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The Bloomberg-Washington Post Debate: Flavors of the Week and the Romney Inevitability

Governor Mitt Romney of MA

Image via Wikipedia

Another Republican debate, another chapter in what has become a familiar storyline in the campaign for the Republican nomination. Candidates enter the race, or spark a new wave of excitement and surge in the polls, and they quickly become candidate of the week. The first iteration of this shooting star candidate was Michele Bachmann, whose Ames Straw Poll victory rocketed her from relative obscurity to the ‘top-tier’ of the primary race. Increased scrutiny, political gaffes and her inability to capitalize on the exposure afforded to top tier candidates led to her quick decline, and in most recent polls she is mired in the low single digits. Rick Perry burst onto the scene as the anointed front-runner, surpassing Romney and the rest of the field quickly, only to have a string of lackluster debate performances and a conspicuous lack of specific policy proposals cause his reign as the candidate du-jour to be almost as short as the time it took him to become the presumptive front-runner.

Herman Cain is the latest version of the ’emerging front-runner that could challenge Mitt Romney‘ storyline. His win at the Florida Straw poll, a string of solid debate performances and surging poll numbers have flung him into the center spotlight of the Republican primary. The Bloomberg-Washington Post debate took place right at the crescendo of Cain’s apparent rise to become Romney’s primary challenger for the Republican nomination. In the debate, the forces that serve to end each new candidates cinderella story were on display, increased scrutiny, more direct challenges from other candidates, and raised expectations were all on full display at Dartmouth on Tuesday.

Virtually all of the other candidates made some mention of Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, and one of the video prompts dealt with the plan. In the segment where each candidate poses one question to another aspiring Republican nominee, Ron Paul asked Cain if he was still blase about the need to audit the fed, and whether he stood by his past criticism of Paul and others calling for increased transparency of the Federal Reserve. Even the physical setup of the debate conveyed this shifting power structure, as Cain was moved to the center with Romney in response to the latest polls, with Perry being physically shuffled off to the periphery in what must have been an all-too-tangible reminder of his fall from grace in the primary season.

Through all of the tumultuous comings and goings from other candidates bestowed with the title of ‘serious contender to Mitt Romney’, there the former governor from Massachusetts remains. Far from being perturbed by the seemingly continual search for a viable alternative, Romney seems to embrace these candidates who cause a stir, and he was even surprisingly welcoming to Chris Christie and Sarah Palin before they decided against jumping into the Presidential race.

Romney does passively look on as Bachmann, Perry and Cain each in turn surge in the polls and the eyes of the media because of altruism, nor does he welcome these ‘flavor of the week’ candidates because of some inherent weakness. No, Romney welcomes the rampant speculation, and the well-worn rush to crown a new top-tier candidate each week because he is the one who benefits most from this political sideshow. During each of these candidates meteoric rise and fall, Romney has remained, shielded from direct challenges in the debates, and heightened media scrutiny as everyone else rushes to scrutinize and chop the newcomer down to size.

Jonathan Martin of Politico explains how this played out in the most recent debate, which ended with Romney:

“standing above an increasingly muddled group of rivals. Aided by a group of competitors who’ve risen and fallen — or not run altogether — the former Massachusetts governor’s steady-as-he-goes strategy has returned him to unqualified front-runner status.”

With much of the attention at the debate directed at Herman Cain and his 9-9-9 plan (a post analyzing this plan is forthcoming), Romney emerged virtually unscathed from the debate, avoiding too many direct challenges, and having well-prepared answers to the few issues he knows he will be challenged on.

His whole strategy for the debate can be examined through two moments. The first, when a fading Perry tried to come after him on Romneycare, the former governor nimbly turned it into a referendum on Perry’s record on healthcare in Texas by contrasting the very high numbers of Texas children who are uninsured to the very high rates of coverage in Massachusetts, and framing the issue as one of a states’ right to pursue the healthcare solutions that it wants to.

In the second, when Romney had the opportunity to ask another candidate one question, instead of trying to quell rising tides of support for Herman Cain or extinguish the last flickering flames of Perry’s brief stint in the top-tier, Romney turned to Michele Bachmann, one of the least threatening candidates to Romney, to ask her to expand on her economic policy. His question was designed to prop up one of the flagging candidates, and one who Romney does not view as  real threat, because he recognizes that the more candidates that are in the race, especially that appeal to the tea party-conservative wing of the party, the better for Mitt Romney’s presidential aspirations.

This primary season, Romney has set himself apart from the other candidates with his consistently solid debate performances and a record that has already been intensely scrutinized and will not offer up many unpleasant surprises. As such, it is looking more and more like Romney will push on through the seemingly endless cycle of candidates of the week, and barring some change in the narrative, he will emerge as the Republican nominee, for better or worse.

One caveat to this seeming inevitability, is that there is decidedly more uncertainty regarding what direction the race will take once the stable of potential flavors of the week is depleted. Once Herman Cain suffers from the inevitable backlash that actual analysis of his 9-9-9 plan and his troubling lack of knowledge about foreign policy, will bring about, there is a dwindling supply of remaining candidates to serve as the successive flashes in the pan that have sustained the narrative so far. What happens when some candidates are forced to drop out, and Romney is no longer able to remain out of the fray, remains to be seen, but Romney’s eventual nomination is looking more inevitable with each anointed challenger.


Occupy Wall Street, the 99 percent?

Wall Street Sign. Author: Ramy Majouji

Image via Wikipedia

The “Occupy Wall Street” movement, begun over two weeks ago in New York is gaining more attention, and spreading to other cities.

Reaction so far has been mixed, as has the level of coverage given to the protesters. Their longevity has forced people throughout the spectrum to take a closer, more thorough look at the Occupy Wall Street movement and draw some conclusion, or provide some analysis of the movement.

