Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Simple, It Isn't

In the ebb and flow of Darfur coverage, it is beyond refreshing to see some real analysis instead of what too often is the ‘Hollywood’ version of the conflict- that is to say, simply Darfur versus the bad guys. This morning in the Washington Post, Alex de Waal and Julie Flint wrote a piece that gets at the heart of the issue: “Simple, it isn’t.”

In researching for a documentary about Sudan over a year ago, I realized quickly that most of my conceptions about Sudan were misconceptions, and that until I could better understand the issue, anything I said would likely do more harm than good. It was easy to see, for instance, that the people of Darfur were suffering, that the government in Khartoum was largely to blame, and that the world, perhaps because of China ,was unable to do anything about it. Alas, clearly there was a great deal more at work.

The most fundamental misconception I had, was that the conflict was two-sided, good versus evil, and that the main problem was that the world was not paying enough attention to the conflict.

As I quickly realized, the conflict in Darfur was but one piece in a deadly and complicated house of cards- one whose history goes back half a century (or far longer, depending).

For simplicity’s sake, I started to think about Sudan as North, South, East, and West, with each region having a handful of groups whose aims overlap, contradict, and often oppose one another, even when the overarching goal is the same. Each of these relationships and conflicts is integral to the solution and dissolution of the others. Furthermore, every side, including the rebels in Darfur and in the South have committed atrocities of their own.

And so Darfur, in other words, both aggravates, and is aggravated by, the situation in the rest of the country. This is extremely important to keep in mind- something the media rarely bothers to do.

Darfur, it seems, receives 92.7% of the coverage, but is only one small, albeit tragic, part of the overall conflict. The war(s) between the North and South have been going on and off for decades. The people of Southern Sudan have faced much of the same brutality and suffering, for decades, that Darfurians have felt acutely for 5-10 years.

Some time ago, the SPLM (Govt of the South) struck a peace deal (the CPA) with the Northern government in Khartoum. This fragile treaty, to varying degrees over time, has teetered on collapse. If it does collapse, then all of Sudan, perhaps most especially Darfur, is at risk of turning once again into a wholesale bloodbath. This, as I see it, should be the primary concern of the international media- not simply highlighting the current atrocities to the exclusion of everything else.

While Darfur is a tragedy of epic proportions, the media (and advocacy groups) must realize that the way they cover Sudan (and don’t cover Sudan) can have effects that are contrary to the goals of the humanitarian community.

The way most people on the ground see it, at least at the most basic level, is that the bad guys in Khartoum have used a ‘divide and conquer’ tactic, quite successfully, for years and years. There is one simple reason for this: they are comprised of a small elite- keeping the anti-government groups fighting amongst themselves is the only was to keep themselves in power. If the various groups, in Darfur, in the East, in the South, and indeed even parts of the marginalized North were to band together, the government would not stand a chance.

Why has this not happened? There are 600 reasons why. One or two of which, the media and advocacy groups have contributed to. The people of the South, who have been persecuted for decades (and face the constant threat of continued persecution), look at the attention the world has lavished on Darfur and say, “Wait a minute. We’ve been suffering for years. Thousands of us died trying to be free and nobody ever cared. Why is everybody all of a sudden paying attention to Darfur?”

Right or wrong, this has a divisive effect. Millions of people were killed over the course of decade plus- long civil wars. The suffering was immense and still holds today. Perhaps the best thing that can be done, and it may well be too late, is for the international community to start taking a holistic view of Sudan, because this is the most important thing for continued ‘peace’ in the country.

This is why I believe that the Washington Post piece this morning is so necessary. Sudan isn’t simple, and the media seem to neglect this. The most important question, and hands down the most difficult to answer, is ‘what the hell is going on?’ It certainly isn’t as simple as Darfur versus the bad guys versus the uncaring world, and yet, if you listen to the advocacy groups and the occasional Nicholas Kristof column (well intentioned though they clearly are), this is mostly what you get. I realized the extent of the problem very quickly. Whenever I would mention that I was making a documentary about Sudan, people would immediately say, "Oh, about Darfur? That's cool." The whole point of the documentary was to address everything outside of Darfur. The world already knows about Darfur. They do not yet know about Abyei.

The situation in Sudan is nearly impossible to comprehend, even on the ground. It shifts and changes daily, as alliances and feuds shift and change daily. And this is where the real work takes place. UN troops and envoys are important, but one must not confuse this with a solution, it merely buys time for a solution. It mitigates the damage from the conflict, it does not solve the conflict. We must remember that troops cannot be called ‘peace keepers’ when there is no real peace to keep.

Neglecting the realities on the ground, as say President Bush has done elsewhere, will yield disastrous results. The groups who chant, "Out of Iraq-Into Darfur!" are dangerously wrong. People’s lives are at stake. This is more important than you and I feeling like we’re doing something to help. If we don’t know what we’re doing, best not to demand a specific course of action; better to spend that time and energy reading and talking to people who do know, first.

