Posts Tagged ‘The New York Times’

Must-Reads of the Week: China’s distortionary exchange rate policy, Mario Savio, David Brooks, Ezra Klein, & Dana Priest’s The Mission

Friday, March 19th, 2010

Apologies for the very, very light posting. There are quite a number of personal issues I’ve been dealing with – aside from the uprooted tree in my yard and miscellaneous damage.

But let me still give you some must-reads for the week.

1. China’s distortionary exchange rate policy. On Sunday, Keith Bradsher in the New York Times gave a good primer on how China is using currency manipulation and the global trade organizations to gain economic advantages as part of a global strategy to increase China’s power. China has also been using the global financial crisis to further their economic aims:

China is starting to describe its currency interventions as stimulus. But unlike extra government spending in the United States and other countries, currency intervention does not expand global demand, but shifts it from other countries to China.

Paul Krugman followed this up with a column urging action regarding China:

Today, China is adding more than $30 billion a month to its $2.4 trillion hoard of reserves. The International Monetary Fund expects China to have a 2010 current surplus of more than $450 billion — 10 times the 2003 figure. This is the most distortionary exchange rate policy any major nation has ever followed.

And it’s a policy that seriously damages the rest of the world. Most of the world’s large economies are stuck in a liquidity trap — deeply depressed, but unable to generate a recovery by cutting interest rates because the relevant rates are already near zero. China, by engineering an unwarranted trade surplus, is in effect imposing an anti-stimulus on these economies, which they can’t offset. [My emphases.]

My first attempt to make sense of this issue here.

2. Mario Savio. Scott Saul of The Nation follows up with an excellent profile of Mario Savio who at one point seemed poised to lead the 1960s radical New Left, but who then dropped out of public view:

Savio was a revolutionary and civil libertarian, logician and poet, scientific observer and self-aware partisan–and in his heyday a virtuosic extemporizer who seemed not so much to perform all these identities as to incarnate them. He was, in short, an icon of possibility for his generation of student activists; and so it’s a great historical riddle, tinged with pathos, why he was, in Berkeley in 1964, the lightning rod of his time and, almost immediately afterward, a man who couldn’t conduct the energy he’d summoned.

3. David Brooks on Obama. David Brooks wrote an excellent column last Friday arguing that both the right and left have Obama wrong, as they accuse excessive fealty to an extreme left wing ideology and of being a weak, passive, unprincipled traitor respectively. Brooks describes Obama as I have always understood and described him – and in fact, as he has described himself:

Obama is as he always has been, a center-left pragmatic reformer. Every time he tries to articulate a grand philosophy — from his book ”The Audacity of Hope” to his joint-session health care speech last September — he always describes a moderately activist government restrained by a sense of trade-offs.

4. Ezra Klein. Ezra Klein best summarized the CBO score released yesterday and how it gave the Democrats exactly what they needed:

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the bill cuts deficits by $130 billion in the first 10 years, and up to $1.2 trillion in the second 10 years. The excise tax is now indexed to inflation, rather than inflation plus one percentage point, and the subsidies grow more slowly over time. So one of the strongest cost controls just got stronger, and the automatic spending growth slowed. And then there are all the other cost controls in the bill: The Medicare Commission, which makes entitlement reform much more possible. The programs to begin paying doctors and hospitals for care rather than volume. The competitive insurance market.

This was a hard bill to write. Pairing the largest coverage increase since the Great Society with the most aggressive cost-control effort isn’t easy. And since the cost controls are complicated, while the coverage increase is straightforward, many people don’t believe that the Democrats have done it. But to a degree unmatched in recent legislative history, they have.

Klein then succinctly explained what was missing from the Republican approach to the deficit that this health care bill – to its great credit – attempted to address:

Our long-term deficit is not a function of our current spending, which is manageable. It is a function of our expected spending growth, particularly in health care. With the system growing at 8 percent a year and GDP growing at 2 percent or 3 percent a year, there’s a real long-term problem there. But you can’t cut, or even tax, your way out of it. If you cut 5 percent from the system in one year, that cut disappears by the next year.

5. The Mission. I’m currently reading this 2003 book by Dana Priest who writes for the Washington Post on the military’s mission and how it evolved after the Cold War through the 1990s and into the War on Terror. Absolutely excellent. I highly recommend it.

[Image by me, this morning.]

