June 30, 2009


Sam Smith

I almost missed it. I just realized Review started 45 years ago this month as The Idler, at a time when there were less than a dozen alternative progressive publications around - like the Village Voice, Realist, IF Stone's Weekly and Carolina Israelite. Today, according to the latest Alexa and Netcraft stats, the Review is in the top three percent of all US websites (news and otherwise) and the top three tenths of one percent of all global ones.

My near miss can be attributed perhaps to something I noticed as people asked me whether I was sad about leaving Washington and moving to Maine. I realized that journalists don't think like that. Once you've finished a story, no matter how good, it's time to think about what you'll have for the next deadline. In a strange way, reporters are among both the most cynical and most optimistic people on earth, because no matter how bad the news is, they assume there will be plenty of other bad news in the future.

And there's a precedent for my anniversarial indifference. I once was American correspondent for the illustrated London News, where I distinguished myself by being the first writer to get the word 'fuck' published in the magazine during its entire 150 year history. The top editor did not discover the affront until after publication when he demanded of my immediate editor, "how the fuck" the word "fuck" had defaced his jewel in the crown.

But it wasn't the first time he had missed the boat. When a competing publication celebrated its 2,000th issue complete with a well publicized party and a program on the BBC, the chief editor told his associate that the ILN ought to consider something like that. "When's our next big issue?" he asked. My editor said he wasn't sure. So the chief editor pulled out the current edition and found it was number 5,000.

June 29, 2009


Sam Smith

Barack Obama didn't kill liberalism; he's just doing a nice job of burying it. The end of liberalism as a meaningful ideology came with the nomination of Bill Clinton. The argument was - although hardly phrased so accurately - that it was far better for liberals to dump their policies and become the indentured servants of an elected Democrat than to continue to press for their beliefs and miss out on all the power and the parties.

This same willingness to go with icons rather than ideas drove liberals quickly into the Obama camp, especially since he had the added advantage of looking the way he was supposed to believe.

It was apparent from the start, however, that Obama wasn't what the liberals thought. During the campaign, for example, I listed over two dozen positions and statements of Obama's that clearly were in conflict with what liberals once believed.

But of course, belief was no longer the issue. Liberalism had long ago become more of a secular church than a cause, and based more on socio-economic demographics than on actual politics. To the extent it had issues, these issues were, like abortion and gay rights, ones that appealed to its core demographics. Long gone was the liberal concern for doing the most for the most; economic issues had faded; and the base that had helped build the New Deal and Great Society were now dismissed as red necks, racists, gun nuts and crazy church goers.

The factor of class was both immense and silent. But you could tell it by listening to liberals talk. The little folk had simply disappeared from their concerns.

Thus it is that we came to have a Democratic Congress and president that pressed a bailout for bankers with virtually no help for homeowners, who promised to leave one war but then escalated another and who couldn't bring themselves in majority to support the sort of universal healthcare the rest of the western world had long adopted.

As Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report put it the other day: "The first Black president has racked up some impressive victories. Barack Obama has quarantined single-payer healthcare advocates, crushed dissent against the war in Congress, and transferred more money to the finance capital class than at any time in planetary history. Not bad for just five months in office."

Liberals became part of the new center right; they became the modest conservatives the Republican reactionaries had kicked out of their own party. Instead of going to hell noisily in the manner of Rush Limbaugh, you were to proceed thoughtfully, cautiously, and in a measured manner inspired by a thoughtful, cautious, and measured president. But we are still going to hell.

Tom Hayden caught a moment of the measured madness, noting in the Nation:

"MoveOn.org resumed its historical antiwar stance this week, symbolically breaking with the Obama administration for the first time.

"After being criticized for abandoning the antiwar stance that won it millions of activist supporters, the organization sent targeted mailings supporting the demand for an Obama administration exit strategy report contained in HR 2404, by Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. . .

"Despite its modest nature, MoveOn's entry into the debate could be an important factor in legitimizing antiwar criticism of the Obama policies among Democrats. Antiwar sentiment at the grassroots is smothered by the unwillingness of several organizations to openly oppose the war escalation, despite their roots in the antiwar movement against Iraq.

"The silent organizations thus far include Democracy for America and its founder, Howard Dean, Ben Cohen's True Majority, and the Obama campaign's offshoot, Organizing for America. The Feminist Majority even supported the $80 billion war supplemental with an amendment supporting women's programs in Afghanistan."

