Sunday, March 20, 2011

My, it's been a while. So, this:

The helpful thing, if you're overwhelmed by so much news going on at once, is that Bahrain is roughly the same story as Libya—only instead of pro-democracy protesters being murdered by a terrorist-sponsoring monster of a dictator who has been on America's enemies list for ages, the pro-democracy protesters are being murdered by a government that is America's very own dear ally. And where Qaddafi brought in foreign mercenaries for support, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain brought in troops from our even more vital ally, Saudi Arabia.
Which... neglects to mention that until the recent unpleasantness, Qaddafi had also managed over the past few years to join the company of third-world despots with first-world cachet. He, too, was allowed to buy weapons with oil money. He was greeted with respect at state visits to Britain, France and Italy. (The pictures are suddenly hard to find on French government web sites.) His kid had cordial meetings with our Secretary of State. He had "come in from the cold." He had made himself respectable.

So, if Gaddafi is suddenly once again a whole lot less respectable than all the other dictatorial thugs we're happy to deal with, what changed?

I've got two answers: the one that actually matters, and the one you can read about in the New York Times.

The difference that actually matters is this: The incumbent scumbags in Bahrain (and Yemen, and Saudi Arabia itself, where there have been recent armed attacks on demonstrations) are attacking innocent civilians with police and small arms. Qaddafi had escalated to the army and heavy artillery.

Now, you may think this is a bad place to draw the line. But it clearly is where a whole lot of people drew the line. And not just westerners. Also, the Arab League, which consists largely of dictatorial thugs who have nevertheless, at this point, repeatedly condemned one of their own and called for armed action against him. And members of his own diplomatic corps and administration, who had served him for years, knowing full well that he was a dictatorial thug, but have now abandoned him. The armed attacks on demonstrators in Yemen and Bahrain are very, very ugly, but they aren't as ugly as attacks on entire neighborhoods and cities with indiscriminate fire from tanks. One of these things is genuinely not like the others.

But to say this is to acknowledge that there is a level of oppression, rising to the level of the occasional discreet, small-scale massacre, that the United States will happily tolerate in its otherwise faithful allies. And no one wants to say that. So we read instead, in today's New York Times, of a "Proxy Battle in Bahrian" pitting U.S. allies (particularly the Saudis) against everyone's favorite middle east bogeyman, Iran.

So, what kind of a battle is it? Not much of one. The Iranians have publicly grumbled about foreign troops in Bahrain, which has prompted much whining from Bahraini authorities about Iranian interference in Bahraini affairs. And that's pretty much it.

Which, by the way, is already more reporting than the Times itself did on the matter. Read far enough into the Times article, and you'll find the reporters admitting that

There has been no evidence that Iran played a part in Bahrain’s uprising, which was led by young Bahrainis from the Shiite majority.
But to read that, you need to get quite a way in --- that's on the second page of the online version of the story. All the Times is "reporting" on is breathless speculation from its sources (some named, some not) about a proxy battle that could, possibly, some people think, develop in the future. And it takes them that long to say so in plain English.

It seems I will soon need to pay something like $200 a year for unfettered access to this kind of reporting. I think I'll pass.

Two further notes:

First off, a lot of people are treating this as the prelude to something like the Gulf War. Which raises the question: which one? It's odd that the Bush II Gulf War, a mess we have yet to clean up, seems to have completely erased the memory of the Bush I Gulf War, in which a coalition that was carefully crafted ahead of time achieved limited objectives on time and on budget. In fact, Libyan rebels themselves, while calling for air support, have indicated that they very much want not to see American troops on the ground, because, as one said, "We don't want to be like Iraq". Which ought to deeply embarrass anyone who advocated Gulf War II as an opportunity to make Iraq a showpiece for America's benevolence --- but Tom Friedman is beyond embarrassment.

Mind you, it isn't yet clear which parallel applies. It was certainly an error for Obama to say "Qaddafi must go" before getting even his own military to buy into that. And they still haven't bought in --- the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was on Meet the Press this morning saying that Qaddafi clinging to power is "certainly one possible outcome". But I've seen too many folks who seem to start from the premise that all military intervention comes pre-doomed. No. Sometimes it works.

Second, when it comes to this stuff, you've obviously got to read with a skeptical eye, and that goes double for media based within the region. But the Emir of Qatar's pet journalists at Al Jazeera English cannot possibly have been making him any friends among the regional private jet set. In Bahrain, for example, they routinely describe the aims of protesters as legitimate and the protests themselves as basically nonviolent, while treating official excuses for violence with arch skepticism. Lately, they've been covering military raids on the capital's main hospital, which cannot possibly make the government there look good. All of this has, of course, got them banned from Bahrain. A ban which they're respecting to the extent of not naming their correspondents, who would otherwise be subject to arrest.

