So call your US House Representative’s local and DC offices against SOPA before Thursday! ███████ politely give them a three-sentence statement: 1) Your name, your occupation (if relevant), and that you’re a constituent (give your state or ZIP code); 2) Two or so reasons explaining why you want your Representative to oppose SOPA (hurts job creation ███████ the reliable technology sector, institutes American Internet censorship not unlike China’s); 3) Say thanks ███████ re-state your point: “I want Representative So-and-so to OPPOSE the Stop Online Piracy Act.” The worker who answers will be polite to you, ███████ don’t have to worry about that.
It’s ███████ a bipartisan issue: currently, among others, notable Democrat Barbara Boxer ███████ notable Republicans Scott Brown and Eric Cantor receive lots of money from organizations opposing SOPA, and notable Republican John Boehner and notable Democrat Harry Reid receive ███████ money from organizations supporting it. So ███████ now there’s a good opening for you to contact your US House Representative as the issue’s still in play.
for a long time, the standard progressive narrative was that Obama wanted a clean debt-ceiling hike but was being forced (by the Tea Party and bad negotiating) into unwanted budget cuts. The evidence — beginning with Obama’s own repeated statements — is that that’s just not true: he affirmatively wanted these cuts and more as part of the debt ceiling hike.
In 2009 moderate conservative David Brooks wrote that newly inaugurated President Obama was a big-spending liberal. In response, four unnamed “senior members of the administration” met with Brooks to reassure him the administration took a hawkish stance on cutting long-term debt. In a follow-up column Brooks said the four told him:
[Obama] is extremely committed to entitlement reform and is plotting politically feasible ways to reduce Social Security as well as health spending.
Obama said that he has made clear to his advisers that some of the difficult choices–particularly in regards to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare – should be made on his watch. “We’ve kicked this can down the road and now we are at the end of the road,” he said.
That’s half of Greenwald’s “[Obama] affirmatively wanted these cuts and more as part of the debt ceiling hike.” As for the other half, tying the debt ceiling hike to deficit reform wasn’t exclusively a Tea Party idea. According to TIME, Obama and Boehner secretly collaborated to tie deficit reform to the debt ceiling for a crisis that’d force a right-left compromise by — the theory went — shutting out the more extreme members of their respective parties, as no one (the two men apparently figured) would really allow the United States to default.
On April 13, Obama called on Congress to cut $4 trillion [including by raising tax revenues] from the budget over 12 years [...] an astonishingly large number for a Democrat. [... shortly thereafter, Boehner indicated] Republicans would hold the full faith and credit of the U.S. hostage to deeper cuts in federal spending. [...] Instead of knocking down this offer, the White House was noticeably quiet.
[Obama and Boehner] began to talk about the truly epic possibility of using the threat, the genuine danger of default, to freeze out their respective extremists and make the kind of historic deal that no one really thought possible [...] It would include deeper cuts in spending, the elimination of all kinds of tax loopholes and lower income tax rates for all[?!]. “Come on, you and I,” Boehner admitted telling Obama. “Let’s lock arms, and we’ll jump out of the boat together.”
They agreed to begin meeting together at the White House, alone, without aides. [...] Obama slipped away to call Boehner. They were now talking once a day or once every two days.
Of course the Tea Party was crazier than either Obama or (presumably) Boehner realized, and the Partiers took the situation to the brink, nearly instigating what many said would have amounted to a global economic disaster.
It’s important to make sense of Obama’s motivations in all this. NYT:
The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred. [...]
policies [...] would naturally have flowed from [a coherent, memorable, passionate narrative President Obama could have presented]
We on the left or left-ish — who disapprove of cuts to the Medicare, (solvent!) Social Security, and Medicaid safety nets, and favor as a solution instead increased taxes on the super-rich and decreased military spending overall — hear multiple views on the Obama Administration’s 2009 comments and on this month’s debt deal in general, some of which were discussed in the (popular!) ant frenzy after Greenwald’s column. Views such as: a progressive Obama’s bluffing or blundering or getting in some triangulation, the reportage is messed up, a pragmatic and slightly moderate Obama just wants small cuts for whatever purpose (triangulation, some deficit reform, a transformational return to the spirit of compromise), whatever. At any rate, especially before the debt deal, very few on the left or left-ish took Obama’s stance in favor of safety net cuts seriously, preferring to cling to what Greenwald accurately called the standard progressive narrative.
critics like Greenwald and Krugman, who have zero political sense or experience, have been much too quick to be dismissive of the constraints. (I think Krugman is more careful on this issue than Greenwald.)
