Friday, November 28, 2008

obama's team

The president-elect's cabinet choices have generated a lot of commentary, most of it to the effect that conservatives are happier, and liberals perhaps less so, than would have been expected. To Obama's supporters it looks like the work of a mature and confident coalition-builder, what one Italian newspaper call "la rivoluzione della sobrieta'," roughly "the serious revolution." To many on the left it looks like a sellout, the choices of Hillary Clinton and Lawrence Summers, who left the presidency of Harvard after making offhand comments about the possible inferiority of women in math and sciences, going down especially hard (I blogged the Summers affair in an earlier posting).

Not suprisingly, my own view tends toward the former: the country clearly needs less not more partisanship, and bringing on the best people regardless of politics seems a good way to do that. Keeping the current Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, for a transitional period is also consistent with this approach.

The question is whether Obama will have a governing philosophy at all or will be seen as a restoration of the Clinton era with a younger face. Both Bush and Hilary Clinton imploded, in large part, because they were seen as restorations of a previous, not entirely relevant period rather than as a fresh start. Reagan succeeded because, whatever one thought of his policies, he had a new and different approach that he more or less stuck to throughout his time in office. It's a tough choice: one needs to show moderation to get things done and fidelity to principles in order to know what to do in the first place. But the record of centrist, "best and the brightest" government is a checkered one at best: one wonders if Obama is just a bit too anxious to please people like me and a bit too hesitant to do the things he was elected to do.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

mumbai terror attacks

As the name of this blog suggests, I have been to Mumbai and indeed to many of the exact sites (the Taj Hotel, the train station, etc.) targeted in yesterday's attacks. The attacks were vicious even by South Asian standards and it isn't over yet, with dozens killed and several more being held as hostages. Confusing things further were the fact that the group claiming responsibility (the Deccan Mujahedeen) does not appear to exist: most experts think it was home-grown terrorists although the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, has talked of external links.

Nothing is ever simple in India, and it may be that both theories--home-grown violence with some external support--have some truth to them. Although there is no official discrimination, it is hard to be a Muslim in India, and grievances (religious, social, economic) are not difficult to find. There have been several episodes of large-scale anti-Muslim violence, most notoriously in Gujarat (ironically, Gandhi's home province), and a fair amount of repression in Kashmir which does not normally receive much attention in the West.

But it is also the case that Pakistan, or individual Pakistanis, have done a great deal to encourage or foment violence, to a degree that we would probably have difficulty tolerating in the U.S. Should there be even circumstantial evidence of such a link, it may be difficult for India to avoid reacting in some form. What was already the most dangerous place on the planet just got a little more so.

NOTE: Haaretz newspaper reported today that eight people were being held hostage at the Chabad (Lubavitch) House in Mumbai and "between 20 and 30" Israelis were among the hostages at the Oberoi Hotel--a disproportionate number, it would seem, suggesting they may have been intentionally selected. When I was at another hotel in Mumbai I heard a man talking Hebrew loudly into his cellphone who, when I started a conversation, denied he was an Israeli. I understand that a little bit better now.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

obama and taxes

This is supposed to be a tax blog, so people may wonder why I don't talk more about tax policy. The truth is that I have never been especially interested in technical tax issues, which I think are by and large boring, and have instead taken what might be called a New Haven view of taxation, as an example of broader issues of public ordering best explored at a conceptual level. But there is a real world out there, and every now and then once has to take notice.

