Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Lobbying and the Myth of Technical Reasoning

Thanks to political cotton candy for the tip.  Treasury Secretary Geithner is responding to outrage over the cozy relationship between lobbyists and the release of TARP I and TARP II (bank bailout) funds by setting up new restrictions on the the ability of Treasury employees to contact those corporate and political interests advocating for a piece of the pie.  The regulations are also going to make the contacts between lobbyists and public officials more public. Interestingly, the Times refers to Geithner's motivation as being one of "preventing political interference with decisions about which companies received bailout money."  Not surprisingly, a constitutional law scholar was brought in to remind folks that it would be unconstitutional to prevent a lobbyist from contacting a public official, but not unconstitutional to regulate who a public official can talk too.  If I am reading this correctly, the public employee has fewer constitutional protections than the lobbyist. It would be worth learning more about the rules over tax law that the Secretary plans to model in the case of TARP II lobbying and how public employment law interacts with free speech law. 

As a cautionary point, I am suspicious of wanting to decrease political interference. Barney Frank noted in a New Yorker that the Obama Administration downplays the importance of ideological differences. One wonders if this is why Frank's name appears  in a way that implies he was  participating in undue political interference. I am a little unsure why we want to "prevent political interference"  but rely  on "investment criteria and the facts of the case." Isn't  this the same assumption about technical reasoning  of   financial wizardry that got us into this problem in the first place?  The politics are on Obama's side, he should  lead with a plan not failed financial algorithms.  Of course we want policy based on our best knowledge and best practices and I respect that Obama's consent to lead is based partly on competence; but, we should not go running into the belly of technical reasoning, especially if that technical reasoning got us into this trouble in the first place.  Such algorithms exist to disguise the political interference done by finance capital they do not remove politics from the equation, only the people's politics.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Rhetorical Policy Studies: The Lobbying Example

Robert Reich's Monday Jan 26 update to his blog notes the interaction between lobbying and campaign contributions affecting current policy making over the roll out of the second round of the financial bailout  (wonks call it T.A.R.P II; TARP is the acronym for Troubled Asset Relief Program). Political contributions and lobbying, I would contend, are two genres of money/speech that deserve much more attention from rhetorical studies.  President Obama's recent executive order on Ethics Commitments for the Executive Branch is one of the many ways lobbying is regulated and demonstrates how money/speech is often approached from the standpoint of an ethical problematization. As such, these genres might provide important insights for those pursuing the uptake of Foucault's ethical writings in rhetorical and cultural studies.  The genres of money/speech and their regulations, therefore, suggest the need for a more self-reflexive policy turn in rhetorical studies.

The primary tendency of rhetorical studies is to approach public policy as an object of rhetorical concern.  Whether public policy is welfare policy, population policy or military policy is of little concern.  If it is policy, it is fair game for a rhetorical scholar, especially a scholar that might have found his or her way into rhetorical studies from debate or thinks that public argument is a primary object for rhetorical studies.  Occasionally,  even political scientists have noted the rhetorical dimensions of public policy because of the importance of communication/argument/rhetoric/frames to such policy dynamics as agenda setting.  Yet, except in the area of 1st Amendment scholarship, scholarship that seems rarely raised up as an exemplar of contemporary rhetorical studies, I am at a loss to point to research in rhetorical studies on how public policy regulates the communicative ways in which people  are allowed to influence public policy or participate in elections.  The lesson of turning our attention to rhetorical genres  like lobbying is that they call for a more rigorous policy turn in rhetorical studies than that authorized by the phrase rhetoric of policy.  

Just as my friends in cultural policy studies have turned to how culture has become a site of regulation and social management, so too rhetorical studies should become more sensitive to how rhetoric today exists as a highly policed and contested domain of public policy. To keep the analogical structure in play, let's call it rhetorical policy studies. In such a domain, rhetoric exists within specific terms of art (like lobbying) and, as such, our efforts to be oriented toward a history and analysis of the present requires we know much more about these rhetorical genres and their regulations than we currently do.   Such a policy turn should pay off by providing a more direct path for rhetorical studies to use its knowledge for practical/political effects as well as engage more directly into the critical conversations about the ethical dimensions of (governing/leaving) "communicative capitalism." (See Dean 2004, for the origin of the concept communicative capitalism).

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Obama and Biopolitics: The Malthusian Couple/Family Planning Thread

Elections matter. On 23 January 2009, President Obama signed a presidential memorandum authorizing USAID and State Department to fund NGOs that may use "non USAID funds to engage in a wide range of activities, including providing advise, counseling, or information regarding abortion or lobbying a foreign government to legalize or make abortion available." By lifting the "gag rule," Obama revokes President George Bush's (43) re-instatement of Reagan's Mexico City policy and Bush's extension of those policies. This memorandum places the Obama administration back within the Cairo Consensus in international population policy. The Clinton Administration was a major force in the constitution of the Cairo Consensus. The Cairo Consensus advanced women's empowerment and reproductive health as the cornerstone of population policy.

Obama's memorandum argues Bush era restrictions were "excessively broad" and "undermined efforts to promote safe and effective voluntary family planning programs." The White House released a statement pledging to "restore critical efforts to protect and empower women and promote global economic development" and to work "with Congress to restore U.S. financial support for the U.N Population Fund."

The White House Statement also commented on the state of the debate on family planning assistance arguing it had become a "political wedge issue, the subject of a back and forth debate that has served only to divide us" and that the President has "no desire to continue this stale and fruitless debate." The statement declares "it is time that we end the politicization of this issue." Of course, the New York Times framed the issue exactly in the terms of the "stale and fruitless debate" over abortion.

