Friday, February 29, 2008

My experiment...

of insisting on at least one post a day has reached two months now. I've kept it up, though I admit to at least a couple of instances of time-shifting (though I haven't put fake times on any posts). The discipline has been good for me, even if some days present a struggle to find a topic, while some topics require more writing time than I have (as witness some of my recent book reviews).

It's a challenge for someone who is a non-writer (I've always been OK at it, but it's never been a regular part of my day before) to come up with an idea and express it as well as possible (and my typing is not improving at all). Because I've tried to keep the signal/noise ratio pretty high (the reader can determine the success of that), I want to say something significant each time I post. I haven't met that standard at 100% (my Oscar post was kind of weak), but the attempt has been worthwhile. I'll try to keep the one-a-day thing going, at least for a while longer.

Needs vs. wants

One of the biggest issues in Illinois right now is whether the building, Cole Hall, at Northern Illinois University, which was the site of the shooting deaths a couple of weeks ago, should be razed and rebuilt (story here). Unfortunately, rational discussion of this issue has been damaged, because the idea's champion is our widely unpopular governor, Rod Blagojevich. I don't have time to delve in to a look at his tenure as governor, except to say that Hot Rod has never seen a camera he didn't like or a check he wouldn't sign, consequences be damned.

The Tribune itself is against rebuilding at an estimated $40 million. The majority of Tribune respondents to an open question on the subject are against it. The only ones consistently in favor of it are the governor, who loves to look caring and all "I feel your pain," and NIU administrators, who see a chance to jump up the infrastructure funding list.

Leaving aside the back and forth (personally, I see no point in tearing down a serviceable building, I don't believe in ghosts), reality should intrude. By the time a new building is completed, at least half the students currently on campus will already have moved on with their lives. Such is the nature of the college, there is constant renewal and rebirth with each new class of learners. Whatever trauma was suffered by current students, and I don't want to minimize that reality, four years from now the building will be historical for every student.

Moreover, only in a society that truly believes itself to have infinite resources would we spend $40 million to replace a good building simply to erase "bad memories." (Memories are not tied to bricks and mortar, anyway; the trauma will not be erased simply by erasing the building.) This country needs to come to grips with the reality that we are not infinite, that costs and benefits have to be weighed and compared to other needs.

Even if I believed that Cole Hall should be demolished, I would have a hard time elevating that project over the long list of things that Illinois and the U.S. ought to be doing. With the increasing burden of paying for necessities, taxpayers cannot afford both guns and butter. We need to make choices and, often, compromises. Our public officials need to move from a posture of "we do things that are good to do" to one of "we do things we need to do."

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Doctor, my eyes have never seen the coming of the doctor

For a while, when my brother and I were young, our pediatrician was Robert Mendelsohn. If you read his Wikipedia profile, you're left with an impression of a gadfly, a man who got himself in trouble for opposing things we all regard as routine (such as coronary bypass surgery and casual X-rays). He was not loved by others in his profession.

But I remember a kindly man who treated a couple of children with respect. Mostly I remember a doctor who actually made house calls. For those younger than I who don't know that term, there was a time when the family doctor would actually come by the house when someone was sick.

Now when you're sick you drag yourself to the office, if you can get an appointment, you run the risk of infecting everyone else, and, quite often, you diagnose yourself. Heaven forbid your problem doesn't fit into the time allotted; your list better be covered in a few minutes or it's out the door, prescriptions in hand.

A friend of mine underwent surgery last week, a fairly trivial arthroscopic procedure. Now, on day 9, there is still quite a bit of swelling, not just near the incision at the knee, but in the nearby parts of the leg. My friend called the doctor as indicated on the post-surgical instructions. No surprise, all interactions have been through a nurse - allegedly she's talked to the doctor.

We can talk all we want about various ways of improving health care in this country. Every candidate has a plan, and there are other options, like single-payer, that aren't considered politically feasible.

But all these plans talk about how to fix the payment problem, how we can get people a certain minimum standard of treatment. None of them talks about the "care" part, about how we get doctors to be engaged in the healing of their patients. Do I expect house calls to come back? No. But I do think we can return to the point where doctors see their patients not in terms of increased capitation, but as people who are scared that they won't be able to return to their lives, who will see the quality of their lives inexorably decline.

Doctors get pretty good treatment in our society. Their compensation is rarely mentioned as a factor in high health care costs, though it certainly is. Television shows portray them as magical, caring healers who bravely overcome their massive personal problems to create miracles. It certainly doesn't seem unfair to expect society to be well-treated by its doctors.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Review - The Second Civil War

Occasionally I run across a book that strikes me as one that will be a boom to future historians, even if it is relatively unremarkable now. Let me clarify my use of the term "unremarkable" in this context, because I don't intend it to be a pejorative. By "unremarkable," I mean that the book's conclusions and logic are not startlingly original; they are perhaps somewhat commonplace in the current day, but will be useful for people of the future who try to understand what was going on today. Unless Google's servers are turned off, tomorrow's historians will have access to a gigantic amount of information, but they will, I hope, gravitate to the sources that organize that information in useful ways. And good journalism will continue to serve that purpose.

Such a book is Ronald Brownstein's The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America [2007]. Brownstein, who has received some face time on recent Sunday pundit shows, is political director for Atlantic Media Co. and a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He has produced a quite readable account of the current situation in Washington, one in which amazingly little gets done due to partisanship.

What you might expect from a book with this title is a recounting of the Bush years, with, perhaps, a jog back in time to the Gingrich-led takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994. Maybe, if the author stretches himself, he'll delve into the Reagan years, at least in a short intro.

But you will be surprised. Brownstein goes back to 1896 to begin, and doesn't get to George W. Bush until halfway through this big (484 pages) volume. If you skip that part, eager to get to the anti-Bush stuff, you will miss out on solid reporting.

Essentially, Brownstein's thesis is that the U.S. has had four political phases starting in 1896: 1) 1896-1938, an era of party conflict and partisan strategies, one similar to the current day; 2) 1938-1964, a period in which the two parties negotiated to accomplish bipartisan compromise; 3) 1964-1994, a time of transition back to partisan conflict; and 4) 1994-now, an era of what Brownstein calls hyperpartisanship.

I'm not going to comment much on the content of the book. I'm not a political historian, so my reading, while reasonably large, has not extended to more technical works about politics. I have, instead, read books like this one, popular histories meant for the general audience. However, Brownstein writes as a reporter, telling us what happened without a lot of interpretation.

I will say something about my own political evolution. I grew up in a relentlessly Republican household, where there was no love for LBJ or the Kennedy family (in grade school we "voted" on our choice for president in 1968, and it was not popular with Mom that I had chosen Bobby Kennedy). My brother and I were taught to respect the presidency, but it was clear that Eisenhower and Nixon were far more to be admired than, say, Truman. As I grew older, I came to believe in the supremacy of the free enterprise, capitalist system.

At the same time, I had fairly liberal views on social issues. I never got the penchant of some conservatives to dislike others who were different, such as blacks or gays. They were people, and fell within the "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" perimeter just as much as I did. Over time, this evolved into a dislike of group or identity politics, as I never really have seen any group as having homogeneous beliefs or behaviors (though I understand why certain groups have curbed their own differences in an attempt to accumulate enough numbers to gain political clout).

So I was the classic example of a moderate Republican and, looking around my immediate locale, I felt that I was in the majority. Granted, I was also the product of Midwestern suburbs, not Southern rural towns or Eastern urban areas. But it just seemed right; capitalism, democracy, and tolerance all appeared to fit together in a very American way.

Then came the Reagan/Bush I years, and, to me, things started to change. These were years in which I was going to school and focusing on my career, so I was not politically active or even very aware; many elections I didn't bother to vote because I, frankly, had very little idea what was going on. Even through the haze, however, something felt wrong. Many of today's trends, in retrospect, began around this time - the handwriting was on the wall, but I sure wasn't reading it (in fairness to me, a lot of others weren't either).

I began to focus on the world of politics, accepted its importance in my life, somewhere in the '90s. The Clinton years didn't thrill me, especially as neither side made total sense to me. The deification/demonization of Clinton, depending on whether you were an R or a D, seemed wrong on both sides. Bill did some things right, and can make a case that the 1994 Republican revolution prevented him from doing more of them, but he did a lot of things wrong, not all of which involved the unnatural use of cigars.

So in 2000, I took a Texas governor at his word that he wanted to be a uniter, something for which he had a track record of doing in his previous job. (I didn't actually vote due to a registration snafu, but, as I am from Illinois, I didn't have a chance of mattering in the general election, anyway.) Of course, we all knew how that worked out, and in 2004, I somewhat reluctantly cast my first presidential vote ever for a Democrat.

Brownstein's book actually explains what happened to people like me. In his second phase, there was enough diversity within the two parties that different people could find a place. There were, to oversimplify his argument, four groups of people (conservative and moderate Republicans, moderate and liberal Democrats) whose interests were being juggled. This diversity kept any extreme point of view from being over-represented, and required negotiation, inside and outside of the parties, to get anything done. (Of course, there are those who would argue that, as a result, not enough got done, especially in the area of the civil rights, and they have a point.)

Obviously this changed, and it changed first among Republicans. Brownstein shows in great detail how what he calls the Great Sorting Out happened, as the parties retreated into a bimodal distribution of beliefs, first scrabbling for the people truly in the middle, then simply trying to incite the existing base into becoming a plurality of voters.

What's fascinating is to see that the very efficiency of the Republicans in making this process happen actually drove people like me out of the party. The Democrats have not been as good at hewing to the same yoke, so there still are moderate Democrats hanging around. But the Republicans succeeded in driving away all who didn't buy into their relentlessly pro-business, anti-government (except when there's a war to be fought) rhetoric, assuming they could still assemble enough voters to establish a permanent majority. Now, in 2008, this idea seems about as loopy as can be, but we still have more than eight months until the election.