Which brings us to the Obama tax proposals. As I understand the broad scope of the proposals, they amount to the following:

1. Repeal the Bush tax cuts above some specified income level ($250,000, $150,000, etc.)

2. Close assorted tax loopholes (especially for corporations) and engage in a more aggressive war against tax shelters, perhaps involving some form of economic substance idea. A special animus is reserved for provisions that encourage the "export of American jobs," presumably meaning deferral rules for foreign income and other similar tax breaks

3. Enact temporary or permanent tax cuts for taxpayers below a specified level (see #1 above) together with targeted incentives, a la Clinton, for desirable forms of behavior

I don't have any particular problem with #1 except to note that, depending where the cutoff is, it may or may not have substantive as opposed to symbolic meaning. (There was talk today of the whole concept being deferred as part of the stimulus package, which sounds awfully Republican to me, but that's another story). #3 is similarly understandable, at least for a liberal Democrat, although I think that it is somewhat pointless, and risks a Carter-like incrementalism (the proposed cuts would necessarily be rather small) that seems inconsistent with the gravity of the economic situation.

The most interesting is #2, especially the foreign component. No doubt it is frustrating to U.S. policymakers to tinker with domestic tax rates only to watch the money disappear in international transactions. Closing foreign tax loopholes is also a political no-brainer: foreigners don't vote in U.S. elections, and the argument I sometimes heard in Washington--it's OK that we don't pay U.S. taxes because we pay a high rate in Saudi Arabia--isn't likely to hold much water with the American electorate.

The problem, of course, is that these "loopholes" are more of less fundamental parts of the international tax structure, and probably can't be closed without trampling on a lot of toes or, at very least, without substantial foreign cooperation in information-sharing and other matters. Thus, while every administration talks about changing the international tax rules, most have had relatively little success in doing so. Closing international tax loopholes is also to some degree inconsistent with raising domestic tax rates, which is likely to increase rather than decrease the desire for tax avoidance, although I believe Obama is so far talking more about individual than corporate tax increases.

Perhaps Obama's biggest contribution will be to improve the international standing of the U.S. and thus, if only indirectly, the level of cooperation in tax matters. It's an article of faith among international tax scholars that serious steps against tax avoidance require this cooperation, and equally obvious that cooperation in tax matters cannot be divorced from that in other areas. Some have begun, quietly, to suggest that we need to begin thinking of a global tax system that trades off some national sovereignty in tax matters for precisely this form of joint action: the EU model, if you will, but over an infinitely larger and more complex area. Don't expect Obama to talk in these terms any time soon. But sooner or later we will get there, and it is to be desired that his Adminstration will take the first steps.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

meanwhile in the rest of the world . . .

One of the interesting post-election questions is whether an Obama Administration will make the United States "more like the rest of the world," either in the positive sense of bridging gaps or the negative one of imposing "European-style socialism" on the American economy. Both sides of the argument may want to take another look. As it happens, the rest of the world is becoming more like us, and some of the remaining differences (socialist and otherwise) are making things worse rather than better.

A case in point: the cover of this Friday's Yediot Aharonot, the largest Israeli newspaper, carries a banner headline reading "After the Crash: A Safety Net," saying that following the latest decline in the Tel Aviv Stock Market--and notwithstanding an existing emergency program--the Government is considering further steps including additional protections for retirement and pension funds and further interventions in the market itself, which has lost about half its value in the past year. Last week's cover carried a story about a woman who had lost a menial job and could no longer support her family (her husband was disabled, as I recall, and the children were too young to work). Headlines in Italian newspapers were more or less similar. Nor is the problem limited to "small"countries: an article by Joshua Kurlantzick suggests that the current economic crisis could bring down the whole Chinese Government, which has made an effective bargain with its people to accept authoritarian rule in return for economic prosperity, and is now failing to deliver on its half of the bargain.

One obvious danger here is that the new Administration--at the same time it must cope with domestic difficulties--will face a rash of foreign challenges from countries in even worse shape than we are. Economic depressions do not usually make for international stability (see 1930s), and the combination of internal and external problems will give the Obama team very little margin for error.

Another, perhaps more profound point concerns possible remedies. Many of the suggestions being made to fix the American economy involve incremental expansion of the Government's role in the economy: national health care, better unemployment benefits, a Government role in the management of large corporations. But most other countries already have these features and they are suffering anyway (although to be fair Israel has reduced its safety net considerably in recent years). Whether intended as a goal or an insult, "European-style socialism" is unlikely to resolve these problems.

