Wednesday, October 31, 2012

When Flip-Flopping Became a Good Thing

This has to be one of the most bizarre Presidential elections in my lifetime. One candidate is part of the one percent that has been lambasted by large swaths of the electorate. He ran a company that laid off workers and exemplified the financial crisis and unfettered capitalism that has turned off and hurt so many Americans. He has changed his positions from day to day and even hour to hour. He has selected a right wing ideologue as his running mate. He claimed just two months ago that 47 percent of the country was lazy. And he is closing in on a possible election victory. Perhaps the strangest aspect of his late surge to tying the race was the moderate turn he took in the first debate. He has painted himself as the same middle of the road politician that was once governor of Massachusetts.

And not only the electorate but many newspapers are buying the reframing: Slate. On October 27 the Des Moines Register endorsed Romney, the first time they have done so for a Republican since 1972. And at least 21 papers that endorsed Obama four years ago have now switched to the Republican candidate this time around. The argument many of them make is that Romney is, in fact, a flip-flopper -- and that that is a good thing. While I agree that this is a quality we might covet in our Congressman, or even Senators on occasion, who are representing their constituents at the local and state level -- a President is supposed to stand for something, isn't he? A President that flaps with the wind is not the kind of leader we need at the moment. But what makes the switch even more bizarre is that Obama has actually governed from the right center since the stimulus and passage of Obamacare (which itself relied heavily on advice from the right wing Heritage Foundation)

As Thomas Frank highlighted in Harpers back in September ("Compromising Positions"), Obama has been to the right of the Democratic party on issue after issue. To highlight the lowlights: 1) To reiterate, Obamacare was heavily influenced by the conservative Heritage Foundation and Romneycare from Massachusetts. It was a major achievement, but did not go as far as most progressives wanted (he slanted right to try to get Republican votes and got none). 2) His bank bank bailout was substantially the same as Bush's. 3) His Fed chairman was Bush's Fed chairman and his economic team too heavily influenced by old Clinton advisors who arguably played a role in the 2007-08 financial crisis. 4) In 2010, Obama created Simpson-Bowles and essentially followed the GOP gymnastics of focusing on deficits as economic growth was low and unemployment and poverty high. 5) He has followed the Bush administration in the war on terror (though more successfully, arguably) and the dedication to the war on civil liberties and government transparency. 6) Has done little to regulate the body most responsible for our current predicament -- Wall Street 7) Failed to raise taxes or even allow Bush's tax cuts to end. 8) Done little to help the poor or unions. 

If Obama actually ran on his record, rather than against the absurd charges of being a "socialist" and "Nazi" at the same time, he should win running away. But unfortunately his unwillingness to act in a real way, to be fair facilitated by the GOP's decision to block almost anything he proposes, has left him as the standbearer of the crises he inherited, and did lead us through. So Romney, who has flip-flopped on everything from the auto bailout, abortion and taxes to Medicare, Afghanistan and Healthcare reform, becomes the candidate who can somehow get us through the lingering financial malaise by essentially reiterating the policies of Bush (the President who left with the lowest approval ratings ever). It is only in the ahistorical, spectacle society politics of America today that a candidate could rebrand themselves as much as Romney has and actually have a chance. And this inability to deconstruct the Republican rhetorical machine might just send this country further down the road toward its ultimate demise. Let's hope enough people wake up from this bamboozling buffoon with a nice suit and smug smile. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Arsenal Wins Ugly; Man U with a Little Help From a Friend

Arsenal won a tough 1-0 victory at home over QPR that might just have saved the season. The losses to Norwich and Schalke last week had the squad in dire straights and on the brink of seeing the positive energy the early season had elicited dry up. The win Saturday was less than convincing and only came as the result of a missed offsides call on Arteta as he headed the ball into the frame before kicking it in onsides after the rebound. But it was arguably a deserved victory, almost taken away in the last five minutes by two gilded chances gone missing by QPR. With Wilshire back in the fold, the Gunners looked dangerous at times, but are still having trouble putting the ball in the net -- or even creating quality chances. What happened during the international break? It is hard to say really, but Cazorla has not quite been up to his early form, we seem to miss Diaby in the middle, Ramsey is regressing to his silly back heals, runs away from goal and flubbed opportunities, Gervinho seems to have lost a step and we miss the quality crosses from Gibbs down the left flank (Arshavin showed that he might still be our best crosser). Watching the game, it is clear we need another striker up front, as Gervinho is not the man for the job and Giroud is just not getting the job done. Hopefully, we can nab Llorente or some other striker in the the January window and pick up enough points until then to keep ourselves at the edge of the race. 

Next weekend will be a huge game, as even a point will show the EPL that Arsenal can in fact compete. It is a big ask, but the wide open style Man U has played this year could play into our hands. The question will be whether we can keep Van Persie and Rooney from tearing up our back line. It is true that we have looked shaky on defense at times, but we do have the best defensive record in the EPL at present. That's right -- Arsenal have the best defensive record in the EPL! We already have four clean sheets this season and have only ceded two goals once all year (against Chelsea). Many of the goals we have given up have been sloppy, including the two against Chelsea. The main problem right now is putting the ball in the net. We had two against Liverpool, six against Southhampton and three against West Ham, but have managed one or zero in our six other matches. That profligacy in front of goal has cost us countless points already this year and put us on the brink of already being out of the title race (which Sir Ferguson was happy to confirm in an interview last week). Yet a surprise win at Old Trafford Saturday would put us right back in the thick of things. And the return of Wilshire certainly has lifted spirits at the Emirates. 

