Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Bailout Double Standard

We are told that AIG, Freddie, Fannie, and now Citibank are “too big to fail,” and so the government needs to bail them out or the financial system will implode further. Fine: let’s grit our teeth and do what we have to do. That said, I think the public deserves a more honest discussion about who is to be held accountable for this mess. The talk surrounding the financial bailouts usually focuses exclusively on how to fix the problem going forward. This is perhaps understandable, given that we are still in the thick of it. But there is also a palpable desire to “not dwell on the past.” My suspicion grows when you consider the strong pressure put on the government to give these financial companies bailouts without too many strings attached (i.e.: without limiting dividend payments or executive compensation, and not firing current management). This seems curious to me. I am all for looking forward and focusing on getting out of the mess. But I’d also like to see some accountability—that is, a few heads on pikes.

Now contrast the financial bailout discussion with the auto industry bailout discussion. The financial industry is bailed out first, asked questions later. Meanwhile the executives of the Big Three are raked over the coals in front of Congress, told to write a whole new business plan in 12 days, and then MAYBE they will get the cash, with countless strings attached. I understand that the auto companies have made mistakes in the past. But their current predicament is actually due more to the actions of the people who work in the financial industry than it is due to their own managerial missteps.

When the financial crisis hit, the car companies were in the midst of carrying out a long and arduous re-organization process. The United Autoworkers had made major concessions during the most recent contract negotiations, which were begun mid-contract. In other words, the union agreed to negotiate before they were obligated to because they realized the companies were in jeopardy if the union did not make emergency sacrifices. In addition, all three companies have actually been making pretty decent cars for the past few years. At the beginning of 2008, The Big Three were moving towards North American profitability. And don’t take my word for it; Wall St. thought so, too. General Motors stock was as high as $40 in October of 2007, which was 100% higher than the price of the stock in early 2006. So management must have been doing something right. But then the financial crisis hit and the stock plummeted to its current value of under $5.

But the way the media talks about all the bailouts, you’d think that the car companies are entirely to blame for their current miserable condition, while the banks were struck by some freak “black swan” event that no one saw coming. The reality is, in fact, the opposite. The financial industry was the architect of its own implosion, while the auto industry was struck by the “natural disaster” caused by the financial industry.

This discrepancy in the bailout debates might be due to a white collar vs. blue collar double standard, possibly in combination with a coordinated desire in much of the business community to destroy the autoworkers union once and for all. And it certainly helps the financial community to have lots of friend in high places—Washington’s corridors of power could double as the location of the next Goldman Sachs alumni reunion.

Whatever the explanation, the lack of talk about accountability within the financial industry points towards the shameless arrogance of those responsible for the lost jobs and lost savings of millions of Americans. The NYTimes reported yesterday that top executives of UBS, a large Swiss bank, will voluntarily forgo more than $27 million in compensation after the bank reported massive losses in the most recent quarter. They are giving up the money promised them not because the board of directors or the government has forced them to do so, but because they feel ashamed of their actions. Can you imagine anyone at Citigroup doing the same? Yeah, me neither.

And financial titans are not alone in their arrogance. Larry Summers, a Democrat and now a key financial advisor to Obama, won’t even admit that he made mistakes when he de-regulated the financial industry during the Clinton years. I guess working in government or working in the financial industry means you never have to say you’re sorry. If you build cars, not so much.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cabinet Kerfuffle

A raft of recent NYT letters to the editor angrily decries Obama’s executive branch selections as overly centrist, that he was elected by liberals and should govern accordingly. These flames are bound to be fanned by the newly revivified rumor that Gates will be staying on as Secretary of Defense.

Three points. I don’t agree that Obama was elected “by the left.” The left was certainly a part of his coalition, but also part of it were new voters and centrists. Plus, as one of our commenters astutely observed when Obama began “tacking to the center” during the primary, this is a guy who marketed himself as post-partisan. He was never going to come up with a super lefty cabinet.

Second, we’re talking about Barack Obama, not George W. Bush. Part of the reason I supported him is his judgment – probably the main reason. I think he has core values I agree with, and policies derived from those core values, using his judgment, will likely be policies I’m in favor of. If anything, I appreciate the curiosity motivating the desire for genuine, substantive debate inside the White House.