One thing that should be clear is that these protests should not be met with violence by the police, because it is not right, it infringes on the First Amendment Rights of the protesters, and because it allows the violence to become the focus rather than whatever message the protesters are trying to send, however incoherent it might be.

While they have been there for too long to have absolutely no coverage of them, there is not yet enough substance to the protests to be able to draw any conclusions, either supporting or condemning the Occupiers.  This has not prevented premature defenders or attackers from emerging across the political spectrum, and Anthony Gregory aptly articulates this phenomenon:

In light of such a spectacle, those who highly value the role of ideas in social change are tempted to root for one side or the other. They wish to see their own ideology reflected in prominent people and institutions, and in any clash it is tempting to seek a hero. It is no fun to be neutral when history is being made.

Some who see the protesters as a bunch of whiny young leftists opposing the great symbols of American capitalism will be tempted circumstantially to side with Wall Street

It is entirely too soon to be able to make any definitive statements about the protest, the message is too vague, dissipated and in some places, incoherent to warrant a serious reaction one way or the other.  This vagueness could in part be because this movement is the manifestation of simmering and inchoate anger at the current state of things, and that the movement is still in its nascent form and perhaps their message and demands will become more focused and coherent with time. For now, the protesters for the most part are condemning the status quo, without having a real conception of what steps to take going forward. They know they are dissatisfied with that way things are, but not really what they want, other than change.

The protestors have released a General Assemblies statement, not a list of demands, but of grievances and perhaps looking at it will give some degree of insight into what drives this movement, and where it could be poised to go next.

They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage.

They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.

They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.

They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization.

They have profited off of the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless nonhuman animals, and actively hide these practices.

They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.

They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.

They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ healthcare and pay.

They have influenced the courts to achieve the same rights as people, with none of the culpability or responsibility.

They have spent millions of dollars on legal teams that look for ways to get them out of contracts in regards to health insurance.

They have sold our privacy as a commodity.

They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press.

They have deliberately declined to recall faulty products endangering lives in pursuit of profit.

They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.

They have donated large sums of money to politicians supposed to be regulating them.

They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.

They continue to block generic forms of medicine that could save people’s lives in order to protect investments that have already turned a substantive profit.

They have purposely covered up oil spills, accidents, faulty bookkeeping, and inactive ingredients in pursuit of profit.

They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.

They have accepted private contracts to murder prisoners even when presented with serious doubts about their guilt.

They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad.

They have participated in the torture and murder of innocent civilians overseas.

They continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts.*

*These grievances are not all-inclusive.

Perhaps the vague and nebulous goals and grievances was a better strategy. When a movement is just beginning, and especially when it tries to portray itself as representing the people (in this case 99% of them) these kind of far-reaching, unfocused, and in some cases downright odd grievances, many of which have absolutely nothing to do with Wall Street, can do more harm than good. There are some very valid concerns that the protesters bring up, the vast majority of Americans view the collusion between the government and some firms on Wall Street as unjust and harmful to the average American by many. They have some reasoning behind some of the grievances, but other points on this list quickly whittle away whatever meaningful coalition of support their narrower, valid concerns about Wall Street would have.

Firstly, many of these points do not have much to do with Wall Street, so it becomes unclear exactly who this protest is directed against, but Wall Street has minimal involvement with weapons of mass destruction, the food supply, direct participation in the torture and murder of civilians, student loan debts or the mistreatment of nonhuman animals. This list is so incoherent, and at times off-putting in its combination of sharp accusation and vagueness, that the movement risks missing out on its potential substantive impact in terms of unfair collusion between some Wall Street firms and Washington. While the unfocused and at times vituperative language put forth by the group detracts from its message, the greatest factor diminishing its potential to make an impact is that it does not place any proportionate amount of blame at Washington’s feet. It does not stand to reason to be so incensed at the companies receiving the bailouts, and to completely disregard the entity giving them the bailouts. The focus of these protests is so squarely on corporations and Wall Street, the supposed face of what is wrong with the status quo for these Occupiers, that they fail to even recognize the man behind the curtain, the Wizard of Oz of this status quo, Washington.

There is an interesting aspect of this movement, the tumblr account where people can submit photos with a brief description of their story and why they identify with the movement. This tumblr is a microcosm of the movement itself. Some of the stories are poignant, and they bring up valid concerns from people fallen upon hard times through circumstance, but these are balanced by an equal number of submissions like this one. These submissions sap much of the validity, and the sympathy that much of the protest would garner because it comes across as entitled, whiny, and not really at all directed at Wall Street. There seems to be a lack of personal accountability, and a sense of entitlement and impatience underlying some of these posts. Take this girl for instance, it is hard to justify staying in school for seven years if your family cannot afford it, and her complaint’s target is vague at best. This is not to say that everyone affiliated with the movement is like this, but people such as this one detract from any credibility the movement could have.

The Occupy Wall Street protests fall into the trap of casting blame only at Wall Street in a narrow sense, but being dissatisfied with the status quo in a larger sense. Some of the aspects of Occupy Wall Street are legitimate, but about just much is not. As such, it is far to early to draw any definitive conclusions about it, we will all have to just see what happens next.

A Bold, Balanced Plan? Analysis of Obama’s Deficit Reduction Proposal

President Obama: Now, I’m proposing real, serious cuts in spending. When you include the $1 trillion in cuts I’ve already signed into law, these would be among the biggest cuts in spending in our history. But they’ve got to be part of a larger plan that’s balanced

Deficit reduction is on everyone’s mind these days, and the President is no exception. On Monday, he released his deficit reduction plan, and the number being touted is $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next ten years. Any serious attempt to get the deficit under control should be lauded, but is this a serious attempt? In short, it depends who you ask. First a little perspective on the deficit reduction target.

