Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Romney's International Gaffe Tour

It's a new convention to have a (presumptive) presidential nominee do a world tour, and one that might go out the window after Gov. Mitt Romney's gaffe ridden trip. The timing couldn't have been better. After enduring weeks of attacks from the left about his scant disclosure of tax filings and about this actual level of involvement with Bain Capital as the firm outsourced jobs, including a much lampooned retroactive retirement, the world was going to give reporters two big distractions. First, Romney was taking a road trip airplane ride to the United Kingdom, Israel, and Poland. Second, the Olympics were getting underway.  Clear sailing until after the closing ceremonies, right? Keep your head down, look presidential, smile, and just wait until August where you can steal the news cycle with the announcement of the winner of the veepstakes. If only.

The Romney camp made no friends in the UK or back at home as the candidate himself questioned both the country's preparedness and commitment to the Olympics and while a campaign spokesman said Romney understood the special relationship because of a shared Anglo-Saxon heritage. The Olympics comment became the story in the lead up to the opening ceremony, which even led British Prime Minister Cameron to make a rather backhanded comment about Salt Lake City and Utah. The Anglo-Saxon comment has been contested by Romney's campaign and I don't believe there was any intended racism in it, but boy it sounds pretty racist on it's face. Honestly, I think Cameron is in the bag for Obama. They may not agree on policy approaches, but I think they're too guys who like each other. Did you seem how loose they looked taking in a basketball game together?

Next stop, Israel. Romney did receive a warm welcome in Israel and clearly his relationship with Bibi is far stronger than Obama's consider the widespread speculation that the two men just don't get on. But Romney couldn't help himself, making a ham-handed comment that the reason the Palestinian territory is experiencing slower economic growth is because of cultural differences between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Now, I don't think Gov. Romney is too concerned about rankling the feathers of the Palestinian Authority, but it's the sort of comment that could come back to haunt a President Romney hoping to move the needle in peace talks.

Final stop, Poland.  Poland always seemed like a bit of an odd duck. Clearly the U.S. has a special relationship with the UK and Israel and we sure do like Poland a lot, but the depth of the bond isn't as strong.  So this was the gimme. No topics to trying, again, just go, smile, shake hands, take in the culture, and get out. Just don't talk...wait...what's that?  A Romney spokesman wants to say something to the press pool: "Kiss my a**. This is a Holy site." Yuh-ikes. And with that Romney was hurried away in a car and likely not going to be available to the media for a week or so.

With that, Romney's international trip is coming to an end, and the question that arises is simply. Does this impact Romney's chances back home?  It's tough to say at this point. I tend to think it could hurt Romney with independents for two reasons.  Number one, Obama's foreign policy has been rather strong and he can get up to the podium at the debates and with every foreign policy question just say, "I ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden."

Moderator: "Mr. President, China has been accused of currency manipulation. What if any recourse does the U.S. have to end this market distortion?"

President: "I ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden."

Moderator: "Mr. President, our ally, Israel, believes Iran will soon have a nuclear capability. What action are you prepared to take to prevent a nuclear Iran?"

President: "I ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden."

Moderator: "yes sir, but what else?"

President: " I would order his killing again if he were alive today. But he's not, because I ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden."

I call this the Rudy Giuliani approach to foreign policy debates. After that extended distraction, reason number two, these international trips are about looking presidential.  When you offend your first host, are passively racist against anyone not anglo-saxon and against Palestinians, and then your spokesman curses at the press pool. Well none of that looks very presidential.

Without a doubt this election is primarily about domestic issues, but people still want a president who acts presidential abroad and that moderator's quiver just got loaded up with foreign policy statements that need some explaining by candidate Romney during the debate. Time will tell how much this will really impact things, but I would imagine many in the Romney camp are now thinking to themselves they should have just stayed home.

UPDATED 2:58pm: Unsurprisingly, the Obama campaign doesn't believe Romney's international trip passes the "commander-in-chief test." This is entirely the sort of thing that hurts Romney with independents and once again he's on the defensive.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Problem with Pronouns or You Didn't Build What?

