Saturday, January 31, 2009

Raiding the Cookie Jar

Let’s see: 65,000 jobs — at least — were lost this week, as one company after another announced impending layoffs. The recession is deepening. Banks have lost billions — with the end to the losses nowhere in sight. Government is throwing the kitchen sink at the economy, trying desperately to revive it. And Wall Street has handed out $18.4 billion in bonuses, the sixth-largest total ever. What’s wrong with this picture?

Joe Nocera, business columnist wrote the above on his NYT blog. Of course, anyone can see what's wrong. But you see, the denizens of Wall Street have never seen things the way a normal person does, because they are basically amoral when it comes to money. They'll take it anyway they can.

But in this case, it's not that they were oblivious to the appearance of it all. I think they knew that this would be the last chance they would have in a long time to raid the cookie jar. Because the cookie jar is being put away under lock and key.

I say let's make these thieves give the money back. It's our money, not theirs.

A Different Recession

Absent a large stimulus package, most economists expect the nation’s output to shrink not only in the first half of the year, but in the second half as well. In April, the recession would become the longest since the 1930s. Until now, the record, 16 months, was shared by the severe recessions of 1974-75 and 1981-82. This one began in December 2007 as employment peaked and began to fall.

It's weird, but given that I was 23 and 30, respectively, during the previous recessions, I have no memory of there being a recession at the time. I was simply not aware of it. It didn't affect me, I guess. In the first case, we were in Greenville, PA, where Mary Beth was finishing up her college degree and I was working at the local hospital, and in the second, we were in Syracuse, NY, where I was going to graduate school.

But this recession is not like those at all. They were not preceded by bubbles, at least I don't think they were. This one seems to be fundamentally different. But do our brilliant economists, who never saw this one coming, know that it is different and must be solved differently? I doubt it. They seem to be stuck in a box of neo-liberal economic theories, oblivious to common sense. (And after all, they're not hurting financially themselves of course.)

But Obama has the kind of pragmatic, curious mind that he'll probably figure it out himself and singlehandedly explain to his economists, whose 'eyes will be opened.' At least I hope so.

No Going Back to the Bubble

Business investment, commercial construction, home building and exports all fell steeply, most of them doing so for the first time since the recession began 13 months ago. Data released this week suggested that the decline had continued. As for consumer spending, in only one other quarter since records were first kept in 1947 have final sales of goods and services produced in America fallen so much.

This economic contraction is the result of a huge economic bubble deflating. Reinflating it, even if it were possible (and it's not), wouldn't be a good thing, because it was a terribly wasteful use of resources. Does anyone think there needs to be more suburban housing built, and who could afford it since they're no longer giving away crazy mortgages to people without checking their incomes? Does there need to be more stores (commercial buildings) built? How can 'consumers' continue their wild spending spree since there is no more money to borrow from their rising home equity and credit cards are tapped out? How will anyone save for retirement if they don't start saving a whole lot and spending that much less?

Common sense tells you that much of this contraction of consumer spending (and everything resulting from it) is going to continue and, frankly, should continue. Stop trying to 'stimulate' the economy, as if it were a heart that has stopped beating and only needs to start beating again. The 'heart' that stopped beating in this case was an enlarged, fatally diseased heart that is dead, dead, dead.

There needs to be a different metaphor used than 'stimulate'. Perhaps 'transplant,' as in transplant a new heart into this economy. Or 'transform' this crazy, unhealthy, overbuilt economy into a German- or Swedish- like economy that is lean, efficient, high-quality, balanced, etc. Transforming this economy of ours from an unhealthy, consumerist, energy-gorging, environmental-destroying economy into a green, healthy, energy-sipping, 21st century, thing of beauty wouldn't happen overnight, but it could happen. Could.

Funny Numbers

Ah yes, the GDP. I told you those are funny numbers. Well, here is one little explanation of why government numbers don't often accurately describe reality:

The actual decline in the gross domestic product — at a 3.8 percent annual rate — fell short of the 5 to 6 percent that most economists had expected for the fourth quarter. But that was because consumption collapsed so quickly that goods piled up in inventory, unsold but counted as part of the nation’s output.

“The drop in spending was so fast, so rapid, that production could not be cut fast enough,” said Nigel Gault, chief domestic economist at IHS Global Insight. “That is happening now, and the contraction in the current quarter, as a result, will probably exceed 5 percent.”

What is happening before your very eyes is usually a more accurate guide to reality than government numbers.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Radio Interview with Jimmy Carter on the Middle East

You can access here an hour long radio interview with President Jimmy Carter discussing his new book on Middle East peace on the Diane Rehm Show. I find his perspective to be as truly objective as anyone could possibly be. (Click on either the 'Real Audio' or 'Windows Media' link beside the program to go straight to the audio on your computer.)

Radio Debate on the Economic Crisis

Here is a hour long radio program of the Diane Rehm Show on the economic crisis with some guests giving very educated, albeit quite differing opinion on the causes and solutions. Very informative. (Click on either the 'Real Audio' or 'Windows Media' link beside the 10 AM show to go straight to the audio on your computer.)

Be Patient Please

Paul Krugman writes in the NYT:

Which raises a question: Why has the Obama administration been silent, at least so far, about one of President Obama’s key promises during last year’s campaign — the promise of guaranteed health care for all Americans?

To which I respond, Paul, give him a break! He's been President for all of 10 days!!!! They probably haven't even all found their desks and computers yet.

Inadequate Calculator

This is rich. I went to enter into my pocket calculator the figure of 900 billion dollars so that I could divide it by 300 million, to see how much each American would get if the government simply gave each citizen his portion directly?

I couldn't even enter billions into my calculator, it didn't have enough space for all the digits. That's how astronomical are these amounts we're talking about.

Where Will the Growth Come From?

One of the fundamental questions of the economy is where will new growth come from. Old sources of growth don't seem to be available anymore. This a long piece in the NYT Magazine and well worth reading. Alas, what I've read so far doesn't take into account the whole problem of peak oil and more expensive energy coming very soon, which is going to be a drag on economic growth, and highlights the desperate need for clean, alternative energy and intensive conservation efforts.

Yet there are real concerns that the United States’ economy won’t grow enough to pay off its debts easily and ensure rising living standards, as happened in the postwar decades. The fraternity of growth experts in the economics profession predicts that the economy, on its current path, will grow more slowly in the next couple of decades than over the past couple. They are concerned in part because two of the economy’s most powerful recent engines have been exposed as a mirage: the explosion in consumer debt and spending, which lifted short-term growth at the expense of future growth, and the great Wall Street boom, which depended partly on activities that had very little real value.

Richard Freeman, a
Harvard economist, argues that our bubble economy had something in common with the old Soviet economy. The Soviet Union’s growth was artificially raised by massive industrial output that ended up having little use. Ours was artificially raised by mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations and even the occasional Ponzi scheme.

