Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Living Above the Family Store

Maureen Dowd writes about President Obama:

He was often grumpy on the campaign. He missed his family. He disdained
what he saw as superficial, point-scoring conventions of politics, like debates
and macho put-downs and public noshing. The Chicago smarty-pants was a Michael
Jordan clutch player who grew bored if he was not challenged.

Being president, by contrast, suits him much better. He has not lapsed
into his old ambivalence. He is intellectually engaged by sculpting history. The
trellis of hideous problems is a challenge that lures him to be powerfully
concentrated. And, as his aides say, he loves living above the family

Mixing play with intense work is not only a good mental health
strategy; it’s a good way to show the world that American confidence and cool —
and Cary Grant romantic flair — still thrive.

Monday, June 8, 2009

More Intelligent Choices, Please

Another weekly installment from the inimitable J.H. Kunstler:

Americans will never again buy as many new cars as they were able to do
before 2008 on the terms that were normal until then: installment loans.
Our credit system is completely broken. It choked to death on securitized
debt engineered by computer magic and business school hubris. That complex
of frauds and swindles coincided with the background force of peak oil, which
meant, among other things, that economic growth based on ever-increasing energy
resources was over, and along with it ever-increasing credit. What it
boils down to now is that we can't service our debt at any level, personal,
corporate, or government -- and that translates into comprehensive societal

The efforts of our federal government to work around this now, to cover up
the "non-performing" debt and to generate the new lending necessary to keep the
old system going, is a tragic exercise in futility. I'm not saying this to
be a "pessimistic" grandstanding doomer pain-in-the-ass, but because I would
like to see my country make more intelligent choices that would permit us to
continue being civilized, to move into the next phase of our history without a
horrible self-destructive convulsion.

The political dimension of the collapse of motoring is the least discussed
part of problem: as fewer and fewer citizens find themselves able to buy and run
cars, they will feel increasingly aggrieved at the system set up to make
motoring virtually mandatory for all the chores of everyday life, and their
resentments will rise against the elite that can still manage to enjoy it.
Because our car-dependency is so extreme, the reaction of the dis-entitled
classes is liable to be extreme and probably delusional to an extreme,

You can already see it being baked in the cake. Happy Motoring is so
entangled in our national identity that the loss of it is bound to cause a
national identity crisis. In places like the American south, the old Dixie
states, motoring lifted more than half the population out of the dust, and
became the basis of the New South economy. The sons and grandsons of
starving sharecroppers became Chevy dealers and developers of suburban housing
tracts, malls, and strip malls. They don't have any nostalgia for the
historical reality of hookworm and 14-hour-days of serf labor in hundred-degree
heat. Theirs is a nostalgia for the present, for air-conditioned comfort and
convenience and the groaning all-you-can-eat Shoney's breakfast buffet off the
freeway ramp. When it is withdrawn from them by the mandate of events,
they will be furious.

Hanging Chads and Financial Crises

Unfortunately, what Paul Krugman wrote today is probably true:

What would have happened if hanging chads and the Supreme Court hadn’t
denied Al Gore the White House in 2000? Many things would clearly have been
different over the next eight years.

But one thing would probably have been the same: There would have been
a huge housing bubble and a financial crisis when the bubble burst. And if
Democrats had been in power when the bad news arrived, they would have taken the blame, even though things would surely have been as bad or worse under
Republican rule.

There is Nothing either Good or Bad but Thinking Makes It So

Pico Iyer, the intellectual and novelist, writes today in the NYT:

“The beat of my heart has grown deeper, more active, and yet more peaceful,
and it is as if I were all the time storing up inner riches…My [life] is one
long sequence of inner miracles.” The young Dutchwoman Etty Hillesum wrote that
in a Nazi transit camp in 1943, on her way to her death at Auschwitz two months
later. Towards the end of his life, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “All I have seen
teaches me to trust the creator for all I have not seen,” though by then he had
already lost his father when he was 7, his first wife when she was 20 and his
first son, aged 5. In Japan, the late 18th-century poet Issa is celebrated for
his delighted, almost child-like celebrations of the natural world. Issa saw
four children die in infancy, his wife die in childbirth, and his own body
partially paralyzed.

I’m not sure I knew the details of all these lives when I was 29, but I did
begin to guess that happiness lies less in our circumstances than in what we
make of them, in every sense. “There is nothing either good or bad,” I had heard
in high school, from Hamlet, “but thinking makes it so.” I had been lucky enough
at that point to stumble into the life I might have dreamed of as a boy: a great
job writing on world affairs for Time magazine, an apartment (officially at
least) on Park Avenue, enough time and money to take vacations in Burma,
Morocco, El Salvador. But every time I went to one of those places, I noticed
that the people I met there, mired in difficulty and often warfare, seemed to
have more energy and even optimism than the friends I’d grown up with in
privileged, peaceful Santa Barbara, Calif., many of whom were on their fourth
marriages and seeing a therapist every day. Though I knew that poverty certainly
didn’t buy happiness, I wasn’t convinced that money did either.

