Friday, October 25, 2013

Falling on Their Shield

People are surprised if and when they learn that I have a degree in journalism. In fact, I myself am surprised when I remember that I have one.

It so happens that I received a Master of Arts in journalism way back in the 1970s from Ohio State University’s School of Journalism. My professors there seemed amused that they were spending their retirement years lecturing students. Most of them had been working reporters who had acquired their journalistic skills on the job, not in the classroom. The idea of learning to be a journalist in a school seemed quaint to them.

My graduate adviser was an urbane former foreign correspondent for The New York Times. Another of my favorite profs was a burly guy who had covered the rough and tumble of Chicago crime and politics. What they all had in a common was a set of principles that guided their reporting.

Most important of all these principles was to get the facts right. You checked and double-checked everything you were told. The old line was, if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out! Another principle was that journalists should be looking out for the interest of the little guy. The admonition here was to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. But that didn’t mean that you carried water for any particular political party. When it came to politics, the working assumption was that all politicians were probably corrupt.

One topic that came up sometimes in my classes was the pros and cons of journalist shield laws. These are laws that are meant to protect reporters from being prosecuted for not revealing the names of confidential information sources. Today most states in the U.S., as well as the District of Columbia, have some form of shield law.

To date, there has never been a federal shield law, but there is currently a draft of one in a Senate committee. I have heard a number of working journalists on TV panels saying that this is something that is really needed. They say that is demonstrated by the Obama Administration’s targeting of The New York Times’s James Risen and Fox News’s similarly named James Rosen for talking to government leakers.

Personally, I think that the Justice Department’s actions in these cases are an outrage, especially in the case of Rosen, who was named in a court affadavitt as an unindicted “aider, abettor and co-conspirator” for merely receiving leaked information. So it would make sense for me to be in favor of a federal shield law, right? Wrong.

I side with my old journalism profs on this one and not with the newer, younger crop of reporters.

My Chicago guy argued forcefully that a shield law did not represent protection for journalists but rather a decrease in journalistic freedom. That is because the First Amendment, as written, is pretty absolute. Freedom of the press is not be interfered with by the federal government. What’s more, it’s a right that applies to all citizens, not just to “journalists.” Or, to put it another way, under the Constitution all citizens are journalists or at least potential journalists.

The fact is that the proposed federal shield law would not have been of any benefit to Risen or Rosen. The former was considered a witness to a crime, a situation that is excepted by the law. Nor would it have prevented Rosen’s (or, for that matter, the Associated Press’s) telephone records from being seized by the Justice Department.

What it would do is allow the government decide who does and does not qualify as a journalist. This would put the U.S. closer to many other countries in the world where you actually have to have a government license to practice journalism. Whatever protections the law offers would be limited to employees of major news organizations and/or those accredited by the government. I think it is safe to say that bloggers and self-publishers of the Thomas Paine variety need not apply.

My old profs strongly believed that press freedom should be fought for on constitutional civil liberty grounds for all citizens—not as government-granted protections to a select few. The end result of a federal shield law would effectively be less freedom of expression for everybody.

I guess the people who currently write for The Los Angeles Times, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Online News Association had different journalism professors than I did.

But then that is patently obvious. This current crop of reporters does not seem to approach government with the same skepticism and wariness that journalists used to have. Many of them are happy to take government announcements at face value and spin the same old timeworn narratives over and over, merely inserting new names and details.

When more and more people first began getting their news and information on the internet, many in the establishment press could be heard moaning about losing their traditional role as “gatekeeper.” This eroding of their privileged position may go a long way to explaining why a two-tier system of free speech appeals to many of them.

Yes, it’s true that there is a lot of misinformation—much of it wildly outlandish and even dangerous—out there in the wild, woolly internet. But at least it’s a place where you can still find some skepticism, curiosity and, occasionally, a bit of old-fashioned digging for facts.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Weak Tea?

I must live in a different universe than most other people.

Maybe that universe is Ireland, but I don’t think so. I seem to live in a different universe than most Irish people as well as most American people.

For example, I have been listening for many days to pundits, commentators and regular journalists proclaiming that the recently ended U.S. government shutdown was a huge victory for Democrats and an unmitigated disaster for Republicans—or at least that Republicans were hurt a lot more than Democrats. Democratic operatives I have heard on my various podcasts are wishing that the midterm congressional elections could be held this year instead of next year because of the anticipated wave for the president’s party.

Maybe Republicans will pay a price for what went on, but that’s not what happened after the last government shutdown—even though the Republicans back then, as now, were declared the overwhelming bearers of blame.

