Thursday, January 31, 2008

Thoughts on the Los Angeles Democratic Debate

A few random thoughts on tonight's Democratic debate in Los Angeles...

1. I thought Senator Clinton had the advantage on the first few questions involving healthcare.

2. Senator Obama's answers on the Iraq war were concise, thoughtful, and better than Senator Clinton's. I thought Senator Clinton just didn't have a good answer when asked to justify her vote on the Iraq war (and this was the 18th Democratic debate so if she doesn't have a good answer by now...)

3. I love, love, love hearing Senator Obama say, "And that's what I intend to do when I'm President of the United States." He delivers that line with such authority -- every single person in the room (including himself) can picture him as President.

4. CNN is a lousy choice to host the debate. CNN is bought and paid for by "Americans for Balanced Energy Choices" -- a coal industry lobbying group. As a result there were zero questions on global warming and zero questions on energy policy (and we were forced to watch propaganda pieces touting coal fired power plants during commercial breaks). Debates should NOT be sponsored in the first place -- THE PUBLIC OWNS THE AIRWAVES. If CNN or any other network doesn't want to carry a debate for free, I think we should just put a padlock on their doors and tell them that their broadcast license will not be renewed.

5. This is becoming a really tough decision. The Democratic Party has two extraordinary choices -- the best choices we've had in a Presidential race since 1968. There are important policy differences between the two but we're really in good hands with either one.

Update #1:

An astute reader pointed out that when Senator Clinton is asked about the vote to authorize the war in Iraq, she should say: "Barack Obama was not in the United States Senate in 2002. If he had been in the U.S. Senate, he would have voted the same way I did." Case closed. The more I think about it, the more I think it's the only answer that would work.

Obama Builds a Bridge to Terabithia? (Or is it a lot more clever than that?)

I have been a frequent critic of Senator Obama's messaging during this campaign. It seems to me that the fundamental premise of Obama's campaign -- that he somehow has a unique ability to bring this country together -- is flat out untrue. On withdrawal from Iraq, FISA reauthorization, and expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, Senator Obama was not able to bring a single Republican Senator over to our side (on each vote a few Republicans did vote on the Democratic side but they would have done so whether Obama was in the Senate or not). So it seems disingenuous for Senator Obama to make this claim the centerpiece of his campaign, when in fact, there is no evidence that his claim is true. And it frustrates me that traditional media pundits and many Democratic voters take Senator Obama's claim at face value because they seem to like the sound of it, without checking whether it has any resemblance to reality.

But there's a bit of a puzzle here because I like Senator Obama. He seems like a decent guy and not the sort of fellow who would create a narrative he knows isn't true just to get elected.

So then it hit me, Senator Obama isn't talking to Republican officeholders. He's talking directly to Republican voters. That's the thing that makes the statement true. Senator Obama has a unique ability to attract Republican voters and independents to vote for him. When he says 'let's bring the country together again' -- he's asking Republican voters to abandon their party and its nominee. Of course Obama can't just say to Republicans -- 'don't vote Republican, your party has a history of screwing you' (which is what Howard Dean said in 2004, and it was true, but we all know how that turned out). Instead he has to say, 'there's too much partisanship, join me and I'll bring the country together again' (because you just abandoned the party that was screwing you and the rest of America). I hope that's really what's going on here. If it's true, it's incredibly clever.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Must See Otter Video

Thus far, the RFK Action Front has not devoted much coverage to otters. We love otters of course, we just haven't had occasion to talk about them much ever. But Kos posted this video tonight and it's beautiful...

Isn't that really the world we're trying to create?

Friday, January 18, 2008

Send Lawyers, Guns, and (Sociopathic) Economists...

For a while now, I've been interested in the role of the those who rationalize empire. While soldiers are often sent in to seize the land -- I'm fascinated by the role of the white collar professionals who follow: the priests (who say it is God's will), the lawyers (who say the soldiers' actions were justified and set up rules to exploit the conquered people), and the economists (who say the exploited people are really better off now anyway). While the soldiers' actions are often the focus on the peace movement -- in many ways, I think the actions of the bureaucrats are often more insidious. The soldiers can kill you, but the bureaucrats are the ones who erase a people's history, colonize one's mind, and perpetuate injustice long after the soldiers have gone.

With that in mind I give you, "What to Expect When You're Free Trading" published on Wednesday in the NY Times. The article purports to be a a defense of free trade. But it's so much creepier than that. From the piece:

"All economists know that when American jobs are outsourced, Americans as a group are net winners. What we lose through lower wages is more than offset by what we gain through lower prices."

