Saturday, June 29, 2002

There is a common technique in modern commercial journalism that I like to call "the disappearing subject." This is where the media's obvious role in some development is elided by shifting to passive voice, personifying an ongoing story (as when "questions dog" a political candidate) or otherwise removing the actor from a sentence. A complex example appears in a New York Times story today on the accounting scandals, Tweaking Numbers to Meet Goals Comes Back to Haunt Executives

"On Wall Street, it is called backing in.

"Each quarter, analysts at securities firms forecast the profit per share of the companies they cover. Companies whose profit falls short of the consensus estimate can be severely punished, their stocks falling 10 percent or more in a day.

"So some companies do whatever they have to to make sure they do not miss that estimate. Instead of first figuring out their sales and subtracting expenses to calculate the profit, they work backward. They start with the profit that investors are expecting and manipulate their sales and expenses to make sure the numbers come out right.

"During the last decade's boom, as executive pay was increasingly based on how the company's stock performed, backing in became both more widespread and more aggressive. Just how much so is only now becoming clear."

Obviously the villains here are the analysts and the companies. But what institution turned the ubiquitous collective "analysts" into an awe-inspiring force and created the situation where meeting analysts targests became an overriding goal. The burgeoning business media, perhaps, which made securities analysts into TV stars and imposed their trusty old political horse-race coverage template onto business news? I would say so. Though terribly circular and simplistic, the "expectations game" is a tremendous source of easy-to-write, easy-to-understand stories. Every quarter, every big company gets a little story about whether they will or won't meet their targets. The business pages and news web sites are full of these; they must be all lots of casual investors ever hear about lots of companies. It's almost axiomatic in daily journalism that automatic stories tend to dominate. Looking more deeply into how companies operate would be a much tougher way to fill the allotted space. Now, how did meeting the targets became an overriding goal again?

Monday, June 24, 2002

A year and a half later, the national media finally gets down to proving one of the my pet theories about the 2000 election, which is that Gore's decision to soft pedal one of his few core beliefs, environmentalism, cost him an unchadded victory in Florida:
To the White House, by Way of the Everglades ( "Al Gore's people blame the environmentalists, although some admit they didn't think much of Gore's fence-sitting strategy. The environmentalists blame Gore, although some admit to twinges of regret about kneecapping one of the most earth-friendly presidential candidates in history. But both sides agree that in the closest state in the closest election ever, the bizarre swamp politics of the Everglades sent George W. Bush to the Oval Office."
I never knew the specifics, but it seems that Gore failed to denounce the building of an airport near the Everglades in Homestead, Fla., in order to curry favor with the Dade County Democratic machine and Miami's Cuban-American mayor, Alex Penelas. As if Al Gore was going to win any of the Miami Cuban vote after Elian! Gore's most natural supporters in the area, the Everglades-defending South Florida environmentalist communiy, were given the captive constituency treatment, but they refused to go along, giving Gore only half-hearted support or switching their support over to Ralph Nader and the Greens, who got 10,000s of Florida votes that Al could have used.

Very significant story, but this pretentious "Post" series on the politics of the Everglades misses the point. Florida politics is indeed a "swamp" to use the "Post"'s rather squushy metaphor, but only a died-in-the-wool inside-the-beltway type could see only "political infighting as usual" in this. The thing revealed here is the fatal flaw in the "New Democrat" strategy of automatically selling out base constituencies and core beliefs in favor of pro-corporate, contribution-driven pragmatism that often turns out to be not so pragmatic after all in a close fight. If Al Gore had acted and sounded like more of an Old Democrat, he would have won the 2000 election.

