Friday, October 21, 2011

NPR's response to my letter on their handling of Lisa Simeone.

I wrote a letter to NPR to complain about their handling of Lisa Simeone.  While their response addressed some of the particulars of this situation, it didn't address the broader point of supressing their affiliated journalists personal opinions - not that I expected them to.  Perhaps unsurprisingly they insist on not being involved in Soundprint's dismissal of her.

My letter

Dear NPR management:

I am writing to express how disturbed I am by NPR's behavior with regards to Lisa Simeone, a freelancer who appears on some shows that NPR broadcasts, as reported here.

I am a long time listener of NPR and long time supporter of both NPR and my local station WNYC. The pattern of behavior of the leadership at NPR that has emerged in the last 1-2 years with regards to its persecution of people who express any political views is highly troubling. However, in this particular case it's not just troubling but also completely unfair and misguided. Ms Simeone is not an employee of NPR, and as the article points out, is far from the only one who has shown to possess political views.

While I understand the desire by your organization to remain apolitical and neutral, I think that you have taken this policy several steps too far. In addition to this incident, I found your policy that "NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers, nor should they sign petitions or otherwise lend their name to such causes, or contribute money to them" to be borderline anti-democratic if not outright illegal. NPR journalists are private persons and as such cannot and should not be prohibited from expressing their views in their private lives. 

I value NPR and it's stations for the reporting and programming they do. However if this pattern of behavior continues I will have to rethink my support for it and its affiliated stations.

Alex Kristofcak

NPR's response

Dear Alexander, 

There have been some inaccuracies in recent reporting on World of Opera host Lisa Simeone that we’d like to correct.

World of Opera is produced by WDAV, a music and arts station based in Davidson, North Carolina. Lisa is not an employee of WDAV or NPR; she is a freelancer with the station.

Lisa will continue to host World of Opera. That has not changed. You can read WDAV’s statement confirming this on their website. The management of WDAV is solely responsible for the decision making around Lisa’s role with the program. This high quality cultural program will continue to be heard by thousands of listeners.

NPR had no role in the decision made by the management of the public radio documentary program Soundprint to end its relationship with Lisa as the program’s host. Soundprint is an independent public radio program that is not produced by NPR. NPR had no contact with the management of the program prior to their decision. We learned about it after the fact. You can read more about Soundprint's decision on their website.

Other than Lisa’s role as host, Soundprint and WDAV’s World of Opera are completely unrelated. To that point, it is important to understand that not every public radio program is produced or distributed by NPR. And not every public radio station is a member of NPR. NPR is one piece of a larger public radio system. You can learn more about the public radio system on

It is clear that you feel passionately about the role and value of public radio. Thank you for sharing your perspectives with us.


Dana Davis Rehm
Senior Vice President
Marketing, Communications, and External Relations

Friday, October 7, 2011

Vive La Occupation! (or, how a progressive movement finally came about)

For the upcoming issue of the fabulous Zahranicna Politika.

On several occasions in the past, I have wondered in these pages why we haven’t seen a populist progressive movement rise up in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent economic meltdown in the United States.  This seemed logical given that the crisis, which traces its origins to broad deregulation of the financial sector and reckless behavior of the banks, has left millions of Americans without jobs, homes and any hope for a better future.  What’s more, the banks have not only escaped unscathed - no criminal prosecutions to date to report on - but they have also been kept alive thanks to a near trillion dollar bailout from taxpayers and shortly thereafter returned to the good old days:  record profits and bonuses.

And yet, the only populist movement that has begun since those days was the conservative and libertarian “Tea Party.”  Their primary principle was animus towards the government, taxes, spending and the President. In their interpretation of events, it was Obama who orchestrated the Wall Street “bailouts”, the “government takeover” of healthcare and the “failed” stimulus of 2009.  This interpretation resembles reality only to the extent that it doesn’t distort it completely:  the “bailout” of Wall Street was actually the idea of Hank Paulson, the Treasury Secretary of George W Bush; the health reform law which passed in 2010 relies on market mechanisms to expand insurance coverage, not on government bureaucracy; the biggest problem with the 2009 stimulus was that it was too small not that it was too big.

