New Topics Are Ready

Thanks to Bill and Zelekha, we now have topics for Sept – January.  Some very interesting ones, too.  From Iraq to Ferguson, MO.  From life (sex education) to death (euthanasia).  From the Constitution to the grass roots.  Try to find another group that does all that!  See “Full Mtg Schedule,” above.  I’ll have hard copies on Monday night.

Monday’s Mtg: Evaluating Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency.

I hope you’ve liked our meetings on individual presidents and their legacies as much as I have.  We’ve done Reagan, Andrew Jackson, and Wilson so far, and Nixon is up later this year.  But, to me, LBJ has got to be one of history’s most fascinating – and consequential – presidents.  He also has been meticulously studied, notably by historian Robert Caro, who wrote four (I think) vast biographies of the man.  I have not read any bios of LBJ, but any basic list of Johnson’s domestic policy accomplishments would include:

  • The Great Society, including Medicare and Medicaid.  He raised Social Security benefits by 20%
  • The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.
  • The War on Poverty: e.g., Food Stamps and Head Start
  • Federal aid to education laws, esp. Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
  • Open housing laws
  • Public Broadcasting Act, creating public TV and radio.

It was a flurry of government activism not seen since FDR and never seen since.

Lyndon Johnson’s foreign policy legacy is, of course dominated by the Vietnam war.  By 1968 we had 550,000 troops there, up from less than 20,000 when JFK was killed.  Many weeks saw 500 U.S. casualties as our national wealth poured into that tiny country.  However, LBJ also

  • Signed major immigration liberalization law.
  • Prosecuted the Cold War around the world (especially via covert actions in other countries), and
  • Intervened militarily in the Dominican Republic.

Jim Zimmerman, our resident historian, will try to make it to the meeting, although he has another commitment.  I’ll save the explanation of how historians judge presidencies for our upcoming meeting on presidential power.  I think Johnson’s presidency was one of the most important in American history.  But, I’m not that well-versed.  So, Monday, I’ll just give  a quickies opening listing the highlights and lowlights of the Johnson presidency.   Then we can talk about LBJ and, I’m hoping, how his legacy shapes our world today. 


  1. What were the Johnson Administration’s major achievements and notable failures?  To what extent are we still affected by those achievements 50 years later?
  2. How different are the liberal and conservative points of view here?  Why?
  3. To what extent was LBJ himself the driving force behind these achievements and failures?  What does that tell us about presidential power?  (we’re discussing the power of the presidency next quarter.)
  4. Also, hindsight is 20/20.  Do any of LBJ’s achievements look different if we put ourselves in their shoes back in the mid-1960s?
  5. How do other Democratic presidents stack up to LBJ, including Obama?  How different is our national political environment from those days (1964-69)?  How can we compare the performance of presidents across time?


Next Week:  Voting Wars: How Can We Protect Americans’ Voting Rights?

Monday’s Mtg: Is the News Media Too Biased To Do Its Job?

Is the news media too biased to do its job?  The last time we talked about bias in the news was in 2011, and what I got out of it was that the exact nature and extent of bias is hard to pin down.  Unfairness can be a crime of commission or omission and either deliberate or unconscious.  Some of it is not explicitly political or ideological, but results from prejudices of class, culture, religiosity (or lack of it), or the pursuit of ratings or profit.  Worse, most journalists and their bosses adhere to an unrealistic cult of neutrality – the “view from nowhere” – to use the parlance of my favorite (read) media analyst.  So, bias in the mainstream news media (MSM, as the bloggers say) is hard to see and measure and seldom acknowledged.  Yet, we all claim to see it all the time!

I’ve got a lot of good links this week, some of which I have not studied in detail yet.  So, as a first approximation, I think a good way to structure our meeting would be to take each part of our question in turn.

  • What is the “news media” these days?
  • What is “bias?”  How do we know it’s there, whether it’s deliberate or unconscious, and its causes? 
  • What constitutes the MSM “doing its job?” Is it to be balanced ideologically?  To investigate and inform us of the truth?  To please its audiences and sponsors?  Etc.

I’m being a little vague on details here since I have not done much research yet.  By Monday night I’ll be able to make some brief remarks framing the issue, then we can talk.


