Progressives: Are You Out of Your Minds?

June 14, 2010

I have a question for my fellow political progressives.

Are you out of your minds?

You’re really thinking about sitting out this election? You really are migrating to a “what difference does it make” neverland?

Before you get too comfortable with that self-righteous position, let’s review a bit of recent political history.

Like 1968. Progressives were angry at Hubert Humphrey for not breaking sooner with LBJ over the war. And so we got Nixon and 5 more years of war, tens of thousands more deaths, Watergate, impeachment and a spiral of distrust in government that hasn’t bottomed out, even today.

Humphrey nearly won the popular vote that year and the states that would have made him president he lost by inches. But progressives were angry. Angry at the war. Angry that Humphrey beat Eugene McCarthy for the nomination. So we got Nixon.

Let’s move on to 1980. Progressives were mad at Jimmy Carter, mad that Ted Kennedy didn’t win the nomination, mad about a lot of things. And so we got Ronald Reagan and decades of tax cutting and deregulation that’s morphed into multiple banking scandals, and a budget so starved for cash that people are seriously considering cuts in social security and other programs that provide the glue for a stable society.

Then there was 2000. Remember? Tweedle dee and Tweedle dum? What difference did it make whether Bush or Gore won? Now we know, don’t we? Two wars, a meat cleaver to progressive taxation and agencies designed to protect the public turned over to a pack of greedy, hungry industry wolves. Thank you Ralph Nader and all of you who voted for him.

So now we’re all mad at Obama. He didn’t get us single payer. He didn’t take over and break up the big banks. He’s been slow on don’t ask don’t tell and suspect on cap and trade. He doubled down on Afghanistan. And where’s immigration reform?

Last year I sat in on one of the larger progressive conferences of the year, sponsored by the organization Campaign for America’s Future. You could feel the electricity of hope and change crackling everywhere. This year a lot of people stayed home. Some attended just to heckle Nancy Pelosi. Nancy Pelosi! The most progressive Speaker of the House ever. The Speaker who raised health reform from the ashes of Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts. The Speaker who’s guided just about the entire progressive agenda through a House that by no means has a progressive majority.

If enough progressives pout long enough this year we may well wind up with John Boehner as Speaker and Jim DeMint as Senate Majority Leader. Yes, Jim DeMint.

Add Rand Paul, Sharon Angle, Mark Rubio, and a few others to the Senate Republican caucus, mix in a wave of media about Tea Party victories, and the intimidation that causes in Republican Senate ranks, toss in a dash of resentment and anger at Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn for using the Republican Senate Campaign Committee as a weapon against extreme right wing candidates and what do you have?

Or, maybe you think that can’t happen. I remember, vividly, how happy so many Democrats were that Ronald Reagan won the Republican nomination in 1980. He was so far to the right he was unelectable. Right.

Progressives, Instead of focusing on a wish list of what’s yet undone, how about paying more attention to all the good stuff that’s happened since the 2008 election?

Let’s start with two fairly progressive Supreme Court nominees and the possibility of one or two more if the Democrats can retain a working majority. How about a nuclear arms agreement with Russia? That’s not important? The new health reform act may not be the plan of our dreams, but it’s a giant step down that road and establishes health as a right—no small achievement. There’s a revolution under way in education because of the billions stuffed into the original stimulus plan. And that plan is starting to disburse billions more for mass transit and green energy programs.

Move on to the federal agencies where so much vital work goes on, generally away from the front pages. The Obama FCC is going to get us a national broadband network despite resistance from the corporate giants. The SEC is working for the public again, not the traders. Across the board the Obama appointments have been excellent, public-minded professionals, not revolving door corporate hacks.

Financial reform’s not yet done, but likely. And a reasonably strong reform bill, too, given the infantry division of lobbyists arrayed against it. Energy policy is touch and go. But if Republicans controlled things or the Democratic majority was thinner energy reform wouldn’t even be under consideration. Immigration reform will be on the agenda and don’t count out its passage—-and not just money to complete the border fence.

And lest we forget, Bush’s tax cuts for the rich expire this year. Just use your imagination on how differently the votes on extension will be because Democrats run things.

Anyone active in politics, from the left or right, should know by now that you don’t score by throwing long bombs. Political gains, as exercised under the U.S. system, come in yards and inches. What’s important is to be on the offense and to be moving the ball.

For progressives to sulk this year is to hand the ball over to a 21st century Nixon or Reagan or Bush—-or worse.

To do that you would have to be out of your mind.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at


Can BP Survive This? Not Likely

June 9, 2010

To all you good folks in the Gulf states who are taking a financial beating and expect BP to make you whole, good luck.

And good luck to the cities, states and federal government who expect BP to pay for the cleanup and other costs created by BP’s gross incompetence.

Exxon, a much bigger and richer company, left a trail of cost and wreckage in the wake of the Exxon Valdez. Don’t expect BP, a company notorious for its indifference to safety and environmental laws and regulations, to suddenly emerge as a model citizen—-particularly with so much money is at stake.