My own view is that we face a much bigger crisis than most people realize and that the prescriptions of both the mainstream right and left are unlikely to address it very effectively. In this I agree, oddly enough, with Paul Krugman of the N.Y. Times, an unabashed leftist who has called on the Obama Adminstration to be bolder rather than more cautious in its approach to the economic malaise. But Obama's entire direction, to judge from his cabinet picks, appears to be largely cautious and conventional. It may be that he is simply outsmarting his opponents (yet again) and building a consensus for more radical steps. But is it also possible that he is what he increasingly appears to be--a well-meaning but essentially elitist technocrat--and that things will only get worse on his watch? Herbert Hoover, it should be remembered, was considered among the best-prepared and most popular people ever to assume the presidency. It didn't quite work out that way.

NOTE: Obama announced today that he would favor a large stimulus package, designed to create up to 2.5 million jobs, but the details of the package--tax cuts, infrastructure spending, and a proposal to create more "green jobs"--sound more like a laundry list of existing proposals than anything having much to do with the current crisis. Vedremo (we'll see).--MAL

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

the witch, the bitch, and the ditz

The possible selection of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State reflects well on President-elect Obama, who appears to be taking seriously the idea of building a National Coalition, including Democratic and perhaps even Republican rivals, rather than a narrowly partisan government. Less positively, Hillary's reappearance, together with Gov. Sarah Palin's round of post-election interviews, puts the issue of gender and the presidential elections back into public view. It is not a pretty picture.

In an article in New York Magazine Amanda Fortini describes Clinton and Palin as examples of two paradigms, the "bitch" and the "ditz" (her words), neither of which reflects well on voters' ability to judge women candidates on their abilities rather than their personal characteristics. I myself was struck by the differing reactions to race and gender in the campaign. Race seems to be an issue for 10 or 20 percent of the population but fading in importance for the rest. By contrast gender is always there: sometimes as a positive, sometimes a negative, but never irrelevant to the perception of the candidate in question. In the New Hampshire primary a man waved a sign at Clinton that read, "Iron My Shirt." At a McCain-Palin rally a protester carried a revealing photo of Palin with a caption reading, "Vote With Your Head," and by implication, not with other parts of your anatomy. Can one seriously imagine equivalent posters being carried regarding Obama's race? Would even the most conservative observer approve of this?

I never thought I would say this, but we may be forced to admit that gender prejudice is deeper and more intractable than that related to race, and that Americans are no less, perhaps more, subject to it than other nationalities. The prejudice seems especially strong in cases, like Palin, where the woman is thought to combine political with sexual power or attraction. Nor are elites liberal or otherwise immune to it. At my law school female professors frequently receive evaluations that discuss their physical appearance; blogs comment on which professors are "hot" and which aren't. People obviously feel comfortable making these comments in a way that they would not with respect to race, religion, and so forth.

Part of the problem may be Americans' (or at least American men's) prevailing view of sex as a commodity provided by women to men, which raises inevitable fears of the combination of political and sexual power. In Europe there is a somewhat greater tendency to think of the sexual act as mutual and to speak of "parity" rather than "equality" between the genders, a subtle distinction but one which appears to allow for female participation without compromising gender differences. Europe has its own problems on this score as a quick perusal of the French or Italian newspapers reveals. But Britain, Germany, Israel, and every country on the Indian subcontinent has had a female leader while the U.S. seems no closer: maybe we have something to learn from them on this score?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

looking for colleges

In addition to my other jobs I have had the pleasure of participating in my son Ben's college search this fall. The experience is a challenging one on a number of levels. For one there is the sheer logistical challenge of getting back and forth to the colleges, which seem to specialize in inconvenient locations and--like one man's sperm blocking entry of another's--appear to intentionally schedule events so as to make visits to more than one school difficult or impossible. No less painful is the realization that one's children do not share one's educational or career goals and indeed, if one was to embrace their objectives, would immediately change them so as to deny you the satisfaction. (Per Maggie Scarf, the world's expert on such matters, the oldest child's emergence from the nest is also prime time for marital crises, but so far we have averted this, if only because neither of us has the energy to raise any of the various issues that we might disagree about).