As the "you didn't build that" debate continues, Romney and his supporters are staging a number of rallies titled "We Did Build This."  Admittedly, I am not the resident grammarian on this blog, but as a continuation of my post yesterday regarding my complete confusion that it's not okay to say the government built the internet when it did, I want to talk about pronouns.

Namely the pronouns "that" and "this."  So we'll start with the President.  The quote that's been bandied about is as follows: "If you got a business, you didn't build that."  Pitchforks and socialist recriminations have ensued, but what's plain to see if you read the fuller quote is that the quote above is taken out of context.  Here's the full quote:
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.
In other words, the President wasn't saying that the "that" is "a business," but rather that the "that" are "roads and bridges." Quite an inopportune moment for a great orator to have pronoun confusion, but I think we can all agree that business owner A didn't build road B or bridge C. That's the work of a government based on priorities vetted by a community or its elected representatives.  But that's not how the quote is being received by people or how the Romney campaign is talking about it.

No, the Romney campaign is twisting it around to imply that the "that" meant "a business" and we're hearing that message back from Romney backers.  Take this quote from Melissa Ball, a business owner at a "We Did Build This" rally in Richmond, VA, “President Obama is wrong. Americans do build their own business and we need a president who believes that as well.” Oh pronouns! Why do you spite us so? Clearly the name of the rally is meant to imply, incorrectly that the "that" Obama spoke of was "a business" because the rally's "this" is clearly intended to mean "business."

And so now we're down the rabbit hole and the light is fading.  President Obama never said people don't build their own businesses, just that they don't build the roads or bridges that grease the gears of our economic machine. It's disappointing to see Romney's campaign embrace the wrong contextual appearance of the president's comments, but it is campaign season and recriminations abound on both sides.  So I guess I'll just have to me mad a pronouns that betray the American people. I hate them...Wait, maybe I said that wrong.

UPDATED: Damn you Jon Stewart! The Daily Show talks pronouns and context. This is what I get for going to bed early!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Government Created the Internet, And That's Okay

In the continued wake of President Obama's ill-phrased, but largely correct assertion that "you didn't build that" referring to society and the government's hand in the success of businesses comes an article from Gordon Crovitz in the Wall Street Journal completely rewriting the history of the genesis of the internet. Over at Slate, Farhad Manjoo does the requite takedown of Crovitz's falsehoods, but I'm struck by two things.

One, only now could the idea that ARPA created the internet be contentious. There's a strong Jacobin current among the right-wing of the U.S. body politik that can not fathom the government doing anything positive or having any positive hand in business.  They get apoplectic when you suggest that maybe the internet or the roads, created by or built by the government have a positive impact on business and that we should perhaps acknowledge what was previously an innocuous fact. 

Two, why is there a sizable minority of people in this country who can't seem to reconcile that A) the government created this great commercial platform and B) the private sector, disinterested in the basic science that was necessary to create, was able to make the internet a great commercial platform? I give all credit to Jim Bezos, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and all those other great American entrepreneurs that took the risk, but they were only able to do so by standing of the shoulders of the U.S. government.

This isn't an unequivocal endorsement of centrally planned industrial policy or limitless government funding for basic science. For sure government has failed, as have many entrepreneurs, but can't we all agree that sometimes in this modern commercial ecosystem that government, universities, and private industries are all responsible for many of the great technological advances that allow some random guy like myself to post random thoughts on a blog that's available around the world?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Casualties and Use of Force Decisions

Mark Penn's polling firm is out with a public opinion survey of Americans regarding genocide. You can review the complete results here (free SlideShare account required). The survey includes a question about U.S. military intervention to stop genocide, as well as a follow-up question about whether that opinion would change given the death of at least 100 U.S. troops. 

