Monday, May 31, 2010

Israel's 'sigh of relief' over sanctions pursuit

Massimo Calibrisi's long account of conflict and partial rapprochement between Obama and Netanyahu, this parting tidbit caught my eye:
On Iran, Obama's latest push for sanctions has Israelis breathing a sigh of relief that his promises to get tough on Tehran's nuclear program are not just for show.

To what extent does palliating Israel explain the Obama Administration's curt rebuff of the nuclear fuel swap deal with Iran brokered by Brazil and Turkey  --  whose presidents claim that Obama encouraged them to pursue the negotiation?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Obama on indefinite detention: a Goldsmith blueprint?

The Obama Administration's National Security Strategy includes a statement of intent to develop a system of "prolonged detention" of "suspected violent extremists" who "cannot be prosecuted":
For detainees who cannot be prosecuted--but pose a danger to the American people--we must have clear, defensible, and lawful standards. We must have fair procedures and a through process of periodic review, so that any prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and justified. And keeping with our Constitutional system, it will be subject to checks and balances. The goal is an approach that can be sustained by future Administrations, with support from both political parties and all three branches of government (p. 36).
Three observations about this policy: 1) The report of Obama's Guantanamo Review Task Force, completed in January but just leaked to the Washington Post and published yesterday, elaborates in some detail why the Administration believes that 48 of the detainees at Guantanamo (and presumably many more at Bagram) cannot be prosecuted and cannot be released.  2)  Obama's basic intent on this front has been in place for more than a year -- he sketched out essentially the same policy in May 2009.   3) The system of "prolonged detention" he has in mind, only briefly elaborated in May 2009 and May 2010, seems to adhere to a more detailed proposed program laid out in February 2009 by Jack Goldsmith, the former head of the Bush Administration's Office of Legal Counsel who withdrew the torture memos and resigned after just nine months.

Friday, May 28, 2010

There goes David Brooks again....

When David Brooks cites a stat for didactic purposes, hit the factcheck button.

Today, Brooks undertakes to explain why Bad Accidents Happen to Good Workers, citing several allegedly ineluctable laws of human nature alleged to explain why we're biased toward minimizing risk. Among them:
Third, people have a tendency to place elaborate faith in backup systems and safety devices. More pedestrians die in crosswalks than when jay-walking. That’s because they have a false sense of security in crosswalks and are less likely to look both ways.
As an inveterate New York diagonal jaywalker, I took some satisfaction in this apparent factoid. But then I began to think. Aren't there a lot more people in the crosswalks than outside them? Ten times as many, maybe? Okay, in New York, five times as many?

Google and Wikipedia steer casual inquirers on this question to Tom Vanderbilt's In Defense of Jaywalking, published in Slate last November.  There, lo, I found half my NY conjecture vindicated -- minus any figures as to what percentage of street crossings in the city are outside the lines:

In New York City the Post, quoting numbers from the DoT, said 50 jaywalkers were killed annually; this is a high number to be sure, but just one-fourth the total pedestrian death toll.
I would venture to speculate, though, that well more than one-fourth of NYC street crossings are in crosswalks. Vanderbilt's analysis provides further statistical complexity:

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Too big to jail? Can the U.S. prosecute an ex-President?

Should democratically elected leaders be tried for war crimes if there's reasonable cause to believe they may have committed them?

Michael Walzer of Princeton surveys 350 years of killing kings (and hanging Nazis) and concludes: almost certainly not. Reviewing the conditions under which past regimes have put their predecessors or war opponents on trial and executed them, he notes that all constitute radical rejection of the deposed or defeated enemy -- i.e., that trials occur after regime change (obviously enough -- in a way, Walzer seems to see his mission as laying bare what should be obvious). Democracies,Walzer argues, are different -- and the consequences of treating the policy decisions of predecessors as criminal are dangerous.

Walzer issues a warning that should be brooded on seriously. But he draws conclusions that even he is uncomfortable with, and that in my view should be repudiated.

Here is the warning:
we should think very carefully before we do anything that raises the stakes of democratic politics—and putting your opponents on trial after they lose an election would certainly raise the stakes. There is a narrowly prudential argument against doing that (in addition to the broader prudential argument that I have been making): if we raise the stakes for them, they can raise the stakes for us. Paraphrasing Saint-Just, we might say that nobody can rule innocently: there will always be reasons for a trial. There will always be political maneuvers or policy decisions that violate the law or that can be made to look as if they violate the law. And once the game gets serious in that way, anyone holding office would have a very strong incentive to do whatever was necessary to win the next election. Winning some and losing some would then look like a fool’s politics. It would be very dangerous, I think, to start down this path.