Of the physical and psychological challenges the latter are infinitely more strenuous. Like most academics I pictured my children being interested in the origins of the First World War or the differences between French and Italian grammar. Ben has the eminently more sensible goal of being a news or sports journalist, and understandably seeks a school that will help him advance this goal. He also has the completely incomprehensible idea that college should be fun rather than a four (seven? ten?) year pursuit of elusive truths. At presentations about academic excellence, while Anne and I sit attentively, he shifts nervously in his seat or IM's friends on his father's Blackberry. By contrast discussions of sports, social life, or the campus dining service, which leave Anne and I shaking our heads, have him rapt with attention and enthusiasm. Needless to say, he is indifferent to financial concerns, other than perhaps to favor those schools that cost the most and offer the least scholarship aid.

College shopping is also an interesting window into universities and how they market themselves. Schools at a medium-to-upper level--especially private universities--tend to market themselves very aggressively, frequently emphasizing their lifestyle amentities and the "real world" connections of their faculty rather than more traditional academic concerns. By contrast, at the very top, they seem to specialize in stressing their exclusivity and all but daring the visitors to apply. At one Ivy League college in central New York State, which I happened to attend several years ago, the presenter eschewed all manner of technical aides (PowerPoint, movies, etc.), instead regaling the audience for two hours on the rigors of the academic program and what pitfalls to avoid on the application essay. Sensing the dread on people's faces, I raised my hand and suggested that this was also an enjoyable school to attend, although I graduated when Carter was president and have no idea what it is like today. "Oh yes, that's a good point," the presenter said, and went back to his statistics. My son was not so easily fooled. "This isn't going to work," he whispered, and asked to borrow my Blackberry.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

do not pass Go . . .

After the $700 million Wall Street rescue plan--and the promised middle class equivalent--there is an urgent request for a bailout from the Big Three automakers in Detroit. Urgent is something of an understatement: GM is apparently on the edge of bankruptcy absent a substantial infusion of Federal cash, and Ford and Chrysler are probably not far behind. Put more bluntly, without an intervention, there may be no US auto industry by the time Obama takes office.

My wife having been born in Detroit, and my father-in-law being a retired GM executive (they have already eliminated his health benefits), this is not an idle issue for me. Nor can I possibly see how the auto industry is less worthy of Federal assistance than Wall Street or even defaulting homebuyers, who at least have the benefit of being diffused between 50 states and various locales. We are talking here about the economic collapse of an entire region, and violent aftershocks throughout the remaining economy. In this sense, Obama and Pelosi's demand for assistance seems plainly justified.

The problem is that--even as new bailouts are being proposed--the leakiness, even the fraudulent nature, of the original Wall Street plan is rapidly being exposed. As I earlier noted the N.Y. Times has reported that little if any bailout money was being used to make new loans. Now The Times reports that lobbyists are essentially looting the fund on behalf of clients with little if any connection to the underlying mortgage problem. I cannot emphasize what a sleeper political and social issue the misuse of this fund may be. Sarah Palin's populism will seem mild if people discover that the equivalent of a mid-sized European economy is being spent on helping people, most of them well off, with little or no connection to the people who really need it.

So by all means help the auto industry: but let's be smarter, and tougher, about doing it. For all of its limitations, Europe may provide a good model here. Many European companies are partially owned/controlled by governmental or quasi-governmential bodies. But they pay a price for it: the governments receive an equity share together, at times, with disproportionate voting power (the so-called "golden share") and control over major decisions. In particular, a bailout should be accompanied by government veto power over compensation policies and any decisions to invest proceeds outside the U.S. where they are so obviously needed. A bit more adventurously, the Government might exercise pressure on behalf of smaller and more fuel-efficient vehicles (Tom Friedman has a nice, if rather utopian, piece on this today). Any rescue plan should further be tailored so that--when and if the companies finally get back on their feet--the taxpayers share in the profits.

