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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

When Democratic Presidents reappoint Fed Chairmen

Regarding Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's refusal to juice the economy at this point with further extraordinary measures such as a new round of quantitative easing, Jonathan Bernstein suspects that "Obama re-appointed Ben Bernanke without assuring himself that Bernanke would carry out policies that Obama presumably supports on the merits, and would have had the benefit of helping the Democrats in the 2010 election cycle."

Bernstein does grant that "it's possible that when Obama re-appointed Bernanke he thought he had such assurances, and it's possible that he believed that Fed policy to that point combined with fiscal stimulus would be sufficient to beat the recession, so that he underestimated the importance of the Fed in getting the economy back up to speed."  Finally, he arrives at what may have been the key point for Obama decision:

It's also fair to say that a year ago, in the wake of the financial crisis, reassuring the markets and keeping in place the person who had experience dealing with those issues was probably a more legitimate concern than it is today. 

As is the case on so many fronts, Bill Clinton, facing a rejectionist Republican majority, worked under constraints similar to those confronting Obama (and if Republicans capture one or both chambers of Congress this November, as seems increasingly likely, the operating environment will be more similar still).  According to Taylor Branch in The Clinton Tapes, when Clinton reappointed Greenspan in 1996, he
had wanted badly to replace chairman Alan Greenspan with Felix Rohatyn, the shrewd investment banker from Lazard Freres, but he ran into vexing constraints everywhere. Rohatyn himself advised Clinton to reappoint Greenspan instead, arguing that the Republican Senate would confirm no one else. Wall Street could not elect a U.S. president, Rohatyn told him, but it could surely un-elect one.  If threatened, financial, financial powers would sacrifice short-term profits to drive interest rates higher, hurting blue-collar workers with layoffs and shaky pension funds. In the end, Rohatyn refused appointment to both posts -vice chair as well as chair], and Clinton suspected that Greenspan had engineered this result by warning of political friction and terrible drudgery at the Fed.  He thought the wily incumbent protected his brittle ego from comparative scrutiny alongside Rohatyn, who was just as accomplished and a far more persuasive, attractive public speaker (p. 348).

Monday, August 30, 2010

Fallows tries again with "The Moral Equivalent of War"

Thanks to James Fallows for introducing his readers (e.g., me)  to William James' The Moral Equivalent of War, which Fallows calls "the indispensable work of American political culture" in that it "examines what is more or less the permanent challenge of American public life: how to evoke the spirit of sacrifice, common national purpose, and long-term perspective that is the noblest part of war, without actually being at war."

It is indeed a boldly imaginative and  far-seeing essay, clear-eyed about the pending horrors of modern mechanized war that would be unleashed a few years later in World War I, trying to imagine a way that humanity might avoid such horrors without losing the intensity of effort and high pitch of virtue that war brings out in people, along with the destructive bestiality that James does not minimize.

James' argument derives its strength by enacting a principle he recommends generally for "any controversy" : "enter more deeply into the aesthetical and ethical point of view of [your] opponents."  In so doing, James opens a window for readers today on a time when some serious thinkers were still arguing openly that war was essential to human progress and the most intense crucible of human virtue. James takes their arguments seriously -- as readers whose minds were formed after the catastrophes of the world wars might have difficulty doing.  He asserts that those who see war as only destructive catastrophe and dare to envision the human race outgrowing it generally fail to grapple with their opponents' insights, which he characterizes as follows:

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A short history of America's rightward turn

In Jane Mayer's long chronicle of the billionaire Koch brothers' 30-year campaign to mainstream extreme libertarian ideas by founding and funding up think tanks, PACs and astroturf activist groups, and one observation struck me as a capsule history of American politics since 1980.

