Friday, January 23, 2009

Whoa there, tiger

Here's Drudge's headline for the past day or so:
Picture 1
And here's the article at Politico the headline links to. An excerpt:
President Barack Obama made a surprise visit to the White House press corps Thursday night, but got agitated when he was faced with a substantive question.

Asked how he could reconcile a strict ban on lobbyists in his administration with a deputy defense secretary nominee who lobbied for Raytheon, Obama interrupted with a knowing smile on his face.

"Ahh, see," he said, "I came down here to visit. See this is what happens. I can't end up visiting with you guys and shaking hands if I'm going to get grilled every time I come down here."

I knew that conservatives, closet and otherwise, would try to burnish the cred early by taking shots at Obama. But these people need to learn how to keep their powder dry.

Obama is a pretty disciplined guy. And he has to be doubly careful: as much as he represents a repudiation of the Bush years, Obama still lives in their shadow, with all the cynicism they bred. But, in spite of that discipline and caution, he'll still screw up eventually. Or, events will conspire to make him look bad, even if there's nothing he could have done.

His opponents should wait for those opportunities. Because right now, with articles criticizing Obama for doing a meet and greet with reporters where he didn't want to answer big questions, well, this just looks a bit silly. It looks like a desperate play by people who are afraid that if they don't do something to knock him off this pedestal, Obama's popularity will never wane.

Of course, people like me are afraid that Obama won't find a way to turn this impossible economic situation around, and that he will eventually be pilloried, regardless of what he does.

Edited to add: The portion of the picture you can't see above, at the end of the first line of the headline, says "The Time." I can't find a way to get it all in there, but if you click on the picture, you can see the whole thing. I apologize for my technological incompetence.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Transparency vs. access

Back in April 2007, Michael Wolff wrote an excellent piece about Scooter Libby's fall. Here's part of Wolff's account of why Scooter got into trouble:
The one constant I’ve observed, in 27 years as an on-again, off-again political reporter, is that Republicans return reporters’ calls and Democrats don’t. To a great extent, this is what got Scooter Libby into trouble, calling back The New York Times’s Judy Miller and Time’s Matt Cooper. Libby is a superb example of the much-vaunted Republican Party message discipline—he’s got tenacious follow-through. He’s one of the people who helped give the Bush administration its reputation—intact as recently as 24 months ago—as the most masterful iteration of Republican media management, a leviathan of political marketing.

Republican shills never had any trouble giving people access. The right reporters got the access they needed to print their stories, their big scoops, replete with quotations from unnamed administration sources.

No, the problem wasn't a lack of access. It was a lack of transparency. Sure, Judy Miller got fed all kinds of juicy tidbits about our upcoming invasion of Iraq. Then, in exchange for that access, she printed those lies as facts and helped the administration sell the war. And nobody ever knew exactly where the information was coming from or how they might verify it.

This was a pretty standard MO for the Bush people. Print our nonsense (but not our names), and we'll give you the access.

In any case, in the early days of the Obama Administration, some people have gotten these two concepts confused:
"The young Obama administration has talked often about transparency, but that, as the Constitution makes clear, means more than the government creating Web sites to send messages to supporters," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington.

"It means allowing the press, an independent institution, to see what's going on," Rosenstiel said. "It remains to be seen exactly what the Obama team means, with its love of control, when it talks about an open government."

So, what exactly is Mr. Rosenstiel talking about? Some key new policy that the press is not being told about? Perhaps a closed door meeting with energy executives where they tell Vice President Biden what our energy policy should be?

No, Roesenstiel is actually talking about this silly second swearing-in Obama did because some whackjobs on Fox News started to crow about whether the first, botched oath actually meant that Obama was not our president.

Now, maybe Obama should have let more press in for this thing. I don't see how it would've hurt. But not letting more press in doesn't say anything about whether the Obama Administration will be transparent or whether we'll have "an open government" for the next four years.

I'm all for transparency, and I'd love to see a robust Fourth Estate in the next four years and beyond. But let's not confuse transparency and openness with some reporters' insatiable hunger for access.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The weight and the gap

President Bush took flak for much of what he said in the final days of his presidency as he went on his Legacy Rehabilitation Tour. Most of it was deserved. But one of the things he said was entirely reasonable:
Even in the darkest moments of Iraq, you know, there was -- and every day when I was reading the reports about soldiers losing their lives, no question there was a lot of emotion, but also there was times where we could be light-hearted and support each other.

