Monday, September 29, 2008

Chicken Little Looks For Heroes

The sky is most definitely falling. And by the sky, I mostly mean the Dow.

The House has just derailed the roaring train that was Henry Paulson's bailout plan. As I write this, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is down some 735 points. That, if you're unfamiliar with the Dow, is pretty much "Holy Crap."

Better commentators than I have remarked on the crazy similarities between the run up to the Iraq War and the push for this bailout. The big difference between the Iraq war and the bailout is that, had the bailout failed, there would have been no instant reaction mechanism as big and vicious and real as the stock market. Suicide bombings wouldn't have doubled the second the vote failed. But with the stock market, the bills failure is itself an event. The stock market is kind of like a 5-year-old, and when you don't give it what it wants, it throws a temper tantrum. Sometimes even if you do give it what it wants it throws a temper tantrum. And when it does that, people lose jobs.

I'm on record as being a pretty big, and also piratey opponent of the bailout plan. The reason for this, is that I think it is nonsense.

But man, oh man, has Congress' response to that nonsense been ridiculous. What we've seen here is an epic, epic failure of leadership. Here's essentially what happened:

Henry Paulson: We have a crisis!
Congress: We agree!
Paulson: I have a terrible idea!
Congress: Holy crap, that's a terrible idea!
Paulson: Do you have a better terrible idea?!
Congress:...
Congress:...
House Republicans:....Well, how about-
Congress: Don't be stupid.
Paulson: Yeah, don't be stupid.
(Pause)
Congress: Okay, let's just vote on that first terrible idea.

And let's be clear on something: It's a terrible idea. We're talking about a plan that would have tripled the deficit in an effort to turn the US into a crappy investment bank. In fact, it would be the US government's express goal to become the crappiest investment bank in the world, since it would be actively looking for crappy loans that no one wanted. Then it would tell its investors (you know, us), that don't worry, those crappy assets will appreciate. Sure. Also, there is a bull market on bridges in Brooklyn.

On top of that there are all the massive questions on how you'd distribute this $700 billion. Do you try to buy the best assets? If so, what's the point? So you're purposely buying the worst assets. Do you overpay or underpay for them? If you underpay, you're hurting the companies you're trying to help. And hell, who even knows what fair value would be? The entire reason these assets are a problem is because no one wants them, hence they have no market value. But don't worry, Henry Paulson will sort it all out in three and a half months. And that's before we sort out who we buy from (I'm gonna go out on a limb and say Goldman Sachs, but after that, I mean).

And that's before we get into the idealogical arguments, the "are we socialist now" stuff, the populist indignation about helping banks at the expense of taxpayers, and all that. And frankly? That stuff's pretty important, too.

But none of that excuses our political leaders, who have split into two camps: Chicken Little, and Chickens With Their Heads Cut Off.

The Democratic leadership, and around 60% of House Democrats, fell into the Chicken Little camp. They didn't have the stomach to see the Dow fall, oh, say, 700 points, so they played ball. They worked with what they had, because they figured they had to do something. You hear this over and over again from reluctant bailout proponents. "We have to do something," they'll say, "Or it's Great Depression II."* And since no one had any better something, they tacked window dressing onto Paulson's befuddled idea until they felt comfortable with it.

(Note: I mostly approve of the shit they tacked on. Executive pay compensation is pretty dicey in practice, but good in theory, and the equity buy in is a good idea.)

The Republicans meanwhile, did the Chicken Little thing. They tossed out other ideas, and no one really got behind them. Then they decided to settle in and agree to the bill, and then they voted against it. Brilliant guys. Coherent leadership.

What no one had was the combination of brains, stature and testicular fortitude to stand up and say, "This is not what the American people want. But I have a better plan, and here is it."

Plenty of people have the brains - economists have been throwing ideas out there for two weeks now. But none of those ideas could gain traction without a major standard bearer, a plausible alternative to Henry Paulson. In other words, they didn't have the stature.

Roughly two people, by my reckoning, have that stature: Barack Obama and John McCain.

But as we saw vividly over the past week, neither have the testicular fortitude. Asked point blank in Friday's debate whether they would vote for the plan, neither would say. Guys, you're Senators. Deciding what to vote for is part of your current jobs. Nor would either say what they'd give up from their agenda to pay for the bailout. Both looked annoyed to even be answering questions about something they hadn't spent all summer focus grouping responses for.

I should add that neither Obama nor McCain could do it by himself. Witness McCain's disastrous trip to Congress for proof. Obama could have theoretically squeaked through a plan, but the Democratic majority is slim in the Senate, and includes Joe Lieberman. More likely, McCain and Obama would have had to get together with some economists, hammer out a new plan, and present it together in an unprecedented display of bipartisanship and selflessness in Presidential politics.