If fact, don’t expect BP even to survive this calamity at all. More likely is that BP will file for bankruptcy and shed whatever obligations it can ditch in court. Then, look for some suitor to absorb a cleaned up BP balance sheet and feed off the tens of billions of barrels of oil reserves remaining in its portfolio.

An industry insider tells me the buyer of BP won’t be Exxon or Shell, since such a deal wouldn’t sit well with anti-trust enforcers. Think more along the lines of Brazil’s Petrogras—a rich and growing company that is bound to covet BP’s properties.

And add to the list of companies that will be taken down by this disaster lots of small drillers and other oil related companies that no longer will be able to afford insurance because the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon costs already are driving premiums sky high.

Wall Street apparently isn’t seriously considering the possibility of a BP bankruptcy. Of 17 financial analysts who follow the oil and gas industry most are encouraging their clients to buy BP stock. They look at the current price, now down about 40% since the Deepwater Horizon blowout, they calculate the $5 billion BP netted in the first quarter, and the $17 billion it made in 2009, and the quality and quantity of the company’s oil reserves and they see a bargain of an investment.

This is how it often goes with people whose only goal is financial profit and whose reading material is predominantly numbers, not words. Many analysts were hawking Enron’s stock on the way down, too.

But before this is over, BP is likely to owe the federal government up to $4,300 a barrel for every one of the tens of millions (maybe even hundreds of millions) of barrels gushing into the Gulf. That’s the penalty Washington’s permitted to extract under the Clean Water Act.

BP also owes the government royalties on every gallon of gas pouring from the uncapped pipe. That explains why BP is so reluctant to make an honest estimate of the flow rate.

All this before clean up and compensation costs. How much compensation? The tourist industry in the affected states (and this number doesn’t even include Florida) is estimated at $20 billion a year. The Gulf seafood industry generates another $20 billion a year. It may be years before these industries recover.

And then there’s the matter of cleaning the beaches, the marshes, the fresh water areas—-a number that would compound quickly in the event of an untimely hurricane, or the escape of oil to the U.S. east coast.

Naturally BP will fight to limit its exposure. Exxon spent 21 years in court after the Exxon Valdez disaster and managed to whittle its payment to affected fishermen and other injured parties down from $5 billion to $500 million. But the Exxon Valdez experience toughened the penalties for everyone coming after it. And the Gulf states will be able to apply considerably more pressure than did far away Alaska.

Furthermore, Exxon’s safety and environmental record pre-Exxon Valdez looks pristine against BP’s. In recent days the investigative news service ProPublica has compiled a string of investigations aimed at BP for a wide variety of incidents during the past few years.

The charges include intimidating workers who raised safety or environmental concerns, falsifying inspections of fuel tanks at a Los Angeles refinery (inspectors were forced to get a warrant before BP allowed them to check the tanks), failure of an emergency warning system before the deadly 2005 Texas City refinery explosion, dangerous pipeline maintenance failures in Alaska, and others.

So don’t expect BP to do what its president, Tony Hayward says it will do. Hayward will be long gone before it’s time for BP to put up real bucks to right its wrongs. And the company’s culture shows little evidence of having been hit by anything close to pangs of conscience over this. Remember, BP’s first act after the drilling rig exploded and sank was to send in a platoon of lawyers to persuade fishermen to trade their right to future claims for an immediate $5,000 check.

The choices here are stark. The U.S. either needs to do what former Labor Secretary Robert Reich suggests and take over the company and its assets to recover public and private costs, or to watch helplessly from the sidelines while issues get litigated for years, BP is ordered to pay gigantic sums and avoids them through bankruptcy.

That’s the money side of it.

Then, there’s the question of accountability, which we’ve seen so little of lately. Government officials can lie us into wars and suffer no retribution. Wall Street moguls can gamble away investor and depositor money and keep their jobs, with bonuses, no less. How about one time, this time, bringing to account those responsible for devastating so much property and so many lives? How about doing what legendary frontier Judge Roy Bean was fond of saying: “Give ’em a fair trial. And then hang ’em.”

I’m not suggesting hanging. But some jail time might focus the attention of others in finance and energy about having respect for something more than the next quarter’s stock price.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at

The Fairness Doctrine: A Phantom Issue

May 24, 2010

Pssst. Want to make some easy money?

Here’s a can’t miss tip.

Start a web site to raise money to fight the return of the Fairness Doctrine.

What’s the Fairness Doctrine, you ask? It was a requirement that TV and radio and networks give equal time to both sides in arguments over public policy. During the Reagan era the Fairness Doctrine was repealed to appease broadcasters who claimed that it imposed an onerous burden on them.

And why is raising money to fight its return easy money? Because there is no fight. The President, the leadership of Congress and the chairman of the FCC all have signaled they have no intention of adding the Fairness Doctrine to their already full menu of difficult political battles.

That’s the reality. But over in the black=white world of right wing politics, the wires are burning hot with fears that there’s a secret plan to reimpose (shudder) fairness to broadcasting. It’s become one of the political right’s worst nightmares.

