Saturday, February 25, 2006

Bagging Bush

Look at how the AP’s Sally Buzbee describes the “unraveling” of America’s Mideast policy (2/24):

The rush to blame the United States for the [Askariya] shrine bombing. . . riots over the prophet drawings. . .the United Arab Emirates ports dispute. . . Hamas’ election win. . . sign[s] of just how much America’s Mideast policy has unraveled in recent months.

Let’s go through this list point by point. The U.S. had nothing to do with the Askariya shrine bombing. The U.S. has no connection to the prophet drawing riots, which are encouraged by America’s enemies, and target Denmark. Hamas’ election victory hurts the U.S. effort to settle the Palestinian question, but in the end, we should benefit from Palestine’s having held democratic elections. The UAE ports dispute was a U.S. public relations mistake, yet Bush is doing the right thing to delay the sale while standing behind it.

AP is an unsophisticated news source, though one that used to have some claim on objectivity. Today, the template for U.S.-origin international news stories is a simple, “How do we make Bush look bad?” Happiness comes from a job well done. The mainstream media (MSM) will be happy when the Republicans go down, the Democrats recapture the White House, and observers give partial credit to the MSM for accomplishing that goal.

A "New Sunbelt," "Melting Pot," "Heartland" View of America

How do we best understand the pieces of today’s America? We can see it as market segments--8.2 million census blocks, divided into 126 ethnic subgroups subdivided by a table with 198 income and age cells, with additions such as age of home, year occupied, etc. Or we can more simply view the U.S. as four regions—Northeast, Midwest, South, and West. Or as Sunbelt and Rustbelt. Or as the coasts and “flyover” states. Or as Red and Blue states.

William Frey took a crack at explaining the country in his “Three America’s: The Rising Significance of Regions” (Journal of the American Planning Association, Fall 2002). Frey divides the country into three regions that correspond to a city with 40% of the nation's people, which he calls the “Melting Pot,” a suburb with 20% of our population, his “New Sunbelt”, and a rural area with the remaining 40% labeled the “Heartland.” People in the regions are more alike than they are like those in other regions, meaning a city dweller in the "New Sunbelt" is more like a rural resident of the same region than a "Melting Pot" city dweller.

Frey’s suburb, his “New Sunbelt” states (Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Tennessee, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia), make up the fastest-growing region, fueled by white and black families fleeing the other regions along with rapidly-rising numbers of younger, well-off elderly. Ozzie and Harriet families (married w/children) are declining nationally, yet nine of the ten states where they are growing are “New Sunbelt” states. The region added seven congressional seats in 2002, versus five total for California, Texas, and Florida.

The “Melting Pot,” Frey's city (California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, Hawaii, Alaska), grows primarily through immigration. It is home to three-fourths of America’s Asians and Hispanics, our current immigrant base, and the region’s suburbs are nearly as mixed as its cities. Meanwhile the region’s white population is declining (except in Texas, Florida, New Mexico, and Alaska)--in the 1990’s 3.3 million more people moved out of the region to other states than moved in.

The “Heartland” (the other 29 states and District of Columbia) is Frey’s rural area, lagging in population growth. It is dominated by white people (plus blacks in its industrial cities), by people who were born in-state, and by increasingly gray Baby Boomers. The region contains several swing states, meaning its aging, white, more blue-collar population’s concerns will shape the nation’s agenda.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

"American Idol" Alters American Culture

“American Idol” is becoming a historic culture-bending event in America. In the world, actually, since versions of the show currently run in 36 countries. Amazingly, the show grows in popularity each year, contrary to a normal TV run. It seems to me that “Idol” is part of a megatrend toward empowering ordinary people at the expense of the elite.

“American Idol” made its most spectacular statement in early February when it drew an audience nearly twice that for the Grammy Awards, which featured music’s top professionals. How did this happen?