As the President acknowledges in the introduction to the plan, which can be found in its entirety here, this $4 trillion includes the almost 1.2 trillion in deficit reduction that was already signed into law with the Budget Control Act (BCA)associated with the divisive debt ceiling deal.  It is therefore misleading to include these in trying to frame the current deal, these spending cuts are already signed into law, and should not be counted in terms of net deficit reduction for this deal, or for keeping a balance between tax increases and spending cuts. So the deficit reduction plan, excluding the already in place BCA spending cuts, still promises almost 3 trillion in spending cuts, which is substantial. Surely there will be a balance between spending cuts and tax increases in this remaining portion, the President did say there are ‘real, serious cuts in spending.’ Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case.

Looking at the remaining almost 3 trillion, almost 1.1 trillion in spending reductions come from drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq. This same budget trick was tried by both Republicans and Democrats in the debt ceiling dealings, and was soundly rejected as actual deficit reduction, as it should be here. There are already planned drawdowns in overseas contingency operations, and these savings are not new deficit reductions, or the kinds of real spending cuts that are needed. So these aren’t new, or even real spending cuts, and excluding this and the BCA cuts the deficit reduction plan is down to roughly 1.7 trillion in cuts over the ten years.

When the tax increases and the reductions in debt service are also excluded, this drives the number of spending cuts over the ten-year life span of the deficit reduction plan down to $578 billion, which still sounds like a serious spending cut, and one that should allow the US to make some progress on deficit reduction, but that is before that figure is put into perspective.

The Office of Management and Budget Mid-Session Review puts government spending for this ten-year period at $48.75 trillion dollars. Granted, these do not factor in the cuts, so using these figures and imposing the proposed reductions, government spending will be around 45.5 trillion.

So that $578 billion in spending cuts over the ten-year period translates to a 1.26% reduction in federal government spending over the same period. Serious cuts, these are not.

One counterpoint that might be offered is that the bulk of the deficit reduction takes place in the later years of the period, and this is true. However, even in the last year of the plan, the spending cuts of 97 billion amount to only 1.92% of federal spending that year.

With the inclusion of already planned Iraq and Afghanistan military drawdowns and the already in place BCA spending cuts, it becomes apparent that the vast majority of the deficit reduction in this plan comes from tax increases. If this is the plan that the Obama Administration wants to propose to fight increasing deficits, that is perfectly fine, many on the left have been urging Obama to do exactly that, and the American people can then decide if that is the plan they want. Using budgetary illusions and vague wording in an attempt to deceive voters into believing this package is either balanced or contains substantial spending cuts is wrong, no matter where on the political spectrum you stand.

NPR had a very informative, and at times heated, debate between two economists from opposite sides of the political spectrum, Russ Roberts and David Osborne. The part with the two economists last about 20 minutes, and it more interesting than the vast majority of coverage on the deficit reduction plan, and I highly encourage giving it a listen.

NPR\’s On Point Discussion of Deficit Reduction Plan

Bread and Circuses: The CNN/Tea Party Debate

Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: Bread and Circuses

Juvenal, Satire 10. 77-81

Where to even begin? I had been planning on doing a post analyzing the debate similar to my last one, but part of the way through the CNN/Tea Party Express spectacle last night, it became clear that real, substantive debate over the issues did not have a place in the night’s festivities. Any chance at thoughtful discourse was quickly crowded out and overshadowed by the candidates going after each others records, or poring through the books their opponents had written to pick out the excerpt most likely to deter potential voters. Candidates for elected office are prone to these shortcomings, they are focused on winning the election after all. If they had been the only culprits of the evening then the debate would have been only an ordinary disappointment, but there is much more blame to go around.

CNN must take some of the blame for the structure and flair of the debate, it became clear from the candidate introductions that watchability was the priority of the evening, even at the expense of the quality of debate. As Jeff Greenfield explains in his piece for Politico, CNN’s efforts, which seemed desperate at times, to make the debate more exciting in an effort to draw strong ratings:

Lord knows, they tried: sweeping, swooshing graphics; audience cheers right out of ESPN’s NFL draft coverage; bringing the candidates out one at a time, letting them introduce themselves the way NBC has the offenses and defenses do with quick taped intros. It was nearly 15 minutes before the first question was asked.

This is not to say that the large field and the medium of tv create some restrictions that CNN cannot really get around, the Lincoln-Douglas debates as an ideal would be impractical in 2011. It would be impractical, with a field of eight candidates, to give each candidate very long uninterrupted response times, as they would only be able to address a few issues in the alloted time for the debate, albeit more comprehensively.

The medium of television presents some other restrictions that cannot be blamed on CNN, naturally the tone and appearance of the candidates will have some effect, there is no real way to work around this. So perhaps the appearance or ‘Presidential demeanor’ of a candidate could sway some voters. Bringing the focus back to what CNN can control, it remains unclear why these debates have live audiences. It seems to suggest that those of us watching at home would be unable to come to our own conclusions about the candidates without a helping hand from the audience reactions. The debate audiences lower the quality of debate significantly, candidates shy away from direct answers that they fear could draw a negative reaction from the live audience, and appeals to demagoguery, rhetoric with little substance designed to energize the crowd, are more prevalent.

While it is important for the candidates to draw distinctions between themselves and their opponents (how else would you choose one candidate over the other) at times in this debate it got to the level where Romney and Perry were going back and forth over the exact quotes from their respective books. This line of back-and-forth does little to drive any form of debate that addresses the issues or proposes solutions, and drags both of the candidates down in a race to see who can make the other one look scarier to the prospective voters. This and other lines of attack among the candidates have the troubling potential to make the focus be on the past, and the records and mistakes of the candidates, rather than their visions for the future and how they would attempt to fix some of the many problems facing America today. Not one candidate proposed a solution to the problem of what to do with illegal immigrants already in this country, opting for the more crowd-pleasing lines of having to secure the border, or the need for more boots on the ground. I would have liked to see more of a focus on policies and solutions from the candidates, but this was not entirely unexpected, and they were not the most disappointing aspect of the night.