The European example may be helpful in terms of attitude as well as substance. Stopping for my afternoon coffee, I chanced upon the Italian Finance Minister, Giulio Tremonti, discussing his own country's financial rescue plan. His point, if I understood correctly, was that the plan would aim to protect depositors and families rather than the bankers themselves. What would happen to the bankers, he was asked, once this plan was approved? "Vanno a casa o in galera," he said. They will go home or, if the facts merit it, to jail. Sometimes a bit of incivility is just the ticket.

Monday, November 10, 2008

how obama won

Very nice piece by Michael Sokolove in the NY Times Week in Review on how Obama won over voters in Levittown PA, a lower middle class (and nearly all-white) suburb that voted for Clinton overwhelmingly last Spring. The general theme is that voters' economic anxiety overcame their incipient racism and encouraged them to vote for the Democrat in the fall. As examples Sokolove cited voters statements, apparently in exit interviews, that McCain would be a clone of Bush; that he would favor rich over poor taxpayers; and so forth. The story thus fit in the dominant trend of election coverage, which portrays a "transformational" election in both racial and economic terms.

Nice try: except that if Sokolove actually lived in Pa., he would know that each of the voter statements above--McCain is a Bush clone, Obama would provide a larger middle class tax cut--were essentially verbatim quotations from television advertisements run by the Obama campaign and its surrogates in the weeks preceding the election. The shift in Levittown and similar locations, in other words, had relatively little to do with changed consciousness and a whole lot to do with Obama's outspending McCain by 3:1 and 4:1 in swing states during the closing phases of the campaign. Writing in this week's New Yorker, Ryan Lizza quotes an Obama operative in another state to the effect that "we kick[ed] the shit out of them" in almost all major states in this manner.

None of this is of course against the law, and Obama's advantage in fundraising resulted from the greater enthusiasm for his candidacy as well as the perception that he could and would win. Republicans have been only too happy to benefit from the same dynamic in the past. My point is that an election won largely by superior resources and organization--a difference directly attributable to Obama's unanticipated breach of a promise to abide by traditional spending limitations--is being more or less intentionally transformed into a broad ideological shift that there is simply no empirical evidence for. Claims of increased voter turnout are similarly false: as John Harwood notes in the N.Y. Times, Obama won Ohio with about the same vote that Kerry lost because of reduced turnout, mainly on the Republican side. This rewriting of history may or may not be a good thing, and it is once again no different from (and perhaps less offensive than) similar Republican efforts in the past. But it is always dangerous to base policies on a lie, and the suggestion that this election was a victory for anything but traditional politics is essentially that.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

the gay marriage referenda

Tuesday was not a victory for all "progressive" forces: California and at least one other state approved ballot measures rejecting same-sex marriage. The California vote was a particularly bitter setback as, if one does the math, a substantial number of Obama voters cast their ballots in favor of the initiative. Emotions have run high since the voting: I saw CNN footage of a couple of gay rights protesters appearing to stomp on a wooden cross wielded by a counter-protester, although it is possible that the cross was, Dustin Hoffman-like, used first against them: this is California after all.

I must confess to mixed feelings about gay marriage, which I think will eventually be accepted but was perhaps pushed through in several states without thinking through all the consequences. (In my brief campaign for Congress, I favored the "civil unions" alternative.) But I dislike the referendum process much more, and indeed don't quite understand how it is constitutional, in the first place. (Perhaps this is why I received a C+ in Con Law). As a moderate conservative, I also find the whole anti-gay crusade to be increasingly mean-spirited and a poor use of the movement's resources. As a married straight person, I am very concerned about increased divorce rates, overstimulated children, and the difficulty of finding time together with my wife in a two-career world. Whom other people sleep with is simply not too high on my list of concerns.

