Invasion or new blood?

Anti_amnesty_rectMichael Barone is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, a reliably conservative Washington think tank. His piece in this morning's Wall Street Journal on immigration is a thoughtful, insightful, and informative survey of the subject.

The title summarizes it nicely: "A Nation Built For Immigrants." Barone's thesis is that America's diversity is not the unintended consequence of the way the country was designed, but it's very purpose.

He notes that not everyone is happy about this. "Will the recent surge of newcomers tear the U.S. apart?" he asks in the subtitle, quickly replying, "Not if history is any guide: From the beginning, America was made to unite citizens, even those with deep differences." 

Barone believes America has always had "an inbuilt capacity to accommodate and assimilate outsiders." And he documents it admirably.

I learned a lot from the article and I plan to read the book on which it's based: Shaping Our Nation: How Surges of Migration Transformed America and Its Politics

Since I've written a book on bridging differences -- OtherWise -- I found his thesis encouraging.

But then I read the comments from Journal readers. Here are just a few examples: 

"Historically Immigrants came from similiar cultures while many different countries. They had many of the same values, ethics, and beliefs. Today's immigrants come from a totally different set of cultures where they don't come to become an American but to be what they already are while enjoying the American life. They don't want to adapt, they don't want to melt in, they don't even want to be an American. They just want what we have and feel somehow they deserve that we provide it for them."

"Our founders expected everyone to be an American not a Muslim American, an African American and all the other sub categories that are divisive and not at all unifying. It is multiculturalism that will ultimately tear the country apart."

"In many cities like Miami or Los Angeles it is easy to find many immigrants who have been in the U.S. for years who can barely speak English. Previous generations of immigrants to America wanted to speak English and assimilate into American society."

"Up until the 1960's, America's hardscrabble immigrants had to land on their own two feet as quickly as possible if they were to survive. They survived and then they succeeded. Today, immigrants land on a social net of housing, health care and Food Stamps."

"Today, the vast majority of Illegal Aliens are entering from Mexico. Most are illiterate, uneducated, have no real job skills except the very lowest skill levels. Many are a drain on the tax payers who collect public assistance, food stamps and welfare. They have an " anchor baby" and a whole new opportunity for " freebie benefits" become available, courtesy of the hard working American taxpayers."

"Asian and European culture is education/development of skills to get ahead. Unfortunately, if you travel South you get to see a culture that is not the same. Sitting-around idle is the norm and not a stigma like most other cultures."

There were some pro-immigration comments in the mix, but most railed about what they called this "new crop" of immigrants.

I tried correcting some of the most obvious errors of fact -- e.g., illegal immigrants can't collect welfare and are not eligible for food stamps, the proportion of U.S. foreign born who speak English is higher than it's ever been, the Congressional Research Service estimated that the net cost immigrants impose on government is essentially a wash when their taxes and spending are taken into account, studies show that immigrants are acculturating at the same rate as in the past, Muslin Americans have essentially the same values as other Americans, etc.

But then I realized few of the commenters were interested in factual information.

This is not exactly a new situation. Despite our founders' intentions, we have always been somewhat suspicious of immigrants. What Ben Frankin said about German immigrants in Pennsylvania would resonate well with the "Minute Men" guarding our southern border.

Barone's thesis that America was created to unite people with deep differences is correct. The comments simply demonstrate that the process of assimilation is much messier than the article suggests. 

Assimilation has never proceeded at an even pace for any group.

Individuals adopt different elements of their receiving society's culture at different rates.-- e.g., language, music preferences, social values, food choices, marriage in or out of culture, religion, etc. They often conform to different cultures in different settings, e.g., at home or at work. And they may retain some aspects of their original culture for generations. 

 In the meanwhile, the receiving culture itself is changing, partly in response to the influx of new immigrants. I suspect Mr. Carbone would agree that this openness to cultural change is one of the things that makes America different from other countries. It accounts for the richness and vitality of our culture.

Ironically, it's also one of the things that scares many people about immigration. 



Scorched earth politics

Scorched earthToday's Wall Street Journal editorial pages provide a step-by-step guide to modern electioneering and, in the process, demonstrate how politics have degenerated into a scorched earth exercise in character assassination.

"A Democratic candidate, assisted by unions and outside partisan groups, floods the zone with attack ads, painting the GOP opponent as a tea-party nut who is too "extreme" for the state. The left focuses on divisive wedge issues—like abortion—that resonate with women or other important voting constituencies.

"As the Republican's unfavorable ratings rise, the Democrat presents himself as a reasonable moderate, in tune with the state's values. A friendly media overlook the Democrat's reliably liberal record, and the lies within the smears against his opponent, and ultimately declares the Democrat unbeatable."

The Journal uses a Democrat -- aided by unions and left-leaning partisan groups -- as Exhibit A in its description of attack politics. 

But it could have just as easily found a Republican example. (Indeed, some political scientists credit Republican strategists Lee Atwater and Karl Rove for creating and perfecting the strategy.)

One could also substitute Fox News and a choir of conservative talk-show hosts for the friendly liberal media that "overlooks" outight lies and smears. And the "conservative SuperPACs" it praises later in the column count as "outside partisan groups."

But what's most worrisome is that, while the Journal doesn't come right out and applaud the GOP's use of the technique, it claims "no one can fault" them for doing so.

Well, I can.

The politics of division may work, but they're precisely what's wrong with the way our candidates campaign. After they've won office, they've left nothing but scorched earth behind.

Scorched earth the rest of us have to live in.

