The Iran Deal and its Malcontents

The deal with Iran will very likely be a fundamental part of US foreign policy and world geopolitics for many years to come. And it seems to be a pretty good deal. The point of departure for any analysis is that sanctions alone would never have stopped Iran from building a bomb. Sanctions didnt stop North Korea, who only built their bomb after Bush Duh killed the Agreed Framework, which was secured by Clinton, in favor of a sanctions-only approach. This is why trading sanctions for inspections is the right move. The overarching US goal was to make that trade on the best possible terms. It’s a big improvement over the status quo.

Opponents to the deal rarely offer specifics on what they believe to be lacking. The naked assertion that “negotiators could have done better” could have been posited in the aftermath of any deal. And it’s worth noting that almost no one who makes that criticism goes on to explain why they think a better deal could have been had. Many supporters of the deal have expressed surprise that Iran conceded so much.

Critics fall into a few camps. By far the largest entirely avoid specifics – they oppose the deal because they oppose it, and we might dismiss their viewpoint for its arationality. Next are the miscreants who decry a 24-day waiting period for inspections. There is no such waiting period – this misrepresentation has been likened to the “death panel” lie that the right peddled in its attempt to discredit Obamacare.

One small group of critics suggest that the US should have first strengthened sanctions, and then negotiated a better deal from a stronger position. It’s an interesting point, but unconvincing. The US depends on many nations to partner with on sanctions to make them effective – doing so takes a very long time, and it’s not clear that the effort would have succeeded. Meanwhile, Iran would have continued work on its nuclear program.

There’s a very small group that takes issue with some of the deal’s specifics. Senator Lindsay Graham, for example, has complained that the number of centrifuges should have been reduced more. However the reduction that was obtained pushes out Iran’s nuclear timetable (to obtain a critical mass of fissile uranium) from two months to one year. Senator Chuck Schumer complains that the deal only runs for ten years – without explaining why he thinks that the sanctions regime would have prevented Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon within ten years. Many, including the present Israeli Prime Minister, have asserted that under the status quo, Iran would develop a weapon in just one or two years.

A basis for concern seemed to emerge when the AP reported a secret side agreement to the larger deal, called “separate arrangement II” or sometimes “the Parchin agreement.” Ostensibly, it’s a draft of an agreement between the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran, granting to Iran the authority to conduct its own inspections of certain military sites. Upon closer scrutiny, the AP story seems to have been written to generate a maximum of controversy over a largely trivial set of facts.

The agreement purports to cover only a one-time inspection of a very minor site. The inspection has to be signed off on by the IAEA for Iran to get relief from sanctions. The stakes on this inspection are very low for the US, but very high for Iran. The head of the IAEA came out with a public statement dismissing the AP story as a misrepresentation, and asserting that the inspections regimes it has secured with Iran are consistent with long-established IAEA practices. In sum, the AP story is a red herring, calculated to inspire fear in people who dont have the facts.

Meanwhile, supporters of the Iran deal include 36 top US military leaders, who state bluntly in their open letter, “There is no better option to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon”; and 29 scientists, including six Nobel laureates, who attest to the deal’s efficacy; as well as five other heads of state, who were partners of the US to the negotiations, and are parties to the deal.

The Iran deal is a huge diplomatic coup for the Obama administration, and has been enthusiastically embraced in other countries as the West’s best opportunity to avoid war, and as a vast improvement over the status quo. Coverage of the deal continues next week, when the Field Guide takes up its substance, politics and geopolitics.

