December 19, 2008

Dramatic Collapse of the American Auto Industry

After the American Century

]Update: In 1212 I can look back and see that the Obama Administration did save GM and Chrysler. Not only that, but GMis once again the world's largest car maker. No thanks to the Republicans, however, who were ready to let Detroit die. However, this piece accurately reflects the apprehension and gloom that was widespread in the autumn of 2008.]

It is a dramatic story, the collapse of what used to be the core of American industry. A century ago the automobile industry was rapidly growing in Detroit, with many of the most dynamic companies long since forgotten. The Reo, the Hudson, and the Packard are long gone now. Yet what emerged by 1930 was not quite a monopoly but what came to be called "The Big Three" - beside which remained a few small fry another thirty years, such as Studebaker and Nash Rambler. But the Big Three seemed the stuff of industrial immortality - dominating the US market and expanding into foreign lands as well.

Curiously, the relative strength of the three is inversely related to their age. Walter Chrysler's company is the youngest, though that is not why it is now the weakest. General Motors came about as the merger of five automakers and surpassed the older Ford Motor Company (founded in 1903) to become the world's largest car company, a position it retained for decades.

This is not the place to analyze the gradual decline and fall of all three companies, which would take volumes. But none can doubt that these companies lost their technological edge, with many improvements coming from Europe and Japan. The latter particularly excelled at superior productive systems, requiring fewer workers to produce cars, and offering automobiles with far fewer production mistakes as well.

Yet the current malaise of the industry is also related to its poor leadership on environmental matters. Detroit executives have continually resisted pressures to raise the average miles per gallon of their fleet, and sought ways to escape legal requirements in this area altogether, notably by selling ordinary households SUVs and trucks. In the 1980s and 1990s, a time when less than 3% of all Americans are farmers, the sale of gas-guzzling trucks shot up. Meanwhile, Honda, Toyota, and other foreign producers not only produced more efficient cars, but they began to do so inside the United States.

As a result, where once American lawmakers would rally to support Detroit, today no one has much appetite for the job. Southern lawmakers often have a European or Japanese automobile plant in their state, and they also are typically keen on the idea of free market capitalism. Subsidies are not their way. Environmentalists are disgusted with Detroit's foot-dragging on pollution and car efficiency. The great middle class may be sympathetic to the plight of the workers, but they often own foreign cars themselves, and they suspect that the automobile magnates have made their own problem. Conservatives generally do not want to help the car companies unless they negotiate much less advantageous deals with labor. (In fact, the major cost of making cars is not labor, but this point is lost in most debate.)

Support for the automobile companies is strongest in the states where the jobs will disappear if they collapse entirely - Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and certain districts where assembly plants are located. But so far this local support has not been enough, and no clear plan has yet been developed to save the Big Three.

Worst of all, it is not easy to fix the problems these manufacturers face. It takes years to get from the blueprint of a new model to a factory producing it and a team of mechanics ready to service it. But the Big Three do not have years. GM and Chrysler are almost bankrupt now, and the billions they need will not come from banks. Ford is a little better off, and says it does not need federal money immediately. But the other two do, and even though they have closed down their plants for up a month at Christmas, their debt keeps increasing, because of all the retired autoworkers whose pensions must be paid, because corporate debt must be serviced, and because even non-productive factories have heating bills, insurance, and other fixed costs that keep running.

Meanwhile, the few consumers who are visiting automotive showrooms rightfully worry about purchasing any American car. What good is a guarantee if the company dies? Where are spare parts going to come from, if the manufacturer ceases to exist? This problem is going to get worse before it can conceivably get better. Yet with three million jobs on the line, the collapse of the car industry is just not an acceptable option for either state or national government.

The fate of the automobile companies is a close parallel to the fate of the "American century." We seem suddenly to be entering the afterlife of a once powerful economy.

December 16, 2008

How Bush Finally United the Iraqis

After the American Century

An Iraqi journalist has become famous because he took off his shoes and threw them at President Bush. This appears to have been a spontaneous action, or at least not thought out in advance. Had he really wanted to hit Bush with his shoes, he should have stood on one side, near the front, and waited until the president was looking the other direction. And he should not have shouted until the shoe was in the vicinity of the commander-in.chief's head. However, judging by the video. this appears to have been an emotional outburst, not a premeditated attack. Throwing a shoe is a traditional Iraqi way to insult a person, so the action makes more sense in that nation than it would in Europe or the US.

I do not find this incident surprising. Bush's mistaken and unnecessary invasion of Iraq has led to the deaths of huge numbers of civilians, perhaps 30 times as many as died in 9/11. This could make someone angry. Muntader al-Zaidi, the journalist, a 28 year old correspondent for Al Baghdadia, an Iraqi television station, was only a few rows away from Mr. Bush, when he slung his shoes, and shouted in Arabic: “This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog!” He then threw the other shoe, shouting, "“This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!” Security police immediately subdued and arrested him. It appears that he was also beaten, which was hardly necessary.

Bush showed quick reactions and some agility in avoiding the flying shoes. But he will not be able to avoid being nailed by historians, even if his Administration did manage to lose (destroy?) large numbers of documents related to the invasion of Iraq.

The great majority of Iraqis, while divided by religion and much else, have embraced Muntader al-Zaidi's action, in a rare moment of unity. In any popularity contest, he is a "shoe in." Millions of Arabs all over the Middle East seem delighted with the idea of throwing shoes at President Bush, and the journalist has been widely praised for his courage. Is it possible that Bush has now united the Iraqi people in support of free speech and democracy?

December 11, 2008

What We Can Expect

After the American Century

We have all now heard about the Governor of Illinois trying to sell Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder. Such an event is the perfect deflation device, bringing us back down to earth. The economy may be in meltdown mode and the world in peril from global warming, but politicians do not therefore become virtuous. No one thinks Obama has anything directly to do with this sorry mess, and indeed the FBI tapes reveal the Governor complaining that he could not get anything from the president-elect.

Nevertheless, as the United States confronts a major economic crisis, it would be nice if one sensed a corresponding urgent desire to do the right thing in the political class. But recall the venality of Congress just a few months back, when it attached billions of dollars of pork to the financial bailout package - and this was just before an election when the country was paying attention.

Obama has been around Chicago politics and Washington politics long enough to know that getting real change will not come easy. The vested interests will try to oppose reform of the medical system, pollution restrictions, and higher energy standards to make houses and cars more efficient. Obama has moved rapidly to name his Cabinet and make other key appointments, and they appear almost uniformly to be both bright and experienced. Even the don of the Republican insiders, Henry Kissinger, has praised the steam that is being assembled.

This team is more centrist than many of Obama's supporters might have liked, but politics is the art of the possible. In this crisis, one senses that more may be possible than normally would be the case. Much depends on how skillfully the Obama presidency sequences its legislative proposals. Ideally they will begin with the ideas that are hardest to oppose and build momentum. Ideally, they will not try to overwhelm the Republicans, but make a show of working with them, cajoling support from moderates on the other side of the aisle. If they get some major legislation through quickly with bipartisan support, then it might turn into a new version of Roosevelt's famous 100 days in the first months of his first administration. Press reports about Obama's history reading suggests that this is his scenario. Yet however beautiful the plan and however fine the team to carry it out, venal politicians like the Governor of Illinois can obstruct and unexpected events such as a foreign policy crisis can derail the Obama Express.

I temper my hopes with these realizations, but remain confidant that at the least we will have a president who is intelligent and knows the Constitution. We can with confidence expect that the Guantanamo prison will close, that the government will not systematically lie to the public about foreign policy, that vast troves of government documents in the form of White House emails will not again be lost, that the White House will not engage in political vendettas, that Civil Rights laws will be enforced, that Supreme Court nominees will be competent, and that pollution will be reduced. For the last eight years we could expect none of these things.

December 06, 2008

After the American Century's First Birthday

After the American Century

Now that the Obama presidential team is all but assembled, it is time to take stock. One year ago no one imagined that either Obama or McCain would be nominated. A month after the election, Obama has become a familiar beacon of hope to the American people and others around the world. We are in difficult times, and we hope his team will be able to deal with the many problems in inherits from the dysfunctional Bush Administration. I will continue to comment on events as they unfold.

This Blog has now existed a few days less than one year, and it has been far more interesting to me than I anticipated. In fact, I have written 133 blogs, and these have been read in 61 countries by thousands of people. But in the course of the year I have also found that the largest number of these readers - more than half - come from Denmark. The next largest group are in the United States. It is not surprising to anyone who surfs the net, that half of all site visitors come by for less than 10 seconds. But the geography of these casual visits is interesting: 75% of those from the US fall into that category. In contrast, just 25% of Danish (and Norwegian, Swedish, and German) visitors drop in for such a short time. 75% of them stay much longer and evidently are reading more of what appears here. Based on these statistics, provided by Google, in the future I will regard readers in northern Europe as my primary audience, and hope that those from North America (hello Canadian readers!) will be interested in such a viewpoint.