Also, there could be a bull market on subprime mortgages on bridges in Brooklyn.

So where does that leave us, exactly? Screwed, mostly.

We've dithered away our time. Every day we delay, the markets will descend further into their temper tantrum. Which means Congress is going to either run this same fucking proposal out there again (with new window dressing of course), or descend into more negotiations while Wall Street cuts off its own limbs one by one. What we need is leadership, and fast. And theres only one man who can do it.

Save us, Warren Buffett. You're our only hope.

I know, I know, Warren, you liked the old plan, and you like Hank Paulson. But you have to realize that his plan will never pass muster politically. It's up to you, Sage-ish one, to come up with a new one.

Warren, I'm begging you. You're a known Democrat, so Democrats will trust you, and what self-respecting, market-worshiping Republican could say no to the Wizard of Wall Street?

More importantly, the second you say you're on the job, the panic ends. The sky is no longer falling. Who do investors trust more than Warren Freaking Buffett? No one, that's who. Trust me, the second Bloomberg runs the headline, "BUFFETT: I'M ON THE CASE," the markets will go up.**

No one's going to ask you to officially ask you to do this Warren, but I'm asking you. Get in there. Come up with a plan, and shout about it. Pull a Boone Pickins here.

Your country is counting on you, Mr. Buffett. Lord knows it can't count on its leaders.


* Is it just me, or is invoking the Great Depression when you're talking about economics roughly the same thing as invoking Hitler when talking about politics? I thought so. While we're here, if we could retire the hokey "Wall Street/Main Street" vernacular dichotomy for, oh, say, the rest of time, I'd be much obliged. Come on. I don't ask much.

**And as long as I'm adding footnotes, you could probably replace Warren Buffett with Michael Bloomberg if you were desperate. This is all assuming, of course, that Jim Cramer is unavailable.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

I'm Looking At You, Brookline

I'll have a real post later, maybe on this topic, maybe on another one. This right here however is a bona-fide urgent call to action.

See, I'm so mad about this Treasury bailout plan that I'm actually writing to/calling my Congresspeople. Which is all well and good, and everyone else should too.

But if you live in Brookline, MA you should *really* call your congress person, because your congress person is Barney Frank. If you're not familiar with Mr. Frank, you should know two things:

1). He's awesome, and
2). He's the fucking Chairman of the Financial Services Committee.

Yes! He could singlehandedly derail this whole stupid treasury push. Only right now he doesn't seem inclined to. So you have to get off your ass and e-mail/call/singing telegram him, okay?

Here's the link.

Come on. I don't ask for much.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Hitting the Third Rail

Social Security has been called the "third rail" of American politics, because if you touch it you're supposed to get electrocuted and die. No one told this to George W. Bush, however, who fairly danced on the topic and won the 2000 election anyway, and no one seems to have told John McCain.

On Sunday, McCain actually reiterated his plan to privatize social security, a ballsy move given that the stock market had spent a week setting itself on fire.

Barack Obama of course decided to point this out. He went to Florida, where he was sure to find lots of old people, and told them McCain's plan entailed "risking social security on the stock market."

But here's an unusual curveball for you: McCain's plan is good and Obama is lying.

Yes! I know! You am not believing this. McCain is right and Obama is lying? Is the sky still up? Do clocks still turn clockwise? My friends, it's true, and to commemorate this rare occasion, I will use the phrase "my friends" an inordinate amount in this post.

My friends, if you are like me, which is to say, not old, then you should love McCain's plan. And since it's only supposed to affect us young, that makes it a pretty good thing.

My friends, it's not often a politician advocates a policy that will be good for young Americans.Yet low and behold what John McCain actually said on CNBC last night:

"I still believe that young Americans ought to ... be able to, in a voluntary fashion ... put some of their money into accounts with their name on it."

And here is what Saint Obama said:

"If my opponent had his way, the millions of Floridians who rely on it would've had their Social Security tied up in the stock market this week. Millions would've watched as the market tumbled and their nest egg disappeared before their eyes."
So let me get this straight. McCain's plan is that I can take some of the money I'm currently throwing at an overburdened, doomed entitlement system and put it in a profitable money market account with my name on it? Well, I have just one thing to say to that: Yes, please!

My friends, our entitlement programs are vast unwieldy beasts that are bound to collapse under their own weight eventually. Quick number jaunt: According to the latest Congressional Budget Office outlook report, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are currently costing us a combined $1.25 trillion per year, a whopping 40% of the federal budget. That number is expected to jump significantly over the next decade as a flood of baby boomers retire. "Over the long term, the federal budget is on an unsustainable path," the report concludes.

