About Me

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Armchair theorist, poet, and occasional IT manager, Sascha B. is equipped with a Master's Degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas, and is not afraid to use it. His work has been published by the University Press of America, Edwin Mellen Press, University of Texas Press, and a variety of small journals nationwide. He is also the proprietor and baker for 3141 Pie, of which you should eat many.

The Deal

I stopped blogging in 2013, when life overtook me. My father became ill and died shortly thereafter, and my mother was left with increasing dementia. I became the primary caregiver, and now orchestrate my mother's care and our family estate.

Now, I am coming up for air again.

Looking for the next book to read. All suggestions welcome.

My reading list is over here.







Friday, September 26, 2008

Opinion

Interesting. According to Yglesias, the numbers are in:
"CNN Opinion Research Poll

Results, according to my inbox:

Who Did the Best Job In the Debate?
Obama 51%
McCain 38%

Who Would Better Handle Economy?
Obama 58%
McCain 37%

Who Would Better Handle Iraq?
Obama 52%
McCain 47%"
No idea what the population or technique for the survey was, but I find it interesting. If the information Yglesias is posting is accurate, then it looks like the overall numbers and upward trend that Obama has been seeing the last week are only continuing.

UPDATE: Ambinder points to a CBS News poll of undecided voters with basically the same numbers.

Post-Debate Thoughts


So the first meet is over, and I think that the winner is....

Jim Lehrer!

Seriously: I wish that man could be the moderator at all political debates. He is brilliant.

As for the candidates, I think that it was in many ways a draw. And that in the end is good for Obama, less so for McCain. This was his turf, and he came across well, had a few good one liners, clearly showed his depth of history and experience....but Obama not only kept up with him, but kept him on edge.

For me, the LOL moment was when McCain basically said (while discussing Pakistan) that you can think things, but even if you plan on doing them, you shouldn't say it out loud. But then again, when Obama in clear and precise (and uncomplicated) language, showed that McCain cannot distinguish between tactics and strategy, and doesn't know that he doesn't know, that was a good moment as well.

There were no knockouts here; each man stumbled a bit, and had there shinier moments as well. But it does not do McCain any good that so many commentators have already noted that he could not bring himself to make eye contact with his opponent throughout the evening, nor to have repeated his "he just doesn't get it" line so many times.

The positive takeaways: Obama looked, and sounded...presidential. He has the charisma and the poise, and clearly has a depth of knowledge. And his comments on restoring America's standing are resonant and compelling, particularly coming from him. McCain didn't lose it, and that's a big plus. He has depth, and when he finally gets to his point, he clearly has a solid philosophy. He appeared more composed tonight than he has in weeks.

I doubt this performance swayed many voters in either direction, but I may be wrong. Right now I am going to enjoy my scotch, and relax for a few minutes.

Sad.

David Brooks and Gail Collins have a painfully honest discussion:
"What strikes me most about the House Republican position is the awesome chutzpah. Given all the uncertainty, they are still willing to stake out an astonishingly bold position that goes against the grain of conventional wisdom. If they are successful in blocking the Paulson approach and they are wrong, we will enter another Depression, the Republican Party will be blamed and the G.O.P. will cease to exist.

I’m not exaggerating.

....At this moment they are standing athwart history and yelling stop."
Why is it that a handful of hubristic egomaniacs can hold a nation and a global economy hostage? And why on earth is McCain abetting them?

Harsh.


Sullivan lays into McCain and his portrayal by David Brooks:
Someone somewhere is being tortured right now because John McCain made it happen. Standing over the shoulder of the torturer is the presence of McCain, as the pain and terror of the torture victim is milked for false confessions, then used for political purposes. That is integrity?
Brutal. Damning. Hyperbolic. But with more than a grain of unfortunate truth.

Questions Linger?

From a WaPo article with the lede "Questions Linger Over McCain's Role in Stalled Bailout Talks." I select three comments from Balz:
What actually happened Thursday still is not clear. One source who was briefed on the lunch meeting of Senate Republicans said that an overwhelming majority of them were ready to support the tentative deal that had been announced that morning until McCain intervened to say he was opposed.

****

The irony is that McCain is now working, perhaps as he never has before, to assuage House Republicans, with whom he has battled not only over immigration but also campaign finance reform and other issues. His hope is to get at least enough of them on board to produce a deal that has wider support than the agreement of Thursday.

****

One mystery in all of this is why it wasn't clear until after senators had announced a deal that House Republicans had another plan in mind. How could Minority Leader John Boehner have issued a joint statement with Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday night declaring bipartisan progress if his troops were drafting an alternative that would result in turmoil when it surfaced?
So what we're saying here is that McCain seemed to trigger an avalanche of heretofore repressed contrapoise to the bipartisan work already accomplished; that he has stepped in to work with the very constituency of his party with whom he has failed repeatedly to be able to agree or sway; and that somehow, his claim can hold up that he had nothing to do with the reversal even though Boehner was willing to publicly stand with his less-than-chum Pelosi, and announce that he had the troops behind him in a deal---until McCain walked into the room.

It's all circumstantial, yes. But I'm not sure there are a lot of questions to be answered here. McCain gaffed, the house wingers misjudged, and we lost a solid day or two of work.

I can't wait for tonight's debate.

Heh. 'Tactics.' Awesome.


Seems I'm not the only one thinking along these lines. Steve Benen at Washington Monthly notes:
Republican consultant Craig Shirley, who advised McCain's presidential campaign earlier in the cycle, noted the bizarre developments. "It just proves his campaign is governed by tactics and not ideology," Shirley said. "In the end, he blinked and Obama did not. The 'steady hand in a storm' argument looks now to more favor Obama, not McCain."

