview with a few columnists in the Oval Office on Tuesday, Bush swallowed up the room, crouching forward to energetically make a point or spreading his arms wide to illustrate the scope of his ideas — always projecting confidence and intensity.

He opened the session by declaring, “Let me just first tell you that I’ve never been more convinced that the decisions I made are the right decisions,” and he grew more self-assured from there. I interview politicians for a living, and every time I brush against Bush I’m reminded that this guy is different. There’s none of that hunger for approval that is common to the breed. This is the most inner-directed man on the globe.

Inner-directed? To what end? Bob Herbert, September 14: “The invasion of Iraq marked the beginning of the change in the American character. During the Cuban missile crisis, when the hawks were hot for bombing — or an invasion — Robert Kennedy counseled against a U.S. first strike. That’s not something the U.S. would do, he said. Fast-forward 40 years or so and not only does the U.S. launch an unprovoked invasion and occupation of a small nation — Iraq — but it does so in response to an attack inside the U.S. that the small nation had nothing to do with. Who are we?”

The other striking feature of his conversation is that he possesses an unusual perception of time. Washington, and modern life in general, encourages people to think in the short term. But Bush, who stands aloof, thinks in long durations.

I got into politics initially because I wanted to help change a culture,” he says, referring to his campaign against the instant gratifications of the 1960’s counterculture.

Changing a culture: Bob Herbert, September 14: “There was a time, I thought, when there was general agreement among Americans that torture was beyond the pale. But when people are frightened enough, nothing is beyond the pale. And we’re in an era in which the highest leaders in the land stoke — rather than attempt to allay — the fears of ordinary citizens. Islamic terrorists are equated with Nazi Germany. We’re told that we’re in a clash of civilizations.”

“And he sees his efforts today as a series of long, gradual cultural transformations. Like many executives, he believes that the higher you go, the further into the future you should see, and so his conversation is filled with speculations about the long-term effects of deep social trends — the current religious awakening or the politics of volunteer armies.

Bob Herbert: September 14: “If, as President Bush says, we’re engaged in “the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century,” why isn’t the entire nation mobilizing to meet this dire threat?”

All of which prepares him to think about the war on terror as a generations-long struggle. He asked us to think about what the world could look like 50 years from now, with Islamic radicals either controlling the world’s oil supply or not. “I firmly believe that some day American presidents will be looking back at this period in time, saying, ‘Thank goodness they saw the vision,’ ” he said.

Sitting between busts of Lincoln and Churchill, he continued, “My hope is to leave behind something — foundations and institutions that will enable future presidents to be able to more likely make the tough decisions that they’re going to have to make.”

Bob Herbert, September 14: “The president put us on this path away from the better angels of our nature, and he has shown no inclination to turn back. Lately he has touted legislation to try terror suspects in a way that would make a mockery of the American ideals of justice and fairness. To get a sense of just how far out the administration’s approach has been, consider the comments of Brig. Gen. James Walker, the top uniformed lawyer for the Marines. Speaking at a Congressional hearing last week, he said no civilized country denies defendants the right to see the evidence against them. The United States, he said, “should not be the first.”

“Ideological struggles take time,” he said, explaining the turmoil in Iraq and elsewhere. He said the events of weeks or months were just a nanosecond compared with the long course of this conflict. He was passionate on the need for patience and steadfastness. He talked about “inviolate” principles written upon his heart: “People want you to change. It’s tactics that shift, but the strategic vision has not, and will not, shift.”

Bob  Herbert, September 14: “The character of the U.S. has changed. We’re in danger of being completely ruled by fear. Most Americans have not shared the burden of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Very few Americans are aware, as the Center for Constitutional Rights tells us, that of the hundreds of men held by the U.S. in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, many “have never been charged and will never be charged because there is no evidence justifying their detention.”

He was less personal and less assertive when talking about those tactical decisions made day to day.

We are now at a moment when many of the people who support his long-term goals, and who have stuck with him as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated, fear the war is irreparably lost. The general view among many Republicans is that Bush set out grand goals, but never committed resources commensurate with the task.

