Wednesday, March 18, 2009

15 Minutes of Fame is Almost Up

This article appeared on


By John S. Wilson

Phoney Populism -

Tuesday, March 17, 2009 11:31 PM

I'm sure you've noticed the rampant populism oozing out of your favorite news anchor or your not-so-favorite politician; they're mad at this and they're mad at that. I have thought to tell these folks what my father used to tell me: there's no point in getting mad unless you plan on doing something about it. And they don't.
The latest version of populism du jour is specifically bonuses offered at bailed out financial companies (e.g., AIG) and in general executive compensation and pay caps. In a New Republic piece Kennedy School of Government Professor Pepper Culpepper, a corporate governance expert, had a peculiar suggestion on how to curb excessive pay. He states:
Here's a better idea: the Financial Services Committee could annually identify the top two executives whose compensation is most out of line with company performance. In recognition of their monstrous pay and of Congressman Frank's past legislative efforts, these could be called the Frankenpay awards. Winners of the awards would be required to testify before the committee about the details of their pay packages. Boards of directors will think twice before approving a pay package likely to land a CEO in front of Congress, and they would not be able to avoid the cap on direct pay by choosing alternative payments, such as stock options, because the awards would target the whole compensation package.
3 reasons come to mind as to why this wouldn't work. (1) How would Congress define an executive whose compensation "is most out of line with company performance?" Would it be based on contributions said executive made to his division or the company as a whole? And based on what time table? Derivatives traders at AIG (the guys who are most blamed for the company's losses) did a great job in 2007. Only problem is those credit default swap contracts they traded didn't do so well in 2008. (2) Even if you could establish a consensus on how executives would be evaluated, wouldn't the extensive lobbying done by high profile Fortune 500 companies somewhat shield them from the embarrassment Professor Pepper envisages? Most likely. It's not to say legislators can be bought, but lobbying might as well be an unwritten lease (Madoff's political donations total $200,000 over 18 years and the SEC received numerous tips they didn't act upon, think it bought him a little less scrutiny?) (3) The little guy may not be enamored with what executives take home, but I think he secretly thinks they deserve it. I'm serious, stay with me here.

Pepper notes how "[b]etween 1996 and 2000, CEO pay jumped from 100 to almost 300 times that of the average American worker, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Yet press coverage of the issue in three major national newspapers increased only slightly" and I think I know why. These executives are captains of industry, highly educated, frequently well-spoken, and disproportionately male and upper class. Let's face it society is and has always been somewhat enamored with these guys, even though at times it can be a testy relationship. We're told that without them capitalism wouldn't be the same; charities would become nonexistent without their massive donations (legislators have used such arguments in opposition to Obama's charitable deduction change, though it's estimated to affect giving by 1.3%); they create many jobs through their genius and business acumen; and the middle class and, for that matter, the nation owes its gratitude to these soldiers of fortune. Sure, every now and then we put on our populist masks and scare unsuspecting C-suite executives with our rants and threats - but our volume is low, threats empty, and time frequently runs too short. We've got a few minutes of this left then everything will go back to normal.

*Professor Culpepper was kind enough to respond this article by email:
Dear Mr. Wilson,
The time horizon of evaluation is a fair point (probably one that regulators are going to be grappling with as the deal with strengthening clawback provisions). The central point you make—that the little guy doesn’t care—I agree with. But not for the reason you suggest, which is that the little guy thinks these awards are deserved. There is very little evidence to support that proposition. Instead, there is a pattern of popular outrage after scandals (the current problem is more than a scandal, but is that too). This then alternates with inattention—true of many political issues, but not evidence that people support these salaries. I don’t have a position about what salaries are acceptable or not, but I do tend to share popular outrage when someone whose company goes bankrupt gets $35 million.

The great thing about Frankenpay is that if you are right—that it becomes hard to set criteria that are generally agreeable—then the awards will be a non-story. And it costs the government very little to put a couple of staffers on this task. But this sort of naming and shaming just identifies what is going on, as on occasional prompt to shareholders to monitor what is going on in their companies.

New Majority -

Hip-Hop Republican -

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


This piece was recently published in Hip-Hop and New

Leave the Earmarks to the Federalists

By John S. Wilson

The recent earmark debate that developed from the omnibus spending bill signed by Obama on Thursday wasn't about earmarks. And though the GOP did a masterful job of framing the debate to center on earmarks (which only comprised 2% of the bill) they lost out on an opportunity to delve into the real subject matter - federalism. Even after earmarks are stripped away there is going to be more power centralized in D.C. And more power usually leads to more federal government revenue which leads to more federal expenditures - it's a vicious cycle. This basic premise led Thomas Jefferson to found the Democratic-Republican party, and James Madison and George Mason to fight for the Bill of Rights to be included in the Constitution.