Shirley added, "My guess is that plasma units are rushing to the McCain campaign as we speak to replace the blood flowing there from the fights among the staff."

Utter confusion among squabbling aides. I can't wait for this finely-tuned machine to start running the executive branch of government. It's going to be awesome.
Awesome isn't exactly the word I was thinking. But I think you get the point.

Surreal

Take a psychotic break out on Planet Noonan, with this bizarrely off-point piece, that not only misses the key frame of what has occurred over the last week with both McCain and Obama (better captured from the right's POV by David Brooks), but actually appears to take the latest Palin interview as a positive---and that must be a lonely, lonely place for Ms. Noonan to stand.

She seems to think that neither candidate has effectively described their philosophy---although they each have written a number of books outlining that very topic---and goes on to frame this even more specifically as an issue of party identification:
Mr. Obama should give a series of speeches on "Why I am a Democrat." What does he think it means to be a Democrat? What is the Democratic Party, what is its role and purpose in America's political life? What does it exist to do? Why does it matter?
Clearly, on planet Noonan, no one reads, nor listens to what others say. For Obama (and McCain as well), their critical philosophies are in part determined by their lack of identification with past partisan politics.

It seems to me that on Planet Noonan, the inhabitants are starting to pine for the days when everything could be clearly understood as Black-White, Good-Evil, Red-Blue, Yes-No dichotomies.

Happily for us earthlings, we now have quite a few shades of grey.

...and while the dogs lay sleeping


Turkey aims....shoots....scores. I wonder how President Talabani feels about this, and whether his recent meeting with possible GOP VP Palin gives him any sense of security.
AP: Turkish warplanes hit 16 Kurdish targets in Iraq

Good Catch

In an astute catch by Chris Cillizza, it seems that someone in the ad dept. of either WSJ or the McCain campaign is asleep at the wheel, or time traveling to an alternate universe where McCain has already won tonight's debate.

My comment on this?

"Bwahahahahahahahaha!"

Good Question

A really unsettling query from Marc Ambinder. This is where the key issue of market confidence comes into play.

But of Course!

TPM has it here:
"John McCain will attend the debate. From his campaign:

'Senator McCain has spent the morning talking to members of the Administration, members of the Senate, and members of the House. He is optimistic that there has been significant progress toward a bipartisan agreement now that there is a framework for all parties to be represented in negotiations, including Representative Blunt as a designated negotiator for House Republicans. The McCain campaign is resuming all activities and the Senator will travel to the debate this afternoon. Following the debate, he will return to Washington to ensure that all voices and interests are represented in the final agreement, especially those of taxpayers and homeowners.'

The justification: There has been "significant progress" and there is now a "framework" for all the parties to be represented at the negotiating table. Also: The campaign suspension that never actually happened is now over."
How craptastically grandstanding on nothing can you get? He arrives after hours of bipartisan work, only to help unravel the negotiations; he sits silent during the summit meeting he called with the president, causes mayhem and setbacks everywhere, pulls the stunt of supposedly "suspending" his campaign (hah!), plays chicken with Obama on the debate and loses (double hah!), and helps the market to open almost 200 points down.

Yeah, I call that progress.

Thoughts


Does anyone else find it fascinating that we now have a tableau in Washington of the Democrats aligned with President Bush, and John McCain aligned with the radical house Republicans---against whom he has battled most of his career, and in doing so earned his "maverick" cognomen---to fight out a battle on how to socialize Wall Street as efficiently as possible?

Surreal.

White Knight

As the NYT said yesterday,
At the bipartisan White House meeting that Mr. McCain had called for a day earlier, he sat silently for more than 40 minutes, more observer than leader, and then offered only a vague sense of where he stood, said people in the meeting.
The savior of the day: He rode in on his horse, and then just sat on his ass.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

No Surprise

There's a lot of press tonight on just what went down in the Capitol this afternoon. From accounts in NYT and WaPo and TPM, it seems that McCain spoke last night with the House GOP wingers, and encouraged them to buck the bipartisan concensus. At least that's my read on it. And it's disturbing at best to think that he would encourage dissension on this right now. The House Republicans are queasy about the socialism implicit in the bailout---but so is everyone else. I suspect we'll never know just what is driving McCain at this point. All the honorable and stable aspects of his political character appear to have faded away to caricature. And that is a very sad thing.

Tomorrow will be a fascinating day; if McCain can't undo the damage he has done already, then he must face the possibility of handing Obama a 90-minute free ride with the 3/4 of the population who say they want to see the debate. If he shows up, then he risks humiliation and political fallout of the worst kind. And if he does manage to resolve his position in Washington before tomorrow evening, then he will have to explain jsut what the hell he was doing, and what he might have gained---since I doubt that Dodd and Shelby and Frank are going to bite the bait being tossed by the House yammerers. Particularly since they've already said that their proposals are untenable.

Add to this Palin's disastrous interview with Couric earlier, and I just don't see any good there. Just more tactical maneuvering to avoid reality, and blatant plays at our fears.

And yet---I still worry that we'll wind up with this as our leadership in January.

Politics is never pretty, but the surreal dive into absurdity that we have taken this season, coupled with the all too real crises around the globe, seems to me to be an ill wind blowing no one no good.

Local News

Amid the presidential political bickering, the conniving on the hill over the bailout and the debate and all that, a look at a few things happening here at home:

Heller Ehrman, one of the oldest and largest law firms here, is being dissolved tomorrow, a victim of the economy.

