Friday, November 01, 2002

I've been going light on the local items lately, but the race for governor here reflects on the national scene. Specifically, to judge by the ads that the candidates are running, you'd think they agreed on everything substantive, and that the differences are only about competence to implement the agreed-on program. So we're seeing ads comparing the candidates' records in business ("Mitt Romney bought factories and fired the workers!" "He didn't run the companies! He was just an investor! And O'Brien's two year business career was in a company where other people got indicted for stuff she had nothing to do with!")

In fact, as the Boston Phoenix points out, the two candidates have huge differences on real issues, on the most basic level:

It’s been a long time since the two leading candidates for governor have differed so sharply on the economy, housing, health care, education, the environment, crime, capital punishment, gay rights, and reproductive rights. ...

Take the most fundamental divide between the candidates: O'Brien believes government has a role to play in creating jobs, building housing, reforming health care, cleaning up the environment, fighting crime, and making sure the rights and privileges afforded to the majority of our citizens are extended to the minority. Romney does not.

Yet in an important race in what should be a Democratic stronghold state, the professionals running her campaign aren't stressing the issues, but are instead going straight for the sleaze. They have somehow convinced themselves that voters don't want to hear which candidate supports government programs which actually matter to them, but could be motivated instead by hearing about factories in Nebraska in the 1980s. The latest "issue" they're flogging to the press is an absurd claim that there were sexist implications when Romney described O'Brien's attacks as "unbecoming". "Unbecoming" is a fine word to use. For both of them.

And so it goes nationally. We have an administration with unpopular positions on the environment, business issues, and many other things, which is trying to gain power for its adherents in Congress by distracting the voters from real issues, turning politics instead into a debased freakshow of charges and countercharges. There are two messages here --- one being that government is corrupt, and involvement with it is unbecoming (a truly fine word); the other, which comes through loud and clear on a network news whose coverage of "politics" and the legislative process is dominated by horse-race analysis and personal smears, is that this unseemly business has nothing to do with the voters. Which is wholly false. The horse-race analysis and personal smears may have nothing to do with the lives of the voters --- but politics does. Very much.

For an example, look at the California energy crisis, where it is now clear that profiteering by large energy corporations played a very significant role. When the state government of California plead for relief, the response of this adminstration was to consult with the businesses, and say that the capitalist system works this way, and the Californians would just have to lump it. That is their vision of the capitalist system: favors for the favored and well-endowed, the promise that major corporations can engage in whatever schemes they like with minimal regulatory interference, and a hope for the rest of us that some of the benefits will trickle down.

That philosophy is what's behind their erosion of environmental regulations. It's what's behind their sandbagging of corporate reforms; the notion that they actually meant anything that was said when Dubya signed that reform act over the summer can't survive the Pythonesque headlines about the implementation ("Pitt orders probe of himself"). It's how they ran their businesses when they were in business (Cheney's Halliburton and Paul O'Neill's Alcoa both major beneficiaries of government largesse, Dubya's own energy companies repeatedly bailed out by cronies, and his baseball team flush with taxpayer money for the stadium project). It's how they think things should be.

And if you don't think these elections matter, consider another example of the legislative process: the homeland security bill. This was at first a Democratic proposal rejected by the White House. Then they changed their minds, but insisted on a version of the bill which would set up this new security apparatus without civil service protections, allowing the administration to fill it with political drones with personal loyalty to them, and without whistleblower protection, lest anyone report cases where that personal loyalty runs away with them. And the Republicans in the Senate are now filibustering to get those provisions into the bill. If the Republicans gain a Senate majority, their bill will pass.

And if you aren't worried about what that could lead to, consider what happened in the first administration that featured both Cheney and Rumsfeld, which didn't have to deal with so many pesky reforms and controls. The Nixon administration, which turned law enforcement into a sewer of political dirty tricks, and proved the reforms to be necessary.

What's lost in the flood of sleaze from the Republicans, and the Democrats responding with more of the same, is that that's what hangs on control of the Senate. That and a whole lot more. If it doesn't sound like a good thing to you, get out and vote.

Late edit: quoted a bit more of the Phoenix editorial, added a little elsewhere.

One of the key points of the Bush case for an attack on Iraq is the claim that some unnamed al-Qaeda official was recently spotted in Baghdad. The Times today reminds us that a high al-Qaeda official, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, was hanging out in Karachi for months. The case for a preemptive attack on Pakistan gets ever stronger...

Thursday, October 31, 2002

So, let me get this straight.

When the Republicans come into office with an administration headed by cold war retreads like Rumsfeld and Cheney, both veterans of the Nixon administration, they are lauded as "putting the grownups back in charge", even though they mostly advocate economic policies that didn't really work for Reagan, and their foreign policy seems based, for the moment, on trying to build up the decrepit regime into the kind of global threat that the Soviet Union no longer provides.

When the Democrats find themselves running elder statesmen like Lautenberg and Mondale, essentially advocating policies that did work for Clinton much more recently, their friends like Robert Kuttner say that's proof that they're out of ideas.

It's a liberal making the critique, so it must be perfectly sensible.