What has happened is that we have gone from, in effect, four parties to three, and anyone who was in the fourth, the moderate Republicans, has no place to go. These are people like me who think government has a place as a check on corporate power, but recognize that free-market capitalism is the best way, over the long term, to make the country and world stronger. We worry about terrorism, but know that not every action termed anti-terrorism is acceptable within the rules of our nation. We worry greatly about climate change, but are realistic enough to understand that the U.S. can't shut down its industries to fix it. Most importantly, we worry about the future of this great democratic experiment, and despair of the two parties ever understanding that they each play a role, not by beating the other side, but by integrating the belief sets into solutions.

To me, this is the source of the enthusiasm for Barack Obama. Are we fooling ourselves, confusing inspiration with unreality? Can he really see himself as president of the whole country, not just the Democrats? Will he really seek workable solutions, whether they are labeled right-wing or left-wing?

I don't think any of us knows the answer to that question, but I think we feel we know the answer with President H. Clinton or President McCain. To expect either of them to break out of the straitjacket of existing factionalization is asking a lot; my fear is that Hillary will re-fight Bill's battles instead of moving ahead. Her oft-mentioned advantage in experience isn't a plus if it's based in the politics that we're tired of (and I'm skeptical about the claim that she's been incredibly successful working across the aisle in the Senate; it really isn't a fair test when you're in the out-of-power party).

Back to the book I'm reviewing. It's interesting that Brownstein pushed to finish this book in early 2007, missing, except for some very preliminary mentions, the entire current campaign. Perhaps he felt that another transition is coming, and maybe we should be pleased if he turns out to be right.

If you have read my other book reviews, you know I'm pretty cynical about the obligatory section with solutions in books like these. In particular, I was pretty unkind about the "wishes and hopes" of Rosabeth Moss Kanter's current book, none of which had any kind of real plan to get us from where we are to where she thinks we ought to be.

That being said, Brownstein offers up 53 pages of reforms that he says would restore some of the balance most Americans feel is missing from current-day politics. What's best about this chapter is his realism; he freely admits that these are not so much answers as frameworks within which we might find answers. He begins with a section on the media, which he points out as a major contributor to the current polarization. Solutions here are elusive, though Brownstein's suggestion of a restoration of the Reagan-quashed Fairness Doctrine is promising (but, admittedly, insufficient to deal with the rise of so-called new media).

His suggestions fall into three broad categories: reforms, policies, and leadership (at the presidential level). I won't enumerate the recommended changes. All of them are essentially attempts to gain a broader consensus through communication and compromise. As such, nothing here is revolutionary, but Brownstein does acknowledge that it will be iterative change, while stressing that it will take some thinking on the part of those electing and those elected to bring about any of this change.

In general, the weakest of his solutions involve business. Brownstein, like a lot of reporters, see corporations as roughly equal actors, sitting at the table with other factions. When he writes about shared sacrifice to accomplish long-term gains, he fails to see that companies don't have the same stake. Imposing a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system won't take away palatial second (or third) homes from CEOs, it will just lead to higher prices. Corporations, as Reich so ably pointed out in Supercapitalism, aren't people, no matter how the legal system may treat them. Therefore, they can't "sacrifice."

Similarly, counting on business-labor-lobby alliances [p. 411] to solve larger problems is merely a way for politicians to avoid making tough choices. Corporations will do exactly what they perceive to be in their own interest, without regard to whether those actions solve "larger" problems. I'm not arguing that's wrong, I'm arguing that we can't use that dream as a basis to solve society's ills.

Small quibbles aside, The Second Civil War is an excellent book. If you dislike the current political paralysis, our collective inability to deal with the major problems that are coming down the pike, and you want to understand how we got there, read this book.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Put me in a box

I grew up in the midst of the IQ craze. There was a strong belief when I was a kid that IQ could predict a lot about a person, and it was important to have that number. Of course, schools had programs for the gifted in those days, so it was important to have some means by which students could be classified. (It's probably a post for another time, but it is criminal to see NCLB used to justify the elimination of programs for the gifted - see here.)

When it became clear that IQ differed among subgroups, the whole concept ran right into the group politic think so popular in the '70s, and still popular today. We couldn't look for reasons that IQ might be different, it became necessary to invalidate the whole concept. That we proceeded to virtually throw out the idea that children have different intellectual endowments, and need to be educated differently, hasn't been seen as the problem it is. (None of this has been helped by the articles about Mensa [look, the housewife and truck driver are chatting about Kant with the nuclear physicist] or Marilyn vos Savant, holder of the "highest IQ ever," which, to her credit, she has admitted is not all there is to intelligence.)

Still, the urge to classify and, thus, explain, is seemingly irresistible. Part of this is a desire to explain why people are the way they are, and how we might make them "better." Thus the testing industry. A really good book that discusses the obsession in our schools and workplaces with personality tests is The Cult of Personality Testing:
How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children,
Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves
[2005] by Annie Murphy Paul.

I'm not going to review that book here, just recommend it. If you want to see an author take apart the lofty justifications for MMPI or Myers-Briggs, this book will do that. The Wikipedia entry on Myers-Briggs has some solid background.

I'll just tell my personal tale of my encounter with Myers-Briggs. I worked, briefly, for a company that had bought into the full Myers-Briggs method, paying consultants to come in, administer tests, advise managers as to how to deal with their INFPs or whatever. I have no idea how much money was thrown into this endeavor, but it took up a lot of time over the 5-6 months I was there (oddly enough, I just missed the initial testing and never did find out my official letters).

The truly great thing about this kind of theory is that it lends itself to an almost infinite amount of follow-on. While there are only 16 distinct types, there are 256 different ways for two people to interact (an ESTJ has to deal with an ENFP way different than with an INFP, but we have a workbook, a video, all for a great low price). And if you're a manager with eight employees of three distinct types, the opportunities for training are gigantic. When I say great, I mean for the consultant, not the client, and definitely not the employees of the client.

Of course, there are numerous caveats offered with any of these tests, they shouldn't be used for job evaluation, etc. Ah, the naivete. Modern business loves to have pseudo-scientific methods of judging and weighing. That there is little stability in an individual's ratings from one test administration to the next, that they do not offer multi-modal results but a big clump of people in the collective normal curve bulge, none of that matters. What does is that there are letters or numbers which tell you everything you need to know about that person. (For a range of opinions, take a look at this post on the Daily Kos from a couple of years ago and the associated comments.)

But what if giving someone a test is out of the question? Don't worry, science will provide answers to the question, who is this person and what will he or she do? TIME magazine, about four months ago, did a cover story on the ever-popular "power of birth order," in which we find out that the order in which you were born in your family determines your income level, how connected you are to others, how funny you'll be, and so forth.

In my review of the book The Bush Tragedy, I pointed out that, despite Jacob Weisberg's impressive study of the Bush family dynamic and its effect on our 43rd president, very little of what he wrote, no matter how true, offered us any real predictive power - and this is about someone for whom we have a great deal of information.

To take the results of any test, IQ, MMPI, Myers-Briggs, or others, or any other quality, such as birth order, and try to infer behavior or any other attribute is a fool's game. One might as well use astrology or phrenology (that would be cool, watching an interviewer or admissions director feel heads) to determine what a person is all about.

We are complex. We are each the product of genes, family background, events (some of them random), personal choice, geography, and many other factors. I'm not 100% sure what I will do in any given situation from day to day, so how could I presume to know that about someone else based on a simplistic test? We need to deal with people as individuals; if we're in a situation where we cannot, such as evaluation of resumes, we need to apply objective criteria as much as possible.

Monday, February 25, 2008

On-demand blogging

I was listening to our local all-news station tonight. I know traditional media is hurting for ad revenue, and there is a desperation to compete with the Internet, even to the point of co-opting its vocabulary. I guess that explains why we were told, in stentorian terms, that the station offers "NEWS, ON-DEMAND." Time was, we just called that "turning on the radio."

Tonight at 10, news we should have shown you before...

but we wouldn't have received big ratings, so we didn't.

Local news is trite and tiresome, even in a major market like Chicago, and I certainly don't think anyone should get even a small fraction of their information from it. So it's tempting for me to disregard it, not to write about it.

But a lot of people do get most of their news from local stations, so it is important. I expect the stations to, at least, meet certain standards in their presentation. So, even if I disregard the happy banal banter with the weather guy, the indifferently written copy, the emphasis on "breaking news" (if you want your car chase to be on the news, plan it for a time when the news chopper is aloft) over actual news, and so forth, occasionally something arises that seems to violate even the basic precepts of journalism.

Today, I'm talking about the "special reports" that pollute the airwaves, particularly during sweeps months. We all know by now that, in a world where Macy's has computer systems that can tell the CEO within a minute that someone bought a pair of mittens, television persists in setting its advertising rates by the ratings in key months (November, February, May, and July). This process distorts programming; for example, look at the shows returning after the writers' strike, perfectly timed to finish new episodes at the end of May.

In local TV news, sweeps months feature cheaply-produced commercials, in heavy play, that promote upcoming special news reports on the 10:00 news (11:00 for you people on the coasts). These reports, of course, are not new - I found a 1996 column discussing this in entertaining fashion. It's not real hard to find more criticism of this practice on the Internet.

Most of these stunts are irritating (with so little time, and so much important information out there, they have the time for this?), but relatively harmless. Last week we were treated to a crucial story in which intrepid reporter Rob Elgas of Channel 5 (the NBC affiliate) went 32 hours without sleep. Yes, that's it, he went 32 whole hours. I would wager that anyone who went to college has stayed up longer than that. We did find out that Rob doesn't function as well when he's tired. Break out the Emmys!

