Posted tagged ‘Barack Obama’

One Last Sunday Post…Lest We Forget Thursday Night Edition

August 31, 2008

This is truly off theme for this blog — but reading Ta-Nehisi Coates yesterday I came across this post on his (and my) most remembered Martin Luther King speech.  The post resonated later in the evening as, I listened to Tavis Smiley’s show on NPR and heard one his guests argue that Obama’s nomination acceptance on the anniversary of the “I have a dream” speech did not sufficiently emphasize the Blackness of the Civil Rights struggle and of King’s message.

Smiley and several of his other guests disagreed, but the comment made me go back and listen again — second time in a day — to the clip Ta-Nehisi posted, the key passage in the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech delivered the day before he was assassinated.

Listening and watching again — especially with the foreknowledge that MLK seemed to have of what was coming so unbelievably soon — crystallized why I thought Obama got his note just right in his acceptance speech.  He spoke of King not by name, remember, but as the Preacher from Georgia.

The Preacher — someone who teaches, persuades, one whose success is judged by what his or her words inspire their listeners to do.  The rhetorical idea was obvious, and I think right:  Obama was saying that King’s words belong not just to one man, time, and struggle, but form a teaching that transcends those particulars.

And in that context, the Mountaintop speech is as important, maybe more so, than the visionary and uplifting Dream.

Remember, King really was a preacher, steeped in Bible.  He knew exactly what he wanted to do with the image of the mountaintop.  His predecessor there was Moses — not like Jesus a messiah, divine and already at least in one attribute an inhabitant of the world to come, but a prophet, a teacher, a mortal man with great flaws to accompany his strengths, who had done his best by his stubborn and stiffnecked people.

Moses had led that people for a long time; at the threshold of success, of labor’s end, he learns he will not complete the journey.  Most of the book of Deuteronomy is devoted to Moses giving the last lessons he can to his people, uplift and threats, and a final admonition:  “Therefore choose life.”  Then he climbs to the mountain peak, looks over the land promised the Jews, and dies.

The full range of meaning and feeling in the old tale of work transcending death is what makes King’s reworking so powerful.  This is what great speakers and teachers do:  they endow their words not just with overt meaning, but with a layered wealth of story, more meaning, more stuff for their listeners to chew on.

Obama in a literally mundane context turned his speech on the same idea.  He’s a great speaker in the same vein as King, not because he can deliver a line well, but because the speeches he writes and delivers as well as he does have both sound and meaning — a very carefully constructed web of references and connections to other stories we have told each other.  The Preacher from Georgia was a great way to frame the memory of Dr. King, that is, IMHO, not because in anonymized him, making him safe for white America — King is too strong a figure to be overtaken by his epithet, and Obama knows it.  Rather the trope works because it demands we pay attention to the full meaning of both King’s words and Obama’s.

In other words, what a great speech, for what it said, for what it demands of its listeners, (all 40 million of us) and what it requires we remember.

So:  for your viewing pleasure:  “I’ve been to the mountaintop” excerpt (the full text and video can be found at the link above); “I have a Dream” and the last section of Barack  Obama’s DNC acceptance speech in which the young preacher from Georgia makes his appearance.  (Full forty-five minute version here):

How Numbers Help Make Sense of Things: The Palin Pick edition

August 29, 2008

I’ve hammered on the theme that the goal of getting the public to understand science has little to do with specific facts or even ideas, and much more with helping folks master analytical tools that will help make pull the signal out of the noise of events and the day-to-day business of living.

I’ve argued that such an effort begins with developing a familiarity not so much with math as scientists and technologists think of field, but with much simpler approaches to quantification.  A little arithmetic goes a long way, as does what is to me the single most important idea:  this kind of basic math creates abstractions that, properly employed, allow us to find deeper points of contrast or similarity between disparate events than raw facts, even raw numbers ever could.

The best example (IMHO) that I’ve come up with came in this post.  But John McCain’s to-me bizarre selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate provides another opportunity to deploy some simple quantification to provide a little insight into how odd — and ultimately, how bad — a choice that was.

The basic argument against the Palin choice is all over the blogosphere.  You can look Steve Benen (from the left), Andrew Sullivan from the non-base right, and Ramesh Ponneru enjoying a moment of clarity in the opium – den end of wingnut right for variations on the theme. They all argue, and I agree, that the choice is a bad one from  because she is in fact desperately unprepared for the job.