Indeed, Obama has been relatively centrist in many of his proposals and policies.  The banks which caused the crisis needed government funds to survive because they were “too big to fail” and yet Obama’s administration did not dismantle them.  The fiscal stimulus the president sought when the recession started was relatively modest (given the magnitude of the output drop) and combined spending with tax cuts, something to like both by Democrats and Republicans.  At the end of 2010, when the tax cuts for the wealthy that President Bush signed in 2001 and 2003 were set to expire, Obama sided with the conservative view that one should not be raising taxes during a recession.  A blood thirsty socialist he was not.

Despite this apparent centrism, the Tea Party movement was gaining strength.  In a sense, the Tea Party rose up from a conservative fear of what Obama could be, if he really was the person that progressives hoped he was.  While the reality of Obama’s administration did not reflect these fears by any stretch of imagination, by the summer of 2010 the Tea Party has coalesced into a political force bent on pushing the Republican Party further to the right and dismantling anything and everything that Obama has dared to touch.  In November 2010 the movement scored a victory: with many of their candidates elected to the House of Representatives and the establishment of a Tea Party caucus it became a distinct force in the Republican party.

While Obama’s first two years in office were difficult - even with Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate passing reforms turned out to be difficult - things got exponentially harder with the new Republican majority and Tea Party extremists in the House.  This led to a shift:  Obama, a centrist from the start, started moving further to the right to compromise with Republicans who, in turn, were pulled to the extreme right by their Tea Party colleagues.

This shift became crystal clear during the debt ceiling negotiation which we covered in the last issue: there was absolutely no need to cut spending or the deficit in order to raise the debt ceiling, an arbitrary limit of the total amount the US Federal government can borrow.  However, Obama has previously decided that cutting the deficit and government debt are worthwhile goals - 10% unemployment rate be damned.  And so, from the get-go, he was there alongside with the Republicans talking about the government balancing its checkbooks “just like every household has to”, even though most economists have warned: the government is not at all like a household: when times are tough, governments have to borrow and spend, not cut and save.  By the time the debt ceiling debate climaxed it was not a question of whether spending would have to be cut - the President has already agreed that it does - but by how much and whether there would be any corresponding tax hikes (something the conservative staunchly opposed).  In a clear move to accomodate the nihilists on the right, Obama went as far as to agree to $4 of spending cuts for every $1 of tax increases, for a total of $4 trillion dollars.  The fact that even this was not enough is a testament to both his sloppy negotiating tactics and the extremism on the right.

All of this rightward shifting by the Tea Party, Republicans, Democrats and Obama has created a clear vacuum on the left.  It is perhaps this vacuum that created the perfect breeding ground for a progressive movement to finally come together.  On September 17th, a group of people started a protest called Occupy Wall Street, and almost three weeks later the protest is continuing and growing.  While at first the effort was at best unnoticed and at worst mocked by the media, as days go by it is gaining traction and similar protests are being staged in hundreds of cities around the US.  Perhaps as a result of its indefinite nature and notable growth, coverage of the protests has turned from sardonic to curious.  It has been amusing to watch journalists scratching their heads, “what do these people want?”, as if they have lived on Mars for the last 3 years.  

Very pointedly the movement has called itself “We Are The 99%”, referring to the majority of Americans who have seen their incomes drop and prospects dim at the expense of the richest few whose fortunes have never been better.  A brief look at, a website dedicated to people posting their personal stories, shows that these are not anarchists or hippies but regular people who have played by the rules and found themselves trapped in desperate situations.  Another common theme is the sense of disenfranchisement that happened as a result of a supreme court decision that deemed corporations to have the same free speech rights as people and as such eligible to give unlimited donations to candidates.  One of the consequences of this ruling is that the culprits of the meltdown of 2008 are much more powerful in influencing political outcomes thanks to their ability to “finance” politicians, which in return, comes at least partly from capital they received from the taxpayers.  All things considered, protesting seems like the only reasonable thing to do.

