Penn State: when serial mis/nonfeasance is malfeasance.

To review: as everyone has observed, a list of individuals (not yet complete, certainly) acted and passived criminally and/or despicably.  And it is equally true that not all of Paterno’s or even Spanier’s career behavior has been despicable or even mediocre; indeed, adding to the dimensions of the tragedy, they did a lot of good even discounting anything involving a football.  As lots of commentators have observed, much of the rot here is traceable to PSU’s having  completely lost its grip on the appropriate relationships between playing the game and winning every game; between a game and a university; and between a university (especially a big university that’s the main industry in a small college town) and civil society, not to mention the relationship between sports and sportsmanship/leadership/teamwork.

Some of the debate has the implicit undertone that what the enablers and concealers did was bad because in the end it caused much more damage to the program than lancing the boil at the time would have.  This is deeply pernicious, of course, because it just indicates extra coats of whiting on the sepulchre for next time.  This episode would, if possible, have been even worse if the damage had been permanently limited to secret injury to Sandusky’s victims. Certainly a lot of victims were sacrificed during a decade of dissembling virtue.

The legalistic defenses of these people that they did what the law requires, and the inability of anyone to borrow a whistle from the refs and blow it, raise a more general, less discussed, and I believe more devastating criticism of Paterno and his spaniel, and also of the trustees: they managed an enterprise for decades in which everyone who mattered believed that their duties were to the reputation (and game record) of the institution – that looking good was more important than doing bad. This malfeasance is not traceable to specific acts; indeed it is misfeasance, a million acts of omission,  when they failed to signal, and find a way to demonstrate, and confirm receipt of the signal, that the university expects its people to do the right thing even when it causes bad press, and even when it hurts their friends, and even at some cost to themselves.

What has poisoned Penn State is not that most people are not heroes, and are intimidated by their environment’s symbols and comfort-seeking routines: you go to life with the people you have, not the ideal people you wish you had.  It is that its leadership serially flubbed a flat, incontrovertible duty of leadership to know (i) that s..t happens, and (ii) that  ordinary people are afraid to deal with it without help.  It is therefore a flat duty, also flubbed, to affirmatively and aggressively give those people tangible, costly, public, action-centered reassurance that the institution’s determination to protect and admire them when they step up is bigger than the football team’s record (yes, and the biochemistry department’s desire for a breakthrough that a batch of experimental results don’t support).

The whole gang of administrators, boosters, coaches, and trustees didn’t take care of their own people (never mind the kids) in the worst way, by undermining their courage and their sense of right and wrong.  When you don’t take care of your people for two years, you should lose your job: I think twenty is far past the Mendoza line, and the give-em-a-break line.

The whole gang.


When the good guys are winning

It’s a long haul, but the criminal justice system in Mexico is moving in the right direction, lots of credit to our students, the Abogados con Cámaras.  The injunction against their film has been lifted and everyone is watching it.  Including people in high places, más aqui (en español).  Did I mention that Negrete and Hernández are PhD students at the Goldman School?

Every last man on K.P.

Patton’s appreciation of tough but unglamorous work—and a bleg for a speech from the Left that does as well or better.

Harold’s fantastic post rightly emphasizes that those who grouse at a few hours’ unexpected arduous labor should think about the lives of those who do it every day.

Harold stresses the policy implications of this: a decent society would do much more to provide those who labor with good health care, occupational safety, an adequate wage, and retirement security.  But there’s something more we need to do: give regular, prominent and explicit recognition to everyone who does a necessary job of not particularly high status.  To my mind, doing this and meaning it is the difference between real leadership and a baron by some other name giving orders to people he or she thinks of as villeins.

Let’s not flatter ourselves: those of us on the Left, broadly speaking, don’t always do this better than than our counterparts on the Right.  (A bleg to prove me wrong follows after the jump.) I’m not sure I know of a socialist or even liberal version of the practice as convincing as Patton’s—real, not sanitized—speech before the Allied invasion of Europe.

[Warning: Being an actual WW II Army speech, this contains lots of profanity.  The text is after the jump.]

Continue reading “Every last man on K.P.”

“Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick”: The Coach and the President Heed an African Proverb

African-American leaders know better than to frighten their followers. Shouldn’t the rest of us know better than to berate them for their self-restraint?

The people who’ve spent the past several seasons calling for the head of Coach Lovie Smith on the grounds that he’s “ignorant and weak” and “emotionless” (among many less printable adjectives) are nowhere to be found since he led the Chicago Bears to the NFL Conference championships. Having failed to bury Smith, they absolutely refuse to praise him.