Where will new, real sources of growth come from? Wall Street is not likely to cure the nation’s economic problems. Neither, obviously, is Detroit. Nor is Silicon Valley, at least not by itself. Well before the housing bubble burst, the big productivity gains brought about by the 1990s technology boom seemed to be
petering out, which suggests that the Internet may not be able to fuel decades of economic growth in the way that the industrial inventions of the early 20th century did. Annual economic growth in the current decade, even excluding the dismal contributions that 2008 and 2009 will make to the average, has been the slowest of any decade since the 1930s.

So for the first time in more than 70 years, the epicenter of the American economy can be placed outside of California or New York or the industrial Midwest. It can be placed in Washington. Washington won’t merely be given the task of pulling the economy out of the immediate crisis. It will also have to figure out how to put the American economy on a more sustainable path — to help it achieve fast, broadly shared growth and do so without the benefit of a bubble.

A Slow Recovery

The economy is not going to turn around as quickly as in the past, because we are in a number of areas in much worse shape than we've ever been.

While many economists say the stimulus is crucial to replace a paucity of private spending and investment, they are concerned that the tax cuts in the Democratic plan will not be particularly useful, and that more effective spending proposals will take too long to put in place.


But it may be more difficult to pull the country out of this recession than the downturn of the 1980s, when the Federal Reserve helped stimulated growth by slashing interest rates. In December, the Fed cut its target overnight rates to a record low near zero percent, exhausting one of its key weapons.

“They’re running out of options,” said Ann L. Owen, associate professor at Hamilton College and a former Fed economist. “They’ve got the Fed funds rate down to basically zero. They’re talking about buying Treasuries. It’s not really clear what kind of effect they can have on the economy.”
Although the recession officially began 13 months ago, as the housing market soured and energy prices pinched consumers, the gross domestic product continued to grow slowly in 2008 until the third quarter, when it contracted at an annual rate of 0.5 percent.

By the way, there is something definitely wrong with the way they calculate those GDP numbers, because I find it very hard to believe that the GDP was still growing through the third quarter of 2008, if indeed the recession started over a year ago. For example, do they include in the GDP the rising cost of oil, which goes mostly to the oil exporting countries? If so, that would be stupid. Sometimes I think these federal economic numbers have been jerryrigged and don't really show the true picture.

Bully Pulpit

President Obama branded Wall Street bankers “shameful” on Thursday for giving themselves nearly $20 billion in bonuses as the economy was deteriorating and the government was spending billions to bail out some of the nation’s most prominent financial institutions.

It's good to hear the president using the 'bully pulpit' to shame immoral citizens. Shades of Teddy Roosevelt. It probably wouldn't make any difference in the behavior of the Thains and Madoffs, who are going to do all they can to steal cookies from the cookie jar, but it sure lifts everyone elses spirits.

I saw a report recently that top executives several decades ago used to receive about 30 times the compensation of the lowest paid worker, whereas over the last decade or so, the ratio has risen to an obscene 1000 times the lowest paid worker. It's time to reverse that and bring it down to reasonable levels again.

For example, if the lowest paid worker in a company makes $7 an hour, that's about $14,500 per year. 30 times that is $436,000 per year. Excuse me, but I think that's enough for any executive, who are themselves employees. Why should anyone make anymore than that? In fact, I think that's excessive. (If you own the company, that's different and a whole different calculation takes effect.)

Progressive Federalism

One of the hallmarks of true conservatisim over the years in the U.S. has been a desire to encourage the sharing of government power between the federal government and the states and localities. Called 'federalism', this view of governing power harks back to the original understanding that it was preferable for many reasons to keep the central national government limited and checked in its power by the various state governments.

Ironically, modern conservatism has often opposed federalism because big business finds it to be counterproductive to its profits. Modern 'progressivism', in the form of the Obama administration, is beginning to see the value of federalism, according to a report in the NYT.

The Obama administration seems to be open to a movement known as “progressive federalism,” in which governors and activist state attorneys general have been trying to lead the way on environmental initiatives, consumer protection and other issues, several constitutional experts say.

Tom Miller, the attorney general of Iowa, who met with the transition team in December to discuss federalism and other issues, said he believed the Obama administration would “usher in a new era in federal-state relations.” Members of the new administration, Mr. Miller said, “are open to what we’re talking about, what we’re thinking.” They also appreciate, he said, the fact that state attorneys general often achieve a level of bipartisan cooperation when they band together to pursue lawsuits.

The general trend under previous administrations had favored federal pre-emption, the belief that the best law comes from Washington, a concept still favored by business leaders.

William L. Kovacs, a vice president for environmental and regulatory issues at the United States Chamber of Commerce, said free-for-all federalism was bad for business and would lead to a “patchwork of laws impacting a troubled industry.” Detroit, Mr. Kovacs said, would have to produce different cars for different parts of the country, and the environmental protection agency would grow tremendously to meet the new regulatory burden.

This shows once again that modern conservatism, often claiming to be the champion of federalism and smaller government, is really just the champion of big business and the wealthy.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The War on Terror is Over

Roger Cohen of the NYT has an interesting take on Obama's first interview with the Muslim world:

In his first White House televised interview, with the Al Arabiya news network based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, President Obama buried the lead: The war on terror is over.

Yes, the with-us-or-against-us global struggle — the so-called Long War — in which a freedom-loving West confronts the undifferentiated forces of darkness comprising everything from Al Qaeda to elements of the Palestinian national struggle under the banner of “Islamofascism” has been terminated.

What’s left is what matters: defeating terrorist organizations. That’s not a war. It’s a strategic challenge.

The new president’s abandonment of post-9/11 Bush doctrine is a critical breakthrough. It resolves nothing but opens the way for a rapprochement with a Muslim world long cast into the “against-us” camp. Nothing good in Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan or Iran could happen with that Manichean chasm.


Now read this paragraph from Wikipedia on Tim Geithner:

Geithner was born in Brooklyn, New York.[3] His father, Peter F. Geithner, is the director of the Asia program at the Ford Foundation in New York. During the early 1980s, Peter Geithner oversaw the Ford Foundation's microfinance programs in Indonesia being developed by Ann Dunham-Soetoro, mother of President Barack Obama, and they met in person at least once.[4] Timothy Geithner's mother, Deborah Moore Geithner, is a pianist and piano teacher in Larchmont, New York where his parents currently reside. Geithner's maternal grandfather, Charles F. Moore, was an adviser to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and served as a vice president of Ford Motor Company.[5] Geithner spent most of his childhood living outside the United States, including present-day Zimbabwe, India and Thailand, where he completed high school at International School Bangkok.[6] He then attended Dartmouth College, graduating with a A.B. in government and Asian studies in 1983.[7] He earned an M.A. in international economics and East Asian studies from Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in 1985.[7][8] He has studied Chinese[7] and Japanese.[9]

Do you see the personal connection between Geithner and Obama in this description? Besides their parents knowing each other, they are virtually clones of each other. Because of this, I believe Obama trusts Geithner explicitly.