But this kind of tripe is meaningless. What's worse, and the point of the post, is when a news station withholds a potentially important story so it can be slotted into a prime sweeps position. Currently the CBS affiliate, WBBM-TV, is guilty of this. For several days, they've been hyping a story about the dangers of Pyrex containers.

These may be real dangers, as can be seen here. If so, then Channel 2 is sitting on a story about potential peril to viewers simply to build interest and sweeps-time ratings. If it is not so dire, then the station is promoting a nothing story merely to get worried people to tune in.

In neither case is this responsible. It's one thing to sit on a story as reporters attempt to verify facts, get quotes, achieve balance, it's quite another to withhold information simply to create a favorable ratings picture. I suppose this is another end result of treating news as a revenue producer, but it flies in the face of proper journalism.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Oscars

I have nothing particularly profound to say about the Oscars. Except, I have no idea why I watch each year, why I actually look forward to the telecast. The last time I saw a film that had been nominated was 1998, when I saw Elizabeth. (Of course, I've seen movies since that had been nominated or won, I'm referring to those I had seen before the nominations.) I'm just not a big first-run movie person.

Yet I really enjoy watching the telecast, and it's the only awards show I feel that way about. I will watch the Emmys (and wasn't the last one dreadful, with the in-the-round stage and Ryan Seacrest), and the Grammys sometimes have some interesting collaborations (though Carrie Underwood and the (faux-?) Stomp did not qualify). But the only truly unmissable one for me is the Academy Awards.

Is this because it's a shared world experience, so I'm connecting with people everywhere in marveling at the glories of George Clooney in a tux? Is it because it brings up memories of the family gathered around the television in happier, simpler times? Is it to feed my envy of those of easy glamor and privilege?

I don't know, I only know I'll be watching, and you might as well too. Either that, or enjoy a good book.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Hearing music

I've had occasion to listen to music through headphones lately. Anyone who listens to music on a CD or over the air is amazed when they hear music in person - I know I was when I first started going to Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts. The difference is remarkable.

But I had forgotten about the aural difference even with headphones. Having the full range of the music pumped directly into your ears really changes the experience, even for pop music. Modern record production is so "full," maybe not always in the best interest of the song, that headphones allow a greater sense. Even a modest song like Cascada's Everytime We Touch has so much "business" that is hard to hear coming out of speakers across the room.

As we know by now, headphones and earbuds have been linked to premature hearing loss, so this is yet another of those modern dilemmas. Do we listen to music over headphones even when we don't need to for the extra-rich experience, or do we avoid them to preserve our hearing as long as possible?

Friday, February 22, 2008

More from Supercapitalism

At the risk of babbling on too much about Robert Reich's book Supercapitalism (see my long review here), I want to touch on one more issue raised in the book. Reich spends quite a bit of time on the concept that so-called corporate social responsibility is a veritable oxymoron, and not something that an intelligent, self-preserving corporation should do. For example, unless sponsoring a concert will make the company worth more, it's counterproductive to do it, and the competitor that doesn't sponsor concerts will gain an advantage. (His point, for those who read either the book or my review, is that social responsibility should come from citizens working through their government, and should not be looked for from corporations.)

As one example, Reich cites the attempts to convince companies that they should adhere to codes of conduct across their operations, so they will apply the same standards in Chinese factories as in the U.S. Reich is appropriately skeptical of this, as companies that compromise profit-making opportunities will lose to those that keep their eyes on the prize. There is huge incentive to agree to these codes to look responsible, then look the other way if, by ignoring them, money can be made.

In particular, Reich says that codes of conduct are being violated in China, that "factories keep double sets of books to fool auditors and distribute scripts for employees to recite if they are questioned" [p. 193]. When I read this, I had to chuckle, because I think the American reader is supposed to be shocked.

Can anyone be surprised by this, especially in light of the various product safety problems we've seen the past several months? But my goal here is not to criticize the Chinese, even though they obviously have strong incentives to cut corners. It's to talk about how we do the same things in this country.

What was Enron but a library of double sets of books? Their bookkeeping was shaky past belief.

As for distributing scripts...

I'm not sure how many readers have ever been through an ISO 9000 audit. I used to work at a company that was largely manufacturing-oriented, though I worked on the computer software side. ISO 9000 certification is a big deal in this industry, apparently there are customers that insist on it. Since our software was sold with the hardware, we needed to be certified as much as the manufacturing area did. Someday I may write a post on the differences between a manufacturing line and any other part of the company, and some of the hilarious attempts to apply one kind of structure on the other.

My manager at the time was absolutely opposed to process of any type, not to preserve the individual craftsmanship of the brave developer, but because he didn't understand it. He saw software development as a series of magical, heroic steps, kind of like Lord of the Rings. (He had been a developer, a lousy one, for many years, and still didn't quite understand where code came from - like the couple who has six kids and still can't understand how.)

So when management came up with the requirement that our group be able to pass an ISO audit, we prepared - not by improving anything about the way we coded or designed or tested, but by writing a few process documents and putting them on the network hard drive. Once everyone knew where they were, we were ready for the audit...and we passed!

How this is any different from the Chinese practices cited by Reich, I don't know. Essentially we all knew exactly what we were to say if interviewed by the auditor, exactly where to find the process diagrams that the senior members of the team (like me) had thrown together. Understand that none of the diagrams or flows or documents had anything to do with how we did our work, they were based on previous places I had worked or taken from books.

So when you hear that some company has ISO 9000 certification, or has attained CMMI level 3 (or 4, or 5), or has reached Six Sigma, take that with a huge grain of salt. These techniques can represent an attention to quality, an overall improvement in the way the company does business, or the announcement can certify, well, nothing but a desire to get a corporate credential.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Pessimist, me??

I was talking to someone today who reads this blog, and, among the praise (pat, pat), he mentioned that it seemed pessimistic. My first reaction was to say that it was more realistic than pessimistic, but now, in thinking about it, I wonder why I felt that way.

It's not that I feel this is the worst of all possible worlds, so I can't say that I'm a true philosophical pessimist (no Schopenhauer, I). More commonly, though, a pessimist is seen as someone who believes that things are getting worse. If that's true, then I probably am, and shouldn't shy away from the label.

But worse is relative. What I see in the future is the decline of the United States overall, a reduction in our standard of living, a lessening of the American Dream. This Dream is probably unrealistic, as it consists of a half-acre of land, a 3500 square foot house, and a whole bunch of stuff to fill it up. We can't go on hoping in up, up, up, when the rest of the world is catching up (often with our help). The world may be flat in the Tom Friedman sense, but that will inexorably lead to other flattening, so that we will all settle somewhere into a lower middle class. That's a step up for millions of people in China and India, not so much so here.

You see, I don't necessarily think the world is going to get worse. It's just that the king of the mountain isn't such a great title when the mountain is only a foot high. We may end up with a better world when all is said and done, but it still means big changes for the U.S.

I want us to be aware of those changes, to plan rationally for them. I want us to face the lifestyle changes that will come when the oil is gone. I want us to understand that this whole wasteful structure that we've built, where 5% of the world's population consumes 30% of the resources, is going to be flattened right out of existence.

We can plan for those things, be ready for the shocks ahead, or we can just listen to feel-good slogans about change or morning in America, and defer action until the changes come all at once. At which point I really will be pessimistic.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


The word "ambition" means "an eager or strong desire to achieve something, such as fame or power." It has, in general, a neutral connotation, but that is strongly contextual. A college student talking about her ambitions in life is seen as goal-directed, but a corporate executive or politician can be seen as putting personal desires ahead of mission.

The origin of "ambition" is thought to come from the practice of Roman politicians walking around to get support or votes, as "ambi-" can mean "around." But "ambi-" can also mean "both."

And this meaning, "both," I think reflects our contradictory feelings about the word. (Yes, there's a danger of folk etymology here, and I'm not seriously proposing that "ambition"'s origin is related to this theory.) In a sense, we recognize that ambition can be outer-directed, a desire to accomplish something great, or inner-directed, a desire to aggrandize oneself. With politicians in particular, we feel this contrast most keenly.

Very few of us believe that any politician runs for office simply from a desire to help others. There has to be some ego entering into the decision to go through all a modern campaign entails. The question is, what is the relative percentage? Even Mother Teresa, who had a burning ambition to help people, admitted that part of that came from a need to find her faith. So what was she, 99/1 or 98/2?

On the other hand, I once knew a fellow who was the most self-directed person I've ever met. He was a consultant, and positively reveled in the opportunity to advise a client that layoffs were good things. For him, it was all about personal ambition (and he was let go when he took credit for the work of others). 1/99?

I think part of the reluctance, even among Democrats, to embrace Hillary Clinton comes from the confusion over her ambition ratio. She says she gets up in the morning thinking what she can do to help people; on the other hand, there are reports that she's been thinking about the presidency since she was young. I can't decide which is true, but I am pretty cynical about people who insist that they "just want to help."

So I tend to peg Hillary at about 20/80, while other people of my acquaintance put her closer to 5/95. Either way, the perception is that she's not what the country needs right now, that the U.S. needs to elect someone whose ego is as small as it can be. These days, we'd probably take 40/60.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Yet another other place

At the risk of giving my commenters too much control over my blog, I'm going to take a suggestion from whatshisname and add a link to Credit Slips, a blog about credit and bankruptcy. It is written by six academics (no, I don't know why seven authors are listed) from such places as the University of Illinois College of Law, Georgetown Law, Harvard Law, University of Iowa College of Law, University of Michigan Law School, and Ohio University.

I've only been able to glance at this blog so far, but, given the current concerns about credit on the national, state, and individual level, it seems well worth spending some time keeping up with this subject.

And don't be thrown off as I was when I first saw the link, it's not Credit Lips, which would be something else entirely.

