Monday, October 31, 2011

What I Read Today - Monday October 31, 2011

October 31, 2011, 11:56 AM ET

La Russa’s Lasting Effect on Baseball.

Associated Press

Tony La Russa finished third among MLB managers on the all-time wins list, trailing only a pair of legends: Connie Mack and John McGraw.

St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, one of the most successful, most influential, and longest-tenured managers in baseball history, announced his retirement this morning, leaving on top after winning the World Series last week.

La Russa is a lock to go to the Hall of Fame. He may have been a lousy player, but also indisputably a great manager who made the Chicago White Sox competitive in the early 1980s and won a championship with Oakland in 1989 and two more with the Cards in 2006 and this fall. In other words, he kept winning without the benefit of Yankee- or Red Sox-level financial resources.

But there have been many successful managers. La Russa stands out because of the changes he helped bring to baseball and his influence on the modern game.

He’s credited with inventing the bullpen we know today, where situational relievers are employed in specialized roles. Legions of relievers have him to thank for indirectly extending their careers. So do the high-priced closers who live for the save statistic – with converted (and deteriorating) starter Dennis Eckersley in Oakland, La Russa helped forge the blueprint for the dominant one-inning closer.

Of course, La Russa drove many fans and pundits crazy with his bullpen machinations, and it seemed like he always took it a little further than the next guy. He would use one pitcher for the first out, another for the second and a third to finish out the inning. That’s a lot of dead time in a baseball game.

And if all the moves didn’t work out? La Russa never apologized, sticking to his reasoning and defying his critics to explain how it could have been done better.

La Russa also emerged as a champion for the old-time baseball men as computer-driven analysis took over the game in the past decade. That defense of the scouts who did it by feel is more striking given La Russa’s position at the forefront of using statistics and other new approaches to gain an edge through all three of his managerial tenures.

Statistically-focused thinking led him to try gambits like batting his pitcher eighth instead of in the traditional ninth spot, so he could better mimic American League lineups. It led him to try using pitchers in three-inning segments. La Russa was a tinkerer, constantly searching for the leg up over his foes, and unafraid to take heat from critics. Beloved by his players, he also protected sluggers like Mark McGwire during and after the steroids era, coaching McGwire in Oakland and St. Louis and bringing the admitted steroid user back as hitting coach this season.

He’ll retire at age 67 with three World Series rings and more overall victories (2,728) than any other modern manager, having left a tremendous mark on baseball.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What I Read Today - Wednesday October 26, 2011

From:  The New York Times - published October 25, 2011

Barack Kissinger Obama


Who would have predicted it? Barack Obama has turned out to be so much more adept at implementing George W. Bush’s foreign policy than Bush was, but he is less adept at implementing his own. The reasons, though, are obvious.

In his own way, President Obama has brought the country to the right strategy for Bush’s “war on terrorism.” It is a serious, focused combination of global intelligence coordination, targeted killing of known terrorists and limited interventions — like Libya — that leverage popular forces on the ground and allies, as well as a judicious use of U.S. power, so that we keep the costs and risks down. In Libya, Obama saved lives and gave Libyans a chance to build a decent society. What they do with this opportunity is now up to them. I am still wary, but Obama handled his role exceedingly well.

No doubt George Bush and Dick Cheney thought that both Iraq and Afghanistan would be precisely such focused, limited operations. Instead, they each turned out to be like a bad subprime mortgage — a small down payment with a huge balloon five years down the road. They thought they would be able to “flip” the house before the balloon came due. But partly because of their incompetence and lack of planning, it took much longer to flip the house to new owners and the price America paid was huge. Iraq may still have a decent outcome — I hope so, and it would be important — but even if it becomes Switzerland, we overpaid for it.

So let’s be clear: Up to now, as a commander in chief in the war on terrorism, Obama and his national security team have been so much smarter, tougher and cost-efficient in keeping the country safe than the “adults” they replaced. It isn’t even close, which is why the G.O.P.’s elders have such a hard time admitting it.

But while Obama has been deft at implementing Bush’s antiterrorism policy, he has been less successful with his own foreign policy. His Arab-Israeli diplomacy has been a mess. His hopes of engaging Iran foundered on the rocks of, well, Iran. He’s made little effort to pull together a multilateral coalition to buttress the Arab Awakening, in places like Egypt, to handle the postrevolution challenges. His ill-considered decision to double down on Afghanistan could prove fatal. He is in a war of words with Pakistan. His global climate policy is an invisible embarrassment. And the coolly calculating Chinese and Russians, while occasionally throwing him a bone, pursue their interests with scant regard to Obama’s preferences. Why is that?

Here I come to defend Obama not to condemn him.

True, he was naïve about how much his star power, or that of his secretary of state, would get others to swoon in behind us. But Obama’s frustrations in bagging a big, nonmilitary foreign policy achievement are rooted in a much broader structural problem — one that also explains why we have not produced a history-changing secretary of state since the cold war titans Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and James Baker.

The reason: the world has gotten messier and America has lost leverage. When Kissinger was negotiating in the Middle East in the 1970s, he had to persuade just three people to make a deal: an all-powerful Syrian dictator, Hafez al-Assad; an Egyptian pharaoh, Anwar Sadat; and an Israeli prime minister with an overwhelming majority, Golda Meir.

To make history, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, by contrast, need to extract a deal from a crumbling Syrian regime, a crumbled Egyptian regime, a fractious and weak Israeli coalition and a Palestinian movement broken into two parts.