According to Thomas de Zengotita, author of the book Mediated, people are unfolding a revolution against being treated as mere spectators (LA Times, 2/12). It’s spectators against celebrities, with spectators demanding the last scarce resource—attention. And people’s heroes today are pop music performers. They know how to make us the focus of attention.

De Zengotita compares a concert to a religious experience. When the star meets the audience’s huge expectations, each individual feels both personally understood and fused with other fans in a larger common identity. Music combined with words has the power to grab us at a deeper level than articulated meaning.

“American Idol” beats a concert, because a fan becomes the idol. And in its early stages, the show makes us part of the most popular clique, delivering snarky judgments on the country’s most embarrassing pool of losers. Both phases of "Idol" help the audience feel like winners.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Cuture + Computers (Part II)

Achieving societies are societies able to postpone gratification. Self-interest is served immediately, or it takes the longer path to greater achievement. The key to economic prosperity is continuous reform (see posting, “Free Markets Create Wealth”). Reform and prosperity come not from immediate gratification, but from taking care of others, from building a team, from, in Jack Welch’s words, “getting great people” (see posting, “Knocking Bureaucracy”).

Fulfilling the Protestant ethic means buying land, building a business, sending children to college, taking care of the next generation. Confucianism is families working hard to place children in a position to care for their parents. Judaism is a society surviving by providing its children the best opportunities possible. India’s recent rise is attributed to the strength of its families, a tradition that like that of China and Judaism, long ago demonstrated its entrepreneurial spirit in hostile environments abroad.

A culture’s ability to postpone gratification and its reverence for education seem closely linked. And education may be the key to progress. New Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, in his testimony before Congress last week, along with tax cuts otherwise oddly endorsed charter schools and education vouchers as measures to help boost the economy. Perhaps Max Weber's stress on the Protestant work ethic relateed to the fact that in 1900, education was less significant in daily life--only 10% of Americans even went to high school then (now 27% have graduated from college).

It’s possible that what seems to be culture facilitating economic progress is just modernization given a more complicated name. Certainly scholars viewed Confucianism and the Indian caste system as barriers to economic progress. Now Confucian and Hindu emphasis on the family seem to support modernization. Ireland was historically backward, hurt by its traditional Catholic faith. Today, it is one of the most successful economies in Europe. Here then is a common strand: in China, in India, and in Ireland, when the people at last grabbed hold of their destinies (indirectly to be sure in China), parents fulfilled their dreams in part by educating their children. By postponing gratification.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Culture + Computers (Part I)

Culture and religion can seem to advance a society as well as hold it back. Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the role Confucianism plays in East Asian achievement-based societies, the identity between Judaism and worldly success—all suggest a positive role for religion and culture in facilitating economic development. Culture can help development as well as hinder it; religion can encourage achievement or block it.

Weber argues, persuasively I believe, that the Puritans paved the way for capitalism by making hard work on earth an expression of faith, but denying their community the right to spend lavishly, thus forcing people to invest—a course of action that fueled capitalism before Adam Smith discovered it. And Protestantism advanced the industrial revolution because Protestants were willing to buy mass-produced products that looked like what everyone else had, preferring them to the expensive finery aristocrats favor.

Weber recognized that while religious belief kicked off these trends, once people started making money, investing it, and spending it on consumer goods, religion faded and secular rationalism took over.

Weber wrote about how religion blocked similar progress in China and India. Both societies, however, have undergone revolutions since Weber did his scholarship in the early 1900’s.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Sick Man of the Developed World

In his column on “The Decline and Fall of Europe,” Fareed Zakaria writes

the European Union has a combined gross domestic product that is approximately the same as that of the United States. But the EU has 170 million more people. Its per capita GDP is 25 percent lower than that of the U.S. and, most important, that gap has been widening for 15 years. If present trends continue, the chief economist at the OECD argues, in 20 years the average U.S. citizen will be twice as rich as the average Frenchman or German.

Two Swedish researchers, Frederik Bergstrom and Robert Gidehag, note in a monograph published last year that "40 percent of Swedish households would rank as low-income households in the U.S."