Us & Them

In a world of "us" and "them," the deepest, darkest chasm seems to be between people of different political beliefs.

According to Pew Research, 8 out of 10 people see more conflict between Democrats and Republicans than between any other groups.

More than between the rich and poor, immigrant and native, black and white, or old and young.

Of course, political conflict has always been an American characteristic. Senators were known to draw swords on each other within the Senate chamber. But somehow the People's work got done.

Neither is the case these days. It's worth asking why. Several thoughts occur to me: 

The divide between the political parties is sharpest on so-called cultural issues (e.g., gay marriage and abortion). Sociologist Jim Hunter, who first used the "culture war" metaphor, says such conflict is "rooted in different systems of moral understanding... that provide a source of identity, purpose, and togetherness for people who live by them." In other words, it's salient and sticky.

The Republicans were first to figure that out when they called for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion in their 1980 campaign platform. The Democrats responded by opposing such an amendment. And the games were on. Religion, sex, and politics fused for those who were highly religious, making compromise impossible. 

Villifying one's political opponents not only became easier, it was also more effective. In time, tactic became habit and eventually morphed into core belief. It's now the dominant feature of the political scene, available in high definition outrage on Fox and MSNBC. 

It’s also reflected in grassroot political feelings. Since 1977, the National Election Survey has asked people to gauge the warmth of their feelings for the "other party" from 0 to 100 degrees on an imaginary thermometer. Political Feelings.020From Carter through the presidency of Bush 41, people's feelings about the "other party" hovered a comfortable, if chilly, 40 plus degrees. Today, it's in the freezing teens for both parties.

In fact, it took a particularly frosty 10-point nose dive when President Obama was elected. 

 Although he won election by a popular vote margin of six points, and then won re-election by a larger margin than his predecessor had, nearly half of Republican voters doubt his legitimacy. One in five literally believe he is the anti-Christ.

One doesn't negotiate with the anti-Christ. As Mark Warren put it in the October issue of Esquire, "many Republicans have come to feel righteous in their willingness to cripple the government rather than accede to governing with evil. They imagine themselves as oppressed, as warriors in league with the Founders, and they feel justified in opposing this evil by any means necessary."

Certainly that doesn't apply to all Republicans. It may not even be true of the Republican leaders in the House and Senate.

But it's true enough of enough true believers to shape what those leaders can do. And that, friends, is why the government may shut down next month, or default on its debts, with all the attendant chaos and gnashing of teeth.

Which will just deepen the chasm between us.

A new Corporate Garbo

Garbo, Greta_NRFPT_07AT&T apparently has a new slogan. It doesn't appear at the end of its ads, but it's the gist of a recent letter my former AT&T colleague Jim Cicconi sent to Senator Dick Durbin.

To wit, "I want to be left alone." 

Durbin had asked AT&T if it agreed with “stand your ground” legislation a company-funded organization was recommending as a national model.

The organization in question is the  American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). 

ALEC is a nominally non-partisan organization that produces "model legislation" to promote "free markets" and "limited government" at the state level. About 200 of it's "model policies" become law every year. It is funded largely by companies that benefit from said "free markets" and limited "government," i.e., regulation.

CicconiMr. Cicconi is the man with the company checkbook for ALEC's purposes. He also commands an army of state and federal lobbyists. When I worked with him, Cicconi had a war chest in excess of $60 million. It's probably more now, and he knows how to spend it to get what he wants. 

One way he spends it is on organizations like ALEC that give him a voice in the drafting of legislation.  One thing he wants is to be left alone as he goes about this task.

That was the point of the letter he sent to Senator Durbin. Cicconi said he considered the senator's question an attack on AT&T's rights to free speech. "Any response to your request," he wrote, "will be used by those interests whose purpose is to pressure corporations to de-fund organizations and political speech with which they disagree."

In other words, Cicconi suggested the real issue at stake is defending a company's right to free speech, not changes to self-defense laws that give people immunity for using deadly force.  

The Wall Street Journal, which ran extensive quotes from Cicconi's letter and praised him for refusing to be "blackmailed" or "bullied," wholeheartedly agreed.

As it happens, when the Trayvon Martin case stirred up public concern about stand your ground laws, AT&T quietly told ALEC to cool its jets or, as the Journal put it, to shut down "noneconomic advocacy" that "detracts from the group's core mission."

Frankly, that core mission deserves a long, hard look, especially since the Wall Street Journal and companies like AT&T seem so sensitive about it. 

Do we want anonymous corporations paying for "model laws" in such areas as civil justice, commerce, insurance, communications technology, education, energy, the environment, agriculture, health, human aervices, international relations and tax and fiscal policy?  

That's what ALEC -- which started life as the Conservative Caucus of State Legislators -- considers its core mission. According to Common Cause, 98% of ALEC's funding comes from the very corporations most affected by laws in those areas. And, according to an ALEC executive quoted in an NPR report, company lobbyists and lawyers work side by side with state legislators in crafting the "model laws." 

Companies certainly have the right to fund such activity. According to the Supreme Court, it's a matter of free speech.

And  Mr. Ciconni is probably right -- revealing AT&T's funding of such organizations might subject it to criticism or at least uncomfortable questions. But isn't that the price of free speech? 

The Wall Street Journal won't print op eds without identifying the economic entanglements of the people who write them. Is it too much to ask that state legislatures do the same for the so-called "model legislation" they're considering?


Lies, damn lies, and PR

Pontius-pilatewithwordsforbanner2-e1330069378675Faced with a tricky judicial question, a first century Roman governor named Pontius Pilate was quoted somewhere skeptically asking "What is truth?"

