Obama on the process of social change

This just about perfectly sums it up: Barack Obama on the process of social change.

[I]f you’re doing big, hard things, then there is going to be some hair on it—there’s going to be some aspects of it that aren’t clean and neat and immediately elicit applause from everybody. And so the nature of not only politics but, I think, social change of any sort is that it doesn’t move in a straight line, and that those who are most successful typically are tacking like a sailor toward a particular direction but have to take into account winds and currents and occasionally the lack of any wind, so that you’re just sitting there for a while, and sometimes you’re being blown all over the place.

(From this superb piece by David Remnick on Obama in the New Yorker.)


150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

I should have remembered to post this on Tuesday this week, it being 1 January, and so being the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.

You can read the rest here: the Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863.

Here’s a bit more info and context, and below is a picture of some guy showing a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation he has hanging on the wall of his office:


Man walks into a column, no.45: Obamacare

Yesterday, the 2012 US presidential election, already resting precariously on the sharpest of knife edges, became even more unpredictable, when the Supreme Court decided to review President Obama’s 2010 healthcare law. The ruling will come next March, smack bang in the middle of the election campaign.

But what’s arguably most interesting about this momentous decision is that howevermuch the ruling will change the election, it might have very little impact on healthcare itself, whichever way the judges come down. Just as in England, where a political vacuum is leaving local health services to make up their own minds, so in the US, people across the country are just getting on with implementing legislation that, whilst passed, could quite possibly be ruled unconstitutional.

In agreeing to review the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (so typically American: even its title is a political statement) the Supreme Court is responding to the only appeals court to have ruled that the Act is unconstitutional: most have said it isn’t. Even courts featuring conservative jurists have refused to strike it down: the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia being the latest example.

This fact – along with the substantive reasons behind the mostly favourable rulings – may give Team Obama hope. The author of the District of Columbia decision, Reagan-appointed Justice Laurence Silberman, said the individual mandate, which requires Americans to buy health insurance or face a penalty (needless to say the most controversial bit) was necessary ‘because the uninsured inflict a disproportionate harm on the rest of the market as a result of their later consumption of health care services.’

For Republicans, the Obamacare legislation – in particular its perceived infringement on individual liberty – has acted as an incredibly strong galvanising force. And GOP attacks on the reforms have certainly swayed public mood: the bill has a bad image. Most people like individual elements of the reforms, up to and including the individual mandate, but don’t like the act overall (see the Washington Post for an overview of the polling data).

So which way will the Supreme Court go? Andrew Cohen, legal analyst at CBS News, has a fun guide to the betting odds on the possible decisions of individual judges and the overall outcome, which smuggles in some useful stuff about precedent and ways for the Court to fudge the issue if it so chooses. It’s probably too early to say what impact the decision will have on the election, not least because, for example, it’s plausible that a strike-down ruling could energise the Democratic base, just as a vote in favour could.

Here’s the really fascinating bit, though: all of the above may come too late, because healthcare reform along the lines of the act is already happening. The New York Times has this overview of how, at local level, health providers are already preparing for reform, with many state legislatures implementing their own versions. Hospitals are already hiring clinicians on mass to cope with predicted influx of new patients. State regulators are keeping a closer watch on insurance premiums, saving citizens money in the process.

If the Supreme Court does decide to rule the healthcare act unconstitutional, there could be real problems caused by the ending of federal funding, but as the NYT piece shows, funding problems are acute already. So the Court’s decision is both momentous and a sideshow: the potential for a really significant impact on the election, and very little impact on what happens on the ground.

Man walks into a column, no.37: Schism

In the week since starting arbitrary constant‘s >ahem< ‘coverage’ of the United States 2012 presidential election, I’ve come across three fascinating pieces of evidence confirming how this race is both entirely predictable – in its ideological flavour – and completely unpredictable, when seen in an historical context. How lovely.

And how stressful. As a wannabe Yank (a Wank?) I feel the ups and downs of Obama’s Presidency as keenly as the peaks and troughs of the season my beloved Italian Robins are having (already). After the fleeting boost afforded by the President’s majestic if predictably ignored jobs speech (a boost for me, that is, I don’t think it had any real impact on Swindon Town FC), a sense of deep hopelessness has set in once more.

This mood was captured rather well in this first piece: an article in the Washington Post describing how within a matter of weeks the ‘brief, transcendent commonality of purpose’ post-9/11 had evaporated as the political parties set to arguing afresh. What were they arguing about? In an echo of today: how best to stimulate a fragile economy. By the time five years had passed a ‘deep political schism was evolving’ (can a schism really evolve? Anyway).

What I found really interesting about this review, though, were the comparisons with key moments in history which notably failed to bring about any lasting political unity. Less than a year after Pearl Harbor, for example, FDR’s Democrats almost lost the Senate, and Wilson’s lot did lose it, a week before Armistice Day in 1918. So much for national unity.