Tuesday, June 11, 2002

I suppose one should celebrate that old online democracy that upends all knowledge hierarchies and such, but one sure does find some jaw-droppers in these customer review pages. An apparent college kid, for instance, sniffs that he found Richard Hofstadter's "The American Political Tradition" solid if not spectacular . It does seem as though one of the Web's "achievements" is the democratization of many qualities we academics are always getting our ears boxed for. You know, pedantry, arrogance, condescension, etc.
White House Faces Disclosure Suit ( "We believe that the White House knew or had reason to know that an anthrax attack was imminent or underway," Klayman said. "We want to know what the government knew and when they knew it."
"We did not know about the anthrax attacks. Period!" said Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman.
Johndroe said he did not know why staffers were given Cipro but guessed it was "a precautionary measure in the early hours of Sept. 11 before the situation could be fully assessed."
Good line from The Guardian on Bush's "nonsensical proclamation" that "'Our wars have won for us every hour we live in freedom' (which means, presumably, that Martin Luther King should have got the Nobel Belligerency prize)." Not to mention the fact that just about everything that Jefferson and both John Adamses (after 1776-83) did would also be excluded. They never fought anybody. But conquering Texas and Puerto Rico and blowing up most of SE Asia -- we won many hours of freedom there.
A Host of Legal Questions on U.S. Action in Bomb Case: "'Citizens who associate themselves with the military arm of the enemy government, and with its aid, guidance and direction enter this country bent on hostile acts, are enemy belligerents,' the justices wrote in [in the 1942 Nazi saboteur case.]. . .

"The case suggests that the government is free to try Mr. Padilla before a military tribunal, said Ruth Wedgwood, a law professor at Yale.
'If you go to war against your country, you do not have rights to a jury trial,' Professor Wedgwood said. 'And the answer to the practical question is that we are at war.' "

Why are even Yale law professors and the NYTimes so cowed that they have to skip over the obviously missing link in the 1942 precedent? The parts about the "military arm of a foreign government" and "enemy belligerents," legal terms referring to a legal state of war that we are not in. Are we so accustomed to having politicians gas about the war on drugs/inflation/energy dependence/etc. that we are unable to tell what an actual war is? (As opposed to, what, the "campaign" or "efforts" or some such to fight terrorism, which I support.) The only reasons for the state of pseudo-war involve the neato powers and immunities (such as, from criticism) that the Bush administration thinks it gets to claim thereby. And even the country's great "liberal" institutions are just letting them do it.

Monday, June 10, 2002

We now know why the administration really wants to keep the names of their "war" prisoners secret: you can hold a press conference about one of them when they don't want people to pay attention to the news. Following last week's announcement of a new Cabinet department on the day that whistle-blowing FBI agent Colleen Rowley was testifying before Congress, we now get a suddenly revelation that would-be terrorist Jose Padilla was arrested in early May. This on the same day that other stories let us know that the U.S. is renouncing its Cold War policy of not striking first with nukuler weapons and that just about nothing is going to be done about Enron, while the 9/11 intelligence hearings go on. There is even a movie tie-in; the number one film right now is "The Sum of All Fears," a Tom Clancy number that appears to involve "a radiological dispersion device" or "dirty bomb" wasting Baltimore. Whaddya know, that exactly the kind of bomb that John Ashcroft has discovered this "known terrorist . . . exploring a plan to build and explode."
It's not clear whether the administration claims that there was any substantive reason to relax their wall-to-wall secrecy on this occasion. It certainly doesn't seem like such great policework to make a big announcement like this is they hoped to use Padilla to find out more about such plans. On the other hand, it probably did a good job of making all moviegoers who just found out what a "dirty bomb" was over the weekend feel extra scared and dependent on the Bush administration.
I thought one really interesting moment in the "New York Times" story on this was where Paul Wolfowitz said Padilla was being held without charge "under the laws of war" -- you know, the ones that apply when we actually declare a war, as we have not done since 1941. The fight against terrorism may be a situation where some naked use of power is necessary, but one wishes that the Shrubbers wouldn't bother dressing these little power episodes up with lies like this, lies that are rapidly corroding what little public understanding seems to exist of the way that republics are supposed to conduct themselves.

Sunday, June 09, 2002

The following from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Law professor from UMKC is shaping immigration policy

Kris Kobach was a relative unknown when he took a temporary job at the Justice Department just days before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. But immigration advocates have since become very familiar with the Missouri law professor's name -- as a detail man behind the department's controversial new immigration policies.

"He's quite well-known," said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the pro-immigrant advocacy group, the National Immigration Forum. "Many of the post-Sept. 11 actions by the Justice Department that take aim at immigrants have been attributed to him. He's the brains behind them."

Kelley and other advocates are not enamored of Kobach's work.

"He's showing a profound disrespect and disregard for the realities of immigrants and refugees in this country. He's come out of nowhere."

