Monthly Archives: August 2004

some things a candidate could say …

1. “The Bush Administration is planning to spend $53.1 billion over the next six years to defend the United States from a missile fired from another continent. No hostile country has such a missile, and if they did, they wouldn’t fire it, because we would utterly destroy them in a counter-strike. There’s only one foreign country whose behavior will change if we mount an effective missile defense: China. The Chinese will build more ballistic missiles so that they can overwhelm our limited defenses, thereby preserving what they consider their nuclear deterrent. If China builds more ballistic missiles, then its rival India may follow suit. If India expands its arsenal, Pakistan will certainly try to match it. And the last thing we need is to spend $53.1 billion on a program that encourages Pakistan to build more nukes.

“Instead, I propose to redirect 100% of that money to protect us against a real and horrifying threat: small nuclear weapons that are smuggled into the US, rigged with timers, and set to explode in the heart of our cities. With $53.1 billion, we could actually inspect the freight that arrives on our shores.”

2. “The American people owe 7 trillion dollars in national debt–that’s $25,000 dollars per head–and we must pay that back with interest. The government has run up this debt, but now it’s not the government’s problem–it’s our problem. To make matters worse, our population is aging, which means that a smaller number of working people will have to shoulder that debt while more people draw retirement benefits.

“I would very much like to do three things: hold down taxes, provide everyone with access to medical care, and pay down the debt. However, these three things simply don’t add up. To govern is to choose, and I am ready to make tough choices–unlike the President, who has simply borrowed and spent and left the mess for others to clean up. I will reverse all the Bush tax cuts and pay down the federal debt, so that our fiscal house is in order and we can turn, several years from now, to universal health care.”

3. “Our tax system is unbelievably complicated, and almost all of the complexity benefits special interests who have manipulated the law and IRS regulations and who pay expert advisors to find loopholes. If you’re an average family that pays most of your taxes for Social Security and Medicare and uses the 1040EZ for your income taxes, you get no special breaks. In 1986, under a Republican president, the tax code was simplified somewhat, but complexity crept back in once the lobbyists and politicians got to work. We need to end the unfairness once and for all by creating a single tax form for everyone that’s no bigger than a postcard.”

4. “On September 11, Americans wanted more than anything else to pitch in, to serve their country. The President spoke of a ‘nation awakened to service and citizenship and compassion’; he called for everyone to ‘become a September 11th volunteer, by making a commitment to service in our communities.’ Many do serve, especially in the military and as firefighters, police officers, and other ‘first responders.’ However, we have found very little for the rest of the population to do. Helping a kid to read is very important, but it isn’t a response to terror. We need to tap Americans’ skills, passions, and ideas to defeat our current enemies. Instead, the one federal program that supports sustained national service at home, Americorps, was brutally cut in 2003.

“There are many ways that people can serve, like collecting community health data, teaching and learning strategic languages, creating software that aids democratic movements overseas, and corresponding with people in troubled countries. I will make it a top priority of my administration to tap the expertise and energy of the whole American people to make us stronger at home and abroad.”

5. “The President is very proud of No Child Left Behind, his big education bill. In fact, it was a grand bargain. Conservatives and many moderate Democrats got the accountability measures that they had been demanding for years, pressuring schools to demand higher test scores. Educators and state and local governments got a promise of more funding for schools. The act authorized $18.1 billion per year: not enough, in my opinion. But real spending has been closer to $13 billion. The result is a vast unfunded mandate: schools, teachers, and students face new demands but have no new resources. I will fully fund No Child Left Behind and keep the federal promise to children.”

reading polls

I don’t pay too much attention to “point-estimates” in surveys (for example, Kerry is at 46% or Bush is at 47%). These results involve the usual margin of error, as in any random sample. To make matters worse, telephone surveys are becoming less reliable because many people have no land line or refuse to talk to pollsters. The unreliability is then literally multiplied because the point-estimate is a function of two questions, not one. Pollsters ask: “Are you a registered voter?” and then “Do you intend to vote for Bush or Kerry?” (They phrase both questions more carefully than this, of course.) Thus their bottom line is a crosstab based on two questions; and we know that the voter registration data are always quite inaccurate. Given these layers of bias, it’s no surprise that even national polls conducted a few days before an election often fail to predict the popular vote.

While point-estimates are unreliable, trends in the same survey should be more meaningful. That’s why I pay virtually no attention to anything except the Rasmussen Tracking Poll, which is the only public source of its kind. According to Rasmussen, the trend since August 1 is 2-3 points down for Kerry and 2-3 points up for Bush.

