Posts Tagged ‘New York Times’

Must-Reads of the Week

Friday, May 8th, 2009

1. Inhuman. Andrew Sullivan, who has been one of the most insightful commenators on torture, discusses the term “inhuman”:

It’s odd, isn’t it, that we use this word to describe abuse and torture of prisoners. The reason it’s odd is that I’m not sure any animals torture. Yes, they can kill and maim and inflict dreadful suffering in the process of killing, eating or fighting. But the act of intentionally exploiting suffering, of lingering over some other being’s pain – using it as a means to an end – is not an animal instinct, unless I’m mistaken.

And so torture is in fact extremely human; it represents in many ways humankind’s unique capacity for cruelty.

2. 30 Rock. Jonah Weiner discusses 30 Rock’s odd conservative streak at Slate. The explanations he posits for this conservatism are perhaps beside the point, but interesting nonetheless:

Of course, 30 Rock was conceived during the reign of George W. Bush, which might help explain its ideological complexity. The show has been consistently critical of Bush, but perhaps 30 Rock began as a way to explore—and mine for gallows humor—the crisis of identity many liberals began to feel in his second term, when the Karl Rove playbook had seemingly replaced the laws of physics, when the “reality-based community” (including Liz Lemon’s Upper West Side) felt like an island populated by the marginal, flip-flopping, arugula-munching few.

3. Animal Spirits. Chrystia Freeland writes for the Financial Times that the Obama team seems to have accepted the premise of a recent book by behavioral economists about economic crises:

Judging by the upbeat economic message we have been hearing from the White House, the Treasury and even the Federal Reserve over the past six weeks, that is a shrewd guess. The authors argue that “we will never really understand important economic events unless we confront the fact that their causes are largely mental in nature”. Our “ideas and feelings” about the economy are not purely a rational reaction to data and experience; they themselves are an important driver of economic growth – and decline.

4. A Taliban Strategist Speaks. To The New York Times. Perhaps the most interesting article I have read about the Taliban’s plans in the Af-Pak region – though I have to wonder why this man would be speaking to a Western newspaper about the Taliban’s strategy. That said, you can judge the article for yourself. I pass it on as it seemed plausible to me:

One Pakistani logistics tactician for the Taliban, a 28-year-old from the country’s tribal areas, in interviews with The New York Times, described a Taliban strategy that relied on free movement over the border and in and around Pakistan, ready recruitment of Pakistani men and sustained cooperation of sympathetic Afghan villagers.

His account provided a keyhole view of the opponent the Americans and their NATO allies are up against, as well as the workings and ambitions of the Taliban as they prepared to meet the influx of American troops.

It also illustrated how the Pakistani Taliban, an umbrella group of many brands of jihadist fighters backed by Al Qaeda, are spearheading wars on both sides of the border in what for them is a seamless conflict.

5. Fool’s Gold. This one is actually a must-listen podcast of a talk given at the London School of Economics. Gillian Tett is a journalist for the Financial Times who recently wrote a book about the financial crisis and what led to it from her view as someone with a background in anthropology reporting who was reporting on derivratives before it was an exciting beat.

Bonus: Polar Insanity. Tim Wu writes in Slate about the perplexing desire of so many people – including himself –  to make the expensive trips to the polar regions:

Every so often, an iceberg floats by that is grander and more beautiful than any cathedral, though it lacks any history or even a name. What’s almost as shocking as its appearance is its anonymity: beauty untainted by fame. Most of these perfect objects will never be seen by human eyes. They float around and slowly melt by themselves, unappreciated and utterly indifferent to that fact.

Unnamed, plentiful beauty feels unearthly and almost decadent, like Sinbad the Sailor’s cave. It is alien to the typical human experience of finding everything we really desire to be scarce, expensive, or behind some temple curtain. It has always struck me that no one bothers to build museums in places of extreme natural beauty, and in Antarctica the effect is magnified. If an iceberg the size of Manhattan showed up outside town one day, why would you bother going to an art exhibit?

The Larger Narrative

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

David Brooks:

The crisis was labeled an economic crisis, but it was really a psychological crisis.

