Tag Archives: Obama

Three Reasons Why the Election is Running on Empty

It’s fitting that a freakish storm (or fears of a freakish storm) should interrupt a presidential campaign that has shied away from discussing climate change. As the New York Times noted after last week’s third and final debate, neither candidate broached the subject in the course of the debates; nor did the vice-presidential candidates or moderators or the model citizens in the made-for-TV town hall.

Those who fear some conspiracy of silence on this issue, or think our candidates are cowards only when it comes to climate change, should be reminded that on nearly every issue before the country, the 2012 campaign has been almost entirely devoid of substance. Both sides have offered nothing more than zingers, soundbyte-sized bromides and unprincipled pandering.

You know things have gotten really bad when the TV pundits – who trade in platitudes and talking points – start complaining about the lack of substance in the campaign. That’s starting to happen, at least in the pseudo-serious world of public television. Last Friday on Newshour, Judy Woodruff asked Mark Shields and David Brooks why they thought the campaigns had been so lacking in real substance and so unwilling to engage on the issues. Neither correspondent gave the most obvious response – which is that this hollowing out is inevitable when you conduct politics on TV.

Instead, David Brooks fixed the blame squarely on the “consultants,” who have “taken over,” he said. This wasn’t much of answer, but – since this was TV – it sufficed; the segment was soon over and the discussion closed. Brooks could have easily implicated people like himself, the press and the punditry. He also could have added that what most of these consultants do, in one way or another, is package the candidates for TV audiences and attention spans.

At the very least, Brooks failed to go far enough. Consultants aren’t the only ones to blame. Off the top of my head I can name at least three other reasons why this election is running on empty.

First and above all, Citizens United: this is the first election held after the Supreme Court ruled, in 2010, that unions and corporations could spend without restriction in political campaigns, because they were entitled to the same free speech considerations as human persons. The consultants are simply following the money. So far, the glut of ads – someone the other day estimated that it would take 80 days to watch all the ads currently airing on TV in Ohio – has made even the candidates wince. The ads are superficial and offensive to anyone with a modicum of intelligence because they are always a ruse: they make up a cover story so that big money can pursue its aims through the electoral process.

Second, we’ve had no meaningful participation by third party candidates in the political process or the presidential debates. The two-party show airs without interruption and without challenge. This partly has to do with the control exercised over the debates by the Presidential Debate Commission, which produces the debates for TV. Run by lobbyists and sponsored by major corporations, the Commission approves questions, debate topics and moderators, and disapproves of outsiders who want something other than Coke or Pepsi, Red or Blue, Obamney or Romama. As Jill Stein (who is suing the Commission for keeping her out in 2012) remarked when she was arrested outside the debates: “It was painful but symbolic to be handcuffed for all those hours, because that’s what the Commission on Presidential Debates has essentially done to American democracy.”

Third and finally I would point to the deliberate, regular and daily conflation of the election with the popular vote. This helps perpetuate the illusion of a tight race and distorts people’s choices. It also makes the election a choice between candidates rather than an opportunity to talk about issues on a local, state and national level. The emphasis ought to be on the issues people bring to the election – which is where democratic elections begin – and not exclusively on the candidates or even their platforms. Polling focuses on how people feel about the candidates from one day to the next instead of providing data and insight about changing attitudes toward the enduring and emerging questions we, as a people, face. Who’s going to win? is the last question we should be asking ourselves in an election year. Or in any year. And it only gets worse the closer we get to election day.

The list could go on. But when all is said and done, the consultants and the pundits and the pollsters aren’t really to blame: we are. That may not be something you can say on TV, but if there’s a real battleground this election year, or in any year, it’s American democracy itself. It’s something we have to fight for and claim for ourselves and for every citizen, against politicians, powerful forces and against all odds. That’s not just highfalutin talk. Ben Franklin was right: we will have a republic, if we can keep it. I wonder if we can. I know the consultants have taken over only to the extent that we have surrendered.

Ding Dong the Witch is Dead

The trouble is, we’re not in Kansas anymore, and Kansas is no longer the place it used to be. The pursuit of Bin Laden has exhausted our treasure and killed thousands. It has transformed the state in countless ways and extended the reach of the state into our lives.

