26 August 2007

The Senator & The Lt. Colonel

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Last week, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart had two terrific guests: Senator Barrack Obama on Wednesday, and Lt. Colonel John A. Nagl on Thursday. Obama was on to discuss his run for the presidency, and Nagl was featured to discuss a book he helped write, The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

These two guests were also a study in contrasts, in both presentation and content. Obama’s two-part interview with Stewart showed off the Senator as we expect to see him: disarmingly charming, affable, and extremely focused on pointing out the degree to which he represents the “change,” the kind of change our country needs. Obama was one big smile, from beginning to end, and he certainly is (with apologies to Senators Obama and Biden) more articulate than just about anyone else about the kind of inspirational quasi-movement he believes he represents. Nagl, on the other hand, was more reserved and more traditionally earnest, wearing his Army dress uniform and speaking on a subject few of us likely have much experience with; but he warmed up, and even got two jokes in at the end.

In terms of content, however, Obama was weak. The Senator bundles his change-spiel into an emotionally-appealing articulation of why he should be elected, but, as in this exchange – from part 1 of the interview, starting at about the 3:20 mark – it isn’t backed up by specifics. In responding to a question from Stewart about how the media treats the presidential campaign process, Obama noted:

“...and one of my staff said, ‘The thing you’ve gotta understand is, this isn’t on the level.’ And I think that really strikes to what people are frustrated with in politics, is that so much of what we talk about, so much of what we say, it’s not true, people know it’s know it’s not true, all the insiders understand that we’re just game playing, and in the meantime you’ve got these hugely serious problems, which are true.”

At which point, Stewart asked another question, in relation to Obama vs. Clinton – so perhaps we cannot blame Senator Obama for not elaborating on the earlier remark with some specific points about what he would do to address those “true” problems. Obama got in some good (and accurate) digs at Vice President Cheney and former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, but notwithstanding all of the criticism of others, the details of how he, Barrack Obama, would address certain issues as president remain missing. It seems to be too much of a faith-based campaign for me: you simply have to have faith that Senator Obama will do the best job of all the candidates.

Lt. Colonel Nagl, on the other hand, seemed to treat his appearance on The Daily Show for what it was: an opportunity to be clear, specific, and concise about a difficult subject. Moreover, if not exactly promotional, then Nagl was at pains to ensure that the audience understands that the American commanders currently leading the war in Iraq, including General Petraeus, are not only doing the best they can, but are doing it with intelligence and insight into the challenge presented by the insurgency. You could just about see, when the interview was finished, a glimmer of success cross Lt. Colonel Nagl’s face. He did it, after all: he survived one of the most articulate anti-war and anti-Bush gauntlets out there.

Obama faced no such challenge. Not that Jon Stewart didn’t ask some important questions but, in that context, Senator Obama was like a rock star, greeted with cheers and a “You rock, Barrack” shout-out. But if Obama represents change like a rock star represents change, we just have to ask ourselves: is that really the basis on which to elect a president? In that case, I’m sorry that Bono is precluded from running.

18 August 2007

Domestic Platform 2008

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Politicians do not do well at telling the truth. Another typical weakness is an inability to see problems – and solutions – holistically. When it suits, when it is politically expedient, many issues are connected; when it does not, no connection will be found no matter the logic presented. It's a shame, really, because this inhibits both clear thinking and much action. Not all issues are connected, but where government is concerned, in fact, many are interrelated – if not by philosophy, then simply by budget.

In the field of presidential candidates for 2008, one candidate is worse than the next. Both parties (and the country) have been dragged down by President Bush’s stupid Iraq war, but the Democrats in particular are in a bind because this is their election to lose: Bush is in the doghouse, the GOP is terribly unpopular, Rudy, Mitt, Fred, and Captain John all support for policies in the vein of Bush-as-is. Presidential and Congressional candidates of each party have also twisted themselves in knots over issues and challenges that they are too afraid to face honestly and directly, like immigration.

What we need in the United States is a kind of democratic revolution: a president and Congress capable of clear thinking and with the guts for tough projects and intelligent change. Ironically, this has happened before: think Clinton-era welfare reform. Alas, the current crop of elected officials and candidates don’t have the same tough stomach. We need leaders who will tell us the truth about the health and welfare of our nation, and who will push to make real improvements, even changes that may inflict a little pain on every citizen. As the cliché goes: no pain, no gain. So, here is my 10 point domestic agenda for presidential and Congressional candidates, to clean up the country and help us right the ship of state. (Foreign policy items to come.)