I should also add that I have been pleased with the occasional feedback, both in person and on line, and promise to continue this enterprise in 2009.

At this busy season, I am about to rush off to day of rehearsing, singing, and partying afterwards, and hope this finds you all similarly busy with Christmas.

November 23, 2008

Giving Pragmatism and Brains a Chance

After the American Century

The rapprochement between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama apparently has been taking place since June. Clearly neither has such a sensitive ego that it prevents them from seeing the advantages of working together. I admit that I am surprised both that he would ask her to become his Secretary of State and that she would accept. I always thought that being a Senator, especially a high-profile Senator from a large state, was a better position than serving in the cabinet. Being Secretary of State is the most important job there, to be sure, but it is potentially only a four year run, and at best eight years. In contrast, Clinton has such a strong hold on her Senate seat that she could keep it for life.

So far, it seems that Obama's criteria for getting a post in his administration are that one has to be very smart, preferably with an Ivy League education, and not too much of an ideologue. He seems to prefer pragmatists who have Washington experience. He has drawn on many from the Clinton White House, which is not surprising, since to find other Democrats with such experience he would have to go back to 1980, the last year of Carter's administration. Most of his staff are now retired. As with all cabinets, this one almost assuredly looks better before it takes power that it likely will in four years time. But after eight years of ideologues and a less than brilliant president, surely it is time to give pragmatism and brains a chance. This will be novel for Washington lobbyists and for Fox News, not to mention any Republicans who still believe that Obama is a socialist.

As the appointment process proceeds, the contrast increases between the staggering economy and hope that the Obama will be able to turn it around. His announcement yesterday of a major economic stimulus package, ideally to be passed as soon as possible after January 20, clearly is calculated to hearten the market, and to help bridge the 8 week gap between now and the moment he assumes control. Call it "change they need to believe in." If the meltdown continues, Obama may inherit a nationwide crisis so palpable that his plans will be passed quickly. If the economy miraculously improves, he will presumably face a bit more opposition. But either way, I think we can expect passage of a stimulus package that features green energy technologies, tax cuts for the middle class, and incentives for industries to create jobs.

November 17, 2008

Obama's Restricted Freedom

After the American Century

There is a curious irony in President Barack Obama's e-mail situation. While a Senator he was glued to his Blackberry and emailed constantly. As President, it appears he will have to give up his freedom in cyberspace. Not only will official regulations require that all his official business be preserved for posterity, but also national security mandates that his emailing be restricted to harmless topics, if not cut off altogether.

The erosion of the line between public and private is a problem for all Internet users. Google can mine information on those who use its search engine, strangers can see photographs we post on Facebook, and huge amounts of personal information ends up on the WWW, often without the persons described, discussed or documented being aware of it. Therefore, the President has to become an intensely private person, with little or no personal presence on the Internet, however many official web pages and news stories there are about him or her.

In Obama's case this seems particularly ironic. More than any other candidate, he mastered the new media, and used it to raise money and coordinate his campaign. He apparently also used it to stay in touch with ordinary people - old friends whom he could trust to tell him what the buzz was on the street. E-mail gave him access to life beyond the bubble of celebrity and security. But now, for the next four, quite possibly eight years, Obama will enter a cocoon of cyber-isolation - or he may become a reader but not a sender of emails. One assumes he will still have a computer and that he will be able to surf the web, perhaps under a new assumed name each day.

The President is seen as the most powerful person in the United States, yet his movements are restricted, his contacts are monitored, his every decision recorded, and his email cut off. While there are compensations, to be sure, holding that office to a considerable degree restricts freedom and discourages spontaneity. For decades the President has not been able, on the spur of the moment, to jump in the car and go for an aimless, relaxing jaunt into the countryside. It seems the freedom to roam in cyberspace will be restricted as well.

But on the bright side, for at least four years Obama will not get any spam!

November 14, 2008

Ranking the States on Energy Efficiency

After the American Century

Energy is a central part of the announced Obama program, so it is useful to know which states (and their representatives in Congress) are most disposed to support him. A new report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy rates all 50 states, not in terms of their energy use per capita, but in terms of their utility regulations, transportation legislation, building codes and other laws that require or at least encourage better energy practices. The most conscientious states turn out to be those that Obama won, led by California and Oregon, and including New York, New Jersey, the New England States, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. These are quintessential "blue states" in other words, and they all receive scores of at least 25 out of a possible 50, California being the highest with 40.5.

And those at the bottom? All are "red states" with the worst score going to Dick Cheney's Wyoming, a perfectly dreaful 0. But there are remarkably low scores also for Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and so on. To make the symmetry rather complete, swing states are in the middle, with higher scores if they are in the North and lower if they are further south. Thus Missouri had an anemic score of only 4, and was 45th in the nation. The most northern swing state, New Hampshire, had the highest score among them, with 16.5, and came in 18th. Another northern swing state, Ohio, scored scored 16 and came in 19th.

These are not merely statistics. The states spent just under $3 billion on energy efficiency in 2007, almost four times what George Bush budgeted for it. In short, the states that supported Obama most strongly are also those most prepared to take advantage of any new energy programs.

There is one interesting exception to these generalizations, the State of Michigan. It ranks just 38th overall, in contrast to its more environmentally conscientious neighbors in the northern tier of the US. Center of the American car industry, Michigan seems wedded to energy profligracy.

November 12, 2008

How Accurate Were the Polls?

After the American Century

In the aftermath of the election, one can judge how accurate public opinion polls were. Real Clear Politics developed a useful poll of the polls, giving an average figure that combined all the various efforts to quantify the public mood. This proved quite accurate. On the eve of the election, this average was 52.1% for Obama, who actually received slightly more, 52.6% of all votes cast. McCain was predicted to receive 44.5% but actually got 46.1%. 

To put this another way, the poll of polls predicted a difference between the candidates of 7.6%. The actual difference was 6.5%. This could be considered an error of 1.1%, but some voters did change the minds during the last week of the contest, and this was a running average.

Which polling service did the best? None predicted a McCain victory. I hate to admit it, but FOX News predicted Obama by 7%. CNN also had Obama by 7%, while the PEW Trust concluded that the difference would be 6%. This suggests that however rabid the FOX news department may be, their polling experts do a good job. Less successful were Reuters and Gallup, as both predicted a massive Obama victory, with a margin of 11%. CBS News and ABC News gave Obama a 9% margin of victory - too much, but only 2.5% away from the correct result.

In terms of electoral votes, the polls also were pretty accurate. While John McCain tried hard to win in Pennsylvania, the polls kept saying that this was not going to happen. In fact, the race there was not particularly close. All the hype about the "Bradley Effect" proved mistaken. Likewise, the polls said Obama would likely win in Virginia, which he did, and that it was too close to call in North Carolina. In fact, Obama did win there, but by a margin of less than 1%. The polls were also right to say that Obama was leading in Florida, that he would take Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada, and that the only swing state where McCain had a good chance was Missouri. In fact, we are still not absolutely certain he won there, but it appears that did did, by less than 8,000 votes. The poll of polls put McCain ahead by 0.1% - amazingly accurate.

On the whole, I suppose this is a good result, but one always hopes for a little bit of unpredictability to keep things interesting.

November 11, 2008

Bush's Email-gate

After the American Century

As President Bush prepares to leave Washington, we begin to think about his legacy. Unfortunately, full evaluation of his eight years in office may be difficult because he has not kept good records. In 2003 the White House was busy with many things, including the build-up to the Iraq War. The records from that year might be particularly interesting to historians, and they are crucial to understanding how the Bush government decided, mistakenly, that weapons of mass destruction were being hidden by Saddam Hussein. However, much of the email from that year, perhaps 225 days, may be lost. Electronic accident? or expunged?

The losses begin, conveniently enough, during the build-up to the Iraq War . The missing mail also includes records related to the CIA-leak case, in which White House personnel "outed" one of their own agents, apparently as political revenge. This led to the prosecution and conviction of "Scooter" Libby, one of Dick Cheney's closest aids.

Some email has also apparently disappeared for 2004 and 2005, perhaps as many as 5 million pages in all, according to CREW, a non-profit watchdog organization concerned with ethics in government. However, it is possible that all this material still exists in White House servers - but no one writing about this on the Internet seems to know. In fact, if all the emails are entirely lost from every server, that result almost required systematic record destruction

The Federal Records Act requires the preservation of all presidential papers, including emails. Yet it appears that George Bush and his team have been both careless in preservation and lax in recovery efforts. In contrast, the Clinton White House had an automatic archiving system that made copies of all emails. When the Bush team chose a new email system in 2002, however, they did not include automatic archiving. Instead, each email had to be manually renamed and saved. This sounds like a ludicrous, make-work program most of the time, but also it also potentially provides a chance to omit the damaging email now and again. But 225 days in one year? Perhaps 473 days in all? 5 million messages?