We don’t even bother anymore to negotiate with the flimsy civilian government in Pakistan. We just go right to its military, which only wants to perpetuate the conflict with India — and exploit Afghanistan as a chip in that war — to justify the Pakistani Army’s endless consumption of so many state resources.

Making history through diplomacy “depends on making deals with other governments,” says Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy expert (and co-author with me on “That Used to Be Us”). “But now, to make such deals, we actually have to build the governments we want to negotiate with — and we can’t do that.” Indeed, in so many hot spots today, we have to do nation-building before we can do diplomacy. So many states propped up by the cold war are failing.

And where states are stronger — like Russia, China and Iran — we have less leverage because leverage is ultimately a function of economic strength. And while many of America’s companies are still strong, our government is mired in debt. When a nation is in debt as deep as we are — with severe defense cuts inevitable — its bark is always bigger than its bite.

The best way for us to gain leverage on Russia and Iran would be with an energy policy that reduced the price and significance of oil. The only way to gain more leverage on China is if we increase our savings and graduation rates — and export more and consume less. That isn’t in the cards.

So, Mama, tell your children not to grow up to be secretary of state or a foreign policy president — not until others have done more nation-building abroad and we’ve done more nation-building at home.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What I Read Today - Tuesday October 25, 2011

The New York Times - published October 24, 2011

The Fighter Fallacy


The elemental question in American politics is: Do voters trust their government? During the middle of the 20th century, more than 70 percent of Americans said that they trusted government to do the right thing most of the time.

During the 1970s, that fell. By the Iraq war, only 25 percent trusted government. Now, amid the economic slowdown, public trust has hit an all-time low. According to a CNN/ORC International poll, only 15 percent of Americans asked said that they trust the federal government to do the right thing most of the time.

This is a problem for Democrats. But Democrats can win elections in this climate if they defuse the Big Government/Small Government ideological debate. With his Third Way approach, Bill Clinton established that he was not a Big Government liberal. Once he crossed that threshold, he could get voters to think about his individual policies, which were actually quite popular. Clinton made a national election feel like a state election (state and local governments are still trusted and voters are less ideological when voting for those offices).

Barack Obama also crossed the ideological threshold in 2008, running as a postpartisan unifier. But the government activism of his first two years reawakened the Big Government/Small Government frame. Independents and moderate conservatives recoiled.

The Pew Research Center asks voters to place themselves and the two parties on a left-right ideological continuum. In 2006, independent voters said they felt they were twice as close to the Democrats as they were to the too-conservative Republicans. Today, they say they feel twice as close to the Republicans.

On issue after issue, the electorate has shifted rightward as independents have moved closer to the G.O.P. According to a Gallup poll, 64 percent of Americans who were asked said they primarily blamed government for the economic slowdown, whereas only 30 percent said they blamed the financial institutions. According to a Congressional Connections poll, 55 percent of adults said they believed government regulation has been a “major factor” in the current economic slowdown.

The Occupy Wall Street placards advocate income redistribution, but data from the General Social Survey shows that support for redistribution has plummeted during the recession, with the sharpest declines coming among people earning between $7 and $9 an hour.

After the shellacking in the 2010 midterms, President Obama tried to cut deals and win back independent voters. But Republicans weren’t willing to meet him halfway — or even 10 percent of the way. Liberals scalded Obama for being spineless, while the sour stagnation locked everything in place. Obama’s latest job approval rating among independents is only 36 percent, according to Gallup.

So Obama faced a choice. Double down on conciliator mode or become a fighter. Think of the latter as the Bibi Netanyahu strategy: since I have no negotiating partner I’m going to come out swinging in a way that pleases my base.

If Obama were a Republican, he could win with this sort of strategy: Repeat your party’s most orthodox positions and then rip your opponent to shreds. Republicans can win a contest between an orthodox Republican and an orthodox Democrat because they have the trust in government issue on their side.

Democrats do not have that luxury. The party of government cannot win an orthodox vs. orthodox campaign when 15 percent of Americans trust government. It certainly can’t do it presiding over 9 percent unemployment. It’s suicide.

Yet this is the course the Obama campaign has chosen. He’s campaigning these days as the populist fighter, the scourge of the privileged class.

Obama, who sounded so fresh in 2008, now sometimes sounds a bit like Al Gore and Nancy Pelosi. Obama, who inspired the country, now threatens to run a campaign that is viciously negative. Obama, who is still widely admired because he is reasonable and calm, is in danger of squandering his best asset by pretending to be someone he is not. Obama, a natural unifier and conciliator, seems on the verge of running as a divisive populist while accusing Mitt Romney, his possible opponent, of being inauthentic.

It’s misguided. It raises the ideological temperature and arouses the Big Government/Small Government debate. It repels independents, who don’t like the finance majors who went to Wall Street but trust the history majors who went to Washington even less.

Obama would be wiser to champion a Grand Bargain strategy. Use the Congressional deficit supercommittee to embrace the sort of new social contract we’ve been circling around for the past few years: simpler taxes, reformed entitlements, more money for human capital, growth and innovation.

Don’t just whisper Grand Bargain in back rooms with John Boehner. Make it explicit. Take it to the country. Lower the ideological atmosphere and get everybody thinking concretely about the real choices facing the nation.

