Friday, August 01, 2003

A new candidate has declared himself in the race to replace embattled California governor Gray Davis. He's had a long career as a successful businessman, but he's also been involved in politics, having (among other things) been directly responsible for the downfall of a Speaker of the House. And he has a national reputation for his court fights in progressive causes. As the man says himself:

People know me. They know I've devoted most of my adult life fighting to expand the parameters of free speech. I took a bullet for the First Amendment. I'm concerned about our basic freedoms, the erosion that has taken place in the last few years. I would like to motivate people and get them more concerned.

And this guy certainly does know what drives people. Folks, give it up for Larry Flynt!

via Atrios.

There's more than one way to skin a cat. Dubya's administration has reduced unemployment significantly by convincing discouraged workers to abandon the labor force. (AP story here).
Arthur Diggins is a diagnosed schizoeffective. He explains:

I am Schizoeffective, which is like being Schizophrenic – delusional, paranoid, subject to The Voices – but with the added bonus of making me vulnerable to the symptoms of any number of other mental illnesses: Manic-Depressive Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Avoidant Personality Disorder, etc.

Naturally, he has a blog.

While his condition is severely debilitating, there are occasional minor compensations. For instance, when your voices are telling you that they're god, you have an opportunity to get real answers to some of those annoying questions that philosophers just can't seem to figure out:

ME: What about when bad things happen to innocent people – like when an earthquake wipes out thousands?

GOD: It happens. You think you’d be happy living in a perfectly safe, predictable creation? That’s like living in Disney World. You’d all commit suicide and then you’d all be dead, not just the few who are wiped out in wars and natural disasters.

ME: Few! Millions and millions are wiped out in wars! Can’t you at least stop that.

GOD: Yes. When a global currency goes into effect, wars will stop and more people will live. Then, I’ll have to send a plague. The planet’s only so big. Sorry. That’s the rules of the game I’ve devised and I have to follow them myself, or none of us have any fun at all.

via Diggins's old college classmate, Charles Kuffner

Dubya's crew keeps defining WMD down. The latest:

David Kay, a former United Nations inspector who is joint head of the Iraq Survey Group, offered an unprecedentedly optimistic assessment of the hunt for weapons of mass destruction.

Although he called for patience, he predicted that doubters were in for a "surprise" by the time his work was done.

What kind of surprise?

That evidence included documents detailing how to conceal arms plants as commercial facilities, and for restarting weapons production once the coast was clear, officials told reporters.

All of which were prominent features of Iraq's earlier weapons programs, which Saddam's regime readily acknowledged, claiming that they had all been shut down.

But let's take the claim at face value. This claim amounts to saying that Iraq was an immediate danger because, in the absence of inspectors, it could have started an effectively new weapons program from scratch. As could any government, anywhere in the world. And it also implies that simply continuing the inspections, at a vastly lower cost than the current occupation, would have been enough to prevent Iraq from acquiring WMD indefinitely.

And once again, this is a lot less than they claimed before the war, when Iraq supposedly had vast stocks of actual weapons ready to deploy in 45 minutes...

Thursday, July 31, 2003

Anyone who was annoyed to see government prerogatives usurped by the private diplomacy of folks like Jimmy Carter and Jesse Jackson ought to be really irked at the more recent Jerusalem jaunt of Tom "French? Moi?" De Lay. It seems he's not following the roadmap...
The changed tone in Washington, part 97:

When John Poindexter proposed a massive system to snoop on the financial records (among other things) of all American citizens, he was rebuffed by Congress, but doggedly hung on within the Pentagon.

When he proposed an artificial market which would pay people off for correctly predicting terrorist attacks, he got bounced in a hurry.

The former would have massively endangered peoples' constitutional rights. The latter got much more press.

Conditions, conditions, always conditions. Dubya offers to pick up the entire $300 million tab for deployment of Indian troops in Iraq, put an Indian general at CentCom, and let them share in the boodle from our exploitation reconstruction of our new protectorate. He tells them it will be the best thing for India since their nuclear tests. (Really, he did). And what comes back? Conditions.

They won't deploy without a UN mandate endorsed by the Security Council. Just like the Germans and French.

And now, this. The World Bank -- the frigging World Bank, which follows the policy lead of the US Treasury often enough that it's often considered an agent of US policy -- won't issue loans to any Iraqi authority until it meets its irrelevant, niggling, pusillanimous conditions:

The president of the World Bank, James D. Wolfensohn, suggested today that the bank would lend money for the reconstruction of Iraq only after the country writes a constitution and conducts national elections.

