Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What I Read Today - Tuesday May 31, 2011

From:  The New York Times

It’s Not About You


Over the past few weeks, America’s colleges have sent another class of graduates off into the world. These graduates possess something of inestimable value. Nearly every sensible middle-aged person would give away all their money to be able to go back to age 22 and begin adulthood anew.

But, especially this year, one is conscious of the many ways in which this year’s graduating class has been ill served by their elders. They enter a bad job market, the hangover from decades of excessive borrowing. They inherit a ruinous federal debt.

More important, their lives have been perversely structured. This year’s graduates are members of the most supervised generation in American history. Through their childhoods and teenage years, they have been monitored, tutored, coached and honed to an unprecedented degree.

Yet upon graduation they will enter a world that is unprecedentedly wide open and unstructured. Most of them will not quickly get married, buy a home and have kids, as previous generations did. Instead, they will confront amazingly diverse job markets, social landscapes and lifestyle niches. Most will spend a decade wandering from job to job and clique to clique, searching for a role.

No one would design a system of extreme supervision to prepare people for a decade of extreme openness. But this is exactly what has emerged in modern America. College students are raised in an environment that demands one set of navigational skills, and they are then cast out into a different environment requiring a different set of skills, which they have to figure out on their own.

Worst of all, they are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears. If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.

But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front.

College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities. But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to. The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments — to a spouse, a community and calling — yet mostly hears about freedom and autonomy.

Today’s graduates are also told to find their passion and then pursue their dreams. The implication is that they should find themselves first and then go off and live their quest. But, of course, very few people at age 22 or 24 can take an inward journey and come out having discovered a developed self.

Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. A relative suffers from Alzheimer’s and a young woman feels called to help cure that disease. A young man works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so his department can function. Another young woman finds herself confronted by an opportunity she never thought of in a job category she never imagined. This wasn’t in her plans, but this is where she can make her contribution.

Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.

The graduates are also told to pursue happiness and joy. But, of course, when you read a biography of someone you admire, it’s rarely the things that made them happy that compel your admiration. It’s the things they did to court unhappiness — the things they did that were arduous and miserable, which sometimes cost them friends and aroused hatred. It’s excellence, not happiness, that we admire most.

Finally, graduates are told to be independent-minded and to express their inner spirit. But, of course, doing your job well often means suppressing yourself. As Atul Gawande mentioned during his countercultural address last week at Harvard Medical School, being a good doctor often means being part of a team, following the rules of an institution, going down a regimented checklist.

Today’s grads enter a cultural climate that preaches the self as the center of a life. But, of course, as they age, they’ll discover that the tasks of a life are at the center. Fulfillment is a byproduct of how people engage their tasks, and can’t be pursued directly. Most of us are egotistical and most are self-concerned most of the time, but it’s nonetheless true that life comes to a point only in those moments when the self dissolves into some task. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.

Friday, May 27, 2011

What I Read Today - Friday May 27, 2011

From:  The New York Times

America’s Forgotten Liberal



JANUARY was the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth, and the planet nearly stopped turning on its axis to recognize the occasion. Today is the 100th anniversary of Hubert H. Humphrey’s birth, and no one besides me seems to have noticed.

That such a central figure in American history is largely ignored today is sad. But his diminution is also, more importantly, an impediment to understanding our current malaise as a nation, and how much better things might have been had today’s America turned out less Reaganite and more Humphreyish.

Our forgotten man was born in eastern South Dakota to a pharmacist, a trade the son took over after the family moved to Minnesota. That biographical fact was the source for the derisive title of a 1968 biography, “The Drugstore Liberal” — that is to say, like a “drugstore cowboy,” a small-timer, not really a liberal at all, at a time, quite unlike our own, when a liberal reputation was a prerequisite for the Democratic presidential nomination. The unfairness was evident only in retrospect.

Humphrey made his national political debut in 1948 when, as mayor of Minneapolis and a candidate for Senate, he headed the Minnesota delegation to the Democratic National Convention. There he led a faction insisting the platform include a federal fair employment commission, a controversial goal of the civil rights movement.

Segregationist Southerners threatened to walk out, a move that could have paralyzed the entire fragile Democratic coalition and handed the White House to the Republicans. The Democrats’ first presidential defeat in 16 years might have been laid at the feet of this ambitious 37-year-old.

Humphrey could have been excused for quietly backing down. Instead, the man who had earned the nickname the Happy Warrior gave one of the greatest speeches in American political history.

“To those who say this civil rights program is an infringement on states’ rights,” he thundered from the convention podium, “I say this: The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

The motion carried. The Southerners walked out and ran Strom Thurmond for president. When Harry S. Truman won nonetheless, Democrats were on their way to becoming the party of civil rights. Hubert Humphrey catalyzed that change.

He joined the Senate as a tireless champion of expanding the New Deal, but the exigencies of power were not kind to his liberal reputation. In June 1964 he was instrumental in passing the landmark Civil Rights Act. That August, however, President Lyndon B. Johnson turned to Humphrey to broker another deal at a Democratic convention, this time playing the opposite role: selling out a group of Mississippi civil rights activists who had hoped to be seated as delegates instead of the racist “regular” Democrats.

