24 May 2013
In the June issue of The Atlantic Jonathan Chait profiles Republican heterodox and apparent coconut horde Josh Barro. There have been plenty of conservative critics of the Republican Party. But what makes Barro unique, according to Chait, is his willingness to acknowledge the enormous gulf between the GOP and his own policy preferences.
Writers like David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, and Ramesh Ponnuru have made versions of this case for several years. In recent months, owing to the shock of Mitt Romney’s defeat, more-orthodox figures like James Pethokoukis and Michael Gerson have joined them. But all have delivered their critiques with a velvet touch that underplays the scale of the change they advocate. Of course Reagan’s canon—taxes bad, spending bad, markets good—addressed the problems of 1980, they gently submit. But new problems have replaced them, like too-big-to-fail banks and middle-class wage stagnation, thus demanding new, middle-class-friendly solutions. The reformers offer positive alternatives and cheerfully tout any signs, however faint, of their imminent adoption. What they do not do is face up to the stark contrast between their imagined Republican Party and the real thing.
There's a lot of truth here. But the differences between Barro and the other conservatives Chait mentions is not just one of means but ends as well. And what sets Barro apart for me is captured in a column he wrote shortly after the November election. I just can't see Brooks or Ponnuru writing something like this.
But the big problem for conservatives is that these policies cannot fully substitute for progressive fiscal policy. The dirty secret about the last 30 years' rise in pre-tax income inequality is that we probably can't reverse it. Instead, we will have to rely on policies that ameliorate it on an after-tax basis -- that is, the dreaded redistribution of income, or "spreading the wealth around"...
Eventually, if conservatives want to keep putting their stamp on American economic policy, they will have to give in to that reality that government must become more redistributive. Otherwise, the Republican Party will be left with an economic appeal to an affluent minority of the population and an ethnic appeal to a shrinking older white-voter base -- and that will win them fewer and fewer elections.
23 May 2013
One of the songs I’m hearing everywhere here in the US is Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” This is no surprise, since it is a top 20 hit and the most successful Daft Punk single to date in America.
It is also their most American single to date. Oh yes, it is unmistakably Daft Punk, in full French House vivant. But it also has Nile Rodgers’s real disco guitar instead of the reconstituted funk of prior Daft Punk euro-dance. And the lead vocal isn’t the faceless vocoderized robot-singing of the duo’s previous singles, but Pharrell Williams’s familiar amateur soul croon. It would be misguided to pretend it isn’t a transatlantic tune, but with two of its most recognisable elements being distinctly American — at a time when America has wholeheartedly embraced electronic dance music — is it best understood as a primarily American song?
(On the other hand, this is the most successful Daft Punk single of all time pretty much everywhere — their first number one in a slew of markets and their second in France, following “One More Time.”)
18 May 2013
Sharyl Attkisson of CBS has an interesting piece on the acknowledged mistakes of government officials in the wake of the Benghazi attacks. It's worth reading in its entirety, but here's the cliff notes:
The list of mea culpas by Obama administration officials involved in the Benghazi response and aftermath include: standing down the counterterrorism Foreign Emergency Support Team, failing to convene the Counterterrorism Security Group, failing to release the disputed Benghazi "talking points" when Congress asked for them, and using the word "spontaneous" while avoiding the word "terrorism."
From where I'm standing the failure to immediately send in the Foreign Emergency Support Team "FEST" is the most egregious error. Ultimately, this wouldn't have made a difference as the attacks were over by the time FEST could have arrived. But as the article points out, no one knew this at the time, and this type of results-oriented thinking shouldn't absolve the mistake.
Overall, the piece highlights the great divide between the legitimate questions about the Benghazi investigation and the spectacle that Congressional Republicans insisted on turning it into. There were certainly mistakes made by the administration, but the acute politicization of the investigation ended up distracting from these worthwhile inquiries. I get how this works, and either political party will take advantage of a story if it can be used for political gain. But I just wish we'd gone about this whole thing a little more like Attkisson does and a little less like how it actually ended up transpiring.
