Thursday, January 31, 2008

If I Were A Pundit...

Since politics seem to be consuming much of my life these days (in addition to school) I wanted to share a few thoughts that have been randomly passing through my mind and that I don’t think have been reflected in the political punditry I’ve been reading. I’ll preface my comments by disclosing that though I’m an active Hillary supporter, I believe my observations are fairly objective, at least from a Democratic point of view:

1) Obama’s campaign is both hindered and helped by the fact that he’s tapped into a new and inspiring generational movement, which is in many ways a continuation of the Dean movement from 4 years ago, though clearly more resilient. Obamania has helped the candidate in obvious ways – he’s generated an aura of electricity and inspiration around him that draws huge crowds to his events and a host of politicians stumbling over each other to endorse him. He’s also transcended the grit of daily politics through his oratory and helped to bring out record turnouts at the polls. Like Dean, Obama has harnessed the Internet much more effectively than any of the other candidates through Facebook, YouTube, etc. (though all the candidates could take lessons from Ron Paul on Internet fundraising). However, Obama’s movement also makes his path to the nomination more difficult in some ways. Our electoral system hasn’t caught up with the digital age – people don’t vote online – and as a result, Obama is left with the task of convincing everyone out there in netherworld of the Internet to channel their energy to getting to the polls. The vast majority of Obama’s movement base – especially the online base - moreover is young voters (at least outside of the Southern states that have significant African American populations), who can also be flaky voters when it comes time to actually getting to the polls or sending in an absentee ballot. Imagine if everyone under the age of 25 could simply vote online – Obama would likely win the primaries by a healthy margin. Obama’s young demographic cluster also has the potential to turn off older people (who traditionally are more reliable voters) because a young movement to them may also seem like a rebellious or inexperienced one. For these reasons, Obama’s endorsements by members of the Democratic establishment, ironic though it may seem for a candidate who stands on a platform of bucking traditional party politics, are critical for him if he hopes to pull a more diverse demographic into his camp on election day.

2) Though Hillary’s win in Florida hasn’t resulted in a momentum surge for Hillary nor has it received much treatment in the press (and to the extent it has, much of the media has focused on the fact that Florida’s Democratic delegates will not be counted at the party convention because the state violated party rules by holding its primary too early), it is a significant win. It gives Hillary a foothold in Florida if she advances to the general election and a claim that when the rest of the party ignored Floridians she chose not to. This claim is important because Florida will be a swing state in the general election. If Hillary can argue that she has a chance of delivering Florida for the Democratic side over McCain, it underscores her electability argument. Obama properly chose to downplay Florida, but because McCain will be a powerful attraction to independent voters in the state (especially since he’s already been endorsed by Florida’s governor), Obama faces longer odds of winning the state.

3) Going into the primary season the general consensus, given President Bush’s declining popularity, was that this election is the Democrats’ to lose. Here, however, is one of the great ironies of the whole primary process: The Republican nomination has been up in the air because voters have been trying to choose between a middling set of candidates, while the Democratic nomination has remained undecided because voters are torn between two terrific candidates. Now that Republican voters have a clear front runner in McCain (and, to voters’ credit, I do believe McCain represents the most formidable candidate possible for the Republican ticket), the Republicans will have a head start in preparing for the general election. This means that the Democrats are already starting off at a disadvantage despite fielding an impressive and historic array of candidates (this includes all of the candidates with the exception of Mike Ravel).

I have many more musings to share, but my school books and bed are both beckoning me over my shoulder and I imagine I've written enough by now for the readers that have made it this far. Homework or bed. Bed or homework. Hmmm......

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Magic 2008 Ball

In my previous life as an investment banker I used to publish a quarterly newsletter whose first issue of each New Year predicted the top ten trends that would take place during the subsequent 12 months. I always enjoyed coming up with that list and so, have decided to revive my version of the top ten trends here on this blog. Some of these trends are obvious and are based directly on front-page headlines; others are products of my own observations; and still others are educated-sounding wild guesses. None of these predictions are 100 percent certain to take place, but all I believe represent at least a little snippet of what will be going on in our own lives, in this country, and around the world in the next 12 months.

The Media's Not-So-Straight Talk: The ongoing presidential election has provided the media with a newfound conviction in its own ability to persuade public opinion. Though that belief took a hit in New Hampshire, where Hillary Clinton won the primary despite virtually universal press reports to the contrary, the printed and online press will continue to blur the lines between impartial fact and opinion, potentially damaging their collective credibility, but presenting news that encourages readers to unconsciously adopt the writers’ perspectives.

Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue: The United States’ fall from world dominance (which can, in my opinion, be traced back approximately to the day President Bush was inaugurated) will accelerate for two reasons. First, the weak American dollar means fewer Americans will be spreading their wealth and their gospel across the globe. Second, the election of anti-democratic governments despite a democratic electoral process will punch holes through the aura of supremacy that has surrounded American-style democracy since the end of the Cold War.

The DP on the LD: The recent trend in the United States favoring a moratorium against carrying out capital punishment will continue when the Supreme Court (hopefully) rules that the standard system of lethal injection in the United States is unconstitutional, thereby forcing states to come up with a new protocol. The public will also continue to coalesce in its opposition to executions. Despite the decrease in actually carrying out executions, however, states will continue to sentence individuals to death, a rate which may increase (depending on another upcoming Supreme Court decision) if they are allowed to impose capital punishment for crimes that did not involve killing the victim.

The R Word: I hate to say this word, but I think a recession is coming. The crisis that began in the subprime mortgage market and now has begun to spread the larger economy as a whole will continue in the United States, evidenced by rising inflation and lower economic growth. The job market will start tightening up and Ben Bernanke will take a boinking, bopping and beating (all in the name of a good alliteration) by the media, politicians and general public alike.

Hair: Mohawks out, mullets in.

Revival of couture fashion: Spurred in part by growing income inequality as well as the emergence of a new generation of high end fashion designers to replace the old guard, couture fashion will be making a comeback.

iPhone Takes Over the World: iPhones and devices with similar interfaces will replace the blackberry and sidekick as the primary communication/entertainment/personal organizer gadgets, thereby getting Steve Jobs that much closer to accomplishing his not-so-subliminal mission to take over the world from Bill Gates.

The Strike is Mightier Than the Pen: Though the writers may eventually win a favorable contract (as they should), the ongoing strike will accelerate the weakening of major studios’ buying power because of independent production companies who managed to continue production during the writers’ strike. The strike will also cause the decline of traditional television programs, to be replaced by much cheaper reality tv programs (some proposals on the table: Dancing On The Stars – the first reality television program broadcast from space; Trading Countries – President Musharraf from Pakistan and Ahmadinejad from Iran trade places to see which leader can destroy the other leader’s country first. Grand prize = the right to take over and destroy Israel).

Increasing Civil Strife in Weak Democracies: Civil strife will increase in already weak democracies, such as Kenya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey and southern Iraq. Declining American influence, Europe’s ambivalence towards getting involved in developing countries’ internal affairs given the history of colonialism (which is partly responsible for today’s intra-national conflicts anyway) and China’s indifference to democratic regime change will prevent international pressure from successfully suppressing the civil strife. These factors may ultimately lead to new governments and city-states forming along tribal and ethnic lines.

Winning a Green Medal: The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing will be remembered more for their impact on the environment than for participating athletes’ awe-inspiring achievements on the field of competition. Recycling. Alternate fuels. Lower fuel emissions. Hybrid cars. Reduced pollution. All of these various terms will be at the forefront of countries’ consciousness when this mega-sporting event takes place in one of the most polluted industrialized city’s in the world. The winner of the individual competitions may take home the gold, but if progress is actually accomplished ahead of the Summer Olympics towards sustainable environmental policies responsive to the threat of global warming then the world will stand on the top podium sporting green medals in Beijing.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Campaign Trail Mix

Manchester, NH* - Greetings from the Hillary Clinton campaign trail in New Hampshire where all the women are strong, the men are good looking, the children above average, and reality is whatever you want it to be at any given hour. Being embedded deep in the ground (or on the ground, as the case may be) here in the Granite State I’ve been going door to door, making phone calls, and eating as much food as possible that’s being thrown my way all in the name of helping to sway those undecided Democrats and independent voters that Hillary is their candidate for President.

In my first few hours after arriving, I knocked on doors and was told by weary residents that they had had enough solicitations for the day and couldn’t talk to me. I knocked on doors and was promptly informed that the voter I was there to see had passed away (and therefore would not be voting for Hillary). I knocked on doors and was surprised that the majority of folks who were home actually welcomed me with a warm smile and an invitation to explain why I think Hillary is the candidate to vote for.

My second morning began with a rude wake up call at 7AM when myself and a group of 10 Hillary volunteers were out-represented and out-shouted by a group of at least 10 times as many Obama supporters rallying behind Diane Sawyer from Good Morning America. It’s a good thing that candidates aren’t elected by Nielsen ratings.

