Friday, February 27, 2009

There Is Some Bad Publicity

I was watching Fox News Channel’s Glen Beck Show today, and discovered that, actually, there is such a thing as bad publicity. On this blog, I’ve picked on President Obama, majority leader Senator Reid, Speaker Pelosi, and Senator McCain, all on serious issues. Still, that’s not completely balanced, so this is too good to pass up.

It seems Senator Thad (pronounce the “th”) Cochran (R-MS)’s office didn’t want Mr. Beck to use an email they sent him, and they called up just before his show started and began yelling at one of his staff—challenging them that they better not dare call out the Senator for an earmark he inserted in the $400 billion bill just passed. (That would be the bill David Axelrod insists doesn’t count against President Obama’s “no earmarks” pledge, because it should’ve been passed under President Bush. Oh. I guess Mr. Axelrod didn’t get President Obama’s memo that a President—ANY President—doesn’t run Congress. They’re co-equal branches, Mr. Axelrod, and I seem to recall that the legislative branch was under Democrat control--with Mr. Obama as a member! You’re really going with that "It's Bush's fault" story? Really?)

Oops, back to the balance.

Senator—and let me say it explicitly, Republican Senator—are you really going to double-dog dare a member of the press just before he goes on the air? Seriously? And you think that’s going to work? You think you’ll get a result other than ridicule by the journalist? Sir, that’s why we have the First Amendment. You’ve gone from 15 seconds of mention, among NINE THOUSAND other earmarks, to a full-length segment in which you make your whole party look like hypocrites.

Sir, your phone is ringing. It’s Michael Steele.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

There Is No Plan

Remember a couple weeks ago, when Timothy Geithner announced the plan to fix the economy? The day before, the President had demurred when asked to provide some details, saying he didn’t want to step on the Treasury Secretary’s toes. Huh? Okay, maybe he hadn’t been briefed yet, or didn’t want to talk about something that complicated without some notes. Only…the next day, Geithner didn’t announce a plan. He announced a plan to create a plan. The market didn’t exactly freak, but it sure dropped.

Yesterday (Feb 23), the President held a “Fiscal Responsibility Summit” at the White House, a bipartisan affair attended by over a hundred economic and political leaders. The idea was to come up with a plan--well, I thought that was the idea. The attendees split into "breakout groups" and…well, apparently, all they did was talk. President Obama facilitated a wrap-up discussion when the summit was over, asking key members of various groups to “outbrief” their team’s results. It became painfully obvious that none of the members had any idea what to do, none of them had any actual plans, and none of them seemed to even grasp the concept that they needed to come up with a plan. It was just an academic roundtable.

Memo to the President: Sir, we need a plan. We don’t need talk about creating a plan--I have now officially lost track of the number of times you’ve said, “We’re going to come up with a plan.” It usually involves a vague pronouncement that someone is going to do that.

Excellent. When?

The campaign is over. It’s been over for months. During the campaign, during the transition, and during your short time in office, you’ve kept promising us that there’s going to be a plan. I’m starting to question that. I’m starting to think Senator Reid was including you when he said, “No one knows what to do!” That really worries me, because delegating every bit of planning, and not holding your planners accountable, indicates you still think this is an academic exercise--that you're still the editor, instead of the author.

Mr. President, you’re not at Harvard any more. It’s time to start governing.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Fairness Doctrine RIP? Let's Hope.

Today, President Obama stated, through his press secretary, that he wasn't interested in reimposing the "fairness doctrine." He had indicated as much during the campaign, so it was good to hear him politely rebuke the Democrats who have been calling for it over the last week.

Across several bulletin boards, posters hailed this as proof that the right's worry was simply trumped up. Alas, not so fast. No less than former President Clinton stated in a radio interview this week that it should be reimposed, as did Congressman Waxman. Sorry, posters, but those two examples alone are enough to cause worry.

President Obama should go further, however. He should come out forcefully and state that the fairness doctrine is nothing more than censorship, which has no place in America. The marketplace of ideas does not need government interference, whether by blatantly insisting on "equal time" (but only on certain media) or subtly suggesting we need "local ownership."