If political reconciliation across Sudan cannot be reached and cannot be maintained, then the situation in Darfur, already horrific, will degenerate much, much further. With millions of lives hanging in the balance, we need to check our tendency toward sensationalism and stop aggravating the situation by failing to account for its many stakeholders. The most important thing, and it’s well overdue, is to try to observe, understand, and most importantly, respect the complexities at work...

My thanks to Alex de Waal, Julie Flint, and the Washington Post for doing just that.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Circling Wagons / Circling Vultures

A little flour was sprinkled into the Iraq mess this week and the plot got thicker. It seems Nouri al-Maliki's future is getting more and more uncertain. Senator Levin returned from his trip to the 'battlespace' and immediately called for Maliki's replacement.

President Bush then shocked the world by implying that his faith was a little shaken. Bush suggested that if the Iraqi people are unhappy, then they will replace him (that's the generous version). Then he doubled back the very next day saying, "He's a good guy- a good man!- with a tough job and I support him." (Colby King, of the Washington Post, likened the President's comments to "you're doing a heckuva job, Brownie.")

In addition, the recent National Intelligence Report was more than a little pessimistic about the current Iraqi government. And Charles Krauthammer, one of the most influential conservative commentators, also bashed him this week.

What happened? Just a year ago, President Bush was presenting Maliki to the world in the most encouraging terms: "he's the man for the job and I trust him."

What's changed?

Glenn Greenwald (bestselling author and columnist at Salon.com) has a theory. Greenwald, in a piece he published Friday, cited CNN in what he described as a "solid piece of reporting". CNN reported:

"A powerhouse Republican lobbying firm with close ties to the White House has begun a public campaign to undermine the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, CNN has confirmed. . . .

"A senior Bush administration official told CNN the White House is aware of the lobbying campaign by Barbour Griffith & Rogers because the firm is "blasting e-mails all over town" criticizing al-Maliki and promoting the firm's client, former interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, as an alternative to the current Iraqi leader. . . ."

The focus of the Greenwald piece, and it's a brilliant one, was on Philip Zelikow, former adviser to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and senior adviser to the lobbying firm in question- specifically his appearing on ABC being critical of al-Maliki without disclosing BG&R's relationship to Allawi.

Zelikow disputed having any relationship, direct or indirect, with Allawi. His alibi, as it were, was solid but still smelled distinctly of fish.

Where this all gets really interesting though, is looking back at Allawi's relationship with the United States.

The relationship goes back to at least 1994 when the CIA was planning a coup to overthrow Saddam Hussein. According to a May 16th, 2003 column by David Ignatius in the Washington Post, British officials apparently suggested that the CIA contact Allawi for assistance in the coup. And the relationship with the U.S. has continued right up until today. As CNN's Michael Weir described him on Late Edition, "he's a stalwart for American support".

So what to make of all this?

I think I've teed myself up enough here...

With all of the recent and long-standing comparisons to Vietnam, one in particular jumps out at me. I seem to remember learning about a succession of leaders that we (the CIA mostly) installed and removed in South Vietnam in hopes of finding one who could save the day... we never did.

And while the war in Iraq is sufficiently different to call into question comparisons with Vietnam (particularly the President's comparison), I can't help but wonder if we are yet again failing to learn from our own mistakes.

David Patraeus is likely to report in two weeks that the surge is yielding positive results militarily (which is true) but the political progress has been less than promising (which is also true). And while everybody is fumbling around with a plethora of bad options, Republicans and Democrats seem to be taking the opportunity to go on an intellectual vacation.

I'm no expert, but I just can't see how replacing al-Maliki with anybody, especially a "stalwart of American support" (well qualified though he may be), is going to change the fundamentals in Iraq. Maliki may be a problem, but he is not the problem.

As NBC correspondent Richard Engel rightly observed this morning on Meet the Press, "we cant just move the chess pieces around, we've got to change the game."

Saturday, August 25, 2007

NRA Diplomacy

This morning, David Ignatius of the Washington Post offered up an insight into what he calls a, "subtle but important shift in strategy for the Middle East". This 'shift', as he puts it, is characterized by the recent arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel in what will be the "cornerstone" of our policy in the region- a "military-political alliance with the dominant Sunni powers--especially Saudi Arabia."

The idea, of course, is to challenge Iran's growing power and ambition in the new paradigm of chaos. According to an unnamed State Department official Mr. Ignatius talked to, "The message to Iran is, 'We're still powerful, we protect our friends, we're not going away' ". In addition to sending that message, we are trying to continue stripping the non-radical majority away from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And by continuing to step up pressure, we are fairly certain we can do that.

I have all the respect in the world for Mr. Ignatius. He's been at this a long, long time. He is plugged in, he talks to the right people, and he knows his stuff. So, in deference to him, I'll frame my doubts in the form of an honest question or two.