The Morphine Drip

Two former Wall Streeters wrote a long, skeptical article about the economic policies of the administration in the Sunday New York Times. Here's a sample:

Why is the morphine drip still in the veins of the financial system? These
trillions in profligate federal spending are intended to make us feel better
again even though feeling pain, and dealing with it responsibly, would be
healthier in the long run. It is time to stop rescuing the banks that got us
into this mess. If that means more bank failures on a grander scale or the
dismemberment of Citigroup, so be it. Depositors will be protected — up to
$250,000 per account — but shareholders, creditors and, sadly, many employees
will, for the long-term health of the system, need to feel the market’s

Is there to be any limit on bailouts? We have now thrown money at
the big banks, any number of regional ones, insurance companies, General Motors,
Chrysler and state and local governments. Will we soon be bailing out Dartmouth,
which just lost its AAA bond rating? Is there no room left for what the Austrian
economist Joseph Schumpeter termed “creative destruction”? And what is the plan
to get the American people out of all these equity stakes we now own and don’t
want? Furthermore, for government leaders to decide who shall live and who
shall die in an economic sense opens them up to legitimate charges of crony
capitalism and favoritism. We will benefit in the long run from a return to
market discipline.

Happy Talk about Green Shoots

Okay, I've been away for awhile. Thanks to the Caretaker for taking up some of the slack while I was gone. Unfortunately, I'll be away for parts of the next three weeks as well, but it can't be helped.

Anyway, let me begin by linking to this article by Bob Kuttner about our current financial situation. He's been a skeptic about the administration's handling of it, and continues to be so, for the reasons he outlines in the article. Here's a quote:

There is a huge reality gap between the happy talk about green shoots,
banks passing stress tests, the rise in unemployment slowing -- and what's
happening out in the real economy, especially if you take a close look at
banking and housing, ground zero of the economic crisis. Credit remains tight
for all but the most blue-chip borrowers. Despite the Fed's policy of keeping
short term interest rates at just above zero, average rates on conventional
30-year mortgages, now above 5.5 percent, have jumped nearly a full point since

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Cairo Speech (with commentary)

Notable parts of Obama's speech today:

Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.
Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims. The attacks of September 11, 2001....

Right out of the gate, Obama offered his explanation for the tension between Islam and the West. Its an interesting explanation--modernity causes hostility to the West, and then violent extremists exploit those feelings. Already, he draws a line between angry feelings toward the west--which are legitimate--and the extremists who use violence--which is not cool. And he gets his mention of 9-11 in at the very beginning.

But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly to each other the things we hold in our hearts and that too often are said only behind closed doors.

This sentence sums up everything that I love about Obama. Its what makes people trust him.

I also know that Islam has always been a part of America's story.

Bringing Islam inside the American story is a mental leap at first, but one that harkens to the Idea of America. It has often been said that most countries are founded on tribal loyalties, but America is founded on an idea. That idea of freedom, equality and new beginnings can include all cultures, all tribes.

Now, much has been made of the fact that an African American with the name Barack Hussein Obama could be elected President.

Obama takes what some would perceive as risks in this speech, tying himself to Islam in a way that he never did during the campaign. He must feel that the American people know him now, and are less prone to fearmongering.

Of course, recognizing our common humanity is only the beginning of our task. Words alone cannot meet the needs of our people. These needs will be met only if we act boldly in the years ahead; and if we understand that the challenges we face are shared, and our failure to meet them will hurt us all.

The refrain you hear about Obama from Muslims, Israelis and Americans is "nice words, but deeds are what matter." And Obama is saying back to them "Yeah I know. But I can't do it alone. 'We' have to do it."

But let us be clear: Al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people on that day.... These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with.

I like that Obama acknowledges the fact that many Muslims, and Americans, do not believe that al-Queda was behind 9-11, even as he vigorously disagrees with them.

Let me also address the issue of Iraq. Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world. Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible.

Iraq is a rhetorical minefield that I wondered how Obama would address. I've got to say.....that was pretty damn good.

At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. (Applause.) This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.

What happens if Israel does not stop the settlements? That will be where the rubber hits the road.

In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians.

It is amazing how the simple restatement of historical fact by world leaders has become so rare, that to see Obama do it here in a way that acknowledges the mistakes made by both sides is amazing. That is Obama's simple genius--he finds simple ways to do things that for some reason are just never done.

In fact, faith should bring us together. And that's why we're forging service projects in America to bring together Christians, Muslims, and Jews. That's why we welcome efforts like Saudi Arabian King Abdullah's interfaith dialogue and Turkey's leadership in the Alliance of Civilizations.

This is an approach I try to follow in my own work. Sometimes little gestures can keep open the lines of communication between opposing forces. They may not fix a problem, but they can create the opportunities to do so.

And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country -- you, more than anyone, have the ability to reimagine the world, to remake this world.


The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God's vision. Now that must be our work here on Earth.

He doesn't cede religion to the extremists--he claims it for the peaceful. Very well done.

At some point, is Obama going to give a bad or even mediocre speech?

Your Own Obama Speech in 13 Easy Steps!

The Daily Beast distills the essence of Obama's speeches:

Step 1. Thanks for having me.

Step 2. Express shock that someone with your life story could ever stand before such a crowd…

Step 3. ...But that's just America for you.

Step 4. Pause for audience interruption.

Step 5. Have gracious comeback ready.

Step 6. Pay homage to Founding Fathers and/or quote The Declaration of Independence.

Etc, Etc. And they fill it in with a lot of examples from Obama's greatest hits. Check it out.