Such incompetence (or is it the intentional loss of damaging information?) may be hard to believe. But then these are Republicans. A Republican President, Richard Nixon, erased vital parts of the Watergate tapes. In the Irangate scandal, the Reagan White House, tried (unsuccessfully) to erase incriminating information as well. There is a pattern here, and it should more than embarrass the Republicans. There appear to be grounds for a criminal investigation, because the Bush Administration was aware of the problem already in 2002, but failed to fix it for six years. During most of the two Bush terms, many people may have been able to delete emails from their accounts or even from the servers. Historians will not be able to trust this partial record.

At the same time, Dick Cheney at times has been doing official business using a private email account. This is illegal because it skirts the legal requirements of the Federal Records Act, and makes it even easier to eliminate anything illegal, incriminating or embarrassing.

The Bush White House has systematically undermined the record keeping process. The legacy of these eight years is apparently rife with evasion and destruction of evidence. Will anyone be prosecuted?

For a chronology of this unfolding scandal and more information, go to The National Security Archive.

November 08, 2008

Obama Prepares

After the American Century

The world continues to marvel that Obama is indeed president, as do I. But at the same time the candidate is rapidly metamorphosing into the leader of the US, as he chooses a staff and decides whom to entrust with cabinet positions. These appointments are not easy to make, not just because each position has its own special requirements, but because the whole pattern of appointments needs to include women, minorities, experienced people, exciting newcomers, major supporters, and even some Republicans. Filling each post without looking at the larger pattern can easily result in too few women, for example, or no Republicans.

Juggling all the names and positions and having them fall into a coherent pattern takes time, in contrast to the European system, where a shadow government is ready to step in and rule on a few days notice. The more than two month transition period has the advantage that Obama can think carefully about what he wants to accomplish, but the disadvantage that a lame Duck George Bush remains in charge as the economy crumbles.

The worst of the bad news is that General Motors, long the world's largest auto maker, is in danger of collapse, while Ford and Chrysler are not doing much better. But there is plenty of other bad news, ranging from the highest unemployment rates in 16 years to announcements at most colleges and universities that faculty hiring will cease and that student aid will diminish. This is because universities live in part off their endowments, invested largely in the stock market. So, as the car industry goes bankrupt, universities fall on hard times.

The auto and oil industries are old industry, while the newer high-tech companies are doing somewhat better. The task Obama faces is to haul these older companies into the new millennium, building new kinds of energy-efficient automobiles, and giving workers health insurance, which the corporations can no longer afford to provide. In other words, as Obama knows himself, the proposals he has made on renewable energy, health care, and stimuli for the economy are all interconnected. Something like a European medical system is necessary for corporate recovery. A new energy program is necessary to make the nation more efficient, less polluting, and more competitive.

Therefore, the first hundred days of the new administration are crucial. Will he be able to coordinate and implement the fine ideas he developed in his campaign? Can the Democrats remain together and vote in their program? Or will Congress, as usual, bury the new programs in a myriad special provisions and pork-barrel items for their constituencies? There are many ways to derail or fatally delay or prevent implementation of the Obama program, which is why it is so important that he selects the right team for the job.

Every new president has a "honeymoon" period at the start of his administration, a time when it is easier to get new bills passed. Bill Clinton frittered his "honeymoon" away, and had little to show for his first six months in office. We will know by June whether Obama will do better.

November 05, 2008

A New Era in American Politics

After the American Century

Jessie Jackson envisioned the kind of victory that Barack Obama won yesterday, as a rainbow coalition of Americans turned out to give the Democrats a historic victory. The ecstatic celebration in Chicago included people from all walks of life and every race, all cheering together for the first African American president.

The eight year nightmare of the George Bush presidency is almost over, though the Democrats will inherit the economic and international problems he created. This is not the time to dwell on the difficulties that lie ahead, but rather a moment for celebration and renewal. It is the best day for the United States since the disputed election in 2000.

The moment tempts one to become Shakespearean. The bard once wrote that there comes a time in the affairs of mankind which, taken at flood tide, leads on to victory. Obama was fortunate to catch a powerful historical wave that carried him toward his success. His campaign was also superbly organized, which is why he rode that wave more successfully than any other Democratic candidate during the past year.

The whole sequence of events, from the Iowa Caucuses and the long primary season until the election has been stunning and emotionally exhausting. There has been more drama and interest throughout than in any campaign I can remember since 1968, and the result is far more decisive and positive than it was then. Such a victory was unimaginable a year ago. For once it really seems that anything is possible, that nations can change, that injustices can be overcome.

Perhaps all this is a fleeting impression before going to sleep. But the mark of a great leader is the ability to nurture hope.

The Coming Crisis in the Republican Party

Obama has won a convincing victory, large enough to give him a mandate for change. With majorities in both houses of Congress, the Democrats can enact their ambitious program, if they can stay united. They have not always been good at this in the past, so it cannot be taken for granted. But the severity of the economic crisis may strengthen a common resolve.

At the same time, the stunning defeat of the Republicans in the 2008 election has exposed a three way division in their party. First, there are cultural conservatives, represented by Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin. They passionately reject abortion, the Darwinian theory of evolution, gay marriage, and stem cell research. They passionately support the right to own guns, and they would like to see daily prayer reintroduced into the schools. Second, there are the more secular Republicans, like Mitt Romney, who was a successful businessman before he went into politics, or John McCain. For most of his career he was not allied with the cultural conservatives, but was more moderate. When he selected Sarah Palin, he did so because he needed to motivate the conservative wing of the party. However, as a result, moderate Republicans, such as General Colin Powell, refuse to ally themselves with him, and endorsed Obama. Third, the neo-conservatives are not fundamentalist Christians, but fundamentalist capitalists who believe in deregulation, the projection of American power, and preemptive military strikes against enemies abroad. The Neo-Cons were the architects of the Iraq War. These three groups are ideologically quite different, and as an alliance they make little sense and have lost most of their appeal. Ronald Reagan could hold this unwieldy alliance together. Bush had more difficulty doing so, and now it has come unraveled.

At the same time, the Republicans are becoming a minority party. With their base of voters on the extreme right they have a hard time even winning a majority of White voters. Notably, because of the abortion issue and years of attacking welfare programs, the Republican Party is rejected by a majority of all women. More surprisingly, the Republicans now get support from less than half of all those with incomes over $100,000. The Party also have weak appeal to the (mostly younger) people who have a mobile phone but no land line phone: 55% of them voted for Obama, only 35% for McCain. These numbers would be much worse for Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee. Neither could win a presidential contest. They look ignorant and provincial to the millions of Americans who are immigrants, have a good education, or who have lived abroad.

Not all elections are created equal. Some mark decisive changes in the coalitions and alignments of national politics, notably that of 1932, which brought Franklin D. Roosevelt to power and put the Democrats in control of Congress as well for most of the next 36 years. These were years of reform, when the United States moved toward a welfare state. But then in 1968 the Republican Party recaptured the lead role in US politics, and held it for most of the next 40 years. This domination began with the election of Richard Nixon in a narrow victory over Hubert Humphrey in 1968. Nixon triumphed because he convinced several Southern states to vote Republican. After the Civil War, the Democrats long could count on unwavering support from the South. Indeed, the Southern hatred of "the party of Lincoln" was so strong that there were few Republicans in Dixie.

Nixon's "southern strategy" was a revolution in US politics, because it broke apart the New Deal coalition that Roosevelt had constructed in 1932. Roosevelt had joined together the industrial laborers and immigrants of the North with the rural South. Nixon was able to pry the South loose from the Democrats because culturally conservative Dixie was upset by the Civil Rights movement and the New Left. The new coalition reached the height of its power under Reagan. It was only briefly broken in 1992 and 1996 by Clinton because he and Gore both came from the South. But the Republicans still controlled the Congress.

However, in both 2000 and 2004 George W. Bush's support was weak. Indeed, in 2000 Gore received half a million more votes. The nation was changing demographically, and it has continued to do so. Back in Reagan's time, the Republicans had a good chance at winning in California and New Work. No more. These states are now solidly Democratic. Why? Because the population has changed. The largest minority in the US today are the Hispanics, 40 million strong, and they vote Democratic. Obama won that constituency over McCain by a ratio of more than 2-1. Likewise, the rising tide of Asian-Americans seldom agree with Republican cultural conservatives, though they are more likely to be comfortable with the business wing of the party. Even more decisively, 90% of African-Americans also vote Democratic. As a result, Republicans need to win 60% or more of the white vote to have a chance, but they cannot do that because they have alienated too many white women and educated voters. In this election, they barely managed to win a majority of white voters, and so lost decisively.

These trends can be seen in the South and West, where the Republicans have been dominant since 1968. Large numbers of Hispanics and liberal voters have moved to Colorado and New Mexico, western states that used to be solidly Republican but now lead toward Obama. Likewise, hundreds of thousands of outsiders have moved into the southern states of Florida, North Carolina and Virginia, in all of which Obama also has overwhelming support from Black voters. As a result, Obama won both Florida and Virginia, and as of this writing leads by 0.3% in North Carolina, breaking the 40-year Republican hold on the South. As regional differences decline and as the nation becomes more multicultural, the Republicans risk becoming the party of the old, the white, the poorly educated, and the fundamentalists. This may seem exaggerated, but look at the candidates who ran in the Republican primaries.

