Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Talking bailout blues

Tina Fey and a number of commentators have poked fun at Sarah Palin's response to Katie Couric's question about the economic bailout. Palin's answer was indeed a meaningless set of platitudes, poorly delivered.

But which of the other candidates has said anything that makes more sense? The Obama/Pelosi argument that the crisis is a function of deregulation and tax cuts makes little sense. In hindsight, one can always imagine a set of regulations that would have prevented any mistake because you can say that we ought to have had a regulation that said "Don't make that mistake." But, in this case, the required regulation would have required the tightening of lending standards. Who, pray tell, would have been pressing for that? Certainly not the Democrats. They were exerting pressure in the opposite direction and that is their guilt in this thing.

Just what was it that we saw yesterday? In this grand bipartisan moment, Nancy Pelosi decides to make a highly partisan and muddlebrained speech. Some have argued, with some justification, that a speech ought not to have caused Republicans to vote against the bill, but that's an oversimplification. Everyone agrees that there are majopr problems with the bill and, for many Republicans (and not a few Democrats) voting for it required overcoming very legitimate objections in the interest of getting some thing done. It's not as if everyone thinks the bill was a wonderful bit of legislation that will definitely fix the problem. Under those circumstances, you do not, as they say in German, "spucken in der Suppe."

Yet that is precisely what Pelosi chose to do and she is too smart not to have done it intentionally.

John McCain says that bipartisanship is hard. In this instance, it may be impossible.

Some type of action is necessary, but I wonder whether we ought to be purchasing anything. Why not lend money to undercapitalized investment houses and banks demanding the status of a preferred creditor with some vary basic proscriptions on what the infused cash could be used for? Loosen the mark to market rules and let the market dispose of the questionable paper.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sunday Nite Tunes

I'm in the mood to go old school - really old school. So old that it seems new. I begin with the Electic Prunes singing the trippy "I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night" on the Mike Douglas show:

Since, we are doing trippy, why not Strawberry Alarm Clock and "Incense and Peppermints." Best line: "Beatniks and politics/nothing is new."

As we await the next Children's Crusade, here it the Door's "Five to One." Best line: "They got the guns but/we got the numbers"

And, finally, Janis, Big Brother and the Holding Company. Summertime.

Help ! I'm being held captive by vegans!

True story. The Reddess and I stopped for lunch yesterday at Suburpia on Prospect. She had not yet visited the restored 70s icon. We ordered a couple of Miles Standish subs and walked across the streets to Whole Foods to eat.

As we enjoyed our sandwiches, a gaggle of animal rights activists - going up and down North - marched by. They were banging drums and holding signs that said things like "Be Kind to Animals: Don't Eat Them !" and "Go Veggie!"

One of the marchers had a dog and,as she marched past our table, the dog cast a glance in our direction. He caught a whiff of the turkey and,with the quickness that only a hungry dog possesses, took a step in our direction. He gave us that attentive but pleading Golden Retriever look that I know so well. (I see it at least five times each day.) "Oh, please. I'm not one of them. For all that is holy - just a little ... turkey. Can't you see what I have to live with?

Karen and I couldn't help but laugh and the poor thing was whisked away before he started to sit up and beg. I called out after him. "I feel your pain, buddy."

I guess that the point is not to be kind to all animals.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

McCain wins but did anyone notice?

My reaction to the debate is that McCain owned Obama on foreign policy. On that issue, the thing was an old fashioned rout. There were times at which Obama hinted at a good job of defending a less muscular - a European - foreign policy, but didn't extend the argument. I suspect he knows that he's got the votes of people who believe in that type of thing and, historically, it's a tough stance from which to win a federal election.

So he tried to talk tough, but was waxed. His position on Iraq is incoherent. When the war was going badly, he wanted, notwithstanding the consequences, to bail, arguing that victory was not possible. Now that he can no longer argue that victory is not possible, he still wants to bail because, near as I can tell, he thinks we should have left Saddam in power and he wants to use the money elsewhere. What he doesn't understand (as McCain repeatedly put it) is that defeat in Iraq would destabilize the middle east and embolden al-Qaeda and its allies who chose to make Iraq a battleground. Even the Iraq Study Group recognized that. To try and change that subject by saying that the war should not have been fought in the first place is senseless. Neither John McCain or Barack Obama get to change that decision.

(And,of course, if we manage to establish a friendly Muslim democracy in the middle east, the war will have accomplished something extremely important.)

On Iran, he seemed to want to run away from his earlier willingness to engage in Presidential-level negotiations without preconditions, suggesting that wasn't what he meant. But he couldn't quite bring himself to make that clear.

All of this effects the way in which his position on Afghanistan came across. Does anyone really believe that Barack Obama will follow bin Laden into his cave? McCain underscored his advantage by chiding Obama for his statement that he would invade Afghanistan. ("You don't say that out loud. If you have to do things, you have to do things ....")

But will this help McCain in the polls? One view is that Obama simply needed to avoid embarrassment. He needed to avoid a moment that could be easily spun into a harmful post-debate narrative. I think he did that - particularly in light of the fact that, given the friendly press, an Obama gaffe or McCain knockout would have to be very obvious. He knows that, if this becomes a foreign policy election, he's not going to win and one way to prevent it from being a foreign policy election is to avoid a bad mistake. That was accomplished and I think early responses reflect that.

There are, I think, reasons to be very concerned about an Obama presidency in the international realm but that is tough case to make to voters who do not attend to such matters and are, in any event, more focused on the economy.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bailout musings

Conservatives are highly conflicted on the bailout. In theory, it shouldn't happen. Insolvent firms should be allowed to fail and the underlying assets sorted out in bankruptcy. The problem, of course, is that the intervening period could see an evaporation of the credit market and, at best, a serious recession. It's an election year. That won't be allowed to happen.

So what kind of bailout should there be? There are three things to avoid. First, there is no need to make troubled firms whole. The government should buy enough of this bad paper to get the credit markets moving again but not a penny more. In other words, it should alleviate as little of the economic pain felt by shareholders as possible. Second, the government should not acquire any more private firms. It has no business running them. What it should do is buy these securities at a deep discount and insist on the lion's share of whatever profit they generate - which could be substantial. Third, the bailout should not be the occasion to address issues other than the distressed financial markets. We shouldn't alter the terms of mortgages or put a moratorium on foreclosures or attempt to restrict executive pay - at least not with respect to firms that are buying rather than selling. All of this gets in the way of maximizing the government's potential recovery and minimizing - or even eliminating - the cost to the taxpayers. If the government wants to aid distressed subprime borrowers, it ought to do that separately and, if it is done, it ought to be by way of straight subsidy so that the cost is clearly stated.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Reality intrudes upon politics

John McCain will spend the next six weeks or so hearing it said that he has admitted that he does not understand the economy and, while that's not quite what he said, I think it's fair to say that economics is not his strength. He is far more concerned with foreign policy and that is much more important in electing a President.

So is Obama the "economics" candidate? Hardly. Faced with the financial difficulties that came to the fore last week, he blamed the deregulation and encouragemet of greed in the past eight years. Now, I know that W., whatever his faults, did not invent greed so I have been searching these internets and asking my Obamaphilic friends - what deregulation do you have in mind? So far, the best answer I've got is a bipartisan repeal of certain lingering restrictions of the Glass-Steagall Act passed in 1999 and signed into law by Bill Clinton. What I have yet to hear is an explanation of how that law had anything to do with the present state of affairs.