Why? Of course, no one knows. The only way to pursue this question seriously would be to find a random group of citizens who had changed their mind recently, and then ask them in-depth questions about why. In the absence of such information, we can only speculate. Some will claim that the shift is the fault of the Swift Vote Group–so Kerry should hit back hard. I think Ruy Teixeira has rebutted that theory. It’s also unlikely that Bush has gained from the general news environment. On the contrary, the economic data, the situation in Iraq, and the fallout from Abu Ghraib have all been awful. Nor has the president said or done anything very impressive since August 1.

Rejecting those alternatives leads me to the theory that I want to believe anyway, for reasons of principle. I think the Kerry campaign has failed to look forward sufficiently. They have done an inadequate job of showing why the Bush policies for the next four years will be harmful, and–most importantly–they have failed to offer new policy ideas that are both plausible and inspiring. Tomorrow, I’ll throw out some potential ideas.

Update: This is exactly the kind of backward-looking and negative message that I do not think Americans will swallow:

The Democrats do have a message but it’s been submerged for most of the last three weeks. And that is the main reason why they’ve lost traction over that period.

The message is straightforward and explainable in ascending levels of specificity.

At its simplest: President Bush has screwed everything up.

the Internet & civil society

Way back in 2001 (“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”), I wrote an article about the Internet and civil society. That piece has been reprinted in five versions, each updated and edited for a new occasion. The latest edition appeared just today: "The Internet and Civil Society," in Verna V. Gehring, ed., The Internet in Public Life (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), pp. 79-98.

I argue that the Internet is potentially good for civil society, but we need to worry about five problems:

  • inequality (I’ve updated statistics on the digital divide)
  • thin social bonds
  • threats to public deliberation (mostly concerns about “cyber-balkanization”)
  • rampant consumer choice, and
  • privacy violations
  • The rest of the book is a useful contribution to debates about the political and social impact of the Internet. It’s ideal for college courses, since it’s small and priced at $16. It is a product, by the way, of my main institutional home, the Institute for Philosophy & Public Policy, which among other activities is generating a series of inexpensive paperback anthologies on public issues.

    taking stock of blogs (2004)

    Blogs are clearly the hot medium. They have scale: Technorati is tracking 3.6 million of them, and there may be many more. No one knows the size of the audience, but the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 3% of Americans with Internet access ?read someone else?s web log or ?blog?? on a typical day, and 17 percent have ever done so. (These survey figures were collected in February.) Since more than 60% of American adults have Internet access, that translates into roughly 3.6 million daily viewers in the United States.

    (It?s just a coincidence that the best count of the world’s blogs, 3.6 million, currently equals the number of US daily viewers, but this does suggest something important about the medium. It’s “many-to-many.” In contrast, the number of TV viewers is enormously larger than the number of TV channels.)

    Blogs have impact. It?s hard to measure their effect on the ?real world,? but (just for example) many believe that Trent Lott fell because of commentary in the blogosphere. We do not live in a time of very impressive social movements (at least in the US), but the ones we?ve got?among them, rigorous libertarianism, anti-globalization, and Christian Conservatism?have made effective use of blogs.

    Blogs have limitations, too. They do not generate new information or policy ideas so much as they comment on the raw material generated originally by reporters, TV news crews, government agencies, advocacy groups, think tanks, and academics. The political blogs are mostly concerned with national and international issues, even though many important decisions are made at the local and state levels. Blogs may strengthen or even create networks within national and international affinity groups, but I do not know of cases in which blogs have enhanced ?social capital? at a neighborhood, municipal, or regional scale.

    Blogs are not institutionalized in conventional ways. There is no business plan that allows them to generate enough revenue to pay salaries. Some organizations have created blogs (notably, newspapers, magazines, and political campaigns), but these groups obtain their revenues from other sources.

    The lack of institutionalization could mean that blogs will turn out to be something of a fad or bubble. I?m sure some form of regular self-publishing will persist, but 3.6 million blogs could turn out to be the high water mark. Bloggers are competing for a fairly small number of ?eyeballs? right now and have to deal with unpleasant phenomena like ?comment spam.? The word ?blog??which is exceptionally ugly?may fade and begin to connote a fashion of the early 2000s.