What is different though, this time around, is the extent of the division between the Republican and Democrat parties. A study by political scientists concluded that they haven’t been this far apart – ideologically speaking – since the 1890s. Crucially, this means that Washington can’t get anything done – it’s gridlocked – which pisses the electorate right off, and so voters are volatile, chucking politicians out much more easily. Which has, in the words of the Post’s scribe, ‘reinforced the impulse for short-term political gain at the expense of anything that would lead toward co-operation and consensus’. This is why we’re already seeing talk of bipartisanship over jobs evaporating away as quickly as the morning mist over the Potomac River.

It’s hard to imagine a more striking and strikingly gruesome example of the gulf in American political ideology than the Republican audience’s reactions during the second televised debate between the Party’s presidential candidates. When the moderator of the debate noted that during his tenure as Governor of Texas, frontrunner Rick Perry had allowed more than two hundred people to be executed, the audience cheered.

Think this couldn’t be sicker? Well: know that the latest man to be executed was thus sentenced on the basis that he was more likely to commit further violent acts because he was black. If it wasn’t so horrendous it would be comical. (Since then the Supreme Court has asked for the sentence to be reconsidered, not that it will necessarily be overturned.)

So the prospect of a Republican presidency – a Leader of the Free World who has never been troubled by loss of sleep over the thought of so many dead men – is both inevitable and terrifying. Unemployment has not been this stubbornly high in the run-up to an election since the 1940s. It’s all over bar the shouting, isn’t it?

But, as so often, history can give us hope as well. This piece in the Economist offers a glimmer:

There is no clear correlation between unemployment rates and election results, for example. Franklin Roosevelt got himself re-elected under even grimmer circumstances; Richard Nixon won a second term despite a sharp rise in unemployment, and so on.

The counter examples continue. North Dakota has the strongest job market in the country, yet has seen the biggest fall in the President’s approval rating. The first of the Bush presidents failed to secure a second term despite surfing a wave of prosperity. Truman won during an even bigger economic slump than the one Obama finds himself in.

Because elections are complex, after all, and ultimately unpredictable. Remember how the wind fell out of the sails of the McCain campaign after his misjudged handling of the financial crisis? Latest polls show that whilst a generic ‘Republican candidate’ would beat Obama, it’s too close to call against either of the current frontrunners. So I’m hoping that Perry gets the nod and that more voters get to see more of a man steeped in a certain brand of Texan justice.

Man walks into a column, no.36: Jobs

No, not a(nother) paean to the iPhone or iPad in memory of Apple’s departing chief exec, but the latest instalment in At Times Like This I Wish I Was American, as President Bartlett – sorry, Obama – gives a state of the nation speech to a nation in a pretty terrible state.

With Labor Day behind us (them) and the campaigning for 2012 entering the phase when (some) Americans actually pay (some) attention, consider this a starting pistol post, in the hope that we can maintain a healthy amount of gazing across the Atlantic on arbitrary constant as the election itself draws nearer.

If you haven’t already and have a half hour to spare you really could do worse than spending it watching the full thing. Not as soaring as others in the Obama Canon, maybe, but impressively direct and well-crafted and, it almost goes without saying, delivered with style. The tone and content can be well summed up with this excerpt:

The people of this country work hard to meet their responsibilities. The question tonight is whether we’ll meet ours. The question is whether, in the face of an ongoing national crisis, we can stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy; whether we can restore some of the fairness and security that has defined this nation since our beginning.

Throughout Obama expertly married the local and the global, the everyday and the political. Held together by the ringing refrain, repeated time and again, of ‘pass this jobs bill’. The most profound passage though, for me, was when the President addressed head-on the inherent and to many the fascinating duality at the heart of the American psyche. In response to the GOP creed that government should just ‘get out of the way’, Obama said:

Yes, we are rugged individualists. Yes, we are strong and self-reliant. And it has been the drive and initiative of our workers and entrepreneurs that has made this economy the engine and envy of the world. But there has always been another thread running throughout our history – a belief that we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation.

Because when Americans say they want to be left alone to get on with it, they don’t mean really left alone, they mean ‘left to do the kind of things I want to do with my kind of people‘. I was reminded of the studies quoted in David Brooks’ The Social Animal which appear to show that in the States (especially) people choose party affiliation based on views handed down by their parents, or early in adulthood based on stereotypes of what ‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans’ are like, and then stick with whichever camp they think is most similar to them. Policy choices barely figure.

Then, party affiliation becomes the independent variable, shaping views on key issues (survey data suggests that, for example, people become Republicans first and then place increasing value on limited government, rather than the other way around) and – crucially in the current context – shaping perceptions of reality. Whether, for instance, in the case of one study, inflation had risen or fallen.