The source is a former friend of the Charles Koch, Gus diZerga, who met Koch in a John Birch society book store decades ago. The Kochs' father, founder of the conglomerate the sons have built into one of the country's largest privately held companies, was a charter Bircher and fed his boys tales of communist conspiracy from early childhood. DiZerega, once steeped in Birchite paranoia, wrote in a Beliefnet essay:

As state socialism failed...the target for many within these organizations shifted to any kind of regulation at all. 'Socialism' kept being defined downwards.

Over the same period, I'd add, media kept being defined downwards, so that now fringe froth has a mass market.Contiguous with the career of the Kochs is Rupert Murdoch's progressive corruption of media throughout the anglosphere.

Hillary Clinton on Memory

A casual reminiscence in Taylor Branch's The Clinton Tapes perhaps sheds a sidelight on Hillary's false memory, voiced repeatedly in the '08 campaign, of ducking sniper fire on her landing at Bosnia's Tuzla air base in March 1996.

Branch had worked with the Clintons for McGovern's campaign in Texas in 1972. Looking back, the three find their memories fuzzy:
We reminisced about how hard it had been to figure out what was real and right at the time (re Vietnam), but fickle memory dulled our access.None of us could remember even where our apartment had been located in Austin during the McGovern campaign of 1972. The president had an image of a complex near the Colorado River.I recalled being on a hill past the interstate. Both of us still knew the address of our headquarters on Sixth Street, but nobody could place the home retreat. Hillary absolved us, saying we had traveled so much that the three of us were seldom there together, but our vagueness and the Vietnam tapes (Johnson's) made her reflect on the trickiness of memoirs. If she ever wrote them, how could she reconstruct her own past accurately? Their lawyer David Kendall knew more about a surviving paper trail of her life than she did. And he remembered it better. She said Kendall was truly gifted (p. 470).

It's still a bit hard to fathom how Clinton could 'remember' ducking sniper fire when she was in fact greeted by children with flowers on the runway. But those of us with less crowded memories have little means of imagining ourselves into a mind packed with tens of thousands of meetings with strangers in thousands of settings. Not to mention into a mind with a politician's reflex for optimal self-presentation.

More on The Clinton Tapes
A Clinton-eye view of Republicans
The long view from China 
Bill Clinton, Happy Warrior

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Concluding unscientific local auto market survey

Some years ago, before the financial crisis, I used to beguile the time during my 3-mile runs by keeping score of how many Asian, European, and American cars passed me (Asian, because it taxed my memory too much to try to split out the Korean cars, which at the point were few).  Typically, slightly less than half the cars I counted would be Asian (though not uncommonly a bit more than half), with Euros and Americans more or less splitting the difference.  A representative Asian-European-American split would be something like 34-20-17.

I stopped doing this for a long time, partly because I switched my route to more off-road, mainly I think because I just got bored with it. Recently, I started up again -- not sure why.  And I'm here to report that if the convalescent U.S. auto-makers are doing credibly in the U.S., it's in parts other than South Orange/Maplewood, NJ.  Here, according to my unscientific survey, the number of domestic cars on the road has collapsed -- and Asian cars have gained on Europeans, too. My most recent count was 52-19-7 (wrote that one down); another was something like 37-14-5. (Of course, given my hiatus, this difference tracks what's happened over the last few years rather than the last few months.)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Clinton-eye view of Republicans

A note from the road on Taylor Branch's The Clinton Tapes, which so far (I'm in 1995) makes Clinton seem almost like a policy monk, repeatedly willing to do the right rather than the politically easy thing -- e.g., deficit reduction, Mexican bailout, Haiti invasion (forestalled by last minute capitulation),assault weapons ban, bombing of Bosnian Serb positions, not to mention the pending showdown - understood in clear outline by Clinton before it developed -- with the Gingrich-Dole Congress over their proposed radical cuts in social spending.This is admittedly Clinton's view of Clinton. But it's true that none of those decisions were short-term political winners --and also that Americans rewarded Clinton with consistently high poll ratings in later years because of good results. At the same time, Clinton is frank about not being able to do the right thing when the politics are impossible, as in ending the embargo on Cuba. "Clinton agreed with FDR that there were times when embracing a farsighted goal could be wrong, even in principle,because the reaction would undermine a leader's strength for other causes" (301).