If you don’t trust voters to be serious, they won’t trust you.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What I Read Today - Tuesday October 18, 2011

From: The Wall Street Journal

The Great Restoration


If, in the 1960s, you had tried to judge America by looking at the sit-ins and Woodstock, you would have had a very distorted picture of where the country was heading. You wouldn’t have been able to predict that Richard Nixon would win the youth vote in 1972, which he did. You wouldn’t have been able to predict that Republicans would go on to win four out of the next five presidential elections, a streak only interrupted by Jimmy Carter, who ran as a conservative Democrat.

Similarly, if you look only at the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements that have been getting so much coverage in the news media, you know very little about the wider America. Most Americans seem to understand this. According to data from the Pew Research Center, they are paying less attention to the Occupy Wall Street movement than any other major story — less than Afghanistan, Amanda Knox, the 2012 election, the death of Steve Jobs and far, far less than news about the economy.

While the cameras surround the flamboyant fringes, the rest of the country is on a different mission. Quietly and untelegenically, Americans are trying to repair their economic values.

This project begins with the pessimism and anger you see in the protest movements. Seventy percent of Americans now say their country is in decline, according to various polls. When people are gloomy they have fewer babies, and, sure enough, fertility rates have dropped sharply, with the most dramatic plunges occurring in the hardest hit states, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

But that doesn’t mean people are just shrinking back. Quietly but decisively, Americans are trying to restore the moral norms that undergird our economic system.

The first norm is that you shouldn’t spend more than you take in. After an explosion of debt over the past few decades, Americans are now reacting strongly against the debt culture. According to the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll, three-quarters of Americans said they’d be better off if they carried no debt whatsoever. Not long ago, most people saw debt as a useful tool for consumption and enjoyment. Now they see it as a seduction and an obstacle.

By choice or necessity, eight million Americans have stopped using bank-issued credit cards, according to The National Journal. The average credit card balance has fallen 10 percent this year from 2010. Banks, households and businesses are all reducing their debt levels.

Second, Americans are trying to re-establish the link between effort and reward. This was the link that was severed on Wall Street, where so many made so much for work that served no productive purpose. This was the link that was frayed by the bailouts, when people who broke the rules still got rewarded.

In sphere after sphere, strong majorities want to see a balance between what you produce and what you get. The bank bailouts worked and barely cost the government anything, but they are ferociously unpopular because the unjust got rewarded. The auto bailouts mostly worked, but they are unpopular even in the Midwestern states that directly benefited because those who failed in the market still got the gold. Public sector unions are unpopular because of the perception that benefit packages are out of balance.

The third norm is that loyalty matters. A few years ago there was a celebration of Free Agent Nation. But now most people, even most young people, would rather work long-term for one company than move around in search of freedom and opportunity.

This values restoration is reshaping the way Americans see the world around them. Many economists say the cutback in consumption will hurt the economy in the short run. But, according to the Heartland Monitor poll, 61 percent of Americans said the decline in consumption would “help the economy as it would create more savings that could be invested to create or expand business.”

Some economists say the government should be spending more now to stimulate a recovery. Thirty-eight percent of Americans seem to agree with that. But 56 percent have said “government spending when the government is already running a deficit is the wrong approach during an economic downturn because it is only a temporary solution that increases long-term debt.”

These majorities are focused on the fundamentals. They say that repairing the economic moral fabric is the essential national task right now. They are suspicious of government action in general, saying that government often undermines this fabric. But they support specific federal policies that nurture industriousness, responsibility and delayed gratification, like spending on infrastructure, education and research. They distinguish between the deserving and undeserving rich.

America went through a similar values restoration in the 1820s. Then, too, people sensed that the country had grown soft and decadent. Then, too, Americans rebalanced. They did it quietly and in private.

Friday, October 14, 2011

What I Read Today - Friday October 14, 2011

From: The New York Times

The Thing Itself


Ground zero in Lower Manhattan is a mass grave. So when it came time to rebuild the World Trade Center, the whole enterprise was enshrouded with passion and symbolism. The developers wanted a project that would proudly assert the American spirit. They wanted to send a message that the terrorist damage would not last. They wanted it to commemorate the tragedy and celebrate the revival. Everything, therefore, had to be big: the country’s tallest building, the most expensive commuter rail station, the costliest memorial.

Born in grief and passion, the whole enterprise was soon plagued by furious discord. Personalities clashed. Practicalities were ignored. Building budgets didn’t mesh with the deadlines. There were arguments about the memorial and the proper definition of the word “patriot.” There was a lot of planning but not much execution. Symbolism eclipsed reality.

During his brief tenure, Gov. David Paterson hired Chris Ward, formerly Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s environmental protection commissioner, to take over the Port Authority and rescue the shambolic ground zero project. Ward quickly understood his mission: to take a sacred cause and turn it into a building project. That is to say, to demystify it, to see it as it really is and not through the gauze of everybody’s emotions surrounding 9/11.

Ward set prosaic priorities — what would be built first, which parts of the project could wait. He cut costs by doing things like putting columns in the design of the transportation hall. He changed the name of Freedom Tower to One World Trade Center. He divided the construction deals into manageable chunks.

Ward gave me a tour of the site this week, and what I liked best was that it wasn’t all that moving. It was mostly about infrastructure, not pathos. Ward spoke as much about the internal guts of the project as the outer meaning. He praised the memorial fountains, which occupy the land of the original towers, for their dignity and restraint. They don’t tell future generations what to think.

