Friday, January 25, 2002

Peggy Noonan describes some work she did for Enron. In response, Andrew Sullivan continues to bitch about columnists writing about companies that they have been paid by in the past, wailing:

Am I hallucinating? Peggy Noonan now joins the $50,000 Enron pundit club. At least she discloses the sum in her column (even if you have to do some math to figure it out). Why doesnt she just say the total? Same reason as Krugman. Its damning.

Yet, having read Noonan's piece, and Krugman's Times column on his own work for the company, I'm more struck by Sullivan's omissions.

Both Noonan and Krugman make a point of saying that they were doing typical work (speechwriting in Noonan's case, economic consulting in Krugman's) for their usual fees --- or actually, in Krugman's case, at a discount. Yet in none of his endless blather on the subject has Sullivan seen fit to mention the fact, leaving readers of his blog with the impression that the payments were bribery.

So, Sullivan's claim seems to be that actually doing work for a company disqualifies you from commenting in public on that company's affairs. Evidently, he feels that the high calling of punditry should be left to those like himself, who have remained within the journalistic temple their entire lives, and stayed free of the taint of filthy lucre by never getting a real job.

And why the high test of purity? Well, he says here that pundits "often have more influence than individual Senators".

So Krugman could have proposed amendments to that Bush tax bill, or even threatened a "hold" on it, and all he did was whine in the Times. Who knew?

(Update: Different conservatives have different ways of showing their obsessions. Virginia Postrel, to her credit, put up an item Tuesday acknowledging that Krugman's hourly rate at Enron wasn't out of line for the work he was doing, that he fully complied with the Times' strict conflict-of-interest policy, and that there isn't all that much of a story here. But when he tried to defend himself with his Friday column, she coughed up a screed arguing that he shouldn't have. Krugman's column is about 750 words. Postrel's argument that, I think, it wasn't worth the attention runs to nearly 1000).

The Economist has an overview of the Federal government's deepening fiscal troubles, which notes that projected surpluses are receding into the distant future, 2010 or later. Why then? Well, perhaps because revenues will be going up around then. Quoth the article,

Crucially, and misleadingly in the view of many people, the figures also assume that the tax cuts passed last year will be reversed at the end of 2010.

The Economist doesn't mention the reason for this strange assumption, which is that the tax code is actually written that way --- in 2010, tax rates are actually scheduled to revert to pre-cut levels. Without that provision, even the Republicans' own budget projections didn't work out.

But that leaves the tax code with some very strange features, as Paul Krugman, the Blogavarians' least favorite economist, explains:

So in the law as now written, heirs to great wealth face the following situation: If your ailing mother passes away on Dec. 30, 2010, you inherit her estate tax-free. But if she makes it to Jan. 1, 2011, half the estate will be taxed away. That creates some interesting incentives. Maybe they should have called it the Throw Momma From the Train Act of 2001.

Tom Daschle has been dropping hints for a while now that it would be best for the government's fiscal health to keep tax rates at current levels. Republicans and Blogavarians both have been describing that as a tax increase because it would require repealing the scheduled decrements to the tax rates in the Bush tax bill.

By that Humpty Dumpty logic, of course, the increments to tax rates currently scheduled for 2010 (including the reinstatement of the estate tax), and for that matter, the expiration of Alternative Minimum Tax cuts in 2004, are not a tax increase, since they take effect without any change to current law.

I trust they'll remember that when the time comes.

Thursday, January 24, 2002

Jim Henley wants to know why he didn't learn from this blog that Enron supported the Kyoto treaty.

To forestall future complaints about similar omissions, I'd like to say a word right now in praise of Enron's generous support for the Houston arts community, and particularly performing arts organizations like the ballet which, thanks in part to Republican attacks on the NEA, are chronically strapped for funds all across the country.

By the way, Ken Lay is still a con artist, and Bush and Cheney are both still being less than forthcoming about how tight they were with him while the con was working...

(Update: Rand Simberg posts, as a rejoinder to this sort of argument, a list of Clinton's shady associations. But Bush's big campaign theme was that he was supposed to be different --- the character issue, remember? And while I'm on the subject, Bush did just announce a recess appointment for Otto Reich, a man who was responsible for a scandal in a previous administration. His list is growing. Give it time...)

Wednesday, January 23, 2002

Michael Lynch's reporting on Enron continues to be ... remarkable. His latest piece on the subject discusses, among other things, the Enron employees who watched their retirement savings held in Enron 401(k) plans evaporate, while they were helpless to sell the stock due to an administrative lockdown, allegedly related to a change in plan administrators. But, Lynch claims:

This story is as phony as an Enron financial statement. Any retirees who lost everything committed two sins of investing: They put all their eggs in one basket and then didn't watch it. Outside of a 10-trading-day period from October 26 to November 12 when accounts were frozen so Enron could change plan administrators, all employees were free to sell any Enron stock they purchased for the 401(k) account. (Attorneys suing on behalf of investors say the freeze actually started on October 17.) Any employee over 50 -- which includes most retirees -- could have sold even the stock the company put in their accounts for free.

Note the weasel wording. As Lynch's own more detailed report on the 401(k) plans points out, employees under 50 could not sell all their Enron stock --- Enron's matching contributions, 50% of employee contributions up to 6% of the full salary, were given exclusively in Enron stock which could not be sold by younger employees. Also, the actual duration of the lockdown is in some dispute.

There's something else worth noting though. One of the arguments against social security privatization is the risk that a few improvident decisions could leave retirees penniless. Advocates of social security privatization --- who have included, in the past, Michael Lynch --- argue that this is a kind of nanny-ism, and that real people are mature enough to handle these decisions and risks. Well, not in this case...

Some reactions to the Sept. 11th attacks:
  • Just one word: cool!
  • Now the day has come for the American dogs.
  • Why not the White House?
  • Excellent!!!!!!!! But the hijacked planes didn't carry a nuclear bomb.
  • So cool to see America bombed. Guys, let's use the Internet to wage war on 'em as well. This is the perfect moment for it.

Rabid Islamic fanatics? No. Chinese nationalists.

It seems that Islamists, some with ties to our ex-friend Osama bin Laden, are touting the Quran as having anticipated many of the discoveries of modern Western science. It gets a bit strained --- one verse saying that "God made man as a leech" is touted as anticipation of modern embryology. But no matter.

Here's the real question. Science being what it is, if these parallels are pushed far enough, they're going to trip on Quranic parallels to some bit of Western science which gets overturned by futher scientific evidence. What then --- revise the Quran?