But I digress. Structure is hard on a Blackberry. What I wanted to flag was a long-term if not quite eternal truth of American politics: "Bluntly, said the president, the difference between the two political parties is that the Democrats sell access and the Republicans sell control. 'Businesspeople know a bargain when they see one,' Clinton observed. 'They'd' rather have the control, and they're willing to pay a premium for it'"(280).

So much of this book is deja vu all over again. Of course, it was published in '09; Branch was doubtless aware of and in some ways accented the contemporary resonance.

Related posts:
The long view from China 
Bill Clinton, Happy Warrior

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

False equivalence in WSJ's portrayal of structural deficit

Reporting on voters' attitudes toward the Federal budget deficit yesterday, the Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Weisman provided a misleading portrait, rife with false equivalence, of the nation's long-term fiscal challenge and the solutions favored by Democrats and Republicans. This front-pager

  • did not address the serious efforts at controlling Medicare and Medicaid costs embedded in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act -- e.g., the tough Independent Payment Advisory Board for Medicare, for which Obama went to the mat -- or the CBO's conservative estimate that the healthcare reform law will reduce the deficit by $125 billion over the first ten years and by $1.4 billion over the next ten.

  • Did not clarify that social security is relatively easy to fix and constitutes a small proportion of the long-term structural deficit compared to Medicare/Medicaid.  As Kevin Drum has demonstrated nicely, SS can be fixed via a variety of mix-and-match menu options such as raising the payroll tax cap and/or upticking the tax rate, raising the retirement age, and modestly reducing the inflation adjustment formula.
  • Did not mention that Paul Ryan's "deficit reduction" plan includes about $4 trillion in tax cuts over the next ten years and  would end Medicare/Medicaid as we know it by replacing benefits with vouchers that would have no hope of keeping up with medical inflation (and no real hope of reducing it).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Maybe Bernstein's wrong this time?

If I may indulge in a lazy blog post format, at bottom is my comment in response to Jonathan Bernstein's rather astonishing claim that the fight over the Islamic Center near Ground Zero. Bernstein, always trenchant in his  debunking of unsupported assertions about the way politicians' words and deeds affect electorates, rather gleefully insists that Park51 (f.k.a. Cordoba House) is

not going to affect elections, it's not substantively important, and to the extent it's symbolically important...well, let's just say it's not symbolically important as a stand-alone issue in any significant way (at best, it's what Kevin Drum says, one straw -- so shouldn't we pay more attention to all that other straw?).  I'm sorry to be a stick in the mud about it, but it just isn't actually a big story no matter how much it gets hyped.  Okay? 
My response, which I'll be the first to admit lacks supporting evidence and doubtless needs work:
Gee Jonathan, I know you're an expert in the dynamics of public opinion and all that, but to second CSH, you sure seem wrong to me here.

Per a Ben Smith story, I think the Republicans completely repudiating Bush's efforts to differentiate Islam from Islamism is significant. I think Palin's success in bringing another poisonous meme to the eruption point is significant. I think that waves of hysterical demagoguery that hit fever pitch are significant. And I think that, as with torture, when it comes to defense of civil liberties leaders have to be better than the rest of us, because majorities will sell those liberties without a twitch for a modicum of relief from rage or fear. When one of our two major parties goes all out demonizing an entire religion and works assiduously to interfere with a local government's approval of a religious institution to be built on private property, that's dangerous.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Yes, he walked it back

I must confess that I am disappointed by Obama's "clarification" today of his defense yesterday of the Park51 group's right to build an Islamic Center two blocks from ground zero. I think that supporters crying foul over news reports characterizing today's remarks as a walkback are in a bit of denial.