It is too early to say if this movement will amount to much real change.  So far they may lack clear goals and methods, however there seems to be a real momentum for it to grow into something much larger.  At its outset the Tea Party itself seemed like a bunch of crazies with silly poster and it took several months for it to form into a more coherent movement and eventually to become a real political force.  Perhaps the same faith awaits the occupiers of Wall Street and the 99%.  

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Midsummer Debt Freakout.

For August 2011 issue of Zahranicna Politika

Did you know the US could go bankrupt any day now?  While various European nations have been battling with the specter of debt defaults, the United States has been sitting there happily and smugly.  Sure, there have been enormous deficits of late in the land of the free.  However, no one ever questioned the credit-worthiness of the US.  That is, until very recently, when the government has been scrambling to raise the “debt ceiling”.  How is it that the US is suddenly looking at the possibility of defaulting on its debt?  Is this crisis real or is America just suffering from default-envy?

First, several terms and concepts need to be explained.  The notion of the US government not defaulting on its debts is so self-evident and central to economic and financial theory, that the interest rate that the US pays on its obligation is referred to as “the risk-free rate”.  In other words, every other asset - with the exception of cash - carries a certain level of risk, and the return that investors expect to make for holding that asset is a compensation for that amount of risk.  A Greek government bond, for example, will pay a higher rate because it is more risky than a German government bond.  The US government - due to its sheer size and clean history of debt repayment - has always been considered so safe that the rate it pays on its debts is the lowest of them all.  Another illustration:  whenever there is a crisis - a recessions, a war, a natural disaster - and the stock markets start panicking, the asset that everyone parks their money is US government debt.  This phenomenon is known as “flight to safety”.  You get the point.

So how does a country go from being the safest place on earth to park your money to potentially defaulting on its debt in such short order?  This is where the concept of a “debt ceiling” comes in.  While the US can borrow at incredibly low rates, the overall amount it can borrow is limited by law.  Historically, the US Congress had to approve each issuance of debt separately.  During the World War 1, when this became impractical, the Congress gave the Treasury the right to issue debt as they see fit in order to meet the government’s funding needs.  However, in exchange for this flexibility, the Congress put in place a cap on the overall amount of debt.  Through the years, this cap, or ceiling, has been raised dozens of times, whenever it was necessary.  And so, even as recently as a few weeks ago, no one thought this would actually be an issue - of course the Congress would vote to raise the ceiling if it’s needed to fund the government.  Otherwise, without the ability to issue new debt, the US would actually need to declare default, and that is obviously not going to happen.  Right?

As a reminder, if the US were to default on its debts, the securities which were previously considered risk-free by everyone would no longer be so risk-free.  US government interest rates would go up - and perhaps more importantly - all other interest rates would follow.  This would mean that anyone with any debt - a mortgage owner, a businessman, a student - would be facing higher costs of interest.  The consequences would be so wide reaching and dire that it is not an exaggeration to think that a global recession, if not a second Great Depression, would follow.

Well, perhaps this isn’t so obviously to the folks in the US Congress.  While every normal person simply assumed that the debt ceiling would be raised, the Republicans figured:  here’s something that needs to get done - let’s get something in return!  And since cutting spending is the Republican mantra, the little treat they asked for in return is a $4 trillion cut in government spending.

The frustrating thing about the economic discourse in the US is that there is not a single issue that can ever be a purely economic one.  Before long, everything becomes another tool in the never ending ideological war between Democrat and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.  And so while things like the social safety net and even the phenomenon of taxation are non-controversial issues in the old continent - hello! we need some of both! - nothing is ever considered settled in the US.  Which is how what should have been a total no-brainer became a heated issue.  While everyone agrees the debt ceiling needs to be raised, the controversy flared up around how to cut the deficit - an important issue, maybe - but one that needn’t be considered at the same time as the decision about whether or not we allow the economy fall from a cliff.

