Thursday, December 20, 2012

This Week in Instagram


I've done a couple of posts this week on Instagram, and one TV appearance, on CNBC's "Closing Bell" (clip above).

In my weekly Reuters column I argue that Instagram has to reverse course, and quickly.

In a blog post on LinkedIn, I describe the controversy as big messaging blunder who's best (and least likely) explanation is that it was rookie mistake.

Monday, December 3, 2012

What We Can't Learn from The Daily's Demise

I come to neither praise nor bury The Daily, News Corp's iPad-only news app experiment that will end with a whimper in two weeks. But let's be clear on what went wrong — and what didn't. 

As Wired's business editor at the time The Daily was announced I decided to cover it as a big event — the coming out party literally was a big event for News Corp, which threw a press conference that seemed to try too hard anoint it as a golden child from inception. When you use phrases like "digital renaissance” and assert that "We believe The Daily will be the model for the way stories are told and consumed,” you are setting yourself up for quite a fall.

My own initial impression, for a formal Wired review, was that The Daily was "very good" — 7/10. I admired the "cover flow" approach to displaying content and likened the publication to a "re-imagined digital magazine that is updated every day."

I praised the content: "The Daily looks like it may be onto something editorially, even if the economics are a challenge." But I also hedged: "Content will make or break this app, and it’s too early to judge the quality of The Daily‘s journalism — though nothing we read in the inaugural edition disqualifies it."

That assessment changed quickly for me.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Surface 'Pro' Sheds The Tablet Pretense

Back in June, when Microsoft's Surface was announced, I wrote a Reuters MediaFile column arguing that it really wasn't a tablet at all. It was a hybrid at best, I said, really going after a piece of the the ultralight market. The target wasn't Apple's iPad — but its MacBook Air.

An ARM-based version of the Surface has been out for about a month. It goes for $500 — same as an entry-level iPad. It's really more like $630 because you do want that cover/keyboard, and the cheaper "touch" one looks cheap compared to the "type" version, and it's only $10 less. While Apple shows people touching the iPad screen Surface's print and TV ads for all tout the cover and the kickstand — terrestrial, not mobile features.

Five weeks after launch Surface hasn't made a dent in iPad sales. CEO Ballmer said earlier this month that sales were modest, and that was on purpose.

But the big shoe drop was always going to be how much Microsoft would charge for the Surface with Windows 8 Pro. This one was going to be more expensive, we all knew. But was it going to carve out a niche for tablet/PC hybrids in the way Apple invented demand for tablets?

Who 'Owns' Facebook?

One of the oldest tropes in marketing is that the consumer owns the brand. It's nice shorthand for customer passion: It's why New Coke had to go, why the Gap had to reverse course on their logo change and why the Twinkie may actually last forever after all.

Companies own their brands, of course, in every literal and legal sense. But most of them know that if they act imperiously with their property they risk losing customers, and worse — their best customers can turn into motivated, evangelical enemies overnight.

But what if the product is a service that treats you like a product? Where are your alliances — and what are your rights — in that mind-exploding scenario?

(Full Post)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Vote On Facebook! (It Could Be Your Last Chance)

Facebook's decision to eliminate member voting on policy changes is coming down to what could be the last member vote ever on the world's largest social network. The good news is that it could still be reversed. The bad news? The only thing that can stop disenfranchisement is if the number of votes cast are equal to nearly the entire population of the United States. 

Facebook's pesky democracy problem? Members can vote to reverse a policy change if a) 7,000 people comment on it, and b) one-third of the total membership casts a ballot in an election Facebook is required to schedule. 

Facebook is addressing a legitimate problem with the voting protocol — the infinitesimal percentage of its one billion members that can make a vote happen. But rather than fix that, Facebook has decided to scrap the entire member-empowering initiative. By ending it entirely it has set off a nuclear bomb when a grenade would have done.

Talk about voter suppression.

(Full Post)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Hewlett-Packard, Autonomy and 'Rules of the Garage'

It remains to be seen if Hewlett-Packard's investors (or the SEC and the FBI) will accept a "shift the blame" defense for an $8.8 billion charge it is taking for the $10 billion purchase of Autonomy, a Big Data firm with a big accounting problem that was the landmine in an otherwise unimpressive Q4 earnings report.

For those who missed the news from Palo Alto, here’s a brief rundown: According to CEO Meg Whitman, Autonomy had been billing low margin hardware sales as high-margin software sales and booked some deals with partners as revenue even though no money changed hands. Making matters worse, the Autonomy charge was the second acquisition-related, $8 billion+ write down in two consecutive quarters.

Shareholders quickly drove H-P down 12% to a nearly 52-week low. Now starts the finger-pointing. For his part, former CEO (for 10 months) Leo Apotheker is shocked, shocked that the deal he put together may have been massively flawed: "The due diligence process was meticulous and thorough," he says. Former Autonomy CEO Mike Lynch "flatly" rejects the allegations. An accounting firm that vetted the deal, Deloitte, "categorically denies that it had any knowledge of any accounting misrepresentations in Autonomy’s financial statements." And Meg Whitman, who as a board member voted in favor of the deal, says H-P was duped.

Maybe looking for individual bad actors is the wrong way to think about what’s going on. I think the bigger problem is a more simple one. H-P, which invented industries and a start-up culture based on simple concepts, simply forgot to take its own advice.

(Full Story)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Why Facebook Didn't Tank (Again)

A funny thing happened on the way to Facebook's second lockup expiration Wednesday — it sent the bears running for cover, unlike lockup expiration version 1.0 back in August.

This is good news — but it's not all good.

The good news is obvious enough: Facebook shares not only held their own but rallied — more than on any other day of the company's brief, rocky existence as a public company. Shares shot up about 13%, to close at $23.23. And to emphasize that wasn't some kind of irrationally exuberant fluke, $FB was essentially flat and in line with a slightly down NASDAQ in early Thursday trading.

The bad news is not as obvious: Insider holders of Facebook stock saw the prospect of dumping as many as 800 million shares on the market all at once as a holding opportunity — not a chance to cash in on a windfall that is a significant part of their compensation package.

The "maybe good, maybe bad" news? Strong, counterintuitive performances like this shift the conversation from talk about the stock to talk about fundamentals (see below).