It was part of Johnson’s condition for making him his running mate: he wanted someone who would do what he said without question. Soon Vice President Humphrey was the spokesman for the president’s unwise war in Vietnam. He took to the role partly out of loyalty, partly out of conviction: to a certain sort of old-line liberal like him, Vietnam was a crusade against imperialist expansionism. To younger “New Politics” Democrats, however, the war embodied the very opposite: a racist assault by an administration that was itself practically imperialist.

It was Humphrey’s misfortune to inherit the presidential nomination in 1968, with the Democratic Party split down the middle between these factions — a tragedy sealed in blood, after Humphrey’s faction won the convention, in the streets of Chicago; and at the ballot box, with Humphrey’s agonizingly close loss to Richard M. Nixon in the general election.

The defeat came in part thanks to his refusal to denounce the disastrous war in a forthright and timely fashion, and in part thanks to the abandonment of the ticket by the New Politics liberals who called him a warmonger (often, heckling him on the campaign trail, to his face).

Was Humphrey really as hawkish as all that? Johnson didn’t think so; he actually preferred that Nixon win the election. He didn’t trust Humphrey to hold firm on the war.

Poor Humphrey could never catch a break. Resolutely committed to quiet coalition-building at a time when ideological self-righteousness was the new normal, resolutely unhip at a time when political hipness was at a premium, he was now not just a loser but an embarrassment. He came in second place for the 1972 nomination; the victor, the self-righteous but significantly more hip George S. McGovern, then came in a distant second to Nixon.

In the book by which many would remember that election, Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72,” each mention of Humphrey drips with mocking vituperation. Here, then, to many, is the Humphrey of history: an also-ran, a sellout, a joke.

For progressives today, however, the joke’s on us. In the 1970s the Democratic Party turned its focus from a New Deal-inspired politics of economic security toward a Watergate-inspired embrace of institutional reform. The move was explicitly anti-you-know-who: “We’re not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys,” proclaimed Gary Hart, the leader of the “Watergate Babies” Democratic Congressional class of 1974.

Their reforms, however, largely failed in their intention to liberalize the nation. Conservatives and business interests were able to bend the new campaign finance rules and Congressional committee systems to their own ends. That, in turn, helped bring about what Paul Krugman calls the “Great Divergence”: the economic inequality that has made a mockery of ordinary Americans’ aspirations to join and stay in the middle class.

The trends were already in evidence during the presidential season of 1976. The only thing missing was any organized Democratic response among the candidates — besides, that is, Hubert Humphrey, who was once more an also-ran for the Democratic nomination.

Instead Humphrey, who had re-entered the Senate in 1971, spent the rest of the decade doggedly devising legislative solutions to the Great Divergence. His Balanced Growth and Economic Planning Act, introduced in May 1975, when unemployment was at a post-Depression high of 9 percent, proposed a sort of domestic World Bank to route capital to job creators. (It spoke to his conviction, in a knee-jerk, anti-corporate age, that pro-labor and pro-business policies were complementary.)

And at a time when other liberals were besotted with affirmative action as a strategy to undo the cruel injustices of American history, Humphrey pointed out that race-based remedies could only prove divisive when good jobs were disappearing for everyone. Liberal policy, he said, must stress “common denominators — mutual needs, mutual wants, common hopes, the same fears.”

In 1976 he joined Representative Augustus Hawkins, a Democrat from the Watts section of Los Angeles, to introduce a bill requiring the government, especially the Federal Reserve, to keep unemployment below 3 percent — and if that failed, to provide emergency government jobs to the unemployed.

It sounds heretical now. But this newspaper endorsed it then, while 70 percent of Americans believed the government should offer jobs to everyone who wanted one. However, Jimmy Carter — a new kind of Democrat answering to a new upper-middle-class, suburban constituency, embarrassed by industrial unions and enamored with the alleged magic of the market — did not.

“Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation or save our cities or cure illiteracy or provide energy,” President Carter said in his 1978 State of the Union address, a generation before Bill Clinton said almost the same thing, cementing the Democrats’ ambivalent retreat from New Deal-based government activism.

Mr. Carter saw to it that only a toothless Humphrey-Hawkins law passed — one that made fighting inflation the government’s implicit policy goal while the toll of high unemployment was given much lower priority.

Hubert Humphrey died of cancer on Jan. 13, 1978, a Happy Warrior to the end. “Sometimes I felt discouraged,” his wife, Muriel, recalled, “but Hubert never did.”

Argue against his supposed heresies if you will. But the post-1970s deregulatory consensus that replaced them, embodied as much by Reagan then as Robert E. Rubin today, has hardly done a great job either. With unemployment once again at 9 percent, inflation minimal, corporate profits at record levels even in the face of criminal perfidy by bankers, the trade deficit at $48.2 billion and racial resentment running as high as ever, shouldn’t we perhaps spare a thought, on Hubert Humphrey’s 100th birthday, for his road not taken?

Rick Perlstein is the author of “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.”

What I Read Today - Friday May 27, 2011

From:  The New York Times

Medicare Survival Guide


Sometime this summer, the Democrats and the Republicans will go toe-to-toe over whether to raise the debt ceiling. At the height of the confrontation, President Obama may well address the country and say that even though he has offered the Republicans more than $1 trillion in spending cuts (unspecified), the Republicans have not been willing to compromise on a deal. He will then announce that, even without an agreement, the U.S. will still have enough money to continue payments to its creditors.