McCain has lost the White House and the Republicans have lost 6 or more seats in the Senate and at least 23 seats in the House of Representatives. They are much worse off than when they were a minority party from the 1930s until 1968. Then they were at least a national party. Now they risk becoming a declining regional white party, in a nation that is increasingly multicultural.

The Republicans must reinvent themselves, but this may take a generation. Meanwhile, the rejuvenated Democratic Party can be expected to control the Federal government for at least eight years under Obama, and quite possibly for much longer than that. 2008 looks like a turning point in US politics as important as 1932 or 1968. If the Democrats pass their platform into law, then in a few years the United States will have a national health system, a radically new energy policy, a green environmental policy, and a less confrontational foreign policy. The collapse of the Republican coalition has given Barack Obama a historic opportunity for change.

November 04, 2008

Why McCain Will Lose Today

After the American Century

On election day, Barack Obama appears to have an insurmountable lead, and appears headed for victory regardless of what happens in the few remaining swing states. A dramatic upset is possible, but in that case a large number of polls will prove inaccurate. An electoral map based on New York Times data shows only a handful of undecided states: Florida, North Carolina, Indiana, Ohio, and Missouri. Even if McCain manages to win all of these, itself improbable, he would still lose the election. That is why his campaign has made a hard push in Pennsylvania, because only if it wins its 21 electoral votes can he come within striking distance. Supposing he does win all the swing states and Pennsylvania, however, the result would be Obama 270, McCain 268.

Why has McCain lost? In good part, he lost because Obama waged such a strong, well-financed, and disciplined campaign. Even so, McCain made four fundamental mistakes.

1. McCain failed to distance himself decisively from President Bush. He should have done this early in the process. Instead, he sought Bush's approval, and he even used Bush's speech writer to craft Sarah Palin's convention speech. This fundamental mistake undermined his claims to represent change.

2. By August, McCain had abandoned his open campaign style, which for years made him the darling of the press. Instead, he adopted Karl Rove-style secrecy and negative attacks on his opponent. McCain himself was a victim of such nasty campaign tactics in 2000, when Bush falsely spread the rumor that he had fathered an illegitimate black child - when he and his wife in fact had adopted one from India. The public expected him to rise above negativism, which boomeranged to hurt him more than his opponent.

3. McCain chose the inexperienced Sarah Palin instead of a more credible and more centrist candidate, such as Senator Joe Lieberman, who previously was the Democratic Party VP candidate. Not only is Palin too inexperienced, but with her on the ticket it became ludicrous to attack Obama for being inexperienced. Worse, her appeal to the fundamentalist right-wing of the GOP drove moderates into the arms of the Democrats. Roughly 60% of the electorate has declared that she is not satisfactory. a result that also threw into question McCain's judgement.

4. McCain failed to see the usefulness of Internet campaigning and fund-raising, both of which Obama mastered from the start. Indeed, McCain has no computer skills himself, and does not use email. By 2012 the Republicans will have to learn how to do this. The WEB factor alone accounts for several percentage points of the difference between the two candidates on this election day.

When McCain has time to reflect on the loss, he may well think that he was unlucky. The timing of the economic meltdown could not have been worse for him or better for Obama. Nor was it easy to escape the shadows of Bush's enormous unpopularity. Yet the more successful campaign by Gerald Ford in 1976, in the aftermath of Nixon's Watergate disgrace, suggests that McCain could have done better. If he did not beat himself, these four mistakes made Obama's job far easier.

November 02, 2008

Obama seems certain winner.

After the American Century

After spending a week in the United States, I am convinced that Obama will win the election unless there is fraud on an unheard of scale. Unhappily, this is a possibility, as the many new voting machines may not prove reliable, though I am reasonably hopeful on that score.

The sense I got while visiting for a week was that the American media are doing all they can to make the result look close, but in fact few now really think McCain has a chance. The Republicans are making a big effort to win Pennsylvania, although Obama is ahead there by c. 7%. Supposing McCain is able to win there, however, he has been losing ground in many other places, so that even Georgia is now considered a swing state. Obama has been focusing efforts on securing the West, notably Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada, with so much success that even McCain's home state of Arizona has slipped into the category of a swing state.

Overall, the displeasure with Palin has intensified, while the sense of comfort with Obama has increased. While the final result may hold some surprises, it seems likely that Obama will win a comfortable victory, large enough to be called a mandate for change.

To my Danish readers, I would warn that the quality of the coverage in the Danish media is mediocre or worse, and it is best to watch the BBC or CNN on election night. All sorts of people now claim to be experts on the US who have never lived there or published a single scholarly article. They are dragged out by the networks as experts, and they repeat what they have read somewhere.

It is a circus of incompetence that is painful to watch. In just one day since returning I have seen botched attempts to explain the electoral college, claims that Obama and McCain have the same foreign policy, and errors of fact or emphasis in every program I have seen.

October 23, 2008

Palin' Around with Personal Shoppers

After the American Century

In these hard economic times I am happy to report that Sarah Palin has been doing all she can to support the flagging economy. In New York Ms. Palin and her family have been spending large sums on clothing and other personal items. At Neiman Marcus alone they spent $75,062 (and 63 cents). For most American families that would be plenty. But on the very same day, September 10, they went to Saks Fifth Avenue in New York and spent another $41,850. I find this gargantuan shopping spree as impressive, in its own way, as slaughtering a moose. Of course, they are a large family, with more on the way.

By comparison, Bloomingdale's must have been a mere pit stop, because in there they only spent $5,102.71. I don't know why they bothered to go in, if they couldn't find more than that. But perhaps the Palins were getting weighed down by all those bags and boxes. The last time I spent $75,000 on clothing it really was a hassle to carry all that stuff. I can see why so many working-class Americans identify with Palin, because I am sure that given the chance they would rush out and spend that kind of money, too.

You will be pleased to know that this all-American family had help from personal shoppers. In fact, they probably were not even in all those stores in just one day. I find it hard to believe that they could buy all that stuff in New York, and the very same day spend $4,396.94 at Macy’s in Minneapolis, and again on that very same day, purchase more great stuff down in St. Louis. So, they had some help, which is the way it should be for every all-American family.

All this essential clothing was purchased, for the whole family, by the Republican National Committee. Wasn't that nice of them? They may be the Party against government hand-outs, but obviously they don't carry that philosophy too far.

Some day the Palins will give all these clothes away to charity, because otherwise they would have to include them in their personal income taxes. Just think, some lucky people are going to get the Palin cast-offs. That proves Republicans don't just talk about trickle-down economics. If Palin gets elected, I expect she will help wealthy people to do the same thing. In her case, I think the ideal recipient would be Joe the Plumber. He could sell some of the stuff and go get a plumbing license.

October 21, 2008

McCain's New Myth - Joe the Plumber

After the American Century

In case anyone missed it, John McCain has tried to make Obama look bad by emphasizing the plight of an Ohio plumber "Joe." The gist of the argument, if it can be called that, is that poor Joe (who it turns out has made racist remarks and is not in fact a licensed plumber) would be taxed by the Obama tax plan, which will raise taxes on those who make more than $250,000 a year, (more than 1.3 million Danish Kroner). Paul Krugman, who is this year's Nobel Prize winner in economics, has demolished this silly myth in a column in the New York Times that I highly recommend.

The Republican gambit, as ever, is to claim the GOP represents a silent middle class white majority. But this mythological group is getting smaller and harder to find, not least because of the Bush tax policies that have hammered the middle class. As Krugman points out, the plumbers of Ohio, on average, make less than $50,000 a year. They are not by any stretch of the imagination close to being potential victims of a tax increase. Rather, all of them have been victims of Bush's 2001 tax cuts for the rich, which McCain wants to make permanent. The plumbers of the nation in 2008 have less real income today than they did in 2001, and their dollar is worth less abroad, too. Worst of all, the middle class is now going to pay for the failed deregulation of Wall Street investment banks, which McCain also supported.

McCain is really quite shameless in lying to hard working people and pretending his policies will not continue to push them down. The Republicans engage in class warfare, but pretend to be the friends of labor. Anyone who doubts this can look at the Statistical Abstract of the United States for 2008, which documents the declining wealth of the working class and the middle class, in more detail than McCain has ever mastered. As I noted a few days ago in his space, according to the Statistical Abstract, from 2000 until 2005, the average white family lost $1,300 in annual income, in constant dollars, and it has gotten worse since then. It would be nice to have a Republican candidate, maybe in 2012, who made valid economic arguments rather than just shouting the same misinformation day after day. McCain has repeated this nonsense about Obama raising taxes for months now. Once a man of honor, he now has no shame.