Just type “Fairness Doctrine” into your Google search box and see what comes up. It’s a vast wonderland of misinformation and conspiratorial theories, consistent with the worldview that President Obama and his allies are mortal threats to the American way of life.

Actually, I’m disappointed that the administration isn’t making an issue of the Fairness Doctrine. I wish there were a fight. There’s a certain charm to the word, “fairness.” The doctrine it applied to was aptly named.

The airwaves are, and have been since their development, the property of the public. We, the public, let commercial and public vendors use those airwaves under certain terms and conditions. One of those conditions (for more than half a century) used to be that if one side of a public debate is given time to make its case the other side should be given an equal amount of time.

That condition makes a lot of sense because radio and TV air time is finite. In print you can add more pages. Can’t do that in broadcast because no matter how hard we try there’s still only going to be 7 days and 24 hours. Time is limited. Time when most people watch and listen is even more limited. If one side dominates an argument on broadcast there’s slim chance for the other side to mount an argument equal to it.

And that’s pretty much what’s happened since the Fairness Doctrine went away in 1987. What used to be reasonably balanced call in shows have morphed into multi-hour screeds by Rush Limbaugh and his legion of imitators. And since they are awfully good at their craft, political entertainment, they draw big audiences and lots of advertising. In the process they have warped the national debate on an endless number of vital issues, with scant opportunity for the other side to respond to the same audiences.

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon was in Washington, D.C. the other day and blamed repeal of the Fairness Doctrine for creating a climate that enabled passage of Arizona’s new immigration law, the law that makes all Hispanic looking people in the state seem guilty of something unless they can prove their innocence.

Gordon’s comments fell on deaf ears in Washington, but for sure raised a lot of money for those battling the phantom of the Fairness Doctrine. Gordon’s words were seen as an outcropping of the “secret plan” by the administration to return fairness to the airwaves. And we can’t have that.

I should add here that since the administration is doing zilch to restore the Fairness Doctrine, the political right is focusing on what they see as its evil twin, internet neutrality. The net neutrality fight is a real fight, one the administration is on record supporting—–and for the sake of everyone who wants to keep internet news and information channels relatively free—had better win.

Here’s what’s at stake. The big money guys who currently control the flow of most internet traffic want to charge some sites more than others to use the internet. This is akin to, but not exactly like, the way cable operators pick and choose which channels will show up on their systems. If they succeed, some very greedy traffic cops will be inserted at strategic points on the information superhighway. That can’t be good for anyone except those who profit from it.

The anti-net-neutrality campaign is working hard to wrap the Fairness Doctrine argument around itself. And the easy marks on the right are buying in to that argument.

So that’s why I suggest that raising money to fight the Fairness Doctrine is such easy money. There’s a lot of it out there in the hands of gullible people who are willing to contribute to fight both fairness and neutrality.

Pickins’ hardly come any easier than that.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at

If This Is Going to be A Republican Year Why Do Democrats Keep Winning?

May 20, 2010

Here’s some friendly advice for those who can’t resist trying to predict the political future by reading political tea leaves: this year use more than one cup.

If, from the scent of Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts, you whiffed a November Republican landslide, check out the cups served the other day in Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

The news from Kentucky in most press accounts was the rise of Rand Paul as a Tea Party candidate. Most of those same stories neglected to mention that Paul was only the third highest vote getter in that U.S. Senate race. Both Democrats running for the Senate won more votes than Paul. In fact, 60% of those who voted in the Kentucky primary voted for Democrats.

What do those tea leaves tell you? That come November Rand and the Tea Party will sweep Kentucky? Sniff again.

Then there were the results from Pennsylvania’s special congressional election to replace the late Rep. John Murtha. Murtha was a Democrat, true enough. But his district was anything but reliably Democratic. In fact, while Barack Obama was winning what amounted to a presidential landslide victory in 2008, Murtha’s district was voting for John McCain.

Encouraged by the district’s Republican leanings, and by their own rhetoric promising a Republican victory march come November, the GOP poured millions into the race to replace Murtha. But the Democratic candidate won, and won with a surprising margin approaching 10%.

Let’s put that Democratic victory in context. During the 2009-2010 cycle there have been 7 special elections to fill vacant congressional seats. The Democrats so far have won them all. That’s right. So far the score is 7-0 in the Democrats’ favor.

So there’s a reasonable chance that the tea leaves that fell into place after Massachusetts, portending a Republican November sweep were merely a mutant variety.

The correct cup may have been the one poured a few weeks earlier in upstate New York, in a district the Democrats had not won for 100 or more years. There, last November, Democrat Bill Owens was elected after Tea Party types took over the Republican party and nominated someone so right wing the local Republican majority couldn’t support him.

It’s not all that apparent from media coverage, but there are a lot of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who don’t think the U.S. should abolish the U.S. Department of Education, or withdraw from the UN Treaty on the Rights of the Child, or should go back to the “Austrian School of Economics” which counsels that the free market is more or less a perfect regulator and doesn’t need much, if any, government regulation.