  1. My opening question Monday night will be:  Using one or two sentences, what is the news media’s job; i.e., its appropriate role in society?


Criticisms of the MSM’s Biases -

In (partial) defense of the News Media –

Next Week:  Assessing Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency.

Topic Ideas Needed.

We need topics for September – end-2014.  Please put them in comments, email me, or see me at a meeting.  We do

–  Politics and public policy issues.
–  Foreign policy.
–  Religion
–  Philosophy
–  Culture
–  History
–  Science.

If you need a better idea of our topic zeitgeist, peruse our Topics 2014, Topics 2013, or earlier pages, above.


Monday’s Mtg: Are Criticisms of Obama From the Left Valid?

This is a corker of a topic idea from Ron, although a hard one to get a handle on since it could include most everything that’s happened in national politics in the last six years. Criticism of President Obama from the left gets very little mainstream news media coverage compared to the hurricane of opposition from the right. Yet it has been steady and fierce, even as the President’s critics acknowledge the extraordinarily awful situation he inherited, like a collapsing economy, failing wars, large budget deficits, a broken immigration system, etc. To simplify somewhat for discussion purposes, here’s my take on what arguments Obama’s progressive critics and his defenders make.


Policy – Obama is not and never really was a true progressive. In fact, on domestic policy he has governed as just another centrist Democrat like Bill Clinton, trying to push small, incremental changes in a country that’s problems are now so huge that small reforms achieve little. In foreign policy, Obama is little better than Bush-lite. He’s adopted all but the worst of W.’s policies in the war on terror and continued the permanent war footing of the Cold War. Despite Obama’s soaring campaign rhetoric, he has never wanted to be – much less tried to be – a transformational president.

Examples: Bank sector bailouts (too big, no strings attached, let the banks off the hook and more regulatory weak tea). Stimulus (too small) and the budget (too austere and he offered to put entitlements on the chopping block). Obamacare (too timid, not even aimed at single payer as the goal). Domestic spying and assassinations (flatly unconstitutional). War (too much). Immigration (the “deporter in chief’). Education (too anti-teacher). Climate (too little too late). Etc.

Tactics – Obama naively believed his own rhetoric of post-partisanship. During his entire first term, he mainly negotiated with himself, pre-compromising every proposal instead if realizing no compromises were possible with a fanatical GOP dedicated to destroying him and letting the country burn down so they could inherit its ashes. Had Obama been more realistic earlier and/or been a tougher negotiator, and/or better used the bully pulpit to rally the public to his cause, then he could have accomplished a lot more to help the country by moving it in a progressive direction.

Examples: Obamacare (pre-compromised to get imaginary GOP and blue dog Democrats’ support). Stimulus (too scared to propose a trillion dollar one, even though it was needed). Budget cuts and taxes (accepted large spending cuts which rewarded GOP blackmail).  Cap and trade (gave up without trying to rally Hill or public support).

STRATEGY: Obama has failed to do all he can to wean the country off of the conservative framing/paradigm that says government is bad and regulation and taxes are evil. Nor has he done enough to cement the emerging Democratic coalition of White liberals, non-Whites, young people, and women.

Examples: In 2011, he allowed the national conversation to change from creating jobs and economic growth to counterproductive fiscal austerity. He never explained in simple language why austerity is a bad idea. Plus, what has Obama actually done to improve the fortunes and futures of young people and Americans of color?


Historical: All presidents disappoint their most leftward or rightward wing. Most presidents also make any major accomplishments in their first couple of years and then spend the rest of their terms defending them from being reversed. Big, transformative progressive change is almost impossible in our constitutional system and only happens rarely. On foreign policy, all the post-WWII presidents have followed the same basic policy of U.S. dominance and policing of global hotspots, even if you hate it.

Examples: FDR and LBJ had huge congressional majorities and giant crises that mobilized public opinion, and even FDR spent most of 1934-39 playing defense. All but one 20th century presidents have lost seats in Congress in year 6 of their presidencies. Conservatives worship Reagan now, but considered him a moderate sell-out at the time. Everybody compromises when they must to advance the ball forward.