I'm not sure that this will work in Obama's favor, actually. It will be hard for him to be objective and critical, when he needs to be. Too much blank check here for the neo-liberal, neo-Clintonite, neo-Reaganite economic model represented by the Rubin-Summers-Geithner axis. Not enough real change.

But once again, I'm probably underestimating Barack Obama. I truly hope so.

Conventional Economic Wisdom (or Foolishness?)

I was just looking up information on Timothy Geithner on Wikipedia. Among other things, it said that he was a protege of Larry Summers, former Treasury Secretary and current head of Obama's National Economic Council in the White House. Summers is, in turn, a protege of Robert Rubin, also former Treasury Secretary and head honcho of Citigroup, one of the financial conglomerate at the very heart of darkness of our financial debacle.

Now, look at this paragraph about Larry Summer's background from Wikipedia:

Born in New Haven, Connecticut, on November 30, 1954, Summers is the son of two economists, Robert Summers and Anita Summers, who are both professors at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as the nephew of two Nobel laureates in economics: Paul Samuelson (sibling of Robert Summers, who, following an older brother's example, changed the family name from Samuelson to Summers) and Kenneth Arrow (Anita Summers's brother). He spent most of his childhood in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, where he attended Harriton High School.

I kid you not: have you ever seen anything like this? Call it 'economic incest.'

There could not be a more 'conventional' group of economic advisors and leaders around Obama, as in 'conventional wisdom,' than this group of Summers and Geithner, and all their friends and relatives in the 'business.' But isn't it 'conventional wisdom' of the last two or three decades that has led us straight to our current economic debacle? Where is the new thinking going to come from? Not from this group.

I was and am supportive of Obama. But I was concerned during the campaign about his economic team and I get more concerned by the day. He desperately needs some unconventional economic thinkers in his circle. But I sure don't see them.

Global Slowdown

Take a look at these pictures from Britain's Guardian newspaper. It will give you a sense of the extent of the economic crisis in Europe, Japan, and the U.S. Oh my, this is going to be painful!

A Day in the Life

Today's the Chronicler's 58th birthday. Another milestone in the life of me. (Imagine the Beatles singing, "I read the news today, oh boy....and though the news was rather sad, I just had to laugh....)

I'll let you know when the candles on my cake are lit so that you can sing along with 'Happy Birthday.'

Republicans in a Time Warp

The Republicans seem to be caught in a time warp. They think it is 1981 and all that's needed is tax cuts in order to solve any problem. They see Obama's popularity and seem to think he is Ronald Reagan. Wishful thinking.

Obama is just going to have to govern without them. Humor them, treat them gently and with respect, but otherwise just ignore them, except to defeat them one by one in elections.

And God help us if they take power again anytime soon. They need to wander in the wilderness for at least 40 years.


Obama is getting hammered by the press for failing to achieve 'bipartisanship' in his stimulus bill. But why should anyone be surprised? The Republicans in Congress have shrunk to numbers that haven't been seen in quite a while, and Democrats enjoy fairly comfortable majorities in both houses (though not a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate). Even without one Republican vote, the President will be able to pass his legislation.

It is a fact that the Republicans are now a fairly cohesive, ideologically unified group, with few liberals or dissenters in their midst. So why should they vote for 'the enemy?' Sure, they will try to get the President to compromise, but unless they get their way in total, they're not going to vote for Obama's legislation and give him that kind of victory. No way.

And that's fine. The President has made a considerable effort to listen to the Republicans and to alter the legislation in such a way as to eliminate some items that particularly stick in the Republican craw. And he should continue to do that in order to show that he is a breath of fresh air in that regard, compared to his non-listening, non-compromising predecessor. But he is not obligated to give up his proposals just to please them. Civility, yes. Capitulation, no.

As he said to them as one point, 'I won.' Yes, he did.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Economic Pessimism

The notion that a 'stimulus' is going to solve our economic crisis is frankly ludicrous, in my opinion. I know that there is little else that our government can do in the short term, and so this is what they feel they have to resort to. But this crisis was a long, long time in coming, and because of that, it is not going to go away anytime soon. That is a hard truth that President Obama has hinted at but hasn't come right out and said, because he simply can't. It is just too unpalatable to a very spoiled nation who don't want to admit that they've blown it. Let me explain.

As a nation, we are like a family that has been steadily losing ground economically while at the same time borrowing more and more money. Because we can keep on buying the things we want and going on vacations with all that magic borrowed money that someone mysteriously keeps on lending us, it just seems great. But ultimately this is a losing proposition, because sooner or later, this family is going to hit the wall and go bankrupt. That is what is happening to us. We are effectively bankrupt.

We thought we were bad off in the 30s, and we were. But on the other hand, we were still tremendously wealthy in so many ways. We were the largest industrial nation in the world, with vast resources of oil, so that we were the largest exporters of that basic energy source. And many unemployed people were able to live on farms and grow their own food and at least survive.

After World War II, we were effectively the only industrial nation, exporting manufacturing goods all over the world virtually without competition. As a result of this industrial monopoly, and of the rise of labor unions and other laws that tended to equalize incomes and wealth across all classes, we grew the largest middle class ever known and truly did become the most affluent society ever. It's no wonder, given the circumstances, and not really a cause for pride in ourselves.

But over the last 40 years, virtually every one of these advantages has gradually disappeared. We have gone from being the greatest manufacturing power to a deindustrialized weakling that has very little that the rest of the world wants, with exceptions like movies, music, medical equipment and weapons. (Oh, and I'm proud to say that my brother stills makes locomotives for G.E. in Pennsylvania.) We import most of our oil, sending billions of dollars overseas. Our manufacturers have one by one closed down their factories and moved them overseas. We import so much more than we export. What do you buy in a month' time that is actually made in the United States? Even our phone calls for service are now routed through India. To make matters worse, the national wealth and income have become redistributed, with the rich getting richer and many in the middle class falling into the lower class or even poverty. The middle class, with its securities, is disappearing.

To compensate for all this, we have been borrowing money from foreign lenders by the trillions of dollars, and piling up unfunded liabilities that will never be paid. Our financial industry invented all kinds of special financial instruments to make their fortunes that are now seen to be virtually worthless. We've been gorging on credit card debt. A huge housing bubble which should never have been allowed is now deflating, taking our home values with it and threatening foreclosure to millions of families. And so on. In other words, much of the prosperity of the last three decades has been largely an illusion, based on borrowed money or promises that can't be fulfilled.

To make matters worse, the world's oil supply may very well be peaking and in decline, which means that the energy source that fuels our modern industrial lifestyle is going to get very expensive, to the point where that lifestyle will have to be severely curtailed. That is what happened in 2008, until the financial crisis and recession hit, bringing down the price of oil (temporarily).