The moderators, not to worry, deserve some of the blame as well. Even with the restrictions listed above, it remains unclear why they choose not to ask one question and let each of the candidates answer in a concise, timed response. Well, it is unclear if real debate, and giving the voters the best discourse to be able to differentiate among the candidates based on the issues was the real priority. Unfortunately, this is not the real objective, and a debate structure where you have each candidate answer the same question and proposing solutions, takes too much power away from the moderators to stir up the ratings-friendly controversy, and to create the Youtube moments that create a media buzz surrounding the debates. This is one of the issues that could be most worrying to prospective Republican primary voters, if each of the entities that hosts one of these debates has the power, through selectively asking different questions and allowing responses from different candidates, they can shape the course of the primary to a troubling degree, and have taken from the voters their responsibility and power to make those decisions for themselves.

Onto the debate audience. As I went into above, it remains unclear why there needs to be a live audience at these debates at all. One of the running storylines from the last two debates has been the frightening crowd reactions to some of the events within the debates that doubtless has independents and moderates, as well as some Republicans either running scared or hanging their heads because they know the general election just got that much harder.

In the NBC/Politico debate, many people in America were baffled that the audience would save one of its loudest round of applause for when the moderator brought up Perry’s unsurpassed record for state excecutions.

And in the more recent debate, a question (perhaps an unfair one) asked of Ron Paul as to who would pay for the care of an uninsured man’s medical treatment were he to meet with a catastrophic accident that left him in a coma drew shouts of ‘Let him die’ from the crowd.

It is important to remember that in each instance, the candidates were not directly involved, it was the debate audience. Instances like this will make it immensely harder for a Republican party to appeal to independent and moderate voters it will need to have a chance in the general election. The crowd in both of these instances conveys no sense of compassion, it is one thing to disagree over the policies, but it is far another to actively cheer the death of any fellow American. Besides the more obvious distasteful aspect of these crowd outbursts, they also divert much of the attention away from the candidates and the substance of what they are saying. There is no real reason to have a live debate audience, and the folks from these two debates have given good reason for there not to be one.

So everyone physically at the debate played some part in this spectacle, but they were not the only ones. The media gives CNN or whoever hosts these debates incentives to encourage divisivenss among the candidates on stage and reactions from the crowd because that is what will get covered. And the people are complicit in this arrangement for being satisfied with the way things are, for being drawn in by the spectacle of these debates, for choosing form and entertainment over substance.

There is more than enough blame to go around, everyone is culpable for the deterioration of American political debates. The media for seeking to drive ratings by fomenting discord on stage. the candidates for being more than happy to avoid straightforward answers to policy questions and falling back to rhetoric and sniping at each other’s records, and we the audience for becoming complicit in this arrangement. There can no further debate analysis for this disappointing affair other than to say we all lost.

With a country that is mired in an economic downturn, and the contagion of sovereign debt crises spreading throughout the eurozone, there is little doubt that some substantive discourse and proposed solutions to some of the many problems facing this country would have done some good. The Roman people lost sight of many things, they became concerned only with bread and circuses. As long as they were appeased and entertained, they cared for little else. Now the Roman Empire has long since crumbled, and the site of so many circuses of the time lays dormant.

At least with the current scarcity of jobs, growth and hope, for now at least there will be no shortage of circuses.

Republican Debate Analysis and Ratings

The first Republican debate with the new frontrunner Rick Perry has come and gone, and there were plenty of interesting moments throughout. This debate had a less collegial, more direct tone, and candidates did not shy away from challenging each other on their records and positions.

In a bit of a departure from most of the analysis coming out, I will give each participant a rating from 1-10 based on how effectively they achieved their goals for this debate.

Mitt Romney: 7.5 

This was Romney’s strongest debate so far. Prior to Rick Perry’s entrance into the race, Romney was happy to remain above the fray, content with focusing on avoiding major gaffes or drawing too much negative attention. In this debate, Romney competently defended his jobs record from his time as Governor and deflected attention from his healthcare record. He also showed, at least in this limited sample size, that he can hold his own with Perry when the two challenge each other more directly. He scored one of the better lines of the debate when he swiped at Perry’s jobs-creation claims by claiming that Perry’s two immediate predecessors as governor of Texas created jobs faster than he did, to which Perry could only respond “That’s not correct,” amid the audience’s laughter. Somehow Romney seems more comfortable with Perry in the race, and he benefits by contrasting himself with the Governor and making the case that between the two of them he is more competitive in a general election

Rick Perry: 6

In his first debate, Perry was undoubtedly the focus, getting the most questions and feeling a steady barrage from the other candidates. He started of promisingly, touting his jobs record and sticking by the claims made in his book ‘Fed Up’ about Social Security, calling it  a ‘monstrous lie’. He faded down the stretch, his call for ‘boots on the ground’ when pressed for details of how to secure the border and his puzzling, cringeworthy response on global warming, where he referenced Galileo. While he held his own decently well, Perry did not impress in his first debate. His knowledge of policy specifics seemed to be lackluster. Perry’s strategy to focus on his own record and Mitt Romney is a good one, ignoring Bachmann will resign her to irrelevancy, but he did seem to get dragged into something with Ron Paul, which might be against his best interests. While Paul might very well be too extreme to land the nomination, his consistency allows him to contrast himself nicely with Perry, who was a Democrat and supporter of Al Gore. This debate may have shown that his Achilles heel in the coming debates will be pressing him for details and specific policy measures, where he seems far less comfortable than when he is talking about his record as governor.