17 May 2013
Obama's relationship with the nattering nabobs of Washington, according to Politico:
The town is turning on President Obama — and this is very bad news for this White House ... Obama’s aloof mien and holier-than-thou rhetoric have left him with little reservoir of good will, even among Democrats. And the press, after years of being accused of being soft on Obama while being berated by West Wing aides on matters big and small, now has every incentive to be as ruthless as can be.
After suffering hits from Beltway elites for missteps in handling “the perfect storm” of controversies, the West Wing got its mojo back ...
Whew. I bet that was a nerve-wracking 34 hours for the administration.
Meanwhile, Ezra Klein imagines what it would be like if Obama "went Bulworth." I'll suspend my usual distaste for journalists writing political fanfic to make a larger point: if you ever wonder why politicians don't "go Bulworth," read Klein's fantasy press-conference, then imagine how it would be reported by Politico. (Then imagine how it would be portrayed by Jay Leno and Saturday Night Live.)
15 May 2013
No this isn't about the controversies that emerged this week. I'm pretty sure you can find an article or two about those somewhere else. Rather the headline refers to the sequester, which has become something of a pet project of mine in recent months.
I'm hesitant to write these sort of pieces. The blogosphere is already saturated with green lantern critiques of the presidency. If only Obama had twisted a few more arms and kissed a few babies we'd have gun control and a bipartisan debt deal! And I'm amused at the ease with which journalists assume they understand the art of political deal-making better than the people who do it for a living. Caveats aside though, I'm comfortable calling the adminstratration's sequester strategy a mess.
The merit of the Obama administration's decision to suggest the sequester - a bargaining chip to get Republicans to raise the debt ceiling back in 2011 - always hinged on whether they could replace it before it caused a serious drag on the economy.
But not only did Democrats underestimate how easy this would be, they repeatedly refused to exert any political capital to try and do so. Given the devastating effects of the immediate jobs crisis, this was a serious error.
The sequester was something of an afterthought during the fiscal cliff negotiations. Once it became clear that no large-scale budget deal was going to be reached, Democrats appeared eager to reach a narrow deal on taxes and then move on to the next issue.
But decoupling the tax increases from the automatic spending cuts effectively conceded that the sequester would go into effect. Sure, a lot of Republicans were worried about the $500 billion in defence cuts, but it should be clear to anyone who follow politics that the GOP's anti-tax orthodoxy has superseded its commitment to military spending. Once tax increases were off the table there was pretty much no chance of getting Republicans to sign off on a new bill to avert the sequester.
The strategy was puzzling at the time and dosen't look any better in retrospect.
Plan B for the Obama administration was to highlight the painful effects of the budget cuts, and count on outside pressure from interest groups and citizens to force Republicans back to the negotiating table.
This was always going to be an uphill climb given that the sequester is more of a slow-burn than an immediate shock. But, if this strategy were to work, it required holding firm and refusing to rearrange the budget cuts to make them more politically palatable.
Democrats though had no interest in taking this sort of political stand. The week after FAA sequester cuts began causing extended flight delays, the President signed a bipartisan bill ending the air traffic controller furloughs. Putting aside the moral question of whether it's appropriate to prioritize air travel over earl childhood education programs; it's clear that making these fixes greatly reduced the chances of passing a sequester replacement. Ezra Klein put it well...
In effect, what Democrats said...was that in any case where the political pain caused by sequestration becomes unbearable, they will agree to cancel that particular piece of the bill while leaving the rest of the law untouched. The result is that sequestration is no longer particularly politically threatening, but it’s even more unbalanced: Cuts to programs used by the politically powerful will be addressed, but cuts to programs that affects the politically powerless will persist. It’s worth saying this clearly: The pain of sequestration will be concentrated on those who lack political power.
One can understand, if not agree with, the adminstration's logic in each instance. The Obama camp proposed the cuts during a hostile political climate in which the country faced the threat of default. And during the fiscal cliff negotiations and FAA furloughs, there was outside pressure to get some type of deal done.
But taken together it becomes apparent that Democrats had no coherent strategy for dealing with the sequester; no sense of urgency to find a permanent solution. Instead, they seemed content to issue tepid warnings about the dangers of immediate budget cuts, and then back down when faced with any sort of pushback.
