Current Affairs, Politics

Money Quote from the President

Can’t be repeated enough, this:

One closing remark that I want to make: It is inexcusable for any Democrat or progressive right now to stand on the sidelines in this midterm election. There may be complaints about us not having gotten certain things done, not fast enough, making certain legislative compromises. But right now, we’ve got a choice between a Republican Party that has moved to the right of George Bush and is looking to lock in the same policies that got us into these disasters in the first place, versus an administration that, with some admitted warts, has been the most successful administration in a generation in moving progressive agendas forward.

The idea that we’ve got a lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base, that people are sitting on their hands complaining, is just irresponsible.

Everybody out there has to be thinking about what’s at stake in this election and if they want to move forward over the next two years or six years or 10 years on key issues like climate change, key issues like how we restore a sense of equity and optimism to middle-class families who have seen their incomes decline by five percent over the last decade. If we want the kind of country that respects civil rights and civil liberties, we’d better fight in this election. And right now, we are getting outspent eight to one by these 527s that the Roberts court says can spend with impunity without disclosing where their money’s coming from. In every single one of these congressional districts, you are seeing these independent organizations outspend political parties and the candidates by, as I said, factors of four to one, five to one, eight to one, 10 to one.

From President Obama’s interview with Jann Wenner in Rolling Stone.

Current Affairs, Internet, Politics

The Bogus Speech by Paul Otellini to the Aspen Institute

I read about a speech Paul Otellini gave last week and this lead from CNET caught my attention:

Intel Chief Executive Officer Paul Otellini offered a depressing set of observations about the economy and the Obama administration Monday evening, coupled with a dark commentary on the future of the technology industry if nothing changes.

Rather than rely on the CNET report I first read (which was somewhat confusing), I decided to do some primary research and try to find his speech. There is a video here and a transcript here provide so helpfully by Intel.

Otellini spends several minutes bemoaning the current situation particularly in education:

The trends are worrisome.

At one time, the US could boast about the best students in math, science, and engineering.  Our research centers were without peer.  No country was more attractive for start-up capital or global investors.  We seemed a generation ahead of the rest of the world in information technology.

That simply is no longer the case.  Over the past decade, our competitors have focused on the very things that made America’s innovative economy the strongest in the world.

A study released last month by the college board noted that the US has dropped from first to twelfth in the world for people ages 25-34 with college degrees over the past 30 years.

I thought this was all a buildup to some praise for the work done by the Obama administration and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to fix this state of affairs. After all, initiatives like the “Race to the Top” have garnered praise from the Left and Right (and even Republicans who are convinced Obama is a Muslim) and have done more to reform the public education system in America than all other federal efforts combined over the last 40 years.

But nary a word about that. Instead, Otellini, in an ominous tone, said this (which is what got such attention from folks who reported on his speech):

Unless government and business take firm actions to improve education, create a culture of investment and job creation in this country, then the next Intel or the next big thing will not be invented here. Jobs will not be created here. And wealth will not accrue here. Ultimately, we will face an inevitable erosion and shift of wealth — much like we are witnessing today in Europe.

(I guess he didn’t notice that Germany is kicking our ass right now economically).

Turns out all this fear-mongering was really just a set up for Otellini’s central plea — America is in jeopardy because our corporate tax rate is too high. And like a petulant baseball owner who threatens to move his team to another city unless the public builds him a new stadium, Otellini essentially says Intel will take its toys and move abroad if the corporate tax rate isn’t lowered.

(As an aside, I’m inevitably stunned that folks like Bill O’Reilly and other dime store patriots never jump on corporate yellow-bellied traitors like Otellini who’d stab their country in the back, throw their countrymen overboard, and move their companies to China to increase their profits by a few pennies per share. I’ll have to come back to that sometime).

Otellini could have noted for balance and context that the United States has the one of the lowest overall tax burdens in the world (and the lowest among developed nations) as a percentage of GDP. And that our corporate tax rates are high because we have insisted on absurdly low individual tax rates and aren’t willing to contemplate other ways of raising revenue through things like a consumption tax. All policies lobbied for by folks like Otellini and his peers. But that would have required intellectually honesty.

It was the lack of logic, of intellectual cohesiveness, that was so striking in the end.  Otellini argues (1) that government ought to do more, particularly with regard to education; (2) fails to acknowledge the stunning achievements in just the last 18 months by the Obama administration on this front; then (3) says his taxes are too high and Intel shouldn’t have to pay for anything or they’ll move.