Inheritance: Obama had to make saving us from another Great Depression his top priority. This was destined it be a thankless task because the financial system had to be bailed out. Worse, the public was never going to reward Obama for preventing something (depression) that did not happen. Winding down Bush’s wars and slowly extricating us from an open-ended “war on terror” would never be called victories, either, even though they were very important. Much of Obama’s affirmative agenda was swallowed while he put out these fires.

Power of the Opposition: Obama had 60 Democrats in the Senate for only 184 days  in his presidency, and that “majority” included a half dozen conservative Democrats that he had to compromise with on everything. This was because Republicans effectively altered the Constitution by filibustering every bill and every routine task of legislating. No president, not Lincoln or Reagan or FDR ever had to play by these rules.

Add these completely new rules for governing and a scorched-earth opposition party to the vastly powerful societal forces that fight all big progressive policy changes (corporations, right-wing media institutions) and you get guaranteed gridlock that no amount of presidential soapboxing could break.

And, lest we forget, liberals are a minority – around 20% at most – of American voters! Many support progressive policies when they understand them. But, most voters reflexively oppose most liberal ideas because they are liberal; i.e., unless and until someone clearly explains to them why they are good ideas. Oftentimes, not even then.

Obama Didn’t Fail: Finally, despite all of these obstacles, Obama has achieved a lot of progress towards progressive goals. That’s why conservatives hate him. Obama has now kept all of his major campaign promises (recommended) in foreign and domestic and has a long, long list of impressive achievements. He is building an enduring coalition, too, that turns out to vote for Democrats every four years. This president is playing a long game and he is winning it. See here or below for a full explanation.



  1. Who has been criticizing Obama from the Left? What do they want and expect from a Democratic president?
  2. What are these criticisms, in terms of, say, disagreement with Obama’s (1) policies and priorities, (2) tactics, and (3) long term strategy?
  3. Have any of these criticism had any impact on the course of action the Obama administration has pursued? Why/Why not?
  4. What are the major defenses to these criticisms? What more could Obama actually have accomplished if he had listened to his liberal critics?  If you think he could not have gotten more out of Congress, what about with his foreign policy decisions or executive actions?
  5. Could Obama have done more in defeat? That is, by more fiercely attacking conservatives to change the conversation in a more progressive direction?
  6. What will happen to progressivism after Obama?


Note: There have been dozens of major pieces criticizing Obama from the Left. Here are a few of them and some rebuttals and defenses of the guy.

  • Has Obama done a good job? Compared to what? Recommended.
  • Attack #1: Obama is obstructing a progressive majority (by Thomas Frank, the What’s the matter with Kansas guy). Recommended.
  • Rebuttal to Attack #1, plus another one. Recommended.
  • Attack #2: Obama is really a conservative. Recommended.
  • Attack #3: Obama has not used his rhetoric to change the story (by Drew Westin, the psychologist and language expert).
  • Rebuttal to Attack #3.

Next Week: The News Media’s Bias

A Tribute to a Fascinating Man

I just found this.  RIP, Sid.


Monday’s Mtg: Is It Time To Abolish the Death Penalty?

We last discussed the death penalty in February 2010 (plus for a death penalty-related ballot proposition in 2012). Some things have changed since then. Several more states have halted executions temporarily or abolished them altogether. Public opinion in the United States still favors the death penalty, but the majority is slowing declining. Conservatives have come on board on some criminal justice reforms, like mandatory minimum reductions. And, a recent string of botched executions has thrown the mechanics of the death penalty into stark relief. So, we may be on a slow road to abolition. Alternatively, we could be near a tipping point, like we recently were on gay marriage equality. Or, we could stay the way we are now, where death sentences remain a state issue and a few states do most of it.

Most Americans and most of this group are firmly in one camp or the other on the death penalty. So, I have an idea for a way to discuss “is it time to abolish” it in a way that does more than just rehash the pros and cons of the issue (although we can do that, too). How about discussing why it is that most Americans support support or oppose the death penalty and what it might take to change their minds? Even if you support the death penalty, it might be illuminating to think of this issue in the larger context of how public opinion in the United States gets moved over time. After all, public opinion on some hot button social issues stays remarkably stable over the decades, as we recently discussed regarding abortion. But, in others, like gay marriage, it’s changed rapidly. Why does this happen and what might make it happen on the death penalty – whether you think that’s a good idea or not?