Today Obama told reporters, "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding."

That plays directly into the hands of opponents of Park51 who have claimed that they are not infringing on the Park51 backers' right to build by suggesting that they refrain from building in deference to the sensibilities of those who feel that the building would constitute an insult to 9/11 victims or a threat to the nation's security.

Obama honors his oath of office

Some have wondered (Republicans, gleefully) why Obama would take a stand in explicit support of the proposed Islamic center at 45-51 Park Place near Ground Zero when 70% of Americans say they oppose it.  I believe that the answer is simple. It comes as a coda to his affirmation last night that "our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable." It's this:
The writ of the Founders must endure.

The same warmongers who natter on about the President's sworn duty to protect the country forget that what the President actually swears on Inaugural Day is "that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The mind is a cold, calculating Polyanna

I am somewhat ashamed to have reacted instinctively to this news with a rather grim calculus:

In a semiannual report, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said the number of civilians wounded and killed in the conflict had increased by nearly a third, 31 percent, in the first six months of the year.

Seventy-six percent of the civilian casualties were attributable to “antigovernment elements,” the report said, using United Nations terminology for insurgents. That was an increase of 53 percent over the same period, Jan. 1 to June 30, in 2009, it added...

Since 2009, when the United States military made it a priority to reduce civilian casualties, the trend has been for far fewer of them to be caused by the military, and far more by the Taliban and other insurgents. 

Monday, August 09, 2010

Palinguistics go viral

Quick, who's speaking?
   ...Are the tax cuts paid for?

Listen, what you're trying to do is get into this Washington game and their funny accounting over there.  You cannot get the economy going again by raising taxes on those people who we expect to create jobs in America and to get the economy going again. If we want to solve the budget problem, we've got to have a healthy economy and we have to get our arms around the runaway spending that's going on in Washington, D.C.

Sarah Palin, right? No -- John Boehner, refusing to admit that making the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest permanent will increase the deficit.  David Gregory asked him five times to acknowledge that the tax cuts are "not paid for." He wouldn't do it.

Tina Fey advanced her career by imitating Palin.  Why not the Republican leadership? 

Siblings at the end of days

A few weeks ago, something triggered a reading memory I could not place: two people at life's end -- siblings, I thought -- thrown together in an intimacy that recalled early childhood days. I thought it might be in a C.S. Lewis novel -- somewhere in Narnia, maybe -- but couldn't quite place it.  It hovered, as I lost an honored colleague who died last week at 82, and when I stopped in at my own sister's house, and when I visited my parents, where the books and pictures that have been staring back at me all my life remain in their same relative positions (on different walls).

Yesterday it came to me.  The source did involve C.S. Lewis, but it's a memoir by his brother, a preface to a volume of C.S.'s letters.  W.H's voice is uncannily like his brother's, with whom he was indeed tightly bound from birth until C.S.'s death at 63 in 1963, sharing a household through most of their adult lives. As children, they were both dreamy boys who lived almost entirely in worlds of their imagining, which they shared, drawing and writing together, in the precious hours when both were home. They shared intense traumas: yearly separations from the earliest age at separate boarding schools, which in Jack's case were barbaric bastions of sadism; and the death of their mother from cancer when Jack was 8.  Here's W.H. on Jack's last weeks:

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Dept. of mixed metaphors

In an otherwise fine column, Frank Rich made me contemplate biology for a moment:
But even if the Democrats sharpen their attack, they are doomed to fall short if they don’t address the cancer in the American heart — joblessness.

I ain't never heard of no heart cancer. Turns out it exists, barely. But chronic joblessness is not a rare disease.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Christopher Caldwell girds for civilizational war near Ground Zero

Christopher Caldwell is a careful, precise writer, capable of building a powerful argument block by block. All the more pernicious, then, his attack on Park51, the proposed Islamic Center near Ground Zero.  His argument boils down to guilt by association and an acceptance of civilizational war.