(Continued ...)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

'Black' Day at the Gray Lady

Oh, to have been a fly in the room when Research in Motion Chief Executive Thorsten Heins briefed the New York Times on the face (and potentially company) saving Blackberry 10, due out Jan. 30 and not a moment too soon for the company which rivals Nokia for top prize in the mobile phone "How Far The Mighty Have Fallen" honors.

I flatter myself but also Bits writer Ian Austin by saying confidently that I infer from his report the mood of the room was ... cautiously pessimistic.

How else could these seasoned journalists have processed this Money Quote from Heins: "I don't expect things to get much worse."

It's right up there with "What could possibly go wrong?" and "This might just do nobody any good" and "The check is in the mail."

(Continued ...)

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Breaking Bad: Available Evidence

It's been killing me: How can Walt be free at 52 (albeit miserable, evidently alone and more in fear of his life than ever) since Hank now knows (or soon will realize) that Walt is Heisenberg.

Here's a possibility: Walt comes clean (how can he not?) but blackmails Hank. What story would Hank's superiors be more likely to believe? That  Walt eluded Hank's scrutiny, or that Hank was in on it? Hank has even accepted money from Walt for medical bills.

But the fact that neither family is living beyond their visible means supports the conspiracy theory. It's all in the family. The settling up will come someday, but needn't now.

Walt has already decided to quit the meth business; this is another pressure point to Hank since he wouldn't be asking the DEA ASAC to turn a future blind eye, only the lies that were necessary in the past. 

Clearly, even if this is the scenario for season 5, part II, it won't hold forever. Hank wouldn't take this lying down. He'd play for time, to figure a way out if this mess. And we know Walt is in New Hampshire nine months later evidently alone and on the run.
No, it won't be the feel good hit of 2013.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Get Over It: It Was a Fair Fight, And Obama Blew It Himself

I can't help but think that many of my liked-minded friends have completely missed the point of last night's debates. It doesn't matter how much dissembling Romney might have done, or how preposterous the internal logic of his statements may add up to. The moderator's role is a sideshow — moderators are a stupid modern convention that clever politicians know how to play.

Debates are not about policy discovery. They are theater. That is all. It's all about heart.

The day before, and the day after — that's the time to score the head. On stage it's all about your media training.

What makes so many Obama supporters angry is that the distance between head and heart were so wide. But there is nobody to blame for that, and for the appearance — the performance — that conveyed.

I saw Felix Salmon today (thanks again for RT'ing, even if, as you explained, it must have been a mistake / the result or boredom or all you have left to do when your own Twitter feed blew up) and after some witty (One-sided. Guess which side) banter I told him how I had watched the debate.

Even I didn't realize it until today: I essentially stopped listening after the first question to live blog it (along with the entire planet, apparently), and kept one ear and one eye open for a clue that the dynamic was changing.

Obama lost because he didn't take the initiative. He even looked at times as if he didn't want to be president anymore. He's made a case for a Democrat, but not for this Democrat, and for a person who has often seemed so blasé in office — in stark contrast to the often passionate 2008 campaigner — this is not a good meme to feed.

The setup now is for Biden to take the heat off, and for Obama to close strongly. 

But you only get one chance to make a first impression, and that was it

Here's the Storify of my Obama / Romney Twitter live blog.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

How The Blog Ethic Will Cripple Debater Romney

One of the most important modern advances in journalism — courtesy, mind you, of the ethics of blogging -- is the opportunity for writers and publisher to own up to mistakes in the same place, time and fashion where the mistakes were made.

Journalists have always had an obligation to correct their errors, of course. Not all have, of course. And the truth can be elusive, even a matter of opinion sometimes.

But what isn't up for debate is requirement to tell the same audience you deluded that a) you were wrong and b) here's the truth.

Not to pile on, but newspapers haven't always been too good at this. Even when they have grudgingly acknowledged error, they did so in an error section that only the curious few bothered to check, often exposing themselves to the story in question for the first time. Once the paper was out it was out, and gone. Fish wrap. No sane publisher was going to spend valuable paper and ink to re-print old news, just so an error could be acknowledged and fixed in the proper venue.

But blogs changed that. Blog posts never go away. They beg to be fixed, and the right audience will always see the fix, no matter when they discover the story.

Oh, if it were only always this in politics.

The old adage that it takes a second for a lie to go around the world while the truth addles to catch up is not only true in politics, but it has been weaponized. Sound-bite savvy politicians know that even if they have to walk it back that will only be to a smaller, and — more significantly — different audience. Convenient lies are shared only for an audience that is not the target demographic. So there is no real downside to telling a whopper if your big worry is that someone on Fox or MSNBC is going to point that out to the choir a day or even hours later.

But debates are different. They are like blogs to the old media convention of fail now, fix later (and elsewhere).

In a well-moderated (and fought) debate, nobody will be able to get away with anything. Because there are two people, right here right now, who will call you out. To the same audience who heard the lie. In real-time.

This was part of Tim Pawlenty's problem in the GOP primary debates. He called out Romney by using the phrase "ObamneyCare" in some friendly forum, and declined to man up on stage with Romney himself.

This will not be a problem when Mitt Romney faces off with Barack Obama tonight debates and two more times.

And this is the risk to Romney. His best material is ... questionable. But deploying Obama surrogates to opine on cable TV about the challenger's Medicare and welfare shots at the president does nothing to prevent the continued spread of that propaganda, even though it has been identified clearly by "fact-checkers" as false. The asynchronous nature of statement and rebuttal (and a lack of shame) enables the lie in the daily give-and-take of a campaign. With both parties, and a ref, on one stage it shouldn't be possible to slide out from under a smear.

Romney survived the GOP primary debates, with only a few big stumbles — Brother, can you spare $10,000? He's good in formal settings, and he has the best debate prep team money can buy.

But what he can't do on stage is argue like Romney. That is the path to embarrassment and humiliation and the death sentence that is appearing "unpresidential." That may be why there is talk of prepared "zingers" — a tactic to derail seriousness, play out the clock and fight for tomorrow's viral video sound bite.

But you can't live on improv alone. Maybe if there was one debate, but surely not when there will be three.

Which leave one possibility: The Big Reveal.

I can't wait I hear Romney's argument for himself on debate night. Because if I do, I will be hearing it for the first time.

(Photo: "Teacher's Pet")

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The NY Times & HTML5: "This Is A First Step."