Third, and finally, Obama has shown himself to be pretty good at the political game, and by bringing together disparate voices such as Clinton’s (not that disparate anyway) and Gates’, he can co-opt them. They’d be in the fold, but he’d still be the boss. Win-win.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Read This!!

It's a little old, but I just stumbled across this exegesis of the exclamation point.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

New Stuff on the Blogroll

I just added a couple sites to the blogroll - Design Observer and The Big Picture.

Design Observer is a great clearinghouse for design news - like this story about the winners of the competition to design new public bike racks in New York (super cool looking) - and it also publishes a list of really wonderful images every Saturday. I particularly liked last Saturday.

The Big Picture is a photo blog on the Boston Globe's website. It publishes hi-res photos a few times a week and never fails to either strike awe, as with these photos about the sun, or deeply move, as with these photos about resurgent violence in Congo (these pictures in particular might break you apart if you're already feeling a little vulnerable, so be careful with them).

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Big moment for US climate policy

This could be a very significant shift in US energy and climate policy. The House Energy and Commerce Committee will have a new chairman: Henry Waxman replaces John Dingell. Waxman is a relentless advocate for strong US action on climate change, and one of Obama’s chief legislative liaisons is a former Waxman aide. Dingell is a moderate whose top campaign contributers are car company PACs.

This is significant because it means that the chairman of the committee that climate legislation must go through wants to play ball. But it’s also significant because a majority of the Democratic caucus, knowing that, voted for Waxman. Game on…

Georgia NATO Update

Nicholas Kristof weighs in against Georgia in NATO.

Obama's Hawkish Foreign Policy? (Continued)

Ross Douthat outlines my growing concerns about what will become of Obama's foreign policy. Namely, I worry that Obama won't change course all that much from the Bush Administration as he focuses most of his energy on his domestic agenda.

The problem with giving Lieberman a get-out-of-jail-free card is not that Obama and the Democrats are wimping out and not satisfying my desire for revenge; the real problem with leaving him on as Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee is that Lieberman is arguably more hawkish than Bush on foreign policy and is a dangerous person to leave in any position of power.

I don't blame Obama for focusing much of his transformational energies on domestic policy. After all, domestic policy is the Democratic Party's bread-and-butter, and the economy is the epicenter of the immediate crisis. But putting foreign policy on auto-pilot by closely following the hawkish beltway-consensus may end up biting him in the ass. It's hard to revive an economy if you are burning money in Afghanistan and the price of oil spikes because you are talking tough with Iran.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Obama's Secret Political Weapon: Tax Hikes

Leading up to Nov. 4 there were countless articles questioning Obama's ability to win over that most coveted group of voters: the Reagan Democrat. This was the demographic that would decide Indiana, Pennsylvania, and most importantly, Ohio. What is a “Reagan Democrat?” In short, the voter is white, probably male, blue collar, and no one really said it explicitly, but the underlying assumption was that he was uncomfortable voting for a black man (read: at least a little bit racist). Obama won all three Rust Belt states, most surprisingly Indiana. And he did it, sure enough, by winning over the Reagan Democrats. How did he do it?

I’m sure there are a lot of factors that contributed to Obama’s victory, but my hunch is that one factor played an outsized role. Ironically, I think that the traditional Republican-dominated issue of taxes is what brought home the bacon for Obama. By saying that he would cut taxes on 95% of the population and, more importantly, raise taxes on the rich, Obama was able to convince these guys that he was one of them. Even though McCain would cut taxes across the board, the Obama line that the McCain tax cuts would help the rich much more than the little guy really hit home. McCain was for Wall St. and Obama was for Main St. If there is anything that can overcome uneasiness with what a politician looks like, it’s the populist promise to redistribute wealth. In a clash between identity politics and class warfare, the class argument will win out every time the economy is in a recession.

Everyone automatically thinks about taxes as a losing issue for Democrats—especially if there is any talk of raising taxes…on anyone. But this election cycle, middle class anger at the greed of Wall St. actually made Obama’s policy of raising taxes a winning issue, as long as it was only a tax-hike on the rich. It will be interesting to see how this plays out politically if Obama decides not to raise anyone's taxes because of the severity of the economic crisis.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Point-Counterpoint: MAP for Georgia and Ukraine?