Sarah Palin, Still Hiding from the Press

After the American Century

With just two weeks until election day, Sarah Palin still has not held a press conference, and she has permitted almost no interviews. Joe Biden has been interviewed more than 90 times since becoming the Democratic VP nominee, and he has held countless press conferences in his career as Senator.

The closest thing to an actual vetting by the press was a parody on Saturday Night Live, where Ms Palin appeared briefly. Even there she did not take questions, however. Meanwhile, she runs around the US asking "Who is Obama?" as if anyone knew anything about her, or had even heard of her before late August. In fact, she apparently has not released anything like complete medical records either.

There is no precedent for a candidate remaining so remote from the press. The possible conclusions are:
A) Palin is afraid to meet the press without a script to read.
B) The McCain campaign is afraid that she will reveal egregious deficiencies in her knowledge of national policies and world events.
C) Palin and McCain think that a press conference is really not important.
D) All of the above. (This is likely the correct answer.)

Until she stands up and proves otherwise, it seems thatMs. Palin knows incredibly little . I doubt that she has ever read a complex book in her life, and do not think she could analyze a complex situation. She may smile nicely, but she appears to be a vindictive, self-centered person and an inveterate prevaricator. She also appears contemptuous of those who do not share her limited views. Nuance is not her forte.

Colin Powell was correct when he said that Palin is not ready for high office. By putting her on the ticket, McCain has made it impossible for a thoughtful fellow Republican and friend to vote for him.

But Palin has done one signal service to the world, giving us accurate polling statistics about the size of the brainless vote. It appears that the feeble-minded remain a large constituency, as the re-election of George W. Bush already suggested in 2004. An astonishing 37% of those who watched the debate between Joe Biden and a Barbie Doll spouting memorized text that often had nothing to do with the question asked, thought the Barbie Doll won. More than one third of the American public lacks critical judgement, at least when listening to her. Polling statistics further show that people making between $40,000 and $100,000 narrowly favored Palin over Biden, as did those over 65. This is more than sad. Since McCain at best is now polling about 43%, this strongly hints that his base, the Republican base, the base that supports Creationism and is anti-abortion and pro-gun, live in a world befogged by slogans, and that a mere handful of McCain supporters doubt Sarah Palin's ability. With US voters like these, who needs foreign enemies?

Fortunately, more Americans can see the rearview mirror, though this is not really enough when voting on future leaders. More than 70% of the public understands that George W. Bush has done a poor job. Nevertheless, the inescapable conclusion must be that 37% of those who watched the VP debates showed interest in the political process but lack judgement. Such people presumably do not care whether Palin has held any press conferences or not.

Palin remains the least vetted candidate in American history. Dan Quale conceivably could have lost his title as the least qualified vice president. But it appears that he can hang on to that distinction, though Palin most certainly can be crowned the least qualified VP candidate, ever.

October 19, 2008

Why Is Obama Falling Slightly in Polls?

After the American Century

Just a month ago, on September 19, McCain and Obama were tied in the polls. Then as the economic crisis rolled over America, Obama rose in the polls. He also won all three debates. Nevertheless, after rising to more than a 7 point advantage in an average of the polls, in the last few days he has begun to fall again, and now has an overall advantage of 4.9%, which is is 3.3% lower than it was on October 14. In other words, the average of all the polls shows a clear downward line for the last five days, for reasons that are not readily apparent.

Looking back over the campaign, one can see a yo-yo pattern. McCain led Obama in late March, then lost ground, briefly pulled ahead of Obama in the middle of April, then lost ground again, was tied with him on May 2, then lost ground, pulled within 0.7% of Obama on June 1, and then lost ground. McCain also drew within 1.2% of Obama on August 20 fell behind due to the "convention bounce" for the Democrats, but then had an even bigger favorable bounce himself. Then for ten days, from September 7 to 17, McCain was ahead.

This see-saw ride does not seem to be over. For months, the electorate has leaned toward Obama and then pulled back, over and over again. Just a few days ago it seemed obvious that McCain had all but lost the election, and indeed he took his staff out of both Wisconsin and Maine recently, pulling back to defend his slumping popularity in North Carolina, Florida, and Missouri.

The puzzling pattern of Obama's waxing and waning national popularity may be unimportant, of course. But many volatile voters apparently keep changing their minds. This is especially interesting because of the so-called "Bradley effect," named after a Los Angeles mayor. An African-American, he ran far ahead in the polls, but narrowly lost It seemed that many whites were reluctant to say they would vote against a Black man, but in fact this is what they did in the privacy of the polling booth. That was in 1982. Will Obama also be hurt by the Bradley effect? Or is the US signigicantly less racist now? It does seem that at least in the Democratic primaries last spring the Bradley effect was not much in evidence.

A second possibility is that many Americans are beginning to worry about giving the Democrats too much power. It seems certain they will increase their control of both the House and the Senate. Add a landslide White House victory, and the Democrats could do whatever they wanted. US voters are inveterate ticket-splitters. They seem to like it when the power of the executive from one party is checked by a Congress controlled by the other party. Some swing voters may be swayed by that argument to vote for McCain.

Yet another possibility is that uncertain voters are swinging back and forth between Obama and third party candidates. The more certain Obama's victory (and McCain's defeat) seems, the easier it might be for independent-minded voters to pull the lever for Nader or Barr. Curiously, this is good news for the Democrats. The polls strongly suggest that Nader and Barr are taking more votes away from McCain than from Obama. When all four candidates are included in polls, McCain's total falls 3.4%, while Obama loses only 1%. In short, voter volatility may not express dissatisfaction with Obama, but unstable support for McCain.

In fifteen days we will know whether Obama has achieved the landslide some are now beginning to predict, or whether his decline in the polls the last five days is just a blip on the screen or part of a tightening of the race down to the wire.

October 17, 2008

Obama and the Bush Economic Legacy

After the American Century

The final debate is over, and again the American public has said in polls that Obama won. He has defeated McCain now three times, by a wider margin each time. Joe Biden also defeated Sarah Palin. If this were the World Series, then at 4 - 0 it would be all over. But there are 18 days or so left, when conceivably the Republicans can pull some improbable rabbit out of their economy-battered hat. I doubt it, however.

One thing that has become quite clear in these encounters is that Obama is not easily ruffled. Throughout the campaign, whenever McCain let off a nasty remark or a made an attack, Obama remained cool, even-tempered, often smiling. Voters clearly prefer a man who remains dignified to one who is irate, one who has specific proposals to one who mostly repeats the same generalizations over and over. (See, for example, McCain's utterly vague remarks on Social Security in the second debate.)

It also seems likely that McCain's endless claim that Obama was going to raise taxes simply did not convince anyone, even "Joe the Plumber" in Ohio, who, it now turns out, is not a plumber after all. What I do not really understand is why the Democrats have not said more often that all they want to do is go back to the tax system that worked so well in the Clinton years. No need for fancy explanations, just say the truth, that Bush lowered taxes on the rich, creating a deficit for all Americans to pay off.

While Obama seems likely to win the election on the economy, however, the financial mess he inherits is daunting. I checked the statistics today, and it is absolutely true that the average American, white or Black or Hispanic, lost real income during the Bush years, even before the current financial collapse. According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States, from 2000 until 2005, the average white family lost $1,300 in annual income, in constant dollars. It was worse for African-American families, who averaged a $2,700 loss, and they were starting from a lower income to begin with. For Hispanic Americans the loss was "only" $1000. They did a bit better, on paper, but bear in mind that the undocumented immigrants, of which there are an estimated 10 million now, are largely Hispanic, and they get the lowest wages.

These losses continued in 2006, 2007, and the present year, so that the average American quite literally has been worse off because of George W. Bush's tax policies combined with no real support for unions or for a higher minimum wage. Indeed, as many commentators have pointed out, the Bush Administration oversaw the redistribution of wealth to those who least needed it. The poorest 40% of the American population, who are largely working poor and lower middle class, collectively got more than 13% of all income in 2001 when Bush took office. By 2005, however, this hard-working group, whose health care expenses shot up far faster than inflation, were collectively much worse off, with only 12% of the total income. While they were falling, the next 40% was holding even, i.e. keeping the same share as before. The only group that was getting higher incomes after Bush were the top 20% of wage-earning Americans. This is nothing short of a disgrace, when the economy as a whole was doing well (until two months ago). But it may be hard to redress this economic injustice when the economy is in recession.

Should John McCain somehow win, of course, the unfairness will worsen, and class discrimination continue. It was quite ridiculous to hear McCain call Obama's tax plans a form of class warfare. The unfairness began in 2001, and the Republicans knew exactly what they were doing. If they were honest, they would admit that their fantasies of a deregulated economy lifting all boats led to a tsunami of bad debt.

