Snarky Behavior

Entries tagged as ‘politics’

Political Pandering

September 27, 2007 · 1 Comment

I had the opportunity to meet with the communications director for one of the major presidential candidates yesterday, and it was really quite jarring how much emphasis this person placed on issue framing.

First of all, the sit-down confirmed my suspicion that political campaigns for front-runners are reactive and not pro-active… they work from the unitary level of the median voter and then craft rhetoric that appeals to pre-confirmed emotive psychologies.

To differentiate: a pro-active approach would be more about re-framing issues and inspiring people to think about issues and consider outside of their prejudices.

The pro-active approach of course is the truly “rational” tactic because reason requires choice, and choice requires consideration, or thought, between two or more ideas. The reactive approach is completely rhetorical and crafts messaging around what people want to hear, as teased out in meta-analysis of blogs, focus group testing, issue polling, etc.

Of course the reactive approach is completely rhetorical. Candidates can say one thing and mean something completely different. They can emphasize a value even if it’s ordinally and/or cardinally ranked far below another, sometimes conflicting value.

In his book “The Political Brain,” author Drew Westin says, “ in politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins.” Take for instance the issue of security. The psychology of the conservative brain is hard-wired to be more cognizant of its own mortality, and thus react harshly to images and signifiers of death. Republicans won in 2004 by reminding their base of the spontaneous and unexpected nature of terrorism, as demonstrated by the attacks of September 11, 2001. Democrats lost because they tried to attack an emotive issue (unexpected death and destruction) with a rational one (no strong causal link to Iraq, poor information management and leadership allowed cracks in security, etc.)

Now Republicans have the uphill battle because they’re fighting against the emotive response of betrayal and lack of trust, not to mention the “us vs. them” populism sweeping through the nation.

I don’t know what to make of this. People obviously express a preference for hearing what they want to hear. This leads to two problems: 1) candidates say things for effect, and not to explain their true positions or intentions, which leaves the voters feeling betrayed and apathetic toward the political process (a “sticky downward” cycle); and 2) candidates promise things based on rhetoric that they can’t feasibly deliver on (i.e. Clinton’s universal health care in ‘96, Bush’s democratization of the Middle East in 2003). Which leads to emotions of betrayal and anger (I doubt voters would be as angry as they currently are about a manufactured war based on false evidence if things were actually going as planned in Iraq).

Is that the evolving nature of democracy, or can something be done? Policy experts are always clamoring for more “transparency,” but is that really a consumer preference? Or would transparency be yet another aspect of democracy that Americans take for granted, and not actually exercise?

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Dropping Knowledge: The US Deficit

September 14, 2007 · 3 Comments

Dropping Knowledge: where I “laymenize” an important aspect of social science.

I like the idea of “dropping knowledge” because I can share some of the (extremely expensive) information I’m obtaining via my Ivy experience with my friends who are bored out of their skulls while still in the “working” world.

I feel it necessary to preface every one of these posts with “I’m not an expert” and “I haven’t yet been exposed to all of the sides of this issue.” Nevertheless, I strongly disdain the assumption that one must first be “an expert” to participate in what turn out to be extremely important discussions about the current and future states of affairs of our country and world. Moreover, that’s what the comments section is for.

Wednesday in economics class my professor went on an extremely interesting tangent while discussing the “Wealth of Nations” (specifically Balance of Payments).

Everyone should know, if not understand, that the United States government is running a massive deficit of over $9 trillion dollars. The human brain isn’t wired to understand numbers that big, but it calculates out to about $30,000 per US citizen.

The deficit that is referenced in this instance is related to an economic term called “Government Savings,” which is calculated by taking tax revenue and subtracting government spending, transactions and interest payments. This creates a running balance over all years. Pretty straightforward.

There is another “twin” deficit that most people are familiar with to a lesser extent, which measures the “Current Account” balance of the US. This balance is calculated in several ways, but the easiest way to understand it is as follows: the US imports way more than it exports, it saves (both as a government [see above], and as individual citizens) less than it invests, and it issues bonds to the rest of the world (most notably China and Saudi Arabia) to finance its spending.