The Pickle is delighted to bring the always robust Nate Truitt-Peter Richards comments section back-and-forth about Russia-Georgia onto the front page.

Point, by Nate:

In December of 2008 the foreign ministers of NATO countries will meet in Brussels to discuss, among other things, whether Georgia and Ukraine should be granted Membership Action Plans (MAP). The Membership Action Plan "is a NATO programme of advice, assistance and practical support tailored to the individual needs of countries wishing to join the Alliance." Although participation in MAP "does not prejudge any decision by the Alliance on future membership," the granting of a MAP to Georgia (and, to a lesser extent, to Ukraine) will be viewed by Russia as a virtual invitation to join the alliance - and, therefore, as a threat. This is especially true in the aftermath of the recent Georgian-Russian conflict over South Ossetia.

Granting a MAP to Georgia will be a bold, controversial move that many will interpret as aggressive and confrontational towards Russia. Moreover, many will object to NATO support of any kind for a Georgian regime that has had a highly questionable record on enforcing the rule of law and the observance of human rights. Nonetheless, it is vital that NATO countries come together and take the difficult step of granting both Ukraine and Georgia Membership Action Plans.

The disproportionate Russian response to fighting in South Ossetia represented a clear violation of international law. It was, however, merely the latest and greatest example of an aggressive Russian policy towards former Soviet states: a policy of intimidation; constant meddling in these nations' internal political disputes; encouragement of separatist groups (especially along ethnic lines); and, generally speaking, actions designed to compromise the sovereignty of Russia's neighbors, thereby making them reliant on Moscow. These policies have been especially noticeable in Russia's relations towards two of its most independent-minded neighbors, Georgia and Ukraine. Before the recent conflict, Russia had long maintained a peacekeeping presence in Georgia despite strenuous objections from the government in Tblisi. And they had pledged support to South Ossetian and Abkhazian separatists, essentially destroying any incentives for those groups to negotiate with the Georgian government. Similarly in Ukraine, Russia was extremely antagonistic towards the Orange Revolution (according to some, they went so far as to participate in a plot to poison Viktor Yushchenko). They continue to raise the prices on fuel exports to Ukraine in order to make life for the new government extremely uncomfortable.

Russia's behavior towards other ex-Soviet Republics like Turkmenistan, Moldova and Belarus has followed similar patterns. It is of course inevitable that a strong regional power will attempt to exercise influence over the political behavior of its neighbors. When, however, those attempts manifest themselves in illegal behavior, including outright war, a line has been crossed and the international community then has a strong interest in creating and enforcing consequences for such behavior.

As long as these independent nations lack basic security and the ability to exercise their sovereignty without fear of a Russian veto, it's hard to see how any long-term stability can be achieved. The current situation - in which these nations drift along in fear and uncertainty, hanging on every word from Moscow - is simply not sustainable. Ukraine and Georgia sense this and their applications for MAPs are a reasonable attempt to protect their own independence.

Granting Georgia a MAP would send a clear signal to Moscow that NATO countries do not except the immoral, absurd and dangerous notion that somehow Russia has veto power over the policy of its independent neighbors, and that it can enforce that veto through military action. Admittedly, giving Georgia a MAP will antagonize Russia and lead to a short-term deterioration of U.S./European - Russian relations; but in the long term, a MAP for Georgia will promote security and stability by clarifying NATO's position on what is and is not an acceptable definition of Russian "national interests." A strong stance now will help defuse an otherwise-likely conflict in and over Ukraine; and will eventually lead to a better, more lasting friendship between the United States on Russia - one based on a clear understanding of the roles and limitations of both partners.