Obama and, to a lesser extent McCain, wants to paint this as a catastrophe visited by the bad guys on the good guys; as a morality play to be resolved by an altar call. I don't think so.

I don't know that I completely understand the cause of this mess, but this is the best I can gather from wht I have read.

Deregulation of interest rates and financial instruments - not in the past eight years or even the past twenty - led to the rise of the subprime market. Lenders had the freedom to price loans to reflect the risk that they were assuming and this lead to a wider availability of credit. People who had not been able to get a mortgage in the past could now do so because lenders were able to price the loan to reflect the increased risk. Things that were unheard of when I last bought a house - no money down and no income verification loans - became common place.

This was not all bad. It allowed many more people to buy homes and the overwhelming majority of them have managed to make their payments.

The process seems to have been fueled by Freddie and Fannie who were willing buyers of these loans,spurred in part by political pressure to make home ownership more widely available.

In recent years, interest rates went incredibly low. Lenders could borrow cheap and lend at least a bit more dearly into the subprime market. Often borrowers were obtained through lower initial rates and originators fudging on their qualifications. Sometimes borrowers were fooled by this and sometimes they knowingly went along. Everyone believed that a growing economy and, most importantly, rising real estate prices would make it all good.

Except that it didn't, too much money flowed into housing inflating values beyond sustainable levels. Interest rates had to ultimately rise. Lenders could not offer refinancing at rates approximating the original ones. Borrowers who were in trouble could not unload their property and many chose to walk away - they had no skin in the game (they had paid nothing down) and did not wish to throw good money after bad.

Because some purchasers of this debt were highly overleveraged, the fact that 10-15% of this subprime paper went south had a devastating impact.

Much of this had nothing to do with government policy. It's far from clear that government superintendence of loan portfolios would have resulted in a better outcome without mandating a conservatism that would have resteicted home ownership. There may be policy improvements (that may include tightening of some and loosening of other regulations) that will help.

But a lot of what we are hearing has nothing to do with it. The crisis has little to do with CEO compensation. Improved disclosure requirements for mortgage loans may be a good idea but are not going to help the present emergency. Permitting bankruptcy judges to modify the terms of subprime loans will only interfere with disposing of securities backed by those loans. Potential purchasers will have a hard time essentially buying a bunch of loans that can be rewritten by the courts.

What does seem clear to me is that the resolution of this does not fit into the narrative of our political campaigns. It's not government vs the private sector. It turns on issues about which most people know little and are probably not very willing to attend to. I'm not sure that I like McCain's suspension of his campaign and postponement of the debate as a political move, but it does convey an important message. This stuff is too serious to become a political football. It must be dealt with in an incredibly short period of time and playing our our normal political games at the intensity with which we play them during presidential elections will probably hurt more than it helps.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Yes, let's do keep this thing honest

A friend sends me two links. The first is to a column by Nicholas Kristof despairing of the fact that 13% of registered voters believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim. This belief is, of course, wrong and it is unfortunate that so many people are mistaken. But there are all sorts of misperceptions held by a much larger percentage of the public. The 13% number,, for example, is not much higher than the percentage who believe Elvis is still alive. A substantial majority believes that there was a plot to kill JFK, close to half believe in UFOs, majorities believe that the rich don't pay their fair share of taxes and that high income families shouldn't pay more than 25%, a high percentage are incorrect about WMDs in Iraq and the relationship of Iraq to 9-11,etc.

As these things go, the Obama is not a Muslim message is doing pretty well. Kristof can't attribute the rumours about Obama being Muslim to anyone remotely associated with the mainstream media or the Republicans/ He can only point to some obscure and unnamed sources. But that doesn't stop him from bizarrely suggesting that the McCain ad mocking Obama's pretensions "mimicked the words and imagery of the best-selling Christian “Left Behind” book series in ways that would have set off alarm bells among evangelicals nervous about the Antichrist."

Not hardly. There's a cheap shot in and of itself.

Having indulged himself in his own bit of innuendo, Kristof wants to rally his fellow journalists to clean up the game:

Journalists need to do more than call the play-by-play this election cycle. We also need to blow the whistle on such egregious fouls calculated to undermine the political process and magnify the ugliest prejudices that our nation has done so much to overcome.

Well, certainly and I look forward to the NY Times spending some time blowing the whistle on the egregious fouls directed toward John McCain and Sarah Palin by some rather substantial sources, such as the fraudulent representations of her remarks before a church in Wasilla by ABC news anchor Charles Gibson or the repetition of made up stories about Palin's belief that dinosaurs recently roamed the earth by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.

In fact, Kristof could start with the second article sent to me by the same friend - an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune by Robyn Blumner.

In that op-ed, Blumner uncritically repeats the charge - first made - and then modified without acknowledgement - by the Washington Post - that Palin thinks Iraq was behind 9-11. This is, of course, untrue and a rank distortion of what she said.

She then attacks Palin for suggesting that Freddie and Fannie, who she called quasi-government agencies, needed more oversight. Blumner wants her to have called them government sponsored agencies. Whatever. The government created them, enabled them, and implicitly promised to stand behind them - a promise that has now made good. John McCain co-sponsored legislation for such additional oversight in 2005 which was derailed by the Democrats. Because these entities misrepresented the nature of their portfolios and made a market for speculation on dicey loans, credit has constricted and, as Palin said, "people are fearful of losing their homes." The Governor may just have a point there. Maybe Blumner cant understand it, but I think that I can.

Shark at the Marq

I have a new post up at the Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog. Go and read it. Then read some of my colleagues' posts. They're very good.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sunday Musical Interlude

While channelsurfing, I came across a video compilation of the best songs of the 80s and that got me thinking about Live Aid - a set of concerts held around the world (although primarily in Philadelphia and London)on July 13, 1985. Live Aid was broadcast on MTV and its purpose was to raise money for African relief.

Live Aid was a signficant moment in the rising popularity of an Irish band called U2.
Here's a performance of one of my favorite U2 songs, "Bad," with Bono in full mullett.

Although people often cite "Heroes," one of the better performances that I can recall from Live Aid is David Bowie singing "Modern Love."

In the interest of being a bit more 80s, here is Chrissie Hynde's then-husband Jim Kerr of Simple Minds singing "Don't You."

And, finally, Dire Straits played "The Sultans of Swing."

Sunday Potpourri

I really liked Patrick McIlheran's post on the candidate's reaction to the financial frenzy of last week. As I have said before, the reaction of the Obama campaign is unadorned demagoguery. After an intial commitment to reason ("the fundamentals of the economy are sound"), McCain matched Obama's scapegoating, railing against corruption, Chris Cox and short sales. By the end of the week and the market's recovery (it essentially ended on Friday where it started on Monday), both candidates had sobered. Obama, essentially, seems to have withdrawn from the debate while McCain gave a more measured speech in Green Bay in which he focused on the importance of regulation seeking transparency rather than control.

Some of the readers of this blog have chastized me for my inability to see that Obama is a new kind of politician who will not seek to divide and who will abandon something called the "politics of Karl Rove." Can those claims survive Obama's race-baiting and fraudulent Spanish language ad that 1)distorts some old comments of Rush Limbaugh and 2) implies that Limbaugh and McCain are allies on immigration when, in fact, the opposite is true? I'm just asking.