The gay marriage issue does suggest how bitter the struggle for control of the liberal agenda is likely to be in Obama's America. The President-elect himself has been by and large cool to the gay agenda, not to mention the gun control movement and other traditional liberal causes. (That's part of the reason he won so decisively.) But there is likely to be enormous pressure on him to embrace such causes, and a corresponding level of bitterness if he does not. The 1960s became the 1960s, in large part, because expectations for change were raised in the first half of the decade and subsequently not met. Could it happen again? Stay tuned.

Friday, November 07, 2008

a short honeymoon

Barack Obama may be the first president whose honeymoon ends before he takes office. It has not been three days since the election and already he has been greeted with bad economic news--another quarter of a million unemployed and GM and Ford teetering on the edge of bankruptcy--on top an already awful situation. At today's press conference, he suggested a stimulus package may not be able to wait until January, but should be enacted by a lame duck session of Congress this year, presumably involving a new, if not wholly unprecedented, level of cooperation between the outgoing and incoming administrations.

In response to all this, Obama has displayed a pretty sure hand, suggesting sensible appointments (Lawrence Summers at Treasury, Robert Gates possibly continuing at Defense) and appearing both confident and well-informed at today's press conference. Many of his supporters have been somewhat less sober, criticizing possible appointments (notably Summers) and appearing to spoil for a fight on other issues. (The Republicans have been engaged in a campaign post-mortem, including allegations that Sarah Palin did not know whether Africa was a country or continent, and remained largely on the sidelines so far.)

An example of the conflicting pressures Obama will face could be found on today's N.Y. Times op-ed page, where David Brooks envisioned an "ostentatiously pragmatic" administration driven by "postpartisan politics" while Paul Krugman, a few inches away, called for "a new era of progressive politics" including tax changes, health care reform, and a huge stimulus package that could result, in Krugman's own estimate, in a trillion-dollar plus deficit. As if to separate the two combatants, Orlando Patterson wrote of the election as part of America's "eternal revolution" and warned against excessive expectations of an Obama presidency. Maybe a Department of Sociology wouldn't be such a bad idea, after all.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

the future of the republican party

Talking about the Republicans after this election reminds me of the fellow who was writing a book about the Israeli Labor party. "Hope you're planning a short book," a friend advised him. The situation right now certainly looks bleak, but forever is a long time.

In discussing the GOP one must distinguish between the long and short term. The short term is perhaps less bad than many think. Despite a perfect storm of an unpopular president, a horrendous economy, and an opposing campaign that outspent them 4:1 or 5:1 in key states, the Republicans lost by 6-7 points nationally and suffered an electoral defeat not appreciably worse than those of the 1990s. The margins in congress (House 255-174, Senate 57-40 awaiting Georgia, Minnesota, Alasks) are a good bit smaller than the party endured in the 1960s and 1970s, although there were far more conservative Democrats then. If Obama stumbles, which is to some degree inevitable, there remain grounds for a comeback.

The problem is how they got there. One of the most amazing statistics to come out of Tuesday was that the Republican Party managed to lose nearly 400 electoral votes while carrying at least two states (Oklahoma and Wyoming) by more than 30 points, and West Virginia--historically one of the most Democratic states--by 13. This does not suggest a party victimized by economic circumstance but one which is on the losing side of a cultural divide, able to compete quite well in areas that remain politically and culturally where they were in the 1980s but unable to do so in areas that don't. An example of the latter phenomenon is the Philadelphia suburbs. At least three formerly Republican congressional districts here are now so securely Democratic that the incumbents did not even bother to spend most of their campaign funds. At my own precinct many voters, especially women, will not accept materials or make eye contact with a Republican poll worker, even with regard to local candidates (we've given up pushing the national ones). For them the GOP is not merely a minority party; it has ceased to be a serious competitor, at all.