Why?   Because Coach Smith is a soft-spoken professional who leads not by shrieking but by—well, leading.   Chicagoans, particularly Chicago sports fans, can’t seem to wrap their heads around the notion that this gentle man— this gentleman—could possibly be any good at coaching football. That’s because the mold for Da Coach was set by Mike Ditka, a screaming, foul-mouthed, temper-losing maniac whose heart attack only narrowly missed taking place on the field.   If you’re not yelling like that, you must not be leading.

But if Coach Smith behaved like that—berating his players and abusing the press in rants liberally sprinkled with profanity—we’d hear nothing but tut-tuts about what an angry black man he was.  Probably neither the fans nor the team itself would be willing to follow him.  It’s no accident that the most successful African-American coaches — Tony Dungee, Mike Singletary, Lovie Smith — are all matter-of-fact and free of braggadocio.   That’s the way black men have to negotiate the world to avoid waking the not-very-soundly sleeping dogs of white racism.

Which brings us to the case of President Obama.   Everyone who derides him for not being tough enough—for not being Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson—seems to forget that they’re speaking of someone whose life has required constant attention to the problem of being non-threatening.   That’s quite a challenge for a man who’s tall, brilliant and black.

But the President has succeeded at it through a combination of self-deprecation (“a skinny kid with a funny name”) and unshakable composure (“No-Drama Obama”).   If instead he’d emulated FDR in saying of his opponents “I welcome their hatred,” Fox News would have announced that he hated all white people. (Oh, right, someone on that network did that anyway.)   If like LBJ he’d insisted a reporter accompany him while he used the toilet, he wouldn’t be considered a lively and original character but just some ghetto type who didn’t know how to behave.

Consider the reportage when the president held a news conference explaining his decision to make the tax-cut compromise.  Having answered a series of questions designed to get him to say that he’d betrayed his promises, his party and his people, he was finally irate enough to respond, “It’s the health care battle all over again. Some people would rather rest in their purity than get something done,” or words to that effect.   As a rebuke goes, his was a pretty mild one.   But it was sufficient to produce several weeks of headlines about how the President had “scolded” his party and how “angry” he was.   If he’d actually been angry, we’d probably have seen articles of impeachment.

So all the people who want to give the President—and the Coach, for that matter—lessons in leadership should bear in mind that both men have learned precisely how much force they can use before that force is turned against them.   And they haven’t learned it from the Op-Ed pages or the screaming-heads fests.   Experience keeps a hard school but we will learn at no other.

I myself wrote—but fortunately did not post—the following incredibly misguided advice:

I understand the President’s unwillingness to assume the role of Angry Black Man into which his opponents wish to thrust him. But when the people on the other side of the table are card-carrying members of the Paranoid Style in American Politics, it’s time to stand up and call them the proto-fascists they are.   And hoping they’ll be willing to compromise seems a deliberate act of denial, like whistling past the graveyard. Instead, Barack Obama should emulate Harry Truman.   Give ’em hell, Barry!

WRONG!   As the Tucson shootings demonstrate, the last thing we need right now is public officials giving each other high-decibel hell.   And even if hell were called for, a black man in power couldn’t be the one to deliver it.   That’s an indulgence reserved for powerful white men—and every powerful black man knows it. It’s time the rest of us learned the same lesson.

The volume of reproach and disappointment and disapproval and correction directed at Coach Smith and the President says nothing about their leadership ability.   It’s purely a reflection of the fears and fantasies a significant subgroup of American white people have about American black people.   The fact that one of them produced a championship team, and the other achieved the health-care reform none of his white predecessors could manage (among many other victories), demonstrates that they’re far better leaders than anyone less challenged could dream of being.

So let’s stop giving them hell.

The Challenger explosion (continued) a moment of grace in the Reagan presidency

I should have given President Reagan his due on this one. On that day 25 years ago, he deployed an actor’s grace to comfort a grieving nation.

I should have included this in my last post.

Readers might be surprised to learn that I’m not a huge fan of President Reagan. In my view, his presidency diminished our country in many, many ways. At times, the only White House official personage dispensing sensible advice was the astrologer, who was wisely pandering to Nancy Reagan’s more cautious instincts.

Yet on the day of the Challenger disaster, Reagan deployed an actor’s grace to comfort a grieving nation.

His speech that day concluded:

On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, ‘He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.’ Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.

