Monday, September 29, 2008

The first of many?

Fareed Zakaria calls for Palin to bow out. Will there be a cascade effect? I don't think McCain could survive it.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Lessons from this week's Friedman column

When Thomas Friedman needs "reminding of the real foundations of the American Dream," he turns to -- surprise! -- fellow seven-plus-figure entrepreneurs with ponderous extended metaphors:
Our economy is like a car, added Sridhar, and the financial institutions are the transmission system that keeps the wheels turning and the car moving forward. Real production of goods that create absolute value and jobs, though, are the engine.

“I cannot help but ponder about how quickly we are ready to act on fixing the transmission, by pumping in almost one trillion dollars in a fortnight,” said Sridhar. “On the other hand, the engine, which is slowly dying, is not even getting an oil change or a tuneup with the same urgency, let alone a trillion dollars to get ourselves a new engine. Just imagine what a trillion-dollar investment would return to the economy, including the ‘transmission,’ if we committed at that level to green jobs and technologies.”

So just in case you were worried, there is a vast reserve army of Friedmans which the punditry can draw upon to depress intelligence levels.

But that's not really what this post is about. Rather, I was struck by this passage:
“Infants and the elderly who are disabled obsess about survival,” said Sridhar. “As a nation, if we just focus on survival, the demise of our leadership is imminent. We are thrivers. Thrivers are constantly looking for new opportunities to seize and lead and be No. 1.” That is what America is about.
I personally always derive satisfaction from seeing the helpless and disabled used as a foil for the dynamism of capitalism. But there's a more general point here as well. While the first thing I was reminded of here was Aristotle's comment in the Politics that states exist, not for the sake of mere life, but for living well , I realized that that was merely a superficial similarity. In fact, there were few Greeks who would have spoken in Sridhar's terms. It may be an irreconcilable difference between the ancient and modern worlds that the ancients could not extricate themselves from the web of communal and familial obligations (to their children, to their elders) which shaped and largely directed their way of life. Sure, "thriving" was a goal to be pursued beyond mere "surviving," as Aristotle saw, but there was a set of pretty clearly defined and delimited qualities that entailed thriving: self-sufficiency, territorial autonomy, the ability to participate in politics, freedom (inasmuch as this was possible) from menial labor.

This relatively conservative outlook, and the social structure that enabled it (i.e. slavery, even/especially in the case of democracy), ensured that there would be no constant drive to "succeed and lead and be No.1" in "new" ways, particularly in the realm of "economics" (if we can speak of such a thing). We owe our modern existence in large part -- I'm not discounting technology -- to the Sridharian attitude of willful disregard for the ties that bind. In the face of tradition, the entrepreneur must set at nought all its counsel, and would none of its reproof.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Closet Intellectual or Unable to Get Her Anti-Intellectual Talking Points Straight: Or, the Passion of Sarah Palin II

As a good American citizen living in America's heartland, I thought Sarah Palin's response to Katie Couric's question about her foreign policy credentials (never having traveled abroad, never having received a passport until recently) was predictable and even somewhat justified:
I'm not one of those who maybe came from a background of, you know, kids who perhaps graduate college and their parents give them a passport and give them a backpack and say go off and travel the world. No, I've worked all my life.... I was not part of, I guess, that culture.
Fair enough. The Republican Party, from country-bumpkin Mitt Romney to born-in-a-canal-zone John McCain, has attacked the Democrats as foreign-language speaking, rich, snobbish, and bookish elitists.
(To be clear, I have no problem with Sarah Palin. She's right that a background of having traveled abroad might require things like wealth, which she did not have. Fortunately, non-privileged people can one day grow up to become presidents (she being an excellent case in point) and the reason that they can talk about foreign affairs and traveling the world is in large part because ... they have foreign policy experience. They've been in government for long enough that they've gained this experience. They, like most politicians, are eventually sent abroad a dozen times, or five dozen times. Sarah Palin, if she continued on as governor, would presumably acquire this kind of experience in the coming years. I have no problem with Sarah Palin. I have a problem with Sarah Palin as Vice President of the United States of America.)

But because Palin lacks experience and longevity in the White House, her only legitimate talking point is to refer back to the culture wars. Knowing about the ins and outs of foreign countries is what that other culture does. We real Americans trust our gut about such things. We believe in freedom and democracy and if you're a foreign country you either believe these things or you don't. That's all I need to know.