It's a question public relations people face nearly every day.

They're seldom -- if ever -- asked to lie. But they seldom -- if ever -- know all the truth.

And even when they do, they have to figure out how much to tell.

Apparently, when Robert Gibbs was President Obama's press secretary, he was told to not even admit the U.S. was conducting drone strikes in foreign countries.

Curiously, as far as I can tell, no one in the news media has taken him to task for it, other than fake newsman Jon Stewart and Gibbs' fellow MSNBC colleague, Rachel Maddow. (But Maddow's heart didn't seem to be in it, while Stewart held nothing back.) 

Technically, Gibbs didn't lie. He simply refused to respond to certain questions. Or is that a kind of lying?

In today's Wall Street Journal, the Chairman of RSA Security described the criteria a company should use in deciding whether or not to disclose cyber attacks it suffered. 

"If an attack on you has the potential to hurt somebody else, then you likely have an obligation to disclose it," he says. "And for your shareholders, you have a responsibility to disclose if you suffered an economic loss."  Then he continues, "If an attack on you might be a source of embarrassment, but nothing is lost then perhaps you don't need to disclose it."

We'll never know how much Gibbs was arguing behind the scenes for greater transparency. But on the face of it, it seems that RSA's chairman has a better grasp of what should be revealed (though he leaves himself a loophole big enough for a few whoppers to pass through).

The rule of thumb I tried to follow in my career is relatively straightforward: people deserve to be told everything they need to know to make an informed decision, whether it's buying the company's stock, working there, doing business with it, or letting it operate in their community.

I can't say I followed that rule flawlessly. So I'm willing to cut Mr. Gibbs some slack. 

But unlike Governor Pilate, PR people can't wash their hands of their obligation to the truth, even if it's uncomfortable.

Reality Check

Reality-checkIn case you missed it, you should know that President Obama is purging the military of any officers who will not fire on U.S. citizens when asked to do so.

This is in preparation for the coming effort to confiscate everyone's guns. Which is motivated by the fear that armed Americans will rise up when Obama completes his plan to impose Marxist socialism on America.

This "shocking information" is courtesy of Dr. Jim Garrow via a posting on his Facebook page and an interview with the Next News Network.

If this is news to you, you probably don't read media on the outer fringes of the far right. Like me, you may not even know such media exists. 

Sadly, it does. And it appears to be thriving. Dr. Garrow estimates that more than 375,000 people saw his interview on the Next News Network alone. 

He did a similar interview on the Alex Jones radio show. And stories have appeared everywhere from Patriotic Moms and the Reagan Coalition to the Sleuth Journal and the Tea Party web site.

In fact, a quick Google search for "Garrow, military, shoot Americans" spits out more than 500,000 results. Curiously, not one is a story in the mainstream media. CNN, NBC, Fox, New York Times, Washington Post -- you guys awake?

Maybe word hasn't reached the old media yet. After all, it first appeared only a week ago.

Even Snopes seemed to be caught flat-footed. Its relatively brief report focused only on the so-called "litmus test," questioned Garrow's credibility, and concluded the claim was "probably false." 

(When I reported this news to my nephew -- who had posted Garrow's claim on his own FaceBook page -- he replied, " 'probably false' means 'it could be true'.")

If you're shaking your head at this point, consider this: Dr. Garrow may have only an honorary degree from an unaccredited school of theology in North Carolina, most of his credentials may be phony, and he may even be a Canadian, but lots of people are inclined to believe him.

In fact, many are also worried that FEMA is building concentration camps around the country to house dissidents like themselves. They're worried the federal government plans to insert microchips under our skin so we're easier to track. And they're pretty sure the 9/11 attacks were staged by our own government to make the public more pliable. 

The man who interviewed Dr. Garrow -- Gary Franchi -- happily ascribes to and promulgates all these conspiracy theories.

Anyone who has tried to discuss these theories with a true believer knows how frustratingly pointless it can be. But I wonder, do we really understand what motivates them?

They often seem to live in an alternate reality. Well, maybe they do.

Maybe if we could figure out the contours of that reality, what shaped it, we could find common ground. 

It won't be easy. Those are bullet scars on the sign above.

Tin Foil Hat Alert

Tin_foil_hatThere are times when you have to wear a tin foil hat to keep your brain from boiling. 

This was one of those weeks.

I spoke to a group of retired business executives about OtherWise. They were very attentive and asked great questions.

One or two challenged some of my assertions, not only proving they were listening, but also giving me something to think about.

One man clearly wasn't thrilled with the large number of non-English speaking immigrants in the country. He cited a number of questionable "facts" -- most immigrants are here illegally, they're all on welfare, they've caused an increase in crime, they're stealing jobs from citizens, etc. 

If you've read OtherWise, you know that I debunk most of these claims in the first two chapters. 


But then he claimed that President Obama had conspired with the president of Mexico to encourage more illegal immigration by promising they'd get "free food stamps." That's why the number of people on food stamps climbed so dramatically since he became president. You can't make this stuff up.

I had to admit I hadn't heard that. I promised to look into it.

When I got home, it took about 20 minutes to figure out the claim was based on a Fox News story healined "Obama administration held dozens of meetings on food stamps with Mexican officials."

It seems that the United States Department of Agriculure -- continuing a program begun in 2004 under the Bush Administration -- was meeting with Mexican consular officials in U.S. cities for advice on how to make Mexican immigrants aware of the food stamp program.