I felt a tiny burst of joy on my morning commute today when I read that the New York Times was going to launch an HTML5 version of its digital edition. Then I had a cow when I discovered that it was iPad only.

I Tweeted disapproval with my usual reserve:

I also wrote to the Times, which quickly responded:

"We wanted to test the Web App among a highly engaged audience of NYT subscribers, which made the iPad a natural choice," spokeswoman Linda Zebian wrote back. "This is the first step, but the HTML5 format does allow us to explore the idea of launching Web-based apps other platforms in the future."

Indeed it does. The question is, why wait and do even a tiny bit of damage to your street cred as a leader in the digital arena? And invite unfavorable comparison (as I did) to the Financial Times, whose HTML5 app works great on both the iPad/Safari and Nexus 7/Chrome/Jelly Bean?

@OttoBerks had a thought:

This makes sense, and hews to the Times' reply.

It just all seems a little strange. Sure the Android universe isn't huge in tablets, but it is huger than iOS on smartphones (and, guess what, the FT web app rocks there as well).

Why rush — especially since it doesn't seem to be an end-run around the iTunes store; the Times will continue to make the app available, unlike the FT, which pulled it to save that 30% fee.

The Times has lovely iOS and Android apps — the latest upgrade for the Nexus 7 makes it leaner and more navigable. But the appeal of using HTML5 — apart from the cross-platform advantage the Times has forgone for the time being — is that you are better able to lay things out and, more importantly, apply updates dynamically. For a news app the latter is critical and the former an increasingly nice-to-have, since one of the features of the paper itself is the ability to offer nuanced hierarchal clues besides just top-to-bottom headlines.

I'm looking forward to seeing this new Times app on my iPad, when I get home tonight. But it would be AWESOME, New York Times, if you could knock out the Android version by the time I take my evening commute ...

Monday, October 1, 2012

Where Angels Fear To Tread: Bernd Debusmann

Five years ago I wrote about the start of an era at Reuters. Now it's time to write about the end of two.

Bernd Debusmann is leaving The Baron after one of the most storied careers not only at that news agency but but surely in journalism.

He reported from more than 100 countries since joining the company in 1964 and, five years ago, was the marquee name when Reuters began an opinion service with three writers.

They don't make them like this anymore. If ever there was a living Le Carré character, it is Bernd, from his lifelong passion of jumping out of airplanes (most of the time, I think, with a parachute) to the 7.65 mm round, delivered with a silenced pistol on behalf of someone who didn't care for his reporting.

Bernd leaves with that bullet still lodged near his spine, and with the admiration of generations of reporters who got to watch how it was done, day-in-and-day-out, even on those rare occasions when he wasn't being shot, threatened or thrown out of some country.

Generations more may yet benefit from his unique insights and experiences; there is talk of a book. The Reuters career ends but the writing continues, we are promised.

In a farewell letter Bernd alludes to his first Reuters Opinion piece. It was — to quote Joe Biden — a BFD.

I joined Reuters Opinion when they started letting anyone in. But Bernd was Jackie Robinson: entrusted with creating a franchise that lurking internal critics would have brought down at the first hint of trouble. Bernd had the street cred, of course, but he also had gravitas literally no one could question.

Here's another way to understand it: Only Nixon could go to China. Only Debusmann could have launched Reuters Opinion.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Virtual schmirtual — the virtual wallet wars are a bust so far

The Wall Street Journal today reports what those of us who care about these things already know: There isn't a huge, pent-up demand for virtual wallet technology among consumers. Retailers are fired up and ready to go (in some cases, only half-heartedly), but customers aren't taking advantage of this new tech much yet.

Or at all. Consumer use of Near field Communication -- NFC, which beams payment information to a credit-card terminal — still looks very much like a novelty in the wild. Every one of the handful of times I've paid with a virtual wallet it has been then first time the cashier has seen it used. I am talking Home Depot, Radio Shack, Duane Reade. It's not scientific, of course, but it is still extraordinary. These are places that do a lot of transactions.

Starbucks is a big exception; they pioneered a rudimentary method which involves scanning barcodes stored on your smartphone. This is the same method Apple has now introduced with its foray into the virtual wallet, Passbook. And even though Starbucks has now paired with Square, they will still be doing it the old-fashioned way for a while, by continuing to scan codes rather than take advantage of the presence awareness which, under Pay with Square, identifies you, the customer, and your payment information on file, the second you walk into the place.

That's because Starbucks has discovered that, even in a low-tech application, paying with your phone is an easy habit to acquire: I will walk past places that probably make at least as good a cup of coffee as (and are far less crowded than) Starbucks just so I don't have to endure the inconvenience of using cash or a credit card. Your phone (or even your small tablet) is much easier to produce than your real wallet, and then produce something from that, and put away change, or shown the cashier your physical card ...

When authentication proceeds you, everybody wins. This would seem to be an even bigger win for the small business person. Alas ...

Just as troubling is that smaller storefronts which actually could benefit from this -- and convey a special brand of street cred at the same time -- also seem to be curiously behind the curve. I encounter virtual wallet tech in small establishments almost never.

Get ready for more unscientific anecdotes. One very hip establishment I know actually signed up for Pay with Square -- but hasn't set it up for months. This is a growler place, where you'd imagine a clientele hip to every cutting edge trend, not just the one of bringing home fresh beer in a bottle you supply.

But no. "You're the only person who asks for it," they tell me, each of the three times I've been there over three months, as they scramble to look for (and fail to even find) the Square dongle that is Plan B, which would at least let me pay with a physical credit card.

My iPhone notifies me as I approach the store that I am now ready to Pay with Square. That remains news to the proprietor.

I used Google Wallet in a major drug store chain the other morning (as an aside, the part of the credit-card terminals that indicate they are NFC enabled were all covered with ads. Sigh.) The transaction was not smooth. It needed a lot of coaxing, elongating what would have been a much faster sale if I had just used my darn credit card.

I thought the cashier was annoyed, and was prepared to meekly apologize for trying to pay so geekily. "That was cool," she said, intoning in that lower register that always conveys sincerity rather than sarcasm. I self-deprecatingly replied it would have been much cooler if it had worked the first time. "That was cool," she repeated.