Compounding the geographic problem is an age one. Voters under 30 broke for Obama by a 2:1 margin. Such categories are admittedly fickle: people don't stay young forever, and there's no guarantee they'll vote the same way, or even vote at all, next time. But the people approaching voting age don't look much more promising. At my son's school debate, blogged earlier, the McCain kids were almost 100 percent white: the Obama kids were twice as numerous and far more diverse.

Fixing this is hardly rocket science. The party needs to come back to the middle and start emphasizing issues--tax and education reform, alternative energy and environmental policies, a 21st century foreign policy--that appeal to middle class Americans, while simultaneously expanding its base to include far more women and minorities than is presently the case. This is eminently doable, and has been accomplished by conservative parties in other countries (Britain, Canada, etc.) that often fell far lower than their American counterparts.

The problem is that the current leadership is ill-suited to this transition, and--with the defeat of numerous moderates in the last two cycles--is if anything more conservative than before. Two of the names frequently mentioned, Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal, are highly charistmatic but tied strongly to the religious right and to regions where the party is already strong. They will argue, not without reason, that they have been winning with their current approach: why should they take advice from people who continue to lose?

It may be, as David Brooks has suggested, that a party has to lose three or more elections before it makes fundamental changes. That is what happened to the British Conservative Party and the Democrats themselves, who were drubbed in 1980, 1984, and 1988 before they began coming back to the middle. But the Republican base is much stronger than the Conservatives', and (unlike the Democrats) they are not accustomed to being out of paper. My guess is they will turn around more quickly, but it won't be an easy process, and it won't be over anytime soon.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

president obama

It's hard to deny the excitement of the moment, particularly after driving up Broad Street through predominantly African-American neighborhoods yesterday afternoon as Obama's victory slowly became imminent. At each street corner there were men or women--some black, some white, nearly all young--shouting and gyrating and waving Obama banners at no one in particular, a sort of spontaneous outburst more commonly associated with third world countries than with the USA. It look like the grainy films of May 1948 in Tel Aviv, or a Grateful Dead concert circa 1977, an almost surreal scene rather than the tedium normally associated with an American election.

It seems almost heartless to try and reintroduce some perspective in the midst of such a scene, but let me do so anyway:

1. The above notwithstanding, I don't think Obama is or has ever been primarily about race. He started out with a minority of black voters and almost no support among elected black officials. It has always been generational and cultural rather than racial in nature, although Obama's physical appearance emphasized this difference and may have contributed to his victory. The strength displayed in places like Colorado, Northern Virginia, and the Pacific Coast states, which have modest black populations but large numbers of new technology/younger generation types, testifies to this proposition.

2. A lot will be heard about the end of the Reagan era, the end of conservatism, and so forth. I'm not so sure. The Reagan era, in a literal sense, ended two decades ago: indeed the electoral map of 1996 (Clinton-Dole), give or take a few states, was remarkably similar to the map last night. It was Clinton's own behavior, coupled with 9-11, that made possible the Bush Restoration and put the Democrats back on the defensive. Obama's entire affect--the emphasis on rebuilding American prestige, the kind words for the defeated party, the crispness of his rhetoric and his blue suits--seem designed to look more like Reagan and less like Clinton, Carter, and so forth; and his advisors are reportedly studying the first 100 days of the Reagan Administration as an example for their own efforts.

3. Realigning elections--1860, 1896, 1932, 1968 (1980?)--usually depend less on the result itself than on what the winning party does with them. Roosevelt and Reagan, in particular, are remembered as outstanding presidents not so much because they won, but because of the systemic changes that they engendered once elected. Obama appears to know this, and is moving assertiveley to ensure that his momentum will not be squandered (see above): but it is much too early to tell how this will turn out.