Since undocumented immigrants are not eligible for food stamps, there was never any question of promoting the program to them. And since Obama has deported more undocumented immigrants in 4 years than President Bush did in 8, it would have been a crazy strategy on its face.  

I emailed the information to the man who brought the conspiracy to my attention, knowing it would make absolutely no difference. He didn't disappoint.

To him, I had proved that Obama wanted Mexican immigrants to know that they might be eligible for food stamps. The fact that President Bush had the same goal cut no ice with him. It's still wrong. 

But I learned something.  His problem wasn't "illegal" immigrants. It was all immigrants. (And he isn't crazy about the food stamp program either.)

Some people fear their world is being changed by forces beyond their control. Because 80% of immigrants are now people of color, and a large number of them speak a language other than English, those changes seem even more sinister.

Telling them assimilation is a complex, two-way generational process does nothing to allay their fear. And tying that fear to a program they believe coddles freeloaders just makes them angry.

There are a lot of people who feel exactly that way. Some of them are in Congress. Real immigration reform means finding a way to address their fears and anger. 

Which will take more than a tin foil hat.


Round Two

Inauguration-340x182President Obama will be officially inaugurated today.

He's probably more aware than anyone that his first term fell short of his supporters' expectations and played into his opponents' most sinister narrative.

Somehow the widely acclaimed "post-partisan president" allowed himself to be portrayed as our nation's most divisive.

In Secrets of the Marketing Masters, I had predicted something quite different.

I suggested that Obama's use of social media was more than a campaign tactic. It was part and parcel of his style of governing.

His style of problem solving is to involve people at every level, not only because he’s open to new ideas (which he is), but also because he knows the solution to the thorniest problems will require broad consensus and participation.  

The Obama transition team seemed to confirm my belief when it launched the Change.gov web site to encourage online discussions about issues such as the economy and healthcare.

Alas, the web site was shut down when Obama moved into the Oval Office. The grassroots movement that got him elected was redirected to the standard WhiteHouse.gov web site. 

Well, it appears that the Obama team realizes they missed the boat. Or rather ran it aground.

The people responsible for the 2012 campain have launched OrganizingForAction, a web site specifically designed to support the president's legislative agenda. 

Team Obama drew the right conclusion from his first term. The president won't get anywhere with his legislative agenda unless he has popular support behind him. Members of Congress aren't swayed by invitations to a White House barbecue or a round of golf with the president. But they do listen to what the people at home are saying, emailing, and tweeting. 

The president has decided to get more people in his corner for Round Two. It's the right move.




The perils of exaggeration

ExaggerationI've posted before on the difficulty of correcting false information.

People's attitudes always outlive the "facts" they're supposedly based on.

Now there's new research that shows the danger of false positive information.

It seems that positive information generates a “punishment effect” when it's discredited. People overestimate how much correction is needed.

As a result people end up with a more negative opinion than they otherwise would have.

(By contrast, people underestimate how much correction is needed to adjust for false negative information, leading to belief perseverance.)

The research suggests that bogus credit-claiming or other positive misinformation can have severe repercussions when it's discredited (as it almost always is).

So watch those claims, all you anglers. Not to mention corporate advertising and PR people.


People as props

Middleclass_backdrop_ap_328Most people who read these posts know I'm a strong supporter of President Obama.

But even he occasionally does something that makes me wonder what he's thinking.

The latest example is the backdrop of "typical middle Americans" his staff rolled out for Monday's speech on the fiscal cliff legislation then working its tortuous way through Congress.

It's a background he's used repeatedly through the recent presidential campaign. A lineup of awkwardly posed "average Americans" has become a fixture of Obama speeches as common as the presidential seal.

It might have worked the first few dozen times, but now it's a tired, cringe-worthy cliche. Turning people into stage props is not only un-presidential, it borders on the cynical.

As it turns out, the people/props behind Obama on this occasion were all campaign volunteers selected for their mix of genders, ages, and ethnicities. (No word on whether the White House asked to see their W-2s to ensure that they were really middle class.)

My daughter agrees, but suggests the line of people willing to be used in just this way would probably wrap around the National Mall and to Baltimore and back.

Maybe so. After all, they did get a chance to have their photo taken with the president afterwards.

But I was just embarrassed by the whole thing. I suspect many others were too.

Sadly, there once was a time when President Obama would have felt the same way.








New Years Resulutions

2013Russ Douthat is a conservative columnist for the New York Times.

I try to read his stuff regularly to broaden my perspective.

His latest column makes somes suggestions that constitute an excellent set of New Year resolutions for anyone who would like to be more OtherWise.

Here's the gist in three easy steps:

  1. Read a magazine or blog whose politics you don’t share. If you're a regular subscriber to the National Review, make a point of reading The New Republic or The Nation occasionally.  And vice versa. Make an effort to identify publications on the opposite side of your normal perspective.
  2. Expand your reading geographically as well as ideologically. Don't limit yourself to The Economist and the Financial Times.  Try the London Review of Books and The Spectator as well. 
  3. Finally, seek out idiosyncratic voices, that don't try to run down the middle of the road and can't be easily categorized as left or right. Douthat suggests the libertarians at Reason magazine, the social conservatives at First Things and Public Discourse, the eclectic dissidents who staff The American Conservativeand even the neo-Marxist reaches of the Internet, where publications like Jacobin and The New Inquiry ply their trade.

My New Year's resolution is to dip into these publications more often and to bring some of their better insights to your attention.

Happy New Year.

Don't let it blow over

BULLET_HOLE_2_by_nighthawk101stockI don't know who is give public relations advice to the National Rifle Association these days.