Bush was pressed about Iraqi troop levels repeatedly during our interview. His general response was that during Vietnam, tactical decisions were made in the White House. “I thought it was a mistake then, and I think it’s a mistake now.”

So on troop levels and other tactical issues, Bush defers to Gen. George Casey, who is in Iraq. He asks questions but does not contradict the experts. If Casey asked for two more divisions tomorrow, Bush would deliver, regardless of the political consequences. But Casey does not ask (and maybe none are available).

What if Casey is wrong?

“Then I picked the wrong general,” Bush says bluntly. “If he’s wrong, I’m wrong.”

When asked if he should have expanded the military back in 2003, to give the current commanders more manpower, Bush used words that were uncharacteristically jargon-ridden: “The notion of warfare has changed, and therefore, we’re modulizing the army so that it becomes more operational and easier to move.” That sounds more like a transformation briefing paper than the president.

In other words, when Bush is strategizing goals, he is assertiveness on stilts. When he is contemplating means, he defers to authority.

And the sad truth is, there has been a gap between Bush’s visions and the means his administration has devoted to realize them. And when tactics do not adjust to fit the strategy, then the strategy eventually gets diminished to fit the tactics.

Or worse.

As Bob Herbert points out, the idea that this president is a man of vision is put to rest by administration efforts to execute people without letting them see the evidence, to keep people incarcerated indefinitely without trial, and to use fear-mongering as a way to maintain power. If a culture of torture, fear, and "the disappeared" is the culture that David Brooks wants, perhaps he should move to Syria or Saudi Arabia, or perhaps Iran.

September 10, 2006
Investing in Human Futures

Imagine a classroom of first graders. Now imagine we could get every kid in that classroom to graduate from college, and that we could get every kid in every classroom to graduate from college. Don’t you think that’s the most important thing we could do to make America a richer and fairer place?

Some people, actually, don’t think that. Some people don’t think wage stagnation is mainly about education and skills. They think the economy is so broken, the Republican Party so malevolent and all-controlling, that almost all the gains would go to the top 5 percent or 1 percent anyway.

I may be a sucker, but I think they’re wrong.

Actually, as one of the two conservative columnists in The New York Times, David Brooks is paid to think they’re wrong.

I may be a sucker, but I doubt we can achieve broad-based social mobility unless workers possess the skills that a global economy now rewards. I may be a sucker, but I suspect the most important thing we can do to increase social mobility is to come up with second-generation human capital policies.

The first-generation policies gave people access to schools, colleges and training facilities. The second-generation policies will help them develop the habits, knowledge and mental traits they need to succeed once they are there.

That means, first, strengthening the family, the nuclear core of human capital formation. Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review points out that investments in human capital are overtaxed. He suggests raising the child tax credit to $5,000. That would be part of a plan to lighten the tax burden on families while they are raising kids and shift it to when they are done. It would enable more parents to stay home if they wanted and invest more in those crucial early years.

Ramesh Ponnuru is Senior Editor at the National Review, the right-wing magazine founded by William F. Buckley in 1955. It has, more often than not, been a propaganda organ for the Republican Party. The problem with this plan is that it costs a lot more than a $5000 a year  tax credit to allow a parent to stay home rather than work. Brooks must be living on another planet.

Second, it means strengthening marriage. Only half of American kids can expect to live with both biological parents at age 15 (compared with two-thirds of kids in Western Europe). That has calamitous effects on education and development. There are many cultural ways to strengthen marriage, but financially, the government could extend the earned income tax credit to single males. That would not only induce more young men to enter the labor force, it would also make them more marriageable.

Sounds good, until one realizes that divorces occur because the marriages are unhappy. Should parents stay together for the sake of the kids? One psychiatrist says no. Another shrink says no. This gal on the Today Show thinks they should. Of course, that gal makes her living as a divocre-busting coach.  Divorce Magazine says, "it depends."

Third, it means eouraging people to think about the future. Senator Jeff Sessions has a proposal (similar to a program earlier supported by Senators Santorum and Schumer, and others) that would give every child $1,000 at birth for a savings account, which could then be built up over a lifetime. Among other things, that sort of asset building awakens a sense of future possibilities.