It is very foolish to think that we're going to be able to turn all of this around with a 'stimulus' package, as if all we need for our economic re(de)pression is the equivalent of a gigantic shot of caffeine from Starbucks. The underlying problems are so deep and profound, that we are basically just prolonging and deepening the problem. Aren't we just continuing to borrow money to pay the bills? Don't we at some point have to start actually earning the money to pay our bills? What happens when the lenders stop lending?

If countries like Germany and Japan, who were flattened by our war machine during World War II, can rebuild and become industrial giants again, then perhaps we can too. But it's certainly going to take a facing up to the reality of our situation. And I'm quite sure that we're not there yet. I'm quite sure that most people have little sense of what has been happening. And I'm not sure anyone knows what to do. Surely the economics profession, who didn't have a clue what was coming down in 2008, are themselves intellectually bankrupt and blind guides.

So, while I'd love to believe that Obama knows the solution to this financial and economic crisis, count me as an economic pessimist.

Individualism Vs Institutionalism

David Brooks has an interesting column on the difference between individualist thinking and acting, and institutional thinking and acting. He starts by referring to a Harvard committee study report:

The report implied an entire way of living. Individuals should learn to think for themselves. They should be skeptical of pre-existing arrangements. They should break free from the way they were raised, examine life from the outside and discover their own values.

This approach is deeply consistent with the individualism of modern culture, with its emphasis on personal inquiry, personal self-discovery and personal happiness. But there is another, older way of living, and it was discussed in a neglected book that came out last summer called “On Thinking Institutionally” by the political scientist Hugh Heclo.

In this way of living, to borrow an old phrase, we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us. As we go through life, we travel through institutions — first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft.

Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do. Journalism imposes habits that help reporters keep a mental distance from those they cover. Scientists have obligations to the community of researchers. In the process of absorbing the rules of the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are.

American conservatism and liberalism are both stretched between these two polar opposites. Individualism and institutionalism (a.k.a. communalism) are integral parts of the thinking of both political liberals and conservatives.

For example, Brooks is a conservative who proudly works as a columnist for a great institution called the New York Times, as his liberal counterpart on the Times, Paul Krugman, proudly writes for the Times and teaches at Princeton University.

Likewise, conservatives tend to believe in the freedom of bankers and businessmen to run their own affairs free from interference from government, whereas liberals believe in the right of consenting adults to run their own sexual lives free of interference from the government.

It just goes to show that individualism and institutionalism cannot stand alone but must interact and balance each other in appropriate ways.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Calvin and Hobbes Predicts the Future

15 years ago (click to see the whole thing):

Greed for Personal Gain Drove Financial Bubble

Jeff Madrick has a very helpful article on the financial crisis in the recent issue of the New York Review of Books. It explains many details of the crisis in a very understandable and accessible way. Bottom line:

This is, as many economists now concur, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Financial market participants created a financial bubble of tragic proportions in pursuit of personal gain. But the deeper cause was a determination among people with political and economic power to minimize the use of government to oversee the financial markets and to guard against natural excess. If solutions are to be found, the nation requires robust and pragmatic use of government, free of laissez-faire cant and undue influence from the vested interests that have irresponsibly controlled the economy for too long.

Pro-American and Conservative Obama

In neo-conservative Bill Kristol's last column in the New York Times, he actually paid Obama a compliment:

We don’t really know how Barack Obama will govern. What we have so far, mainly, is an Inaugural Address, and it suggests that he may have learned more from Reagan than he has sometimes let on. Obama’s speech was unabashedly pro-American and implicitly conservative.
Obama appealed to the authority of “our forebears,” “our founding documents,” even — political correctness alert! — “our founding fathers.” He emphasized that “we will not apologize for our way of life nor will we waver in its defense.” He spoke almost not at all about rights (he had one mention of “the rights of man,” paired with “the rule of law” in the context of a discussion of the Constitution). He called for “a new era of responsibility.”

As I've said many times, Obama will govern as a pragmatic centrist, which in many ways will look 'conservative'. That pretty well describes my political philosophy as well these days.

Rush Limbaugh and the John Birch Society

Question: when are conservatives going to treat Rush Limbaugh like William Buckley treated the John Birch Society back in the 50s--i.e., ostracize him for his outrageous radicalism?

William Buckley is now gone to his eternal reward, but someone needs to take up the hoe here and weed out the conservative movement a little.

It would probably be up to the neo-cons to do this, since they're the only serious intellectuals left in the older conservative movement. Go for it, David Brooks and David Frum! (I would add Bill Kristol here, but I really don't think he is serious anymore.) And Mr. Burkean Conservative himself, George Will, you're not a neo-con, but you are still the dean of the Conservative movement. Please, tell Rush Limbaugh where to go. I know, I know, people listen to him. But hey, that's the problem!! Consider the well-being of the country over the Republican Party. It's the patriotic thing to do.

Update: I just learned that Bill Kristol has been terminated by the New York Times as a columnist. Goodbye, Bill.

Republic of Overfed Clowns

Every monday morning, some of us wait with bated breath for James Kunstler's new essay on his website, (You always have to scroll down to the 'Clusterfuck Nation Chronicle' part of the website. I wish he'd fix that so I could link it directly.) He always presents his own entertaining and insightful take on what's happening, from his unique 'new urbanist, peak oil' perspective. Here's a sample from last week's essay, but go and see for yourself.

Mr. Obama deserves credit for a lot of things, but perhaps most amazingly his ability to see "hope" in a public so demoralized by their own bad choices that the USA scene has devolved to a non-stop Special Olympics of everyday life, where absolutely everybody is debilitated, deluded, challenged, or needs a leg up, or an extra buck, or a pallet on the floor, or a gastric bypass, or a week in detox, or a head-start, or a fourth strike, or a $150-billion bailout. There's a lot of raw material from sea to shining sea, admittedly, but how do you re-shape it into a population guided by a sense of earnest purpose, with reality-based expectations, with habits of delayed gratification and impulse control, and a sense of their own history? That will be quite a trick. Many of us -- myself included -- will be pulling for Barack. Maybe the power of his rhetoric and his sheer buff physical presence can whip this republic of overfed clowns into shape.

No New Deal

Many people are aghast to hear Rush Limbaugh's statement that he wants to see Obama fail. But the truth is that in many ways, Republicans in general are agreed with this, and, from their perspective, it makes sense. Paul Krugman explains:

As the debate over President Obama’s economic stimulus plan gets under way, one thing is certain: many of the plan’s opponents aren’t arguing in good faith. Conservatives really, really don’t want to see a second New Deal, and they certainly don’t want to see government activism vindicated. So they are reaching for any stick they can find with which to beat proposals for increased government spending.

Then Krugman offers a justification for public spending over tax cuts:

Next, write off anyone who asserts that it’s always better to cut taxes than to increase government spending because taxpayers, not bureaucrats, are the best judges of how to spend their money.

Here’s how to think about this argument: it implies that we should shut down the air traffic control system. After all, that system is paid for with fees on air tickets — and surely it would be better to let the flying public keep its money rather than hand it over to government bureaucrats. If that would mean lots of midair collisions, hey, stuff happens.