October 11, 2008

McCain Offense Offensive

After the American Century

In the last two weeks the McCain campaign has become ever more offensive, in both meanings of the term. They are verbally on the offensive because they are losing in the polls, and instead of talking about the issues, they are demeaning themselves by stooping to the lowest form of gutter politics. Hardly a day goes by without McCain or one of his surrogates insinuating or even directly stating that Barack Obama is consorting with terrorists or is a covert terrorist or has a suspicious sounding name, and so forth.

The only shred of evidence they have is that, what a surprise, Obama in the course of serving on many committees and organizations, has just once been on a board with someone that was a student radical in the 1960s. Lest we forget, Obama himself was a child in the 1960s, and had nothing to do with the movements of those years. It is true for any politician that he meets thousands of people, and can always been accused of sharing the views of those whom he has been seen with or shaking hands with.

But to call Obama a terrorist because he was in the same room with a college professor with a radical past is no more credible than claiming that McCain is a communist because he spent time in a communist prison camp and was brain-washed there. You do not see the Obama camp making that sort of claim. Nor have the Democrats raked through the thousands of contacts McCain has had over the years to find "proof" that because he was in the same room with someone he therefore shares their political views.

This sort of guilt-by-association can only remind Americans of the excesses of Joe McCarthy. It is intended to distract attention from the faltering McCain campaign, but it undermines the "straight-talk express." The worst excesses are now at the Palin rallies where she has been whipping crowds into a frenzy of anger and hate. Meanwhile, she refuses to testify in the investigation into her apparent abuse of power as governor. Both in her rhetoric and in her behavior, she demeans the GOP, which may need eight years to recover from such tactics.

The Republicans seem almost certain to lose this election, but they could do so with dignity and honor in tact, ready to fight another day. However, it appears that McCain has decided he would rather befoul his formerly good name in a desperate attempt to smear his opponent, rather than appeal to the electorate on the basis of policies and principles.His stump speeches reportedly are now perfunctory and brief on the issues, before turning to a villification of his opponent. The campaign might have been a dignified discussion of the issues. Instead, the Republicans are taking the low road.

October 05, 2008

Obama would win if the election were tomorrow. But it isn't.

After the American Century

With less than 30 days remaining in the presidential race, McCain seems to be falling behind. A series of recent polls has revealed that states once considered toss-ups like Michigan and Pennsylvania, now are clearly in the Obama column. Indeed, the McCain campaign has pulled its operation out of Michigan, probably because the money and the personnel are needed in Florida, where Obama has a slight lead (4%), or perhaps in North Carolina, where McCain also has fallen slightly behind according to some polls. The trend all across the country seems much the same, with swing states leaning toward Obama, including Nevada, Colorado (just barely), and Virginia. These states went to Bush in 2000 and 2004. McCain retains the lead in two swing states, Missouri and Indiana, in each case just 2% - within the margin of polling error.

The New York Times now estimates that Obama has 260 electoral votes secured, compared to only 200 for McCain, with 78 votes still up for grabs. That means Obama would only need to nail down 10 more votes to become president. However, the Times takes a smaller number of polls into consideration and is a bit cautious. In contrast, Real Clear Politics estimates that if the election were tomorrow, Obama would win easily, with 353 electoral votes, compared to only 185 for McCain. The national polls now uniformly put Obama ahead, Rasmussen Reports has a daily tracking poll, which for the last ten days has shown McCain trailing by 6 or 7% every day.

The focus of attention has narrowed to seven states, which between them have 89 electoral votes. These are Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Nevada, Missouri, Ohio, and Virginia. Put another way, for McCain, four states that looked possible for him two weeks ago are now off the table: New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Michigan. Together they have 52 electoral votes.

Is it suddenly all over? The Vice-Presidential debate was so recent that it has not yet registered in polls, but it should only reinforce these trends. Initial polls suggested that Biden won it by a wide margin, especially among independent voters. If the trend is clear, however, the battle continues. Recall that McCain pulled ahead twice, briefly in August and then again in early September. Then the shocking collapse of the Wall Street investment banks clearly favored Obama.

In a campaign year of so many twists and turns, it seems unlikely that the Democrats will have clear sailing now. Look for an October surprise, perhaps from the Karl Rove trainees who manage the McCain attack advertisements.

October 03, 2008

Palinitudes, Palinites, Playing the Palin Card

After the American Century

Sarah Palin and Joe Biden have now debated. Based on the substance of the debate, no one could doubt that Palin lost. She continually retreated into a memorized script or gave short vague answers. She endlessly mouthed platitudes about growing the economy and seemed to have only a vague idea about what the problem is at the moment on Wall Street and in the banking system. Take away the folksy rhetoric and the smiles, and there was almost nothing there.

Joe Biden was a huge contrast. He had command of the facts on any issue that came up, and his vast experience repeatedly showed in his answers. He also has the gravitas that Palin forever will lack. Yet, it is entirely possible that after Sarah Palin fades into the obscurity she so richly deserves, the name Palin may remain behind to enrich our political vocabulary. Here are some of the useful possibilities.

Palinesque, loud, brassy and self-assured but without substance.

Palingo, using a grammar so fractured that all meaning disappears, although appropriate buzz words are prominent. Especially useful in debates.

Palinitude, a statement that appears obviously true to fundamentalist Republicans and obviously false to everyone else.

Palinites, white mothers with little education but passionate self-assurance, who embrace moralistic rhetoric, fundamentalist religion, creationism, and blind patriotism.

Palinicity, a word like ethnicity, to refer to this group. Future commentators might say that a certain candidate's palinicity had yet to be tested in the rural slums of the Bible Belt.

Palinize, 1. verb, to put lipstick on an animal, 2. verb, to attempt to distract attention from a bad idea. You can palinize a pig, but it's still a pig.

Palinoscopy an investigative probe to nowhere.

Playing the Palin Card, nominating such a women for an important position, in hopes that the Palinites will vote for the ticket.

The problem with Playing the Palin Card, however, as John McCain has begun to notice, is that while Palinites cheer wildly whenever they hear a Palinitude the same statements simultaneously alienate the rest of the electorate. Furthermore, McCain has begun to appear palinesque because he chose her in the first place.

I interviewed an Alaskan moose recently who told me that palinites are never environmentalists. They hunt from helicopters, take no prisoners, and eat their enemies. Hence the term palinity, which means "genial ferocity." (Do not confuse palinity with palinicity, defined above.)

The last month of the campaign is likely to be increasingly palinesque as McCain palinizes his proposals and spouts palinitudes. The whole painful process might be called palinization.
Should McCain and Palin lose the election, there may follow that investigation into her possible abuse of power in the Alaska trooper-gate investigation. Call it palingate if you must, but it might prove a palinoscopy.

September 30, 2008

The Language of McCain's "Foreign Policy"

After the American Century

The recent debate between Senators McCain and Obama has been discussed widely in the media, and the consensus seems to be that while there was no clear winner, Obama strengthened his position. A Rasmussen Poll found that on all the main issues Obama improved against McCain.

The debate was supposedly about foreign policy, yet most of the world was entirely ignored. McCain did not say anything about the two most populous nations on earth, China and India, both of which have economies that have been growing far more rapidly than the US. Japan was also completely left out of the debate, as were all the nations of Latin America and Africa. Europe received cursory mention twice, but no nation there was actually discussed.

Instead, McCain focused on a few countries. McCain mentioned Iraq the most (18 times), but also was worried about Russia (17), Iran and Afghanistan (12 each), Georgia (9), Pakistan (7), Israel (6), and North Korea (5). The debate thus was not really about foreign policy at all, but about military policy. This is to a considerable degree the fault of those who made up the questions, but it shows how American political debate has been militarized. To hear it, one would think there are no problems between the US and most of the world, and that only 7 nations in the greater Middle East posed difficulties.

Since the debate was so narrowly focused, I learned nothing new about either candidate's views. But I did begin to notice that McCain's language was extremely bellicose. If one ignores the sentences and looks only at the words employed, he appears to be a man obsessed with combat. He frequently was thinking about strategy (mentioned no less than 17 times), and was deeply concerned about failure (12 times) and defeat (11). When giving particulars in his answers he often spoke of troops (11) and the military (6). He appears to think about the world in terms of confrontations, as he frequently spoke of fighting (10) and security (6). He seems deeply concerned about honor (6) and he wishes to appear proud (4) and tough (4). His world is dominated by a sense of danger (4) and crisis (5), as exemplified by 9/11 (5), which makes defense (8) his central concern. He is ready to kill (4) if necessary.

McCain thinks only occasionally and in the short term about success (4) and peace (5), because he lives in a world of threats (8), aggression (4), violence (2), and genocide (2), where war (8) is often unavoidable and which it is essential to win (7). In this mental universe love (1) scarcely matters, and it is seldom useful to negotiate (1). It is a world without hope (0), with no reference to the future (0) and no interest in global warming (0) or ecology (0).