Why all this hyperventilating about one speech by some guy who is the CEO of Intel? Because people who know better seem to take him seriously, even though they ought to know better. For it’s pretty clear he’s just a hack and a shill for the Republican party and not some Sage of San Joe — at least when it comes to public policy pronouncements.

One last note: folks like CNET ought to learn to do a little reporting and provide some context next time. Even a simple sentence like “Republican and Carly Fiorina supporter Paul Otellini said in Aspen…”

Current Affairs

Episodes in Collective Mad-ness

Random, assorted pieces of evidence to suggest we’ve all become content to sit in judgment of others in an angry, Old Testament god sort-of-way:

The Democrats have a 12-year-old beneficiary of the S-Chip health care program (which provides insurance for people with incomes under a certain level) and Republicans — wrongly, it turns out — claim that the boy and his family are really rich people who don’t deserve government largess. Paul Krugman documents the sliming of an 12 year old today.

C.W. Nevius, in his ongoing crusade in the San Francisco Chronicle about the city’s failure to take stronger steps to deal with the homeless on our streets draws the ire of homeless advocates and others who claim the city has lost its compassion and it’s full of a bunch yuppies you don’t give a damn for the poor.

So quickly these so-called progressives are to judge, but really, is not the city already quite compassionate? San Francisco spends $150,000,000 in public funds per year on the homeless — about $24,000 per homeless person. Plus there are many millions more collected and spent in private funds. 

Compare that to $5000 or so per student in its public schools. Maybe the judgers here should focus on how that money is spent, not how much. The people who have a right to sit in angry judgment are the parents of the 56,000 public school kids, who get shafted…

And then Judith Warner writes today about the horribly tragic story of Carol Gotbaum, who died in custody of the police at Sky Harbor airport.  Her column is terrific — but read the comments if you want to get depressed.

The story is messy and complicated. Gotbaum was an alcoholic mother of three, travelling alone to get treatment at a clinic in Arizona. She was scheduled to fly directly from New York to Tuscon, but changed to a later flight so she could take her children to school one last time before spending a month in rehab. She missed her connection in Phoenix, became hysterical and distraught, the police were called, they handcuffed her — after she said "I’m not a terrorist, I’m just a mother who needs help" — and put her in a holding cell.

She apparently asphyxiated, alone in the holding cell, when she tried to bring her hands — which were cuffed — from behind her back to her font. At her funeral this past weekend, the presiding rabbi noted:

“The central teaching of both Judaism and Christianity is to love your
neighbor as yourself. But at that airport … there was no such love
offered to our Carol.”

This was the central point of Warner’s piece — to ask, have we lost "the base level of lovingkindness, decency, compassion and empathy that most
of us assume, or at the very least hope, we and our loved ones will
encounter in life."

So many of the commenters skip past any consideration of that question and move quickly to judge the Gotbaum family. How could they let her travel alone?  The tone of many is insistent — mean, even — angered by the fact that the family has asked — "Why didn’t someone just put their arm around Carol at the airport."

Just a quick attempt at empathy and you’d realize that these intimate, family decisions may seem clear in retrospect, but aren’t always without the benefit of hindsight. Gotbaum apparently insisted on going alone so her husband would be at home with the kids. Really, wasn’t there something right and honorable in Noah, the husband, staying home with the kids to minimize the impact on them? On a day when their mother was leaving for a month? Anyone in a family can understand how that might have seemed the right decision.

And yet, we don’t empathize. Left, right, center — we judge, with ferocity. A nation of so-called Christians, who more often than not side with the angry God of the Old Testament, and don’t seem to pay much heed to the more compassionate teachings of the New.

Current Affairs, Iraq, Politics

Single Issue Voter

Last night, we heard from President Bush (and his eternally and always-wrong cheerleaders like Sean Hannity) tell us, basically, that if we didn’t support the "surge" in Iraq things could get a whole lot worse there, and then it would really be a catastrophe.

I continue to wonder: didn’t the Bush Brain Trust (and, frankly, inside-Washington foreign policy establishment) think about that when they decided to gamble on a pre-emptive invasion back in 2003? Did that possibility not come up?

Or maybe, was it only young, inexperienced Illinois state senators like Barack Obama and little old country doctors like Howard Dean who thought through these issues at the time.

All I know is that I fully intend to be a single-issue voter in 2008: if you’re running for President in 2008, did you make the right call in 2002 and 2003? If not, have you learned from your mistake in a profound and deep way? That doesn’t make me a passivist liberal — believe me, I’m not — it means I’m looking for someone with the character and basic intelligence to ask the obvious questions and to balance the obvious risks.