All of the above, and a lot more, is now the Republican party platform in Maine, a document written after Tea Party delegates hijacked the Maine GOP at the party’s convention a few weeks ago. Maine’s Republican candidates will run this year either buying into this extreme platform, or straddling support or outright rejecting it. Any of these options are certain to lose them support either from moderates or the party’s right wingers.

You see the effects of this right wing pressure in Washington, DC today where Republicans in the Senate and House are flirting dangerously with arm-lock opposition to banking reform, opposition that could well translate into the wrong side of the political argument come the November elections.

You will certainly see right wing pressure keep Republicans in Congress from doing anything reasonable and sensible about immigration—ensuring that the nation’s Hispanic voters will drift even further away from them this year and for years to come.

I’m not dismissing the level of anger voters are expressing in polls, public forums and elections. Voters are angry, and should be.

The cozy relationship between those with economic and political power has given us disastrous and costly policies over the past few decades. The failure to adequately monitor BP, a notorious serial polluter and safety scofflaw and its activities in the Gulf, is just the latest calamity.

Add that to the incomprehensible behavior of those who have run and regulated banking, financing, housing policy, mortgage companies and their accounting and legal enablers over the past decade. Stir in our hugely expensive misadventure in Iraq. And let’s not overlook international trade policy that has cost the U.S. millions of high paying jobs and communities their tax revenue while those who shipped themselves off to China or elsewhere prospered and skipped paying U.S. taxes on that prosperity.

Angry? Why shouldn’t we be angry? This is an anger that crosses party lines and crosses the demographic spectrum.

In a democratic society it’s the obligation of the people—the voters—to do something about it. To let their representatives know they are not happy with the state of affairs and demand change. And I expect that come November, and before in many state primaries, voters will.

But does that mean voters will opt for new leaders like Rand Paul, who advocates giving those in business and finance who took down capitalism even fewer restraints? It could happen.

But not if the Democrats stiffen their backbones, break old cozy alliances with Wall Street and other narrow interests and fit themselves into a much bolder leadership role on behalf of all those angry people out there.

How will all of this turn out? So far the tea leaves aren’t much help. Like the water in the Gulf of Mexico these days, what we see at the bottom of the cup is, at best, murky.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at

Sex, Sex, Guns And Money

May 14, 2010

As soon as Elena Kagan was named to the Supreme Court the news media set up the rope lines for what they assumed would be the upcoming confirmation tug of war.

On the “liberal” side are those who favor a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion, those who defend gay marriage, those who favor some form of gun control and supporters of programs that require federal spending, such as the new health care law.

On the “conservative” side are those who don’t.

These issues will consume the better part of senatorial statements and questioning about Kagan and will dominate news coverage about her confirmation.

From the perspective of the news media, sex, guns and spending are always the default positions defining liberals and conservatives. And it’s so misleading.

Years ago France Telecom introduced a device much like a computer which it distributed to all of its customers. Among other things the device could print out France Telecom’s monthly bill. This was pretty hot stuff at the time and a French friend of mine demonstrated it for me. I quickly noticed that the bill came merely as a total, without the detailed information we’re used to in the U.S.

My French friend didn’t find this surprising. “What French man would like to see a bill listing strange phone numbers on it?” he asked. Translation: Most Frenchmen had mistresses whose phone numbers on the bill would raise uncomfortable issues.

I heard a segment on NPR the other day where a Nigerian woman discussed a “sex strike” many Nigerian women staged recently to prod males into breaking an impasse in the nation’s government. It worked, she said, because Nigerians are so sex obsessed. “If sex was an Olympic sport,” she said, “Nigeria would always win the gold.”

I doubt it. Sex, like the air we breathe, is everywhere. Some talk about it more than others, but that doesn’t mean the sex meter isn’t running even in “quiet” parts of the world. In fact, most of the world was amazed that President Clinton nearly lost office over a sex act with someone other than his wife. In most other national cultures this hardly made any sense at all.

But in the U.S. we are clearly living in parallel universes. I doubt you will find any fewer white southern Republicans interested in sex, or straying from the marriage to have sex, or having sex with members of their own gender than the population at large. In their own sex lives many have a most “liberal” attitude, even if some things are left in the shadows. So why is sex one of the liberal-conservative political markers?

I’ve never known a woman who I considered “pro-abortion.” Aborting a fetus is a wrenching act. That’s why the number of abortions performed in the U.S. each year is such a small fraction of the number of pregnancies.

Many of those abortions are medically necessary to remove unformed fetuses and to save the lives of mothers. Others are the outcome of rape or incest. Some are elected by older parents who can’t financially, emotionally or physically handle the raising of a newborn. These are all deeply personal acts and decisions. Yet those who respect the right of individuals to choose abortions wear the label “liberal,” and those who want government to play an intrusive (anti libertarian) role in personal lives are called “conservatives.”

Even more baffling, these labels reverse when it comes to guns. Where on abortion questions those who want the government to keep out of the decision are “liberals,” when it comes to guns those who want the government to keep out of the decision to buy and own are “conservatives.”