Hey, we have contracts to issue in Iraq! We're building a cell phone network, for crying out loud, and if we wait for the Iraqis to be able to make decisions on that sort of thing themselves, they might not give us the contract! You don't know what it's like, man. We just shut down a local company from Bahrain that had starting offering cell phone service in Baghdad on its own initiative. Man, that was close!

Say, Wolfensohn... doesn't that sound like a German name?

Wolfensohn's not totally off the reservation. He still favors privatization -- which is to say, selling off government assets to the highest bidder, which isn't likely to come from inside Iraq's borders. So it isn't as if he's asking for Iraqis to actually run their own major industries, or anything like that. But still... constitution? elections? What the...?

The self-proclaimed Democratic Leadership Council on internet-based activists:

"The Internet may be giving angry, protest-oriented activists the rope they need to hang the party," wrote Randolph Court in the DLC's bimonthly newsletter, The New Democrat Blueprint.

Digby on the DLC:

I sure wish that the Republicans had believed that about talk radio because then we’d hold both houses of congress, the presidency and the courts today.

Remember, the Democratic National Committee (the DNC) is the leadership of the party. The Democratic Leadership Council is a group of mush-mouthed pols of no firm convictions, who want you to think that they are the leadership of the party, and who are trying to move it from outside to the right, towards what they call a more "centrist" orientation. Given the extremism of the current Republican party leadership (Dubya, De Lay et al.), that means offering the public a choice between a Republican, and, well, a moderate Republican. Which wasn't the sort of strategy endorsed by this guy:

But they wouldn't have liked him anyway. Too confrontational. And above all, a sure loser. Just look at the headline.

We seem to be stuck, at least for the moment, in a jobless recovery; as even Alan Greenspan has noted, businesses with ready access to cash are simply declining to spend it on hiring new workers, in part because rising productivity means they don't have to, and in part because they're planning to hire, if at all, then in China. (Some recent good news may herald a change in that, but it'll be a few months yet before we know whether that was a blip or a trend).

In the middle of all this, it's worth remembering that not all American businesses, at all times, have had that attitude; some of them have been aware that it's not enough to produce stuff; you have to pay the workers enough to buy it. Douglas Brinkley's excellent new book on the history of Ford is a useful reminder that Ford management after World War I doubled workers' wages on its own initiative (the famous $5 day). Beyond that, while labor unions had been stumping for years for the eight hour day and five day week, it was Ford that introduced them to the auto industry -- again on its own initiative.

All of which makes Ford's subsequent, notoriously violent union busting even more peculiar -- and of course, not a whit more justified. But the past is a foreign country, and people there aren't always what we expect. Labor and race relations are both "left wing" nowadays, but many labor unions at the turn of the last century were notoriously racist. (As was the Democratic Party; Woodrow Wilson segregated the post office). Electric cars may sound good to us now, but Thomas Edison, of all people, thought they were a crock -- which, at the time, they were. And Ford's Model T, the famous "Tin Lizzie", owed its success to high tech vanadium steel.

Besides, Brinkley doesn't deny or excuse Ford's sins, which are there in abundance, including the union busting and the rabid antisemitism which had Adolf Hitler praising "Heinrich Ford" as an acolyte as early as 1923. Brinkley says he was offered the Ford Motor Company's assistance in covering everything, "warts and all". And in at least one sphere, he actually seems biased in favor of the warts -- the notorious safety problems with the Pinto are covered in detail, quite rightly, but the three solid pages on the Ford Falcon don't detail any of that car's pioneering safety features, like standard safety belts, which were controversial in the industry at the time.

(Nor was this all unique to Ford. The quiet cryptofascism of GM's Alfred Sloan, including funding for reactionary groups like the soi-disant Liberty Lobby, union busting (of course), and much more cordial relations with the actual Nazis than Ford ever had, were arguably more of a danger to the Republic than anything Ford did; see David Farber's briefer "Sloan Rules" for more on those topics).

The book's not perfect -- after World War II, in particular, it gets sloppy and perfunctory in places. The enormous influence (not entirely positive) of the financial executives known as the Whiz Kids deserves more coverage, for instance. But the early chapters on Ford, including the critical role of James Couzens in the early Ford Motor Company, are gems.

The past, as I said, is a foreign country. To one small piece of it, Brinkley offers a fine guided tour. It's worth the trip.

Warning: boring Enron-related material ahead. When drowsiness strikes, proceed to the next post.