    I can also imagine that blogs will be institutionalized, and the most influential ones will have their own salaried writers, support staffs, and stable audiences. Or, finally, I can imagine that blogs will persist and flourish without institutionalization, as purely voluntary and individual projects. That would prove that the Internet really is different: more of a large-scale voluntary commons than anything we have ever seen before.

    why the “swift boat” controversy is sad

    Jay Rosen has a thoughtful but almost anguished mini-essay entitled “Swift Boat Story a Sad Chord.” He finds many aspects of the whole controversy “sad”: the behavior of the anti-Kerry veterans, the boomers’ inability to move past Vietnam, the poor response of the press, and John Kerry’s effort to base his candidacy on his war record. I’ll add an extra reason for sadness: I just can’t manage to read and think “deliberatively” in circumstances like these. It’s always important to listen to a wide range of opinions, to take diverse claims at face value and try to understand their underlying principles and goals. No one has the patience to listen to every crackpot, but there are worthy voices from across the spectrum. We need to stay open to these opinions or we’ll end up in separate enclaves, echo chambers, or … pick your clich?.

    Yet the Swift Boat controversy is closing my mind. I know that there are serious and responsible bloggers on the right who think that at least some of the charges against Kerry are plausible. These are people I read and respect. Meanwhile, my favorite sources on the left are saying, forcefully and pretty believably, that the charges are a pack of contemptible lies. So what am I supposed to do?

    1. I could delve deeply into the available facts about John Kerry in Vietnam (and Cambodia?) in 1968 and 1969, in order to make up my own mind. But I don’t want to study this issue. I don’t think it’s important. I don’t think it’s relevant. I have other things to spend my time on.

    2. I could just believe the side I’m closer to politically. But I’d have no real basis for that conclusion. Besides, I would have to assume that at least some people on the other side were acting outrageously, without any sense of judgment, honor, or principle. Then how could I read the rest of their opinions?

    3. I could absorb everyone’s views with equanimity. Believe me, I’m trying, but the cognitive dissonance is unbearable.

    4. I could try to ignore the whole affair. But it’s all over the newspapers and blogs I read, it’s affecting the election, and it’s revealing important truths about the news media, the Kerry campaign, independent political expenditures, the American public, boomers, blogs, and Bob Dole–to mention just some of the angles. In other words, it’s a microcosm, a case study, just like almost anything else that gets column inches and broadcast time.

    What I really want to do is shut off all news sources until November. Notice how sad that is. A campaign is supposed to be a time to focus on the great issues of the day. It’s supposed to be the season when people who are usually concerned about other matters turn their attention to public issues and make up their minds. If someone like me–who happens to love politics and public life–wants to turn away from this campaign, then why should most people pay any attention to it?

    Update, Sept. 2: Jay’s latest post about the Swift Vote affair uses it as evidence that the mainstream press is losing control to more open and populist media like blogs. Professional reporters scrutinized the first Swift Vote ad, found it false, and assumed that their verdict would kill the story. However, as Jay writes, the “Swift Vets are capable of telling their own story on their website, publishing their own book and selling it to lots of people without benefit of good reviews, finding their own allies in the blog world (some of whom have large audiences), raising their own money, and of course running their own ads aimed at voters. …”

    So professional journalists are in some trouble, but I can’t decide whether that’s promising news or not. Back in February, Jay was optimistic about the future of politics once professionals began to lose their monopoly. In a comment on my blog, he explained that he detested official politics while it was dominated by campaign managers and pundits, but he hoped that the more interactive, participatory campaign of Howard Dean presaged something better:

    Everybody has a tipping point, Peter, when it comes to despairing of politics. I was offended, as a citizen, by how dumb my country’s presidential campaign had become by 2000– dumb and rote and packaged and predictable and timid, one huge overdone regression to the mean. I thought the elites in the system showed fantastic confidence in their ability to contain elections within a tight formula.

    By isolating the few people they needed to bother with in a few ‘battleground’ states, and treating the manuevers for the 5 percent as the entirety of the campaign for the other 95 percent, the professionals who run the process and narrate it as normal seemed to express unlimited confidence that things could go on this way. They had no insights into how closed the process had become. Interactive? That was not a universe known to them.

    Alas, 2004 seems–so far–at least as bad as 2000 in almost every respect. The Democrats are mainly running on the basis that their guy served in Vietnam thirty years ago, whereas the incumbent has messed up Iraq and presided over a decline in jobs (although no president can influence employment within three years). The Republicans are running on the basis that Democrats are unpatriotic and weak. The mass media mainly report this tit-for-tat. Although I think the Republicans are the worst offenders, all sides patronize the American people.

    Thanks to online self-publishing (blogs and other websites), the political debate is now more open and interactive than it was four years ago. But the results seem disappointing. The net effect of the blogosphere, I fear, is to keep a few fairly extraneous issues alive while shedding little light on more important matters. I recognize some excellent exceptions among the more than 3 million extant blogs; but it’s the overall impact that troubles me.