Counterpoint, by Peter:

The first problem with granting Georgia and Ukraine a MAP is that it would be an empty gesture with no teeth. There is basically no chance that a MAP will actually lead to either country joining the NATO alliance anytime soon. Georgia has unresolved border disputes with South Ossetia and Abkhazia that automatically preclude membership, while Ukraine has an extremely fragile internal political situation that would disintegrate into chaos if Ukraine were to join NATO. Even more obvious is American (and therefore NATO) reluctance to defend Georgia in case of Russian aggression. Georgia was not worth defending in August when Russian tanks rolled through Tskinvali. Why, then, would America seek to create a military alliance that would obligate it to such a defense of Georgia in the future? America would have to go to war with Russia if the reckless, hyper-nationalist Georgian president were to decide to have another go at invading South Ossetia. Clearly, a MAP for Georgia and Ukraine would not lead to NATO membership and is, therefore, a dead-end policy.

The sole purpose of the MAP, then, becomes the desire to “send a message to Moscow.” But wouldn’t it be wise for America to try to “send a message” by taking action that would have the potential for real follow-through? Spitting in someone’s eye when they know you won’t beat them with your stick simply antagonizes your enemy while showing you up as a coward. It is the opposite of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous dictum: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

And why, we should ask, must such a message be sent in the first place? Those on the right who wrongly believe Russia is returning to its imperial past, and those on the left who don’t like Russia’s abuse of human rights like to trot out a laundry list of recent Russian “bad behavior” that deserves “a strong response.” This laundry list is, indeed, quite dirty; but it must be put into its proper perspective. Russia, to be sure, has a laundry list of its own, showing what it believes to be American bad behavior in the region. At the top of the list is America’s embarrassing support of Saakashvili, the aggressor in the war in South Ossetia. In addition, America has undermined the idea of sovereignty by supporting independence in Kosovo, meddled in the internal politics of Ukraine, courted Central Asian dictators, and exited the ABM treaty. Let’s not fool ourselves: America hardly occupies the moral high ground when it comes to aggressive behavior in the region. And let’s not leave out American bad behavior in the rest of the world, most notably in Iraq and at Guantanamo. In short: American self-righteous anger at Russian “bad behavior that deserves a strong response” doesn’t carry much water these days.

Not only is granting a MAP bad policy for America to pursue; it is also bad policy for Georgia and Ukraine. A majority of people in Ukraine do not support the idea of a MAP; it is Ukrainian politicians, at the behest of America, who are pursuing NATO membership. Many Ukrainians, especially those who live in the eastern regions and speak Russian as their first language, do not wish to see Ukraine turn its back on Russia. There are strong cultural, commercial, and familial connections between the Russian and Ukrainian people that would be strained if Ukraine were to “choose the West.” A more natural and productive orientation for Ukraine (and Georgia) would be to balance itself between Russia and America, thereby staking out an independent and strong position. Such an orientation would also go a long way towards stabilizing Ukraine’s fragile internal political situation, while easing the over-all tension in the region.

And lastly, supporting the idea that Georgia and Ukraine should choose “the West” presupposes a Cold War-like antagonistic relationship between Russia and America, and then goes a long way towards making that presupposition a reality. But in today’s world, there is no longer the ideological conflict of Communism vs. Capitalism to drive a wedge between Russia and America. And there are actually a number of areas in which Russian and American interests converge, such as terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, and Afghanistan. Aggressively pursuing NATO expansion shuts the door to the possibility of cooperation in these areas while hardening each country into a confrontational stance.

In sum, granting Georgia and Ukraine a MAP would be a disaster on multiple levels: it would fail to forward American interests, it would destabilize Georgia and Ukraine, and it would put American-Russian relations on a clear path towards confrontation rather than cooperation.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The last last word on Alabama

There was one more thing I’ve been meaning to add about my trip to Alabama for the election. Lord knows Alabama has its issues, but man, those people are Nice with a capital N. I’ve been all over the country, and the mid-westerners give them a run for their money, but in the end it’s no contest. These are the nicest, friendliest people in America. Black/white, rural/urban, rich/poor – nice all.

The morning after I got back I was biking to school, and I was stopped behind a car at a red light on a small feeder street – my small feeder street, in fact. A fire truck was taking a left turn onto the street, and he couldn’t get around the turn unless the car in front of me backed up. So he just stopped there staring down at the woman in the car and finally just said “You wanna back up?!” And then he looked at me and said “You wanna move so this woman can back up?!” Just real nasty-like.

