a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

Today’s opinion pick: A Contrarian Musing on Obama’s State of the Union, 2010

Posted on the January 28th, 2010

In my  mailbox this morning from A Contrarian Musing:

Whatever one liked or disliked about President Obama at the end of his campaign for election to the Presidency, you will like or dislike about his State of the Union speech last night.  The message was, for the most part, just onward we go.

As to whether or not he won any wobblers back, any new support, or shoved others away, well, I doubt it.  All he did was just re-affirm, just reaffirmed his determination to move on down the road he advocated in his election campaign, for those who listened carefully back then.

The President made it clear that he is pressing on with his agenda, that he is sticking to his guns, so to speak, that he is not changing directions from what he campaigned on for election in the first place, within the boundaries of “politics as the art of the possible.”  He is not deterred, just all the more focused.

It is important, in all of this, to take note that Obama is not a lefty — but not quite the standard moderate either — and neither of these things can be said across-the-board of his staff and closest political confidants. What Obama is, to put it in common terms, is a do-gooder who is willing to use whatever tools, right or left, within the confines of Constitutional principles and American middle class humanitarian values, that will get the job done of doing good.  I would call this a levelheaded, good-hearted man of historical insight, humanitarian energy, and moral and practical determination to make the world a better place, in a workmanship-like way.

The interesting thing — aside from the specific policies he spoke in support of — is the tonality and staging of the speech. In the beginning, Obama assumed a regular guy manner, purposefully speaking in the vernacular, just a good guy from the neighborhood, putting on no superior airs, who has come to give a little, plain enough talk.

Then, here and there, he entered the professorial mode, the intellectual mode, the CEO mode — something the middle class and the SES elites think of as their true, lifestyle demeanor (the “in charge” class). Then he moved on toward the conventional, political speech style.

But it was in the end that he came to himself, to his true self, I believe.  The tonality in the last segment of Obama’s State of the Union speech is singularly fascinating, for it had none of the performance intent in it.  It was somberly intense. It was quiet, and it was from the heart of hearts of the man, so to speak. It was almost a private conversation moment. One could have heard a pin drop in the House chamber as he did this part of his speech, this was a ministerial moment of the true believer.

It was Obama at his most passionate, for (and this is so ironic), his most genuine passion is a deep and quiet passion. This was his personal passion, and it is so much different than his performance passion. If you want to better understand the passionate Obama, listen to the tonality of this part of his speech.  Here is a man being true to himself.

Watch State of the Union 2010 speech here.

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Today’s opinion pick: A Contrarian Musing on health care reform

Posted on the January 22nd, 2010

In a recent e-mail exchange with a friend in the U.S., who is a political science scholar, we discussed the stunning Democratic Party loss in Massachusetts on Tuesday, and the crisis it has created for the proposed health reform process. I asked for some guesstimating, looking backward, on these questions:

Why is it that Obama approached health care from the perspective of a grand overhaul? Why didn’t the White House look at the problems, and choose one or two immediately effective things to change — openly speaking of it as the beginning of a complex process? For example, had they just gone for a limited public option — limited in that it would be a prototype program in one state or another, or with a certain selected group — they could have passed it with a little horse trading, and it would have been a great warning shot across the bow of the private insurers. Once this program was shown to be working well, it could have been used as evidence in proposing further legislation. Why not?

I suspect that Harry and Nancy initially told the President that if he would sit tight they would bring him a comprehensive health reform bill, take all the heat, and let him take the bows, and he consented to that.  In addition, I suspect they told him that it would be quick, and done in the background in a low profile process until ready for a vote and signing, and he liked that idea, as well.  He liked that, since he could then focus on the rest of the big agenda and make those actions high profile until the health bill was ready.

Instead what happened is that the health reform bill writing process became the fight that drew the crowds, drew the media, and made the most thunder, and took over the Administration’s image, leaving all hands on deck explaining, explaining, explaining instead of doing, doing, doing.  The jobs issue looked like it was and is being sacrificed, even willingly put last in line, in the whole agenda.

And keep in mind that the bill did three hugely hazardous things. It proposed financing much of the costs on the backs of those who, as with many labor contracts, have the best employer insurance coverage, and it touched the third rail by implicating Medicare and Social Security issues in the mix. In addition to all of this, the bill quickly became such a catch all of complexity that it confused and puzzled and permitted imaginations negative and positive to go wild.