The US is therefore the world’s biggest borrower. We borrow from the rest of the world to finance our consumption and government expenditures (including the war in Iraq, which is about 5% of our current annual budget).

What typically happens to borrowers that continue to spend, without the ability to pay of their debts, is that they are slowly denied credit. First their interest rates jump. Then, the money flow stops. Their assets are repossessed and sold. And their standard of living is adjusted downward, accordingly.

It’s a scary thought to recognize that our current standard of living in the US is financed on borrowed time. If at any point China decides that it’s militarily ready to assume the unipoloar position of the world’s hegemon, it could (hypothetically) collect full payment on all of the US treasury notes it’s snatched up over the past decade, and bankrupt the US. 1929 all over again.

So someone asked our professor: should we be worried?

“Yes,” he said.

I was shocked. You never get definitive answers from economists.

Of course, he qualified himself: there are factors in play that make the US a “most favored nation,” and “dark-matter” components that aren’t being factored in when calculating the US’ deficit.

The most favored nation concept is easy enough to understand: China wouldn’t want to financially bankrupt the US, because the US is such a huge, integrated part of the global economy that the world couldn’t sustain its collapse. Moreover, countries continue to consider the US treasury bond the safest way to diversify their portfolios, and can’t invest fast enough (at extremely low rates, by the way).

This foreign investment concept ties into the “dark-matter” factors: the largest of which is cash liquidity. You see, the most diversified of all US liabilities is the dollar note itself: many countries prefer to use the dollar as a stable currency, and the dollar bears no interest. The US is providing a liquidity service to the rest of the world that is not being taken into consideration when calculating the “Current Account” balance above. Moreover, the US provides the rest of the world with various “intangible” services such as intellectual property, higher education and “the American brand.” It seems we haven’t squandered all of our good will by haphazardly starting a war in the Middle East.

So these are the high-falutin issues that economists discuss amongst themselves. They all seem to agree that a high deficit is risky, but there is no consensus of just how risky it really is.

As for myself, I’m one to believe that the Bush tax-cuts have served their purpose in stimulating the economy post-9/11 (even though he proposed them pre-9/11), and that their roll-over nature is extremely dangerous. It’s time to nip this deficit in the bud.

Moreover, there’s a national discussion going around after the census released data showing that GDP was up, but real incomes at all but the highest brackets remained stagnant… and last month saw the first net job loss in God knows how long.

Since when did Democrats become the party of fiscal responsibility?

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The Sexy Appeal of Libertarianism

July 17, 2007 · Leave a Comment

The blue-blood/hipster divide in Washington really got me thinking: just what exactly is it about this city that attracts young, pretentious, unattractive kids to come here straight out of college?

[Imagine me, in a world without laziness, creating a venn-diagram with the overlapping categories of "young"," pretentious," and "unattractive." Thanks.]

And yes, I have considered that I may very well exist in that tri-overlap (along with most hipsters and blue-bloods), or at least very close to it. But I’ve already explained my reasons for coming to DC , which provide us with little insight when we’re attempting to extrapolate to the aggregate.

Strictly on the basis of presumptive-subjective analysis (my favorite brand of social science), I would venture to guess that these people (who, let’s be clear, are the Young Republican/Model UN/Mock Trial kids in college) feel the need to justify their Political Science BA (or more appropriately, BS) degree by finding employment directly in the field. They are freshly branded ideologues armed with the philosophical absolutes of Kant, Rawls, Hume, Dewey and Struess to inform their politics.

When the bambinos actually get to DC, they find the city full of wonks who have long since ditched most political philosophy, or at least boiled all concepts down to simple practicums that can be defended with a casual understanding of Adam Smith, Milton Friedman and (surprisingly) Woodrow Wilson on the right, and John Maynard Keynes and JS Mills on the left. Commitment to moral absolutes is traded in for commitment to party, a crash course of real-politik and pragmatism ensues, and after two years, every headstrong idealist who hasn’t already defected to law school is a humorless, pessimistic, cynical (pretentious, ugly, still young) wreck.