Washington Mutual, zapped into receivership and sold piecemeal to JP Morgan Chase, is one of the most ubiquitous banking institutions here. As of tomorrow, they are history.

Due to that, I expect local unemployment among bankers and lawyers, administrative assistants and other associated support staff to skyrocket just in time for the holidays (Rosh Hashanah is hittin' us Monday night: Happy New Year, everybody!).

On other fronts: yesterday we unveiled the first dedicated bicycle traffic signal in the city, at one of the most dangerous intersections in San Francisco. It took a whopping three minutes for cars to start ignoring it. No new casualties yet reported, though.

We've outlawed text-messaging while driving, and simultaneously had $100 Million cut from public transit funding (thanks, Arnold!). So now you'll have to save your texting for when you take the bus....if you can find one.

Two Worries

Two things that keep nagging at me.

  • The first: what if the bailout fails?
         Now, I'm less concerned about that if the leaked possible bullets for compromise and oversight wind up being incorporated. But really: what happens if everything tanks anyway?

  • The other: If the house republicans start blocking a solution on principal, aren't we seeing on a national level what we just saw in California with our budget struggle, only now with stakes of a magnitude far greater?
         It wasn't for grandstanding purposes, as is the case with McCain's stunt today, but it still was bogus inflexibility to score a political point at the expense of both the issue at hand, and the taxpayers they represent. Now in California, we have an ass-tastic budget that will blow up in our faces in less than twelve months, having glossed over our problems with an extension of our failures.

    I am concerned about the outcome of this economic mess for obvious reasons; I am more concerned that we are setting the nation up for a politically driven nightmare under a McCain administration.
  • And He's Done It.

    McCain appears to have wrenched failure from the jaws of victory, in a vainglorious attempt to insert himself in the middle of something he doesn't understand.

    Read about it here and here.

    Torn from the pages of The Hill, via wonkette:
    In addition, a key Republican lawmaker stated that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wants to explore new ideas, like loaning money to financial institutions or insuring the companies, rather than buying their toxic debt.

    [...]

    He added that McCain is interested in using loans or insurance rather than having the government purchase the toxic debts of Wall Street institutions.

    “We would prefer a loan or supplying insurance,” Bachus told reporters. “These are the ideas Sen. McCain tried to maximize. He feels strongly we have to design a program where taxpayers won’t lose.”

    The best part is how Barney Frank continued to be on fire: “Asked about Bachus’s ideas, Frank questioned why Bachus hadn’t mentioned them in negotiations.”

    Without Comment II

    "I'm delighted that John is expressing himself on this issue," Dodd said. "I have heard from Obama on numerous occasions these last couple days. I have never heard from John McCain on the issue . . . I'm just worried a little bit that sort of politicizing this problem, sort of flying in here, I'm beginning to think this is more of a rescue plan for John McCain and not a rescue plan for the economy."

    --Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.

    Without Comment

    From The Hill:
    "McCain is the lead sponsor of 38 pieces of legislation during the 110th Congress, none of which have been referred to the Banking panel, according to a review of Thomas, a congressional website.

    Obama has introduced 130 measures during this Congress. Five of Obama’s standalone bills fall within the Banking Committee's jurisdiction."
    Those AP writers are definitely letting out the stops:
    "McCain hoped voters would believe that he rose above politics to wade into successful, nitty-gritty dealmaking at a time of urgent crisis, but he risked being seen instead as either overly impulsive or politically craven, or both."
    I'll take "both" for $700 billion, Alex...

    Duck Speak Express

    So let me see if I have this straight:

    John McCain, after agreeing to a joint statement with Obama, calls off his campaign---only all his campaign offices stay open, and continue to work full throttle, his surrogates do interviews, and his ads still run.

    He calls off the campaign in order to rush to Washington to broker a deal on the bailout---only first he sits down to chat with his new found donor, Lady de Rothschild, and to give an interview live with Katie Couric. And then by the time he gets to the Capitol, the congress has already solidified a deal, in which he has had little or no part, but is convinced won't be good enough.

    At the same time, he suggests to the President that he, Obama, and McCain meet together to present a common front, or survey the battlefield, or something---just the three of them, statesmanlike, and showing leadership there alone. Just the three of them. Except that McCain is bringing his campaign advisor, Doug Holtz-Eakin with him. Obama was told not to bring campaign staff.

    Perhaps it isn't the arrogant cynicism it appears to be. Perhaps it really is what McCain thinks is best for the country. Perhaps he won't after this, claim that he helped to bring the two sides together (when in fact the response to the bailout was from the onset bipartisan, and McCain wasn't a part of it. He still thought the economy was "fundamentally sound". Remember?)

    Maybe if he'd run an upstanding campaign to this point. Maybe if he didn't have the record of least attendance in Congress. Maybe if just once acted like a grownup rather than an adolescent. Maybe.

    But if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck....

    Ugh.

    Andrew Sullivan catches this surreality on our upcoming $700 billion dollar blank check to Paulson:


    "“It’s not based on any particular data point,” a Treasury spokeswoman told Forbes.com Tuesday. “We just wanted to choose a really large number.” "


    Equity. Equity and oversight. And a few grownups to take charge. Please, can we have an Obama administration in place, quickly?

    High Crimes?

    Oh man. Are we heading toward war crimes? They all knew. Back in early 2002, they all knew.
    Rice said she remembered meetings at which the SERE methods were discussed but said she was assured that the tactics "had been deemed not to cause significant physical or psychological harm."

    Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) has been investigating the origins of the decision to use harsh interrogation tactics on high-level detainees held by the Pentagon and CIA. Many congressional Democrats and some Republicans have equated some of the techniques to torture. Levin has linked the decision to use SERE methods to the abuse that occurred at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

    "These discussions took place at the highest levels of the White House," Levin said in an interview. The documents belie administration claims that abuse of detainees was "the work of a few bad apples," he said.

    Levin noted that the SERE methods themselves -- which included not only waterboarding but also exposure to temperature extremes, forced nudity and sensory deprivation -- were designed by Chinese communists to extract confessions from captured U.S. servicemen.

    "The validity of the confessions they didn't care about; they just wanted the confessions so they could put them on TV," Levin said.
    The WaPo has it all here.

    Interlude


    I'd forgotten how much fun this blog is. Thank you, Jessica Hagy!

    In Agreement

    I find myself in unusually close agreement with nearly everything in this piece by Glenn Greenwald over at Salon. Particularly this:
    But Sarah Palin's performance in the tiny vignettes of unscripted dialogue in which we've been allowed to see her has been nothing short of frightening -- really, as I said, pity-inducing. And I say that as someone who has thought from the start that the criticisms of her abilities -- as opposed to her ideology -- were much too extreme. One of two things is absolutely clear at this point: she is either (a) completely ignorant about the most basic political issues -- a vacant, ill-informed, incurious know-nothing, or (b) aggressively concealing her actual beliefs about these matters because she's petrified of deviating from the simple-minded campaign talking points she's been fed and/or because her actual beliefs are so politically unpalatable, even when taking into account the right-wing extremism that is permitted, even rewarded, in our mainstream. I'm not really sure which is worse, but it doesn't really matter, because with 40 days left before the election, both options are heinous.
    We can't afford leadership that takes on responsibilities in this fashion: the above "heinous" choices, or McCain's dog-ate-my-homework last minute ditching this week, the continual prattle abetted by tactical maneuvering without thought to strategy or end goal or outcome. We've too much of the last eight years to endure any more.

    Wednesday, September 24, 2008

    Equity.

    This NYT look back at Sweden's bailout is worth reading. The most notable comment is (particularly when everyone here is saying that this is a crisis of confidence) this, from Bo Lundgren, the finance minister in 1992:
    Sweden did not just bail out its financial institutions by having the government take over the bad debts. It extracted pounds of flesh from bank shareholders before writing checks. Banks had to write down losses and issue warrants to the government.

    That strategy held banks responsible and turned the government into an owner. When distressed assets were sold, the profits flowed to taxpayers, and the government was able to recoup more money later by selling its shares in the companies as well.

    “If I go into a bank,” said Bo Lundgren, who was Sweden’s finance minister at the time, “I’d rather get equity so that there is some upside for the taxpayer.”
    As I said before: Equity. Equity. Equity. We should not settle for anything less.

    Painful

    The absurdity of this candidate really is tremendous. Palin sat down with Katie Couric today for an interview:

    Next, Couric asked about the $700 billion government bailout of bad debt - and whether she supports it.

    Palin: I'm all about the position that America is in and that we have to look at a $700 billion bailout. And as Sen. McCain has said unless this nearly trillion dollar bailout is what it may end up to be, unless there are amendments in Paulson's proposal, really I don't believe that Americans are going to support this and we will not support this. The interesting thing in the last couple of days that I have seen is that Americans are waiting to see what John McCain will do on this proposal. They're not waiting to see what Barack Obama is going to do. Is he going to do this and see what way the political wind's blowing? They're waiting to see if John McCain will be able to see these amendments implemented in Paulson's proposal.

    Couric: Why do you say that? Why are they waiting for John McCain and not Barack Obama?

    Palin: He's got the track record of the leadership qualities and the pragmatism that's needed at a crisis time like this.

    Couric: But polls have shown that Sen. Obama has actually gotten a boost as a result of this latest crisis, with more people feeling that he can handle the situation better than John McCain.

    Palin: I'm not looking at poll numbers. What I think Americans at the end of the day are going to be able to go back and look at track records and see who's more apt to be talking about solutions and wishing for and hoping for solutions for some opportunity to change, and who's actually done it?

    *************************

    Couric: You've said, quote, "John McCain will reform the way Wall Street does business." Other than supporting stricter regulations of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac two years ago, can you give us any more example of his leading the charge for more oversight?

    Palin: I think that the example that you just cited, with his warnings two years ago about Fannie and Freddie - that, that's paramount. That's more than a heck of a lot of other senators and representatives did for us.

    Couric: But he's been in Congress for 26 years. He's been chairman of the powerful Commerce Committee. And he has almost always sided with less regulation, not more.

    Palin: He's also known as the maverick though, taking shots from his own party, and certainly taking shots from the other party. Trying to get people to understand what he's been talking about - the need to reform government.

    Couric: But can you give me any other concrete examples? Because I know you've said Barack Obama is a lot of talk and no action. Can you give me any other examples in his 26 years of John McCain truly taking a stand on this?

    Palin: I can give you examples of things that John McCain has done, that has shown his foresight, his pragmatism, and his leadership abilities. And that is what America needs today.

    Couric: I'm just going to ask you one more time - not to belabor the point. Specific examples in his 26 years of pushing for more regulation.

    Palin: I'll try to find you some and I'll bring them to you.

    and another thing

    I read today about one economist who claims that our savings rate isn't actually at 0% or in negatives, that it's closer to 30%, because he treats corporate investment and personal investment identically, and adds in spending on education and R&D, since those are "investments" in future profit.