Unfortunately, he will go on, the government will not have enough money to continue with many other programs. Federal agencies will send out letters advising parents that because of the deadlock in Congress, student loans will be suspended. Other letters will advise seniors to make arrangements with banks for credit lines until their Social Security checks can resume. National panic will ensue.

A few weeks ago, the Republicans might have been able to withstand this. Then it was possible to argue that Americans are so fed up with runaway spending and unsustainable debt that they would support a party brave enough to put the country on a sound fiscal footing. After the Republican defeat in New York’s 26th Congressional District, it is harder to argue that. After these results, 2012 looks more like a regular election — whichever party can be accused of cutting entitlements will get pummeled.

Already many consultants are telling Republicans to drop austerity and go back on offense: Spend 2012 accusing the Democrats of sponsoring death panels. The Democrats will spend 2012 accusing Republicans of ending Medicare. Whichever party demagogues best wins.

But, over the past few days, I’ve spoken with a number of Republicans — in Congress and elsewhere — who don’t want to do that. They fervently believe the country is in peril. They want to find a way to reduce the debt without committing political suicide.

Doing that is a two-step process. First, Republicans have to make a grand offer on raising the debt ceiling. This offer should include a bipartisan commitment to reduce the growth of Medicare spending. Republicans need Democratic fingerprints on a plan to restrain entitlements. In exchange, Republicans should offer to raise tax revenues on the rich. They should get rid of the interest deductions on mortgages over $500,000 and on second homes. They should close corporate loopholes and cap the health insurance deduction. They should offer a plan that follows the outline of the Simpson-Bowles report and what the now “Gang of Five” in the Senate is working on. (Senator Mark Kirk has a proposal roughly on this latter point.)

Democrats may not agree to this offer. Since the election, Democrats have gone into the fiscal fetal position, hoping to offend no one while Republicans catch all the flak. This week, Senate Democrats voted on four separate budget proposals and not a single Democrat voted for a single one. Even President Obama’s budget received zero votes. The Democrats don’t want to be on record for any governing choice that might be painful.

Moreover, President Obama may use this occasion to pummel the Republicans mercilessly on Medicare, no matter what the consequences for the country.

But if the Republicans made an offer that included revenue increases, they would at least show they are willing to compromise to prevent a national catastrophe. And Democrats might take them up on it. Many Democrats understand the fiscal peril. Many Democrats don’t want to go down in history as the people who did nothing while bankruptcy loomed.

More broadly, Republicans need to reconnect with the working class, the sort of people who live in upstate New York Congressional districts. Republicans won in 2010 because the working class fled from the Democrats’ top-down big government liberalism. But these families have seen the pillars of their world dissolve — jobs, family structure, neighborhood cohesion. They understandably reject any new proposals that introduce even more risk and uncertainty into their lives. Republicans need to be the party of order, stability and steady growth.

They need to lay out the facts showing that Medicare is unstable and on a path to collapse, as Representative Paul Ryan is doing. But they also need to enmesh Medicare reform within an agenda to build solid communities: more money for community colleges and technical schools, an infrastructure bank, a values agenda to shore up marriage and family cohesion, tax holidays to help the unemployed start businesses, tax reform to limit special interest power.

The Boston Consulting Group foresees a manufacturing renaissance as Chinese wages rise and workers in low-cost states like Mississippi find they can compete once again. If Republicans can help foster that, and if they can cut a bipartisan deal that illustrates that we are all in this together, they can do good for the country while doing well politically. If not, it’s the same old story: whoever is bravest on entitlements will lose.

Friday, May 20, 2011

What I Read Today - Friday May 20, 2011

From:  The Wall Street Journal

A Week of Shocks but Few Surprises
Everyone knew about Gingrich, DSK and Schwarzenegger.
They were open secrets. Everyone knew. And maybe the lesson this week is that people should pay more attention to what they know.

Everyone knew Newt Gingrich was combustible, that he tended to blow things up, including, periodically, himself. He was impulsive, living proof that people confuse "a good brain" with "good judgment." He had bad judgment, which is why he famously had a hundred ideas a day and only 10 were good. He didn't know the difference and needed first-rate people around to tell him. But the best didn't work with him anymore, because he was unsteady, unreliable, more likely to be taken with insight-seizures than insights.

He was the smartest guy in the room, who didn't notice the rooms had gotten smaller. So he was running his own show. Boom.

In his famous "Meet the Press" interview, he was trying to differentiate himself from the field. He was likely thinking he'd go for the Mike Huckabee vote now that Mr. Huckabee is gone. That vote is populist-tinged, socially conservative but generally supportive of big-government programs. Newt's party and competitors support Paul Ryan's budget-cutting plan. Newt didn't think all aspects of that plan would go over with the American public.

If he'd said that, he would have been fine, and there were lots of ways to say it. Such as: "The Ryan plan is serious and courageous. But I oppose changes in the delivery system of Medicare and think we should go another route, so I do not support that aspect of it."

Instead he used slashing, dramatic language and seemed to damn the entire enterprise. The Ryan plan isn't flawed, it's "right-wing social engineering." It's "imposing radical change."

After the firestorm he went on a political perp walk, more or less denying he'd said what he said, and then blaming it on others. This was followed by reports he had been in hock to Tiffany's—Tiffany's!—for up to half a million dollars. This is decidedly unpopulist behavior, and to Republicans sounded too weird, too frivolous, flaky and grand.