My friends, forty percent is a lot of fucking percents. Social Security was conceived back when people just didn't live as long as they do now. Sooner or later simple math has got to catch up with us and we're going to have to scale back these programs, right? I'm not at all confident Social Security will exist in its current form when my generation retires in 40 years, and that makes me more than a little chagrined to continue paying into it. I would love to have the money go to an account with my name on it. I'd feel a lot better about that.

As for the whole "risk" of investing it in the stock market, my friends for people our age, that risk is pretty damn low. Yes, the market is volatile, but over a 40-year period, history indicates that it's not only going to go up, but outperform just about everything else. And again, it's all voluntary. You ain't happy about it? Don't do it. And while you're at it, don't invest in your 401k, because that's equally "risky."

Now, I don't know the specifics of McCain's plan, I don't know if the details work, I'm sure there's an evil bugaboo hidden in there somewhere. All I know is that it's a courageous, non-mainstream position. The guy is touching the third rail for the sake of young people, and that's pretty great.

And what was Obama doing? Using this to strike fear into the hearts of old people. Let's run that quote one more time:

"If my opponent had his way, the millions of Floridians who rely on it would've had their Social Security tied up in the stock market this week. Millions would've watched as the market tumbled and their nest egg disappeared before their eyes."
My friends, that's misleading at best. McCain's plan specifically targets only young Americans. There may be many young people in Florida, but they're pretty clearly not the "millions of Floridians" Obama was hoping to suggest. In this case "Floridians" is code for "Old people."

Retirees care desperately about social security. It is, after all, a major source of income for them. And any hint of screwing with it fills them with fear, and that's dangerous, because they always vote. That, my friends, is why Social Security has such an electrifying reputation.

Now, I do not believe my friends that John McCain could ever get this passed, even if he were elected. Please, don't mistake this for an endorsement. But my friends we must speak out and let the country know that we don't think Mr. McCain made a gaffe here. We must tell them that we would like to be pandered to as well.

But most importantly, my friends, we must vote this year. We must vote a lot. We must announce ourselves as the new demographic to court, and make our common issues known. Then, my friends, we could have some third rails of our own.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Pirates of Wall Street

Ahoy thar, mateys! It be Talk Like a Pirate Day, which be fittin', seein' as the tale of the day be one of robbery. It may not precisely be upon the High Seas, but it be no less dastardly fer that.

Once, I didst hear tell of a wily pirate, who 'twere sick of chasing down his prey. So he hit on a plan to make a wreck of his ship, and wave out flags of distress and such like, praying a kindly minded Captain would stop to help. Then o'course, he'd murder the fool, and the rest of his crew besides.

A like-minded scoundrel almost had to admire the genius of such skullduggery. I thought 'twere a clever, if lazy, way to plunder. But today I didst see some buccaneers improve upon the trick, and how.

There, before me eyes, were a squadron of ships, all run aground, water leaking from their hulls, sails tattered and torn. A whole mess of wrecks, and all aboard them the pirates crying and wailing for help. 'Twere an especially pitiful sight, for one wouldst think, "My, if only that ship thither could help the one beside it. Lend it a spare yardarm or jib, and it might make it to port." But nay, not a one would help the other, but instead didst call to one fat passing frigate.

Seeing that they were pirates plain, I thought to me self, "Self, that one frigate be not prey enough for all these scoundrels. What thought they, wrecking these ships so near together?"

So the frigate didst stop at one ship, a mighty vessel with a bear emblazoned on its side. The frigate let all the scoundrels aboard, but shrewdly. The frigate had guns, ye see, and the pirates could not overwhelm 'em. The frigate captain sent the pirates to a dank dark hold, told them to be content they'd make shore.

A wise captain, I thought, but then the pirates deployed their dastardly strategy. They didst begin to moan, and wail. They'd had a whole ship, they bleated, why now must they have but a hold? It seemed plain foolishness - "Ye has but a hold for ye sank yer ship!" I longed to scream. But the frigate heard me not, and it decided that aye, this Bear crew deserved more, and so it gave them a portion of the gold they had aboard.

Surely, I thought, the ship would now turn home. But low, then it spotted two vessels waving its own colors! 'Twere the schooners Fannie and Freddie, what had left the fleet long ago and turned pirate. Didst they not, they pleaded, have a right to come aboard, bein' fellow countrymen? And of course, the frigate relented, and brought them aboard.

Next it came to a great ships so wrecked upon the rocks that naught but shattered and scraps of canvas remained. "I be Lehman," bellowed a man standing amongst a pile of sticks, "Captain Lehman. Me brother be dead, but I be ready to negotiate!" Him, they ignored.