Caldwell concedes that Park51's Constitutional and legal right to build the mosque are beyond dispute.  He argues that Mayor Bloomberg's defense of that right is beside the point:

Few mosque opponents argue seriously that this one can be blocked. The argument of Ms Palin and others is instead that it is insensitive to build a mega-mosque next to the spot where 2,700 people were killed in Islam’s name. This distinction – between what is constitutional and what is appropriate – is an important one.
The argument from insensitivity validates the assumption that the 9/11 attackers and al Qaeda did, in some sense, represent Islam at large. Because the attackers acted in Islam's name, no other proponents of Islam should presume to ensconce themselves anywhere in the vicinity. Caldwell states that premise explicitly, albeit with a caveat:
The attacks of 2001 were not a political-science abstraction. They were an expression of Islam. Not all of Islam, certainly – and Islam is neither the only religion that has such crimes to answer for nor the only one that has provoked such controversies. The building of a Carmelite convent at Auschwitz in the 1980s so wounded Jewish sensibilities that Pope John Paul II ordered it removed in 1993, even though the Holocaust was not carried out in the name of any faith.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Another corrupt public official gets off easy

Peter J. Cammarano III, elected mayor of Hoboken, NJ in 2009, was arrested in a bribery sting just three weeks into his term and pleaded guilty this April to taking a $25,000 bribe in exchange for a promise to help a purported developer (actually an informant) build in Hoboken.  Yesterday he was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison.

I have a phobia about prison. So many American prisons, or units within prisons, are cauldrons of rape, intimidation and sadism. I don't think a human society should incarcerate anyone under the conditions we impose - hard as it may be to create a humane environment composed entirely of convicted criminals.

That said, I've also long thought that corrupt public officials get off easy compared to white collar felons convicted of business fraud. Selling legislation or public contracts or regulatory forbearance harms the public good far more than looting or misrepresenting the finances of a for-profit company.  Americans may assume that lobbyists influence elected officials in malign ways. But soft, nebulous, indirect influence in which advocacy is bolstered by cash is still different in kind from direct bribery.   Our freedom and prosperity depend on the public's faith that elected officials and their appointees not sell legislation and contracts outright.

Elected officials who confess to or are convicted of doing just that get off far more lightly than convicted white collar criminals.  Duke Cunningham, a 7-term Republican congressman on the House Appropriations and Intelligence committees, pleaded guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes for his help awarding defense and intelligence contracts. He got 8 years.  Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who had practically the whole Republican Congress on the string and massively cheated his clients as well as bribing public officials on their behalf, got 8 years. Bob Ney, the wholly owned Abramoff subsidiary who accepted bribes to further the interests of several Indian tribes and casino ventures, got 30 months.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Kristallnacht in New York?

Update/correction: I received an email from Park51, the entity developing the Islamic Center at 45-51 Park Place in lower Manhattan, clarifying that "Park51 is establishing an independent entity with a mandate, structure and board separate from Cordoba Initiative and ASMA,"  the chief supporting organizations. While Park51 will encompass Cordoba House, and Cordoba Initative chairman Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf will oversee Cordoba House and be a director, Park51 and Cordoba Initiative are separate entities.
 ---------
In the demagogue's parade highlighted in today's Times' coverage of Mayor Bloomberg's heroic defense of the plan to build an Islamic Center in lower Manhattan, one particularly vicious thug stood out:
But even as the mayor called for the mosque to be embraced, those opposed to the project pledged to aggressively fight it, using both litigation and public pressure. A prominent Republican and foreign policy analyst said he was working with business, civic and political leaders to organize a campaign to persuade architects, contractors and donors to steer clear of the project. He said they would also aggressively scrutinize any donors who supported it.

