Posts Tagged ‘The Atlantic’

Must-Reads of the Week: The IRA, Journalism, Unsavory Profits, Bipartisanship, and the Tyranny of New York

Friday, May 21st, 2010

1. Double Agents in the IRA. I recently came across an excellent article by Matthew Teague in The Atlantic about the British counterintelligence program and the IRA. It’s from 2006, but still engrossing.

2. Restoring Journalism. Maureen Tkacik talks about her life as a journalist, the nothing-based economy, and the future of journalism:

If journalism’s more vital traditions of investigating corruption and synthesizing complex topics are going to be restored, it will never be at the expense of the personal, the sexual, the venal, or the sensational, but rather through mastering the kind of storytelling that understands that none of those things exists in a vacuum. For instance, perhaps the latest political sex scandal is not simply another installment of the unrelenting narcissism and sense of invincibility of people in power. Most of the journalists writing about it have—as we all do—some understanding of the internal conflicts that lead to personal failure. By humanizing journalism, we maybe can begin to develop a mutual trust between reader and writer that would benefit both.

What I’m talking about is, of course, a lot easier to do with the creative liberties afforded a blog—one’s humanity is inescapable when one commits to blogging all day for a living.

The piece is long, and worth every word. (H/t to John Cantwell.)

3. The Papacy, Blumenthal, and Now Goldman Sachs. The New York Times took on Goldman Sachs earlier this week with a look at the perfectly legal but unsavory practices it uses to make money:

Transactions entered into as the mortgage market fizzled may turn out to have been perfectly legal. Nevertheless, they have raised concerns among investors and analysts about the extent to which a variety of Wall Street firms put their own interests ahead of their clients’.

“Now it’s all about the score. Just make the score, do the deal. Move on to the next one. That’s the trader culture,” said Cornelius Hurley, director of the Morin Center for Banking and Financial Law at Boston University and former counsel to the Federal Reserve Board. “Their business model has completely blurred the difference between executing trades on behalf of customers versus executing trades for themselves. It’s a huge problem.”

4. Erroneous Assumptions. Matt Yglesias concisely summarizes what left-leaning advocates of bipartisanship have found time and again:

Oftentimes people reach the conclusions that conservatives might support this or that by the erroneous method of pretending that conservatives believe in the stated reasons for their policy positions. It seems to me that private views of wonks aside in practice the conservative political movement simply opposes anything that would increase government revenue and/or be bad for rich people.

5. The Tyranny of New York (cont). Continued from last week, many voices around the interwebs weighed in on the conversation started by Conor Friedersdorf on the tyranny of New York in media and culture. There’s a lot of good pieces to read on this — but the 2 I will recommend are this response in the New Yorker by Amy Davidson and this follow-up by Friedersdorf himself.  Davidson, as an aside mentions an E. B. White essay “Here Is New York” that I now need to read:

(Friedersdorf mentions “living vicariously through” E. B. White, who once wrote that there were three New Yorks, that of the native, the commuter, and the newcomer from smaller American places, and that “Of these trembling cities the greatest is the last—the city of final destination, the city that is a goal…Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion.” But I’ve never really bought that, as matchless as many of White’s descriptions of the city are, maybe because, as a native, I feel no shortage of passion, and don’t much like being called solid. And, again, for many of the most interesting newcomers, this is an entry point to America, not the “final destination.”)

[Image by me.]

Must-Reads of the Week: SWAT, Google’s News Plans, MTA Motto, Peanuts, Tea Party Feminism, Republican Pravda, Fiscal Hangover, New York’s Tyranny, Brooks on the Military, and Facebook Backlash

Friday, May 14th, 2010

1. SWAT antics. Radley Balko does some follow-up reporting on the now infamous video of the SWAT team raid in Missouri in which 2 dogs were shot:

[D]espite all the anger the raid has inspired, the only thing unusual thing here is that the raid was captured on video, and that the video was subsequently released to the press. Everything else was routine… Raids just like the one captured in the video happen 100-150 times every day in America.

2. Google’s News Plans. James Fallows discusses how Google is trying to save the news industry.

3. If you see something… Manny Fernandez in the New York Times discusses the impact and coinage of the ubiquitous phrase, “If you see something, say something.”

It has since become a global phenomenon — the homeland security equivalent of the “Just Do It” Nike advertisement — and has appeared in public transportation systems in Oregon, Texas, Florida, Australia and Canada, among others. Locally, the phrase captured, with six simple words and one comma, the security consciousness and dread of the times, the “I ♥ NY” of post-9/11 New York City. [my emphasis]

4. Artful Grief. Bill Waterson — creator of Calvin & Hobbes — reviewed a biography of Charles Schultz for the Wall Street Journal a few years ago — writing on the ‘Grief’ that Made Peanuts Good. It’s several years old but well worth reading.