McCain's choice of words reflects a martial outlook and indicates his lack of interest in the arts of peace or the friendly relations that might be created through trade (0), cultural exchange (0), or international educational agreements like the Fulbright Program (0). McCain's choice of words strongly suggests a mind ill-equipped to deal with subtlety or shades of gray. Couple that mind with an impatient temper and the result might be a man better suited to taking military orders than to wrestling with hard policy choices. Unfortunately, this world view is yoked to a personality that is impatient with authority and that delights in being unpredictable.

All this is highly speculative, based on the words he chose to use during one debate. Yet are not these words a key to understanding his mental makeup?

September 29, 2008

Republicans Divided Against Themselves

After the American Century

It was the great Republican President Abraham Lincoln who famously declared that a house divided against itself could not stand. On September 29, 2008 the House of Representatives showed that it was so divided that it could not come together to back a bailout plan to save the banking system. One hopes that some new compromise will emerge, but the House has already negotiated for days with the spotlight of the world press upon it. During these negotiations banks were failing all over the world. Both candidates for the presidency as well as the incumbent agreed that the bill ought to be passed, and still a majority of the House did not vote for it. The defeat demonstrates a comprehensive collapse of leadership.

Speaker Pelosi could not get her Democrats to vote for it in sufficient numbers, though a considerable majority did favor it. George Bush, as a lame duck president in the final days of his failed presidency, could not muster the needed support. Nor could John McCain. A shocking two-thirds of the Republican minority failed to vote for it. The 122 Republican votes against the President's bailout package is the core of the problem. The Republicans bear a special responsibility for the mess the banks are in, because they insisted on deregulating the banking system a decade ago, just as they also insisted on deregulating the energy business a few years earlier.

The Bush II era began with massive fraud and corporate failure, most famously the Enron debacle. The public has not entirely forgotten. Now the Bush II era is ending with massive bank failures. These are two examples of deregulation to the point of lax oversight and sloppy governance. Yet in the midst of a collapsing economy, the Republicans have learned nothing, it seems, and cry "socialism" when their own president tries to stop the financial bloodbath before it is too late. It seems the misguided Republican members of the House cannot give up their true religion, which is deregulation.

Understandably, the Democrats are not willing to bail out Bush, and then take the blame for the massive cost. They rightly want this to be a bi-partisan effort. More than 60% of them did vote for it, even so. The Republicans are now damned if they do and damned if they don't. If they continue to play hardball and refuse to vote for a compromise bill, then they will be blamed for all the evil that follows. And if they grudgingly give in during the next few days, the voters will not forget that they put ideology before necessity, and played politics with their future.

As for John McCain, these events have shown he cannot lead the Republicans. It was his chance to rally them into unity, and show he deserves to be president. But he did not unite them. He failed miserably, and not even one representative from his home state of Arizona voted for the bill. The Republicans are divided against themselves. Such a party cannot lead the country, much less anyone else. It cannot even follow. If Lincoln is out there in the great beyond, he must be deeply disturbed to see his party so split and so lacking in leadership.

The world was expecting to see a rabbit come out of the financial hat. Instead, it got instability, uncertainty, incredulity, and knee jerk ideology. Surely some will take what is left of their investments elsewhere, if they can find safer havens less devastated by these developments. This past week has been a sad spectacle fraught with danger. Quite possibly the worst is yet to come - depending on whether this crisis can be resolved. But a recovery bill delayed may turn into a recovery denied.

September 28, 2008

American Studies Research Engine

After the American Century

A new search engine is now available for all those interested in the culture, politics, history, and literature of the United States. It is the

Call it ASRE for short.

You can try it this handy tool immediately, as it is on the top right hand side of this page. Access more than 150 gateway sites that lead to approximately 25,000 web pages. These deal with all aspects of the United States, including collections in the Library of Congress, National Archives, Harvard University Library, Chicago Public Library, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and a great many specialized collections. There must be topics which it does not (yet) cover, but I have not been able to discover them.

This handy gadget is almost entirely free of commercial web sites, and it focuses largely on full texts. So, if you want to read a particular short story by Edgar Allen Poe or see original documents related to the building of Hoover Dam, for example, they are immediately available.

What has been left out of ASRE? All sites that want to sell you something. All sites that deal with other countries, other literatures, and most other subjects. Instead of getting 20,000 or 2 million sites to look over, which is impossible, ASRE provides a high-quality, selected list.

Using ASRE does not replace going into the library, and it does not replace using library data bases that are restricted to regular users, such as J-STOR, MUSE, and most newspaper indexes. In other words, ASRE is designed to cast a wide net that catches only good quality materials that can supplement what is available in library datebases. In many cases, such as finding materials for teaching or writing a short paper, it will be all you require.

I hope that this will be a useful tool for teachers and students and general readers. If anyone has suggestions for sites to include, please write to me at

September 21, 2008

Next President Weakened by Financial Crisis

After the American Century

The world stock markets have been in turmoil, falling drastically and bouncing back on the news that the US Federal Government will take over huge amounts of bad debt built up by irresponsible banks. Many of them, we now know, were lending out immensely more money than they had themselves, and often lending it to people who could not afford to meet the mortgage payments. Woody Guthrie once said that some men rob you with a six-gun, others with a fountain pen. The investment banks have robbed millions of Americans, not once but twice. First, by getting them into mortgages they could not afford, and second by dumping their mistakes on the taxpayer's doorstep. Elsewhere around the world, people and institutions who bought some of this debt were "only" robbed once.

Just how much this will cost taxpayers is unclear, but early estimates suggest $1 trillion. The US does not have a surplus in its coffers, nor does it currently have a tax system that can cover this sudden additional debt. Both McCain and Obama have been talking about reducing taxes on the middle class, but after this week that may not be realistic.

Foreign investment in US government debt has been keeping the country functioning. In July of 2008 Japan and China each owned more than $500 billion in US Treasury bonds, bills, or notes. Investors from oil exporting nations have bought $174 billion. (Click here for a full list.) Why should Chinese, Japanese, and Saudi investors still buy American debt? Why not buy European government debt which has a higher interest rate? Indeed, will there be enough buyers for $1 trillion in new US treasury bills and bonds? Keep in mind that because the dollar has weakened considerably during the Bush years, such investments may not be profitable.

I hope that I am wrong, but in twenty years historians may see that the autumn of 2008 was the moment when the US lost its leadership of the world economy, and argue that it was the time when the hegemony of the American century ended. Of course, it seems that the US government has just stepped in and saved the world's economy, after its reckless bankers almost ruined it. But the nation cannot emerge stronger than its rivals from this crisis. China, Japan, India, Brazil, and the EU likely will gain on the US. Their economies have not suddenly been burdened with $1 trillion extra debt on top of an equally large debt created by the Iraq War. (For more on this, see Niall Ferguson's thoughtful op ed piece in the Washington Post.)

Even before this crisis the US budget was severely out of balance. The sudden increase in debt means that the future president will have less scope in foreign policy. It will be - even more decisively than before - a debtor nation, one which cannot afford to offend its creditors. And should the next president want to start a new war or underwrite a new peace, how is he going to pay for it?

The added $1 trillion debt will also make it harder for the next president to fund social programs, such as extending medical coverage to all Americans. All of a sudden, there is a whole lot less money to work with. Borrow $1 trillion at, say, 4%, and just servicing that debt will cost $40 billion a year. That money will not be available for schools, research, creating a new energy economy, or roads and bridges.

The next president will struggle to move forward dragging a $1 trillion ball and chain. The investment banks have not only robbed the public twice; they have weakened the next president and diminished the US standing in the world.

September 17, 2008

McCain's Hypocritical Attacks on Wall Street

After the American Century

The Republicans have shown themselves to be reckless and irresponsible stewards of the economy, not just this time but in the 1980s as well. In each case, they overspent and undertaxed, weakening the economy and driving up the national debt. In each case, major banking scandals arose at the end of their eight years in office. Back in the first Bush presidency, it was the Savings and Loan Scandal, as more than 700 savings and loan banks went bankrupt. They had been deregulated - does this sound familiar? - by the Republican Administration. Capitalism freed of interference from Washington would flourish. Instead, a wave of mismanagement and corruption followed, and none was more flagrant that a certain Charles Keating. A Californian investor, he cultivated relations with five members of the US Senate. One of them was John McCain.

That deregulation debacle required a Federal bailout for the banks that cost the American taxpayer more than $120 billion. Senator McCain was involved, though he escaped indictment. For some reason, he does not talk much about this episode in his career. McCain was one of "The Keating Five," who were accused of improperly using their office to advance the interests of Keating's bank. In 1991 he was investigated by his colleagues in the US Senate. Though he was not found guilty of specific crimes, the Senate Ethics Commitee determined that McCain had shown "poor judgement" by being involved. Keating was found guilty of illegal activities and went to prison for five years.

A quarter century ago McCain had an up-close-and-personal look at the damange that deregulation can cause in the banking industry. But he apparently learned nothing from it, and today he advocates the same policies he did in 1990, the year before he was investigated. Keeping this episode in mind, what does he mean when he says, as he repeated in the midst of the current crisis, that the American economy is fundamentally sound? Is he naive? An apologist for the many bankers who have contributed to his campaign? Or possibly a fool when it comes to economics? You don't need to know economics to graduate from a military academy. And he was unable to manage the economics of his bid for presidency the first time around.