I said last week I had yet to meet a Gingrich 2012 voter. Now I won't have a chance to.

People in journalism are surprised. But they wouldn't have been surprised if they'd been paying attention to what they know: that Newt blows things up, including himself.


The allegations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who stepped down as chief of the International Monetary Fund after being charged with seven counts including attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment, are just that, allegations. He's been indicted, not convicted. But half the French establishment knew about what they called his woman problem, and at least one previous accusation of harassment. It was an open secret. "Everyone knows that Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a libertine," said Gilles Savary, a member of the European Parliament Socialist party. He "doesn't try to hide it."

DSK, as he's known, is almost a classic villain—elegant, august, satyrlike in his multithousand-dollar suits and his multithousand-dollar suite. He is the perfect "champagne socialist," as they're now calling him, who preys on the weak—for who is less defended and more at the mercy of the world than a 32-year-old hotel maid, a widow, a West African immigrant working to support herself and her daughter?

But what is most startling about the story is not the charge that a powerful man did a dreadful thing. It is the utter and profound difference between the U.S. response to the story and the French response.

America was immediately sympathetic to the underdog. The impulse of every media organization, from tabloid to broadsheet to cable to network, was to side with the powerless one in the equation. The cops, the hotel's managers, the District Attorney's office—everyone in authority gave equal weight and respect to the word of the maid. Only in America (and not always in America) would they have taken the testimony of the immigrant woman from Africa and dragged the powerful man out of his first-class seat in the jet at JFK.

In France, the exact opposite. There, from the moment the story broke, DSK was the victim, not the villain. It was a setup, a trap, a conspiracy. He has a weakness for women. No, he loves them too much. Hairy-chested poseur and Sarkozy foreign-policy adviser Bernard-Henri Levy sneeringly referred to "the chambermaid," brayed about DSK's high standing, and called him "a friend to women." Jean Daniel, editor of Le Nouvel Observateur, sniffily asked why "the supposed victim was treated as worthy and beyond suspicion."

Why wouldn't she be treated as worthy, buddy? One is tempted to ask if it's the black part, the woman part or the immigrant part.

As David Rieff wrote in The New Republic, to French intellectuals, DSK deserves special treatment because he is a valuable person. "The French elites' consensus seems to be that it is somehow Strauss-Kahn himself and not the 32-year-old maid who is the true victim of this drama."

Americans totally went for the little guy. The French went for the power.

Lafayette would weep.

Someone once sniffed, "In America they call waiters 'Sir.' " Bien sur, my little bonbon. It's part of our unlost greatness.

The French are a very great people. They have filled the world with so much beauty, you have to wonder if God didn't send them down here just for that. As David McCullough observes in his tender new book, "The Greater Journey," generations of Americans, starting in 1820 or so, journeyed to Paris to learn the best in art, medicine, science and literature. They came back and filled our nation with the innovation and expertise they'd acquired there. The French didn't just enrich us, they helped America become itself.

Today they are great talkers, but for all their talk of emotions, and they do talk about emotions, they need, on this story at least, an attitude adjustment. They need to grow a heart. If the charges are true, this isn't a story about sex, romance and the war between men and women, it is about violence, and toward a person who is almost a definition of powerlessness.

Their mindless snobbery is unworthy of them.


We finish with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has finished himself. The scandal surrounding him this week is not precisely a public concern. He is not now holding office, and if he had plans or further ambitions in that area they are over. The story is not shocking—he has admitted bad behavior in the past, there have been longtime rumors, "Everyone knows." But still it took you aback. Why? The level of creepiness and the nature of the breach. The mother of the former governor's child worked for him, for them, for 20 years—another unequal power arrangement—meaning 20 years of fiction had to be maintained. "In my home!" as Michael Corleone said in "Godfather II." "Where my wife sleeps . . . and my children play with their toys." The rotten taste of this story will not fade soon.

Human sin is a constant, none are free, and anyone who is shocked by it is a fool or lying. Even so, what a week, full of human surprises. But we wouldn't be so surprised if we paid more attention to what we know, and built our expectations from there.

Copyright 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What I Read Today - Tuesday May 17, 2011

From:  The Wall Street Journal

Gingrich to House GOP: Drop Dead

Newt undermines his former comrades on Medicare. .Article Comments (232) more in Opinion ».

The Republican Presidential campaign is off to a slow start, but judging by the last week not slow enough. First Mitt Romney defends his ObamaCare prototype in Massachusetts, and now Newt Gingrich has decided to run against House Republicans on Medicare. They must be loving this at the White House.

Asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday about Paul Ryan's reform plan, Mr. Gingrich chose to throw his former allies in the GOP House not so much under the bus as off the Grand Canyon rim.

The Ryan program "is too big a jump," he said. "I think what you want to have is a system where people voluntarily migrate to better outcomes, better solutions, better options. Not one where you suddenly impose upon you—I don't want to—I—I'm against ObamaCare, which is imposing radical change. And I would be against a conservative imposing radical change."

At least Mr. Romney praised Mr. Ryan for his political courage even if he didn't embrace the House Budget Chairman's specific Medicare proposal. By using the word "radical," Mr. Gingrich deliberately chose to echo the liberal critics who want to write the Ryan plan out of respectable political debate. Mr. Gingrich knows that all but four House Republicans voted for a budget outline that includes Mr. Ryan's Medicare plan, so his remarks had the political effect of undermining his former comrades in the middle of their budget showdown with President Obama.