5. Tea Party Feminism. Hanna Rosin of Slate evaluates the Tea Party as a feminist movement. And her reporting surprised me at least.

6. Republican Pravda. Jonathan Chait collects a few Weekly Standard covers to illustrate the changing right-wing portrayal of Obama over the past year. He identifies the passage of the health care bill as a turning point:

Now that Obama has won his biggest legislative priority and is closing in on at least one other important win, the tone is change. The hapless patsy has become the snarling bully. The lack of Republican support for Obama’s agenda, once a credit to Republican tough-mindedness, is now blamed upon Obama’s stubbornness. Here is a recent cover of Obama–the nefarious, but powerful, overseer…

7. Fiscal Hangover. Gillian Tett of the Financial Times explains the successful approach the Irish are taking to their fiscal crisis: treat it like a hangover.

8. The Tyranny of New York. Conor Friedersdof complains about the tyranny of New York — but I will excerpt his praise:

Even if New York is a peerless American city, an urban triumph that dwarfs every other in scale, density, and possibility; even if our idea of it is the romantic notion that Joan Didion described, “the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself;” even if you’ve reveled in the fact of the city, strutting down Fifth Avenue in a sharp suit or kissing a date with the skyline as backdrop while the yellow cab waits; even if you’ve drunk from the well of its creative springs, gazing at the Flatiron Building, or paging through the New York Review of Books on a Sunday morning, or living vicariously through Joseph Mitchel or E.B. White or Tom Wolfe or any of its countless chroniclers; even if you love New York as much as I do, revering it as the highest physical achievement of Western Civilization, surely you can admit that its singularly prominent role on the national scene is a tremendously unhealthy pathology.

Despite the rent, the cold, the competition, the bedbugs, the absurd requirements for securing even a closet-sized pre-war apartment on an inconvenient street; the distance from friends and family, the starkness of the sexual marketplace, the oppressive stench of sticky subway platforms in the dog days of August; despite the hour long commutes on the Monday morning F Train, when it isn’t quite 8 am, the week hardly underway, and already you feel as though, for the relief of sitting down, you’d just as soon give up, go back to Akron or Allentown or Columbus or Marin County or Long Beach — despite these things, and so many more, lawyers and novelists and artists and fashion designers and playwrights and journalists and bankers and aspiring publishers and models flock to New York City.

I don’t quite get Friedersdof’s complaint to be honest. What would be improved if there were more sitcoms taking place in Houston?

9. Military Flow Chart. David Brooks analyzes the military’s adaptation of counterinsurgency as a case study in the flow of ideas in entrenched organizations.

10. Facebook Backlash. Ryan Singel of Wired has one of many pieces in the past week fomenting the growing Facebook backlash:

Facebook has gone rogue, drunk on founder Mark Zuckerberg’s dreams of world domination. It’s time the rest of the web ecosystem recognizes this and works to replace it with something open and distributed.

[Image by me.]

Evaluating Mitt Romney’s 2012 Candidacy

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

The blogs discuss whether or not Mitt Romney’s 2012 prospects have been passed by the health care reform so similar to his own in Massachusetts:

Marc Ambinder makes the case that the conventional wisdom on the left that health care reform’s passage has killed Romney’s 2012 candidacy is a reflection of “anchor bias — the same type of bias that consigned the Democratic majority to history the day after Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts.” Ambinder continues:

Romney is a serious, sober guy. Just read his book. It’s half a cliche campaign book, and half a really learned and well-thought-out disquisition on the problems facing American today. If the fundamental divide in the party is between the lambs being led to slaughter wing — the bleating, noisy wing — and the wing that seeks a solutions-oriented leader, Romney has a case to make.

Jonathan Chait responds to Ambinder:

Actually, I think Ambinder has this backwards. Right now, Romney looks fine — he has money, name recognition, decent polling, and the like. What you have to do is project how the current dynamic is going to play in 2012. At the moment, Republican leaders are trying to demonize the Affordable Care Act, so they have little incentive to point out that it’s basically Romneycare plus cost controls. But in the context of the 2012 race, with the Affordable Care Act settled into law and a contested GOP primary going on, there will be lots of Republicans playing up the comparisons between Romneycare and Obamacare. Romney appears political viable right now because most Republican voters have not been exposed to the Romneycare-Obamacare comparison — or if they have, it’s been made by advocates of the latter, rather than by Republicans who they trust. When the attacks come, Romney just has no convincing reply…

[But] I’d like to see Romney win the nomination, because he’s intelligent, competent, and has some decent moral instincts buried somewhere beneath a thick coat of pandering demagoguery. I just don’t see it happening.