 

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Refs:

24-day waiting period debunked:

http://www.vox.com/2015/8/19/9176415/iran-deal-inspections-24-days

AP story on the Parchin side agreement debunked:

http://www.vox.com/2015/8/20/9182185/ap-iran-inspections-parchin

http://news.yahoo.com/iaea-says-access-irans-parchin-military-meets-demands-065804943.html

https://www.iaea.org/press/?p=5108

critiquing the critics:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/07/iran-nuclear-deal-obama/398450/

http://www.sun-sentinel.com/opinion/editorials/fl-editorial-iran-gs0812-20150811-story.html

the ays:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/retired-generals-and-admirals-back-iran-nuclear-deal/2015/08/11/bd26f6ae-4045-11e5-bfe3-ff1d8549bfd2_story.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/09/world/29-us-scientists-praise-iran-nuclear-deal-in-letter-to-obama.html

the AP story:

http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/I/IRAN_NUCLEAR?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT&CTIME=2015-08-19-13-06-05

spectacular analysis:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/08/iran-deal-munich-nazis/401402/

also:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran_nuclear_deal_framework

 

Field Theory

It’s an unusual election cycle. Hillary Clinton has the Democratic field to herself, and is effectively unchallenged, as if she were an incumbent seeking reelection. She faces less competition for her party’s nomination than did incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980 or Gerald Ford in 1976 – or two-term sitting Vice President Al Gore in 2000. While there are several theories bandied about to explain why no other strong candidates have emerged, the most persuasive is the perception that Hillary Clinton cannot be beaten, leading the nation’s most talented and ambitious Democrats to the same conclusion: stay out of her way.

This observation is not intended to diminish the candidacy of Bernie Sanders or Lincoln Chafee, both of whom have been good public servants, and hold generally sound policy positions. Sanders’ weakness as a candidate is much more about his style than his substance. In a better world, his positions would frame the debate for numerous socio-economic issues, particularly in an era of extreme wealth and income inequality.

On the Republican side, the field is the largest seen by either party in modern history, with 17 candidates, each of whom with a better chance to win the nomination than Sanders or Chafee (or Jim Webb). In a healthy democracy of more than 300 million people, it should neither be rare nor surprising to have 20 individuals pursue the presidency in a given election cycle. In fact, one might regard the state of the Republican field as a rarely-attained ideal.

But politicians are (almost) never so smart or dumb as we imagine them to be, particularly where their self-interest is implicated. Thus it is that the extremely small size of the DNC field and the unusually large size of the GOP field can each be explained by a single theory. Just as Hillary Clinton is so strong a candidate that she’s scared every significant possible challenger from entering, the GOP field is so dismally weak that even George Pataki thinks he has a shot.

To be clear, the Field Guide would take the large size of the GOP field as a kind of opinion poll. Early front-runners Jeb Bush, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz were not intimidating enough to keep others out of the race. Each time another Republican enters the field, he tacitly opines that the candidates already in the race are beatable. The persistence of Donald Trump’s candidacy underscores this point. Far from being drummed from the race by the seasoned politicians against whom he’s contending, Trump handily won the first debate, and now has more than double the support of the strongest of his rivals!

All of this bodes well for liberals. As strong as Hillary Clinton seems to experienced DNC politicians, the GOP field seems remarkably weak to Republicans. With an electoral map that enormously advantages Democrats, liberals have every reason to be optimistic.

 

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Liberty, Democracy and Gay Marriage

Dissenting from the Supreme Court’s recent decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote,

Those who founded our country would not recognize the majority’s conception of the judicial role. They after all risked their lives and fortunes for the precious right to govern themselves. They would never have imagined yielding that right on a question of social policy to unaccountable and unelected judges.

In his own separate dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote,

This practice of constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine, always accompanied (as it is today) by extravagant praise of liberty, robs the People of the most important liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776: the freedom to govern themselves.

On the other side of the debate, a five-justice majority held that a person’s right to marry is so fundamental that it cannot be constrained by democratic processes. Justice Anthony Kennedy sums up the relationship between liberty and democracy embodied in the nation’s charter:

…[T]he Constitution contemplates that democracy is the appropriate process for change, so long as that process does not abridge fundamental rights.

As is often the case, both the Court’s prevailing liberals and its dissenting conservatives lay claim to the mantle of the nation’s founders. But which of them has it right?