Review - Supercapitalism

Occasionally, very occasionally, you come across a book that encapsulates much of what you feel about an issue, that gets so close to the truth that you feel a kinship with it. Oddly enough, these don't tend to be the same books from which you learn a lot, because the latter reveal new truths; those may even feel disruptive. But the best of the "truth" books confirm what you already think or feel, while broadening that understanding. When I come across one of those, I recommend them to others, even if, for them, the book will be a "learning" book. In other words, I am likely to commend a Category A book, knowing or hoping it will be a category B book for someone else.

One of the very interesting interviews I have read was William Greider's 2006 interview of Robert Rubin, Clinton's Secretary of the Treasury. There are a number of interesting exchanges; this interview goes beyond the usual Charlie Rose fare. (I'm deliberately avoiding criticizing Greider for the flaws in his book, One World, Ready or Not; Paul Krugman already did that in 1997, and subsequent events have not entirely cleared up that controversy.) In a response to a question as to possible downsides of globalization, Rubin says:
Bob and I used to have a discussion--if you could trade off some part of growth to have some better distribution, would you do that? I always said I wouldn't, because I figured you want to get maximum growth and then try to figure out how to get the distribution. Bob used to feel--and look, it was a reasonable position, it wasn't where I was--that if you have somewhat less growth and better distribution, that was a better place to be.
Bob, of course, is Robert Reich, Clinton's Secretary of Labor. It is fairly well-known that Rubin and Reich had disagreements over economics. I believe it is one of the strengths of the Clinton administration that, as far as I know, both men's views were heard, a strong contrast to the "unified front" of the current administration.

My feeling on the specific issue noted above, where Rubin believes that, "I'd get the most pie I could and then figure how to get the distribution that results in everybody getting it," is that Reich is far closer to the mark. Many economists believe that you make the pie bigger, then worry about who's getting how big a slice later.

But growing the pie is not a very difficult problem, at least in theory. In general, moving toward consumer-based capitalism is the most efficient way of making a bigger pie, which we've seen time and again. It's the real problem of ensuring that everyone gets a piece which presents the dilemma. And whenever you focus on the easier problem and defer the harder, the likelihood that you'll ever get to the harder grows very small indeed. In short, if we focus on growth and ignore distribution, we may never get to distribution (especially as powerful institutions count on that growth).

So I was pleased to find that Reich was to tell his side of that story in the 2007 book, Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life. And I was even more pleased to discover that the book did not disappoint. I will try to summarize Reich's basic premises, then offer a few specific criticisms. However, I want to be clear (if I haven't been already) that this is a great book, an important book, and any negatives I thought I found are more in the way of quibbles than basic flaws.

Supercapitalism refers to our current system, in which the forces of free-market capitalism have much the greater influence over events than democracy (I wrote a post about my feelings on that conflict here). Reich's essential premise is that modern technologies of communications and transport allowed the creation of global supply chains. The rise of computers and the Internet allowed the old oligopolistic system to be replaced by more competition, fomented by entrepreneurs who fought for deregulation. Investors were able to buy into the system as never before, and their involvement forced companies to deliver returns and cut costs. The old democracy-oriented institutions, particularly labor unions and government, were not able to cope as power "shifted to consumers and investors" [p. 87].

I've just boiled a fairly involved argument down to four sentences, which is unfair, but you get the drift. The critical lens through which to view the text is that the consumer/investor is well-served by supercapitalism; we've seen the stock market explode, we've seen a greater number of goods and services at lower prices than we ever thought possible.

But the other side is the employee/citizen. We know the litany by now: job loss (which in my view is more properly called career loss in many cases), income inequality, a sense of insecurity about the future, the prospect that our children and grandchildren will have no shot at a good life (let alone a better one). The employee/citizen has little power, no matter what the theory of democracy says, and government is such a captive to corporate interests that their proper function, that of representing democracy, has been lost in contributions and lobbying.

Of course, the consumer/investor is the employee/citizen, so why does pretty much every American favor the former role to the latter? Reich doesn't really explore this question in any great detail, he assumes it and moves on. And I won't either, at least not right now, but I will point out one thing.

Reich discounts three ideas that have been proposed to explain this shift in people's thinking: the rise of powerful multinational corporations, the rise of conservative leaders, and the acceptance of certain ideas such as "neoliberalism" or "neoconservatism." He believes that, since some of the changes in technology and deregulation predate these, that they have had no effect worth mentioning. I disagree - while it is true that industries started to push for deregulation before Reagan, what I saw was that the Great Communicator made these ideas palatable. The '70s were a difficult time for America, and Reagan offered hope. The only thing he asked is that we buy into some simple ideas, government is bad, the free market solves all problems, etc. I can't say that Reich's supercapitalism wouldn't have occurred in much the same way, but Reagan helped people believe that it was right, that government shouldn't be responsible for limiting it in any way. And a large number of Americans bought into that.

As is clear by now, I am in basic agreement with the premises of this book in principle, so, rather than continuing to rehash the book itself, I'll mention a few things that I believe were underemphasized or elided over (granting that not everything could be covered in 272 pages).

Reich spends time talking about the "Not Quite Golden Age," the era that ended in the 1970s. This time featured few large companies in each industry, government-supported barriers to entry, union involvement (and salaries in non-union industries were maintained by the presence of unions), corporate responsibility. These factors added up to the broadest-based prosperity that any nation has ever known, and one from which we've been retreating ever since. The major labor troubles of the 1930s is not mentioned, but that reality wouldn't detract from the facts.

One note here - while there is no explicit criticism of the Clinton administration, in fact there is almost nothing negative about any specific person, neither does Reich shy away from letting us draw the conclusion that the trend to supercapitalism was pretty constant through the 1990s. This restraint is remarkable, given the way we've seen other former Clinton staffers attempt to burnish the image of the Clinton years as a mini-Golden Age. Part of this is probably related to the current Clinton campaign, part to self-aggrandizement, but Reich properly, if subtly, demonstrates that the 1993-2001 period was no deterrent to the rise of powerful corporate interests.

Reich believes that labor unions presented an important counterweight to the power of the large corporation. He shows a chart [p. 81] from the U.S. BLS where union membership in the private sector rose from about 13% in 1929, to a peak of 35% in the late 1940s to early 1950s, then drops fairly steadily to 8% today. He uses this data to show that the oft-stated belief that the Reagan decertification of PATCO (the union of air traffic controllers) in 1981 broke the union movement is wrong.

As I said above, I think the trend predated Reagan, but he gave it respectability, making it acceptable to hate the union movement. Another unmentioned factor is that, for many Americans at that time, having a job that did not fall within union purview was seen as "making it." I would say that the beginning of union decline came about as more jobs became white-collar and were not even potentially unionized. If this isn't factored in, the drop in membership will be understated. (Ironically, some of those same jobs have the characteristics of the blue-collar jobs of yesteryear. It's probably accountants and computer programmers who need union protection now, but this is culturally a non-starter.)

I said above that Reich doesn't spend much time trying to reconcile the conflict between the consumer/investor and the employee/citizen sides, that each of us plays both roles. There is some discussion on this on p. 98, which eventually Reich concludes by arguing for our complicity in the rise of supercapitalism. This may well be true, and may be related to the oft-noted lack of community in our society, but it still doesn't explain why. He cites [p. 97] that the average shareholder owns $5,000 worth of stock; why, though, would that investor relate to business more as an investor than as an employee? To over-simplify, if the choice is between seeing your $5K grow to $10K, but having a greater chance to retain a long-term career, or seeing the money grow to $20K, but being in perpetual job insecurity, why would anyone choose the latter? I can't answer that, and, apparently, Reich can't either.

I'm not entirely certain about the implicit cause and effect in Supercapitalism. The assumption throughout is that companies are pressured by consumers for better deals, and investors for higher returns, and these have brought us to our current state.
The main culprit has not been corporate greed or CEO insensitivity...We can safely ignore these developments as long as we don't connect the consumer and investor half of our brain with the citizen half. It's easier to cast rhetorical blame on the intermediaries between the two halves - corporations, CEOs, Wall Street, Wal-Mart. [p. 103]
This seems facile to me. To argue that corporations are innocent victims of consumers and investors seems preposterous, as they have become expert at manipulating both groups for their own benefit. I believe that this is one of those real-world situations in which simple cause-and-effect analysis is insufficient to explain what is happening.

More importantly, we have created a culture of relentlessly short-term thinking. The distinction that Reich is seeking may be explained in this way: The consumer and investor are short-term in their outlook, the employee and citizen long-term. This is a change from before, in that the first two roles used to have a long-term component. People were less likely to go into debt to finance purchases of non-durable goods, and investors used a buy-and-hold strategy. At the same time, it was assumed that our institutions were long-term thinkers, so decisions were made with full costs in mind.

Now short-term is in the ascendancy. Risks and costs are externalized and deferred, but institutions have much more power to accomplish this. We see this in today's mortgage crisis, where individuals have to pay the piper now, while financial institutions will likely "get help." The government runs up a deficit, with no real plan to pay it back; indeed, we pass a stimulus package that can only increase it.

Reich spends some time trying to debunk the myth that CEOs are paid too much. Once again, he's trying to demonstrate that the commonly-held belief that executive compensation is responsible for supercapitalism is wrong, again in an attempt, I guess, to convince us that we are at fault. He does concede,
[S]ome CEOs reap giant rewards even as their share prices plummet, and some pocket huge goodbye gifts even if they're sacked. But this is unlikely to last long. Only the rare company today can remain competitive headed by a CEO who is unworthy of his pay, including exit bonuses. [p. 110]
This belief does not conform to today's reality. These exit bonuses are negotiated, usually by well-paid compensation consultants, at the very beginning of the CEO's tenure. To think this will change due to competitive pressures is unlikely.