If the government giving itself authority to borrow enough additional money to keep running for a few more weeks is a huge victory for the president and his party, so be it.

But this is how I see things. If you judge the so-called Tea Party by how well it did at achieving its stated goals over the past few weeks, it failed miserably. But if you judge it against what probably would have happened if it had simply stayed quiet and gone along with business as usual, it actually did pretty well at its objectives.

Journalists all over the major networks, CNN and NPR have been saying that the Republicans made a major miscalculation because if the government had not shut down, those news organizations insist, they would have been giving full-bore coverage of the botched rollout.


The fact is that Democrats are pretty darn good at driving the media narrative and, absent the shutdown, it’s certain they would have been spinning their own issues leading up to and after the passage of the continuing resolution. They would have been everywhere talking about how much pain the sequester is inflicting. The Democrats would have focused all their energy on building momentum for removing the sequester, and the media coverage would likely have reflected that. But that story never materialized because, frankly, the Dems were licking their chops at the prospect of a government shutdown because they knew it would reflect badly on Republicans.

In fact, the Democrats nearly overplayed their hand. When polls inevitably showed that, as expected, Republicans were getting blamed more for the shutdown, at that point the Democrats did try to press their advantage and propose rolling back the sequester, but by then it was too late. They were then in the position of running the risk that it would look like they were now the ones keeping the government shut down. And Republicans were ready with a quick rejoinder to the last-minute assault on the sequester. “It’s the law of the land!” they chided.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe if the government hadn’t shut down, everyone would have been talking for the past three weeks about what a disaster Obamacare is and how smart the Republicans were to oppose it. But I don’t think so. Even if I am wrong, it probably won’t matter in the long run anyway.

After all, if the new healthcare system works out its kinks and turns into a smashing success, people won’t remember or care that it got off to a rocky start. On the other hand, if Obamacare turns out to be the albatross around Democrats’ necks that Republicans expect it to be a year from now, the fact that poll responders didn’t much like Republican methods a year earlier will not matter very much. They’ll just remember which party was against the discredited system all along.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Zombies and Slashers

Back when I was a supervisor and middle manager in a U.S. corporation, one of the most frustrating things I had to do on a regular basis was employee performance reviews.

It wasn’t just a matter of giving employees feedback on how they were doing at their jobs. Managers were required to list everyone in a ranking of strongest performers to the weakest. Basically, the exercise was: if, over time. you had to let everyone on the team go, in what order would you do it?

Not surprisingly, the fellow who invariably wound up at the bottom of the ranking did not think this was a good system. He had a different idea. The team should be rated as a whole, he said. Everyone should get the same ratings, pay increases and bonuses, based on how well the entire team was doing overall.

Yes, there was something soul-destroying about the ranking system, but that guy’s ideal system wasn’t really fair either. He would have deprived people who did really beyond-the-call-of-duty work the extra recognition and reward they had earned. And he would have rewarded people, like himself, who were basically coasting.

It will be no consolation to him that, when it comes to the U.S. federal government, his ideal system is largely in effect. I don’t mean for individual employees. The civil service has its own structure for deciding who gets promotions, raises, bonuses and all of that stuff. I am referring to the government programs get evaluated—or do not—for increased spending and continued existence.

This was highlighted recently by a not particularly popular tactic of congressional Republicans, which was essentially a round-about attempt at de facto ranking of government programs. After the government—specifically, the 17 percent actually affected by the failure of Congress to pass a continuing resolution by the beginning of October—went into shutdown, House Republicans began passing piecemeal resolutions to fund popular parts of the government, including everything from parks to veterans to children with cancer and even letting the District of Columbia spend its own tax revenues. That Democrats did not take the bait was no surprise.

But imagine if, for some reason, they had. Every agency or department or program with a constituency would have been agitating to get its funding back, and most of them would have. And, it is also true, some would not have.

This is how the government used to get funded—one item at a time. But then the government got so large and complex that it wasn’t feasible for legislators to look at every single item individually, so staffers did the prep work and it was up to lawmakers to look through it all and make changes. The growing complexity of the federal budget meant that, in practice, the budget was largely the same from term to term, with adjustments for inflation—and the occasional addition of some new program or agency.

When Barrack Obama became president the budget process evolved again. During the president’s first term the Senate never even passed a budget—even though it was required to do so by law. It did pass one this year, but it was so different from the one passed by the House of Representatives that the two houses never even bothered to try to reconcile them—which, not that long ago, used to be the normal process of arriving at a budget.

