The Decline of the Chattering Class and the Rise of the Discussion Class.

You’d never know Barack Obama has an approval rating in the mid-60s. Higher if you poll among Ds and Is and exclude Rs.

I say this because there appears to be no lack of people who are either pundits themselves, or can command the attention of the media, with all manner of advice on how Obama should be talking or behaving (substance appears to be utterly irrelevant). The latest is Bill Clinton, who thinks Obama needs to “sound more hopeful.” I refer to this group of talking heads who with the rise of the cable news networks and the 24 hour news cycle have enjoyed a lengthy run as opinion leaders as the “Chattering Class.” To fill the time — and cut back on actual news reporting, which costs money — the talk radio folks, the cable news shows, and now even the newspapers have created a class of pundits, experts, and analysts who exist for the sole purpose of supplying chatter to fill up the space. Indeed, I am always amused at the criticism that the rise of the blogs means the death of news because the hardcore news folks switched from mostly news to mostly chatter some time ago.

For years, the Chattering Class has controlled and framed debates around policy for most Americans. And, as one might expect, chattering about style and insider games takes precedence over actual substance. Not only is it cheaper and easier, as it requires no expertise, it is self-re-enforcing. This has corresponded, not coincidentally in my opinion, with the general disinterest by an increasing number of Americans in politics and public policy.

But what the Chattering Class talk about and how they frame winners and losers has become so disconnected from the reality people experience that folks have begun to notice. Not merely those “whacky left-wing totally non-mainstream” bloggers at TPM and elsewhere. Frank Rich observed in an opinion piece in last Sunday’s NYT that the Washington press corp has degenerated into the equivalent of a high school clique obsessed with their petty gossip and insular rules that define who is in and who is out.

This is why Bill Clinton, a man who in his prime ranked as one of the most gifted political campaigners to grace the national stage,feels the urge to give some “helpful advice” to the man who not only won the election, but is still clocking in with approval ratings that bespeak of enormous popularity. It is why the news continues to focus on things like whether the stimulus is actually a “loss” and is only gradually, and reluctantly, turning to the question of its anticipated impact. And it is why the Chattering Class is, after unquestionable dominance of public opinion for nearly 20 years, starting to lose it’s ability to frame the issues.

More below . . . .

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McCain Invented the Blackberry? Maybe Not, But It May Make A Good Symbol.

I know that staffers often feel intense loyalty to their bosses, but can we please try to keep the hero worship to a minimum? Otherwise, you end up accidentally making the other side’s argument.

According to this story, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a top McCain policy adviser, held up his Blackberry and told folks: “You’re looking at the miracle that John McCain helped create.” Mind you, Reasearch In Motion is a Canadian company. When sold in the United States, it requires a contract with a wireless carrier. Each carrier controls which models it will permit on its system and what applications it will permit to run.

Or, in other words, the “miracle” is that we not only limit the development of technology in this country and force our hi-tech jobs to other countries, we actually allow a handful of wireless carriers to break the technology, limit it further, and jack up the price. This was probably not the miracle that Holtz-Eakin had in mind.

Still, the voter interested in tech policy and following up on the “McCain Miracle” for wireless would do well to visit the Blackberry Website. Notice how many models Blackberry makes? What applications it can run? Now select country U.S. and compare carrier by carrier. The carriers you can connect to at all each have a limited set of models and applications they permit you to use. Want one of the other Blackberries? Tough. Want to run an application the carrier doesn’t like? Too damn bad. Want to bring your own device so you don’t have to pay an early termination fee justified by an “equipment subsidy?” Dream on.

McCain was quick to dismiss this fulsome praise as a “boneheaded joke.” Still, it is worth noting that I am aware of no major leadership or initiatives by McCain on tech or media issue comparable with, for example, his efforts on campaign finance reform. This is not to say McCain has been devoid of accomplishments. He deserves credit for a strong stance in promoting low-power FM and for twice sponsoring the Community Broadband Act, designed to eliminate restrictions on the ability of local governments to provide broadband services. But by and large, as reflected in his tech policy, McCain’s chief accomplishment for tech — and his plan going forward — is to not do anything and let the private sector work its magic.