Maybe there is hope for this. I sure hope so. This is one geeky tech that could easy go mainstream. But it hasn't yet, and the vendors are ahead of their customers, by a country mile. That's worrisome.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Master and Commander

The problem with "The Master," The Paul Thomas Anderson film I really disliked, for those who have asked:

The protagonist really should be "The Master," the Paul Seymour Hoffman character. But it's not -- the character at the center of this self-indulgent maelstrom is the Joachin Phoenix character, Freddie Quill.

This needed some serious script doctoring.

Monday, September 24, 2012

TaxiCab Confessions

It's too easy, of course, to make too much of those pearls you hear from the mouths of babes (the small child variety, please), the mailman or a cab driver.

But I think I heard the rationale that older, blue collar white guys will find to vote for Obama, in sufficient numbers.

"I just don't believe him," the driver said today, referring to Romney in a rambling discussion about politics and his charges (black-car drivers LOVE to drop names of the people who've been in the back seat). "I don't like Obama either, but we have him ... so you know ..."

And there you have it.

TurboTax Romney

Two things I don't get about Romney's self-defense of his tax situation:

1) A rate of 14% is "fair" because the funds being taxed — capital gains — have already been taxed on the corporate level.

Huh? Capital gains are on realized profits from the sale of real property. If I buy a share of stock for $10, and I sell it for $15, my capital gain is $5. And if I held that share for more than a year, I am taxed at a rate of 15% on that $5, not an whatever rate my earned income is subject to.

But, who paid a tax on the any of this before I did? Or, looked at in reverse: Every dollar is taxed by the person or entity which owned it at one time. My employer pays taxes on the money his company earns, then pays me from what's left over. I pay tax on that, and spend some at the supermarket. The supermarket pays tax, and its employees ... and so on.

The fact that someone pays tax on that dollar upstream is as irrelevant as the fact that someone will pay tax on that dollar downstream. My paid tax on that dollar doesn't subsidize the supermarket. Why should a company's dividend to me be taxed any differently? And if you want to encourage long-term holding (a fine idea) you can penalize a short-term owner with a higher tax, rather than offering a discount for a long-term capital gain.

2) A lower capital gains rate is justified because it motivates investment and thus growth

Doesn't any capital that a taxpayer keeps or is returned motivate investment and growth, potentially? Isn't that, in fact, the blanket argument for lowering taxes across the board? What special magic does money earned from investments have over money earned from work? Would there be less investment if the capital gains rate was equal to that for earned income?

Yes? Then where would that money go?

The truth is that the public market is only one way to find money to back or grow one's business — the vast majority of businesses are not publicly-traded companies. Mostly seed money comes from friends and family initially, and, if you lucky then early-stage investors, angels and assorted venture capitalists. But none of this is public market money.

The biggest source of investment capital comes from a business itself. And the biggest source of capital for a business is receipts — money the buying public pays for goods and services.

Every time I try to get my head around tax, economy and public policy I end up in the same place: Business invests not when it has money, but when it has customers. The greatest spenders are in the middle class, which is the largest demographic in any developed nation. Make life as easy as you can on these folk, and your country thrives.

It's not hard. As Bill Clinton said, it's arithmetic.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Marathon Man

In this age of moral equivalence, your inner bad guy is relentlessly held against you — until I do the same thing. And then I get to say a) I am no worse than you, and b) You did it first. It's a push.

So it is that GOP VP candidate Paul Ryan's fact-challenged convention speech is judged on one set of criteria, and his malapropisms on another. On the former, well, he's Romney's running mate, these are the campaign's talking points, and he's just doing his job — reinforcing the message sanctioned by the top half of the ticket. On the latter, well, those are just "Bidenisms."

But then in what seemed like a relaxed moment Ryan inexplicably exaggerated his performance in a marathon some 20 years ago. Yes, one's memory does play tricks, but as these things go (especially for a P90X boot camp guy) claiming you ran a sub three-hour marathon when in fact it took you more than four hours (worse than Sarah Palin's PB, but I digress) takes a little explaining.

The explanation was simple enough, and homey: Oops. Ryan said he got some ribbing around the dinner table, especially from a brother who reminded the candidate that he has the best marathon time in the family.

We could just chalk this up to the kind of loose talk that, frankly, Biden has become rather well known for. But we shouldn't.

For on thing, Biden doesn't lie about himself. Well, not since the 1988 presidential campaign when he plagiarized the speech of a British politician. Biden's MO is to step in it with peculiar word pictures that even his harshest critics don't think are calculated, like suggesting Romney will put a black audience back in chains, and expressing awe of Obama's (ahem) big stick.
Ryan's excesses are more, shall we say, personal. He's a deficit hawk who's namesake budget — the one which made him famous outside the beltway — doesn't balance the budget for decades. He's a budget pragmatist who'd cut revenue by giving disproportionate relief to upper incomes, re-engineer important components of the safety net like Medicare, but whose blueprint can't be scored because it lacks accounting specificity.

And then there is the haplessness of the long distance runner.

I've never run a marathon, but I have done a bicycle century. It wasn't 20 years ago, but 10. I don't remember my exact time, but I have not convinced myself I completed the course in the time of an elite athlete. These are memorable events — they are physically grueling, take hours to complete and are far outside one's daily routine.

Ryan is lying about Obama's adjustment to welfare, and he is telling a peculiar half truth about the president's cut to the growth of medicare (a cut he assumed for his own ambiguous budgeting — and, when, exactly, did Republicans not want to cut Medicare, including Romney and Ryan, today, now?)
These are both matters of fact, as is one's marathon time. But somehow I can't believe Ryan was telling a whopper about his running prowess. Even though the alternative is worse. All kidding aside, a numbers guy who who won't do budget numbers and gets his marathon number wrong is at best careless and cavalier, not wonky.

What we are seeing in Ryan is a sort of Palin redux: A person with the appearance of seriousness and achievement whose principals are platitudes that won't bear up under great scrutiny. And there is no greater scrutiny than in a presidential campaign.

The Democratic attack on Ryan will be — in the Rovian tradition of turning an enemy's strength into his weakness — that Ryan isn't serious, or meticulous. And it will stick now because of a silly boast about an insignificant event before he even entered politics.
Lying on a seemingly unimaginable scale is par for the course in presidential politics now, of course. Republicans touted Bush 43's foreign affairs and defense acumen even though the United States suffered the worst attack in the nation's history on his watch, started a pointless war in Iraq and could not figure out how to win the peace in Afghanistan. Republicans, in this election cycle, are pretending things are worse now than on Jan. 20, 2009, when the stock market was severely depressed, credit markets were frozen and the country was shedding 800,000 jobs a month.