The question that now emerges is what is our optimal starting 11. Hopefully, Szczesny is back soon, as I'm still unimpressed with Manone, even as he has done an adequate job starting for us. While Jenkinson has acquitted himself well, I think we saw the benefit of Sagna as our right back and there is no question Gibbs is a far superior option to the slow (and often clueless) Santos. In the middle of defense, I think Mertesacker has claimed one of the two spots next to Vermaelen, though I hope to see Kos challenging for that spot again soon. Moving to the midfield, things get a little more muddled. Diaby deserves to get back in the lineup upon his return from injury, at least in some games. His feathery touch, driving runs and decent shot have been sorely missed in my estimation. Arteta is indispensable and will continued to start, probably in the middle pushing back to defend. I like Oxlade-Chamberlain over Ramsey, but Wenger seems to disagree. Then we have Wilshire and Cazorla to find spots for. I wonder if moving Cazorla to the wing is really the best option, but I suppose Wilshire will want to play down the middle. In the front, I think Gervinho is more effective as a winger, that Giroud and Podolski can both slot in in the middle and that Walcott (unless he's gone soon), Cazorla or Chamberlain can play on the right (Gervinho obviously can play there as well). We actually have a lot of options right now, but maybe the best is as follows ...

Sagna   Mertesacker  Vermaelen  Gibbs
Diaby Wilshire (or Cazorla)
Cazorla (Chamberlain/Walcott) Giroud  Podolski (or Gervinho)

Obviously Ramsey doesn't fit in here, but he can be a sub, can play for Diaby when he is injured, or on either wing (though I'm not terribly convinced by him on either side of the pitch). One can see why we could let Walcott go with these selection issues, but he seems to be finishing better than anyone on the squad right now. Cazorla has had two lovely goals, but really could have had five or six more, including one last weekend when he had an open shot at either corner. One of our midfielders is going to have to come good with some goals, whether it is Chamberlain, Diaby, Wilshire or Cazorla. Right now we rely too much on the front three and they aren't getting the job done. Podolski still puts in good shifts, but he doesn't seem to be creating or getting in scoring positions as effectively as he did early. And to reiterate my point from earlier, Giroud just isn't living up to the billing and we need more support. Watching Mirallas play for Everton, I have to say he could have really helped the team this year, but que sera sera. 

As to the other games this weekend, two Sunday were decided by poor refereeing (and ours as well, though Gooners will not apologize after all the bad calls we have suffered in recent years). The first was the Liverpool-Everton game, which should have been won by Liverpool at the death but for an absurd offsides call. From what I read, the referee took his time in making the decision and one wonders if Suarez's reputation didn't hurt the team once again. It was an awful call and really inexplicable. But maybe a draw was fair, as Suarez could very well have seen red for a nasty foul on Distin. In the other game, the marquis contest of the weekend, Chelsea was wronged not once, but twice after drawing even from 2-0 down. The first was a ridiculous sending off of Torres for a "dive" after he was clipped. The second was a missed offsides call on the Hernandez goal that gave United the win. On top of these two clear errors were several questionable free kick choices, a missed yellow or two against Man United and post-match concerns that he might have racially abused both Obi and Mata. Mark Clattenburg is not immune to controversy and, in fact, seems to cultivate it. He made the ridiculous call of a goal when Nani stole the ball from Tottenham keeper Gomes on a dead ball in 2010. In 2007, he appeared to listen to Liverpool's captain Gerrard before turning a yellow into a red against Everton defender Tony Hibbert. And he has been charged with shady business dealings in the past. Hopefully, he will soon be out of the game. But as is too often the case, Manchester United got another TWO decisions that could prove decisive in the title race. It is utterly ridiculous how often this happens and one has to believe that the way Fergie bullies the refs has an influence. Games should be decided on the pitch by the players, not by the refs. The good news, of course, is it moves the Gunners closer to the leaders, but one certainly does tire of the ways Man U wins games ... with a little help from their friends.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Arsenal Lose Again

Two disappointing performances in a row for the Gunners culminated in a 2-0 loss to Schalke at home; their first home loss in the Champions League to a continental opponent since 2003. Second-half goals from Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Ibrahim Afellay secured all three points for the Bundesliga side, who now top the group. The Gunners looked lethargic yet again and didn't even have a shot on goal until the final moments of the match. The international break seemed to have disrupted the free flowing style that had seen a relatively strong start to the season. Each game the loss of Van Persie seems to sting a little more and it is clear in the last two that Santos is not a capable sub for Gibbs, who cannot get back soon enough. There just isn't enough creativity up front, sloppy defending at key moments and the squad is giving the ball away at an alarming rate. Player grades ...