Except, this is not what Palin went onto say at all. In the most shocking move of her campaign she admitted that
the way I have understood the world is through education, through books, through mediums that have provided me a lot of perspective on the world
Wait. What? Here we have a woman who in one sentence conjures up the idea of a liberal, latte drinking, college educated, backpacking culture and in the very next acknowledges she understands the world through ... education and books. Now, either she's emphasizing the old, Will Hunting belief in auto-didacticism over formal education, or she's broken with Republican rhetoric--that which takes pride in not reading economic plans, or books in general. Here, she admits that reading and thinking about world problems (intellectualizing them, if you will) should be a qualification for president. Indeed, the only qualification for president at least vis-a-vis foreign policy views.

University professors, bookworms, and Barack Obama: Rejoice! Sarah Palin knows what it's like to be accused of not knowing about "real world" but only studying it in books. She understands that no matter how much time you've spent abroad, you'll never fully understand that experience without surrounding yourself with that country's literature and history. Indeed, she understands that reading itself is a form of travel, an escape from the narrow confines of the Alaskan frontier or of suburban malaise. Here, finally, is the intellectual's candidate. That, or she just got talking points mixed up.

(Update: Not sure why the formatting came out all weird. Sawry.)

Thursday, September 25, 2008


Monday, September 22, 2008

Tony Scott on DFW

The best sentence I've read in recent memory:
He was smarter than anyone else, but also poignantly aware that being smart didn’t necessarily get you very far, and that the most visible manifestations of smartness — wide erudition, mastery of trivia, rhetorical facility, love of argument for its own sake — could leave you feeling empty, baffled and dumb.
Update: This is appropriately absurd and hilarious.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Thoughts on the Mother of All Bailouts

I just realized that no one is talking about a critical issue regarding this rescue package. There is a possibility the program will not work. Here's why:

The banks are allowed to, right now, swap the same bad assets that the Fed would be buying in the bailout, for cash from the Federal Reserve. So why aren't they doing it and unloading this shit off their books?

Well, the reason is because no one wants to reveal the actual "market" price of the bad bonds(CDOs, subprime securitized bonds, other securitized assets). Because as of now, the valuations of these bonds are insanley high - citigroup has valued them at 61 cents on the dollar, but Lehman valued theirs at 39 cents on the dollar, even though everyone is holding similar packaged bonds. The fact of the matter is that the banks don't want to swap the stuff to the Fed for cash because then they would have to reveal the reality - the bonds are worth next to nothing - and if they had to face up to reality, then every banking institution would be bankrupt.

So now Paulson is establishing this fund that is supposed to buy them up. At what prices? If the price is too high, like the absurd 61 cent valuation by Citigroup, then there wont be enough of the 700 billion to go around because there is a lot of this stuff out there - citigroup has over 1 trillion in off balance sheet shit, Wachovia alone has 122 billion in problem securitized shit.

So, while the bailout will obviously help, it may not be the cure and there may be much more turmoil to face. It all depends on the price the Treasury is willing to buy them at - and if the price is too high then there wont be enough of the money to go around for it to be a cure persay, but will definitely help, especailly if they are willing to pay ridiculously high prices.

And I hope they aren't, cause that would just be a total screwing of our money and our government for these corporations. In short, and I am surprised to say this, I do not think the plan is big enough to cure the problem and quell the issues of solvency for many of the bigger banks.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

MEND Destroys Elem-Kalabari Oil Pipeline

Elem-Kalabari is a sigificant area for the Kalabari, an Ijo-speaking people, who have inhabited the area for over 500 years. The Kalabari were major players in the transatlantic trade along the western african coast from the 15th to 19th centuries, acting as crucial middlemen. Their competetiveness came from the establishment of giant canoe houses which provided the boasts for the trade and for war purposes and were organized like a modern day corporation with managers and all. Thus, the Ijo culture became more developed and ingrained in the area.

So you see their problem with oil companies taking over their land for their own personal profit and simultaneously exerting outside economic and cultural influence on their geography.


"Subsection (b) of section 3101 of title 31, United States Code, is amended by striking out the dollar limitation contained in such subsection and inserting in lieu thereof $11,315,000,000,000."