I agree, but when I have “zero political sense or experience” myself, how can I? Well, evidence says a president’s preferences are hugely constrained not only by the wise separation of powers, but also by powers we rarely see fully explained. For instance, candidate Obama supported a public option as part of healthcare reform; but, according to many on the left, President Obama chose to drop it as a spineless concession to Republicans. Yet consider former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s (D-SD) comments:
[The public option] was taken off the table as a result of the understanding that people had with the hospital association, with the insurance (AHIP), and others. [...] premise was, you had to have the stakeholders in the room and at the table. Lessons learned in past efforts [such as Clinton's attempt at healthcare reform] is that without the stakeholders’ active support rather than active opposition, it’s almost impossible to get this job done. They wanted to keep those stakeholders in the room and this [the public option] was the price some thought they had to pay. Now, it’s debatable [...] but that was the calculation. I think there is probably a good deal of truth to it.
So maybe similar powerful, behind-the-scenes constraints restricted his possible debt deal maneuvers. “A constrained progressive Obama” makes more sense in the case of healthcare reform, sure; Obama made overtures to a “Grand Bargain” that would cut Medicare and Social Security even before his inauguration. George Stephanopoulos:
I asked the president-elect, “At the end of the day, are you really talking about over the course of your presidency some kind of grand bargain? That you have tax reform, healthcare reform, entitlement reform including Social Security and Medicare, where everybody in the country is going to have to sacrifice something, accept change for the greater good?”
“Yes,” Obama said.
And this year in a July presser Obama argued, according to Greg Sargent’s slightly edited transcript:
If you are a progressive, you should be concerned about debt [...] because if the only thing we’re talking about over the next year, two years, five years is debt and deficits, then it’s very hard to start talking about how do we make investments in community colleges so that our kids are trained. How do we actually rebuild $2 trillion worth of crumbling infrastructure [...]
[Progressives] should want our fiscal house in order so that every time we propose a new initiative, somebody doesn’t just throw up their hands and say ‘more big spending, more government.’
It would be very helpful for us to be able to say [...] ‘Our fiscal house is in order. So, now the question is, what should we be doing to win the future, and make ourselves more competitive, and create more jobs, and what aspects of what government’s doing are a waste, and we should eliminate.’ And that’s the kind of debate that I’d like to have.
But okay, if Obama believes (contra, say, Krugman or Galbraith) that debt matters significantly enough, why didn’t, why doesn’t, he go after it the way progressives suggest: tax the super-rich more, end the wars? In late July why didn’t he, rather than agree to cut safety net programs and risk the now-real downgrade, choose to knock out the debt-default risk with a 14th Amendment solution? After all, as Senator Sanders points out time and again, if we restored corporate and millionaire income tax rates to 1960s levels, the national debt would be reduced by a third within a decade — better than the current debt deal — without any cuts to social safety nets.
Because: either as Greenwald says, Obama just doesn’t want to maintain safety nets at current levels, or, as Cohen hints, “constraints” (which I take to include powerful and somewhat concealed interests) make doing so (near-)impossible.
Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to befoul this unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of statesmanship.
Our military organization today bears little relation to that known of any of my predecessors in peacetime, or, indeed, by the fighting men of World War II or Korea. [...]
we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society. [...]
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
The constraints constrain the man who was candidate Obama, and may have in fact changed him. (Think about how quickly he made sure to sign those (later foiled) executive orders on his first day in office — end Gitmo, increase transparency — before, as I recall, he even physically stepped foot into the White House.) Now he’s running for re-election; he was initially elected in part due to a record-breaking treasure chest of over $600 million, with bankers topping the list of big donors. Now for re-election he has to court those same bankers. Although he managed to call them “fat cats” during this first term and criticize their bonuses, he didn’t go FDR on them like so many on the left or left-ish hoped. FDR (warning: link auto-plays audio):
Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.