Mannone (5): had a couple of decent saves, but just doesn't seem like our answer as a #1. Not sure he could have done much on either goal, particularly the first, but I would like to seem him get a little more aggressive and come out to challenge shooters.
Mertesacker (6.5): had a good game until he played a role in the first goal by not getting over to challenge Huntselaar on the first goal. But was great in the first half with at least three clearances with the pressure on.
Vermaelen (6): just doesn't seem to be the same player at the moment, but will hopefully come good for us soon. 
Santos (4):  awful game for Gibbs understudy and one hopes rumours of him leaving in the winter are true. Had a nice stretch of games last season, but is awful on defense and Schalke was consistently free and dangerous on the right side. He contributed to both goals with his poor performance.
Jenkinson (6): a decent game from the left back, but nothing spectacular. Didn't really get down the right side like he does sometimes but was strong on defense, though the attack usually came from the other side. Odd that he was subbed out for Gnarby, as Ramsey was having a really average game. 
Arteta (7): played a good game, as usual, but didn't seem to create as much going forward as he usually does (though it was others who had errant passes most of the game).
Podolski (5): besides a decent cross early, he seemed to disappear for long stretches and just wasn't getting forward enough in the attack. This is the tag on him and we have seen this for at least two straight games. 
Ramsey (5): a very average game for the young Scot, who doesn't seem to learn from his mistakes. He rarely goes for the easy pass or shot and his infuriating back heels (including in front of goal) and errant passes undermined the attack on too many occasions. He needs to learn from Cazorla to take a more direct approach at times and stop dancing around when two others are in the box. 
Coquelin (6): played a decent game, but also gave up the ball at times (70% pass completion is not terrible, but could be better). Didn't get the ball in dangerous positions enough and together with Ramsey failed to get the ball to Cazorla enough. 
Cazorla (7): not his best game, but didn't really have the openings. He did create a few half-chances but was largely absent from too much of the game, giving the ball up more often than usual.
Gervinho (5): seems to be a much better player on the right wing than as central striker. Is too short and not strong enough to bring the ball down effectively and too often loses the ball when opportunities arise. He's had a nice start to the season, but seems to perform better as a winger, reminding us that we really need to get a quality striker in January, even if Giroud does start coming good.


Giroud: came on late and didn't get many touches. Have to get him involved earlier and with better crosses (Gibbs is sorely missed on that score at the moment and Sagna could improve this when he gets back).

Gnarby: this kid has real talent and will be an important part of this team in the future. Not sure if he should be the sub in an important Champions League match at this point though.
Arshavin: barely had a touch, though he did complete his passes.

Arsenal is in trouble at the moment. They have gone two games without scoring and their defense is looking unstable yet again. Hopefully we can regain our form against QPR, who are hungry for points themselves. The squad will clearly improve once Wilshire, Diaby, Gibbs, Chamberlain and Sagna are back in the fold, but we need to find a focal point for the attack when our passing game is not doing its job. Rumours are that Walcott is on his way out the door in January and while I would have welcomed that given his performance the past year plus, but do worry at the moment that he is the best finisher on the squad. Let's hope we show up in good form this Saturday ...


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Strength of Conviction?

A recent study has found that strong men are more likely to act in self-interested ways: Salon. The study, by Michael Petersen of the University of Aarhus in Denmark and Daniel Sznycer of the University of California, Santa Barbara found that, "regardless of country of origin or apparent ideology, strong men argued for their self interest: the poor for redistribution, the rich against it. No surprises there. Weaklings, however, were far less inclined to make the case that self-interest suggested they would. Among women, by contrast, strength had no correlation with opinion. Rich women wanted to stay rich; poor women to become so." (From The Economist). So does this tell us that there is truth in Social Darwinism after all? If one has the power to act in self-interest, one will but if one needs help, then a more communitarian perspective would actually be a survival strategy.

Of course, the problem with studies like this are numerous. For one, is the sample size sufficient to actually draw generalizable conclusions. Second, are the measures of strength (bicep size) and self-interest (a series of questions about redistribution and the like) valid and reliable. And third, is this proof of casuation or simply correlation? The third question poses the greatest interest, as it could be the case that conservative men are more likely to care about their bodies and thus are "stronger." But another issue is whether physical strength has any real correlation with the "fittest" argument these days -- which one would clearly argue is not the case, except maybe in a post-apocalyptic world that those same self-interested "strong" men might be leading us toward.

While Arnold Schwarzenegger is obviously a prime example of the muscular conservative, and John McCain comes to mind as well, were President Bush or Dick Cheney really intimidating anyone in the gym (outside of Iraq that is)? Studies like this are certainly interesting fodder in the ongoing debate about self interest versus the new "empathetic impulse" research in evolutionary biology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, but really do little to undermine the emergent evidence that we are, in fact, more hard wired toward community (through the mirror neurons) than the winner-take-all, the rest be damned turbo-capitalism we are currently mired in.    