But I think I understand their strategy -- this will blow over, lie low in the meanwhile.

Normally, I'd say that's a reasonable approach.

After all, what does the NRA stand to gain by speaking out?

Even a message of sympathy for the victims of the Newtown tragedy could back fire. Nothing will change the minds of the folks who support tougher gun laws and NRA supporters don't need convincing.

But what if this doesn't blow over?

I suspect the NRA conference rooms are abuzz with people considering just that possibility. 

Historically, the NRA has worked from a fairly simple playbook.

  • Their goal has been to avoid the slippery slope of agreeing to any limits on gun purchases and possession because it could lead to an outright ban.
  • Their argument boiled down to "guns don't kill people, people kill people." Even in the Newtown case, the "real" cause was mental illness. Stricter gun laws wouldn't have prevented it. Enforce the ones on the books.

If I were advising them, I'd remind them that the Supreme Court has thrown sand on any slippery slope of gun laws by reaffirming the right to bear arms, while recognizing the government's perogative to regulate their purchase and possession.

And I would suggest that the time is right for the NRA to come out in favor of something rather than offering knee-jerk oppostion to everything.

Even previous recipients of NRA campaign contributions have been asking "if not now, when?" Public opinion is swinging in the direction of reasonable regulations. Even winning basketball coaches are inserting a plea for gun laws in post-game interviews. No one is calling for the repeal of the Second Amendment.

At some point, the NRA will come to this conclusion on its own. Let's make sure it's sooner, rather than later. Don't let your anger over Newtown "blow over."




Guns (cont'd)

Guns_vector_packThe debate over Obamacare taught us that the public can be against something in general, but in favor of its component parts.

The same principle seems to apply to gun restrictions.

Polls show that support for stricter gun laws has been dropping for years.

In 1990, 78% said "the laws covering the sale of guns should be more strict;" in 2010, less than half (44%) agreed.

But a poll taken in January 2011 showed very different results when people were asked their opinion of specific gun restrictions. 

  • 9 out of 10 favored requiring people to notify the police if their gun were lost or stolen

  • 9 out of 10 favored requiring peoplewho buy guns at a gun show to pass a criminal background check.
  • 9 out of 10 wanted Congress to fund enforcement of a law preventing people with a history of mental illness from buying a gun

  •  8 out of 10 favored banning the sale of guns to people who has been arrested for a drug charge or failed a drug test

  • 6 out of 10 favored banning the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines.

Proponents of common-sense gun regulations should avoid generalities and focus specifics that will add up to a safer world for our children.


Saga_Weapons_Pimp_My_Guns_2_by_cpiThe Newtown tragedy has understandably moved the nation.

But there are disappointing signs that it has failed to move the people who can actually do something about it -- our elected representatives.  

 A brave few have argued for legislation to make it harder for unstable people to get their hands on lethal weapons.

But most of the legislators who have voted against such steps in the past have been uncharacteristically silent. The Sunday talk shows were unable to get any to show up for a discussion of the issue. And at least one of the former pols who did show up suggested the solution to this problem might be more guns.

"I'm not so sure I wouldn't want one person in a school armed, ready for this kind of thing," former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett told "Meet the Press."

The side in favor of tightening restrictions should keep several things in mind.

1. Be careful how you frame the issue. This is not about "gun control" but "gun licensing." Many of the people who own guns do so precisely because they feel it gives them greater control over their lives. Don't suggest that you propose to take that control away. The idea is to ensure that people who might be out of control don't have access to guns through common-sense licensing requirements.

2. Make clear that you respect the Second Amendment's "right to bear arms." Acknowledge that many families enjoy hunting and you have no problem with that. Praise the steps that organizations like the NRA have taken to improve gun safety, such as encouraging the use of trigger guards, training people in the proper handling of guns, etc.

3. Focus the discussion on the biggest problems: the loophole that allows guns to be sold at gun shows without background checks, the wide availability of assault weapons like that used in the Newtown shootings, and the sale of multiple-round ammunition clips.

4. Don't let this debate become defined in partisan terms. One of the strongest proponents of "gun rights," with a perfect rating by the NRA, is Democratic Senator Joe Manchin. He told MSNBC's "Morning Joe" that it is time to sit down and have a "sensible, reasonable" debate about gun control in light of the massacre in Newtown. And he expressed an openness to banning assault weapons. 

5. Hard as it may seem just three days after Newtown, the emotion surrounding this issue will disipate. Don't let it. 


The biggest cliff

CliffIt's ironic that, with all the talk about fiscal cliffs, little attention is being paid to the ultimate cliff we all must face.  

Government budgets and our own end-of-life discussions are more closely related than many people are willing to acknowledge.

I'm sure there's a flaw in my thinking on this. And I'd be grateful if someone would point it out to me. So here goes:

Healthcare costs are the biggest budget driver.

  • Healthcare costs are the biggest and fastest-growing part of the federal budget. Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP account for 21% of the federal budget. And that doesn't count healthcare spending in other parts of the budget -- e.g., for the military and government employees.
  • Federal spending on healthcare is projected to double in the next decade as the aging population joins Medicare and as the Affordable Care Act extends Medicaid and insurance subsidies to more people.  
  • Overall medical costs are growing faster than the underlying economy and at a higher rate than overall inflation.

Insurance (including Medicare, Medicaid, etc.)