That's a debatable premise. If you lose your job to a Chinese manufacturer -- no amount of cheap goods at Walmart is going to offset the fact that YOU DON'T HAVE ANY INCOME.

But the premise does have a certain partial truth -- sometimes outsourcing leads to lower prices (sometimes not). It fails to examine who wins and who loses -- instead focusing on net gains and net losses (see the sleight of hand?) but we can still keep talking.

But simply arguing in favor of so-called free trade is not enough for economist Steven Landsburg. Rather, he's out to vilify those who don't want to starve to death in the interests of his economic theories. His article builds up to the grand conclusion that if you don't want to lose your job to Chinese slave labor then YOU are a bully.

For many decades, schoolyard bullying has been a profitable occupation. All across America, bullies have built up skills so they can take advantage of that opportunity. If we toughen the rules to make bullying unprofitable, must we compensate the bullies?

Bullying and protectionism have a lot in common. They both use force (either directly or through the power of the law) to enrich someone else at your involuntary expense. If you’re forced to pay $20 an hour to an American for goods you could have bought from a Mexican for $5 an hour, you’re being extorted. When a free trade agreement allows you to buy from the Mexican after all, rejoice in your liberation...

Get that? If you're an autoworker, or textile worker, or electronics worker and you don't want to lose your job (and so you go and take the despicable action of VOTING for someone who will look out for you) then Dr. Landsburg says YOU are a BULLY, who uses FORCE, to ENRICH YOURSELF AT SOMEONE'S INVOLUNTARY EXPENSE.

Look, Steve, here's how I see it -- if you want to argue in favor of free trade that's fine. If you want to be a corporatist whore ala Gordon Gekko in Wall Street screaming about "Greed is good" -- the first amendment says go ahead. But when you call a manufacturing worker a bully for voting for a guy you don't like -- then you've crossed the line.

Here's the story that Steven Landsburg won't tell you. If you're a union organizer in a third world country and have the audacity to ask for a few more cents an hour in wages (or bathroom breaks or other unspeakable socialist crimes) oftentimes the CIA or a local oligarch will send a death squad to kill you and your family (and possibly your whole village). If you're a foreign government that wants to control its own natural resources, the U.S. government will send troops to occupy your country or use the CIA to organize a coup to topple your government. The reality is that so-called "free trade" requires enormous levels of bullying, force, and violence -- BUT ALL OF THE VIOLENCE IS BEING DONE BY MULTINATIONAL CORPORATIONS AND THEIR ALLIES. For Steven Landsburg to suggest that unemployed U.S. factory workers are bullies for voting while he ignores the crimes against humanity committed by his corporatist friends is sickening.

It seems to me that we can have an honest conversation about trade agreements.
  • We can look at who wins and who loses.
  • We can look at all of the costs -- factory workers who lose their jobs, depression, suicide, and the collapse of former company towns; the real costs of death squads and military interventions; as well as brutal working conditions, toxic pollution, and birth defects in the third world.
  • We can look at moral costs of killing people for cheap goods and what that says about us as a people.
  • I'm also happy to look at benefits -- such as cheaper boxer shorts at WalMart and lower-priced coffee at the supermarket and whether that improves my quality of life.
  • We can also debate whether national economic policy should make allowances for a natural diversity of talent, intelligence, and strength. Should economic policy allow a man with nothing but a strong back and a good work ethic to be able to achieve a middle class standard of living through a unionized factory job or should he be expected to live under a bridge because he's not a college educated manager (working all day to outsource factory jobs to Mexico)?
A free society can and should have that debate. But for Landsburg or the NY Times to publish this intellectually dishonest propaganda piece (surely placed by some PR firm trying to influence upcoming votes in Congress) is reprehensible.

A final note: Can anyone guess where Steven Landsburg got his Ph.D. in economics? If you guessed the University of Chicago -- you're our big winner. For more on the University of Chicago's distinguished history of training the apologists for genocidal regimes please see my earlier post, "Milton Friedman Wants You to Be His Bitch."

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Cost of Greatness

Lakers' coach Phil Jackson (or PJ as the announcers are starting to call him) can be a bit of a dick. He makes $10 million a year but he can't be bothered to call a time out when the other team is making a run (he says he wants the players to figure it out for themselves). His coaching philosophy seems to consist of 1) scowling on the sidelines and 2) needling players in public interviews so that they'll be embarrassed to read about themselves in print and play harder the next game.