Is selling billions of dollars worth of arms to Saudi Arabia (and even more to Israel) either 'subtle' or a 'shift'? And will it really achieve the intended result?

Iran knows exactly how powerful we are and exactly how powerful we aren't. They know we could topple their government just as easily as we toppled Saddam's, but they also know we're not going to do that. So why the posturing- on our part and theirs (other than it's just how the game is played)? This is an honest question- not a rhetorical one.

As I understand it, Iran has got some pretty heavy duty economic issues that are likely to cause increasing strain for the government. Their growing middle class is consuming so much subsidized energy, that they're running out of crude to export. They will need foreign capital, technology, and expertise to boost current production and to exploit remaining reserves.

For this and other reasons, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has his hands full maintaining power and influence. The sanctions seem to be slowly but significantly taking a toll on the Iranian people's patience. Why would arming his adversaries serve as anything other than a rallying cry for the regime? Again, honest question.

This whole message we're trying to send: "we're powerful, we protect our friends, we're not going away"... will the Iranians really believe that? Does anyone believe that? Do we believe that?

I understand that there needs to be a counterweight to Iran. But perhaps that should be the rational Iranian public and not a bunch of shiny new Israeli bombs. And for that matter, what is the logic behind giving Israel even more bombs, and then asking the Palestinians to sit down and have peace talks (which is also supposed to put pressure on Iran)? I don't understand why this would do anything but encourage an arms race, which is exactly what we're trying to avoid in the first place, by keeping Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

It's important to have allies, and it's particularly important to have Sunni allies. But if we believe so much in democracy- and I'm not just talking about nation-building neo-con belief in democracy- why are we so completely terrified to let it run its course?

Why, when we have proven ourselves so inept at meddling in other regions' affairs, when we have been an incorrigible control freak on every single continent for half a century, why don't we just let the Iranian people work it out? Why don't we keep just the sanctions in place (which the entire world minus Chavez supports) and get back to more important long-view business?

For example, we could've been building a whole lot of hybrids and investing in much-needed mass transit improvements and providing incentives for cleaner industry with the money we've spent in Iraq. And the billions we (actually defense contractors) got for the most recent sale could've done a little more.

Because, at the end of the day, if we really want to hurt the oil rich regimes we don't like (and to distance ourselves from the oil rich regimes we have to like), we shouldn't put more guns in the region... we should stop buying their oil.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The 'Central' War on Terrorism

I spend an inappropriate amount of my life listening to C-SPAN. But gems like these make it worth it...

Last night, at a town hall meeting for Americans Against Escalation In Iraq, Rand Beers, former counter-terrorism adviser to the President, gave the most lucid and succinct explanation of the situation in Iraq and what we need to do about it that I've ever heard:

(Quoted in its entirety)

“There is a multi-sided civil war going on, of which, Al Qaeda is but one participant in that violence.

The President often says that ‘this is the central front in the war on terrorism.’ I fundamentally disagree with that conclusion. And in my last job, for those of you who don’t know, I was special assistant to the president- this president- for combating terrorism. And it was clear to me then, and it’s become even more clear to me now, that Al Qaeda was not in Iraq, is only there now because we are there, and is there in a fundamental strategic choice to fight us there, so that we can’t fight them where they are, which is in Pakistan.

Think for a minute... If you were in Pakistan, and you aren’t all that strong, why wouldn’t you want to have the United States diverted to another conflict- that you didn’t even have to fight by yourself- that other people willingly joined in pinning down the United States- in a struggle that sapped our people, our attention, our resources, so that we couldn’t concentrate on Al Qaeda, and dealing with a real threat to the United States that exists and is centered in Pakistan?

The London Bombings were run out of Pakistan. The effort to blow up airplanes crossing the Atlantic was centered in Pakistan.

Al Qaeda in Iraq would be extremely unlikely to get to the United States. The people who will come to the United States who are Al Qaeda, will come with passports from Western Europe, without being required to have a visa. If they’re coming from the Middle East, our visa system, to the extent that it works, and it does work reasonable well, is not gonna allow those people to come into the country.

Where are they gonna go? They’re gonna go to North Africa or they’re gonna go to other places around the Middle East, but they’re not coming to the United States.

Al Qaeda in Pakistan is what we ought to be worrying about. And the larger struggle against Al Qaeda and the Al Qaeda movement, is what is most threatening to the United States. And I find myself feeling that, while we’re bogged down in Iraq, we are unable, in fact, to deal effectively with who is, in fact, our real enemy.

But Congressman Davis put his finger on the problem, though. Because it’s all well and good to say, ‘I’m opposed to the war.’ It’s all well and good to say that, ‘it’s a tragic mistake.’ The issue is how to responsibly redeploy from Iraq. And I think that is really where we all have to try to bring our effort. It’s a situation of withdrawing from Iraq because we can’t be more committed to Iraq than Iraqis. But it’s to do it in a fashion that will minimize the damage and maximize the prospects for some kind of enduring stability.