I have no love for this man. But we should all hope that Bush could find ways to stay "light-hearted."

Last night, a friend told me that he thought all the parties surrounding the inauguration were too much. In times like these, what is President Obama doing dancing at ten parties, basking in the glow of so much adulation?

I think this is an apt time to reflect on the weight we place on our presidents. Many criticized Bush for not attending military funerals and not seeming to mourn military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. And perhaps, as a leader, he ought to have made more public displays of sorrow. But this belies a different question: how bad should he have actually felt?

I don't know why anybody wants to be president. I don't know why anybody wants to carry that weight. Because yes, you have to seem as if you care a great deal, when you make decisions and people die.

But presidents need the fortitude to make those decisions, decisions that spell death on a horrific scale. And after they make those decisions, they need the fortitude to make them again and again, without stumbling, without stopping to take a breath, without blinking.

So, let's be clear about what we ask of these people. We ask them to stand on the right side of the narrow gap between heroes and monsters. So, we shouldn't be surprised if they find ways to stay "light-hearted" or throw themselves a few big parties in difficult times. Better a party than a pogrom.

Better a light heart than one made of stone.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Something old, something new

On Hardball's inauguration coverage, Pat Buchanan called himself a "traditional conservative." That's how he prefaced a comment where he complemented President Obama's inaugural address.

I would have liked his comment more if he would have prefaced it by calling himself a "real whackjob." That's the kind of self-knowledge that would have won a bit of my love.

But, in other news, how nice are those two words that appear above: "President Obama." Still sinking in, still awesome, still the first step in a journey that hopefully will end with us moving in the right direction.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Economists take note

Those of you followed and figured out what was going on behind this post will doubtless want to read on. The analysis that follows is my response to people who believe that piracy is good or neutral for comics sales. This analysis will deal entirely with demand, because, quite frankly, I don't really understand how the free supply of comics on the Internet affects their supply curve.

Relative to its demand and price (P), there are a few relevant groups for each comic:
A1) People who demand a comic at or above P and pay for it.
A2) People who demand a comic at or above P but download it for free anyways.
A3) People who demand a comic, but at below P, so they download it for free.
There's also another very important group of people for this analysis: people who don't demand a comic, but might if they were exposed to it thanks to piracy. And once those people download that comic and start demanding it, they will fall into one of the three above categories (B1, B2, B3).

In the debate about whether piracy is good for a comic's sales, the key question is this: which is larger, A2 or B1? A3, B2 and B3 people won't pay for the comic anyways, and A1 people already do. But A2 people are the people who would pay for the comic, but don't because piracy allows them not to. And B1 people are the people who aren't paying for a comic but will once they've read pirated copies of it.

Most of the arguments for piracy track these categories. They contend that there aren't many A2s at all, our that they themselves have often been B1s. Well, obviously, there's no way to know how many A2s there are. Simple human psychology suggests that a decent number of people will respond to incentives by taking things for free they would otherwise have to pay for.

But the existence of many B1s is what I'm most skeptical of. Because, what do we already know about them? We know that they're willing to download comics for free. Which gives us some reason to believe that they will continue to do so.

To put this is simpler terms and drop the labels: to believe that piracy is good for a comic's sales, you'd have to believe that the number of people who will pay for that comic after downloading a pirated copy is greater than the number of people who download pirated copies even though they would pay for the comic if they had to. For the reasons I outline here, I think that this is an implausible thing to believe.

Of course, these are empirical questions that only data can conclusively resolve. But in the absence of that data, we should still do the best speculating we can. These are my best speculations. And, even if you disagree, I hope you find the framework useful.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

As a single tear trickles down Osama bin Laden's cheek

After trying a few things, the Bush people have found their swan song: Bush succeeded because we have not suffered another terrorist attack in the United States. And the Bush people are using it in response to any criticism. On Hardball last night, one Bush supporter argued that, by preventing any further terrorist attacks after 9/11, Bush had unified the country. (This was in response Matthews's question of the night about the Bush administration, which was something akin to "Has Bush proved to be a uniter, not a divider?")

This is a standard argument tactic: when all else fails, fall back on what nobody can deny. And nobody can deny that we haven't suffered another terrorist attack in this country. But that hasn't helped some of our fellow citizens. In fact, some of them have endured countless terrorist attacks.