  • Health insurance in itself does little to lower healthcare costs, though it's the one element most people see and therefore pay attention to. 
  • Insurance companies have relatively little purchasing power because the nation's health system is so decentralized. 
  • Legislation inhibits the purchasing power of the government in some areas, e.g., negotiating drug prices. 
  • On the other hand, the government tool most often threatened -- unilaterally lowering doctor payments -- will not lower costs, because doctors will opt out of the system, lowering the availability of care and forcing patients into hospital emergency rooms, which are the most expensive  
  • Lowering the cost of health insurance will do little to lower the cost of healthcare itself. In fact, cheaper insurance could increase the consumption of healthcare services, which is the primary driver of rising costs.
  • Americans spend more per capita for healhtcare than any other nation. The principal reason for this is that we consume more healthcare services, not because our healthcare system itself is inherently more expensive. 
  • The biggest and fastest-growing segment of total healthcare spending is end-of-life care. According to a government study, 70% of healthcare spending is on the elderly and 80% of that is during the last month of life.
  • So it seems a no-brainer that that's where we should concentrate our attention.


  • The only way to lower healthcare costs is to make tough-minded cost/benefit choices.
  • This doesn't require "death panels." But it does require better research into what treatments are effective and therefore worth pursuing. And it could mean basing insurance payments on those findings.
  • And that will require the ambidextrous exercise of the thorniest of all disciplines -- ethics and politics. 

Finally, I say all this even though I am fast approaching the point when I myself will need end-of-life care. And with full knowledge that my own kids -- who may be making these decisions on my behalf -- occasionally read these musings.

And the winner is...

RomneyI don't like to think of myself as someone who piles on when someone is down.

So I resisted the urge to give Mitt Romney the first annual OtherDumb Award. And to be honest, there were a number of other worthy candidates.

But now the Mittster's cluelessness has reached hitherto unplumbed levels. He really seems to be trying to win the award.

Apparently, Romney thinks he lost the presidential election because President Obama convinced all those Blacks, Hispanics, and young people to vote for him by giving them free condoms, health insurance, loan forgiveness, and the promise of green cards. Or at least that's what he told his major donors recently. 

I'm sorry. No one is likely to demonstrate a greater level of sheer out-of-touchness in the few weeks left in the year. Except perhaps Mr. Romney himself.

So the 2012 OtherDumb prize (to be known hereafter as the "Mitt") goes to Mitt Romney. 

Someone please tell him to dial back on the gratuitous cluelessness. He won't be eligible for another award for a year.



Petition 2Taking its cue from the First Amendment to the Constitution, which grants citizens the right to petition the govenment, the Obama administration began a noble experiment about a year ago.

It added a section to the White House web site giving people the online ability to create or sign a petition urging the president to take action on a particular issue.

In just a year, the site generated 3.4 million signatures by 2.8 million users.

The petitions address issues ranging from the serious, such as stopping the use of monkeys in Army chemical warfare training (done) or giving green cards to foreign graduates with advanced degrees (the president would love to, stay tuned).

Of course, this being America, there are also a number petitions trying to reopen old battles, like repealing Obamacare (no response).

And there are plenty of petitions to address less earth-shaking issues, such as releasing the recipe for the beer brewed in the White House (done) or banning Rush Limbaugh from Armed Force's Radio (not going to do it).

The original plan was to respond to any petition that received 150 signatures in 30 days, but that soon proved impractical. So now the threshhold is 25,000 signatures in 30 days. But the White House reserves the right to change the threshhold at any time.

That may be a good idea, because since the election, more than 60 petitions have been posted requesting that states be allowed to withdraw from the United States and create their own government. 

Not surprisingly, the hot bed of secession appears to be in places like Texas (108,000 signatures) and Louisiana (35,000). But no state is immune. My own state of New Jersey is apparently home to more than 18,000 people who would like to secede from the union (1,000 more than Mississippi).  

Sociologists at the University of North Carolina estimate that only about 250,000 people account for the 750,000 odd signatures on these various petitions. But it seems that the signatures really do come from across the country. They developed an interactive map that presents the information at the county level.

 In New Jersey, there were even 308 secessionists in storm devestated Ocean County. I have to believe they live on the high floor of a gated community with its own power generators far from the sea.

Of course, this being America, there's also a petition calling for the deportation of everyone who signed a petition calling for their state to secede from the United States (20,812 signatures).



Ratings whores

SchiefferWant to know why Congress is so disfunctional and the public is so divided?

Look at the news entertainment media.

Fox TV doesn't have a corner on fulmninations and name calling designed to bolster ratings.

Even the venerable Sunday morning news panels have become forums for "making news" at the expense of exploring the important issues of the day.

Case in point: the current controversy over comments UN Ambassador Susan Rice made about the attacks in Benghazi, Libya.

Starting at the end and working back, it's pretty obvious that she is the victim of yellow journalism worthy of the Hearst tabloids in the days of the Spanish-American War.

In a story about Ms. Rice's possible nomination as Secretary of State, the New York Times notes that she "would face stiff resistance on Capitol Hill, where she has come under withering criticism from Republicans for asserting that the deadly attack on the American mission in Benghazi, Libya, might have been a spontaneous protest rather than a terrorist attack."

That's absolutely correct -- many GOP lawmakers have accused Ms. Rice of claiming that the Benghazi attack might have been a spontaneous protest. They consider it part of an Administration plot to avoid admitting that terrorists are still at large, despite the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Leaving aside the fact that no one in the Obama administration has claimed the terrorist threat is over, there's only one thing wrong with that assertion: Ms. Rice did not say the attack was a spontaneous protest and she didn't deny it was a terrorist attack.