But the 36-year-old Kobach is getting major kudos from Justice Department leaders for his work. His academic credentials are impressive: a bachelor's degree from Harvard, a doctorate in political science from Oxford and a law degree from Yale. That resume helped catapult the professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City into an elite category of 12 White House fellows, chosen from hundreds of applicants nationwide. Their one-year fellowship began Sept. 1; each was assigned to a Cabinet member or the White House.

"We did not pick him. I actually didn't know him prior to him getting here, even though I'm from Kansas City," said David Israelite, Attorney General John Ashcroft's deputy chief of staff. "We learned about what his talents were, and then he got significantly involved in those areas. Kris Kobach comes to us with a very impressive legal background, and he's been working on a number of immigration matters. (He's) a very sharp guy."

Kobach did not respond to requests for an interview.

He's no stranger to controversy. Kobach, the son of a Topeka, Kan., car dealer, won his first political race in April 1999 - to the Overland Park City Council. The same month, he wrote an opinion piece for the Kansas City Star critical of both the Missouri and the Kansas legislatures suggesting that "sloppy lawmaking" was the result of the low number of lawyers in both statehouses.

The Missouri Legislature's response: a vote to cut $2.9 million from UMKC, where Kobach taught constitutional law. They thought better of it later and restored the funding.

Now, even the lawmaker who sponsored the cuts is a fan. Rep. Dennis Bonner, D-Independence, said he met Kobach that summer at the law school, where Bonner happened to be a part-time student.

"I was signed up for a fall class with him, and I went in and I said, 'I'll just drop it,' but he said no," Bonner said. "I have nothing but good things to say about him. Whatever impact he's had on these new policies, I'm sure has been one of professionalism. As Americans, I think we're all lucky to have him there. I'm sure the university will be glad to get him back, but I'll be a little surprised if he does."

Indeed, Kobach's brief tenure in public service is an ambitious one. Eleven months after his election to the city council, he filed to run for a Kansas state Senate seat but lost in the Republican primary. His resume says he was the "youngest faculty member to achieve the rank of tenured full professor" at UMKC.

This Kobach is a childhood acquaintance of mine. Outing us both as recovering geeks, I will admit that we used to play in the same Dungeons & Dragons group. I have not seen him in 20 years and wish him well personally, but the mind reels at anyone with our mutual background making immigration policy. We are both from the 'burbs of Topeka, Kansas, specifically a whiter-than-whitebread spot called Lake Sherwood. On the shores of this man-made mudhole, the streets are demoninated according to some Kansas developers' notion of Ye Olde English place names. "Fountaindale" and "Dancaster," for instance. In this world, ethnic cuisine meant tacos and pizza. There were a couple of Chinese restaurants in town, but I do remember being taken to one. I don't think you could get falafel or hummos if you held the governor for ransom. Hell, bratwurst and asparagus were exotic.

There was a sizable Mexican-American community miles away from us in the city of Topeka, but most of us Lake Sherwoodites knew as much about immigrants as we did about the bus service in downtown Bucharest. The very word conjured sepia pictures of people in kerchiefs and big mustaches from the social studies textbook. While we would have had to admit that immigrant-y places like New York and Los Angeles were part of the United States, we were quite sure that the word American applied chiefly to we heartland WASP types.

Let's just say that diversity was not a big part of the culture. Had anyone answering to the description Muslim been so misfortunate as to show up in our high school, they would be considered de facto terrorists even without the FBI's help. Presuming, perhaps unjustly, that old Kris has retained this rich heritage, he is probably just the man to set the current administration's course as to foreign-type people.

Tuesday, June 04, 2002

I have "gotten over" the 2000 election, but just on the level of pure accuracy, I wish that the press would stop gleaning electoral truths based on Bush's alleged success with the voters, which as we know was hardly very smashing even if one does believe he won Florida on the merits. For instance in today's NYT, we see the following bit of false context, mixed with cliched metaphors:
Social Security Issue Rattling Races for Congress It is a debate largely touched off by the Bush administration's proposal to allow people to divert part of their Social Security taxes into private investment accounts. When he unveiled his idea in the 2000 campaign, Mr. Bush was considered to have boldly — or brashly — grasped the legendary third rail of politics and lived to tell of it. Congressional Republicans are far more wary.