As to why not a piecemeal bill instead of an omnibus, comprehensive bill?  Well, this was Harry and Nancy’s one big thing in life, and they wanted it big while the getting looked gettable.  I wonder if the two of them are not in a frame of mind that this administration, probably this Presidency, is not their career cap, and they are willing to go down and out with that legacy?

As for why the decision to do health bill during the President’s first year, one has to see that the economic crash, especially the financial system crisis, was not anticipated. So the Administration and congregation found themselves on too short notice with too many imponderables to come up with a new plan, so they just tinkered with the old plan, and still are doing so.

In addition, there is that idea of not taking the eye-off-of-the-prize thing about their plans, which means not changing priorities even though jobs are the priority for the public, and the immediate priority on top of that.  So, what they have done is rationalize their old plans, and actually in an underlying way, as jobs programs — you know, health care reform as a jobs program, as an economic recovery program, as an economic growth program, as a re-industrial program.  There is an ideologue-like attitude about the old plan, I suspect.

I think the Obama Administration, partly by their righteous good nature about rationality and non-partisanship, and partly because they assumed their majorities made it less relevant, forgot that the Presidency, when successful, is no less a political campaign than was the election campaign. Governance is a campaign thing at the governors’ and at the Presidential level.

I learned a hard lesson myself (when I worked for a while in a state job)  — it was that the other political party is always the opposition, always, always; so to be the big spirited guy and assume there is a spirit of common team goodwill and attitude in any project is to let one’s guard down and to get skewered for sure. That’s what the founders wanted, and that is what we got: competing interests, balances of power (read that as opposing forces), and loyal opposition all around.

The best we can hope for in this system is common civility and some measure of public courtesy in the eternal punching match of the process, in the eternal one-upmanship of it all.

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Today’s opinion pick: “We the People” to “King of the World”: “YOU’RE FIRED!” …a letter from Michael Moore

Posted on the April 1st, 2009

Academy-award winning filmmaker Michael Moore is astounded and elated by President Obama’s firing earlier this week of the chairman of the giant U.S. automaker General Motors. In a blog post on his website today, Moore wrote that Obama’s stunning, unprecedented action has left me speechless for the past two days.

Two excerpts:

Nothing like it has ever happened. The president of the United States, the elected representative of the people, has just told the head of General Motors—a company that’s spent more years at #1 on the Fortune 500 list than anyone else—”You’re fired!”…

This bold move has sent the heads of corporate America spinning and spewing pea soup. Obama has issued this edict: The government of, by, and for the people is in charge here, not big business.

Read the full post here.

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Today’s opinion pick: “The Power of Play”

Posted on the March 6th, 2009

What do smart, successful, creative people do that mass murderers, felony drunk drivers, starving children, head banging caged laboratory animals, anxious overworked students, and most reptiles don’t do? They play, according to Stuart Brown, M.D., writing on a blog post yesterday on Penguin.com.

Brown is the founder of The National Institute for Play.  He has a new book just out this week, ” Play/How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.”

Here’s an excerpt from the blog post:

So, where does play fit into the big scheme of things? An evolutionary look shows that as it has developed over the eons, it closely accompanies the establishment of a large brain and the shift in metabolism from cold to warm bloodedness. The smarter, more flexible and adaptive the creature, the more they play.

Snow leopards box, kelp-laden sea lions play tug of war, otters do most anything in order to play; bats dabble with their sonar, killer whales tease sea gulls, ravens slide down snow banks on their backs, and given the chance wild wolves and grizzly bears play with each other despite their dissimilarity in size and long carnivorous heritage. And humans – they are the champions of play!

Read more here.

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Today’s opinion pick: “Mistresses of the Universe”

Posted on the February 8th, 2009

Scientific research increasingly is revealing something that explains why the testosterone-heavy ambition “masters of the universe” is a most flawed concept,  according to Nicholas Kristof, writing in his  New York Time‘s column today.

Excerpt: (Feb 7, 2009)

Wall Street is one of the most male-dominated bastions in the business world; senior staff meetings resemble a urologist’s waiting room. Aside from issues of fairness, there’s evidence that the result is second-rate decision-making.

“There seems to be a strong consensus that diverse groups perform better at problem solving” than homogeneous groups, Lu Hong and Scott E. Page wrote in The Journal of Economic Theory, summarizing the research in the field.

Read all here.

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Today’s opinion pick: “Why We Need Stronger Unions, and How to Get Them”

Posted on the January 29th, 2009

Why is this recession so deep, and how can we fix it? Writing on his personal blog, earlier this week former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich explains why this recession is deep, and how to fix it.

