Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Bear Market for Ideas

Early in his primary campaign, Barack Obama indicated that if his Republican opponent opted into the public financing system for the general election, he would follow suit. In a highly publicized decision last week, Obama decided to forgo public financing. In a column for the Atlantic, Reihan Salam uses Obama's decision as point of entry to a general condemnation of campaign finance regulation. I've written on this topic before (here, as well as several other occasions), and don't want to rehash everything I've said previously, but I do think Salam's column merits a response. Salam cites examples like Stewart Mott contributing massive amounts of money to Eugene McCarthy as laudable examples of civic participation. I have a number of objections to this line of thinking. For one it strikes me as a terrible subversion of the one person, one vote principle. For another, it seems inconceivable that massive contributions would not alter the behavior of politicians (Salam's attempt to brush this off as a "theory" in the same sense that the Loch Ness Monster is a theory is cute, if not perhaps the mark of someone engaging in an honest discussion). But my previous posts on this topic cover those objections pretty well. Instead I'd like to consider a basic premise of Salam's column and of the campaign finance discussion in general: the money is somehow fundamental to (or even indistinguishable from) political speech.

The basic point of raising all of this money is to pay for television advertising. This is no secret, and Salam's absurd vision of candidates launching nationwide chains of day-care providers aside, this assertion is unlikely to elicit much objection. I think it is critically important to frame the debate in this manner. To refer to the money as being for political speech makes it sound considerably grander than it really is. It is really money to bankroll TV ads. To be sure, TV ads can be a form of political speech. But they make up a very narrow category, and one with some rather noteworthy characteristics. Think about the most important and memorable political TV ads. Like this one. Or this one. Or this. And this. And this. (As an aside, I would have included the Clinton 3 A.M. ad, but it has apparently, and remarkably, vanished from the internet now that Hillary has dropped out.) When we talk about campaign finance, we are not discussing political speech writ large, we're discussing a very narrow subcategory of political speech that consists almost entirely of non-substantive, emotionally manipulative, and often misleading, but objectively speaking highly-effective, advertising. This sort of political speech is representative of the "marketplace of ideas" only in the same sense that Stephen Colbert has decided that global warming is real because the success of Al Gore's movie indicates that the market has spoken.

Certainly the Obama model of fundraising, garning small contributions from a huge base of donors, is an improvement over the traditional big donor approach. Some of the concern over influence is abated when the contributor base is more diffuse. But the sums of money involved have only increased in this cycle (in fact, more money has already been raised than was spent in total in 2004), and that itself represents a loss for the civic dialogue. A debate conducted via TV advertising is an impoverished debate. Even Barack Obama's message is necessarily infantilized by translation to ad format. As Matt Yglesias noted of Obama's first general election ad, the message boils down to: "My mom is white! And I'm from America!" If this is our marketplace of ideas, it's pretty clearly a bear market.

I recognize that TV advertising is an important tool for candidates. It's one of the only ways for them to directly reach a mass audience to answer attacks and spread their message. The Obama ad, for example, is probably quite necessary given the breadth of the campaign of misinformation that has already been waged against him. It's a tricky problem, and I don't plan to offer any easy solutions here. But I do think we need to be clear about what we're discussing, and in the discussion of campaign finance regulation I think we can do without any grandstanding about the cherished role of political speech. The sort of political speech we cherish is not the sort that gets funded by this money.

Update (6/23): This amusing Slate video on cookie-cutter political ads seems rather appropriate to this discussion.

A Positive Story from the Blogosphere

I don't have much of point to make with this post, I just think it is a really interesting story demonstrating the meritocratic impact of the internet and blogging. I'm referring to the meteoric rise of Nate Silver as a respected name in election-year journalism. Silver began as an unknown, posting on DailyKos under the name poblano. Before the voting began poblano penned diaries on a broad variety of primary-related topics. He gained a reputation on the site as a thoughtful and insightful Obama-backer. But it wasn't until late January, after several states were in the bag and super Tuesday loomed large that poblano's brilliance as a number-cruncher really emerged.

A pair of super Tuesday previews (initial diary, updated diary) drew huge amounts of attention, and deservedly so. poblano's previews included polling numbers, but greatly exceeded the depth of analysis offered anywhere in the commercial press, incorporating endorsements, fund-raising, and in-state campaign presence. While some of the delegate spreads were off, poblano correctly called the winner in every state (he considered AL, CT, and MO to be toss-ups). Super Tuesday itself provided a wealth of voting data to be mined, and poblano was soon off to the races, dissecting the results and turning them into projections for the general election. Again, the analysis found here was hands down better than anything I encountered in the commercial press.