Congressman Davis mentioned the Iraq Study Group. A number of other groups have all endorsed the notion that we have to talk to the neighbors. We have to talk to Syria and Iran and Turkey and Saudi Arabia and Jordan and Kuwait. [clapping].

They offer the opportunity…if we can’t stop the violence in Iraq, at least to contain it. And if we can’t talk to them, then we don’t have any chance of reducing the violence that’s in Iraq- whether we stay or leave.

It’s that critical to begin that dialogue in a way that brings people to the table instead of push[ing] them away as we, in this Administration, have often done.

So I leave with that thought, that we need to find a way to look at the broader framework, outside of Iraq, and create the stability that we’re all looking for with other people who are in the region, with the United Nations, with our allies in Western Europe and elsewhere around the world- in order to mitigate against the worst possible outcomes that the President is often reminding us are going to happen if we withdraw.

They will happen if we don’t work in the broader context. But we have to begin the withdrawal in order to enable the ability to talk to any of the neighbors in any any successful fashion... Thank you.”

It is amazing to me, although perhaps not surprising, that the most clear understanding of our misguided policies come from disenchanted, former officials in the Bush Administration. I wish speeches like this got more press than they do.

Please give C-SPAN radio a chance...

Net Neutrality

As I was trolling the internet late last night, looking for sleep, I happened upon the Bill Moyer's Journal blog. Front and center was a poll asking readers how they felt about net neutrality. (If you're not familiar with the term, please, please, please click this link and learn about it. It is hands down, bar none, the single most important issue you don't yet know about.)

After answering the poll, I posted a comment on the PBS web site, which I've expanded here:

I took a class recently called, "TV Industry and Policy". I was surprised to find that the whole first third of the class was dedicated to the birth and development of American radio. The professor's reasoning was that it would be impossible to understand the form that television took in the U.S. (as compared to most other countries) without understanding its regulatory/commercial roots in radio.

What does this have to do with net neutrality?

Well, in the early days of radio, virtually everything was experimental. Everything was point-to-point, 'user-generated' content. Individuals were innovating daily, finding out just how far the new technology could be pushed. They were using homemade transmitters and receivers, which they fashioned out of coffee cans and bits of copper wire.

One could liken the level of excitement and anticipation to how we feel about the potential of the internet.

In the beginning, the airwaves were filled with content as diverse as the American people. Everyday citizens were sending out glorious sound through the air from small towns and big cities all over the country. Commentary, news, entertainment, and just plain old chatting ruled the day.

But before long, a bright young man named David Sarnoff (future head of RCA) realized that if a company could broadcast from a single location out to everybody else, they could make a bundle of money (and wield enormous power) in the process.

RCA, at the time, was primarily interested in selling radio receivers- they wanted to replace all of the coffee cans with their own models. But they needed to figure out how to consolidate the industry first.

RCA lobbied Congress hard (quite successfully as it turns out). Their argument was that space on the airwaves was limited. Interference and chaos were becoming a problem and order needed to be established.

The answer to this problem was simple: The government would allocate space on the spectrum using the careful distribution of licenses.

The only problem was, on what basis should licenses be granted? The answer, everyone agreed, was that licenses should be granted on the basis of an individual's or organization's ability to "provide for the public good". The ability to ensure both 'quality' of content and 'social benefit' was the rubric they would use.

It was clear that individuals could not be trusted with the responsibility of maintaining such lofty ideals. Even educational institutions such as universities were questionable.

RCA, on the other hand, was the perfect candidate (at least according to their lobbyists). And so the first network was born: the National Broadcasting Company.

Long story short, virtually all of the individual users who were generating content ended up getting shut down. Educational institutions and religious groups found that their broadcasts had no place whatsoever in the new paradigm.

Almost overnight, all of those individual voices were silenced. And one booming voice took their place.

Out of RCA came NBC. And out of NBC came ABC and CBS.

The rest, as they say, is history.

It took a almost half a century before public broadcasting found its place. Everything we know about television today (how limited and silly it is) was determined by 1930s, long before the first televisions entered American homes.

Why? Because limited and silly appeals to the broadest number of people- the lowest common denominator. This was what the FCC determined when it set out to define, "quality" and "public good". It just so happened that advertisers, network execs, and the FCC were all on the same page about this.

(This is in stark contrast to television in virtually every other country on the planet.)

The FCC has always been in the pocket of the Networks... and Congress just the same.

Sure there have been notable exceptions, but the overwhelming fact is that the "public good", in the eyes of those who represent us, has virtually always been determined by memos written by the industry- particu;arly since the '80s. They actually write the regulations that govern them. I'm not exaggerating- they literally write some of the legislation passed in the Congress and used by the FCC.

And now, as the Internet has been hoisted upon the chopping block, it is again to the FCC and Congress that the telephone, cable, and media conglomerates are now appealing.