Terrorists have attacked members of our military in Iraq and Afghanistan. They've attacked them again and again. Terrorists have killed many Americans and wounded many more. And why? Because President Bush sent them into a lion's den of his own making.

In waging these two wars, President Bush ensured that terrorists would succeed in killing and wounding Americans. His incompetence further ensured that those deaths and injuries would far exceed any justifiable number of casualties.

Perhaps noting this bolsters another one of the Bush administration's old saws: if we don't fight them there, we'll have to fight them here. And, to some small degree, that may be true. There may be some terrorists who stayed in Iraq of Afghanistan instead of trying to hatch a plot over here.

But if they stayed, they stayed because President Bush put our soldiers in the middle of a turkey shoot. And whether that kept terrorists in the region or not, nothing can justify it. People who join the military do something that most of us, myself included, will not do: they volunteer to risk their lives for our safety. People who show that courage will sometimes die for it. We can't avoid that. But we should never spend their lives so cheaply.

So, as he leaves, we should all remember how good a friend President Bush has been to terrorists. He has strengthened their hand as he has weakened ours. He has led us into two quagmires, and given terrorists the opportunity to kill our troops and bleed our resources.

And he has destroyed any chance we had in the wake of 9/11 to unite the world in a struggle against terrorism. Such a struggle might have succeeded. It might have won over the world, including most of the Middle East. But we'll never know.

My Dad is fond of saying that political leaders who start wars should be the first ones to fight in them. Belatedly, but in that spirit, perhaps President Bush should head for Afghanistan on January 21. He can climb into the mountains, and, if he's lucky, find Osama bin Laden.

Then, the two of them can sit down for a talk. They can remember the good times, when each made the perfect bogeyman for the other. And they can thank each other for the help in carrying out their crazy ideological agendas, both of which never had anything to do with helping their people in the first place.

So, here's to you, President Bush. The lessons you've taught us have come at far too high a price, but let's hope we finally manage to learn them.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

I drink up all the Hennessy you got on your shelf

I'm no expert on marketing. I'm no great cultural analyst. I am not free of racism. I have many shortcomings. So I may not be the best person to comment on this.

But I don't know that I would have chosen a commemorative bottle of Hennessy as a way to commemorate the inauguration of our first black president.

The way I do the thing I shouldn't

Go here if you want to see me do something I shouldn't.

Sometimes people say things on the Internet I don't agree with. Sometimes I decide to say something. And I always live to regret it. Understand me, I'm not here to excoriate my interlocutor; it would be pretty petty of me to come back here and beat her/him in a place where s/he is unlikely to read or respond. You can read the arguments if you like and decide for yourself.

It's just that I always get frustrated in these conversations. There's always more heat than light. There's never any progress. And I think about these squabbles more than I should.

And I'm sure I'll do it again.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Here comes the new boss, somewhat-similar-but-not-exactly-the-same as the old boss

Bill Kristol is needling liberals again, attempting to convince us that Obama doesn't represent any substantial change from the Bush administration in terms of foreign policy. After a characteristically anemic opening about the next White House dog, Kristol goes on to argue that, in many ways, the Obama administration's policies will not represent a major departure from the Bush administration's. Kristol actually has a point, although he doesn't seem to have any idea what that point is and what it means.

The most clear counterpoint to neoconservative foreign policy has always been realism, not liberalism. Neoconservatives differ most starkly from realists, in that realists believe the only justification for acting in the wider world is to promote our national interests. Human rights don't matter. Democracy doesn't matter. On the other hand, neoconservatives believe that American power can be used to makeover the world entirely: after we crushed Saddam Hussein, all the other dictators in the world would quake in fear, and a Pax Americana would reign.

Liberals have always had more in common with neoconservatives than realists. We believe that democracy and freedom matter. We believe in humanitarian intervention. And we agree with neoconservatives that people everywhere, including the people in Iraq, should be free, and that we should take steps to promote their freedom. But we have very different notions about how to achieve those goals.

Consider this passage from Kristol's piece:
On Iran, Obama did say he’d be taking “a new approach,” that “engagement is the place to start” with “a new emphasis on being willing to talk.” But he also reminded Stephanopoulos that the Iranian regime is exporting terrorism through Hamas and Hezbollah and is “pursuing a nuclear weapon that could potentially trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.” He said his willingness to talk would be combined with “clarity about what our bottom lines are” — one of them presumably being, as he’s said before, no Iranian nuclear weapons. And he demonstrated a sense of urgency — “we anticipate that we’re going to have to move swiftly in that area.”