Every time I comment on Robert Musil's latest Enron fantasy, as surely as night follows day, there quickly comes an enraged response, filled with even more egregious... gee, am I repeating myself?

At any rate, he's responded to my earlier remarks on the recent settlement between the SEC and Enron's bankers. Which, considering the way I pointed to him, is fair enough. But rhetorical tit-for-tat about the particulars would probably be less enlightening to anyone that actually gives a damn than a few basic facts on the transactions at issue.

First, the basics. These transactions were "disguised loans, ... understood to be disguised loans and approved as such." That's not my assessment, or the SEC's, it comes from email from a senior executive at Chase.

Second, the effects. While these transactions were effectively loans, they weren't carried on Enron's books as loans, but rather as potential liability for commodity deals. The effect of that treatment was to conceal an alarming run-up in Enron's debts. And, quoth securities law expert and Columbia prof John Coffee, that's not accident or sloppiness; the people involved acted "intentionally, knowingly, and fraudulently".

Third, as to the propriety of this accounting treatment, Musil is uncommonly fond of quoting out of an early Times report on the disguised loans that "Enron's accounting treatment conformed to existing recommendations from the Financial Accounting Standards Board", as if that proves it was undeniably kosher. Let's put that statement in context:

Enron's accounting treatment conformed to existing recommendations from the Financial Accounting Standards Board, the nation's accounting rule maker, said Timothy S. Lucas, director of research and technical activites at the board. But the group will soon reveal a new recommendation [i.e., rule], he said, requiring that such transactions be accounted for as loans as well. The board was reconsidering its policy last September, before Enron's collapse.

In other words, far from viewing the accounting treatment as kosher, the FASB had already marked it as suspect, and was in the process of banning it.

Lastly, on the settlement -- settling a regulatory action for chump change is generally a good deal if you can do it. But $300 million isn't chump change for anybody. Not even Chase and Citibank.

For the curious, in slightly more detail, the transactions at issue worked, crudely speaking, like this: Enron agreed to sell, say, natural gas to the bank for some amount, receiving payment immediately, but delivering the gas five years in the future. They would then agree to buy the same gas back from the bank for a greater amount, payable in five years. The net effect is that Enron has sold the gas to itself -- but it gets money from the bank now, and sends more money back in five years. In other words, it's a loan, using the gas as a kind of marker. The actual deals were complicated by the use of third-party entities in the Caribbean as sock puppets, to conceal the actual nature of the transactions even more by hiding the participants, but that doesn't change the basic nature of the scheme.

And one bit of tit for tat: Musil gleefully quotes Columbia prof John Coffee's statement that the banks got "a good deal" as if it means that they settled for chump change. But he said nothing about their actual culpability; the statement, in what little context the Times gives it, could just as easily be read to say that given the mess they were in, the banks were lucky to get off as lightly as they did. I have no explicit statement of Coffee's view of the banks' particular situation, though the remarks I've quoted above are perhaps suggestive; for one thing, he's not an entirely disinterested player, being a consultant for the defense in at least one Enron-related case. But his remarks in the Times only make sense if he thinks they still face hundreds of millions of dollars more in liability in the civil suits which are still pending...

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

The changed tone in Washington, part 96: When the New York Times argues for the dismissal of John Poindexter, it's on substantive policy grounds (they have doubts about the predictive value of terrorist dead pools), and not because of any peccadilloes or legal entanglements. Why, Poindexter's conviction for lying to Congress (later overturned on a technicality) rates barely a single tossed-off mention!

See also billmon on the role of cabinet secretaries (major ones, like Treasury) in Dubya's administration: a bus tour of Winsconsin promoting his tax cuts. Good thing they've got rid of Clinton's tawdry "permanent campaign" schtick...

And while at Billmon's, check out his take on a poll of "liberated" Iraqis:

So, close to 10% of the Baghdad population (let's say about 500,000 people, give or take) would rather be living in a Ba'athist police state, while almost two-thirds say they could go either way. That's what I call keeping your options open.

Bear in mind, like billmon, that the people answering this poll have many reasons for being less than completely candid...

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

A thought on the California recall election. Should, say, Darrell Issa, win in the recall, we can be sure that there will be a million Californians at least mad enough about the situation to recall Issa. In fact, it's so sure that you have to wonder, why wait? We might as well have those signatures ready for the very day they'll be needed, which means collecting in advance. Recall Issa now!