As I understand it, Congress has to actively pass legislation to stop the conglomerates from conglomerating the internet. If they're not outspoken (meaning the public is not outspoken) the big companies will roll right over them. They can do what they want with it. After all, as they are quick to remind us, they laid the wires.

And so the bottom line is: If you ever find yourself wishing for a little more variety than than the mainstream media provides, if you ever wanted a little more NewsHour and a little less Situation Room, you would do well to keep a close eye on the Verizons and Viacoms involved in this debate.

Because somebody stands to gain an awful lot by consolidating the internet...I'm just not sure it's you and I.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Soiled Soybeans

I fear it has already begun. The downward spiral of tit-for-tat between China and the United States is starting to enter full swing. After product scares in the U.S. involving pet food, toothpaste, farmed fish, tires, toys, kids' jewelry, and ceramic heaters, the Chinese government has officially fired back.

Last month, after executing Zheng Xiaoyu (head of China's State FDA), Chinese officials felt they could do little more to head off the problem. The natural next move was to start pointing out shoddy merchandise coming from American shores.

According to a BBC World News article published on July 14th, the Chinese government suspended US meat imports citing, "salmonella and growth enhancers" as the primary concern.

And then again today, Chinese authorities announced that suspicious American soy beans had infiltrated their country. While it was unclear what the authorities wanted their US counterparts to do exactly (the problem was "weeds and contaminated dirt"), they have certainly taken aim at a sensitive area of U.S.-China trade relations.

From the Chinese perspective, going after the little green devils makes sense. As a Washington Post article today observed, "[soy] beans are the biggest single U.S. farm export to China, which has bought billions of dollars worth since the current market year began in September."

What effect this food-borne battle will have is unclear. But lurking behind the headlines is a certain significance:

In a masterful book entitled China: The Balance Sheet, writers from The Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics explain, succinctly and powerfully, just how significant China's rise will be to the future balance of power in the world (and what we should and should not do about it).

Basically, given China's growing weight, it is exceedingly important that we learn to cooperate going forward.

As they put it, "Four fundamental conclusions for U.S. policy emerge...First, China clearly represents both an opportunity and threat to the United States in economic and security terms.

"Second, the extent to which China becomes either an opportunity or a challenge is not predetermined but will depend greatly on the policy choices and internal dynamics of China and the United States in coming years.

"Third, while U.S. influence over China should not be overstated, U.S. policy can play a role, for good or ill, in shaping the decisions China makes about its future.

"Finally, therefore, while a responsible strategic approach toward China must include preparation of U.S. domestic , foreign, and defense policies to deter and deflect Chinese actions that are contrary to to U.S. interests, the United States has an overriding stake in pursuing a strategy that effectively integrates China into the global economic and security systems in a way that reinforces the American people's long-term security, prosperity, and peace."

In other words, if the world is going to be the kind of place we want to raise children in, we're going to have to get along with the formerly-Red giant. And with so much of our economy (and their's) depending on positive trade relations, this doesn't seem like a good place to start picking fights.

Yet last month, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton signed on as co-authors of an anti-China bill threatening to issue "punitive duties" if China doesn't revalue its currency.

And while this may not seem sexy at first, if we're already picking fights over the most sensitive areas of our relationship, we may be in for a very long 21st century.

As I blogged about before, the U.S. economy is in a little trouble- and it's not China's fault. We like to buy stuff- lot's of stuff. And China has been able to provide that stuff at 'Everyday Low Prices'.

So why all the animosity? It's not going to make the U.S. auto industry healthy again. That's a problem the unions and management need to take care of... not Obama/Hillary and the Chinese government.

Important disagreements will inevitably emerge in the future over things like China's backing of Sudan, freedom of the press, pollution, etc. And we need to pick our battles very carefully- on both sides- as a result.

Bickering over soybeans and toothpaste, let alone the equally-tainted "punitive duties", doesn't exactly seem like the best battle to pick.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

What's in a name?

This past week, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer dedicated time to shining some light on the net results of the No Child Left Behind law. I probably don't need to tell you too much about what they uncovered. Suffice it to say, there are still a few children getting left behind.

What really caught my eye about the NewsHour piece though, were not the myriad ways in which the law has failed to achieve its goals (and if you didn't see the program, you really should), but rather a single tangential point that one of the teachers made:

Early on in the third installment of the special report, correspondent John Merrow visied a handful of the nation’s very best teachers. One in particular, Anthony Cody, jumped out at me. Despite being one of only 2% of teachers who are nationally certified, Mr. Cody quit out of sheer desperation.

As was the case with so many of his colleagues, it was easy to see why he was so frustrated with the No Child Left Behind law. But the one frustrating thing for him that really interested me was not that the new system is a colossal failure, or that it's limiting teachers' ability to do their jobs, but that teachers like Anthony Cody feel they can't criticize the law.

