Saturday, January 30, 2010

public ignorance

The Pew Research Center, which otherwise does a commendable job of surveying public opinion on a wide range of issues, goes too far this week in a poll designed to test public knowledge of some newsworthy topics.

It is not surprising that fewer than half the Americans polled know that Harry Reid is Senate Majority Leader, or that no Republican Senator voted for the health reform bill, or that it takes 60 votes to break a Senate filibuster. Those may be useful facts to some, but they are not crucial to citizenship. We might even take some comfort from the fact that 55% of those surveyed know that our unemployment rate is around 10%, that 57% know we import 2/3 of our oil, or that 59% knw that China holds most of the U.S. debt.

Public ignorance is often shockingly high on truly consequential issues. In 2006, half the respondents said that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded in 2003. And a poll in 2007 found one-third believing that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks.

The only remedy for ignorance is knowledge -- and it has to be pushed out into the media and repeated again and again so that it takes hold.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

conspiracy vs. incompetence

When trying to determine the real cause of actions by governments, I tend to doubt conspiracy theories and accept claims of inadvertence or incompetence. It's just too hard for large bureaucracies to get away with devious plans.

So when I read the disturbing report that a plane carrying a field hospital to Haiti, chartered by the well-respected Doctors without Borders, was refused landing rights, I wanted to know why. The French Government complained loudly, hinting that the United States did this in order to dominate the relief effort and take over the stricken country. [Of course, the French have more history with conspiracies than we do.]

Well, according to U.S. military briefers in Haiti [whose transcripts I regret I can no longer locate and link], that particular flight was diverted because an earlier plane was delayed in unloading its cargo. There was insufficient taxi and offload space, and air controllers did not want to shut down the main runway for the time required to offload the field hospital. Some other medical relief flights were denied permission to land because they had not radioed in advance and been given a timed landing slot.

Those explanations sound reasonable to me -- and seem much more credible than an anti-French conspiracy by some overworked airport operators.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

budget commissions

On January 20, the Senate is scheduled to vote on creating a special commission to recommend measures to reduce our huge recession-induced federal budget deficits. As I understand the proposal, a bipartisan group would be tasked to get a 3/4 majority for a package that then would be voted, without amendment, by Congress. The models for this delegation of "too-hard" political choices are the Base Realignment and Closure Commissions [BRAC] that were used to close some military bases and the Greenspan Commission that mixed taxes and entitlement cuts to keep Social Security solvent for the past 30 years.

I like the idea, despite the long odds on its success if created. But the New York Times has a valuable cautionary story on the way the Greenspan Commission worked in practice. It took secret White House pressure and secret commission meetings to get beyond the entrenched positions of the commission members. The same would have to be true for any new budget commission to succeed. Members would have to compromise on tax increases and benefit cuts and spending priorities in ways Congress has so far failed.

Years ago when I interviewed Averell Harriman regarding negotiations on Laos in the early 1960s, he kept making the point that the key ingredient for success in negotiations is the willingness on all parties to reach an agreement. If they want to, the diplomats can craft a way.

A wise point. Any budget commission would have to adopt that same determination to succeed, and then it could happen.

Monday, January 18, 2010

the media and policy\politics

Ken Auletta, a longtime analyst of the news media, has a fine article in The New Yorker. The abstract is here. I hope that the full text becomes freely available in a week or two.

While the article is mainly concerned with the Obama White House and its media relations, Auletta makes other points about government/media relations. He says the press' "dominant bias [is] not pro-liberal or pro-conservative but pro-conflict." The pressures for speedy reporting reinforce the reliance on he said/she said pieces, largely devoid of context or fact-checking.

Some matters deserve horse race reporting -- who's ahead, how are the others maneuvering. Electoral contests and legislative battles -- which have decisive, binary outcomes -- invite such coverage. But we citizens also deserve policy reports, not just political ones. The media have done a fair job of this on Afghanistan and on health care reform,but less well on most other major subjects.

An example of what is helpful is this piece on Haiti from today's New York Times discussing the tension between relief efforts and the proper U.S.role in long-term reconstruction.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

bipartisanship on foreign policy

A good thing, right? Well, it certainly helps when the United States can present a clear, coherent, and consistent face to the rest of the world and when long-term strategies are sustainable despite the inevitable changes in domestic politics.

But just as patriotism can be the last refuge of scoundrels, as Samuel Johnson declared, bipartisanship can be a subterfuge for indecision. Political consensus is a worthy goal, but less important than wise and effective choices.

I'm thinking about these matters because I'm reading an excellent book, Julian Zelizer's "Arsenal of Democracy." This historian of Congress, now at Princeton, has written a survey of the politics of U.S. foreign policy since 1940. His scholarship is impeccable and his writing graceful. When he writes 0f events I have also researched, he hits all the major points. When he writes of times when I served in the political trenches as a Senate staffer, his judgments are consistent with my own recollections.

For me, the drumbeat lesson from this book is how partisan most foreign policy debates of the past 70 years have been. Each administration's political opponents made sharp attacks on almost every major decision, even when they were in broad agreement with the policy. At this distance, many of those attacks now seem petty and unjustified, but they constituted the political reality each administration had to face.

We can't wish away partisan posturing; and we shouldn't want to stifle serious differences.

new year's resolutions

Do people still make them? At my old gym, the first weekday after the holiday was always the most crowded of the year -- as the resolvers returned to try to shed holiday calories. This year, at the university gym, there were fewer people than normal. Who knows?

Among my personal archives is a revealing list of new year's resolutions prepared when I was seven years old. Here are some of my pledges:
  • "I will not tease my sister."
  • "I will not talk smart to my parents."
  • "I will come home when my parents call me."
  • "I will not smirk or look funny when posing for pictures."
  • "I will put my good clothes away nicely."
  • "I will try not to cry if I can't listen to the radio."
  • "I will dry dishes when asked and will not break any."
On the theory that rules are established mainly to deal with already evident behaviors, I guess I was a bit of a twerp at age 7. Or maybe I was normal.