Remarkably, more than 30% of those in favor of using force to stop genocide cease favoring it faced with that prospect. These results ought to give pause to those who downplay the importance of casualty aversion to policymakers deciding whether and when to use force. While some have downplayed the practical significance of drones being pilot-less--given that drones are used in permissive environments--these data should serve as a reminder that even broadly popular reasons for using force will be undercut by U.S. casualties. Uses of force that receive far more ambiguous popular endorsements may suffer even more from casualties. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Obamacare Direct Mail Campaign

The Affordable Care Act, often labeled (derisively) as Obamacare, has never been an incredibly popular piece of legislation at least not when pollsters ask about the overall legislation. Individual elements do poll quite favorably. ACA has become the domestic achievement for this White House for good or for ill and I think a recent letter I received could help to change the perception of the ACA and make the title "Obamacare" a positive descriptor.

About two weeks back I had a curious voice mail from my health insurance company about an issue I should really call them back about.  I didn't because typically when my health insurance company needs to talk to me about something, it's not a good something.  Not this time.  A few days later I received a letter in the mail. There were two sheets and on the second sheet in large, plain type it read: "A rebate will be paid to your employer due to new requirements outlined in the Federal Healthcare Reform regulation." A rebate you say?  On the other page was more of fine print:
The Affordable Care Act requires [my employer's provider] to rebate part of the premiums it received if it does not spend at least 80 percent of the premiums [my employer's provider] receives on healthcare services...No more than 20 percent of premiums may be spent on administrative costs...This is referred to as the "Medical Loss Ratio" standard or the 80/20 rule. The 80/20 rule in the Affordable Care Act is intended to ensure that consumers get value for their health care dollars.
So let me get this straight, my employer will receive a check from our insurance provider because our insurance provider didn't meet the 80/20 rule, and the letter goes on to describe how my employer can distribute the rebate, provided it's a non-Federal governmental plan.
  1. "Reducing premiums for the upcoming year; or"
  2. "Providing a cash rebate to employees or subscribers that were covered by the health insurance on which the rebate is based."
My employer's insurance provider is a large one, covering over 3 million people. While the 80/20 rule is determined state to state--basically my provider didn't meet the standard in DC, but might have in Virginia--there are potentially a couple million people just from my provider that are primed to see a tangible benefit from the 80/20 rule and they all got a letter telling them they would get a tangible benefit.  You can't buy this kind of positive publicity for legislation.

Now, I'm not here to debate the wisdom of this rule.  I'm simply suggesting a piece of legislation that has elements a majority of people clearly favor just picked up what will likely prove to be a net positive in an election year.  Obviously Romney has been reluctant to come out too strong against Obamacare because, well Obama aped Romneycare, but potentially there are independents who weren't too excited about Obamacare that have now seen as many as three direct benefits from legislation that doesn't even take full effect until 2014. They've seen insurance companies can't deny them coverage, they've seen their children receive continued coverage until age 26, and they've seen a letter about a rebate.

Now perhaps I'm overestimating the impact and I haven't seen other pundits talk about this much, but this seems like a piece of good news for Obamacare and by transitory properties, a good piece of news for the president.

UPDATE: I've been informed by a friend at Doctors for America that I got one of the policy points wrong. Insurance companies can still deny coverage to people over 18 due to pre-existing conditions. This protection isn't set up to take place for a bit longer. Right now only those 18 and under cannot be denied coverage due to a pre-existing condition. If someone over 18 is denied coverage due to a pre-existing condition and can't get coverage for 6 months, they are eligible for a high-risk buying pool through the federal government. Full details available at www.healthcare.gov.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Didn't We Do This Once?

The following is cross-posted from the New Organizing Institute.

I bet you didn’t learn these lyrics in grade school when they taught you to sing This Land is Your Land:

As I went walking I saw a sign there 
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing." 
But on the other side it didn't say nothing, 
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, 
By the relief office I seen my people; 
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking 
Is this land made for you and me?