Why? Because it's named too well. Who could argue with a plan to 'leave no child behind'?

As Mr. Cody points out, "If I say that No Child Left Behind sets unrealistic goals, then the very name of the law says that, by implication, I'm leaving children behind... I’m not interested in leaving anyone behind.”

This is a powerful concept: if you name an idea well enough, no one can oppose it- no matter what the substance is.

This is a phenomenon that's existed in American politics since the very beginning. It is, in fact, why our two political parties are called "Republicans" and "Democrats". Republicans were trying to suggest that their opponents didn't believe in a republic- that they wanted a monarchy or sovereign states or something. The Democrats countered, naming their party in such a way that suggested that their opponents were un-democratic.

But for a more recent example, just think about our long-standing debate over abortion:

People who want to ban abortions are called “pro-life”. The implication being, anybody who disagrees with them is “anti-life”. And that is the position liberals are stuck defending before the debate even begins.

That’s a strong name.

So what about "pro-choice"? It is perfectly in line with their position. But does it say anything pointed about the opposition? The fact that pro-lifers are "anti-choice" is a given. That is, in fact, the whole point of the debate. They're out there specifically protesting the right to choose.

Liberals aren't out picketing life. They’re not protesting birth or motherhood. But that's the corner they've gotten themselves backed into.

Without sounding like I'm offering an opinion on the debate itself (something I am loath to do), I would suggest that the "pro-choice" crowd should choose a less accurate and truthful title and settle on one that does more to box their opponents into some awkward place.

So, cynically speaking I guess, I'm saying the name "pro-choice" doesn't make conservatives look immoral or corrupt enough.

A better choice, for example, might be "pro-rights"; with the idea being that "pro-lifers" are a bunch of people who don’t believe in rights (a notion no red-blooded American will ever be comfortable with).

The name would have sufficiently summed up the pro-choicers' stance, protecting 'the right to choose', while also taking aim at the opposition's seeking to take away that right. At the very least, it would co-opt the conservative "right to life" sound byte.

Politics is, after all, the art of being tolerably disingenuous. And Republicans are masters at this.

Democrats, on the other hand, couldn't sell a popsicle on a hot day. (Not even a really compelling and timely popsicle.)

During the stem-cell debate, for instance, the Democrats allowed the Republicans to trademark terms like "snowflake babies" (referring to the fertilized embryos) without having something equally cute and compelling to fire back with.

Where was the comeback? Did somebody's aide forget to photocopy it?

Or when the recent Immigration Bill came up, the Democrats got completely stumped by, "illegal is illegal".

They were speechless… and they had the better argument- vastly better. They just couldn't figure out how to sell that argument in three words.

Why on earth not?

Here’s one right off the top of my head, "Racist is Racist". The last thing anybody wants is to appear racist on national television (just ask Trent Lott). And racisim was obviously the only substantive part of the "deport 'em"argument.

The stakes are really high these days. They've always been high. It's time to start actively shaping the national debate. And that process has to be begin with slogans, names, and perhaps even a few more clever liberal bumper stickers.

So Democrats, here's what I would say to you:

In the future, presidents will get elected, laws will get passed, judges will get appointed, and wars will get started because somebody figured out how to sell an idea- and for no other reason whatsoever.

Make sure it's your idea.

You have a couple weeks left on vacation. In that time, I hope you make a list of names. At the very least, hire somebody competent to do it for you. Get big tobacco's PR people... they're looking for work.

Because, when push comes to shove, if nobody reads your legislation, and nobody hears your speeches, you better have a pretty unbeatable slogan. You better have a name that does eighty percent of your work for you.

Otherwise, you're just that discount, off-brand toothpaste, that works just as well, but nobody ever buys.

Friday, August 17, 2007

"Re-branding" God?

It's not uncommon for a Catholic Bishop to come out and say something and end up getting blasted by the public. What is uncommon is for me to think it's the smartest thing I've ever heard.

Tiny Muskens, a Roman Catholic Bishop in the Netherlands, came out with the suggestion yesterday that we should all call God, 'Allah'. As he put it, "Allah is a very beautiful word for God. Shouldn't we all say that from now on we will name God Allah? ... What does God care what we call him? It is our problem."

I spent part of this morning listening to the BBC show, World Have Your Say. People are most definitely freaking out... Muslims and Christians alike.

The Vatican, in particular, isn't crazy about the idea.

One person called in to comment that, "Christians and Muslims don't worship the same god! How could we call the two by the same name?!"

And while I never took a theology class per se, I was sure that there is only one God- or at least as there's only supposed to be one.

Christians and Muslims have had a fairly strained relationship for... well, I guess since the Crusades (and tension with Jews long before that). But they have managed to agree unequivocally on one point: monotheism.

So, if it turns out that Christians and Muslims are actually worshiping two different Gods, then either there are in fact two and Wolf Blitzer has something to talk about in 'the Situation Room' or somebody's religion is wrong. Since everybody seems to agree that there's only one God...