But the dude does have 9 rings, so there's that.

Thursday the Los Angeles Times had a fascinating article on the extraordinary maturation of Lakers' center Andrew Bynum. Drafted out of high school, Bynum is now in his third year in the league -- and he's starting to put up Shaq-like numbers every night. I was fascinated by Jackson's insights into what it takes to be great in the NBA:

Now that Bynum has taken another massive developmental step in his third NBA season, Coach Phil Jackson was asked Wednesday if there was anything that could have made it happen sooner.

He paused for seven seconds before answering.


In what way?

"It's the idea of 'OK, yeah, I've got to dedicate myself to this process and that's a start.' Now you find someone that's going to be your workout guy.

"You start it by saying, 'I'm an alcoholic, I need to go to AA.' It's the same process: 'I need to get in the best possible shape I can. I need to have a vested interest in that.' As soon as you do that, you turn the corner."


"When Andrew came to the Lakers, he sat down and made a commitment to us -- even though he was 17 years old and inexperienced, he was going to work as hard as he could at this process," Jackson said.

What's fascinating to me is that Bynum came into the league with all the natural talent in the world -- 7 feet tall, 33 inch vertical, 7 foot 3 inch wingspan, and he can shoot free-throws (unlike Shaq). Yet in spite of all those natural gifts, listening to Jackson it's clear that greatness still requires everything. A commitment every minute of every day for years and years before it starts to pay off.

That's been my experience in the world. The few times I felt like I really excelled at something, it required everything (waking, sleeping, eating, breathing, dreaming -- every minute focused on working towards the goal). Which is fine for a motivational poster with an eagle on it or something. But when is the cost too high? (In my experience, I've found that the cost is often too high).

Americans act like greatness is a birthright. But the unspoken reality is that it requires everything, for years, with no certainty of success. Dancers, musicians, athletes, politicians, artists, business people. It seems to me that greatness leaves no room for work life balance, no room for family, no room for staring up through the branches of a tree and just breathing. (For example think about all the greats -- from Michael Jordan to Mahatma Gandhi and look at what a mess their family life was). It seems to me that we are casual (or simply never ask) about the costs of greatness in this country ("oh yeah, of course, that's just what it takes.")

Perhaps a utopian society needs a new definition of greatness that isn't about greatest peak, greatest valley, greatest volume, or greatest quantity. What does greatness of moderation look like? What does greatness of character truly look like? What is greatness of balance? Or are those even important questions to ask?

It just seems like society sacrifices a few people on the altar of greatness for our own entertainment pleasure. But then I pick up a great book or watch Andrew Bynum play and I'm so thankful for the experience, the momentary identification with the peak, that the price doesn't seem too high (of course, I'm not the one paying it!). I wonder if perhaps there is a paradox waiting to be discovered here -- that truly great societies (that is, truly happy societies) don't place a premium on individual greatness -- instead realizing that happiness comes from relationships and relationships are not best served by pursuing extremes?

I'd welcome any insights you may have in the comments.

Update #1: I've been chewing on the ideas in this post and have an additional thought. I think there are many kinds of love. Romantic love for a partner, love for family members, love for friends, love of nature... I think greatness can sometimes be considered love of others or love for all. Certainly the sort of love for others that you see in revolutionary movements -- where people are willing to sacrifice everything for love of country and love of fellow human beings -- exists alongside and is different from romantic love (although there is certainly a romance to revolutionary love too). So I guess I'm saying that the pursuit of greatness can emanate from a powerful love of others. I think it can still pose complications for balance and relationships -- but it's not all just a question of costs -- sometimes it's driven by an enormous love which is honorable.

Update #2: Just like that Andrew Bynum went down with a knee injury in the game on Sunday and is expected to miss the next 8 weeks (somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 games!). Suddenly the Lakers are in a free fall, unsure of where they are going to get their points on offense (other than Kobe) and their stops on defense.

Quote of the Week

Friday the New York Times' Escapes section included an article on Crestone, Colorado (home to more spiritual retreat centers per capita than just about anywhere else in the world). The writer, Finn-Olaf Jones was thoroughly enamored. Writing about the charming downtown he observed,

"Next door, the town's go-to cafe, Shambala, is a comfortably laid-back spread of parlors in a former miner's home.
"Unattended children will be given a double mocha and a puppy, "
reads a sign next to the kitchen counter, where chai, juices and delicious organic fare are liberally doled out."