    That's an interesting theoretical approach but it fundamentally misrepresents the nature of saving. He disregards the difference between cash or financial investment, which is always going to be there in some form to spend in the future, for better or worse, and the gambling nature of "betting" on education or R&D, which may or may not pay off at some point, and indeed might well be worthless to you in the end.

    It's like equating a bank with a casino.

    Which is sort of what we've done in the derivatives market.

    There is no equivalency.

    Just one more, that's all we need.....

    I keep thinking, as we debate handing over one trillion dollars to a single individual, without any oversight or strings attached, in order to bail out organizations who made consistent and concerted errors of judgment over the last ten years to bring us to this point, driven by greed and ideology and who knows what; one trillion dollars to a single individual who was for a large chunk of that time one of the leaders of those organizations and that philosophy, to help out in unknown and indeterminate ways, his friends and colleagues who have continued to follow the same path he walked for so long....I keep thinking, over and over:

    where are the grownups?

    blogging from bed

    home with a nasty cold today, and so items may be few and far between (Nyquil is not conducive to clear thinking). But a couple things for the morning.

    After listening to a lot of the outtakes from the finance hearings, I got to thinking. Since what the bailout is doing is effectively nationalizing the downside of market risk, but none of the upside, isn't it effectively the final outcome of the "Reagonomics" trickle-down thinking that has plagued our political-economic thinking for the last 20 years? And with that in mind, is it any surprise that Paulson and Bernanke would take this route?

    I am still aghast that the idea of nationalizing the mortgage and insurance market downside risk, without any return to those already feeling the impact of the failures of the system while at the same time propping up the system that miscalculated in the first place...it's not socialism. It's stupidity. We're paying the con men to con us again, after he's blamed us for having less money in our wallets than he thought.

    On a different note, I'd like to share an excerpt from Fareed Zakaria's book The Post-American World, which is, by the way, a profoundly unsettling read in light of the Wall Street collapse. One of Zakaria's propositions juxtaposes American economics and production (fine, and flexible), and American politics (dysfunctional and inflexible). His claim that our apparent dropping in ranks is due less to our failures than the rest of the world just joining in on the game is a valid one, and worth exploring on many levels. In any case, a pertinent excerpt from his chapter on American Power:
    The economic dysfunctions in America today are real, but, by and large, they are not the product of deep inefficiencies within the American economy, nor are they refflections of cultural decay. They are the consequences of specific governmnet policies. Different policies could quickly and relatively easily move the UNnited States onto a far more stable footing. A st of sensible reforms could be enacted tomorrow to trim wasteful spending and subsidies....none of the proposed measures would require sacrifices reminiscent of wartime hardship, only modest adjustments of existing arrangements. And yet, because of politics, they appear impossible. The American political system has lost the ability for large-scale compromise, and it has lost the ability to accept some pain now for much gain later on....A "can-do" country is now saddled with a "do-nothing" political process, designed for partisan battle rather than problem solving. (Zakaria, pp.209-210)
    In the face of the current crises, the belief that in the last three decades we have rendered our politics incapable of the very flexibility for which they were created is an unsettling one.

    On a completely unrelated note: when is the last time you had to use a notary public? I get the feeling that notaries, like public pay phones, are a vanishing breed in the face of technological shifts.

    Tuesday, September 23, 2008

    Surreal

    I find it bizarre that until today, I had met more "world leaders" than Sarah Palin.* the AP reports:
    John McCain's presidential campaign has shielded the first-term Alaska governor for weeks from spontaneous questions from voters and reporters, and went to striking lengths Tuesday to maintain that distance as Palin made her diplomatic debut.

    The GOP campaign, applying more restrictive rules on access than even President Bush uses in the White House, banned reporters from the start of the meetings, so as not to risk a question being asked of Palin....

    "Gov. Palin, in these meetings, is cognizant that she is a candidate for office, that she's not, that there is a president of the United States and she is in the middle of a campaign for president of the United States," Biegun said. "So rather than make specific policy prescriptions, she was largely listening, having an exchange of views and also very interested in forming a relationship with people she met with today." [emphasis added]
    Heh. I'd love---LOVE--- to know what Palin's side of the "exchange" was. Particularly in her meeting with Kissinger.

    *One President, one Crown Prince in exile, and a passel of Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers, Ambassadors, and Military Chiefs, from a composite of maybe a dozen nations. And no---I am not qualified in any way to be Vice President of the United States.

    UPDATE: It just gets better and better:
    As the pool entered, the Afghan president appeared to be telling Palin about his young son, who was born in January 2007.

    Palin, her legs crossed and at one point patting her heart, was leaning in eagerly and smiling. Karzai, wearing his traditional clothes but without his trademark karakul hat, was also grinning while discussing the child. His remarks were unintelligible as the noise from the clicking cameras drowned them out.

    This was the only exchange that was heard:

    “What is his name?,” Palin asked.

    “Mirwais,” Karzai responded. “Mirwais, which means, ‘The Light of the House.’”

    “Oh nice,” Palin responded.

    “He is the only one we have,” remarked Karzai.

    At this point, the pool was hustled out the room and down to the hotel lobby.

    Pool was in the room for a grand total of 29 seconds.

    Worser and Worser

    So now it seems that Paulson's plan is to bail out not only the banks that fail, but those that don't as well. DailyKos catches this White House press release:
    With respect to executive pay, again, I'm not going to get into specific, point-by-point details on what our views are on that, other than the Secretary of Treasury said it would make more difficult to make this plan work and effective if you provide disincentives for companies and firms out there who are holding mortgage-backed securities and other securities from participating in the program. You have to remember, these are not all weak or troubled firms that own mortgage-backed securities. A lot of them are very successful banks and investment houses that have done very well, have been responsible, are holding performing assets that have value. They were not necessarily irresponsible players, and so you have to be careful about how you deal with them.
    And Krugman has this to say on cracks in the opacity of the plan.

