Senator Kennedy: What Do We Know And When Will We Know It?

My friend Steve Clemons has written a great piece that well describes my misgivings as I watch the Caroline Kennedy train gathering steam.

It’s not that she is not the right person to take the open Senate seat of Hillary Rodham Clinton — it’s that we don’t know yet, and we have not had much of a chance to find out. What’s more, Kennedy only has to convince one person — governor David A. Paterson of New York, himself in office (in part) due to an unforeseen circumstance — that she’s the best pick.

Caroline Kennedy — when she shows she has thick-skin, can take tough-minded criticism for the mistakes she no doubt will make, and when she articulates coherent policy views on serious challenges facing the country — may make in fact make a great Senator from New York. I hope that she does and that she grows into the role. . . .

There are many questions in store for Kennedy as she pursues this Senate seat, and she needs to show a readiness to be grilled.

While the Kennedy clan is clearly one of America’s strongest and most enduring political family dynasties, the Kennedys that mattered were always the ones who stunned the public with their brilliance and tenacity.

Each of the most famous Kennedys — their audience would feel — could have been a successful political heavyweight even without the Kennedy name.

That will be the test for Caroline Kennedy. Can she show that she can be one of the best crafters of policy and one of the strongest animators of activism in ways that show that she should have always been in the Senate on her own merits — and not just because she got her resume read because of her last name?

Read it here.

Cruising For A Bruising

The groups poised to capitalize on president-elect Obama’s sympathy for their causes — are liable to be sorely disappointed. Peter Levine points this out here.

Now comes word that pro-life pastor Rick Warren will be delivering the Inaugural invocation. And here is the disappointment (outrage, really).

So many people have poured so much of what they want to see into the empty vessel that was candidate Obama, and what we have come to know is he is much more pragmatic, both as a politician and as an office holder, than he is ideological.

Those watching him, ready to hate him, have so far given some grudging respect. Those watching, ready to love everything, are probably beginning to get a little worried.

Indeed, labor is.

But we live in a 50-50 country, which demands that you irritate your base regularly in order not only to be palatable to the other side — but to govern.

How Will Civic Groups Stay In The Game?

Monday night, a decent and good proposal for a new source of affordable housing in my neighborhood got defeated in our town’s City Council. I was personally in favor of it and spoke in favor of it (which a rarely do). In fact, fifty of my neighbors spoke one way or another on it — and they were split evenly down the middle for and against.

The community is deeply divided and there is not a lot of hope for compromise.

While I am disappointed in the outcome, I have been fascinated to watch another dynamic play out. I think of it as “old politics” and “new politics.” What happened was an example of new politics swamping old politics.

The “pro” organization thought it was doing everything right. It met with the local civic association, it met with council members, and so forth. It got a letter of support from the board of the civic association and everything seemed to be in order.

But then, over the summer, at a planning commission meeting, things began to go haywire. People in the neighborhood began complaining about the possibility of a new large structure with lower income people right next door. Flyers got circulated, lawn signs went up.

Neighborhood people were making pointed comments about the civic association not really representing the community’s interests.

The civic association, whose board supported the proposal, tried to respond, but it was summer, so there was no scheduled meeting, and then there were a few other slowdowns. Meanwhile, the organization that was proposing the development did not act as if it took the community opposition very seriously. While there were yard signs, flyers, and a web site opposed — in support there was just a PDF on the developer’s web page for a while. They eventually went door to door, but by then it was just about too late: they were on the defensive.

As I observed, it just seemed like the “pro” people were being outmaneuvered on a number of fronts by the “con” people. The “con” people just were doing a better job at the politics. They were led by a couple of people who had obvious organizing and message delivery skills. (They also had the wind at their back, as it is easier to oppose something than to support it, but still the mismatch seemed plain.) It was painful to watch, as I was on the “pro” side.

It was especially painful to see the difficulties the civic association was having. Its leadership did as good as it could do. But its systems and processes just weren’t set up for fast-moving, highly charged situations. It tried to keep to its timetable, and it got sidelined.

The way this unfolded is not unique to where I live. In communities all over the nation, insurgent, issue-based gorups are cropping up in neighborhoods, often led by one or two people with undeniable political acumen — and they overwhelm the existing civic systems, get done what they want to get done, and then sometimes just fade away.

I realize that the way I describe it they seem nefarious, but they are not as a whole. This is just how politics in communities increasingly gets done. People with political skill are often no longer part of the civic infrastructure, so they come and go. They move quickly.

The challenge for the existing civic structures is to figure out a way to harness this energy. Over the next decade, what will civic organizations become? How will they stay relevant?

Reading With Their feet

Monday I wrote about the crumbling “paper” part of the news business. Here’s more evidence.