Those who believe in the right of local jurisdictions to decide important local issues without federal interference are “conservatives” except when it comes to guns. People in the District of Columbia, deeply concerned about urban crime, who have voted overwhelmingly for a relatively mild form of gun registration, are “liberals.”

The money thing is more subtle. If you want the government to spend federal tax dollars to treat health care as a right, like education, you’re a liberal. But if you have no objection spending those dollars and a lot more with insurance companies for a skinnier form of insurance protection you’re a conservative.

“Conservative” is the label applied to those who have problems with raising tax money for new roads and bridges and other public improvements. But “conservative” also defines governors like Indiana’s Mitch Daniels who’s led the charge to sell or lease public roads to private companies which will then levy their own “taxes” called “tolls.”

Getting back to where I began, Elena Kagan will be grilled on gay rights, abortion, guns, and presidential policy affecting program spending. And all of this discussion will come with “liberal” and “conservative” boxes—few of which make sense or seem accurately placed.

If you I and hundreds of millions of other U.S. citizens were asking Kagan questions at her confirmation hearings the conversation likely would evolve much differently.

Maybe we should all weigh in to have just that kind of a confirmation hearing—-one where the public gets a seat at the confirmation table along with the senators…through emails, YouTube, Twitter and the like. I’d expect the conversation would be much more interesting, useful and informative.

And in asking them we wouldn’t be thinking of ourselves as liberals or conservatives, labels which when you come right down to it are meaningless.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at

Education and the Global Contest for Brains

May 11, 2010

Education and The Global Contest for Brains

May 10, 2010

By Joe Rothstein

Cisco, the digital networking company, is currently running a TV ad that shows elementary school kids in the U.S. and those in China sharing an educational moment via widescreen telecasting.

That’s so last century.

There’s so much more happening in education these days than dedicated private TV networks.

Anyone who read the April 28 edition of the New York Times received a whole news section under the heading “Free and easy Downloadable Education.” And it wasn’t about no-name educational interlopers. No, the section pointed us toward uncounted thousands of Internet courses from MIT, the University of California, Yale, and others.

It’s all there for the taking. The classes that come with $25,000 and up tuition price tags if you attend them on campus can be downloaded free. That’s F-R-E-E.

But isn’t everyone too busy twittering to bother with all of this stuffy stuff? Apparently not. The Times describes a University of California class (Biology 131) that’s been viewed nearly 1.5 million times on YouTube. In December, ITunes U surpassed the 100 million download mark with courses it hosts.

Here’s another surprising piece of information from the Times article: 69% of those downloading Yale courses are independent learners, not associated with any school or program—-just people interested in learning the subject matter. This seems to be the pattern for all school programs. Only a small percentage of users are other professors, trying to check out the competition or pick up new ideas.

(check below for a few free courseware sites)

You seldom see or hear about it in the news, but we’re in the midst of a worldwide educational revolution. And it undoubtedly will have more impact on the decades just ahead than any of the other “revolutions” we’re experiencing today.

Try this for a frame of reference.

Estimates are that in the 1800s hardly 1% of the world’s population could read. That was the century in which the U.S. led the world toward a system of compulsory education for children.

Today the UN estimates that only one out of five adults worldwide is illiterate. Stated another way, fewer adults are illiterate today than there were when UN tracking began back in 1957—even though world population has doubled since then. Think of it. During the past 50 years more than 3 billion people have become literate. And the trend is accelerating.

China, which had little that could pass for a modern educational system 50 years ago, will graduate 600,000 engineers this year from its own universities. The University of Hawaii’s East West Center is training 10,000 Chinese to become school principals. And Chinese education has become so attractive that for the first time this year more foreign students are studying in China than the Chinese are sending abroad.

China recognizes what’s at stake in a knowledge-rich world. It’s making huge investments in building what it hopes will be world-class universities. A lot of other countries are also aspiring to be in the big leagues of education. Here’s the vision statement of Singapore’s National University:

“NUS will be a globally-oriented university, in the distinguished league of the world’s leading universities. A key node in global knowledge networks, NUS will have distinctive expertise and insights relating to Asia.”

Ben Wildavsky, a journalist and scholar at Brookings, has compiled some serious research about all this and published it in a new book, The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World.

Nations we’ve never considered to be fountainheads of learning are running hard to catch up. And in doing it, they’re following the model of the multi-national corporations, importing brains, talent and know-how from those who have it. There’s hardly a major U.S. or British university that doesn’t have something going, somewhere on a foreign campus.

One example: Northwestern University and Carnegie Mellon both have branches at Qatar’s shiny new university, which also happens to the region’s first co-educational university. Another example: Saudi Arabia’s new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology’s campus is being shared by Cornell, Stanford, Texas A&M and Oxford.

U.S. universities lead everyone’s rankings as the best in the world and house 70% of the Nobel Prize winners for advanced research. U.S. schools continue to be magnets for top students from all continents. But it’s clear from Wildavsky’s study that the competition is getting more aggressive.

