Note: This blog draws in part on my experiences and observations interviewing political figures, writers, and analysts for "The Campbell Conversations" on WRVO. To hear past interviews I refer to in these posts, please go to the show's website. The views expressed here are solely my own, and do not represent Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO Stations.

In addition to comments, I'd love to have guest posts. Please send ideas or full-blown posts to me at

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Dan Maffei on the Campbell Conversations -- A Look Forward, and a Look Back

If you're a political junkie or someone who followed the 25th district congressional race with any interest, you won't want to miss this week's Campbell Conversation with Dan Maffei (available on-demand and as a podcast from WRVO).  In his first broadcast interview since conceding to Ann Marie Buerkle, he sorts out the factors that he’s considering in deciding whether or not to run again.  In that process he reflects back on the past campaign and how hard the loss was for him, and assesses his own strengths and weaknesses as a candidate.  He also responds to the recent criticisms surrounding the bonuses his congressional staff received on their way out.  The topic then shifts to potential Republican presidential contenders, and the many ways—according to Maffei—that moderates and moderate political conversations are disadvantaged in the current political system.  Finally, there’s a discussion of our current involvement in Libya.  Much more revealing than most politician interviews, this conversation provides a better insight into the person who was our congressman.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Getting What You Pay For? Reflections on the Budget, Part 2

Here's the second post on Governor Andrew Cuomo's budget speech that I promised the other day.

One of Cuomo's main arguments was that we do not get good value for our tax dollars.  To illustrate, he juxtaposed where we rank in terms of spending in various areas with where we rank in terms of performance in those areas.  One of the canards about New York he was keen to rebut was the notion that yes, our taxes are high, but we get great services and great public resources in exchange.  The numbers he cited were dramatic and disturbing, and can be found here in this video of a similar speech.

It actually turns out that things may be even worse than he says.  I've written about this in past posts and newspaper columns, but the figures are so surprising (at least to me) that they bear repeating. 

First the context:  Although across the Western World, our economies are different versions of the same thing—a system that relies on regulated markets, mixes private and public ownership, and provides social insurance through tax revenues—here in the U.S. we stand at a noticeable distance from the European pack, particularly in terms of our weaker public sector appetite.  Relative to our economy (and therefore our collective income) our government (taking into account all levels) is leaner, and overall, our taxes are lower.  This may be hard for some readers to believe, but it's true.  We look a lot different from countries like Italy, Norway, and France, and in these terms we keep company with Japan, Turkey, and South Korea.

But here's the rub for New Yorkers:  Those statistics are for the U.S. as a whole--in other words, they average across all the states.  But the state-to-state variation is significant.  When you break things down by state, and you look at how much resources, relative to the size of a particular state's economy (and therefore its collective income), government at the state and local level takes up, in 2009 New York surpassed all other states except Maine, and its government was considerably hungrier than other large states like Pennsylvania and California.  (I got these figures by request from Ian Pulsipher of the National Conference of State Legislatures, a distinctly non-partisan and well-respected group.)

Accounting for the state-to-state variations, New York begins to appear more like Britain than it does, say, Texas.  In fact, according to's 2008 international "Tax Misery" Index, a top-earning worker in New York City had the same overall tax burden as a similar worker in Berlin.  However, a top-earner in Texas sat comfortably alongside workers in Uzbekistan and Ireland--8 spots below Illinois, 15 spots below Britain, 20 spots below New York City, and 37 spots below Sweden.

And now here's the final and real rub for comparing New York to those other countries:  Where's the universal health insurance?  Where's the public transportation infrastructure?  The public day care?  The list goes on.

The governor has a point.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Four Thoughts on Andrew Cuomo's Budget Speech

I've just attended Governor Cuomo's road-show budget speech at Syracuse University, and I have four quick reactions, in no particular order.

First Reaction:  2016.  I've seen a lot of pols speak in person, from Bill and Hillary Clinton to Bill Bradley to Mario Cuomo to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to Newt Gingrich to Elizabeth Dole.  This guy is really good, and every time I see him in person he gets better.  Complete command of substance, style, context, and audience.  Better extemporaneously than Obama, I think.  And he's one of the few speakers I've seen--of any kind--who understands how to effectively use PowerPoint.  Ross Perot meets Bill Clinton?

If he maintains a solid record in New York and avoids any scandals--and ultimately gets married--his timing would be perfect in 2016.  He can appeal to the Democratic core as well as craft a more moderate overall message for a general election.  A Democrat making his early reputation as governor as a budget cutter could go far.  Of course, for the resume he'll also need to accomplish something beyond getting the state's finances in order--a set of significant and lasting political reforms could be part of that--but this task is obviously job number one.