Ezra Klein:

The passage of Obamacare is going to make life harder for Mitt Romney in 2012. Which makes the White House pretty happy. Romney isn’t the world’s most skilled politician, but he’s one of the more credible challengers Republicans can muster. If the passage of health-care reform wounds his candidacy without killing it off entirely, that’s a big win for the Obama administration: It means Romney takes up some, but not enough, of the sensible Republican vote, making it even likelier that someone totally unelectable wins the nomination…

The White House thinks that 2012 is where they can deal a serious blow to the Fox Newsification of the Republican Party. But that only works if someone from the Fox News wings of the party wins the nomination (and, of course, if Obama really trounces that person)

Jonathan Chait responds to Klein:

From Obama’s perspective, the crazier the Republican nominee, the better. Better Tim Pawlenty than Mitt Romney, and better Sarah Palin than Tim Pawlenty.

The broader liberal calculation is different. It’s almost certainly true that liberals will want Obama to win reelection. But we have to balance that desire against minimizing the downside in case he doesn’t.

Andrew Sullivan:

I’m sorry but he says he’s running against an all-powerful central government, but he backed the indefinite, open-ended, unlimited, “Double Gitmo!” executive powers seized by Bush and Cheney? He set up a mini-version of Obamacare and now wants to lead a party that wants to repeal Obamacare? Worse for him, Obama is now shrewdly embracing Romney…

And how do you get past the problem that no one likes him and no one rightly trusts him? And that he’s a Mormon running for the nomination of a Southern evangelical organization?

Palin is the one to beat. She’s the real identity of the current GOP – and as fake as the rest of them (though nowhere near as fake as Romney, but, then, who is?).

Meanwhile, David Harsanyi chips in from the Denver Post in a piece being promoted by the National Review (which has been notably quiet on this issue):

“Overall, ours is a model that works,” Romney explained. “We solved our problem at the state level. Like it or not, it was a state solution. Why is it that President Obama is stepping in and saying ‘one size fits all’ “?

Federalism is a good argument that has nothing to do with health care reform models, as Romney knows well. Here’s what he should have said years ago:

“Everyone makes mistakes. Heck, I made a huge one. My plan, first hijacked by state liberals and now copied by Barack Obama, has created a fiscal nightmare in my state… I am here to extract my name from that botched experiment by repealing its ugly stepson Obamacare so Americans work together to pass genuine, common sense, market-based reform.”

Then again, it is entirely possible Romney genuinely believes his health care model works.

In which case, his position just doesn’t cut it.

My two cents: Projections are inherently flawed – and long-term political projections are akin to predicting the weather in a particular days several years away: Sometimes, rules of thumb work (“March goes in like a lion and out like a lamb” to “Opposition parties do well in the first mid-terms after a presidential election.”), but you can’t count on them. Looking at the fundamentals is more important than looking at current trends. (“November is usually cold,” does better than “It’s gotten hotter in 5 successive days this April!”) But even projections based on the fundamentals don’t always hold.

As I read the fundamentals: Whether the Obama administration embraces Romney or not, I don’t see how he can win the Republican nomination for the reasons that Chait raised (when his Republicans opponents tar him with supporting Obamacare, it will stick) – added to the complications that Sullivan harps on (a Mormon running to lead an evangelical party). If Romney wins the Republican nomination, his flip-flopping on health care would only solidify the image of him as a pandering demagogue with no real principles. Still, he’s the Republican I’d most like to see win the nomination on the off-chance the Republicans are able to win in 2012. The fundamentals there look very weak for any Republican though unless unemployment is rising in 2012.

[Image by Paul Chenowith licensed under Creative Commons.]

This Week With Christiane Amanpour

Friday, March 26th, 2010

Max Fisher in The Atlantic describes Christiane Amanpour as an ideal candidate to host This Week. He has me convinced:

Beltway pundits tend to emphasize Beltway concerns, like electoral campaigns and private scandals and colorful personalities.

Foreign reporters’ great strength, however, is their ability to see politics not as theater but as an extension of cultural, social, and economic forces. If Amanpour brings this approach to This Week, it would be more than just a breath of fresh air in the homogeneous Sunday line-up.

Some questioned her ability to be a tough interviewer for the seasoned Washington pols who would appear on her show. It seems a silly objection, especially considering this nugget Fisher pulled out of a recent New York Times article:

Reflecting on her interviews with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, whose reign is considered one of the world’s most brutal since World War II, Amanpour recently quipped, “He would slap you on the back, offer you a drink. He tried to be charming. But many of them do. You have to be on your guard.” Surely she can handle John Boehner.