Before 1776 Americans were British subjects, and regarded themselves as fortunate, compared to French and Spanish subjects, because of Britain’s longstanding liberal traditions. America’s pilgrims brought the principles embodied in the Magna Carta with them to the new world, including an expansive notion of individual liberty, safeguarded significantly by an independent judiciary.

Compared to liberty, democracy in 18th century Europe was relatively unknown. Scalia’s contention – that self-governance was 18th century America’s most valued liberty – isnt merely at odds with history, but with the plain language of the Declaration of Independence as well. Though the word “right” occurs ten times in the Declaration, it is never associated with the right to vote. The rights of rebellion and self-governance are not characterized as “unalienable” absolutes, but are conditioned upon a government’s failure to secure a people’s absolute rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The term “democracy” is nowhere to be found.

The American Revolution was not born of a naked desire for self-governance. The text of the Declaration of Independence explains why the nation’s founders were driven to “dissolve the political bands” holding them to Great Britain: the king was running roughshod over their liberties. The bulk of the Declaration is a litany of complaints against an illiberal monarch.

Once one appreciates that the American Revolution was principally about liberty – that democracy was seized upon afterward as the best means toward that end – the particular form of the US Constitution makes perfect sense. Fearing that liberalism might be lost in the transition from monarchy to republic, the Constitution painstakingly limits democracy.

The original Constitution only granted suffrage to white men with property. The only government body they were permitted to elect directly was the House of Representatives. Senators were appointed by state governments. Americans still dont vote directly for the president, but for an intermediary body (the electoral college). And judges are still appointed by the president to lifelong terms.

To constrain democracy further, a Bill of Rights was appended to the Constitution. After amendments one through eight – in which 25 distinct rights are set above and beyond the reach of the majority’s will – the ninth amendment follows as a blank check for liberty for future generations:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Thus one cannot infer from the absence of a given right from the Constitution (like marriage – or gay marriage) that that right does not exist.

American liberty was not born in the American Revolution – it was carried over from a much older English liberal tradition that predates American democracy by several centuries. Democracy was a grand experiment, subject to considerable and manifold limits, to ensure that the prize, liberalism, would endure under a new form of government.

The US Constitution most acutely restricts the power and reach of the majority where it concerns our most basic rights – to prevent a majority from becoming a tyrant itself. Contrary to Roberts’ assertions, for centuries before the American Revolution, and centuries since, courts have stood as a bulwark against the day’s oppressors, upholding fundamental rights against usurpations by kings and majorities alike.

Conservative complaints that the Court’s decision is anti-democratic are accurate, but misplaced. Democracy was born after the American Revolution as a means toward liberalism – not as an end in its own right. Liberty is the older tradition, which democracy was established to maintain and defend – not undermine. When the two are at loggerheads, democracy must yield.

 

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Editor’s note: The Field Guide is on summer vacay – we’ll be back with new material in mid-August.

Gay Marriage: Liberalism v. Democracy

Last summer, the Field Guide ran a three-part series on the tension between liberalism and democracy, particularly on how it plays out in developing countries, informing US foreign policy. But to see that tension, Americans need look no further than their own founding document.

The Bill of Rights, above all, is a list of what a majority cannot do through ordinary democratic processes. It is a bulwark of liberalism against the threat posed by democracy. The US Constitution, with its limited powers, cumbersome amendment process, and lifetime tenure for federal judges, is a grand scheme to guarantee the blessings of liberalism against the corrosive force of democracy. In American governance, liberty and democracy are not equal partners – liberty comes first.

The struggle between liberalism and democracy is so acute that hardly a Supreme Court session passes without conflict. The 2015 session included one of the most remarkable such cases in US history, Obergefell v. Hodges, through which the Court legalized gay marriage nationwide: a victory for liberalism, at the expense of democracy.