Along these same lines, Reich, as others have, tries to demonstrate that, measured as a portion of added value, most CEOs are not really overpaid. He cites a study that showed that Lee Raymond, while head of ExxonMobil, brought $16 billion of extra value to the company. Poor Lee walked away, over this time, with just 4% of this $16 billion - "seems economically reasonable." [p. 111]

I might buy into this reasoning if I had ever seen any other employee of a company paid by some percentage of value added. The researcher who has garnered 20 patents, which are still generating income for the corporation, is given the heave-ho because China is producing cheaper engineers - does he get some percentage of the patent revenue as a severance payment? Ha, ha.

The best attempt in the book to reconcile the duality of the modern-day American is when Reich tells us [p. 127-8] what he would be willing to give up (as long as he knew he wasn't alone in doing so). He'd support a laundry list of policies (better unemployment compensation, job training, paid family leave, and so forth), even if each one cost him some money. But he concedes that others would not share his list, and that only the political process can mediate the collection of lists into policy.

The chapters on how the political process has been co-opted by corporate interests are particularly strong. I won't go through a detailed examination of this part, the book should be read. But, once again, I think Reich misses the extent to which people's indifference comes from genuine belief, rather than lassitude.

Whether as a result of nearly 30 years of "Reaganomics" or not, the average American has been conditioned to believe that "the market" solves all problems, that government intervention is counter-productive. This is believed so thoroughly that even such non-market mechanisms as cap-and-trade are seen as market-esque, therefore superior to other solutions to our environmental crisis. Until faith in government is restored, until it is seen as the citizen's representative at the table instead of just another outlet for big business, nothing is going to change.

Unsurprisingly, the weakest section of the book is the conclusion, a near-obligatory section of proposed remedies. As I made clear above, I don't think that tinkering with the tax code (e.g., eliminating the corporate income tax), enhancing the "competitiveness" of Americans, or eliminating the belief that corporations are legal persons will accomplish the goal of reducing the negative effects of supercapitalism. That will take a major change in the attitude of the "man on the street," and, unfortunately, I think we're still a few crises away from that day.

Nonetheless, read this book. If it does nothing else, it will cure you of the notion that capitalism and democracy are a unified system, conferred upon the greatest nation on the history of the world, and requires its spreading through the rest of the world, no matter the cost.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Review - Book of the Dead

I have not read all of the Patricia Cornwell books featuring medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, but I found the early ones in the series to be reasonably interesting, and you wanted to follow the lead character, flinty as she was, through her adventures.

The problem with writing a series is, first of all, inspiration. An author has to be able to come up with story after story while weaving in the popular characters each time. Often, the writer mixes the story in with ongoing character development, so we see the familiar people age and change. But it is death to the series if the author starts to believe that the attraction is the soap opera, not the action.

And this is what has happened to the Scarpetta series. Reading the current release, Book of the Dead, I found way too much of the inner life of Scarpetta and her extended family, way too little of the forensic thriller I was expecting. The character traits, which previously served to flesh out the personalities, make them seem more real, have become irritants; anyone reading one of these books for the first time couldn't comprehend why you'd want to spend a minute with Kay's niece, Lucy, or her investigator, Marino. They are not fine people with quirks, they are profoundly unpleasant people.

As for the book itself, there's very little here. I won't recount the plot, it's fairly standard serial killer fare, but what will amaze and appall is the dialogue. There is almost no line of quoted text that any reader would buy as anyone actually saying. At times, you will believe that the two characters' lines were written separately, as there is no possible exchange that would lead to that sequence. This book was very disappointing, and it makes you wonder if Cornwell has spread herself too thin to maintain the series that put her on the map. It may be time for Dr. Scarpetta to hang up the scalpel.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Fun in the sun

The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue was distributed this week. I have been a subscriber to SI for years, starting as a teenager when my brother gave me a gift subscription. I have seen the swimsuit issue grow from a few pages as a feature to get us through the winter doldrums; now it is a separate issue, 228 pages worth, with 19 models and special features with players' wives, Danica Patrick, and Will Ferrell (Will Ferrell?).

I don't think of myself as particularly prudish, though I may be by today's standards. I enjoy looking at an attractive woman, but I don't think 12-year-olds should show off their cleavage. I have read Playboy without being shocked, but I do wonder what parents think of their children's attire at the mall.

So I'm not offended by the SI swimsuit issue, I'm not going to write in to cancel my subscription. But I do wonder about the priorities of this once-great magazine.

I know the issue is financially successful, which will ensure its release in perpetuity. But this is a publication that has lost two great columnists, Steve Rushin and Rick Reilly, in the past year. Perhaps because it is assumed that everyone watches all the big events, game coverage has declined. The profiles seem a bit blander than before, though some are still well-written and insightful. About half the magazine is now the short features in the front, which are cute, but often don't have much to do with sports.

Yet they can spend untold amounts of time and promotion around an issue which has nothing, photo of La La Vazquez (fiancee of Carmelo Anthony) besides, sports-related to it. I would like to see SI remember what it is supposed to be about, the in-depth coverage of sports. It is still a solid effort each week, but it could be better, and all the pictures of Anne V or Irina Shayk aren't going to do anything to fix that.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

New other place

A few weeks ago I described why I have the places of interest linked to the right. Today I have added a new one, the blog of Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor. Why I have added this will become clear when you read my review of his book, Supercapitalism, which is coming in a couple of days.

The short version is that this guy makes a lot of sense; he understands the risks to this nation and the structural impediments to fixing what's wrong (no, it's not waving the flag and shouting, we're #1). His words stand in stark contrast to someone like Martin Feldstein, Harvard economist and former adviser to Reagan, who appeared on Charlie Rose last night to tell us that everything's fine, all problems are temporary, that America is the grandest country in the world, don't worry. You don't have to believe in the apocalypse to think that Reich may be a little closer to reality.

Review - When you ride alone you still ride with bin Laden

I've never cared much for Bill Maher. Not that I've followed his career so closely, but he seemed to be a fairly run-of-the-mill standup until he found politics, at which point he became a self-styled Mort Sahl. Politically Incorrect never worked at all for me, as I couldn't wade through all the dross (what does Chad Lowe think about oil leases?) to get to the nuggets of entertainment. And the entertainment factor came more from laughing at the ignorance of celebrities or hoping that Ann Coulter would diet down past 0 pounds and disappear.

There's a smugness to Maher, a Bushian smirk that is no less irritating when it accompanies views closer to those I hold. If you find the look-at-me attitude of Dennis Miller obnoxious, you can't really get behind the even more extreme 'tude of Maher.

This doesn't mean he doesn't have a point from time to time. The comment that got him kicked off ABC, while remarkably ill-timed, struck me as at the very least within the realm of discussion. I'm not pro-drugs at all, but there's nothing wrong with asking whether this country has its priorities in order when it locks up people for possession while ignoring other, more-critical issues.

So I was curious when I came across Maher's When you ride alone you still ride with bin Laden: What the Government Should Be Telling Us to Help Fight the war on Terrorism - and Still Isn't (2007). (This book is essentially identical to the 2002 book with a similar title.) Would I find him as insufferable in print, without the smart-aleck looks and the self-laughing, or would I be able to focus on what he's saying?

Well, my answer is no, it really is his manner I dislike. The book is OK. It's not very funny; to be fair, I find very few of the political humor books funny at all, not anything by Al Franken, not the book by Jon Stewart and his staff (Ann Coulter I find funny, but not in a good way). These topics do not lend themselves to humor, our failures to uphold the Constitution, our skewed national priorities, our willful indifference to the environment.

So, to me, a book like this will rise or fall on how well it makes its points, on whether there is any chance it will motivate some to action or change any minds. And on this scale, this book is probably not successful. It will be read by Maher fans, who will likely already share many of his opinions.

I found the first two-thirds of this slender (165 pages, with about a quarter devoted to modern updates of WWII posters) volume fairly standard rhetoric. We're hated by others, they want to destroy us, we aren't doing what we must to get ready, either through our government or personally. The first essay of the 33 that really grabbed me didn't come until page 105, where Maher talks about how Americans saw 9/11 as something unique to human experience. The contrast to other cultures, in which random violence is common, and our wrapping ourselves in the flag and God are insensitive and ignorant.

Following this are intermittent bursts of effectiveness, but there is a lot of repetition. If this book were a blog, it would be pretty good; it loses some stature when placed between two hard covers.

The most effective point may come from the title. That this book still holds up five years after it was written, that Americans still have not had to sacrifice, that oil is still used as if it were infinite, that our culture is still focused on self-actualization, is the most savage indictment in the book.

Friday, February 15, 2008

We know you, Hillary...

The new Time magazine is out, and there are articles by Joe Klein and Karen Tumulty on the Democratic campaign and why Hillary has fallen behind. Klein talks about how Obama has out-organized the Clinton campaign, how Hillary has failed to be inspirational, how she assumed the nomination was hers. Tumulty writes more about the deficiencies in the Clinton campaign staff and their lack of money. In both cases, the articles talk about the "inside politics," the behind-the-scenes stuff that probably seems exciting to those who have been covering this campaign for close to a year.

All of these things may be true. Maybe Hillary should have put more people on the ground, maybe she assumed too much about her inevitability.

But maybe, more importantly, we just don't like her, we just don't want her to be our president. That office is still seen as an honor by most people; perhaps we don't want to convey that honor upon her.

There may be many different reasons someone doesn't like her: her voice, her husband (not everyone, even Democrats, felt that 1993-2001 was a dream time), her gender, her clothing, and so forth. Perhaps there were those who felt her ambition was too skewed toward the personal, that she didn't necessarily get up every morning thinking about what she could do to help people.