My hometown newspapers, the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press (I was a Freep reader growing up) are curtailing their home delivery to just three days per week: Thursday, Friday and Sunday. David Hunke, chief executive of the company that oversees operations of both papers said this isn’t an experiment. “I don’t think we’re ever going back.”

The $12 per month subscription package:

will also give people access to an online replica of the roughly 32-page editions of both papers that will be sold each day at newsstands. Both papers also will regularly update the news on their free Web sites, freep.com and detnews.com.

“Americans are reading with their feet. They’re walking over to the computer screen,” said Jonathan Wolman, the editor and publisher of the [Detroit] News.

I know I am (reading online, that is).

But even so, I get four newspapers delivered every day.

A Dozen Years Of Blogging

The other day I got to looking back at all the online activity in my past, and saw how entwined my day-to-day life has been with the Web since way back.

First off, I recall I started a blog in 1996, a year before the word was invented.

In 1996, during the Clinton-Dole presidential race, I started an online political column I called “Content.” It had aa cool logo. I used The Well, and updated the site manually. That site has disappeared into the ether, but each time I updated I also posted to the alt.politics.elections Usenet group and those posts still exist. Here are a few. The earliest one I could find:

THE HAND THAT (MIGHT) FEED
Term-limited Assemblyman Phil Isenberg (D-Sacramento) has an irate letter to the editor in today’s Sacramento Bee. Isenberg says Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) promised a “good, clean” gambling regulation bill this year, but the result (SB1887) looked more like a special-interest wish-list than a regulating bill. Isenberg says the Assembly had to clean it up. One of the things the Assembly did was add a provision which would ban candidates from attorney general from taking campaign contributions from gambling interests. Makes sense, huh? But Lockyer is mulling a race for AG, and campaigns being as expensive as they are, it would take quite a politician to give up all that potential money. Evidently, Lockyer isn’t that politician: he let the Senate adjourn instead of allowing the bill to be heard.

And this was the latest one I could find, in June 1997:

HAVE YOUR CAKE BUT DON’T EAT IT, TOO
Back a ways (May 30, actually) the Assembly Appropriations Committee killed a popular idea by Republican Assemblyman Brooks Firestone. AB13 would have created a tax-exempt college savings program for parents, run by the state. Seems ol’ Brooks (yes, he is heir to the tire fortune) is pondering running for Lieutenant Governor, and such a popular piece of legislation with his name on it would be a nice feather in his cap come campaign time. So the Democratic leadership killed it. But then (long about June 9) the leadrship had a change of heart and realized they had killed a good idea–so they kindly resurrected “Scholarshare.” The only catch: Firestone doesn’t get to have his name on the bill–the new “author” will be the Assembly Higher Education Committee.

Later, in 1998, working at the Institute for Global Ethics, I had the idea of starting something we called Business Ethics Newsline. The first edition was in February that year. I wrote columns for Newsline on occasion. It’s still going strong.

I’d have to say my favorite Newsline item was called “Civic TQM:”

Imagine we were able to implement TQM in the civic life of the United States. Opinion makers would encourage people to focus on fixing problems early in the process, when it’s first possible to correct — and possibly preempt — them. Instead of telling citizens that their highest — and only — duty is to vote, what if we were to spend a similar amount of energy encouraging citizens to get involved before November? The intense get-out-the-vote efforts by so many nonprofit community groups could become get-out-the-letter-to-the-editor campaigns focused on Labor Day, when there is enough time to influence policy proposals. We could create a new social movement around quality citizenship.

While at IGE, I also had the idea to start a newsletter called Campaign Conduct This Week. It was a weekly (natch) roundup of political happenings that related to ethics in politics. I can’t find many traces of it, except for a December 1999 version that the San Juan County prosecutor’s office sent out to an email list (we used to send it out by email as well as post it).

Then, in 2003, after I had left my job and struck out on my own, I started my own blog under my own name. I called this one Public Comments, and it was just an occasional outlet for writing. I was even quite haughty about not calling it a “blog” — no, these were essays. Occasionally I’d get them published in The Christian Science Monitor but more often it was just an outlet for my thoughts.

Later, in 2007 I started a local blog called Rockville Central, which takes up a great deal of my blogging time. I wrote a recent article all about that here.

Around this time, I also started writing more and more frequently for Pajamas Media, a collection of bloggers (like Huffington Post).

So I guess it makes sense that I started this daily blog up recently. The last dozen years have been filled with various versions of blogs, and now perhaps doing one that is just my daily thoughts will be good for me.

But . . . what to write about?

Crumbling Paper

Seth Godin points out that bloggers aren’t going to be winning any Pulitzers — unless they are posting at major news sites already. He says:

So, Tom Friedman can win a well-deserved prize for writing what is essentially a blog for the NY Times, but if he goes off on his own, he’s out. What a shame. As newspapers melt all around us, faster and faster, the people in the newspaper business persist in believing that the important element of a news-paper is the paper part.