Finally, I thought, the frigate hath smelled this murdrous game, and may yet escape with some of its doubloons. But no sooner thought I this, then the freighter came to a wreck bigger than any it had yet seen. And again the shipwrecked captain pleaded, and again, the frigate let him aboard.

Now, this addle-pated frigate captain had a problem, for his boat were full up with pirates, and he'd no room for more. It was plain he could take not one more scallawag aboard, yet all about there 'twere more beached ships wailing f'r help.

"I cans't take no more," bellowed the good hearted skipper, and the pirates replied, "Tis well. But trade with us a bit, and we'll have all we need to return to shore."

This twere absurd, for the broken vessels had naught to trade. But the captain didst confer with his mates, and ask their offer.

"We'll trade ye this ripped up sail for yer good one!" yelled one ship.
"Aye, and I've two halves a rudder to trade for a whole one!" said another.
"Prey, if ye'll but give me a cannon and balls, I'll give ye some wet powder and some parrot poop besides." And so on.

And one by one the frigate made the trades. Hundreds of Billions of Trades.

And when 'twere all over, the frigate sat on the rocks, with no sail, and no rudder, its deck stripped bare, its hold empty. And the crew, the crew were wailing something fierce. "Where be our captain?" they cried. "Where be our first mate and bosun? Where be our leaders?"

Quick I grabbed my spyglass and swept it out o'er the sea. And there I spotted captain, first mate and bosun all, standing astride a deck with a golden hue. They 'twere laughing as they sailed away on their freshly repaired ship, its hull filled with gold.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Talented Mr. Maliki

Characterizing the situation in Iraq as a war is at this point a bit misleading. The "Iraq war" has been a nebulous entity, and it stopped being precisely a war right around the time President Bush played dress up on an aircraft carrier. From then on, our military has not been so much waging a military campaign as desperately policing a country on the brink of self-annihilation.

But that campaign's over too, at this point, at least for now. The predominantly Sunni "Concerned Local Citizens" (See earlier pontification here) have driven out most of the Sunni al Qaeda fighters, and the predominantly Shiite Iraqi army has mostly subdued and dismantled the main Shiite militia group, the Mahdi army. If you define the Iraq "war" as a campaign against insurgents and terrorists, then it has been nearly won, for now, and if the US, and in particular General Petraeus had engineered this inter-sectarian housecleaning, there would be pats on the back to distribute.

But though Petraeus' strategy has been eminently wise, you can't lay this whole victory, if that's what it turns out to be, at his feet. No, there's another guy who's been equally responsible: Nouri al-Maliki.

You may remember Mr. Maliki as the bungling, beleaguered puppet who occassionally had to call Mommy Bush or Aunt Condoleezza just to hold onto his job.

Things have changed.

Maliki was acting against the advice of his US handlers when he sent his ill-trained but well-armed soldiers into Basra, launching his campaign against the Mahdi Army, and seen in this light, the apparently rosy situation in Iraq takes on a slightly different hue.

Maliki's defeat of the Mahdi crowd transformed him from a befuddled joke into a lion of a prime minister. More, it proved that Iraq's army probably could handle the majority of remaining insurgent threats (assuming its US allies were not too very far away). But the Mahdi Army itself was at the time under ceasefire orders from its leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, and attacking it seemed a little like poking a hibernating bear. That, I would imagine, is why the US told Maliki not to do it.

No matter now, of course. Maliki did it, and the bear didn't eat anyone. Good times. But what's interesting about the affair is that while this whole bear poking thing was going down, Sadr himself was relaxing in scenic Iran. What makes this interesting is that Maliki is very good friends with Iran.

I'm not suggesting that there was some kind of Iranian-brokered conspiracy between Sadr and Maliki, because even I'm not that paranoid. But what I will suggest is this: The reason the bear was sleeping in the first place probably had an awful lot to do with Iran.

The US used to love accusing Iran of arming insurgents in Iraq, but in so doing it was either missing or ignoring Iran's all-too-obvious strategic interest. Iran wants nothing more than a Shiite-controlled ally as a next door neighbor. That's it. A Shiite-controlled Iraq is immensely valuable to Iran, a buffer between it and the otherwise Sunni Middle East. What's funny about this is that this is the same goal the US has for Iraq; a Democratic Iraq is, after all, a Shiite one, unless sectarian divisions magically break down somewhere along the line.

But the Bush Administration seems oblivious to the natural alliance between Iran and a democratic Iraq. Instead, it harbored a bizarre fantasy that the Iraqi government would feel so indebted to its doting Uncle Sam that it would remain in lockstep with the US agenda, or perhaps that its status as a democracy would bind it to the US. This is stupid for two reasons:

1). These people didn't grow up hearing about the wonders of Democracy. It doesn't mean that much to them. Sectarian allegiances, on the other hand, affected who held power under Saddam, and later who would shoot whom in the street. They carry a tad more weight.