Title 31 referes to the debt ceiling. The United States is now raising our debt ceiling to 11.3 trillion from 10.5 trillion. Under Bush, the national debt has risen from 5 trillion to 11.3 trillion.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Saturday, September 13, 2008


Lehman is going bye bye in the next 7 days. Next up is WaMu. FDIC doesnt have enough money to support the deposits at WamU. Lehman will default on its debt if it doesnt find a buyer. Say Hello to the beginnings of the CDS meltdown, the crisis that will put this country into a severe recession or depression.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Schooling Obama

A couple of thoughts on the occasion of Barack Obama's major speech on education. For one, I thought the speech was disappointing. In the world of education policy makers there are two camps:

- First, those who think that improving student outcomes will come about chiefly through reforming schools (getting better teachers, improving curricula and pedagogical techniques, etc.), and
- Second, those who think that student outcomes will come about chiefly through improving factors outside of schools that affect children (their health, their parents, their activity choices before and after school, etc.).

I unashamedly stand in this latter camp, more or less signing onto what has been touted as the "Broader, Bolder Approach to Education". Coming from these sets of concerns and policy ideas, I found Obama's speech excessively wonkish and school focused. There were no bad ideas, of course--it's not like those in the second camp are opposed to reforms internal to the schools. Far from it. But it was disappointing that Obama didn't even really address the concerns of those who believe educational performance can be improved mainly through more holistic and comprehensive approaches.

Fortunately, there's much to suggest that Obama is a bit more of a second-camper than
he may lead on. Nevermind how the right is obsessed with linking Obama to Bill Ayers when the two sat on a board overseeing a school reform experiment. That project, too, was rather school focused, as a quick browse of the project's own report. As the New York Times Magazine reports, Obama has quietly allied himself with a number of advisers who emphasize human capital development, increased intervention into early childhood and parenting, medical care, and expanded after-school options. This, coupled with more substantial (and ultimately more important) policies that will hopefully raise the income of the poorest in society, will make a far greater difference in not leaving children behind than anything else.

I'd be interested to hear if anyone else has opinions on where they stand vis-a-vis these two camps. I'm typically one interested in building syntheses out of oppositions, but I can't seem to dialectically break these bricks. The evidence (and I'd be happy to go further into this) and my intuition just seem incontrovertible.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Inequality, the Federal Government, and the Republican Party: Or, the Passion of Sarah Palin

Having temporarily stoppoed fawning over Satyam, Matt Yglesias has linked to an interesting article indeed by David Frum in the NYT Magazine about income inequality and the Republican Party. Frum, a conservative, joins the ranks of Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam as Republicans concerned that they might lose a generation of voters if they don't address issues of income inequality soon.

Frum, Douthat, and Salam are no fools. Unlike 98% of conservative intellectuals, they understand that Republicans doing well in politics is rather well correlated with low rates of inequality and white middle class to upper-middle class incomes. What they don't seem to understand is that they're exposing the very foundations that is the Big Lie of Republican politics, opening the pandora's box to the hypocrisy and sleight of hand that has kept the GOP in control for the last half century. Here, friends, is a story that begins in the South and Southwest and takes us all the way north to the very edge of the American West. Let's look at some stuff!

The picture is a bit blurry and small, but what's important are those little red dots that seem strangely conspicuous in the Deep South and Southwest. These are what are commonly called "massive military bases" and their locations are not accidental. They are just one of the many ways the Federal Government has historically provided large subsidies to traditionally poor and environmentally hostile places. These two regions in particular, along with Alaska (more on that later), owe a great deal of their development into modern states to the federal government: the South for aiding it in transforming itself from a slave-based, agrarian, and by 1864 war-devastated place to a place of more or less equal prosperity as anywhere else in the U.S.; and the Southwest for turning a rather inhospitable land (through defense dollars and federal works projects) into the fastest-growing area of the United States.

Kevin Phillips, who we owe a great deal to both explaining and realizing this reality, understands the relationship between federal dollars and Republican politics perfectly. As the former Nixon strategist/right-wing prophet wrote two years ago, referring to his 1968 book The Emerging Republican Majority:
I coined the term "Sun Belt" to describe the oil, military, aerospace and retirement country stretching from Florida to California.... If any new alignment had the potential to nurture a fusion of oil interests and the military-industrial complex, it was the Sun Belt, which helped draw them into commercial and political proximity and collaboration.
The Sun Belt is a big and complicated place. Beside the oil rig and the defense industry mandarin stands the evangelical, the geriatric, and the immigrant. To get a clearer picture of what's going on let's turn to a simpler place that I think shares many of the same characteristics.

Where else but Alaska do we get such an odd cauldron of federal intervention, welfare-state benefits, and steadfast Republicanism? I'm hoping the Palin rise to power and the attention on Alaska manages to shed some light on the curious paradox I'm referring to, because in many ways there's no better place to look than this absolute folly of a state.