Woody Guthrie would have been 100 years old last Saturday. A troubadour who wandered the country during the Great Depression, Woody remains one of the most influential American songwriters of all time, inspiring folks like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Pete Seeger. He recorded hundreds of songs and wrote lyrics for thousands more. His songs reflect his experience growing up in Oklahoma and traveling throughout the United States during the Great Depression. His songs reflect America.

Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered, I’ve seen lots of funny men,
Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.

And as through your life you travel, yes, as through your life you roam,
You will never see an outlaw drive a family from their home.

For me, Woody’s influence grows more from what he wrote than the amount he wrote. His was an often humorous, often earnest, message about what it was to be a hard workin’ person in America. He was a humanist. He demanded justice and he demanded fairness. He gave voice to Arkies and Okies, Mexican migrant workers, and union maids alike. He hated those who benefited from inequity—from fascists to racists to bankers who turned farmers into dustbowl refugees.

When dust storms are sailing, and crops they are failing, 
I'm a jolly banker, jolly banker am I. 

I check up your shortage and bring down your mortgage, 
Singin' I'm a jolly banker, jolly banker am I.

I take comfort in the crackling of Woody’s recordings from eighty years ago and lyrics distilled from the Dustbowl. They seem familiar, those songs about foreclosures, deportations, poverty, and getting a raw deal.

At the same time, their resonance is unsettling. Didn’t we do this once? Didn’t we solve these problems already? Haven’t we already fought these battles? Yes. We did. Much of what Woody parodied, derided, and fought with his guitar wasn’t just the natural condition of hard workin’ people, it was the product of capitalism run amok. By the time he achieved fame, the causes of those problems—if not the problems themselves—had been mitigated by the New Deal, including federal regulation of the banking and financial sectors.

Eighty years on, we’ve gone out of our way to exhume Woody’s muse. We dismantled financial regulations and the regulatory apparatus. We got familiar results: rising income inequality, a foreclosure crisis, persistent unemployment—an economy that increasingly appears to work for a very narrow jolly banker segment of the populace, leaving the rest of us in the dust.

You won't have a name when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be deportees

But the familiarity of Woody’s lyrics doesn’t stop there. Unions are busted and look like they will remain so. The debate over immigration consigns undocumented works to an undifferentiated mass known as “illegal.” And throughout this country laws are being ever more directed at preventing individuals from exercising their fundamental freedoms instead of protecting them.

Every state in this union us migrants have been,
We work in this fight, and we’ll fight till we win.

Maybe that’s why when Occupiers chant, “Whose streets? Our streets!” I hear “I went walking down a ribbon of highway . . . .” Maybe that’s why “We are the 99%” signs look to me like the lyrics to Hard Travelin’. And maybe that’s why people all over the country gathered last weekend to sing Woody’s songs and celebrate his centennial. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Reflections on South Sudan: One Year After Independence

On July 9, 2012 South Sudan, the world's newest country, celebrated its first birthday. This past March I traveled to Juba, South Sudan and on the occasion of the first anniversary of the country's independence, Ben encouraged me to write about my experience and my thoughts on the country as it stands today.

The Deep End of the Pool
After nearly 24 hours'  travel, I stepped down the stairs and onto the tarmac at Juba Airport. It is March but the midday temp was already surpassing 90 degrees and the natural musk of  airplane food and recycled air was compounded by sweat. I followed the crowd into a sparse room split in two by a wooden counter. To my left was the immigration control window, which looked shabbier than the bullet-proof check-out counters that are becoming harder to find in the bodegas of Northwest DC. There was a vague system of lines, but mostly a mass of people, some wearing UN badges, some wearing suits; mostly, it was a seething mob hot and crowded into a third of a larger room after being trapped hot and crowded in the plane from Addis Ababa to Juba. This was my introduction to Africa. I'd never been to the continent before, but suffice to say I was starting in the deep end of the pool.

After arguing, some shoving, and handing over the USD 100 entrance fee--cash only from bills printed after 2006, as I learned from the discourteous immigration officer--I went to customs and had my bags searched and then okay-ed by writing "OK" in the bag with white chalk. None of the customs "officers" wore uniforms and it was difficult to see or perceive the official state. 