Fourth, children from disorganized homes need quality preschool. As a mountain of research has shown, children who have not developed mental traits like self-control by age 3 are much less likely to exercise them later on. Their prospects are permanently diminished.

Fifth, schools need to be tailored to the way children actually are. Different human beings have radically different learning styles. So long as diverse individuals are forced to sit in the same classroom and endure uniform teaching techniques, they’ll underperform. It doesn’t matter whether the school is public, charter or administered by Martians.

Does this tie in with an earlier David Brooks column about separating the sexes in school?

I’m hinting at an agenda that is socially conservative and economically progressive, because when it comes to building human capital, the two go hand in hand. To pay for this stuff, I’d trail along behind Sebastian Mallaby of The Washington Post: Cut the mortgage interest deduction so it doesn’t subsidize people who want million-dollar homes, and reform the savings and health insurance tax incentives that subsidize rich people to do things they’d do anyway.

Mallaby, not surprisingly, is not American by birth and may not realize the importance of the mortgage interest deduction to most middle class families. Rather than restore some of Bush's tax cuts to the wealthy, or even end lower taxes for capital gains, Brooks would take that money directly from Middle Class pockets.

I’d also keep the inheritance tax (I don’t want a bunch of spoiled heirs starting lefty foundations).

This is a joke, by the way. Brooks knows as well as anyone that the entire right-wing hydra is paid for by money from right-wing heirs like Richard Mellon Scaife, and right wing foundations like The Bradley Foundation, the Koch Foundation, the Scaife Family Foundation and the Adolph Coors Foundation.

When you ask free-market purists about wage stagnation, they either deny it’s a problem or brag about how Republicans have increased disposable income by reducing the tax burden. When you ask orthodox liberals about wage stagnation, they never tell you exactly what they would do to counteract the epic forces of globalization and technological change, but they seem to imply they can restructure the economy with the right trade, minimum-wage and union rules to create middle-class wealth.

But this debate is not going to be won either by the free-market fatalists or by the angry but amorphous populists. It’ll be won by the human capital reformers, the alliance of progressive conservatives and conservative progressives (like the Clintonites) who believe that the market fundamentally works and that social mobility requires what it has always required, skill and effort.

Paul Krugman, September 1st and 8th (reiterated): “Right-wing commentators would like you to believe that the economy’s winners are a large group, like college graduates or people with agreeable personalities. But the winners’ circle is actually very small. Even households at the 95th percentile — that is, households richer than 19 out of 20 Americans — have seen their real income rise less than 1 percent a year since the late 1970’s. But the income of the richest 1 percent has roughly doubled, and the income of the top 0.01 percent — people with incomes of more than $5 million in 2004 — has risen by a factor of 5.  Why have workers done so badly in a rich nation that keeps getting richer? That’s a matter of dispute, although I believe there’s a large political component: what we see today is the result of a quarter-century of policies that have systematically reduced workers’ bargaining power.”

September 9, 2006
Waiting for Al Qaeda

Framing is about putting facts into a particular perspective which then feels true. Thus, this column isn’t strictly speaking a lie. Yes, there is a terrorism “industry” which does consist of journalists, politicians and others. But in a deeper sense, it’s also a lie. The terrorism “industry” only exists because the Republican Party and the Bush Administration have spent the last five years using fear to maintain and deepen control of this country’s institutions.

John Mueller has an awkward question for those of us in the terrorism industry, which is his term for the journalists, politicians, bureaucrats and assorted “risk entrepreneurs” who have alarmed America about terrorism.

For five years, we’ve been telling Americans that Sept. 11 changed everything. “It will always be a defining moment in our history,” President Bush says in this year’s Patriot Day proclamation. We declared it a harbinger of a new clash of civilizations, a global ideological struggle — World War III, in Newt Gingrich’s words.