1. The biggest issue and the number one policy priority should be to address the future of Social Security. Concisely put: the Social Security system was never meant to act as America's pension program: it was designed to help those who literally could not help themselves. With the exception of Depression-era America, this is only a small portion of the population. Social Security needs to be fixed, along the lines of the reforms I outlined two years ago in this article.

2. The second biggest priority should be the elimination of Congressional earmarks – of which there were more than 14,000 in 2005, adding billions of dollars to the federal budget. Every instance of funds that a member of Congress wants to channel to a pet project in his/her state should have to be “peer reviewed” by both houses of Congress as part of the budget process, with the public well-informed in advance, too.

3. Fixing Social Security and eliminating earmarks would free up funds to address the U.S.’s healthcare conundrum. Americans like to think that we favor market-based solutions (except when we don't, as with private Social Security accounts), so the mildly "socialized" medicine programs of Canada and Great Britain do not appeal. The likely best solution is a system similar to what Massachusetts enacted: require all citizens to have insurance, and subsidizes those costs when needed. We must also accept that successfully insuring everyone will be impossible; therefore, the system needs to have financial flexibility to cover those gaps. A “luxury” tax on elective cosmetic surgeries (like breast enhancements or liposuction) might help offset the more basic healthcare costs.

4. With the first three items addressed, this is the time to focus on the tax structure, too. Here, both the American political left and right have valid perspectives. We need a better balance between taxing those who can most afford it – and not overtaxing to the degree that we inhibit economic growth. Some guiding principles? Don’t tax savings, even savings not specifically designated for retirement. Increase the earned income tax credit: better to support the working poor, than to create more people in need of non-working support. Increase limits on tax-free inter-generational transfers of money AND ensure a strong estate tax; people spend money when they’re alive and young, so transfers from (say) parents to children are more likely to ensure that money is put back into the economy. And lastly: fix the alternative minimum tax, which is crunching the middle class within increasing frequency.

5. Decriminalize drugs. The so-called “war on drugs” is a stupid, wasteful, morally-driven element of our government that has produced very little good for the nation and its citizens. Eliminating it would free billions of dollar for other purposes (including better drug education), and would have a positive impact on the environment by not poisoning both land and crops from the Andes to Afghanistan. Lastly: tax recreational drugs, thus generating revenue at both the federal and state levels.

6. The next big domestic priorities are bundled: jobs and education, as I wrote a few years ago. We need a system that honestly recognizes that not every member of our nation needs a college education for employment purposes – and where not having a college degree does not automatically condemn them to a low-wage life. We need talented vocational workers as much as college- and graduate-educated managers and leaders. Not every American is highly intelligent (just look at President Bush), and not every American will succeed equally, but we can do a better job helping everyone succeed enough to be contributing members of society.

7. Once we have addressed the challenge of educating people for non-white collar jobs, we need to help them keep those jobs and protect them from harm. To do so, we need to fix the laws governing unionization. Unions have done a lot to help clean up labor abuses in this country, but they've also wrought a lot of damage, too. The laws should be changed to allow unions to form more easily, so that companies like WalMart cannot block them so easily; at the same time, the laws must protect those workers who do not want to unionize, and more flexibly allow firms to hire non-union workers.

8. Immigration. Allow it, more of it. (Even Lou Dobbs comes from a family of immigrants.) Immigrants do compete for jobs, yes; but they also bring new skills, new ideas, and new cultural elements that make our society stronger by increasing its diversity. Moreover, the best antidote to illegal immigration is legal immigration. Our system should be flexible enough to accommodate both those who wish to live here permanently, and those who wish to come, work, and eventually return home.

9. Of the eight items outlined above, all of them depend on the degree to which we Americans have and exercise the freedom and liberty that is our Constitutional right. We need a president and a Congress (to say nothing of a judicial system) the remembers and understands that the Constitutional protections offered to American citizens are ours, not theirs: protections against intrusive government, not protections for government action. This holds true regardless of whether there is a “war on drugs” or a “war on terror” taking place.

10. The last item for the domestic agenda is also the segue to our foreign policy priorities: globalization and the environment. The two go together because solving the latter involves components of the former. We Americans need to accept the truth about the term globalization: it represents change that is here to stay, and so much the better. Globalization does have risks, but its benefits are greater, increasing the availability of (economic) opportunities for people everywhere. We need to use foreign policy, and the economic components of globalization, to protect ourselves and our environment, including addressing the overuse of fossil fuels and the imbalance in their use between the United States, western Europe, and nations that are just now undergoing massive movements of industrialization and urbanization.