The right should praise Mr. Obama for this statement, take him at his word, and trumpet it--not least because doing so will make it more difficult for him to walk back from it, but also because it would demonstrate that their differences are based entirely, strictly, and always on policy.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Does Congress Hate Workers?

This week, Congressman Sherman (D-CA) called on Wall Street CEO’s to sell their corporate jets in order to raise capital. Last week, when Senator Levin (D-MI) said basically the same thing, I started wondering, “Why do these guys hate workers?” Levin represents a state that practically identifies itself by its blue-collar roots (“the working man”). So, why does he want to put blue collar workers on the street?

I mean the folks who build the jets. Do you think they come from a magic jet fairy? They are built by blue collar workers. They are fixed, flown, and fueled by workers. They cost about $2000 per hour to fly. Where do you think that money goes, Senator? Congressman? It goes to pay the salaries of the people who keep them in the air. So they have jobs. Jobs our President wants to save, as I recall.

Oh, but it’s a terrible perk and sets the wrong example? Ah, like luxury boats—the kind President Clinton put a tax on? And then people realized they were putting the boat builders out of business? Selling that jet also means one less jet the workers need to build. Oops.

And let’s look at that “perk.” Let’s say your CEO earns $10 million per year—a lot less than most of them, but I think most people could agree that a successful CEO might be worth that. That works out to $5000 per hour, assuming a 40 hour work week and 50 weeks per year. (Certainly they work more, but let’s assume they just do the extra pro bono.)

By my math, if they fly commercial—or drive, like the idiots from Ford, GM, and Chrysler—then every hour, they are stealing $3000 in value from the company. They’re stealing from me, their stockholder. (The jet costs around $50 million, but it lasts 10 years and flies lots of suits at once, so let's not do more math.)

The head of my own company (which, let’s just say, is REALLY big) recently mused at a gathering that perhaps he should’ve driven down from corporate headquarters, instead of flying. It would’ve taken him 4 hours instead of 1 hour, each way. I know he was trying to be considerate, and I didn’t want to be rude, so I bit my tongue. What I really wanted to say was, “Sir, respectfully, if you don’t have something better to do with your time than spend 4 hours driving here, we have the wrong boss.”

We need to get past the idea that CEO’s fly on corporate jets because it’s fun, or fashionable, or chic. They do it because their time is really that valuable. If they screw up the company, then fire them. But that doesn’t change the fact that the company needs someone whose time is really that valuable. America is an egalitarian society, so we don’t like to think like that. But let’s get serious for a minute—that’s what we say we want in our nation’s leaders. Why would businesses want someone who’s just mediocre? Who, exactly, do we expect to end up in the cabinet?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Executive Pay--Bipartisanship, or the Issue?

President Obama has recently made the case that executives in companies that accept "bailout" money from the federal government should be restricted to salaries of $500,000. His argument is that they shouldn't be rewarded for running their companies into the ground, and the taxpayers certainly shouldn't be subsidizing the reward. An interesting argument.

It certainly has populist appeal, and liberals are obviously supporting the concept as a matter of how they see fairness. Conservatives counter on principle--that once the government starts telling these businesses how to run their affairs, what's to stop them from telling all businesses? Or all of us?

That's not a ridiculous worry--when the income tax was being debated in Congress, one member was belittled for worrying that someday, 5% of the population might be subject to it.

What's more interesting to me is the obvious counter the President could play, if he really wants a bipartisan approach. Sure, liberals like the idea because they think it's fair. But the conservative argument should be that executives and boards need to be discouraged from taking the bailout unless their companies really need it. Taking a bailout is likely to devastate the shareholders--the owners of that company. There needs to be a personal disincentive to ensure that boards act on behalf of their investors, the owners, and don't get the idea that these companies are a personal playground.

He could move on to asking Congress to figure out a way to ensure that the CEO brought in to pull a company out of the ditch doesn't have to pay that penalty (nicely assuming he now automatically wins over his opposition with the previous argument).