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Third Debate

Some saw tonight's debate as a draw, but I think Obama slaughtered Romney, who looked smug, uncomfortable and made some surprising policy changes that Obama highlighted on the spot. Among the most important was making himself sound like Obama on many issues, rather than the hawk he portrayed himself as throughout the campaign to date. This was slinky at it again, but he seemed to get caught off guard by Obama being ready to call him out on his constantly changing positions. In composite, most agreed that Obama won. A CBS Snap poll of undecided voters showed Obama winning 53% to 23%. A CNN poll had him up by 8 among registered voters and a third saw him win by 11 points. What was weird was Romney supporting an exact date for ending the war in Afghanistan, after critiquing Obama on this point for over a year, trying to attack Obama for cuts to the military and falling into a rhetorical trap Obama laid out wonderfully (counting ships is like counting bayonets, to paraphrase). Romney's argument on China seemed to contradict itself from the beginning to the end of the question and overall I just found his argument less than compelling.

The key point he keeps making is that unemployment remains high (true) and that his policies will "put Americans back to work." But he then argues that government doesn't create jobs, when that is clearly untrue. It was the government that got us out of the Great Depression, the government that helped create the biggest middle class the world had ever seen, the government that got us through many recessions and the government that saved the global economy four years ago. It is a lie that resonates with the American public but one that must be challenged if we are to get this country "working" again. And Obama seems ready to finally make this argument again. Let's hope he actually pushes for these policies if reelected. If Romney wins this election, it is largely based on his chameleon-like ability to appeal to divergent voter interests at once (by pandering to all of them almost simultaneously), by lying consistently about Obama's record and his own vision, by diverting us from his plan to restart the work of Bush (with budget cuts) and by tricking Americans into once again believing they must support the super rich to have a shot at getting rich themselves. Four years ago, the American public asked Obama to get government again working for their interests. But four years of relentless attack and obstructionism by conservatives inside and outside the government has undermined his ability to enact that will, while blaming him for being stuck with their policies of tax cuts and little else. Two weeks til D-day. Let's hope for sanity in the face of the spectacle! 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Arsenal Lose in Awful Form

This team was supposed to be different. Not one dimensional. Stronger defensively. Attacking options across the front line. Maybe more mettle. And then they showed the lack of form that has plagued the Gunners for the past seven years. A game they should win against bottom dwellers Norwich, who had among the worst defense in the EPL, seemed like a good opportunity to get a nice three game streak going before the big Man United match. Instead Manone reminded us why he isn't ready to be a number one, we controlled the middle without providing any clear chances and we dropped another three points to a team that sat back and absorbed our pressure all day, just playing on the counter. Going back to the beginning of the season, we dropped four points against Sunderland and at Stoke as they just sat back and didn't allow many real openings (though we certainly had chances to grab the three points in each, but for Giroud flubs). Now another squad with little forward ambition went even further and cost us all three. That is seven points against mid to low table teams that we could seem to disentangle. Maybe most disappointing was the failure to try different tactics and a tendency to send balls long or send in average crosses rather than try to create from the middle out toward the wings, which has led to our best opportunities all season.

It's not worth offering individual grades, the team was average to awful across the board. Cazorla and Arteta played ably, but didn't create the chances they have been so far this season, though Arteta had a decent chance he didn't take. He seemed to send the ball over the defense too often, without anyone to control the ball and move in. Gervinho looked dangerous at times, but his last ball was often wanting. Giroud seemed unable to bring balls down effectively, except for the nice header to Gnarby's feet. The defense looked suspect on a set piece yet again, and were lucky not to be down 2-0 at the half, after Manone pushed the ball back in front of goal and Mertesacker reminded us why his lack of pace can be costly. The Ox came in but was injured almost immediately and then we saw the little Russian who couldn't in a game we needed to win -- together with the youngster Gnarby, who actually had some half-chances he dispatched harmlessly wide or high. These are players for games we are ahead in, not in the desperate closing moments of one we really needed to win (if we did, we would have moved all the way to fifth, rather than falling to ninth). The top three all won, by coming back, and we thus lost three points in the race and an opportunity to pick up points on Newcastle and Tottenham.  

Adding the disappointing Chelsea performance to the aforementioned two openers and last night and we see a team that is too much like the Arsenal of old. Losing RvP really is hurting us at present and it is clear that these players have to figure out ways to win when they are a little flat or off their game. And I don't want to exaggerate this point after being impressed with the way Wenger built a new squad in the wake of two key departures, but he does seem to have a hard time motivating his players for these tough away fixtures that we just have to win. The international break obviously came at a bad time and injuries hurt (one wonders if Walcott would have come on late to save the result again, as he has for the Gunners and England in the recent past), but the depth we Gooners were happy to see is maybe not as deep as we hoped. Santos is a real dropoff from Gibbs at the moment, the team is much better with Diaby who is, surprise/surprise, out yet again and Ramsey is so mercurial he really can't be counted on an a week-to-week basis. I just don't really understand how flat the performance was. The players had to know how important this fixture was and yet didn't show it on the pitch. 