In general, the administration has done a pretty good job playing defence against potential austerity measures that would hinder the recovery. It's surprising to see them look so flat-footed on this issue.
13 May 2013
Attention everybody! I have a very important announcement! As of right now, if every US state I have ever visited gave me its electoral college votes, I would win a presidential election*. (States in red are ones in which I have visited but not left the airport.)
* Well, if I were a natural born US citizen over the age of 35.
12 May 2013
I wondered in Tallahassee if I had yet properly reached the South. I was in the Florida panhandle, and the cosmopolitan Caribbean of Miami had long receded. The Floridian capital is one of tidy antebellum architecture and broad hanging Southern live oaks — photos of which fail to properly capture the way these vast trees droop over the avenues, as if the heat in the air were too much for them — and that other great American architectural triumph, and of the American South particularly — the strip mall.
Another part of town, literally on the other side of the railroad tracks, is less pretty: the strip malls here contain pawn shops and gun shops, and pawn-and-gun shops, and wig stores and auto repair shops and nail salons and car customising services. The product of the latter stands in one of the massive parking lots — the one filled with a continuous soundtrack of soul music emanating from one of the roadside car washes at its edge — a gleaming, salmon-pink sedan with matching oversized pink wheels elevating the car to well over twice its normal height above the ground. Next to this one is another automobile, less magnificent but equally pink. In a CD store selling bootleg copies of mixtapes by Boosie and Mouse and Webbie and Gucci Mane and other less well known Southern rappers, as well as classic albums from outside the South — Illmatic, Ready to Die, Reasonable Doubt, The Marshall Mathers LP — sits a silver haired man probably in his fifties, dressed tidily in clothes slightly too small for him. He strikes up conversation with me because, he says, he’s the only other white guy in the store. “I’m the manager,” he says, as if to explain his presence. He then clarifies that he hosts parties at clubs with one of the store’s proprietors. “When I first came around, they thought I was the bookie,” he continues. “Because I used to be a bookmaker.”
I’m in this part of town looking for a theatre; the official Tallahassee visitors’ website had advised that this evening would mark the first of three performances of A Raisin in the Sun, the story of a black family in 1950s Chicago who buy a house in an all-white neighbourhood. It was the first show written by an African American woman to play on Broadway. The theatre, when I found it, was in one of those Southside strip malls, in the concrete expanse of an empty store front. About thirty people attended. The performance was enjoyable, though its energy flagged from time to time — always a risk for plays as long as this one. I’m not sure if theatres in America are commonly found in strip malls, but either way, I don’t wish to suggest the production was an amateurish one; it was nothing of the sort. The stand out performance was probably that of Zakiya Jas, who played the long-suffering wife of the show’s hero-of-sorts, Walter Lee Younger, a man in his mid-thirties chafing at the limitations of his job of chauffeuring a rich white man. (Summer Hill Seven handled the lead role capably.)
Tallahassee was where I saw Confederate flags for the first time this visit — on the licence plate of a truck driven by a large and neatly-presented white woman — but I’d also seen Confederate flags in Charlottesville, Virginia. I imagine folks might argue that the home of the University of Virginia has more in common culturally with the suburbs of Washington, DC, than the rest of Dixie. I saw a sign outside a chicken restaurant advertising the “best liver and gizzards in town,” but can a town really be properly representative of the South if it hosts two universities and a state government — and which are the three biggest employers in town? Tallahassee does feel like a college town in many ways. And Tallahassee is unusually Democratic politically for a Southern town (though it probably isn’t meaningful in this regard that even the local paper is called The Democrat).
Outside Tallahassee and further along the panhandle, however, things get undeniably Southern. The vegetation turns thick and lush, the ground swampy. Little in the way of anything lines the narrow highway, save for lone, low, modestly-constructed houses, the odd trailer, and dirt roads disappearing rapidly into the woods. In the distance, the occasional water tower announces the name of a passing town. Churches — small, cheaply but neatly constructed, invariably white and marked by tall, prominent crosses — are a regular occurrence. A handmade poster posted on a telegraph pole reads “IMPERIALIST SOCIALIST BENGHAZI COVER UP.” I guess the author considered it unnecessary to explain the context or object of her complaint.