Instead, under Obama the budget has truly been on automatic pilot, with Congress simply passing budget resolutions to extend the previous budget with inflation adjustments. That drove fiscal hawks crazy—not least because the spending baseline was inflated by the stimulus packages passed at the end of the Bush Administration and at the beginning of the Obama Administration. In other words, Congress doesn’t even debate the value of individual programs anymore or whether any of them should receive more or less funding or be eliminated entirely. Programs just continue on, kind of like zombies, but with larger amounts of funds arriving automatically.

In other words, we have arrived at a system where programs within the government are rated exactly the same way my old coasting team member wanted to be rated within his team.

So, for all you pundits gnashing your teeth and demanding, rhetorically, to know how we got to the point where every budget resolution becomes an existential crisis with the threat of the country’s good credit hanging in the balance, this is your answer. A certain number of members of Congress come from districts that elected them to shrink the size of government, and they never get the chance to debate or vote on individual programs. Is it any surprise that the most passionate ones seize the one chance they get to make their point—which also happens to be the point that brings everything to a halt and to the edge of default?

The president has been happy enough with the current autopilot arrangement, but he eventually made a miscalculation. After he got one tax increase out Republicans following his reelection, he wanted another one. An impasse was arrived at, so the White House came up with the idea of the sequester as a “compromise.” The reckoning was that when push came to shove Republicans, although happy with the sequester’s spending cuts, would balk at its slashing of defense spending and would have no choice but to accept more tax increases. A similar bait-and-switch tactic had worked before with the administration’s handling of the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson plan for correcting the government’s drift toward eventual insolvency.

But Republicans surprised everyone—perhaps including themselves—by deciding to live with the sequester. No one is really happy with the sequester. Across-the-board spending cuts do not make any more sense than across-the-board spending increases. But for all the gnashing of teeth over those cuts and the problems they have caused, it seems pretty clear that they have contributed somewhat to a modestly improving economy.

There are smarter ways than zombie spending increases and mindless budget slashing to make the government more efficient and to put the economy back on a more sustainable course. That would involve entitlement reform and tax reform—two things to which the president has repeatedly paid lip service since he was first elected nearly five years ago but in which he has never shown any real interest.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Grass Is Always Greener

There is always a segment of America that looks longingly at Europe and wonders why the U.S. cannot get its act together like the Europeans do. I know about this firsthand because I was—and sometimes still am—such an American.

When I came home in 1974 from my year of study in France, I was enthused about the parliamentary system and the wide array of European political parties that represented every shade of political thought and ideology. In contrast, the U.S seemed to be held back by a joint monopoly of two political parties, which were clearly too large and diverse to stand for any clear ideology (back then at least).

Years of living in Europe, however, have since tempered my admiration for its political systems. But I still wonder occasionally how the U.S. might be different under a parliamentary system. So my ears perked up on Saturday when that very question was posed on National Public Radio. “Would The U.S. Be Better Off With A Parliament?” was the title of a report by Ari Shapiro on Weekend Edition. Strangely, though, the piece never actually addressed its titular question.

The piece began with this odd assertion: “[T]he extreme paralysis that has recently become the norm in D.C. almost never happens in Western European democracies.” Huh? Has NPR never heard of Italy? I guess they figured the word “almost” covered that.

What the report was really about was a Harvard task force study of how agreements are negotiated in American politics. One of the working assumptions was apparently that there is less paralysis in European democracies. The conclusions are basically “U.S. Constitution 101.” America has a system of separation of powers, and that makes it harder to pass laws. The task force seems to have regarded this as an inadvertent flaw rather than a deliberate design.

Noting that, in a parliamentary system, the head of government is elected by the parliament and not directly by the people. Shapiro explained helpfully, “It would be as if the American president’s party always controlled Congress.”

Uh, no, Ari, it would be as if the House of Representatives elected the president. In a parliamentary system, the parliament is elected first, district by district, and then that body elects the prime minister. If the U.S. had suddenly switched to a parliamentary system before the 2012 elections, the president today would be John Boehner.

It’s an interesting thought process that would lead someone—it’s not clear whether it was Shapiro or the task force—to conclude that, under a parliamentary system, Democrats would have won a majority of districts in the country as a whole when they didn’t do so under the current system.

But then American politics can be confusing. Why did the same nationwide group of voters elect a Democratic president at the same time as electing a substantial majority of Republican members of Congress? Democratic partisans like to say that gerrymandering skews the district-by-district results, but that alone cannot explain the size of the Republican congressional majority.

The fact is that, at least currently, Democrats do much better in national elections than they do in the aggregate of local elections. So it is hard to argue that they would somehow control the whole government under a parliamentary system.