Having gained considerable notoriety among political bloggers during January and February, in early March poblano moved off DailyKos to his own website, FiveThirtyEight. There he continued providing projections of the primaries and general election, and he also did something professional political writers never do: hold pollsters accountable. In May, poblano crushed the professional pollsters with his projections for Indiana and North Carolina, identified himself as baseball statistician Nate Silver, and finally began to garner attention outside the sphere of political blogs. Not only will Silver likely be a mainstay of election coverage for the rest of the year (and following election years), but I suspect that he has an awful lot of professional analysts reconsidering their methodologies and approaches to political projection. Oh, and, by the way, the projections for Obama at FiveThirtyEight are looking awfully nice these days.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Resistance is Futile

Tim Wu on the state of the wireless market:
Who would have guessed that Apple—onetime victim of IBM and Microsoft—would today be an agent and symbol of industry consolidation? I don't know that it's fair to say this is Apple's fault. A telephone monopoly has been the norm for most of American telecommunication history, except for what may turn out to have been a brief experimental period from 1984 through 2012 or so. Like the short British experiment with republican government under Oliver Cromwell, it may be that telephone monopolies in America are a national tradition. In this larger story, the iPhone matters just as one of the last nails in the coffin of Bell's would-be competitors.
Brutal, but true. AT&T and Verizon cleaned house in the FCC's recent 700 MHz auction and appear to be scooping up spectrum and independent carriers faster than they can consume them. Sprint has been driven, in its desperation, into a last ditch joint effort with Clearwire, Comcast, Time Warner, Google, and Intel to offer an alternative data network -- a high stakes gamble that faces numerous business and technological obstacles. T-Mobile, the only other nationwide wireless carrier seems content to slowly sink into irrelevance. If the Sprint gambit fails, AT&T and Verizon will stand alone atop the wireless market. And even if it succeeds, the three viable national wireless networks will, by no coincidence, be under the control of the same four entities that have established total dominance over wireline voice, video, and data service in the United States: AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Time Warner. Either way, the mass extinction of competition in the American telecom marketplace is all but complete. To make matters worse, on the wireline side Comcast and Time Warner have few (if any) overlapping markets, and the same is true of AT&T and Verizon. To the extent that consumers prefer quadruple play offers (voice, video, data, and wireless), a proposition all the major carriers are betting heavily on, the vast majority of consumers will have only two options, if that. What has befallen the telecom market over the past 10 years is a disaster.

While we can only hope that help will be on the way once Democrats (hopefully) take over the White House and the FCC, it may be too little too late. To undo what has been done would require drastic measures. It would mean breaking up these big four, forcing some open access regime on them, or (best of all) forcing a separation of their physical network assets from their content and service delivery businesses. Any of these options would entail a major battle fought simultaneously on political, legal, and regulatory planes that, in all likelihood, would take the better part of a decade to play out. I doubt even an enlightened Democratic government would have the stomach for that. The only real alternative will be for the FCC to increasingly re-regulate these businesses. When the market cannot enforce discipline on providers of necessary services, regulators have to step in and assume the task. Net neutrality will only be the beginning...

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Back from the Dead: Obama and Political Process

As a first step to reviving this dormant blog, I'm going to cobble together various thoughts from discussions in email and elsewhere over the past half year or so. These thoughts are perhaps less novel and certainly less timely now with the primaries concluded than they were when they initially occurred to me, but I think they're still worth discussing.

Back when the Democratic primary was still hotly contested between Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards (who, let's not forget, was the clear favorite among the netroots), Obama was not infrequently attacked as a "process" candidate. This charge was advanced derisively, with suggestions that such focus on process was a sign of vanity with little appeal beyond upper-middle class young white professionals who don't care about Real Issues. Typically it was accompanied with comparisons to other such vanity candidates like Bill Bradley, Paul Tsongas, and Eugene McCarthy.

In response, I first must concede that I believe these critics are correct: Obama is a process candidate. While some conservatives have looked to Obama's liberal policy positions and scoffed at his supposed post-partisanness, Obama's post-partisan approach is a matter of process, not policy. Post-partisanship has to do with refocusing the process on substantive issues rather than the partisan circus we've seen the past 10-15 years, with having amicable disagreements, treating everyone with civility and decency instead of demonizing political opponents, with having a willingness to critically analyze issues without viewing them solely as an opportunity to score political points, with prioritizing competence over patronage and loyalty in government bureaucracy, with not letting elections be dominated by hot-button bullshit issues (e.g. Terry Schiavo) instead of the actual and quite serious issues facing our nation. This is really the defining attribute of Obama's campaign, particularly in comparison to his Democratic opponents with whom he had relatively few policy differences. So, yes, Obama is a process candidate.