In a characteristically feeble opinion by Anthony Kennedy, five justices in the majority take a stand for liberalism. Marriage has long been regarded by the Court as a “fundamental right.” State restrictions on marriage have been struck down repeatedly over the past 48 years, including bans on inter-racial marriage, and limits on prisoner’s ability to marry. The majority’s decision extended this “fundamental right” to gay unions also, nullifying state governments’ bans on gay marriage.

In dissent, quite predictably, three conservatives pen disingenuous paeans to democracy – one each by Justices Roberts, Allito and Scalia. Scalia loves democracy so much, he once ordered Florida election officials to stop counting ballots, lest they come to the wrong result. The three of them, with Clarence Thomas, are such proponents of democracy, that just two terms ago they gutted the Voting Rights Act – freeing up southern states to go back to excluding minorities from the ballot box. They’ve gleefully squelched a democracy’s efforts to regulate campaign finance, and struck down gun-control legislation in American cities that have among the highest murder rates in the world.

But it’s far too easy to undercut the conservative dissents by invoking those Justices own considerable anti-democratic decisions of the past. They make some compelling points, which dont just merit an answer – they need to be soundly trounced, so that all may see the error of their ways.

While it’s unfortunate that the Court’s Opinion – now the law of the land – wasnt stronger, this bold stroke is worth repeating:

The idea of the Constitution “was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities….”

And even more eloquently:

[F]undamental rights may not be submitted to a vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.

In other words, the specific complaint of the conservatives in dissent – that democratic processes were not respected; that states should be left to settle the gay marriage question as they see fit – has no place within the framework of the US Constitution, which exists significantly to exclude questions of fundamental rights from the democratic process. Majorities have wide latitude to make laws and set policy – but they cannot encroach on our most basic freedoms. And so when democracy and liberalism clash on this front, democracy must yield.

To understand why democracy was made to ride in the backseat behind liberalism, you have to go back to the birthplace of American democracy: the American Revolution.

We’ll meet you there next week.

 

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Race, Religion and Madness

There is a double-standard at play, with respect to our understanding of the Charleston killer. Though his act and his stated motivation conforms squarely within the legal definition of terrorism, many do not regard him as a terrorist, but as a common criminal – yet another well-armed, mentally-ill American. If, for example, he had been an Islamist, he would have been unequivocally identified as a terrorist, as were the conspirators behind the Boston Marathon and Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Consider this partial definition of terrorism, from the FBI’s website:

“Domestic terrorism” means activities… intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.

The definition calls for a specific act and an accompanying mental element. There’s no debate on the act. As for the intent, the accused put out a lengthy statement, declaring his racial and political beliefs and goals. And thus there can be no serious question as to whether what occurred in Charleston fits the legal definition of terrorism. It does, and obviously so.

And so we come to the curious reaction of many – including FBI director James Comey – who would not regard the accused as a terrorist, but as a mere criminal, and quite possibly insane. What’s happened is that white supremacy, as a political movement, has become so alien to mainstream America, that it’s no longer comprehensible as a cogent political philosophy.

Those who commit acts of violence in furtherance of white supremacy are not afforded the dignity of being labeled political activists. Rather, they are belittled as kooks and-or criminals. We make no attempt to meet or comprehend their arguments – we summarily dismiss them as the product of ignorance, at best, if not madness. This is progress.

In the first half of the 20th century, the white supremacy movement was a basic part of the American political landscape. One-time Klan members included President Truman, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, and Senator Robert Byrd. Today, its adherents no longer seem like political actors, but as crazies, who might as well be wearing tinfoil hats in place of white hoods. This, again, is progress.

By comparison, they who commit indistinguishably insane acts under the auspices of religion are called “extremists” or “radicals.” Instead of likewise dismissing them as criminals and crazies, Islamist terrorists are dignified as political activists. While white supremacy has been dispatched to the dustbin of bad ideas, killing in furtherance of religion still has a recognizable logic, such that its advocates are not immediately identified as insane, criminally or otherwise.

