30 November 2008

The Big Ideas

A.D. Freudenheim

It is Thanksgiving weekend, and the flow of news is relentless; fortunately, most sources of news have on/off switches. Between the terror in Mumbai and the terrifying news about how much (or little) Americans are shopping, or how they feel about the economy, it’s enough to push me back to eating turkey. Amidst all the chaos and tryptophan, however, one small idea emerges: we might be out of big ideas.

Not to be a total downer, but seriously, it seems like there aren’t any new ideas. Back in 2007 we started out with a few, mostly on offer from the various presidential candidates. “Hope” and “change” became the biggest, with “competence” playing a bit part. (Some candidates who might have done well sticking to the competence argument went for rabid ideology instead, and flamed out; c.f., Mitt Romney.) Except that once one scratches the surface, there is the inescapable realization that hope, change, and competence are not really ideas. They’re more like aspirations. It’s sad that mere competence is something to which we must now aspire, but we know to whom we owe our thanks on that front.

What else then? There’s banking reform (or re-reform); certainly an idea, if not a terribly innovative one. Corporate bailouts, whether for insurance companies or automobile manufacturers, are also not especially radical—unless you’re the taxpayer footing the bill, in which case these are radical enough that you should be very afraid. Even changes to our health care or Social Security systems (of whatever kind) might be considered revolutionary but are not, in any case, new ideas. We have been down these roads before, for better or worse and with mixed results.

So, will President-elect Obama “save” us—from ourselves?
The Obama campaign was predicated on the idea that changing the people and the “tone” in federal politics would start us on a path towards recovery. Conceptually this is true: if ideas and actions, for good or ill, come from people, then changing those people might make a difference. Still, looking back on the campaign, it is clear that for all of the grand aspiration represented by the word “change,” the policy approach of the Obama team was largely pragmatic, focused on the minutia of effective management.

Increasingly, I am coming to the conclusion that this is not a bad thing. It might even be a good thing. After almost eight years of the George W. Bush administration’s utter mismanagement of government, competence remains the most striking and important feature for the incoming team. I would rather have competence and intellectual flexibility than big ideas. I would rather that our politicians attempt to address the current crisis pragmatically than resort to a complicated, government-growing new New Deal in an attempt to remake our society. We don’t need that right now—and the New Deal (regardless of whether one likes it or not) was anything but pragmatic. Moreover, such large government programs inevitably tend to restrict our freedoms, because the cost of implementation is usually choice: choice in how to save or spend our income; choice in how we manage our health and medical treatments; the choice not to be identified according to our Social Security number … and thus denying ourselves access to a wide range of goods and services; choice across a spectrum of areas for which we take our freedom—and our responsibility—for granted. Until those freedoms disappear.
In an extensive essay in the December 2008 issue of Reason Magazine, titled “The Libertarian Moment,” Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch make an argument for why “America is poised to enter a new age of freedom.” I hope they are right. But to move in this direction, our new president and the nation he will lead must come to terms with a different kind of reality and a different approach to governance—one that (as I wrote last week) puts aside fear, and also accepts that the slogans of politics do not usually make the strongest platforms for actual governance.

The new issue of n+1 (number 7) is out, and the front section (“The Intellectual Situation”; not available online as of this writing) contains a short, sweet analysis of our present, um, situation—that is, of America in a post-cold war world and the narrative that a Reaganite America has adopted to explain both our success and the Soviets’ failure. The authors write “This story … did America the disservice of recasting it in the image made for us by our former adversaries: that of the capitalist imperialist. With the invasion of Iraq, we at last fully embraced the caricature.” The analysis continues, drawing some good parallels and noteworthy points, and the section concludes with the following sentence: “We want our new President to be an American Gorbachev—to preserve the country by changing it—if only it’s not too late for him to avoid Gorbachev’s fate.”

We may disagree on some specifics; the larger point holds. America needs a break with many of the idiotic and failing ideologies of the last half-century, which have culminated in the Bush-Cheney imperium. It is over, it has crashed rather magnificently, indeed it continues to crash. And the rebuilding needs to be something more than a political version of The Seven-Hundred Million Dollar Man, more than a set of “fixes” that result from throwing money at a problem.

23 November 2008

Obama’s Next Steps

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Looking ahead to President-elect Barack Obama’s first term, I am struck by two over-arching areas in which Obama’s impact might be greatest—depending on the decisions he makes.

Part 1. Liberal, or Liberal?

The first of these comes down to the question: will Obama govern as a liberal as defined in its 20th century American sense, or as a “liberal” in the classical, more European sense?