I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.
So the bankers have Obama fairly well checked, it appears. What about the personality angle? How much of a role does Obama’s personality play in his move to the right? We have this about Obama’s upbringing in Indonesia, around age ten:
“I think this is one reason he’s so halus,” Bryant said of the president, using the Indonesian adjective that means “polite, refined, or courteous,” referring to qualities some see as distinctively Javanese. “He has the manners of Asians and the ways of Americans — being halus, being patient, calm, a good listener. If you’re not a good listener in Indonesia, you’d better leave.”
What keeps me up at night is China, Germany, India, Brazil — they’re moving. They make decisions, we’re going to pursue clean energy, and the next thing you know they’ve cornered half the clean energy market; we’re going to develop high-speed rail in the span of five years — suddenly they’ve got high-speed rail lines going; we’re going to promote exports, here’s what we’re going to do — boom, they get going.
And if we can’t sort of execute on key issues that will determine our competitiveness over the long term, we’re going to fall behind — we are going to fall behind.
What does all this psychologizing mean for the “enduser” activist? Ascertaining Obama’s motivations matters; but, it turns out, we can’t say much. In a world where 1) ending the wars and 2) returning income taxes for corporations and millionaires back to mid-20th century levels are both off the table — where such possibilities don’t even exist — President Obama comes off as a fairly reasonable guy doing the best he can, aside from the civil liberties violations that, if I’m not mistaken, every (esp. wartime) president (unfortunately) indulges in. What does the presence of those two elephants in the room say about our world?
The 19- & 20th century Pragmatists, particularly William James, argued one should take the most beneficial interpretation when confronted with uncertain ones. If it gets you riled up to think of Obama as weak, regard him as such; if you think of him as a compromised progressive trapped by forces he can’t manage, go there. (Meanwhile some of us can try to get him to give more specific information about his aims and the powers that shouldn’t be.)
I tend toward the latter of the two above interpretations, especially as portrayed by this bleak rendering of contemporary world leaders in general:
But regardless of whatever’s going on inside Obama, the buck stops with him, as with every other elected leader. In general, grassroots activists should take them at their word, use the available evidence, and push hard. If you don’t like X, and suspect a politician has been forced into X, that doesn’t prevent you from working to make the politician change X. It’s similar to dealing with problematic people in real life. You can make excuses for them all you want, but you still need to regard them as problematic if they are indeed problematic, and take action accordingly. From the angry anthill roundtable, Tom Sugrue:
Without a well-organized, vocal left, we can’t expect any better. FDR did not tack leftward in 1935 and 36 out of principle, but because he was pulled there.
But too often we grassroots folks don’t give a damn about real strategies. Think of the Super Commission. The final recommendation must be bipartisan. So it does not matter if progressives are able to get Senator Sanders, Representative Grijalva, or any other safety net line-holding leftist appointed if there’s not a line-crossing Republican; and, impossible as it might seem, a few Republicans have indicated they might be willing to raise revenues (taxes). So why aren’t progressives also targeting Republican leadership to appoint a line-crossing Republican? Is it because a petition from MoveOn.org that arrives at a Republican’s office goes straight into the trash?
Is that the most pragmatic assumption?
‘Purple for the People’ Slurpees come from mixing red & blue.
I think there’s a decent, though not great, argument to be made that USA governments* should periodically distribute copies of the Constitution (and/or other laws, such as city charters) to the citizenry for free (well, out of tax revenues).
We the People (really!)
Two lines of reasoning support this idea, and a zillion possibly fatal problems stand in the way.
My first line of reasoning works by analogy. Every year, the public school district (here, anyway) distributes print copies of the student disciplinary code to all students (okay, at least middle schoolers and up; not sure about elementary students: I presume, for them, the district gets copies to their families). With the disciplinary code booklet in hand, students to some extent are able to learn what rules they’re subject to and what rights they have. If you accept this policy for public schools, shouldn’t you accept that the same privilege should be handed to voters?