2). The US stormed into their country, fucked shit up, and refused to leave. They are not grateful.

All of which brings us back to our good friend Mr. Maliki, who's proven a very agile political creature. When his main base of support was the Bush administration, he was their man in Baghdad. But now that he has political power of his own, he's shifting away from his US backers. The US, he realizes, is unpopular, and there are elections to think about in Democratic Iraq. Plus, every Bush snub scores him points with Iran, which he would dearly love to be his ally. One senior Shiite politician put it succinctly: "The Iranians will stay in this place forever till the Judgment Day," he said, "and the Americans will withdraw."

The US would surely love to do that - even McCain has used the phrase "withdraw with honor" in referencing Iraq. Which sort of begs the question of what the hell constitutes success in this horrid misadventure? If the US withdraws over the next 16 months, it will have in some sense done its moral duty, doing its damndest to at least mitigate the catastrophe it caused. But on a strateglevel? Bush and John McCain have each painted the Iraqi Democracy as some kind of City on a Hill for the Middle East, which is pretty much the height of ridiculousness. Somehow I doubt the Syrians are looking over at Iraq and thinking, "Man, we need to get in on that action!"

More realistically, we might have hoped to come away with a regional ally, keep some troops stationed there, maybe even get some of that sweet Iraqi crude at a discount.

Instead, we are going to wind up with a government somewhere between prickly and openly hostile, allied with our top regional enemy, Iran. The issue of keeping bases in Iraq has been so politicized on both sides that what should have been a matter of course is now in jeopardy.

Think of it this way: We are Iraq's France. Without the French, the US could never have won its independence. But we just plain don't like those Frenchy bastards, so our politicians use them as a punching bag. The Iraqis just don't like us. Get used to it.

And beyond all this, there is one last chilling possibility: the Sunni Awakening Forces and the Iraq Army could still decide to fight it out. And that would be a war, and a scary one.

But don't worry guys. The surge worked. The shit is to shoe-level. Let's pop some champagne.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Honesty of Wasilla

Okay, maybe it's too soon to start beating on Sarah Palin again, but I keep having to write about her for work, and she keeps being a cruel joke played on America.

Today, the McCain campaign tried to put a happy face on the book banning incident, and it decided to do it the old fashioned way: By lying through its teeth.

To recap for those of you who never follow the newser links, Sarah Palin became mayor and swiftly asked the librarian if she'd have a problem removing certain books from the library. The library said yes, so Palin asked again. And again. After the head librarian shot her down the third time, Palin fired her, saying she didn't feel she had the librarian's "full support." This became a one-day scandal in Wasilla, and Palin was forced to reinstate the librarian.

The McCain campaign isn't disputing any of that. Instead, it's saying that Sarah Palin was merely asking hypothetically if the librarian would mind banning a book. Just hypothetically! Not for realsies! You see, a patron had asked the library to ban a book the year before, and Palin just, you know, wanted to know what was up.

And if you buy that, then.... Well, then you're probably exactly as intelligent as John McCain assumed you were when he selected Sarah Palin to be his running mate. We're supposed to believe that she asked this "hypothetical" question on three separate occasions just because one anonymous patron had asked about it one time? An almost certainly fictional patron, I might add, since records show no books were challenged in Wasilla in the decade prior to Palin's inquiry. Moreover, we're supposed to just forget the firing of the librarian? That was unrelated? Why is the mayor supposed to need the "full support" of the head librarian anyway? Can you picture Rudy Giuliani calling up the library and asking them to... well, okay, bad example, but you get my point.

So pretty obviously a lie. I think there's more than enough smoke here to call the fire department. But here's what really gets me...

How does covertly banning a book help Mayor Sarah Palin?

It doesn't, right? Politically speaking, this couldn't possibly have ended well. Last I checked, book banning is pretty much a consensus no-no, pretty much inviting people to inanely call you a Nazi. The only people this could possibly be a plus for would be radically authoritarian individuals for whom the First Amendment isn't all that. Say, for example, fringe hard-core conservative Christians. Even then, you'd have to sell it, right? You'd want to whip the public into a frenzied mob and storm the library Frankenstein-style.

Which means, logically, that Sarah Palin wasn't trying to ban the book for political reasons. I'm willing to bet the newly-elected Mayor of Wasilla didn't exactly see the Vice Presidency in her future. She was trying to ban a book not to forward her career, but because she just plain wanted it banned. Most likely, the book in question was Pastor, I Am Gay, a tome written by a local liberal Christian pastor, which the church Palin attended, the Assembly of God, was on a crusade against, trying to get it removed from book stores.