And that’s the point: however good this speech was, its substantive effect on the minds of voters is likely to be limited, making Democrats happier and Republicans angrier. Independents will continue to wait and see whether the economy picks up. The chances of a fillip within the next twelve months or so are limited when so many households and businesses are still continuing to pay down pre-crisis debt.

Anyway, with GOP members of congress in deeply intransigent mood, Obama’s Administration has little chance of getting his proposals through, so whether they’ll work or not is largely academic. What the President achieved, though, in using any president’s most potent weapon – the bully pulpit – to good effect, was to lay down the gauntlet, allowing him to credibly place the blame at the door of Congress when things don’t get better. Risky strategy, but the only one realistically open to him at this time of US decline.

Man walks into a column, no.31: Credit

I’ve been hooked by the wrangling in the US over recent weeks and months: heated wrangling about the country’s debt and what to do about it. Like all US wrangles, I couldn’t help but view this one through the prism of The West Wing, and so it was no surprise when despite Republican reneging, double-dealing and general nastiness (how predictable: boo! hiss!) a deal was done at the last minute: almost certainly thanks to a genius ploy thought up by whoever President Obama has as his Toby. Or Josh. Or maybe Sam. Anyway.

Except… in The West Wing I don’t remember things ending like this. However nasty it got in Aaron Sorkin’s Washington, you knew who you were dealing with, whether congressmen, judges, political aides, lobbyists or pollsters. People who were either a legitimate player in the political system (howevermuch you disagreed with their views, they had a mandate) or could be linked back to someone with that kind of legitimacy.

In the real world, however, we find that the hours and hours of debate, negotiations, claim and counter-claim have been rendered null and void as a result of a credit rating agency… called ‘Standard & Poor’s’. It’s like when you played a game of Monopoly as a child with your brother and sister and with minutes to go before the end the family dog comes and shits on the board.

Seriously: who are these jokers and why on earth are they suddenly more important than leaders of both houses of Congress and the President put together? My first clue comes from the Washington Post’s coverage of the downgrading. The Post’s article notes that:

S&P’s downgrade served as an indictment of the gridlock that sent the nation to the edge of defaulting on its debt obligations. It is also striking in part because it reflects the tremendous power of a small group of financial analysts employed by a New York company — part of McGraw-Hill. Credit-rating companies’ reputations were sullied during the financial crisis.

Then Mehdi Hasan, writing in the Guardian, asks why we care what these rating spoilsports think when they (a) are unelected and (b) got it so manifestly wrong last time around: the bipartisan US Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission described S&P (and the other two of the ‘big three’ ratings agencies) as ‘key enablers of the financial meltdown’: they gave investors blind faith by maintaining high credit ratings in stocks that were fundamentally bad.

By far the best source of info on Standard and Poor’s and the people behind it is from the Reuter’s news agency, in this lengthy but excellent piece. We learn the big three are wealthy: S&P’s operating profit was $3.58 billion during its boom years of 2004-7, for example; that S&P in particular is about as firmly embedded in the institution of America as anything, dating to a history of financial details of the railroads in 1860 and something called the Standard Statistics Bureau in 1906; and that people who work at S&P are well educated (one in four have doctorates) and well paid, with analysts earning up to $167,000 per year.

Decisions on sovereign debt ratings are taken seriously – a country analyst conducts considerable research and speaks to many government and other officials at the country concerned – but the committee that makes the ratings only ever takes a couple of hours to reach its verdict. But the main weakness of the process from a transparency point of view is that the membership of the committee is never published, meaning accountability is weakened.

On a very basic level I think the degree of unchecked power and influence wielded by this small group of highly paid financial analysts is pretty disgusting and completely bizarre. How can it be that the leader of the free world – someone whose birth certificate has been scrutinised, for heaven’s sake – lives in fear of a man who up until a couple of days ago didn’t even have a Wikipedia page: David Beers, the head of sovereign credit ratings for S&P.

With that said, an interview with Beers himself did give me a little pause for thought. In it he points out in an apparently reasonable and level-headed tone, that Standard and Poor’s has been talking for quite some time about the deterioration of the US’s public finances (it’s hard to argue that they have been deteriorating) and that the agency’s main concern is that a substantive deal on reducing the debt won’t be done because of the polarisation of political opinion (again, hardly controversial). Beers closes with this, which makes me start to question the accountability point a little:

…it’s important to actually read what we say. That’s why we put all of our research for free, including our sovereign research, on our public website—for people to read our analysis. Whether they agree with us or not, it’s always a good idea before you draw a conclusion to read what we say.

The influence of S&P is still bizarre. But perhaps, just perhaps, the ire that’s beginning to be directed its way by governments and commentators is a reflection of the fact that they are, in this case at least, accurately forecasting the beginning of the end of the global financial dominance of the United States. And in the short-term that can’t be good news for anyone, in Europe at least. Where’s Jed Bartlett when you need him?