Second Reaction:  Although he ran a reform-focused campaign, some of his harsh rhetoric about the Legislature currently in place could come back to bite him.  It makes for some good one-liners, but an advisor might suggest he tone it down a tad.  It's one thing to make a strong argument for budget cutting and reforming the overall approach to state spending (and some of the biggest state programs), and to hold up the long-standing political structure in Albany as a source of the problem; it's another to go after the sitting legislative leaders in the way that he did.  Comparing their approach toward spending to that of his three teenage girls is likely to rankle.  Some might say for heaven's sake, rankle away, but governance must in the end be cooperative in order to be functional--an observation which was in fact another theme of his speech.

Third Reaction:  There's an apparent contradiction in his case that needs to be explained better.  On the one hand, Cuomo repeatedly located much of the blame for our high taxes and spending in the over-influence of "corporations and special interests" over the years, and at one point cited a "permanent government," not of Democrats or Republicans, but of those same corporations and special interests.  Yet on the other hand he sketched out a cycle of state government policies in which taxes are too high, businesses and individual citizens (presumably of higher incomes) leave, prompting the need to further raise taxes, and in turn causing more businesses and citizens to leave, and so on.  We need to make New York more business friendly, the governor tells us.  Both arguments are plausible, but if corporate interests have been driving state government, then have they also been committing slow suicide?  Or is it just some "special interests" that have been the real problem?

Fourth Reaction:  Related in some way to Reaction #3, there was no mention whatsoever of the "millionaire tax," despite the fact that he directly took on the arguments about cutting Medicaid and education.  I was surprised that since he didn't soft-pedal the latter issue he wouldn't also address the former.  Returning to Reaction #1, he might have been gauging the audience.

In a later post I will return to a point I've made in the past about the level of government spending in New York, which fits with the governor's argument about spending levels versus performance.

Monday, March 21, 2011

More on the PBS/NPR/CPB Funding Question -- A Missing Comment

Note:  What follows is a comment from "TW," for which I received an email notice, but which does not appear--at least it does not appear for me--in the post it is supposed to be attached to.  I am looking into this problem.  But it's a thoughtful comment and I am reproducing it here as a guest post.  I'm not personally convinced by TW's argument against funding PBS and NPR, but I also think TW makes many good points.

Disclosures first…I am a registered voter, but not registered with any political party. I trend fiscally conservative and socially liberal.

1. Is the programming on PBS / NPR worthwhile and valuable? Absolutely.

2. Does story selection and commentary lean to the Left? Probably a bit.

3. Does the public ‘trust’ the content coming from PBS / NPR more so than other sources? Maybe.

Yet none of the above elicits my support for continued government / public funding for PBS / NPR.

1. Worthwhile and valuable programming is available from a multitude of commercially successful media outlets (The History Channel, The Discovery Channel, The Food Network, The Learning Channel, etc), and via the Internet. All of these venues have proven that the American public will support quality programming – as evidenced by their continued operation in spite of the fact that part of their ‘competition’ (PBS) is federally subsidized. Given the quality of the content produced by PBS / NPR, why wouldn’t they continue to be successful with a model that uses commercial (i.e. advertising) support alone?

2. It seems to me that the percentage of programming on PBS that is ‘political’ is relatively small, with the majority being educational, arts, culture, etc. NPR, by its nature spends more of its broadcasting day discussing political issues and news topics of the day. Of course this breakdown is purely my perception, and my exposure to any ‘radio’ is limited to time spent driving. Still, PBS and NPR have existed for several decades, through both Republican and Democrat administrations. All media probably leans in one direction or the other, some of course more obviously then others. That is why it is important to watch / listen to multiple sources to best gain an understanding of the ‘real’ picture.

3. A poll on the PBS website under the ‘About Us’ link lists PBS as “#1 in public trust”. I had gone to this section to look for the Mission and Vision statements. Quite frankly, the fact that someone stands up and points outs how trustworthy they are usually sends up a huge red flag and immediately invites suspicion. How ‘trust’ is measured can be a subject for another debate entirely. Again, for me the best bet is to get information from multiple sources - the truth is usually somewhere in the middle.

I believe that when lawmakers created the CPB / PBS / NPR, their intent was to ensure that quality programming was available to the people in a time when television was only in its infancy (or perhaps toddlerhood). Perhaps the fear was that commercial television of the day would neglect the areas of art and education because they wouldn’t be profitable. We know now, that is not the case. Should all government entities remain in perpetuity because their original premise was good, or shouldn’t we revisit things from time to time and ask questions such as; is the mission still valid, has it been achieved, is it still necessary?