This is stunning to me. It would almost be refreshing if it wasn't completely fucking terrifying. We are all painfully accustomed to politicians exploiting their supposed religious convictions for political gain, but this is something else entirely. If this is true, it means Sarah Palin wasn't using her religion, her religion was using her. She was using her newfound political power to forward a batshit church censorship campaign, and doing it back-door style.

Not even in the crazed, Christ-happy reign of Dubya have we seen something like this, a leader actively using their power in covert service of a politically undesirable religious goal. And now she's a coin flip and a heart attack away from leading the free world.

Oh well. At least she can field-dress a moose.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

How To Make a Silly Season

Presidential campaigns tend to add enduring phrases to the political lexicon, and Barack Obama evidently knows this, because he is doing his damndest to create his own such bon mot - "Silly Season."

To my knowledge, Obama first used this phrase in a debate during the primaries, a silly, silly season indeed. I believe at the time Hillary Clinton was trying to accuse him of "plagiarizing" the "Yes We Can" motto of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who likely would have been outraged, were he not a national co-chair of Obama's campaign.

But the phrase has proved depressingly apt throughout this campaign. Today the candidates were ostensibly not campaigning, so the hot topic of the day was... wait for it... "Putting lipstick on a pig."

That's right. Apparently McCain mustered some kind of phony outrage over Obama's use of a common colloquialism. And this is news. Somehow.

Frankly, even writing about this makes me a little sick, because it's kind of perpetuating the problem. But I've seen so many references to this pathetic non-story today that I have to say something, and that something is: "What the fuck?"

Obama responded to the controversy with that phrase he's trying oh-so-hard to coin, telling David Letterman that it was "silly season in politics." But more telling, maybe, was this:

"What their campaign has done this morning," Obama said, "is the same game that has made people sick and tired of politics in this country. They seize on an innocent remark, try to take it out of context, throw up an outrageous ad, because they know that it's catnip for the media."

Given what we've seen, it's very difficult to argue that. So why are these frankly retarded stories such media catnip? Why does the media not spend a similar amount of time on, say, real news? How is it that we find out 100 substantive negative things about Sarah Palin in two weeks, and the only ones that get widespread coverage were her pregnant daughter and her hockey mom pride?

There are three explanations here. The first, and simplest one is that this is what the media thinks the public wants. The public does not care about Sarah Palin's pork lobbyists; it's too wonky, too many numbers. But give them a sound bite to argue over, and they're happy little news readers.

Second, this is what the media wants to write. It is not particularly thrilling, normally, to write about Sarah Palin's pork lobbyists, because of the media's mistaken beliefs about objectivity. This deserves its own post, but in brief, the media view of objectivity is that you must show "both sides" of every issue (no matter how patently false one side might be) and, just as importantly, you must write like a robot. The more serious a story, the more robotic you must become. I know because I do it. Something just exploded in the Middle East? Fire up Robo-Spak. But if Amy Winehouse just raped a man with a pool que? Now I am allowed - neigh, expected - to be snarkily amused. In other words, reporters in America are allowed to have opinions as long as they don't matter.

Sarah Palin's pork lobbyists definitely matter, so it's out with the robot. But lipstick on a pig? That most definitely does not matter, so they can inject that tiniest precious bit of pent up sarcasm. Better still, the candidates and more than that their surrogates will be saying all kinds of stupid things, which almost always means great quotes. Journalists live for great quotes. They make text pop, these gleaming pearls of text unburdened by the robotic objectivity that so onerously shackles them.

But there is a third, more disturbing reason these stories stick: Because politicians want them to. Obama is accusing McCain of purposely turning this story into media fodder. The lipstick/pig controversy could not possibly be more ginned-up, but John McCain doesn't care. He knows all he has to do is have someone in his campaign say something, and then it's news. Politicians know that anything they say is automatically news, assuming it is a good quote. If it's a good quote that allows the repetition of an even better quote - say "lipstick on a pig" or "Goddamn America" for example - then you're really cooking with gas.

Moreover, the campaigns know that these tactics work. The informed public is so polarized that it'll argue about anything - even quiet 'ol Newser racked up 11 comments on the lipstick story. And the uninformed public makes its decisions from such an impoverished knowledge base that these kinds of stories, sound bites and press narratives actually matter to them. One Newser commenter actually said something to the effect of, "I'd been starting to like Obama, but now he's lost my vote." I can only hope this was some troll and not an actual person, but I've heard stupider "average voter" opinions. If McCain can make sure the one thing an uninformed voter knows about Obama is this, why not do it? McCain would much rather the conversation revolved around lipstick and pigs than actual issues anyway.