Good luck convincing either Christians or Muslims that they've been barking up the wrong tree for the last 2,000 years.

A second caller chimed in saying, "God named himself. And I just think we should respect that."

I didn't catch which God she was referring to. But I did notice that she too had missed the underlying theological problem we're dealing with here: There's only one God but there are multiple names...ergo, we have a choice.

However you slice it, I think the Bishop's suggestion is a good one. I'm not a particularly religious man myself, but just from a logical standpoint, anything we can do to point out that we humans are all on the same team is probably a good thing.

And as I've listened to right-wing zealots over the years, both Christian and Muslim, I've gotten the distinct impression that they're really not so different- they really are on the same team. Given the chance, I think they'd probably get along quite well.

If you listen closely, extremists are all so busy attacking liberal values based on their own fundamental beliefs that they rarely get into the specifics of their religions. In other words, those pesky bits of semantics and details don't really matter as much as it might seem.

There's a message here, I think.

And while I might incur a fatwa by saying this, I can't help but note the similarity between sports and religion. It seems everybody has gotten their collective pride so wrapped up in their own team's success that they've forgotten to stop and appreciate how special the game is all by itself.

Sportsmanship and mutual respect, in other words, have gone right out the window. And while perhaps they were never 'in' the window to begin with, we can certainly always hope.

The world is getting smaller every day. We clearly need to start finding some common ground. And even though (or perhaps even because) religion seems to bring the worst out in people, it's probably not a bad place to start.

And after all, in essence, religion isn't a bad thing- it's just what we do with it that's problematic. The best evidence for this is that all of the major religions seem to suggest the same basic principles: love, respect, discipline, sacrifice, etc. These are all good things- whether you're religious or not. So in other words, we're all pretty much on the same page- even if we're citing different books.

On the other hand, looking at Iraq or Northern Ireland is likely to make even the most ardent optimist a little skeptical. Even a dogmatic belief in the same God would fall short of being a panacea.

That being said, with every continent and country having religious citizens, it's probably not a bad place to start breaking down walls. Globalization's already rendered them obsolete anyway.

Either way, if you believe that there is only one 'true' God, and by extension that everybody is essentially worshiping the same thing (callers not included), why not acknowledge this common ground by referring to him (or her) by the same name?

And furthermore, since Allah is a beautiful name and Islam does fall at the center of conflict for both Israel and the West, why not choose that name?

Without sounding too 'early 90s', I would suggest that we could clearly all use a little unity at this point. And if "re-branding" God, as many callers put it, will help move us toward that end, why not do it?

Allah, Hu Akbar

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Wobbly... At Best

There's been a recent swan dive in the stock market. In the last twenty-seven days, stocks have tumbled from a record-high 14,000 to 12,800. At one point today, it was down to 12,500.When the stock market value falls like this, hundreds of billion of dollars in wealth are erased.

But where on earth does all that money go? What exactly does 'erased' mean? And for that matter, when it is going up, where does all of that money come from?

I recently asked somebody (my stockbroker) that question. His answer, after hesitating a little, was something like, "Well, basically the Fed adjusts the level of money in circulation. When the stock market is up, they print more money. When it goes down, they take money out. They try to keep it stable, you know?"

This was one of those answers that sounds like it makes sense just long enough for somebody to change the subject.

In the last four years, the market has gone up 75%, going from 8,000 to 14,000. Now keeping in mind it took some 70 odd years to get to 8,000, an increase like that (in four years) seems a little fishy. It's great, don't get me wrong. And I'm thrilled. But why the sudden race to the top? What has fundamentally changed to allow that kind of growth?

Did the Fed just print lots of money? And if they did, isn't that basically the same thing third-world dictators do when they get in trouble...just print more money?

We've been hearing an awful lot about the sub-prime mortgage mess. It's causing uncertainty about how much bad debt is out there and what other sectors might be affected. And sure, all that makes sense. Bad debt is bad. I get that.

But why isn't anybody uncertain about what exactly has driven the stock market so high in the first place? Why isn't anybody uncertain about where all of that money is coming from?

The answer everybody gives is that, "the economy is booming".

But first of all, that only answers half the question. And second, what exactly is it about the economy that's going so well, anyway? I know people in Detroit and a few other places aren't exactly sure.

Of course, GDP has doubled roughly every ten years since the Depression. That's hard to argue with.

But at the same time though, we've transitioned from an economy that produces things into an economy that consumes things. One estimate (that might be wrong) says that 70% of US GDP is currently based on consumer spending... keep that figure in mind:

Wages for just about everybody are falling (including college graduates). Foreign Affairs published an article recently, pointing out that for everybody except those individuals with "professional" advanced degrees, (basically law degrees, MBAs, and PhD's in useful things like chemical engineering, etc.) wages have actually fallen 2-plus percent in 'real dollar' terms since 2000. For college graduates, wages have shriveled 2.3%.