If you are satisfied with the “King Log” approach to tech policy and don’t mind that AT&T, Verizon, and other carriers get to call the shots over what Blackberry and other companies can do on wireless networks, then McCain is absolutely your man. If Holtz-Eakin was trying to make the point that McCain will let wireless carriers continue to “own the customer” and control how Blackberry and other devices evolve, and we peons should be content with whatever technological “miracles” the carriers graciously allow us, then he has a point. But if Holt-Eakin was trying to say that McCain got out there, showed real leadership in the face of political presure, and established lasting policies that even his political rivals now try to embrace as their own, sorry. I lived through it, and that ain’t how it happened.

Stay tuned . . . .

The Attack on Oprah: A Case Study Of The Strategies of the Conservative Noise Machine.

If I told you after the Palin announcement that Republicans would attack Oprah, you’d have called me crazy. Oprah is beloved of the precise demographic Rs hope to win over by naming Palin. It would be suicide! Besides, what would be the grounds for the attack?

Then when I told you “because she is keeping her promise to keep politics off her show,” you would say I was doubly nuts. “Impossible! Everyone knows that when Oprah backed Obama she made it clear that she was not going to leverage her show for him. How on Earth are the Republicans going to turn that into an attack?”

Welcome to You will find that after the initial blip on Sept. 5-6, it has slowly leaked into the mainstream media. I discovered it via the ever excellent Benton Foundation media headlines service, which linked to this trade press piece. I expect it will start to dominate the cable and broadcast news rounds via FOX and other conservative commentators soon. Timing will no doubt depend on focus group polling on whether Obama is gaining traction or if passion about Palin begins to wane. But from the current ferment in the vectors, I’m pegging it to be next week’s distraction.

The fact is that the developing attack on Oprah is an excellent case study of how the Republicans manipulate both their base and the mainstream media. It also highlights what Obama and the Ds need to do to defend. It is not simply about going after smears or going negative sooner stronger or any of these things. It is to understand that the Republican stategists at this level do not wait for targets of opportunity, nor do they hitch their train to a single issue or person. It is a matter of understanding overall methods of operation and developng proactive counter-strategies rather than reactive counter strategies. Along the way, it also helps highlight the current problem with our mainstream media and illustraights how the Rs are taking advatange of the internet in non-obvious ways.

Full analysis below . . . .

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The McCain Tech Policy In Action!

Apparently, the Dems were accused of being too wonky by having Mark Warner talk about bringing tech jobs to America, and the Republicans vowed not to repeat that mistake. Even former EBay CEO Meg Whitman, once such a strong advocate of network neutrality she sent an email to EBay users asking them to lobby Congress, remained silent about that series of tubes that Republicans find so gosh darned perplexing. No doubt this is in deference to Mr. McCain, who has boasted that he is a computer illiterate.

But this latest gaff, running a picture of Walter Reed Middle School on the green screen behind McCain instead of Walter Reed Hospital because they screwed up a Google images search, has certainly cemented not merely McCain, but the McCain campaign, as being in the ranks of the terminally clueless on matters technical. Mind you, it seems a piece with the general slovenly way they ran the convention. In a city run like a friggin’ police state, where “preemptive raids” are being used to lock up reporters and supposedly “keep us safer,” how the heck did protesters manage to infiltrate the candidates acceptance speech? More importantly, perhaps, how is it that the Dems could keep their own convention safer with less draconian security means?

Well, I shall leave the rather blatant messages on this as an exercise to the reader. While I hope to post about the Republican manipulation of the spineless wussies of the MSM later (what a sad state of affairs when the best running commentary and reporting on the convention has been the Indecision08 blog), I intend to focus here on the McCain Tech Policy or, more accurately, the utter absence of one.

As I observed when I first wrote about the McCain tech policy, it is unbelievable that the Republicans treat a multibillion dollar industry that has become one of our most critical pieces of infrastructure and major drivers of our economy as an afterthought to the business of cutting taxes and extending offshore drilling. All this lip service about “the jobs of tomorrow” and doesn’t mean squat if you still think “the interwebs” is all about downloading porn, stealing music, and soliciting minors in AOL chat rooms and this newfangled thing called “my space.”