It’s still an enormous project, but Ward distinguishes between “myopic monumentalism” and monumental projects done right. Myopic projects are designed in a rush. They are simple and brutal and single-purposed. They lack the cross tensions and quiet paradoxes that accrete on a project when it evolves patiently and over time. Robert Moses’s dream of building an expressway through the heart of Manhattan was myopic monumentalism. Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park, with its complex blend of neighborhoods, was not.

Ward (who is inexplicably being replaced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo) rescued the ground zero project by disenchanting it, by seeing it as it is, not through shrouds of symbols — by attending closely to all the practical complexity. American politics in general could use that sort of disenchantment.

Many issues that were once concrete and practical are distorted because they have become symbolic and spiritual. Tax policy isn’t just about how to raise revenue anymore. Liberals see it as a way to punish the greedy and redress the iniquities of capitalism. Conservatives see tax increases as an assault on the enterprising class perpetrated by arrogant central planners. A tax rate could be seen as just a number signifying an expense, but now it’s a marker in a culture war.

Gun policy isn’t about what specific weaponry should be in private hands. It’s seen as an assault on or defense of the whole rural lifestyle, so to compromise on any front is to court dishonor.

President Obama’s Green Tech initiative has become a policy disaster — not only at Solyndra but at one program after another — because its champions ignored basic practical considerations. They were befogged by their own visions of purity and virtue.

Maybe it’s part of living in a postmaterialist economy, but nearly every practical question becomes a values question. You get politicians and commentators whose views are entirely predictable because they don’t care about the specifics of any particular issue. They just care about the status war against their social enemies and the way each issue functions as a symbol in that great fight.

It would be nice if there were more leaders like Ward inclined to disenchant problems and stare directly at specific contexts. Sometimes circumstances compel you to raise taxes, sometimes circumstances allow you to cut them. Sometimes government can promote innovation; in most cases it can’t.

Walker Percy once wrote, “God writes straight with crooked lines.” Translated into policy terms, that means it takes a lot of little zigs and zags over the terrain to get where you want to go. Mayors, governors and local officials do this all the time as they respond practically to circumstances. At the national level anybody who tries to zig and zag gets regarded as weak and traitorous by the economic values groups. There are rewards for those who fight over symbols, few for those who see the thing itself.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What I Read Today - Wednesday October 12, 2011

(Note:  The book mentioned in this essay "The Power of Pull"  is one of the books recommended to me by Gary Boomer)

From:  The New York Times

Something’s Happening Here


When you see spontaneous social protests erupting from Tunisia to Tel Aviv to Wall Street, it’s clear that something is happening globally that needs defining. There are two unified theories out there that intrigue me. One says this is the start of “The Great Disruption.” The other says that this is all part of “The Big Shift.” You decide.

Paul Gilding, the Australian environmentalist and author of the book “The Great Disruption,” argues that these demonstrations are a sign that the current growth-obsessed capitalist system is reaching its financial and ecological limits. “I look at the world as an integrated system, so I don’t see these protests, or the debt crisis, or inequality, or the economy, or the climate going weird, in isolation — I see our system in the painful process of breaking down,” which is what he means by the Great Disruption, said Gilding. “Our system of economic growth, of ineffective democracy, of overloading planet earth — our system — is eating itself alive. Occupy Wall Street is like the kid in the fairy story saying what everyone knows but is afraid to say: the emperor has no clothes. The system is broken. Think about the promise of global market capitalism. If we let the system work, if we let the rich get richer, if we let corporations focus on profit, if we let pollution go unpriced and unchecked, then we will all be better off. It may not be equally distributed, but the poor will get less poor, those who work hard will get jobs, those who study hard will get better jobs and we’ll have enough wealth to fix the environment.

“What we now have — most extremely in the U.S. but pretty much everywhere — is the mother of all broken promises,” Gilding adds. “Yes, the rich are getting richer and the corporations are making profits — with their executives richly rewarded. But, meanwhile, the people are getting worse off — drowning in housing debt and/or tuition debt — many who worked hard are unemployed; many who studied hard are unable to get good work; the environment is getting more and more damaged; and people are realizing their kids will be even worse off than they are. This particular round of protests may build or may not, but what will not go away is the broad coalition of those to whom the system lied and who have now woken up. It’s not just the environmentalists, or the poor, or the unemployed. It’s most people, including the highly educated middle class, who are feeling the results of a system that saw all the growth of the last three decades go to the top 1 percent.”

Not so fast, says John Hagel III, who is the co-chairman of the Center for the Edge at Deloitte, along with John Seely Brown. In their recent book, “The Power of Pull,” they suggest that we’re in the early stages of a “Big Shift,” precipitated by the merging of globalization and the Information Technology Revolution. In the early stages, we experience this Big Shift as mounting pressure, deteriorating performance and growing stress because we continue to operate with institutions and practices that are increasingly dysfunctional — so the eruption of protest movements is no surprise.

Yet, the Big Shift also unleashes a huge global flow of ideas, innovations, new collaborative possibilities and new market opportunities. This flow is constantly getting richer and faster. Today, they argue, tapping the global flow becomes the key to productivity, growth and prosperity. But to tap this flow effectively, every country, company and individual needs to be constantly growing their talents.