You can look at this positively, for how it should raise aspirations and living standards around the world and contribute to the pool of human knowledge. And you also can look at this with concern. As Wildavsky points out, in the late 19th century Americans flocked to Germany which had he first modern research universities. Now, little more than 100 years later, the quality of Germany’s universities has plummeted – and its schools are copying the U.S. model.

The X factor is how technology is changing knowledge and education, making it accessible even to those who attend no university. When today’s grade schoolers reach university age, will bricks and mortar institutions be as important as they are today? Will the new kids on the block even been training for jobs we can barely envision? Who would have thought 15 years ago that a person could make a living in an area such as search technology?

In all of this uncertainty, one thing is clear. If the U.S. is going to keep up in the knowledge race it has to continue supporting the system that took us to the top. Not just so we can keep chanting, “we’re number one!” but so that we can continue to thrive in this world economic environment and the ones a few years down the road that no one can foresee.

**A few web sites where you can download educational courses: , connexions , Opencourseware Consorium , ITunes U and

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at

A Few Thoughts About Aliens From Space, Aliens on Earth, and A Cookbook About Eating People

May 3, 2010

The late Carl Sagan, with his academic work, his popular books and his TV series, was an influential force in astrophysics promoting the hunt for extraterrestrial life. A friend of mine, also a noted scientist, once chided Sagan about this. “Carl,” he warned in a letter, “don’t you realize that when beings from a superior culture encounter those of an inferior one they often eat them?”

My friend could have been thinking of a 1962 episode of Rod Serling’s TV series The Twilight Zone where aliens land on earth with outward appearances of coming in peace and friendship. They even have a book, written in their own alien language, entitled “To Serve Man.” Humans are thrilled with all of this until they discover that “To Serve Man” actually is a cook book.

I was reminded of these things the other day by two current news items.

Stephen Hawking, like my friend years earlier, is now warning against intensifying the search for life beyond the stars. “If aliens visit us,” he says on a new Discovery Channel documentary, “the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”

The other current news story is Arizona’s enactment of a law that makes everyone who looks Hispanic guilty of something until proven innocent.

For most of my life the word “alien” has described creatures much like the cute little guy in “ET,” or the transfigurative beings that live where Star Trek’s “Enterprise” dares to venture. In other words, “alien” has related to the extraterrestrial. But now, with common current usage, “alien” has come to describe some of those who actually walk among us.

This hasn’t always been our history.

When the largely Anglo and western European culture of the U.S. made room for refugees from Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe and Asia the newcomers were not exactly greeted with open arms, contrary to our misremembered romantic visions of those days. The emigrees were called a lot of names and suffered a lot of indignities because of their differentness for a generation or two. But I don’t recall anyone grouping the Irish or the Italians under the name “aliens.”

The Hispanic migration is different for a number of reasons. First and foremost is that there are potentially so many of them, and they are within walking distance. Many worry that the wholesale transfer of Hispanic culture to the U.S. could markedly alter the very character of the nation.

Stephan Hawking is right when he warns that cultural encounters often work out badly for the natives. Look at all of the examples we already have on our own planet. The American Indians lost their land, their lives, their livelihood, their freedom and their culture. So did the peoples who once ruled Central and South America. Contact with the “old world” wiped out the Incas, the Mayas and other strong and rich cultures that had endured for centuries. You can certainly make the same case for the dozens of tribal cultures of Africa and Central Asia.

Even China, the longest continuous civilization on earth, has needed 200 years to get its mojo back after the more advanced West decided to camp on Chinese territory.

But here’s the difference with the Hispanic “threat” now circling U.S. borders. Those from Mexico, and Central and South America are not arriving as conquerors. For the most part these are hungry people. They hunger for a chance to get ahead in life. They hunger for education, for basic freedoms…for the same type of lives most Americans enjoy.

And this migration isn’t just today’s news. For a century or more wealthy U.S. agriculture interests have been trading on Hispanic hunger to exploit those who would work their farms and orchards for pennies a day. Over the years Hispanic immigrants have become what yesterday’s European immigrants once were: our day laborers, our housekeepers, our non-union factory workers—-our servant class.

Just as other immigrant waves before them evolved into dedicated U.S. patriots, immigrant Hispanics are following the same pattern. They, like their predecessors, appreciate what freedom and opportunity are all about—-more so than those who have never known life without them.

It’s never been easy for immigrants, whatever their background, to integrate into the mainstream U.S. workforce and culture. But the U.S. is one of the only countries on earth that has given them the opportunity to try. And this openness unquestionably has made the U.S. a far richer country. Most of the great business, labor, cultural, philanthropic , military and other leaders the U.S. venerates today trace their roots to immigrant boats that arrived here not so long ago.

But the Hispanics don’t come in boats. That’s one strike against them.

Another is that their time in our history also happens to coincide with a time when we’re engaged in a stupid border drug war, a war that can easily be ended with enactment of sane drug control policies. But our politicians are too gutless to do that, just as they are too gutless to enact reasonable immigration policies. So instead of having a rational system to control immigration we have a bizarre situation where every would-be day laborer and housekeeper is suspected of being a narco killer.