Smoke and mirrors on Guantanamo recidivism

Remember all those fevered claims that 20% of the men released from Guantanamo had "returned to the battlefield"?  Today, Marc Ambinder's report on politically motivated Republican attempts to keep prisoners in Guantanamo contains this tidbit:

The letter doesn't refer to what the intelligence community has concluded about recidivism, but a senior U.S. official tells me that the Defense Intelligence Agency has concluded that just 11 of the entire class of 525 former detainees have returned to the battlefield in some capacity and are still at large.

That contradicts Ambinder's own fairly recent report on the same subject -- unless some 80% of alleged recidivists (discounting 'suspected' ones) have been recaptured or killed:
The recidivism rate of the 558 official Guantanamo detainees is hotly debated. The Defense Intelligence Agency confirms that about 10 percent returned to battle or terrorism; an additional 11.2 percent of the released detainees are suspected of having done so.

A small fraction of the number, however, remains at large -- so most of those confirmed to have returned to terrorism have been recpatured, [sic] are imprisoned, or have been killed.
Mark and Joshua Denbeaux et al, attorneys to Guantanamo detainees,  have demonstrated in exhaustive detail that Dept. of Defense estimates of Guantanamo recidivism are vague, undocumented,  mutually contradictory  -- in short, completely unreliable. Which is not to say that the figure floated by Ambinder's latest anonymous source has any particular claim to credibility.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Look, ma no lies: Palin smears with hypotheticals

Is there a method to Palin's loopy syntax? She inspired a fresh round of indignation and glee by suggesting on Fox on Monday that Obama has been soft on BP because he's received oil industry campaign contributions, and for seeming to suggest that he attracted more oil money than a Republican President would.

In fact, while Palin's Fox riff was a smear (impugning Obama's motives with no factual basis) it did not include an actual lie -- she didn't say that Obama got more money from the oil industry than any given Republican. In elusive, allusive convoluted fashion, she piled hypothetical on hypothetical.  After asking why the media doesn't ask "if there's any connection with the contributions made to President Obama and his administration and the support by the oil companies to the administration" (literally, a connection between the oil industry's support for Obama and the oil industry's support for Obama, but you know what she meant), she goes from speculation about what is (or could be) to counterfactuals about what might have been or could yet be:

now, if this was President Bush or if this were a Republican in office who hadn't received as much support even as President Obama has from B.P. and other oil companies, you know the mainstream media would be all over his case in terms of asking questions why the administration didn't get in there, didn't get in there and make sure that the regulatory agencies were doing what they were doing with the oversight to make sure that things like this don't happen.

Palin seems to be dreaming up a hypothetical Republican who hasn't been massively supported by the oil industry. We are literally in fantasyland, where it's natural to body forth the possibility that Obama has been influenced by oil money and then conjure a Republican president who's received "even less" than Obama but whom the media will assume (as it would have with Bush, who received proportionately more of the industry's dollars, but never mind...) is more influenced than Obama is (was).  And just as the slip about "support by the oil companies to the administration" suggests the opposite of what she purportedly means, so the "even" in "even as much," taken literally, would seem to suggest that Obama hasn't received much from the oil industry.  Palin gets lost in her own funhouse.

Department of mixed metaphors

The Obama administration is proposing legislation empowering the President to propose cuts to each budget passed by Congress, which Congress would have to vote up or down as a package. Somehow I doubt that Peter Orzag soothed Congressional fears of executive encroachment in his presentation to reporters:
White House Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag said that while the new presidential power would not be a panacea for the government's spending excesses, it would "add to the arsenal of tools" available to reduce spending.
Arsenal of tools?  Does Orzag want to shave a few rough edges off Congressional budgets or blow pieces off them?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Patronizing pundit watch

Jonathan Chait, defending Obama's inalienable right to blame Bush for the ecnomic mess we're still digging out from:
The financial crisis of 2008 made it inevitable that unemployment would rise sharply through 2009. It also caused the budget deficit to skyrocket...

Most voters, of course, don't follow these issues closely enough to gain a detailed understanding of cause and effect. They just tend to notice that unemployment and the budget deficit have risen while President Obama has held office.