Nowhere, we are told, do people so distrust big government (feds or not) as in Alaska, which has voted for the Republican presidential candidate in every election in its existence with the exception of Johnson's '64 landslide.

Yet nowhere do we find citizens benefiting more from federal tax coffers and largess than Alaska. Alaskans enjoy the lowest taxes in the nation along with the highest federal expenditures (and earmarks) per capita. For every year that an Alaskan spends thanking their lucky stars they've avoided the tyranny of big government and the welfare-dependent inner cities of continental America, they receive a check from the government for $3200 in Alaska. To put it simply, as Time Magazine's Michael Kinsley observes, "Alaska's government spends money on its own citizens and taxes the rest of us to pay for it."

With Alaska in mind, we return to Frum. The GOP's two-step secret to success is as follows:
1) Raise all ships and reduce inequality among Sun Belt (and Alaskan) white folks through huge (often Democratically initiated) federal subsidies and welfare checks, and then
2) Persuade these beneficiaries that any redistributionist/government subsidized economic activity is dangerous, liberal, socialist, and contrary to American values.

The beauty, of course, is that you can't have the ideology (2) without the redistribution (1) in the first place. The Republican Party simply wouldn't have the votes to survive if it weren't for the massive federal intervention necessary to raise people to a certain income level that they can no longer care about people worse off than them receiving the same sorts of benefits they did. Here, I think, is an explanation for Republican political domination that includes race as a factor, and yet doesn't overestimate it as an explanatory tool in the way Paul Krugman, for example, does.

What's alarming about seeing the Republican rise through this prism is that--as the Sheriff and I were discussing the other day--it sort of ruins the liberal fantasy world of "if we can only educate people and make them wealthier, they'll be like us!" It seems to me that a lot of wealth and education have been going to a lot of people I've been talking about in this post. Probably, I presume, a lot of these people can proudly call themselves one of the 150,000,000 Americans who say today that they intend to vote for the Republican Party. The party of Sarah Palin. She, who in one sentence, "thanks, but no thanks [to the Bridge to Nowhere]," manages to capture all of the wonder of standing principally against something after they were for it, and while they use its funds to distribute to Alaska's healthy Republican citizens. Here's to hoping that the media exposes these lies for what they are and continues to untangle this rather unbecoming web of GOP ideology.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Notes on the Convention

* When Mitt Romney says, "It's time for the party of big ideas, not the party of Big Brother!", I wonder if the words "self awareness" continue to have meaning. Romney also said early on his speech, "Is government spending - excluding inflation - liberal or conservative if it doubles since 1980? It's liberal!" This is certainly an interesting point, although Republicans, of course, have governed for 20 of those 28 years. The entire beginning of the speech is a bizarre exercise in purist ideology -- the past quarter century is made to be a slow, steady creep of "liberalism," while the conservatism which has undoubtedly reigned is but a mere shadowy "becoming" of an Ideal conservative "being."

* I'm still trying to figure out the role of Joe Lieberman and his speech. It's not like I don't despise him, but there was really nothing very offensive about the speech itself -- and that's the weird part. Just consider some of the other speakers who have "stepped across the aisle" for a convention, as well as their motives: Zell Miller, whose 2004 speech seems to have consisted of a strand of thinking somewhat along the lines of "BLEEAARRRGHHH," was essentially saying that Democrats were blaming America first and not supporting the troops. His purpose was thus mainly to give a typical Republican speech, but have a little "(D)" next to his name. Former Iowa Republican Representative Jim Leach spoke Monday the 25th in Denver, basically to say that, while he held substantial policy differences with the Democratic party, he considered the Bush administration -- and McCain by extension -- dangerous, as well as betrayers of conservative principle. This speech's meaning was, roughly, "I don't agree with you, but God save us from the alternative." Douglas Kmiec is another example of this.

Lieberman wasn't doing either of these things. He was actually saying, "John McCain is the choice for bipartisanship, and not only that, but the choice for liberals, too!" Even Charles Krauthammer found this weird. Why would a bunch of bloodthirsty RNC delegates want to hear about McCain cooperating with Democrats? Lieberman even said,
"If John McCain was another go-along partisan politician, he never would have led the fight to fix our broken immigration system or actually do something about global warming. But he did." But the Republican base hates immigration reform. Rush Limbaugh led a "populist" call-in to halt the very legislation John McCain worked on. And Palin is a goddamn denialist when it comes to global warming! I think the bipartisanship meme must actually have some substance behind it. Marked, even substantial, compromise to hardcore right-wing principles is probably one of the only ways the G.O.P. thinks it can reach enough swing voters. If true, this is a good thing, because they've acknowledged a "leftward" trend in the electorate.