One undeniable benefit of Obama's election will be the perception of American overseas. For whatever reason, American conservatism has never traveled well, and it has become de rigeur for travelers to be assaulted with statements like "Reagan Cowboy!" or "Bush Bang Bang Bang!" in whatever mix of languages happens to available. By contrast Europeans--although often unabashed racists at home--appear to have genuine affection for Obama, and the curiosity, for once, is likely to be sympathetic in nature. The exchange rates, however, remain terrible.

I'll be back with more about the Republicans and some other observations tomorrow.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

down to the wire

With most of the polls showing a convincing victory for Barack Obama, some of the excitement seems to have gone out of the presidential election, and perhaps out of the local ones, as well. The McCain campaign appears to see an opening in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other swing states, presumably based on the unpredictable turnout and the large number of undecided voters in these and other areas. Although no one will say so, there may be a sense that Obama's race and "foreign" character will scare some voters at the last minute, although why these would become bigger right now is anybody's guess.

A particular problem for McCain is the large number of early voters, who seem to have broken to Obama by as much as 10 percent. I see at least two problems with early voting, especially of the mail order variety. One is that something may change in the interim: what if McCain were found tomorrow to be George Bush's older brother, or Obama to be Jimmy Carter's nephew? Somewhat less flippant is the nature of voting, which I see to be a public ritual designed to impress upon the citizenry the importance of its decision as well as its own sovereignty over the political process. Some of my family members believe that, upon walking into the voting booth, I will be impressed with the seriousness of the decision and vote for Obama although I remain a Republican official: if this is improbable in my case, it may not be for others, and in any event should remain a possibility that mail order voting cannot take into account.

One sad part of the last campaign days is the near-inevitable descent into trivial, negative campaigning. One nearby state house race, between two eminently qualified and generally quite admirable candidates, has degenerated into a series of advertisements over who did and did not pay back taxes. McCain and Obama have themselves set a less than admirable tone here, with McCain the more negative, but Obama saturating the airwaves to such an extent that some fear a backlash. My own view is that such campaigning is inevitable until we have a serious change in the electoral system (more on this later). But the public seems to be taking it all in stride, and--in person or otherwise--to be casting its votes with the substance in mind and the garbage left for tomorrow's trash bins.

phillies win the world series

“I’ve waited a lifetime for this,” proclaimed Ben, 17, when the Phillies won the World Series last week. Well, actually, he’s waited about three years—the Phillies last won the world series in 1980 and last came close in 1993, when Ben was a baby, but he has been a diehard fan for only the last couple of seasons. Still, it was a triumph for a lovely city which inexplicably sees itself as a loser, and all the more satisying for having an actual season ticket holder (the fifteen-game plan) in the family.

The Phillies’ victory was a triumph of perseverance and cool competence. Having come close to excellence the previous couple of seasons, the Phils finally added the last missing elements—solid relief pitching and production from the entire eight-man lineup—during the last season, and the results showed at the end. There was also a difference of attitude: if last season the Phillies seemed glad to make the playoffs and accept a graceful loss, this year that role was filled by the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Phillies never really seemed in doubt of succeeding. Game Four of the playoffs, won on a homer by Matt Stairs—who remembered that he was still alive?—after it seemed already lost, marked the point when the aura of destiny appeared to descend upon them.

Friday’s citywide celebration, for which we delayed yet another college shopping trip, was as happy a moment as I have ever seen in the city. Perched on a wall in City Hall park, we could pick out only the physically distinctive players—Ryan Howard (large), Cole Hamels (thin), and Charlie Manuel (the manager who never seems to have his shirt tucked in)—as they passed by in the parade. More impressive was the crowd itself, a mass of well-behaved humanity which—if it was just a little bit whiter and suburban than the city as a whole—nonetheless seemed happy, tolerant, everything good about a city that never seems to give itself credit for anything. For better or worse, I was struck too by the city’s priorities. Barack Obama, who drew the largest political crowd here in ages, managed to fill one park area and a few surrounding streets. The Phillies overwhelmed the entire infrastructure on a few hours noticed, and nobody seemed to mind it, at all.