Republican pollster David Winston:

[Obama]’s going to have to fit other issues into the larger narrative of the economy.

Michael D. Shear and Paul Kane in the Washington Post:

Whichever side proves to be right, the sharp, partisan lines over the stimulus bill make it plain that both parties intend to exact a political cost over last week’s votes. And their leaders are looking to history for inspiration as they consider how to maneuver in the weeks and months ahead…

Republicans have made it clear that they intend to try to shift the economic debate toward concern about the federal deficit.

Obama is now completing the three-step jig he planned from the beginning, with his address to Congress tonight focused on the Grand Bargain needed to shore up our economy for the forseeable future.

The first step of this jig was supposed to be easy, nonpartisan, and uncontroversial – a spending and tax cutting bill to stimulate the economy. The second step was supposed to be harder but still nonpartisan – dealing with the mortgage and banking messes. In both cases, Obama has approached these problems as a mechanic trying to figure out what has gone wrong and taking whatever steps are necessary to fix it. Just as a mechanic does not make moral judgments about springs and gears but focuses instead on doing what is necessary to get the machine working again, so Obama approached the economy. Most Americans appreciate this, as polls show that while many dislike the specific measures he has had to take, they approve of the job he is doing. The question was: how to get growth started again – greedy bankers and lying loan applicants and wasteful consumers all are being bailed out – because the problems they have caused are “gumming up the works.” And the consumers at least are being encouraged to continue in their spendthrift ways – at least for now, as Dana Milbank explained:

[Ben Bernanke] even indulged in a bit of economist humor when talking about the paradox of encouraging people to spend even though overspending caused the problem: “Somebody once called this the Augustinian principle, which says something like, ‘Let me be moral, but not quite yet.’ “

The third step is more complicated and politically fraught – as Obama seeks to tackle the third-rail of American politics – Social Security; and at the same time, health care reform; and deficit reduction; and tax reform; and possibly climate change legislation. Obama argues that this economic crisis – and the borrowing to stimulate us out of the economic crisis – have created a “fierce urgency of now” – and that all these issues must be tackled at once. 

John Harwood of The New York Times spoke with Senator Judd Gregg about this:

To protect America’s currency and its borrowing capacity, Mr. Gregg said in an interview, “the world has to be told that we’re going to be fiscally disciplined in the out years.”

Efforts to tame long-run entitlement spending may find more Republican support than Mr. Obama achieved on the stimulus. “He has extremely fertile ground in the Senate,” Mr. Gregg said, crediting the president’s early outreach and “courageous position of saying the can’s been kicked down the road long enough.”

Yet despite the bipartisan consensus that these issues must be tackled, here is where the real disagreements should be. Contra George F. Will who argued constantly that the stimulus bill and banking and mortgage bailouts should be opposed by Republicans and supported by Democrats on based their principles, the initial stimulus and other emergency measures should only have raised principled objections from those with an unflagging belief in the free market – which describes only a minority of Republicans. These measures violate the ideologies of both parties – as big business is bailed out and the market is intervened in. There were issues to be raised as to what the most effective methods of dealing with the crisis were – but to oppose measures wholesale as the Republicans did – indicates a lack of seriousness.

The real debate should come now as we decide the shape of things to come and address the moral and political and long-term issues instead of the emergency measures taken to attempt to stimulate the economy.

But in this challenge is an opportunity, as Richard Florida explained in The Atlantic:

The Stanford economist Paul Romer famously said, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” The United States, whatever its flaws, has seldom wasted its crises in the past. On the contrary, it has used them, time and again, to reinvent itself, clearing away the old and making way for the new. Throughout U.S. history, adaptability has been perhaps the best and most quintessential of American attributes. Over the course of the 19th century’s Long Depression, the country remade itself from an agricultural power into an industrial one. After the Great Depression, it discovered a new way of living, working, and producing, which contributed to an unprecedented period of mass prosperity. At critical moments, Americans have always looked forward, not back, and surprised the world with our resilience. Can we do it again?