Must-Reads of the Week: A history lesson, Reconciling Chart, Theism, Starbucks, the New Global Middle Class, the Beijing Consensus, and the Traitorous Supreme Court

Friday, March 12th, 2010

A history lesson in ramming through one piece of legislation. Ezra Klein gives a short history lesson describing the tactics used by Republicans to “ram through” the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit.

Reconciling chart. The New York Times provides a chart of all the times reconciliation has been used.

Theism. Andrew Sullivan provides a beautiful quote from David Foster Wallace making what may be the best case for theism generally that I’ve seen.

Starbucks. Greg Beato for Reason has an interesting if annoying skewed take on Starbucks and its attempts to stay hip. His history and overall point is interesting, but the point of view he injects, his contempt for his less capitalist brethren, is irritating.

The New Global Middle Class. Rana Foroohar and Marc Margolis in Newsweek describe the new “global middle class” which “is more unstable and less liberal than we thought.” The examples they give are rather frustrating though. Brazil’s middle class is described as “more unstable and less liberal” because they applaud “more state control of the oil industry to keep out greedy foreign firms” and that “they don’t need outside advice on how to structure their societies, thank you.” The Russian middle class’s support for Putin and the Chinese support of the Beijing consensus are also cited and are much better examples proving their point. An interesting article, that touches on some gradually evolving issues in a way that most articles do not – but it seems to harness facts to reach their end rather than allow the facts to dictate the result.

The Beijing Consensus. Yang Yao in Foreign Affairs speculates that the Beijing Consensus – “a combination of mixed ownership, basic property rights, and heavy government intervention” – may be eroding. And as “the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) lacks legitimacy in the classic democratic sense,” and “has been forced to seek performance-based legitimacy instead, by continuously improving the living standards of Chinese citizens,” the end of this consensus would lead to “greater democratization.”

The Traitorous Supreme Court. Orin Kerr at the Volokh Conspiracy takes on the Andrew McCarthy/Liz Cheney line of attack calling those attorneys currently in the Justice Department who represented some of those branded terrorists by the Bush administration asking this question:

Does McCarthy think the Justices of the Supreme Court are guilty of aiding the enemy, and that (if we treat them like everybody else) they should be “indicted for coming to the enemy’s aid during wartime”?

[Image by me.]

“Outsiders are what people want right now.”

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

From James C. McKinly, Jr. and Clifford Kraus in the New York Times‘s reporting of the Republican party primary yesterday in Texas:

“You have got to give Rick Perry and his team a great deal of credit for being the longest-serving governor in Texas history and still running a campaign as an outsider,” said Mark Sanders, a Republican consultant. “Outsiders are what people want right now.”

This lede bugs me…

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

Gotta say – this lede bugs me:

Republicans will also be invited to the White House this weekend to watch the Super Bowl, as well as to Camp David and other venues for social visits.

The outreach represents a marked shift in both strategy and substance by Mr. Obama and his allies at a time when Democrats are adapting to the loss of their 60-vote supermajority in the Senate and the president has been losing support among independent voters.

This is typical of the distorting attempts to reporters to fit facts into a preconceived storyline – as it is a rather manufactured bit of evidence that Obama is reaching out. Events predictable far in advance are portrayed as proof of the story of the day (e.g., the loss of the New Jersey and Virginia governorships.) Oft-reiterated statements become interpreted as responses to events of the day (e.g., the White House’s position on the public option, which remained consistent and unchanged until the final Senate negotiations, and arguably even then.)

Which is why this lede bugs me – as the fact that Obama is inviting Republicans is taken as a response to a new outreach when last year, at this time, the headline was:

Obama to Host Democrats, Republicans at White House Super Bowl Party

…The White House says the gathering is another step in the president’s continuing effort to get to know lawmakers better in hopes of reducing the partisan rancor as they work together on the people’s business.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

An excellent State of the Union

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Peter Baker summarized my strongest impression, the most striking moment, from last night succinctly in his lede:

By now, President Obama can hardly be under any illusions about the depth of the partisan divide as he seeks to reboot his presidency. Yet he still seemed surprised on Wednesday night when he could not get Republicans to applaud tax cuts.