It doesn’t all sound that difficult, does it?

10 August 2007

Tasty Cakes & Bitter Ale

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

To say that W. Somerset Maugham had an incredible way with language is rather silly: silly because it is both so obvious and so much an understatement of the author’s skill. Critical to Maugham’s long-term success was his concision, as he evolved from verbosity in Of Human Bondage to the very sharp and precise – almost but not quite spare – language of novels like The Razor’s Edge.

Cakes and Ale is another of his slim, focused novels, in which the author (in the role of William Ashenden) shifts ably between telling two stories – his own, and the intersection of his own and his characters’ – while gently philosophizing about the world. I should say that the version I read suffers (lightly) from a terrible back-of-book summary by publisher Vintage: it suggests that the core of the story is about an author’s attempt to write a biography of a famous Victorian novelist by the name of “Edward Driffield,” and the troubles he runs into when he begins to learn some of the truths about that Driffield’s very promiscuous first wife, Rosie. (The Wikipedia entry for the book also reinforces this sense of the plot direction.) At some level, this is accurate; but more than anything else, Cakes and Ale is a story of a young, enchanted, and somewhat bittersweet love affair, and it is the relationship between Ashenden and Rosie, the aforementioned first wife, that carries the action along.

Well, that ... and Maugham’s wit. In contemporary terms, you might say that Maugham was very fond of verbal riffing, of meandering into a subject or a tangent area of a subject, and then running with it for a page or two until he had played out the idea. Sometimes these are serious diversions, connected to an underlying philosophical point he wants to make about the nature of the world. In three pages, Maugham skewers both the idea of an inherent respect for the old – “A man who is a politician at forty is a statesman at three score and ten.” – and the idea that writers “should be more esteemed the older they grow.” (Page 142.) [Note: all page references are to this version of the book.] Often these jabs are simply fun, the humorous expressions of ideas that make one laugh at both their cleverness, playfulness, and inherent truth. For instance, on page 136 , Ashenden tells the reader about the characters in Driffield’s stories, and writes:

His women difficultly come to life. But here again I must add that this is only my own opinion; the world at large and the most eminent critics have agreed that they are very winsome types of English womanhood, spirited, gallant, high-souled, and they have been often compared with the heroines of Shakespeare. We know of course that women are habitually constipated, but to represent them in fiction as being altogether devoid of a back passage seems to me really an excess of chivalry. I am surprised that they care to see themselves thus limned.

Even though the basis for this passage is (arguably) the fictional novels of a fictional novelist, Maugham nonetheless renders one of the sharpest and most concise critiques of the portrayal of women in literature I have yet read. (One wonders what would have happened had Maugham met Toni Bentley.) It is incredibly astute, skillfully constructed, and hysterically funny. Only a few pages later, Maugham swings in a slightly different direction, taking whack at the equally boring idea that the most important thing in life is beauty, writing that “There is really nothing to be said about it. It is like the perfume of a rose: you can smell it and that is all: that is why the criticism of art, except in so far as it is unconcerned with beauty and therefore with art, is tiresome.” (Page 140.) Two sentences and several clauses later, and whatever one’s expectations about the world, they might just have shifted. Take that, Keats.

What is more remarkable, however, is that over the story’s remaining pages, Maugham makes the case for this perspective (and without referring back to it). His declaration about beauty serves as an underlying theme, as Maugham’s Ashenden lays out the case for his entangled affair with Rosie, whose very beauty derived in large measure from her lack of those same qualities. Rosie is radiant, with a phenomenal smile, but it is her personality – her love of life, not any external beauty – that defines who she is as a person and even how and why she is so promiscuous. “Let’s have a good time while we can,” says she. (Page 231.)

Even a kiss from Rosie leaves Ashenden with more than just the memory of that act: “It was not a hurried peck, nor was it a kiss of passion. ... I accepted her kiss stupidly. I remained inert. I turned away and walked back to my lodgings. I seemed to hear still in my ears Rosie’s laughter. It was not contemptuous or wounding, but frank and affectionate; it was as though she laughed because she was fond of me.” (Page 211.) As the reader, there were moments when I felt much the same way: present for the affair, stunned by its suddenness in so many ways, and thinking about – indeed, wholly absorbed by – the lustrous love that Rosie offered to Ashenden, and to the world.


Cakes and Ale sparkles with love, joy, and and a keen awareness of the value of what remains unknown and unstated. It may not be Maugham’s strongest work, but it is a wonderful story and a refreshing summer read.