Made me want to go to Crestone just to see the sign.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A Few Thoughts on Clinton's Victory in NH

1.) The traditional media has been telling us for days that Senator Obama would win by double digits and that Senator Clinton's genuine emotional answer to a question in a diner yesterday was a mistake. Tonight, they've got some 'splaining to do.

2.) I love Barack Obama. He would make a fantastic president. But he can't have it both ways. From listening to his speeches, it seems that Senator Obama looks back over the last 15 years and he doesn't see a Democratic President who led the largest period of economic growth in the history of the world. He doesn't see a Republican President who has led our nation from record surpluses to record deficits and started an unjust war that will cost the American people over one trillion dollars. Instead he sees that both parties were equally wrong and too partisan. That is simply not true. The problem in Washington is not partisanship. The problem in Washington (and in America) is that Democrats don't have a large enough majority yet. Indeed it is Democratic attempts at bipartisanship over the last 7 years (on tax cuts, No Child Left Behind, and the Iraq War) that have produced the greatest disasters for our country. "Let's all play nice" is ahistorical and a dangerously naive.

3.) If every campaign really boils down to just one sentence, I think Senator Clinton's "Ready for Change" beats Senator Obama's "Change, We Believe."

4.) It was absolutely priceless watching pasty-fat-head-know-nothing pundits like Chris Matthews, Lou Dobbs, and Carl Bernstein spit and sputter while trying to dance around the fact that they just plain got it wrong and the voters saw it differently than they did.

Gender and Race

I already Dugg this article earlier today but it's so good, I thought I'd give it some additional love in a post. The New York Times today published an absolutely brilliant piece from Gloria Steinem titled, "Women are Never Frontrunners." In the piece, Steinem looks at the role of gender and the role of race in the Democratic Presidential primaries and makes some observations on our media and culture that I found very astute. The whole article is worth a read but here are my favorite nuggets:
"But what worries me is that he [Senator Obama] is seen as unifying by his race while she [Senator Clinton] is seen as divisive by her sex.

What worries me is that she is accused of “playing the gender card” when citing the old boys’ club, while he is seen as unifying by citing civil rights confrontations.

What worries me is that male Iowa voters were seen as gender-free when supporting their own, while female voters were seen as biased if they did and disloyal if they didn’t.

What worries me is that reporters ignore Mr. Obama’s dependence on the old — for instance, the frequent campaign comparisons to John F. Kennedy — while not challenging the slander that her progressive policies are part of the Washington status quo....

This country can no longer afford to choose our leaders from a talent pool limited by sex, race, money, powerful fathers and paper degrees. It’s time to take equal pride in breaking all the barriers. We have to be able to say: “I’m supporting her because she’ll be a great president and because she’s a woman.”

Here's the link to the full article.

Sprucing Up

Over the holidays we did a little sprucing up around here at the RFK Action Front. You'll note a few new features in the left side bar. I added a Best of RFK Action Front section to highlight some of my best posts from the past year. I also added a Digg box so you can check out articles I found interesting from across the internet. A little further down you'll note the You Tube box with both of the RFK Action Front Productions videos created this past year. Finally, I've added a few friends to the links section including well know progressive blogs Digby, Eschaton, Feministing, and The Agonist plus a few personal productivity blogs that are always interesting (Lifehack and Steve Pavlina) -- because if the revolution is gonna succeed, we're gonna need to be productive little bees. Buzz, buzz.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Obama was amazing tonight!

I thought Edwards was excellent, Senator Clinton looked presidential, and then Senator Obama came up and gave his speech and oh my! Absolutely electrifying. Here's the video:

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Quote of the week!

The LA Times is out today with an interesting review of "The Slave Ship: a Human History" by Marcus Rediker. Rediker is a historian at the University of Pittsburgh who was influenced by the New Left movement in the 1960s and its emphasis on "people's history" -- seeing history through the eyes of ordinary folks. In a recently interview Rediker said,
"To retrieve the bottom-up perspective is, in my eye, itself an act of justice. It is an expression of solidarity with exploited and oppressed people past and present.... I also believe there is a poetics of peoples' history, and that if we can capture the poetry of struggle, the beauty and truth of what people have tried to do for themselves, often under the most difficult circumstances and at the cost of their lives, if we can bring them into the light of speech, we can take their example as inspiration and guidance.... This point is a star I steer by."
Sounds like a pretty great guy. And the book looks fascinating.