I’ve seen plenty of country Australia, and this is nothing like country Australia. It’s much greener for a start. The heat is unfamiliar too: not more intense by any means, but perhaps damper? These are preliminary observations. And I’ve left out the parts that could be found anywhere in America: the chain “ale house” I at dinner at last night, for instance, that had hockey and basketball on the TVs that crowded into every possible point at which a person’s gaze might turn and a tantalising selection of craft beers behind the bar. Or the shopping mall that could have been anywhere if not for the quantity of Seminole and Gator merchandise on sale. Or how, now, between Panama City and Pensacola, along the Gulf Coast, Walmarts and hotels and half-constructed pre-fab townhomes are a more common occurrence than rundown shacks.
I have seen little of the South. I will see more.
1. To be precise, while eating a chicken sandwich in a Chick-Fil-A there. I'm sad to report that chicken sold by bigots is delicious.
2. And in California, too.
10 May 2013
I said on Twitter the other day that I hadn't encountered a city to which I was more spectacularly ill-suited than Miami, which sounds like a criticism of the city. It's not though; this is a rather pleasant place. Its streets are walkable, its public transport system is functional — including the Metromover, a free elevated train system that loops through downtown — and the weather has been invariably warm, but not hot. (I can't guarantee it will stay this agreeable into the summer months — or hurricane season.) So Miami is a fine city, albeit one in which I'm a completely alien presence.
Let me explain: I'm on vacation right now, and Miami is a town made for vacationing. There's sun, there's the beach, there's shopping, there's gorgeous art deco architecture and palm trees; there's the ever-present potential to spend your days doing pretty much absolutely nothing at all. And, well, all that makes me feel kinda nervous.
I won't pretend to be a workoholic — lord knows I can be truly talented at goofing off. But there's a reason I'm taking my vacation in the very place I spend every day at work thinking about, and that's because I can't really relax if I'm doing nothing and not thinking anything. Also, I don't like the beach. A friend imagined me here: "I see you standing uncomfortably on the sand in shoes, colourful trousers and striped shirt with 'beautiful' people all around." She was pretty much right! (I will admit that Miami's enthusiasm for applying pastel as plentifully to its buildings as its apparel is one that suits my sensibilities perfectly.)
Miami approaches a weird, blissful, and uncomfortable perfection; its attempt to be America's paradise at the end of its longest peninsula approaches the maniacal. And in true American habit, the form that mania takes is capitalistic and hedonistic. South Beach, particularly, is crazy: due to delayed flights I checked into my hotel here at 2am on a Sunday evening, expecting all around me to be dark and dead. Not so. Dance music pounded from the entrance to my hotel. My room was a dark wood-panelled, chandelier-endowed grotesque. Highly attractive Miamians — the concentration of extremely good-looking members of both sexes, many of whom consider clothing to be optional — strolled the streets as if it were just dusk. Convertibles roamed the boulevards as if they were lost from the set of a rap video.
Across the causeway, in Miami, the atmosphere is less resort-like, but still as effortlessly moneyed. The skyscrapers, filled with hotels and investment banks don't cluster but smear along the long stretch that is downtown. The restaurants at their base are industrial in scale, plush in presentation, and possess the uniformity of upmarket chain-dining. Beyond here is Brickell; a neighbourhood of lush tree-lined avenues and regiments of towering luxury apartment blocks arranged along the waterfront for miles. Miami wears its money more naturally than New York, where it rubs shoulders with broke artists and Bronx brolic, or Los Angeles, where it secludes itself in residential enclaves. Sure, out there in the great suburban expanse of the greater Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood-etc. metropolitan area is the financial insecurity of one of the states hit hardest by the Great Recession, but here in the city and by the beach, the wealth is so plentiful that it has been synthesised almost imperceivably into happiness.
South Beach hasn't birthed it, but, for instance, it is the natural cultural home of the most commercial end of contemporary American rap music: big-sellers like Rick Ross, Drake, Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, and the like. Bass-augmented beats and tales of an endless disposable melange of wealth, sex, and party drugs (rap's had a recent obsession with ecstasy) make sense here. Miami is America's VIP section, with all but bottle service provided.