Now of course, it’s no trouble for me to get out of the way. And it’s a fire truck for heaven’s sake, the man is putting his life on the line to keep me safe from harm. And add to that the fact that the fire station is half a block from my house, and everyone knows you don’t s*** where you live. But I was just filled with resentment over the fact that this guy couldn’t just be nice like the folks I’d just left in Alabama, and shortly before moving out of the way, which again, wasn’t a hassle at all, I responded honestly and directly to his question: Did I literally want to move? No.

The stream of obscenities that fell from his high driver's side window as he completed the turn was really not nice at all, and the cycle continues. In at least this one way, it’d be great if we could learn from Alabama…

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Afghanistan Escalation or De-escalation?

Click here for a interesting bloggingheads excerpt about the Afghan war.

Why does Anne-Marie Slaughter, a standard bearer for "liberal internationalism," sound like a neocon in her first reply? Calling "handing a victory over to the Taliban" unacceptable is a classic neocon-type fear tactic to justify aggressive behavior. But it's a straw man argument. No one is advocating surrender and total retreat. And her comment about America not being able to talk to the Taliban because of how they treat women, while probably true, reveals a terrible double standard in U.S. foreign policy. How can we refuse to talk to the Taliban on such grounds while the Saudi's, who treat women only marginally better than the Taliban, are our best friends?

I totally agree with Stephen Walt, who in foreign policy parlance is a "realist." Liberals usually hate realists because they automatically think of Kissinger and America's dirty wars in South America. But realists these days, much more than liberals, are the anti-war advocates because they recognize the limits of American power in the world and aren't attracted to the dream of bringing democracy to every un-developed corner of the world at the point of a gun. Liberal foreign policy thinkers, on the other hand, often feels like they have been body snatched by neocon. Liberals need to think more like Walt and less like Slaughter.

Unfortunately, Slaughter is closely associated with Obama and his foreign policy team. As she advocates, it looks like we are headed for another 10 years of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Fretting About the Future

In Krugman’s column today in the NYTimes, he made a pretty convincing case for turning on the federal government spending spigot—think: a New Deal on steroids—to help get us out of this economic rut. “It’s much better,” he writes, “in a depressed economy, to err on the side of too much stimulus than on the side of too little.” This may be true; but a few words of caution are in order before we start spending money like Sarah Palin at Neiman Marcus.

Let’s think, for a minute, about the financial condition of our government. The national debt stands today at around $10.1 trillion. The projected budget deficit for the single year of 2009 is projected at somewhere around $1 trillion. We are currently fighting two wars, and will be fighting at least one (Afghanistan) for the foreseeable future. The staggeringly long list of government bailout loans (AIG, Fannie, Freddie, all large banks) will only grow longer as Obama pushes to save the Big Three car companies. Tax cuts for the middle class are on the way, but tax increases for those making over $250,000 are likely on hold. Krugman’s public works idea, universal healthcare, and an Al Gore-backed high-tech energy grid are on the wish list of the Obama Administration and the Democratic Congress. All these proposals will cost money as tax revenue shrinks.

This new spending sounds good when thinking in the short term. But what about five years from now when the government balance sheet looks even worse than it does today? Krugman says this is not the time to fret. But what happens when the balance sheet gets so ugly that Asian central banks decide they would rather not continue to finance our ongoing war(s) and multiple bailouts through purchases of US government debt? If and when that day of reckoning arrives, the easiest way out of the hole will be to inflate our way out. By turning the printing presses “to 11,” as Nigel would say, the government can devalue the dollar and more easily pay back its loans to the Chinese. As any politician will tell you, this strategy is much easier than raising taxes and cutting expenditures to balance the budget.

But the big problem with inflating away our debt is that it ends up punishing the very people Obama and the Democrats want to help. Ron Paul rightly calls inflation a “tax on the middle class.” Those who have modest savings and have a salary that is not easily adjusted higher for inflation—that is, the middle class—have their purchasing power eaten away, while those who have ample savings and have investments that rise in price along with inflation—that is, the upper class—do not suffer as much. In other words, inflation is a regressive tax. This injustice is a worthwhile price to pay, one might argue, if we are avoiding another Great Depression. Perhaps. But the specter of high inflation in the future is something to keep in mind as we grapple with this broken economy.