    I'm getting more and more unhappy with the outlook of next week.

    Update:Josh Marshall gets on it as well.

    Disaster Waiting to Happen

    Three extra combat brigades requested by the US commander in Afghanistan will not be available before spring 2009, the US defence secretary has said.

    The US does "not have the forces... at this point", Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
    We don't have even three brigades to spare. What if there were something we acutally had to respond to, beyond Iraq and Afghanistan? What if the Caucasus did go blooey? What if McCain takes us to Georgia? Or Ukraine? Or Iran? Or N. Korea?

    Georgia

    from the BBC:
    In a potentially significant swing of expert Western opinion, a leading British think tank has urged that Nato membership should not be granted to Georgia or Ukraine.

    "The policy of Nato enlargement now would be a strategic error," said Dr John Chipman, Director General of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
    A good write up of what the others in the world think, beyond the belligerence of the McCains and the Rices. Our allies see it: we are not the power we once were, and we need to start addressing that reality.

    News Flash: Senate Banking Committee Grows A Pair!

    Both teams calling it like it is:
    Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut and chairman of the panel, called the Treasury proposal “stunning and unprecedented in its scope and lack of detail.”

    Asserting that the plan would allow Mr. Paulson to act with “absolute impunity,” Senator Dodd said, “After reading this proposal, I can only conclude that it is not only our economy that is at risk, Mr. Secretary, but our Constitution, as well.”

    Another expression of disgust came from Senator Jim Bunning, Republican of Kentucky, who said the plan would “take Wall Street’s pain and spread it to the taxpayers.”

    “It’s financial socialism, and it’s un-American,” Mr. Bunning said.
    Read the whole write-up. It's refreshing to hear these guys actually standing up to this blank check Patriot Act-style insanity.

    Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

    Josh Marshall makes a very uncomfortably good point on Bernanke's testimony this morning:
    "what we're doing is taking a trillion taxpayer dollars to recapitalize these companies. The upside is that taxpayers break even if ... and this seems like a pretty crazy if ... these really are good investments rather than worthless paper."
    But hey, don't worry: we'll make it up on volume! It's all economies of scale!

    (yeah, yeah, how well I remember riding the waves of that frothy little bubble back in 1999)

    Poll Update

    It looks like the numbers at Pollster.com are now, witht he new Quinnipac and ARG numbers, catching up with those over at fivethirtyeight.com. Pollster gives a Democratic advantage on their map of 229 to 166, with 143 in the tossup pile; Nate Silver is putting the electoral vote at 312 to 226.

    For the moment, it looks very very good for Obama. I suspect this will shift somewhat after the close of the week, with a resolution of the bailout discussion and the first debate happening friday. then again, if McCain continues to rail ineffectively on the economy, without making a distinction between himself and his close advisors who helped bring on the crisis, and the administration in general, he could continue to slide. And if (unlikely, but possible) Obama blows McCain out of the water in the debate, that could make the climb sustainable as well.

    It will be dependent on whether America finds itself able to absorb the necessary level of comfort with Obama in the context of our racism, cultural dichotomies, and penchant for petty tyrants.

    WTF runner up

    Posted without additional comment, to be filed in the incipient dictatorship file.
    NEW YORK - Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who has not held a press conference in nearly four weeks of campaigning, on Tuesday banned reporters from her first meetings with world leaders, allowing access only to photographers and a television crew.

    CNN, which was providing the television coverage for news organizations, decided to pull its TV crew, effectively denying Palin the high visibility she had sought.
    Read more here.

    WTF Winner for the Morning

    "More than two hours in, Richard Shelby asked Paulson the $700 billion question.

    "What if it doesn’t work?" Shelby asked.

    "You can't assure us because you thought some of the other things were supposed to work," Shelby said, referring to the Fed's $80 million AIG loan, the Bear Stearns bailout and the Freddie/Fannie takeover.

    Paulson said he "respectfully" disagreed that those actions were ineffectual.

    “If the Federal Reserve hadn’t stepped in with A.I.G. we would be facing a major calamity.”"
    WTF??? So what exactly are we facing now? Paulson has crazyspeak down even better than Greenspan did. I guess this is just excess frothiness on our exuberant $700 billion dollar latte.

    Read more here.

    Amusing

    For those of you all too familiar with emails of this nature from Nigeria, enjoy this tidbit making the rounds.....
    Dear American:

    I need to ask you to support an urgent secret business relationship with a transfer of funds of great magnitude.

    I am Ministry of the Treasury of the Republic of America. My country has had crisis that has caused the need for large transfer of funds of 800 billion dollars US. If you would assist me in this transfer, it would be most profitable to you.
    Read the whole thing. Happy Tuesday.

    Monday, September 22, 2008

    Interlude


    I love headlines like this. It makes for such unbiased understanding of things (thanks, BBC!). Oh, and it sure helps to promote aggro attitudinal fist pumping by excessively testosterone laden good ol' boys:
    Men with sexist views 'earn more'
    Man, I gotta go out and get me one of those sexist views, pronto!