In an interview with us yesterday, Mr. Gingrich conceded that he "probably used too strong language" on TV but that "I have thought about this for a long time and I am very, very worried." He explained that he was trying to articulate "a political strategy for long-term, sustainable change" and that Mr. Ryan ought to have focused on "incentives rather than punishments" and "the right to choose versus being forced to choose." He added that "I think it would be politically catastrophic to pass the bill in its current form" at a moment when conservatives have an opportunity "to break the left for the first time since 1932."

Yet surely Mr. Gingrich knows that the Ryan plan has no chance of passing this Congress given opposition in the Senate. Our guess is that a politician as experienced as Mr. Gingrich knew exactly what he was doing and that as he runs for President, he wants to appear to be more moderate than he has sounded over the last, oh, 20 years, by suddenly triangulating against the GOP House he once led.

Mr. Gingrich's charge of radicalism is false in any case. Mr. Ryan is proposing a "premium support" model for Medicare of the kind that already governs health plans for federal workers and public employees in California and other states. The government would pay a set annual fee (starting at $15,000 per senior and rising with inflation) to private Medicare plans that would then compete to attract seniors. With consumers paying the marginal costs of their own care, providers and insurers will begin to compete on price and quality.

The irony is that Mr. Gingrich's own history of political failure on health care has made Mr. Ryan's proposals all the more necessary. In 1995, Mr. Gingrich pushed a "Medicare Plus" reform through Congress that shared many of the same features as Mr. Ryan's. It would have cut $270 billion from Medicare over seven years, while giving seniors a premium-support choice to join HMOs. President Clinton vetoed it, which along with Mr. Gingrich's refusal to compromise helped precipitate the government shutdown.

In 1997, he agreed to a balanced budget deal that planted the seeds for future spending increases by creating a new entitlement for children's health insurance but offering no fundamental Medicare changes. A formula was created for phony cuts in physician payments, hiding the program's true costs. And the difficult choices were deferred to a bipartisan commission, which in 1999 recommended—yes, premium support, like Mr. Ryan.

After retiring from the House, Mr. Gingrich next lobbied for the GOP's 2003 Medicare drug entitlement, though three-quarters of seniors already had some kind of private prescription coverage. In these pages, with his usual restraint, he called it "the most important reorganization of our nation's health-care system since the original Medicare bill of 1965 and the largest and most positive change in direction for the health system in 60 years for people over 65."

Mr. Gingrich's policy conceit was that the bill's health savings accounts would revolutionize health care. The bill's minor market reforms have worked better than expected, but ObamaCare has undermined HSAs, which were never by themselves enough to introduce consumer-driven health-care reform.

Yet now he is trashing Mr. Ryan for thinking far more deeply about health care, and in a far more principled fashion, than Mr. Gingrich ever has. The episode reveals the Georgian's weakness as a candidate, and especially as a potential President—to wit, his odd combination of partisan, divisive rhetoric and poll-driven policy timidity.

In his recent campaign book, "To Save America," he describes Mr. Obama as bent on leading a "secular–socialist machine" that "represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did." Mr. Ryan speaks softly but proposes policies commensurate with America's problems. Mr. Gingrich speaks loudly but shrinks from hard choices. Who's the "radical" and who's the real leader?

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Monday, May 16, 2011

What I Read Today - Monday May 16, 2011

From:  The New York Times

May 15, 2011

A Requiem for Huckabee


Most candidates for the highest office in the land spend months, if not years, currying favor with the rich and powerful: glad-handing at fund-raising dinners, schmoozing in mansions, pressing the flesh in Aspen and Manhattan and Nob Hill.

Not so Mike Huckabee. He ran for president in 2008 with no money, no campaign infrastructure, no professional handlers or ad gurus or wardrobe consultants. (When I interviewed him in New Hampshire, he had just ironed his own suit.) His entire campaign — which won him more delegates than Mitt Romney’s lavishly financed operation — consisted of showing up for any television program that would have him, and turning on the charm.

It’s no surprise, then, that Huckabee prefers his new life as a Fox News host to the dubious pleasures of another presidential run. But he’ll be missed in the 2012 race, and not just because his absence promises to dramatically reduce the entertainment value of the Republican debates.

He’ll be missed because he embodied a political persuasion that’s common in American life but rare in America’s political class. This worldview mixes cultural conservatism with economic populism: it’s tax-sensitive without being stridently antigovernment, skeptical of Wall Street as well as Washington, and as concerned about immigration, family breakdown and public morals as it is about the debt ceiling.

This combination of views represents one of the plausible middle grounds in American politics. You can find it in the Republican Party, among the evangelicals and Catholics whose votes made the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush possible. You can find it among independent voters, particularly in what a recent Pew report calls the “disaffected” demographic, whose hostility to big government coexists with anxieties about corporate power and support for redistribution of wealth. And you find it in the Democratic Party as well — from the dwindling ranks of pro-life Catholic liberals to the “Bill Cosby conservatives” in the African-American middle class.

