Thursday, April 10, 2008

April 10th Political Notes

I have nothing specific to discuss today, but I thought there were a few things floating around that are worth a mention.

1. Pennsylvania

The mainstream media are on top of the story in Pennsylvania as the primary approaches and have almost unanimously reported that Barack Obama has closed to within single digits. The set up now is a bit like a stretch run for the pennant. I know that sports analogies rub some people the wrong way (as was in evidence in the reaction of some critics of my last post), but the sports metaphor is one that applies to the coverage of news and events on television. Students of media will understand this, but anecdotally I only have to point to the CNN "Ballot Bowl" coverage of the election to make my case. My impression of the polling in Pennsylvania leaves me cold about Obama's chance to win PA, let alone close to within 5 points. It's sexy for the networks and for Obama supporters to imagine Obama winning the state or coming within 2-3 points of Clinton, but it ignores the fact that her baseline support has changed very little in his overwhelming spending. She has been sitting at around 50% for virtually the duration of the campaign in PA, and while Obama has stolen a couple of point from her, and vacuumed up most of the undecideds, her 50% has held firm. My guess: Clinton 55% Obama 45%

2. Iraq

The president made a speech today about the Occupation (which everyone keeps calling a war for some reason) and our stay in Iraq. The Democrats sent Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi out to respond. The president was necessarily vague about where we go from here, and the Democrats were necessarily outraged. Neither group is dealing with the situation realistically at this point. I have said that I support a withdrawal on a 2-year timetable. I still think that is doable, and I think it's what Hillary Clinton has said for some time. Barack Obama may be coming around to that timetable, but he's been more aggressive about his schedule. I watched the horrendously unattractive Michael Ware (why doesn't he fix that nose?) on CNN last night talking about the Petraeus/Crocker hearings and he said that the duo was full of shit about a number of things, while taking time to point out the ridiculous notion that we can leave anytime soon.

Ware, for his part, lives everyday in Iraq and sees the problems of the US military, the Iraqi people, the insurgents, Al Qaeda, and the Maliki government up close. He is emotionally and intellectually invested in the full dynamic. I believe he sees the situation as a quagmire that has to be resolved by reconciliation at a grassroots level. He has no faith in the Maliki government (nor should he), little faith in any politician on either side, and is hinting at a Balkanization of the country that separates the factions and sectarian parties in order to achieve a lasting, if tenuous, peace. I'm putting words in his mouth, but I believe I've captured some of the nuance to his position. At least I can say that he sees some complexity and lives in the gray area between the two political wings of the United States.

The Petraeus hearings have taught us two important things. First, the news media have largely ignored the Iraq Occupation for at least a year. We've lost touch with the on the ground reality of 2007-08 Iraq. Second, we're beginning to see the worst repercussions of our national blunder peek their heads out from the sand. The foothold that Al Qaeda has taken in Iraq, the depth of the Shiite ties to Iran that have evolved, the Kurdish separation from the Federal agenda, and oh so many other things that will grow worse before they get better. We're in this for a generation. The question is, how deeply? Are we in Iraq with a sizable military presence (combat or non-combat) for 100 years as McCain suggests, or do we draw back and seek out other means of support for a national Iraqi identity? Who knows at this point? I do think the president is dragging things out in order to leave it at the next president's feet as Nancy Pelosi says. That's unfortunate.

3. Gas at $3.36 a gallon

I don't see this as a tragedy actually. I live in Japan, where gasoline has been more expensive than any place on Earth (other than Sweden, I believe) for decades. We get by. It's forced the Japanese to develop fuel efficient automobiles, light engine cars for urban and short distance drivers, and hybrids. What's more, people can afford it. Why? Because Japan is the world's most successful socialist state. Don't get me wrong, Japan is a capitalist powerhouse with one of the world's most powerful economies. That's despite the fact that Japan has few natural resources except their own labor and ingenuity. It's actually quite remarkable.

Japan, traditionally, has been a middle class nation. There are few uber-wealthy, and virtually no working poor. The social services that Japan provides for some of the highest taxes in the world provide a good life for everyone. National social health care is a blessing that has provided for my family and the birth of my son. My daughter(?) will be born this summer under the care of fine doctors, in a fine hospital, free of charge. High gas prices are a product of high import costs in Japan. We're seeing that in the US now. That's never going away as long as any of us live. That makes the cost of goods and services rise, and the cost of living will become almost unbearable for many, while it's already been unbearable for millions for some time. Solutions will depend on whether you believe that neoliberal economic policies that trust in the free market, while providing bail outs for financial institutions when they fail, are the answer or a move toward higher taxes and more social services is the answer.

It's more complex than that, of course, but we live in this paradigm. One philosophy destroys working people by holding their wages and social services at a minimum while propping up the rich. The other tends towards stagnation that stalls the economy. Japan has seen significant periods of stagnation, which have been managed as relatively short lived. Economic downturns are less likely to result in recession, while upturns are less likely to result in booms. Japan has unique problems that threaten a prosperous future, but a commitment to supporting a broad middle class has always been a priority. I'll write more on this soon, but it's something to consider.


Matt C said...

Hey Mike -

First off, I think you hit Pennsylvania dead on. Everyone loves talking about numbers in "polls of polls", but Hillary's base hasn't gone anywhere, and I agree that she will probably still take the state with a decent margin. I'm hoping for otherwise but trying to be realistic.

Secondly, your last point about the economy and social programs in Japan was extremely important. I think it's inevitable that our country moves towards more social programs based on higher taxes, but at the moment it is another one of those issues no one wants to discuss because there still seems to be a fear of anything that slightly resembles socialism/communism. There's no reason we can't keep our core American belief set while allowing for more state-sponsored programs, but people will see it as an invasion rather than a safety net. Great thoughts, as usual.

Mike Plugh said...

Thanks Matt.

One of the key points that I think people who live abroad bring to the political discourse is a diversity of experience with different systems. While there are always vastly differing variables at play in foreign environments, they also provide a snapshot of alternatives to our system that don't carry the risk of experimentation. One of my goals is to facilitate that discourse....

"Embedded liberalism" as a form of economic structure works on a number of levels. Keynesian principles are excellent for providing balance in the volatile global environment. The philosophy is flawed in a number of important ways, but provide for a form of social justice that protects those outside the capitalist advantage. Some fixes to the system would seem to be in order, but the radical shift to neoliberalism has been a disaster.