My daughter and I recently watched a poignant American Experience which described Reagan’s brave, final struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Some of Reagan’s last intact memories concerned his heroism as a young lifeguard, putting a notch in a log for every person he rescued at the beach.

Now I can’t say any unkind words about Reagan within earshot of my sweet daughter, who mainly knows our 40th president as a gentle old man who bravely undertook his own final journey, waved goodbye, and slipped the surly bonds of earth.

President Reagan would be 100 years old this February 6. I won’t particularly mark the occasion. If my daughter mentions it, I’ll keep some of the less kind memories to myself. Instead, I will just note this simple moment of grace, a high point of his presidency.

Why Obama can’t play every role at once

The Democratic Strategist has just posted a strategy memo by me on why Obama can’t be an activist, an organizer, a legislator and a president all at once.  It applies some of my ideas from Ruling Passions to what’s going on now.  My fans might find it of interest; my critics, great fun to insult.  Or the other way around—who knows.

How Not to Refute an Academic Blogger in One Embarrassing Omission

On Megan McArdle, Mel Gibson, and inconvenient facts.

While my recent post on the tax deal has sparked a fair amount of debate, which I hope to respond to soon, I wouldn’t normally bother with Megan McArdle’s lengthy and snarky attack on it.  But when she calls what she takes to be my scorched-earth position on negotiating strategy (not actually my position, but more on that in a later post) a “big favorite of academics, who I infer have watched a lot of Mel Gibson movies”—since academics would never get the idea that a reputation for craziness provides negotiating advantages from, say, a Nobel Prize-winning economist—my professional pride is involved.  So bring it on. Let’s see what a Village journalist considers hard-nosed political wisdom.

Writes McArdle,

Sabl’s question seems to me like an incredibly unrealistic one.  It assumes that by really slick application of game theory, progressives can somehow move the dial, so that what negotiations theorists call the ZOPA–the Zone of Possible Agreement–shifts dramatically, making possible much more progressive outcomes than have been realized recently.
But a lot of what professional negotiators do is simply recognize what the limits of the ZOPA are.  They don’t waste energy trying to shift it to encompass impossible outcomes.  Immediately after Democrats have lost a midterm election by historic margins (something I believe I may have mentioned) is not a propitious time to be trying to shift the ZOPA leftward.
The logic of that can’t be faulted.  After all, the Republicans would have been incredibly unrealistic to respond to historic losses in two straight elections by moving rightward.  And they would have been heavily punished at the ballot box if they had.
By the way, Ms. McArdle, in case the previous two sentences were too highfalutin’ and academic for you, I was being ironic.  Don’t know what that means?  There’s an excellent summary in this Ethan Hawke movie.

Update: See Megan McArdle’s comments, and mine, below.  Her comments are substantive in content and handsome in tone, and I hope my response is too.  Elbows having been thrown, I think we’re ready to shake hands and play on.

Mr. President: Want troops at your back? Try leading from the front.

Mike Lux nails it: The President’s greatest mistakes don’t concern strategy—they concern morale.

I normally hate naked links, but Mike Lux at The Democratic Strategist nails it with a long post describing the relationship between progressives and the President as a problem not of policy but of morale.

Lux’s post is all the more powerful because he doesn’t labor under the delusion that Obama’s compromises are the deliberate sellouts of a closet conservative.  He knows that Obama’s motives are good, that his power is not limitless, and that politics is about compromise.  What politics isn’t about, though, is insulting the people agitating to bring the terms of the compromise closer to your own stated position. His point resembles that of James’ fine post from a couple of days ago, but speaks from a different standpoint: that of an activist in the trenches.

Read it all. But the money quote, quite moving really, comes at the end:

Mr. President, there are plenty of us out here who understand the need to compromise sometimes. What we don’t understand is this sense that you have thrown in the towel before the battle has begun. And we don’t understand being attacked by you when what we are fighting for is your agenda. If you are dismissive of the need to rally your own troops, if you are disdainful of the very people who have fought the hardest on your behalf, you will destroy your Presidency. For your sake, for your party’s sake, for your country’s sake, we can’t afford for that to happen. Mr. President, those of us who have been on your side need to know that you are on our side, too.

How the tax deal debate is shaping up—and why we should remember our real opponents

Positions on the tax-cut debate are dividing across three separate dimensions. And on all of them, the differences among Democrats are slight compared to those between us and Republicans.