But, as I mentioned, Shapiro’s report barely discusses the idea of how a parliamentary system would change things in America. It quickly segues to the notion that America would be better off with European-style campaign finance restrictions. The suggestion is that deadlock in the U.S. is a byproduct of too much political spending. And I suppose it’s true that the kind of government controls on political spending in countries like France and the UK do help to avoid deadlock. That’s because, under such a system, the party in power gains a huge advantage.

But the party in power has a huge advantage anyway. That’s because a party with a majority in parliament can pass any law on its own, only needing rubber stamps from the upper house and/or the president or monarch.

In Ireland, even the ineffectual role of the Seanad (Senate) was a bit bothersome for the Taoiseach (Prime Minster) Enda Kenny, as he recently held a referendum to abolish it. Unexpectedly, Irish voters decided to keep their upper house—even though its main role is to give would-be, has-been and never-were politicians a forum for spouting off about all kinds of nonsense. A highlight this past summer was when independent Senator David Norris derided in an over-the-top tirade a Fine Gael senator, who supported abolition of the Seanad, as “talking through her fanny.”

The fact is, when American academics and journalists talk admiringly of how much better things are done in Europe, their gaze across the Atlantic is pretty darn selective. What you do not hear touted on NPR as being better than in America, for example, are things like this. The strongest economy in Europe is in Germany. Right now it is Germany all by itself keeping the rest of Europe afloat economically.

Germany is where right-of-center Chancellor Angela Merkel was recently re-elected handily. One of the main proposals coming from her losing opponent was the institution of a federal minimum wage. Germany has never had one.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Tyrants, Major and Petty

I am nowhere near the point of packing a survival kit and a gun (if I had one) and high-tailing it for the back country. But I do have a healthy nervousness about the size and power of government.

That is not the same thing as having something against people who happen to be employed by the government. The fact is that governments provide many services that are necessary or desirable for our quality of life. And I also understand that many government employees are dedicated professionals who do their best and not always under easy conditions. And in the case of those on the front lines, like police and firefighters, some actually expected to put their lives at risk to protect others.

But I have to admit to a certain amount of nervousness about all the information collected by agencies like the NSA and about abuses of power by the Internal Revenue Service. And, yes, I’m a bit nervous about the centralized government-run information system being built with the aim of accumulating medical information on every person in the country.

This nervousness isn’t born of small things like the inconvenience of waiting in a long queue at the driver’s license office or from the headaches involved in filing a tax return. It comes from reading things like history books and the writings of Franz Kafka. It also comes partly from dealing with bureaucrats and authorities in the various countries where I’ve lived over the years and from hearing the horror stories from others in those countries.

Free and democratic elections and an unfettered and skeptical press are indispensable for keeping a government’s powers in check. I’ve only lived in one place where the government’s power was not held in check. That was in Pinochet’s Chile in the 1970s.

As a foreign student who was sponsored by a well-established international organization and who was intent on having no political involvement, I did not feel particularly at risk while there. In fact, as I’ve written before, because of the strict regime of military law and order I actually felt personally safer there than in other countries. But in minor ways I did experience the effects of a government that was unchecked.

I was reminded of this recently when I happened to read of the suicide of General Odlanier Mena. During the year I lived in Chile, he took over the benignly named National Information Center (CNI). This replaced the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA), which had been established by Pinochet in 1974. The change had to do partly with the fact that, in the years immediately following the military coup that ousted Salvador Allende, the DINA had acquired a sinister reputation. Not only did it gather and keep information on citizens but it also had a paramilitary wing and secret police force that were associated with disappearances and torture. The CNI, if anything, wielded even more power than the DINA since it also had significant judicial powers.

General Mena ran the CNI from 1977 to 1980. Five years ago his retirement was interrupted when he was tried and convicted because of his role in the killing of three leftists shortly after the coup in 1973 while he was commander of an army regiment in Arica, near the Bolivian border.

The general had been serving his sentence at the Cordillera Detention Center in Santiago, a facility where inmates received preferential treatment. According to The New York Times, Cordillera’s ten inmates—which included Mena’s predecessor, Manuel Contreras Sepúlveda, and other DINA and CNI commanders—lived “in five cabins—each with a private bathroom—on grounds that include a tennis court.” The English-language Santiago Times described Cordillera as “luxurious.”

Mena had recently learned that he would be transferred to a less plush prison because of a decision by President Sebastián Piñera to close the Cordillera facility. During a weekend leave at his home, the 87-year-old prisoner shot himself in the head with his own gun, which was registered to him as “a collector’s item.”

I am sure there are many who feel that Mena and his colleagues got off way too easy. But, beyond the fact that they were eventually convicted of committing murders, there also seems to be at least some kind of cosmic justice in the fact that these men in charge of making other people’s lives hell have been spending the end of their lives as the unwilling guests of government functionaries.