Obama, check.

Gore, check.

Hilary, not so much.

Edwards, not so clear.

Current Affairs, Politics, Religion

Blessed Convergence

I’ve been happily consuming a terrific convergence of great writing and public discourse about religion, its relationship with the state of our world, the the things that drive people to embrace religion, and the causes of this age of revived fundamentalism almost everywhere (including here) and thought I’d share the links:

First, Karen Armstrong’s terrific book The Great Transformation which covers how the great religious traditions of today all have roots in almost concurrent developments in the Axial age. Armstrong is a terrific writer, her books The History of Jerusalem and  The History of God are also required reading.

Second, Bill Moyers current series on PBS: Faith and Reason. Great interviews with writers including Margaret Atwood, Martin Amis, and Salman Rushdie among others.

Finally, speeches, readings and interviews at the related PEN World Voices festival in New York.

Listening now to Martin Amis with Patrick McGrath from the PEN series. One great line from Amis:

"I’d much prefer there not to be a God. Because then that gives us free will. An all-seeing, all-predicting God lowers what it is to be human, and I want that to be as maximal as it can be."

Current Affairs, Politics

A Most Bogus Argument in the Immigration Debate

I have been following the debate over the proposed immigration “reforms” and find it incredibly difficult to decide which side(s) are right.

One of the things I love, and I think most people love, the most about this country has been its willingness to take in peoples from all over the world, to give them a home, to give them opportunities they might not otherwise have. But on the other hand, I’m also in agreement with the argument that there have to be limits, for any number of purely practical reasons.

I am sympathetic to the belief that there is a natural migration pattern between Central America, Mexico, and the United States, and that a guest worker provision will help to preserve and enable that migration pattern.
 But I agree with those who worry that allowing large numbers of unskilled workers to work in the country will depress the wages for many workers, particularly lower income laborers without a high school education or specific skills.

But the one thing I do know, pretty unequivocally, is that the condemnation of protesters carrying Mexican flags is bogus, a red-herring, and really pretty despicable.  Do we get upset when Italian Americans fly the Italian flag on Columbus Day? Or when Irish Americans fly their banners on St. Patrick’s Day? Or when Greeks display their flag in their neighborhoods? No, because we know that it’s a display of affection for their culture and their roots.

I think the same thing is going on here.

Current Affairs, London

Missing London, Tempered by Charlie

I find myself missing London right now, especially with the recent Rebecca Wade spousal abuse story. It’s the kind of story that will completely absorb the media and chattering classes for the next few days, one full of great gossip and delicious ironies. The tabloids will have great fun with it, and while I’m reading along online from afar, it just isn’t the same as being there.

I’m also missing London because tomorrow is Guy Fawkes Day, celebrating the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, an effort of a small band of Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1604, and the subsequent execution of Guy Fawkes (one of the leaders of the plot) and his co-conspirators, as follows:

They would be hanged until half-dead, upon which their genitals would
be cut off and burned in front of them. Still alive, their bowels and
heart would be removed. Finally they would be decapitated and
dismembered; their body parts would be publicly displayed, eaten by the
birds as they decomposed.

The celebration in modern times is a lighter affair. Great bonfires around the country (and throughout London) are lit, and effigies of Guy Fawkes thrown onto the fires. We would amble over to the communal garden adjacent to ours, which hosted a terrific bonfire, served nice mulled wine, and put on a fine fireworks show at the end. It was, in many ways, one of our favorite evenings of the year. My British friends who are Catholic, though, complain that the celebration still makes them shudder.

My hankering after London this week is tempered by the upcoming visit to our town of a high profile Englishman, the Prince of Wales, that weak-chinned, inbred flower whisperer. Some of the coverage of his visit in the American press is encouragingly hostile — I loved the New York Post headline "Frump Tower," referring to Camilla’s sense of style — but too much is fawning and submissive. Just today, in the San Francisco Chronicle, we have some Miss Manners who "cringed" as she watched the protocol gaffes in New York (real people actually deigning to shake the Hand of the Prince!) and who proceeds to give us a very proper lesson on protocol with the Royals, reminding us of the no-talking-unless-talked-to and bowing-curtsying-yes-ma’am genuflections that we are supposed to offer.

As a friend of mine here said as we departed for London almost four years ago: "If you meet the queen, don’t bow or curtsy. We fought a war over that, you know."