So this brief note, just to say I am not so sure the occasion calls for jubilation and dancing in the streets. Maybe, instead, it’s time for some sober reflection on where this decade-long pursuit has brought us, and where we go from here.

I look at the past ten years and I have no confidence – absolutely none — that our political leaders are up to the task, or that we, the people, will make or can make better choices about our foreign adventures or interventions and the protection of our own liberties.

The flag-waving celebrations at Ground Zero and outside the White House are over. Now everyone from Dick Cheney to the President has been quick to remind us that the War (or whatever it’s being called these days) isn’t; and — we are already being told – we must remain ever vigilant.

Why Pollard, Not Manning? Ask John McCain

Last week we learned that John McCain has joined the ranks of those calling for the release of Jonathan Pollard. Pollard, you will recall, was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for espionage – specifically for passing tens of thousands, “possibly over a million” U.S. classified documents to the Israelis, many of them related to the military activities of Arab states.

In a February 15, 1987 article for the Washington Post, Wolf Blitzer set out a partial list of the secret materials Pollard stole and passed on to his Israel handlers. The list reads eerily like a prologue to the past twenty-five years of American foreign policy: it includes American reconnaissance of the PLO, information about Iraqi and Syrian chemical warfare facilities, details of Soviet arms shipments to Syria and Lebanon, and reports on what was then Pakistan’s fledging nuclear weapons program. “What Pollard did,” wrote Blitzer at the time, “was to make virtually the entire U.S. intelligence-gathering apparatus available to Israel.” The Israelis found the intelligence Pollard provided “breathtaking”; Caspar Weinberger at the time called it “treason,” noting that once in Israeli hands the same information could pass easily to the Soviets.

According to the terms of his sentence, Pollard will be eligible for parole in 2015. But that is not soon enough for many American politicians, who range from Barney Frank to Anthony Weiner to Henry Kissinger, and now, McCain, who has done an “about face” on the matter: until recently he was adamantly opposed to Pollard’s release, telling the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that Pollard had “betrayed our nation.”

The argument for clemency usually takes a few forms: Pollard is ill (where have we heard that one before?). Freeing Pollard now will be a goodwill gesture toward the Israelis, and will help the Obama administration advance Middle East peace talks: but exactly how is unclear. Lawrence Korb, former Assistant Secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan, recently decried Pollard’s “harsh sentence” in an Op Ed for the conservative Jerusalem Post, claiming “whatever facts [Pollard] might know would have little effect on national security.”

Can’t the same be said for the classified information released on Wikileaks, and linked by the U.S. government, via Adrian Lamo, to Bradley Manning?

John McCain called Cablegate “an incredible breach of national security.” But in the moment of candor that just cost him his job, P.J. Crowley admitted that “from a State Department perspective, we’re not really embarrassed by what came out. A British colleague observed that his opinion of US diplomacy went up as a result of reading the cables.” So while Crowley thinks “Manning is in the right place” – why, and based on what evidence, he does not say — neither he nor anyone at the Pentagon will say that Wikileaks has harmed national security.

So it strikes me as curious that our leaders are eagerly lining up to advocate for the release of a convicted spy, but are unable to summon the courage to ask for the humane treatment of an Army private who has not even had his day in court.

A Connecticut Lobbyist In Obama’s Court

There has been plenty of griping and grumbling over the past twenty-four hours about the President’s appointment of General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt to lead the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. While he may be an idol of corporate America, Immelt appears to be an unlikely champion of American job creation. “Since Immelt took over in 2001,” Shahien Nasiripour reports in an article on Huffington Post,

GE has shed 34,000 jobs in the U.S., according to its most recent annual filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. But it’s added 25,000 jobs overseas.
At the end of 2009, GE employed 36,000 more people abroad than it did in the U.S. In 2000, it was nearly the opposite.

To make matters worse, Connecticut-based GE has not exactly been focusing its investments on American innovation and growth: in 2008 and 2009, Nasiripour points out, GE decided “indefinitely” to invest earnings abroad, while booking losses at home: as a result, General Electric enjoyed a negative tax rate in 2009 and a low rate of around 5 percent in 2008.