Joe Biden says that it is patriotic to pay higher taxes - to "get in the game and be part of the deal." Let's take the top 1% of taxpayers who consistently pay a percentage of income tax that is about twice as high as their share of total income. That's fairly progressive. How much more does patriotism require?

Does the Brewers invertebrate collapse create real business problems for next year. The team had a wonderful year and set attendance records only to finish in a way that has been so bad - so consistently impotent - that it overshadows everything that went before it. When you add the loss of likely loss of Sabathia and Sheets, how much fan enthusiasm can we expect for next year? I fear that the Brewers will fall off the cliff unless they make some substantial offseason investments. I wouldn't bother with Sheets who will almost certainly not be worth whatever he is paid and Sabathia may be too rich for anyone outside Los Angeles, New York or the north side of Chicago (horrors!). But Anastacio has to do something to purge the smell left by the team's self immolation. I bet he will.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Everyone should take a breath on the HAVA suit

I did a few press interviews on the Van Hollen law suit, so I suppose I should blog on it. I have two reactions. First, it is unfair to say that the lawsuit is frivolous or only seeks to foster partisan interests. Federal law required cross checks as of January 2006 and Wisconsin did not develop the capacity to do them until August 2008. There was a reason for the law. Congress decided that fair elections required that certain steps be taken to ensure accurate voter lists in federal elections. It gave the states a deadline and Wisconsin missed it. In that sense, Van Hollen has the law and the facts on his side.

But ... and here is my second impression and one that I think (and certainly hope) that the Attorney General shares ... there is only so much that we can do between now and November 4. This is why I think that this is a case that must be settled. We probably can't do the required cross checks and resolve all discrepancies between now and November 4. Van Hollen does not seem to be insisting on that. His problem is with the Government Accountability Board's position that they need do nothing to remedy the state's untimely compliance.

The Board's response to its refusal to do anything about the state's untimeliness is to say that we can't do everything. That seems unreasonable.

What the parties need to do is decide where the likelihood of inaccuracy and fraud is the greatest and then determine which checks to run and which ones should be acted upon. I don't know what that should be. Maybe we run checks against the data base of deaths and felons and call it a day. Maybe we run a broader check but follow up only on those discrepancies that cannot readily be explained by clerical errors, developing a set of ground rules for defining those. Perhaps we focus on the registrations submitted by special registrars which are often representatives of partisan groups like ACORN.

What they should not do is turn it into a political football. Van Hollen has - however inconveniently - identified a real problem and seems to be flexible about how to deal with it. Doyle has appointed an excellent - but staunchly partisan - lawyer to represent the board. Lester Pines and the board - and J.B. Van Hollen and my brothers and sisters in the conservative community - need to understand that we are in a situation where compromise is in order.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Maybe the government did cause the financial crisis - through regulation

I've blogged about the fact that Obama is talking nonsense on the financial crisis. McCain wants to undertake a thorough study of its causes and Obama ridicules the idea. We know how we got into this mess, he says, we need the change that will get us out.

But he has offered neither a diagnosis or a course of treatment. On the cause of the problem, he essentially offers two arguments. The first is that there is some kind of culture of greed created by George W. Bush and John McCain. This is unworthy of anyone who has even walked across Harvard Yard. We've had giant businesses collapse either due to speculation or misstatement of their financial condition before. Enron did not begin its skullduggery on January 20, 2001. The tech bubble occurred during the Clinton era, etc.

The other argument is that there was some culpable deregulation during the Bush administration but I've yet to see an explanation. In fact, there was a monumental increase in regulation called Sarbanes-Oxley and, although it did not pass, John McCain co-sponsored a bill that would have increased regulation of Freddie and Fannie. Obama did not co-sponsor that bill.

McCain's current rhetoric is only marginally better. He is blaming corruption and greed and no doubt we had some of that, but the real causes are probably more complicated that and may not fit comfortably into the narratives of the right or left.

There is a fascinating article by Zachary Karabell in this morning's Wall Street Journal. He starts with something that has puzzled me. The housing market is down, but it's not that bad. There is an increase in foreclosures but the percentage of mortgages in foreclosure and default is still very small. Why would a significant, but noncatastrophic decline, lead to a catastrophe?

Karabell argues that it is a result, not of Bush era deregulation, but of Bush era regulation, in particular, the "mark to market" rules dictated by Sarbanes-Oxley. As explains it, SOX reguired that a company's assets be revalued quarterly as if they were to be immediately sold. If there would be no buyer now, then the value is zero.

This is hyperconservative. One doesn't sell when the market is down and today's price may not reflect long term value. But if the assets must be written down, the balance sheet - and the company - collapses.

This was an unintended consequence. Karabell is not arguing for no regulation (he makes the point that no regulation at all means no market), but for good regulation and for the need for regulators not to overreact to the most recent problem.

How powerful is Karabell's explanation? I don't know but it seems like a serious effort to address the problem, albeit one that doesn't fit the narrative of our political campaigns.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Those who speak before glass greek columns should not throw stones

Two weeks ago, I blogged on the role of charges of hypocrisy in our politics. Another charge that gets thrown about without much thought is "lying." The most common definition of a lie is an "intentionally false statement." I think many of things that we call "lies" in politics are actually mistakes or an exaggerated or overly tendentious or incomplete statement of the facts.

A current meme of the Obama campaign is that John McCain and Sarah Palin are running the the "sleaziest and least honorable campaign in modern presidential campaign history." That's obvious nonsensical hyperbole. Another is to accuse McCain of "lying."

Much of this seems based on a single ad run about a sex ed bill that McCain supported which I think was overly tendentious and an exaggeration. But Obama's characterization of the bill is equally inaccurate as Byron York demonstrates.

What I want to clarify is what we mean by sleazy dishonest and lying. To do so, I'll take a few well-known and mostly recent claims by the Obama campaign.

The first is Obama's repeated claim that John McCain was willing to fight the war in Iraq for 100 years. Phrased in that way, the charge is hard to characterize as anything other than an intentionally false statement. McCain said we might stay in Iraq for 50 or 100 years (as we have stayed for many years in Germany and Korea) "as long as we are not taking casualties." If there are no casualties, there is no war.

But Obama backtracked and has now dropped that as Iraq has ceased to be an issue. Let's look at some more recent statements.

Obama says that McCain opposes equal pay for women. The charge is based on McCain's opposition to something called the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2007. You'd think that this bill must call for equal pay for women but you'd be wrong. Equal pay for women had long been the law. This bill seeks to reverse a recent case by the United States Supreme Court which essentially interpreted existing law to require a private plaintiff to bring an equal pay claim under Title VII within 180 days of the first act of discrimination. That's short and perhaps should be longer, although there is another law, the Equal Pay Act, that has a longer limitations period and the Court made clear that its interpretation would not apply to allegations of a discriminatory pay structure.

Be that as it may, this bill comes very close to eliminating any period of limitations for persons still working for the allegedly discriminatory employer and changes Title VII in other ways as well. A reasonable person who supports equal pay could oppose it. But beyond that, a dispute over the proper statute of limitations is not equivalent to a dispute over the concept of equal pay. This is very close to an intentionally false statement.