What is clear is that we must find ways to beat teams that sit 11 back. And that probably requires a natural goal scorer, which I believe we lack at present. Podolski, Cazorla and Gervinho will all score this year, but not every week and Giroud worries me, even as he did finally get his league goal (and scored late to give France a 1-1 draw last week). I wonder, sometimes, whether we shouldn't actually give Walcott a shot up front and see what he can do, as his finishing has improved dramatically this year. We obviously also need another striker up front. Rumors have us in for Lopez, Llorente or Jovetus (sp?) -- with what I assume is an absurd story that we could get Dzeko (which would be spectacular -- he again showed his ability to score late important goals yesterday, with two to save the day for Man City). Last season, Arsenal won several games late, largely with goals from RvP. We need someone to take up this mantle this year or we could find ourselves outside the top four and in a hinterland from which it is not easy to escape, ala Liverpool. Everton, Tottenham and West Brom all look like strong rivals for that spot and the top three seem unlikely to give up their places (unless we beat them in our fixtures the rest of the season and they start dropping points), so we need to start beating the teams we should. Chelsea, Man City and United have all ceded a lot of goals this season, but they simply score more. If we look at the way we control games and create chances, we should be right there with them. But someone has to actually put the ball in the net with more regularity. And given our problems, shopping Walcott seems like a poor choice (even as I would have been happy doing so until seeing his form this year). Disappointment is the liet motif of being an Arsenal fan and it doesn't seem to be abating anytime soon. We really need a trophy to remind the squad how to win tough games (as it seems to have done for City this year, after coming back on at least four occasions already). We have the talent to do it; now we need to put our energy into actually achieving that goal (even if it's the Carling Cup). Go Gunners!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Two Concepts of Freedom

Standing alongside God and the American Dream as the key memes of American society since its formation is freedom. We are the "land of the free," the place where freedom reigns, the birthplace of free speech and the first democracy to take the notion of individual freedom seriously (though France tried to go further a few years later). During Presidential elections, of course, the word freedom is parried about quite a bit. Which presidential candidate is going to cultivate and spread freedom to the most people? Which president will free of from past wrongs or future fears? Who is the real champion of freedom? Since the conservative revolution of Reagan, Republicans have been the party of freedom. But what do they mean?

Freedom to the GOP starts and stops with the economic system, and generally large corporations. The "free" market must be allowed to do its magic without the burden of government intervention. Small businesses must be free to develop and grow without the burden of taxes or regulations. Corporations must be free to pursue profit maximization without the burden of high taxes, regulation or unions (who lower the bottom line, while making workers lives better). Freedom here is the freedom of individuals to pursue their dreams (and greed) and the freedom of social institutions to run roughshod over the rights of the people. Their freedom, thus, really contains both negative and positive freedom (as defined by Isaiah Berlin in his famous essay). Negative freedom is freedom from (in this case taxes, regulation and government oversight). Positive freedom is the freedom to -- and since the 1980s the GOP (and Dems) have allowed the erection of a lobbying machine that gives big corporations almost carte blanche to do as they please no matter what the cost to workers, consumers and the average American (who is generally both). What the GOP does not support is positive freedom for the average citizen (or certainly the poor). Instead they are left to fend for themselves in a world that is stacked against them. And on social and political questions, the GOPs version of freedom is quite strange -- people are free to limit the rights of others, to push their values upon them and to censor free speech in the name of profit or nationalism. People are not free to practice many religions, to critique party orthodoxy, to have sex the way and with whom they want or over their bodies. In other words, freedom is really for the corporation at the expense of the average human being.

What does freedom mean to Democrats? Well, in many ways it is the same. Since Clinton's third way politics, the Democrats have largely followed the GOP script, though with more success. Obama certainly challenged some of its tenets, and it is worth noting that Clinton did raise taxes, but whether it is Republican obstruction or simply that the Dems are as incumbent to corporate and Wall Street interests as Republicans, little has been done to cultivate true positive economic freedom (unless one considers losing one's house as freeing them from the burden of debt). On social issues, the Dems are certainly more apt to support positive negative freedom (ie, the right to act as you want without governmental regulation of your acts and body). Obama, however, gave a speech at the Democratic convention that provided a nice new definition of freedom:

"We, the people recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideas; and those who died in their defense."

And while one must recognize the cosmetically appealing convention was really just a long, scripted infomercial, these are words we should heed. Freedom can only be realized collectively, a result of the sacrifice of "freedom" we give to gain the efficiency, convenience and security of living with others. Yet once we make that initial sacrifice, our freedom becomes encumbered by others who not only can spread that freedom, but make our lives better. And so the irony remains that the party of freedom is the one that keeps taking our freedom away. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Obama Wins Debate #2 (or at least ties, according to Fox)

After the first debate, some including me began to wonder if Obama really wanted another four years. But yesterday's performance seemed to put those concerns to rest (except on the one occasion when he said "when I was President," which was a troubling slip). Romney was again the attack dog, but Obama was clearly getting under his skin last night by giving back all that he received and Romney often showed his cantankerous nature -- a rather poor display for someone who would have to deal with contentious and delicate situations on an almost daily basis. On the facts, Obama won on almost every issue, as far as I'm concerned, though Romney performed well. The problem, as appears to always be the case with him in this election, is both his penchant for prevarication and his slippery flip-flopping.