This lethargy, cowardice and compliance to the top dogs has been repeated with issue after issue. The sell out on the bailout and single payer perhaps top the list, but the failure of liberals to defend public education from control freaks like Arne Duncan or Obama' replication of the Bush war on civil liberties, while getting less attention, are just as bad.

If liberals had paid more attention to what the far right was up to, rather than just using it as a punching bag to make themselves feel better, they might have noticed that the GOP reactionaries hardly ever caved into their party's mainstream. Instead they redefined that mainstream. Liberals, on the other hand, surrender before they even enter the ring.

Our political labels are largely assigned for us by the media. There is thus hardly an inch of space allowed between center right liberalism and socialism. Proposing policies of the sort that gave America its greatest days over the past century is dismissed as radical.

But that doesn't change reality, which is that the liberal power brokers are essentially following traditional conservative policies, that Obama is the most conservative Democratic president since Woodrow Wilson, and that there is a growing gap between what liberals are today and what they were when they were truly making a better America.

That doesn't mean there isn't an alternative. It would help if we made a clear distinction between indentured liberals and independent progressives - a major difference being that the latter understand that ideas are still more important that icons.

To an independent progressive, the issue is not support of Obama but a set of policies that Obama may or may not support. My scorecard, for example, finds me agreeing with Obama about 30% of the time, which is pretty dismal, especially when you consider that it is among the alienating 70% that much of American history will be written. And why is Obama so alienated from the progressive path (and so much more so then when he was just representing Illinois in the Senate)? Simply because he is driven not by conscience but by calculation. And in Obama's calculations, liberalism now equals zero.

The media insists that we define what is happening in terms of whoever is in the White House. Here's how I put it in "Shadows of Hope" fifteen years ago:

"Congress has lost power relative to the White House not merely for various political reasons, but because 535 legislators are simply too many for the media to handle. TV, in particular, treats politics much as it does wide screen movies; it snips off the right and left sides until the frame fits comfortably within the more equilateral shape of its eye. The edges of our experience are lost and we find ourselves staring at a comfortable center -- which in the case of politics, means we find ourselves endlessly watching the President while much of the rest of American democracy passes unnoticed.

"This preoccupation with the presidency not only exaggerates the importance of the position, it distorts the constitutional division of political power, denigrates the significance of state and local government and creates pressures for presidential action when such action may be neither wise nor even lawful. We can not, even out of seemingly harmless celebrity worship, imbue our president with supra-constitutional virtues or powers without simultaneously damaging the Constitution and the democratic system it was established to protect.

"Besides, our presidential fetish badly skews our view of our country and the changes occurring within it -- not only elsewhere in government but beyond politics entirely. It trivializes our own collective and individual roles in creating social and political change. And, conversely, it can create the illusion of great change when far less is really happening."

Independent progressives understand this instinctively and struggle - with sadly little help - to help keep our eyes on the real game, which is the change that is occurring as a result of the political puppet show we watch on the nightly news yet which are usually ignored or treated as of minimal importance. An example: the foreclosure crisis is enormous but you would never know it listening to the news or the Democrats.

You can tell independent progressive groups because they will actually challenge the Democrats in power on their policies. They will oppose imperial wars even if a Democrat is leading them. They will fight the coddling of the welfare fathers of Wall Street even if the chief coddler doesn't look the part. They will worry about how our politics affect the weak and not just the comfortable, and they will spend more time opening doors for the powerless than in cracking glass ceilings for the few.

No one in the conventional media is going to tell you about these distinctions, but they are real. The independent progressive story is not about how bad some reactionary politician or commentator is, but how good we all could be if we did things differently and if we pursued real policies of true worth rather than worshiping false heroes.

June 23, 2009


Sam Smith

Almost totally ignored in the coverage of the financial crash is the role of poor investment advice. Not the Bernie Madoff version, but run of the mill standard advice that left endowments of non profits and 401Ks down 40%.

At the heart of this bad advice was the absence of a single word: sell.

This is not unique to the fiscal crisis. Investment advisers hate that word. Try to find good discussions on when to sell a stock and you'll be hard pressed. It's there, but just not anywhere near as handy as its opposite: buy and hold.