The point is that nobody really believes that a dollar of tax cuts is always better than a dollar of public spending. Meanwhile, it’s clear that when it comes to economic stimulus, public spending provides much more bang for the buck than tax cuts — and therefore costs less per job created (see the previous fraudulent argument) — because a large fraction of any tax cut will simply be saved.

"National Binge of Greed and Irresponsibility"

In a really insightful column in Sunday's NYT, Frank Rich explains why Obama is stressing 'responsibility' instead of 'change' (although responsibility would certainly be a change!). And then he ends with this:

If we’ve learned anything since the election, it is this: We have not remotely seen the bottom of this economy, and no one has a silver bullet to arrest the plunge, the hyped brains in the new White House included. Most economists failed to anticipate the disaster, after all, and our tax-challenged incoming Treasury Secretary may prove as evanescent as past saviors du jour. As we applauded Thain in September, we were also desperately trying to convince ourselves that Warren Buffett’s $5 billion investment in Goldman Sachs would turn the tide, and that Hank Paulson, as Newsweek wrote in a cover story titled “King Henry,” would be the “right man at the right time.”

Obama couldn’t give us F.D.R.’s first inaugural address because we are not yet where America was in 1933 — in its fourth year of downturn after the crash of ’29, with an unemployment rate of 25 percent. But no one knows for sure that we cannot end up there.

Greed Incarnate

Ever wonder what Bernard Madoff did with all those billions he was swindling from churches, charities, and widows? Here's one little part:

The trustee overseeing the liquidation of Mr. Madoff’s brokerage firm has asked a federal bankruptcy judge to allow him to cancel leases on six luxury vehicles that the firm had rented. “Given the nature of this liquidation proceeding, the vehicles are of no use or value” to Madoff’s creditors, according to a motion filed in Federal Bankruptcy Court by the trustee, Irving Picard.

The vehicles include a 2007 Land Rover Range Rover, a 2008 Cadillac DTS, a 2009 Mercedes S550 leased last October, a 2007 Mercedes S550, a 2008 Mercedes GL450 sport-utility vehicle and a 2006 Lexus, according to the court filing in Manhattan on Wednesday.

Nationalize the Banks or Privatize the Military

Get ready for nationalization of the largest banks in America, because it is coming. Reluctantly, because the economists and financial pros around Obama really don't want to do it, but there really won't be any other choice if we are to make it through this crisis.

“The case for full nationalization is far stronger now than it was a few months ago,” said Adam S. Posen, the deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “If you don’t own the majority, you don’t get to fire the management, to wipe out the shareholders, to declare that you are just going to take the losses and start over. It’s the mistake the Japanese made in the ’90s.”

“I would guess that sometime in the next few weeks, President Obama and
Tim Geithner....will have to come out and say, ‘It’s much worse than we thought,’ and just bite the bullet.”

Well, think of it this way. The single largest employer in the world may well be the U.S. military, which is 100% nationalized, and it doesn't do so bad.

Anyone for privatizing the military, raise your hand. If not, then shut up about the banks. Or here is a final suggestion: why don't we just shrink both of them?

Ted Haggard 2.0

There is a must-read article on Ted Haggard, the former pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and exposed bisexual/drug user. Here are a couple of paragraphs:

"My spiritual life was wonderfully empowering for me in the midst of the struggle. But it wasn't the solution," he says. "I needed a therapist." Decades in the ministry failed to prepare him for this.

"I thought, 'I don't need to go to a therapist!' I mean I didn't even understand therapy. 'Jesus is the solution to everything!' " he says. "And I personally believe now that this process has occurred so that I would get the therapy I needed. I believe my therapy is the answer to 30 years of prayer about this subject. And so I am very grateful for the decision of the overseers and the restorers and I'm so thrilled about the way my life is now. I'm the man now that -- no, no, no, that's not true. I am becoming the man now that everybody thought I was then."

After being tormented by his secret homosexual/drug behavior during his pastorate, he turned to pastor friends for help.

"There were a few times when I talked to other people about it, but they were always within the religious leadership community, and they always gave me bad advice," Haggard says, with what only sounds like a laugh. "I talked to one old man of God, told him about it, and he said, 'You just need to be busier in the church.'

"And talked to another about it, and he said, 'Have you memorized Romans 6?' " The one that ends: "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Toward the end of the article, Haggard makes an amazing statement:

"Prior to this scandal, I felt as though the definition of marriage was an important issue to be reflected in law," Haggard said. "I now believe that the Gospel is so wonderful, that the New Testament is so wonderful, the grace of God is so wonderful that that word might not be so significant that it should define publicly evangelicalism."

If Haggard thought he was a pariah before, making statements like that turn you into a heretic, which for fundamentalism is even worse than a homosexual sinner.

Sounds to me like Haggard has had a 'Shack'-like experience.

Israel and Hamas

Have you ever tried to kill a hornet with a sledge hammer? Would the damage to the furniture be worth the death of the hornet?

4,000 homes destroyed, 21,000 badly damaged, 100,000 people homeless, according to several aid agencies... Homes have been blown up or bulldozed, their squashed furniture visible beneath layers of collapsed concrete. Factories — for paint, dairy products, soft drinks — have been smashed. Schools have 10-foot holes in their walls. Wedding halls are blackened hulks. The American International School, a private institution in northern Gaza, has been destroyed. Mosques are gone.

Moreover, in addition to the buildings that housed Hamas’s main security networks, institutions like the parliament, the main ministries, the central prison and nearly all the police stations are crushed beyond repair.

Think Israel and it's attack on Hamas in Gaza. Not very smart, but very brutal. Yes, Israel has great weapons (mostly provided by us), but that will not gain them what they want and need. This is short-term pleasure, long-term pain, on the part of the Israelies.

I thought they were smarter than that.

Keeping the Women in the Kitchen

The Taliban are seeking to impose drastic Islamic fundamentalist codes of behavior on the people of Pakistan's north-west tribal regions:

...the Swat Valley in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province [is] a place well known among Pakistanis for its breathtaking views, cool summer climate and lush fruit orchards. But today the Swat Valley is experiencing heartbreaking pressures, as the Taliban strike with disconcerting regularity and, among other atrocities, impose a ban on the education of girls.

Even before this ban was put in place on Jan. 15, more than 100 schools for girls in Swat, as well as more than 150 such schools in the greater Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), had been shut down, many after being bombed or torched, leaving approximately 100,000 girls out of school. Radio announcements warned girls that they could be attacked with acid if they dared to attend school, and teachers have been threatened and killed. Last Monday, five more Swat Valley schools were bombed.
The attacks and threats have not been confined to schoolgirls. Women and girls have been ordered to wear full veils. Directives have been issued requiring that women be accompanied by male family members in public places and forbidding women from carrying compulsory government identification cards displaying their photographs. About a dozen women have been shot for "immoral activities," including Bakht Zeba, a 45-year-old social worker committed to advancing girls' education. The area seems to be in competition with Afghanistan over which will establish the worst record on women's rights.