David Brooks writes with both concern and a carefully measured dose of hope:

[Obama’s] aides are unrolling a rapid string of plans: to create three million jobs, to redesign the health care system, to save the auto industry, to revive the housing industry, to reinvent the energy sector, to revitalize the banks, to reform the schools — and to do it all while cutting the deficit in half.

If ever this kind of domestic revolution were possible, this is the time and these are the people to do it. The crisis demands a large response. The people around Obama are smart and sober. Their plans are bold but seem supple and chastened by a realistic sensibility.

Brooks is still concerned about how this may turn out. As are we all. 

With tonight’s speech, Obama will begin to craete his legacy – beyond fixing the problems accrued during Bush’s tenure. He will begin to, at long last, deal with the stability issues raised by the combination of FDR’s New Deal revision of the social contract and Reagan’s counter-revolution, as he sets a fiscally sane course for the future. In the midst of this crisis, if Obama is to be the leader we need him to be, he needs to see the opportunity to re-write the social contract and create a more stable economic, financial, and international system. Tonight is his chance to make that case. 

Here’s hope it is not wasted.

Friedman is annoying, but essentially correct

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

Tom Friedman apparently spent last week talking to a slew of Indian businessmen – after all, he is in Bangalore – and he found that they were attempting to say something to him, that they were:

trying to make a point that sometimes non-Americans can make best: “Dear America, please remember how you got to be the wealthiest country in history. It wasn’t through protectionism, or state-owned banks or fearing free trade. No, the formula was very simple: build this really flexible, really open economy, tolerate creative destruction so dead capital is quickly redeployed to better ideas and companies, pour into it the most diverse, smart and energetic immigrants from every corner of the world and then stir and repeat, stir and repeat, stir and repeat, stir and repeat.”

The prose and the formulation is Tom Friedman at his insufferable worst. And I think Friedman is fundamentally wrong in his point – America did not get to be “the wealthiest country in history” by acting as Friedman describes. No – we got there by building up our infrastructure, exploiting our vast natural resources, and creating an enormous manufacturing base. Friedman was right about the immigrants part.

The reason we stayed enormously wealthy as a nation after this old manufacturing economy began to be outsourced is our higher education system – and the other stuff that Friedman mentions. 

Which is to say that Friedman’s frustratingly dumbed-down “letter to America” that many Indian businessman are trying to speak to Friedman – is essentially correct in its prescriptions if not it’s history. We cannot have institutions “too big to fail” – and we cannot allow the massive government intervention into the economy to last. (On this though, Obama and Geithner seem if anything overcautious.) We cannot prop up “zombie” institutions. We cannot “protect” jobs – except temporarily. We need to create new jobs. We need smaller and more nimble companies. 

This is what we need to keep our nation strong as we enter the period of the market-state – in which governments will succeed based on the amount of opportunity they are able to offer their citizens.

Frustratingly, I think Friedman – even with such dumb prose – is essentially correct.

Obama’s Long Game

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

Peter Baker quotes Robert Gibbs, Obama’s press secretary, in his description of Obama’s take on the state of politics and the stimulus bill:

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, decried what he called a “myopic viewpoint in Washington,” disconnected from the troubles of the country.

“It’s illuminating because it may not necessarily be where cable television is on all of this,” Mr. Gibbs said. “But you know, we’re sort of used to that. We lost on cable television virtually every day last year. So you know, there’s a conventional wisdom to what’s going on in America via Washington and there’s the reality of what’s happening in America.” [my emphasis]

John Dickerson of Slate makes a similar case:

Remember back in the Democratic primary, when the consensus was that Obama was too soft, too deliberative, and too nice to win the election? These current gripes remind me of those days. It takes time to govern.

Overall, this reinforces my post of last week about why I am (still) confident about Obama in which I wrote that:

This seems to have been Obama’s strategy – to allow his campaign to take hits and play defense, sticking to an overall strategy that would gain him a final decisive victory rather than exhausting his staff fighting every daily flair-up.

Obama is once again playing the “long game” on this stimulus fight. I wonder how many times Obama will be able to do this – lose the daily fight while winning the broader point – before the media figures out his game. Clearly some of the more astute observers have.

Wall Street Exec: “I’d almost rather say I’m a pornographer.”