What constitutes sanity or madness in a given time and place is informed by cultural and social norms, and even economics, and always has been. Michel Foucault filled three hundred pages adding window dressing to this simple observation, in his tedious classic Madness and Civilization. That we might treat the Charleston shooter as a mere criminal, or a madman, is an improvement. One hopes that we, as a society, will come to see violence committed in the name of religion to be no less mad.

 

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Refs:

https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/terrorism/terrorism-definition

http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/245649-fbi-head-wont-call-charleston-shooting-a-terrorist-act

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/06/22/white-house-won-t-back-fbi-chief-on-charleston-terror.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/06/18/call-the-charleston-church-shooting-what-it-is-terrorism/

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/06/18/let-s-call-charleston-shooting-what-it-was-a-terrorist-attack.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ku_Klux_Klan_members_in_United_States_politics#Edward_L._Jackson

Liberty v. Security

Centuries ago, an English jurist opined that it was better that a few good men be killed on the highways each year, than the rest of us should live in tyranny. Ever has it been thus: increased security, which one acquires by increasing the power of government, comes necessarily at the expense of liberty. It might be possible to eliminate nearly all crime – but to do so, one would have to eradicate almost all liberty.

Just as your plumber and electrician would gladly, for a price, improve your plumbing and lighting, so too would your police force make you safer – and safer – and safer still. When the Obama administration insists that they require certain provisions of the Patriot Act to make Americans safer, we have good reason to believe them. But no matter the intentions of these well-meaning professionals, our objective isnt to maximize our plumbing, lighting or security without respect to cost. Beyond a certain point, a society will prefer a certain amount of crime – rather than having a police camera at every intersection and in every living room, and-or the power to monitor all electronic communications.

While the natural evolution of government is, inexorably, to grow ever larger, the US now has a rare opportunity to go against the natural order of things, and to shrink the size of its security apparatus. At a minimum, the expiry of significant portions of the Patriot Act should be taken as an occasion to reevaluate the nation’s security priorities, particularly on how they impact privacy and the power and intrusiveness of government.

Of course one must avoid the conceptual error of the bureaucrats whose deregulation of the financial services sector unwittingly paved the way for the 2008 financial crisis. One does not want to be the man who throws away his umbrella because he hasnt felt a raindrop in ages – failing to realize that the umbrella had been keeping him dry all along. Americans have enjoyed relative quiet since the 1993 and 2001 World Trade Center attacks, and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, without experiencing domestic terrorism of that magnitude. By reducing the power of the police, we necessarily make terrorism, large scale and small, that much more likely.

Walt Whitman wrote that great poets needs great audiences. Analogously, great leaders need a great electorate. And it is unfortunate that no one in Congress trusts American voters enough to accurately frame the debate over extending the expiring portions of the Patriot Act. It is indeed a matter of sacrificing liberty for security, or vice-versa. The problem in part is one of trust – that the electorate is not expected to react reasonably to an act of terrorism – or three or six – much less accept it as a fair price to pay for increased liberty. Politicians like Rand Paul should stop equivocating, and make that case, because that indeed is the tradeoff we as a society must inevitably make.

Not everyone will agree on the same balance to be struck between liberty and security, but it is the sort of issue that a democracy is ideally suited to hash out. We look forward to that debate, should our elected officials muster the courage for it.

 

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Editor’s note: the Field Guide is off for an early-summer vacay. We’ll be back with new material in mid-June.

 

The Case for Public Television

The US dominates the world’s market for electronic entertainment. As far as global reach, revenue and influence, no nation has the equivalent of Hollywood. But while US companies like HBO, Showtime and Disney tower over their foreign analogs, the same cannot be said for the humble Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which is dwarfed by its British counterpart, BBC. Last year, CPB got $450 million from the US government; meanwhile BBC got $6.5 billion from the UK. BBC News’ operating budget of $560 million by itself matches PBS’ total budget, for everything.