Or how about the claim that McCain wants to tax your health insurance benefits? Literally true, but awfully misleading. McCain wants to include employer provided health care as income but he also would provide a tax credit of $ 5000 for families. If your employer's portion of your health care coverage amounts to $10000 (a fairly typical number) and you are in the 25% tax bracket, your additional tax would be $ 2500. But your credit would be $ 5000 so, in fact, you'd be money ahead. This wouldn't be the precise result for everyone, but McCain's plan is the beginning of the very necessary process of decoupling health insurance from employment and creating a workable private market for insurance. Obama's statement, while literally true, leaves out important facts.

Then there is the new ad excerpting part of Carly Fiorina's statement that Sarah Palin and John McCain would not be qualified to run a major corporation. The footage of Fiorina stops before she says, in the very next words, that Barack Obama and Joe Biden would not be qualified to run a major corporation either. Thus the ad falsely implies that Ms. Fiorina thinks that John McCain lacks some qualification that Barack Obama has. In fact, as Ms. Fiorina explained, she thinks that being President and running a major corporation are different things and involve different skill sets. It's a false analogy. (The ad's suggestion that the US President "runs" the US economy is nonsense, but that's another issue.)Through not so creative editing, the Obama ad misleads.

Then there is the ad making the terribly important monumental claim that John McCain "can't send an e-mail" suggesting that he is out of touch with the modern era. It turns out that McCains sends lots of e-mails, but can't do it himself because of injuries he sustained while being beaten as a POW. He has, in fact, a very good record on technology issues. Some have suggested that the Obama campaign were making fun of McCain's war injuries. I don't. They did not know why he can't e-mail (although it would have been easy to find out). The ad creates a false impression, but, although its intended message (McCain is old) is sleazy, it does so as a result of a mistake.

Of course, this doesn't mean that the McCain campaign is without sin. I have pointed out where they have made their own missteps. My point here is that the notion that Obama's ads are more accurate, less misleading and more honorable is hogwash - lipstick and all.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

New politics - same as the old politics

So I am bit poorer today than I was last night and Obama wants to make political hay. It may be possible to do so, but I am still waiting for a substantive argument. He says that the problem is:

It's the same philosophy we've had for the last eight years, one that says we should give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else," Obama said. "It's a philosophy that says even commonsense regulations are unnecessary, unwise. One that says we should just stick our heads in the sand and ignore economic problems until they spiral into crisis."

That's just bloviation. The financial industry was hardly unregulated and, indeed, one could make the case that it was government intervention in the markets - a fed fund rate that was too low and implicit government guarantees that created a moral hazard - that contributed to the mess.

But put that side. What regulations were suspended during the Bush administration that contributed to the subprime difficulties? I have seen frequent reference to a 1999 bill supported by McCain's former economic advisor and signed into law by Bill Clinton, but no attempt to explain why - nine years later - the bill created the problems we see today.

Obama's reference to "giving more and more to those with the most" is, I suppose, a reference to reductions in marginal tax rates. Putting aside the fact that those changes have actually seen wealthy taxpayers foot more of the income tax bill than they did before, how did that cause the collapse of Lehman Brothers?

Obama criticizes McCain for voting against minimum wage increases. Again, let's forget the rather well accepted idea that minimum wage increases tend to reduce low-skill employment, what does that have to do with this?

Obama also said today that the administration had encouraged huge bonuses to CEOs. How did it do that? And how did those bonuses cause the problem?

I don't pretend to understand the subprime meltdown, but it seems to me that the key disconnect was between those who originated mortgages and thos who bought them (a practice that did not originate in the Bush administration). Notwithstanding mandated disclosures to borrowers, people bought houses that they could not afford. That's one set of problems, although I'm not so sure that its a problem of insufficient regulation.

A lot of the public discussion of this ends there. Those big bad capitalists lent money to people that they knew could never pay it back.

But, of course, no one would knowingly lend money to someone who couldn't repay it. The problem seems to be that the people who originated the loans sold them to someone else.

And therein lies the problem, The originators sold a bunch of lousy credit in the secondary market to big rich and sophisticated buyers who should have known better. It may be that there is a regulatory solution to this, but it is unlikely to have much to do with the economic populism espoused by Obama.

I know that I am supposed to accept on faith the notion that Obama represents some kind of new unifying politics, but, tell me, why is this anything other than standard demagoguery?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sunday oldies - of a sort

I may indulge my inner partisan a bit here. But I think that there's blame to go around on all sides.

Here's the new meme for political dialogue - brought to you circa 1965 by the Castaways:

But there's a reason for it. We want to believe that we can finance huge new government programs while we cut taxes on the middle class and only soak the rich. We want to believe that earmark reform only will restore fiscal sanity. We want to think there are easy solutions. Sheryl Crow expresses the sentiment with unusual candor.

"Lie to me/I promise to believe"

Putting any two things together that sound good. John McCain has lobbyists working for him. (But so do I.) Sarah Palin supported the bridge to nowhere before she opposed it. (But I consistently supported it.) McCain is so old that he doesn't e-mail and once wore funny glasses. If you are a Democrat, come up with your own examples, but it's political dada - invocation of a mood without reason and destruction for its own sake. It's an angry mood, like the Tombstone Blues:

"The sun's not yellow/it's chicken"

Or maybe its like Groucho Marx in "Horsefeathers."

"Whatever it is, I'm against it"


"I always get my man"

What's going on?

I have no idea what's going to happen in November, but I am gobsmacked by the state of the race right now. One of the best sites for poll analysis is fivethirtyeight.com. a site run by some Democratic statisticians who have developed what they believe to be an accurate and honest model for projecting the outcome. A few weeks ago, they were projecting a likely - and comfortable - Obama victory. Now it is McCain who has the advantage. I did not expect this to be where things are right now. I thought that, maybe, a critical examination of Obama throughout the fall might swing the race to McCain. I never thought that, before that examination had even begun, McCain would be in the lead.

The conventional wisdom is to attribute this to Sarah Palin and at least some of the folks at fivethirtyeight seem to agree. They believe that the key to the election is to bring her down - not so much because people are voting for her, but because she has changed the way that people look at John McCain. For the conservative base, her selection is energizing. He has selected, as the party's future, someone who - particularly on foreign policy and social issues - thinks like we do. Because of her challenge to the Republican establishment in Alaska, she underscores his claim to independence.

It has, on a more superficial level, negated the old white guy issue. Obama is different, but so is she. And, one the ways in that she is different, is she is seen as coming from those God and gun clinging people that Obama has so much trouble with.

I think that the Obama campaign has finally stumbled on to this in deciding to run that ridiculous ad going after John McCain because he doesn't use e-mail (although, actually, he does). It's as if to say, wait, we are the cool kids table.

There is also a sense in which Palin epitomizes different approaches to the problem of life in America. No one really takes the position that government can never help you or that government can always save you. But she quite clearly tilts to the former over the latter and reinforces the less obvious notion that McCain does as well. In her world, goverment can help, but family and adherance to traditional values are more important. Women can assume positions of responsibility - even be elected to the Presidency, but they can also be women in a variety of rather traditional ways - a neo-feminist position that has pretty much carried the day in every day life. That position recognizes that women can have differing positions on things like abortion and "comparable worth schemes." They can be Democrats or Republicans. They might be urban liberals or moose hunters.