Today various members of the GOP lack profundity on these ideals. With rapid fire words like "Reagan", "limited government", "tax cuts" and "responsibility" are shot from their mouths but seem to be falling on Kevlar-lined ears. Why? Because government programs like Social Security and Medicare are extremely popular; because the very thought of a Katrina-like disaster happening without the federal government pitching in (quickly and ably) scares the bejesus out of people; and because citizens implicitly know that if the federal government is doing less it means states, localities and citizens are left doing much much more.This country is increasingly becoming more federalist, and that leaves the GOP in a pickle.

Why would citizens want to limit the very same government they have empowered to distribute retirement income, revitalize their school systems (No Child Left Behind), and help their kids pay for college (Pell Grants)?Republicans, whether socially conservative or moderate, have also jumped on the federalist bandwagon. Social conservatives wanted a federal marriage amendment to the Constitution defining marriage as being between a man and woman, and moderates supported the prescription drug bill Bush signed in 2003 and the Patriot Act, which trumped liberty and kowtowed to neoconservatism.So what exactly are the benefits of being an anti-federalist? That's what the GOP must explain. Earmarks can frame a debate or two but they can't define a party or an era.

Action + Dialogue

In response to my op-ed that appeared in the Orlando Sentinel on March 14th, Professor Jelani Cobb, of Spelman College, wrote in his blog American Expressions the following:

(Racial) Talk is Cheap

I’m a firm believer that none of us is above critique — I learned a long time ago that saying anything beyond “Good morning,” will generate disagreement. If you’re in the business of putting words on paper, or more aptly these days, putting pixels on screens, then criticism is the best evidence that people are reading you and engaging your ideas. In this case, however, I wish there had actually been substantial engagement with ideas as opposed to an assault on a straw man.

A couple weeks back I responded to a question about Eric Holder’s “cowards on race” commentary by saying that the problem is not a lack of dialogue but bad public policies and entrenched legacies of racial privilege. We can “dialogue” all day but it really amounts to nothing more than a focus group or worse, one of those awkward “reconciliation” sessions that change very little in terms of actual social problems. Or, as I was quoted:

“Our major concerns about race are not conversations, [t]hey are about policies, and they are about entrenched legacies of privilege and underprivilege. So in some ways, these conversations are a substitute for other kinds of more meaningful reform or interaction

In response, one John Wilson writing in the Orlando Sentinel took issue with this assessment. Focusing almost entirely upon the first half of my statement, Wilson lumped my comments in with Maureen Dowd’s mentally impaired belief that Obama’s election was supposed to “get us past” the need for racial dialogue. Clearly we are saying two completely different things: I’m saying that dialogue is a cop out, a way of avoiding the serious structural issues that continue to impact communities of color; Dowd is simply ready to sing hallelujah and march forward without ever having to think about race again.

Fact is one election… does not conclude society’s ever-changing dialogue on race. To think so misses the whole point of why we dialogue in the first place. The purpose is to understand various perspectives other than your own, heighten awareness to lessen insensitivity, and draw people closer based on mutual interests, ideals and ambitions.

This is a tragic oversimplification of the problem. It echoes the soft liberal belief that the problem is, essentially one of misunderstanding — that microracism of the “can-I-touch-your-hair?” variety is the actual disease, not a minor symptom of a bigger problem.

Let’s begin: slavery, segregation, lynching, disfranchisement, convict-leasing, redlining, union-exclusion, forced sterilization, police brutality, economic inequality and the prison industrial complex were not created by a “lack of awareness” or “insensitivity.” They were expressions of power, policies that were meant to allocate privilege in one direction and deprive it in another.

Were it that simple, the NAACP could have launched a series of national discussions as opposed to fighting for the policy changes that eventually outlawed lynching and ended segregation. Martin Luther King could have sponsored a few townhall meetings and the problems of Birmingham would have vanished.

Here is another offering:

Only society itself can move forward by embracing diversity and engaging in meaningful dialogue. I would ask Cobb: How do we address underprivilege, specifically those sufferers who are disproportionately affected when it comes to access to health-care, high school graduation rates, or incidences of arrest, conviction and longer sentencing, without talking about race? In the age of police-shooting victim Oscar Grant and racially charged New York Post cartoons, we either need more “postracial elections” or real conversations.