We reported intelligence estimates of thousands of Al Qaeda terrorists and supporters in “sleeper cells” in America. In May 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft said that Al Qaeda’s preparations for an attack were 90 percent complete. We braced for acts of terrorism forecast to occur during the political conventions, the presidential campaign, on Election Day, after Election Day. Through yellow and orange alerts, we kept in mind the Department of Homeland Security’s warning: “Today’s terrorists can strike at any place, at any time and with virtually any weapon.”

Again, this wasn’t the result of some kind of “industry.” It was a deliberate political pattern designed to keep Americans scared. And it worked. It’s also the oldest political pattern in the books.

So what’s keeping them? That’s the question raised by Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University, in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.

“Why,” he asks, “have they not been sniping at people in shopping centers, collapsing tunnels, poisoning the food supply, cutting electrical lines, derailing trains, blowing up oil pipelines, causing massive traffic jams, or exploiting the countless other vulnerabilities that, according to security experts, could so easily be exploited?”

The Bush administration likes to take credit for stopping domestic plots, but it’s hard to gauge whether these are much more than the fantasies of a few klutzes. Bush also claims that the war in Iraq has diverted terrorists’ attention there, but why wouldn’t global jihadists want the added publicity from attacking America at home, too? Al Qaeda’s leaders threatened in 2003 to attack America — along with a half dozen other countries that haven’t been attacked either.

Mueller’s conclusion is that there just aren’t that many terrorists out there with the zeal and the competence to attack the United States. In his forthcoming book, “Overblown,” he argues that the risk of terrorism didn’t increase after Sept. 11 — if anything, it declined because of a backlash against Al Qaeda, making it a smaller and less capable threat than before. But the terrorism industry has been too busy hyping Sept. 11 and several other attacks to notice.

Well, now, maybe this one is a lie. The terrorism industry, that is to say the Bush Administration, its flunkies, stooges and adherents may all be well aware that the threat is smaller than they make it out to be. But they don’t care. The point is the use of fear for political ends. It should also be noted that journalists have a notoriously short memory. It's only through the constant harping of the fear of attack that it all remains in the public eye. "Terrorism Industry" implies people making big bucks off terrorism. But that's not really the case. What passes for mainstream journalism grabs whatever it can, from al Queda to Tom Cruise's baby, and makes money either way. It's all political.

It has found a new audience for old dangers. For more than half a century, experts have warned that terrorists could destroy a city with a weapon of mass destruction. They still might, but their failure so far suggests it isn’t easy to do, and it didn’t suddenly become easier on Sept. 11.

There are plenty of fighters willing to use terrorist tactics locally during civil wars and insurrections, as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya or Kashmir. But it’s harder to recruit competent warriors to fight abroad, and harder for them to operate in orderly countries where the citizenry and the authorities both want to stop them.

“Outside of Afghanistan and Iraq,” Mueller says, “the number of people killed around the world since Sept. 11 by groups in sympathy with Al Qaeda is not that high. These are horrible and disgusting deaths, but they’re not a sign of a diabolically effective organization. The total is less than the number of Americans who drowned in bathtubs during this period.”

As it is, he figures, the odds of an American being killed by international terrorism are about one in 80,000. And even if there were attacks on the scale of Sept. 11 every three months for the next five years, the odds for any individual dying would be one in 5,000.

Compared with past threats — like Communist sociopaths with nuclear arsenals — Al Qaeda’s terrorists are a minor problem. They certainly don’t justify the hyperbolic warnings that America’s “existence” or “way of life” is in jeopardy, or that America must transform the Middle East in order to survive.

There undoubtedly will be more terrorist attacks, either from Al Qaeda or others, just as there were before 2001. Terrorists might strike Monday. There will always be homicidal zealots like Mohamed Atta or Timothy McVeigh, and some of them will succeed, terribly. But this is not a new era. The terrorist threat is still small. It’s the terrorism industry that got big.

He shoots. He deflects!  Which brings up an interesting question: Why now? The answer lies in two places, which is why a suspicion arises that this column is the outgrowth of a Republican talking point. First, on Sunday and Monday, ABC will be presenting a right-wing propaganda piece which blames the Cointon Adminstration for its failure to capture bin Laden (thus deflecting criticism from Bush and company for both 9/11 and the failure to capture bin Laden), followed on Tuesday by a series of primaries in several states. This kind of timing is no accident.