Ron Paul: 6

Paul performed better than Bachmann did, but he needs to have a stronger performance to convince people he belongs in the top-tier, currently occupied by only Perry and Romney. His extemporaneous style of speaking, while it allows him to seem much more genuine, and shows his knowledge of the issues beyond campaing talking points, did not serve him well with the short response times here. At times he was too unfocused in his responses until his time was almost up, and the moderator cut him off at one point. One part of his strategy so far seems to be to engage Perry directly, and this at least so far seems to be serving him well. It garners a lot of media attention, as seen by the photo of Perry grabbing his arm during a conversation they had in a commercial break from the debate (Paul later went on to explain there were not ‘any cross words’). But the media attention, and the fact that Perry seems to ascribe a legitimacy to Paul’s attacks that he seems to give no one else besides Romney, could help Paul make the case that he should at least be in the conversation about the ‘top tier’ even if he is a far cry from being the front-runner. Paul may have been underserved in a way, as some of the questions seemed designed to focus on some of his more extreme views, like the FAA and FDA. This did little to make him seem electable, but he needs to do more to convince people that even if he does not believe that something like FEMA is constitutional, he would not abolish it on his first day of office. He alluded to this in the debate, but he needs to be more forceful, and to be more focused and polished to have the impact debate he needs to be able inject himself into the frontrunner debate.


Michele Bachmann: 4.5

She had the weakest performance out of the ‘top tier’ candidates, and showed that her star might already be fading so soon after Ames. She did not engage Perry directly, a somewhat puzzling strategy given they compete for the same base in the Republican party and he has, at least so far, shown himself to be a better bet. Bachmann also evaded questions more blatantly than the other candidates, not answering or even directly addressing the pretty direct and pointed questions asked of her, the moderator had to reiterate the question when she was asked what she would do with illegal immigrants already in America.

Jon Huntsman: 7

Huntsman seems to have looked at his plateauing single digit numbers in the polls and shifted his priority in these debates from trying to win this primary to trying to impact the discourse on the future direction of the Republican party, and to establish himself as the most attractive candidate to moderates and independents, potentially for a future run. He came out strongly on the issue of the GOP being on the wrong side of science, and warned against taking too hard a line on immigration. His one lackluster tendency was to describe how Reagan would have approached a problem like immigration and laid out a solution and a path forward, but then Huntsman demurs from filling the rest of us in on what this solution would be.

Herman Cain: 5.5

Cain spoke to his strengths on job creation and the economy. And his clear speaking style served him decently well while he seemed to be much more prepared than in the earlier debates. While a better performance than the earlier debates, it was not the game-changing, dazzling showing he needed to show that he deserves to break into the top-tier with Romney and Perry, and he is relegated to the periphery of the primary.

Rick Santorum: 5.5

Similar to Mr. Cain, Santorum had a solid showing in this debate, but did not do enough to change the voter perception of him as someone without a credible shot to win the nomination. He had some decent insights when the immigration came up, and he did not shy away from attacking Perry on the HPV mandate, but it was not enough.

Newt Gingrich: 5

Newt allowed glimpses of his inner policy wonk to shine through at times, seeming more comfortable with policy specifics than the other candidates at times. He did little to really differentiate himself, and his now recurring strategy of blaming the media or moderators for trying to stir up controversy is getting stale; in a debate, it is important and necessary to draw distinctions among the candidates, while it did seem at times that the questions were aimed at getting the two front-runners into a back and forth, Gingrich has to find a new strategy.


Liberating Libya: Questions surround the end of Gaddafi

In Libya, the rebels celebrate the taking of Tripoli, and the search for Gaddafi intensifies.  As it becomes more certain that Gaddafi’s more than forty year reign is coming to an end, more uncertainty over the future of Libya and the role for the U.S. and the West swirls in to take its place.While virtually everyone besides Gaddafi’s remaining cronies on the African Union and Hugo Chavez agrees that the end of his reign is a good outcome, and Libya will be better off rid of him, there is no such consensus over the proper role of the West, both in what they have already done and what they should do.

Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center believes that the atrocities that Gaddafi was committing against his own people necessitated intervention by the West and the US.

“When you have the ability to act, doing nothing is no longer a neutral position.
To be sure, this is not a time for settling scores. But it is a time for arguing for the utility, necessity, and morality of a doctrine — the Responsibility to Protect — that seemed, to its opponents, increasingly discredited. Another reality — again, for both better and worse — is that the United States remains something of an “indispensable nation,” a notion increasingly in disrepute. Without American support, however belated, the responsibility to protect would have remained mere rhetoric and posturing. The NATO intervention would not have happened. “

I would not argue that it is likely that there would have been more fighting, and more deaths in the struggle in Libya if the West had decided not to intervene. And I think again, excluding Hugo Chavez and the most heartless of skeptics, whole hearted condemnation of Gaddafi and his actions was called for. The question becomes what degree of intervention by the West would be best for all parties. Shadi and others believe that the role NATO played in this conflict, which I admit is a vast improvement logistically over a heavy-handed operation requiring battalions of ground troops, was a good balance for the West to strike where they could still play a decisive factor in facilitating the ouster of Gaddafi while keeping their footprint minimal.  The support provided by NATO hastened the  end of the most intense phase conflict and made it clear that Gaddafi’s time was drawing to a close. This view does not look far enough into the horizon, it praises the lives saved in the short term while ignoring the pervasive uncertainty that still surrounds Libya. It is much too soon to say whether the intervention by the West was ultimately a good thing, or if it would have been better in some ways to condemn Gaddafi but allow the Libyan rebels to achieve their own victory against their long time oppresor.

The Economist gives a glimpse to the already quite varied takes the different parts of the Muslim world have on Libya, and some of the views could portend a turbulent road ahead to peace and stability for Libya.
In an independent Egyptian daily, Salamh Ahmad Salamah criticises the gleeful anticipation abroad of the Second Republic:

Within days, major countries will start deliberating the fate of Libya and its vast wealth and resources. Egypt and the Arab League are clueless. They are dealing with what is happening with their eyes half-shut, while America, France and Britain are racing to get into the good graces of the new regime and provide it with aid, all the while claiming that they are preparing the new Libya for democracy.