For all kinds of reasons, many of those getting elected to influential government positions these days have gone kind of nuts about governing. This infection will undoubtedly run its course over time, but for now “immigrants” have become “aliens.” And aliens, as we all know from “Star Trek” and “Star Wars,” can be dangerous—causing otherwise reasonable people to arm themselves with guns and baseball bats.

These newcomers from across the border will ultimately prevail, of course, despite current highwire emotions. They will prevail by casting ballots in free elections. That prospect doesn’t alarm me as a threat to the U.S. or its history of taking in all those who believe in hard work and freedom.

Hispanic “aliens” don’t worry me. But I will be concerned if I ever encounter anyone with funny ears carrying a book entitled, “To Serve Man.”

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at

Goldman and the Sacking of Capitalism

April 29, 2010

They called themselves Masters of the Universe. What we’re learning is that they didn’t live in the same universe as the rest of us.

Not only were they in a place alien to those without a Wall Street address, they didn’t, and still don’t, speak the same language.

I just sat through an eternity of grilling of Goldman Sachs’ executives who couldn’t understand simple questions of ethics, morality, or duty to trusting clients. The senators who questioned them were exasperated, accusing them of what on the surface seemed like stonewalling. After a while you realized it wasn’t so much stonewalling as a failure to communicate.

The Goldman people just couldn’t see anything wrong with hyping mortgage related products to their clients as good investments and then betting that those same products would fail.

Daniel Sparks, the former head of Goldman’s mortgage department, was asked that specific question: shouldn’t you have disclosed that Goldman believed the market was about to tank and was betting against it? After a number of attempts at trying to understand the question he said “no.”

When asked whether he thought this type of trading should be regulated, Joshua Birnbaum, who managed the trading process for Goldman during the go-go years prior to the crash, responded only that it was an “interesting” idea.

Twelve times Committee Chairman Senator Carl Levin referred to an internal Goldman memo calling one its mortgage packages a “shitty deal,” and tried in vain to get any of the witnesses to admit that pushing the Goldman sales force to sell it might have been unethical.

A couple of weeks ago I sat through a similar performance by no less than Alan Greenspan, former Treasury Secretary and Citibank Chairman Robert Rubin, and key Citigroup executives. Far from apologizing for anything they might have done to contribute to the meltdown they professed little understanding of why they might even have been considered suspects.

At the Goldman hearing Missouri Senator Clair McCaskill kept referring to the markets made by Goldman as “gambling casinos” and the people who managed them as “bookies.” A day earlier, Banking Chairman Chris Dodd gave an impassioned floor speech equating the situation as a robbery during which people coming back from a trip found they had lost everything.

But I think the alternative universe analogy is much closer to what we’re really up against.

This alternative universe is far larger and more dangerous than a few clueless investment bankers. It really involves much of present day capitalism itself, along with academic, government and media enablers.

For many years MBA schools have been pumping out the best and brightest with singular ambitions to go to Wall Street and make fast fortunes. The idea was to use modern tools to create “instruments” that would accelerate profits.

One of those “instruments”—-in fact, the most widely used of those instruments prior to the market collapse—was euphemistically called a “synthetic” credit default swap. In plain English, this was a bet on whether the market would go up or down. It provided no capital for mortgages, no financing for business, no useful purpose of any kind. It was, pure and simple, a bet.

At the time of the market collapse the amount of money bet in the “synthetic” market was ten times or more the amount backing mortgages themselves. And it got worse. Bettors took out “insurance” that their bets would win. Who insured those bets? Most notably companies like AIG. Who was placing the bets? Banks. Pension funds. Cities and states and whole countries looking to pick up more return on their loose cash than they could get from traditional investments.

All of this created an alternative universe, where greed replaced good sense and wealth that might have gone to any number of useful purposes was diverted into streams that lacked even elementary transparency.

And that warped the outlook of so many of those playing at those tables. Otherwise rational people who worked for Lehman Brothers moved money off their books at the end of the financial reporting quarter and put it back a few days later so the company’s losses wouldn’t show. People who ran venerable institutions like the Royal Bank of Scotland decided to gamble with others’ money attracted by the lure of bigger profits. And so on.

What can you say about an investment bank, Goldman, that sells bundles of mortgages, most of which were issued to people who only “stated” their incomes, with no verification. What can you say about the fools who buy them? Billions of dollars of them.

Go backward in time, and not too far. It wasn’t long ago that Enron was being exalted in business schools as the ideal company, even as it was twisting itself in knots with unfathomable off book subsidiaries to keep what amounted to a multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme going.

Or go to 1999, when a Democratic president and more than 90 U.S. senators convinced themselves that unregulated markets could be trusted not to succumb to an orgy of greed. That, despite the $200 billion+ taxpayer bailout triggered by the savings and loan crisis just a few years earlier.

All along most of the business press and popular publications cheered on the excesses and overlooked the dangers.