September 8: Paul Krugman's Friday column addressed many of the issues in the September 7th column by David Brooks. I've incorporated those additions into this commentary.

September 7, 2006
The Populist Myths on Income Inequality

From Paul Krugman’s column, dated September 1st: “There are still some pundits out there lecturing people about how great the economy is. But most analysts seem to finally realize that Americans have good reasons to be unhappy with the state of the economy: although G.D.P. growth has been pretty good for the last few years, most workers have seen their wages lag behind inflation and their benefits deteriorate.”

There are two schools of thought on income inequality. Members of the first school — populist politicians and a few economists — say the key issue is economic power.

The haves exercise more power over the have-nots. As a result, corporate profits soar, while wages stagnate. Money-drenched politicians push through shareholder-friendly trade deals that outsource American jobs while job insecurity skyrockets. C.E.O.’s get absurd salaries while the 99 percent of earners enjoy few benefits from productivity gains. Unions are weakened while manufacturing wages tumble and the middle class suffers.

Political analysts tried all sorts of explanations for popular discontent with the “Bush boom” — it’s the price of gasoline; no, people are in a bad mood because of Iraq — before finally acknowledging that most Americans think it’s a bad economy because for them, it is. The lion’s share of the benefits from recent economic growth has gone to a small, wealthy minority, while most Americans were worse off in 2005 than they were in 2000.

Paul Krugman, September 8: "Why are we suddenly talking so much about inequality? Not because a few economists decided to make inequality an issue. It’s the public — not progressive pundits — that has been telling pollsters the economy is “only fair” or “poor,” even though the overall growth rate is O.K. by historical standards."

In short, populists argue, the market is broken. The rules are rigged. The reigning ideology in Washington must be upended. Unions must be revived. Globalization needs to be reorganized.

Paul Krugman, September 1st: “The stagnation of real wages — wages adjusted for inflation — actually goes back more than 30 years. The real wage of nonsupervisory workers reached a peak in the early 1970’s, at the end of the postwar boom. Since then workers have sometimes gained ground, sometimes lost it, but they have never earned as much per hour as they did in 1973.

“Meanwhile, the decline of employer benefits began in the Reagan years, although there was a temporary improvement during the Clinton-era boom. The most crucial benefit, employment-based health insurance, has been in rapid decline since 2000.

“Ordinary American workers seem to understand the long-term disconnect between economic growth and their own fortunes better than most political analysts.”

The problem with this narrative is that it doesn’t really fit the facts. First, workers over all are not getting a smaller slice of the pie. Wages and benefits have made up roughly the same share of G.D.P. for 50 years.

Paul Krugman, September 8: "Notice the amount of time that inequality’s apologists spend attacking a claim nobody is making: that there has been a clear long-term decline in middle-class living standards. Yes, real median family income has risen since the late 1970’s (with the most convincing gains taking place during the Clinton years). But the rise was very small — small enough that other considerations, like increasing economic insecurity, make it unclear whether families are better or worse off. And that’s the point: the United States as a whole has grown a lot richer over the past generation, but the typical American family hasn’t."

Second, offshore outsourcing is not decimating employment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, outsourcing is responsible for 1.9 percent of layoffs, and the efficiencies it produces create more jobs at better wages than the ones destroyed.

Paul Krugman, September 6: "Are wages really surging?  A quick wonkish note, for readers with an interest in the gritty details of economic numerology: today (Wednesday, Sept. 6) the Labor Department released revised estimates on compensation. And these numbers seem to show a wage explosion: the rate of increase in unit labor costs labor costs minus productivity growth is at its highest level in 16 years.  So, are workers making out like bandits? Don't be surprised if you start seeing opinion pieces claiming that they are.

"But here's the thing: We have evidence from three different sources that tells a very different story. First, wages of non-supervisory workers, as measured by the Employment Survey, a survey of employers, are lagging slightly behind inflation. Second, median weekly wages, as measured by the Household Survey, a survey of (duh!) households, are lagging well behind inflation. Third, profits, as measured by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, are growing much faster than G.D.P., which has to mean that labor costs are growing slowly.