Tuesday, October 29, 2002

The case that Iraq's nuclear program presents a threat to the United States gets clearer all the time. To summarize one strand of the skein of evidence so far:
  • Dubya claims that an IAEA report showed Iraq was "six months away" from getting a bomb.
  • Dana Milbanks, in the Washington Post, points out that no such report exists.
  • Ari Fleischer, misrepresenting Mr. Bush, avers that he was correctly reporting the results of another study by another organization, the IISS, and just got the name of the organization wrong.

Now comes Dwight Meredith, arguing for Mr. Milbanks, that:

  • The IISS report was released two days after Dubya supposedly quoted it.
  • What's more, if you actually read the IISS report, it says that Saddam is months away from having a bomb only if someone dumps the fissile raw material in his lap. He doesn't have it right now, and would need "several years and extensive foreign assistance" to build production facilities on his own soil.

To which Mr. Meredith ripostes that he himself is six months away from winning the Masters if someone would give him Tiger Woods's golf swing and putting stroke. Which, if anything, understates the case.

If you already have fissile material, there is no challenge in building a bomb. None. A Princeton undergraduate, working only from unclassified sources, produced a design for a working bomb in 1978. By the standards of the professionals at Los Alamos, it was, I'm sure, a lousy bomb, getting much less bang than it should have for the plutonium put into it, but the smallest conceivable nuke, deployed in the middle of a city, is still more than enough to ruin your day.

So, Fleischer, for Dubya, is claiming that Saddam must be ousted because of a report that says, in effect, that his best scientists know at least as much about nuclear weapons as a motivated Princeton undergraduate could glean from the open literature in 1978.

I've been skeptical before of claims that Saddam presents a clear and present danger to American citizens, or even American interests. But faced with this evidence, I'm forced to yield. Send in the battalions!

Monday, October 28, 2002

After Paul Krugman's "New Gilded Age" piece in the New York Times Magazine last week, they've published an article by Michael Lewis titled "In defense of the Boom", which is billed as a response.

Lewis starts out by discussing the role of the stock market in the dotcom boom, and the recent spate of lawsuits from Eliot Spitzer. He would like people to realize, for instance, that Merrill Lynch spent three years giving out realistic estimates of the true worth of dotcom stocks, before it started serving up the same stew of lies as everyone else. Not that he's saying any of that to emphasize Merrill's culpability; this is instead, like the title says, his attempt at a defense.

So, who is to blame for the crash? Why, the individual investors who forced --- yes, forced --- Merrill to start spewing nonsense about the market. On this view, Merrill was, in effect, paying its analysts not to try to figure out the true worth of companies, but rather just to tout the merits of stocks that seemed to be going up anyway, to make its customers more comfortable with their choices. And Merrill paid the analysts huge sums of money for this service. This is, again, what Lewis says in Merrill's defense.

(And this defense comes complete with a tendentious misreading of the email which Spitzer built his case on. Lewis quotes exactly one of these messages, and comes up with a twisted reading of that one message in which it just claims that the analysts are being bullish on the Internet. He also argues that Merrill's investment bankers were mere "incidential beneficiaries of the firm's new bullishness", as opposed to being beneficiaries of lies about specific companies. This strawman version of the case ignores the virtual festering heaps of more specific email also cited by Spitzer, in which Merrill's analysts describe specific companies which they were still touting enthusiastically in public as "junk", "crap", and worse, and in which specific bogus recommendations were tied directly to banking business. You don't have to look at the actual court documents to find that stuff, not that there's any particular difficulty in digging them up; those emails were widely quoted in the press, including the Times itself, at the time of the indictments. And yet Lewis claims that the one email he quotes is the only one of relevance to the case. Does the Times have fact checkers?)

And so it goes. In section II several companies, including Worldcom, are described as "afterthoughts: the boom could have just as easily happened without them." A page or two later, Worldcom proves to be the ultimate and only source for the false reports of tremendous Internet traffic growth which underlay much of the Internet-boom hysteria. A few pages after that, he argues that

...if speculators drive up the price of tech stocks to ridiculous heights, a result is vast numbers of young people with technical training and a lust for entrepreneurship, a higher social status for the entrepreneur and, uncoincidentally, many interesting business ideas that are at the moment ahead of their time but one day may well be right on it.

without pausing to consider which, if any of those effects are likely to survive the bust. Perhaps he should consult the vast numbers of young people who abandoned their formal education for what technical training it takes to get an MCSE, worked hundred-hour weeks for companies with bogus business plans pushed by entrepreneurs with the ethics of card sharps at best, and are left with a deep disgust for businessmen and business. They're not hard to find, if you have a will to look.

Lewis's best argument in defense of the net boom is that, like the railroad boom of a hundred years ago, it left a great deal of useful infrastructure and technology in its wake, along with the wrecked companies and ruined lives --- except that he doesn't have the historical sense to actually push the railroads as an analogy; they appear only in a list of successive booms which he uses to argue that reform is futile, since scandals keep happening anyway. Never mind that the effects had been getting less severe over time, at least up till this last one, which was marked by the undoing of earlier reforms. Perhaps Glass and Steagall knew what they were doing after all?

In short, the conservablogs which like to bash the Times have the makings of a truly fine rant in this piece. Which I expect to see on Andrew Sullivan's web site just as soon as hell freezes over...