I’m not making a case against bailing out Detroit, or against universal healthcare, or against a comprehensive energy plan. I’m in favor of all those proposals. We just need to understand that, by supporting these programs today, we are making it much more likely that inflation will punish the middle class in the years to come. And politically, Democrats will be on the hook next time around.

Prop 8 Upd8

Opponents of California's Prop 8 (i.e. advocates of gay marriage) have filed suit challenging its constitutionality. How, you might ask, can you challenge the constitutionality of an amendment to the constitution? It turns out that there are two different ways in which the California state constitution can be changed - via amendment, and via revision. An amendment is narrower in scope than a revision. In the grossest sense, an amendment adds less words (really!) to the constitution, and affects fewer other statutes than a revision, which have more words and do affect many other statutes. An amendment is a smaller change to the constitution, and fittingly, it may be passed by a simple majority of voters, as Prop 8 was. A revision requires the 2/3 approval of both houses of the legislature.

Was Prop 8 correctly set up as an amendment, or should it have been a revision? It adds only 14 words to the constitution: "Only marriage between a man or a woman is valid or recognized in California," and on its face doesn't seem to affect too many other statutes. But in a case in 1991, the California State Supreme Court determined that the change engendered by an amendment or revision ought to be judged not just quantitatively (words, laws affected) but also qualitatively. In other words, a proposed change to the constitution can be short and sweet in terms of law, but if it is large in scope, it may still be appropriately considered a revision. This is the backbone of the challenge - taking away a right of a minority class is a revision-sized change.

There is an extra element of politics - California Supreme Court justices are subject to retention votes (after opposing the death penalty, the Chief Justice and two associates were voted out of the court in 1986).

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Slang makes a comeback

Long-time readers of Pickle Nation will recall that we used to coin some slang now and again - "Dundos," for example, continues to sweep the nation...slowly. Well, tonight, we earn the third part of the banner for the first time in a while:

When someone spills a drink, or accidentally pulls the power chord on the stereo, or otherwise brings everyone down at the height of the party, we say they are "pulling a prop 8."

Friday, November 7, 2008

Troubles With Reporting the Truth

The leading headline in today’s NYTimes is: “Accounts Undercut Claims By Georgia on Russia War.” Finally, the obvious truth about the Russia-Georgia war is getting some high-profile media play in America. It’s an embarrassment that it took “newly available accounts by independent military observers” to provide cover for the Times to report what was clearly self-evident over a month ago to anyone who cared to look past the neocon spin.

The bad news is that the State Department issued neocon spin remains alive and well, and gets equal weight in the body of the article. The following excerpt reveals just how far American officials are willing to stray from our core human rights principles to defend one of America’s autocratic clients:

As for its broader shelling of the city [of Tskhinvali], Georgia has told Western diplomats that Ossetians hid weapons in civilian buildings, making them legitimate targets. “The Georgians have been quite clear that they were shelling targets – the mayor’s office, police headquarters – that had been used for military purposes,” said Matthew J. Bryza, a deputy assistant secretary of state and one of Mr. Saakashvili’s vocal supporters in Washington.

Georgia’s account was disputed by Ryan Gist, a former British Army captain who was the senior O.S.C.E. representative in Georgia when the war broke out. “It was clear to me that the attack was completely indiscriminate and disproportionate to any, if indeed there had been any, provocation,” Mr. Gist said. “The attack was clearly, in my mind, an indiscriminate attack on the town, as a town.”…He then soon resigned under unclear circumstances.

America’s respect for human rights on the battlefield has been lacking of late: mistakenly bombing Afghan weddings; indiscriminately sweeping up suspected insurgents through door-to-door home invasions in Iraq; condoning the cluster bomb obliteration of southern Lebanon by Israel. We can now add bombing police stations and mayor’s offices in small Ossetian towns without provocation to the list of activities condoned by America. Activities, let’s keep in mind, that fail to follow the guidelines of the Geneva Convention, which states that combatants "shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and, accordingly, shall direct their operations only against military objectives" (Part IV, Chap. 1, Article 48). Perhaps most dangerous of all, it appears Mr. Gist’s truth-telling got him promptly canned.