And no, having Carly Fiorina and Meg Whittman or Michael Powell in your party does not mean squat about your commitment to this stuff unless you actually let them talk about this stuff in prime time. The Daily Show may have mocked Warner for getting into details only geeks could love, but the fact that the Democratic keynote speaker was all about how technology brought good jobs to rural Virginia and the Dems will bring those same good jobs to the small towns and inner cities tells us something about the parties priorities. And the fact that none of the Republican speakers, even the supposed tech experts, could take time away from mocking community organizers and helping the poor to mention anything vaguely tech-related tells us something as well.

Stay tuned . . . .

I Guess Republicans Think Community Organizing Is Funny.

Well, things were pretty depressed at the Republican convention over the last few days. But now we can begin a rollicking good time mocking the very idea that community organizing has value.

Of all the things that both Gulliani and Palin could have fixed on as a line of attack, the idea of community organizing as work for pussies is not what I would have expected, and Lord knows my expectations after Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are prety low. But what amazed me was how many folks on the floor of the RNC Convention actually laughed and whooped it up at the very mention of being a community organizer, before even getting to the supposed punchline about how it doesn’t give you any “real” experience.

Hee hee hee. Those whacky Democrats! They think that if someone goes out into a local poverty striken neighborhood, inspires people to believe that participating in the political process can change things and make their lives better, gets wildly diverse and often fractious interest groups focusing on a common goal, against industry interests backed by an entrenched political power structure, all on a shoe-string budget is something that matters! Ha ha ha! What a ma-roon! What a joke! People matter? They can make a difference? And inspiring them and organizing them to believe that qualifies you for something other than a beating by the cops? What a joke!

Voters who think they want to have beer with these people better think again. They will be happy to pat you on the head and drink your beer — especially if they can stick you with the tab. But if you would like people who actually give a crap about your lives, you’re coming to the wrong store.

As for community organizing, we actually have another name for it over here. We call it “voter registration.”

Laugh away chuckles. See you in Novemember when the rabble turn out to vote.

Stay tuned . . . .

The Difference Between Free Market Conservatives and Worshippers of the Gods of the Marketplace.

As regular readers know, I frequently deride those who continue to put their faith in a creed of deregulation despite empirical evidence that this is not suitable to all occasions as worshipers of of the “gods of the marketplace,” after the Rudyard Kipling Poem The Gods of the Copybook Heading (with a fine sense of irony that Kipling would be closer ideologically to the folks I criticize). This leads some to imagine that I am “anti-market” or “pro-regulation” or some other ideology that places process over outcome, rather than a pragmatic sort who believes that the job of public policy is to use all available tools to achieve the goals of prmoting the general welfare, securing domestic tranquility, etc., etc.

I recently came across an illustration of the difference in, of all cases, a collection of Darwin Award Winners (Darwin Awards Iv: Intelligent Design for anyone that cares). The book contains the tale of a “winner” who was a passionate anti-government type who refused to wear a seat belt in protest against mandatory seat belt laws. A car he was in in skidded and flipped over. The the driver and one passenger who were wearing seat belts survived. Our protesting friend was thrown from the car and died.

It occurred to me that this story nicely illustrates the difference between those who favor a free market approach and worshipers of the Gods of the Marketplace. A smart Libertarian may believe that the government has no right to order people to wear seat belts. But, evaluating all the evidence of how seat belts save lives, will voluntarily wear a seat belt even if not required. After all, it would be foolish to put one’s life at risk simply because the government wrongly orders people to do what you think makes good sense.

But an ideological driven soul, indifferent to empirical evidence and elevating process over substance, refuses to wear a seat belt because the government says you should, and therefore wearing a seat belt must be the wrong or inefficient result and believes it the positive duty of all anti-government believers to refuse to wear seat belts.

Now go read the dissenting statements of McDowell and Tate in the Comcast decision, the McCain Tech Policy, or any of a dozen or so speeches by elected representatives or pundits who get their economic education from reciting bumper stickers about free market economics they don’t understand. Then ask yourself, are these guys actually evaluating the evidence and accepting the result? Or are they driving with their seat belts off?

Stay tuned . . . .

The McCain Tech Policy Part II: Why McCain Can’t Fix The “Mercedes Divide?”

O.K., jokes aside about the lameness and lateness of McCain’s tech policy and associated privacy policy. How does this all really stack up as a substantive plan?

Two quotes from former FCC Chair and McCain tech adviser Michael Powell nicely illustrate the fundamental thrust of the plan. Not so coincidentally, both come from Powell’s first press conference as Chair of the FCC.

Quote 1.