The ads on the live stream, though, are an odd bunch. For lack of inventory, one presumes, a lot of the available time for such stuff is being filled with spots for one local Qatari venture or another. I have no reason to doubt that Qatalum is indeed an environmentally friendly aluminum smelter, as aluminum smelters go, and I'll be sure to bear them in mind the next time I'm ordering ingots in bulk. But I really don't think I'm in their ideal target demographic.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Went to see Shepard Fairey's new exhibit at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art (through August 16th, about 10 minutes' walk from the Amtrak terminal at South Station).

Fairey's all about taking and processing images --- extracting out key elements, combining them, recombining them, putting them up as graffiti. Sometimes they're social commentary, sometimes they're advertising for his own line of posters and T-shirts, and sometimes they're both, and sometimes you just can't tell.

His best known work (before that "Obama" poster) was a graffiti campaign that started out as crude stickers of Andre the Giant, and then metastasized --- sprouting slogans ("Andre the Giant has a Posse"; "Obey Giant"; and finally just "Obey"), getting mixed up with other stuff (one wall has Andre's facial features plunked on top of everything from a Warhol-esque portrait of Marilyn Monroe to that once-iconic Che Guevara poster), and recombined with other more overtly political stuff. A wall of posters includes one with the Giant face formed out of type, which starts by describing itself as a commercial gimmick and then gets more strident, denouncing anyone foolish enough to keep reading as an obvious dupe. On the wall to the left, a colossal mural in the form of a giant mock banknote proclaims the obvious, hidden, truth about paper money: "This ransom note is worth exactly what you are willing to give in order to get it." Also, "In lesser gods we trust". "Obedience is the most valuable currency." And always, always, "Obey".

A word about those murals: there are several in the show, meant to mock up the wall-covering street art that Fairey's splashed all over the country, most often without authorization from the building's owner or anyone else. Look closer. The pasted-up newspaper that he's painted over isn't always completely covered. Some of it's startlingly old (I spotted news stories about World War I). And a lot of it speaks one way or another to the image that's painted on top, whether it's his rifle-toting revolutionaries (sometimes with flowers in the gun barrels, sometimes not), portraits, or those whacked-out dollar bills.

The exhibit's a bit controversial in town, as is the artist. Local bigwigs have let it be known how pleased they were that some cop arrested Fairey on the way to his own show's opening, on prior, long-standing arrest warrants for defacement. (Almost certainly to embarrass the Mayor, who's having union problems for all the usual reasons, and who gave Fairey permission, for once in his life, to redecorate a wall of City Hall.) And in one of our tonier galleries the other day --- one which periodically offers etchings by Rembrandt --- I heard one of the staffers say she had trouble taking anyone seriously who engaged in so much blatant self-promotion. (My response: "And Picasso didn't?") Well, I've just tried to describe what's on the walls. If you like that sort of thing, as a great man once said, then this is the sort of thing you will like.

Also at the ICA, through October: an video exhibit. I sometimes find these hit or miss, but there were a couple of hits. One of them literally acts out an encounter of six blind men with a remarkably patient elephant.

The other hit from the video show is a half hour record of what happens when you ask representatives of several Polish groups (right-wing students, left-wing students, church-going old ladies...) to paint up murals, and then have them each take turns doing whatever they like to their own mural, or anyone else's. It starts out gently enough: one of the student groups opens the doors to the church. But it fairly quickly gets nasty (with the left-wing students chopping up the right-wing group's emblem, and chucking it into a circle labeled "dustbin of history") and ends with clothes getting defaced and things set on fire. Any resemblance to recent events on Livejournal is strictly coincidental.

While I'm reviewing things, a capsule book review: The Caryatids, by Bruce Sterling.

A brief excerpt:

He pulled the belt from his uniform. Then, without another word, he began to beat her with his belt: not angrily, but rhythmically and thoroughly.

Having been beaten by lovers before, Sonja knew how to react. With a howl of dismay, she fell to the earth, hugging his ankles and begging forgiveness in a gabble of sobs and shrieks.

When she clutched at his knees, his balance was poor, so he couldn't use the belt effectively. He stopped his attempts to beat her. She continued to shriek, beg and grovel. This was the core of the performance.

It was never about how hard men beat you, or how many strokes, or what they hit you with. It was always about their need to break your will and impose their own.

As to the dramatis personae in this scene: One is "Red Sonja" Mihajlovic, a war hero, organizer of dramatic, city-scale rescue projects, and one of the seven cloned sisters that are, collectively, the title characters. The other is an unkempt, uneducated 19-year-old desert tribesman, perhaps best described as an angry lump of meat, who Sonja has chosen to marry for reasons that were never explained to this reader's full satisfaction.

