An online journal of politics, policy, and society with a special focus on Maryland -- Contact: on_background at yahoo.com.

Friday, August 29, 2003

Buying American

I really wanted to buy an American car.

I’ve always had American cars and have been generally satisfied. More importantly, I support the union movement here for protecting and advancing the rights of workers, and I wanted to buy an American product that would help our economy and working people. I understood that no matter what kind of car we were talking about, there were American-made components and imported, and that the management had little to do with the origin of the name of the company, but I wanted to do my part.

After all, as citizenworks.org says: “This Labor Day, 9.4 million Americans are out of work and 30 million Americans - one in four U.S. workers - earn $8.70 an hour or less, which works out to be $18,100 a year, the current official U.S. poverty level for a family of four. Meanwhile, CEO pay rose again in 2002, up to a median of $3.9 million per year, or a whopping 282 times the salary of the average company employee. Clearly, something is wrong with this picture, and on Labor Day it is worth re-dedicating ourselves to the fight for workers rights and economic justice.”

I decided to buy this car a bit more scientifically than I had previously, so I checked out a couple of books at the local library, bought Consumer Reports’ New Car and Used Car buying guides, and made more trips to car-related web sites and dealerships than I had in my life. I knew that I needed either a mid-sized sedan or a wagon, and thought that would open me up to myriad possibilities and difficult choices. I was wrong.

Unless you are looking for flash and dash, size or style, the critics agree that Japanese is best. The reviews in Consumer Reports are particularly illuminating, in reliability, resale value, ease of driving, and other categories, Honda and Toyota consistently outperform the competition, and are competitive in most other categories. The reason this is coming up in a log that is generally about politics and policy is that, for this writer, the shift to a Japanese car, coming on the heals of a shift to Japanese stereo equipment and other electronics years ago, is because of what it says about the global marketplace.

Ayn Rand argued that it was a virtue to favor quality in all things. Beyond buying the best car regardless of who made it or is selling it, the argument is made to extend to most goods and services, as well as to human relationships. I’m not going to argue for this perspective, just thought you should know.

In politics this week, the New York Times asserted that retired Gen. Wesley Clark was itching to run for president (and a draft organizer, Jason McIntosh, said that support was widespread) and the LA Times ran a front page article on Minnesota politics after Jesse Ventura (the young Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty seems to be getting good reviews). If you’ve got a second, check out the caricatures on http://www.weeklystandard.com/

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Method to the Madness

In a news flash that will come as no shock to anyone, the General Accounting Office (GAO) is reporting that the energy task force led by VP Dick Cheney relied heavily on energy and other corporate interests and virtually ignored environmentalists, unions, academics, and others: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A44891-2003Aug25.html The GAO report also cited an overwhelming lack of transparency and accessibility. Whether you like the task force's energy policy or not, the closed process that developed it strikes this reader as undemocratic.

On a completely unrelated note, Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: "Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, and ... when they fail to do this purpose they become dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress."

There is an interesting, though rather lengthy, article about the Federal Communications Commission's recent rules and Rupert Murdoch in the September edition of the Atlantic Monthly and one about Rep. Curt Weldon's efforts at international diplomacy in The New Republic: http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20030901&s=crowley090103. Michael Crowley's article on the Pennsylvania Republican is entertaining as it describes Weldon's exploits going around the globe, often against the wishes of both the Clinton and Bush administrations, but fails to mention one key point. The last Member of Congress who made a habit of travelling to dictatorships and other challenging locales trying to improve the world was appointed Ambassador to the UN and Energy Secretary; now Bill Richardson is Governor of New Mexico, chair of the Democrats' 2004 convention, and someone being talked up for an even bigger job in the future. Might Weldon see an angle?

Saturday, August 23, 2003

Jumping In

"...the people I love the best jump into work head first without dallying in the shallows and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight."

-Marge Piercy, "To Be Of Use"

Thursday, August 21, 2003

Thursday Recess

Yet again the cyberpranksters of the world have spent their free time creating a virus or some other program to inconvenience the rest of us. Word is that local governments around the country, the Congress, and other august institutions are learning just how dependent on the internet we all are. It probably means lost revenues and inefficiency, but for most of us it is just an excuse for a long lunch break.

What a shock that the electricity grid should go down, in part, because of years of neglect and a failure to invest in infrastructure. This is hardly news, as it was predicted for some time.