This is probably the most reprehensible aspect of the Taliban worldview, and why they need to be defeated in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. But can the American Empire accomplish this in our weakened condition? Stayed tuned.

Fasten Your Seat Belts

Robert Samuelson, resident economist at the WaPO, analyses the economic crisis in today's column. There are three separate but interacting crises: the drastic fall in consumer spending, the financial crisis causing credit to dry up, and the trade crisis, with its huge imbalances. Progress in any one could help a little, but progress in all three is unlikely.

Translation: how in the hell do we get out of this mess?

My answer: we don't, in any recognizable way. The flattening of our bubble economy is going to continue, and it is going to be nasty. All the prosperity of the last three decades was based on borrowing, debt, and 'leverage'. In other words, it wasn't a true prosperity at all, but rather like those Americans who used their plastic to buy things, thinking they were rich, when they were just borrowing the money. Whoops. (Which reminds me, here comes the next bursting bubble, credit card debt.)

Fasten your seat belts, because it's going to be a bumpy ride.

Republican Strategy

E. J. Dionne has a column in the WaPo about how the Republicans are responding to Obama's victory. He says that they're taking a good cop/bad cop approach, with some compromising while others lay down the arguments for his defeat in case of failure. The worse of these have to do with a possible catastrophic terrorist attack:

The most insidious line of attack involves laying the groundwork for blaming the new president in the event of a terrorist attack.

In a remarkably partisan op-ed in The Post last Thursday, Marc A. Thiessen, who was a speechwriter for former president George W. Bush, declared flatly: "If Obama weakens any of the defenses Bush put in place and terrorists strike our country again, Americans will hold Obama responsible -- and the Democratic Party could find itself unelectable for a generation."

This is dangerous, both substantively and politically, and it suggests that some of Bush's loyalists will continue to politicize issues related to terrorism in their efforts to vindicate the former president's legacy.

Global 'Primus Inter Pares'

Jim Hoagland writes of the 'club', that elite group of world leaders who will now welcome Obama with open arms, and who see that Obama could well be 'first among equals':

This former University of Chicago professor of constitutional law will be eagerly -- and anxiously -- welcomed by peers who include a fellow academic (Britain's Gordon Brown), a practicing lawyer (France's Nicolas Sarkozy), a physicist (Germany's Angela Merkel), a flamboyant, rich entrepreneur (Italy's Silvio Berlusconi) and a cold-blooded KGB operative who sits atop a system that increasingly condones the physical elimination of its critics (Russia's Vladimir Putin).

The engineers who run China, the ayatollahs of Iran and the autocrats of the Middle East will also nervously eye Obama's appeal as a global figure with a gift for identifying emerging themes and articulating them in captivating fashion. There is no reason to think that the political earthquake Obama launched in the United States three years ago will stop at the water's edge or has already run its course.

After all the bad news on the economic front, it will be a welcome sight to see.

Washington on the Rise

It's my day off, and I think I'm ready to start posting again. Actually, it will be good for me.

Joel Kotkin, social critic and futurist, writes in the WaPo about the ascendency of Washington as the key metropolis of America, something that is familiar to the rest of the world but not here:

In today's crisis, the Washington area remains somewhat aloof, with the second-lowest unemployment rate among major metropolitan areas of more than 1 million. (Only Oklahoma City, largely insulated from both the financial and housing bubbles, is doing better, although collapsing energy prices could threaten its prosperity.) The rate of job growth, although slower, is still among the highest in the country, and unemployment is below the national average.

This disparity will grow in the coming years, as rival regions reel from the recession. Many once-powerful places are already losing their independence and allure. Wall Street, formerly the seat of privatized power, has been reduced to supplicant status. The fate of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's "luxury city" will be determined not in deals with London, Dubai or Shanghai but by the U.S. Treasury. Similarly, the vast auto economy of the upper Midwest will take direction from congressional appropriations and whoever is named the new "car czar."

My own daughter is thinking about trying to find a job in one of the federal agency, so I know of what Kotkin speaks.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

President Barack Hussein Obama

I give thanks for this day and for our new President, Barack H. Obama. What a wonderful inaugural ceremony we have just witnessed: the prayers, the music, the poem, the oaths, the wonderful inaugural address that unites our entire country in a new effort and gives us hope for the future. We are so blessed to have arrived at this moment in our national history.

Thank you, Lord!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Inaugural Musical Interlude: Neil Diamond

Here's a song about America in honor of our next President, Barack Obama. I also dedicate it to my Swedish ancestors who came as immigrants across the Atlantic in the 19th century, which is why I am here rather than with my cousins in Sweden.

Inaugural thoughts

Talking Points Memo is running a bunch of emails from readers on their thoughts about the inauguration. There are some really good ones in there, go take a look:

But what I've been thinking about this past week, is how the story of Captain Sullenberger seems to be a divine metaphor for the situation we're in now. We as a nation have been flying along fine in history until the flock of geese that was the Bush Adminstration, got sucked through the jets of history and although this plane is going down and the landing may be rough, with the right pilot at the helm, we can all expect to be okay in the end. I mean, when's the last time a plane crash on the news has given us hope?

Friday, January 16, 2009


Ever since the holidays, it's been difficult to get into the right frame of mind to post on the blog. Besides being quite busy and then gone for a while on a trip to visit family, my dear mother passed away over the holidays, so we've been dealing with that. Also, the lull between the election and inauguration of Obama has had a negative effect on me, at least insofar as this blog is concerned.

So, while I've posted a little, as has Nathan, we hope to get back to it in a more consistent way. Thanks for your patience and understanding.
Happy New Year!!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

An Object of Horror and Loathing

Some sizzling comments from the incomparable James H. Kunstler:

A prankish fate put George W. Bush in the oval office to keep America stupid. The nation was far from ready to see where it was going in the 21st century, and he was just the figure to keep it that way, with his void of curiosity, his allergy to reading, and his panderings to wealth-worshipping, Ponzi-loving, science-hating Jesus cultists. He goes out of office broadly regarded as an object of horror and loathing while the nation, now facing wholesale bankruptcy, struggles to imagine a plausible future, like someone who has just awakened from a cheap red wine drunk into the grip of a vicious hangover.

Being Empirical in the Progressive Interest

E. J. Dionne tells why Obama's pragmatism leads right to his progressivism.

Right now, being empirical is in the progressive interest. Note that data show that the parts of the stimulus package most congenial to liberals (increases in unemployment insurance and food stamps; fiscal aid to the states; government spending on public projects) are also the parts with the most economic bang. In other words, progressives don't need ideology to make their case.
In this respect, at least, Obama is rather like
Franklin D. Roosevelt, who dismissed the conservative economic doctrines of the 1920s. "We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature," Roosevelt said, directly countering the central premises of orthodox economics. "They are made by human beings." Thus did Roosevelt make pragmatism and experimentation enemies of conservative ideology. Obama, wearing a smile as he stands on a mountain of data, is doing the same.