While this article is definitely a step in the right direction, it shows us how far we have yet to go in terms of getting the truth out into the mainstream media—on all issues, not just Russia-Georgia. And I doubt Obama’s victory will change much in this regard. Truth-tellers will continue to lose their jobs; reporters will continue to present preposterous spin as credible opinion; and, out of fear of appearing critical of America, the blatant disregard for human rights on the battlefield will continue to be under-discussed and under-analyzed.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bama Trivia

Drove by the original White House of the Confederacy while down in Montgomery.

Its location: the corner of Union and Washington. That must have been Reconstruction renaming, right?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


The Alabama 3rd Congressional District, where Josh Segall came up just a bit short yesterday against the incumbent Republican, Mike Rogers, is designed to swamp the votes of the third of it residents who are black with those of the two thirds of its residents who are white and very Republican. There aren’t many precincts in the district that vote with an open mind about party – almost every thing is deep blue or deep red, and for the most part, it splits on race.

I spent the day in Anniston yesterday, at the northern edge of the district, working to get out the vote in a couple of poor black precincts. At one point, we became aware that, at a couple of the polling places, people were handing out sample ballots showing how to vote for Obama and Rogers. To be clear: black men were handing them out. I drove over to Thankful Baptist Church and found a man sitting there with a handful of the offending ballots. I gave him a bottle of water:

Me: Have you voted today, sir?
Him: Yup.
Me: Did you vote the straight Democratic ticket?
Him: I sure did.
Me: But now you’re handing people this ballot asking them to vote for a Republican?
Him: Yeah.
Me: Do you think the folks who are voting here want to vote for a Republican?
Him: I see what you’re saying.
Me: Why are you doing it?
Him: I’m just gettin’ paid.
Me: Alright. We’re gonna get someone to stand right next to you and give everyone you give one of these to the right one, showing them how to vote straight Democrat, and make sure they know yours shows them how to vote for a Republican.
Him: Don’t matter to me.

I called the office and spoke to Edward, who delicately asked “What…sort of person do you want me to send over there?” to which I unhesitatingly responded, a little loudly “A black person! If that’s what you’re asking, you gotta send a black person!”

I went over to another poll and found another guy doing the same thing, and started in on him the same way, but before I got very far it became clear that this was another thing entirely: This guy was the guy paying the other guy, and he understandably took exception to the idea that a black man advocating for a Republican must not know what he was doing. He told me that he was a Vietnam vet, and for 15 years he wasn’t getting his health benefits, until Mike Rogers fixed the problem for him. I said that another congressman could do that, but Mike Rogers voted against the minimum wage increase, and against the GI Bill. But he didn’t want to hear it, which was fair – he’d been well served. I also gave him a bottle of water – the man, after all, was spending the day in service.

This Election Day – this week in Montgomery, Alabama, first capital of the confederacy, home of civil rights – like almost all Election Days I’ve been a part of, ended up being about race. The fact that a black man won the presidency is just the stage for this year’s version of our annual exercise, where all the tumult and trouble that brought us to race in America as it is today is exposed and explored under a microscope. Disenfranchisement, segregation, distrust, and poverty: we see it all on Election Day, which is the day, more than any other, when we’re all in it together.

We’re hearing a lot today about the dream realized. I don’t agree. We remain a deeply divided nation, a deeply hurt and scarred nation.

Lincoln, in his second inaugural, said “If God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” The terrible Civil War was not more terrible than American Slavery, and whatever debt we owe as a nation for that stain, it wasn’t over at Appomattox, it wasn’t over when the Civil Rights Act passed, and it isn’t over today.

Today is not a valedictory; it is a foothold. Today is not MLK’s dream; it is the dawn. Today is not the end of race in America; but it might be the beginning of the end.