“I don’t believe deregulation is like the dessert that you serve after people have fed on their vegetables, like a reward for competition,” Powell said. “I believe deregulation is instead a critical ingredient to facilitating competition, not something to be handed out after there is a substantial number of players and competitors in the market.”

Quote 2:

“I think the term [digital divide] sometimes is dangerous in the sense that it suggests that the minute a new and innovative technology is introduced in the market, there is a divide unless it is equitably distributed among every part of the society, and that is just an unreal understanding of an American capitalistic system. I think there is a Mercedes divide. I would like to have one, but I can’t afford one. I’m not meaning to be completely flip about this. I think it’s an important social issue, but it shouldn’t be used to justify the notion of, essentially, the socialization of deployment of the infrastructure.”

Once you accept the “Mercedes Divide” frame, you have run out of tools to deal with the issues because, by definition, whatever the market provides is what result you should get. McCain, obviously, does not wish to accept this rather obvious consequence, and therefore falls back on the usual platitudes and reliance on the gods of the marketplace, the competition fairy, and the delightful myth that — Adam Smith to the contrary — getting a collection of companies with similar interests together to regulate themselves will somehow work.

Surprisingly, as David Isenberg noted on his blog, what is amazing is that the plan leaves out the few bright stars of Michael Powell’s tenure at the FCC — notably Powell’s commitment to spectrum reform. While I certainly opposed Powell’s efforts to make spectrum licenses a species of property I enthusiastically applauded his equal willingness to engage seriously on opening more spectrum for non-exclusive unlicensed use (you can see a very old primer of mine from the dawn of the spectrum reform debates here). Perhaps spectrum reform proved too complicated or controversial an issue for McCain to address, even buried at the bottom of a tech policy.

But having ruled out open spectrum, McCain has left himself very few tools to actually provide all the benefits he promises. Rather like the current administration, which will tell you that Bush achieved his 2004 promise of universal broadband by 2007 so shut the heck up about those stupid international rankings, McCain’s tech platform will work swimmingly for true believers unconcerned with the impact on actual reality. Below, I draw out the substantive problems with the McCain tech & privacy plans in greater detail, and explain why the Obama plan actually looks like it would make real improvements in people’s lives because Obama recognizes that there is a real difference between “the government needs to build roads rather than wait for car companies to build them” and mandating that “everyone must have a Mercedes.”

More below . . . .

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McCain Tech Policy — A First Reaction

When you show up as the butt of a joke on the Colbert Report, you should know you’re in trouble. And when, by merry coincidence, Stephen Colbert does a piece on your self-professed computer illiteracy the night before you release your long awaited technology policy, you are in real trouble. Especially after your campaign gets repeatedly nailed in debates in tech policy fora (such as my employer’s Innovation ’08) for not even having a tech policy, when Barak Obama had a fully developed tech policy and functioning advisory team way back in the beginning of the primary, and after former FCC Chairman and campaign surrogate Michael Powell goes into virtual seclusion for a month to develop your tech plan, you know it had better be Goddamn Frickin’ Awesome. Even if you have already signaled it is going to be an extension of the same “the market solves all our problems and even thinking about regulation angers the terrible market gods, scares away the happy competition fairies, and brings a plague of liberal command and control locust ‘oer the land” nonsense that marked Powell’s FCC tenure and has plunged our telecommunications sector — nay, our entire economy — into the crapper, it should at least be a well written and engaging song of praise to the gods of the market place.

No such luck. It reads like some crotchety technophobe knocked over the bumper sticker rack at an Ayn Rand Reading Revival and tried to rearrange them so it made a policy. Half of it isn’t even particularly tech specific. For example, I don’t find it a coincidence that the first six bullet points are just variations on McCain’s standard “I hate taxes” theme. They could have easily have applied to his agriculture policy, if you substituted “no new taxes on wireless services” for “no new taxes on sorghum.” Nor am I aware of a serious mass movement to tax wireless services (or sorghum).

As for the rest, well, see below. . . .

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FISA Reflections: FISA and The FCC

Well, the foul FISA Amendments Act is signed. I shall have more refections as time permits. But I did have one thought here. FISA and the FCC.