Ibrahim al-Ameen ruminates on the potential problems with Libyan interactions with the rest of the Arab world following the West’s intervention in the Lebanese independent, al-Akhbar

Colonel Qaddafi’s people do not love him; they do not want him. No-one can now question these things. But his people certainly needed help. And this time it was the West (the colonialists themselves!) that was chosen to bring about the story’s end: a new imperialism, a new colonialism with a new face.

So while some in the Middle East welcomed Western intervention in the name of toppling Gaddafi, some remain suspicious of an all to familiar scene with the West expressing the best of intentions but having ulterior motives. This leads to a fractious and divided environment that would make it difficult for any country to walk the tightrope of peace and stability, but this is especially the case for a country like Libya which, as Mr. Hamid notes, ‘doesn’t have the benefit of established political parties, a largely independent judiciary, and a whole host of other weak but intermittently vibrant institutions’. He concludes that this will make the transition cleaner, as these vestiges of the past will not prevent real change from taking place. While in this aspect, a break from a tumultuous past, this may be true, this does not mean that the lack of democratic institutions will make a good outcome for Libya more likely. This is especially true as Libya now finds itself having to balance the concerns of NATO and the West with its neighbors who are already viewing the Second Republic with eyes suspicious of Western involvement.

While US involvement made the ousting of Gaddafi come less painfully and more quickly, both the Libyans and the West find themselves in a worse position post-Gaddafi than they would have been otherwise. The West and the US have to grapple with how involved to remain and for how long. They have to begin to think about what their aims even are in Libya now that Gaddafi has been deposed. The Libyans meanwhile are left with suspicious neighbors, an uncertain domestic situation with a real fear that the gains they have fought so hard for will be lost if they make a misstep, and the balancing of the desires of their new Western allies. The situation for all parties in this new post Gaddafi world is much worse for the Western entanglement.

John Stuart Mill foresaw the potential pitfalls of too many international entanglements, even in the cases like Libya where the goal, the ousting of an oppressive despot who harmed his own people, is unarguably noble. In talking about just these such situations where a nation must grapple with the question of whether to assist a people seeking to ovethrow their government Mill responds:

The answer I should give to the question of the legitimacy of intervention is, as a general rule, No.

The reason is, that there can seldom be anything approaching to assurance that intervention, even if successful, would be for the good of the people themselves. The only test possessing any real value, of a people’s having become fit for popular institutions, is that they, or a sufficient portion of them to prevail in the contest, are willing to brave labour and danger for their liberation… I know it may be urged that the virtues of freemen cannot be learned in the school of slavery, and that if a people are not fit for freedom, to have any chance of becoming so they must first be free. ..But the evil is, that if they have not sufficient love of liberty to be able to wrest it from merely domestic oppressors, the liberty which is bestowed on them by other hands than their own, will have nothing real, nothing permanent. No people ever was and remained free, but because it was determined to be so; because neither its rulers nor any other party in the nation could compel it to be otherwise. If a people – especially one who freedom has not yet become prescriptive – does not value it sufficiently to fight for it, and maintain it… it is only a question of how few years or months until that people will be enslaved.

There was not much to argue with the stated goals of the West and NATO for getting involved in Libya, protecting Libyan innocents from their oppresive leader who was wreaking havoc throughout large parts of the country. In these situations it is important to remember that an eye must be kept on the ultimate outcomes, and these things must be taken into account before judgement can really be made on the wisdom of this course of action. I think all can agree that congratulations are in place to the Libyan rebels, there is no doubt that they fought very hard for what they have achieved so far. We should all also collectively wish them luck in the coming challenges to rebuild their country and set it on the path towards peace and prosperity, they are likely going to need it.

The Ames Straw Poll and Coverage of Ron Paul: More status quo, but why?

The Ames Straw Poll has now come and gone, and there was no lack of coverage of the weekend festivities and result of the straw polls. Well, unless you are Ron Paul. The congressman from Texas came in second in the straw poll, garnering 28% of the votes to the winner Michele Bachmann’s 29%. Here are the full results.

2011 Straw Poll Full Results (Votes, %)
1. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (4823, 28.55%)
2. Congressman Ron Paul (4671, 27.65%)
3. Governor Tim Pawlenty (2293, 13.57%)
4. Senator Rick Santorum (1657, 9.81%)
5. Herman Cain(1456, 8.62%)
6. Governor Rick Perry (718, 3.62%) write-in
7. Governor Mitt Romney (567, 3.36%)
8. Speaker Newt Gingrich (385, 2.28%)
9. Governor Jon Huntsman (69, 0.41%)
10. Congressman Thad McCotter (35, 0.21%) 

The story-lines that emerged from the weekend were Bachmann’s win, and the reshaping of the Republican primary race with a top tier composed of Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. Much attention was given to Bachmann’s straw poll win, maybe deservedly so, but perhaps the most glaring thing to emerge from the weekend was the conspicuous lack of coverage about Ron Paul and his strong performance in the straw poll. It seemed as if the second place showing had transformed him into the invisible man, he was nowhere to be seen on the Sunday talk shows or headlines, and barely managed a scant reference in most of the articles. This lack of coverage eventually became so conspicuous that it became a story itself, and John Stewart was at his best when lampooning, well, pretty much everyone:

A myriad of explanations were given for the media snub, as Steve Kornacki at Salon puts it:

Now let’s talk about Paul, who also put a major effort into the straw poll. But unlike Bachmann and Pawlenty, he didn’t really have much to prove. Why? Because the political world already knows that Paul has an army of unusually loyal and dedicated supporters who are willing to show up in large numbers at events like the straw poll and producing impressive-seeming vote totals for their candidate. They’ve been doing this for years now. Remember when Paul won the straw poll at the 2010 CPAC conference? Or in 2011? His supporters are very good at this kind of thing, channeling their unique passion into “money bombs,” Internet poll victories, and strong performances at straw polls and other events where a devoted minority can have an outsize influence.