There's little defense when liars can't be shamed. But watch for the Democrats to neutralize Ryan by casting him as just another pit bull, not a philosopher in the league of Obama, Clinton — or even Biden.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Romney, The Hispanic Vote and the Capital-ocracy

Bernd Debusmann raises an interesting point in his latest Reuters column: Does the VP selection of Paul Ryan mean that GOP presidential candidate Romney has conceded the so-called Latino vote?

Put aside the usual caveats — that voting blocs are usually more complicated than we assume, that they are motivated by single interests and swayed by personality and tribalism — and Debusmann makes a convincing case Ryan is perhaps the least likely to help with Latinos "Of all the potential running mates Romney could have picked from."

There has been plenty said about the importance of the Hispanic vote independent of the veepstakes during this endless campaign, but very little analysis about Ryan in this context since his VP candidacy was announced Saturday morning.

The "Hispanic vote" looms large in electoral analysis. Bush garnered more than 40% of the Hispanic vote in his 2004 win, but John McCain only 31% in his 2008 loss. Both showings were considered strong contributing factors to the outcomes. As asserted by Aaron Blake in the Washington Post, "Republicans’ problem is epitomized by rapid Latino growth in five swing states and three Republican-dominated states that Democrats are hoping to put in play in coming elections." Republicans are identified with such things as Mexican border fences and "show me your papers" laws. Hispanics are disappointed with Obama's mixed record.

There was an opening here.

The trouble is that, as tepid as Hispanics might be towards Obama, a Republican presidential candidate has to shake off an association with outright hostility. But Romney has done nothing to distance himself from the GOP meme, and has even exacerbated it with talk of self-deportation.

Former Reagan aide Linda Chavez has argued that Romney needs to cultivate the Latino constituency by supporting the Dream Act (he has not taken the advice). Chavez titled her argument "Romney's Best Bet." But a VP choice Hispanics could rally behind would have had a much greater impact on the election than a policy shift easily portrayed as politically expedient, yet again.

Which is Debusmann's point.

I appreciate the argument, and from a net-neutral POV it is pretty obvious that Ryan does nothing to endear the GOP ticket to Latinos. But look at it another way: Romney's choice is based on ideology, rather than pander or electoral map politics: He has picked a soul-mate, rather than a stranger (McCain/Palin) or someone he detests (JFK/Lyndon Johnson) or someone who seems to have more gravitas (Dukakis/Lloyd Bentsen).

Ryan does nothing to help Romney with the Hispanic vote, but maybe nobody could have. In the known universe of Republican VP prospects nobody stands out except for Marco Rubio. But his conservative Tea Party convictions are probably out of the Hispanic mainstream. And for a little bit of perceived upside choosing the junior senator from Florida could easily have been criticized as not only a pander to lock up a swing state, but a foolhardy one in the tradition of such miscalculations as Dan Quayle (the youth vote) and Palin (disappointed woman supporters of Hillary Clinton).

Ryan's electoral weakness is thus his greatest strength: He is a Member of Congress, which collectively has a 12% approval rating, and represents only a small portion of a state which has voted for the Democrat in every presidential election since 1988.

The positive spin is that Ryan is an intellectually honest selection, consistent with a core Romney principals: A rising tide lifts all boats, and allowing those with greatest means to keep more of their money de facto leads to a stronger economy which benefits everyone.

As Debusmann notes, Romney was well aware of the "doom" that might befall his candidacy without a sizable portion of the Hispanic vote. But given no real options to get a voting block or a swing state Ryan can at least be better (read, more comfortable) at making the case for governing based on the primacy of capitalism.

Ryan could evolve into Romney's Biden, similarly unhampered by constituency baggage: Able to bang the table and connect with an audience in a way his boss can't.

The difference is that Obama is likely proud of most of the things he's done and stands for. Romney, on the other hand, is tried to avoid detailed talk about his accomplishments because they demonstrate a political evolution that has nothing do with principal and everything to do with winning.

And you can't really blame a good capitalist for that.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Mitt Romney, Class Warfare, and The Rosetta Stone of Taxes

It isn't true that Romney "owes it" to voters to release more tax returns than he has and has said he would. In politics only two things rule: the law (a very forgiving standard) and your image. If Romney doesn't release more than two years of federal tax returns and he wins, ergo, he didn't owe anybody anything. And if he loses it will be difficult to impossible to assess the extent to which opaqueness contributed to defeat.

But Romney has a bigger problem. Emphasis on the word "Big."

Clearly, Romney has calculated that — at this moment in time, anyway — it is better to hold his ground than to give way. This may change, of course, which would present new challenges (is Romney, yet again, cowering to pressure in a very unpresidential way? Is this just another head-spinning flip-flop?). A host of conservative commentators and at least one two elected officials have urged Romney to just do it. The most recent is the National Review, whose editorial, "Release The Returns," leaves nothing to the imagination. (The National Review also believes that Romney should make a full-throated defense of capitalism, including outsourcing, something that would, of course, be political suicide, but perfectly illustrates the box the candidate is in.)

On the other hand, should Romney stick to guns the two-year standard might very well inform his choice for a running mate in an unanticipated way: How awkward would it be for the Veep candidate to have a history of being more transparent than Mitt?

The irony is, of course, that Romney has almost certainly done nothing wrong, as in, he broke no laws. There are what sound like adequate reasons for him to have filed documents with the SEC as chief executive and sole shareholder during the period when he was rotating out, or considering rotating out, of Bain (whichever you choose to believe was going on between 1999 and 2002). It's plausible that this would have taken years given the complexity of his role, his own hard bargaining to make the most of leaving his baby and the precedent of his exit package — Bain's very first — would have on the expectations of other partners who might subsequently leave. And there is certainly enough in the record of Bain during Romney's stewardship to portray him as a soulless capitalist and thus not the kind of nuanced leader the presidency arguably requires. Team Obama doesn't need for Romney to have technically been in charge when outsourcing was going on to support this narrative.