The Title II of the FISA Amendment Act of 2008, the “Protection for Electronic Communications Service Providers,” provides for protection from any “covered civil law suit.” As John Dean first observed, the bill does not refer to criminal immunity. Personally, however, I think that is a bit of a red herring, although I am curious as to whether the pardon power really runs to corporations and other artificial person that exist solely as a function of law. But lets assume it does. So let us assume that on his last day, Bush pardons anyone and everyone involved in the whole sorry affair. Where does that leave us?

The Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC is not a “court” of the United State as defined by the act. A complaint brought to the FCC under the Customer Premise Network Information (CPNI) rules, or even the broader provisions of Section 202 “just and reasonable practices,” does not fall within the purview of a “covered civil action.” In the event that a pardon is considered to cover possible administrative sanction, I would observe that a Petition for Declaratory Ruling that the conduct disclosed violated the CPNI rules is not a criminal action or civil liability, but would still entitle the Commission under its broad powers pursuant to Section 4(i) and Section 403 to investigate. Indeed, under Section 403, the Commission is free to conduct an investigation into the matter on its own motion — if it so desires. The Commission is not limited by the Article III “cases or controversies” requirement. It can investigate anything pertinent to its regulation of all communications by wire or radio, particularly when related to administration of any provision of the Act.

The upside is that, short of a statute specifically prohibiting the FCC from investigating anything related to the domestic spying program, it is damn hard to take this broad investigative authority away. As noted above, even the absence of any criminal or civil liability cannot divest the FCC of its authority to investigate communications carriers — particularly those regulated as common carriers under Title II. Given that the Chair of the FCC cannot be removed by the President, and I would need to check about the applicability of an executive order to the FCC, nothing short of a direct Act of Congress again could deprive the FCC of its ability to investigate. (I imagine we will need to watch the appropriations bills very carefully to see if some clever person sneaks it in under the radar.)

The downside, of course, is that this lies entirely within the discretion of the agency. Even a filed complaint or Petition for Declaratory ruling cannot compel the agency to action.

So we shall just have to see what happens after the election. If we have an FCC interested in letting the American people know how their government spied on them, what actual benefit accrued, if any, and what the FCC might do under existing law to keep that from happening again in the future (all, of course, consistent with national security, blah, blah), we can at least find out what went on and shame these companies into being more careful the next time around. OTOH, if we have an FCC that believes that “national security” means giving the telcos a free ride if the Administration asks nicely, then we can’t find out jack.

Stay tuned . . . .

The Final FISA Sellout and My One Last Desperate Push for Sanity

The capacity of the Democratic Leadership to destroy the party will never cease to amaze me. In 2006 the Dems ran to take over Congress on a platform that included, among other things, ending illegal wiretaps on Americans. Now, the same Democrats propose to grant immunity to the telcos who cooperated with the Administration on a theory that — and I kid you not — if we don’t immunize the telcos for breaking the law this time, they might not break the law for us next time. Alternatively, some argue we should not “punish” companies whose only crime was that they cared so deeply about the safety and security of the United States that they “stepped up to the plate” when the President asked them to break the law and spy on people for their own good. Of course, these same selfless, patriotic, noble companies refused to implement judicially authorized wiretaps because the DoJ neglected to pay the fees. But it appears that Republicans, and now a sufficient number of Democrats, understand that we cannot expect patriotism to extend to things that actually cost megacorporations money. You can read this shameful betrayal of everything the Democrats pledged in ’06 here, with EFF’s analysis here.

What makes this more astounding is that there is not a single, rational reason for the Democrats to do this, and every reason not to do it. The Republicans tried to scare monger and make this an issue for them. That tactic failed miserably. You may recall how back last winter when the Republicans pulled out all the usual stops about how this was about national security and blah blah blah. No one bought it. The magic deadlines lapsed and nothing happened.

So either the Democratic Leadership continues to suffer from a pre-11/06 mentality, or they think they can continue to abuse their active base and collect corporate contributions as well. After all, the thinking goes, it’s not like the mainstream electorate cares about this and its not like the netroots are going to vote Republican. So why not treat them the way we’ve treated unions, African Americans, and unions over the years? i.e., talk tough, but cave when it counts because we know there are no consequences for it.

I’ve already made my impassioned plea based on the ideal of the Rule of Law. Now, in a last desperate effort, I shall make my plea based on practicality and — in what is apprently the universal language of party leadership — cash.

Democrats, meet me below . . . .

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