The problem here is that Wilson confuses “conversation” with progress, or believes it to be a key component of it — as if these problems initially arose from a lack of dialogue as opposed to being expressions of white racial self interest. The fact is that one cannot assume mutual interests or goodwill.

The prison industrial complex is currently transferring political power out of poor black and brown communities and toward poor white ones. When the census begins next year, well over one million black people will not be counted in the communities where they grew up or where their families live — they will be counted as part of the population in the overwhelmingly white counties where they are incarcerated, giving those areas disproportionate political representation, tax allotment and clout.

All the dialogue in the world about unequal sentencing and racial bias in the justice system doesn’t change the fact that those white communities have a vested interest in retaining a racially biased situation. There is some merit to “interracial understanding” in the same way that any civic dialogue is likely to produce some beneficial side effect. But that absolutely cannot be confused with addressing the underlying problems of race and socio-economics in this country.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe slavery really could’ve been ended by senstivity training instead of a Civil War. Perhaps the lower life-expectancy that I have as a black man in America is a product of my failure to dialogue with people who are different.

I’m open to talking about it.


I think Professor Cobb made some interesting points, and I commented on his blog:

Professor Cobb, I don’t believe that dialogue alone will significantly change the litany of issues you mentioned above. Furthermore, I agree with you that many of these issues revert back to self-interest and an establishment that is too often focused on the status quo, no matter how disproportionate its effects may be. But when I look at your argument and mine I see two sides of the same coin; I see action begetting dialogue. To have one without the other doesn’t create progress anymore than having neither will. King and others were able to transform boycotts and marches from mere acts of “civil disobedience” to a human rights issue that was at the center stage of local, state, national and international scenes. The accomplishment was predicated upon two things amongst others: (1)Such action would communicate to the masses the injustice that thrives in the south; and (2) Such action wouldn’t stop until the injustice no longer exists, and the masses would be increasingly likely to put outside pressure on those inflicting the torment. Without action you have no end to slavery, no independence of our people and, frankly, no struggle. But action alone did not do it. Actions gave certain Civil Rights leaders a bully pulpit to marshal ever-growing resources. But those actions were antecedents of the dialogue that took place later in homes, state governments, congress, and the White House. In his “Give Us the Ballot” speech, King demanded not only leadership from the federal government but also from northern white liberals, white southern moderates, and the black leadership. He said, “But we must not, however, remain satisfied with a court victory over our white brothers. We must respond to every decision with an understanding of those who have opposed us and with an appreciation of the difficult adjustments that the court orders pose for them. We must act in such a way as to make possible a coming together of white people and colored people on the basis of a real harmony of interest and understanding. We must seek an integration based on mutual respect.” And this is the kind of dialogue I am referring to; not to subvert or substitute action but to build upon action that has already been taken.

I look forward to continued dialogue with Professor Cobb.

Monday, March 16, 2009

GOP - Principles or Principled?

This article appeared in The Daily Voice.

A Former Republican Looks Back at the Party -  

A Former Republican Looks Back at the Party

By John S. Wilson

In a piece that appeared in the Orlando Sentinel I spoke about Attorney General Holder's comments on race last month. The crux was that society should continue the dialogue on race because (1) the successes of blacks and minorities in the past 15 years - including increased college enrollment (especially among black women), increased homeownership, and more blacks in the middle class - can directly be correlated with the struggles, policy changes, and way society engaged in racial and cultural conversation during the Civil Rights era; and (2) the success of minorities has benefitted society, frankly, not just on moral grounds but also in real economic gain through an increased educational level amongst the public and higher productivity gains in the workplace. And such gains will not continue as they have if society doesn't invest in further dialogue that increases cohesion amongst various social groups. Sure, at times either side - say, whether pro Affirmative Action or anti-Affirmative Action - didn't come close to seeing eye to eye or even "agreeing to disagree" for that matter. Moreover, angst did build up on both sides, to the point, many years later the anti-Affirmative Action crowd feels "lectured to" while the pro-Affirmative Action side feels misheard.

Shelby Steele, noted Hoover Institution fellow, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that
" Today's liberalism may stand on decades of failed ideas, but it is failure in the name of American redemption. It remains competitive with -- even ascendant over -- conservatism because it addresses America's moral accountability to its past with moral activism. This is the left's great power, and a good part of the reason Barack Obama is now the president of the United States. No matter his failures -- or the fruitlessness of his extravagant and scatter-gun governmental activism -- he redeems America of an ugly past. How does conservatism compete with this?