"Oh, and one more piece of evidence: polls showing that people are unhappy with the state of the economy suggest that most people can't be seeing big wage gains. So what's going on? The best guess is that something is wrong with the numbers. Dean Baker, of the Center for Economic Policy Research, suggests that some capital gains, such as income from cashing in stock options, may be erroneously showing up as wage income.

"The moral of the story? Beware: Interpreting economic data can sometimes be tricky. Above all, don't believe what a number seems to say if it conflicts with all of your other information."

Third, jobs are not more insecure. Workers are just as likely to hold a job for 20 years as they were in 1969. Fourth, workers are not stuck in dead-end jobs. Social mobility is roughly where it was a generation ago.

Fifth, declining unionization has not been the driving force behind inequality. David Card of the University of California, Berkeley, has estimated that de-unionization explains between 10 and 20 percent of the rise in inequality, and that effect was probably strongest decades ago. These days the working class is not falling behind the middle or upper-middle class. Instead, the big rise in inequality is within the office parks, among people who were never unionized. Middle managers are falling behind top executives.

The populists, who usually live in university towns, paint a portrait of unrelieved misery that badly distorts reality. It’s true that middle-class wages are lagging, but as Stephen Rose points out in The American Prospect, over the past 25 years the share of working-age adults in households making over $100,000 has risen by 13 percent while the share of households making less than $75,000 has dropped by 14 percent — after adjusting for inflation. The median household income of people in their prime working years (25-59) is $63,000. More than half of Americans have no credit card debt, and half of those who do owe less than $2,200.

Workers continue to see their wages rise as they age. The typical male worker with some college but no degree has seen his income rise from $34,000 in 2000 to about $40,000 today.

Paul Krugman, September 1st: “Consider, for example, the results of a new poll of American workers by the Pew Research Center.

“The center finds that workers perceive a long-term downward trend in their economic status. A majority say that it’s harder to earn a decent living than it was 20 or 30 years ago, and a plurality say that job benefits are worse too.

“Are workers simply viewing the past through rose-colored glasses? The report seems to imply that they are: a section pointing out that workers surveyed in 1997 also said that it had gotten harder to make a decent living is titled, “As usual, people say things were better in the good old days.”

“But as we’ve seen, real wages have been declining since the 1970’s, so it makes sense that workers have consistently said that it’s harder to make a living today than it was a generation ago.”

Members of the second and much more persuasive school of thought on inequality say the key issue is skills. Lawrence Katz, formerly of the Clinton administration, now of Harvard, puts it this way: Across many nations, the market increasingly rewards people with high social and customer-service skills.

Paul Krugman, September 1st: “In 1997, a plurality of workers said that employment benefits were better than they used to be. That made sense: in 1997, the health care crisis, which had been a big political issue a few years earlier, seemed to have gone into remission. Medical costs were relatively stable, and in a tight labor market, employers were competing to offer improved benefits. Workers felt, rightly, that benefits were pretty good by historical standards.

“But now the health care crisis is back, both because medical costs are rising rapidly and because we’re living in an increasingly Wal-Martized economy, in which even big, highly profitable employers offer minimal benefits. Employment-based insurance began a steep decline with the 2001 recession, and the decline has continued in spite of economic recovery.

“The latest Census report on incomes, poverty and health insurance, released this week, shows that in 2005, four years into the economic expansion, the percentage of Americans with private insurance of any kind reached its lowest level since 1987. And Americans feel, again correctly, that benefits are worse than they used to be.”

A contractor who can work with customers, design kitchens and organize jobs may earn five times as much as one of his workers who has identical cabinetry skills. An office worker who is creative, charismatic and really good in fast-changing interactive settings now gets paid much more than a disciplined middle manager who excels at routine tasks.

Katz describes a polarized economy. Wages are rising in the bottom quartile for workers who provide personal services. The middle is lagging. The real rewards are going to the top 10 percent, especially to those relative few who have the skills to transform organizations from the top.