It stands to reason that more inducements and allurements, in the form of corporate tax breaks, are in the works to help focus Immelt and other corporate leaders on job creation. To help bring some of those foreign investments home, Immelt and other corporate titans will most likely continue to push for making the Research and Development Tax Credit permanent. They give the impression they are holding the spirit of Thomas Edison hostage, and will only release him if their conditions are met.

You might be forgiven for asking whether this is really the best way to spur American innovation, or whether Jeffrey Immelt and GE really have America’s best interests at heart. I’m sure Immelt believes he does; but can he, really? Maybe it all depends on how you sweeten the deal. Immelt himself reassured analysts and investors yesterday that he will always put GE first: “My commitment to GE and my leadership at GE, that doesn’t change,” he said on a conference call. He knows, I suppose, that no man can serve two masters.

The disturbing truth is that there really isn’t any great conflict of interest here: GE’s interests are not so far from American lawmakers’ interests. This happy consensus is largely the result of GE’s lobbying campaign, which in 2010 amounted to $39.3 million. $9 million of that campaign was dedicated to lobbying around a single project: the F-136 propulsion engine.

Developed for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet (a big $382 billion project), the F136 propulsion system is GE’s “alternative” to the F-135 propulsion system developed by Pratt & Whitney. An alternative. That is, there are no plans to use GE’s F-136 engine in the fighter jets. Pratt & Whitney won the government contract for the F-35’s propulsion system. You’d think that would have resolved the matter.

But these things have a momentum all their own. Funding for the F-136 started as an earmark in a defense bill, and grew. The Bush administration tried to kill the F-136 engine; Secretary Gates called it a “boondoggle,” and President Obama promised to veto any defense bill that included the GE engine. Robert Gibbs yesterday reiterated that the engine is “not something we need.” But GE, arguing that competition drives down costs, has lobbied and continues to lobby for its engine, running ads, working both sides of the aisle, and spreading its message through the press.

Newly elected House Republicans are not going to stop the F-136. Congress has already funded its development to the tune of $3 billion, and funding will continue unabated through March 4th of this year. And just yesterday, a GE spokesman told ABC Newsthat “newly elevated leaders are even more likely to keep the engine program afloat.” It remains to be seen whether, come March, the President can or will stand his ground.

Can America Still Bring Good Things to Life?

When announcing the appointment of General Electric’s Jeffrey Immelt to lead the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness today, President Obama vowed to put “our economy into overdrive.” He meant what everybody took him to mean: we are now going to get things really going, shift America into high gear, pull out all the stops, discover our inner Edison, “build stuff and invent stuff,” and export it to the world.

But the word “overdrive” is probably not the word the President should have chosen. Or at least it commits him to positions he isn’t going to take – positions I wish he would take.

Indulge me for a moment. Overdrive is not just high gear. Overdrive also means better fuel economy. When you put your car into overdrive you get the best mileage per gallon, because the overdrive mechanism allows “cars to drive at freeway speed while the engine speed stays nice and slow.” Or, as the entry on Wikipedia puts it, overdrive “allows an automobile to cruise at sustained speed with reduced engine speed, leading to better fuel consumption, lower noise and lower wear.”

At the very heart of the President’s metaphor, then, are two ideas: one, economy, a more efficient or economical use of resources (or fuel) and two, sustainability, maintaining a constant speed without causing wear and tear. Right now, we are desperately in need of both: new ways of conserving the resources we have and a more sustainable way forward than the cycle of boom and bust, or dangerous exuberance followed by social collapse.

Those ideas were not on display today in Schenectady. There was some talk about clean energy – a business GE is in, and where, not surprisingly, Immelt thinks a “partnership” between the private and public sector is “essential.” But the main focus was on U.S. manufacturing and U.S. exports, which the President wants to double over the next five years. “For America to compete around the world, we need to export more goods around the world,” said the President. So we need to innovate and invent new “stuff,” or bring good things to life, as the people at GE used to say. “Inventors and dreamers and builders and creators,” we need to expand our manufacturing base and bring American products to the global marketplace.