Quite a mouthful, but what is it saying exactly? Basically, that liberalism hasn't worked, isn't capable of working, has had the ability to make whites feel remorseful and hopeful that it can work, and gives blacks a vehicle to both make whites acknowledge said remorse and earn something along the way. Steele goes on to say:

" What drew me to conservatism years ago was the fact that it gave discipline a slightly higher status than virtue. This meant it could not be subverted by passing notions of the good. It could be above moral vanity. And so it made no special promises to me as a minority. It neglected me in every way except as a human being who wanted freedom."

This comment is highly intriguing. Conservatism was able to neglect Steele "in every way except as a human being who wanted freedom." Freedom to do what exactly? And if in respect to the past conservatism offered Steele only "human status" - did he really need a political party to confirm that? Minorities don't ignore the GOP due to a need for liberal redemption; they do so because they see a party that has, for far too long, been oblivious to minorities' concerns, heritage, ambition, value system, social identity, social hierarchy, and policy interests. I, too, embraced conservatism at one point. I did so because I saw a party that reminded me of my upbringing; valued hard work, had a do-it-yourself mentality, and embraced the notion that tomorrow will be a better day as long as you don't lose hope. The principles are still with the party - even though I am not - because exhorting principles and acting principled are two different things. When women, blacks and gays look at all that has been achieved in their respective movements - stronger protections in the workplace (e.g, FLMA, support of unions), more equality (though still not enough) and opportunities in education, a seat at the political table (i.e., in congress and statehouses - more democratic elected officials are female and minority), and a seeming realization that most blacks share a similar upbringing to my own - they see a democratic party far from perfect and, at times itself divisive, but far more receptive to their yearnings for political relevance, and partly responsible for it. So contrary to Mr. Steele's rationalization of the GOP's testy relationship with minorities - it's not a matter of which party has been and will continue to give handouts as much as it is which party has been lending a hand to help.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Steele the Moment

This article appeared on

By John S. Wilson

Steele the Moment -

The GOP is doubting a lot right now: Will poll numbers for the House GOP members increase? Will Obama's numbers come down? And last but not least, should we get rid of Michael Steele? The GOP doesn't know the answer to the first two and neither do I. Fact of the matter is the answer really isn't up to them, it's up to a fickle public that is shell shocked by ever-increasing economic instability. Expecting rational judgment out of an irrational public doesn't sound too, well, rational.

If Michael Steele stays his entire 2 year term it will show that he at least had the opportunity to institute changes whether he was successful or not. And that's important. Not only because Steele is the first African American chairman but also because he is dedicated to making inroads in minority communities and is a socially moderate republican (unlike his African American competitor for the chairmanship, Ken Blackwell). I recently watched Steele during his appearance (an RNC chairman's first) at TavisSmiley's "State of the Black Union" summit. Seated amongst liberal luminaries such as Cornel West, Al Sharpton and Lani Guinier, Steele engaged in a healthy and down-to-earth dialogue about the barriers to entry that minorities still face, disparities in education and health care, and gun violence in urban communities. Could the last RNC chairman Ken Melhman have done that? Doubtful - he probably would've looked as comfortable as Karl Rove being served with a congressional subpoena. Steele talked about successes too, but the problems are where the GOP can gain insight and advantage.

To be sure, co-opting democratic issues such as education and fighting inner city crime isn't a new idea. Bush did it successfully in 2000 with his compassionate conservatism campaign, netting himself a higher than normal Hispanic and black vote share for a republican candidate. In 2004 he did even better raising the black vote share in Florida from 7% to 13%; and Hispanic share from 49% to 56%. So what can Steele do that a a different chairman can not? Add credibility to GOP problem solving by bringing much-needed perspective and laying a foundation that is receptive to minority issues in the future. Steele gives minorities a seat at the GOP table. He is also probably more respected in the black community than any other republican aside from Colin Powell. On many issues - gun rights, education, crime prevention - the GOP isn't necessarily on the wrong side; they are just on the other side and must appear to be open to negotiation. For example, gun rights sounds great when you're a sport shooter or hunter and live in a nice comfortable area. It doesn't sound so great when you live in Richmond, Orlando, or another mid-major city that is plagued with gun violence. It's not a secret that certain regulations like the Lautenberg Amendment, which bars gun possession by abusers convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence, gives law enforcement a leg up. But the gun lobby - NRA, etal - recently supported an argument that would've gutted it. The argument was proffered by a convicted domestic abuser, based on a significantly narrow interpretation, and ruled against by the Supreme Court.