Whatever the reason, it is possible that no amount of organization, no optimization of staff, no level of funding would have put her in any different position than the one she finds herself in today. (And let's stop assuming it's over, it's not.)

I enjoy reading the "inside" stuff, hearing the pundits dissect it with Tim and George and Bob, but we should at least consider the possibility that we know Hillary - we just don't like her.

Tragedy on campus

I live about 40 miles from the campus of Northern Illinois University, but my only connection to it is that I spent a week there at a math conference about 20 years ago. Nonetheless, having walked the campus, stayed in their housing, I feel some connection to it, so yesterday's tragic shooting resonates more with me than some of the other horrific shootings that we've had. I can't add anything more to anyone's understanding, I can only hope that one day we will figure out a way to identify behavior that leads to these terrible events and forestall them.

I will say something about the media, though. In general, they do a credible job sifting through the information, separating rumor from fact and presenting it to us. But the attempts to cover breaking news are the acid test for any organization, and it's always interesting to see how they step up.

The ABC affiliate in Chicago, WLS-TV, is the highest-rated news station in the city. I'm not sure why, since they don't seem to do anything particularly well, but viewers appear to have a comfort level with their anchors and reporters. Yesterday, however, they really didn't fare too well. Visually, having Chopper 7, their ballyhooed news helicopter, provide static pictures of the scene contributed very little. And isn't there some kind of vetting before eyewitnesses are allowed on the air, maybe a production assistant to try to find out what was seen? 7 put a young woman on the air, live, who, as it turned out, hadn't seen anything, didn't know anything. I know these stories are tough to cover, but there still needs to be some basic news-gathering skills applied.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Oh, Canada...Oh, U.S.

[Showing the sometimes convoluted chain of references on the World Wide Web, I heard about this on Washington Monthly, which came through Ezra Klein, which has the original link to Sara Robinson.]

Sara Robinson's post discusses the myths held in America about Canadian health care. I haven't posted very much about health care; I'm no expert on the subject, and I probably don't have anything new to contribute. As a result, I really can't evaluate Sara's post on the merits. I am an American consumer of health care, however, and I can't say I'm thrilled with a system that has 15% of the population uninsured, more underinsured, and, despite pressures, resists all attempts to improve itself.

I won't go through this post point by point. It does seem to address most of the concerns we hear in the U.S. about single-payer systems, not by painting an unbelievably rosy picture (there are wait times for certain procedures, citizens do pay higher taxes for it), but by arguing that, on the whole, it serves the needs of the average Canadian better than our non-system.

What I object to in the discussion of the American way of health care is, first, the slogan, not based on any objective reality, that we have the "best health care in the world" - one of the few things that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush agree on. Second, that we just need to tweak the current system, perhaps with a bit of market discipline, and any problems we have will disappear.

We never seriously entertain the possibility that there are structural problems, that doctors may make too much, that we may overly restrict entry to medical school, that the massive number of profit-seeking third parties (insurers, medical corporations, hospital corporations, pharmaceutical companies) may take more out of the system than they give back. I think one of the major reasons for the failure of the Clinton health care plan 15 years ago was the attempt to place an extra governmental layer around the existing structure, rather that zero-basing it and looking at what is needed. (The current candidate plans, while somewhat tweaked, suffer from the same problem.)

To fix the problems, then, it would be good to look at plans that work better, not criticize them because they aren't perfect. That will necessitate us looking past the special interests, and focusing on the interests of the people. Canada may not be the ideal model for the U.S., but they're doing something right, and we should climb past the myths expressed in Sara's post and glean what we can from their successes.

[Final blogging note: my use of "Sara" for the author of the referenced post intends no disrespect. I am a bit old school in certain ways, and the fact that I don't know Sara Robinson means that I am a bit uneasy in using her first name so casually. But that does seem to be the Internet way of things, so Sara will be Sara, and Kevin will be Kevin, and you can call me Andro.]

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Review - The Bush Tragedy

If you have read this blog before, you've probably guessed that I am not a fan of the eight years of Bush 43. While I think it dangerous to assume how history will judge any contemporary events, I believe that it is difficult to envision a scenario in which the Bush years are seen as positive ones for our nation.

Leaders tend to be evaluated in one of two ways: what they accomplished, or what they didn't. The former can be seen positively or negatively (as witness the continued controversy over the contributions of FDR), the latter almost always negatively. Hoover is considered one of our worst presidents because of his laissez-faire attitude toward the financial crisis that became the Great Depression; oddly enough, his approach was actually not all that odd, even by today's standards, as we like to let the market work itself out.

Bush 43 will be unusual in that he will be evaluated in both ways. His primary "accomplishment" has been the Iraq war, along with the associated spending, lack of diplomacy, and so forth. But I also think he will be remembered for what he hasn't done: he turned a blind eye toward climate change, toward a historic shift in the relationship of business to citizen, toward the very nature of science itself. Long-term, Bush's legacy may well be seen more for the many things that didn't get accomplished than those that did, badly.

It is typical for writers to try to figure out what motivates a president, to solve the problem of how someone who achieves the highest office in the land got there, and from where their actions in that office derive. And so we have attempts at what's been termed psychobiography; usually this is analysis from afar, as a writer, often with dubious psychological credentials, tries to impute a president's inner mind from what he says or does. (Interestingly enough, Freud himself wrote such a book, with William C. Bullitt, about Woodrow Wilson.) These books are usually pretty interesting, sometimes enlightening, sometimes questionable.

Jacob Weisberg, the editor in chief of Slate magazine, has written such a book in The Bush Tragedy. Whether you will find this book revelatory or humdrum will depend on how much reading you've already done about Bush, his family, and his public life. For me, there was not a lot here that was new, but it is presented in clear prose without psychological jargon.

Weisberg's essential premise is that Bush 43 has embodied conflicting desires: he wants desperately to break away from his father, to be his opposite; at the same time, he wants to be a better 41, to go down the same path (but only if he can recognized as superior):
George W. Bush has been driven since childhood by a need to differentiate himself from his father, to challenge, surpass, and overcome him. Accompanying those motives have been their precise opposites, expressed through a lifelong effort to follow, copy, and honor his father. [p. xviii]
I'm not sure that this theory is either particularly novel, nor is it unusual. Many sons, in effect, go into the family business with the express, if not fully understood, desire to beat Dad at his own game. What makes the Bush story different is the stage on which their game has been played.

The best measure of any theory, whether in hard science or soft, is how it predicts future events. The biggest problem with this book is that it doesn't really give us a framework to help us decide what Bush 43 will do next, not that it really matters much in a lame-duck presidency. So we really can't use The Bush Tragedy as a guide, we can only use it to try to understand what has happened. This is valuable, but it might have been more useful, oh, maybe eight years ago.

Chapter 1 reaches back into the history of the Bushes and the Walkers, the two families that came together to produce the dynastic current-day Bushes. Weisberg makes a lot of the conflict between the nouveau-riche Walkers and the aristocratic Bushes, though the historical detail is far more extensively explicated in Kevin Phillips' American Dynasty. His conclusion is that Bush 43 has emulated not the reserved grandfather and senator Prescott Bush, and not the measured father and president George H. W. Bush, but the ebullient, sometimes crude great-grandfather, George Herbert Walker: "The man's a Walker, through and through" [p. 29].

The second chapter delves into the dynamic of the present-day family, at least the public part of it, George H. W., George W., and Jeb (Neil and Marvin, interesting in their own right, are mentioned only in passing, and Dorothy is almost entirely eliminated). Again, Weisberg gives us details that are pretty well-known. Jeb was considered the true hope of the family, Dubya was the screw-up. Bush 43 couldn't make a success of anything, not school, not athletics, not business. Then came the barest form of legitimacy, Bush 43's role as president of the Texas Rangers baseball team. Finally, in 1994, as part of the Republican tide, Dubya won his race for governor of Texas...and Jeb lost his.

What is interesting in this section comes at the very end, as Weisberg demonstrates how the very failings of Bush 43, the intemperate, ill-considered decision-making, the lack of deliberation, confirmed the wisdom of Bush 41. The elder Bush's reluctance to go after Saddam, seen by some (including, apparently, his oldest son) as terminal wimpiness, now looks like a prudent judgment that prevented chaos in the Middle East. One cannot say the same for the current occupant:
A son who tried to vindicate his family by repudiating his father's policies ended up doing the opposite of what he intended. He showed the world his father's wisdom and brought shame to his name. [p. 72]
A note here: I don't like to review the book that wasn't written; each author emphasizes what he or she feels is important. Chastising someone for what is omitted is easy to do. But there are times when one has to at least question what isn't there. Weisberg stakes most of his claim for the failed Bush presidency on the war in Iraq and its aftermath. As I stated above, I think there are a lot more failures across these years. While it makes for facile comparisons, Saddam and Iraq vs. Bush 41 and Bush 43, the book feels incomplete as it glides lightly across the domestic missteps of the past several years. Perhaps Weisberg has the sense that there is less distinction here, or feels that Bush 43 was not engaged with those issues, but it hurts the work somewhat.

Chapter 3 discusses Bush's faith. Unsurprisingly, it sees George's famed conversion as, to some extent, expediency; there is also a current of how Bush has used his faith more as a personal benchmark than as a spur to Christian action. This seems obvious to many if us. The section on the coded evangelical language in speeches, much of it created by Michael Gerson, is also unremarkable (let me stress once again that, if you're a reader who hasn't been following Bush very closely, this book is an excellent summary of known facts; if you have been close to it, there just isn't a lot that's new).

The one insight I gleaned from this chapter is that, to people close to the president, his faith has actually made him less dogmatic, that he is, "more genuinely humble and less absolutist" [p. 106]. I guess we should all be grateful he found God.