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

David Segal of The New York Times interviewed a former Wall Street executive who wished to remain anonymous for his article on how “Wall Street” has become a financial epithet. The executive said:

I’d almost rather say I’m a pornographer.  At least that’s a business that people understand.

The self-pity is unbecoming – and the lack of an acknowledgement of responsibility is not surprising. After all – it was indecent greed and irresponsibility that got Wall Street into such trouble.

What’s funny is – I think this anonymous executive is right. Whether in New York or Topeka, a pornographer is now held in more esteem than a Wall Street banker.

The Inherent Character Flaws of Politicians

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

From a blog post by Timothy Egan last week in the New York Times about Portland’s mayor:

But with the betrayal by Sam Adams, the city now offers an old lesson in timeless and tawdry human weakness. The story of Sam Adams is not about gay predators or gay anything, because Portland has seen this civic morality tale once before, with a heterosexual mayor.

It’s about why voters should never give their hearts over completely to politicians. As a class, they are inherently insecure — a character flaw at the base of all politicians, from Bill Clinton to Bob Packwood. And they lie, with rare exceptions — a hard thing to say at a time when the doors of possibility are open to leaders yet untarnished.

That’s an eternal lesson, though, as with all rules, there are rare exceptions.

A Question About “E-Mail to the Chief”

Monday, February 2nd, 2009

Peter Baker reporting in The New York Times:

To minimize the risk, the government technology gurus have made it impossible to forward e-mail messages from the president or to send him attachments, people informed about the precautions say.

I can see how to set up a system to prevent the sending of attachments. But how do you make an email impossible to forward? Wouldn’t that require protocols existing within all email clients allowing this? I’m not an expert on this – so please educate me if this isn’t the technical issue I think it is.

Science’s A Priori Assumptions

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Dennis Overbye in The New York Times:

[Science] requires no metaphysical commitment to a God or any conception of human origin or nature to join in this game, just the hypothesis that nature can be interrogated and that nature is the final arbiter. Jews, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists and Hindus have all been working side by side building the Large Hadron Collider and its detectors these last few years.

The main reason I mention this is Overbye’s implicit acceptance that science has a priori assumptions – an argument I’ve had many times before. Of course, Overbye misses a few of science’s a priori assumptions – from cause-and-effect to Occam’s razor to the rules of mathematics. But he admits my point.

A Tortured Plot Device

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

Alessandra Stanley writing in the New York Times on the Senate hearings targeting Jack Bauer for torture and other broken laws:

[T]he Senate confrontation may be cathartic for conservatives upset that the Cheney doctrine is likely to be reversed by the new administration. (Mr. Obama’s choice to lead the C.I.A., Leon E. Panetta, has argued passionately against it.) But it’s kind of a buzz kill for fans of the show who eagerly wait for a new installment of torture, nuclear explosions, biochemical mass destruction and the latest nerdy computer surveillance techniques. In an action-adventure show, torture should be seen and not heard about.

And that pedantic streak makes the first hour of the season premiere a little like being in a bar with a football superstar, eagerly awaiting tales of gridiron glory, only to have to listen to him drone on and on about the hypocrisy and injustice of steroid testing.

Fortunately, and predictably, the Senate sanctimony is interrupted by an urgent threat to national security that only Jack Bauer can handle.

Defending Caroline Kennedy

Friday, January 9th, 2009

Maureen Dowd defends Caroline Kennedy:

Congress, which abdicated its oversight role as the Bush crew wrecked the globe and the economy, desperately needs fresh faces and new perspectives, an infusion of class, intelligence and guts.

People complain that the 51-year-old Harvard and Columbia Law School grad and author is not a glib, professional pol who knows how to artfully market herself, and is someone who hasn’t spent her life glad-handing, backstabbing and logrolling. I say, thank God.

The press whines that she doesn’t have a pat answer about why she wants the job. I’ve interviewed a score of men running for president; not one had a good answer for why he wanted it…

I know Caroline Kennedy. She’s smart, cultivated, serious and unpretentious. The Senate, shamefully sparse on profiles in courage during Dick Cheney’s reign of terror, would be lucky to get her.