[Image by Witness.org licensed under Creative Commons.]

Paul Ryan’s Principled Objections to Obama’s Health Care Reforms

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

Last week, Derek Thompson made a point countering the man he calls “the wonderful Hendrick Hertzberg” of The New Yorker. Hertzberg had claimed that the health care bill is “Ideologically and substantively… centrist. It has Republicans, and Republicanism, in its family tree.” Thompson counters this:

So health reform adheres to the Republican platonic ideal, even if no flesh-and-bone Republicans vote for it? Maybe. Or maybe it doesn’t adhere to Republicanism at all because it’s garnishing a decidedly liberal goal with conservative touches. Maybe saying “it’s already bipartisan” is like a steakhouse saying its filet mignon is vegetarian, because it’s served with quite a lot of carrots.

He uses Representative Paul Ryan’s principled dissent from Obama’s health care reform as the counterexample disproving Hertzberg’s claim.

But this doesn’t really acknowledge Hertzberg’s point – also made here and throughout the liberal opinionosphere. Obama’s health reform bill has more in common with previous Republican attempts to reform health care than with previous Democratic ones. It seems like a genuine attempt to fuse the ends Republicans focused on and the methods they used with the social justice issues Democrats were concerned with. The Republican opposition has been far from principled – as they have used every populist and procedural and inside tactic to block this. They have defended Medicare; they have attacked Medicare; they have attacked every cost-cutting measure and then railed against the bill for failing to cut costs (which it still manages to do); they have claimed it is radical while at the same time claiming it doesn’t go far enough. Ideology seemed to have little to do with this knee-jerk response – and the rhetoric attacking it had very little to do with the bill itself. Aside from the widely debunked death panels and such, there is the constant claim that this bill will increase the deficit and represent a “government takeover of 1/6th of the economy.” The government takeover claim is so ridiculous as the bill would leave most of the health insurance market untouched (including those portions already controlled by the government to popular acclaim such as Medicare.) And yet the “government takeover” line has proven so effective that Republicans have started to brand everything as “government takeovers.” (Net neutrality legislation is now the “government takeover of the Internet” according to John McCain.)

But Thompson (who I often enjoy reading – he’s a good and often fair commentator) wants to find some good faith disagreements. There are some. Republicans tend to favor less government involvement. When the Democrats proposed an intrusive regulatory system, they proposed something similar to Obama’s plan. Now that Obama has proposed this, they demand – if we are to accept Paul Ryan as their representative as Thompson does – that the government pull back from health care entirely and dismantle Medicare and other such programs. Except you wouldn’t know that from what most of them say. They are out there attacking this bill for cutting Medicare. They are attacking the bill as a sellout to the insurance industry. They are attacking the bill with everything they can think of. Which is why it is hard to give credence to any principled reason for the unanimous Republican opposition.

There are reasons to oppose this bill – and some people do so for principled reasons. Paul Ryan is likely one (though as was evident when Ezra Klein interviewed him) he often stoops to disingenuous talking points to do so.

Some people have fundamental disagreements that prevent them from supporting Obama’s moderate, centrist, tinkering health care reforms. Paul Ryan objects now to measures that increase the deficit (it bears repeating that he voted for all the Bush measures that exploded the deficit.) But he also objects to measures that decrease the deficit while increasing the role and size of government too. And he likes to keep claiming that this health care bill will increase the deficit, not because he thinks it does, but because it increases the size of government. This isn’t a principled objection. This is a political calculation that harping on the deficit plays into people’s anxieties about government overreach.

In other words, contra Derek Thompson, Paul Ryan is a man who decided to become a vegetarian when Obama became the chef. The other Republicans meanwhile are demanding the kitchen using animals for food while simultaneously defending the right of every elderly individual to have bacon cheeseburgers. Obama’s health reform would be a well-balanced meal – with some vegetables, some steak, and some tofu, a nice salad, a fruit dish and a scoop of ice cream for desert. It’s a mish-mash with something for everyone except the pure carnivores and vegetarians which no one is claiming is vegetarian – only that it’s got something for everyone. That’s bipartisanship.

P.S. Has it occurred to anyone (I’m sure it has) how Paul Ryan became a star?

First, Ryan unveiled a budget counterproposal that proposed radical changes to America’s social bargain.

Then Obama singled Rep. Ryan out at the Republican Congressional Retreat saying that Ryan “stud[ied] this stuff and [took] it pretty seriously” and that he had “made a serious proposal” to cut the deficit.