Here's what she told Bob Schieffer of CBS's "Face the Nation" program:  

"Based on the best information we have to date, what our assessment is as of the present is in fact what began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo where, of course, as you know, there was a violent protest outside of our embassy-- --sparked by this hateful video. But soon after that spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi, we believe that it looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in that-- in that effort with heavy weapons of the sort that are, unfortunately, readily now available in Libya post-revolution. And that it spun from there into something much, much more violent."

It's not elegantly phrased -- as Gov. Romney might say -- but it's pretty clear she said it appeared that a spontaneous protest was taken over by extremists.

Scheiffer asked if the attack had been planned and whether Al Queda had participated and, rather than denying either claim, she said, "Well, we'll have to find out that out. I mean I think it's clear that there were extremist elements that joined in and escalated the violence. Whether they were al Qaeda affiliates, whether they were Libyan-based extremists or al Qaeda itself I think is one of the things we'll have to determine."

You can read the transcript for yourself here.

If you do read it, pay close attention to the question, Schieffer then poses to Senator John McCain in a separate interview.

"Susan Rice says that the State Department thinks it is some sort of a spontaneous event," he said with a note of skepticism. "What-- what do you make of it?" Well, McCain naturally thought that was preposterous.

"Most people don't bring rocket-propelled grenades and heavy weapons to a demonstration," he said. "That was an act of terror, and for anyone to disagree with that fundamental fact I think is really ignoring the facts."


Except this is one of those imaginary controversies that exists only in the minds of news entertainment jockeys who want to generate secondary headlines.

It pains me to count Bob Schieffer -- a man I have long admired -- among the ratings whores. He is one of the senior journalists who despair that our political system has become so dysfunctional. Look in the mirror, Bob.




President of the 1950s

Woman-Voting-1950s-200xThe single demographic group that mattered most in this election was women.  

As they have since 1980, women voted in greater numbers than men (53% of votes cast compared to 47% by men).

And they overwhelmingly supported President Obama (55% to 43%).

Of course, no one is defined solely by their gender and, in fact, Governor Romney got 56% of the white women's vote, compared to Obama's 42%. Romney was also favored by married women, 53% to 46%.

But Obama more than made up the difference among women of color, who gave him more than 8 out of ten of their votes. And single women were twice as likely to vote for Obama as for Romney, 67% to 31%.

In sum, on the basis of gender, Romney won the electorate of the 1950s; Obama, that of the 21st century.

Marketers and communications professionals should take note.

Women don't vote only in semi-annual public elections. They vote every day at the cash register and online. Make sure you're talking to today's woman and not her mother or grandmother. 


The Biggest Losers

Biggest_losers_rect-460x307 (1)Peggy Noonan, Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers, the folks at Fox & Friends ... there were plenty of losers in this presidential election besides Governor Romney.

Count Big Business among them. 

No, not because the business community put the bulk of its money on the losing horse. And not because an “anti-business” Obama administration will raise corporate taxes. 

But because the losing argument in this election tied the economic well-being of the Middle Class to the health of the business sector.

At the beginning of the presidential campaign, all the pundits were singing a common theme song: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Voters, we were told, always punish or reward the incumbent according to the economic vapors. When the economy is sweet, whoever’s in the Oval Office gets a pass; if it’s sour, he’s freed to concentrate on planning his new library. 

On that score, none of the traditional metrics supported President Obama’s re-election, whether it was the unemployment rate, consumer confidence, or the proportion of voters who thought the country was going in the right direction. Even his job approval seldom wandered  over 50%.

The two candidates’ political philosophies reflected their respective backgrounds – the community organizer who saw government as a lever for change and the businessman who considered it a drag on the economy.

Somewhere along the line, the election became a referendum on those two worldviews.

 As it turns out, most voters didn't buy the Romney camp’s argunent that the secret to growing the Middle Class is to improve the business climate for “job creators” by cutting corporate taxes and reducing regulation.that debate

For example, as David Brooks pointed out in a recent column, surveys show that Asian- and Hispanic-Americans value industriousness and entrepreneurship even more than whites, but they also think government plays an important role in enhancing opportunity and improving the business climate. They don’t see government and business as Hatfields and McCoys.

And when the question was put directly to voters in one national survey, nearly two in three said building a strong middle class was more important to economic recovery than creating a “healthy climate for business.”  They didn’t see the link.

Americans believe in private enterprise, but they no longer believe corporate success has much to do with their own security — only 18% strongly agree that “the middle class always does well when big corporations do well.”

Voters in Michigan and Ohio apparently rewarded President Obama – and arguably punished Governor Romney – for rescuing the auto industry. But that may be the exception that proves the rule. When employees see a direct connection between their well-being and their employer’s, they respond accordingly. And when they see a disconnect between rewards at the top of the company and further down in the ranks, they do the same.  

Since 2000, the middle class has shrunk in size, fallen backward in income and wealth, and lost much of its faith in the future. For more than a decade, a majority of Americans have told pollsters they don’t expect today’s kids to be better off than their parents. They can’t fix it, so it’s only natural for them to fix blame. About half point the finger at large corporations.

There’s a strong message here for American business leaders. So strong, it amounts to a warning. Any company that doesn’t factor those attitudes into its business risk assessments is asking for trouble.


Poll diving

Paperstack4There's lots to learn from the recent election, both in the way the campaigns were run as well as from all the polling data.

In this post, I do a little poll diving.

