Wednesday, January 23, 2013

At Last, Action

January 23, 2013, 10:50 a.m.

Obama as National Community-Organizer-in-Chief

"You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time -- not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals."

President Barack Obama, Second Inaugural Address, January 21, 2103, [Photo credit: multiple sources]
As an FCC commissioner, I discovered what I called "the vector analysis of administrative decision making." Figure out the directions from which pressure is being applied to an administrative agency, and the force of those pressures, and you can pretty much predict where that agency's decision will end up.

Congress is subject to a similar analysis. It differs from agencies only in the force of the pressure, with special interests' millions in campaign contributions and thousands of lobbyists. But the principle is the same: without countervailing pressure from other directions, and a pressure of similar force, it is fairly obvious the special interests will get what they want (or, more often, be able to prevent what they don't want).

As I've written elsewhere,
The anecdote is told of President Franklin Roosevelt telling advocates of progressive ideas, in effect, “I agree with you. Now you go out there and make me do it” – at least with Frances Perkins (Social Security) and A. Philip Randolph (civil rights legislation), and probably many more. His point, of course, was a variant of the old adage, “When the people will lead their leaders will follow.” It’s very difficult to pass legislation over the opposition of the special interests without overwhelming popular awareness, involvement and support.
Nicholas Johnson, "'The Answer' in 2008," Are We There Yet? Reflections on Politics in America (2008), pp. 160, 162.

On April 22, 2007, I had the opportunity to put a question to then-candidate Obama at an event in Iowa City. It was a process question. It was not a "what are you going to promise us you will do?" question, but rather a "and how are you going to get it done?" question.

Obama's response was, "Nick, I've been a community organizer."

Like many Americans' responses to Senator Obama's statements in 2007-08, I may have gone too far in breathing into that answer what I wanted to hear. I had visited with Saul Alinsky, whom even Bill Buckley recognized as "very close to being an organizational genius." I had gone through training at Heather Booth's Midwest Academy -- familiar to Obama.

I went away from that conversation with my personal vision of a President Barack Obama as America's "national community-organizer-in-chief." Yes, yes, I thought. He understands the distinction between legislative proposals and legislative enactments; he has had the experience; he knows how to do it. He has already created and utilized in his presidential campaign the technology to expand the process from a single neighborhood to an entire nation. "Yes, we can."

Like so many hopes for change, it didn't quite work out that way.

Now, in his second term, following those two sentences from his inaugural address quoted at the top of this blog entry, it looks like he may be prepared to draw on that prior experience as a community organizer, and the wisdom of President Franklin Roosevelt's approach to change, and apply a little vector analysis to the congressional legislative process.

If you want to join in the effort to "go out there and make him do it," here at last is your chance:

Jon Carson, "Welcome to Organizing for Action," January 20, 2013,

along with a little encouragement from Michelle Obama:

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Monday, January 07, 2013

Social Security and the Cliff: A Response

January 7, 2013, 9:20 a.m.

Note: Normally I don't respond to critics. Adlai Stevenson once advised me, when I was Maritime Administrator and advocating polices not well received by the shipping and ship building industries, "Don't pay any attention to your critics, Nick. Don't even ignore them." I've pretty much followed that advice over the years. To the best of my recollection, the only comments deleted from this blog over the past six years have been advertisements for goods or services that were otherwise unrelated to the content of the blog entry. Critical comments have been retained and are still available.

However, a recent column of mine in the Iowa City Press-Citizen regarding the fiscal cliff and proposed modifications in Social Security inflation formulas produced two published letters to the editor containing what I consider to be factual inaccuracies regarding both the Social Security program and what I wrote about it. Given the importance of this program, and the fact that it will continue to be a subject of national discussion over the next few months, and that these letters will remain forever in the hard copy editions of the paper retained by libraries, I felt that a letter to the editor from me, at least noting my disagreement with those letters, with links to what I have written, was required.

My letter is reproduced, below, as it appeared in this morning's hard copy and online newspaper. (It is also available, as of this morning, here on the Press-Citizen online site, from which it will probably be removed by the paper a week or so from today [Jan. 7].)

Lest there be question, let me expressly disavow any suggestion that I'm asserting everything I've written is true, and everything my critics say is wrong. I have authored one newspaper column and a couple of blog entries on this subject -- neither a doctoral dissertation nor a congressional committee report. All I'm contending is that these issues are of sufficient significance to every American that no one's assertions -- not mine, and not my letter writers' -- should stand unchallenged. Everyone needs to participate in this discussion, and to the maximum extent possible try to make an effort to first get the facts.

One of the two (so far) critical letters contains as well comments that are, at best, ad hominem in nature and at worst defamatory. They will not be responded to, both because they have nothing to do with the Social Security issues and in accord with Ambassador Stevenson's advice.

The earlier bog entries on the subject, in which are imbedded my original column, the two letters to the editor, and some of the online comments from readers, can be found here: "Social Security: The Press-Citizen Column," December 26, 2012; "Social Security, Inflation, and Punishing the Poor," December 19, 2012, and the related "Rappelling Down the Fiscal Bluff," December 16, 2013.

Let's Move Beyond 'Tis-'Tain't
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 7, 2013

Regarding the letters, “Local Columnist Plain Wrong on Social Security” (Jan. 2), and “Johnson Refuses to Accept Reality” (Jan. 3), criticizing the column, “Proposed Social Security Changes Punish the Poor” (Dec. 26): “’Tis-’Tain’t” exchanges seldom produce agreement or even mutual understanding. Nor is there space in a letter to prolong the disagreements intelligently.

However, I would like the hard-copy Press-Citizen record to reveal my rejection of many of these letter writers’ assertions (as well as those in any future letters you run along the same lines). Links to the blog entries that have already addressed the matters raised in those letters -— blog entries that, over time, will be revised to contain these and other critics’ comments as well as the original column -— can be found at

Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City
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