Talk to top-level scientists and educators about the future of scientific research, and they will rarely even mention Europe.

The CEO of a large pharmaceutical company told me that in 10 years, the three most important countries for his industry would be the United States, China and India.

--Newsweek International, 2.20.06

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Knocking Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy seems to work against progress. Institutionalized decisionmaking is about avoiding mistakes and (thereby) preserving jobs. According to Jack Welch, the successful former boss of General Electric, good leadership isn’t about your success. It’s about the success of others. Welch told Wall Street Journal editor Holman Jenkins, “It was up to me to get great people.” And to dump those who didn’t measure up. (WSJ Opinion Journal, 2.11.06).

Bureaucrats don’t want to be fired, and they don’t want to be measured. It’s why businesses run better than governments, and why management reform tries to make government more entrepreneurial.

Jenkins talks about Welch’s current interest in fixing education, and says Welch

fumes about the Democratic Party and its lockstep with the teachers unions. "They fight vouchers. They don't like charter schools. They don't like taking care of these kids. They like bureaucracy. How, morally, can they do it? It shocks me."

Reviewing a study of successful flim directors, Richard Schickel similarly knocks bureaucracy for its negative impact on motion pictures:

The truth is, whatever “system” is in place is geared to the creation of shambling mediocrity. That’s what bureaucracies do best. What really interests us are the exceptions, the films that over the years claim our continuing interest. We do not like to believe that their greatness is accidental. We need to believe in intentionality, the self-conscious assertion of a ruling sensibility.
(Los Angeles Times, 2.12.06)

Whether or not Jack Welch is, like a great film, an “accident,” these two different sources agree bureaucracy is the enemy of good.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Will Democrats Embrace Protectionism?

The health of democracy relates to the health of the economy. And for the economy to be healthy, government should nurture and protect its free market system. The opposing viewpoint begins with the breakdown of U.S. capitalism in 1929-33, and the role FDR’s New Deal played in saving democracy. When capitalism failed, New Deal heroes used government power to put industry and agriculture back on their feet, create jobs, and build a working welfare state.

America remains divided today over the question of who creates wealth and jobs—business or government? Those who say “government” believe the state should control markets. They point to the losers in free-market competition, such as American automobile companies, to justify state control.

George Will’s column today looks at the 2006 battle for governor in Michigan, America's auto state, as forecasting what lies ahead for our nation. Will says GOP gubernatorial candidate DeVos is under attack because:
[as] the chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party says, “[DeVos] supports free trade which has devastated the Michigan economy." So this race will preview what might be the highest stake in the 2008 presidential race -- repudiation of the basis of America's post-1945 prosperity. That basis was a bipartisan consensus in favor of free trade. That consensus has frayed, and by 2008 the Democratic Party probably will fully and formally embrace protectionism.
“Embracing protectionism” is as much a prescription for economic disaster today as it was in 1929-33.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Capitalism and Budget "Justice"

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

-- Martin Luther King

It used to be that Republican presidents’ budgets presented to Democratic congresses were “Dead on Arrival.” Then much the same happened to the budgets Clinton provided his Republican congresses. Now Bush has introduced a budget to a congress of his own party that has little chance of passing. Its portions on entitlement programs cut projected increases in Medicare and Medicaid, yet the budget keeps tax cuts benefiting the wealthy. Democrats are hammering away at the injustice of it all, creating a hard environment for blue-state Republicans who face tough re-election fights, and whose votes Bush needs (but won’t get) to pass his budget.

So how does Bush square his budget with “compassionate conservatism”? According to Budget Director Josh Bolten, the tax cuts make sense because government’s most urgent economic task remains to keep the economy growing. Bolten notes that when the economy slows down and people are laid off, it isn’t the rich who suffer. It’s the working class. Tax cuts fuel economic growth; tax increases slow down growth and increase unemployment.