Queen of the Hot Nerds

Maureen Dowd's piece on Hillary Clinton. A sample:

Hillary aced her Senate hearing on Tuesday, performing as the A-student she is. As one of her former campaign aides said, whatever else you say about her, she is always prepared.
With Chelsea sitting protectively behind in a plum dress and glam ’40s hairdo — Bill was watching on TV with his mother-in-law — Hillary showed the reasons she could be a star at state and queen of Obama’s hot nerds.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Empire is a pyramid scheme

This is one of those articles, from The Automatic Earth, that sums up the history of civilization in a nice tidy package--why empires grow and then collapse, and why America is where it is today. You've heard of Bernie Madoff. Well, maybe he didn't think he was doing such a bad thing, since pyramid schemes are basically what our economy of constant growth is at its core. Here is the whole article shortened to its key parts, but really, read the whole thing:

Everyone has heard of pyramid, or Ponzi, schemes....What most do not realize, however, is that Ponzi dynamics are far more pervasive than people think. There are many human systems that ultimately rest on the buy-in of new entrants, and every one of them will ultimately meet the same fate, although it can take far longer for complex constructions than for simple pyramid frauds....

....At the largest scale, empires are also grounded in pyramid dynamics, which is why they too have a limited lifespan. They grow by assuming control, either politically or economically, of new territories, positioning themselves to cream off surpluses from an ever-expanding geographical area in a form of involuntary buy-in. In the past political control through invasion or physical colonization was more common, but latterly globalization has enabled the development of a sophisticated system of economic control based on international debt slavery, supplemented with economic colonization for the purpose of resource extraction....We are living through the collapse of the final - and all-consuming - economic bubble at the end of the American empire.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A Broader Perspective Needed In the Middle East

Roger Cohen writes in the NYT today that Obama's Middle East Team is loaded with "smart, driven, liberal, Jewish (or half-Jewish) males", but almost no Arab Americans. He rightly criticizes this team for lacking the true diversity needed to make real change possible.

Obama should take note, name an Arab-American and an Iranian-American to prominent roles, and beware of a team that takes him — and the region — back to the future.

I agree. I expect more of Obama.

No More Bushes

Alec Baldwin writes:

The Bush nightmare is over. How well Obama succeeds, or does not succeed, in the coming term, we can rest assured that on a spiritual level, the worst is over for this country, at least for now. Bush and Cheney are finished.

The Bushes are a dynasty, but I am not sure of what kind. History will tell. They are an uncompromising, hard-headed, entitled and arrogant bunch. Let's say good-bye to George W. Let's wish his wife and family well. Let's not wish him any ill. He's gone. But let us have no more Bushes in the White House. Ever.

"The Dwindles"

This poignant column in the Washington Post by a Minnesota physician states well the dilemma we have gotten ourselves into with regard to health care and the elderly.

And this column puts in stark contrast the financial problem we face with health care:

We are on a collision course between our wish to live longer, healthier lives and our capacity to pay for that wish. Whether we can somehow avoid the collision is perhaps the most important domestic issue of this century.

Health care ranks right up there with global warming, nuclear weapons, and peak oil as a major problem facing us as a society.

Big Mistake

Here is my one-sentence reaction to President Bush's final press conference:

How could we have ever elected this man President of the United States?

Friday, January 9, 2009

11 Healthy Foods for 2009

Nutritionist Dr. Jonny Bowden lists 11 foods that are nutritionally rich and easy to find:

Beets: Think of beets as red spinach, Dr. Bowden said, because they are a rich source of folate as well as natural red pigments that may be cancer fighters. How to eat: Fresh, raw and grated to make a salad. Heating decreases the antioxidant power.

Cabbage: Loaded with nutrients like sulforaphane, a chemical said to boost cancer-fighting enzymes. How to eat: Asian-style slaw or as a crunchy topping on burgers and sandwiches.
Swiss chard: A leafy green vegetable
packed with carotenoids that protect aging eyes.How to eat it: Chop and saute in olive oil.

Cinnamon: May
help control blood sugar and cholesterol. How to eat it: Sprinkle on coffee or oatmeal.

Pomegranate juice: Appears to lower blood pressure and loaded with
antioxidants. How to eat: Just drink it.

Dried plums: Okay, so they are really prunes, but they are packed with antioxidants. How to eat: Wrapped in prosciutto and baked.

Pumpkin seeds: The most nutritious part of the pumpkin and packed with magnesium; high levels of the mineral are associated with lower risk for early death. How to eat: Roasted as a snack, or sprinkled on salad.

Sardines: Dr. Bowden calls them “health food in a can.” They are high in omega-3’s, contain virtually no mercury and are loaded with calcium. They also contain iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese as well as a full complement of B vitamins. How to eat: Choose sardines packed in olive or sardine oil. Eat plain, mixed with salad, on toast, or mashed with dijon mustard and onions as a spread.

Turmeric: The “superstar of spices,” it may have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. How to eat: Mix with scrambled eggs or in any vegetable dish.

Frozen blueberries: Even though freezing can degrade some of the nutrients in fruits and vegetables, frozen blueberries are available year-round and don’t spoil; associated with better memory in animal studies. How to eat: Blended with yogurt or chocolate soy milk and sprinkled with crushed almonds.

Canned pumpkin: A low-calorie vegetable that is high in fiber and immune-stimulating vitamin A; fills you up on very few calories. How to eat: Mix with a little butter, cinnamon and nutmeg

Good Riddance to 2008

One of the more interesting economic contrarians is Bill Bonner, whose daily essays are always interesting and, well, contrarian. Here's a good example:

The year of our Lord 2008 died in disgrace. It was tossed in a hasty grave...and mud was thrown on its face as though on a dead dictator. ‘Good riddance’ says practically everyone. But here at The Daily Reckoning , we’re going to miss and mourn it. It may have been the worst year in stock market history, but we can’t remember when we had such a good time. We barely broke a sweat the entire year; never were there more jackasses to laugh at or more con artists to admire. So, today, we hang black crepe...spread tea roses...and bid adieu.

Among the other milestones of 2008 came word that 1 out of 100 adults in the USA was in prison; but as the year progressed, that seemed like hardly enough. Each week brought new evidence that there were still many miscreants who should be behind bars. On January 11, 2008, when one of the nation’s biggest mortgage lenders – Countrywide Financial – went bust. On February 17, Britain’s Northern Rock was nationalized. Still, America’s rulers missed the calamity taking place right under their noses.

“I don’t think we’re headed to a recession,” said George W. Bush. “I don’t think I’ve seen any scenario where the American taxpayer needs to be stepping in with more taxpayer dollars,” added Henry Paulson. Then, on March 11th, the Treasury Secretary went on to explain that the fallout from sub-prime mortgages was “largely contained.” From the report in the Wall Street Journal :

“Paulson, a former chief executive of Goldman Sachs Group, repeated his view that the U.S. economy is fundamentally on sound footing and would dodge a recession.”