Part of the problem may be a loyalty to the overall market as opposed to the individual investor. After all, if everyone played the market smart, it wouldn't be anywhere near as good a place to put your money. If, say, everyone tried to sell a stock when it declined a certain amount, only the lucky early traders would be ahead of the collapse as the stock headed like a cigarette butt to the floor.

But as long as you have a huge constituency of the placid, predictable and permanent, traders can have their profits without the amateurs spoiling their fun.

Some of this is what Catherine Austin Fitts calls "pump and dump," -"artificially inflating the price of a stock or other security through promotion, in order to sell at the inflated price," and then making even more by short-selling." In fact, Fitts thinks the whole American economy is being pumped and dumped.

But if you think about it, any form of gambling depends heavily on a large number of reliably gullible participants. The financial markets are no exception.

Where there is a difference is that the federal government does not pretend to regulate the rules of poker the way it claims to control the markets.

Let's imagine that we were to turn over the regulation of markets to the EPA or FDA. One of the first things these agencies might do is figure out how to have average participants adequately informed of the hazards they face and what to do about it. This would be in contrast with federal market regulators whose first concern is the market itself.

There are, to be sure, some non-governmental sources of such information and while they are a bit hard to find, they are well worth pursuing.

One is the amazing Mark Hulbert who years ago decided to keep track of how well investment newsletters actually did their job. He follows over 180 newsletters and the results can be pretty glum. For example, in the past year only less than ten percent of the newsletters have made suggestions that have produced a net gain. Over five years, almost precisely half have made no money. Hulbert tracks both long term and short term results and parses them by different categories. Imagine if the federal government required every registered investment advisor to report their personal score with the same accuracy as, say, a baseball team.

Hulbert's work also points to newsletters that have good records in dealing with timing such as Timers Digest, the Chartist and Cabot Market Letter. Timers Digest, for example, keeps close tabs on the timers with the best records and Cabot offers some good and simple advice on when and how to sell, such as

- When to cut losses
- Never let a solid profit turn into a loss
- Remember that you can always buy a stock back

How much and what sort of regulation there should be to allow investors to be better informed about dealing with bear markets and when to sell is a worthy topic for considerable debate, but what isn't debatable is that, in the face of 40% market collapse, untold numbers of investors ended up in trouble because they had been taught to buy and hold.

To give an idea of the effects of such advice, consider two investors: one who sells a stock when it drops 20%, the other who holds on to the stock as it declines 40%. The first investors' portfolio needs to rise 25% to get back to where it was; the second's portfolio will have to go up by two thirds. This is not an insignificant difference.

As things stand now, the average investor gets neither good basic information about the reliability of their investment advice nor is the government interested in slightest in doing something about it. And so these investors buy and hold and while others, who aren't called traders for nothing, make their profits.

June 17, 2009


Sam Smith

I was raised on Chryslers. I can only remember one General Motors machine ever being granted resident parking permission in my parent's driveway and the only Ford I ever drove was a farm tractor.

Admittedly, my first car was a 1941 Oldsmobile Hydromatic. But it was 20 years old, had just 26,000 miles on it and was too cheap and nifty for a twenty-something to resist. Besides it really was owned by the little old lady who only drove it on Sundays. I actually talked to her. But it only lasted six months thanks to its novel but unperfected transmission, so I sold it to a fellow Coastguardsman who somehow transformed it into a clutchless yet shiftable vehicle.

Including three cars handed down by a similarly inclined grandfather, my parents' fleet over the years included a 1936 Plymouth, a used 1939 Plymouth laundry van, a 1941 and 1946 Plymouth station wagon, a 1946 Army surplus six wheel personnel carrier with winch that required double clutching and in which I learned to drive at 14, a 1949 Chrysler coupe, and a 1952 Desoto. My own collection included a 1952 Chrysler New Yorker dubbed Gloria because it was sick transit, a 1985 minivan (a sister model is now in the Smithsonian's Museum of American History) which my sons found too embarrassing to take on dates, and its 1995 successor. The other day I sold my last Chrysler, getting $400 for a 1995 Cirrus whose constant stalling had befuddled all repair shops but which I kept going through the simple expedient of turning on the air conditioner to reve up the idle.

But I'm afraid that's it. I just can't see myself buying a Chrysler built by Obama fiat and Italian Fiat. I'm afraid that each time I would put on the brakes, I would see phantom images of Larry Summers and Tim Geithner in the road ahead telling me that the problem was all just a matter of corporate readjustment.