Gallup, April 21, 2010:

More than a year into Barack Obama's presidency, Americans are more likely to say George W. Bush is responsible for today's economic problems than they are to say Obama is responsible. Gallup shows a significant uptick since last July in the percentage of Americans blaming Obama at least a moderate amount (from 32% to 50%), but little decrease (from 80% to 75%) in the percentage blaming Bush.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A bit of moonshine in Kristof's "Moonshine or the kids?"

Hesitantly, reluctantly, Nicholas Kristof today suggests that the poor in many countries need to spend less money on alcohol and tobacco and more on education -- while also saving more.  It's an "ugly secret of global poverty," he writes,
that if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.
Kristof's basis is largely anecdotal -- families he interviewed in Congo Republic. But he calls for backup from a study, to which he helpfully provides a link:
Two M.I.T. economists, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, found that the world’s poor typically spend about 2 percent of their income educating their children, and often larger percentages on alcohol and tobacco: 4 percent in rural Papua New Guinea, 6 percent in Indonesia, 8 percent in Mexico. The indigent also spend significant sums on soft drinks, prostitution and extravagant festivals.
The results Kristof pulls from this study need some qualifying. First, Banerjee and Duflo reported findings from thirteen countries, with large variations in spending habits among them. It's true that Banerjee and Duflo find that the extremely poor in a range of countries spend between 4.1% and 8.1% of their income on alcohol and tobacco, and just about 2% on education averaged across the countries studied. But: "The reason spending is low is that children in poor households typically attend public schools or other schools that do not charge a fee" (9). Where fees are charged, the percentage of household income spent on education rises: it is 6% in Cote D'Ivoire. The study did not include Congo Republic, but one might imagine that since fees are ubiquitous there, school spending would also be relatively high.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Trouble with China as Euro depreciates?

Michael Pettis sees trouble for the U.S. and a heightening of international tension in the depreciation of the Euro and China's corresponding likely reluctance to let the yuan appreciate as much as recently anticipated:
Most policymakers around the world – while publicly excoriating the US for its spendthrift habits – are intentionally or unintentionally putting into place polices that require even greater US trade deficits.

This cannot be expected to happen without a great deal of anger and resistance in the US.  The idea that suffering countries should regain growth by exporting more to the world, and that rapidly growing surplus countries should not absorb much of this burden, will only force the US into even greater deficits as US unemployment rises to reduce unemployment pressure in Europe, China, Japan and elsewhere.
I would be surprised if the US accepted this with equanimity.  On the contrary, I expect it will only exacerbate trade tensions and ensure that next year the dispute will become nastier than ever.

On the (implicit) plus side, Pettis notes (quoting Bloomberg, in italics below) that the U.S. has natural allies in the developing world vis-a-vis the trade surplus of China at least:
[India’s Finance Minister, Pranab] Mukherjee, who served as the foreign and defense minister in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s cabinet before being appointed as the finance minister, is under pressure from local exporters to use the Group of 20 platform to campaign against China’s currency policy.

As Mukherjee’s comments suggest, pressure continues growing from a number of countries, especially in Asia, for a Chinese revaluation, and for a while it seemed pretty obvious that China was going to begin revaluing very soon.

The Obama Administration has indicated a readiness to multilateralize its efforts to get the Chinese to take measures to reduce their trade surplus.  We're going to need all the allies we can get. On that front, perhaps the patronizing dismissal of Brazil and Turkey's brokerage of a fuel swap deal with Iran was not the most long-sighted of diplomatic maneuvers.

The death and birth of Europe

In a recent column, Gideon Rachman trembled at the prospect -- he did not really indicate how likely a prospect -- of "the death of the European dream":*

It is natural that international attention should focus first on the economics of the crisis in Europe. But there are also broader, if less immediately obvious, political consequences. It is easy to mock the pretensions of the authorities in Brussels. But the fact is that the EU does – or perhaps did – stand for something important on the world stage.

What Europe represents is not so much raw power as the power of an idea – a European dream. For internationalists everywhere, for believers in much deeper co-operation between nations, for those pushing for the establishment of an international legal order, the EU is a beacon of hope.

If the European experiment begins to unravel – after more than 60 years of painstaking advances – then the ideas that Europe represents will also suffer severe damage. Rival ideas – the primacy of power over law, the enduring supremacy of the nation state, authoritarianism – may gain ground instead.