I am not sure that is true. John Gapper at the Financial Times has a well thought-through discussion of what it might really mean that newspapers are dying.

The question for national and international reporting is not whether city papers survive but whether news organisations such as The New York Times do. Clearly, if they did not, and blogs were left alone to provide coverage of Washington and Iraq, there would be a problem.

Gapper’s point, among others (and I recommend the whole article) is that news-gathering, which is the core business of the major newspapers, takes resources that bloggers, even when aggregated into something like, say Pajamas Media, just don’t have.

Something has to keep feeding our appetite for news, and blogs can’t fill it. They provide commentary, analysis, sarcasm, thoughtful argument, and behind the scenes facts — but not news.

So, while the “paper” part of newspapers may well be crumbling, I don’t think news institutions as a whole are going the way of the dodo. Sure, daily newspapers may fade — but not all. Instead, I imagine their newsgathering efforts being consolidated into a handful of players.

It’s already happening to an extent. The Web has allowed Reuters and AFP to rise. CNN is considering competing against the Associated Press as a wire service.

As a blogger, I depend on news items to come over the transom. So, I hope the “mainstream media” does not crumble!

Home Economics

I’ve been staying up late, working into the wee hours, and all day on weekend days, crunching to get a project done. It’s got me thinking about working at home versus working at an office — and how the lines are blurring more and more. My own “work life” is tightly integrated into my “home life” so much so that our household is pretty unusual. But we are also illustrative of what may be a trend. A few years ago I wrote a column for The Christian Science Monitor about this:

As I rise in the early morning, I often imagine a farmhouse in a small, agricultural community, perhaps in Maine 80 years ago. This imaginary farm provides the means for the family’s getting by. The chickens give up eggs; the cows, milk; and the soil, vegetables. Well-tended, the farm generates income at market as well as sustenance at home. It is the economic engine of the family. All hands work at making it run.

Our own house is like that farm, updated for the early 21st century. Instead of milking the cows, I fire up my screen and scan the night’s e-mail. Instead of harvesting the turnips, my wife drafts a new report for a client. Instead of feeding the chickens, the kids could collate a mailing (admittedly a rare occurrence). All of this puts food on the table. And it all happens at home.

I know most people go off to work. But, ours is not some oddball approach to life. The way we live shares similarities with many of the people I see every day. On Sunday, I got a call from my dentist’s office asking to reschedule a Monday appointment. Where does one find help willing to make such a call on a Sunday? It’s the dentist’s spouse — they work together. My local barbershop is run by a husband and wife team who have a back room where their preteen kids spend lots of time. They wander back and forth between “work” and “home” all day long. I know more neighbors whose entire work life is focused at home than I do neighbors who go off on a daily commute. This is too small and idiosyncratic a sample to say there is a trend. But it’s clear that there are many households where “work” has taken on a different meaning, where the lines are blurred and the house itself seems to be the economic engine for the family.

As we hurtle into an uncertain future, it can feel as if we’re going back in time.

Xenophon, “history’s first professional writer” according to one classics professor, was born in Athens around 430 BC. His Oeconomicus is influential. It is a housekeeping manual, a discussion between the immortal Socrates and another man, concerning the best way to keep an estate. In this work, the two agree that it is “the business of the good economist to manage his own house or estate well.” It is from this household care manual that we get the word “economics.” It’s about the inflows and outflows that go into keeping a home. Seen this way, “home economics” is redundant: Economy is about the home to begin with.

The nature of work is changing, business pundits now tell us. Institutions shrink, businesses squeeze ever more cost out of operations, commutes get so long that it becomes a chump’s game. Increasingly people in the “economy” are trading the workaday world for the workaday-at-home world. As the new century began there were more than 18 million such entrepreneurs, according to the US Census.

Since I wrote that, it’s only gotten more that way. Even my friends who have “office” jobs are working at home half the time, and not because they are being driven by Scrooge but because that’s just their work style. Still other friends are starting up home-based entrepreneurial ventures. Another friend who is getting an online news venture off the ground spends what seems like most of her time working at a cafe.

As the economy sheds jobs at a rate of half a million per month, what will a “job” mean? Is this “home economics” just the province of so-called “knowledge workers?” Just think of all those people — ordinary folks, the Wal*Mart world — who have started businesses on eBay.

I wonder if it will see odd, eventually to go off and work at a place instead of work at home. That only the jobs that need a physical presence will be handled that way.

Or, will the pendulum swing back? I’ll confess: throughout my thriving home economics world, I regularly consider shifting and working at an office.