Reading these remarks, I can almost hear the old General Electric jingle. “We still have that spirit of innovation,” Immelt said. “America is still home to the most creative and innovative businesses in the world,” said the President. We are “still” innovative, both leaders took care to say — almost as if we no longer believe it or doubt it’s true. We’ve still got it. Our force is not spent.

It’s great to be reassured of our continued prowess. There are, however, lots of unexamined assumptions at work here, and chief among these is one I’ve discussed in earlier posts: namely, the assumption that “innovation” is the surest path to “growth,” and that growth – even unsustainable growth – is good in and of itself.

Sustainability doesn’t really enter into this conversation – partly because, I suppose, it really isn’t a conversation. It’s all bluster and boosterism.

Nor would anyone at these events, the President least of all, take a step back and ask whether, while we are doubling our exports, we should also take some steps toward greater self-sufficiency. Doing that, especially when it comes to energy — and energy consumption — would leave us less exposed.

I’m not even convinced doubling our exports or even saying we are going to double our exports is the right thing — for the dollar, for trade agreements we have in place, for the very focus of American industry and innovation. For his part, Immelt has no doubts:

“It’s the right aspiration,” Immelt said of the president’s goal of doubling American exports to more than $2 trillion in five years, during a Nov. 6 interview in Mumbai, where he joined Obama for a meeting with business leaders. “We’ve done it in the last five years as a company.”

Maybe in the long run, or at least in five year’s time, what’s good for General Electric will turn out to be good for the republic. How could it be otherwise?

I Came To Grieve and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

What if the President of the United States gave a speech and all anybody could talk about the next day was the applause? That is not exactly where we find ourselves today, one day after Obama’s remarks at the University of Arizona last night; but it is hard not to talk about the raucousness of the crowd and wonder whether all that hooting and clapping and whistling and hollering was appropriate, and why the occasion wasn’t more serious and solemn.

Conservative commentator Tammy Bruce labeled it “massacre rally theater,” and thought the event outdid even the Paul Wellstone funeral in its cynical exploitation of tragedy. Others were appalled, or pretended to be appalled, by the “Together We Thrive” t-shirts distributed to the audience.

You can write most of that off as mere whining from the right. Of course the event was political; how could it not be? The conservatives protest too much, and they would have a better case if John Boehner had bothered to show up and shed some tears over someone other than himself. Still, I have to wonder how many people in that audience came expecting grief, prayer, or catharsis and left confused by the pep-rally atmosphere and the lousy t-shirt.

I was reminded less of the 2002 Wellstone memorial and more of the 2007 rally at Virginia Tech after Seung-Hui Cho went on a shooting spree, inspiring Nikki Giovanni to write yet another very bad poem and raise her arms in triumph as the Hokies in the bleachers let out war whoops. I guess all this cheering and hollering and chanting is one way people have of coming together and lifting themselves up after something inexplicable and terrible happens; and maybe we can’t expect restraint or dignity from a big college crowd, used to gathering at football games and basketball tournaments.

I worry, though, that in the face of shooting rampages or worse, the rally atmosphere makes nuanced discussion nearly impossible, and gives false hope, asking us to pretend we are less divided than we really are, and tries to bring closure prematurely when we should be asking ourselves some very hard questions about where we go from here.

To put it another way, I am not at all sure that Together We Thrive. Dissent and dissonance matter, too; a democracy thrives through difference and division. The whole “Together” theme feels Orwellian, to use an overused word; it celebrates a hive mentality, and smacks of a Utopian fantasy — that we can retreat from history and take refuge in some Togetherness or Unity, or the City of God (as the President himself suggested in his reference to Psalm 46), or that we can escape from the work of politics with a group hug and big, rousing cheer.

What’s Eating American Intellectuals?

I had dinner the other night with a friend who has been worrying about the sorry plight of the liberal elite in the year of the Tea Party. Ivy Leaguers see themselves outflanked by Astroturfers, unsure of their prospects and unable to connect. My friend wondered aloud what liberal intellectuals now ought to do.

The conversation would not really have made much of an impression on me – it’s one of those conversations one is bound to have after an election like the last one — were it not for the curious way it began to resonate in subsequent days.