It should be noted that the "European dream" that Rachman semi-eulogizes is not real political union -- a United States of Europe. Rather, he admires the model of increased cooperation among nation-states, a kind of multilateralism-on-one-continent or U.N. of the future. He fears that the current crisis is devaluing the demonstration effect of the model. Beyond that modest correction in intellectual markets is a darker fear, expressed in a prior column (March 2, 2009):

Friday, May 21, 2010

Even Simon Johnson is surprised, if not satisfied, by the FinReg bill

The FinReg bill is good news for the many who have argued that the financial sector is bloated, absorbing too high a share of the nation's profits, attracting a disproportionate share of talent and wielding dangerous influence over public policy. The Wall Street Journal's Randall Smith:
The Senate version of financial regulation hits Wall Street harder than expected, with some analysts estimating it could cut the profits of major financial institutions by roughly 20%...
Goldman analysts recently tried to quantify the impact of the changes likeliest to survive, including already adopted caps on fees for checking accounts and credit cards, as well as restrictions in the Senate bill on proprietary trading with the banks' own money and the House curbs on derivatives. Those elements alone could shave 17% off bank earnings, Goldman said. Less-likely changes could boost the hit to 23%.

Glenn Schorr, an analyst at UBS AG who follows financial stocks, said Wall Street could recoup some of the lost profit through higher volumes or by keeping pay below historical levels. A derivatives-trading spinoff could free up capital for redeployment elsewhere.

The degree to which the legislation curbs current banking practices has stimulated a kind of wonder, even in that most trenchant of regulatory Cassandras, Simon Johnson.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Parsi, Sick, and Cohen lament in concert as U.S. spurns fuel deal

As the drama of Iran's election and post-election resistance movement unfolded last year, I came to appreciate the blogs of Gary Sick and Scott Lucas - the latter, Enduring America. deploying an array of Iranian and Iranian-American voices and other analysts along with Lucas. * Both blogs did a good job mapping out the extent to which the Revolutionary Guard, in concert with (or in increasing control of) religious hardliners, had effected a militarist takeover of key ministries and industries during the Ahmadinejad era.   Both, at the same time, offered long-term perspective on the missed opportunities between the U.S. and Iranian governments, whose interests potentially converged on several fronts over the last two decades.  The New York Times' Roger Cohen, while perhaps somewhat too credulous about the benign intentions of the Iranian government prior to the stolen election of last June, basically shared these perspectives.

In the past week, as the Obama Administration spurned the fuel swap deal with Iran brokered by Turkey and Brazil -- with U.S. encouragement, they claim -- those who have seen potential in wide-angle negotiations between the U.S. and Iran have writhed in frustration. These include Cohen, Sick and National Iranian American Council president Trita Parsi, whose ABC news was reposted on Enduring America. Their arguments overlap, and mutually reinforce, e.g., that the new agreement preserved the essential features of the original deal (albeit at a point at which Iran has had another eight months to process fuel -- the 1200 kilograms to be removed from Iran now represents 55% rather than 70% of its stock, according to the U.S); that the Administration's chief grounds for rejecting the deal -- Iran's insistence that it would continue to enrich uranium -- was not a condition of the original agreement; and that spurning Brazil and Turkey sets back the new multilateralism that Obama seemed last year to embrace.  Behold their shared agony:

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

On McConnell, Bush, good policy, good politics and the electoral contract according to Jonathan Bernstein

When I read Jonathan Chait's reaction to Josh Green's conversations with Kentucky Republicans (Green immediately below, followed by Chait)....
In my talks with voters on the campaign trail today and yesterday, the idea that the Republican Party is as complicit as the Democratic Party in what ails the country is something I heard again and again. I made a point of seeking out registered Republican voters, and the frustration with Mitch McConnell, Kentucky's senior senator and the Senate Minority Leader, seemed indistinguishable from--or perhaps better to say, "was a large part of"--the general frustration with Washington. "Republicans in Washington, D.C. are just playing 'follow the leader,' Janice Cox told me at a rally in Paducah earlier today, to which she'd brought her daughter, grandchildren, and a jumbo-sized American flag. "We need a true constitutional conservative."
McConnell must want to tear his hair out. What more could he possibly do to oppose Obama's agenda? He put intense pressure on his party to pull out of negotiations over health care reform. He maintained a united wall of opposition on virtually everything. He used every parliamentary trick at his disposal, slowing down Congress by filibustering even totally uncontroversial measures and low-level appointments. What more could he do? Do these people want him to use actual violence?