My second line of reasoning is more analytic. If you grant that successful democracy requires a decently educated citizenry, it seems to follow fairly easily that the citizenry needs to have good access to the laws, etc.
STOP! This whole idea is ridiculous; come off it, Mr. Writer, and consider these counter-arguments:
2) The laws are already available; this is unnecessary.
3) It wouldn’t make a difference; maybe it’d raise some awareness, but that’s not our governments’ role.
4) The laws are already available; receiving them would be annoying, a hassle.
5) There wouldn’t be meaningful access.
6) This isn’t a priority.
1) E-copies come to mind first as a solution to cost problems. But that requires net access for all voters, education as for how to use it, etc. Easier said than done, but in theory possible; Tim O’Reilly tweets about e-democracy, I think — go ask him. For print-copy solutions, I think the requisite nonprofits or whoever could easily predict what the price tag would actually be before we arm-chair about it. But assuming the price tag turned out to be high, what about requiring phonebook producers (or some other snailmail spammer) to insert the legal text into those directories they throw on our porches without our permission? In fact, don’t USA governments already require phonebook producers to include a section with government-related phone numbers? But, okay, in the absence of suitable e-copies, I could see cost as a fatal flaw to the idea.
2) The laws are already available, but that doesn’t necessarily imply giving people hard (or e-) copies isn’t worthwhile. After all, the school district makes the student disciplinary code available online, too, and still gives out hard copies. Just because the laws are available doesn’t mean everyone has access to them (physical or otherwise), and availability alone doesn’t help people pay attention to them.
3) The ‘Who’d care?’ counter-argument is interesting, but if the cost is sufficiently low (it might not be), the counter-argument could be irrelevant. Assuming the ‘Who’d care?’ argument counts, though, whether people cared probably could be measured with some degree of usefulness (though there are insurmountable barriers to perfectly measuring such things as that). Not sure the results would matter, though. What about (by analogy) services such as C-SPAN? I suspect C-SPAN primarily serves to raise awareness; it’s not entertainment, that’s for sure. I mean, don’t we want citizens engaged insofar as they can afford to be?
4) Complaining that this would all be a hassle seems unimportant to me; receiving an annual copy of the laws wouldn’t be any more difficult to trash than any of the other spam people receive. Now, maybe the hassle would create negative associations with activism, and thus the whole project would backfire. Doubt it; but, if so, maybe we’re too toast for any of this to have any effect.
5) Meaningful access could be mandated the same way parents have the right to be notified (in their native language) of their (public school student) childrens’ educational placements. Now, ensuring that meaningful access is totally a headache, but headaches didn’t stop us from putting people on the Moon. Easy for me to say, of course, but to answer the question of how to actually implement headache-solutions is why God gave us techies, bean-counters, and wonks. =)
6) Okay, you have me with this one; distributing copies of the laws probably isn’t a priority. But our governments can multi-task…
That’s all, folks; no more sketching out the blueprint for a just civil society, not tonight…
* It might be wise to replace the phrase “US government” with “USA governments” to counter both American Exceptionalism (so, “USA” instead of “US”) and the notion of the “gub’ment” as a single, monolithic, and usually evil, entity (so, “governments” and not “government”). Many governments co-ordinating (or not) make up the USA, some quite good, some not. On this note, there’s this distinction about terminology, pointed out recently in The Economist:
it’s important to distinguish between the government—the temporary, elected authors of national policy—and the state—the permanent bureaucratic and military apparatus superficially but not fully controlled by the reigning government.
Note the new button below; through flattr you can tip specifically for this single post.
There is this goofy card game one of my brothers likes to play; to my knowledge, he invented it. The dealer (typically my brother!) passes out one face-down card to himself and one to each other player. At his signal, all players raise their cards to their foreheads facing out such that no one can see his or her own card, but everyone can see everybody else’s. The players then place bets as to how valuable they think their own cards are in comparison — a total guess, of course, but by this time everyone’s laughing from holding poker cards against their skin. After betting, the players reveal their cards, and the random results release laughter …
Here’s my version of the game, which so far exists only in my imagination. People find themselves seated at a dinner table, clutching their one card tightly to their chests, looking down at their stated worth — “7″ or “3″ or “10″ — a value that is calculated according to all the good and the bad they have caused in life, according to all the secrets they know, according to all the things they wish they hadn’t said or they wish they knew how to say.