But why the hipster/blue-blood divide? Once the passionate idealists recognize that passionate idealism is summarily and universally mocked/scorned by all parties, they are desperate to self-congregate in circles of like-minded people and hone the skills of sarcasm, feigned outrage, ironic humor, etc., etc. that passes for indignation or passion amongst DC’s bourgeoisie class. That, and the drinking/casual sex. That’s important too.

But you know who never abandon their roots? Libertarians. Those bow-tie freaks.

You may or may not have heard that the Libertarian candidate for President (Ron Paul) recently surpassed the former Republican front-runner (John McCain) in both quarterly fund-raising and cash-on-hand.

Now, the rational part of my brain recognizes Paul as a traditional muck-racker, redefining his party’s philosophical base (which had been wrenched away by neo-conservatives). The irrational part honestly believes that Paul is more than an idea broker— he really thinks he can win, and he really would enact all of the restrictions on government which he espouses. (Note: this would leave me FUCKED. Paul wants to abolish the Department of Education, which I indirectly work for currently… and he wants to end all financial aid, which will be putting food on my table over the next two years).

Most libertarians fall in one of two camps: the John Wayne or the Ayn Rand. Paul is a John Wayne libertarian. He just wants the gahbermant to git’ff is back. Taxes? Too much. War abroad? It’s a sandbox, we don’t need any. Pretty simple stuff.

The Ayn Rand Objectivists are a different breed, although they arrive at nearly identical conclusions. They are equally suspicious of government regulation, which stifles the entrepreneurial spirit. All difficult policy decisions can and should be made on the basis of the self-interested individual. Greed is good. Etc., etc.

The simplicity and unambiguity of the political philosophy is astounding. And, as the post title says, it has great “sex appeal.” Especially for me, being from the OC and all.

The reason I am NOT a Libertarian? It’s an incomplete philosophy. It doesn’t account for market failures that bedevil the capitalistic system. It doesn’t provide for a safety net. And it unwisely assumes that everyone acts in their own rational self-interest.

But, I will admit, the political philosophy of “soft paternalism” seems right up my alley. As it turns out, Libertarian Paternalism Is Not An Oxymoron.

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Oh, Libby Me Scooter! Libbymetimbers!

July 3, 2007 · 2 Comments

There’s a TON of reaction out there to the use of executive clemency for Scooter Libby. Reading through all of it, I just feel kinda numb.

You know how there are five stages of grief? I propose that there have been five stages of “Reactions to the Bush Administration.”

Stage 1. Denial – The first stage is, “nah, they wouldn’t really do that.” It seems too far-fetched, too underhanded to believe. Would the Vice-President really leak the name of an under-cover agent as retaliation against her diplomat husband, just because he was the first to publicly discredit the thread-bare justification for rushing to war in Iraq? Would the country really go to war based on that “evidence”?

Bush is the decision maker! He makes the decisions! We’re at war, it’s a tough job, and I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Stage 2. Dejection – The second stage is, “OK, I guess they would do that. Wow. I can’t wait for 2008.”

Stage 3. Humor – In the court of public opinion, it’s the court jester who most articulately encapsulates the melancholy dejection of the disenfranchised. Stephen Colbert’s White House Correspondence speech was the pinnacle of this stage– ridiculing the administration for its pomposity, foolhardiness and overall arrogance.

Stage 4. Anger - “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.” Very true.

Actually, I have a go-to joke whenever one of my friends is losing money in Vegas: “I’d like you to take a look at some reading material… it’s called ‘When the Fun Stops.’” (That’s a brochure produced by Gamblers-Anonymous made mandatory to be provided in casinos by the Nevada Gaming Commission).

Well, the fun has stopped. Bush lied, people died.