The other fascinating phenomenon in the never-ending ideological war is that the answers are always the same, at least from one side.  It simply doesn’t matter what is going on with the economy or with incomes or with unemployment - for a Republican, raising taxes is always bad.  Naturally, when we are trying to plug a multi-trillion dollar hole in the budget, it might make sense to at least consider raising some taxes.  Instead, Republicans counter that raising taxes is bad because it would kill jobs (a cool sounding motto which no one has ever bothered to prove).  And yet, somehow, it must be magic!, the spending cuts they propose are automatically assumed to occur in a complete vacuum from the rest of the economy.  Simply put, this is complete nonsense.  A core macro-economic formula says it all:  GDP = C (consumer spending) + I (capital investments) + G (government spending).  Cutting spending can’t not hurt the economy and employment.

The US officially runs out of money on August 2nd and yet an agreement is nowhere in sight.  In the meantime, Standard and Poors, the credit rating agency, has been watching the two parties negotiate and declared that their stunning inability to find a compromise this close to the deadline might lead them to downgrade the US debt even if they do find one eventually, leading to raising rates, economic slowdown, etc.  One can’t watch this self-inflicted mess without thinking: do Americans feel like life would be more fun an actual debt crisis?  If so, there are a few European countries I can recommend for them to move to.  For the rest of us, fingers crossed that cooler heads with brains prevail.  

Mission Unaccomplished.

For June 2011 Zahranicna Politika

On May 1, 2003, George Bush gave a speech that stated that the major operations in Iraq are over.  The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, where he delivered this speech, was carrying a banner that said “Mission Accomplished.”  Anyone with a remote awareness of the last 10 years recognizes why this event became infamous: the toughest, bloodiest and most expensive phase of the Iraq war has not even begun. 8 years and a day later, when his successor announced the death of Osama Bin Laden, Americans celebrated in the streets and I couldn’t help but wonder if we’re living through another “Mission Accomplished” moment.  Will history remember this as yet another premature declaration of victory or misguided celebration?

The connection between the two events is more than accidental.  While the official pretext for the war in Iraq were the weapons of mass destruction that the Bush administration alleged Saddam Hussein either had or was developing, it’s useful to remember that the context that enabled the Iraq war was that of the post-9/11 war on terror.  More specifically, in the lead up to the Iraq offensive, the Bush administration reinforced the connection between 9/11 and Iraq so much that by the eve of the war, almost half of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11.

In May 2011, when Osama Bin Laden was executed, it clearly did not matter what Americans did or did not believe in 2003.  Apparently all that mattered was that he was dead.  However, as people rejoiced over this raw act of vengeance, I started thinking about all the things that happened in the wake of 9/11.  The wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq with the hundred of thousands of soldiers and Iraqis who died in them were bad enough.  But how about the mountain of debt that the US accumulated as a result of all the military and national security spending in the last decade, money that the country could have invested in its neglected infrastructure or education or health care or any of the many other things that make nations great?  It is no coincidence that during this time, the US became further indebted to China, while China was growing by leaps and bounds, investing in its infrastructure, growth, research, education and health care.  

And let’s not forget the regime of torture that was instituted in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo during the frantic hunt for clues that ensued after 9/11, which to this day corrodes the American justice system and makes the US a violator of a wide array of international treaties and conventions.  Furthermore, I would be remiss not to mention the Patriot Act - a piece of legislation passed in October 2011 which gave unprecedented powers to law enforcement agencies to monitor Americans.  Torture, violated conventions, encroached individual rights - these were some of the ways that the US government dismissed the principles of the rule of law and liberty on which it was founded.  As if to drive the point home, even the killing of Bin Laden - in lieu of an arrest and a trial - was likely a violation of both international law and the simple principle of criminal procedure.  

My purpose in listing these effects of 9/11 is not to argue that they were the right or the wrong steps to take in those circumstances - perhaps they were even the best!  Instead, my point is that the response to the event had wide and dramatic effects on the US, and was in many instances detrimental.  OBL’s stated goal was to bring down America and while 9/11 clearly did not do that literally - no single attack could obviously do that - reviewing the aftermath reminds me how effective it was in accomplishing that goal.  