I thought of this, by Jonathan Bernstein:
Good representation, following Richard Fenno, is about having a strong representational relationship.  And (and here I'm on my own, I think) it is not for me, or Andrew, or Burke, or Pitkin to say what sorts of representation are best.  That's a matter for each individual elected official and his or her constituents to work out for themselves.  Moreover, I argue that the ability to do this, to make promises, interpret them, govern with those promises and future explanations in mind, to explain what one has done, and then campaign again, is the real skill of politicians.  Of course that takes judgment, and it certainly takes practical wisdom.  A particular kind of judgment, however -- political judgment that helps a pol know how public policy decisions are related to what they've promised. ...

as long as a politician fulfills her promises, and explains what she's doing in a way that strengthens her constituents' trust in her, then she's a good representative.  That's as much as we can say, at least as far as evaluation is concerned.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Peter Beinert's shock therapy for American Jewry

Sometimes an article on a fraught subject, rather than stepping on a proverbial third rail, leaps onto that rail with both feet and so avoids the fatal shock.

Such may be the case with Peter Beinert's The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment, which documents the growing divide between liberalism and Zionism among (and within) American Jews, and the failure of  American Jewish leadership to grapple with with that divide.

That leadership is known, Beinert asserts, to "patrol public discourse, scolding people who contradict their vision of Israel as a state in which all leaders cherish democracy and yearn for peace." Presumably he will be fiercely "scolded."  Yet I suspect that this is one piece of criticism that, rather than simply provoking furious denunciation, will lead to some real soul-searching, and perhaps to less poisonous dialogue between Israel's unconditional defenders and its critics within American Jewry.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Dept. of unpublished letters, cont.

To the Times, on Monday:

In his contrast of marriage, sex and childbirth patterns in red  and blue states, Ross Douthat notes that more liberal states' lower rates of teen and out-of-wedlock birth depend in part on heavier recourse to abortion. 
How can blue states retain their more stable marriage and childbirth practices while reducing abortion? One partial answer is universal health care. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine this March finds that abortion rates declined significantly during the first two years that Massachusetts implemented its comprehensive health insurance plan.  In the same vein, T.R. Reid observed in a Washington Post op-ed that wealthy countries with universal health care all have far lower abortion rates than those prevalent in the U.S. 

In a March 21 column, Douthat grouped Reid's implicit claim that the health reform bill would reduce the U.S. abortion rate with other "liberal" claims about the bill's likely good effects and concluded, "As a conservative, I suspect they're wrong." He did add that as an American he hope that he himself was wrong, since the bill would become law. 

I trust that as an opponent of abortion, Douthat particularly hopes he's wrong about the new health reform law's long-term effects on that front.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Polyanna alert: my 'trust in government' is high

Wow, am I ever out of step with the electorate.

The latest WSJ/NBC poll finds that lack of trust in government is off the charts. Incumbents are on the execution block.  The Democrats are going to get their clock cleaned. Republicans have a 20-point advantage among likely voters. 

I am aware of the iron law that trust in government varies inversely with the state of the economy, most specifically with the unemployment rate. I've studied Reagan's poll numbers, to which Obama's so far bear a close resemblance.  I accept that Democrats are caught holding the bag of the financial meltdown of 2008-09 -- and that they share responsibility for it, as many of the key deregulatory actions were taken under the Clinton Administration.

But I'm also grateful that the Democratic Congress, in concert with Obama, was there to clean up the mess.

Within the confines of our sclerotic and lobby-laden political system, the Democrats have done everything humanly possible to get this country out of the economic ditch it was in when Obama took office -- and to lay the foundations of needed structural reform.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Tories' 3/8 mandate

In the next chapter of Adventures in Inexpert Blogging, we turn to British politics.

I do not understand the moral high dudgeon of various Brit observers contemplating the possibility of a Liberal-Labour coalition -- which flared briefly as a live possibility when Gordon Brown resigned on Monday (his personality and perhaps track record had apparently impeded prior talks).  Here's Alex Massie in today's Times (New York):
...looking back, it was touch and go. On Monday evening it seemed as though Mr. Brown’s audacious, last-gasp maneuver might work. Although Mr. Clegg had suggested that the Conservatives’ plurality in last Thursday’s vote gave them the first right to form a government, Mr. Brown revealed on Monday that the Liberal Democrats were courting Labour.

Then, a seemingly endless parade of Labour ministers appeared on television insisting that, despite losing 91 seats in the House of Commons and getting two million votes fewer than the Conservatives, they had not actually lost the election. Like Monty Python’s Black Knight, they claimed defeat was “only a flesh wound” and nothing serious enough to require a change of government.