These banners, hanging around downtown, and interspersed with ones celebrating another of the city's obsessions, the Miami Heat, the team that used its dollars to seduce superstar LeBron James from hard-scrabble Cleveland and is now tied with the Chicago Bulls in a playoff series closely watched citywide, say two things about America: that it's really old, and that it has, throughout the European portion of its history, been a Latin American place.
Sure, 500 years is young by old world standards, but no European structure in Australia pre-dates 1788. Florida contains the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in America: St. Augustine, founded by the Spanish in 1565. (Conquistador Juan Ponce de León first sighted Florida in 1513, hence the 500 year celebration.) I'm not sure about the rest of Florida — I head north to the panhandle in a few hours — but Miami is the most Latino part of America I have visited, moreso than even Los Angeles. I hear Spanish being spoken on the streets almost as much as I do English. The ever-present soundtrack in the city is that of the dem bow riddim, the insistent beat that defines the Puerto Rican–created rap-derived music called reggaeton. (The music of Cuban-American rapper Pitbull also booms in regular rotation from cars and shopfronts.)
In Little Havana, the effect is intensified. This area is not like the ethnic neighbourhoods of other cities, the Chinatowns or Little Saigons that intensify an immigrant culture into a few tightly-packed blocks. Little Havana's Calle Ocho extends for miles. The supermarkets are Latino chains and the advertisements are in Spanish. At a cafe at which I stopped for strong, sweet Cuban coffee, the staff spoke barely more English than I do Spanish. (Mine is mal.) Old men play dominoes in a small park through the day. Refugees from Castro's communism plaster Romney-Ryan stickers on the fixtures. In this part of America, Spanish is the lingua franca, just as it was 500 years earlier.
I must end here. Next stop will be in genuine Confederate territory; the maxim in Florida is that the farther north you go, the more Southern the state gets. I'll keep you guys updated.
8 May 2013
Recently a graduate of Operation Opportunity's Warrior-Scholar Project at Yale asked me about some recommended readings for one of his university subjects in American Government, alongside recommendations for other subjects on English Composition, Philosophy, and Oratory. What follows is an abridged version of my response:
On the American government
Some of my favourite background readings on American Government include but are not limited to four concise books: first, Anne-Marie Slaughter's The Idea that is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World (Basic Books, 2007); second, Charles Jones' The American Presidency: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press); third, Donald Ritchie's The U.S. Congress; and fourth, Sandy Maisel's American Political Parties and Elections, both of which are also part of Oxford's A Very Short Introduction series.
What to read on how to write
Some classic readings for English composition include William Strunk and E. B. White's The Elements of Style -- this book is my talisman; David Crystal's Rediscover Grammar -- Crystal is one of the greatest scholars of linguistics in our time; Stanley Fish's How to Write a Sentence -- Fish is a renowned legal scholar and prolific writer for the New York Times, in his concise guide to good writing he deconstructs and reconstructs the mechanics of a beautiful sentence; finally, Mortimer J. Adler's seminal How to Read a Book -- one can't write unless one can read a book. Pay keen attention to Adler's seventh chapter on "X-Raying a Book."
Use your pen to pillage these books. You aren't reading unless your pen is moving. Annotate, annotate, annotate. Once your pen runs through each book; write! Whenever you find yourself looking at the screen for more than fifteen minutes, cursing your writer's block, make sure that you take a break: go outside for fresh air, take a walk, eat some fruit, have some green tea for a caffeine buzz, read a little to be inspired, then return to write anew.
Intro to philosophy
When I became interested in philosophy back in high school, a favourite book of mine was Simon Blackburn's Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy. Another good book is Edward Craig's Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Finally, one should not forget the classic tome by Will Durant: The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World's Great Philosophers. For those fond of audiobooks, Grover Gardner narrates a compelling audio edition of this great work from that Pulitzer Prize winning philosopher of the twentieth century.
My favourite book on public speaking is written by Ronald Reagan's speech writer, Peggy Noonan, and is entitled: On Speaking Well: How to Give a Speech with Style, Substance, and Clarity.