Paul Krugman, September 1st: “Why have workers done so badly in a rich nation that keeps getting richer? That’s a matter of dispute, although I believe there’s a large political component: what we see today is the result of a quarter-century of policies that have systematically reduced workers’ bargaining power.”

In other words, the market isn’t broken; the meritocracy is working almost too well. It’s rewarding people based on individual talents. Higher education pays off because it provides technical knowledge and because it screens out people who are not organized, self-motivated and socially adept. But even among people with identical education levels, inequality is widening as the economy favors certain abilities.

Paul Krugman, September 8: "Notice the desperate effort to find some number, any number, to support claims that increasing inequality is just a matter of a rising payoff to education and skill. Conservative commentators tell us about wage gains for one-eyed bearded men with 2.5 years of college, or whatever — and conveniently forget to adjust for inflation. In fact, the data refute any suggestion that education is a guarantee of income gains: once you adjust for inflation, you find that the income of a typical household headed by a college graduate was lower in 2005 than in 2000.

"More broadly, right-wing commentators would like you to believe that the economy’s winners are a large group, like college graduates or people with agreeable personalities. But the winners’ circle is actually very small. Even households at the 95th percentile — that is, households richer than 19 out of 20 Americans — have seen their real income rise less than 1 percent a year since the late 1970’s. But the income of the richest 1 percent has roughly doubled, and the income of the top 0.01 percent — people with incomes of more than $5 million in 2004 — has risen by a factor of 5."

In short, government policy is not driving inequality and wage stagnation. But government hasn’t done much to effectively address the problem either, even though per-capita education spending has more than quadrupled since 1950. What’s needed is not a populist revolt, which would make everything worse, but a second generation of human capital policies, designed for people as they actually are, to help them get the intangible skills the economy rewards.

Paul Krugman, September 1st: “Wages may be difficult to raise, but we won’t know until we try. And as for declining benefits — well, every other advanced country manages to provide everyone with health insurance, while spending less on health care than we do.

“The important question now, however, is whether we’re finally going to try to do something about the big disconnect. The big disconnect, in other words, provides as good an argument as you could possibly want for a smart, bold populism. All we need now are some smart, bold populist politicians.”

Paul Krugman, September 8: "While we can have an interesting discussion about questions like the role of unions in wage inequality, or the role of lax regulation in exploding C.E.O. pay, there is no question that the policies of the current majority party — a party that has held a much-needed increase in the minimum wage hostage to large tax cuts for giant estates — have relentlessly favored the interests of a tiny, wealthy minority against everyone else.

"According to new estimates by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, the leading experts on long-term trends in inequality, the effective federal tax rate on the richest 0.01 percent has fallen from about 60 percent in 1980 to about 34 percent today. Meanwhile, the U.S. government — unlike any other government in the advanced world — does nothing as more and more working families find themselves unable to obtain health insurance.

"The good news is that these concerns are finally breaking through into our political discourse. I’m sure that the usual suspects will come up with further efforts to confuse the issue. I say, bring ’em on: we’ve got the arguments, and the facts, to win this debate."

September 5, 2006
New Europe’s Boomtown

Tallinn, Estonia
Philippe Benoit du Rey is not one of those gloomy Frenchmen who frets about the threat to Gallic civilization from McDonald’s and Microsoft. He thinks international competition is good for his countrymen. He’s confident France will flourish in a global economy — eventually.

But for now, he has left the Loire Valley for Tallinn, the capital of Estonia and the economic model for New Europe. It’s a boomtown with a beautifully preserved medieval quarter along with new skyscrapers, gleaming malls and sprawling housing developments: Prague meets Houston, except that Houston’s economy is cool by comparison.

Economists call Estonia the Baltic Tiger, the sequel to the Celtic Tiger as Europe’s success story, and its policies are more radical than Ireland’s. On this year’s State of World Liberty Index, a ranking of countries by their economic and political freedom, Estonia is in first place, just ahead of Ireland and seven places ahead of the U.S. (North Korea comes in last at 159th.)