As far as I can tell, the furious debate over whether the tax deal is good or bad reflects disagreement among Democrats and liberals across three separate dimensions (which is why it will get complicated):

1. Idealists vs. Pragmatists. David Kurtz thinks the main news of Obama’s press conference yesterday is that Obama has finally declared that he’s a pragmatist, not an idealist.  I think that anyone who didn’t know that already was ignoring Obama’s entire biography, let alone his governing style, in favor of a few speeches.  In any case, those who look to a President primarily to articulate their political identity or defend their core principles clearly have reason to be more opposed to the deal than those who see the White House’s job as getting the best outcome in terms of legislation and regulations. In my book Ruling Passions I propose a division of moral labor: idealists should stick to citizen activism—and have a huge and genuine role to play there—while leaving legislation to the pragmatists.  But not everyone thinks that.  Of course, there are plenty of reasons pragmatists might, and do, oppose the deal, but the idealists will likely oppose it more bitterly.

2. Civic republicans vs. non-republican liberals. Civic republicanism (small “r,” of course) is an awkward label for a common position: that the fundamental issue of our time is the ability of the rich, and corporations, to game the political system and prevent the rest of us from exerting true self-governance.  (Roger Hodge’s The Mendacity of Hope, which I haven’t read yet, sounds from what I’ve heard like a pure instance of this view.  Richard Trumka’s angry statement opposing the deal, with its stress on income inequality and “moneyed interests,” is, perhaps surprisingly, another instance.)  In contrast, a non-republican liberal position is that giving material sustenance to the poor is more important than whether the rich get paid off, however regrettable and undeserved that is.  Randi Rhoads has been pushing this position hard on her show and her blog.  And Obama has explicitly taken it as well.

3. Immediate results people vs. repeated game players. Many of the deal’s supporters (Steve Benen, Ed Kilgore) have started to ask opponents what they propose as the next move if it’s voted down.  We opponents, frankly, don’t have a great answer so much as a different question: how can we change baseline expectations so as to achieve progressive outcomes in future negotiations?.  Everybody, of course, thinks that both the short and the long term are important to some degree.  But the deal’s supporters largely rely on the argument that results now are very important, either because in a recession those who lose benefits will face great and immediate hardship (see James), or because stimulus now will crucially boost Democratic prospects in 2012 (which is, to fill in the minor premise, an unusually important election because of the Affordable Care Act).  Most of the policy wonks, by the way, are lining up behind the deal because their professional deformation is to solve the immediate problem rather than looking at the future negotiating situation it sets up.  As professional biases go, this one’s honorable and functional—but still a bias.

My own all-things-considered opposition reflects my being a pragmatist (with respect to legislative negotiations, not politics as a whole), mostly a liberal but with growing sympathies for republicanism, and a fanatical repeated-gamer.

BUT we have to remember something.  Both sides of these debates have immeasurably more in common with each other than with the Republicans—who want to sabotage Democrats tactically and also destroy them ideologically; dislike the welfare state passionately and on principle while wanting as a matter of principle and practice to give the rich and corporations more money and power, not less; and are excellent players, on the oligarchical side, of both one-shot and repeated games.  Steve is dead right on this.  We should vigorously criticize one another.  But we should save our real outrage for its proper target: Republicans who callously and deliberately held the most vulnerable members of society hostage to the interests of the wealthiest.  Instead, I fear that the humane cop who wants to negotiate with the kidnapper and the tough-minded one who doesn’t will forget who the criminal is.

Update: “Non-republican liberal” seems a bit unfair to the category, since that label defines the school of thought in terms of what it’s not.  With some worries, since the usage is common in social-philosophy debates but can mean something quite different (and pejorative) in American political discourse, I propose calling these kinds of liberals welfarist liberals because their/our main concern is how people’s lives go, not how power is distributed.

Quick thoughts on the tax compromise

Assessing the tax deal: distribution, memes and focal points, public revenue, politics.

Since one of the things I supposedly teach is the ethics of compromise, I guess I should take a crack at discussing The Deal (as far as we know about it from the Times so far).

There seem to be at least four (and a half) main issues.

1. Vulgar Rawlsianism. The Times says the President’s first priority was the extension of unemployment benefits, and I believe it.  Obama said as much himself at his press conference yesterday.  There’s something intuitively attractive (as well as crudely Rawlsian) about caring more about the jobless than about how much those at the top have, and some will say that this factor alone makes the deal worthwhile.  But the deal does nothing for the ninety-niners, those who have been jobless for more than that many weeks, who are even worse off. And it does nothing to prevent the Republican House from hammering the poor on the spending side.  So I think this is vulgar Rawlsianism indeed.