Romney did get in a number of strong arguments, but his five-point plan seems destined to simply reiterate the work of Reagan and Bush in the past -- the very small government, low taxes approach that is at the heart of the mess we're currently in. He was forced to show his rather conservative positions on social policy and skated around a number of issues like immigration. While some of his lies went unchallenged, many were taken head on by Obama, and very effectively in many cases. The most obvious was regarding the tragic loss of the diplomats in Libya, which forced the moderator to actually fact-check Romney and call him out on a lie he repeated on at least four occasions. Romney also kept repeating that the deficit has "doubled" under Obama. But that is again untrue, unless we are rounding by $6 trillion dollars -- as the figures I have are a jump from $10 to $14 trillion. He also argued toward the end that regulation have "quadrupled" under the Obama administration, which seems absolutely absurd. And there was, of course, no acknowledgment that Bush got us into this problem to begin with or that Obama's stimulus package probably saved us from a depression (a point I think Obama should have made, given all the economists who have admitted this). 

In the end, one hopes this performance will restore Obama's lead and get the campaign back on track in the final weeks before the election. Working against my measured optimism was a conversation I overheard between two strangers behind me in line, who actually still believe that Obama is not a U.S. citizen and that Obama is "almost as rich as Romney." This is Romney's strategy, as far as I can tell -- essentially play to the ill-informed public's ignorance and hope they don't actually check the facts or the reality that his position changes from one hour to the next. And while sites like are doing a wonderful job of challenging political lying, I do worry that the service is used predominantly by people who already have access to the "truth." The third debate Monday should be an opportunity for Obama to score more points. Let's hope he does the job. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Voter Suppression A Go Go

Voter suppression has always been a part of the American political process. Whether sanctioned by law -- from property requirements (until early 1800s) to blacks (end in 1870) and women (until 1919) -- or through more sinister means like poll taxes, literacy tests (Example) and outright violence, we have a long history of trying to ensure that the people who most need support and representation in our democracy don't get it. Ironically, it was the inchoate Republicans who expanded democracy like no one since the polarizing Andrew Jackson (who helped form the Democratic Party and seriously expanded democratic participation through direct presidential elections and other advances). For many years after the Civil War, in fact, the Democrats were the party that worked to suppress or even outlaw the black vote. But ever since the Southern Strategy that followed in the wake of LBJ's Great Society, it is the GOP that has worked to ensure that fewer people vote. This was obviously the case in Florida in 2000, but exists in various forms across the country from ID requirements to attempts to reinstate the poll tax to rules and voting site allocations that dissuade or blockade minorities from voting.

The Supreme Court today will hear a case (Slate)that could again decide the election. Early voting is allowed in Ohio, and the Democrats have been using the extra  days to get out the minority vote. But the GOP in the state has instituted a series of rules that could end the practice on the last weekend before the election, potentially costing Obama enough votes to lose the state (and maybe election). While there is legal precedent for the change, it makes little sense except to suppress the minority vote (particularly as they want to allow military personnel to continue voting during this period). It is just the latest example in an endless process to try to essentially steal the election by not allowing likely Democratic voters to vote. Is this the democracy we want?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Cowboys Lose

I rarely write about the American version of football, but I need a little catharsis after the Cowboy's loss today. Football is arguably a sport where coaches have more to do with the outcome than any other. In real "football," the coach manages players, runs training, makes decisions on line-ups, subs and formations that hopefully match up well with their opponents and create the intangible milieu that works for the club. But personnel matters a lot, as can be seen by who tends to win leagues, cups and European competitions. In basketball (at least at the pro level), coaches manage players and can be important at the end of games, but the players performance has a lot to do with success. In baseball, there are a ton of mini decisions that are made by managers from where to position players in the field, who to start, when to call in a reliever, pitches, steals, etc. But the game again comes down to performance. With American football, every play involves at least one and often several coaching decisions. Time management and personnel decisions are key. Coaches can create an environment that seems to cultivate discipline or take a lax approach that shows up on the field. They often call offensive plays and defensive formations. They manage time outs and make key decisions on field goals, going for it on fourth down and the like. And with this in mind I want to look at the coaches of my two teams.

The first is the Jets and Rex Ryan. Ryan came in with his big personality and crazy predictions of success and did just that. Two tough AFC Title game losses stood between the Jets and their first Super Bowl since 1969. But over the last year plus, his style is starting to wear thin and his personnel decisions baffling. Why did he not go out and buy a couple playmaking wide receivers? How did he let the defense become so mediocre? And why get the polarizing Tim Tebow when you have a quarterback who is clearly more sensitive than most. Today the Jets won big, but they will clearly struggle to make the playoffs. 3-3 is not a bad start, but injuries, player attitudes and a real lack of offensive fire power does not bode well for the team's future; at least this year. There was also, of course, the bizarre decision to let the camera's into training camp last year -- which seemed to quash the momentum two years of success had garnered. 