This is one of the reasons that her lack of urbane sophistication won't hurt her. I am a conservative, but I am also a wine-drinking, New York Times reading, irony savoring, Europhilic intellectual. I know Barack Obama's world. Like him, one of the formative experiences of my youth was not service in the military or struggling with college, but a stint in Gannett House.

So I have all sorts of cultural resistance to Sarah Palin. I can't relate to the "Great White North" accent or the shooting at caribou from something called snow machines. (OK, I know that they probably don't do that, but you get it.) As much as I may be a religious conservative, I come from the Roman Catholic/Anglican tradition and would find the churches that she has attended in Wasilla far removed from my own experience and, quite frankly, would probably be uncomfortable there.

When I watch her interviews with Gibson, my initial reaction is that she has missed an opportunity. He has flung a silly challenge that can be reduced to intellectual rubble, but she doesn't do that. What she does manage to do is reaffirm some broader principle which is at the root of the response that a more loquacious conservative would make and that is at the heart of what a lot of people care about. She does it in a way that is more genuine than articulate. She phrases things in a way that will never be heard in faculty meetings.

One of the responses to this, from people who are a lot like me, is that she is a "freaking moron." Not smooth enough. Insufficiently nuanced.

The problem with this response is to assume that the measure of a political leader is to whether or not she knows everything about all things. No one can do this, although some of us can act as if we can. All Presidents are radically dependent on the advice of experts. What we look for in a President is not the ability to begin at a position of complete neutrality and then reason - unaided - to the correct conclusion, but the right philosophical predisposition combined with the intelligence to recognize when her presuppositions are wrong or inapplicable and the courage to act on that realization.

A Presidential election is not a race for national valedictorian. Herbert Hoover, Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon were brilliant men who made poor Presidents. FDR, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan were not so euridite, but much more successful.

I might post later on the Gibson interview, but my view of it that Palin did well enough, but will have to - and will do - better in future forums. What she doesn't have to do is come across as Professor Palin and insistence that she do so on the part of the media or Democrats is likely to backfire.

The NY Times continues to abase itself

Hillary Clinton's former strategist, Mark Penn believes that the mainstream media is ashcanning its credibility. This morning's piece in the Sunday New York Times certainly supports his thesis. Here's the headline. "Throughout her career, Ms. Palin has pursued vendettas, fired officials who crossed her and blurred the line between government and personal grievance."

Here are the problems. First, the article doesn't deliver what it promises. Jen Rubin at Commentary deconstructs it. Having scoured Alaska, they have found some peole who don't like here, including a number that she fired. Executives who are trying to cut costs sometimes have to fire people. Executives who are trying to challenge an entrenched system too focused on the interests of politicians and their cronies will clear out the old team and bring in a new one. Those on the outs won't be happy. Much of what is reported is either the opinion of Palin opponents or hearsay.

This is not to say that nothing in the article is true or that there exists nothing that might reflect poorly on Sarah Palin. If we look exhaustively into the background of anyone, we can find enough to write a damning article. None of us are perfect. None of us always behaves in the way that we would want to.

But there is nothing in the article - even if everything in it can be taken at face value - that establishes that personal vendettas or an improper form of secrecy are characteristic of the Palin administrations.

And it can't be taken at face value because, quite frankly, the New York Times has no credibility when it comes to this election. Correct me if I am wrong, but it has not written an article headlined "Obama's career characterized by cooperation with the Chicago machine, association with the far left and the failure to take a stand on difficult issues." There is enough of all of that in Obama's record to write such a piece. There was no article captioned "Biden's career characterized by plagarism, polemical attacks on judicial nominees and cozy relationship with credit card companies." There is sufficient grist for that mill as well.

All in all, I think that Palin's claim about her record hold up well. Obviously, her efforts to put it in the best possible light sometimes result in exaggeration. I am not sure I know of a politician about whom that claim can be made. But she did kill the Bridge to Nowhere even if she once supported it. She did substantially reduce earmark requests even if she did not eliminate them entirely. She did cut state spending and she did take on both the oil industry and the Republican establishment.

Obama and the Democrats say that they have a better set of policy proposals than the McCain/Palin. If they really believe this and really want to move beyond what they call "Karl Rove" politics (by which, I take it, they mean unfair negative campaigning), it might be time to run on those ideas rather than contempt for the GOP nominee for Vice President.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Palin and the Post

A Washington Post reporterseems to think that Sarah Palin has claimed that Saddam Hussein's now deposed regime in Iraq was responsible for the 9-11 attacks.

This is what she said:

Gov. Sarah Palin linked the war in Iraq with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, telling an Iraq-bound brigade of soldiers that included her son that they would "defend the innocent from the enemies who planned and carried out and rejoiced in the death of thousands of Americans."

Sarah Palin quite obviously does not believe that these soldiers are going over to Iraq to defend the innocent from Hussein's regime. He's dead. It's gone.

What she does believe is that they are going over to Iraq to defend the innocent from al Qaeda in Iraq. Al Qaeda did, as I recall, have something to do with 9-11.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Palin and Gibson

I think that Sarah Palin did fine in her interview with Charles Gibson. It was not the bravo performance that her convention speech was and I know that my intellectual liberal friends won't like it. She has that voice that brings to mind Frances McDormand in Fargo. She speaks in terms of moral aspiration and commitment to forging a better world - all things that Ronald Reagan was derided for. She doesn't go out of her way to evidence a wry sophistication.

But let's go to the tape.

Gibson's exchange with her on what she said about God's plan and the war in Iraq amounted to a shameless smear attempt on his part. This is what Palin said:

“Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right. Also, for this country, that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending [U.S. soldiers] out on a task that is from God,” she exhorted the congregants. “That’s what we have to make sure that we’re praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God’s plan.”

Here is how Gibson repeated it, claiming that these were her "exact words." I place in bold the parts that Gibson pulled:

“Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right. Also, for this country, that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending [U.S. soldiers] out on a task that is from God,” she exhorted the congregants. “That’s what we have to make sure that we’re praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God’s plan."

This is complete intellectual dishonesty. If any of my students tried this (and, Mr. Sarver, I know that you never would), I'd fail them. You don't take a request to pray that a certain course of action is right and, by pulling portions of a sentence without any indication that you have edited it, turn that statement into a declaration that God has decreed that course of action is right. Lawyers would get sanctioned for that kind of intellectual fraud, although I have to say that, in 27 years of practice, I can't recall encountering something quite that bad.

She handled it well by explaining precisely what she meant. The only thing that would have been better is for her to expressly tell Gibson that these were not all of her words; that he was taking them out of context and omitting parts that supplies that context. But I think they made a decision not to have her confront him. And, in any event, she is an executive and not a lawyer or lawprof. She hasn't been trained to deliver the intellectual coup'd grace.

The Democrat talking point is likely to be that she "didn't know what the Bush Doctrine" is as if this is a well defined thing with a meaning about which people do not disagree. It also assumes that it is a simple thing that one either agrees or disagrees with it in toto. Believe it or not, one of things that I try to do as a law professor is break down generalizations into their comprehensible parts. Palin's request that he do so was perfectly reasonable.

But he wouldn't do it because he wanted - just knew he could - show her up. So much for intellectual subtlety. So she restated the question in a way that was, given his refusal to tell her what he meant, perfectly accurate and perfectly favorable to her side of the debate. Politicians do this.