The real problem for Romney isn't the devil in the details he fears will give Obama opposition reseachers a field day. It's the Big Picture. It's not the micro, but the macro. Releasing this data will show exactly how the other half manipulates — and creates — the tax code to benefit themselves. We now have bumper sticker data on Swiss Bank accounts and offshore tax havens, but without the context of previous years the picture is incomplete. This is why when you are audited the IRS looks back three years as a matter of course, six if there is a suspicion of significant underpayment and forever if there is evidence of fraud.

The scandal here isn't that Romney is a scofflaw, but that he doesn't even have to be one to do much better than the 99%. Being taxed at a staggeringly lower rate than the average American isn't a crime (even if that rate is zero), but it is an inconvenient fact that those who enjoy it would like to discuss as little as possible.

The scandal is that the tax code and related laws enable the rich and powerful to shield their wealth in a way that the average American simply cannot. And because Romney is seeking the presidency, he has exposed himself to a tradition of tax-return transparency which would open a very exclusive rope line. Unless Rupert Murdoch and Warren Buffet settle that bet this would be the best lesson in the practical exploitation of the complicated tax code by a rarified person, and why certain provisions that benefit the few are so obscure and well defended.

So this is class warfare, after all. The ruling class of which Romney is a member not only exploits loopholes, but writes them into law and would rather not spotlight the unfairness in particular while it broadly calls for tax reform and simplicity (also code for we pay too much). How Romney has moved his money around to make the best use of tax provision which favor him would be a gold mine to forensic accountants.

There would be silly "GOTCHA" reporting, of course. But silly headlines fade. What won't go away as easily is the deeper narrative of tax unfairness. Romney's tax returns would be a Rosetta Stone explaining the babble that is the US tax code.

Romney's finances are fair game because his key economic proposals would reduce his own tax bill — inoculating himself against the self-interest charge alone would be wise enough. But Romney needs to hold fast for as long as he can because this isn't about envy by the 1%, rather the fear of the 99%.

Releasing his taxes will spark a real debate on tax reform by unmasking the platitudinous battle cries of the right as nothing more than rote stammer to protect their own, not the US economy.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Romney & Uniform-Gate: He Can't Win For Losing

Lost in the Shocked Shocked outrage over the outsourced order for US Olympic opening ceremonies uniforms (Really? THIS is what animates bi-partisanship in Congress?) is the fact that these garments were made in China even though an American company got the order.

Nobody thought to ask Calvin Klein where the clothing would be made, probably because it occurred to nobody that "Made in the USA" was more important than price. Or because virtually none of the clothing Americans wear is made in America, or has been for a long, long time.

And this is why the attack on capitalism, as the Romney folks put it, will redound to Obama's benefit.

Capitalism is not patriotism. Capitalism is not social engineering. Capitalism is not about national boundaries. Capitalism is about making money by providing goods and services for which there is a demand. If you are good at it, lots of people get jobs. If you are bad at it, lots of people lose their jobs and you (and perhaps lots of others) also lose a lot of money.

Defending capitalism requires acknowledging that there is no obligation to hire your neighbors, or even your fellow citizens. It is an inconvenient truth at best for politicians who, like Romney, wrap themselves in the flag only to discover that it was made in China.

Romney has no role in Uniform-Gate, of course, and surely falls on the side of the outraged (though he appears to have taken no position at this writing.)

But this sideshow puts him in a bind, for two reasons: The more that 21st century economics becomes part of the civics lesson of the 2012 election the worse it is for the image of business in general, and it also puts a bigger spotlight on his own innocent utilization of legitimate, legal — but politically toxic — business decisions.

Like Romney's tax returns, the reality of capitalism for him is best kept hidden under a basket. One made in the USA, of course.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The World That Could Have Been According To Andy Taylor

I used to live in Mayberry. For the dozen years we were there our Virginia hometown epitomized the feel of that fictional TV hamlet, a place where people stopped to talk, treated each other right and everything always just seemed to be okay. It was actually Reston, but we joked about the similarities.

Like lots of kids in the 1960s, I also grew up in Mayberry, at the knee of a quiet hero.

Andy Griffith's sleepy southern town was an island in the storm. There was little strife or crime. There was a mayor (his boss) and successful businessmen who controlled commerce. But Griffith's Sheriff Andy Taylor was the glue which held it all together, the one person everyone relied upon and turned to. And they were correct to defer to him: Taylor invariably prevented idiocy and excess while promoting common sense, all the while speaking softly and carrying no stick.

Taylor was a lawman who never carried a gun or raised his voice. He was a single father whose son's upbringing meant more to him than anything. Taylor didn't have to wear this on his sleeve, because the opening credits of The Andy Griffith Show reminded us every week, as Taylor and son Opie (future filmaker Ron Howard) sauntered, fishing poles in tow, to the creek (on what must have been a work day, since Taylor was in uniform). Sheriff Taylor was a faithful mentor to a ridiculous apprentice — Don Knotts' Barney Fife — whom nobody else took seriously and from whom Taylor invariably hid the truth of his own ineptitude in an effort to bring out the best in his well-meaning deputy.

Before we knew what a samuri was — and against the backdrop of shoot'em up Westerns which dominated the big and small screens — Taylor exemplified the restraint and wisdom of these swordmasters, who sought to offend no one and to prove their extraordinary abilities only when necessary. Taylor had no swagger, but he managed to keep the peace, solve every one of the few crimes committed in Mayberry and was masterfully persuasive using only simple, southern tones and words of one syllable. He never lied and never said too much. He was never wrong and never made an issue of it. He was Vulcan before Mr. Spock.

More than any of the matriarchs and patriarchs of the other big 1950-era family dramas — Leave It To Beaver, Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show — Taylor showed men that men could be men without being MEN. It was a great metaphor for post-war America, but sadly did not become the cultural template for our male heros, which became more Clint Eastwood than Zatoichi.

Taylor was an early example of what is sadly not the norm in leadership: He brandished wisdom rather than physical strength, valued temperance over reflex, did not take himself seriously and proved that if you wanted to be heard, you whisper.

Heros based on these traits are still written, though as ironic exceptions to the rule. We prefer — and thus emulate on some level — heros with hair-trigger tempers, a shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality and the death — literally or figuratively — of one's adversaries. Taylor was measured: Rather than once and for all making an example of the recalcitrant town drunk by putting him away for a long time Taylor always just let Otis Campbell sleep it off the safety of a jail cell. When a con man was wooing a gullible Aunt Bee, Taylor spoke to the suitor in unthreatening language on the front porch after a lovely home-cooked meal. With an unrelenting smile and that easy drawl, he left no doubt that there would be a marriage, and isn't that a wonderful thing. All the while cleaning his shotgun.