Walter Russell Mead echoed many of the themes of our dinner conversation in a post about the delusions of the “liberal intelligentsia,” who were misled by the Obama victory in 2008. People really just wanted things to get a little better after the disappointments and troubles of the Bush years, Mead argues; they didn’t want a liberal political agenda forced on them and watched over by the guardians of the liberal elite.

Delusional, disconnected, defeated.

But it’s not just liberals. Soon I found out that even more people were having virtually the same conversation we’d had. For instance, I came across these themes in a lament on Stephen Bainbridge’s blog, about the plight of the intellectual elite on the right. Bainbridge was responding to a post by Nils August Andresen, who has been publishing a series on FrumForum about the role of intellectuals – specifically academics, and even more specifically, Ivy League academics — in the GOP.

Bainbridge, Andresen and others are rightly worried that the GOP is turning over the reins of power to boobs on the tube and anti-intellectual demagogues. The Palin and Beck crowd can easily out-shout the Smart Guys. Populism threatens to make the GOP not just the party of no, but the party of no ideas.

It would be easy to multiply the examples. Intellectuals on both sides feel as if they are under siege, or desperately out of touch, as if they are being pushed out of public life, or – worse – that nobody’s listening.

It’s hard to decide what’s really going on here. Are these just post-election blues, or have intellectuals begun to grasp some greater truth, not just about the intellectual death of the GOP or what’s really the matter with Kansas, but about their own diminished, marginal social position?

This much seems tolerably clear. A society that does not accord a place of prestige to intellectuals hasn’t simply stopped believing in the wisdom of tenured faculty at Ivy League institutions. Professors can earn or lose public face — and the social status and access to power — that comes with it. But a society that excludes, marginalizes or mocks intellectual elites has lost a certain faith.

It has stopped believing in the idea that educated people have any special insight into human affairs, and maybe even that such insight is possible. And so it has stopped believing in the value of education – or at least a certain kind of education: the liberal arts, the study of history, language and society – and the power of ideas to help people make sense of history, the problems of the day, or the future. If this is where we are, or where things are heading, then I’m worried, too.

Kyl’s "agenda" disappoints on the R & D tax credit

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Jon Kyl calls for a “uniform and generous treatment of research and development expenses” as part of a “growth agenda for America.”

…we should consider a uniform and generous treatment of research and development expenses that does not favor any particular innovation but will encourage businesses of all kinds to create and grow in ways that could never be achieved if government officials try to pick winners and losers.

This position is in line with Kyl’s view that “our tax system should not be a tool for social engineering; rather it should collect the revenues needed to operate our federal government.” But what exactly does he mean by “uniform and generous” here? It seems odd language to use if you are simply trying to get government out of the business of picking winners and losers, or — more likely — out of business’s way altogether.

“Uniform” for Kyl means non-preferential, I suppose; government will not say that wind or solar energy are deserving of credit while coal mining is not. He does not say that with this autonomy — and with the tax credit — comes responsibility, to respect limits, show restraint, and make the right choices. And this is a telling omission. As for “generous,” Kyl would seem to mean hands off – not too much oversight or scrutiny, allowing businesses to determine what counts as research and what does not — which, as I noted in another post, led to some of the abuses of the original R & D tax credit.

This op-ed may simply be the Republican Whip’s attempt to set himself up as an anti-Keynesian — some public posturing before November. His position on the R & D tax credit seems to say, research is whatever business wants it to be; it will benefit the public because it will produce growth; growth is good in and of itself. This is not particularly original stuff, nor does it take the discussion anyplace new.

There’s nothing wrong with championing the R & D tax credit or trying to minimize government intrusion in business. Where Kyl fails is asking for anything in return for the kid gloves treatment. His position would be much richer and more nuanced if he did. Maybe he’s of the Joe Biden school and thinks you can’t run on nuance or stuff that’s “too hard to explain.”

In any case, we are certainly a long way here from any very interesting thinking about “research” and how it ought to benefit the public who subsidize it. And I am more convinced than ever that in this area, as in so many others, reasonable and intelligent policy — where innovation is balanced with orientation, and a growth agenda is balanced by an agenda for sustainability — will continue to elude us.