So: After talks with Iran (if they happen) fail to curb Iran’s nuclear program, but (perhaps) impress other nations with our good faith, we’ll presumably get greater international support for sanctions. That will also (unfortunately) fail to deter Iran. “Engagement is the place to start,” Obama said, but it’s not likely to be the place Obama ends. He’ll end up where Bush is — with the choice of using force or acquiescing to the idea of a nuclear Iran.

When you set aside his assumptions about what the future holds, you see that Kristol actually is detailing the difference between the approach Obama will take with Iran and what Bush would prefer. Liberals and neoconservatives both don't want to see Iran acquire a nuclear weapon. But we have different notions about how we might achieve that goal. Kristol attempts to minimize those differences by assuming, without argument, that Obama's approach will leave him in no better position than Bush.

And maybe it won't. Maybe we, with the help of the rest of the world, have nothing to offer Iran, and nobody can stop them from getting nukes. Or maybe not. But what distinguishes us from Kristol and Bush is our willingness to use diplomacy, to engage the rest of the world and to appreciate our own limitations. Believing in the United States's strength is not the same as thinking that our military might is the best way to solve this problem.

As liberals, we should embrace our concern for the rest of the world. We don't need to disengage. We need to engage more, and we need to engage more effectively. That might not give us a Pax Americana. But it will sow the seeds of a more just and more stable world in this new global age.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Information market failure

In Mexico, I was talking to a journalist friend about the recent decline of newspapers and other news outlets. During that conversation, I said something which I think must be true, although I don't know how I would prove it: with the Internet, demand for content is higher than ever. But nobody can find a way to make enough money to provide that content. So, while people today hunger more and more for quality reporting in the still-dawning Information Age, we have less and less of it. I mean, I'm sure there are more people like me every day, people willing to shoot their mouths off in the hope someone will care. But let's not kid ourselves. Whatever I'm doing here is no substitute for actual reportage.

Some time ago, I saw someone make an interesting point about illegal music downloading. People would call what they downloaded with file sharing software "free music." But after paying for a decent computer, a broadband Internet connection and an mp3 player, "free music" starts to look expensive.

Now, I'll grant you, the argument's not perfect. Even though I pay for my music, I still want those things. But it's a fair point. It forces us to consider the gap between what we want and who ends up profiting from those desires. We all want interesting, timely information at our fingertips. But none of the money I've paid to get that information has gone to the people who actually write stories about it. Apple has gotten some. So has Comcast. The New York Times hasn't seen a dime.

I have no solution to offer. I don't even know where to begin. But, as I sit here in Chicago with our local newspapers reduced to a shadow of their former selves, I wish that some of the money I have given to corporations that put cables in the ground could have kept John Conroy writing stories like these.

A man with a plan

In his recent and most-awesome-yet presser, Rod looks disturbingly like the cat who swallowed the canary. Now, I'll grant you, he might be nuts. He has been displaying a psychotic disregard in the face of his inevitable downfall.

But Rod might have a card he hasn't played yet. He certainly looks to me like someone who still has something in his back pocket. At first, I thought he would hold on to the Senate appointment and use that as bargaining chip. But with that gone, I wonder if he might be ready to take some people down with him. At this point, he must know where more than a few of the bodies are buried and what might happen were they unearthed. And given that he's showed no signs of taking the contrition route, Rod might be ready to dig a few of those bodies up.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

And then they came for the opportunistic politicians, and you said nothing

On Hardball, Bobby Rush just told Chris Matthews that seeing Roland Burris turned away from the Senate reminded him of seeing dogs attack children in Birmingham.

When a thing speaks for itself

Roland Burris has a problem. And that problem is Roland Burris. Sure, he has another problem called Rod. But that problem pales in comparison. Because, apparently Roland Burris is one of a few people who would actually accept Rod's nomination, and the sort of blind ambition that reveals makes him an undesirable candidate for much more than dog catcher.

The Reader has documented Roland Burris's recent failures as a candidate for statewide office. That might explain his inexplicable eagerness here. But, from the man who built this, I guess nothing should come as a surprise.