At this imaginary table of mine the players are making small talk, some of it happy, some of it sad; all are nervous about their value, and what the other players would think if their card were seen. After all, this player Sue’s card reveals that she said to this player Bob that this other, wealthy player Jorge’s a jerk, and now that Bob and Jorge are pretty good friends, does Jorge know what Sue once said about him, and if so, how does that affect who’s gonna pick up the check?
The dealer — a voice from the sky? — suggests the players lay their cards down on the table, face-up, on condition that they all, unanimously, forgive one another and love one another regardless of the cards’ value. The players agree, make their promises, and lay the cards down face-up. Angry yelling (“Jorge has the hots for both Bob and Sue?”) soon turns to laughter (“Jorge has the hots for both Bob and Sue!”) as people discover everyone’s a mess inside …
Except what if the players at the table included polarizing figures such as (take your pick) Dick Cheney, Barack Obama, Julian Assange, or heck, even that driver yesterday who cut you off when you really needed to get over a lane? Would we the powers-that-aint agree to forgive they the powers-that-be permanently if they’d lay down their cards and their guns?
I would. I would, to get the cards on the table so everyone could be safe.
There are of course several things my card-game scenario doesn’t address. For instance, it seems radical transparency and privacy can come into conflict, and privacy is I presume often preferable: if you’re surveilled to death, your creativity is chilled (partly because honest creativity requires engaging in thoughtcrime) and also under surveillance you can’t experience as fully the fun premium privacy can add to events (e.g., sweet nothings can be more meaningful when expressed without others around). Further, logically there are possible worlds where security is unjustly threatened by radical transparency, and I am uncertain as to how such situations, when they do arise in this actual world, should be handled, although I am tempted to say, well, let the chips cards fall where they may, because 4000 years of trading our rights away to leaders whose trustworthiness is unproven in return for promises of security hasn’t worked out so well.
In addition to snail-mailing Congress, I’ve telephoned elected officials (in both cases, I activist-ed in favor of a genuine public option for health care — er, health insurance reform!).
For me, calling Congress was an intimidating task at first. Maybe you know about the infamous Milgram experiment where research participants were asked to administer increasingly severe electric shocks to others — to actors pretending to be learners; the shocks were fake, but the participants didn’t know that.
Despite the screaming and the heart-pain complaints from the actors, despite the actors banging on the divider wall and pleading, most participants allowed the technician-coat experimenter to goad them into pressing not just the extreme intensity shock and Danger: Severe Shock buttons, but finally the XXX button that resulted in the actors’ silence. (Several participants laughed nervously or cried throughout; the experiment has been repeated with the same results as recently as 2009; researchers have used a real-life puppy, too, wondering if perhaps the participants figured out the shockee was an actor — no, all participants in that one killed the puppy.) Stanley Milgram explained these results in terms of conformity and fearful obedience to authority; I think whatever the reasons are, they lie behind patients’ fear of asking doctors questions (for example), and also my initial fear of phoning Congress!
Anyway. Calling Congress members became easier after I did it a few times. Aides answer (rarely do Congress members), and without exception I found them friendly, if rushed. They want you to get to the point, and you should. Though there are scripts online for various causes, I wrote out a paragraph for what I’d say, so that I wouldn’t sound like an astroturfer‘s employee. Each paragraph matched the structure of my letters: 1) who I am (including occupations & city) and what I wish from the Congress member; 2) One or at most two sentences of reasoning — including poll statistics or actual quotes from the Congress member; 3) Reiteration of what I wish from the Congress member and a friendly thank you.
And actually, unlike what might well be the case with snailmail, no aides seemed to mind when I was called from out of their members’ constituencies (I did call my own representatives at times), specifically since the issue (health reform) was national and especially when I mentioned nationwide donations (such as through ActBlue). Some aides asked for my ZIP — I’ve received a few mailings — and when the aides themselves seemed especially pleased with my perspective, I could hear it in their voices. A bad-result call ended with an aide saying, basically, “Thanks, bye”; a good-result call ended with an “I’ll be sure to pass along your comments to the Senator/Representative, thanks so much!”