Olympia Snowe, put up or shut up on healthcare reform's flaws

In George Packer's long dossier of Senate dysfunction, Olympia Snowe repeats for the umpteenth time that she voted against the healthcare reform bill because she was shut out of merging the Finance Committee bill, which she help forged and voted for, with the HELP Committee bill:
Snowe also voted for the Finance Committee’s health-care-reform bill last October, the only Republican to do so. But in December, at the pivotal moment, she voted against the version that went before the full Senate. “I wasn’t interested in expanding this program beyond the Finance Committee version—it grew by a thousand pages,” Snowe said. She wasn’t included in the negotiations with White House officials that took place in an elegant conference room across from Reid’s suite of offices, and said that the Democrats “did not accept any of my proposals. As I said to the President, it was all windup and no pitch.” 

Snowe here resorts to the Republican fallback position of ridiculing numbers of pages rather than specifying what she didn't like in substance.  The enacted health care reform law is similar in its essentials to the Finance Committee bill -- about which Snowe had this to say to Ezra Klein on October 16, 2009:

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Michael Bloomberg reminds us what we should have learned in Kindergarten

Michael Bloomberg knows what New York is all about, and what America is all about, and what the Enlightenment is all about  -- and the Constitution -- and just what is at stake at ground zero. Hero!

Sometimes the simplest words are best. Bloomberg speaking today on Governors Island in defense of the planned Islamic Center in lower Manhattan, spoke with the clarity of a kindergarten teacher. His denouement:
"Muslims are as much a part of our city and our country as the people of any faith. And they are as welcome to worship in lower Manhattan as any other group. In fact, they have been worshipping at the site for better, the better part of a year, as is their right. The local community board in lower Manhattan voted overwhelmingly to support the proposal. And if it moves forward, I expect the community center and mosque will add to the life and vitality of the neighborhood and the entire city.

"Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure, and there is no neighborhood in this city that is off-limits to God's love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us can attest."
 Earlier, reminders of the law, and the Constitution, and the facts of 9/11, and the stakes:

Monday, August 02, 2010

Gideon Rachman on Richard Milhous Obama

Gideon Rachman levels a serious (if slightly conditional) charge against Obama and his AfPak policymakers:
"When western politicians talk about “credibility” in Afghanistan, it is often their own credibility they are worrying about most."
Rachman compares the US approach to Somalia, where the "central government controls little more than a few blocks around the presidential palace in Mogadishu and the airport," and implicitly suggest that the US should
apply the Somali model to Afghanistan. That would mean accepting that outside military intervention is often counter-productive, that its human costs are too high, that state-building is unlikely to work and that the west should concentrate on bottling terrorism up, rather than trying to defeat it on the battlefield.

I feel free, therefore I'm free?

Jonah Lehrer counters recent philosophical skepticism about the existence of free will: 
And yet…There’s a certain frivolousness to all these eloquent arguments over free will. The fact is, we are deeply wired to believe in our freedom. We feel like willful creatures, blessed with elbow room and endowed with the capacity to pick our own breakfast cereal. Furthermore, there’s probably a very good reason why this belief is so universal. Consider this recent study by the psychologists Kathleen Vohs, at the University of Minnesota, and Jonathan Schooler ,at the University of California at Santa Barbara...

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Green shoots in stasis

Our back yard has a dead zone, a corner that gets too much water and too little light.*  Early this spring, it became clear that two plants back there, a skip laurel and a holly (I think blue princess but I forget...) -- each of which had thriving twins not far away -- were at death's door, the holly two thirds brown, the laurel spotted and nearly bare. Below, the two sick plants, followed by the healthy holly twin (with healthy laurel in background).





We consulted with a neighbor of gardening genius.  He had us move each of the ailing plants 2-3 feet to improve their access to light, build up the soil (earlier, he'd steered us toward putting in a drainage channel and the thriving uphill holly to soak up some of the excess water), and fertilize. We also treated the laurel with an anti-fungal spray.

Both plants stabilized.  Healthy growth stopped turning brown or spotted. Each put out a few green shoots.