The reasoning behind that argument is pretty simple and to my mind compelling:  leadership in her local PTA, a mayorality in a small town, a couple of stints on appointed state boards and something like 20 months as governor of a state whose population — 683,000 or so, is less than that of the Boston metro area in which I make my home– doth not a potential president make.  Lots of specific issues are already coming up, but that’s the basic story.

But there is a counter argument: conservative hacks (Ralph Reed on NPR this morning, for example) are trying to suggest that her executive experience as Mayor and Governor make up for her deficiencies in national security, international affairs, national issues and so on.

It’s a pretty risible argument, but how ridiculous it is can only be seen with  a clear idea of the scale of the jobs she has done so far to see just how much love to give her, and McCain, on this score.

So, at last to return to the premise of this post, that a little help from numbers can reveal a great deal, what can we find that would help place Palin’s level of competence in context?

First let’s constrain the analysis and accept the apparent McCain campaign judgment that especially after the events of the last week or so, a female veep selection was essential.  That leaves several potential picks mentioned over the last week, perhaps the most prominent of whom was Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson.

Now whatever you may think of her views (not much, from where I sit), Hutchinson is a conventionally serious choice: she had executive responsibility as Texas State Treasurer (briefly, but longer than Palin has been governor of a state with the population of one of Houston’s suburbs); she’s into her third term in the Senate with big time committee appointments (on Appropriations, Veterans Affairs and  Rules and Adminstration, ranking member of Commerce, Science and Transportation); she’s won elections in a large state; and she knows how Washington works.

Seems like an obvious choice.  She did not light a fire under the anti-choice base, but there is no doubt that she is a national figure dead in the mainstream of the Republican party.  Her resume trumps Palin’s in every particular.

But let’s give McCain the benefit of the doubt on another constraint.  In a change election, watching Obama driving the message home brilliantly over the last week that Washington insiders are the problem, it is a plausible argument that the woman the campaign concluded it needed had to be someone from beyond the Beltway.

So far, Palin meets these criteria:  she’s definitely got a pair of X chromosomes and Juneau is about as far (barring Honolulu) as you can get from Washington in American politics.  Maybe, following this decision tree, once you impose these narrowing filters, Palin was as good as it gets.

Or not.  Another name that came up from time to time in the search was Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard CEO.

Now this is a harder comparison to make between than that between Hutchinson and Palin — after all, how do you rate corporate life to work in government?

You look to the numbers.  Both Alaska and HP are economic ecosystems.  They generate wealth, must be governed, have operations and a bottom line.  The comparisons are imperfect, but they give an idea, most importantly of scale, of how big a job each of these executives have performed.

In 2005, (the last year for which I could find the data in a quick troll) Alaska’s gross product — all of its economic activity — totaled just a whisker less than 40 billion dollars.  For 2005 — the last year during which Fiorina worked for the company, HP’s total revenue — the value of all its economic activity — more than doubled that number, topping  86 billion.

That comparison drastically understates the disparity in managerial responsibility between the two.  Last year, Palin signed into law her first budget – Alaska’s largest ever :  6.6 billion.  For 2005, HP made a profit of 3.473 billion, which, deducted from gross revenue, leaves about 83.5 billion out of the revenue total that had to be spent to make that money.

Certainly there would have been passive expenditures there, already agreed interest on loans, for example, as there are certainly automatic payments within a state budget.  But broadly speaking the comparison is overwhelming:  a CEO of a major company has much more fiscal responsibilty and a much larger economica strategic burden to handle than the leader of a small government administration — by about 13 to 1 on the numbers in this case.

Now this is not an argument that Carly Fiorina should have been standing next to John McCain today.  That there are all kinds of considerations that go into such decisions has been amply demonstrated by the choices of both Joe Biden and Sarah Palin.

But if you are trying to get a handle on just how far Palin’s experience has been from the level of responsibility that goes into leading the United States of America, it is worth remembering that in her one supposed area of expertise is as an executive.  And in that role, her 20 months of running the Alaska budget is loosely equivalent to the mangerial task of handling the revenues of the 348th largest company in America, which in 2007 was the Ball Corporation, the fourth largest packaging and can company in the country.

And in case you were wondering:  the 2007 budget for the United States of America topped 2.7 trillion.