“We are living in a world where flow will prevail and topple any obstacles in its way,” says Hagel. “As flow gains momentum, it undermines the precious knowledge stocks that in the past gave us security and wealth. It calls on us to learn faster by working together and to pull out of ourselves more of our true potential, both individually and collectively. It excites us with the possibilities that can only be realized by participating in a broader range of flows. That is the essence of the Big Shift.”

Yes, corporations now have access to more cheap software, robots, automation, labor and genius than ever. So holding a job takes more talent. But the flip side is that individuals — individuals — anywhere can now access the flow to take online courses at Stanford from a village in Africa, to start a new company with customers everywhere or to collaborate with people anywhere. We have more big problems than ever and more problem-solvers than ever.

So there you have it: Two master narratives — one threat-based, one opportunity-based, but both involving seismic changes. Gilding is actually an optimist at heart. He believes that while the Great Disruption is inevitable, humanity is best in a crisis, and, once it all hits, we will rise to the occasion and produce transformational economic and social change (using tools of the Big Shift). Hagel is also an optimist. He knows the Great Disruption may be barreling down on us, but he believes that the Big Shift has also created a world where more people than ever have the tools, talents and potential to head it off. My heart is with Hagel, but my head says that you ignore Gilding at your peril.

You decide.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What I Read Today - Tuesday October 11, 2011

From: The Washington Post

The third-party stump speech we need

By Matt Miller, Published: September 25

This is one columnist’s stab at what a candidate might sound like if he or she were trying to appeal to the majority of voters in the middle of the electorate who feel both parties are failing us.

My fellow alienated Americans:

How’s this for something different? I want to raise your taxes, cut spending on programs you like, and force you to rethink how we run our schools, banks, armies, hospitals and elections. And I want you to cheer when I’m done. Because if you embrace the “decade of renewal” I’m calling for, we’ll emerge with a more competitive, sustainable and just America — the kind of America we all want to leave to our children.

I’m running for president as an independent because we need to change the debate if we’re going to change the country. Neither of our two major parties has a strategy for solving our biggest problems; they have strategies for winning elections, which isn’t the same thing. Democrats and Republicans will tell you, as I do, that they want to make America competitive again, keep faith with our deepest values of fairness and opportunity, and fix our broken political system. But the Democrats’ timid half-measures and the Republicans’ mindless anti-government creed can’t begin to get us there. Both parties are prisoner to interest groups and ideological litmus tests that prevent them from blending the best of liberal and conservative thinking. And neither party trusts you enough to lay out the facts and explain the steps we need to take to truly fix things — in fact, their pollsters tell them that if they do, you’ll vote them out.

Well, I’m happy to take on that job. I won’t give you the usual pabulum about how we’re going to “save the American Dream” or restore our supremacy as the sole superpower. The loss of our economic dominance was at some point inevitable. We’ve had quite a run since World War II, when we were the only economy left standing, and others were bound to start catching up. The spread of capitalism is helping hundreds of millions of people rise out of poverty in India and China. That’s a fantastic thing for humanity. And if we manage it right, that can also be a positive thing for the United States, because the growing wealth of nations means billions of new customers for the kind of goods and services America ingenuity can produce.

We can make this an era of opportunities, not threats. But only if we think differently. When the changes reshaping the global economy are dramatic, incremental responses won’t suffice. We need a bold agenda equal to the scale of our challenges.

I believe that it will take seven big domestic initiatives to get America back on track. Bear with me if I go a little deep on the details, because that’s the only way for you to see what I mean.

1. Fix the economy. Our economy is working off a massive hangover of debt that makes this recession and recovery different from those we’ve gone through before. That means we need to make major moves to get jobs and growth back to anything like what we think of as normal. It also means that, for a couple years, worries about the budget deficit have to take a backseat to spurring growth. Fix the economy, and it’ll be easier to fix the budget.

To boost jobs and growth, we first need major, permanent tax reform. I propose we slash, and over five years eliminate, our sky-high corporate income and payroll taxes, and, once unemployment comes down to 6 percent again, we replace those job-killing, wage-crushing taxes with new taxes on consumption and dirty energy. This is the way to unleash a new era of entrepreneurial innovation while funding the government we need.

At the same time, to win back the million jobs now lost because China’s currency manipulation artificially raises the price of our exports to that country, I would impose a proportionate tax on imports from China. Let me be clear: China’s rise as an economic power is a good thing for the world and a great thing for the Chinese people. China is not the source of all our economic woes. But we can no longer allow China’s brazen currency manipulation — nor its routine theft of American intellectual property — to tilt the playing field unfairly against American jobs.

Next, until private-sector job growth gets back to where it should be, we should use government funds to create millions of short-term, labor-intensive service jobs in fields like education, elder care, public health and safety, and urban infrastructure maintenance. I would also put Americans to work on the countless roads, bridges, airports, schools and sewer systems across the country that need to be modernized.

Finally, over the longer-term, we need to make sure in-person service-sector work is well compensated. Global economic integration is putting downward pressure on the wages of American jobs that can be performed elsewhere. But in-person service work — jobs ranging from home health care to retail sales to teaching to personal grooming and more, accounting for roughly 30 million jobs in the United States — is immune to these pressures, since it can’t be offshored. If we could find ways to guarantee that this kind of work delivers a middle-class living, it would offer an important measure of security and optimism for millions.

I’ll also develop new “carrots” and “sticks” to get multinational firms to locate more manufacturing and high-value jobs in America.