    Deteriorating Situations

    And meanwhile, far from the Bat Cave, where even as we speak Batman Robin and Alfred struggle to return Gotham's economy to normal after the Joker's attack --- turning all money into blank paper --- sinister events come to fruition:
    ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Gunmen kidnapped Afghanistan's top diplomat to Pakistan on Monday after killing his driver, underscoring worsening security in the nuclear-armed country two days after a suicide bomber killed 53 people.
    The timing couldn't be worse, but we must expend all possible energies to shore up the situation in Pakistan, and to constrain the mess in Afghanistan. A destabilized Pakistan is far, far more dangerous than a nuclear-hopeful Iran. And a note to the McCain-Palin speechwriters: Ahmadinejad isn't really a dictator; He carries less constitutional (and real) power than the Supreme Council. If you're going to start a war, please at the very least know who it is you are planning to fight.

    Useful Reminder

    from the comments on the NYT blogs:
    "Dorothy Thompson had it right in 1936: “The logical end of a growing state control over business without affecting any change in ownership is not socialism. It is fascism. That is what fascism is.” New York Herald-Tribune, May 26, 1936."


    Equity. Equity. Equity. And without guarantees or additional compensation to the current management of potentially nationalized (let's call this what it is) companies.

    "Dreams of my President"

    Maureen Dowd and Aaron Sorkin write a slam dunk:
    "the idea of American exceptionalism doesn’t extend to Americans being exceptional. If you excelled academically and are able to casually use 690 SAT words then you might as well have the press shoot video of you giving the finger to the Statue of Liberty while the Dixie Chicks sing the University of the Taliban fight song. The people who want English to be the official language of the United States are uncomfortable with their leaders being fluent in it."
    Read the whole thing here.

    Do What Now?

    At the same time, financial institutions are weighing in with what they want in the bill. On Sunday, the Financial Services Roundtable - a lobbying group representing the nation's banks - called on Congress to make the plan "broad enough to include different types of assets."
    -CNN
    As TPM reports, this is crazy: that the banks now are trying to dictate the terms of their own rescue. Somehow, it seems to me that the drowning man doesn't get to determine the type of lifesaver that is thrown to him.

    Do you let your naughty child determine his or her own punishment for a misdeed? Or give them veto power over you when you make a decision?

    I don't think so.

    Moment of Clarity

    Says Roger Cohen:
    Let’s be clear: this is an American mess forged by the American genius for new-fangled financial instruments in an era where the mantra has been that government is dumb and the markets are smart and risk is non-existent.
    There is such a wide gap between smart and clever: we all too often are too clever by half. What we need is more smart. And fast.

    Heh. Heh. Heh.

    Mickey Kaus gettin' his sarcasm on in a rundown of Newt Gingrich's surprisingly reasonable comments:
    Gingrich claims it's dangerous to push a dramatic long-term solution in response to a shorter-term "crisis." But of course he uses the crisis to push his own long-term solution, a "zero capital gains tax." I personally think we need to respond to this crisis by immediately providing universal health care while postponing indefinitely all plans for "comprehensive immigration reform" and "card check" unionization. Racial preferences in college admissions and contracting should to be suspended for 15 years while the government creates a $700 billion entity to fund charter schools and another of similar size to finance public works projects that provide unskilled, last-resort jobs. This no time to rush into untested schemes...
    Worth a read, if just for an idea of the strange world wherein Kaus and Gingrich intersect.

    Um, Yeah.

    It's hard not to see this point of view:
    "The public doesn’t like a blank check," former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said in Politico’s Arena forum. "They think this whole bailout idea is nuts. They see fat cats on Wall Street who have raked in zillions for years, now extorting in effect $2,000 to $5,000 from every American family to make up for their own nonfeasance, malfeasance, greed and just plain stupidity."

    Reich notes that the bailout proposal comes as many Americans are struggling to keep up with the rising costs of gas, food and health insurance. "And so," he said, "the public is asking: Why should Wall Street get bailed out by me when I’m getting screwed?"
    I have to agree with Reich: the idea that we bail out not only the economy, but the individuals who drove that economy to the brink of disaster at the expense of most americans (and many others) is just plain ugly.

    As far as I'm concerned, that dog won't hunt.

    Coincident Occurrence

    Is it synchronicity, or something more sinister and deep, to understand that the end of Wall Street as we have know it for the last 85 years, and the end of Yankee Stadium after 85 years, have occurred within the same 72-hour period?

    Overkill

    So why didn't the FBI leap on it when my Yahoo email account got hacked three years ago?
    "The FBI searched the residence of the son of a Democratic state lawmaker in Tennessee over the weekend looking for evidence linking the young man to the hacking of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's personal e-mail account, two law enforcement officials told The Associated Press on Monday."
    Remember: the hacking itself is a minor offense; the larger criminal activity that is at issue here is that Palin used her personal email accounts to conduct government business out of the public eye, in the hope that it would be untraceable and subpoena-proof.

    Cheney? Dick? Dick? Are you there?

    Positive Spin

    Nate Silver over at fivethirtyeight.com has some notable numbers posted this morning: if you're an Obama supporter, it's cause for hope; For the McCain folks, it could be cause for worry. His polls tend to be a bit more favorable to the Democrats, but only a bit. He's showing a wide lead for Obama in projected electoral college votes (311.5 to 226.5), and even a significant margin in the popular vote (50.3 to 47.9). He's begun a weighted allocation of all those undecided voters, it's worth reading his notes.

    As for partisan ol' me, I'll just keep hoping this trend continues right out beyond the margins of any statistical error.