There's a reason why not: The outcome of this process would be a seething stew of competing recall drives which made it effectively impossible for state government to get anything done. This cannot be in the interest of anyone who favors good government. But plenty of Republican ideologues favor no government -- viz., for instance, Grover Norquist, who famously wants to strangle it in a bathtub. So for them, it's all good.

And then there are Republicans who just want power for themselves, at any cost, and may not be thinking ahead. In the words of Georgy "for gov" Russell,

Today our state faces a recall effort that stands as a right-hook to the already bloody nose of our democratic republic. Republicans who vigorously denounced as "undemocratic" the last minute replacement of Senate candidate Robert Toricelli before last year's election are now trying to replace a candidate after an election. Those who once attacked the do-as-you-please liberal culture have adopted that culture in full force, as long as it serves to increase their power.

Say what you will about Georgy, she makes a lot more sense than, say, Tom "French? Moi?" De Lay.

If anyone doubts that the criminal tactics of the American occupation force in Iraq are causing it problems, consider this report from Max Rodenbeck on the current occupant of Chemical Ali's palace. This is a guy who

... had spent many years in exile, hounded by Saddam's agents. His joy at the toppling of the Baath Party was apparent. He gushed about the debt of gratitude which he said all Iraqis should feel toward America. He professed deep respect for the local American commanding officer, a man he met with regularly. But did he trust the Americans? No.

With what consequence? This long-time exile was personally shielding Ezzat Ibrahim, a deputy of Saddam and the King of Clubs in the Pentagon's deck, from the occupiers. And while he didn't cop to that himself (his bodyguard had loose lips), he freely acknowledged knowing the locations of others:

"Why don't I tell the Americans? Because I am a son of Iraq and my children will be raised here. Perhaps in future I would be judged a traitor."

He paused, pushing away an empty coffee cup. "Look, fugitives from the old regime are being sheltered by tribes that owe them favors. It is not simply a matter of honor, or fear of retribution. The real problem is that the Americans won't say what they plan to do with their 'pack of cards.' Will they send them to Guantánamo? Will they just let them go? If we knew that these bloody criminals would be tried here by an Iraqi court, it would be a different story."

This article also blows up the neoconservative talking point that no one could have expected the chaos of postwar Iraq, pointing out that "Before the war, virtually every foreign policy think tank warned of the difficulty of reconstruction." (There's an impressive list of citations in a footnote). It's not all doom and gloom, by the way; Rodenbeck suggests that Bremer may be getting his act together, at long last. But it makes plain that we have a dug ourselves a very deep hole, and we'll be a long while getting back to the surface. Well worth reading.

Let's suppose that you had spent a couple of years toiling in the service of neo-Nazi splinter groups. And let's say that that had ended when you were exposed to your fellow jackbooted thugs as the son of a Jew from the Boston burbs named Greenbaum. The question comes: Is there a lower depth to which you could sink?

Yes! You could get yourself a brand new, high tech career sending out millions of spam ads for penis enlargers!

Life is full of possibilities...

Once again, you read it here first.

Bill Kristol, July 28, 2003:

Almost two weeks ago, the president ordered his White House staff to bollix up its explanation of that now-infamous 16-word "uranium from Africa" sentence in his State of the Union address. As instructed, and with the rhetorical ear and political touch for which they have become justly renowned, assorted senior administration officials, named and unnamed, proceeded to unleash all manner of contradictory statements. The West Wing stood by the president's claim. Or it didn't. Or the relevant intelligence reports had come from Britain and were faulty. Or hadn't and weren't. Smelling blood, just as they'd been meant to, first the media--and then the Democratic party--dove into the resulting "scandal" head first and fully clothed.

Charles Dodgson, April 26, 2002:

The true Bush diplomatic strategy, [his defenders] claim, is deep and complex, and cannot be understood by simply taking the administration's public positions at face value. It is an elaborate series of bluffs, feints, and jabs, a kind of diplomatic blindfold chess, at once treacherous and Machiavellian in its methods, and nobly Jeffersonian in its outlook and aspirations -- which just happens to require, at this point in time, in service of its recondite tactics, that the President appear to be a dim-witted rube who agrees with whatever he most recently heard from anyone with a manly voice and a firm handshake.

(via Nitpicker)

Oh, and while I'm taking care of old business, remember my former bête noir, who made a big splash in the blogsphere by claiming that there couldn't possibly be major fraud at Enron?