I would like to know more about what Obama thinks makes a debate "stale and fruitless," though I suspect it has something to do with what Tribe called the Clash of Absolutes (though dated, I should re-read the last two chapters of Tribe's book). Obama believes that he can bypass incommensurability by finding a new point of agreement. In this case, he hopes to get all sides to work together to "achieve the goal of reducing unintended pregnancies." This pragmatic goal will be the shared agreement he hopes will "initiate a fresh conversation on family planning , working to find areas of common ground to best meet the needs of women and families at home and around the world."

We look forward to the new conversation, but, respectfully note that the women's empowerment agenda embraced by the Cairo Consensus does not go unchallenged (see, Greene 2000) and those challenges are not about abortion politics, but about how the focus on women's empowerment to decrease unintended pregnancies does not get at the heart of the economic, social or cultural inequalities built into population/development policy.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Now and Then: MP3 and the Sophists

Back from  Jonathan Sterne's talk entitled: Is Music a Thing?  The thingness of music was approached from the standpoint of the MP3 as a container technology for music.  His historical re-contextualization of the MP3 format  provided  an entry point into the current file sharing debates and the broader cultural claims about whether or not the internet has ushered in a "new gift economy." One of the more provocative claims was his discussion of how the commodity form is still operative even if the exchange value seems less important to the thing. We were reminded of how Benjamin's analysis of the commodity form partly diagnoses bourgeois subjectivity  through the practice of collection and possession. Which means that the celebration of the digital economy as a sharing economy may be missing an important characteristic of the practices associated with the commodity form in terms of possession.  To think about the commodity form, both in terms of monetized exchange and in terms of the practices of possession/ acquisition will be helpful as I  read Fredal's essay about sophists charging fees. Join me, if you have the inclination. I hope to write about the essay next week.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Economics of Rhetorical Rituals: Inaugural Financing

USA Today's Fredrecka Schouten reports on how donations to the Obama inaugural committee generated tickets for special events for the contributors and bundlers. It is structurally noteworthy that "federal law sets no limits on the size or source of inaugural contributions."

The following negative inferences are expressed about the privatization of the inaugural financing: 1. money = perks for donors (special events). 2. money = potential for undue corporate/donor influence on /access to policy makers . 3. money proves hollowness of Obama change rhetoric (this comes out more in the comment section).

In response: Obama people claim process and political advantages:

1. private funding allowed more public involvement in inaugural weekend
donations from big contributors helped to underwrite a slew of events aimed at giving the public access to the historic event, including Sunday's free concert at the Lincoln Memorial featuring Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen, Garth Brooks and other stars. "You can't do all that for free," Douglass said.
2. Obama process for collecting was an improvement over status quo
Obama voluntarily has capped inaugural contributions at $50,000 each and chose not to accept money from federal lobbyists, political action committees, corporations or unions. He also set a $300,000 limit on the amount of money a fundraiser could collect from other donors.In addition, he has disclosed the names of inaugural fundraisers, along with all donations of $200 or more on the Presidential Inaugural Committee's website.
3. magnitude trumps undue influence
"When you raise $760 million," referring to Obama's record campaign haul, "you don't owe a single individual anything."
4. Obama represents the grassroots (the people not the corporations)
"The president-elect made it clear throughout his campaign that the people who have power in his campaign are the grass-roots"
The process and dispositional advantages of the current administration over the status quo and the Past President are important. However, the distributional pattern of the contributions to the inaugural committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, reveals a tilt toward "finance, insurance and real estate industries." It is this distributional effect that pushes back the claim that the magnitude/democratization of contributions decreases undue influence or that a better process for a bad system is a net advantage over a reformed public financing law.

How the distributional patterns attempt to push back grassroots power deserves our special attention as the articulations of money/speech transfigure themselves into policy.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Economics of Rhetorical Rituals

Eric Boehlert at media matters demonstrates the statistical distortion fueling the controversy over the economic costs of Obama's inaugural. But, the cost figure controversy may be participating in a media logic my comrade Jayson Harsin calls a rumor bomb, as such, the ability of the critical-rational work of media matters may come too late. It is noteworthy, however, to comment on the less controversial figure of 45 million dollars of private funds being raised by Obama's inaugural committee. The "private" financing of rhetorical rituals deserves attention because such financing and lack of controversy reveals how public address partakes in a political economy all too easily relegated to arcane Federal Election Commission regulations, Supreme Court decisions and pay-to-play scandals. Money/speech takes as its primary concern the political economy of rhetoric and the rhetoric of political economy to address the conflict of values embedded in U.S. public culture. It is from such a vantage point that Money/Speech will begin to assess the truth of those values called forth by President Obama as the foundation for our new era of responsibility: "hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism." I am likely to add a few values to the list.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

I Begin

As I await President Obama's first inaugural address, In the hope that I hear something similar, I share the following from FDR's first inaugural address: 

The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere economic profit.

Oratorical animal notes the many allusions of renewal in Obama's inaugural and  the following passage expresses a renewed economic emphasis on equal opportunity and regulation:

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill.  Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control -- and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity: on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not our of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.
Alas, it gives much away with its claim that markets expand freedom without qualification and the call to  "extend opportunity to every willing heart" provides rhetorical cover to exclude those not reached because they failed to embrace the new responsibility called for today by President Obama. Alas, this passage suggests a renewal of the cultural wing of neo-liberalism.  In contrast, as a watchful eye, money/speech joins the President's call for a renewal of our better history; one that might begin with the Glass-Stegall Act.