We live in a time when reorganization is substituting for reality, answering multiple choice questions on school exams has replaced learning the way things attached to each other actually work, and cliche-ridden management patois has eliminated the need for actual competence. If those at the top understand marketing, mission and finance, what more does one want?

The problem is that cars don't work like that. Management is the least of their problems. Getting people from place to place, not spending too much fuel in the process, creating a little piece of happy solitude in the midst of five lane chaos, and knowing the best place to put the cup holders is what really matters.

If I want sleep-inducing rhetoric, Barack Obama is my man; if I want some funny car stories, Fiat is my vehicle. But if I'm looking for something that really works, that will make me happy, and keep working until someone else in my house says, "Can't we buy a new car yet?" then I'm going to seek elsewhere.

Jeff Barlett of Consumer Reports seems to agree. Last May he wrote:

"For those Americans who recall when Fiat cars were sold here, the brand made a less-than-stellar impression. Looking back at Consumer Reports reliability ratings from the late 1970s, Fiat models typically had more dreaded solid black blobs than most car shoppers would prefer. . . Back then, Fiat was sometimes referred to as 'Fix It Again, Tony.'

"A lot can happen in 30 years, but don't get your hopes up. . . The annual Which? Car survey is the largest survey of its kind in the U.K., and it is conducted by a publication that, like Consumer Reports, does not accept advertising and delivers the straight facts from its findings. . .

"When the brands are ranked, Which? Car finds Honda and Toyota at the top of the 2008 reliability list, followed closely by Daihatsu, Lexus, Mazda, and Subaru. . . Among the 38 brands featured in Which? Car, Fiat ranked 35th, followed by Renault, Land Rover, and Chrysler/Dodge. . .

"Fiat, Chrysler, and Dodge are categorized as 'Very poor.' In total, Fiat, Chrysler, and Dodge provide similar reliability, and it isn't good."

So, if I was raised on lousy Chryslers, what's so much worse about a Fiat? Only this: in six decades of Chrysler cars, I only had one lemon (the 1995 Cirrus). The worst thing that ever happened with the other cars was when the hood flew up on the 1941 Plymouth station wagon as I was driving to college and when the tire fell off the 1952 DeSoto driving down a highway, probably the result of a bad mechanic rather than of bad mechanics.

I beat the averages all those years and one thing about averages is that only in Lake Wobegon can you always do better than average. So I think I'll start trusting Consumer Reports rather than my luck. Besides, I can't get an image out of my mind: that of Barack Obama, Tim Geithner and Larry Summers looking under the hood of my car and telling me not to worry, it's just a matter of a different approach to financing and changing the management structure. I've never had a car that worked like that.

June 02, 2009


Your editor and his historian wife did a farewell interview with Kojo Nnambi on WAMU, DC's NPR station,about their decades in local Washington prior to their move to our New England regional headquarters in Freeport, Maine. Click to hear

June 01, 2009


Sam Smith

The real problem in the Ricci v. DeStefano case is neither the white nor the black firefighters but the law and its technocratic application. For the past six years - as the lawyers have had their fun - no one of either ethnicity has been promoted in the New Haven fire department.

This is not a good way to run a fire department or improve ethnic relations. Yet because we have become so accustomed to depending upon legal and technocratic solutions to our problems, because so many assume that verbal skills equal pragmatic competence, few even bother to ask whether there might be a better approach to such situations, such as mediation and arbitration or subduing our obsession with tests.

I was never a firefighter but I was the operations officer on a Coast Guard cutter that handled aids to navigation and heavy weather search & rescue. Among the men on our ship were a number who hadn't even completed high school. I knew this not because they were any less competent but only because they were studying for the GED and had asked me for help. And at the top of the list of qualified officers on our ship was not this Ivy League educated product of crash officer candidate training (including 40 tests in 13 weeks) but two warrant officers - enlisted men who had fleeted up to officer status through their experience and performance far more than their test taking skill.

If these officers had been trying to get promoted in the New Haven Fire Department, their experience and performance would have been submerged in examinations designed by large corporations profiteering on government and business assessment addiction. It is, after all, so much easier to read a test score than to judge the true nature of someone's performance.