So with all of that fitting so harmoniously together, it's no wonder these stupid stories erupt. And it's a shame. Because I have my own theory about what the public wants. I don't think the public wants phony outrage and soundbite gotcha games. Not really.

What the public wants is to make an informed decision about who should be the next President. But they don't want to spend very much time actually becoming informed, and they really aren't interested in wading through robotic prose. Moreover, most normal news stories end with quotes from both sides and conclude little.

So most people either a). retreat to their respective village of partisan hackery, reading or listening or watching opinion from whichever side they agree with, delighting in how non-robotic it is or b). only find out about stories that become really, really big. The stories that make it onto the 6 o'clock news, or better still Saturday Night Live. The shit you'd have to be living under a rock not to know about.

These days the stories piercing that learn-by-osmosis culture cloud have to involve something other than taxes and spending and foreign countries. They'd better involve Paris Hilton or bombastic black preachers or lipstick and pigs. In other words, they'd better be silly.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Everyone (in Michigan) Wins!


"Laws are like sausages: it is better not to see them being made." - Otto Von Bismarck

On the surface, the Auto Industry aid plan being ramrodded through the House right now is eminently sensible. But it also eminently creepy, a text book, unabashed display of how the wheels of Washington turn that eminently gives me the heeby-jeebies.

To recap: House Democrats are raring to give the perpetually troubled auto industry $25 billion, in the form of low-interest government loans. "This is very, very important,” Nancy Pelosi assures us. “It's about jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Okay, sure. Jobs, right. Specifically it is about jobs in Ohio and Michigan, which happen to be swing states.

Still, it looks like a sensible enough plan. This isn't quite a handout, it's a loan. Of course, the government doesn't actually have $25 billion to loan Detroit, so it'll have to put it on the charge card with everything else. The thing is, the government has a really great charge card. Most US debt is actually owned by US citizens, who buy it in bonds which pay very low interest. So if it charges Detroit the same interest as it's giving bond holders, then it can probably break even on the deal.

But it still gives me the heeby-jeebies, and here's why: Nancy Pelosi did not dream up this plan, nor did any of her congressional colleagues. Instead, Ford, GM and Chrysler sent auto lobbyists in force to both major national conventions, peddling exactly this plan. They argued that, since the government was so cruelly asking them to improve fuel efficiency standards, it should loan them some money to pay for it.

So budda-bing, convention's over, and suddenly this plan is on the "fast track." It'll be through Congress in a "matter of weeks" according to Reuters. I am not sure who had to suck the dick of whom to make this happen, but clearly something went down in Denver and St. Louis.

It's just a tad unseemly to hand three huge corporations $25 billion just because they asked nicely. It's also a tad unseemly to claim that you are doing so for the sake of "Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs," when all three companies have been aggressively cutting their workforces, payrolls and benefits, while opening factories overseas.

Now, all three companies surely had to do those things. They're looking out for their best interests, not America's, after all. But with this bill America is also looking out for their best interests, which might leave some of their laid off workers wondering who's looking out for them, exactly.

And just to add one last veneer of sleaziness to the whole thing, the Democrats are now working hard not to iron out the proposal, but to decide which bloated bill to strap it to. Hmm... energy or stimulus? Tough decision. What criteria should we make it on? "
The best bill to include this in is the bill that has the best chance of getting passed," quothe a GM spokesman, and surely all can agree.

So let's sum up: Corporations use lobbyists to ask Congress for money. Congress sees that complying can be spun as help for workers in swing states, so it obliges. Measure slides smoothly onto "fast track," gets slapped onto tangentially related bill that's more likely to pass than the Give Detroit a Blow Job Act. And the national debt grows. Voila! Instant policy! Everybody wins! Well, everyone in the states of Michigan and Ohio anyway, and probably several campaign chests.

That's another disturbing aspect to all this. Even if you accept that helping GM, Ford and Chrysler helps their workers - a somewhat dubious contention, since the cash comes with no strings attached, and they still have every incentive to trim labor costs - it's only going to help workers in handful of states. So why is federal money, your money and my money, going to a couple states? If these companies need to be propped up so badly, shouldn't that be the province of state governments, drawing taxes from the regions ostensibly benefiting? The money will only benefit the larger economy insofar as it is spent on American goods and labor. And there's absolutely no assurances that it will be used in that way.

Now, sure, the US Auto industry needs the money. But couple this with the Bear Stearns bailout and the Fannie/Freddie takeover, and you have to wonder, how far are we willing to take this thing? To what extent are companies actually on their own in our supposedly capitalist system? As semi-governmental companies Fannie and Freddie are special cases, and yes, Bear Stearns' collapse could have caused widespread chaos. But so would the failure of many, many other companies. Is our government going to tacitly guarantee every sufficiently large corporation? Will it lend money to every company with a cash problem, or only the ones with lobbyists?