On the positive side, McCain has not flip-flopped on this issue, as he has on so many others. On banking regulation, he has held the wrong position consistently. And he has been quite willing to put the taxpayers' money to work bailing out the "free market" banks when they mismanaged themselves into insolvency. McCain is hypocritical when he attacks Wall Street. He has been in bed with the bankers during his whole Senate career. He takes their contributions and when they get in trouble, he bails them out. He is a hypocritical populist as well, because the Republicans ultimately bail out the banks, not the little guy facing foreclosure.

This should not surprise anyone. Bush II gave the largest tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. McCain criticized that policy in 2001, but then flip-flopped. Today he endorses the Bush tax code and wants to perpetuate it. If only it had been the other way around. If only he had flip-flopped on bank deregulation and maintained his 2001 position on taxes. Then McCain would have the same ideas about the economy as Obama.

The Republican Economy Needs a Federal Referee

After the American Century

Some months ago I criticized the Bush Administration's decision to give money to taxpayers across the board, rather than focus it where the real need was, in the mortgage market. It was clear to me, but apparently not clear to Republicans, that home forecloseurs threatened the whole economy. In the last week this truth has been demonstrated with frightening clarity. Two of the oldest and largest and once most respected investment houses in the United States have disappeared. Lehman Brothers has gone bankrupt and Merrill Lynch has been purchased by Bank of America. Both got into trouble because the Republicans refused to regulate investment bankers, which meant that a large part of the economy escaped scrutiny from the Federal Government. This created an uneven playing field, where regular banks played by different rules than investment houses that went into banking. A great many irresponsible mortgages were approved. A housing bubble emerged and expanded - and then popped during Bush II's second term.

Bear Stearns was the first big investment bank to collapse, and the Feds brokered a deal to sell it off for a fraction of what had been its value. Quite properly, the regulators did not bail it out. But the underlying problem of unregulated investment banks making risky loans did not go away. In fact, so many people had been encouraged to buy property that they could not afford,that the Feds soon had to rescue Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac, as the two giant mortgage companies were known. These had functioned without serious problems for generations before the Republican true believers in unfettered capitalism let the investment banks run wild. Like athletes on steroids, they bloated up rapidly and looked powerful, but a mere slowdown in the economy, not even a major recession, put them in trouble. The home owners who went into foreclosure ended up dragging down to ruin some of the (once) most respected banking houses in the world. The end is not yet in sight.

Last night the Federal regulators reluctantly came to the rescue of the American International Group, the largest insurance company in the US. A "loan" of$85 billion dollars. I call that welfare for the capitalists. If the Bush Administration followed the logic of deregulation, then it ought to let any such mismanaged company go into bankruptcy, as Lehman Brothers did. But no one dared. The economic truth is that the markets for insurance and investments and real estate are now tied together in so many intricate ways that a gigantic failure like that would start an avalanche that no later intervention could stop. It would be 1929 once again.

For the mismanaged Bush economy is by no means out of the mess that the Republicans have created, both as lawmakers against investment bank regulation and as the the party of Wall Street. If McCain were elected, one can expect more of the same mismanagement. He has never been a supporter of regulation, but rather when things go wrong he has intoned against "greed on Wall Street." Such moralism appeals to non-investors on small incomes, but it is hypocritical for McCain to pretend that the whole problem is due to a few greedy people. McCain and the Republicans generally, do not want to recognize the need for government. On the highway we need police to regulate traffic, so that reckless drivers do not cause major accidents. In the same way, Wall Street banks need some limits (try collateral) and safety controls (such as larger minimum cash reserves) so that foolish loans do not wreck the financial system. Instead, they are rushing in after the fact with an $85 billion bailout, guaranteed by the taxpayers.

McCain naively believes in "market discipline." That is like saying he expects football players not to be rough if there are no referees. Actually, McCain seems to believe in a system in which potential referees can accept payments from players. The New York Times reports that the McCain campaign has received large contributions from investment bankers, including more than $300,000 from individuals working for Merrill Lynch. His contributors are the very people he now condemns for being greedy capitalists.

Senator Obama, in contrast, back in March was calling for investment bank regulation. He has consistently done so. In the current economic meltdown, it is well to remember how well the economy was doing from 1992-200o, when the Democrats were in charge. More than one million new jobs were created each year during the Clinton Administration, and the budget was in surplus, with the national debt rapidly disappearing. In the Clinton economy almost everyone was better off. Obama is calling for a return to that tax system, which did ask wealthy people to pay more, but they ultimately also benefited from growth and a strong economy.

George W. Bush dismantled that system, which was working so well. Americans now have an economy where everyone is losing. Homes are losing value, stocks are falling, and jobs are disappearing. Bush will be remembered as a president who failed both domestically and in foreign affairs. McCain, who voted with Bush II 90% of the time, offers more of the same.

September 14, 2008

Sarah Palin Failed Her Oral Exam

After the American Century

Two weeks after she was unveiled as the VP nominee, Sarah Palin has done nothing to dispell fears that she knows little if anything about foreign affairs. She performed poorly in the only interview she has given the press, even though that interview was restricted to one journalist from ABC News, and even though the interview only dealt with the single topic of foreign affairs.

Palin had days to prepare herself for this interview, and she had access to experts to help her, including Joe Lieberman, who spent time with her. Either he was a poor teacher, or more likely, she was a poor student. For she showed herself completely unable to explain the Bush Doctrine or to say anything coherent about Russia and the crisis in Georgia. She was hardly being asked arcane questions. These are matters that any regular reader of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, or Washington Post should be able to talk about.

Palin had less knowledge about US foreign policy than my graduate students. They are Danish and speaking a second (or third) language. Palin only got a passport last year, has never lived or worked abroad, never met a head of state, never learned a foreign language, never been involved in anything international, and never said anything thoughtful or clever about foreign affairs. Had Palin been taking an oral exam for a course on American foreign policy, I would have failed her, and so would any other professor. She kept talking off the point. She did not know about major recent events, She obviously had not done any reading, and she was unable to offer any larger perspective on the issues raised. Like the ABC interviewer, I might have ended up going easy on her, not asking any really hard questions, so as not to destroy her self-confidence too much.

What can we conclude from the Palin interview?

(1) Palin does not know anything about recent developments in foreign affairs. She apparently thinks that we invaded Iraq to get the terrorists responsible 9/11. This preposterous lie was repeatedly told by the first Bush Administration, but has been discredited, along with the non-existent weapons of mass destruction. But it does seem quite possible that Sarah Palin herself could become a weapon of mass destruction, should she get her hands on the nuclear button. As she put it, "I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can't blink, you have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we're on, reform of this country and victory in the war, you can't blink."

(2) Palin does not regularly read the newspaper stories about foreign affairs, she has almost certainly never read a book about any aspect of it, because she could not even recover her gaffe - not knowing the Bush Doctrine - by at least discussing the history or background of such a policy. She simply has no clue. This makes her quite dangerous as a national leader. Add to this that neither she nor McCain ever studied law, so they are ill-equipped to think about treaties, if they ever wanted to negotiate one rather than to intervene or fight.

(3) Palin apparently does not exactly know that she is unprepared. She appears to think that the rest of the world is not that difficult to grasp, and whatever knowledge necessary can be picked up on the run. The main thing, apparently, is, as she kept repeating, one must not blink. One must be tough. We have now had eight years of mostly mindless toughness. It is a failed approach - let us not pretend it amounts to a policy or a philosophy. Palin is so ignorant that it is only vaguely beginning to dawn on her that she knows nothing, and the immediate reaction seems to be to blame the media. How dare they attack her? How dare they embarras her? How dare they think that what they know is so important? And so forth.

(4) The McCain team have had good reason to keep Palin away from the press. She has also refused to answer any questions from the public off-the-cuff. Unfortunately for McCain, this is a long ways from the "straight talk express."

The Republicans have found, in Sarah Palin. the potentially most deadly form of mass destruction yet seen. In the last seven years they may not have found whoever sent that anthrax powder through the mails. In the last seven years they may not have caught Osama bin Laden. They may not have found any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They may have run up the deficit and the balance of payments to their highest levels in history, destroyed the housing market and quite a number of banks. But surely the American public will not let a few mistakes like that undermine support for the Republican Party?

We must give John McCain and his fervent Republican supporters full credit for finding someone, right in the United States, who has the potential to unleash destruction on an unheard of scale. Her ignorance and self- assurance are perfectly combined. I feel confident that Sarah Palin is prepared not to blink if given the opportunity. I feel certain that, like George Bush, she will start a new war or use any means necessary to defend the world as she sees it. Having no law degree and filled with a sense of righteousness, she is not merely unqualified to be vice president; she is spectacularly dangerous, a real bombshell.