But few of these people are members of the American elite. Call someone a “centrist” or a “moderate” in the salons of Washington or New York, and everyone will assume that you’re talking about a deficit hawk who supports open borders, or a Republican C.E.O. who writes checks to Planned Parenthood. Among our leadership class, centrism invariably means some combination of big-business conservatism and social progressivism — the politics of pro-choice Republicans, hedge fund Democrats and Michael Bloomberg independents.

This is why Huckabee’s 2008 campaign seemed to come out of nowhere. The press was baffled, and often delighted: here was a right-wing politician who talked easily about health care and admitted that the Bush economy had been lousy for working families. (There would have been less delight, of course, if he had actually won the Republican nomination: then all the talk would have turned to his supposedly “scary” views on issues like abortion.)

Republican elites, meanwhile, were appalled. They called him a class warrior and a pro-life liberal, and regularly insinuated that he had jumped above his station. (Lisa Schiffren, a former speechwriter for Dan Quayle, memorably suggested that Huckabee go back to “that bait shop on the lake. ... You’ll be surrounded by nice neighbors, real Christians, and you can be the smartest guy in the room.”)

Never mind that Huckabee’s record as governor of Arkansas was at least as conservative as Mitt Romney’s in Massachusetts. Somehow, the Romney of 2008 just seemed like a more plausible Republican nominee. Like many American political entrepreneurs, from George W. Bush to John Edwards to Rush Limbaugh, he was a well-connected rich guy posing as a populist. Whereas Huckabee really was a populist — a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University rather than Harvard Business School, and a man with no interest in the rhetorical correctness and interest-group ring-kissing that both parties expect of their nominees.

Of course, his 2008 campaign also reflected populism’s inevitable flaw: a desperate lack of policy substance. Huckabee won votes by talking about issues that the other Republican candidates wouldn’t touch, but his actual agenda was a grab bag of gimmicks and crank ideas. And nothing in his subsequent television career has indicated a strong interest in putting policy meat on the bones of his worldview.

Still, his candidacy illuminated a path that more politicians should take. We live in an age of economic stagnation and social crisis, and the two are intimately connected. The collapse of the two-parent family and unfettered low-skilled immigration have made America more stratified. The Wall Street-Washington axis really did drive the country into a ditch.

For all his faults, Mike Huckabee knew how to talk about these problems. Now we need leaders with ideas for what do about them.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What I Read Today - Tuesday May 10, 2011

From: The New York Times.

The Missing Fifth


In 1910, Henry Van Dyke wrote a book called “The Spirit of America,” which opened with this sentence: “The Spirit of America is best known in Europe by one of its qualities — energy.”

This has always been true. Americans have always been known for their manic dynamism. Some condemned this ambition as a grubby scrambling after money. Others saw it in loftier terms. But energy has always been the country’s saving feature.

So Americans should be especially alert to signs that the country is becoming less vital and industrious. One of those signs comes to us from the labor market. As my colleague David Leonhardt pointed out recently, in 1954, about 96 percent of American men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. Today that number is around 80 percent. One-fifth of all men in their prime working ages are not getting up and going to work.

According to figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has a smaller share of prime age men in the work force than any other G-7 nation. The number of Americans on the permanent disability rolls, meanwhile, has steadily increased. Ten years ago, 5 million Americans collected a federal disability benefit. Now 8.2 million do. That costs taxpayers $115 billion a year, or about $1,500 per household. Government actuaries predict that the trust fund that pays for these benefits will run out of money within seven years.

Part of the problem has to do with human capital. More American men lack the emotional and professional skills they would need to contribute. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 35 percent of those without a high school diploma are out of the labor force, compared with less than 10 percent of those with a college degree.

Part of the problem has to do with structural changes in the economy. Sectors like government, health care and leisure have been growing, generating jobs for college grads. Sectors like manufacturing, agriculture and energy have been getting more productive, but they have not been generating more jobs. Instead, companies are using machines or foreign workers.

The result is this: There are probably more idle men now than at any time since the Great Depression, and this time the problem is mostly structural, not cyclical. These men will find it hard to attract spouses. Many will pick up habits that have a corrosive cultural influence on those around them. The country will not benefit from their potential abilities.

This is a big problem. It can’t be addressed through the sort of short-term Keynesian stimulus some on the left are still fantasizing about. It can’t be solved by simply reducing the size of government, as some on the right imagine.

It will probably require a broad menu of policies attacking the problem all at once: expanding community colleges and online learning; changing the corporate tax code and labor market rules to stimulate investment; adopting German-style labor market practices like apprenticeship programs, wage subsidies and programs that extend benefits to the unemployed for six months as they start small businesses.

Reinvigorating the missing fifth — bringing them back into the labor market and using their capabilities — will certainly require money. If this were a smart country, we’d be having a debate about how to shift money from programs that provide comfort and toward programs that spark reinvigoration.

But, of course, that’s not what is happening. Discretionary spending, which might be used to instigate dynamism, is declining. Health care spending, which mostly provides comfort to those beyond working years, is expanding. Attempts to take money from health care to open it up for other uses are being crushed.

There are basically two ways to cut back on the government health care spending. From the top, a body of experts can be empowered to make rationing decisions. This is the approach favored by President Obama and in use in many countries around the world. Alternatively, at the bottom, costs can be shifted to beneficiaries with premium supports to help them handle the burden. Different versions of this approach are embodied in the Dutch system, the prescription drug benefit and Representative Paul Ryan’s budget.

