Saturday, August 4, 2007

A quick question

Are there any sane people who think that bombing the holiest site of the Islamic faith would actually deter Muslim extremists from attacking the United States? Although you have to love the idea of deciding who you will attack in retaliation before you even know who has attacked you, or hell, that you'll be attacked. It's so very... PNAC.

Equally amusing is the fact that people who promote this ideas probably consider themselves realists. But anyone with a firm basis in this reality knows that getting the US defense establishment to consider military action against Saudi Arabia would be about as likely as convincing the same folks we should stop sending bombs to Israel.

Friday, August 3, 2007

The New Workout Plan

NPR did a piece last week on the new communication strategy in Iraq (listen here). The U.S military is attempting a Madison Avenue approach, attempting to sell the U.S. occupation as a good thing in the way you would persuade someone to buy Pepsi. The exact tactics are unclear but there is an idea of a new communication strategy. Communication is presented as a new solution but the new solution is full of problems. One problem is the individual person’s inability to be neutral. The second problem is that the new strategy is based on old communication models.

Eric Dezenhall is astute in the NPR piece because he point out the problem with the “evangelical view” of communication. Communication is context-specific, meaning it enters into an existing psychological and cultural framework. Dezenhall points out that a completely neutral audience never exists in advertising. In the case of Iraq, there are a lot of upset people. The marketing strategy, in his estimation, is likely to fail because it is unable to understand the hostility of the Iraqi audience to messages from the U.S. government.

It is unlikely that the military will adapt to a new plan, leadning to the second problem. The military believes a message can be spread through force alone. If a message is repeated loudly and more frequently, then the military believes it will get through. The “Transmission Model” is flawed because it treats communication like a series of mortars. A communicator in any context is simply not able to launch an idea into an enemy territory and hope it does damage. Related to the first problem, the military is not only a believer in a failing plan but a group unable to change plans.

The Consortium for Strategic Communication (FULL DISCLOSURE: I am/was a member of this group) released a report claiming a new communication model was needed for the war on terrorism. The Pragmatic Complexity Model allows for greater adaptation to a specific context but has some disadvantages in presentation. The concept of “failure as the norm” is realistic but unpalatable. Planning small carries fewer political advantages than planning big. It is a tougher model but a new plan for the future. I ask the readers to listen and read, giving some feedback on the best course of action.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Does the New York Times have a hidden agenda? (Or is this just a really big issue?)

The News and Opinion departments at the Times are wholly separate entities. And although trustworthiness is a scare commodity these days, the Times is on my personal list of trusted news sources, so I believe their claim. Which is why today’s paper made me think hard as I flipped back and forth between the front page, the Op-Ed page, and the business section. Below the fold on the front page (where news of ongoing international crimes against humanity belongs,) an article about the Zimbabwean dictator’s efforts to make food more affordable in that country, a brilliant plan that has resulted in severe economic depression, widespread poverty and malnutrition as producers stop making goods they are forced to sell below cost. It reminded me of this article from Tuesday’s Times also about African governments fiddling with the economy, although the famines involved in this one were of a slightly more innocent nature. Rather than a despotic African leader misguidedly immobilizing business and starving his people, in this case the Kenyan government was attempting to protect their own agricultural industry, demanding that the U.S. purchase corn locally to provide to Kenyans working on an American-financed irrigation project. The U.S. couldn’t comply, whether they would have liked to or not, because our food aid program stipulates that American farmers must provide the food supplied. The losers in all this are the Kenyans, who wound up not receiving any corn. And of course the winners in the food aid scheme are the American farmers.

Just a few pages after the photos of empty Zimbabwean grocery store shelves I found Nick Kristof’s column criticizing “the inanity of our farm policy.” His main argument is that his readers (and the rest of the country) shouldn’t be paying him (and hundreds of other rural landowners, dead and alive) not to grow food. I would go so far as to call that policy something worse than inane.

The next page in the paper (for those of us who don’t get the Metro section) is the front page of the business section. And this, page C1, is when I began to wonder if the Times was trying to tell me something. Front and center, a story about New Zealand dairy farmers entitled “Surviving Without Subsidies.” Yes, it was rough when the subsides were first eliminated, back in 1984, the article read, but now the farmers are doing better than ever, producing products the market wants to buy. It was like I was being hit over the head: farm subsidies are bad (whack.) Farm subsidies are bad (whack.) Farm subsidies are bad (whack.)

And yet, less than a week ago, the House of Representatives, in all their partisan political wisdom, passed a farm bill maintaining these ludicrous agribusiness subsidies. Does Nancy Pelosi need to be whacked over the head while someone informs her that farm subsides are bad for American consumers and taxpayers, not to mention poor African farmers? The sad fact of the matter is that her previous comments would imply she’s aware of all three side effects. She’s also, no doubt, aware that corn prices have been pushed sky-high by ethanol R&D. Yet corn remains among the products most heavily subsidized by the new bill, along with other row crops like wheat. In fact, their historically privileged position is the explanation for that broad orange base of the familiar food pyramid. Although if you’ve been paying attention to the government’s nutritional advice recently (and maybe you shouldn’t be, last I read they were advising obese Americans to buy dogs) they’ve reformed their pyramid in the post-low-carb era, and the orange band is now somewhat more reasonable. It’s still larger than any of the others, but smaller than the green (vegetables) and red (fruit) combines. In another nod to nutrition, Friday's farm bill did include some new subsidies for vegetable and fruit growers. It also lowered the eligibility level for subsidies from annual incomes of less than $2.5 million to $1 million. But as the New York Times editorialized, “reducing an outrageous cap to a lower outrageous cap is not exactly our idea of reform.” And although I don’t want to sound like a cheerleader for the Times, I have to say, it’s not mine either.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Bush Threatens to Veto The Best Thing to Happen to Young People in Years