Credit Where Credit is Due: The Human Side of R & D

Amar Bhidé argues in a recent op ed that making the R & D tax credit permanent will “not encourage the broad-based innovation that is crucial for widespread prosperity,” and he is skeptical of the idea – which has been around since the credit was first instituted, on a temporary basis, in 1981, and which has been one of the arguments advanced by the Clinton, Bush, and now the Obama administration for making the credit permanent — that there is significant “spillover” or “public benefit” from private investment in research. While his skepticism seems warranted, the question whether corporate investment in “research” can produce “higher returns for society” really turns on how we think about research, innovation and technology, and how we address the broader, unsettled question of the proper role of business in society.

“Research and experimentation” has been a murky area, even after reforms were made to correct abuses of the original 1981 statute, which yielded such triumphs of “research” as Chicken McNuggets or different flavors of soda pop, and creative accounting that wrote off failed ventures as “experiments.” In the 1986 reforms, Congress developed a test – a statement of what qualified as research — to clarify the law on this point. As Robert S. McIntyre noted in a 2002 piece on the credit and its abuses:

The IRS eventually interpreted this “public benefit” or “discovery” test to require that qualifying research must be directed at “obtaining knowledge that exceeds, expands, or refines the common knowledge of skilled professionals in a particular field of science or engineering.” In other words, if everybody already knows what a “research” project is intended to “discover,” then the government won’t foolishly subsidize it with a tax credit.

This excess, expansion, or refinement of “knowledge” – something that goes beyond what “skilled professionals” in “a particular field of science and engineering” already know, or can anticipate or intend – is where the law tells us to look for the public benefits of corporate R & D. True innovation lies in unexpected outcomes. And businesses should be rewarded for advancing technical knowledge, or at least given an incentive to do so, because the advancement of technical knowledge will bring economic prosperity and other benefits.

There are lots of assumptions being made here about the way things work, and it’s not at all clear that things really do – still — work this way. Much of the thinking here and business, society and technology goes back to the post-war era. There are, for instance, connections to the theories of economist Robert Solow about the role of technical progress in growth of industrialized countries. Solow observed that technological advancement is the key force in economic growth – the “residual” after all conventional inputs, including capital and labor, are accounted for. It seems reasonable to conclude from his observation that if we encourage capital-rich companies to invest more in R & D, technological advancement will propel the economy forward — while at the same time delivering new “knowledge” and new “discoveries” (and, the Obama administration hopes, new jobs).

It is no discredit to Solow to say that his thinking exemplified and helped fuel the technological optimism of the postwar period. He famously calculated that four-fifths of the growth in US output per worker could be attributed to technical advances. Now, certain technical advances have led to a decline in US productivity, or threaten US workers with obsolescence. This is just a small instance of the way in which our experience challenges our faith in technology.

Belief in the “residual” power of technology to fuel economic growth and materially benefit society has survived well beyond the industrialized national economies Solow studied for a number of reasons. Corporations do not simply – or cynically — want to encourage the belief that tax breaks they receive will somehow benefit the larger society; corporations, too, are creatures of technology and wholly captive to technological optimism. More broadly, the notion that technology can deliver economic as well as social benefits is still something Americans believe, or want to believe, despite lots of evidence to the contrary. We’ve staked our whole way of life on the idea.

Of course, Bhidé doesn’t go this far. Instead, he argues, we need a more “inclusive” view of innovation – one that takes into account “innovations in design, marketing, logistics and organization” – if we are to get beyond the narrow (and, to his mind, mistaken) view that increased R & D spending is going to correct market failures or produce beneficial outcomes.

But that broader view is not something we should expect scientists and engineers, or lawmakers and the IRS, to deliver. Nor is it a subject on which we should simply defer to professors of business or economists — who will never settle the matter anyway. Part of the trouble, in my view, is not simply with the idea of innovation. It’s with the idea of “research” as something that produces only scientific and technical knowledge, or as an activity to be undertaken solely by scientists and engineers (aided and abetted, perhaps, by economists and professors of business administration).