On the way to the hotel I experienced about 50% of the paved roads that exist in Africa's newest capital city. My hotel, the Nile Beach Resort, was behind the soccer stadium, down about a half mile of dirt roads. Later, I learned that my hotel was probably the fourth best hotel in Juba. You see, my room had running water (though not hot water), an A/C, a TV that got two channels (one channel would change based on the whims of the individual working in the registration hut), and if I stood close to the registration hut I could get a wifi signal. Belying its name, the resort has no beach whatsoever.

This was March 2012, two month after the government of South Sudan had refused to pay the extortionist rates Sudan wanted to charge to transit the South's oil through Sudan's pipelines to the coast. The South Sudanese decided the best bet was to just shut the oil off. But this was just before the violence in Heglig along the border. I was in Juba for a conference, an opportunity for the South Sudanese government to talk about all the investment opportunities in the country. And there were many. The country needs paved roads, clean water, agriculture, industry; you name it, Africa's newest state needs it.

The Afterglow of Independence
At the conference, there was a former Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) soldier who'd started a construction business based almost entirely on hard labor. His workers had literally dug the ditches and helped plain many of the dirt roads around the city. He joined the SPLA when he was 12 years old and now I figured him to be in his late 20s. Here was a man whose life knew more of war than of peace. Yet, to speak to him, you couldn't help but be excited. On the first day of the conference he came wearing the South Sudan flag like a cape and a beaming smile; this was a man who had fought for the freedom and independence of this country and the excitement of that victory still shown upon his face. When he took the stage he spoke in broken, nearly unintelligible English, but the pride, the care, the sheer commitment he had to his country was evident immediately. He encouraged many of the assembled potential investors to believe in South Sudan. He thanked the international community for its support. Juba is one place in the developing world where being a Westerner isn't a liability and the gentleman's energy was infectious. As he left the stage, all those assembled clapped and cheered. After a dizzying arrival, this man appealed to the optimist in me that South Sudan was a country full of opportunity, freed from the burden of state neglect, her freedom fighters were now rulers, and if they were anything like this man surely the country had a positive future, with or without the oil on.

Another speaker in the conference was a South African who had been sent by SAB Miller to open the South Sudan Brewery. Literally the first factory in South Sudan was a brewery (and having enjoyed a not insignificant quantity of their product while in Juba, I would say it beats PBR). The brewery gave way to general bottling of soda and filtered bottled water.  This brewery, the first industry, which on the surface strikes as a specious use of priorities was turning a healthy profit, but as just importantly it was providing an incredibly large quantity of free filtered water at various water stations around the city. I felt like I was hearing from the brewery a lecture on what corporate social responsibility is supposed to be: make a product, make money on that product, but use the byproduct of that profit to help a community that desperately needs it. The head of the brewery was a jovial man, excited to be in Juba (I would come to find this was a rather uncommon sentiment), excited about the work he did, and the ability of his company to give back. Again the optimism swelled within me. This was an investment that had paid off and was paying dividends to the community. But this was not my final impression of South Sudan and its prospects.

Unfortunately Out of the Country
If the conference began on a hopeful tone, it did not end so.  The agenda called for an impressive list of government ministers from all conceivable departments of the South Sudanese government. The goal was to put decision-makers in the room with investors, but time and time again we heard that "Minister so-and-so is unfortunately out of the country." For a young nation, it seemed curious that so many of it's high government officials would be out of the country. What became clear was "out of the country" more precisely implied "in Nairobi at his villa."