2. Fix education. We’ve been tinkering at the edges when it comes to school improvement, because we’ve ignored the most important question: Who should teach? While the world’s highest-performing school systems — those in places like Singapore, Finland and South Korea — recruit their teachers from the top third of their graduating class, we recruit ours from the middle and bottom thirds, especially for schools in poor neighborhoods. This “strategy” isn’t working. Up through the 1970s, the quality of our teacher corps was in effect subsidized by discrimination, because women and minorities didn’t have many other job opportunities. All that’s changed, but as career options have multiplied for those who used to become teachers, salaries haven’t kept pace to attract top talent.

I see an America where our most talented young people flock to the classroom, not to Wall Street. They should see teaching as the most exciting profession in the country — with top teachers and principals able to earn $150,000 a year or more. To get there will take federal investment. We’ll need to stop condemning millions of poor children to schools that can never get great teachers and principals because they’ve been shortchanged by a 19th century system of local school finance that’s rigged against them. This investment should also help to fund universal preschool from age 3, and longer school days and years, where we lag our major economic competitors.

3. Fix health care. We need to make sure every person in America has basic health coverage that doesn’t break the bank. To achieve that, Democrats must accept a private insurance industry and Republicans must accept that some people can’t afford decent policies on their own. This “grand bargain” is about liberals agreeing that innovation shouldn’t be regulated out of U.S. health care and conservatives agreeing that justice has to be regulated into it. The 50 million uninsured may seem invisible, but today their ranks are equal to the combined populations of Oklahoma, Connecticut, Iowa, Mississippi, Kansas, Kentucky, Arkansas, Utah, Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico, West Virginia, Nebraska, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alaska, Vermont and Wyoming. Would America turn its back on these 25 states if they all lacked basic health coverage? That is what we’ve been doing for decades.

Making the system more efficient is the key to access and affordability. But change won’t come easy, because while there’s much to admire in American health care, our Medical-Industrial Complex knows that every dollar of health-care “waste” is somebody’s dollar of income. It’s time to learn from a nation like Singapore, which spends 4 percent of GDP on health care and gets as good or better results than we do spending 17 percent. Singapore’s blend of market forces, public provision and personal responsibility shows it is possible to do more with less. I applaud President Obama for taking on the health-care challenge and for persisting in spite of wrongheaded GOP charges that his extension of Mitt Romney’s reform in Massachusetts is a “socialist takeover.” Repealing President Obama’s legislation would be a terrible step backward. But the law can be dramatically improved before it is fully phased in. We should “mend it, not end it.”

I’d tweak President Obama’s reform so that it aims for less costly catastrophic insurance for every American, which would cap health expenses as a percent of income. I’d then give vouchers, or funded health-savings accounts, to folks who need help buying primary and preventive care via the fitness-club model being pioneered around the country (unlimited care for a flat monthly fee). I’d replace today’s malpractice litigation lottery with a system that protects doctors from liability so long as they’ve followed evidence-based best practices. This would put an end to the “defensive medicine” that runs up costs — a common-sense reform that Democrats shamefully reject as a sop to the trial lawyers who fund their campaigns. It’s also time we got corporations out of the business of running our welfare state — they’ve got enough to do to compete with China and India — and ensure that every American has access to group rates through health reform’s insurance exchanges.

4. Rein in Wall Street. The banking system is now more concentrated than it was before the financial crisis. There are two ways to avoid the “too big to fail” threat that still exists. We can limit the risks these big banks take — though regulators don’t have a great track record of getting this right. The most important thing we can do, therefore, is make sure big banks have enough capital to absorb any conceivable losses. Yet bank lobbyists are now swarming Washington to keep capital requirements low – in part because higher levels of capital reduce what top bankers can pay themselves. Their bonuses are often based on such metrics as a firm’s “return on equity,” which can be goosed by continually piling debt atop a tiny equity base. That’s Wall Street’s plan. Heads, I win; tails, taxpayers lose. Again.

Fixing this is not complicated, it just takes the will to reject the banks’ demands. I would boost capital requirements for our “too big to fail” banks toward 20 percent, as Switzerland has done — well beyond the inadequate 5-percent to 7-percent levels bank lobbyists are counting on. I’ll also ban “naked credit default swaps” – those fancy securities that let traders buy the financial equivalent of insurance on other people’s lives. These instruments serve no social purpose other than to enrich the bankers who peddle them while turning our financial system into the casino that just cost millions of Americans their jobs. The banks will squeal, but does anyone think we should listen to their pleas after their greed, mismanagement and poor judgment nearly brought down the world economy? It’s time for finance to serve our broader society, not the other way around. And it’s past time to prosecute those whose crimes contributed to the crisis.

5. Fix our broken political system. We’ll never get where we need to go unless we deepen our democracy. I have several proposals that go beyond the usual “small ball” in this terrain, so please keep an open mind.

First, let’s enter everyone who votes in a national election into a lottery. Prizes could range from $10 million for a winner to dozens of $1 million runners-up. For a modest cost, this would lift turnout from today’s pathetic 60 percent in presidential years, and one-third in off-years, closer to 100 percent every time. Unorthodox? You bet. But we need to shake things up.

Next, on campaign finance, we should stop deluding ourselves that we can ever get private money out of politics. We can’t. It’s like ants in the kitchen. You plug one hole and they come back somewhere else. Instead, let’s offset this private cash by giving each voter 50 publicly funded “patriot dollars” to contribute to the candidate or cause of her choice in national elections. This would introduce $6 billion each election cycle — more than enough to offset private donations. And it would encourage candidates to appeal to average Americans rather than just grovel before wealthy donors. Pair this publicly funded voucher with instant Web-based disclosure of all donations and we’d have a far more level, transparent playing field.