One piece of "evidence" which he trotted out again and again was that:

For the "fraud" hypothesis to be correct, hundreds -- if not thousands -- of employees and professionals at many levels of society had to be in the conspiracy and had to keep quiet for years, notwithstanding the constant threat of exposure to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Citibank and JP Morgan -- the latter two of which had extensive contractual rights to audit and investigate Enron.

And of course major banks would never get involved in anything untoward.

Cut to today's news:

After more than a year of criminal and regulatory investigations, the nation's two largest banks agreed yesterday to pay almost $300 million in fines and penalties to settle accusations that they aided Enron in misrepresenting its true financial condition for years before the company collapsed.

The settlements, with J. P. Morgan Chase and Citigroup, are the broadest to date reached with advisers that played roles in the financing and structuring of the off-the-books partnerships and transactions that contributed significantly to the collapse of Enron in December 2001.

But of course, that appears in the New York Times -- and my bête noir had plenty to say about them as well; their overheated, "quasi-tabloid" accounts of supposed shenanigans at Enron were always, always, always based on misunderstandings of basic finance (why, his own colleagues had a complete understanding of Enron's deals based solely on the company's public statements!). Perhaps this, too, is just another mistake. I look forward to his elucidation of the matter. I've missed his brand of comedy...

Update: He does not disappoint! To most people, the $300 million payment would be a sign that the banks knew they were in hot water, and the lack of a formal guilty plea would be a technicality. To this guy, it's the reverse; the banks have, for some strange reason, agreed to pay $300 million to regulators who "have nothing, nothing at all, and know it" (his boldface), and their failure to extract a guilty plea is positive proof. Note particularly the rhetorical pirouette in which "the banks neither admitted nor denied any wrongdoing" somehow becomes a protest of innocence. Aside from that, he largely repeats arguments I've already dealt with elsewhere. If you like that sort of thing, then those posts are the sort of thing you like, though it doesn't provide nearly the amusement value of simply reading his original screed straight up in the light of subsequent events.

Update: And he's at it again. More comments here.

Monday, July 28, 2003

Last fall, I wrote:

But it's not as if Cheney and Rumsfeld are just Bush I retreads trying to redo the Gulf War. It's important to remember they're older than that. They are, in fact, Nixon administration retreads trying to redo Vietnam -- a war where technical superiority and early large set-piece victories (the lonesome cry of the cold war hawk: "The Tet offensive was a military defeat for the Viet Cong!") didn't exactly prefigure success...

And now, a voice from the field:

We have been hit 18 of the last 19 days. I feel like I am at Da Nang or Phu Bai. It just sucks. Luckily, "only" about 45 people have been hurt. Yeah, a lot, but considering how many they lob in here, that is not too bad. It is wearing on me along with the constant oppressive heat, no sleep, no food (yeah, they shut off our food resupply without any warning, things are getting slim, we are fine but it is not a good feeling to have so little spare food and water) and spending every night and day now trying to dodge mortars. More than half a month under siege and luckily we are all still safe.

They have frozen all redeployments, so no one is going anywhere anytime soon, and our Congress goes on vacation July 25 so nothing is going to happen until mid fall. Not what we all want to hear out here. We are under siege out here, without supplies, without a mission and we can only roll the dice so many times and not get our (expletive) shot. More and more body bags and amputees will be coming home.

The past is prolog...

Letter via Lambert at Eschaton.

Life in Ashcroft's America:

Last April 3, at UMass Boston, a couple of military recruiters tried to intimidate a student who was distributing anti-military leaflets, with a few cops standing nearby. The student called a professor, and nonviolent activist, Tony van der Meer, over to assist. Accounts differ as to what happened next.

According to the recruiters and cops, the professor assaulted the cops without provocation, and was arrested for it.

According to just about everyone else at the scene, the recruiter said that the student "should be shot in the head like Martin Luther King", and the cop slammed van der Meer on the ground without any provocation whatever.

Van der Meer goes on trial November 6th.

And shame on me for not blogging this a few weeks ago, when it showed up in the Weekly Dig, Boston's alternative to the major alternative newspaper, the Phoenix, which I've linked to above.

Sunday, July 27, 2003

Life in the responsibility administration:

When Mr. Tenet issued a statement on July 11 assuming responsibility for the State of the Union passage concerning African uranium, he was following in a long tradition of C.I.A. directors: taking blame for intelligence lapses that embarrass the president.

"Somebody had to step up to this, and it couldn't be the president," observed one intelligence official, adding, "It's an appropriate thing for George to do."

So, according to Republicans, it's only Democratic Presidents who don't have the privilege of shifting blame onto subordinates...