In minority communities, especially black ones, it seems as though law enforcement's hands are too frequently tied when it comes to protecting black victims yet all too free when it comes to imprisoning black suspects (blacks are 6 times more likely to be imprisoned ). This distrust naturally fosters even more problems. Steele can certainly help to cut through this distrust by supporting policies that empower urban communities, continuing to support affirmative action, and ending the condescension emanating from the likes of Rush Limbaugh (who he should not have recently apologized to). So it's Steele's moment. The GOP should fall back and let the man work.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Obama Playing Hardball

This was previously published on PolicyNet and Hip Hop Republican:

Why Release More Bush Terror Memos Now?

By John S. Wilson

This is political hardball at its finest. Obama's poll numbers are high - mid 60s or so - but that does not mean he isn't interested in shoring up more support. And there's only two ways he can do that: make people love him more or miss his predecessor less. Long ago Obama mastered the former, and he's attempting to become an expert on the latter - especially where two groups are concerned - moderates and libertarians.

Recently, additional Bush terror memos were released. They were authored by the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), principally by John Yoo, then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General and current professor at Berkeley Law School, and go to extreme lengths to route ever-expanding powers to the executive branch. One of the memos asserts this among other things: (1) the First Amendment's guarantees of speech and press could legally be subordinated to military exigency and, (2) the Posse Comitatus Act, which forbids use of the military on domestic soil, would not apply (hence why only national guard troops are used during emergencies, and under state authority ). Such memos were reasoned so poorly that recently departed OLC head, Steven G. Bradbury, disowned them in two memos he wrote before leaving office in January.

They are a great read, but why stir all this up now? Because while it's uncouth to kick a man while he's down, if warranted, friends and underlings are socially accepted substitutes. These memos have long coalesced contempt among moderates, libertarians and, even some conservatives (notably, Colin Powell) who lost favor with not only the Bush Administration but the neoconservatives within the movement as well. America is a moral nation. Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp, Rendition (the practice of exporting suspects to countries that willingly torture them), Abu Ghraib, Warrantless wiretapping - all of these struck a chord because they violated our most basic principles and liberties. And every time we are reminded of the dastardly deeds that took place on Bush's watch - we're reminded of who was making the mess and who is now cleaning it up.

To be sure, moderates and libertarians weren't rushing to support the recently passed American Recovery Act (colloquially known as the stimulus package). Moderates want a little less government spending, and libertarians want a lot less, especially where the the federal government is concerned. But both camps also value less military intervention abroad, a plan to reduce the deficit, a reliable but moral apparatus to fight terrorism and an increased American moral standing in the world. Obama seeks to accomplish all of these things with plans to wind down the Iraq war in the summer of 2010; halving the deficit by 2012; closing Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp within the year; and pressing the "reset " button on negotiations with Iran, Russia and China. Administrations' political victories are always contextual (the world before them vs. the world after them), and Obama is bookended by how the public perceives Bush's legacy and what they perceive America should be.

Obama is strategically engineering for the long haul. Shoring up support amongst moderates and libertarians leads to more political capital, higher likelihood of increased congressional seats come midterm elections next year, and increased corrosiveness in the republican machinery; and it's a good thing oil is cheap, because republicans are going to need a lot more of it to get the transmission running smooth again.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Holder on Race

This was previously published on PolicyNet and in the Orlando Sentinel:

The Race Is On

Eric Holder

Previously, I blogged here about whether the US is willing to go beyond the traditional racial debate landscape and enter into fertile but untested ground that challenges all of society's views (majority as well as minority populations). It seems the answer to my question is slowly but surely unfolding. This recent article in the Washington Post was quite illuminating. Comments referencing race and race relations that top officials such as Attorney General Eric Holder, EPA official Lisa P. Jackson, and First Lady Michelle Obama have made didn't sit right with some people and came off as overkill.

FULL ARTICLE:,0,179384,print.story

Obama + Crisis

This was previously published on PolicyNet:

When Crises Breed Solutions

It's been popularly said how Rahm Emanuel , White House Chief of Staff, feels about a crisis, "You never want [it] to go to waste". And if anyone is wringing out maximum efficiency from an ever worsening _____ (fill in the blank at this point), it is President Obama himself.