The one flaw in Taylor's character? He was marriage averse. He dated a schoolteacher for years, and his young son could have benefitted from having a step-mother (no offense to Aunt Bea). Taylor hardly a bachelor's life, but he was drawn in the old school manner which treats marriage as a state to which women must aspire, and men studiously avoid.

That's too bad. But the flip side was that Taylor showed a father could be a hands-on parent without compromise, a nurturer whose professional and personal live were entirely in sync.


Monday, July 2, 2012

SCOTUS Sings. Who's The Leaker (And Does It Matter)?

Felix Salmon makes a great observation about the deterioration of the Supreme Court: if they start leaking self-serving secrets under the cover of anonymity, aren't they lowering themselves to worst levels of the political branches? Isn't SCOTUS supposed to be above it all, oblivious to criticism or how the citizenry regards how they do what they do? Isn't that the point of lifetime appointments?

It's interesting that some Justice (at least) is singing, so soon after the event. Both the ruling and the makeup of the majority in Sebelius was surprising, the latter far more so than the former since conservative Chief Justice Roberts looked for and found a way to uphold the Affordable Care Act.

I don't think it's unprecedented, though I may be confusing retired Justices who've been source material for books about the Court. Either way, I'm struggling to figure out the motive since I take the reporting of CBS's Jan Crawford as accurate.

Salmon was as harsh on the Court as he was effusive about Crawford:
Instead, it seems, the Supreme Court has become infected by exactly the same partisanship which has corroded civic life everywhere else in DC. Maybe that was inevitable. But this story is still a signal journalistic accomplishment — and it was written at law-geeky length by a TV reporter. Crawford deserves all credit for getting this scoop — and for showing that there is life yet in broadcast journalism.
Leaks at the other two branches is designed either to take someone down or burnish your own view. What the three patently conservative judges — Scalia, Thomas and Alito — and Justice Kennedy believe is a matter of public record. Nobody in its constituency is assailing the Court's conservative wing. They need not promote the idea that they struggled to convert Roberts which, in such matters, goes without saying.

So if Roberts' three natural allies wouldn't speak out of school, who else might be motivated to weaken the Chief Justice or burnish his image?

The only outlier in dissent was Justice Kennedy. But what would his motive be? Could it be that
being on the "wrong" side of a 5-4 decision is a worse PR problem for him than for Roberts? Would he have been less vulnerable to criticism among his constituency if the ironic contrast with Roberts' decision wasn't the story?  

The leaker could be Roberts himself, though the picture Crawford paints of the Chief Justice would seem to do nothing to temper the anger of some conservatives (one of whom actually posits that Roberts has literally lost his mind).

I'm not sure I mind knowing more about the inner workings of the court, though the prospect of overtly politicized Justices would be disastrous. 

It's also ironic that this exposé comes from a TV journalist, since the Court's lack of transparency — a positive if it shields them from influence — could be improved by televising oral arguments.

They may be leaking like cheap pols, but I can't imagine any of them changing one little thing about how they comport themselves for the camera.  

Friday, June 1, 2012

John Edwards, Worst Person in the World (Part II)

When his corruption trial ended yesterday without a conviction on any of six counts John Edwards was all about John Edwards again, looking for love in all the wrong places ... again.

Redemption comes to those who wait, not those who ask. OJ had it right: After he was acquitted of double murder he let his lawyers announce a fund to find the real killers and lived in the shade for as long as ego would allow. Edwards thought instead that the Anthony Weiner gambit was the way to go.

This is neither colossal misjudgment nor uncharacteristic hubris from a guy who thought that going to Haiti after that country's devastating earthquake was a good idea.

Like many others I thought the prosecution was a bad thing, probably political — but that's about process and the next prosecution and the rule of law, not about the "awful, awful" things that this once rising star did while he was on the ascent.

There isn't much more to say, so, from the archives, here's my rant the first time Edwards tried to re-join decent society.

From January 21, 2010:

It's rare for someone in the moral cesspool that is often public life to be as utterly shameless as John Edwards, so I feel compelled to write a few things down to keep track of it all.

Let's see:
  • You have an adulterous affair with a woman, from the office, who is younger than your dying wife, whose incurable cancer is a matter of public record.
  • You apparently have unprotected sex with this woman. A child is born, and you deny paternity so she will read all about that in a few years.
  • You not only pointedly lie about all this but you convince or force other people step up to publicly support your lie.
  • You say you will take a paternity test you cannot be compelled to take and have no intention of taking because you know it will expose your lie, a litigator's trick that is slimy even by litigator standards.
  • All this is going on as you try to get elected president of the United States. Disclosure of your sins during the campaign or after your election would stigmatize your party in a way not seen since Richard Nixon made "Republican" a dirty word. You don't care about that, either.
  • When you finally come clean, under the back-breaking preponderance of evidence nobody but a birther could possibly construe any other way, you don't come clean yourself, but put another crony in front of the cameras to spill your guts. He refers to you as a liar, whooppee, while also saying how tough this has been on you.
  • You, meanwhile, while not spilling your guts, acting as if any of this is going on, or even appearing conflicted or contrite, blather on about Haiti, making your vanity now hemispheric as you use the death and hopelessness of millions of people a backdrop for your attempt to re-enter the human race.
  • You decide to put on this pathetic show in Haiti, where your presence on the ground will do nobody any good, and where I hope your televised remarks about how desperate things are there will be mashed up with your hair-coiffing embarrassment and displayed on the hacked version of a campaign site you haven't had the decency to update so it at least does not say:
"I began my presidential campaign here to remind the country that we, as citizens and as a government, have a moral responsibility to each other, and what we do together matters."
Have I missed something?

(With apologies to Keith Olbermann ... again)

Friday, April 6, 2012

There Is No GOP War On Women. It's Much Worse

You declare war on people you despise. To despise, you have to feel. The GOP has declared a Jihad to restore what they might call traditional values: right-wingers have never come to grips with Roe v. Wade (which, by the way, was meant to protect doctors from criminal prosecution, not especially to identify a woman's right to choose).

Apparently some in the Republican Party also haven't quite come to terms with the notion of contraception, either.