And so as Americans celebrated the death of OBL, I failed to see how the killing of one man was supposed to make all those things somehow better.  Does it mean the war on terror is over?  Can Americans stop worrying about terrorists?  Will the government fully investigate and prosecute all the abuses of power and violations of law that occurred in the last ten years during the hunt for Bin Laden?  Will they pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan with the knowledge that those places with be the same as when they entered them?  No way.  Instead, I found the occasion to be a sad reminder of how deep America sank in the last ten years and how and why it keeps sinking.

Friday, April 1, 2011

When Everyone Thinks You’re Wrong, You Just Might Be Right.

Some thoughts on reactions to Obama's actions in Libya, written for Zahranicna Politika.


In the days since President Obama decided to support the UN sanctioned no-fly zone in Libya each little cell on the American ideological spectrum has found out its own unique way to trash him.  And yet, if the sheer variety of disagreement reveals anything, it might be that Obama took the most reasonable and responsible course of action.

To describe the criticism of Obama’s decision to get involved in Libya as “diverse” wouldn’t do justice to the colorful palate of dissenting opinions.  On the left, the criticism typically arose from a combination of distaste for war and meddling in other countries’ affairs.  On the right, the critics have blasted Obama for either acting too slowly (2008 presidential candidate John McCain), for caring too much about international approval instead of simply doing it alone (potential 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney), for using a no-fly zone instead of simply invading the country and killing Gaddafi (2008 VP candidate and potential 2012 Republican nominee Sarah Palin), or for doing acting at all, since:

...for one thing, we haven’t identified yet who the opposition even is to Qaddafi. We don’t know if this is led by Hamas, Hezbollah, or possibly al Qaeda of North Africa. Are we really better off, are United States, our interests better off, if let’s say Al-Qaeda of North Africa now runs Libya?

That astonishingly ignorant statement comes from Michelle Bachmann - apparently one of the front-runners for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.  While these kinds of attacks from the right are clearly motivated by politics rather than policy, they are also easy to dismiss on substantive grounds: the “too slow” criticism somehow neglects that two months ago, Libya wasn’t even on our radar.  The charge of being “too international” ignores the decade of global anti-American loathing that has resulted from unilateral arrogance in the Middle East.  The brilliant idea of simply invading Libya and taking out Gaddafi overlooks that the US tried that - in Iraq - and it took 8 years and cost a trillion dollars.

The attacks from the left are harder to dismiss on purely substantive grounds - those who are against wars and/or foreign interventions have a laundry list of failed military campaigns to point to as supportive evidence of their case.  And yet, when these same people point out the irony of Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize they either don’t know or forget that this sort of intervention is a perfect example of the vision that Obama laid out in his acceptance speech in Oslo.  

Perhaps the more valid criticisms of the intervention in Libya could have been raised by folks in any part of the ideological spectrum.  They include questions like: (a) does the President have the power to wage war without the authorization of Congress (according to Obama the candidate he doesn’t - hence, the outrage), (b) do we need another Iraq, (c) why Libya, and (d) what is the end game?

Will all the criticism firing from every direction, it was clear that Obama needed to do a better sales job.  It turns out that when the President is responding to an actual emergency - unlike the manufactured one of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq - he does not have the luxury of time to get everyone on board ahead of time like the Bush administration did during the months leading up to the Iraq war in 2003.

And so, 10 days after the start of the offensive, Obama did what he does best - he gave a speech on Libya.  His address was successful in outlining a clear moral and strategic case for the intervention:

It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right. In this particular country – Libya; at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Gaddafi's forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.

The speech also laid out why this intervention is different from Iraq - in terms of an imminent need, a limited scope, defined means and an international mandate.  Judging from the reactions to the speech in the days that followed, what the President failed to do, was to answer those critics who said that he needs to get authorization from the Congress and those who, correctly, wonder what the end game is in Libya.  What happens if the intervention results in a stalemate between Gaddafi and the rebels?  What happens if the rebels ask for arm assistance in their combat with Gaddafi?  Does the US help them out like they did with Afghans against USSR only to have the same weapons used against them by the Taliban a few decades later?  There are many questions that remain unanswered and for now Libya remains the least popular US military intervention in the last 30 years.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Inconvenient Democracy.