My impression was that Obama was bold, confident – even cocky. His tone was more conversational than usual – as he treated Congress more as a partner than an audience. Republicans meanwhile demonstrated that they were emboldened and felt vindicated in their obstinacy by last week’s result in Massachusetts. Extrapolating from last night, they seem content to continue to obstruct as much as they can and to take no responsibility for their actions as they try to pass off all the blame for governance onto Obama and the Democrats. They didn’t applaud when Obama talked about taxing the big banks to make up the difference in TARP. They didn’t applaud when Obama talked about fiscal responsibility. They didn’t applaud when he mentioned the tax cuts he had instituted for 95% of Americans (over their objections.) It still remains an open question though as to how much responsibility the public will place on Republicans for obstruction – and how much credit they will give Obama for “fighting the good fight” as well as reaching out to his opponents.

But last night seemed to strike exactly the right tone to me, and to inaugurate the more political season coming.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Draw Your Own Conclusions

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Matthew Continetti:

Scott Brown’s victory exposes NY-23 as a fluke. The trend is clear. Independents have moved sharply right over the course of President Obama’s first year in office, even in Massachusetts.

Matt Bai:

The most prevalent ideology of the era seems to be not liberalism nor conservatism so much as anti-incumbency, a reflexive distrust of whoever has power and a constant rallying cry for systemic reform.

Mike Allen:

By these lights, impatience with the status quo — rather than any rightward turn in the mood of the electorate — is what would fuel a Brown victory.

Jonathan Chait:

But political analysts are more like drama critics. They follow the ins and outs of the tactical maneuverings of the players, and when the results come in, their job is to explain how the one led to the other. If you suggested to them that they should instead explain the public mood as a predictable consequence of economic conditions, rather than the outcome of one party’s strategic choices, they would look at you like you were crazy. They spend their time following every utterance and gesture of powerful politicians. Naturally, it must be those things that have the decisive effect…

Barack Obama:

Here’s my assessment of not just the vote in Massachusetts, but the mood around the country: the same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office. People are angry and they are frustrated. Not just because of what’s happened in the last year or two years, but what’s happened over the last eight years.

David Leonhardt:

The current versions of health reform are the product of decades of debate between Republicans and Democrats. The bills are more conservative than Bill Clinton’s 1993 proposal. For that matter, they’re more conservative than Richard Nixon’s 1971 plan, which would have had the federal government provide insurance to people who didn’t get it through their job.

Today’s Congressional Republicans have made the strategically reasonable decision to describe President Obama’s health care plan, like almost every other part of his agenda, as radical and left wing. And the message seems to be at least partly working, based on polls and the Massachusetts surprise. But a smart political strategy isn’t the same thing as accurate policy analysis.

John Yoo’s Scandalous Affair With George W. Bush!

Monday, January 11th, 2010

Is it okay to laugh at a clever remark by a man who instituted torture in America with his infamous and incompetent “torture memos”? Well, when the line is this – I’d have to say sure. John Yoo as interviewed by Deborah Solomon for the New York Times, as she tries to press him for how close he was to George W. Bush – and he demurs, explaining that he was low-ranking rather than really answering the question:

Q: So you’re saying you were just one notch above an intern, you and Monica Lewinsky?
A: She was much closer to the president than I ever was.

Stay tuned for Jon Stewart’s interview of Yoo tonight. Given how Stewart has taken on the architects of the Iraq war when they appeared on the show, there seems little doubt he will go after Yoo regarding his extraordinary legal justifications for the expansion of the powers of the executive branch, and most specifically, for the torture memos. Yoo, for his part, seems as if he will try to dodge the questions with cute one-liners as he did in this interview – which he does rather well I would say.

[Image by sixes and sevens licensed under Creative Commons.]

What passes for journalism today is faux-outrage presented without any perspective.

Monday, January 11th, 2010

Reading the New York Times over the weekend, I came across a story that neatly symbolized one way the mainstream media perverts the news:

Mark Leibovich has an almost self-reflectively parodic digression in his article on the Peter Orszag “scandal”:

“Everyone feels the need to say, ‘I’m really sorry I have to ask you about this’ and ‘I’m only carrying out orders from my boss,’ ” Mr. Baer said. (For the record: this reporter was only acting on orders from his boss.) And, of course, the Very Serious Media are not writing the Orszag Love-Child Story, they are merely writing about the media frenzy surrounding it.