Personally, I had only one brush with the CNI. It came at the end of my year in Chile. To leave the country I had to acquire an exit visa. That required an interview with the CNI. Mostly, they wanted to make sure that I didn’t owe any unpaid taxes, but there really wasn’t a limit on whatever else they wanted to delve into. As I nervously sat down for my interview, four framed photographs of the members of the military junta looked down at me from behind my interrogator.

It turned out there was a hitch, as I have previously written. Weeks earlier a border official had refused to stamp my passport when I had entered Chile from Argentina. For a couple of uncomfortable days, it looked as though I might wind up a prisoner of some kind of bureaucratic nightmare.

When it was finally sorted out, I had a good laugh over how silly the government was with all its rules and its slavish attention to forms and stamps and having all the right signatures. I could afford to laugh because, after all, I was never really in any danger of being locked up with no hope of release. There were plenty of others who were not so lucky.

Still, the experience was nerve-wracking enough that I have never since lost my sense of foreboding when it comes to the power of bureaucrats sitting behind desks who do not answer to anybody other than a chain of command that is unbothered by democratic institutions.

Even when they ostensibly answer to an elected government, bureaucrats can still wield their bit of arbitrary power over you when you are in the uncomfortable position of needing them to use their stamp or signing pen.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What Goes Around

Well, it’s the 1990s again.

How do I know it’s the 1990s again? Well, for one thing, the U.S. government has shut down. The last time that happened was during the Clinton Administration.

President Obama has been warning us how bad this will be for the economy. After all, after the last government shutdown, which began in December 1995, there was long-term devastation for the American economy. Remember? Oh, wait. Actually Bill Clinton’s second term saw what were arguably the best economic conditions in living memory. Of course, that wasn’t because of the shutdown. It was because of a number of government reforms that Clinton negotiated and implemented with Republicans after he was reelected.

Yeah, but Republicans will get the blame for this shutdown and be punished in next year’s midterm elections, right? Maybe. After all, Clinton did win reelection handily less than a year after the last shutdown. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine that amiable, unexciting, middle-of-the-road Bob Dole would have done much better in that election even if the shutdown hadn’t happened.

In any event, the presidency isn’t on the ballot in the next election, which usually gives the opposition an advantage. And, if we look at the 1996 congressional election, we see that Republicans—although they did lose a few seats in the House of Representatives—controlled both houses before and after that post-shutdown election.

So basically everything the experts in the media keep telling us about what the shutdown means is wrong—at least historically. Even the bit about how federal employees will never get paid for the days of work they will miss. The fact is that, after every previous shutdown, Congress has voted to reimburse out-of-pocket employees for their time off.

Still, this makes the Republicans look really bad, right? Yes, at least in terms of mainstream press coverage. But this whole fight does help energize their base, just as it also energizes the Democrats’ base. But in one key way, this whole train wreck represents something of a triumph for the GOP. All anyone is talking about is Obamacare and whether it will be funded or delayed or how long the Washington Monument will be closed. What seems to be missed in the coverage is that the House continuing resolution (real actual budgets went the way of the passenger pigeon since Obama was first elected) keeps the sequester on spending in place. That actually seems to be the endgame for any final resolution.

How else are these days like the 1990s? Well, the U.S. government is dealing with weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Unlike Barack Obama, President Clinton seemed to have no reluctance in using military force in that part of the world. Among other incursions, he launched missiles into Iraq in 1993 (in retaliation for the attempted assassination of former President George H.W. Bush) and in 1996 (after Saddam Hussein attacked Iraqi Kurdistan). Two years later he signed the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 establishing regime change as the official policy of the United States.

During this period U.N. weapons inspectors were in and out of Iraq, generally with inconclusive results. U.N. sanctions imposed economic hardship on the country and, to alleviate this, an Oil-for-Food Program was established to allow Iraq to buy food and medicine. This turned out to be rife with corruption, bribery and payoffs, and in the end was of little benefit to the ordinary Iraqi.

To those of us who see modern history unspooling in repeated cycles, it looks as though we are getting back to those days. In what are being portrayed as diplomatic breakthroughs, chemical weapons inspectors have moved into Syria and the Obama Administration is exploring the possibility of talks with Iran about its nuclear program.

Does President Obama understand that negotiations and inspections are sometimes a way of delaying, or maybe even avoiding, action?

I think he most certainly does. After all, I just heard him say that he would be more than happy to negotiate with House Republicans—after they have passed the continuing resolution that he wants.