But the common thread isn't a hatred of women. The hate is directed elsewhere. Women don't matter. And that's much worse.

What's the proof? When the Obama Administration stepped in it by in-artfully engaging the Catholic Church over contraception coverage in the health care plans for the employees of their secular enterprises, the GOP had a winning hand. You can't just treat a protected class like anyone else -- heck, religious institutions don't even pay property taxes.

Whenever you have more than one fundamental principal, they can collide. What's necessary, then, is the wisdom to give each principal as much deference as possible, knowing that one will get more. It's inescapable, and why we endeavor to have wise people as judges and especially Justices.

What is unwise -- and telling -- is when you frame the argument as being about only Principle "A", and absolutely not Principle "B." This collision in Catholic contraception debate was stark: religious freedom, enshrined in the US Constitution, and women's rights, not so much -- but definitely protected by the Affordable Heath Care Act.

What happened? The GOP scoffed at the notion it was a woman's rights issue, insisting it was only a First Amendment issue. In other words, this has nothing to do with women. Shut up. And instead of framing the argument about the First Amendment, it pulled the veil off a generations'-old determination to not only eviscerate destroy Roe v Wade but Griswold v Connecticut, the 7-2 Supreme Court decision that found a right of privacy in the Constitution by overturning a law prohibiting the use of contraceptives — in 1965.

Exhibit B: RNC Chair Rance Priebus compounds the error by saying the "War on Women" (frankly, hyperbolic) is trumped up. True, but not for the reason he believes. The RNC doesn't consider contraception and abortion as women's health issues, but as cultural abominations.

They aren't waging war on women -- they don't see women as relevant to this discussion. How this might actually be the one unifying issue to women in every spot on the political spectrum -- the history of contraception is a far greater empowering tale of liberation than abortion -- is lost on the tone deaf.

I've always wondered how Gays can be Republicans. I'm given to understand that Gay legislative staff is sizable. And the Log Cabin Republicans are a pretty conservative bunch.

But Gays in the GOP are at least denied Mano-a-Mano, you'll pardon the expression. Woman seem invisible. This isn't about you, darlin' -- stop being a tool of the media.

Women are used to us lying to them, guys. And it's about exactly this: feigning love when we're really indifferent, for an ulterior motive.

The only thing worse than dismissing women as collateral damage in a war on culture is then imperiously dismissing talk that woman actually are the targets as a Democratic smear, made viral by their media handmaidens.

Nobody believes this. But it does come right out of the guy playbook:

"Who are you going to believe, babe? Me or your lying ears."

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Rush, The Entertainer

It's worse that Rush Limbaugh's feckless defenders in the political elite kiss him off not as a serious, fearsome political force, but rather a mere entertainer, not worth undue attention, to say nothing of condemnation.

As dumb as Rush's political analysis might be, and as unpolitic his technique of expressing himself, his pool is politics, mostly invective against non-conservatives of his particular stripe (whatever that may be).

Entertainers are supposed to, well, entertain. They are supposed to be, well, entertaining. This is, as they say, by definition.

Rush isn't funny, except to the dittoheads he calls his fans, and these fans don't seem to realize how uncharacteristically accurate and demeaning that description from their spiritual leader is.

Go to any comedy club, in any city, on any night and there will be at least one person about whom your table will look at each other and wonder, worlessly at first, in unison: How is this person not famous? And it won't be because of the watered-down drinks you've been served.

Funny is hard to do. It's incredibly easy to recognize.

Rush needs the hook not because he pollutes the airwaves, spreads lies and needless invective, and does this for money (I can think of two words to describe that, but then I'd have to apologize).

Rush needs to go because he gives entertainers a bad name.

Props to the first accountable Republican who is ready for his Judge Welch moment and says without equivocation that Rush has to be ignored because he is bad at what he does -- entertainment.

To Rush, the loss of some sponsors is like "losing a couple of French Fries in the container when it's delivered to you in the drive thru. You don't even notice it." Or, as the very entertaining Conan O'Brien quipped of the portly broadcaster, it's devastating.

But if the Rush parade moves on because he's a bad entertainer, hose CPAC bookings will dry up not because he's leading the charge to lose the hearts and minds of the new silent majority Conservatives need to win, but because he just isn't funny. Dated. Like Rich Little, unaware that he's become the joke.

Stations which carry Limbaugh's spectacularly-successful radio show will have to decide for themselves just what Rush's entertainment value prop continues to be. I'm not a fan of coordinated sponsor boycotts and loud, self-righteous protests from people who aren't fans of someone saying that that someone hey, hey, has to go. Business is business. This is not a free speech issue, but silencing people because you don't like what they say is un-American, whatever the technique.

We know this instinctively, which is why we knew Rush had gone too far one too many times by attempting to silence, through intimidation, a non-accountable private citizen in Sandra Fluke by singling her out for the particularly viscous kind of bullying which accelerates when the bully sits alone in a windowless room and need to fill the airwaves with something for hours and hours, every day.

His feckless friends won't admit it as they dismiss him as an entertainer, but through influence or kinship or fear or a desire to be noticed a campaign by someone as connected as Rush grants broad permission by others to ramp up the bullying. The world then becomes even more upside down: Rush, the victim, becomes an object of sympathy by like-minded people who now believe they have carte blanche to defend themselves, by whatever means necessary.

I thought Imus had blown it in the unfunny decorum department, but also didn't care for the way his transgression had become a phony cause celebré. On the other hand, I won't watch The Apprentice anymore, and turn off the TV whenever Donald Trump is interviewed, and will never stay in one of his hotels because he's ... well, you know.

When Rush's indifferent or frightened pol buddies turn away, that will be the beginning of the end.

They have a chance to do that, right now, while saving face, by taking advantage of maybe the best window of opportunity ever. Rush, who has always been wise to attack up, foolishly picked on a weakling this time. As it was with Imus, there's enough relatable history of a basic character failing to connect the dots without appearing to be intellectually dishonest about being disgusted only now.

This would hardly be (you will pardon the expression), a rush to judgement.

Friends of Rush don't need to condemn him, Crucible-like, for what he really is. All they have to do is get up and leave the club as they would when one of those guys who isn't the undiscovered comedy genius won't let go of the mic.

Pick up the tab, somebody. It's time to go.

— Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone. Location: 5th Ave., United States