Sometimes I opened with a compliment regarding something the Congress member did that I appreciated (easy to find from his or her website, or from the search strategies discussed in this post), and sometimes I simply called to say nothing more than thanks for a specific quote the Congress member gave the press or whomever; these aides and Congress members typically get angry phone calls, so it’s nice for them to receive gratitude every once in a while.
Some people went out of their way to tell me this type of activism is worthless, saying the aides’ phones must be perpetually busy. Well they’re not. I had a little trouble getting through the final day or two before the health reform legislation passed — but generally I had no trouble.
Phone numbers for elected officials can be found at USA.gov here. Definitely check out my preceding post for more stratagem. I think people neglect a whole lot of good activities — such as calling Congress — simply because the transaction costs, the totals of the effort and the irritation that must be endured to do the good deed, are too high. Activists should lower them, with info and otherwise.
Several times during Kate and I’s wedding & honeymoon trip, I asked taxicab drivers in NYC and DC for marriage advice — partly because, like Perot & Obama both, I’m all ears for suggestions; also, partly for the sake of amateur anthropology and since I simply like talking with people. The more unusual the person, the better. The more you feel you understand things well, the more you have to cultivate the attitude that other people might actually outsmart you; and, strangers are often the ones who give you best insights.
However, I don’t think I’ll be taking this one taxicab driver’s advice, which he gave as I stepped out of his cab: that Kate and I need to have children immediately. I replied that we were considering maybe one or two children sometime about five to seven years from now, and he hollered that Kate and I need to output one within a year. It focuses things, he shouted, driving off.
When I rode from St. Mark’s Bookshop (I purchased the rest of Paul Park‘s Roumania Quartet, but wisely left Jung‘s awesome and awesomely expensive Red Book to peruse at local libraries; also, St. Mark’s had a great poster that graphed USA economic inequality — this too I refrained from purchasing, partly because such a purchase seemed ironic splurging) — when I rode from St. Mark’s Bookstore toward Cafe Lalo, where Kate was waiting, a Senegalese taxicab driver poured all sorts of advice into the backseat. “Put water in your mouth!” he advised. “If you are angry, if you are about to speak hastily, put water in your mouth instead! Hold the water in your mouth until it cools your anger!”
Citing the numinous wifely wisdom that causes husbands to tremble, he also said Kate was always right about everything. On this I respectfully disagree. =)
But I do agree with his misleadingly callous-sounding comment that spouses shouldn’t have too high expectations of one another. Because no spouse can fulfill every need for the other; if one spouse isn’t into, say, heavy metal or shoes, the other can share that passion with his or her own friends instead. Plus, if the one spouse does check out a metal band or scrutinize some shoes, it’s a bonus for the other, not the fulfillment of some needy requirement the other has. And that way, with a good marriage, each constantly receives bonuses instead of feeling disappointment at failures to meet unreasonable expectations.
In DC (where we honeymooned) the taxicab drivers were tenser, less prone to talk, and busy listening to political news. The diverse taxicab experiences in both places, however, made me hope even more to be able to approach the world someday such that I genuinely feel that everyone, even the most problematic (mean-spirited, or obnoxious, or …) person has something to teach me.
Kate and I married in NYC on Saturday 29 May 2010 at the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Six guests attended: our four parents, her sister, and my best friend. Supporting personnel included LDF Floral and Event Design, the estimable Eileen Regan as officiant, and the very effective Katje Hempel as photographer; all three worked perfectly. (The photograph above is Katje’s, as is the pair below. You can see a few more photographs on Katje’s blog.)
Our short service included a reading from (and this was Kate’s idea!) Theodore Sturgeon’s novel Godbody:
This is the answer!
The answer is not in getting and keeping, but in getting and giving.
The answer is not in saving and preserving, but in growing and changing.
The answer is not in making things stop, but in making things go.
The answer is not in thinking, but in feeling.
The answer is not death, but love.