It transformed itself from an isolated, impoverished part of the Soviet Union thanks to a former prime minister, Mart Laar, a history teacher who took office not long after Estonia was liberated. He was 32 years old and had read just one book on economics: “Free to Choose,” by Milton Friedman, which he liked especially because he knew Friedman was despised by the Soviets.

Milton Friedman (1912-    ) is the godfather of laissez faire capitalism. He has been affiliated with such organizations in ther right-wing hydra as The Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. As a backlash to the failure of Soviet planned economies and civil authoritarianism, it is not surprising that Estonia went all the way around to Friedman. Laar, by the way, is the winner of the Milton Friedman Prize from the Cato Institute. Small world.

Laar was politically naïve enough to put the theories into practice. Instead of worrying about winning trade wars, he unilaterally disarmed by abolishing almost all tariffs. He welcomed foreign investors and privatized most government functions (with the help of a privatization czar who had formerly been the manager of the Swedish pop group Abba). He drastically cut taxes on businesses and individuals, instituting a simple flat income tax of 26 percent.

These reforms were barely approved by the legislature amid warnings of disaster: huge budget deficits, legions of factory workers and farmers who would lose out to foreign competition. But today the chief concerns are what to do with the budget surplus and how to deal with a labor shortage.

Estonia has a population of 1.4 million, 96% of whom are Estonian, Russian or Ukrainian --- A country lacking ethnic diversity. Estonia also has one of the loswest minimum wages in all of Europe, a fact that could come home to roost down the road.

Wages have soared thanks to jobs created by foreign companies like Elcoteq of Finland, which bought a failing electronics factory and now employs more than 3,000 people making phones for Nokia and Ericsson. Foreign investors worked with local software engineers to create Skype, the Internet telephone service, and the country has become so Web-savvy that it’s known as E-stonia.

“The spirit is so different here,” Benoit du Rey says. “If you come to the government here and want to start a company, they’ll tell you, ‘Good, do it right now.’ Then you can work free without being bothered by stupid things. Here I talk to my accountant once a month. In France, for every seven or eight workers, you need one full-time worker just to fill out the forms for taxes and other rules.”

It took him less than two weeks last year to start his company, Aruzza. Now he has employees from five countries working on deals like importing Spanish ham, exporting Estonian sofas to France and finding programmers in Tallinn to write software for a California company.

He is not a free-market purist — he likes the health care and social services provided by countries like France. But to pay for their safety nets, he figures they need to cut regulations and taxes so they can have robust economies like Estonia’s, which grew about 10 percent last year.

Very telling. du Rey loves to work in Estonia but would rather live in France because of the health care and social services.  So much for being a workers' paradise.

The growth over the past decade has produced so much unanticipated revenue that the tax rate is being gradually reduced to 20 percent. Laar’s political rivals still complain that his flat tax unfairly helps the rich, but as he notes, the level of income inequality in Estonia actually declined during the past decade.

“People think a progressive tax system is fairer,” Laar says. “But in the real world rich people find a way to avoid high taxes. With a flat tax, they stop worrying about sheltering their income or working in the gray economy. There is less corruption because it’s easier to pay the tax.”

Any analysis of Estonia from the left, from those in favor of progressive taxation, is missing on line. Is Tierney telling us the truth about Estonia?  Sure, says the hydra-funded Heartland Instutute. Obviously, says the right-wing British think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs. Definitely, say several other rightwing web sites. However, Estonia has been embarked on its success story for a bit over a decade. The question is: is this a real boom, or a bubble waiting to bust? Remeber the dot coms? Remember the 30,000 Dow? For those who lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the 2001 bust, and those about to lose their shirts in America's housing bubble, it pays to be extremely skeptical.

Since Laar started the revolution, the flat tax has been adopted by its Baltic neighbors and a half-dozen other countries, including Russia, Ukraine and Romania. Such radical reform is still taboo in Western European countries like France, but they can’t seal their borders against this threat. If they don’t go to Estonia for a lesson in economics, their enterprising citizens will make the trip on their own.-/


-- Richard Wolinsky

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