After that my day was a blur of more canvassing – traipsing around Manchester and its suburbs in melting snow to reach out to Clinton supporters and undecided voters alike. And then came an evening of surreal politics. On my first night I had befriended a group of like-aged volunteers, who it turns out were Chelsea Clinton's close friends. They invited me to a young professional’s event to convince undecided voters they should vote for Hillary. An hour later I found myself seated next to Mayor Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, a rising political star (and well-known for, um, some unpolitical activities) on my left, and Terry McAuliffe, former chair of the DNC, on my right, having two separate conversations with them at once. I also met an undecided voter, still undecided with 12 hours ‘till the polls opened despite having been wooed by all the candidates for months. After speaking to him for a few minutes I asked Mayor V to chat with him while I went and got the Mayor a beer. Thirty minutes later they were still talking (and the beer was finished) and they only stopped because we were on to Hillary’s final rally before the big day.

Traveling with Chelsea's friends and Bill Clinton’s personal assistant has its advantages, including getting to bypass traffic to get to the rally, and heading straight into the auditorium through the back entrance and right onto the stage where Hillary would be talking. After Hillary's energizing speech before a few thousand supporters (given while I waived my sign, danced, nodded, did the mambo and generally had a good time in the background), I walked backstage to wait to meet Hillary, Bill & Chelsea capping a pretty much perfect evening.

But of course, the evening hadn’t ended – it had just begun. Back to the campaign office I went, and to my status as just another volunteer, to work until 1:30AM getting things ready for Election Day. Three hours later I was back, the big day finally having arrived and with no time to waste to make sure voters got to the polls to vote for Hillary. By 5AM Hillary volunteers were dispatched throughout New Hampshire like newspaper deliverymen, hanging signs on peoples’ doors reminding them to vote. 4 hours later I was out knocking on doors reminding people personally to get to the polls, and later in the afternoon I was at the polls, holding signs and talking to undecided voters who had to make a decision in the 100 or so feet it took for them to get from my sign to the voting booth. And then from there it was a race to the last town with the polls still open - 30 minutes outside of Manchester - to knock on a few more doors because we heard that the race was closer than expected and every single vote counted.

At last, the polls were closed and the counting had begun, and after two hours of keeping ourselves occupied with music from Hillary's rally CD played on repeat and interspersed cheers of H-I-L-L-A-R-Y we were slapping high fives, hugging, dancing, cheering and clapping when the networks called the race for our candidate, even though she had been considered out for the count by the media only a couple of hours ago.

In my three days in New Hampshire, I know I made a difference. I know that people chose who to vote for based on our interactions. The undecided voter I had met at the bar the previous night was at the election night party and came to me to tell me he finally made his decision to vote for Hillary on his way to the polls in the morning after reflecting on our conversation the previous evening and on how Mayor V was so passionate about Hillary that he ignored everything else just to talk with him for so long. I found out that one town I had canvassed just that day to remind people to vote had voted in Hillary’s favor by a mere 16 votes. And the single mother who I spoke with at the polls who had to be younger than me with a child on Medicaid and health insurance that she was about to lose voted for Hillary after our conversation.

I also know I played a part in something bigger - the "movement for change" coined by Obama but an apt description of Hillary's campaign as well. It could also be called simply democracy at work. Together, Hillary and Obama's teams (along with some good weather) inspired a record turnout at the New Hampshire polls. My efforts along with the thousands of other volunteers who descended on New Hampshire the last few weeks led to a healthy debate of ideas and discussion as to who should lead our country next, with only minimal digging into the barrel of dirty and negative politics on both sides of the aisle.

Coming from a state (Maryland or New York, take your pick) that typically has much less say in the nomination process than New Hampshire, I’m amazed at how politics here play out as we imagine they should. The candidates’ roll up their sleeves and put out their hands and become accessible to people so politically unconnected that they couldn’t get a legislator’s third deputy secretary to bat an eye in their direction if this were Washington D.C. Small armies of paid staff and volunteers go door to door and phone call to phone call trying to persuade each individual voter that their vote counts; and everyone acts with a mission and sense of purpose that they’re involved with something bigger than themselves. It certainly makes me wonder whether it’s fair that a small percentage of voters in the early primary states get to experience the wonderful phenomenon of democracy at work to the exclusion of other states in the Union.

And now it's back to New York City where I have a pile of school work waiting for me along with a bed that sounds a whole lot more inviting. Exhausted. Exhilarated.