1a. Stimulus.  I know this is the meme of the day—Obama abandoned progressivity for the sake of juicing up the economy (see Ezra Klein, David Leonhardt)—but I’m not going to make much of it.  This is partly because as a non-economist I don’t have a properly qualified opinion, partly because those opinions I do tend to trust seem to think the deal will be pretty ineffective as stimulus, and partly because the question isn’t whether the deal will stimulate the economy, but whether it would stimulate the economy more than any other tax cut that Obama could have negotiated in January. After all, the GOP would hardly have left the new status quo alone, and with a new baseline of Clinton-era rates, Obama might have been in a better position to take tax cuts for the wealthiest, and estate tax capitulation, off the table, or at least force major concessions on those, through credible veto threats.  (Some say that Obama isn’t the type to make such threats—but if so, that’s his fault.)  Which brings up

2. Baselines, focal points, and memes. The whole point of the ten-year sunset on the Bush tax cuts (besides gaming deficit predictions) was to trap the Democrats into “raising taxes” in the future by letting them expire.  Obama hasn’t just fallen into that trap; he’s endorsed it, by embracing the idea that letting “taxes go up increase” during a recession would be bad policy (though granted, I think he avoided the words “raise” and “increase”).  This is very bad.  There’s also a strong distributional baseline problem. The reason it’s a bad idea to “give everyone” tax breaks is that the next time one proposes clawing back on a progressive basis, doing so will be an “increase,” not the status quo—just as happened this year.  A superficial Pareto efficiency now prevents a certain subset—the progressive subset—of what would otherwise have been Pareto-efficient deals later.*

3. Revenue. I agree with Matt Yglesias that one big problem with America is that we’re taxed too little to support the public goods we need, and that this compromise moves us precisely in the wrong direction.  This consideration also adds to the distributional concern: from now on, letting tax cuts expire for the rich will be “raising taxes,” while cutting programs for the poor or other public goods (yes, lack of homelessness and unnecessary death are public goods) will be “living within our means.” That said, one should realize that Matt and I are probably in the 14 percent minority that wouldn’t mind seeing all the Bush tax cuts expire, i.e. restoring the tax code of 2000.  Our position is very unpopular, and embracing it would be an enormous political risk.

4. Politics. This is the big Kahuna.  The President’s defenders will argue that the deal will be great politics.  It will make Obama look moderate and conciliatory.  (Third Way version of the argument: he ought to be moderate and conciliatory on other subjects.  Probably too-clever-by-half double-bank progressive version: this will let him more easily say no to Boehner on other subjects.)  And, by stimulating the economy (by stipulation), it will help Obama’s reelection chances.  If it does that, it will help Obama defend his legislative achievements—especially the Affordable Care Act, the most important domestic policy achievement since Medicare and Medicaid, and much more important than anything likely to be accomplished in the next two years—and do great things through executive action. Given that Obama actually has a substantial progressive legislative record to defend—completely unlike Bill Clinton, who enacted moderate Republicanism and then ran on a platform of preserving it against radical Republicanism—this has some force.  A case could be made that triangulation now has a moral and political implications very different from those of triangulation in 1995-96.

Against this: (a) The deal also makes Boehner and McConnell look moderate and conciliatory—a shocking misportrayal of reality that will make it that much harder to run against their intransigence. (b) A better economy will not only help Obama but help Republicans retain the House (the Senate will flip regardless). (c) Embracing Republican frames on taxes makes it that much harder to make a coherent case for Democratic government.  And(d) the purse is powerful: while a Republican House and Senate might not be able to repeal the ACA, they might be able to make it work so badly as to discredit it.

On balance, then, I think this is a bad and short-sighted deal.  But it’s not quite as obviously bad, and morally disgraceful, as some—commenters, fire away—will portray it.  And my impression of its badness derives largely from my unpopular view that our taxes overall are too low.

*This is a neglected,because buried, argument in Russell Hardin’s fine Indeterminacy and Society (Princeton, 2003), pp. 9-11.

Update: Point (1) was too flip. The truth is that I’m not unemployed, nor do I move in circles where a great many people are unemployed. If I were in either of these categories, I’d probably look at the deal pretty differently. One can still oppose the deal on balance, as I do, but those of us who do should remember that the lives of some desperate people are at stake.

Second Update: Corrected to reflect the transcript of Obama’s December 6 statement: “let taxes increase for these Americans [all but the rich] right now” was his formulation for what must be avoided.