The fourth chapter is all about Karl Rove's relationship with George W. Bush. What we already know is that Rove has tried to politicize every issue possible, even in the wake of 9/11, which should have remained a non-partisan matter. "Reinforcing Bush's own instinct to politicize the war against terrorism was Rove's greatest disservice, and a major contribution to the failure of the Bush presidency" [p.139]. What I didn't know was the near-contempt of the president for his "brain," the extent to which Rove was marginalized personally. It makes you wonder who exactly constitutes Bush's inner circle, as he is not very close to the subject of Chapter 5, Dick Cheney.

That Cheney has had a great influence on the Bush presidency is well-known, though it is clear that we will never understand the full extent. This chapter is arguably the most interesting, as we see how someone with Rasputin-like efficiency can become a major figure while standing in the shadows. Weisberg contends that Cheney understood Bush well enough to know what would appeal to him, both in style and substance; this, coupled with a remarkable belief in the necessary power of the executive branch, has made Cheney the frightening factor he is to much of the country.
That Cheney was able to translate his instincts about the need for extraordinary presidential power so effectively into policy was not just a reflection of his bureaucratic shrewdness. It was a function of his having clear, well-developed ideas ready to fill the intellectual vacuum around the president. [p. 175]
Chapter 6 takes us through the evolution of Bush's foreign policy, or the Bush Doctrine, and talks about how it has changed over the course of the two terms. What is remarkable is how a man who knew almost nothing about this subject while in Austin will forever be associated with it, largely because of events under the control of bin Laden. Weisberg moves through what he says are six distinct periods in the presidency, and, thus, six different doctrines. This evolution is more a matter of ascribing labels to somewhat arbitrary events, as he doesn't make it clear that there was conscious choice behind this movement.

Nonetheless, there are nuggets here that were new to me, most notably that the true change in the thinking of the Bush camp came, not from 9/11, but from the subsequent anthrax attacks. At this point the focus became unmistakably Iraq, which led to all that came after.

Chapter 7 explores the desire of Bush to find historical parallels to himself. To no one's surprise, this involves a misreading of history as Dubya tries to place himself with Truman, T. Roosevelt, Reagan, Lincoln, and, most notably (and wrongly), Churchill. Bush has frequently said that he doesn't care about how history will judge him, but he also says that his current approval rating is irrelevant in the face of historical judgment.

In the end, The Bush Tragedy is interesting, but only intermittently important. It is an excellent summary of what we know about the mind of George W. Bush and how it informed his actions in a job for which he seems completely unqualified, either in experience, ability to react, or temperament.

And it will bring to mind further questions, as yet unanswered. Why would very different men, Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, both see this unimpressive man as the instrument to further their philosophies? One could suppose it was the look, the name, the bearing, but that seems not wholly persuasive. You will have other such questions upon reading this book, and I recommend you do so.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


This is my first post using a Mozilla add-on called ScribeFire. As its own site states,
ScribeFire is an extension for the Mozilla Firefox Web browser that integrates with your browser to let you easily post to your blog: you can drag and drop formatted text from pages you are browsing, take notes, and post to your blog.
One comment I read about it is that it is too easy to delete posts; that I believe, as I lost this post the first time I was working on it.

But let's give it a try and see how it goes. It looks all right so far, and is easier than flipping back and forth from the blogger editor to another page to get quotes. And it would be nice to have a better place than a Notepad file to keep notes for future posts.

By the way, is anyone out there using a Win 98 machine to post on blogger/blogspot blogs? Isn't the typing lag unbelievable?

Anyway, I'm not usually a big fan of add-on type software, but it won't hurt to expand my horizons.

Monday, February 11, 2008

My solution for the superdelegates

Over the years, I've participated in a few football pools, the kind where you make your picks each week. I've never really been in one for any money (no, I'm not protecting any potential political future, it's true), though I did win a nice trophy made out of a paper plate once. I usually do well, upper half, but I don't do it by intensive analysis.

In college, I had a thought about a fairly simple system for rating things in a competitive environment. The system is easy to program (my current version runs in Excel, just a few lines of macro code) and generates a 1-to-n ranking. And the amount of input each week is minimal, basically just entering the results of the games just played.

The biggest advantage is that the system is totally mechanistic. I put in the scores, look at the rankings, and make the picks for the next week. No agonizing over the matchups, the high emotions, the momentum - read the results off the screen and I'm done.

So here is my suggestion for the superdelegates who don't think they should be required to cast the deciding votes for the Democratic race, or don't want to be bothered by phone calls from Chelsea Clinton (or Malia or Natasha Obama, for that matter):

Right now, tell the world what criterion you will use to make your decision, make it mechanistic, and promise to stick to it. It doesn't matter which method you pick, the leader in the national popular vote, the delegate count at the time of the convention, the vote in your home state - any of these, or something else. Just make it clear that your vote will be based on something else. I predict that you will be left alone (well, mostly), and you won't have to feel that you're deciding anything. Problem solved.

What, you expect me to vote, too?

Yesterday I wrote briefly about the Democratic superdelegates, these non-voted-for representatives to the Democratic National Convention who get full-fledged votes. There are 796 of them, out of a total of 4049 delegates. So close to a fifth of all voting members at the convention will be political insiders who can vote for whomever they want, not necessarily based on voter preference, possibly based on old-style favor granting.

But this week we saw an interesting wrinkle. From the New York Times yesterday:
The prospect that the nomination could be decided by party insiders rather than by the voters has stirred unease among many superdelegates as they weigh potentially conflicting loyalties to their constituents and to Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama.

Several legislators said they would stay neutral as long as possible, hoping to be spared a decision. But, they said, they are prepared to step in and try to push the party to a decision as soon as the voting is over.
Democrat insider, political consultant, talk-show stalwart, and superdelegate Donna Brazile said, "I think, if 795 of my colleagues decide this election, I will quit the Democratic Party. I feel very strongly about this. ... There's no reason why we should decide this election. I feel very strongly" ("Situation Room," CNN, 2/6). Despite some controversy about Ms. Brazile's true beliefs about superdelegates (and she apparently corrected that statement to say that she would quit only the Democratic National Committee), she is not the only one expressing reluctance.

But these are people with votes. Did anyone in this party really think that there would never be a situation where the superdelegates would come into play? If not, then why do these people, who don't represent any actual voter, exist?

The only conclusion I can derive is that the superdelegate principle is to allow party insiders to hang around the convention, get on camera (not that there's much coverage, though you have to think that will change this time around), have a nice vacation in the Rocky Mountains. So what is the point?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Who do we have who can talk the governor around?

I'll have more to say about the ridiculous Democratic superdelegate idea tomorrow, but there was something interesting in the New York Times today. According to the article, both the Obama and Clinton campaigns are wooing these party insiders aggressively, inundating them with e-mails and phone calls.

[Just to catch anyone up who's not up into the campaign, superdelegates are wild cards, not pledged to the result of a primary or caucus, but free to vote for whomever they like. They are governors, congressmen, state congressmen, members of the Democratic National Committee - party insiders. A couple of lists can be found here.]

What struck me was this paragraph:
The Clinton campaign has established a system, overseen by one of the party’s most seasoned behind-the-scenes operators, Harold Ickes, to have superdelegates contacted by carefully chosen friends and local supporters, as well as by big-name figures like Madeleine K. Albright, a former secretary of state. For particularly tough sells, the campaign has former President Bill Clinton or Chelsea Clinton make the call.

That's right, when the respected Secretary of State and ambassador to the United Nations, a woman who, though I don't agree with her approach in every particular, is respected the world over, when she can't get the job done in swaying an uncommitted superdelegate, the Clinton campaign turns to, yes, hedge fund employee and media recluse Chelsea Clinton.

I can only think of two reasons for her to have this prestige: either she can promise favors from Mom more effectively than Secretary Albright can, or our elected officials are easily swayed by political celebrity. My guess is that both reasons play a part. Neither is commendable.

Review - The Sleeping Doll

I read rather more thrillers and detective stories than I should. I certainly have other things I should read, technical books for my work, newspapers and periodicals to keep informed, nonfiction books to lend perspective of a larger nature, and "serious" fiction, including classics to expand my understanding of humanity.

But reading a ripping good yarn has its place too. It's been harder to find such a book lately, it seems all the good serial killer plotlines have been taken. So, if I'm going to enjoy such a book, it better bring something else to the table, an interesting locale, fascinating characters, something. Either that, or the plot should be propulsive, not giving me a chance to think about how much it resembles the last episode of the TV series Criminal Minds.

So I was happy to read, and am happy to recommend, The Sleeping Doll by longtime thriller writer Jeffery Deaver. It's been a while since I read one of his books, so this was a welcome surprise.

I won't summarize the plot here, you can get that at the Amazon link above. The important things in this book are the vivid description of the beautiful Monterey area of California, the depth of the pathology of the villain, and the interplay among the characters, most of whom definitely do not want to be involved. The main character, Kathryn Dance, I did not find as interesting, but the good guys seldom are. And there are plenty of plot twists to keep you interested. A good read.

Note: after writing this, I looked at some of the Amazon reviews. There was a fair amount of criticism concerning the plot twists, that they were too frequent and too preposterous. This is probably a matter of taste. I also like the TV series 24, no matter how ridiculous it gets. Chacun a son gout.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Do you want your change?

Back to the theme of change. I can't speak for other countries, but it seems to me that the U.S. loves the idea of riskless change. We want things to change, but only if there's no downside.

Actually, what I just wrote isn't true. Each person wants change to be risk-free, but doesn't care too much if the risk moves somewhere else. I've written before about the ways in which corporations shift business risk to others (here), but it's not much different for individuals. If offshoring means that you can save a buck on your sweater at Wal-Mart, that it puts Americans out of work 800 miles away doesn't seem so important.