Capitalism is markets and competition. Finance is an efficient way to pool money for useful private and public purposes. But in recent years the normal blood cells of those systems have mutated into a cancerous body that has become a mortal risk to itself.

The people from Goldman Sachs have been living in that diseased world so long they think it’s normal. No one is going to change their minds, or the minds or behavior of those still managing Wall Street.

It’s going to take some powerful outside medicine to do that.

Probably a heavier dose than the prescription that Congress is even now trying to administer.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at

Worry More About Gannett and Comcast Than Limbaugh and Beck

April 23, 2010

April 22, 2010

By Joe Rothstein

I’m not worried about Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh or their legion of over-the-top imitators. To keep their disciples happy Beck and Limbaugh need to constantly throw out bigger chunks of red meat. Ultimately it’s totally so raw that it becomes irrelevant.

For all the buzz about them, the commentators of the hysterical Right have smaller and less committed audiences than the notorious Father Coughlin had back during the Great Depression. Radio was then the political media weapon of choice. With a U.S. population half its current size Father Coughlin regularly had 40 million listeners. His rants began as attacks on capitalism, but as he became more and more virulent he wound up a full throated supporter of Hitler.

He even created a political party and promised he would quit broadcasting if his chosen presidential candidate pulled in fewer than a million votes. The candidate didn’t, but Coughlin stayed on the air anyway. (Remind you of Limbaugh and his unredeemed promise to move to Costa Rica if health reform was enacted)?

No, these people don’t scare me. What does scare me is what’s happened to the rest of the media.

In poll after poll we see that the American public is awash in misinformation. A third of the public believes the nonsense about “death panels.” There’s dangerous erosion in public belief about the science of climate change. A very shaky grip on reality runs through many vital public issues.

The genius behind America’s success, and its example which so many other nations have followed, is that government rests on the consent of the governed. From the nation’s earliest days, the Founding Fathers had no doubt that the free flow of information and competing ideas were inseparable from a government representative of majority interests. Even during those times, when there was hardly any public money to be had, much of it was spent to support printers, newspapers, and distribution through the Post Office.

Public support for journalism is as old as the nation itself. Even today it’s estimated that newspapers and magazines are subsidized to the tune of nearly a billion dollars through Post Office delivery.

But the unfortunate, and potentially deadly truth today is that most of our information comes through very narrow funnels. Where 100 years ago a city like Washington, D.C. or New York would have a dozen newspapers representing a multitude of voices and viewpoints, today we have newspaper monopolies. Radio offered the promise of diversity but has evolved into a few large chains with robotic operations. TV was born as the ultimate small funnel, with just 3 national networks. Cable might have fixed that, but, like newspapers and radio, cable now is the domain of Comcast, Time Warner and just a few others.

Now we have the Internet. But a federal court ruled the other day that the FCC has no power to keep cyberspace open to all. You already can see the squeeze—-the big guys buying up the popular sites, and the consolidation of internet service providers who manage the gateways.

There’s a struggle going on now that’s often labeled a struggle over the future of journalism. It’s really a struggle over the future of democracy. If journalism is considered merely a “profit center,” as it has been by the goliaths that own newspaper chains and TV and cable networks, what happens to the public’s vital interest in news that impacts their lives? Where’s the solid ground of information and viewpoint from which the governed can exercise its consent?

The Internet has been disruptive to the entire communications industry. But it’s an industry that’s been badly in need of disruption. Monopolies, the tyranny of Wall Street’s quarterly earnings demands, the subtle influence of the advertising model on writers and editors—-this hasn’t been the most fertile environment for serious journalism. Things needed changing even before the Internet and the compounded devastation wrought by the current recession.

A few months ago, Len Downie, the former executive editor of the Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, a widely respected Columbia University journalism professor, published an influential paper about all of this.

“It may not be essential to save or promote any particular news medium, including print newspapers,” they say in their analysis. “What is paramount is preserving independent, original, credible reporting, whether or not it is profitable, and regardless of the medium in which it appears.”

To do that they suggest a long menu of possibilities, some of which already are happening. Including, among others, development of independent news operations focused on investigative reporting, including serious local coverage; more support from universities and non-profits, a national fund for local news, managed by the FCC, an expansion of PBS into more community-based coverage, changes in tax laws to encourage new for profit and non-profit independent news entities, and more open government records.

The important thing here is to develop scale. Monopoly corporate media, for sometimes good and often bad, has had deep reach into the nation’s information channels. Once things get said on four broadcast network news channels, cable channels, the AP radio wire and the community’s only newspaper (if it still has one) information and perspective take common root.

And because mainstream media and its corporate owners and sponsors are so sensitive about “bias,” the mainstream report invariably is he-said, she-said—–even when all the facts are on one side of that see-saw.

A multitude of voices can give truth a better chance of finding a path out of this constrained box—-if those voices can be heard.

The problem with journalism today isn’t so much with the demagogues who are heard too much but with the truth that’s heard too little.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at

Hello world!

April 23, 2010

Welcome to This is your first post. Edit or delete it and start blogging!