During the campaign, Senator Obama’s Republican opponents sought to paint a picture of him as an American liberal of the worst sort, prone to group think (for voting with his party on legislation) and on the far-left fringe of American political sensibilities: a supporter of all of the terrible, individualistic rights that conservatives claim have degraded our society, while being a supporter of greater government intervention. They even retreated so far into such (stale) accusations that they called him a “socialist,’ a label that might have had more impact 40 years ago.

Based on his Senate voting record, there is certainly evidence of Obama’s American-liberal tendencies. Clearly, this did not matter to the American people right now, since Obama won the election handily. At the same time, Americans might also hope that, once in office, Obama may decide to govern as a liberal in the classical sense. I would define this very simply as:
  • Having a clear understanding of—and respect for—the differences and distinctions between public and private spheres of life.
  • Viewing the government as a valuable tool for ensuring political stability through the rule of law—but as the tool of last resort for solving economic problems or deliberating on social issues.
Or, to put this in a very American framework: Obama should govern such that the right to the pursuit of happiness is defined by the individuals or communities doing the pursuing, rather than the government’s definition of “happiness.”

Here are just a few examples of what this would mean in the context of the present-day life of America:
  • Reevaluate the financial “bailout” plan and the idea of government investments in companies with questionable stability or long-term prospects. Instead, use this money to incentivize private investment, research and development, and private-sector job creation.
  • Similarly, allow General Motors, Ford Motor Company, or Chrysler to “fail,” i.e., to declare bankruptcy—and use government resources for (re)training for those employees who lose their jobs.
  • Reform our “Social Security” system so that it focuses on care and support for America’s neediest—with incentives for saving, allowing people to manage their own money for their own long-term needs.
  • Equal access to health care is one of the few things that meets the test of a basic civic good—because a healthy society cannot exist without healthy individuals. Therefore, Obama should completely re-evaluate the government’s role in this area.
  • End the endless gay marriage argument by eliminating civil marriage altogether.
  • Pursue a similar approach to other socio-religious issues, so that we simultaneously allow individual discrimination (in all senses of the term) on specific issues while maintaining government neutrality and openness. From abortion to stem cell research to religious monuments in public parks, our Constitution provides a remarkably clear-headed (and very liberal) guide, and we should use it more often.

Part 2. End The Fear

None of this will matter very much if we do not put an end to another big obstacle and George W. Bush legacy: government-enforced fear. For more than a year now, America’s ever-helpful Department of Homeland Security has been running a series of bus stop and phone booth ads in New York (and, presumably, elsewhere too) promoting its “ready.gov” website. Months ago, I took a picture of the first ad, because I found it so striking; recently, a second ad has been introduced, after a brief lull in trying to scare us with black and white and red letters.

I have nothing against preparedness or planning, and I certainly agree that small businesses can be disproportionately affected by a disaster. But billboards are unlikely to frighten us into preparedness, any more than “just say no” slogans will make people stop doing drugs. Ads like this will either raise people’s level of anxiety and insecurity—surely no help to greater planning, preparedness, or productivity—or lull them into a profound sense of ennui about the whole prospect of being fearful. Neither is a particularly good outcome.

All of which leads to a bigger and more important question anyway: doesn’t the Department of Homeland Security have better things to do with its money than spend it on advertising?

16 November 2008


As you can read over here, I have been dealing with some computer issues lately. This has put a bit of a crimp in my writing this week.

So: further thoughts on Obama, American politics, and the state of the world … coming soon, now that I’m mostly up-and-running again.

09 November 2008

Victorious Defeats

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Part one of a multi-part series. First, a look forward by peering backwards.

It’s possible that the three best outcomes from Senator Barack Obama’s victory on Tuesday will be: the death of the cynical and nasty style of politics represented by Karl Rove; the death of micro-bullshit lie-telling politics, as epitomised by Mark Penn; and the conclusion of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s proto-dynasty. If that makes it sound like I am ignoring all of the other things a President Obama might achieve, well, for the moment you’re right. But these three outcomes stem directly from the strength of Obama’s campaign and the results he achieved—whereas everything else, from world peace to a cooler planet to “saving” the American economy depend drastically on the cooperation of more than a few other people.