I am unable to determine which gender was insulted worse by this passage. If you think you know, please feel free to make your case in the comments.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Wall Street Journal laments the decrepit state of our investment banks:

Investment banking has since become a phantom realm, where everyone is busy but no one is doing anything. In this world, status is conferred by a quality meeting, not a completed transaction; a $700,000 salary is deemed generous; and an apocryphal story keeps circulating of a former J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. mortgage-securities banker now driving a forklift.
Scraping by on $700,000 a year. Poor fellows. Is that before or after the bonus?

(via link dump from a more reality-based source of financial commentary, the excellent Naked Capitalism...)

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Comrade Greenspan's Five Year Plan

Some of the damage from the housing bubble is obvious. People are getting kicked out of their homes, banks are going broke, and the damage to the financial system is bleeding all over the economy as otherwise sound firms, and even state governments, can't get credit.

But that's not the damage that would be obvious to someone who dropped down from Mars. The Martian would see a different kind of damage. For some unaccountable reason, at a moment where the apparently sapient species that dominates this planet is starting, in places (like Beijing), to literally choke and burn on its own fumes, that species chose to put an enormous amount of its aggregate resources not into new technology to deal with the problems, but instead, into building new suburbs of Las Vegas.

The reason we did this, someone might explain to the Martian, is that ultimately, it was investors who had control of these resources who decided how to allocate them --- and new technology is perceived as a risky investment, while housing was perceived as safe.

And yet, the safe investment is now the thing that's blowing up the banks. Why?

Well, at some point just a few years ago, housing was safe. Housing was safe mostly because there were a whole lot of safeguards put into the market to prevent dangerous deals. You couldn't get a mortgage to buy a house unless you demonstrated a serious ability to pay, and put in a large down payment, to make sure you had some skin in the game incase the deal went south. What happened in the meantime, starting around 2000, is that Wall Street eliminated all those safeguards, and hired Ph.D. physicists to come up with messy, complicated arguments that it was still as safe as it used to be. (Arguments which happened, in the event, to involve packaging up the loans into pools, structuring the payouts from the pools in all sorts of arcane ways, and arguing that it was the structure that was now making it safe --- structures so complex that almost no one really understands what they are.)

It seems they were wrong.

And the depressing thing is that it was all predictable. And, in fact, predicted. And, in fact, the result of deliberate policy. As the inimitable Daniel Davies explained in 2002, before the game had halfway started:

... as far as we can tell, the American consumer is basically only still spending because he thinks that magic [stock market] beans grown on the Internet will pay for everything. ... And given that the stock market's been performing pretty badly these days, and is beginning to appear on the cover of USA today, lots of people are beginning to worry that the day of reckoning might be at hand. Which would obviously, leave us in the shit.

This is the doctrine of the "wealth effect", and if you can dig up a few factoids and linear regressions to illustrate it and avoid using the word "shit", you can make a quite decent living as a pundit by repeating the paragraph above. On the other hand, if you had been placing bets on a US double-dip recession so far, you'd have lost them, because Alan Greenspan and his merry gang at the Fed have a solution to this problem. Basically, the solution's pretty simple and it involves screwing interest rates down to the floor until mortgage rates follow them down to Low Low Prices levels, and pointing out to the Great American Consumer that it's "Bye-Bye, Magic Stock Market Bubble Money!" but "Hello, Magic Housing Market Bubble Money!". Marvellous.

Well, he wasn't all right. He left out the structured finance part. But there's an important thing he got right here: the housing bubble was the result of deliberate policy, on the part of the Federal Reserve under Alan Greenspan --- Greenspan, who was also refusing to use the authority Congress had given him to regulate non-bank mortgage lenders, and was instead personally touting risky, safeguard-free new mortgage products to get new, insecure buyers into the housing market.

The result of which, among other things, is all those new suburbs of Las Vegas and the Californian "inland empire" which are incomplete, and falling to pieces even as the few residents get dispossessed. It's not just a financial problem. It's an immense waste of social resources --- money that could have gone into funding green technology, instead spent on enormously wasteful, doomed projects justified by high-flown rhetoric (let's boost home ownership to promote responsibility!) that had gotten completely unmoored from reality.

And with that in mind --- what was wrong with Communist central planning? Well, precisely that it used high-flown rhetoric to justify ill-conceived projects which might have been justified by lofty goals, but which ultimately just didn't work. And that's what the capitalist system seems to be giving us --- Greenspan, acting on his own, gave us the bubble.