The best presentation of the presidential exit polls I've seen is over at Fox News

I'll be digging through the results for the next few days, looking for insights that might have application in public relations and marketing. Here's one consideration that companies should ponder: 

The pollsters asked people who had just voted, "Which one of these four candidate qualities mattered most in deciding how you voted for president?"

                                                   Total      Obama        Romney

    Shares my values                       27%          42%            55%

    Is a strong leader                       18%          38%            61%

    Has a vision for the future          29%          45%            54%

    Cares about people like me         21%          81%            18%

Governor Romney did better than President Obama on the first three, but Obama blew him away (81 percent to 18 percent) on the fourth, which was regarded as most important by 21 percent of the respondents. In fact, Obama's margin on that single characteristic trumped Romney’s combined margins on the other three qualities.

Similarly, on the question of "who is more in touch with people like you?" Obama has a ten point lead over Romney (53% to 43%).

On the critical issue of who would best handle the economy, Obama and Romney were essentially tied (48% and 49% respectively). 

The touch-feely question of who cared more appeared to be the tie-breaker.

Big Business, which may have been one of the big losers in this election for reasons I'll get into in future postings, should pay heed.


Locked minds

Locked_mindHere's further proof that most of us may be free to express our opinions, but we hold our beliefs under lock and key.

When the Labor Department reported a one percentage point decline  in unemployment a few weeks ago, University of Massachusetts researchers already had a survey in the field. So they drew a line in their tabulations between the periods before and after the report.

Here's what they found:

  • After the report was issued, Liberals and Moderates were much more likely to say unemployment had decreased over the last year (and the converse, less likely to say unemployment had increased).
  • Initially, Conservatives were also more likely to say unemployment had decreased (and the converse).
  • But over time, Conservative responses returned to where they had been prior to the announcement.

The charts below illustrate the pattern.


As many political scientists have discovered, inconvenient information is often forgotten or rationalized away so we can continue to believe what we always believed.

Of course, conservatives don't have a corner on this particular human tendency. Liberals can be just as selective in what they forget or ignore.

Department of Predictions

15391crystal_ballMy fearless prediction for 2013: no matter who wins the presidency, he will propose a wholesale overhaul of the federal tax system.

A tax overhaul will provide the political cover to cut spending, increase revenue, and shift the tax burden. (Tax deductions and exclusions are really a form of spending; in fact, they cost the government more than $1 trillion a year.)

Of course, Obama and Romney will approach a tax overhaul with different goals.

Romney will want to shift the tax burden away from the "job creators" in the belief that a rising economy will eventually benefit everyone. He says he wants any changes to be revenue neutral, but he's said a lot of things over the last six or seven years. Tax reform will give him the political cover he needs to stay off Grover Norquist's naughty list. 

Obama will want to shift the burden towards upper income households whose incomes have grown disproportionately in recent years. He's already said he intends to balance spending cuts elsewhere in the budget with modest revenue increases on the wealthiest.

The chart below, from the Century Foundation, illustrates the point from which the whole effort will start.

Tax Progressiveness

Note that, except for the lowest two quintiles, each income group's share of total taxes is roughly the same as their share of before-tax income. (Government transfers, such as social security and Medicare payments, as well as the value of food stamps, are included as income in the graph.)

It's a progressive system, but not the picture of free-loading that Romney presented behind closed doors.

A fuller analysis would show that taxes are less progressive than they used to be because of recent tax cuts that largely benefited the wealthy, payroll tax increases that have a greater impact on lower incomes, and an increase in government transfers to wealthier families (e.g., Medicare and Social Security payments that are not means-tested). 

This election will determine how the relative heights of these bars change over the next few years.


Ale to the chief

Beer and hot dogsPeople supposedly vote for the candidate they'd most like to have a beer with.

So tavern photo ops have become a campaign staple, as President Obama demonstrates in the photo above.

Governor Romney, a Mormon, says he hasn't had a beer since he was a teenager. But he demonstrates his "regular guy" creds by scarfing hot dogs every chance he gets. Bending elbows with pint in hand has been delegated to vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, who hails from a brewery-rich state.

Vice president Biden drinks only non-alcoholic beer. So President Obama has compensated by releasing the formula for a brew he and a White House chef concocted.

Things have reached the point where the National Journal has analyzed consumer data to determine the politics of beer drinkers.  See below.

Beer chart

Coming next: boxers or briefs, and what they say about how you'll vote.

Turtles all the way down

TurtlesI was in Italy during the first presidential debate. Got up at 3 am to watch it online. Went to sleep when it was mercifully over, wondering what had happened to Obama. 

I returned just a few hours before the vice presidential debate. Watched it through jet lagged eyes. Went to sleep when it was mercifully over, wondering what had happened to Biden.

Day-after punditry suggested Obama and Biden might have been respectively suffering from the effects of Ambien and Red Bull. 

Polls suggested Obama's passivity made him the loser of the first debate. The polling jury is still out on the effectiveness of Biden's performance. But pundits seem uniformly focused on his facial expressions and other reactions, rather than on what he actually said.

I draw two conclusions from all this.

1. Emotional style counts for more than substance in "pseudo-events" like debates. Most of the reporting about both debates focused more on how things were said rather than on the substance of what was said.

2. What voters focus on largely reflects what the media focuses on. Media reporting about both debates was all about the participants' style and demeanor, from Romney's aggresiveness and Obama's passivity to Biden's arch smile and Ryan's need for constant hydration.

As economist Justin Wolfers tweeted last night, "Columnists (are) writing about what columnists will write about the debate, and it's turtles all the way down."

What a way to elect a president.