I must strenuously disagree, however, with the position that Obama's process-focus is a matter of vanity, or is in any respect a political weakness. John Edwards thought that the Democrats needed to move left and take more populist positions in order to win. Hillary Clinton initially seemed to think we needed to move back towards her husband's centrist approach (i.e. the Democratic Leadership Council position). Later she seemed to adopt the Edwards populist angle, and later still she decided the Democrats needed be more ... white. The reality is that Democrats don't need to do any of that. What Democrats desperately need to do is fight back against the political circus and force people to look at real substantive issues. This is what Obama's post-partisanship is meant to achieve.

Along with criticism that he was too process-oriented, one of the chief netroots complaints about Obama was that he is insufficiently harsh on Republicans. He failed to call them out for being the repugnant, evil, spiteful people that, in the eyes of the netroots, they so obviously were. Obama failed to demonize the opposing party. What Obama understands that the netroots failed to grasp is that this road leads to tribal politics. That's the Republican way, the grand political circus. Everyone will retreat to their old familiar identity groups and fling flaming dog poop at each other and we'll rehash the same election we had in 2000 and 2004. In a year where the fundamentals so strongly favor Democrats, we might even win with that approach. But as a long-term strategy, it is a loser.

Bitterly divisive partisan politics is a game that Republican will always ultimately win. It's the game they've chosen and written the rules for, and they did so because it best fits the philosophy of their party and the memes they're trying to sell. It demeans politics, belittles the political process, and sows cynicism and distrust of politicians and government alike. For Democrats to fight back on the same terms concedes a decisive advantage to the Republicans right up front. For Democrats to succeed people need to believe in government, and for that to happen they need to first believe in the political process.

In order to break out of the long downward spiral of hyper-partisan politics it will be imperative to get some people to vote on issues rather identity. This is a difficult task, because it so easy for people to flee to the comfort of their identity groups. But the upside is we don't need a lot of them. All it would take would be to flip 10-15% of voters who've gone Republican in the last two election cycles to win a landslide victory. And here's the real key: these voters already agree with Democrats on all the major policy questions. A large majority of Americans favor universal health care (including a majority of Republicans!). A large majority of Americans believe the government needs to take serious action on climate change. A large majority of Americans want our troops out of Iraq within a year. A large majority of Americans agree that we should have diplomatic meetings with Iran without preconditions. Let me say this again: Democrats do not need to change their policy positions to go after independent and Republican voters. They already agree with us! The only key to victory is to figure out how to bust people loose from identity politics.

If Democrats can only break off a chunk of the Bush voters and get them to vote on issues instead of identity, they will win big. Hillary Clinton could never have succeeded in this task because she is a creature of hyper-partisan politics. Her political career was born of it, the hard feminist core of her support was built on it, and she personally revels in it. Her pitch to the primary voters was that we should support her because she could play this game better than anyone. And John Edwards, having failed with a more moderate, centrist approach in 2004, embraced identity politics himself this time around, pulling together an odd alliance of white working-class union voters and the most vociferous leftists of the netroots. But the fiery rhetoric and demonization of others required to win these groups was self-limiting, and Edwards consequently had no success extending his appeal beyond these identity groups. Neither of them could have avoided the trap of hyper-partisanship. Neither of them could have significantly altered the playing field. Either probably could have won, given the overall dynamics of this election, but neither would have been a game-changer.

But Obama did something different. Obama has built a campaign around rejecting the circus. His campaign is constructed from the ground up precisely to be a game-changer. He properly understood that concern over the political process is not a vanity issue; it is the difference between continued frustration for Democrats and clear political dominance. Obama treats all Americans with dignity and respect. He discounts no one and tries to engage everyone. He wants voters to believe that under his administration
the government will take into account all of their views, positions, and beliefs and negotiate them in a reasonable and sensible manner. He recognizes that people don't always need to win every argument as long as they feel the system is fair and that their voice is heard. His campaign is built around these basic values.

It remains to be seen whether this will be enough to break the cycle. I think the approach is right, and Obama personally has demonstrated a level of
wisdom, charisma, and leadership that leads me to believe he can really pull this off. But I don't underestimate the difficulty of the task. The Republicans wouldn't have invested so much in this approach if it didn't work so goddamned well. But if Obama prevails, this could be an incredibly meaningful victory, and a breath of fresh air that we all, at this point, desperately need.

Update (6/12): just for added emphasis, check out this Obama quote that they've put at the top of their anti-smear page: "What you won't hear from this campaign or this party is the kind of politics that uses religion as a wedge, or patriotism as a bludgeon -- that sees our opponents not as competitors to challenge, but enemies to demonize. Because we may call ourselves Democrats and Republicans, but we are Americans first. We are always Americans first."