* Giuliani's accusation that Democrats were too cowardly to call terrorists "Islamic terrorists" made me realize that the whole "un-PC" movement is for conservatives the structural and functional equivalent of "speaking truth to power" for liberals. And that is quite sad. Orwell once said that "if you want a vision of the [totalitarian] future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face -- forever." Now I realize that we're supposed to treat Orwell super reverently, but I've always sort of thought that the boot-on-face treatment would be a pretty fitting reserved circle of hell for Rudy.

* Because I had nothing else to do, I listened to Lindsey Graham's speech on the radio. The most interesting bit was his statement that "those who predicted failure, voted to cut off funding for our troops, and played politics with our national security will be footnotes in history." This strangely echoed Trotsky's jab at the Mensheviks that they would end up in the "dustbin of history." Graham's biggest rhetorical sticking point was the troop surge, which has come up time and again. However, does anyone know how well this point works? With the Presidential race underway polls have shied away from Iraq, but the last I understood, people want out of it. If the surge has not delivered an exit, and it hasn't, what good is it? The importance of the surge hinges on the way it can be tied to a hypothetical defeat that the US would have suffered otherwise. As long as the picture can be painted that, had not the surge been executed, al Qaeda/Iran would have "won," then we can continue to live in the "best of all possible worlds," and the war can proceed indefinitely. I don't know how well this will work, honestly. It's not for nothing that the Democrats have nominated a consistently anti-war candidate out of the dozens of authorizers, flip-floppers, hawks, and just plain crazies who inhabit the Democratic party. (It's equally not for nothing that one of those is also the Vice President.) That might be the fault of the Democratic base or it might reflect wider preferences.

* The 400-odd people who have been beaten and arrested this year, including journalists, represent a vicious authoritarian trend, but let's not forget that the 2004 RNC saw 1800 people arrested by the authorities, which perhaps D'Mardree can elaborate for us.

* Well, I've now had the chance to read McCain's speech (this is a real-time post!), and, as per my comments on the Lieberman speech, I think this is what we should expect: a tone of "civility" (perfectly calculated, of course), "reasonableness," and "modesty" from a political party now realizing that it can't win elections on the "I'm the biggest asshole in this room" platform anymore. Normally I'd say that this should be standard operating procedure for electoral politics, but considering everything that has happened in the past 8 years, and thus acknowledging the absolute sham nature of this pose on McCain's part, I don't have anything nice to say. It's not even gratifying, because you know that there will still be plenty of attack dogs in the Republican party who will lash out at Obama at the same time as gentle old Grandpappy John bounces America on his knee.

It's my belief that both parties, faced with what might be called an actual crisis moment in the economy (or prelude to a crisis), want to bring everything down a few notches. The Republican party no longer feels it can do as easily or ruthlessly what it is used to doing, i.e. massively redistributing wealth upwards, because the Democrats can actually successfully attack such behavior this election season. In fact, the Democrats will almost certainly win anyway, so the Republicans are desperately trying to regain some "common ground" with swing voters (or at least, their Presidential nominee is). Furthermore, if societal and economic ills can be blamed on "Washington" (viz. Romney and McCain's speeches) then McCain/Palin can still (perversely) run on a "change" ticket, based on solid "common sense."

The Democrats are not using this unusually conciliatory stance by the Republicans to push the party to the left. I believe that the party is fully confident in Obama's ability to secure and placate the base, as well as bring out new voting blocs, especially people of color. The excitement of defeating Bush and ushering in change (which means, in part, a black president) means that the party base won't ask too many questions or demand too much. Thus, although Obama is not substantially different from previous Democratic candidates, he seems that way, and that is somewhat of a salve, or sop as the case may be. His economics are basically Clintonomics adjusted for new circumstances, with a few differences in weight and emphasis, as one would expect: when you use a formula with a different set of variables, you get a different set of outcomes. The prospect of four or eight more years of Clintonism may excite some people, but it will leave others feeling underwhelmed. Obviously the opportunities for progressive pressure will be greater with an Obama presidency, but rest assured, this party will not give an inch if it thinks it has elections in the bag. The Democratic vision is to give people enough to be manageable; the Republicans want to fool people into demanding even less.