Now, we could say that this was still another government program. But consider. The Fed isn't technically part of the government. It is nominally owned, instead, by the member banks. And while its management is appointed by Congress, it seems nevertheless to have been acting, in this case, pretty much as the shareholders would have wanted --- most of them were very active in the new, high-tech markets for subprime mortgages and their even shadier derivatives (in effect, the sheen on Greenspan's bubble), and all of them are suffering for it now. So, if we took government out of the Fed, and made it exactly what it appears to be nominally --- a corporation responsible to its shareholders --- it almost certainly wouldn't have done anything different. Particularly not if Greenspan was still running it.

Which ought, perhaps, to give pause to partisans of the "wisdom of the market", or "the wisdom of crowds"...

Friday, October 03, 2008

Still wondering if there really is a financial crisis? By way of an answer, the government of California has just announced that they need a $7 billion short term bridge loan from the Fed directly. They've been borrowing in the fall for decades to cover operating expenses until Christmas-season sales taxes and state income tax revenue start rolling in, but right now, no one can get a large loan from the private sector, even if (as with the State of California) there is no realistic prospect of a default whatever.

Still, on the subject, some worrisome quotes. First, the New York Times on the last time we had systemic shutdowns in the banking sector:

In late 1930, however, a rolling series of bank panics began. Investments made by the banks were going bad — or, in some cases, were rumored to be going bad — and nervous customers besieged bank branches to demand their money back. Hundreds of banks eventually closed.

Once a bank in a given town shut its doors, all the knowledge accumulated by the bank officers there effectively disappeared. Other banks weren’t nearly as willing to lend money to local businesses and residents because the loan officers at those banks didn’t know which borrowers were less reliable than they looked. Credit dried up.

The past is prologue: the mortgage mess arose in large part because banks and funds from out of state or overseas were willing to back up mortgages in which no one even tried to verify if the borrowers were reliable ("NINA" loans --- No Income, No Assets). And those mortgages are hard to renegotiate now because there's no way for the borrowers to arrange to renegotiate them with whatever post office box in the Cayman Islands now nominally has the legal right to do that. The current "cure" seems to be a wave of mergers; over the short term, this centralizes the banking sector and hollows out whatever local infrastructure is left.

Another, from Brad DeLong:

My belief is that if Paulson were to stay on he would treat undercapitalized banks like a Goldman-Sachs honcho treats counterparties in trouble: strip them of everything and send them naked into the blizzard to live or die on their own--that's what he and Bernanke have done to the preferred and common shareholders of Freddie, Fannie, AIG, WaMu, Wachovia, Bear-Stearns, Lehman, and to the bondholders and counterparties of Lehman...
He's right about Goldman, where Paulson made his half-billion dollar personal fortune. (Michael Lewis's memoir of his time as a bond salesman in the '80s, Liar's Poker, is illuminating here on the general ethos.) But Paulson may have divided loyalties here. It's true that shareholders in particular firms have gotten pretty rough treatment at his hands, so far. But a large part of critics' misgivings about the plan is a lingering suspicion that when push comes to shove, he'll be less ripping off Wall Street on behalf of the taxpayers, than ripping off the taxpayers on behalf of institutional Wall Street...

Correction: I'd misremembered that Lewis had been at Goldman; it was actually Salomon brothers. Ouch.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Ross Douthat tries to defend Sarah Palin:

Most of the attention has focused, justly, on Palin's flat-out incoherent answers to some of Couric's questions, and her difficulties deflecting obvious "gotcha" situations (Gibson on the Bush Doctrine, Couric asking what newspapers she reads and asking her to name non-Roe Supreme Court decisions with which she disagrees, etc.)
Those may not seem like "gotcha" questions to you, but the difficulty they pose is immense, as they require Palin to evaluate Supreme Court decisions, or published commentary, taken as a whole.

If, instead, she'd been asked about, say, the votes of individual Supreme Court justices, or some particular article in Foreign Affairs, there would have been no difficulty whatever.


Sunday, September 21, 2008

Treasury Laser-Shark Facility

Draft text of Dubya's bailout plan has leaked, and it's being criticized not just by economists, but also by constitutional scholars, who get a bit worked up about stuff like this:

Sec. 8. Review.

Decisions by the Secretary [of the Treasury] pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.

Me, not so much. Hey, what's to review?

Consider. Elsewhere in the draft bill, the Secretary of the Treasury is authorized to hire whoever he likes and establish whatever "administrative vehicles" he likes to buy, sell, repackage, or in any other way exploit any financial instrument "based on or related to" residential mortgages.