We’ll probably need a mixture of these approaches to figure out what works. Instead, Republicans decry the technocratic rationing model as “death panels.” Democrats have gone into demagogic overdrive calling premium support ideas “privatization” or “the end of Medicare.”

Let’s be clear about the effect of this mendacity: We’re locking in the nation’s wealth into the Medicare program and closing off any possibility that we might do something significant to reinvigorate the missing fifth. Next time you see a politician demagoguing Medicare, ask this: Should we be using our resources in the manner of a nation in decline or one still committed to stoking the energy of its people and continuing its rise?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What I Read Today - Wednesday May 4, 2011

"Political extremism involves two prime ingredients: an excessively simple diagnosis of the world's ills, and a conviction that there are identifiable villains back of it all."

— John W. Gardner

Sunday, May 1, 2011

What I Read Today - Sunday May 1, 2011

From: The New York Times
April 30, 2011

The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries


San Francisco

WHEN we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!” No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.

And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.

Compare this with our approach to our military: when results on the ground are not what we hoped, we think of ways to better support soldiers. We try to give them better tools, better weapons, better protection, better training. And when recruiting is down, we offer incentives.

We have a rare chance now, with many teachers near retirement, to prove we’re serious about education. The first step is to make the teaching profession more attractive to college graduates. This will take some doing.

At the moment, the average teacher’s pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender. Teachers make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. In real terms, teachers’ salaries have declined for 30 years. The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and makes raising a family on one salary near impossible.

So how do teachers cope? Sixty-two percent work outside the classroom to make ends meet. For Erik Benner, an award-winning history teacher in Keller, Tex., money has been a constant struggle. He has two children, and for 15 years has been unable to support them on his salary. Every weekday, he goes directly from Trinity Springs Middle School to drive a forklift at Floor and Décor. He works until 11 every night, then gets up and starts all over again. Does this look like “A Plan,” either on the state or federal level?

We’ve been working with public school teachers for 10 years; every spring, we see many of the best teachers leave the profession. They’re mowed down by the long hours, low pay, the lack of support and respect.

Imagine a novice teacher, thrown into an urban school, told to teach five classes a day, with up to 40 students each. At the year’s end, if test scores haven’t risen enough, he or she is called a bad teacher. For college graduates who have other options, this kind of pressure, for such low pay, doesn’t make much sense. So every year 20 percent of teachers in urban districts quit. Nationwide, 46 percent of teachers quit before their fifth year. The turnover costs the United States $7.34 billion yearly. The effect within schools — especially those in urban communities where turnover is highest — is devastating.

But we can reverse course. In the next 10 years, over half of the nation’s nearly 3.2 million public school teachers will become eligible for retirement. Who will replace them? How do we attract and keep the best minds in the profession?

People talk about accountability, measurements, tenure, test scores and pay for performance. These questions are worthy of debate, but are secondary to recruiting and training teachers and treating them fairly. There is no silver bullet that will fix every last school in America, but until we solve the problem of teacher turnover, we don’t have a chance.

Can we do better? Can we generate “A Plan”? Of course.

The consulting firm McKinsey recently examined how we might attract and retain a talented teaching force. The study compared the treatment of teachers here and in the three countries that perform best on standardized tests: Finland, Singapore and South Korea.

Turns out these countries have an entirely different approach to the profession. First, the governments in these countries recruit top graduates to the profession. (We don’t.) In Finland and Singapore they pay for training. (We don’t.) In terms of purchasing power, South Korea pays teachers on average 250 percent of what we do.

And most of all, they trust their teachers. They are rightly seen as the solution, not the problem, and when improvement is needed, the school receives support and development, not punishment. Accordingly, turnover in these countries is startlingly low: In South Korea, it’s 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, 3 percent.

McKinsey polled 900 top-tier American college students and found that 68 percent would consider teaching if salaries started at $65,000 and rose to a minimum of $150,000. Could we do this? If we’re committed to “winning the future,” we should. If any administration is capable of tackling this, it’s the current one. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan understand the centrality of teachers and have said that improving our education system begins and ends with great teachers. But world-class education costs money.

For those who say, “How do we pay for this?” — well, how are we paying for three concurrent wars? How did we pay for the interstate highway system? Or the bailout of the savings and loans in 1989 and that of the investment banks in 2008? How did we pay for the equally ambitious project of sending Americans to the moon? We had the vision and we had the will and we found a way.

Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari are founders of the 826 National tutoring centers and producers of the documentary “American Teacher.”

What I Read Today - Sunday May 1, 2011

Sometimes a Great Notion

Inc. (the magazine)

by Jim Collins

July 1993

But not always. A surprising number of companies we consider great today did not start out with a compelling idea for a product or service.

I don't know how many times I've heard people say, "I'd love to start a company, but I don't have a great idea." My response: Neither did the founders of Sony, Hewlett-Packard, Marriott, Motorola, Honda, Disney, Wal-Mart, Nordstrom, Merck, or Procter & Gamble. But that didn't stop them from getting started. If they'd waited until they had the great idea, I suspect those companies would not exist today. If you are waiting for the lightning bolt of a great idea—or even a good idea—before truly committing yourself to building your company, you may be waiting for a long time.