The downside, of course, is that requires him to acknowledge the other side really has good ideas. Since, so far, "bipartisanship" has mostly consisted of, "Come to the meeting and then vote for my plan," that could be a problem. But that begs the question--is this about bipartisanship, or the issue?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Right, Wrong, and Lies

I recently watched an interview about the proposed economic stimulus plan. This one happened to be on Neil Cavuto’s “Your World” on Fox News, but I’ve seen similar ones on CNN and CNBC. Mr. Cavuto was interviewing a Congressman—I don’t recall his name, but it doesn’t matter, since I wouldn’t repeat it in this context.

Cavuto’s point was that the Congressional Budget Office had stated that of the billions of dollars proposed for the stimulus; only a few percent would actually be spent in 2009. Only a few more would be spent in 2010. So, that wouldn’t have much stimulatory effect. The Congressman stated that was wrong—that the CBO figures were inaccurate; it was more like half in 2009 and two-thirds by 2010.

And here’s the problem—he didn’t offer any support for that position. He simply stated the CBO figures were wrong. Maybe they are; maybe they aren’t—but, he didn’t offer any rationale for why his position should be considered more accurate than the CBO’s.

That left Mr. Cavuto with a quandary. He could argue with the Congressman, but that would simply devolve into “Is not/Is too!” It was an interview, and there wasn’t time to go do research. Alternately, Cavuto could accept that maybe the CBO was wrong and the Congressman was right. Or, he could call the Congressman a liar. That’s right—on nationwide TV, simply state, “Congressman, I don’t believe you, and I don’t think you believe it either. You are deliberately misrepresenting the facts, because you’re hoping I won’t dare call you out—and hoping that instead, I’ll grant your position for the sake of argument. You, sir, are a liar.” But, of course, he didn’t call him out; he did effectively accept the Congressman’s position for the duration of the interview.

Nice trick. And, more than a little outrageous.

There was a time—I think—when most people tried to make rational arguments based on what they believed to be true. At some point, somebody realized that truth is irrelevant in the interview. If you don’t mind making an obscenely dishonest case, you can get the obscenely dishonest case into the public mind. I’d like to think this is because the average journalist just can’t quite believe that anyone would simply bald-face lie to them.

But, they do.

During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, Hezbollah arranged utterly fake photo ops, with live people pretending to be bodies. Photojournalist frauds sent pictures of burning garbage dumps to major US magazines (Time and Newsweek, among others), claiming they were pictures of Israeli attacks. The pictures ended up as cover stories. When the falsehood was revealed, the magazines were embarrassed, and there were back-page corrections written weeks or months later, but the press certainly didn’t run an outraged cover story condemning the practice.

Why not?

The optimist in me wants to believe that it’s just human nature—no one wants to admit they were fooled. But, the realist in me worries. Specifically, I worry about the concept of the narrative—the story that is already written, in which the journalist is simply looking for some facts to “confirm” what he has already decided to write. The alleged Duke “rape” case is a particularly egregious instance of the “narrative,” but the general trend is exactly what conservatives scream about when they claim media bias. Their “other side” makes outrageous claims that are simply not challenged—so, instead of arguing about which solution is better, the defender first has to explain that the other side’s case doesn’t even hold water.

I've seen this dirty trick tried on Rush Limbaugh, at least three times. (I'll detail them in the comments, if anyone ever asks.) Nevermind your opinion of the talk show host (or mine). In all cases, the perpetrators knew full well that what they were saying was simply untrue. Not "opinion." Not "responsible people can disagree." Not even "the scientific consensus disputes your position." I mean Un-True--as in, February comes after January each year and claims to the contrary are untrue. But, they counted on the lie being believed, and when it was challenged, they made even more outrageous claims--usually backstopped by a claim that since Limbaugh is partisan, that makes the attack acceptable. What kind of logic is that?

That’s a real problem—because while Mr. Limbaugh has a radio show to make his case, most people don't. And once a side becomes convinced it can’t get a fair hearing, it will stop trying to be reasonable. At which point, both sides are on the path to outrageous.