So, let's say he uses a small portion of the $700 billion-with-a-B that he gets under this bill to buy an island guarded by a fully-equipped two-brigade garrison from Blackwater, to build a genetic engineering lab staffed by mad scientists breeding sharks that will hatch from the egg with lasers in their heads. So long as someone in the boiler room is selling structured financial instruments that bundle shark piracy futures with residential mortgages from Cleveland, establishing the Treasury Laser-Shark Facility would be a legitimate exercise of the power granted by the draft bill, and even if oversight were allowed, there would be nothing going on to which anyone could properly object. It's all good.

But of course, we should not expect anything so exotic. Merely a slush fund which Hank Paulson, the former Goldman Sachs CEO, can use to ease the pain of his erstwhile colleagues:

"It's going to be very hard psychologically for these people," Frank said. "I talked to one guy who had to give up his private jet recently. And he said of all the trials in his life, giving that up was the hardest thing he's ever done."
Sneer all you like, dear reader, but you cannot truly understand this pain, having never had a private jet. And so it is that Paulson is describing any restriction on payouts to his buddies, even a restriction on "golden parachute" payouts to high executives of failed institutions, as a "poison pill" which the Bush administration won't agree to.

Yes, that's right. They're saying that the economy will tank if we don't pass this bill immediately. And they're saying that they'll veto the bill and tank the economy to protect Wall Street insiders' golden parachutes.

Class warfare doesn't get more naked than this.

More: On a quick read of the bill, it looks as if the TLSF could only stay in business for two years, since that's how long the Secretary's authority lasts. I'm not so sure. The draft text could conceivably allow him to create agencies and sign contracts that would endure long past his own initial grant of authority. In fact, it would almost have to allow that if part of the program includes creating new "structured finance" vehicles to repackage the mortgages, which would necessarily involve creating new agencies that would administer them, enduring at least as long as any of the underlying mortgages. This was a favored trick of Robert Moses, the czar of highway-building and much other construction in New York State for literally decades. He spent much of that time as the head of public authorities whose enabling legislation said they would expire at a date certain, unless necessary to fulfil their contracts. But he'd made sure that he could create new contracts whenever he wanted by issuing a new round of bonds, thereby prolonging their existence at will.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Out of a morbid attraction to train wrecks, I'm watching CNBC. One of the guests this morning was a "private equity guy" from tony Newton, Mass., who was arguing against government intervention because the market needed to work things out on its own. I didn't record his exact words, but they were something like this:
Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate .… It will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.
It's a policy line with a long and interesting history --- this was Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon's advice to Herbert Hoover...

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

An interesting Google search: palin dominionist. Another: mccain imprecatory prayer.

For those who can't stand surprises: the hard-core Christianist loons regard Palin as one of their own, perhaps rightly (this would be their "stealth candidate" school-board strategy writ large). And the looniest of the lot are praying for McCain to win the election and immediately die, so that their woman can take over. What a lovely Christian sentiment...

If millions of people take mortgages that they can't afford, and the ensuing mess threatens the stability of the financial system, the government can't bail them out --- some of them may have been ill-advised or rushed into bad deals by shady financiers, but it would destroy market incentives, and they just have to suffer.

If major financial institutions buy those mortgages, and the ensuing mess threatens the stability of the financial system, the government must bail them out --- they're getting off easier than they deserve, but the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

Good to know.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Quite a few bloggers are really excited to see Joe Biden lay into McCain on the issues. I'm not.

Biden says the Republicans don't want to talk about the issues. He's right. Instead, as Krugman notes, they're trying to make the Democrats the faces of a duplicitous, faceless "elite" that's oppressing the middle class. If this strategy works, it works by putting people in a mental bubble where anything that any Democrat says about the issues just won't penetrate, because it all comes through the emotional filter as "talking down", or "elite lies."

To counter this strategy, you've got to pop the bubble. Issue-talk itself, no matter how loud and proud, won't do that. You've got to point out who's really representing the elite in this campaign.

I'd happily trade all of this stuff and plenty more for one good, cutting remark about Cindy McCain prancing onstage at the Republican convention wearing earrings worth more than the median American house.

It's possible that the Obama campaign is reluctant to do this sort of thing because "families are off-limits", even though she was on stage at the frigging Republican convention. And maybe that's also the reason that McCain has just about completely escaped any scrutiny for failing to produce Cindy's tax returns --- even though anyone who lives in the real world knows perfectly well that her finances are also his. And if so --- would they have considered it "off-limits" to mention that Phil Gramm's wife was on Enron's board of directors, while Phil was doing their bidding in the Senate? You've got a campaign to win, guys, and politics ain't beanbag. Get over it.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

It was in the news this morning that McCain campaign staff was writing Sarah Palin's speech. How, then, to evaluate Palin herself?