Finally, let’s lower the voting age to 15. From debt to schools, and climate to pensions, the distinctive feature of public life today is a shocking disregard for the future. Yes, politicians blather on about “our children and grandchildren” all the time – but when it comes to what they do, the future doesn’t have a vote. We should give our elected leaders a reason not simply to praise children but to pander to them. A crusade to amend the constitution to lower the voting age would inspire a generation that’s being robbed by the adults in power to enter the arena and raise its voice.

It’s also time we restored majority rule to America by scrapping the filibuster in the Senate. We can’t govern ourselves if national legislation can be blocked by senators who represent as little as 15 percent of the country.

6. Require national service. The conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. was right: The proper response to the blessings that are every American’s patrimony is gratitude. It’s only right that this be expressed through a period of mandatory service of some kind by every young American, who will not only give back to his country but, in the process, get to know fellow citizens from every race and place and background.

7. Get our fiscal house in order. Finally, I would aim to balance the budget by 2018 and make sure we can sustainably fund the government by enacting measures that would start once the economy has fully recovered and unemployment is back near 6 percent. We’ll need both spending cuts and tax increases borne fairly by every sector of society.

On the spending side, let me mention the three big areas we need to tackle.

First, national security is job one for any president. To make sure that no power can threaten us, I believe we must spend far more than any conceivable rival. But I also believe, in the Eisenhower tradition, that we need to be smart hawks. If Ike were here, he’d say it was crazy that the defense budget is 50 percent higher in real terms than it was throughout the Cold War. That’s why I’d insist we spend seven times more than China – but not nine times more, as our two political parties want; 13 times more than Russia, but not 17 times more; and 26 times more than Iran, North Korea and Syria combined – but not 33 times more. The result would be an annual military budget of $550 billion, not $700 billion.

Second, on Social Security, the path to solvency starts with a fresh look at automatic increases built into the system that few Americans are aware of — increases that no politician dares mention for fear of being attacked for “cutting” Social Security. I’m not talking about the way benefits are hiked each year to keep up with inflation; no problem there. But under today’s formulas, the starting benefits for future retirees are substantially higher than for current retirees. For example, today, medium wage retirees get a starting benefit of about $18,000. Similar retirees in the year 2030 are slated to get roughly $24,000 in today’s dollars; by 2050, the number in today’s dollars rises to $29,000. Doubling the number of retirees on Social Security as the boomers age is a major fiscal challenge. Promising a 60 percent increase in starting benefits on top of this creates a budget hole that is frightening.

Advocates for these built-in increases, which didn’t exist before the late 1970s, say Social Security should always replace the same portion of wages as it does today; since real wages will grow as the economy grows, so should benefits. That’s a worthy objective. But in an era when health care and pensions for seniors are poised to crowd out cash for every other public priority, or else require tax increases beyond what anyone thinks would be good for the economy, that shouldn’t be our only objective.

Halting these automatic benefit escalators a few years from now would make Social Security solvent in one stroke. It would assure that every retiring senior receives slightly higher benefits than new retirees do today. Yet it would leave America the room to address new needs down the road. This is the kind of action a prudent nation takes. If, years from now, we think seniors need additional protection, 76 million baby boomers will be breathing down our politicians’ necks clamoring for it.

Third, it’s the same with Medicare. Given how inefficient our health-care system is, we simply have to establish targets that get growth in health costs in line with the growth rate of our economy, and ideally something well below that. We know this is possible, because every other advanced nation does more with less. And it’s the only way to free up resources to invest in the infrastructure, education, and research and development that fuels long-term growth.

For both Social Security and Medicare, we’ll also need to phase in higher eligibility ages to reflect the longer lifespans Americans now enjoy — with eligibility exceptions for those engaged in physical labor. Higher-income Americans will also need to contribute something more to these programs, and receive a bit less, to make the boomers’ golden years affordable for the country.

Getting our fiscal house in order will also mean higher taxes. New taxes on dirty energy would push markets toward the clean energy solutions that reduce carbon emissions and our dependence on unstable foreign regimes. And we could offset the impact on folks with lower incomes with lower payroll taxes. I would challenge the oil companies to support this vision, as several did when Ross Perot proposed higher gas taxes in 1992. I would also introduce a tiny tax on Wall Street trading transactions and a 50 percent tax bracket for Americans earning more than $5 million a year. This isn’t an attempt to “punish” anyone’s success — it’s about asking the most fortunate among us to help in ways that won’t affect their lifestyle or incentives. Finally, I’d end the Bush tax cuts for all Americans, not just for those earning more than $250,000. Anyone who looks honestly at the numbers knows this is necessary as our population ages.

Some people will say these ideas involve too much tough medicine and too little optimism. But I am optimistic. I believe Americans are ready for the sturdier brand of hope that comes from dealing squarely with the facts. And if we come together for a decade of renewal, we’ll emerge with an America that’s more competitive, sustainable and just. We won’t have to storm the beaches of Normandy or Guadalcanal. We’ll just have to accept slightly higher taxes and some trims in future spending on programs we like, and we’ll have to commit to making our health care and education systems more productive. We’ll need to think creatively about the national interest, not just our own. Isn’t a stronger America worth these modest sacrifices?