It seems to me that if we are going to provide incentives for research, we can try to do better than hope for spillovers or accidental benefits from the lab-work of scientists and engineers. Why not broaden the scope of the research we encourage and underwrite with tax credits to include other kinds of research that might benefit the public? What would the corporate R & D picture look like then? How might organizations capture research into the human condition or the social world, and develop its discoveries and perspectives to improve their own performance, or obtain a truer and more complete picture of the world? How would their performance measures change, along with measures of prosperity, or real wealth?

You have to wonder why these considerations don’t really have a place in the conversation, and even seem out of bounds, far-fetched. It’s worth remembering, in this context, that to “credit” something is to put stock in it, believe in it, lend it credence. Are we now so captive to the story of scientific and technical progress that we think other forms of research could never benefit the public or contribute to the common wealth?

This much is clear. Scientific research unchecked by critical judgment, historical perspective, the broad study of culture and society, or meaningful public debate, is bound to lack human scale and a vital connection to the very “public” it is supposed to benefit. And the study of the choices we make, or how we make them, or what it is like to live in this moment, at this particular time and in this particular place, is bound to yield some richer understanding of what it will take to make the right choices tomorrow.

Next Stop, Arizona


I bring my passport with me as a matter of course when I travel, and I will have it with me when I go to Arizona in a couple of weeks. I don’t plan to cross over to Mexico, but I consider it prudent to have my papers always in order. And it seems especially prudent now under the new Arizona law.

There’s not much chance I will arouse suspicion. My features are unmistakably Mediterranean, Southern Italian, Neapolitan: walk the Spaccanapoli or the streets of Fisciano and you will see versions of me everywhere, people who could be cousins, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts. There are people who look like me (and who share my last name) in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Sao Paolo, Brazil, too; but those faces simply tell the story of European migration to the Americas.

Still, a rich and pampered woman from Connecticut, the wife of an acquaintance, once mistook me for a waiter when I attended a party at a restaurant where the staff was almost entirely Hispanic; another woman, much the same type, remembered me as one of the Mexican counter staff at a café in Berkeley where I used to study. Mistakes have been made.

And it’s only recently in American history that my heritage allows me to claim that I am one of us rather than one of them. The largest mass lynching in American history took place in New Orleans, in 1891, where 11 Italian immigrants were strung up for their role in murdering New Orleans police chief David Hennessy. (These 11 were convicted after a city-wide sweep in which 250 Italian immigrants were arrested.) At the time, and up until the First World War, Italian immigrants were associated in the popular mind not just with organized crime (as they still are) but also with political anarchism; nativists thus stood for the rule of law and against the lawlessness immigrants brought to our shores, and for linguistic purity and an unhyphenated American identity. Teddy Roosevelt spoke of Southern European immigrants in many of the same disdainful terms Arizona politicians today use to describe the invading Mexican hordes.

Which is not to say there is not a real problem with illegal immigration in Arizona. It’s just that we’ve been here before, at a moment when the country was undergoing a demographic shift on the order of the one it’s undergoing right now. By 2050, the Hispanic population is expected to double from 15 to 30 percent — one third — of the American population.

Frank Rich rightly points out in his column today that the anger in Arizona, and around the country, is not just about illegal immigration, but a “nativist apoplexy” that afflicts the very same people who consider President Obama “Illegal Alien No. 1”. Rich cites Rush Limbaugh, who, after the President made comments critical of the Arizona legislation, offered this clever little quip: “I can understand Obama being touchy on the subject of producing your papers. Maybe he’s afraid somebody is going to ask him for his.”

Limbaugh knows how to play on the feelings of disenfranchisement, both political and economic, that make the trouble in Arizona about more than race, more than ethnicity, more than changing demographics. Still, Rich is on to something, and I read today’s editorial with more than my usual interest, because I have been grappling in my own mind with the question whether, despite my work commitments, I should somehow support or respect the calls for a boycott on Arizona.

Rich makes the point that such actions are likely to prove futile, because the “virus” has already spread beyond Arizona, or was never confined to Arizona in the first place: “Boycott the Diamondbacks and Phoenix’s convention hotels if you want to punish Arizona, but don’t for a second believe that it will stop the fire next time.”

So maybe a boycott won’t change the fact that we all live in Arizona now. The question is what sorts of engagements, political and economic, will.