I'm taking a few minutes away from the serious newscasts on Comedy Central to watch Wolf Blitzer literally praise her for her skill in reading a teleprompter:

And if there was any doubt that she could deliver a speech like that, Campbell, she dispelled that because she certainly -- it's not easy reading that teleprompter and knowing how to pause and that delivery. It was a well written speech. And she not only hit a home run, it might have been even a grand slam.
She didn't write the "well-written speech", but she's good at reading it off a teleprompter. Mind you, you might have to go phonetic with some of the tougher words, like "nuclear", but if you do that, you'll get a very effective delivery. A delivery for which Blitzer's mixed panel of network staff, Republican operatives, and former Republican operatives now on network staff also lathered her with legitimate, high praise.

So if this veep thing doesn't work out, I'm sure she can make a ton of money in commercial voice-over work, where quick, accurate, effective reading off a teleprompter is pretty much the whole of the job.

And if she does make it, and folks like me object to what the new administration is doing with social programs, I'm sure at some point someone's going to dust off Pat Moynihan's old line about the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

There's been some talk lately of unfair attacks on Sarah Palin from the liberal blogsphere, and I'm afraid to say I'd been considering joining that crowd. I was working on some kind of line about how McCain had taken the Chinese gymnastic approach to the Vice Presidential pick --- but that's unfair. He Kexin may not have met the formal age requirements, but she clearly has what it takes to do the job.

Otherwise, I'm watching an Alaskan separatist as the Republican Vice Presidential nominee, flopping around like a trout in the bottom of the boat on one of her own fishing trips. But the news coverage feels like it's scripted by the Brotherhood of Dada. I mean, really.

I used to be offended by horse-race coverage of the race because it ignored substantive issues. Now, I'm offended because even taken on its own terms, it makes no sense at all. It was touted as an advantage of the pick that McCain's campaign had "won the news cycle" on the day it was announced. There are layers of nonsense here. The most obvious being that the domination has nothing to do with the particular choice at all --- any pick would have given the talking heads something to chatter about. But go deeper. They did indeed dominate the news cycle. One news cycle. They had absolute command of that evening's newscasts. On the Friday before Labor Day Weekend. When exactly did that become a prize worth winning?

At any rate, this choice is something the Obama team knows how to handle: tempting as it might be to run against her slim resume and, well... family matters, you don't. It just invites Republican attacks on Obama's resume, deserved or not. (Which ain't speculation; only political junkies and fools may have been watching CNN's Friday evening political gossip shows, but I was one of them. I need to get a life.) She's got a record, thin as it may be: take it seriously, and run against it. Of course, it helps that she introduced herself to the country by lying about it. Running for governor in 2006, she was in favor of the infamous "bridge to nowhere." It's part of her mandate, whatever she tries to say about it now.

But it's worth considering that if McCain does somehow make it to the White House, and Palin turns out to be his worst decision, that'll have to count as good luck:

Monday, August 11, 2008

Reading the New York Times coverage of the war in the Caucasus between Russia and Georgia, you can learn all sorts of interesting things. One review piece, for instance, features an unnamed "American diplomat" saying, of Russia's mass grants of citizenship to residents of the disputed regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia:

The West had been skeptical of the validity of Russia’s handing out passports by the thousands to citizens of another nation.

“Having a document does not make you a Russian citizen,” one American diplomat said in 2004, as Russia expanded the program.

If the document is a proof of citizenship issued by the Russian government, most people would say that's the end of it. But this "American diplomat" says that the Russians can only naturalize people if we approve. Who knew?

But there's one thing that you probably won't learn from the Times: who started the shooting. The facts don't seem to be much in dispute. On August 8, the Georgians announced that most of South Ossetia had been "liberated" in an overnight offensive. ("Liberated", that is, from an internationally unrecognized separatist government that had been running the territory for years, as in Iraqi Kurdistan during the '90s, or more recently in Kosovo. [Late edit:] it's also worth noting, from amid the fog of war, multiple reports from the respectable British press of refugees claiming that the "liberation" had more or less leveled the largest town in the area.) This wasn't the first armed action in the region --- Georgian shells had killed Ossetian civilians as early as July 4 --- but it was the first territorial incursion. The present Russian action, disproportionate and brutal as it is (including attacks on Georgian cities outside the disputed regions), is nevertheless a response. And if the point of it is to seek regime change in a state (Georgia) that's pursuing reckless armed action on Russia's borders, well... our recent actions in Iraq, and Israel's in Lebanon, have given them precedent for that, too.

So, what does our American paper of record have to say about this? I'll admit to not reading every word, but I've looked at a couple of review pieces, meant to give readers an overview and perspective on the conflict. This one, by Helene Cooper, says

[T]he decision by the United States and Europe to recognize Kosovo may well have paved the way for Russia’s lightning-fast decision to send troops to back the separatists in South Ossetia.
without mentioning any more recent events that might, just possibly, have had an influence.