Just to finish this off:   McCain, Obama and Biden have never had to adminster an operation larger than their Senate offices, or for McCain, a peacetime bomber squadron.  But they didn’t claim that attribute, offering instead claims of judgment, experience, temperament, knowledge of the affairs of the nation and so on.  By contrast, “executive experience” is Palin’s only alleged skill in governance.

So the two points I hope this post makes are (a) that there are ways to think about making rational comparisons between potential leaders, and they include at least some willingness to think if not mathematically, at least arithmetically…and (b) that as expected from a first review of her resume, this just slightly deeper look into the numbers supports the proposition that Sarah Palin is  the most unqualified Vice Presidential candidate in living memory.

Why it helps to run the numbers…

July 23, 2008

and why it matters.

Brad DeLong reproduces a  memo from Obama campaign econ. policy director Jason Furman.   In it, Furman discusses the latest Tax Policy Center report on the true costs and beneficiaries of the Obama and the McCain tax plans.

Money quote from the TPC report:

The two candidates’ tax plans would have sharply different distributional effects. Senator McCain’s tax cuts would primarily benefit those with very high incomes, almost all of whom would receive large tax cuts that would, on average, raise their after-tax incomes by more than twice the average for all households. Many fewer households at the bottom of the income distribution would get tax cuts and those tax cuts would be small as a share of after-tax income. In marked contrast, Senator Obama offers much larger tax breaks to low- and middle-income taxpayers and would increase taxes on high-income taxpayers. The largest tax cuts, as a share of income, would go to those at the bottom of the income distribution, while taxpayers with the highest income would see their taxes rise significantly.

For extra credit and reading pleasure, see the extensive comparisons the Center made between the tax proposals as described the candidate’s advisors, and as set out in stump speeches and or campaign policy documents.

The key point there, at least as the Obama campaign would have you know, (PDF here), is that there is a $2.8 trillion gap between what the McCain advisors say the GOP nominee-apparent’s plan would cost, and what the number is in what we laughingly call the real world.

These are important numbers, and as important, they are not, in the last analysis subject to that much controversy.  That is:  while it is possible to argue a great deal about the long term economic effects of different tax policies, coming up with the immediate or even the medium term costs of different proposals is not a black art.

These are what scientists call deductions.  They are not quite facts, not yet.  But starting from a baseline of factual knowledge — the current tax code, revenues, analysis of earlier changes in tax policy and so on — it is possible to make well grounded predictions of what would happen if each candidate were able to impose the policies they now promise.

The bottom line:  well, my argument that a McCain presidency will be disastrous for scientific, technological and medical research is strengthened by this latest report.  With non-defense discretionary spending already squeezed by the disastrous Bush brew of tax cuts for the top brackets and an unfunded war, McCain’s proposed tax and spending priorities leave essentially nothing for such luxuries as advanced education, basic and applied research and all the rest.

If our investment in science lags, of course, we will suffer along every axis from national security to our ability to relieve human suffering or to uncover novel sources of human happiness (who knew the ARPANET would enable us to Twitter at each other.  Hmm.  Perhaps I should rethink that example.)

But the key here is that you cannot make this argument without the baseline numbers.  McCain can and does say that he supports research and innovation to solve such fundamental problems as America’s energy needs.  I don’t doubt that he believes it when he says it.  But such commitments are meaningless, lies in fact if not in intent, given his tax and budget policies — or else his tax promises are lies.  That’s what you can say when — and only then, you actually dig in the weeds of the data.

In this context, TPC study offers one more valuable yardstick against which to weigh all the other commitments McCain is making.  The question is will anyone (but your earnest, but rather low-profile blogger) do so?

But not to snark before time, I’m waiting.  This is my question: will the reporting on this story emphasize the actual differences between the two plans and the consquences?  Or will it focus instead on some variant of the “McCain counters Obama’s tax sally.”  That is — do the voters/audience get an account of the facts that McCain would wish to dispute, or just the dispute?  Will the story make it onto the news budget at all?

We’ll see.  As an extra credit question, I’m wondering whether Marc Ambinder will engage this at all?  He’s reproduced a lot of Scheunemann.  So how about a little domestic substance from the “Reported Blog on Politics?”  Will update as events warrant.

Image: James Gillray, “A great stream from a petty-fountain; or John Bull swamped in the flood of new – taxes,” hand colored etching, 1806.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.