And so the electorate was asked to contemplate the extraordinary spectacle of a Labour-Liberal Democrat “Losers’ Alliance.” While constitutionally permissible, such an arrangement can’t be squared with any residual British sense of fair play. More pertinent, it wouldn’t even have commanded a majority in the House of Commons, and would have had to purchase the support of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parties.

Fortunately, sanity prevailed. Talks with Labour broke down...
To those steeped in the norms of British politics (especially Tories), perhaps a Lib-Lab coalition would have seemed like an end run. There seems to be an expectation that the single party with the most votes, whether or not it wins a majority,  has not only first dibs on forming a government but a moral right to form one, barring extraordinary circumstances. 

Monday, May 10, 2010

Gates, like Obama, invokes Eisenhower as prudent steward

Robert Gates at the Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kansas, on May 8:
Finally, this Department’s approach to requirements must change.  Before making claims of requirements not being met or alleged “gaps” – in ships, tactical fighters, personnel, or anything else – we need to evaluate the criteria upon which requirements are based and the wider real world context.  For example, should we really be up in arms over a temporary projected shortfall of about 100 Navy and Marine strike fighters relative to the number of carrier wings, when America’s military possesses more than 3,200 tactical combat aircraft of all kinds? Does the number of warships we have and are building really put America at risk when the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined, 11 of which belong to allies and partners?  Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?

These are the kinds of questions Eisenhower asked as commander-in-chief.  They are the kinds of questions I believe he would ask today.  And they are the kinds of question that we must all – civilian, military, in government and out – be willing to ask and answer in order to have a balanced military portfolio geared to real world requirements and a defense budget that is fiscally and politically sustainable over time.

That is one of several cruxes in a speech relentless in its resolve to control Pentagon spending without compromising the military's ability to address the threats it's likely to face.

Lest anyone think that Gates is tailoring his priorities to those of the President he serves, compare his speech to the Heritage Foundation, 5/13/08:

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Stephen J. Rose's Rebound foresees America Unbound

Stephen J. Rose, a think-tank economist who worked in the Clinton administration, has drawn ire on the left because he challenges key articles of economic faith: that the American middle class has remained static for three decades; that Americans are "drowning in debt"; that they shoulder far more risk than they did a generation ago.  His new book, Rebound: Why America Will Emerge Stronger from the Financial Crisis, consolidates and develops these theses, which boil down to John McCain's  ill-timed campaign mantra: the fundamentals of our economy our strong.

In Rose's view, financial industry recklessness threw sand in the gears (his cliche) of a rip-roaring economic machine. His prognosis for the U.S. economy in the wake of the financial crisis was well summed-up by a David Brooks column largely based on his findings (with which I picked a rather notorious bone): Relax, We'll be Fine. (That is, if we enact effective financial reform, as Rose simply assumes we will.)

Rose is in his element in the book's middle chapters, in which he parses Census, Current Population Survey and other data on Americans' incomes and wealth to debunk what he defines as five myths: that all income gains in the last thirty years have gone to the rich; that the middle class is declining; that good jobs have been disappearing; that international trade is to blame; and that employee benefits are disappearing.

Some of these myths he dispatches more thoroughly than others; his argument with liberal economists such as Jacob Hacker and Elizabeth Warren is often aptly characterized as a glass half empty/half full dispute because at times he emphasizes different aspects of a data set that is not in dispute.  This is almost literally true when Rose points out that "54 percent of households had no credit card debt after paying their monthly bill; this means that the median credit card debt of Americans is zero" (212). Okay -- it also means that almost half of Americans are paying double-digit interest rates on a credit card balance every month. More on this later.

To get a purchase on Rose's attack on the notion that the American middle class is shrinking, it's useful to work one's way backwards through his central claims. The vast majority of American retirees are satisfied with their retirement.  There is every reason to believe that Americans approaching retirement age are equally well positioned -- though Rose does acknowledge that the major decline in wealth caused by the financial crisis seriously dents this relative prosperity, knocking asset levels back to about 2004.  Those subject to the most income volatility -- prime age adults -- also have much higher incomes than oft-cited median income figures for all Americans would indicate.  While growing income inequality is a real problem (indeed, Rose takes credit for bringing it to national attention in 1983), its worst effects are concentrated among the least well educated; the majority of Americans who have at least "some college" have benefited substantially from the strong growth in GDP over the past four decades.

Among the facts Rose cites that run counter to the 'disappearing middle class' thesis:

Saturday, May 08, 2010

God cop/bad cop in Pakistan, cont.