I’m as tired of lecturing each week as you probably are of hearing me. (Okay, probably not.) Either way, I’ll open Monday’s meeting by just spieling out a few statistics on the death penalty’s application in the United States and summarizing recent developments that may (or may not) have the potential to move public opinion. Then, I’ll see if anybody wants to bite on the “what would it take to tip public opinion” angle.

  1. What’s new in the politics of the death penalty in the United States?
  2. Has public opinion moved on the issue in recent years? Why?
  3. Why do people support the death penalty (e.g., vengeance, deterrence, religious belief, inertia)?   Why do people oppose it (morality/religious, cruel/unusual, racial disparity, cost…)?  Is there a difference between the reasons people cite and their real reasons?
  4. What arguments or evidence would it take to change people’s minds? What kinds of arguments sway Americans on issues of crime, or morality, or anything else?
  5. What arguments/evidence would make YOU change your mind?


Next Week: How Valid Are Criticisms of Obama From the Left?

Monday’s Mtg: How Politically Biased Is Academia?

This one’s another great topic idea from Bruce. You may not know it, but the alleged left-wing bias of academia and its influences is a huge issue in conservative circles. It’s spawned a lot of pushback and activism, from creating student groups devoted to fighting discrimination in the classroom all the way to the Right creating its own large-scale infrastructure of universities and think tanks. The idea that the liberal bent of college professors and the university establishments biases research, indoctrinates students, and discriminates against conservative academics and students is an article of faith to conservatives.

But, how true are these accusations? Sure, college professors are pretty liberal, especially in humanities and social sciences programs, and we all remember our really liberal college professors. But, a little reading shows this bias question to be more complicated than it seems at first blush. First, what exactly do conservatives mean by “academia?”

  • Who? Do they mean just the professors or just the tenured ones? What about adjunct professors that now predominate at most colleges? What about all of the administrators and other people that run the huge educational establishments that support the profs? And, what about all of those research centers – many of which are partly or wholly privately-funded – that are everywhere on campuses these days?
  • Where? Is “academia” only the elite universities that drive the directions their fields take and educate the most accomplished students, or should we add in state schools and community colleges that educate the vast majority of kids? What about for-profit colleges, that enroll 11% of all college students? What about the Right’s own college and think tank system, like Liberty Baptist U., George Mason (libertarian), Heritage/Cato/AEI, et. al.?
  • Which fields? Just the humanities and social sciences? What about the hard sciences, engineering, and business?

Second, what do we mean by liberal? Professors’ party affiliations and voting preferences are easy to measure, and they’re overwhelmingly Democrats in most fields.  But is that the same as bias? What about the social science fields dominated by post-modern, deconstructionist paradigms?  Is any professor teaching the standard canon in such fields teaching biased material whether they intend to or not?

Third, what is “bias” as opposed to fact-based belief? Do conservatives have the evidence to prove that professors are teaching liberal opinions masquerading as facts or science?  But, does “liberal academic bias” sometimes just mean, “things conservatives disagree with?”

Lastly, is the hardest question to answer, IMO: Where’s the evidence that liberal academic bias harms anybody? Maybe it does.  But, how do you measure the effects that biased teaching has on students?  In a similar vein, is the lack of politically conservative professors in (most of) academia proof enough of discrimination? Worse, how on earth could one prove that the results of academic research itself are being skewed in an ideologically-biased direction? Like I said, great topic.

I’ll open us up on Monday by summarizing a few studies that have been done recently on academic bias. Then, I’ll try to take us through the questions I’ve posed so we can explore this issue a little bit systematically.  I’m looking forward to hearing from people that have strong views and know more than I do about this.


One Side -

Other Side, or at least some “Howevers” –

Next Week: Is it time to abolish the death penalty? (2-hour executions anyone?)