Then Ryan made a point to Obama during the bipartisan summit that was about the only one Obama didn’t demolish (which most pro-Ryan partisans took as gleeful confirmation that their man could do no wrong.)

Ryan’s star in the Republican Party has been rising – seemingly because he was singled out by Obama for praise, and because Obama didn’t go after some of the figures Ryan used in a later event even though pundits after the fact were able to do so easily. Ryan seems principled and telegenic. However, his ideas are so radical, only a tiny portion of Americans would agree with them.

I wonder if the White House doesn’t see Ryan as the perfect face for the good and principled side of the Republican Party, as opposed to the ugly partisan one Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin don.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Must-Reads During This Week: Perfect Storm for Health Reform, Making Controversy, Cyberwar, Limiting Government, Liz Cheney’s Al Qaeda Connection, George Will, and the Coffee Party

Monday, March 8th, 2010

In lieu of a substantial post today (as I’m having trouble getting back into the blog-writing habit), here’s a few links to worthwhile articles.

1. Perfect Storm. Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic explains that a “Perfect Storm Nearly Killed Health Reform; Another Storm May Save It.” However, what Ambinder describes as the “perfect storm” that might save health reform seems to be more properly called Obama’s willingness to wait out bad news cycles.

2. Controversy. Ezra Klein opines usefully on “how to make something controversial“:

The media is giving blanket coverage to this “controversial” procedure being used by the Democrats. But using reconciliation for a few fixes and tweaks isn’t controversial historically, and it’s not controversial procedurally. It’s only controversial because Republicans are saying it is. Which is good enough, as it turns out. In our political system, if Democrats and Republicans are yelling at each other over something, then for the media, that is, by definition, controversy.

3. Cyberwar? Ryan Singel of Wired‘s Threat Level reported some of the back-and-forth among the U.S. intelligence community, explaining why Republicans want to undermine and destroy the internet for national security as well as for commercial reasons. The Obama administration’s web security chief maintains in an interview with Threat Level that, “There is no cyberwar.”

4. Limiting government. Jacob Weisberg of Slate always seems to be looking for the zeitgeist. His piece this week is on how Obama can embrace the vision of limited government.  While all the pieces are there, he doesn’t quite make the connection I want to make: that government is absolutely needed even as it must be limited and its power checked. A post on this line has been percolating in my mind for some time, and now that Weisberg has written his piece, I feel its just about time for me to write mine.

5. Liz Cheney, Al Qaeda Sympathizer? Dahlia Lithwick slams Liz Cheney for her recent ad calling the Justice Department the “Department of Jihad” and labeling some attorneys there the “Al-Qaeda 7”:

Given that the Bill of Rights pretty much evaporates once you’ve been deemed a jihadi lover of Bin Laden, you might think Liz Cheney would be super-careful tossing around such words They have very serious legal implications…Having worked for years to ensure that the word jihadist is legally synonymous with guilty, Cheney cannot be allowed to use it casually to describe anyone she simply doesn’t like.

6. George Will: More Partisan Than Independent? Ezra Klein catches George Will out in a rather telling fit of procedural outrage over the Democrats’ use of reconciliation in the Senate. Plus, Klein uses this nifty chart to illustrate that dramatic change that George Will doesn’t happen to comment upon:

7. Coffee Party. I’m intrigued by this idea, though I don’t know how workable it is.

[Image taken by me over the weekend.]

Must-Reads of the Week: Obama (mythical figure), Democratic Talking Points, Health Care Misinformation & Defenses of Reform, & Musical Predictions

Friday, January 29th, 2010

1. The greatest Obama myth. Jonathn Cohn in The New Republic asks where the Obama he voted for was – before the State of the Union:

[F]or the first time, at least in my memory, Democrats had a leader who consistently outsmarted not just his opponents but his supporters as well. Over and over again in the 2008 campaign, those of us rooting for him would panic over his strategy. Over and over again, Obama proved us wrong. He had an uncanny ability to block out the noise and confound Beltway perceptions, to ignore the ups and downs of the news cycle in order to pursue broader goals. Even for me, somebody who generally resisted the Obama kool-aid, it was something to behold.

I remember the sensation most vividly during the financial crisis of September–when John McCain suspended his campaign and suggested canceling a scheduled debate, in order to return to Washington. Suggesting that a president should be able to campaign and govern simultaneously, Obama rebuffed the proposal–a move for which, I was sure, nervous voters would punish him. Instead, the public rallied to Obama and rejected McCain. They saw a leader who was unflappable, who had his own sense of direction, and who could manage a crisis.