But what about the people who suffer from the healthcare cuts, how are they helped by such tax policies? Here, the budget contains some interesting details. A big reason to cut spending on existing programs is to provide a $28 billion tax cut to middle income taxpayers clobbered by an alternative minimum tax that should be hitting only the wealthy. And one proposed Medicare spending cut asks people with higher incomes to pay more of their doctor's visit costs.

Such proposals do, in King’s words, seem to bend the moral arc toward justice, not away from it.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Computers v. Culture (Part I)

Is religion mostly bad for us? How does belief in the rightness of one’s views get in the way of the tolerance that greases democracy’s operation? How does faith in the next world’s heaven block the slogging hard work needed to make life better in this world?

Politics is usually about the economy; how to make life better through jobs and growth. Governments unable to deliver growth, however, can employ non-economic, or culturally-based, objectives to obscure lack of job creation. The Middle East in particular seems a region beset by governments that would rather talk Islam and its Zionist and anti-Islamic enemies than provide its population economic prosperity.

Is the picture really so simple? Austin Dacey, who is writing a book on the virtues of secularism, sarcastically denigrated Europe in Thursday’s New York Times to make the point that the secular “old world” has given its people a great life. Dacey wrote, “True, secular values can turn a civilization inside out. In post-Christian Europe, entire nations have been plunged into endemic health, skyrocketing education and hopelessly low rates of violent crime.”

Too bad Dacey can’t talk about “post-Christian” Europe’s economic growth or job creation, since the EC trails the rest of the developed world, including a less “post-Christian” U.S., in both respects.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Computers v. Culture (Part II)

Culture is the enemy of progress. Or so it seems on its face. A population works to better itself, and tends to support leaders who share that objective. China’s leadership, bloodstained by its suppression at Tiananmen in 1989 of the historic conscience of its nation, the university students of Beijing, retains power by meeting the people’s need for constant economic progress. When a leadership is unable to deliver such progress, it mobilizes its population to counter a threat to its nationhood, drawing on its cultural resources to do so. Castro in Cuba. Ceausescu in Rumania. Saddam in Iraq.

In fact, not just Iraq but the entire Muslim world, especially its Arab part, appears to be the region where cultural imperatives most effectively block economic progress. What is surprising therefore, at least to me, is that in the aftermath of Hamas’ victory in Palestine, several observers have said that the Islamist-based Hamas represents the drive for change in the Middle East, while secular Fatah represents the status quo. Fatah is like the governments of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan—saddled with a reputation for corruption and economic stagnation.

According to Egypt Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam Erian, Islam is the strategy for achieving “equality, prosperity, and unity.” Karim Makdisi at the American University in Beirut expressed similar sentiments. And USC researcher Reza Aslan writes that Bin Laden’s appeal to Muslims is based on moving Islam beyond a hierarchical faith run by Imams to one where individuals are free to overcome their own sense of social and economic alienation. (LA Times, 1.28.06)

Militant Islam as the path to economic prosperity in the Middle East?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Bush on American Exceptionalism

The President’s State of the Union foreign policy rhetoric last night touched on our key words--democracy, peace, and economic development. He wrapped the words in the American exceptionalist goal of ending world tyranny, a goal Bush suggested his critics would call “misguided idealism.” Here is how Bush put it:

We are the nation that saved liberty in Europe, and liberated death camps, and helped raise up democracies, and faced down an evil empire. Once again, we accept the call of history to deliver the oppressed, and move this world toward peace. . . To overcome dangers in our world, we must also take the offensive by encouraging economic progress.

Bush had a word for those who would oppose American efforts to expand free enterprise and democracy abroad. He called his critics “isolationists.” Commentators have said the word has little relevance to current foreign policy debates.

But by using “isolationist,” Bush is deliberately tying himself to the presidents before him who fought to make the world “safe for democracy;” linking himself to Democrats Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt (who battled “isolationists” to get the U.S. into World War II), Harry Truman, and John Kennedy. Bush wants today’s Democrats to honor their idealistic past.