Stage 5. Depression – I guess that’s where we’re all headed. At the end of the day, after the anger subsides, after all of the hand-wringing and calls for impeachment, and after all of the lamenting over how this administration has made a mockery of the Constitution (even going as far to proclaim a “fourth branch of government,” aka the Cheney corollary to the Montesquieu doctrine)… nothing happens.

Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

All in the name of “executive privilege,” which sounds like something Stalin would write on his own birthday cake.

The most depressing part? Here’s what our president had to say on the matter:

Others point out that a jury of citizens weighed all the evidence and listened to all the testimony and found Mr. Libby guilty of perjury and obstructing justice. They argue, correctly, that our entire system of justice relies on people telling the truth. And if a person does not tell the truth, particularly if he serves in government and holds the public trust, he must be held accountable.

Loyal readers may recall a post written previously about how basketball is no fun unless everyone competes. As soon as one of the parties involved stops abiding by the unspoken rules of the game (i.e. compete), the game itself disintegrates.

It works the same way in politics. The strength of our system is in its fundamental laws, and in the trust and faith we place in the Constitution. The strength of our system does not stem from the men and women who assume the offices constructed by those laws. When men and women act outside of the boundaries of the rules, both spoken and unspoken, the system disintegrates.

That’s something to think about this 4th of July. And on the first Tuesday in November, 2008.

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Thoughts on Mayor Adrian Fenty

June 19, 2007 · Leave a Comment

DC’s 6th Mayor, Adrian Fenty

Let me preface this post by admitting the following: I am (relatively) willfully ignorant when it comes to local DC politics. I embody the transient white yuppy who drives up rental prices in gentrified…er… transitioning neighborhoods, doesn’t attend neighborhood meetings, and doesn’t vote (although I foolishly registered after renewing my license and immediately received jury summons… rookie mistake!)

I don’t read the Examiner, and I certainly don’t read the Currant or whatever the crappy Dupont paper is called. I’ll read the City Paper (which is really well done) while eating at Subway, and will even read the Washington Blade (for sheer amusement) while at Health Bar… which only propagates the “is Jon gay?” speculation.

My two saving graces are the Washington Post and DCist. Without them I wouldn’t have the requisite basic information to be entitled to any sort of opinion on how this city is run. And yes, I am a strong believer that one must first be informed to be entitled to an opinion.

Now, the Post has been very measured in its reporting on Fenty up until this week. He came into office with youth, energy and boundless ambition. Much was made of his self-styling after Bloomberg, and his intention to take executive control over the school district a la Villaragosa. WaPo, from my perspective, seemed perfectly comfortable admiring his command-and-control style and reporting on his high-visibility, without delving too deeply into any hard criticisms. (Note: Links not provided due to laziness)

Last week the gloves came off when Fenty officially took control of the schools and named a government outsider (Michelle Rhee) as Chancellor of the system. From all accounts, Rhee is an all-star in the non-profit sector. But, 1) she has virtually no experience in government administration 2) she’s not Black and 3) she was selected by Fenty in relative secrecy.

For me, 1) is probably a good thing; 2) could be a stumbling block in this city (see: Gallaudet University) and 3) is a who cares, especially if you’re making concessions to executive authority (he’s “the decision maker… he makes the decisions.”) Ha.

Now, the former editor-in-chief of DCist seemed skeptical of Fenty’s philosophy of reform, as embodied by his recent appointments in positions of leadership. He writes:

The revitalization and reform work is, of course, in addition to Fenty’s normal responsibilities, his barnstorming schedule of public appearances, and other important initiatives like crime reduction and the work to get a voting rights bill through Congress. Clearly it’s more than one man can handle, which means that the Mayor must rely on his staff to pick up much of the load and to see through many of the ambitious changes he seeks.

Certainly, Fenty is smart to focus talent where it’s needed most, but the strategy of finding administrators with a “sense of urgency,” as Dan Tangherlini puts it, quickly runs into difficulty. On the one hand, supremely talented men and women are unlikely to stay around long. Lew, and Rhee, and Tangherlini (and Fenty for that matter) will almost assuredly hold their posts for under a decade, and probably less than that. If reforms are dependent upon the individuals who hold leadership posts, then reform will be fleeting.