Based on a released excerpt, it's unclear exactly whom Hillary Clinton is threatening here:
We've made it very clear that if, heaven-forbid, an attack like this that we can trace back to Pakistan were to have been successful, there would be very severe consequences," Clinton tells Pelley....

Clinton says Pakistan's attitude toward fighting Islamic terrorists has changed remarkably. "We've gotten more cooperation and it's been a real sea change in the commitment we've seen from the Pakistan Government. [But] We want more. We expect more," says Clinton. 
Who suffers the consequences of such an attack -- the Pakistani Taliban or the government? Or does the government "suffer" by means of U.S. action against the Taliban unconstrained by current ground rules? 

Meanwhile, in a good cop role that he's been playing for years, Robert Gates strikes a far more conciliatory tone:

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Terrorist news disorientation syndrome

Tell me again, Doctor -- what year did you say this was? 
The failed attack has produced a flurry of other proposals to tighten security procedures, including calls by members of Congress to more closely scrutinize passengers who buy tickets with cash, as Mr. Shahzad did.
 And while we're at it...what country?

Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, and Senator Scott Brown, Republican of Massachusetts, proposed stripping terrorism suspects of American citizenship...
  Or rather, what planet?

and Mayor Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg asked Congress to block the sale of firearms and explosives to those on terrorist watch lists.
Tell me again, slowly. In 2010, airlines still are not scrutinizing passengers who tickets for long international flights with cash. U.S. senators do not know that a suspect in the United States is innocent until proven guilty. And people on terrorist watch lists can buy automatic weapons without first proving that they ought not be on the list.

Okay, so Gail Collins already nailed down two out of three. I'm slow.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Scrutinizing Warren's warranty for Goldman

Good for James B. Stewart for pushing back against Warren Buffett's defense of Goldman's conduct in the Abacus CDO deal that prompted the SEC to sue Goldman for fraud.  Buffet, Stewart recounts, affirms that there was nothing wrong in Goldman's failing to disclose the identity of the short investor, Paulson, to those going long on the portfolio of mortgage bonds that comprised the synthetic CDO.

"The essence of the alleged fraud," Stewart reminds readers, is not that Goldman did not disclose Paulson's identity, nor that there was a short seller, but "that Goldman let the short seller choose some of the underlying subprime mortgages, failed to disclose that, and instead promoted the idea that an independent third party chose those securities."  He then joins the panoply of observers who have sought a metaphor to illuminate the moral essense of this kind of dealmaking, and comes up with a good one:

With the Kentucky Derby in mind, let's consider a horse-racing analogy. There are just two horses and two bettors. The promoter offers you the opportunity to bet on one horse. Someone else is betting on the other. He doesn't tell you that the other bettor chose the two horses in the race, and picked one horse with no chance of winning. Instead, he says the horses were picked by an independent racing federation. You bet and lose. Would you feel that was fair?
If I may venture an emendation: it's as if Goldman allowed "the other bettor" not to choose two horses but to assemble one horse, Frankenstein-style, picking more than half of its genes at the outset from an available pool (admittedly of a specified, dicey quality) and signing off on every gene eventually included -- all with an eye to creating a horse misbegotten enough to be almost certain to break all its limbs should the race terrain grow at all rocky  (the race will be across unknown terrain) . The promoter seeks bettors on the other side, emphasizing that an expert genetic designer of horses created this specimen, and thus suggesting that it is  sturdiest horse that could be created from the agreed-upon gene pool.  (I've compiled various other informed perspectives on the ethics of the deal here.)

Wednesday morning amateur philosphizing

Walking the mile from Penn Station NY to my office this morning, looking at the hundreds of faces that pass the other way in twenty blocks, I found myself thinking that the quality of a life is the sum of the emotions we experience each moment (and the cognitive therapists would add that what we feel is driven by the thoughts we think -- cf. Charlie Brown's mantra, 'nobody likes me, everybody hates me...').

Then I thought, of course that's not right -- it measures only the impact of our lives on our own selves. Most of us would want to be measured by our impact on other people and the world (and in fact our self-assessment on this score might largely shape how pleasurable our thoughts are moment-to-moment).  That impact is determined by characteristics (other than luck, and shaped largely by luck) such as intellect, and emotional intelligence, and effective aggression (there's got to be a better term for that...), and will or discipline or the power of concentration.