    Mene Mene Tekel

    You know, it's almost enough to make me think that they have conspired to see this play out. It's the Patriot Act with direct profits:
    In short, the Bush administration wants zero punishment for these wreckless CEOs who lost shareholder money and are now costing each person in the United States $2,000. In return for $700 billion, the White House has yet to name any ways that it will hold these corporations accountable or institute safeguards to ensure that this irresponsible lending and borrowing won’t happen again.

    Furthermore, the White House is demanding that Congress give up its oversight powers for this deal and “place no restrictions on the administration other than requiring semiannual reports to Congress, granting the Treasury secretary unprecedented power to buy and resell mortgage debt.”
    Why is it that we give the government carte blanche to do what any business owner would be laughed out of town for proposing?

    Hilarious and Scary


    From Alex Tabarrok, (via Think Progress)
    Oh, what I would give to have thought of that! But it's almost too true to be funny.

    Imminent danger! No time to delay! Poor Colin Powell...a thought: is Paulson getting played as the Colin Powell of the moment, and the Congress as the meltdown's UNSC?

    Sunday, September 21, 2008

    Sea Change

    NYT and Reuters report:
    Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, the last two independent investment banks, will become bank holding companies, the Federal Reserve said Sunday night, fundamentally altering the landscape of Wall Street.

    Announced without fanfare on Sunday night, the move signals the final end to the Glass-Steagall Act, the epochal legislation of 1933 that signaled a split between investment banks and retail banks. A law passed in 1999 repealed the earlier regulation, though Goldman and Morgan remained independent investment banks.
    Not sure what to make of this move. But it's definitely going to change the game.

    Holy Crap, Batman!

    Is no one paying attention to the structural implications of this stuff? In today's NYT:
    Foreign banks, which were initially excluded from the plan, lobbied successfully over the weekend to be able to sell the toxic American mortgage debt owned by their American units to the Treasury, getting the same treatment as United States banks.
    'Kay. So now we have gone from indemnifying the experts who made the bad loans here in the US from any real ramifications (that's the bailout), without doing anything whatsoever to protect the individuals who were on the other side of that corporate expertise (that's the audaciousness of buying nationalizing the product, but not the producer); now we are going to do this not only domestically, but internationally as well.

    Let me get out just a little bit of snark here: isn't this the most elitist action ever? Implicitly declaring that the fools whose greed and irrational exuberance got us in this mess are too smart, and too well placed, to take their lumps along with their consumers and customers? I can see bailing out and propping up the system; the idea that the individuals driving the train over the cliff should be propped up as well, at the direct expense of the taxpayers for the next 40 years, is anathema.

    Good lord, I hope that Congress doesn't roll over and wag its friggin' tail on this, as they did with the Patriot Act.

    Oversight. Better regulation. consumer guarantees. Line item determination of cash direction for that $700,000,000,000.00.

    Interlude


    Next time you want a really interesting champagne cocktail with your Sunday brunch, something that takes you to a realm straddling France and Spain, try this:


    Sancho

    2 oz. Pineau des Charentes, such as Francois Peyraud or Chateau Montifaud
    3/4 oz. Pedro Ximenez Sherry, such as Alvear 2004
    sparkling wine, preferably a light cava or champagne

    in a chilled champagne flute, gently pour the Pedro Ximenez, and the Pineau des Charentes. Top off with sparkling wine.

    Enjoy!

    Obama Responds

    In Charlotte, NC today:
    As of now, the Bush Administration has only offered a concept with a staggering price tag, not a plan. Even if the U.S. Treasury recovers some or most of its investment over time, this initial outlay of up to $700 billion is sobering. And in return for their support, the American people must be assured that the deal reflects the basic principles of transparency, fairness, and reform.

    First, there must be no blank check when American taxpayers are on the hook for this much money.

    Second, taxpayers shouldn’t be spending a dime to reward CEOs on Wall Street.

    Third, taxpayers should be protected and should be able to recoup this investment.

    Fourth, this plan has to help homeowners stay in their homes.

    Fifth, this is a global crisis, and the United States must insist that other nations join us in helping secure the financial markets.

    Sixth, we need to start putting in place the rules of the road I’ve been calling for for years to prevent this from ever happening again.

    And finally, this plan can’t just be a plan for Wall Street, it has to be a plan for Main Street. We have to come together, as Democrats and Republicans, to pass a stimulus plan that will put money in the pockets of working families, save jobs, and prevent painful budget cuts and tax hikes in our states.

    (via firedoglake)
    He's right, and Paulson and Bernanke need to respond. The potential for their plan to become the economic equivalent of the Patriot Act (and thereby of Guantanamo and the FISA end-run) is too high, at too high a cost for too many people.

    Does McCain have anything further to add to his plan, or has he been to busy taking over the Alaskan Governor's office to attend?

    Tomorrow will be an interesting day.

    Sunday Supplement

    As always, Niall Ferguson has a trenchant analysis of the economic mess and its relationship to globalization, American power, and the international balance of powers. He too is saying that we've only begun to feel the bite of this unpleasantness. Of the current meltdown:
    "This has had three distinct consequences. First, it has exposed the weaker banks (particularly the investment banks, which cannot fall back on the cushion of savers' deposits) to savage and self-perpetuating share-price declines. Second, the failure of financial firms has triggered a further crisis in the vast but opaque market for derivatives -- especially credit-default swaps. Third and most important, the contraction of bank balance sheets almost certainly condemns the rest of the U.S. economy to a recession. Main Street is only now beginning to feel the pain that will be caused by Wall Street's credit crunch."
    I am even more curious though, as to his opinion on Paulson's request for a $700 Billion dollar blank check for the government---without any explicit protections for individual investors or the public.

    Read his WaPo piece here.