This line of argument seems to imply that because Paul is viewed as having a slim chance of ultimately winning the Republican primary, he is not deserving of media attention. This argument has merit in theory, there are many candidates in the multitude of elections in America who are not serious, and covering all of them would eat up too much of the costly and finite space and time that media companies have. This argument starts to lose credibility when moving from traditional media like television or newspapers to the online component, where the transaction costs of adding this material would be negligible. More interesting than any monetary or logistical argument is the claim that the reason Ron Paul in particular gets scant media coverage because he is inelectable. This naturally causes one to wonder, what then, is the threshold? Surely Ron Paul is more electable than Rick Santorum and Herman Cain, as he outperforms them in the polls and handily beat them in the straw poll. Yet the two candidates who finished fourth and fifth at Ames, respectively, seemed to recieve more media attention than the man who recieved more votes than the two of them combined at Ames.

Rick Perry and Mitt Romney were also determined to be among those who came out ahead at Ames, despite not fully participating in the straw poll. Granted, this was part of their strategy, in Mitt’s case because Ames was a pyrrhic victory for him in 2008, and Perry because his announcement on the same day deftly drew much of the attention away from Ames and focused it squarely on him. Whatever their strategic reasons for choosing not to participate in the straw poll the fact remains: in the one measurable competition between the candidates thus far, Ron Paul came within 1% of the vote of winning.

The other argument employed to justify the lack of coverage of Ron Paul is that it was only a straw poll, which is hardly predictive of the way the election would play out on a national level, and that the process is so distinct from the way voting works in the elections that is is hardly a good indicator. This argument too holds some degree of validity; Iowa is hardly a microcosm of the nation at large, or even of the republican party. The process of the straw poll, in which campaigns can buy and distribute tickets as well as provide transportation, is far removed from the comparatively quick voting process.

If this were truly the reasoning though, then all of the results of the straw poll should be uniformly dismissed then. It is inconsistent for Michele Bachmann’s narrow victory to propel her to the newly emerging top tier of the primary, or for Rick Perry’s write in lead over Mitt Romney to signal that he could potentially emerge as Romney’s strongest challenger, then at the same time dismiss Paul’s performance.

Tim Pawlenty was arguably the most organized on the ground in Iowa, and Michele Bachmann is most in tune with the conservative flavor of the Republican party to be found in the state, and she has hometown connections to the state to boot. All of this would seem to balance the claim that Ron Paul’s fervent core of libertarian supporters distort straw polls in his favor.

Could it be a liberal media conspiracy, designed to keep Paul out for some reason? In short, no. This articulate piece from the Huffington Post would suggest otherwise.

No, it is not because he is unelectable that he is not recieving any attention, and its not because the Ames straw poll is suddenly meaningless. Is it because his ideas are so far from the status quo that they make the establishment uncomfortable, whether they be the media or the other candidates, or the leaders of the Republican party? That remains to be seen as the rest of the primary season unfolds.

It would be a great shame if that was the case, as his ideas and the way he could reshape the political discourse for 2012 and beyond could be the most important contribution of Paul’s long career in Washington.


London Burning

Riots have gripped London spread to other cities in the United Kingdom, sowing fear and uncertainty in their wake. The government and police appear to finally have regained control of the streets, and as the dust settles from this rioting that for some evoked memories of the Arab Spring, a myriad of questions arise. What caused these riots? What did the rioters want? Is there some way this could have been avoided, or at least prevented in the future?

Well the answers to all of these questions depend on who you ask. The government spending cuts are cited by many as a reason for the rioting. In this narrative, young people, in response to cuts that they see as unfair and infringing on their rights, took to the streets to send a strong message that they would not tolerate these inhumane cuts.

While the UK has been pursuing austerity measures in an attempt to get is finances in order, the state will spend 50.1 per cent of GDP this year; state spending has still been rising by 2 per cent year on year in cash terms. In cash terms, it has never been higher than it is today.

Perhaps it is due to more structural aspect of the welfare state of the United Kingdom, the persistently high youth unemployment rate. Earlier this year, the youth unemployment rate was 20.5% for 16-24 year olds, compared to just 7.9% overall. This could explain part of the root cause, as British youth are dissatisfied with a system that systematically prolongs their dependency, and prevents many of them from gaining independence and joining the labor force until their mid 20’s. In a more logistical bend, it is also easier to riot and loot when you do not have to worry about being fired for not showing up for work. This argument gets to part of the cause, but does not grasp the root of the problem. A decent proportion of the looters were younger than 16, so they have not yet had to suffer from the youth unemployment problems; another, more comprehensive explanation is needed. Why not go to the rioters themselves, to see what they have to say, what kind of message they were trying to send:

Some of the rioters give their message

So judging from these two participants, the message was mostly incoherent. That is because this rioting was not really to send a message in response to spending cuts. Why else would the main targets of looting be clothing and electronics stores, and neighborhood businesses? That one of the interviewees did not even know which political party had made the spending cuts belies the theory that this was in response to ‘inhumane and callous’ spending cuts.

The British youth engaged in these riots, they looted their neighbors and clothing stores because it was a way for them to do something, as the interviewee says, ‘we can do whatever we want’. This is more akin to disillusioned kids, unsure of their place, with no real prospects, no real ownership over their own lives, trying to fend of ennui. As Theodore Dalrymple suggested in 2005:

One reason for the epidemic of self-destructiveness that has struck British, if not the whole of Western, society, is the avoidance of boredom. For people who have no transcendent purpose to their lives and cannot invent one… self-destruction and the creation of crises in their life is one way of warding off meaninglessness

So although British youths are much more secure than their American counterparts, even incorporating the current spending cuts, they have less control over their own lives. They drift for longer, trying to find something meaningful into which to direct their efforts,  always having to stay one step ahead of the ennui that grips so many of the endlessly unemployed youths in the country. It finally erupts in a demonstration like this one, where they no longer worry about what they are doing, as long as they are doing something, if only in an attempt to make some imprint on their environment, to remind everyone that they are there.