This cool demeanor became his trademark and, eventually, supporters took to emailing around a photoshop image every time political trouble appeared. If you’re on a progressive mailing list, chances are you saw it a few dozen times–a picture of Obama giving a speech, with the caption “Everybody Chill the F*** Out. I’ve Got This.”

Obama left me with the impression he still clearly had that demeanor and confidence – and the speech left Cohn guardedly optimistic.

2. Democratic Talking Points, 2010. Chris Good at The Atlantic posts the Democratic Senators’ 2010 national strategy memo.

3. Woefully misinformed about the health care reform bill. Nate Silver points out that the support of the various proposals within the health care bill are greater than the support for the bill itself – and that the public is seriously misinformed about the contents of it:

What we see is that most individual components of the bill are popular — in some cases, quite popular. But awareness lags behind. Only 61 percent are aware that the bill bans denials of coverage for pre-existing conditions. Only 42 percent know that it bans lifetime coverage limits. Only 58 percent are aware that it set up insurance exchanges. Just 44 percent know that it closes the Medicare donut hole — and so on and so forth.

“Awareness”, by the way, might be a forgiving term in this context. For the most part in Kaiser’s survey, when the respondent doesn’t affirm that the bill contains a particular provision, he actually believes that the bills don’t include that provision. 29 percent, for instance, say the bill does not contain a provision requiring insurers to cover those with pre-existing conditions; 20 percent think it does not expand subsidies.

4. Pass the Damn Bill. Paul Starr, veteran of the Clinton attempt at health reform, argues for progressives embracing Obama’s health care reforms in The American Prospect:

Even with its compromises, health reform is the most ambitious effort in decades to reorganize a big part of life around principles of justice and efficiency…

5. Do you spend hours each day having fun making predictions? Jonah Lehrer on what moves us about music: the patterns in it, and our attempts to predict these patterns.

[Image by Diego Cupolo licensed under Creative Commons.]

The Un-American Pledge, Nietzsche (Republican), Islamists, Anti-Statism, Health Care Reform (again), and Abortion Politics

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

Today, I present to you an early addition of the best reads for the long Thanksgiving weekend…

1. The Un-American Pledge. Michael Lind explains why the Pledge of Allegiance is un-American.

2. Nietzsche was a Republican. The Economist’s Democracy in America discusses Medicare and Nihilism. As it is undeniable that America’s population is aging, and that this accounts for the massive projected deficits in the future, and as everyone also acknowledges that such deficits are unsustainable, something must be done. The health care plans proposed by the Democrats include – along with various experimental measures to restrain health care spending – a Medicare commission “empowered to make decisions that automatically become law unless Congress comes up with equivalent savings” that will reduce spending as much. Republicans and the blandly smiling wise men and women of the pundit class have made it a point of conventional wisdom that Congress won’t be able to push through the cuts, and will find a way to circumvent this mandate. DiA, echoing a point Ezra Klein has been making repeatedly for the past few weeks, challenges those criticizing the plan to come up with something better:

If you don’t think an independent Medicare commission empowered to make decisions that automatically become law unless Congress comes up with equivalent savings will do the trick, then you have a responsibility to suggest something that will. Otherwise you’re just placing a bet that America’s government is going to self-destruct—a tenable argument, certainly, but not very helpful.

3. Learning from former islamists. Everyone else seemed to recommend this article a few weeks ago when it came out, but I just got to it recently myself. Johann Hari interviewed a number of former islamists who have recently renounced islamism and have begun to fight for their version of a “secular Islam” in Great Britain. He portrays this group as a vanguard. One of the islamists, Maajid Nawaz was a recruiter for an islamist group in Egypt for a time. Nawaz’s description of factors affecting recruitment seems to coincide with both intelligence agencies’ and liberals’ judgments, and to contradict the right-wing understanding:

“Everyone hated the [unelected] government [of Hosni Mubarak], and the US for backing it,” he says. But there was an inhibiting sympathy for the victims of 9/11 – until the Bush administration began to respond with Guantanamo Bay and bombs. “That made it much easier. After that, I could persuade people a lot faster.”

Eventually, Nawaz was imprisoned in Egypt. He was abandoned by the islamist group that he was working for. The only forces protecting him, as a British citizen, were forces he considered “colonial” and corrupt:

“I was just amazed,” Maajid says. “We’d always seen Amnesty as the soft power tools of colonialism. So, when Amnesty, despite knowing that we hated them, adopted us, I felt – maybe these democratic values aren’t always hypocritical. Maybe some people take them seriously … it was the beginning of my serious doubts.”

4. Anti-Statism: As American as Apple Pie. John P. Judis of The New Republic delves into the undercurrent of anti-statism in the American psyche.