On the other side is the Cowboys, who have lost two games in a row that they probably should have won. Almost two weeks ago, on Monday night, they were driving for a touchdown to tie up the game when an interception turned things around. Romo threw five in that game, but at least three were based on errors by receivers. This week, they ran all over the Baltimore Ravens on the road and had numerous chances go wanting. But without the 12 penalties and terrible time management at the end, they still probably would have won. Instead they allowed 14 seconds to run off the clock as they decided whether to call their last time out. Even a spiked ball would have given them another play to pick up five or ten yards and have a much more manageable field goal attempt. Jason Garrett has been the coach since 2010, and has only managed a 15-12 record with one of the most potent offensive teams in the NFL. He has done nothing in the playoffs and often makes terrible decisions at key points in games that hurt the team. He certainly can't be on the field catching the ball, a huge problem for the Cowboys all year, including the enigmatic Dez Bryant who has dropped 6 balls in the last two games -- with the last costing Dallas the tie. But even after that heartbreak, the Cowboys recovered the ensuing onside kick and were set up for a field goal, before the time snafu. 

What is wrong with the coaching? One thing appears to be play calling in the red zone. The Cowboys too often settle for 3 instead of 7 or have a costly turnover, which is obviously often the fault of Romo but also relates to penalties and play calling. They also have had a number of problems on special teams, which played a huge role in the loss today. That often comes down to coaching. Time management is another key role the coach plays, and the Cowboys have been victims of some ridiculous late game waste of time in the last three years. We can also see some questionable defensive calls. A 3rd and 13 in the 2nd quarter with the Raven pinned back in their own end was arguably played too conservatively with only three rushers, giving Flaco the time to complete a pass for the first down on the way to a score. Finally, is the number of penalties. Today penalties kept pushing the Cowboys back and arguably cost them at least 4 points (probably more). Looking at the score, that was the difference and the problems on the line all season have to fall back on the coaching staff, particularly allowing Romo to micromanage the game in a way that seems to backfire a little too often. 15-12 for this team is not good enough and it might be time for Jones to start looking for another coach who can get the best of the players and team. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Arsenal Wins

A little late in reporting this outcome, as I was busy the past few days but a strong performance from Arsenal winning 3-1 on the road at West Ham. After dominating the first 20 minutes, we fell behind 1-0 after a lovely turn by Diame, a flub by Ramsey and Mertesacker playing the cross rather than moving to block the shot. It was a majestic finish, but clearly could have been better defended. From there, West Ham looked a little more dangerous, but Giroud finally came good with a nice finish after feeding Podolski on the left and then making a lovely run to clip the ball over the keeper toward the end of the first half. Early in the second, the Gunners seemed to lose some flow and the Hammers had some decent chances, but Walcott came on and soon scored a goal before assisting on a lovely finish from Cazorla. Arsenal hung on and won the game convincingly, moving up to 5th before Sunday wins pushed them back to seventh. 

It's been too long since the game for me to do accurate grades, but I will say that Walcott was obviously impressive off the bench, not only scoring one and assisting on another but showing hustle and steel getting the ball back a few times. Cazorla was great again and continued to show that he is one of the steals of the transfer window. Giroud has been making good runs since moving to the Gunners and finally scored a goal in the EPL (his second overall). If he can start finding the net more, it could really help the squad, as one could argue he has already cost us at least four points by failing to finish (one could go as high as seven if they assumed he should always finish decent chances). Arteta was good, Vermaelen was strong, Jenkinson was all over the field, getting the ball back on the other defensive wing on at least two occasions. Ramsey was slightly above par, but blew a very good chance with a questionable pass across to Jenkinson when there were four Gunners in the box on a counter. Gervinho seemed a bit tired after playing a lot in recent weeks and Santos looked out of sorts after coming on for Gibbs. Manone couldn't really have done better on the score, which reminded a little of Henry's glory days. 

Overall, it was a nice comeback on the road and while not as convincing as one might like, showed the new Gunners, who appear to have more meddle, the ability to kill off games and a more well-rounded and dynamic attack than they did with the "one man team" last year (which was not as big an exaggeration as we pretended). It's hard to believe, but if Podolski and Cazorla continue to play at this level and Giroud starts scoring more, I think we are a much better team than we were last year (forgoing the two winning streaks and late collapse by Tottenham that kept us in the Champions League). It is going to be a real struggle for the top four this time around and the Gunners cannot afford to lose or even draw too many games at home, but we have been very impressive on the road (ignoring the uninspired 0-0 draw at Stoke, which is always a tough away fixture for us). We really should get maximum points in our next three matches before the date with Manchester United and will have a chance in that game if United continues to leak goals like they have until last weekend. 