The same piece notes that "Georgia was pulling its troops out of the capitol of the breakaway region" without mentioning that they'd been there for only a day, or that their incursion was what triggered the Russians' "lightning-fast" response.

The other one is even more comical, and not just for the musing on the nature of citizenship that started this post. This analysis, to its credit, lists quite a few U.S. actions that have tempted Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (first elected to Parliament there in 1995 after starting the year as a lawyer in New York) to try to "get tough" with the Russians. But the litany goes in chronological order, and what's at the end?

One American official who covers Georgian affairs, speaking on the condition of anonymity while the United States formulates its next public response, said that everything had gone wrong.

Mr. Saakashvili had acted rashly, he said, and had given Russia the grounds to invade. The invasion, he said, was chilling, disproportionate and brutal, and it was grounds for a strong censure. But the immediate question was how far Russia would go in putting Georgia back into what it sees as Georgia’s place.

Conspicuously missing: A clear statement of what Saakashvili's "rash action" actually was --- that he'd sent his army into a region with a de facto independent government, where most of the residents had Russian passports and wanted nothing to do with his government.

That's how far the American "paper of record" will bend over backwards to avoid saying that our would-be ally fired the first shots in the war that he's now losing. It's not a new low for the paper. It's not even as low as when it, for example, became an uncritical broadsheet broadcaster of duplicitous Pentagon pro-war propaganda in the run-up to the Iraq war. But it reminds you once again what modern American "objective" journalism is --- they're objectively repeating what Acceptable Sources (as determined by quotability at Georgetown cocktail parties) want you to believe, while leaving anyone else's view (including their own) completely out of it.

None of this, of course, is meant as a defense of the Russian counter-invasion, which has (once again) included strikes on cities well outside the disputed regions, with civilian casualties. This appears to be one of those miserable conflicts where no one is acting like the good guys --- which is to say, it's like almost all of them. But if you're getting your news from even "respectable" American media, you'd think otherwise. The difference in tone between American coverage of this story and, say, the BBC is remarkable.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A few days ago, Matthew Yglesias was lamenting all the reporters spending time trying to track down a copy of Barack Obama's undergraduate thesis:

When I was in college, I wrote a senior thesis. It was even, in a sense, on a politically relevant topic having to do with John Rawls' Political Liberalism. ... But realistically, insofar as I can recall what the thesis said ... it says stuff I don't believe anymore. If you really want to gain additional insights into what Matt Yglesias thinks about the issues, you should probably read my frequently updated blog.
Well, maybe so. But knowing where people came from can, at least, provide insights into their character. A few years ago, Stephen Schwartz did a piece at National Review responding to accusations that a lot of prominent neocons were flaming, open Trotskyists in their political youth. As with Yglesias, Schwartz didn't so much deny it (facts are facts, and they are on the record), as dismiss their relevance.

Now, maybe an endorsement of Matt's position is why we don't see more references to "ex-Trotskyist Irving Kristol" in journals of refined opinion. But I, for one, think there are insights into their character here, and think that we could stand to have at least a little more discussion of these guys' political upbringing in groups and movements dedicated to the use of deception and false fronts in undermining the health of capitalist states from within.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The luxury New York real estate market isn't in the same doldrums as, say, Irvine, California, or at least not yet. But the New York Times is still taking time out to profile the little people who have been hurt by the general real estate collapse. People like John Devaney:

One by one, John Devaney sold his treasures, hoping to forestall what was in the end inevitable. He sold his Renoir and his Gulfstream, his home and his helicopter. Even his cherished yacht — gone.
The poor guy was doing all trying to save his hedge fund, which numerous advisors had told him liquidate at a loss while he still could. Instead, he and his investors were all wiped out. But Devaney hasn't lost perspective. He still knows what it's all about. Just listen to the man himself:
I feel horrible that I’ve lost my own money and that so many people who saw the skills I have and trusted in us have now been hurt.
Even in his loss, he realizes still that in the final analysis, it's all about him.

And, turning to comments on the story on Yves Smith's blog, Naked Capitalism, we find more on what those skills really were (with a little added emphasis from yours truly):

I have a limited partner ... that unfortunately had over 60% of his net worth tied up in Devaney's funds. He told me late last year that Devaney was telling his investors ... he could return between 20% and 60% of their capital ... if he "just had a little more time" and could effect "an orderly liquidation" of the positions. I told my LP at the time: "This guy is a fraud, a liar and he's going to lose 100% of your money by the time this is all finished." ... What a clown. Although I have little sympathy for my LP who was seduced by the siren call of 40% annual returns in "safe mortgage investments."
As subsequent commenters noted, the underlying mortgages were paying nowhere near 40%. This had to be snake oil. But plenty of wealthy people, by any reasonable standard (you need millions in net worth to be allowed anywhere near a hedge fund) went for it.