It became an open joke that many of the decision-makers, former generals in the SPLA, many whom had long toiled at war and had deep connections with Western diplomats, had gained independence for their country, fleeced what they could from the international development community and retreated to the modernity and solemnity of Nairobi rather than confront the stark poverty of their own country.  Imagine if the founding fathers of the United States, fatigued by war, prideful of their victory, had then largely retreated to estates in France, our ally and benefactor rather than stay to govern the country. Where would we be as a nation? South Sudan finds itself nearly bankrupt, playing games of brinkmanship with Sudan over oil and land, as a populace enjoys new found independence without progress. The fleecing of international aid is so pervasive that President Salva Kiir has actually demanded government officials return what is calculated to be $4 billion dollars in pilfered funds to help keep the country afloat as oil negotiations drag on between South Sudan and its erstwhile former masters in Khartoum.

Ground Truth
"Oh, the country will be bankrupt by September," said a friend of mine who'd spent the past year in Juba. In 2011, revenue from oil accounted for 98.1% of all government revenue collected by Juba. And the spigot has been off since January. But it gets worse than that. My friend continued, "And even if they turn the oil on, right now, today, it'll be six months before they receive payment." This was back in March and the oil is still off and doesn't look to be turned on anytime soon. The story I heard from my friend and many of his colleagues was one I saw played out at the conference.  The leaders in government had won the war and seemed quite disinterested in doing much more than that. Juba is the epicenter of more NGOs and aid groups than any other place in the world right now. The UN presence is huge, as is the U.S. presence.  The aid workers live in compounds, gilded prisons, with more stringent obvious security than I saw to get into the White House. I never felt unsafe in Juba. Ever. But no U.S. government employee could travel in Juba at night except by armored car. Those shiny, white Toyota Land Cruiser arrived in convoys after meals outside the compound like a mobster's taxi service.

I had a hard time reconciling the pessimism felt by the aid workers I talked with to the optimism felt by the man wearing the South Sudanese flag. I couldn't wrap my head around the notion that government leaders would leave so quickly after achieving independence, while this South African man opened a brewery and maintained a thriving business. There was opportunity here, good will, and people ready to do something for their new country, but the leaders were asleep at the wheel.

A Dangerous Game
Alan Boswell does a great job breaking down the massive lobbying effort by NGOs, celebrities, congressmen, and others that led to the sustained effort to have an indepedent South Sudan.  The effort was bi-partisan; it connected liberals with evangelicals; it was supported by the UN; and the final transition to independence was peaceful.  South Sudan's independence was not easy but its oil wealth (even if it can't get it out) and the support of the international community give it substantial advantages not enjoyed by other nascent states. But with so much support comes corruption. And, as patrons of South Sudan high-fived each other, the SPLA commanders picked the pocket of their own nation to enrich themselves.

It was like the objective of independence blinded the international community to the corruption. So what happens now?  Don't believe the hype about an oil pipeline to Mombasa, that's a dream and the initially suggested timeline of 18 months is laughable to anyone who knows anything about the extractive industry--worse, it still hasn't gotten started. For now, it looks like Juba will go bankrupt, but maybe so does Khartoum. Right now, I think the South Sudanese government is playing a dangerous game with Sudan and with the international community.  I think President Kiir and the country's leaders feel like they've been propped up and pushed along by the international community for this long.  Why would that change, especially with Khartoum falling off more people's Christmas card list every day? But that's a big if and in the end those government leaders can retreat Nairobi. It's the populace, long neglected by Khartoum, that will now suffer the brinkmanship its leaders have engaged in.

When I had arrived at Juba airport, I had missed it.  My friend told me about the old Russion MiG jet, crashed off to the side of the runway, now obscured by the long grass that had begun to overtake it. When I walked back out onto the tarmac to board the plane home I made a point to look.  And there it was rusting in the sun, a souvenir left behind by Khartoum, inoperable, in shambles. No one has bothered to move it, the battle over, the debris remains unattended.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Trolling CNN Continued

Via The Dish

Jokes aside, congratulations to Anderson Cooper for coming around to the notion that the ambiguity of his sexuality was doing more harm than good. Ones sexual orientation shouldn't matter--it shouldn't be an issue--but so long as it is, this Editor hopes prominent gay men and women will continue to serve as role models.