The big issues for the club at present appear to be staying healthy, figuring out how to bring Wilshire back in slowly without ruining the flow and cohesiveness of the midfield and shoring up our defense on set pieces, which after looking good early has been a bit suspect in recent weeks (lest us forget both Chelsea goals came on sloppy set piece play by Kos). We have nice depth at a number of positions and real competition that means not performing will cost you your spot. While Sagna will clearly start again when he is at full fitness, Jenkinson has been more and more impressive as time has gone on and is a great backup. We have a good backup goalkeeper now that can be trusted, after his horrific performance at Olympiacos last year. We have three solid centre backs who can be shifted in and out depending on the opponent (Mertesacker not as fast, but better positionally than Kos). On the right, I'm still suspect of Santos defensively, but he is good going forward and one hopes Gibbs is healthy again soon. The midfield is plumb at the moment, with Ramsey the most average so far this season, but he is clearly improving (maybe spurred by the obvious competition). In the front, we have Giroud, Pod, Gervinho and maybe Walcott competing for the center striker role and Pod, Gervinho, Walcott and Chamberlain all able to play on the wing (some have suggested moving Cazorla there when Wilshire is healthy, but that seems a crazy waste of his talent to me). In any case, consistency over the next month will be key to moving forward in the Champions League and moving up the the table before the show down with Fergie and RvP. Go Gunners! (and the U.S. in our qualifier Friday)

Monday, October 01, 2012

Tough Loss for Arsenal

The 2-1 loss to Chelsea on Saturday reminded of many of the disappointments over the past few seasons. Arsenal looked good at times but had two major defensive lapses and missed far too many goal scoring opportunities. They had 17 shots in total, but only put one in the back of the net. And Giroud missed his second chance to become an Arsenal hero, missing a late goalscoring opportunity. One has to think that if we still had RvP, we might have won our first two and at least gotten a draw against Chelsea. That's at least five dropped points. Arsenal is probably not in crisis yet, as many pundits are already arguing, but it is disappointing to consider that we lost four points in the first two games because of our inability to score, dropped two points at Man City when we had a great opportunity to win and lost three to Chelsea with Koscielny playing terribly  (at home). Sure he's just back from injury and is faster than Mertesacker, but this seemed a bad game to get him back in the fold. The Gunners now find themselves in seventh place, a full 7 points behind Chelsea. Diaby will be out for at least three weeks and Giroud seems far too wasteful in front of the net (after finally scoring his first and only goal in the Carling/Capital One Cup earlier last week). 

Looking at the game, however, one could again find a lot to make fans hopeful. Chelsea only had three shots on goal and the two that went in were based on defensive errors. The Gunners again controlled the middle for large parts of the match and created opportunity after opportunity. Gervinho appears to be coming into scoring form, a necessity with the departure of RvP. Diaby looked decent until his premature departure and Jenkinson again played well. But we must become more clinical in front of goal. As I said previously, Giroud should have scored after dribbling around Cech. Cazorla lost a goal on a great Cech save, but needs to become a little more clinical himself (as he missed a couple strong opportunities). Gibbs made a nice turn but should have shot and Podolski largely disappeared in the first half before being subbed out toward the end. We we lost the ball in the middle a little too much, had too many errant passes and gave up some unnecessary free kicks (and maybe a penalty that wasn't called). But we have a winnable list of fixtures coming up and need to start taking maximum points to get back in the top four and take momentum into the game against Man United (and congrats to hated Tottenham for their first win at Old Trafford since 1989). 

P.S. The collapse by the U.S. today in the Ryder Cup (up 10-6 after the first two days -- and 10-4 at one point) might be the greatest choke in the history of sports, but also included a spectacular display of clutch golf from the Europeans. A historic day, 13 years after the 1999 comeback by the Americans -- which I remember watching at a bar in Barcelona with a bunch of Spaniards -- reaffirmed something that maybe isn't that surprising: the best individuals in the world will often lose to the best team. And the U.S. seems more naturally individualistic than Europe. Ironically, it was European individuals today that retained the cup in impressive fashion (though with a better team spirit, I sense).

The Collapsing Candidacy

Is Romney the worst candidate for president in the television age? Nixon, of course, was the first to suffer under the camera's gaze, but rarely has a candidate had less self-control, alienated such large numbers of people with such regularity (here and abroad), changed his mind from one day or hour to the next and run a campaign with a less detailed platform. None come immediately to mind -- though one must consider how Gore allowed the election to be stolen after having one of the easiest roads to the presidency in the past 30 years. Romney seems to exemplify all the worst qualities in politicians -- the very embodiment of the corrupt politician we see so often in Hollywood and on television. He stands for little except making the country worse off, continuing the perilous path we have been following for most of the past 30 years.

Another interesting question is why he's running at all. Does he simply want to serve the needs of his fellow 1 percenters? Is he trying to prove that you can win without any substance in the age of spectacle? Or does he simply want to be remembered for something besides firing a lot of workers and being a centrist governor in Massachusetts? It is hard to know, but it certainly should give pause to voters. 

Among the recent arguments he has made is that Obama is guilty of redistributionism. Yet it is his party that has overseen the largest redistribution of income in history ... from the poor and middle class to the rich. Is this something people are willing to vote for again? Can we even trust the one percent to look out for our collective interests? The idea of great statesman and businessman leaving the private sector to do their government service and then return to private life was a central idea of the founding fathers. But does Romney fit this model? Did Bush? Or Reagan? McCain was a lifetime politician and thus can't be placed in this mold ... and neither can Clinton. But the idea that success in private life necessarily translates to the ability to succeed in the political arena is one that has been suspect for some time. Let us hope that Romney is not given the opportunity to provide further empirical evidence toward this claim.