Believe it or not, these three outcomes were more directly under Obama’s control. I will also be happy (if not wholly satisfied) if these three things remain true in four or eight years: on their own they represent the greater possibility for change our future.
Take the first one: the cynical and nasty political tactics that have been deployed in the United States since Lee Atwater made the already-flaccid Michael Dukakis look like a pansy. (And by pansy I don’t mean a homosexual. I mean a pansy: a nice-looking but ultimately weak flower with a very limited season.) The rise of Karl Rove under President George W. Bush represented the nadir of political corruption and dishonesty. This is true not because the Republican party necessarily sought to enrich themselves (though some did that, too), but because Bush, Rove, Vice President Cheney, and the GOP as a whole brought the misuse of facts, language, and reality to new heights—levels unimagined since George Orwell was dreaming about big brothers and animal hierarchies. Under Bush, lies evolved from things-you-say-to-escape-blame (cf., Richard Nixon) to things-you-say-to-get-your-way. Democracy was not a value, and transparency (e.g., a government of, by, and for the people) was sacrificed for the people. Or so we were told, and so for at least a few years Americans apparently believed.

I have little trouble believing that Senator John McCain wanted to run a cleaner campaign. It seems not far-fetched that the spinmeisters sent in from the Republican National Committee to try to paint Obama as a terrorist, or a socialist, or a ... whatever ... it seems not far-fetched that McCain did not want these folks around, and yet had no choice (given the financial resources of the RNC) but to accept. Either way, the American people have spoken, and by a wider majority than this nation has seen in years we have rejected the politics of the nasty, of the slimy, and of the under-handed, in favor of a candidate and a campaign that eschewed these tactics. That alone deserves a hallelujah.
This is not to pretend that the Obama campaign did not run advertisements that were “edgy” or misleading. It did. But the majority of the Obama campaign focused on promoting Senator Obama and his agenda—not on slapping down opponent McCain. As Obama himself observed in a debate with McCain, the Republican nominee spent as much time talking about Obama as about himself.

The same can be said for Senator Hillary Clinton, who found herself thrown off course by Obama’s singular focus in the primaries. Clinton was famously relying in part on advice from a strategist who believes that by segmenting the population into smaller and smaller slices, one can achieve great results. What the Penn strategy seems to have underestimated is the ability of the population as a whole to connect the dots of the deception(s) required for such a strategy to work. Especially after 7 years of George W. Bush as president.

You can fool some of the people all of the time, and (perhaps) all of the people some of the time. But you’ll be up shit’s creek without a paddle if you try telling lots of different groups of people lots of different things; eventually, these details will start to contradict each other (and thus yourself). What Obama knew that Clinton did not was: himself. Obama seemed to feel little need to be someone different at each gathering, and while he was criticized for his poor bowling technique or his failure to evidence a lot of joy drinking beer in a bar ... he knew what he wanted to do as president. (And it wasn’t any of those things.)

So, good riddance to the tactics of micro-lying. Long may they be banished, from politics if nothing else.
This gets me to my last point. Like her husband, Ms. Clinton seems a politician willing to sacrifice principles for expediency. (Think “gas tax holiday.”) The trend of expediency is surely not dead; it’s all too human for that. But if the collapse of the Clinton campaign represents the end to wider Clintonian political ambitions, that too is a great benefit to our nation, and a result of Obama’s success.

It means we have finally pushed past the Baby Boomer generation—a generation shared by the Clintons and George W. Bush, even if they would like to pretend such commonalities do not exist. President-elect Obama represents something else altogether. There will be mistakes, no doubt. But it is difficult to imagine a President Obama overlooking a memo suggesting that Al Qaeda is about to attack using airplanes, or engaging in propagandistic folly similar to President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” mishap, or getting a blow-job from an intern working in the Oval Office, or ... well, it’s a long list, really.

Yes, mistakes will surely be made. Personally, though, I am ready for some new mistakes—and to bury the old ones. To paraphrase the Lame Duck-in-Chief: “bring it on.”

05 November 2008


After 7+ years of cynical Bush-Cheney-Rove politics, I remain stunned
and excited this morning that Obama has won. It represents a
vindication of so many different issues and perspectives that it's
hard to tease it all apart.

But try I will. I am traveling now, so look for more on this by week's

04 November 2008

Obama Wins

1. There is justice in the world.

2. Listening to McCain, I am astonished. His speech suggests that
Obama's victory is an "African-American" victory and not an American
one. I think he thinks he is being graceful, not racist, but it
doesn't sound that way.

Voting Day Notes

1. I have been voting in NYC since 1996. Never have I seen so many
people at the polls.

2. At least at my polling station, things were *more* organized than
they have been in the past.

3. There were enough people that it took more than an hour to get
through, start to finish. (An hour well-spent, I might add.)

4. It's going to be a long night. But if the United States sets new
records for voter participation this year, it will be worth it.

03 November 2008

R U Like Me

Checking the news every few minutes? Expecting something - anything -
to happen? The waiting is definitely the hardest part right now!

02 November 2008


Check back on Wednesday for something - anything - new here.

(Or read my complaining about Dell computers over on the other side.)