Bonner's daily essays can be found at

McCain Likes Panetta

Returning to his pre-election maverick status, John McCain has good words for Obama and for his pick of Leon Panetta to head the CIA:

"I think that Leon Panetta is highly qualified, and in all due respect I think it is not bad from time to time to have somebody from outside of the intelligence community but with strong managerial experience as Chief of Staff of the White House, to be head of one of these agencies. I think there is some good balance there."

Ending the Torture Regime

The recent appointments to the national intelligence agencies by Obama are looking good, in terms of reforming the agencies and getting them back to where they need to be. Retired Admiral Dennis Blair as the Director of National Intelligence, Leon Panetta as the Director of the CIA, and John Brennan at the head of Counterintelligence inspire confidence and hope that we will have the intelligence agencies we need. Joe Cirincione writes:

President-elect Barack Obama on Friday appointed two seasoned professionals to the top intelligence posts. Dennis Blair will become the next Director for National Intelligence. He brings experience, honesty and great intelligence to a job that demands all that and more. Anyone who knows him, and I do, has no doubt that he will call it straight, never hesitate to tell the president the truth, however inconvenient, and will never, ever tell the president that something is a "slam-dunk."

Leon Panetta, who will now head the CIA, has to repair an agency abused and largely ignored by the Bush administration. As Bill Clinton's chief of staff, he was a major customer of intelligence products and knows better than most what the civilian leadership of the country needs from the agency. Blair, in introducing Panetta, spoke of his integrity. This, too, has been in short supply. There is no question that he will steer the agency away from torture and abuse. Like Blair, he has the confidence and standing to tell the president or the secretaries of state and defense when they are wrong.

The knock against Panetta is that he has no intelligence experience, and one would prefer it if he did, no doubt. And of course, one must remember that the CIA is just one of, what, a dozen different intelligence agencies in the government. Blair's would seem to be the more significant position, in any case.

Evelyn Marie Lundberg Lindquist, RIP

My mother, Evelyn Marie Lundberg Lindquist, died at 11:05 PM on Friday, January 2, 2009, at the age of 82. She passed away in the house that she and my father had built almost 60 years ago in Erie, Pennsylvania. It belongs to my brother Paul now, but he and his wife Barb were taking care of mom in her last years. I was privileged to be holding her hand when she took her last breath.
Dad died some ten years ago, and now it was mom's turn. About 12 years ago, she had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, and it was that that finally took her. But she gave that illness a good run for its money. She didn't give up easily but gave life her best shot until the very last. Six months ago, she still offered to play the organ/piano at church, even when that was probably not really possible.

My mom was a real Christian, in thought, word, and deed. No nominal, fair-weather faith here. She and Dad were pillars of their church in every way. But they also lived their faith every day in every way. They believed in God's power, promises and everlasting, never-ending love. And they demonstrated their faith through a life of loving and humble service.

My brothers--Arne and Paul--and I are grateful for all that she did for us. The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

I'm Back

Okay, dear reader, I'm back. Although who knows when you will check back after my extended vacation from this blog. I don't blame you, but the holidays and the interregnum between the election and the inauguration just caused me to go into suspended animation.

All kidding aside, one reason I haven't been back on sooner is that my dear mother died a week ago in Erie, PA. More about her in the next post.

But it's good to be with you again.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Racial Retrogression

The recent indulgement by Republicans in race-baiting ('Barack the Magic Negro') is castigated here:

Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, warned his party against using “racist descriptions” and said that the parody should “disqualify any Republican National Committee candidate who would use it.”

Mr. Saltsman, who was Mike Huckabee’s campaign manager during the primaries, could still be vaulted into the chairman’s seat by hard-core committee members who resent the explosion of criticism and have learned nothing from the last election.

Maybe they like the hole their party is standing in and want to dig it even deeper. That’s their right, but it does the country no good.

This is all so weird, because if there was one thing that George W. Bush did right, was to clearly advance race relations through major appointments for African Americans like Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice.

To me this shows the insularity of the current Republican Party, their self-imposed march to the fringes of modern American society. It is all so very sad and pathetic.

Too Many Prisons

The NYT editorializes about criminal justice reform, that is long overdue:

This country puts too many people behind bars for too long. Most elected officials, afraid of being tarred as soft on crime, ignore these problems. Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat of Virginia, is now courageously stepping into the void, calling for a national commission to re-assess criminal justice policy. Other members of Congress should show the same courage and rally to the cause.

The United States has the world’s highest reported incarceration rate. Although it has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it has almost one-quarter of the world’s prisoners. And for the first time in history, more than 1 in 100 American adults are behind bars.

Many inmates are serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes, including minor drug offenses. It also is extraordinarily expensive. Billions of dollars now being spent on prisons each year could be used in far more socially productive ways.

A Corrupting Relationship

At the heart of our recent economic decline are a series of corrupting relationships. Here's one between higher education and the banks.

When Ryan T. Muneio was tailgating with his parents at a Michigan State football game this fall, he noticed a big tent emblazoned with a Bank of America logo. Inside, bank representatives were offering free T-shirts and other merchandise to those who applied for credit cards and other banking products.

“They did a good job,” Mr. Muneio, 21 and a junior at Michigan State, said of the tactic. “It was good advertising.”

Bank of America’s relationship with the university extends well beyond marketing at sports events. The bank has an $8.4 million, seven-year contract with Michigan State giving it access to students’ names and addresses and use of the university’s logo. The more students who take the banks’ credit cards, the more money the university gets. Under certain circumstances, Michigan State even stands to receive more money if students carry a balance on these cards.

Hundreds of colleges have contracts with lenders. But at a time of rising concern about student debt — and overall consumer debt — the arrangements have sounded alarm bells, and some student groups are starting to push back.
The relationships are reminiscent of those uncovered two years ago between student loan companies and universities. In those, some lenders offered universities an incentive to steer potential borrowers their way.
Here at Michigan State, the editors of the student newspaper wrote this fall that “it doesn’t take a giant leap for someone to ask why the university should encourage responsible spending when it receives a cut of every purchase.”
At Arizona State University, students set up a table on campus last spring to warn of the danger of debt and urge students to support limits on on-campus marketing.
Notice that it is 'student groups' pushing back. Where are the adults here? We've been co-opted, that's where. Or is that corrupted?

Happy New Year

Let me wish each of you, dear readers, a happy New Year!

We (all five of us) have spending the last few days with relatives in Bradford, Pa (as the picture above demonstrates, taken from an upstairs window). We had snow Tuesday night, and this morning it was 5 degrees. Later today we will be driving through Pennsylvania to my brother's house in Lebanon, and then Friday it is back home to North Carolina.

I hope that your holidays have been blessed as well.