Monday’s Mtg: Causes and Lessons of the Great Depression

When the U.S. economy teetered near collapse due to 2008’s financial crisis, the panicked debate over what to do about it scratched an old wound: What caused the similar-in-many-respects Great Depression and did government policies cure it or made bring it on? The debate quickly divided into two ideological camps. The neo-Keynesians, lead in the popular press by Paul Krugman, said the situation was pretty simple. Just like in the Great Depression, private economic activity and credit had dried up, so the government and the federal Reserve should stimulate the economy temporarily by as much as necessary to fill the hole in aggregate demand. Once growth resumed, the stimulus could be withdrawn and budget deficits would fall. The other side, conservatives, opposed fiscal stimulus (except tax cuts), arguing that austerity would reassure investors to kick start growth again.   After an $800 billion stimulus package, 40% of which was tax cuts, budget austerity has largely prevailed and the federal budget deficit has shrunk drastically.

The other tool of government economic management is the Federal Reserve, under its chairman, Ben Bernanke. Bernanke, an academic expert on the Great Depression, took the opposite approach to austerity. The Fed quickly lowered interest rates to near zero based on the consensus position that the Fed had done a lot to bring on the Great Depression by tightening the money supply when the crisis first hit.  When touching the “zero lower bound” interest rate in 2008 failed to work, the Fed increased the money supply further via an unprecedented program of buying bonds, known as “quantitative easing.”  Only recently has it begun to taper off that extra monetary stimulus.

Six years later, the debate still rages on whether the Fed and the Congress should have done more, or less, or different things. Krugman and others scream that we need to have large-scale spending stimulus and continued loose money. Conservatives all want to slash government spending and taxes and many also want interest rates raised to head off potential inflation. These approaches are polar opposites, really. One thing we can be certain of is that, since the United States regularly has financial crises, something like all of this will happen again and the same arguments will be trotted out.

So, what are the right lessons to take out of the Great Depression and the Great Recession? This topic can become really complicated really fast and it challenges my economic knowledge to try to do so. But, on Monday I will open us up by outlining the main theories about what caused and prolonged the Great Depression and which lessons policymakers tried to apply when they faced the abyss in 2008-09. Then, we can discuss the matter. There are several good non-technical angles we should be sure to get into, including how and why ideology seems to influences people who comment on economics in the news media and punditry.


  1. What are the main theories on what caused the Great Depression?   How did government policy help to cure (or prolong) it?
  2. How similar and dissimilar was the crisis of 2007-09? How did the policy response differ based on lessons learned 80 years ago?
  3. Who is right: Austerians or Keynesians?
  4. How/why does political ideology drive economics, especially lately on this issue? How can we know what’s right and wrong?


ABCs of the issue –

Liberal POV –

Conservative POV –

Next Week: Political Bias In Academia

Monday’s Mtg: Homelessness in San Diego and Beyond – What Should Be Done?

I’m surprised we’ve never done this topic before. Thanks to Linda for suggesting it. Homelessness has become a big issue in San Diego recently (see links). Nationally, it’s part of that constellation of problems that our political system tends to ignore, along with most anything else connected to poverty.  Our stunted national debate pretty much starts and stops with debating whether homeless people are entirely at fault for their own misery or merely almost entirely. Public policy in many cities tries to “manage” the homeless problem so it’s less visible, and often leaves it to non-profit and private do-gooders to cope as best they can – even in deep recessions, when the need is greatest and the funding (public and private) dries up.

Yet, I don’t mean to imply that homelessness is not a complicated problem or would be fixable with simple solutions. In fact, it’s a really, really, tough issue because homelessness often lies at the intersection of many of our social ills (like joblessness, poverty, lack of affordable housing, over-incarceration) and people’s personal tragedies (such as mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, child abuse). I hope to learn more about all this at the meeting and from the links, below. Linda will run the show, but I’ll be there in my usual capacity to call on speakers in as arbitrary a manner as I can. The background readings focus on San Diego’s homelessness problem, which was Linda’s intent, but I linked toy much more information about the homelessness issue, provided by two organizations devoted to eradicating it.


  1. Who is homeless in San Diego and why? What about nationally? What role do personal factors play versus structural/economic factors? What does this tell us about solutions?
  2. What is San Diego doing about homelessness? How’s that going: what’s working and what is not working?
  3. What do other cities generally do – and not do – to combat homelessness?
  4. What would a more effective strategy against homelessness look like? What role would be played by our national government, state/local governments, and the non-profit sector and charities?
  5. How can we make people care more and judge less?


Next Week:  Causes and Lessons of the Great Depression.


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