Having been owned, he then he asked the question that he should have asked in the first place and she answered it.

Perhaps another point may be that she wants to let Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. Gibson wanted to push on that because "we then have to go to war if Russia went into Georgia?" But, of course, it would not just be "we" but all of the NATO countries. Do the Democrats want to take the position that we ought to permit the reassembly of the Soviet Union? Bring that one on.

Another point might be her belief that a nuclear Iran is intolerable and that, if Israel needs to take them out, that's the way it is. This is a foreign policy position on which we can disagree, although I think she has it exactly right. I would only point out that the Israel has prevented the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East before. We condemned them then, but I suspect that, today, we are all grateful.

Could she have done better? I'd say so. Does she need to work on a few things? I think so. The transcript, i.e., the substance of what she said, is very strong while the video leaves room for improvement. (Contra the Palin as lightweight narrative.)

I'd give the first round to Palin on points. Let's see what happens next.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Tonight's flare up: Obama on sex ed

Some Obama supporters are upset with a McCain ad that, in the course of criticizing Obama's record on education, included a claim that he "accomplished" the passage of a bill requiring comprehensive sex education for kindergarteners.

Tom Foley links to what he calls 'the "Age Appropriate Sex Education Grant Program,' the latest — as in, most legible — version of a State bill that Barack Obama, while an Illinois senator, deliberated on (neither sponsored nor, as John McCain's "approved message" falsely puts it, "accomplished") in committee, including a link to the full text of the proposed legislation."

I'm not sure what this is supposed to mean, but if the claim is that it is the bill he links to is the one referred to in the McCain ad or identical to bill referenced by the ad, then he's wrong.

The ad referred to SB 99, a bill introduced in the 93rd General Assembly. It's text and history can be found here. It is not, as the bill Tom links to, a grant program, but a curricular mandate.

The bill proposed the elimination of certain existing requirements for comprehensive sex education programs including that:

(2) Course material and instruction shall teach
honor and respect for monogamous heterosexual marriage.
(3) Course material and instruction shall stress
that pupils should abstain from sexual intercourse until
they are ready for marriage.
(4) Course material and instruction shall include a
discussion of the possible emotional and psychological
consequences of preadolescent and adolescent sexual
intercourse outside of marriage and the consequences of
unwanted adolescent pregnancy.

It also would have amended Illinois law to extend certain requirements for the content of sex ed and related programs from grades 6-12 to k-12. For example, it would have provided that:

Each class or course in comprehensive sex
education offered in any of grades K through 12 shall
include instruction on the prevention of sexually transmitted
infections, including the prevention, transmission and spread
of HIV.

It then goes on to specify certain other requirements for these comprehensive sex education programs.

The bill would have made essentially similar amendments to family life curricula, including the extension of its scope from grades 6-12 to k-12.

It also provided that:

The program established under this Act shall:

include, but not be limited to, the following major
educational areas as a basis for curricula in all elementary
and secondary schools in this State: human ecology and
health, human growth and development, the emotional,
psychological, physiological, hygienic and social
responsibilities of family life, including sexual abstinence
and prevention of unintended pregnancy.
prevention and control of disease, including age appropriate
instruction in grades K through 12 on the prevention of
sexually transmitted infections, including the prevention,

transmission and spread of HIV , public and environmental
health, consumer health, safety education and disaster
survival, mental health and illness, personal health habits,
alcohol, drug use, and abuse including the medical and legal
ramifications of alcohol, drug, and tobacco use, abuse during
pregnancy, sexual abstinence, tobacco,
nutrition, and dental health.

This passage applied to "comprehensive health education" and the changes that it would have made in existing law included, again, the extension of its scope to k-12 and the eliminate of the words "until marriage" after "sexual abstinence."

The bill did contain requirements that sexual abstinence be discussed as "a" method to prevent pregnancy and the transmission of sexual diseases. It included a requirement that instruction be age and developmentally appropriate (although it does not specify what that is) and it included some parental opt-out provisions and some requirements for instruction on statutory rape and the avoidance of sexual assault.

I say that the bill would have done this things because it apparently did not pass the full body. The ad's reference to the fact that the bill was an Obama accomplishment seems to refer to the fact that it passed the committee on Health & Human Services of which Obama was chair. He does not appear to be a sponsor of the bill. He did vote for it.

So - is this brief passage on Obama and sex ed fair? I think it's a bit of a stretch. The bill certainly would have expanded some form of sex education to kindergarten including, perhaps, something called comprehensive sex education. While the bill mandated that the material be age appropriate, you can't tell from the bill itself just what this mandated curriculum might be. One thing that seems clear is that it would have required education - in kindergarten - about STDs and HIV. It's not unreasonable to suggest that this may be a tad early. There was, in fact, an amendment to change the scope of the changes back to grades 6-12, but that was tabled.

Obama says that be bill simply required "warning young children about sexual predators and explaining concepts like 'good touch and bad touch.'" You really can't tell and, as noted above, it seems that it would require more than that. Even if Obama's claim were so, of course, some might argue that even that type of education harms more than it helps with kindergartners.

On the other hand, the ad implies more than it seems the bill would have delivered and I am not sure that you can call every bill that passes out of committee an "accomplishment" of its chairperson. Nor is it clear to me that all of the bills mandates would have been required of all schools as opposed to being required of those schools that chose to offer certain curriculums.

However, as these things go, I don't think its fair to say, as Tom Foley does, that it's a dive "headlong into the gutter." I am confident that I can and will do similar damage to Obama ads and claims. One that springs immediately to mind is Obama's repeated false claim that "John McCain is willing to send our troops into another hundred years of war in Iraq.”

Still that limited part of the ad could have been - and should have been - better phrased. Frankly, if we need to talk about this bill, I am a bit more concerned about the bill's deemphasis of abstinence and monogamous heterosexual marriage.

Obama and the Brewers are in a September swoon

Did Barack Obama mean to refer to Sarah Palin as a "pig" and John McCain as an "old fish?" At the Volokh Conspiracy, Jim Lindgren argues that he intended to poke fun at them in a way that would entertain those supporters who are inclined to think of Palin and McCain in this way.

I'm willing to give him the benefit of a doubt, but the fact is that it was an awful mistake. Using the word "lipstick" after Palin's widely remarked upon "hockey mom" joke was almost certain to cause people to think that the "pig" on which it was to be applied is Governor Palin. The whole thing is reinforced by the decision to use a second metaphor referring to something that is "old." Again, this is going to be heard by many people as a reference to John McCain, no matter how it was intended.

A candidate who is seen by some voters as condescending and who has had some problems with women should not make this kind of mistake, just as Republican representative Lynn Westmoreland should not have referred to Obama as "uppity." Coming from, in particular, a southern congressman, this is going to be seen as a racially tinged comment without regard to his intent.

The other thing it does is undercut the argument that Palin is nasty, although I don't think that was going anywhere.

All in all, it's not a big deal. It's another indication that Obama may not be ready for prime time. It allows the McCain people to do this:


But, then again, we all misspeak. The real question is how often it happens and how it relates to a candidate's image.

More importantly, on a tactical level, why is Obama falling for the GOP's rope-a-dope strategy? Why are they going ballistic over the veep nominee? It's unbecoming for Obama to be so focused on the GOP number two.