5. Getting depressed about the public option. Timothy Noah depressed me more than anyone else with his ruminations on the public option.

6. Feeling better about health care reform. These pieces by Ron Brownstein and Andrew Sullivan though have made me feel much better about health care reform in general. Brownstein’s piece is especially helpful in looking at the various cost-cutting measures in the bill, and has a rather optimistic take. President Obama has apparently made that post “required reading” among White House staff. I’ll be following these posts up at a later date.

7. Abortion politics. The New Yorker had an extraordinary interview about abortion politics with Jon Shields. Shields seems to be, himself, pro-choice, but he seems to have reached an understanding of abortion as an issue which contradicts the propagandistic rhetoric that passes for most liberal commentary on abortion, which presents its opponents as being mainly concerned with keeping women in their place.

[Photo by road fun licensed under Creative Commons.]

Theories of the Financial Crisis: Deference to the Financial Sector

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

Closely related to the previous theory of the financial crisis – that Goldman Sachs did it – is the more generalized version of this idea – that the financial sector itself – whether through political donations, lobbying, corruption of politicians, respect, fear, or any other means at their disposal – was able to demand and receive undue influence over the political processes affecting them.

Since Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, the financial industry has been growing more quickly than the rest of the economy – whether because of this or as a result of this, politicians of both parties have given the industry about every policy they wanted. The financial industry began to feel its oats when a cultural revolution swept America – the Reagan Revolution – which removed the various moral stigmas from money and profits just as the 1960s had from sex. Reagan also instituted several policies which served to concentrate wealth (thus enlarging the financial sector) and removing regulations. He cut taxes – especially for the wealthiest; he instituted a de facto Bretton Woods II agreement in which the savings of East Asia were transferred to America, thus enlarging the financial sector further and decimating our manufacturing sector; he ran massive deficits, thus super-charging the economy – from which the financial sector was a main beneficiary; he deregulated various industries thus allowing private enterprises to capitalize on the investments of the public in them; he reduced regulations overall, especially those on the financial sector.

Bill Clinton came into office with various plans to help out the middle class – to pass a stimulus bill, to tackle health care – but was forced by an unruly bond market to back off. Bob Woodward quoted Clinton realizing the power of Wall Street a few days into office:

You mean to tell me that the success of the program and my reelection hinges on the Federal Reserve and a bunch of fucking bond traders?

But Clinton came around and designed an agenda that would win Wall Street’s approval. He brought down the deficit – running surpluses even. He reformed welfare. He pursued free trade agreements – especially NAFTA. The Committee to Save the World – consisting of Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, Assistant Secretary Lawrence Summers, and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan (with an assist from Timothy Geithner) organized emergency interventions committing taxpayer dollars to help Mexico, the Asian markets, Russia, and domestic markets with the collapse of Long Term Capital Management in order to keep the markets stable and growing. By the end of his presidency, Clinton was a major proponent of deregulatory measures – signing the repeal of the New Deal era Glass-Steagall Act, forbidding the regulation of derivratives, and allowing off-balance sheet accounting. All of these changes greatly benefited the financial sector and were much sought after by the industry.

And then of course came further deregulation under George W. Bush and his proposal of various housing initiatives under the rubric of an Ownership Society. The deregulatory fervor was probably best symbolized by the efforts of the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) to bring more financial institutions under its authority. (Regulators were funded based on what companies they oversaw, so the various regulators began to compete to be more lax.) The head of OTS brought a chainsaw to the photo-op in which the heads of the various regulatory agencies attacked a stack of paper representing bank regulations to demonstrate their commitment to reducing oversight. As Simon Johnson wrote in The Atlantic regarding these many causes of the financial crisis:

[T]hese various policies—lightweight regulation, cheap money, the unwritten Chinese-American economic alliance, the promotion of homeownership—had something in common. Even though some are traditionally associated with Democrats and some with Republicans, they all benefited the financial sector.

His thesis is essentially this:

In its depth and suddenness, the U.S. economic and financial crisis is shockingly reminiscent of moments we have recently seen in emerging markets (and only in emerging markets): South Korea (1997), Malaysia (1998), Russia and Argentina (time and again). In each of those cases, global investors, afraid that the country or its financial sector wouldn’t be able to pay off mountainous debt, suddenly stopped lending. And in each case, that fear became self-fulfilling, as banks that couldn’t roll over their debt did, in fact, become unable to pay. This is precisely what drove Lehman Brothers into bankruptcy on September 15, causing all sources of funding to the U.S. financial sector to dry up overnight. Just as in emerging-market crises, the weakness in the banking system has quickly rippled out into the rest of the economy, causing a severe economic contraction and hardship for millions of people.