One of the big changes that's coming is the decline of our automobile-based lifestyle. The oil's running out, there's not too much doubt about that any longer, and what is there will be bid on by China and India as they attempt to build their modern economies. Other than some flirtations with hybrid cars, which aren't the remarkable gas savers we'd like to think they are, we haven't done a whole lot to change the way we live.

What we want, of course, is for the car fairy to sneak into our garages while we are sleeping and magically convert our minivans into nuclear- or solar- or air-powered vehicles overnight, all without the loss of a single cupholder. We'll just climb in the next morning, use our cars precisely as we did before, maybe not even have to stop for refueling.

But what if the transition is not so smooth? There is a belief that change happens almost instantaneously, but it doesn't. Most change follows the logistic curve: slow growth at first as infrastructure and awareness are built, then exponential-appearing growth, finally a tapering off as the change reaches some natural limit.

A lot of things affect the specific shape of the curve in real-life situations. The fax machine, in some form, dates back to 1843 (see here for a history), and there was extensive adoption by 1948. However, usage didn't become mainstream until the 1970s or '80s, so the logistic curve for the fax machine had a very long leading edge before the "exponential" growth was seen.

The automobile was not an overnight success (though we tend to think it was, as we tend to telescope history - do you realize it took 115 years from the first time Columbus landed in the New World until the settlement at Jamestown?). It took a long time to get the technology to the point where it was usable and affordable, to upgrade roads to handle large numbers of heavy motorcars, to create a network of filling stations. Only then could we see our way clear to the near-ubiquity of the car today.

Anything that replaces it, whether based on atoms or the sun or hydrogen, will require lead time as well - it will not happen overnight. And the precise nature of the life changes are, as yet, unknown. If nuclear cars can be built, and gain acceptance as the next big thing, how many of us are going to want to sit at the fuel station every Saturday for four hours while they swap out our used rods in a clean room? What if solar-powered vehicles are the answer, but cannot be made smaller than 20-person buses? Do we move to company towns so we can get enough people together to commute to work?

My point is that any change of a fundamental nature has the power to discomfit us; the question is not how we embrace the change itself, but the subsequent changes that are forced upon us. And the longer we wait, the more likely it is that the concomitant changes will be wrenching and unpleasant.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Review - America the Principled

If I were to summarize my feelings about the future of America, it would be that we are heading for a period of sustained decline. We've been top dog for a while now, and it's clear that other countries are capable and willing to take a shot at that spot. What's most discouraging is the extent to which our large institutions are complicit in this, essentially taking the fact of our nation for granted in return for profit or ideology.

We're undertaking a number of experiments, and so far these have led to increased inequality and risk shifting to the most vulnerable members of our society. Never before has a country decided to stop making things and move to a "service-based economy," and there's no guarantee that that will work, at least not well enough to maintain us at the level to which we've become accustomed.

There are those who would say that's a good thing, that world inequality breeds resentment and, ultimately, terrorism, and we should do anything we can to reduce it. True though that may be, that belief has not come out of a national consensus, and we need to understand, clearly, what is happening.

People understand this, at least well enough to know that they have less confidence in the future. Parents no longer believe that their children will live better lives than they have, and there is a growing sense that we have lost something. The entire presidential campaign hinges on the restoration of that hope; the change people are looking for is not in specific programs, but in the relationship of this country to its major institutions.

Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter weighs in with her book, America the Principled: 6 Opportunities for Becoming a Can-Do Nation Once Again (AtP). Dr. Kanter has long been one of the nationally-recognized experts on change and innovation.

This book is one of hope, outlining six areas in which America can regain its way. However, that such a book needed to be written is somewhat sad. Dr. Kanter has studied change, knows its inevitability, yet believes that this country is in such a state as to need a book like this one. She clearly senses that something is broken, and offers recipes for change.

AtP is what I call a "should" book; every page has "should" (or "can") followed by yet another suggestion as to how we can renew our nation. I can't deny that there is an attractive quality to AtP; our nation would be better if we did as Dr. Kanter suggests. But there has to be a strategy to get there from here, rather than a series of prescriptions that are unlikely to be implemented. Let me discuss them in order.

1) Securing the Future: Innovation and the White Coat Economy
I won't try, in any of the sections, to go in depth through Dr. Kanter's examples; she does a fine job of that. Let me focus on her conclusions. In this first chapter, AtP talks about how innovation is necessary for growth, and how we are evolving toward a "white coat" economy, one based on life sciences.

The suggestions: work on Talent, Technology, and Truth. We will build talent by educating our young people in science and math, keeping this knowledge in this country instead of letting it go back to other countries. Technology can be used to improve health care and education. And we will foment truth through tolerance and inquiry.

My opinions on each of these would make for a lengthy post or posts. I don't disagree with any of them, but there has to be a realistic idea as to how we might make these happen, rather than "because Dr. Kanter says so." I don't know how we educate students in so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects, because they can see the jobs aren't there. Technology is coming to health care, but who will pay for that progress to continue? Technology in education has proven to be hit-and-miss, and we've already paid dearly for the failures. And, yes, I would love tolerance and inquiry, but nations in decline tend to shy away from such things.

2) Pursuing Happiness: Work, Family, and the "Woman Question"
This chapter talks about the increasingly soul-deadening, life-sucking workplace, and how it can be improved. (Note: the emphasis on the woman question, namely, how talented, great women can be empowered to have better lives, actually detracts from the main thrust of the chapter. Carly Fiorina and Martha Stewart are not typical examples of anyone in the workforce, and their problems have little to do with gender. Ms. Fiorina was not "put on the spot"; she put herself there by taking a job for which she was marginally qualified, pushed herself into the limelight by putting herself in HP's ads, and was perfectly content being profiled as the most powerful woman in business. That her fall was well-publicized was inevitable, and it was certainly well-cushioned with millions of shareholder dollars. The workplace holds just as many problems for men - it is not a "woman issue.")

So what should we do to improve working conditions? Universal health care. Grants for displaced workers and retirees to pursue education. Tax-advantaged savings accounts to augment Social Security. Modular work, in which employees would come and go with certain restrictions, allowing them flexible scheduling. Flex-years, where parents might take parts of the summer off, older people parts of the winter. A national sabbatical program.

These suggestions, no matter how well-intended, betray no concept of what work is like today, and how resistant executives will be to change. Would these ideas make work better? Sure. Will they improve next quarter's bottom line? The answer to that will determine which ones will occur (which is why universal health care is the only one with a chance).

3) Growing Good Companies: Can Values-Based Capitalism Replace Imperial Excess?
Even Dr. Kanter pretty much acknowledges that the answer is no. Her suggestions all involve external pressures, mainly from government, to rein in the excesses inherent to capitalism.

By its very nature, capitalism isn't about values, it's about money. All you have to do is listen to the bellyaching in the corporate suites about Sarbanes-Oxley, a fairly modest regulation, and you'll understand just how unlikely it is that corporations will wake up and bring light to the process. I won't go on any more about AtP's "shoulds"; they're not going to happen spontaneously, and there's very little stomach in Washington to make them happen.

4) Restoring Respect for Government: From Contempt to Competence
I want to be sure I give enough respect to this book. Dr. Kanter outlines the problems so well that her happy "shoulds" are almost jarring in contrast. Nowhere is that more true than in this chapter. The first 90% will remind you, if you need to be, how utterly disappointing and inept our government has become. As Dr. Kanter points out, this is the result of almost 30 years of being told that government is the enemy. More than half our population has grown up believing that our elected officials take our money, skim some off the top, and return it to us, and that they should be taken out of the process.

So we should enlarge the pool of people who are willing to work in government, by more civics education, pay for performance, loan forgiveness. Once again, how do we get there from where we are? We need to bring the light of the media to bear, bring advanced technology to streamline service provision, and attract great leaders to public service. What is being provided here is not a set of solutions, but a set of wishes and hopes.

5) Engaging the World: Globalization, Leadership, and the Rule of Thirds
This chapter is probably the muddiest in the book. Near the end, Dr. Kanter even admits that, "the world is too big, and events are moving too quickly even as I write, to extract a single set of foreign policy prescriptions." What we are supposed to do here is engage in citizen diplomacy to strengthen our reputation in the world. She cites such one-off projects as the Oprah Winfrey Leadership School for Girls as examples we should emulate.

Of course, one problem we have now is citizen diplomacy, the ceding of foreign dealings to CEOs instead of our representatives. We cannot take a principled stand on, say, human rights abuses in China when they make all our stuff and hold so many of our dollars. It's hard to see how getting into the supine position makes us stronger. To Dr. Kanter, though, our best hope is "a combination of trade-spawned business networks and grass-roots citizen diplomacy." I don't see how this mix of profit-makers and latrine-builders allows this nation to engage effectively with the huge world.

6) Building Community: Service and the Spirit of Summer
One of the enduring solutions to all that ails us is to yoke up the enterprising spirit, particularly of our young people, and provide service to those who need it. Most books like AtP have hit upon this idea, that if we can just get everyone to pitch in and help, the world will get better.

I'm not opposed to the concept that we could all help one another more than we do, but that certainly isn't a magic bullet. As any social service agency near a high school knows, mandatory service requirements can create as much disruption as assistance. It's true that service can be a means of personal growth, and can create a series of little victories. But it is just as true that volunteerism won't stem the negative effects of globalization, won't change our major institutions to be more responsive, won't create an efficient, listening government.

Finally, it is obvious that I was disappointed with America the Principled. I really am all for the ideas presented here, but, as I stated above, they don't constitute solutions but hopes. And I'm all for hope.

Until, however, we change the current incentive structure, and break down the assumptions that the majority of Americans hold, these ideas will remain pie in the sky. My fear is that it will take some kind of crisis to make us wake up and see the threats, that we won't realize that being #1 is not a birthright, but something that requires effort. I wish this book had shown us a path around that quagmire.
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