And of course there are articles on the dangers of genetically modified crops http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2003/08/19/biopharming/index_np.html, Rep. Janklow's accident and its impact on South Dakota politics http://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/21/national/21JANK.html, and the European Space Agency's solar powered ion drive spaceship http://www.economist.com/science/displayStory.cfm?story_id=2003365. Or, you could just take a day and go to the nearest body of water for some relaxation.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Cause and Effect?

Say what you will about Howard Dean, but the man has a knack for planning ahead. He has been actively running for president without having another full-time job for almost three years and has gone from obscure leader of a tiny state to contender, at least in part because he has built slowly, largely under the radar, and despite a lot of naysaying from pundits for most of that period. Of course, his strong anti-war stance, online innovations, and other efforts contributed to his movement upward as everyone knows, but starting early and working hard seem to have paid off for Dean (whether or not he gets the brass ring).

On a similar note, I was surprised when I came back to DC in the spring of 1998 (almost 2 years before the primaries) to hear all sorts of Republicans, well-informed and outsiders alike, talking about how George W. Bush had the nomination in the bag. Perhaps that’s the ticket. It might make even the most cynical among us wonder how much further our electoral contests can drift downward before any vestige of consideration for contenders’ experience, ability, or plan for the nation (or state, just look at California) disappears completely.

Oh, and speaking of the little-heard subject of policy (its August: Congress, the Administration, and most of the pols outside of California, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana are on vacation), I found Llwewellyn King’s column on the potential causes of the blackouts in his White House Weekly to be thought provoking. Beyond being the publisher and editor of the notable policy/political tip sheet Energy Daily, I don’t know much about King, but the potential that deregulation of the electric power industry and concomitant loss of private investment/responsibility in the grid contributed to the problem was illustrated.

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Don't Bother

Okay, so you've been watching too many episodes of West Wing, or you've been in the policy/political trenches for a while doing work in your state, or you were really a talented political science student, debater, lawyer, businessperson, nonprofit professional, etc. You want to go to Washington, D.C. to make your mark, play the game, craft policy, or pursue your dream.

Don't bother.

Seriously, West Wing is a lie, Roll Call is incredibly interestingly written, and nothing compares to your fantasies or the people you've been talking to. Let me warn you ahead of time that while there are lots of interesting jobs here, successes and marks are made, policy is crafted, political games are won, and dreams are fulfilled, far more often they are not. If I sound a bit bitter, its because I am. But that doesn't mean I'm wrong.

First, you should know that while DC looks like a great place to work for a pol, a nonprofit, a lobbying/pr/law firm, or otherwise get into the game, there are way too many job seekers and too few jobs. Where do you think that all of the talented political science students, debaters, lawyers, businesspeople, nonprofit professionals, organizers, pr mavens, and political/policy hacks from around the country come? Prepare to be the statistic that you were warned about being when considering good but big schools -- a tiny speck in a big ocean of people.

The scary thing is, there just are not enough jobs for all of those people, particularly if the economy is bad or your party isn't in power. I know, I know, you're a go-getter, bright, hardworking, good experience, and used to winning. Whether its your SATs, your high school something-or-other team, or your past success at something that you think is great preparation for your dream job, let me assure you that there are 20 million of you in DC. Let's add to that that the job market is fragmented, with no centralized hiring process.

If, for instance, you are interested in becoming an aide to a Member of Congress, you are up for a real challenge. While there are human resources offices in both the House and the Senate, and online sites like www.rcjobs.com, www.hillnews.com, www.cq.com, www.hillzoo.com and others offer listings, you will find that the hiring process is really controlled by more than 550 hiring centers (every Member and Committee does it separately), is incredibly competitive and yet hiring is not done logically.

The nonprofit, lobbying, political or policy fields outdide of Congress are just as challenging to break into. If you, after reading this, are still determined to give DC your best shot, then here are a few resources to get you started: ww.idealist.org, www.leadershipinstitute.org, www.politicalresources.com, , www.politixgroup.com, and, of course, www.washingtonpost.com. Go into the Longworth House Office Building or the Senate Hart Office Building, visit Common Cause or the Heritage Institute, or otherwise avail yourself of free job postings. Most importantly, network your butt off and intern (at least part-time).

That said, people still hire their friends or friends of friends. They hire people just like them. They hire all manner of people. But not you. Its a zoo, and if you don't run out of money or give up in the months it will take, you will probably end up being paid little, worked very hard, and treated badly. But we keep coming.

The writer of On_Background has served on the staff of Members of Congress, worked in nonprofits and campaigns, and played around in a number of policy and political roles.

Friday, August 01, 2003

Disciplined Nonconformists

The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.

- Martin Luther King Jr., "Strength to Love", 1963