Beyond that, it plays into the Obama as elitist narrative. It threatens to create a gender problem (or to neutralize a gender advantage) in a way that didn't have to happen. The nature of the attacks on Palin - an indiscriminate barrage of charges (she banned books, she had an affair, she lies, she's corrupt, her baby is really her grandson, she's a Christian Dominionist)that fall apart on examination - undercuts the credibility of more legitimate criticisms of her.

And all the while, McCain remains above the fray.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

It really is hypocrisy all the way down

In response to my post on the overuse of hypocrisy, some local bloggers have responded by, essentially, calling me a hypocrite. While I am sure that I do not always obtain the consistency that I would like, I think my observation may just rise to the level of a metanarrative.

Part of their mistake is to think I was making a partisan point. I wasn't. Both liberals and conservatives overemphasize the hypocrisy argument. Both sides overemphasize flip flopping. Both sides spend too much energy flogging what usually turn out to be nonscandals.

But I want to riff off these posts to comment on the notion that there is an inconsistency between concern over Obama's for his celebrity/charisma/rapid rise and celebrating Palin for the same things.

I suppose that this might be true in some circumstances, but the concern that I have expressed about Obama is not simply that he is charismatic or popular, but that he uses his considerable power to advance the notion that our lives can and ought to be transformed by the state and by politics. If he wins, Michelle Obama says, you can never go back to your old life. His nomination, claims Barack Obama, is some portentious historical moment at which the nature of life in America is forever changed.

This type of megaenthusiasm for the role of the state is, I think, misplaced and potentially dangerous in that it wants the one entity in our society that has the power of legal compulsion to remake the world.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Obama is listing

Do I believe that John McCain is really up ten points over Barack Obama? No, I don't. My guess is that it has gone from a slim Obama lead to a slim advantage for McCain. It seems clear to me that, coming out of the back to back conventions, the momentum is with the Republicans. The Palin pick - the one that was supposed to be such a car wreck a few days ago - has helped on a number of levels. (The one that the Dems, given their devotion to identity politics, want to emphasize - that it was a sop to women, may not even make the top five.)

If I were an Obama supporter, what would concern me is that the race is even before what I suspect will be a tough effort on the part of the 527s to illustrate the more hard left aspects of his history.

It's even less clear that the weak economy helps as much as we would have expected. Palin is supposed to have misrepresented Obama's tax plan. Obama says that he is going to to raise taxes but only on the top 5% of earners. But there were three - and are now four problems.

One is that it is unlikely to be true. According to even the Tax Policy Center, a group that leans at least a tad toward the blue, Obama's plan (and, to be fair, McCain's as well) will reduce revenues and increase the deficit. In addition, Obama proposes or hints at a lot of new spending. It seems unlikely to me that Obama's actual policy will look much like what he is proposing on the campaign trail.

Of course, I suspect McCain's won't either. The difference is where one's inclinations lie. Obama is going to lean in the direction of raising taxes and spending. McCain will tend to go the other way.

The second problem is that tax imposition is not the same as tax incidence. Much income over $250000 is business income. Raising taxes is likely to increase prices and lower earnings. There may still be a net redistributive effect but not as much as is claimed.

The third problem is that Obama's plan will raise marginal tax rates to among the highest in the industrialized world. Even if those rates only apply to high earners, two things happen. First, taxable income declines as people engage in tax avoidance strategies. For that reason, revenue increases tend to be lower than expected. Second, the after tax returns to investment decrease. This will tend to attract capital away from the US or direct it to safer - but less growth generating uses - suppressing the economy.

Tax cuts don't always "pay for themselves" - although there are economic circumstances in which they might. But tax increases have implications that go well beyond simply taking part of a static pie and giving it to someone else.

Of course, Obama knows that. He is now backing away on his pledge to rescind the Bush tax cuts. I give him some credit for this. Wisdom that is late is nevertheless wisdom.

But it undercuts the Obama case on the economy. Just what government policy is supposed to have lead to a slower economy and what does he propose to do about it?

Old rock; new star

I have to do it. This Sunday's musical interlude is in honor of the killah from Wasilla ... the Barracuda .... Sarah America. So here is Fleetwood Mac's "Sara" - a song I have always loved. (Nothing to do with Palin. I have always thought that, had God ever blessed me with a daughter, that's what I would have wanted to name her.)

Palin is a feminist who doesn't think that there is anything the matter with Kansas. An early archetype was Jeannie C. Riley, whose biggest hit was Harper Valley PTA (although I could have given you "Okie from Muskogee.")

Much of the rancor over Palin is because she is pro-life. Here are two fantastic pro-life songs by women who I suspect are pro-choice. But, then, I subscribe to the rule of shut and sing. You invoke emotions. It doesn't mean you understand them.

First, the Pretenders' "Show Me." This song came out the year that my son was born and I was struck then by the line "the milky way is still in your eyes." I just welcomed my second grandson into the world. It's so true.

And, although I know I've done it before, Tori Amos' "Spark" - a song about a miscarriage.

And just because I can (and I know the lyrics don't convey the right message but, quite frankly, who pays that much attention?), "Barracuda." The Wilson sisters know where I am.

Update: But the lyrics may be more pertinent than I thought. "If the real thing don't do the trick, you better make up something quick" certainly describes what happened to Sarah Palin last week.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

It's hypocrisy all the way down

So says a wonderfully titled post on Prawfsblog by Matt Brodie. The point is that much of our political discouse is given over to charges of hypocrisy. We wrap ourselves into knots to be able to say that those we don't agree with have been inconsistent. Anyone who even casually follows political blogs has read the hackneyed "pot, meet kettle" so often as to wish to never see or hear it ever again.

Why do we do this? My own view flows from two observations. The first is that our society has altered the former balance between the perceived value of personal authenticity in the sense of following your own lights and the virtue of conforming to a set of standards that originates outside yourself. We have moved toward a greater appreciation of the former. This is not to argue that we have given ourselves over to a radical moral relativism, only that our discourse had shifted in a way that charges of hypocrisy have a particular salience.

This isn't all bad. Intellectual consistency is a virtue and an important discipline.

But our concern here is its emergence as a preferred form of political attack. I want to evaluate the implications of the observation that it's "hypocrisy all the way down." Is there anything about that which is troubling?

I think so. My sense is that charges of hypocrisy are popular because they do not require us to talk with one another about the real reasons for our disagreement. It is the invocation of a widely shared norm by those who have no intention of honestly debating what divides us. Rather than discuss the substantive differences between the tickets of Obama/Biden and McCain/Palin, we search for "gotchas" - things that allow us to dismiss our opponents without ever engaging what they have to say. It's a form of discourse for those who have no intention of engaging.

Other preferred political tactics offer the same opportunity including the closely related horror of "flip flopping" and our passion for scandal. Changing your mind in the face of the facts can be the sign of a good leader. It's probably a topic for another post, but don't we seem to struggle with the fact that good leaders may have human imperfections?

Cross posted at Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

A star is born

So says even Wolf Blitzer at, of all places, CNN.