Which is why we are giving up educating our kids in favor of just preparing them for tests. And which why our public vocational training is so poor. We assume everyone is going to be a law clerk or other desk bound manipulator of words and data.

But running a ship or being a firefighter is quite a different matter than being school superintendent, politician or lawyer.

As Joseph Conrad noted, "Of all the living creatures upon land and sea, it is ships alone that cannot be taken in by barren pretenses." Firefighters similarly deal daily with unforgiving reality. Yet these days they also face exams that, in the case of the New Haven firefighters, cost some of them upwards of a $1,000 for study materials, tutoring and similar preparation. As the white firefighters put it, "We gave up three months of our lives to intense study and preparation during the three-month study period preceding the exams. We studied many hours a day and rarely saw or spent little time with our families and friends during this period. Some of us took leave from second jobs, or our wives did so to assume childcare responsibilities while we studied, so the economic loss was even greater than the out-of-pocket costs of the exams."

The black applicants struggled, too. Said Donald Day, former regional director of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters, "Historically, as African-Americans, we don't do as well on strictly written exams." Reported the New Haven Independent, "Oral exams are fairer, he argued, but they're also more expensive to administer. He said that written exams can't really determine who will make a good leader. 'Some of the worst officers you/ve ever had were book smart officers.'"

To get some idea of what these guys were up against, I checked out one of the cram programs firefighters use. Bearing in mind that you are looking to hire someone who can get you out of a smoked filled, fifth floor bedroom, consider the following test taking advice:

|||| When evaluating answer choices, the words to be on the lookout for are the little words that tend to either "harden" or "soften" statements. Words which "harden" statements, and make them difficult to defend, are strong words like: all, every, always, will, must, certainly, invariably, surely, no one, ever, any, no matter, nothing, etc. Words which "soften" statements, and make them easy to defend, are words like: some, many, sometimes, may, possibly, generally, probably, usually, often, can, could, might, occasionally, etc. . .

When answering test questions, you must base your answer solely on the information contained in the test question. The test for a Firefighter requires no previous knowledge of the job. The test questions do not have to reflect the way the job is really done or the actual procedures of the Fire Department. . .

Problems arise when a person who is familiar with procedures of the fire department encounters a test question based on something that contradicts actual practices. It is in this kind of situation that you must ignore actual practices and answer on the basis of what the test question says. For example, you might know that kitchen stove fires are usually extinguished with a portable fire extinguisher; but a test question might describe a stove fire being put out with a fire hose attached to a hydrant. In this kind of test situation, never mind the actual practice; go by the information in the question. . .

A skillful test maker tries to make two or three of the answer choices look very good. All the answer choices may contain some truth, which make them tempting. Or all may look wrong. But the test maker has to have put some detail into the "fact pattern" of the question to justify the claim that one of these answers is better than the others. If reviewing the answer choices themselves has not helped, the clue to which answer is correct is likely to be in the question stem or "fact pattern" rather than in the answer choices. So go back to the question stem and the fact pattern the look for the deciding factor. ||||

This is not advice for someone seeking to clerk for a judge or win some cable quiz show but for someone who is expected to stop fires and save lives. Yet, "the test questions do not have to reflect the way the job is really done or the actual procedures of the Fire Department." And: "Problems arise when a person who is familiar with procedures of the fire department encounters a test question based on something that contradicts actual practices. It is in this kind of situation that you must ignore actual practices and answer on the basis of what the test question says."

Somehow I feel a lot less safe.

The New Haven case is a mess caused by infatuation with the law, mistaking verbal dexterity for practical skill, and an obsession with examinations. It has protected neither people's safety nor their civil liberties.

It would, for example, be interesting to know how much has been paid lawyers (especially white ones) in this case, because I suspect it might have supported increasing the number of job openings so that black firefighters could have been hired along with the higher scoring whites. As older white officers retired, the bubble could deflate again. Black mayor Walter Washington used this approach to integrate the whole DC government during the 1970s and no one got mad. Mediation might have worked out a deal where most of the whites got promoted along with some of the blacks, with the remaining whites with passing scores being placed at the top for the list for the next promotion.

Such approaches could have gotten New Haven through its immediate crisis, which it could avoid repeating by developing a much fairer way of choosing officers for its fire department.

A successful multiethnic community is one that works well for everyone. It is not one in which government puts members of one of the most honorable trades at each other's throats.