As I read this, I couldn’t decide if this was a valid assumption or not. Can’t reformers be tornadoes that sweep through an organization and rip out its systemic flaws?

For instance: Isn’t there something to be said about establishing a precedent of strong leadership? Don’t business organizations hire outside consultants all of the time to analyze and restructure their hierarchies and procedures?

Some of the other points I found salient, such as reforming the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs instead of hiring someone who is familiar with how to grease the wheels. But for the most part, I couldn’t help but feel, as well reported as the piece was, that it was needless griping. Strong organizational reform always occurs from the top-down, and that’s what Fenty is trying to accomplish. I applaud him for it.


My step-mom asked me to dispel the myth that civil servants “can’t be fired.” Yes, they can be fired, it just takes a long and intensive process of documenting incompetence. She says that the best managers within bureaucracies take the time to do this (instead of just shuffling people from department to department), and that it’s this shuffling around at the low- and mid-levels that you should be concerned about (not at the top, where there is the most visibility and transparency). So there.

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Faux Pas Your Way to the White House

May 18, 2007 · 2 Comments

It’s great to be here in San Francisco!
–Bob Dole, upon arriving in San Diego for the 1996 GOP Convention

Before puberty dealt me a cruel fate of acne, bitch tits and a bear-suit, I was kind of a big deal. As a much-revered fourth-grader, I served as Vice-President of Kate Sessions Elementary School.

I just reeked of rich mahogany.

In grade 5, I decided to throw my hat in the ring for the position of President. Ostensibly, I ran on the platform of better popsicle options, more homework passes, and new basketball nets. Truly, a man of the people.

I’ll spare you the suspense and tell you that I won… but, my administration was rife with scandal. (Let me explain: at every weekly assembly, the homework passes that we implemented were drawn “randomly” out of a giant box by myself and my cabinet. The lucky winners were awarded a night free from homework obligations. Allegations of nepotism were charged when it was observed that the winning tickets frequently belonged to my friends. On closer inspection, many of the tickets contained large globs of dried glue that gave them a distinguishing tactile characteristic. I don’t recall the specific nature of these events, and cannot comment further).

But that is neither here nor there. The point of this post is to highlight my captivating stump speech that undoubtedly secured me my position of power. The closing line was: “If nothing else, as your current Vice-President, at least I know how to spell potato.”

This was, of course, a jab at then Vice-President of the United States Dan Quayle, who had recently committed the faux pas of “correcting” a student’s spelling while on some photo-op in a public school. Quayle was mercilessly mocked by the mainstream media to the point that the joke was salient to an audience of 8, 9 and 10 year-olds. He lost the respect of the country and his party over a commonly misspelled tuber.

15 years later, there is a cottage industry (Daily Show and Colbert Report) mocking the unintelligible things our President says on a DAILY BASIS.

I just wanted to bring this up so that when we hear news stories on how “clean” Obama is, or how Hil-dog “ain’t feel no ways tired,” or how Edwards spent $400 on a haircut, or how Brownback doesn’t know who Brett Favre is, or how McCain “WALNUTS!” himself, or how Tommy Thomson thinks “earning money is part of the Jewish tradition,” or how mid-west women find Mitt Romney “hot with classically natural graying temples and jet-black hair,” or how Giuliani is a ferret-hating adulterer with the world’s most complicated position on abortion…

These people aren’t infallible. They’re going to make mistakes. They have people managing their gaffes and flubs, but damage control is impossible in today’s environment. And the opposition pays people (Swiftboat anyone?) to exploit their faux pas.

The lesson? Take a page from the Bush play-book and learn some self-deprecation. Take the issues seriously, but give yourself some wiggle room for error.

Seriously Edwards, would it have killed you to go on Leno and say, “Yeah this haircut cost me $400… but I’m dead sexy.”?

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