The race to cover the scandal-of-the-day is one of the worst aspects of contemporary journalism – but the Orszag scandal is perhaps a fluffy variation of this dangerous habit. Where the danger lies is in how it affects political fortunes and policy. I am all for scandal-mongering about public officials – and invading their personal lives but only – as I wrote before in defense of indiscretion: “If the media wants to report on some lewd scandal, they can at least do their audience the favor of avoiding the hypocritical moral posturing and just revel in the tawdriness of it. It would at least be honest.” This faux-outrage – this sense that we must hold public officials to some imagined moral standard that has little to do with their actual job – is merely a crude excuse to allow “journalists” to cover tabloid gossip. Tabloid gossip is fun and interesting – but when it is always framed as a serious judgment on some public figure or policy – it disfigures the political conversation. You get the insanity of people claiming Bill Clinton is a bad president because he was an unfaithful husband. You get people trying to claim Tiger Woods held himself up as some moral role model when in fact, he just claimed he was a really good golfer. You get outrage over any statement deemed “insensitive” – from Harry Reid to Sonia Sotomayor to Trent Lott.

And much worse, when it comes to judging policies and legislation, journalists follow the same mentality – picking out scandalous elements at the expense of understanding what is going on. Death panels! Stimulus money going to “imaginary” (i.e. mistyped) districts! Emails from climate change scientists that “prove” it is a hoax! Bailouts to health insurance companies! Giant vampire squids searching for cash!

These stories are presented to the public as the story when in fact they are mere sideshows – hence the name given to the media-political atmosphere that arose under Bill Clinton and has remained until today: The Freak Show. This scandal-mongering creates reporting on policy that is entertaining but conveys a fundamentally limited view of what is actually being done and proposed. As Ezra Klein has pointed out:

[N]ewspapers work very hard to report things that are true, but they are less concerned with whether the overall impression from their reporting is a true impression.

The end result that we read day after day is faux-outrage presented without any perspective – with the citizenry being blocked from actually knowing what is going on behind the billowing smoke of scandal.

A recovering procrastinator of pleasure

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

John Tierney:

Acknowledge what you are: a recovering procrastinator of pleasure.

It sounds odd, but this is actually a widespread form of procrastination — just ask the airlines and other marketers who save billions of dollars annually from gift certificates that expire unredeemed.

Indeed, I have never visited the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, the New York Stock Exchange, or almost any other Manhattan landmarks – which I have at times taken as a kind of metaphor for my years as a twentysomething. As I wrote in an email last year, edited to provide context:

I was thinking – while walking back to Penn – about how you said that now was the time to visit the Empire State Building, to stop living for the weekends, to stop being held back by my commute, my daily routines:

I know I over think things; that I choose the safe, dependable
pleasures over the riskier joys too often; I probably need to be
pushed and to push myself to say, “Yes,” more often. But though I
sometimes get stuck in a kind of rut, I do have a tendency to make
bold moves when I reach a certain point.

But I’m not going to regret missing out on the Empire State Building.
I’m going to regret if I don’t write a novel.
I’m going to regret if I don’t run for Congress.
I’m going to regret if I don’t spend at least a year travelling abroad.
I’m going to regret if I don’t have a child, if I don’t live for some
time in Manhattan, if I don’t give enough to charity.
I’m going to regret if I lose an opportunity because I was afraid it
wouldn’t work out.

Which I suppose was your point.

[Image by 64iso licensed under Creative Commons.]

Robert P. George’s Perversions of Natural Law

Monday, December 28th, 2009

I just hope I am right. If they are going to buy my arguments, I don’t want to mislead the whole church.

Robert P. George, perhaps prophetically, in the New York Times.

There’s a lot to excavate from this piece. And, in fact, if you are interested in Catholicism or politics, you should read the whole thing. I’ve heard of Robert P. George in passing, but in David D. Kirkpatrick’s telling, he has become the center of the Catholic-Evangelical-Republican coalition since the passing of Richard John Neuhaus.

Kirkpatrick brings out very clearly how George’s (and other Catholic conservatives’) theology happens to have evolved to perfectly suit the Republican Party – almost as if these people began with ideology and then picked and choose what to accept from Catholicism. But unlike most Catholic conservatives, George has an elaborate rationale for why this is so. It begins with Thomism and St. Thomas Aquinas’ theory of natural law. Aquinas applied Aristotlian logic to Christianity, creating a vibrant and comprehensive philosophy that explained everything with precision: from what was, to what should be, to what had been, and what would be. All that was left was to determine – as some mockingly pointed out – was how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Since Aquinas’ time, humanity’s understanding of the world has undergone enormous changes: Gravity was discovered. Then the relativity of gravity. Genetics was discovered by an Augustinian abbot. The double helix by two Americans. Evolution postulated and then subsequently supported by discovered facts. The foundations of democracy and the rule of law had not been laid yet, let alone America’s two-party system. When Thomas Aquinas alive, it was still thought that the sun revolved around the earth!