Excerpt: (Robert Reich’s Blog, Jan 27, 2009)

In 1955, more than a third of working Americans belonged to one. Unions gave them the bargaining leverage they needed to get the paychecks that kept the economy going. So many Americans were unionized that wage agreements spilled over to nonunionized workplaces as well. Employers knew they had to match union wages to compete for workers and to recruit the best ones. Fast forward to a new century. Now, fewer than 8% of private-sector workers are unionized. Corporate opponents argue that Americans no longer want unions. But public opinion surveys, such as a comprehensive poll that Peter D. Hart Research Associates conducted in 2006, suggest that a majority of workers would like to have a union to bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions.

I found this link at Talking Points Memo.

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Today’s opinion pick: “Barack Obama’s Prose Style”

Posted on the January 23rd, 2009

When President Obama stepped to the podium at his inauguration on Tuesday and began to speak, I felt the same curiosity (and slight apprehension) that many, I think, have come to feel every time he makes a major speech. My nervous jitters worried the question – can he rise once again to the occasion? The curiosity encircled my question – how will he rise to the occasion?

For me, our shiny new President didn’t disappoint, but some disagree (or think they do).  New York Time‘s columnist Stanley Fish discusses an intriguing type of reaction to the speech in his “Think Again” column today.

An excerpt:

Commentators on radio and television have been doing a two-step. First they say that the speech lacked the eloquence of his speech on race or of his remarks on the night he won the presidency; and then they spend lots of time talking about the implications of a sentence (“We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals”), a clause (“programs will end”), a phrase (“dust ourselves off”) or even a single word (“Muslim,” “non-believers.”)

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Today’s opinion pick: “Dumb blonde — or diehard feminist?”

Posted on the December 19th, 2008

The object of the question above is Barbie, the doll. The inquiry is the focus of a feature in today’s Guardian. As the title blurb says, Barbie will celebrate her 50th birthday next year. It goes on to ask: Should women be celebrating this anniversary – or turning their backs in disgust on one of the world’s most popular dolls?

The pro Barbie position is written by Moira Redmond. Excerpt:

When it comes to careers, Barbie is also a brilliant role model. She’s been a doctor, a vet, a palaeontologist, an astronaut, a firefighter, a pop singer, a teacher and a film star. She has even been a presidential candidate. Here are some things I defy you to imagine Barbie doing: housework; sucking up to men; cowering; being bullied or intimidated; being sexually harassed.

The rebuttal is written by Julie Bindel. Excerpt:

The marketing ploys for the doll have been staggeringly cynical. For instance, early on, Barbie was promoted as a teaching aid to help young girls grow up and get their man, by marketers worried that parents might not warm to such a sexualised plaything. Feminists went berserk and accused the manufacturers at the 1972 toy fair in New York of encouraging girls “to see themselves as mannequins, sex objects or housekeepers.”

There is even a syndrome named after the doll. Someone afflicted with “Barbie syndrome” strives for an unrealistic body type. If Barbie was life-size, she’d measure 36-18-33, stand 5ft 9in and weigh 7st 12lb – 35lbs underweight for a woman that height. A group of scholars once worked out that the likelihood of having Barbie’s body shape is one in 100,000.

I chose two paragraphs for the rebuttal as opposed to only one for the endorsement, as you see. Does this indicate my own perspective? You betcha. It may also spring  from a sense of pique — I never had a Barbie!! (sob)

Seriously, I do think the more important factor is that little girls themselves get to choose their own toys. Many are continuing to choose Barbie, yes. But, as I’ve discovered, many little girls are choosing another. The news (to me)  came from my own impromptu Q&A with an eight-year-old houseguest one morning last February — see here.

So –my  last word — I say, may the various marketers battle each other to the death, but may it be the little girls who always win.

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Today’s opinion pick: “Capitalist Fools”

Posted on the December 16th, 2008

In his short whodunit article, “Capitalist Fools” in this week’s Vanity Fair, Nobel-laureate economist Joseph E. Stiglitz identifies exactly who led the world into its current state of economic havoc (Jan 2009).

Intro blurb:

Behind the debate over remaking U.S. financial policy will be a debate over who’s to blame. It’s crucial to get the history right, writes a Nobel-laureate economist, identifying five key mistakes—under Reagan, Clinton, and Bush II—and one national delusion

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