Believe me, I didn't always think that way. But I began to question the common wisdom when I came across a story a few years ago. It went like this:

In 1945 a young inventor named Masaru Ibuka decided to start a company among the ruins of a defeated Japan. He rented a room in a bombed-out department store in Tokyo and, with seven employees and $1,600 of personal savings, started to work. But what to work on? Ibuka had a company but no idea. According to Akio Morita, who joined the company shortly thereafter, "the small group sat in conference in the depressing surroundings of the burned-out department store, and for weeks they tried to figure out what kind of business the new company could enter." Ibuka's company is known to all of us today as Sony Corp.

Hewlett-Packard started much the same way. When Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard founded their company in the late 1930s, they had no specific idea to pursue. Their primary goal was to go into business together in the vaguely defined electronic-engineering field. Here is how Bill Hewlett described the early days (courtesy of HP company archives): "We didn't have any plans when we started—we were just opportunistic. We did anything that would bring in a nickel. We had a bowling foul-line indicator, a clock drive for a telescope, a thing to make a urinal flush automatically, and a shock machine to make people lose weight. Here we were, with about $500 in capital, trying whatever someone thought we might be able to do."

Fascinated, I decided to take a closer look at the beginnings of a number of today's outstanding companies. I discovered that many of the founders had committed themselves to creating a company and then figured out what products to make or services to offer. Even in cases in which the founders started out with an idea, it seldom was a great idea and often turned out to be a bad one.

Paul Galvin started out repairing and later manufacturing battery eliminators for Sears radios. Galvin was driven by the ambition to work for himself and to build his start-up—a five-person enterprise—into a great and lasting company. From those humble beginnings, we now have Motorola Inc. J. Willard Marriott wanted to create a successful enterprise that he could build into an institution. The young Mormon missionary started his company, now Marriott Corp., with an A&W Root Beer stand in Washington D.C.

In 1946 Soichiro Honda created the Honda Technical Research Institute, later known as the Honda Motor Co. But not until 1948, after nearly two years of tinkering with engines, did he create Honda's first motorcycle.

Even legendary Sam Walton of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. started with nothing other than the desire to work for himself and some knowledge of retailing. He began as a simple dime store merchant. He stumbled on the concept of discount retailing in rural areas not because he had a great idea but because his wife dictated that the Walton family live in towns no larger than 10,000 people.

Nordstrom Inc. started as a single show store in downtown Seattle; Merck & Co. as a sales branch for a German chemical company; Procter & Gamble as a soap and candle maker. Hardly great ideas.

Perhaps even more surprising, the first business attempts of many of today's best companies were failures. Sony's first product—a rice cooker—didn't work properly, and its first significant product—a tape recorder—struck out in the market. The company kept itself alive in the early days by stitching wires to cloth to make crude but sellable heating pads. Sam Walton's first dime store ended in a personal nightmare owing to a bad business arrangement. Hewlett-Packard had a series of failures until it sold a set of audio oscillators to a young animator named Walt Disney for work on the movie Fantasia. Disney, too, faced initial failures. His first cartoon series, Alice in Cartoonland—ever heard of it?—languished in the theatres.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not arguing that all successful companies started without a great idea. Certainly Edison's light bulb, the genesis of General Electric Co., was a great idea. And Ray Kroc's recognition of the potential in the McDonald brothers' restaurant was a terrific place to start, as was Stephen Wozniak and Steve Jobs's personal computer the Apple I. But few people come on such superb founding ideas.

Luck favors the persistent. That simple truth is a fundamental cornerstone of all successful company builders. But what to persist with? The builders of extraordinary companies are clear: be prepared to kill an idea, but never give up on the company. If one idea fails, try another. View your ultimate product as the company itself, how it operates, and what it stands for.

If you equate the success of your company with the success of a specific idea—as many entrepreneurs do—then you're more likely to give up if that idea fails. If that idea succeeds, you're more likely to have a love affair with it and stick with it too long when you should be moving on to other things. All product ideas, no matter how great, eventually become obsolete. But a vital great company can never be obsolete if it has the organizational ability to continually evolve beyond existing product life cycles.

The corporate landscape is littered with one-idea companies that died. Look at Visicorp: it was a product, not a company. The same is true of Worlds of Wonder, Businessland, and other highflyers that no longer exist. Out of the gate they were way ahead of companies like Hewlett-Packard, Sony, and Wal-Mart at a comparable age. Businessland, for example, had $1 billion in sales by its sixth birthday, whereas Hewlett-Packard at age 10 had less than $10 million in revenues (in 1992 dollars). Businessland did not employ a single person by its 10th birthday. Hewlett-Packard, in contrast to the fast starters, learned humility early on, with growth coming only at a snail's pace. Yet Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard kept experimenting until they figured out how to organize for innovation and how to build a company that would successfully express their core values. Indeed, Hewlett and Packard's ultimate creation wasn't the audio oscillator or the pocket calculator. It was the Hewlett-Packard Co. Similarly, Masaru Ibuka's most important product was not the Trinitron or the Walkman. It was Sony the corporation. The same is true for Disney, Walton, and the others.

What stands out about those great company builders is their obsessive focus on getting the details consistently right. You don't have to have a great idea if you execute it better than anyone else. I'm also struck by how they kept their core values constant yet vigorously adapted their strategies and tactics to meet the challenges of an ever-changing world. But I think the most important lesson for potential company builders is that you can lift from your shoulders forever the tyranny of the great-idea theory.

Copyright © 1993 Jim Collins, All rights reserved.