Mitt Romney made a splash in a presidential debate when he said that he would eliminate funding for public television in the US altogether – as part of a larger effort to reduce the deficit. But as some observed at the time, CPB’s $450 million is only about one one-thousandth of the annual US budget deficit. Anyone serious about reigning in deficits would not focus on a line-item whose elimination would leave the deficit 99.9% intact – so why was Romney singling out Big Bird?

It wasnt ever about deficits – if conservatives had a real concern about those, they wouldnt use every economic boom and bust as an occasion to slash taxes on the super rich. Intrinsic to the conservative religion is the belief that markets are the answer to our every need – and that government provision of goods and services is an evil to be eradicated. The problem with conservative dogma is that economists have documented many markets that fail to do what we need them to do: allow buyers to communicate wants, and sellers to answer them. One well-understood failure is in the market for “information goods.”

Producing good, reliable information is an increasingly unrewarding business. For decades, the most respected and cited news sources have been family-owned – including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. Without shareholders to answer to, they could compromise on profits and improve the quality of the news, with a commitment to investigative journalism and overseas reporting – both especially expensive and unprofitable arms of the news business, but essential to an informed public.

In past years, American network news divisions were never expected to generate a profit, serving instead to elevate their network’s public profile. But decades of corporate management have eroded many once-fine institutions. Gone are network news programs and anchors with the stature of Cronkite, Jennings, Rather and Brokaw. In their place are interchangeable newsmodels, better known for their grooming than their insight or integrity. The Journal has been absorbed by the Murdoch empire. Cable news outlets prefer low-cost, high-return punditry to journalism – and devote hours to vacuous treatments of sports, business, weather, celebrity, and the photogenic disaster-du-jour.

In polls, Americans show their awareness of public television’s superior performance in the provision of news, consistently ranking PBS as their most trusted source, and by a wide margin. More broadly, Americans regard Public Television as the nation’s most trusted institution, public or private! And while PBS is perennially regarded as, far and away, the best source of children’s programming; few realize that PBS prime time audiences are enormous: 50% larger than HBO and 60% larger than CNN – while PBS operates on a budget that’s a scant fraction of either.

PBS today scrapes by on minimal government support, relying heavily on private donations. The problem with this system is the phenomenon of “free riding”: you donate to your local public television station, and your neighbor free rides, enjoying the benefit of your generosity for nothing. The aggregate effect of this behavior is the gross underfunding of a desirable service.

Centuries ago, societies figured this problem out, and found a solution: taxation. We dont sit around waiting for drivers to make donations to keep our roads under repair, or for fellow citizens to throw a few bucks to the police department to keep the streets safe. The creation and dissemination of quality information is no less valuable than roads and security, and no less prone to market failures. Public Television should be funded now more than ever, commensurate with the demonstrably high quality content it provides, and to make up for the increasingly dismal performance of corporate news outlets.

Public Television does a lot of good, for very little money. That’s the real reason conservatives hate it – and the same reason why they hate social security and medicare, and are terrified of the ACA – it works!

 

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Refs:

http://www.cpb.org/appropriation/history.html

http://www.pbs.org/about/news/archive/2013/pbs-most-trusted/

http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/2014/01/fox-news-once-again-most-and-least-trusted-name-in-news.html

http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/data-mine/2014/01/30/pbs-is-americas-most-trusted-tv-news-source-or-maybe-its-fox-news

http://www.pbs.org/funding

http://www.pbs.org/about/financial-statements/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PBS

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corporation_for_Public_Broadcasting

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BBC

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BBC_News

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_good

http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2012/10/04/pbs-hits-back-at-romney-does-not-understand-the-value-of-public-broadcasting/

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/02/14/downton-abbey-and-how-pbs-got-cool.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/02/business/media/pbs-shifts-tactics-to-reach-wider-audience.html?pagewanted=all