Wow. There are a lot of Republicans having what Charlotte Hays calls a Chris Matthews moment. Sarah Palin's speech was a masterwork. She was intelligent, witty and charismatic. The speech was a quite sophisticated weave of biography, policy positions, praise of McCain and attacks on Obama in a way that wound up emphasizing her governing accomplishments (a rather longer list than Obama can present)and subtly responding to the various attempts to portray her as a fanatical and uninformed bit of white trash.

She took the fact that she is from a small town and tied it to the condescension that has gotten Obama in so much trouble in Appalachia. She ticked off a rather impressive list of accomplishments in twenty months as Governor and contrasted it with Obama's fairly unimpressive record as a legislator. (He's a tree shaker, not a jelly maker.) One thing that Alaska helps her with is energy policy where she has some natural credibility and some real achievement. She ties that in with international energy markets in a first attempt to demonstrate foreign policy cred. She weaves her defense on McCain into a rather moving discussion of the need to resist evil and the lessons born of humility and powerlessness.

It's not hard to see how she went from the PTA to the state house. Her political skills are different than Obama's, but no less impressive.

The speech was that much more impressive because it was delivered by a newcomer to the national scene who had been subject to what was perhaps an unprecedented five day sliming. It quite obviously didn't get to her.

What I found amazing is that, although the speech was obviously written for her (so are Obama's), it was wonderfully well tailored to her voice.

My guess is that Obama partisans will complain that it was too partisan (that what's the VP nominee traditionally does) and too conservative (although it did not strike me as highly ideological). Fine. But, while there is only so much that the veep nominee can do for the ticket, if you're a Democrat and you want to be candid (or realistic), you have to see this woman as trouble. You have to admit that it looks like she can play at this level.

Were there any weaknesses? She started a bit slowly. The speech was a tad folksy, for my taste, but that may just be me. To put it in the terms of my profession, she came across as a great jury lawyer and not a law professor. My guess is that this is who she is and rather than contain it, she needs to balance it by showing that she knows her stuff.

She also has the challenge that all professional women have. She can't appear to be too tough. Tonight, I think she skewered Obama with a smile and in a way that came across as funny rather than mean. But there is little doubt that she is Sarah Barracuda.

Some of her kids looked like they didn't know what to do (although the youngest daughter is an adorable little ham). I don't think it hurts her. It underscores the fact that this is just a normal family.

There is a long road ahead, but this is about as impressive a beginning as one could expect.

Shark at the MULS

I have a post up at our faculty blog.

It's not about Bristol Palin

Obama now has a couple point bounce. Is it a reaction to the convention or to the relentless attacks on Sarah Palin? The race is still a lot closer than I thought it would be at this point, but I think it's also fair to say that the Republicans have some ground to make up.

What we have seen over the past five days is reprehensible and reflects the worst of both the new and old media. The story about Bristol Palin is meaningless. Everyone agrees that it's meaningless, but those with a vested interest in attacking her nevertheless are determined to make it one.

It's not about Bristol, they say, but whether a mother should be running for national office at such a sensitive time.

It's not about Bristol, they say, but in an astonishing catch-22, it's about Governor Palin's judgment in not appreciating how the media and the Democrats would go after her little girl.

It's not about Bristol Palin, they say, but whether John McCain adequately vetted her. Although if you think about it for a moment, the notion that he did not know about this is completely implausible.

It's not about Bristol Palin, they say, but about Sarah Palin's support for abstinence-only education. Of course, no one knows what the schools taught Bristol Palin or whether she didn't understand or have access to birth control (and, no, we have no right to know about that). No one imagines, for a moment, that, if Sarah Palin supported extensive sex-ed, Bristol's pregnancy would be relevant as reflecting on the failure of such programs.

It's not about Bristol Palin, they say, but about the fact that the evangelical Christian Sarah Palin doesn't have a perfect family and is, therefore, a hypocrite. (No, I can't parse that one, either.)

It's not about Bristol Palin, they say, but the fact that it wasn't immediately announced. Shame on the Palins for thinking they could have protected their daughters' privacy.

But, you know, they're right. It's about destroying Sarah Palin. A political scandal often does not have to be about anything real. People don't attend to them closely. All they have to do is get attention. People - particularily the type of people who are undecided - just know there's some type of unpleasantness about this or that.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog

A break from politics to announce an exciting new addition to the blogosphere, the Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog, of which I am an editor. There will be some local content on the site and some stuff that goes beyond the seriously legal. I hope to put up my first post when I get back from tonight's Brewers game.

Burn her!

I have been granted some candid footage of the netroots responding to the Palin nomination over the weekend.

Lest you think this is an exaggeration, Alan Wolfe, apparently via Andrew Sullivan, hinted at something rather like this. Sullivan, meanwhile, took seriously a ridiculous story - based, in part, on misdated photos, that Palin's son Trig was actually her grandson.

In an odd bit of quantum thinking (Palin was at once pregnant and not pregnant), some of the same folks who bought into this story also criticized her for not going right to the hospital upon leaking amniotic fluid. You got to hand it to a woman who, when she wants to fake a pregnancy, manages to remember details like amniotic fluid. I wonder where she got it?

But no less a luminary than Alan Colmes, actually decided to go after Palin for doing what her doctor told her she could do. Some read his post as suggesting that Palin caused her child to be born with a disability. He has disavowed that and I assume that he knew Downs is genetic. But I thought he believes that a woman's "health care" is between her and her doctor.

It turns out, though, that Palin's daughter Bristol is pregnant and this must be because she favors abstinence education. Because, you know, teenage girls get pregnant because they don't know where babies come from and have never heard of condoms.

Locally, Jay Bullock says Palin wasn't vetted. It turns out that's wrong. People claim that she insists on teaching creationism. That's not quite right. Others claim that she doesn't believe in climate change. But also not entirely accurate.

She didn't oppose the Bridge to Nowhere, they say, because she initially supported it - or at least said nice things about it to the people that actually live in "nowhere." But the thing is that, when it was time to go forward, she pulled the plug on it.

This much is not from the Obama campaign. But it has also gone over the top, suggesting that she is a nazi. An Obama spokesperson, ringing up Godwin's Law, says that she supported Pat Buchanan who, according to him, is seen by "many Jews" as a "Nazi sympathizer." The problem here is that she supported Steve Forbes that year.

I could go on, but the strategy here is rather obvious. Throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. The imperative is that Palin be defined before she has an opportunity to define herself. She can't be allowed to make her case to the voters. She must be "branded" before anyone has a chance to hear from her.

In a comment to another post on this blog, former liberal blogger Seth Zlotocha restates his (I think quite sincere) belief that Obama's has some post-partisan view of politics that is "based on moving away from the unilateralist politics of the current administration (utilizing blatant divisiveness) and the triangulation of the Clinton administration (utilizing subtle divisiveness). It's based on remaining issue-oriented rather than character-driven."

Yeah, sure.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Obama's dead cat bounce

Larry Sabato collects the data on post convention bounces. They almost always happen, but they often don't always say much about November. In the past twelve elections, the Democratic nominee failed, like Obama has failed, to bounce three times. The most pertinent example is, I suspect, John Kerry who remained at 48% - a point or so over where Obama is now and about where Kerry wound up in the end.

My theory is that we are entrenched. If I am right, McCain won't move either. If Palin knocks one out, it may rub off on the ticket. If, ironically, McCain finds the post-partisan voice that Obama turned away from, he may move. But I don't expect the numbers to change.