What's so creepy about this auto bill is that it displays the entire corrupt lifecycle of Washington initiatives. They originate as lobbyist gladhanding, and wind up getting sold to us, when they are mentioned at all, as methods of propping up the economy. It's the government and corporate America doing the same old circle-jerk, and leaving the public out of it.

No, his won't bankrupt the country, yes it looks at least somewhat well constructed, and hell, keeping the auto industry healthy might just be good for us in the long run. But isn't it a bit disturbing that big companies can just ask the government for money and get it happily fast-tracked on through?

I guess I just wish that economic policy was devised by lawmakers, not lobbyists. Because in the end, "Give Ford a Loan" seems like a pretty shabby excuse for economic policy.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

America's New Sweetheart

Surely, at this point no more need be said about Sarah Palin. Surely by now everyone in America has cottoned to just how cynical and farcical Palin's selection really was, right?

Oh. Really? Wow.

This is disheartening. It really is. Normally, you can't go wrong by betting on America's stupidity, but this time I thought Johnny Mac went too far. Right from the outset, it was clear that McCain had made a purely political pick, expecting women to vote boobs. (And maybe for men to vote boobs too.) In fact, the ticket may as well have read "McCAIN/BOOBS '08," because it was painfully clear even from the outset that Palin had neither the resume nor the brain cells to be anything but an empty figurehead. It was also swiftly apparent that Palin was the wackiest of right-wing wackos, at least socially. This is a woman who opposes abortion for rape victims, for example. Even Alaskan Republicans had nothing nice to say about this lady.

And that was before it became widely known that she had an ethics scandal going on in Alaska, that she hired lobbyists to bring $27 million in pork to Wasilla, Alaska (amidst other hilarious pork shenanigans), that she tried to ban books, that she supported the Bridge to Nowhere before she didn't, billed the state to live at home... Christ, I'm sick of linking to this stuff. The woman managed to pack more bad governance into 18 months than most people manage in a whole career. Who says she doesn't have experience?

And even that mountain of negative stories - and there's more, look for yourself, they're everywhere - might not have put a dent in the mighty power of the boobs, but to top it all off, she had a pregnant teenage daughter! Now that's something America understands! Yes, this great nation may have only the most reptilian notion of policy (tax...bad...patriotism...goood...) but celebrity teen baby scandal? This we get. This is the language of US Weekly, and we speak it like scholars. And on top of that, it was so wonderfully packed with irony and hypocrisy, and I honestly expected America to get that. What's more priceless than a politician who's militantly pro-life and anti-sex education winding up with an unwed pregnant teenage daughter? Seriously, what tops that? Apart from Larry Craig, I mean.

[Side Bar: Yes, I know, Bristol Palin's pregnancy is not an issue, and is a poor means of deciding an election. I agree. But fuck it, I'm gloating anyway.]

So, with all that said, how can her popularity possibly be rising? How can she be polling better than Joe Biden?

There are three possibilities here. First, it is possible, entirely possible, that the polls are wrong. Barack Obama thinks so. Polls have several weaknesses, my favorite being that they do not count people who exclusively use cell phones, which, in case you were wondering, is 15% of the country these days.

Second, it's possible that the Democrats have just totally failed to explain to the public what a ragingly corrupt moron this woman is. Obama and Biden won't touch the baby daddy thing, which is probably wise, but there are so many substantiative attacks to be made here. Democrats are terrified to look sexist, but it's not sexist to point out that Alaska spends more Federal money than any other state, then taxes the shit out of the gas it sells to the rest of us. Maybe the media, likewise, has repeated too many lies ("Palin is a maverick who said 'No thanks' to the Bridge to Nowhere!") and not enough facts. As with George W. Bush, there's so much awful it doesn't know what to pounce on. Maybe America just doesn't know Palin well enough to hate her yet.

But finally, it's possible that the public really does like Sarah Palin, in spite of everything. If this is true, then I give up. I throw in the towel. If the public takes a good, hard look at Sarah Palin and goes, "So what, she's a hockey mom," then I don't know what to tell you.

This goes for Republicans too. Unless you are a far-right social conservative - and if you are, I'm kind of surprised you're reading this blog. Do I know you? - then you have to be disappointed with this pick. It's just another milestone in the sad decline of John McCain from maverick to desperate political grub. Yes, I suppose picking an unknown woman with no experience is "maverick" behavior, but so is banging your 17-year-old girlfriend without a condom. Only here, it's America getting screwed.

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