Risking it All...and Winning

Watching joyously as the election returns rolled in, my thoughts kept drifting back to Hillary Clinton and that epic Democratic primary battle. Knowing what we know now about the financial crisis, I think it’s fair to say that Hillary would have beaten McCain quite handily. It would have been a great victory for women, for America, and for the world. But that victory would not have been nearly as momentous as Obama’s victory last night for the simple reason that Hillary was the safe bet. Her name, after all, is “Clinton.” And another Clinton in the White-House would not have sent shock-waves across the world. It would not have renewed the vitality of our democracy by showing that, in a time of economic crisis as well as war, the American people have the courage to elect as president the most improbable of candidates—a 47 year-old black man who, a mere four years ago, was a State Senator from Illinois. America went for it all. And with the aid of a political perfect storm, we proved to ourselves and to the rest of the world that America will strive into the future with hope and vigor rather than retrench, lick our wounds, and batten down the hatches out of fear.

Let’s remember to thank the voters in the lily-white state of Iowa for giving us this opportunity. Without their support of Obama in the Democratic primary, we probably would not be here today, feeling such immense pride in this great country of ours.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Josh Watch

We're going to try to update you often with the results on Josh Segall's race as they come in.
9:08pm - 0-1% reporting, Segall 44%
9:27pm - 13% reporting, Segall 65%
9:35pm - 22% reporting, Segall 53%
9:54pm - 49% reporting, Segall 50%.
The 3rd district is a mix of rural, staunchly Republican areas and densely packed staunchly Democratic areas - that's why the ups and downs.
10:15pm - 65% reporting, Segall 51%
Dan adds that there's still no clear indication. Percentage-wise, Josh is performing as well as the Democrat that Rogers narrowly beat 6 years ago. However, that was a mid-term election with no energized black vote.

Well, MSNBC just called it for Rogers with 94% of precincts reporting. Hats off to Josh for running an incredible race. We'll hear from him again before too long!

Saturday, November 1, 2008


Pickle Nation immigrant from Denmark Marie calls this "A Pumpkin for Change." I do believe she's feelin' it...

My last whistle stop

I’m on a plane to Atlanta, where I’ll rent a car, pick up co-pickler Luvh, and drive to the Alabama 3rd Congressional District. The 3rd stretches along most of the Georgia border – Alabama’s “middle east,” as I like to call it. Our first stop will be Opelika, where we’ll canvass from about 4 pm until a few hours after dark, asking Alabamian swing voters to support Josh Segall for Congress. Then we’ll continue to Montgomery, where we’ll be through Election Day, helping to turn out the vote. With any luck, I’ll get to walk over to MLK’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on the night we elect our first black President.

Josh is a close colleague and a closer friend. He was born to be a Congressman. He has a literally inexhaustible appetite for thinking and talking through a tough problem. He has a gift for connecting with people, and for connecting people to one-another. He has a strong moral compass, but it’s coupled with a belief in pragmatism in politics; a powerful recipe for a public servant.

About a year and a half ago, Josh called me to say he was thinking about running for Congress. What was almost unthinkable then is a few small steps from happening now. Josh has been an incredible candidate, a prodigious fund-raiser, an empathetic and genuine listener, and a clear and forceful voice for his would-be constituents. In the last few days, he has been endorsed by the two largest newspapers in the district, the Montgomery Advertiser and the Anniston Star. The DCCC has added Josh to their top target list. Recent polls have shown the race in the single digits and quickly tightening. And with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket and Republicans on the run all over the country, the wind is at his back in just the right ways at just the right time. I think Josh is going to win.

Josh is still fighting hard to get the message out in the last few days, and as you are no doubt familiar at the end of this interminable season, that takes money.

If you can find it in your heart to put your political contribution budget line-item just a little bit further in the red one more time, we’d be grateful for a donation of $25, $50, or $100. Click here to donate.

Finally, I’m confident that turnout in Pickle Nation will be 100%, and an enthusiastic 100% at that. But just in case you are feeling that biennial calculation of civic economy that says that the act of voting is an irrational one, statistically, or if you happen to have an unexpectedly full schedule on Tuesday, or if you live in a deep blue or deep red state and think your vote doesn’t matter, check out this piece in today’s NYT, which really touched me in this historic hour. It’s about an expatriate couple in India who, having suffered an absentee ballot snafu, are flying home to New York to vote. Here’s a bit:

“We had a long talk about it,” Ms. Scott-Ker said. “We could go on holiday to a beach somewhere. Or we could come back here and vote. It was a long talk. We decided it was important to stand up and be counted.”

Here Here. Stand up and be counted.