Anya Kamenetz is a writer whose work I've been reading a lot of recently, and she definitely deserves our attention. Kamenetz, at just 26, has made herself a spokesperson for the new generation of college students and graduates, most of whom come out of college with the heavy burdens of student loan debt, credit card debt, low-paying jobs, high rent, poor (or no) health insurance benefits, and are struggling to survive.

This is becoming an increasingly important issue in light of the recent scandals dealing with student loan providers, and the bills that Congress has been considering to limit the rights of loan providers and make college more affordable for students.

The College Cost Reduction Act of 2007 (HR 2669) has just been pass in the House, and the Higher Education Access Act of 2007 (S 1762) has just been passed in the Senate. Both of these bills, once combined through conference committee and sent to President Bush for signing, will crack down on subsidies to private loan companies and give debt-laden students a crucial break that they need in order to secure stable jobs, pay off their debts, and put their costly 4-year degrees to use.

So what does our president do? Promise to veto it, of course.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said the House bill "is a big victory for students and families across America who face rising college costs. The time to put the needs of students ahead of the profits of the banks is long overdue. I look forward to passage of similar legislation in the Senate this month." [The Senate did pass similar legislation days after he made that statement].

President Bush, however, has already threatened to veto any college cost legislation that comes his way. A White House statement said: "This costly proposal only benefits students once they leave school, when they can already take advantage of flexible repayment options available under current law and reduce the effective interest rate they pay through the existing tax deduction for student loan interest."

Considering that today's college students are the future of this nation, Bush needs to pay more attention to legislation that affects them. People under 30 - Gen Y - are saddled with debt, are facing the threat of social security running out by the time they retire, and will face tax increases in order to finance Iraq war, yet Bush wants to veto legislation that would financially help the people that are the future of this nation. Everyone deserves a good education in today's competitive society, and America's young people need the financial break this legislation will provide. Let's hope our president comes to his senses and reconsiders this legislation.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Is Richistan seceding?

"Richistan" has all the trappings of a new blogging buzzword. It's snarky, a bit cloying, contrived and unabashedly neologistic. Like many bits of the blogger lexicon, "Richistan" is the title of a book. It's a dependable marketing strategy because as any circulation of the word is free press for the book. And, there it is - blogging, though vaunted as an alternative to the mainstream media, is structured at the very level of vocabulary by the big publishing houses and the corporate media that does much of the pushing in the market. But this article isn't about "Richistan" the newly minted catchphrase. It's about Richistan the place.

The use of a geographic metaphor is apt. In summarizing the lifestyles of the multi-millionaire second estate documented in Robert Frank's book, Paul Harris of the Observer writes:

a huge bubble of multi- millionaires lives almost in a parallel world of private education, private health care and gated mansions. They have their own schools and banks. They even travel apart - creating a booming industry of private jets and yachts.
And I would ad to that that they work separate jobs and tend to socialize with people of similar income. The wealthiest members of our society, for large portions of their lives, occupy spacially distinct social compartments that serve to reinforce class separation by ensuring that the rich and poor have few avenues by which to bond. Suburban secessionists pull their families and funds away from flagging inner cities and class apartheid is normalized through educational districting and zoning laws. We can all probably think of a few places - restaurants, schools, neighborhoods - that we think of being predominantly used by (or available only to) people of a certain class.

If we compared the schedules of rich, poor and middle-class in the US, we'd certainly find spacial differentials along the lines of: hours spent inside a social service, hours spent at a public health centers, number of trips to restaurants and grocery stores (and which ones?), and certainly many others.

And this leads to a question that has always puzzled me - why aren't social conservatives more concerned about class issues? I don't accept the answer that most conservatives, or even a substantial of conservatives, just "don't believe" in what they say. But once we grant the reality of their convictions one would have to note that the emerging American caste system leaves few avenues for social participation for the poor, and almost no avenues for cross-class mingling. Anyone who takes a serious concern to the moral character of the country should be wondering how we can expect to find common values amongst people who never eat together, work together or live together. People whose radically different experiences and day-to-day schedules leave them with few shared frames of reference, figures of speech or experientially tested principles - the very informal social cues, lore and vernacular from which more cognizable political and moral values emerge.

Throughout this piece I've compared the US class structure to apartheid, secessionism and the caste system. Some would object that these are too extreme, but I invite them to reflect on the specific manner in which those divisive classificatory sociopolitical practices impede conversation, and even mutual comprehensibility, between citizens. The idea that equal opportunity could ever be enough to hold a society so stratified together seems naive when consider the profound impacts of spatial separation on less tangible social codes. The separatist leanings of "Richistan" further demonstrates the impossibility of reconciling unity with inequality.