*This posting was written mostly in New Hampshire and edited upon my return

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Another Brick in the Wall

In the infinitely-sized and ever-expanding book describing the history of civilization, the heading of Chapter LCIVM, Volume 6,371 (or maybe its Volume 6,372) is only one word long and is printed in large bold typeface so that it immediately captures the reader’s attention: WALLS the chapter title proclaims. Turning the pages, the reader is treated to a historical narrative featuring names like the Great Wall of China, the Wailing Wall, the walled cities of medieval Europe and Germany’s Berlin Wall. Combined, these names tell a story of how walls have been used to establish the borders of city-states, to force the separation of groups of individuals and to provide for strategic defense. And, even once the walls no longer serve their original purpose they have become silent testaments to a peoples’ history.

Reflecting on my most recent trip to Israel, which I just returned from, I’ve realized that a new paragraph has been added to this particular chapter of civilization’s history book. Until now only one wall, the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall and the Kotel), has symbolized Jerusalem’s paramount significance to the Jewish people and to Israel’s identity. The Western Wall formed a part of the retaining wall for the Second Temple until the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E, and today it is considered the central symbol in Jerusalem towards which Jews from all over the world pray. On the ten or so trips I’ve been to Israel, I’ve visited the Kotel every time. Though I don’t personally ascribe religious meaning to the wall itself, some of my most spiritual moments have taken place there – seeing thousands of people flock towards the Wall before dawn on the holiday of Shavuot, for example, or meditating as I lean my head on the stones that have been touched by Jews dating back 2000 years.

In the last five years, a second wall has been raised in Jerusalem that, like the Western Wall, has become central to Jerusalem’s identity in the Middle East. Several days ago, I had the opportunity to travel alongside the West Bank Wall that Israel has constructed to separate Jerusalem and the areas outside of it from the Palestinian West Bank territory. The wall was begun under former Primer Minister Ariel Sharon in 2002, and its stated intention was to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from entering into Israel. Since its construction (it’s now about 95% complete) the number of suicide bombings in Israel has declined dramatically, a result at least partially attributable to the wall’s presence.

Besides its stated purpose, the West Bank Wall has had several other consequences. For example, it represents an attempt by Israel to set the parameters of a two-state solution to the Middle East peace conflict and to define the border between itself and any future Palestinian state. For the most part, that border runs alongside the 1949 Green Line between Israel and then-Jordanian territory, but the wall extends beyond that line to ensure that some of the highly populated Israeli settlements in the West Bank are on the Israeli side of it.

In addition to the polis boundaries that the wall establishes, it has raised a host of complex humanitarian issues. For instance, the wall runs through Palestinian-owned fields. Though Israel has offered compensation for taking the land, the owners have refused to accept money from the Israeli government. Palestinian towns and villages have been literally cut in half by the wall, and as a result people have been forcefully separated from their families and friends. Moreover, Palestinian access to emergency medical treatment in Israel has become more difficult because ambulances must first pass through one of only a few open checkpoints along the wall before they’re allowed to enter Israel.

A series of conflicted emotions ran through me as I stood alongside the West Bank Wall a few days ago. I was perhaps most struck by the fact that the West Bank Wall has become a popular tourist destination, and I saw no less than 5 other tourist groups in addition to our own taking a tour of the wall on the morning we were. Was the Berlin Wall also a site of perverse curiosity when it was first built? At times I felt like an awed spectator to history, walking alongside a structure that, though inanimate, has not yet been set in stone (pun intended), and whose ongoing changes directly affects peoples’ daily lives.

I also felt a spark of hope. One of my life dreams is to see peace and security in Israel finally achieved. Since the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993, however, I long ago became frustrated and disillusioned with the bilateral negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians that have been characterized only by their remarkable and repeated failures. Though the wall is an eyesore, seeing it raised a glimmering chance that Israel’s unilateral actions may let the people of Israel live without the daily fear of suicide bombings or rocket attacks threatening the country’s very existence, and may set the parameters for a successful two-state solution to peace.

Lastly, standing alongside the wall’s spray-painted décor, I felt anguish. Anguish because the wall makes concrete that Israel is not the role model I expect it to be in treating other peoples inside and outside of its borders, even when those peoples are its enemies. Anguish because once built, history teaches us that a wall is almost impossible to take down without physical violence or revolution. Anguish because two walls have come to represent Jerusalem, where before there was only one.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

In the News....

Happy New Year's!! My apologies for not writing in such a long time, but first final exams and then, immediately afterwards, a trip abroad from which I just returned has kept me offline and away from blogging for a significant chunk of time.

A more substantive post will be following shortly, but in the meantime I'd like to share my most recent nanosecond of fame. It wasn't enough to attract a media horde to my arrival at JFK airport yesterday, but I made the news in this week's issue of New York Magazine (not the same as the New Yorker). Feel free to check out the article here.