I wrote this column for Zahraničná politika on the eve of the fall of Mubarak's regime, so some of it is already out of date.  However, other parts of it continue to be valid in light of the once-again focused or conflicted reaction of the US administration to unrest in other countries...  

Inconvenient Democracy

Any reasonable person would expect that a people rising up to take down a dictator would be greeted with universal cheers.  Democracy is ultimately the best form of government, after all, or so we have been taught since our time in the crib.  And yet the reaction to the revolution in Egypt has been anything but a cheer.  Instead what we have seen thus far is at best a lot of concern and at worst completely naked cynicism.  It serves to remind us just how hollow the American belief in democracy has become long before anyone in Egypt ever thought about protesting in the streets.

 While it remains unclear whether the revolution in Egypt will be successful in overturning Hosni Mubarak’s rule, it is perfectly obvious just how conflicted the US feels about this development.  First, Obama didn’t think it necessary even so much as mention the protests in Egypt or the revolution in Tunisia during his state of the union speech on January 25th.  Then, a few days later, his vice president went on TV to say that Mubarak should not step down and refused to call him a dictator.  It wasn’t until more recently that the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton communicated a message more sympathetic with the protestors; yet, the emphasis was on calling for an “orderly transition”.

 However appalling, the hesitant behaviour of the US officials makes sense.  A quick look at the list of recipient of US foreign aid reveals that Egypt is the second largest recipient (after Israel and also not counting spending in Iraq and Afghanistan).  Egypt - and Mubarak’s regime - received on average about $2 billion per year since Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.  Clearly they are a key US ally; though the partnership doesn’t seem to extend too far beyond our military interests:  it’s kind of telling that the vast majority of that aid is specifically for military assistance which Egypt uses to purchase products from US defense contractors.  Humanitarian effort this is clearly not.

And yet, I can’t help but point out the irony of President Obama on the one hand encouraging Egyptians “to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed” in his speech in Cairo in June 2009, and on the other hand failing to convey a more supportive tone once Egyptians attempted to do just that.  After the first few days of demonstrations, there were reports from Egypt of people dismayed at the tepid response from the US: apparently they didn’t realize that a speech by President Obama, as uplifting as it may be, is just that - a speech.  

Egyptians are, in a sense, getting to know the real Obama, the one that disillusioned liberals in the US have long lost any hope in:  a president, who ran on openness and once in power chose to invoke the state secrecy privilege to squash any attempts at prosecution of the Bush torture regime and instead decided to focus energy on finding creative ways to criminalize those who leak and publish classified information.  

The extent to which the American mainstream is supportive of this kind of cynicism is apparent in the way the public has embraced the “concerns” about Egypt.  According to a poll conducted by Rasmussen, 59% of Americans say if the unrest in Egypt spreads to other countries, it will be bad for the United States and only 5% people think that the current government falling would be good for America.  Most starkly, 70% of people think America should leave the situation alone.  One has to wonder where were these concerns hiding on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq, when close to ⅔ of Americans supported the war, according to a March 2003 ABC poll.  

Given the history of the middle east, these concerns are not entirely unwarranted, of course.  There is plenty of precedent for an autocrat stepping only to be replaced by an even worse alternative, think Iran, the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini.  And there are plenty of examples where democracy has led to undesirable outcomes, such as the election of Hamas in Gaza.  Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, is the saying that has become popular to describe the situation.  

And yet I fail to see the upside in supporting status quo in Egypt.  How can the US ever be taken seriously again if the grand summary of its foreign policy in the middle east over the last 10 years ends up being “democracy, only when we want it”?  As I see it, the administration has missed the chance to be on the right side of history when history was being made:  recognize that a regime change is inevitable sooner or later, and by endorsing it fully, hope for a continuing cooperation from Egypt in the future.  The question is whether the haphazard and belated support - one that the US is likely to offer eventually - will be enough.