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Feature Guest Post -- Faked Calls on the Rush Limbaugh Show?

The following is a guest post from Tim Ambler.  He's the founder of MightyPromos, a marketing firm that offers promotional footballs that can be be printed with a custom logo or message.  The views expressed here are solely the author's, and not those of Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO stations.  One quick thought:  If the accusations are true, it all makes perfect sense and seems non-controversial--IF the show's value is seen purely as entertainment.  It gets murkier for a show that purports to provide publicly useful political information. 

Recently, reports have circulated through the Internet and other media sources that say popular talk show host Rush Limbaugh, among others, has been using paid actors on his radio show. According to the reports, which claim an "inside executive" as their source, an actor or actress would be hired by the show to call in during regular show hours, and to work from a script. The production agency behind Limbaugh's show, Premiere Radio Networks, has denied the allegations. Premiere Radio Networks also produces the shows of well-known television and radio personality Glenn Beck, who has also been alleged to have used the "fake caller" service provided by Premiere known as "Premiere on Call."

The Premiere On Call service is a talent agency for actors and actresses. Jobs range from movies, to television as well as the occasional voice over, or voice recorded spot. These spots are usually recorded working with a script. The accusation states that Premiere Radio Networks hired talent from On Call and had them call in to the various radio shows while they were playing on the air.

The agency's website stated that Premiere On Call Service provides voice talent to take or make on-air calls, improvise on a scene or conversation that was going on, as well as read from prepared scripts when asked to do so. The site guaranteed to have the voice you needed only a quick online form away. The site also guaranteed that no repeat actors or actresses would be used, so callers aren't hearing the same voices over and over again for a six month period. Then the actor or actress would pretend to be a caller, reading from a prepared script. While this may seem dishonest or illegal, actually it is neither. This is a practice that has been going on in radio and television since the earliest days of broadcast media.

The radio network claims that the On Call Service was basically used to connect voice talent with prospective employers in the business. Since then someone has removed virtually all reference to the On Call service from the Premiere Radio Network's website.

Limbaugh steadfastly denies any involvement in the matter, and for what it is worth it almost sounds believable. It is easy to picture station management going over Limbaugh's head to make a decision like this. In times past the sometimes volatile Limbaugh has been less than receptive to new ideas. Though it is interesting to point out that later in the same show Limbaugh claimed the restrictive rules and regulations of the FCC made it necessary for companies such as Premiere to hire voice talent.

Premiere continues to deny that any voice overs were used on any shows. There was no comment from Glenn Beck regarding the accusations.

A spokesperson for Premiere Radio states that while the hiring of On Call was done by executives, how the talent is utilized is up to the managers, staff and hosts of the individual shows. The company went on to say that this service is basically used for managers, staff and companies who are looking for on-air talent to supplement their programming. Some of the usage examples put forth were radio commercials and public service announcements.

That's all very well and good, but to me there doesn't seem to be much difference in what the accusations say they are doing, and what the company says they are doing. It's not a big step from commercial to call in, and amongst the various reports that have begun to trickle in on this subject was one from one such actor. This actor states that for his audition, he was given the scene of being a caller on a popular radio show. And when he was hired he was told that he would be part of a rotating available staff, and that his job would be to call into popular radio shows. And he is not the only one.

There have been actors and actresses doing voice overs since the invention of sound in picture. Do you really think that person always sounds that great?  Just like movie and television actors have stunt doubles and stand-ins, the same thing goes for radio and voice talent. Some days your voice isn't with you. Radio stations typically hire talented voice actors for commercial spots. These people don't work for the radio station either. So why doesn't someone care about that? If a company hires people to call into a radio show, that should not be a problem. If this practice is used however, it should be done in a clear and equitable manner, so as to not falsify ratings or audience opinions.

This practice is not illegal. It's not even clear which radio shows may or may not have used paid actors. Rush Limbaugh is probably right in this case--he was probably singled out because of his notoriety. But while Limbaugh may try to badger and bully around to his point of view, he doesn't really seem like the type to stoop to cheating to gain a leg up.

If anything at all was done, it was probably done at the behest of the radio station executives. The actual people working on the actual shows probably had little to do with it. While Hannity may seem a likely culprit based on his actions in the past, there is no proof of this whatsoever. This story gained most of its momentum thanks to the ability of the Internet to spread news faster and farther. Not because it was true or even newsworthy, but because people just like to spread bad news.