Then there's the religious perception that the ultimate value or quality of those "powers of impact" depends entirely on love -- of other people, or creation, or a god understood to make creation lovable.  That is the famous assertion of 1 Corinthians 13: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing."

Which brings us back to point A. What you feel moment-to-moment is largely shaped by how you feel about everyone and everything that most commands your attention. The Beatles boiled it down to a Dr. Seuss rhyme: "And in the end the love you take/is equal to the love you make."

That's comforting, but not necessarily true in any simple sense.  I recall the novelist John Gardner, who is perhaps most famous as a teacher of writing and writer about writing, raising the question of the value of the  work of a writer who by any ordinary measure is a terrible person.  He wrote, if I may paraphrase from memory, that that writer may be a much better person when he's writing than when he's doing anything else. And that may be true for any productive concentration of human energy -- including fighting (physically, legally, bureacratically -- most of us would acknowledge the value when we approve the cause), or hitting a baseball (Ted Williams wanted only to be the greatest hitter whoever lived and more or less succeeded) or bond trading (which in a well regulated market does have a productive function). 

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

A secure environmentalism for Midtown?

James Fallows, in his running crusade against "security theater," wonders: if the TSA were running New York,

How would it respond to this weekend's Times Square bomb threat? Well, by extrapolation from its response to the 9/11 attacks and subsequent threats, the policy would be:

- All vans or SUVs headed into Midtown Manhattan would have to stop and have their contents inspected. If any vehicle seemed for any reason to have escaped inspection, Midtown in its entirety would be evacuated;

- A whole new uniformed force -- the Times Square Security Administration, or TsSA - would be formed for this purpose....
How long before someone in NYC deploys the failed attack as a new argument for congestion pricing

P.S. Speaking of security theater: now that, post-panty bomber, most airlines will no longer enable passengers to track their fight on a GPS display, why was I able to track my son's flight home from Japan last week on my home computer?

Monday, May 03, 2010

Philip Pullman, enough with the Biblical retakes

I have not read Philip Pullman's the The Good Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and though I enjoyed His Dark Materials, I probably won't. That's because I'm weary to the bone of imaginative worlds defined by the Bible, indeed by any of the scriptures created 1000-3000 years ago that still define the universe for billions.

The anti-Christian cosmos in His Dark Materials is shaped by Scriptural monotheism, only inverted. The work is a Satanic Scriptures, with a demonic Yahweh and heroic rebels against the divine order, but it's still completely in the grip of the old mythology. William Blake said that Milton, in Paradise Lost, was on the devil's side without knowing it. Pullman is on the "devil's" -- i.e. divine rebels' -- side quite consciously (the trilogy takes its name from Milton's phrase for the chaos out of which God formed the universe). But he's still telling the same old (to me) tired story.

Christopher Hitchens, Rottweiler to God's Rottweiler and to what he sees as a Rottweilerian God, naturally enough glows with admiration for an imaginative writer who portrays the little god behind the Biblical curtain as an aggressive psychopath. Hitchens writes reverently of The Good Jesus:
Pullman’s daring heresy is to rewrite the Fall as if it were an emancipation, and as if Eve had done us all a huge favor by snatching at the forbidden fruit. Our freedom and happiness depend on that “first disobedience.”

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Obama at Michigan: the era of "the era of big government is over" is over

I could be wrong, but my impression is that Obama added a new riff to an old theme in his defense of government in his commencement speech at the University of Michigan on Saturday.

The basic argument -- that suspicion of government has been in America's "DNA" from the start, but that the country has also known when to marshal Federal power to serve the common weal -- is a theme that Obama has been sounding since his political career began.  Likewise with his acknowledgment that government in some ways got too big for its britches in the 60s and 70s (that "it restricts individual freedom and dampens individual certain instances" has "been true"). He said as much in The Audacity of Hope.

But this (below), I do not recall hearing/reading before.  Memory lapse, perhaps. Or -- a new development of the argument:
When our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it ignores the fact that in our democracy, government is us.  We, the people -- (applause.)  We, the people, hold in our hands the power to choose our leaders and change our laws, and shape our own destiny.

Government is the police officers who are protecting our communities, and the servicemen and women who are defending us abroad.  (Applause.)  Government is the roads you drove in on and the speed limits that kept you safe.  Government is what ensures that mines adhere to safety standards and that oil spills are cleaned up by the companies that caused them.  (Applause.)    Government is this extraordinary public university -– a place that’s doing lifesaving research, and catalyzing economic growth, and graduating students who will change the world around them in ways big and small.  (Applause.)