As you may have noticed, I haven’t said anything about abortion, the death penalty, guns or gay marriage. These are important issues, but they’re not the most important things a president should address in the years ahead. As a result, I won’t discuss them at all in the campaign. If they’re your top priority, I’m not your candidate.

Can we win with this message and this agenda? That’s up to you. Republicans and Democrats have a longtime lock on things. They’ve rigged the system when it comes to getting on the ballot and raising money.

But two things are clear. First, a third-party movement in 2012 won’t be a “spoiler.” There is little risk of a Ralph Nader-style result that diverts a handful of votes and throws the election to a candidate those voters can’t abide. The terrain this campaign is contesting is very different. Most Americans now tell pollsters they’re open to a third party. The millions of Americans ready to stand behind the banner of pragmatic renewal means we’ll be playing for keeps, not tinkering at the margins.

Plus, we don’t have to win the election to change the country. As historian Richard Hofstadter suggested, the role of third parties in American politics is to sting like a bee and then die. I say, let the stinging begin! If we get 30 percent of the vote, we’ll make more than enough noise to transform the debate. And once we start proving there’s a constituency for honest talk and real answers, there’s no telling where it will lead.

In the end, in a democracy, we get the government we deserve, and I’m wagering most of us think we deserve better. That iron law of politics still holds: Politicians will scramble to lead any parade that forms. Let’s get busy organizing the right parade, and together we might just save the country.

Matt Miller writes a weekly online column for The Post.
From:  The New York Times

The Milquetoast Radicals


The U.S. economy is probably going to stink for a few more years. It is beset by short-term problems (low consumer demand, uncertain housing prices, too much debt) and long-term problems (wage stagnation, rising health care costs, eroding human capital).

Realistically, not much is going to be done to address the short-term problems, but we can at least use this winter of recuperation to address the country’s underlying structural ones. Do tax reform, fiscal reform, education reform and political reform so that when the economy finally does recover the prosperity is deep, broad and strong.

Unfortunately, the country has been wasting this winter of recuperation. Nothing of consequence has been achieved over the past two years. Instead, there have been a series of trivial sideshows. It’s as if people can’t keep their minds focused on the big things. They get diverted by scuffles that are small, contentious and symbolic.

Take the Occupy Wall Street movement. This uprising was sparked by the magazine Adbusters, previously best known for the 2004 essay, “Why Won’t Anyone Say They Are Jewish?” — an investigative report that identified some of the most influential Jews in America and their nefarious grip on policy.

If there is a core theme to the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is that the virtuous 99 percent of society is being cheated by the richest and greediest 1 percent.

This is a theme that allows the people in the 99 percent to think very highly of themselves. All their problems are caused by the nefarious elite.

Unfortunately, almost no problem can be productively conceived in this way. A group that divides the world between the pure 99 percent and the evil 1 percent will have nothing to say about education reform, Medicare reform, tax reform, wage stagnation or polarization. They will have nothing to say about the way Americans have overconsumed and overborrowed. These are problems that implicate a much broader swath of society than the top 1 percent.

They will have no realistic proposal to reduce the debt or sustain the welfare state. Even if you tax away 50 percent of the income of those making between $1 million and $10 million, you only reduce the national debt by 1 percent, according to the Tax Foundation. If you confiscate all the income of those making more than $10 million, you reduce the debt by 2 percent. You would still be nibbling only meekly around the edges.

The 99-versus-1 frame is also extremely self-limiting. If you think all problems flow from a small sliver of American society, then all your solutions are going to be small, too. The policy proposals that have been floating around the Occupy Wall Street movement — a financial transfer tax, forgiveness for student loans — are marginal.

The Occupy Wall Street movement may look radical, but its members’ ideas are less radical than those you might hear at your average Rotary Club. Its members may hate capitalism. A third believe the U.S. is no better than Al Qaeda, according to a New York magazine survey, but since the left no longer believes in the nationalization of industry, these “radicals” really have no systemic reforms to fall back on.

They are not the only small thinkers. President Obama promises not to raise taxes on the bottom 98 percent. The Occupy-types celebrate the bottom 99 percent. Republicans promise not to raise taxes on the bottom 100 percent. Through these and other pledges, leaders of all three movements are hedging themselves in. They are severely limiting the scope of their proposed solutions.

The thing about the current moment is that the moderates in suits are much more radical than the pierced anarchists camping out on Wall Street or the Tea Party-types.

Look, for example, at a piece Matt Miller wrote for The Washington Post called “The Third Party Stump Speech We Need.” Miller is a former McKinsey consultant and Clinton staffer. But his ideas are much bigger than anything you hear from the protesters: slash corporate taxes and raise energy taxes, aggressively use market forces and public provisions to bring down health care costs; raise capital requirements for banks; require national service; balance the budget by 2018.

Other economists, for example, have revived the USA Tax, first introduced in 1995 by Senators Sam Nunn and Pete Domenici. This would replace the personal income and business tax regime with a code that allows unlimited deduction for personal savings and business investment. It’s a consumption tax through the back door, which would clean out loopholes and weaken lobbyists.

Don’t be fooled by the clichés of protest movements past. The most radical people today are the ones that look the most boring. It’s not about declaring war on some nefarious elite. It’s about changing behavior from top to bottom. Let’s occupy ourselves.