In no way do I apologize for the rioters and looters, but I do feel sorry for them.


S&P Downgrade Report Analysis

After the dust has finally settled from Standard and Poor’s downgrade of US debt that sent markets spiraling and politicians scrambling, a picture of what the ramifications of the unprecedented downgrade emerged: pain, uncertainty and lots of blame.

The downgrade is unprecedented in US history, and no one is quite sure how markets or consumers will react, today the market finally rebounded to some degree from its free fall, but there is no way of knowing how it will deal with the downgrade in the longer term.

The clearest aspect of the downgrade fallout is both political parties to deflect blame for the downgrade. Everyone has been referencing the S&P downgrade report to justify their claims that they are blameless, and the blame rests squarely on the other side.

It is always dangerous to simply accept what politician cite from reports and studies that they know the public has not read, regardless of their political affiliation, so an analysis of the brief S&P report is in order.

The entire report can be found here, and there is even a concise overview section, so take the time to glance at it.

S&P Report

Now the report itself, and the passage you have most likely seen taken out of context:

We have changed our assumption on this because the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues, a position we believe Congress reinforced by passing the act.

So the blame can be heaped entirely on the Republicans? S&P even said so, it was in the report, right? If only everyone could be trusted not to cite out of context. This passage is referring to the S&P’s (rather odd) decision to use a baseline scenario where they assume the Bush tax cuts remain in place for everyone, and the rates do not revert to the previous higher rates for wealthier Americans even though their expiration is the default at this point. This is not to say that Republican stubborn insistence on no revenue raising measures, even in the form of closing tax loopholes, is blameless in the downgrade. It is to say that this passage which will be used in the partisan sniping has more to it than the out of context passage would imply.

The S&P, for all of its problems with reliability, and arithmetic (they made a 2 trillion-dollar error in projecting US debt to GDP ratio), is fairly even-handed with the blame for the downgrade, as it should be really.

Judging from the report, S&P was thoroughly unimpressed by the debt ceiling deal:

The fiscal consolidation plan… falls short of what, in our view, would be necessary to stabilize the government’s medium-term debt dynamics.

They also recognize that all of the potential savings could be a mirage, as I mentioned in my earlier post here, and warn of further consequences if this were to be the case:

We could lower the long term rating to ‘AA’ within the next two years if we see that less reduction in spending than agreed to

S&P elaborates on its rationale for downgrading the US, and there is more than enough blame to go around:

The prolonged controversy over raising the statutory debt ceiling and the related fiscal policy debate indicate that further near-term progress containing the growth in public spending, especially on entitlements, or on reaching an agreement on raising revenues is less likely than we previously assumed and will remain a contentious and fitful process.

And there it is. Both political parties are to blame. Neither party was willing or able to compromise regarding the lines they had drawn in the sand. For Democrats to place entitlements on an untouchable altar, when entitlement spending is the main driver of the looming debt crisis is short-sighted, and assuming that somewhere down the line, when the crisis gets big enough, a future congress will find a way to fix it is naive. And Republicans, denouncing any revenue increases, even if they were in the form of closing tax loopholes that have distortionary effects on the market, at a time when revenue is at a low point due to the weak economy, deserve to be called intransigent in some respects.

So ok, maybe there is some degree of blame on both sides, but surely the report implies some leaning on S&P’s part as to which consolidation plan, Republican spending cuts or Democratic tax increases, is preferred; which parties platform would be more likely to get this country back on the right track:

Standard & Poor’s takes no position on the mix of spending and revenue measures that Congress and the Administration might conclude is appropriate for putting the U.S.’s finances on a sustainable footing.

S&P, its myriad of problems as a rating agency aside, is like the American people. Both are less interested in dispensing blame than seeing real progress made on addressing the bleak state of US finances, if only our political leaders felt the same.

Keynes vs. Hayek: The debate rages on

via google images

The recent financial crisis, and the persistent economic problems that currently plague the vast majority of developed economies has given the decades old debate between Sir John Manyard Keynes and Freidrich Hayek. The better part of a century later, this debate is far from settled. Respected economists fall into both camps, and the debate has only gained more attention as economic woes become the focal point of political discussion. This increasing interest is manifested in things like the BBC hosting a radio debate featuring economists from both sides of the debate, which can be found here:

The last instance of such prolonged economic malaise, the global Great Depression, served as the inspiration for both economists. Although the two economists sought solutions and explanations to the same economic problems, they came to very different conclusions. 

After observing prolonged nature of the British depression of the 1920s, Hayek promoted the idea that private investment, rather than government spending, would promote sustainable growth. He believed that most policy measures designed to avoid the economic pain of the market righting itself only served to prolong the duration and severity of economic pain later.  Keynes wrote his ‘General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money’ in response to the feeble recovery from the Great Depression. His proposition was that following a big shock, such as a depression, there were no automatic recovery forces in a market economy.The economy would go on shrinking until it reached some sort of stability at a low level.The reason was that the level of activity depended on the level of aggregate demand or spending power. He then drew the conclusion that In this situation it was the government’s job to increase its own spending to offset the decline in public spending, by running a deficit if necessary.

It is not only economists who are gravitating back towards the great economic debate of the 20th, and appartently 21st, centuries. One of the most viewed internet videos of the past year, with over 2.5 million hits,  was a rap that described this debate. While I can’t speak to the technical ability of the participants of the video, it is entertaining and surprisingly informative, making it well worth watching. Regardless of which side of the debate you fall on, Keynesian or free-market, it is refreshing to see a return to the fundamental debate, to the underlying economic theories beneath the two schools.