Today, in many ways, science has evolved past common sense, and change and uncertainty are as constant as was constancy during the historical lull of Thomas Aquinas’ Europe. Which perhaps provides an emotional justification for the popularity of Aquinas today: He offers all the answers – almost literally in his magnum opus, the Summa Theologica. And in a world with so much uncertainty, such certainty can be a salve. It seems consistent with the retreats to the certain and firm grounds of ideology and dogmatism that have characterized so much of the world’s response to today’s change – from Orthodox Judaism to islamist fundamentalism, from Nazism to Communism, from evangelical fervor to hippie free love, from Randian libertarianism to right-wing Catholicism. I do not mean to tar all of these movements as terroristic or totalitarian, as some certain are. Rather, they are all radical rejections of the world as it is, and of the direction it is heading. All these movements have these elements in common: rigid answers to life’s question, a rejection of some “Establishment” that is pushing the world to be as it is, and a promotion of purity as the answer to rapid change.

George sees such purity in the application of reason through natural law.

Thus for George, God’s will is most evident, even to those who do not believe in Him, within natural processes, while it is obscured in more sophisticated human interactions. In this understanding, the social justice issues that the New Testament revolve around: helping the poor, healing the sick, loving one’s neighbor, turning the other cheek, &tc. are secondary. Reasonable people can disagree because the answers to these questions are complex and not obvious to reason. On the other hand, George believes that the answers to what we call Culture War issues are self-evident to any person capable of reason. Thus, George believes reasonable people can disagree on capital punishment, but not on abortion. Reasonable people can disagree on health care, but not on gay marriage. Reasonable people can disagree on the mechanisms by which the state collects taxes, but not on the mechanisms by which a married couple has sex. I always find this focus on sex to be puzzling. I don’t accept the slanderous views of some on the left that it is all about making war on women. Yet, if one can apply reason and ascertain there is only one way for two individuals to “get jiggy,” why can’t one use reason to figure out the one way to tax people? Both involve the interactions of human beings within a fallen-redeemed world; both involve emotional responses and complex social constructs.

Another small thing: I’m sure George would have some answer to this, but according to Kirkpatrick, one of the basic distinctions that animates George’s writing is the conflict between Hume and Aristotle:

Against Aristotle, Hume argued that the universe includes facts but not values. You cannot derive moral conclusions from studying the world, an “ought” from an “is.” There is no built-in objective reason for me to choose one goal over another – the goals of Mother Teresa over the goals of Adolf Hitler, in George’s hypothetical. Reason, then, is merely a tool of whatever desire strikes my fancy.

Yet, does it seem as if George has studied the world and derived his “oughts” from the “is” of the way things are? Aquinas certainly extrapolated universal moral principles about the essence of sex and the natural order from observing barnyard animals. For all the faults and biases of this approach, it seemed to be a genuine attempt to understand the world. From my limited perspective, it does not seem as if George similarly started with observation; rather, he seems to have begun with his conclusions based on the ideology of right wing Catholicism and worked his way backwards. Specifically, his views of sex seem derived – not from observation or lived experience – but from sterile intellectualization divorced from reality (which my study of history has shown is capable of the truest perversion of what God created.) One can see how such a limited view of sex does seem likely to appeal to a group of celibate men though. I know of myself that reading George’s view of sex, I felt a deep unease in my stomach – similar to when I saw the movie Quills about the Marqis de Sade, as George had intellectualized sex and perverted it from its natural form so much that it was deeply unsettling. Take this for example:

Their bodies become one (they are biologically united, and do not merely rub together) in coitus (and only in coitus), similarly to the way in which one’s heart, lungs and other organs form a unity by coordinating for the biological good of the whole.

In another’s hands, this idea could be beautiful – a beautiful rationale for why sex can be wonderful. But by limiting sexuality so, by postulating that sexuality ought only be channeled into only this particular type of ritualistic purity, by declaring unclean an enormous swath of human and animal experience, by maintaining that only this sterile intellectualization can justify desire, George is truly separating man from his own nature, and woman from hers. This is the most fundamental perversion of all, the most grievous sin against natural law.

(Andrew Sullivan also has some good comments on the piece here.)

[Image by Fenchurch! licensed under Creative Commons.]