But there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity: elite business interests—financiers, in the case of the U.S.—played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.

Top investment bankers and government officials like to lay the blame for the current crisis on the lowering of U.S. interest rates after the dotcom bust or, even better—in a “buck stops somewhere else” sort of way—on the flow of savings out of China. Some on the right like to complain about Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, or even about longer-standing efforts to promote broader homeownership. And, of course, it is axiomatic to everyone that the regulators responsible for “safety and soundness” were fast asleep at the wheel.

But these various policies—lightweight regulation, cheap money, the unwritten Chinese-American economic alliance, the promotion of homeownership—had something in common. Even though some are traditionally associated with Democrats and some with Republicans, they all benefited the financial sector. Policy changes that might have forestalled the crisis but would have limited the financial sector’s profits—such as Brooksley Born’s now-famous attempts to regulate credit-default swaps at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, in 1998—were ignored or swept aside.

Whether politicians of both parties deferred to the financial sector because of their massive contributions to both parties or because the financial sector became the leading driver of GDP growth doesn’t really matter.

What’s clear is that when the financial sector wanted something, they got it. They blocked reforms; they got deregulation, free trade agreements, business consolidations, and policies that led to market inefficiences and bubbles they could exploit. The financial sector was pushing virtually every policy which contributed to the economic collapse – and politicians of both parties went along.

McNamara, Cuomo, Bearing Witness, Iran’s Bomb, Sri Lanken Victories, and Historical Dignity

Friday, July 10th, 2009

It’s that glorious time of the week – Friday. So, here’s my recommendations of some interesting reads for this weekend that came up this past week…

  1. There were a number of excellent obituaries of Robert McNamara published upon his death. But what I would recommend would be reading this speech given in 1966 at the height of his power.
  2. Another speech worth reading is Mario Cuomo’s “Our Lady of the Law” speech from November 2007 which was published for the first time on this blog earlier in the week.
  3. Roger Cohen in the New York Times tries to express the insufficiency of online reporting aggregating news and media – as Andrew Sullivan and Nico Pitney did so usefully did during the Iranian protests. As these two journalists amassed tweets, photos, videos, news stories and every other bit of information about what was going on in Iran, Roger Cohen himself was in Tehran having evaded the Iranian censors. He went to the protests, interviewed the protesters, ran from basij with them. What I could see then was that while what Sullivan and Pitney were doing was new and unique – and extremely useful for understanding what was happening, it was missing a certain urgency that Cohen was able to provide with his bylines from Tehran. So he writes here about the “actual responsibility” of the journalist – to “bear witness:

    “Not everyone realizes,” Weber told students, “that to write a really good piece of journalism is at least as demanding intellectually as the achievement of any scholar. This is particularly true when we recollect that it has to be written on the spot, to order, and that it must create an immediate effect, even though it is produced under completely different conditions from that of scholarly research. It is generally overlooked that a journalist’s actual responsibility is far greater than the scholar’s.”

    Yes, journalism is a matter of gravity. It’s more fashionable to denigrate than praise the media these days. In the 24/7 howl of partisan pontification, and the scarcely less-constant death knell din surrounding the press, a basic truth gets lost: that to be a journalist is to bear witness.

    The rest is no more than ornamentation.

    To bear witness means being there — and that’s not free. No search engine gives you the smell of a crime, the tremor in the air, the eyes that smolder, or the cadence of a scream.
    No news aggregator tells of the ravaged city exhaling in the dusk, nor summons the defiant cries that rise into the night. No miracle of technology renders the lip-drying taste of fear. No algorithm captures the hush of dignity, nor evokes the adrenalin rush of courage coalescing, nor traces the fresh raw line of a welt.

  4. Robert Patterson in Foreign Policy brings some measured historical analysis to what would happen if Iran got the bomb.
  5. Robert Kaplan in The Atlantic explains how the Sri Lankan government was able to achieve a monumental victory over a terrorist group – and also why America should not imitate its methods in any way. He concludes bleakly:

    So is there any lesson here? Only a chilling one. The ruthlessness and brutality to which the Sri Lankan government was reduced in order to defeat the Tigers points up just how nasty and intractable the problem of insurgency is. The Sri Lankan government made no progress against the insurgents for nearly a quarter century, until they turned to extreme and unsavory methods.

  6. David Brooks wrote about dignity:

    In so doing, [George Washington] turned himself into a new kind of hero. He wasn’t primarily a military hero or a political hero. As the historian Gordon Wood has written, “Washington became a great man and was acclaimed as a classical hero because of the way he conducted himself during times of temptation. It was his moral character that set him off from other men.”