What does one do when faced with such a battery of books? Simply set aside one hour a day to read, then choose one book from each category, open the page anywhere your eyes are drawn, then read. If you find any paragraph to be uninteresting, move on to the next, until you are again reengaged with the text. The rest is an adventure with the gods. And remember, if your pen isn't moving, you aren't reading.
Please do comment on this blog post if you found these collections of books interesting or helpful. Also, feel free to suggest any other books that should be added to these cursory lists.
7 May 2013
A great deal of emphasis in analysis on Australia’s new Defence White Paper has been placed on its softened tone towards China. But what exactly does this mean for Australia’s relationship with the United States and the Asia Pacific region as a whole?
Julia Gillard has removed the provocative language towards China that was espoused by Kevin Rudd in the 2009 Defence White Paper. Instead, the new paper emphasizes that Australia’s defence policy is aimed at “encouraging China’s peaceful rise”. What is interesting about this is that the strategic environment in Asia has gotten worse, not better since 2009. Tensions in the East China and South China seas and the uncertainty surrounding the stability of North Korea are the two greatest instabilities currently in the region.
The paper could have been clearer about addressing the possible flashpoints and conflicts that are likely to arise in the region if Australia doesn’t have sufficient defence engagement.
The new paper is evidence of the Gillard government’s current ‘middle of the road’ mind frame towards Australia’s relationships with China and the US. The paper doesn’t antagonise anyone and keeps everyone on side. Which is all well and good, but this means it doesn’t offer a very clear strategic vision for the future and it is likely that this approach will not be sustainable.
What adds another level of complexity to Australia’s situation is the decrease in spending on defence by the United States. The US is having to find $42 billion in cuts from defence spending this year and this is evidently going to increase the pressure on other US allies in the region (including South Korea and Japan) to supplement capabilities in the region.
Australia has split its allegiances and now finds itself in a complex strategic situation between China and the US. Australia will have to be optimistic that any major confrontation between the United States and China in the future is avoided due to the need to preserve strategic stability and ensure prosperity. However, if a conflict does arise, Australia is going to have some tough diplomatic decisions to make.
- Delivering a Sustainable Future City
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- Visit by the Australian Political Exchange Council’s 25th US Delegation
- Derek Shearer: Obama v McCain - Who Will Win, Does it Matter?
- John Howard Dinner
- McCain's Acceptance Speech: Republican National Convention
- New Horizons: Breaking into the US market
- Sydney Uni Live!
- Obama's Acceptance Speech: Democratic National Convention
- Hedley Bull Book Launch: Address by Bob Hawke
- Great White Fleet Centenary Ball
- Dick McCormack: Global Financial Risk and the Role of Central Banks and Regulators
- Jonathan Pollack: US-North Asia Relations
- Jeffrey Sachs Dinner
- ANZASA Conference
- Peter Scher: Will US Trade Policy Change After the 2008 Elections?
- Peter Scher: The Next President's Challenge - Global Trade and the 2008 Elections
- Matt Bai: US Political Journalism - The Next Generation
- Bob Pisano: Positioning Australian Screen Content in the US Marketplace
- Marvin Goodfriend: The Outlook for the US Economy and the State of the Financial Institutions
- American Foreign Policy After Bush: Frank Fukuyama in Conversation with Geoffrey Garrett
- Frank Fukuyama Meets US Studies Students
- Frank Fukuyama: Contemporary Issues Facing America
- Super Tuesday screening at the Manning Bar
- 2007 National Summit: Public Forum
- 2007 National Summit: Networking and Research Forum
- 2007 National Summit: America Then, America Now
- 2007 National Summit: Climate Change or Islamofascism
- 2007 National Summit: Dinner
- 2007 National Summit: How Countries Compete
- 2007 National Summit: Will the Next US Foreign Policy Look Surprisingly Like the Current One?
- 2007 National Opinion Survey: Australian Attitudes Towards the US (Part 2)
- 2007 National Summit: Opening
- 2007 National Summit: Welcome Reception
- Role of Arts and Humanities in Building International Understanding: Harriet Mayor Fulbright
- 2007 National Opinion Survey: Australian Attitudes Towards the US (Part 1)
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