But can't we have sympathy for the poor multi-millionaires who just want to add a little more cash to the already awesome pile? See how put-upon they are. Salt of the earth types, like Lady Lynn de Rothschild, now alienated from the Democratic Party because its presidential candidate seems elitist. Meaning that he thinks he knows better than she does what's best for the country.

Mind you, it's not like the rich themselves have all that much sympathy for the poor saps who took out those bad loans. But hey, it's America. Responsibility is for little people.

It's been weeks since Hillary Clinton left the Presidential race. She has now repeatedly, and enthusiastically, endorsed Barack Obama. And yet, there are still sites out there, like this one, whose pseudonymous hosts are "supporting" her almost entirely by attacking the candidate who she has endorsed. What are we to make of this?

Well, there are all sorts of reasons for posting pseudonymously, and one shouldn't necessarily impute any particular motive. But people sometimes do it to conceal their true motives. Alexander Hamilton, for instance, published his essays in support of the proposed U.S. Constitution as "Publius" largely because he'd already made it plain to enough folks that in reality, he was opposed to it. (He wanted a strong executive.)

Which leaves me, as one pseud, asking of another: when "pro-Hillary" blogs echo Republican talking points and act as collection points for attack ads against Democratic nominees, what's really going on? An old Roman had a way of answering that question --- by posing another: cui bono? Who does it help?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

An excerpt from a speech Obama almost certainly won't deliver in support of the promised filibuster of telecom immunity that apparently won't happen either:

I address myself now to my colleagues from the other side of the aisle --- to Republicans now facing at least the possible prospect of a Democratic president. A Democratic president who would have the new power created in this bill --- the power to authorize American telecommunications companies to snoop on anyone, anywhere, anytime, and to halt any subsequent investigation of the matter in its tracks simply by showing a secret court in a classified proceeding that he had authorized the measure. Not that it was justified by national security or balance of harms or any other criteria --- contrary to what you may have heard from the leadership of the Other Body, or read in Newsweek, a plain reading of the text of the bill says that if the Attorney General says it was authorized, nothing else matters.

And I thank my Republican colleagues, because, well... not to put to fine a point on it, but I think we all know who that possible future Democratic president is likely to be. And I remember, as I'm sure you do too, how little many of you trusted the last one. How that last president was described as a liar, untrustworthy, bloodthirsty --- how major news sources wondered out loud about whether the unfortunate suicide of one of his aides was murder --- and how he was ultimately impeached for perjuriously answering a question which... well, I've reread it twice coming in here, and I don't even understand it! But you Republicans who support this bill apparently feel that nothing remotely like this would ever come up with a future Democratic president.

And I appreciate that. And I will remember it. I may mention on the campaign trail, if my judgment is questioned, that you, those of you who would vote in favor of giving a future Democratic president this power, knowing who it would likely be, had no qualms whatever in doing so. I will certainly remember it in the future, should that Democratic administration propose some other security measure to which you do object --- and at that time, if not before, I would certainly remind the people.

Because this isn't a vote about now. It's not a vote about the past. This is a vote about the future. About what kind of country we are. About what kind of country we want to be. It's not about this side versus that side, not your team versus my team or your party against my party. It's about whether, even after the wiretapping of Martin Luther King and of members of this body for political purposes, exposed by the Church committee within living memory of many of those standing before me, any executive of any party ought to ever be trusted with unchecked, unreviewable, unaccountable, raw power to secretly snoop on everybody in the country, including you yourselves, with no checks and balances whatever.

I say no. A bill to grant that power ought to never leave this chamber.

Oh, well. I've been wrong about him before...

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Many moons ago, I attended a panel discussion at Harvard's Kennedy School about the state of the War on Terror. At one point, the panel was asked whether the administration had made us safer now. Three members of the panel cautiously restated Washington conventional wisdom that there had been no subsequent attack on the scale of 9/11, so someone must be doing something right, even if no one could quite articulate who, what, where, when, or how. The fourth was Samantha Power, who stated forthrightly that the war had inflamed Arab sentiment, and made us less safe. Asked, in a follow-up, what we might do about it, she responded with the closest thing I've ever heard in person to the Dean Scream: "Obama for President! Whoooo!"

It's not often I get to accuse the author of a highly regarded book on genocide in the modern world of being naive, but come on. His record already made him out to be a good, promising guy, as far as it went --- but with no national recognition, the race factor, and numerous other, better known candidates in the race, he didn't have a chance.