Add to that, the fact that for the first time in American history, consumer debt has exceeded consumer earnings. People owe more than they make. The average American household spends 15% of its 'disposable' income on paying off interest on debt alone. And at the same time, prices are increasing- not inflationary- but increasing nonetheless. (Just take a look at your college tuition bill or hospital bill if you don't believe me.) Oil prices have sky-rocketed, driving up costs in every single sector of the economy. And those costs are getting passed on to consumers.

But...we like to buy things anyway. So we swipe our credit cards.

Then we pay the minimum balance and we swipe again...

Debt has sky-rocketed as a result. The chart below shows US Consumer debt. If you look closely (click on it), it's doubled in the last 9 years.

So... there's a credit crunch alright. But it isn't sub-prime mortgages.

Needless to say, the debt curve looks an awful lot like the stock market, only steadier. And if trillions of dollars in wealth has been 'created' over an incredibly short period of time, and a good chunk of this nonsense seems to be financed by debt that nobody can pay, aren't we actually in kind of a tight spot?

If the global economy is dependent on the stability of the US economy, and the US economy is dependent on consumer spending, and consumers are leveraged to the breaking point, aren't we actually in a really dangerous spot?

Don't look to the government for too much help. They themselves have a few trillion dollars in debt. What are they doing throwing money around? As I understand it, they're borrowing billions of dollars every day. And what's more, they're borrowing that money to offset (at least in part) the fact that we import a whole lot more than we export- meaning oodles of money is flowing out of our economy and into somebody else's. And that's a trend that's probably not going to change... ever.

So is the economy perhaps "teetering" and not "wobbling" as the pundits suggest?

Well, the easy answer is that the Fed is keeping it steady. And I'm glad they're doing that.

But on the other hand, if it's the Fed keeping things steady, aren't they 'keeping it steady' with tax money they've collected and bonds they've sold? (Tax money that comes from shrinking, iffy, wages and corporate earnings that are being financed by trillions of dollars in unpayable debt... and bonds we'll eventually have to pay back.)

So here's how I would explain the problem to the big-wigs:

"I just talked to the American people, they said I should tell you guys that 'they don't have trillions of dollars to pay you back with. Especially if you're gonna keep charging everybody 20% interest on the trillions of dollars they already owe.' But they also said, 'you go right ahead and tell your accountant to mark them down as being good for it.' If you don't, their credit will get messed up. They said, 'they'll just fill out another credit card application and then send you the money'."

I understand why it's important for the Fed to inject billions of dollars to keep the economy steady. And I understand why free markets themselves are so valuable. But what I don't understand is what all this growth and optimism is really based on.

And if I do understand it, then we're in trouble.

Hedge funds are responsible for some 70% of the volume on the New York Stock Exchange. That means that a relatively small number of individuals can change the 'value' of the market hundreds of billions of dollars (up or down) in a matter of hours. They can trade in intervals of just a few seconds, leaving companies and individual investors gasping for air.

But companies don't change in intervals of just a few seconds. And they don't all double in value in just a few years either.

Technology has empowered brokers and analysts (and individual investors too, for that matter) to move money around much more quickly- into and out of every corner of the global economy, regardless of the consequences. It seems, in doing so, they've convinced themselves that they can 'out-smart' the market (a notion that's never needed much encouragement).

From where I'm standing, the bottom line is that all of this stock market growth better be based on something real and not just wheeler-dealers types fiddling with fancy computer algorithms.

The important question to keep asking is, where is the real value being added? And where is the real equity being created?

My extremely non-expert opinion is... I don't know. I have no idea. But it looks to me like they have parlor-gamed themselves (and us) into a serious problem- that basically, everything just simply isn't as peachy as it seems.

It looks to me like they're just playing games, pushing buttons... kind of like the guys over at Enron.

And then, when things get 'wobbly', they just print themselves more money. Or rather they get the Fed to print some more money for them.

The Federal Reserve, of course, calls it "adding liquidity".

And that's what I'm going to say to a judge if I'm ever indicted for counterfeiting, "What... I was just adding liquidity."

Now I'm certainly not trying to knock the Fed. It truly is a wonderful institution. And I'm not trying to suggest that there is as little substance behind the US economy as there is behind counterfeiting...at least I hope not.

But what I am suggesting is, all of this confidence may not be based on as much as we think. It may in fact be reckless overconfidence.

I'd like to know, for instance, what the difference is between "keeping things steady" and "propping things up".

I'd like to know exactly what the difference is between "wobbling" and "teetering".

And perhaps most importantly, I'd like to know the point at which we will have left one model and gone to the other. And will it be apparent once we have?

As I was doing some research for this post, I Googled, "US consumer debt". The first thing that came up was an article from 2004 posted on a socialist web site. That's not good.

When the stock market comes down like this after a huge run-up, they call it a "correction".

But if you ask me... they haven't corrected shit.